Saturday, December 05, 2009

Home sweet home

So my apartment is what I affectionately refer to as "bug central station", which is what it is because there are no screens on the windows or doors. It's also kind of dingy looking, and definitely needs a fresh coat of paint. Leaking water has caused the paint to discolor (a lot) and previous residents have spilled things, written things, and generally left walls in serious need of new paint.

June bug
A june bug that found its way into my apartment and was beating itself to death by running repeatedly into the wall.

The place is cheap, and I've asked my landlord if he'd be willing to paint the walls, but he didn't exactly jump on the idea. The rent is Rs.1000/month plus an extra Rs. 50 for the water bill, and the electric is paid separately, but adds up to about Rs. 150 every 3 months. So for about Rs.1100, which varies between about $20 and $25/per month depending on the exchange rate, I have one living room/bedroom, a kitchen, shower and toilet.

Even if it were a fancier place (and I have lived in some), with fresher coats of paint... most places in Tamil Nadu do not have screens. Most locals don't have screens, and windows are not built with screens in mind. So even if it were a nicer place, it'd still be bug central.

It would also be nice if there was a door between the kitchen and bathroom, and even between the bedroom and kitchen/bathroom... but those things are not absolutely necessary. The toilet has a door, but the shower has no door, no curtain. It is separated from the kitchen by a partition wall, with a wide doorway. I hang a curtain between the main room and the kitchen/bathroom, on the rare occasion that I have guests, so that the kitchen becomes a changing room, and they can shower in privacy.

To me this is perfectly functional. It's definitely not beautiful. Though I think the coat of paint is really the main aesthetic issue. The floor is an ugly sort of tile, reminiscent of the hallway floor in my elementary school, with bits of rock embedded in a brown matrix. But it is easy to clean, doesn't show the dirt and dust which naturally comes in the windows, and stays pretty cool even in the hottest part of the year.

My room
My room

When my friend visited from the US last year, she said "Wow, Gwen, you're really roughing it." But I guess I don't see that as the case. It's a house, it's solid, with a roof over my head, and indoor plumbing. Many people here in Tamil Nadu live in thatched/plastered huts, with dirt floors, that they frequently plaster with a wash of cow dung, or sometimes lime plaster. They have outdoor toilets, and outdoor bathing areas. These are frequently screened off by means of more thatched walls, and sometimes not roofed over. Some places, until recently were not wired for electricity. Now THAT would be roughing it.

Camping, sleeping inside a cramped tent, on hard ground, and having to walk in the woods to go to the bathroom, that's also roughing it.

Maybe it's my own attitude adjustment... my own lowering of expectations. But I don't consider my home to be "roughing it". Yes, it is lacking some conveniences. It would be nice to have a "geyser", which is what they call a hot water heater for the shower. It would be nice to have screens on the windows, and fresh paint on the walls. But none of those things are really necessary.

For hot water for bathing (only really needed in December anyway when it gets a bit chilly - and by chilly I mean 65) I use an electric coil heater, which is immersed in a bucket of water, and I take a "bucket bath" instead of a shower. The rest of the year the water is pleasant enough, whether it's hot in the middle of the day (as the water tank on the roof gets hot from the sun) or cools over night, it's just fine for me.

It might be nice to have a western style toilet too, but that's mainly because it's more difficult to read while squatting...

All these things are adjustments I made before coming to this apartment, so living with a squat toilet, no instant hot water, or screens on the windows, those were all things I'd already experienced.

The kitchen

When I came to Thanjavur in January, it was hard to find a place, and I wanted to get to work immediately. I wanted to get down to the business of what I came to do. So I didn't want to spend weeks searching for an apartment. I'm sure if I had, I probably could have found something perhaps cleaner, or more aesthetically pleasing. Perhaps a western toilet or water heater. But at the time, I had gone from a hotel which was expensive, to a hostel with 10 beds in a room, equally dingy, and without privacy, and I hadn't found anything else for a while. I was thrilled to find a place of my own. However small and dingy-looking, it has everything I need.

If I were going to stay in Thanjavur longer, I'd search again for a nicer place. But I'm not. I'm leaving for fieldwork in January, and I'm hoping to spend only two or three more months here after that. For that, it's simply not worth the trouble of searching, or the trouble of packing everything up and moving.

