Monday, September 03, 2007

Italy and after

Oy vey! It's been a long time. I know I should have posted sooner. A number of things have prevented me from doing that. I apologize for the long delay. So I'll try to give an overview of my last few months.

I went to the European Association of South Asian Archaeologists conference in Ravenna, Italy at the beginning of July. The conference was great, and I presented my paper "Social Difference and Craft Production in Iron Age Tamil Nadu: Preliminary Results from Kodumanal" on the second day with a full room in attendance. My fellow grad students from Madison also presented, and everyone did a great job. I also met a lot of other great researchers, faculty, and grad students in other institutions. Though the cost of the trip was pretty high, the return on the investment was very high.

After the end of the conference, my friend and fellow grad student, Katie and I had made plans to travel for just over a week along with Katie's friend Sangeeta. So we started from Ravenna and took the train to Venice, where we stayed on a smaller island nearby called The Lido. The Lido was once a beach resort for the rich and famous. Now it's a somewhat less glorious place but with a lovely beach, and the cost of hotel rooms was much cheaper than in Venice proper. We each purchased the three-day boat pass for $50, which was ridiculous, but less ridiculous than paying for each individual boat ride. The boats are like the bus system in Manhattan, and there really is no other way to get around. We explored Venice, though we didn't see every single sight to be seen. I got some nice pictures in Venice. I'll put a few here, but the full set can be seen at Flickr.

After Venice, we took the train to Florence (Firenze), and from Firenze to Siena for a day. From Firenze we returned to Bologna where we first arrived, and flew home. The best parts of the trip involved a lot of wine and/or sangria, and are thus a bit fuzzy in my memory. The little local bar on the corner by the Hostel outside Bologna was fantastic. They were truly the local flavor. The glasses of wine also only cost 1 euro, and were filled to the brim.

The Duomo Cathedral in Firenze

The sights of Italy were just spectacular, and so was the food. For the most part anyway. There were a few disappointments on the food front. But the last meal, a "Ravioli alla fantasie della chef" was superb. It was a creamy sun dried tomato sauce with walnuts and pancetta and lots of parmesan, and probably some other ingredients I couldn't identify. I knew I was taking a risk, letting the chef's fantasy take my dinner, but it was spectacular.

Everything about Italy was so great, and the trip so short, that all I can really conclude is that I need to go back. We didn't go to Rome, (too far, too much to pack in to a short trip), nor did we see any of the other spectacular archaeological sites or monuments that dot the country. Someday I'll have to plan for myself an archaeological tour of Italy.

However, I did see a really interesting exhibit on the Etruscan period, though all the signs were in Italian, and I couldn't get much about who really the Etruscans were, or what was going on in terms of politics or society at that time. They made some really cool artifacts though:

After returning from Italy I got back to the business of research. This was interrupted by the death of my hard drive, though getting it replaced under the AppleCare protection plan was amazingly easy, considering it's India. I mean I had to go to Chennai on the overnight train, and contact an Apple authorized repair place, but they were fast, efficient and nice. All my research was backed up... so a hassle, but not a disaster.

I also conducted some experimental work with a local Potter near by to Thanjavur, in which we attempted a couple of different methods for producing the so called "classic Black and Red Ware", that is the most common type of pottery found in the Iron Age. Except for some cracking it came out pretty well:

After that I went to Pondicherry to meet with professors Rajan and Subbarayalu, and proceeded to Coimbatore District to visit other archaeological sites of the Iron Age, in the region around Kodumanal where my research is currently based. I found several interesting sites I hope to return to, and saw some lovely country-side. Here's a couple of examples:

I'll be going out soon to visit more sites, and I'll do my best to post again soon.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Cultural Encounter of the Day: Columbus Was From India

I feel like I should have been writing these kinds of little vignettes of my cultural encounters all along. So here is hopefully the first of many. I truly enjoy the new perspectives I gain in these encounters.

Today I went to the post office to post a package back to the U.S. to a friend of mine who spent a year living in India, and he wanted a new pair of Indian style sandals and some strings for the Veena (a South Indian instrument often confused with the Sitar). Mailing a package to the U.S. is made more complicated because you can't mail anything without having it wrapped in white cloth, stitched closed, and sealed with red wax. But first you have to show the clerk the contents of the package, so they can see that it's not harmful or illegal.