Baby lizard running away
Lizards are my friends. There are probably a dozen or more living in my apartment, and they eat all the insects, especially mosquitoes.

This is the entire set of photos on Flickr. Be warned it contains pictures of a very large cockroach... victim to my instant cockroach killing spray.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

What to Pack for India

I have some friends coming to India for the first time in just a couple of weeks, and they're asking some good questions about what to pack. I have a fair amount of experience in the packing department, having come and gone from India about 10 times since 2001, so in addition to answering their specific questions, I thought it might be useful to post something here for everyone.

I'll try to break it down by what, for convenience sake, you might want on a short trip, and what not to bring you're going to be staying long enough that it's pointless to bring a year supply of X because it is available if you know where to look.

DISCLAIMER: Please keep in mind most of my knowledge and experience is specific to South India, and in particular Tamil Nadu, and things might be, in fact probably are, different in the North. Also, this is my personal advice based on experience, I am NOT a medical professional, and you should always consult your doctor on anything medical-related before traveling abroad.


1. Toiletries and over-the-counter medical stuff
2. Mosquito Related
3. Guide books
4. Clothing
5. Assorted Useful Gadgets
6. Gifts to bring

1. Toiletries etc.

For the traveler on a short trip, go ahead and bring a complete set of all your preferred toiletries, your own soap, shampoo, conditioner, toothpaste, deodorant etc. You should probably also pack a small first aid kit. Most of these things are available here in India, though not always in the brands or forms you might prefer. But if you're going to tour around and try to see the sights, you don't want to waste your time shopping to find toothpaste, so you might as well bring your own.

For someone coming to India to stay a long time, you can actually get almost everything you would want here including familiar American brands. This is totally different than it was in 2001 when I first started coming to India. Now you can get all sorts of brands of shampoo AND conditioner (used to be you couldn't get conditioner anywhere).

A couple of items that are hard to find, and especially people are picky about what they use: DEODORANT, especially stick deodorant, and also surprisingly, any kind of herbal deodorant. There are tons of sprays, usually heavily scented. Occasionally in a store with imports you can find some brands like men's Speedstick, but if there is something in particular you use, you may want to bring a big supply of it.

For women: Tampons. Pads are widely available, and for some reason, OB are becoming more available, but if you prefer anything else, you should probably bring it. Also, yeast infection treatments.

Some things are harder to find: Cloth band-aids. And band-aids in shapes other than long strips. I bring a big supply of the "finger" band-aids, or off brand varieties of the same. A good, well stocked first aid kit is always a good idea.

In terms of medical stuff: Some of the most familiar medications are hard to find, or seem to have different names. I bring Ibuprofen, Pepto-bismol (or generic), Immodium (or generic) and Sudafed not "PE"(the real pseudophedrine that you have to sign for works best for me). These items (or compounds) may be available here, but not under ANY name I've ever asked for at a "medical shop". Which, by the way is what they're called here at least in the South, if you're ever in need of one. There are of course different versions and equivalents of the kinds of things listed above: Paracetemol is the same as Tylenol, several things available for upset stomach, and various cold remedies. My reason for bringing the American versions is that when I'm sick, I'm also comforted by knowing what I'm taking, and knowing that it'll work, because I've taken it before.

You probably don't need to pay for a full prescription of something like Ciprofloxacin which doctors sometimes recommend getting in advance. It's a very good, very strong antibiotic, and it is great if you have a bad bout of diarrhea, dysentery, or a urinary tract infection, among other things. However, it IS available in India, for much much cheaper than it is in the U.S., so if you should need it, you can get it easily.

One last piece of advice from experience: If you do see a doctor while in India, and are prescribed something you don't recognize, it's probably a good idea to look it up online, and see what it is before taking it. If you have any drug allergies, this is especially important, because it may be something you're allergic to under another name. Even if you don't have drug allergies, it's a good idea to know what it is before you take it. This is a (sad and funny) story for another post, but lets just say all doctors are not created equal. Some in India are among the best in the world, and others are complete hacks. A good motto in this department is "Trust but verify".

2. Mosquito Related

To take prophylactic anti-malarial drugs, or not to take prophylactic anti-malarial drugs, that is the question!! This is my two-cents. Again, I am not a Medical professional, please consult your doctor.

Malaria is an extremely serious disease , it can kill you, or be very, very unpleasant, it causes brain swelling among other things. However, Malaria is not the only mosquito-borne illness you have to worry about in India. There is also Dengue, Chikungunya, and rarely reported West Nile Virus. These last three are viruses, and Malaria is a parasite, so any medicinal prophylaxis that works for Malaria will not prevent becoming infected with one or more of the viruses.

If you are going on a short trip to India, short meaning less than a month, and if you are going to be in warmer more tropical regions (i.e. not Ladakh, Kashmir, or any part of the North in winter), you MAY want to take one of the anti-malarial medications out there. There are two main types, the quinines, and the antibiotics. Both varieties usually require you to start a week before departing, and stay on the medication two weeks after returning home. Get a prescription from your doctor, and make sure the know exactly where you are traveling, because there are specific drug-resistant strains of malaria in some regions.

Both categories of anti-malarial prophylactic drugs have side effects, and these vary person to person. Some of the serious side effects of the Quinine varieties (taken weekly), such as Chloroquine, Mefloquine, and Malarone, have reported psychotic side effects, including violent dreams, suicidal urges, and rarely psychotic breakdowns. I know of at least one student on a study abroad program who had such a breakdown, and had to be sent home.

The most common anti-biotic drug prescribed as an anti-malarial is Doxycycline. It is taken daily, and must be taken with food. Over the long term it is known to harm the stomach, and can cause increased sensitivity to the sun, making serious sunburn a risk if you are on Doxycycline. Since it is also an anti-biotic, the risk of yeast infection for women is also higher. It doesn't have the same risks of psychological effects as the other categories of drugs, but I did experience severe stomach pain after about a month of taking Doxycycline.

My personal opinion is that if you are going to be in India for longer than a month or so, it is not ideal to take any of the anti-malarial prophylactics, because of the side effects, and generally having such strong chemicals in your body for such a long time. In addition, since these drugs do NOT prevent Dengue, Chikungunya, or West Nile Virus, your best bet is to take lots of preventive measures to avoid being bitten by mosquitos at all.

I use a pump-spray (not aerosol) with deet, such as Off Family Care (or generic). I use it on a daily basis, and I especially spray the skin of my feet and ankles, the cloth of my pants around my ankles, and my exposed arms and neck. With maybe one or two sprays aimed at the clothes covering my mid-section. Even during the monsoon season in Tamil Nadu, which is a pretty mosquito-y season, this is enough that I haven't been bitten at all in the 3 weeks since I have arrived, except on the one day I forgot to put it on.

I also sleep under a mosquito net. I use a portable variety, which hangs from a line strung between two points in the wall or a single point in the ceiling. (This is way easier to set up than the 4-point variety.) It is light and pretty easy to pack, but if I was going from hotel room to hotel room on a daily basis I wouldn't want to set it up over and over again.

As for what's available here, they use a cream mosquito repellent applied to the skin called Odomos, and several varieties of plug-in diffusers which diffuse a chemical into the air that pretty much keeps the mosquitoes out of the room into which it is plugged. The biggest brands are Good Knight and All Out, and I recommend the liquid variety over the pads. You can take one of these with you from hotel room to hotel room, and plug it in as soon as you arrive (though most hotels will provide one often they use the pads, which I find are less effective). It works great overnight, even with the windows open. Some varieties are wall plugs that have no cord, just plug into the wall socket, others have a cord of about a meter, which I think is better for a bigger room, since it means you can position the diffuser sort of near the middle, or nearer to your bed, in case the wall socket is far off in a corner.

I always carry a spray bottle, tube, or wipes of some sort of repellent in my bag with me at all times. If you find yourself in an especially mosquito-y area, apply more!

Since I have known people to get both Dengue and Chikungunya, and both were quite unpleasant diseases, with sometimes long-lasting effects of joint pain, etc., I decided my plan was not to take any of the anti-malarial medications, which I think may give a false sense of security about being bitten by mosquitoes, and instead I am very careful not to get bitten at all, if at all possible. I am here for a year, for a shorter trip, I might consider taking one of the drugs.