I went inside the post office and began asking around about mailing an international package. There is no particular counter or person who is designated to handle these things. But someone always comes to help. I showed the contents of my package and asked about where to get the white cloth and stitching done. I was directed across the street, and when I enquired about how much it should cost, the post office guy escorted me across the street to the shop of miscellany (a rocking horse, clay dolls, safety pins, hair pins, envelopes, and also re-weaving the seats of 'caned' style chairs, and stitching parcels in white cloth). He warned the guy that I know Tamil, and I came to study so he should treat me fairly, not cheat me, and speak Tamil with me.

So I sat around in the shop and watched him measure out the cloth, and start stitching. Pretty soon he was making conversation. Did I come to study Tamil? Do I know Tamil well? What is my native country? Do I like India or America better? Do I like English or Tamil better? (All asked in Tamil, of course. This is my translation).

After a pause I was asked a question I've not been asked before, in India: 'How did America get it's name?' I said there was a guy named Amerigo who came from Italy, and he came very early on in the history of the place. It is named after him. I mentioned that he was not the first European to reach that continent. That was Christopher Columbus, who came from Spain.

In response, the man stitching my friend's package said, "Ah, yes. Christopher Columbus. He is my countryman. He went all over the world searching for God. That is how he discovered so many new places. But he is Indian. My countryman."

Oh. I said. Really? I didn't know that.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Expectations, Great and Otherwise

I figured out long ago, (or thought I had figured out) that having high expectations was a surefire way to be disappointed. Having low expectations on the other hand, was a pretty good way to be pleasantly surprised. Here I am, living in Thanjavur, working on my research, and I've been at this for three months now. I thought I had the expectations under control, but let me say at the outset that I had it all wrong.

I was optimistic about the wrong things, and pessimistic about the wrong things. And I did an incredible job of disappointing myself on both counts.

I should say too, that I am typically a glass half-full kind of person, so when I create pessimistic expectations it's usually something I do consciously to avoid disappointment later on. But here's the catch: If I get too pessimistic about things, I get so depressed as a result of those low expectations that I begin the process of a self-fulfilling prophecy. This definitely happened in the process of my research. I decided, at the outset, that the project was probably going to turn out horribly, and that the results would be worthless. I thought by telling myself this that I would end up later happily surprised if I got any interesting or valuable results. Instead, I got so caught up in the idea that it was all going to be awful, I could barely motivate myself to get out of bed in the morning to do the research. And I was so distracted by my own negative vibes, I wasn't even paying attention to the work I was doing.

Strangely, I did allow some optimism into my world. I thought I could allow myself to be optimistic about simple things, like how quickly I could get things done, about how far along I would be by now. These expectations were also a horrible idea. Now of course, with the classic disappointment of expectations too high, I am frustrated with how slow things have been going, and how little progress I've made in three months.

Only now, after some serious re-evaluation of the situation at hand, and of my own mental state and expectations do I realize I had it all wrong.

I should have been pessimistic about the simple things. Expected it to take forever to get up and running, expected that in 3 months I would make ridiculously little progress. I realize too, I needed to be optimistic about the big picture. I need to have some faith in the project in the long term. I need to believe (even if I am disappointed later) that it is going to produce interesting, valuable, and meaningful results.

In the end, I may be disappointed by having expectations set too high for the project as a whole. But I should be prepared to accept that THEN and not NOW. I walked into this project with a sense of defeat already hanging over my head, and that was not the way to begin.

Now, I know better. In 3 months I have made as much progress as I could have under the circumstances, with all the limitations involved. And in another 3 months it will be the same. And now, for no good reason, except that I NEED to, I believe that this project will work. That something will come of it. I don't know what, and it probably won't be what I expected when I started. But, I have faith.