And on to happier subjects...

3. Guide books

I personally prefer the Lonely Planet guide books, as I have found their balance of information about sights/sites, and information about food, lodging, banks and other facilities to be very useful.

Lonely Planet offers several guides to India, including an all-India guide, and several specific guides to different regions. If you're going to travel in South India alone, I highly recommend their South India Guide. It's got more detail, and a different set of accommodations than the main guide. It also gets you "off the beaten path" a bit more than the main guide.

I also hear good things about the Rough Guide to India. Especially that they give more in-depth historical and contextual information about sites, compared to Lonely Planet. However their listings of other information, such as accomodations, food, etc., are sparse.

One important thing to note is that the different guides cater to different crowds, and the Lonely Planet guide tends to cater to, and be used by the young, international, and to some degree "hippie" crowd. While the Frommer's India tends to be upscale in their selection of accomodations and the prices are more expensive than most young people can afford, so the Frommer's guide works better for more "grown-up" crowds.

I suggest going to a physical bookstore to peruse the various options, so that you can see for yourself how they are organized and what kinds of information they present. This is the best way to find what works for you.

4. Clothing

Clothing is particularly an issue for women traveling India. This is not a particularly good thing, but it is a fact of life. What is considered culturally appropriate or acceptable varies significantly from place to place, and especially between major urban centers and other smaller cities, towns and rural areas.

Men have it pretty easy. As long as they don't wear short-shorts, they are probably fine almost anywhere. For entry into a temple or mosque they may be expected to wear long pants.

Despite what Bollywood movies show, very few women go out in public in any context, urban or rural, wearing a tank top. Some varieties of sleeveless tops, those with higher necks, going to the shoulder joint, with no bra visible under the arm MAY be acceptable in cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Chennai, however, they are still not common. In general short sleeves are required.

If you're coming for a short trip as a woman, you may not want to purchase all new Indian clothes on arrival, though who knows, maybe you will. If you do pack from home, it should be appropriate to the time of year and climate (look it up based on when and where you're going.) It does actually get cold in the North in winter, and VERY VERY hot in the south, especially in March, April, and May.

Still, despite the heat, shorts, tank tops, and skirts above the ankle are a bad idea. You will probably be considered to be a "loose woman" (akin to a prostitute or porn-star) wearing a tank top and shorts. You will almost certainly get pinched and groped, cat-called and harassed. I hate to say that you will be "asking for it" but in this particular cultural context, that's exactly how it's viewed. The Indian perception of western sexuality is already one that is extraordinarily promiscuous (mainly perpetuated by Hollywood movies and pornography), and if you want to avoid being labeled as such from the get-go, you should consider wearing clothes as modest or traditional as possible. This conception of promiscuity permeates pretty much the whole society, so not only does dressing respectably get you fewer gropes from men, it also gets you more respect from women. And more than that, if you wear Indian styles of clothes, they appreciate the gesture as respect for their culture, and will generally say so. It's valued as much as, or more than, learning a few words of the language.

The two major traditional kinds of Indian dress for women are sarees and salwar kameez.

To get Indian clothing you can buy "ready-made" Salwar Kameez, or have it stitched by a tailor. Many shops sell "cloth sets" which include 3 matching pieces of material which can then be stitched into a top, pants, and shawl. You can also get saree blouses and under-skirts stitched (ready-made really isn't a very good idea for a saree blouse). The shawl, or "dupatta" part of a salwar set is an essential item, it is intended to cover your breasts, and even though it may be completely transparent fabric, it is still considered "modest". Ready-made stuff is sometimes not well sized for larger Americans and foreigners, so you may actually need to get things stitched by a tailor, if you are a bigger or taller woman. Even if you are not, having things tailored to fit you, just right in all dimensions, and to your personal specifications is just a nice feeling.

Modesty is an extraordinarily important aspect of dress for women, and western clothes, are usually de-facto immodest, even if they are baggy or cover a lot of skin. If you're coming with your own western clothes to India, I highly recommend bringing or buying a shawl or shawls to cover your upper body, and occasionally your head. (To visit a mosque you will be absolutely required to cover your head.) Even for daily wear in many cities and towns, you will find that "modest", appropriate, and especially traditional Indian styles of dress will get you friendlier treatment, and less harassment.

For visiting sacred sites, temples, mosques, etc., be aware that even more strict rules on modesty apply for both men and women. If you plan to visit such places, keep this in mind. You may not be allowed inside without appropriate clothing.

5. Assorted Useful Gadgets

The most useful gadget I own is my headlamp. I have a Black Diamond Cosmo headlamp. I use it when the power goes out, and when I want to read a book in bed at night, inside the mosquito netting, and don't want to have to get in and out of the netting again to turn off the light. It's comfortable, it doesn't require a hand like a normal flashlight, and it has two different settings for bright spotlight and wider more diffuse light. I find it is an indispensable part of my life. The power goes out frequently, either in scheduled power outages, or randomly due to various glitches in the system. I have packed a suitcase by the light of a headlamp, prepared dinner, and a wide variety of other tasks. I suppose I could live without it, but I wouldn't want to. You could bring a flashlight, but I think that would be a much less practical choice.

If you are bringing any electrical devices, laptops, cameras, anything with a plug, or rechargeable batteries you may will also need plug converters. If your item (such as a laptop) has an AC adapter, all you need to do is convert the type of plug to the Indian plug. If it does not (such as hair dryers, electric razors) you will need a voltage converter. Checked the specs on the item you are carrying, and do some research. These are available in India, at some "electrical shops" but they can be hard to find, and it's usually easier to get one or two in the U.S.

6. Gifts to bring

Gifts are a good idea to bring, especially if you will be staying in anyone's home, or visiting friends or friends of friends. It's not 100% expected that you will bring gifts, but it is definitely appreciated.

Ideally you want to bring gifts that people can't get themselves in India, or that are prohibitively expensive here. This is (unfortunately?) an ever shrinking list of things, as global consumer capitalism continues to expand, and new markets are opened in India, more and more things become available here, and are no longer special or gift-worthy.

One good category is chocolates, especially fancy boxes of chocolates or chocolate bars.

Also location specific t-shirts and other paraphenelia like key-chains, mugs etc., from a home university or home town. This can get expensive if you have a lot of gifts to give, but it is definitely something you can't get anywhere else.

Lastly, anything home-made, any home-made clothing, cards, paper, art, food, etc., made by you or your family. Home-made gifts are frequently brought by Indian families to their counter-parts in the U.S., and it works both ways. Some non-commercially packaged foodstuffs may be a problem in customs, so pack it well.

It used to be that pens were something everyone asked for, and now there are plenty of good quality pens widely available. However, it is still "traditional" in small rural villages (at least in the South) for kids to ask for "school pen, school pen". So if you think you might want to just give a way a load of regular ballpoint pens, get a couple packs. You'll be immediately popular with all the kids in the village.

Wow, that was long! I hope you find it useful. If you have any questions, critiques, or anything to add, please leave a comment.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving is not a holiday celebrated here in India, but in the spirit of the holiday, I did thank a lot of Indians.

For your holiday enjoyment some of turkeys I've seen lately:

Turkey! (Vaan kozhi)

White Turkey

Turkey looking pissed off

Happy Turkey Day!!

Monday, November 23, 2009

A Village Visit

Yesterday I went to the village of Poondi, about 20 km from Thanjavur town. I went because my friend R., who is a Ph.D. student in the Tamil University here invited me to visit her and see her family home, and her village. I went and ate lunch with her and her mother, and we also took a walk around the whole village, 4 parallel main streets, about 3 blocks long. I have a lot of pictures, especially of the wildlife, and not so wildlife, of which I'll post some here and more on flickr.

Village Street

Cock (Kozhi)

Monsoon clouds and spider

Lizard (Basilisk)

This trip made me think of two important things: one, when someone starts telling me the story of their life's tragedy, especially a dead husband or father, or other close family member, I have no idea how to react, or why they're telling me their story.