Monday, April 02, 2007

Alien-Celebrity status

Now I know what it feels like to be Jennifer Aniston, if Jennifer Aniston was also a purple-ish green color with antennae and an extra set of arms and legs. Or at least I imagine that my experience and the alien version of Jennifer Aniston have something in common. For one, I get stared at everywhere I go. Not everyone stares, but most do, at least the first time they see me. I think of my skin as part of the normal range of human colors, but because in India foreigners are relatively scarce, it sometimes feels like I must be purple and green. They discuss it amongst themselves. "Look how white she is, how pale..." And they tell me directly, "Your skin is such a light color. It's very beautiful." Sometimes they comment on things like tan lines, if any are showing, or the presence of small brown moles. But by far my most common experience is being called "vellai-kari" which just means white woman, by large crowds of children. They scream, and point, and tell their friends to look. "Hey look, over there, hey-da, it's a white woman!" If the children are too young to understand that they should be pointing at me and calling out "vellai-kari" their mothers usually whisper it to them, and then tell them to say "ta-ta" as in "bye". From my cultural perspective it seems like they just want me to go away. I'm sure there is some other logic involved, and maybe I will start asking why they say that. In any case, my presence pretty much never goes unremarked.

I should add here that this is in no way a judgment of people, but rather my perspective on my experiences. I understand that they are curious, and in their situation I'm sure I would be too. I know I have done similar things to foreigners in the U.S., on occasion. Even knowing that, it still makes me uncomfortable. One reason it is so uncomfortable is the fact that it comes across as reverse racism. Some people go on to tell me how ugly their own skin tone is. Another problem is that I understand what they're saying. So even when they think they can talk about me without my knowing, I comprehend what they are saying. This happened to another friend of mine as well. She had somewhat of an acne problem. Some women on the bus noticed, and began discussing in Tamil how ugly they thought she was. Even when she told them she could understand they kept talking about her. It was very hurtful to her to hear people discussing that. Anyway, please don't take this as a negative judgment of the culture, but rather as an account of my frustrations with the limits of my own understanding.

I posted before here about the amazing pattern of similarity between people in Tamil Nadu and the questions they inevitably ask me when they meet me for the first time. "What are you doing here?" "What are you studying?" "How old are you?" "Are you married?" These are the most common questions, and I was asked again today, by relatively small children. I guess you could say kinship matters. After being told that I am not married, people usually ask either: "Why not?" or "Would you consider marrying an Indian?" And today, on top of being asked by a group of small children, I was also asked by an adult man, who proceeded to give me a full 10 minute discourse on why I should marry an Indian. It was all in Tamil, and I didn't understand every word, but one of his first reasons was that I have studied and learned Tamil, and in India this will cause men to be interested in me, but in America, men will not care that I have learned Tamil, and then my learning Tamil will have been a waste. In addition, in India, I have the positive feature of being foreign, and thus being more attractive to men, while in America, I am just like all the other women, and will have a much harder time finding a husband. He made several other points as well, but I didn't understand them as clearly. There was something to do with the central government (of India) giving some kind of benefits to my (future) children, and something that sounded like the idea of them (my future children) having dual citizenship, and access to the amenities of the west. It was an interesting conversation to say the least.

All in all it was a pretty average day. I was stared at almost constantly in public, got asked personal questions that I don't really like answering, got lectured on how to live my life by a total stranger, and was generally treated as an object rather than a person. I know this summary makes it seem pretty horrible, and honestly, it feels that way sometimes. My sister has now coined the term cultural depression. It came about because I happened to mention that I didn't leave the house all weekend. I didn't go out on either Saturday or Sunday for anything. She said, "So, you're depressed." And I said no I'm not in general, just sometimes I don't feel like facing the world outside." And she said, "So, it's situational depression." I said, "No it's cultural. It's not really depression. It's just that sometimes I feel like I can't face the fact that it's India outside my door." So she concluded, "It's cultural depression." And I'd have to say that's pretty accurate. I've been in India a long time now, and before coming to Thanjavur, I felt like I was pretty well adjusted to the situation. Over the culture shock, and adapted to the various differences in the daily life. But Thanjavur is different in that it lacks the same kind of community of American friends that I had in Madurai. Without at least a few people to hang around and just be my own cultural self, I guess I do begin to feel a little depressed. Partly, it's due to the objectification, which in itself isn't SO horrible, but is rather frustrating because it takes the place of culturally satisfying interactions.

Here is my (psycho-cultural) analysis of the situation: I, as an extrovert, and generally as a human being, depend on receiving what I perceive to be positive feedback from people around me. I would say the simplest form is the American "friendly smile". The smile, that as a part of American facial expressions means, "you're ok," "I like you," or simply "hello". But without any Americans (or other westerners) around, and when most of my interactions involve people stereotyping and objectifying me, I don't get the quotient of positive feedback that reinforces my sense of self worth. Not only do I not receive this culturally conditioned form of psychological stimulant, I have to restrain myself from showing that friendly smile to a large portion of the population here. The largest portion that I have to refrain from smiling at are men, because, what in America is considered a friendly smile, in India is viewed as interest or an invitation. Further, giving people, men or women, that friendly smile is what most often precipitates them feeling comfortable enough to ask me the long list of personal questions I'd rather not answer.

Certainly I am not trying to argue against having cross-cultural friendships. They can be wonderful things. Though they often require a large expenditure of energy in order to come to an understanding about the simplest things. One positive aspect of these cross-cultural friendships for me is the practice I get in speaking Tamil. For instance tonight, we were discussing William Shakespeare, about whom my 16 year old friend, the younger sister in this family, is studying in school. She said they were reading the stories of Shakespeare, and in her experience they were all comedies. I said, "No, there are comedies, tragedies and histories." She asked about the most famous example of a tragedy, and I immediately said Romeo and Juliet. Then she and her mother asked me to summarize the story of Romeo and Juliet in Tamil. So I did. It was certainly a challenge, but I think I did alright.

I am certainly happy to have made a few friends, however hard it may be to communicate and understand each other. I just hope I get accustomed to this new version of the Indian cultural experience, and get over my "cultural depression" soon. It's no good for me to be here, if I'm constantly wishing I were somewhere else. I wish I had something more positive to say in conclusion, but I think it will have to wait for another post. So stay tuned...

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Oh the places I've been...

Well, Since I've been back on the Fulbright, I've done a bit of travelling, and I thought I would share some pictures of my trips here. First I went to Varkala beach in Kerala with some friends. They are leaving India, and it was a great way to say goodbye.

The beach at Varkala

Jill and her new friend Jonny from Wales

Sandy looking very serene

I was also feeling very chill.

Then I went to the Fulbright Conference in Aurangabad, and with my fellow conference attendees went to the Ajanta caves. The caves are amazing. I had been before, but it was still astoundingly beautiful. It was also nice to see that they're doing a good job maintaining and improving the caves, and continuing the conservation work on the frescoes. Of course they wouldn't allow flash photography, so my pictures came out mostly blurry and dark. But here are a few of the neat ones.

Buddha sculpture with an eerie green glow.

Buddha with a double shadow

Me outside the caves at Ajanta.

I look really tan. :)

As always, you can see more of my pictures at: Flickr

Sunday, March 25, 2007

F***ing Patriarchy

As I have mentioned in the past, India has a thing for bureaucracy. And I'm not a fan. I'm even less of a fan of bureaucracy when it intersects with patriarchy.

Yesterday I went to the BSNL (Bharat Sancham Nigam Limited) state run telephone company office to sign up for a home land line. The main purpose of this land line is so that I can get broadband/DSL at home. However I can't even fill out an application for broadband until I have a phone line connected. So I went in the afternoon and picked up the forms. When I got home to fill them out I was dismayed to find that the second line, below my own name is the name of my father/husband. I contemplated leaving it blank, but I realized that when I turned the form in they would make me fill it in. So I wrote my father's name. It's pointless, right? What reason or purpose could this have? It seems like such a symptom of the patriarchal logic that doesn't consider me a whole person without reference to a male figure like a father or husband.

The third sheet form of the three stapled together was a form to indicated a beneficiary in case of death, who would receive my telephone line or the rights to my 500 rupee deposit. I left this entire form blank, since I assumed it was not, as the Indians say, compulsory. But apparently it is, and when I went to submit my application they made me fill this form out too. I protested saying I don't have anyone who I want to get my telephone line, or 500 rupees, and I don't plan on dying. But they insisted by saying, "Just put your father's name and address."

Of course for pragmatic purposes I did it. But it has been bothering me ever since. I know it forms yet another instance of cultural difference that I should learn to accept. But I have been having a hard time accepting these instances of cultural dissonance. I wish relativism could do it for me, but that doesn't seem to work either.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Ah, the Travel Woes

When travelling, or perhaps when doing anything in life, the things that go wrong always make the best stories to tell. No one is interested in hearing about an uneventful trip. Having been on the road a lot recently, I have surprisingly few stories to tell. Most of it was uneventful.

I started out in Lahore early one morning, and left by car to go to the border crossing with India. It took only just over an hour to get there. It took another hour to cross the border back into India. Passports were stamped, questions were asked. I got across without problem. I got to Amritsar by bus, and decided to waste my afternoon before catching the train going to a Hindi film, Guru. I got the train, and arrived in Delhi at the youth hostel at around midnight. On the flight to Chennai, seated in the row with me, was a family of four who had never flown before. They were all amazed. I and the other guy in our row had to repeatedly tell them to stay seated and keep their seat belt on while the plane was taking off. The other guy in the row, an Indian who is doing his Ph.D. in the US, started out a total stranger and ended up a friend. He does his research on space and architecture in Urban Planning in Old Delhi.

The most eventful part of my recent travels was when I arrived at the airport in Chennai at around 5pm for an 8pm flight to Delhi, that was intended to get me there in time to catch my international flight to Amsterdam and then Detroit. When I arrived in Chennai, I checked outside at the Jet Airways desk, regarding the status of the flight. When I heard the words, "Just one minute, madam" my heart sank. She came back to inform me that flight had been cancelled. In fact it was cancelled two days previous. "Didn't anyone contact you?", She asked. No. No one contacted me. "We had re-booked you on a flight earlier today." But no one TOLD ME that! Ok, so what do I do now? I wondered.

I have to say Jet Airways, at least the staff at Chennai airport was very helpful. They offered to put me on another airlines flight, leaving at approximately the same time the Jet Airways flight was supposed to. They got me set up, checked in, etc. I sat down to wait. I watched with a sense of total despair as the Indian Airlines flight they had checked me into was delayed by an hour, and then two hours. I certainly wouldn't make my connection in Delhi. I felt helpless for about five minutes, and then realized there were other flights listed on the board to Delhi, on other airlines. I ran back to the Jet Airways desk, and looking desperate and out of breath explained that the flight they had put me on was now delayed and I would miss my flight. I asked if they would switch me again. They agreed. But we had to run. The next flight, with the new airline, Tata's IndiGo was about to depart. We had to get my baggage, already checked in for the Indian Airlines flight, off of a baggage truck in a loading dock area. They issued me a new boarding pass, and I ran, through security, and boarded the plane.

When we took off, and the stewardess announced that the flying time to Hyderabad was an hour and twenty minutes, I began to freak out again. First, I thought I was on the wrong flight, but then considered the more likely possibility that it wasn't a direct flight. I wondered how long we would sit in Hyderabad, and whether we would reach Delhi in time. When I got off the plane in Delhi I had 45 minutes until the departure of my international flight. I had to get my luggage, get to the international terminal 10 minutes away. I ran. I grabbed my bags, got a cab, everything with a sense of utter urgency. I must go NOW. When I got to the Delhi International Airport, they had closed the check in for the flight. It was not due to depart for another 25 minutes, but they had closed the check in desk. I had to beg the guy who was standing at the counter to let me check in for the flight. I jumped the line at customs and again at security, half-asking permission, yelling "My flight is leaving, is it okay if I just...?" and running to the front of the line.

Once I got through I realized a large portion of people in the lines were also on the same flight. But I was so relieved to be making the flight after such a long and torturous day that I can't say I cared that much.

Further, through all of this I had been carrying a painting. An original oil painting by a contemporary artist, purchased for about $100 in Mahabalipuram. It was in a PVC pipe, nicely wrapped. It made it to the US safely, through all of the running around. It was only after all that, on a flight with Jet Blue between Chicago and Jacksonville, when I checked the painting (as I had been all along), that it got lost. I watched the baggage claim go 'round and 'round in Jacksonville waiting for that PVC pipe to emerge. It never came. I went to the Jet Blue baggage office, and made a claim. I had to describe the missing item. I was told it would almost certainly be on the flight the following day. It never appeared. When I tried to contact the airline to see what they would do to settle the issue, I was told they have no liability for that rare items, antiques, etc, unique or irreplaceable items. They won't do anything. They'll keep looking. And I get nothing. Grrr....

My return flight to India was relatively uneventful. I ate my last hurrah of good sushi for a long time in the San Francisco airport. I bought raspberry vodka and tequila in the duty free in Frankfurt, and arrived, very jet lagged in Chennai.

Maybe they should make a new airline with that as the name... You know, Jet Airways, Jet Blue, Jet Lagged...

P.S. I actually have a photo of the board showing my cancelled flight, and the delayed flight to Delhi, but I can't upload it from this internet cafe. I burned a DVD backup of all my photos, and they don't have a DVD drive. I'll post it ASAP. Also, I'm sorry I haven't been posting frequently on the blog. I got an anonymous comment telling me I should post more often. I have two things to say about that. First is I have been running all over the globe. Since December I have been in the following cities: Madurai, Chennai, Thiruvananthapuram, Cochin, Delhi, Gurdaspur, Amritsar, Lahore, Harappa, (then back through Delhi, Chennai) to Amsteram (ok, fine it was just the airport), Detroit, Chicago, Madison, (New York - airport), Jacksonville, Los Angeles, (San Francisco - airport, again), (Frankfurt - also airport), back to Chennai and then Thanjavur, again Madurai, and I'm leaving tonight for Varkala (in Kerala). I haven't had a lot of time to sit down and write a post. Second, I'm not inclined to post anonymous comments that are not particularly interesting. And especially if they're negative. I guess that's censorship. And I do feel somewhat bad about it. I don't know who you are, Anonymous, but next time, it would be nice if you gave a name.

Friday, January 26, 2007

Wedding, Punjab and Pakistan

When I was invited to my friends wedding in Gurdaspur, in the northern Punjab, I thought I couldn't go, and I was regretting it. I have 5 sets of friends getting married this year, and I wasn't going to make it to any of their weddings.
Plans changed and I got to go. I was the only one of Amanda's friends who could be there, since everyone else was in the US. Only her Dad could make it from the US.
The wedding was in Gurdaspur, where Davinder, the groom is from.

Of course I don't know any Punjabi, so I didn't understand pretty much anything anyone was saying. But I had a great time anyway. The food was great, the music was loud, and the ceremony was serene and reverent.

Bride and Groom after the ceremony.

After the wedding I went to Amritsar for a day to see the Golden Temple. It is the holiest place in the Sikh faith, and a beautiful building. Built in 1577 and destroyed in 1762 by a Mughal emperor, Ahmad Shah Durani, it was rebuilt in 1802. It was attacked in 1984 and had to be restored once again. Amritsar the name of the town comes from the words "amrit sarovar" or tank of nectar, the pool of water that surrounds the building.

Golden Temple at Dusk (Amritsar, Punjab)

Going to Pakistan, I crossed the border at Wagah, which was an interesting experience. Crossing the border by foot was fascinating. Aside from the myriad of bureaucratic processes, I was reminded that the borders we have are invented, lines drawn on the landscape with big fences, and people patroling them. The dirt, the wind, the rodents, and even the people are the same on both sides. The air you breathe doesn't change.

In the case of Pakistan and India, this line is recently drawn, the fences recently built. The partition between the two is only 50 years old. In Lahore, the places I visited, the Lahore Fort, Masjid Wazir Khan, and Jehangir's Tomb, are all part of the Mughal history of the region. A shared history of Pakistan and India. And Harappa, and the rest of the Indus Valley civilization, serves to drive that point home. A shared history 10,000 years old.

Entrance to Lahore Fort.

Tile Column at the Masjid Wazir Khan (Lahore, Pakistan)

Ancient city of Harappa, conserved area (Dist. Sahiwal, Pakistan)

For more of my photos from the wedding in Gurdaspur, Amritsar, Lahore and Harappa visit my flickr site.