The second thing is, everyone assumes I'm rich. And yes, in a way, simply by virtue of being American (or from any other "developed" country), one has more money, and general resources, including education and cultural capital with which to affect things. But I am a student, I have lived on a crappy graduate student stipend, or without employment, scraping by, for many years now. Even though the amount of money I make as a teaching assistant sounds like a lot in dollars, and even more converted into rupees, I always try to tell people how much things cost. How rent takes up a third to half of my salary, other basic costs, food, transportation, clothes, etc, take up most of the rest. I have a little expendable income for going out to the movies, or going out to dinner with friends, but only because I live very cheaply in everything else.

So when people look at me like I'm rich, and expect that I have infinite amounts of money to give away, it's difficult to convey that it's not really the case. And even though many Indians, even wealthy Indians don't give beggars money, they sometimes give me a dirty look, if I don't give a beggar change. Suddenly I'm the bad person, for not giving my spare change to someone begging. And I do give to beggars. Most recently, I literally didn't have any change. Other times, I've made a decision based on the number of beggars in a particular bus stand or other location. I was once in the unfortunate situation where I decided to give a small pack of biscuits to a child beggar of about 7 or 8 years old. I was in a bus stand, and that child produced 2 more, who also got biscuits, and they produced 4 more, and so on until a mob of shouting, pushing, reaching and grabbing children had surrounded me. Generosity is hard. And I believe more in supporting development programs, education, etc, than simply giving out food or a few rupees. It's that whole "teach a person to fish" thing.

So when my friend R's mother told me about how her husband died, my first thought was whether or not she was going to ask for money. I feel bad about that. I feel terrible, actually, but the issue of my "wealth" relative to others' misfortune is an issue that I face every single day. Anyway, I should have realized that money isn't the issue, since I've already hired R., who is a very smart young woman, to be my research assistant, to help me re-write bags and labels for artifacts, and enter data into spreadsheets, and a variety of other things. I already paid her, for her first weeks' earnings, and I'm sure I'll continue to have work for her for a while.

But if money isn't the reason why R's mother was telling me about her husband's death, and all the troubles that followed it, then I don't know what is. Is it sympathy? If so, I don't know if I'm expressing my sympathy in ways that are culturally appropriate, or even enough. Perhaps my exclamations of "Oh that's terrible" (in Tamil), and "Oh no, that is awful, I'm so sorry" should be more dramatic, more emphatic (as seen in Tamil soap operas)? I don't really know. I've spent a lot of time here in Tamil Nadu, in this culture, and there are still a lot of things I don't have figured out. This feels like an important one. I really should know how to respond appropriately, when someone tells me that a family member has died.

In any case, aside from what felt to me like an awkward moment, because I didn't know how to react to a widow telling me her difficulties, I had a wonderful time visiting the village. I should start asking friends who I know better, and who understand some of the cultural differences, about the appropriate way and level of response to these things.

As a final note, I realized a couple of the reasons I don't like to take and post pictures of ordinary city streets in Thanjavur and other cities... One it's so chaotic and densely filled with images, angles, lines, colors, that it's almost impossible to frame a good looking shot. Second, it is dirty, dusty, muddy, sometimes covered with garbage, and generally not very attractive. I guess my concept of photography is that it should show things that are aesthetically pleasing, and a lot of the really ordinary city streets, I don't find aesthetically pleasing... I should work on that though. Maybe this weekend I'll take a walk around town, and shoot a lot of pictures, just to see what comes out.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Staying Connected

Staying connected to friends at home, and around the world has changed A LOT since I first started coming to India in 2001. Back in the day I had to create a Yahoo mail account (I know, ancient!), because my college email didn't offer webmail, only POP mail (even more ancient!), and if I wanted to be able to access email in India, it was going to have to be webmail.

At that time, international phone rates, both from the U.S. and from India to the U.S. were unbelievably expensive. I think it was nearly 50 cents a minute on ATT from the U.S., and maybe the equivalent of 25 cents from India to the U.S.

In India, internet cafes were few and far between, and the computers inside them were dinosaurs. These days net cafes are more common, and the computers are still dinosaurs, but not the same ones as before. Maybe the current computers date to about 2001.

In any case, in 2001, I don't think the idea of having home internet had really sprung up yet in India, though I could be wrong. I didn't spend a lot of time in peoples' homes, at least not ones who could have afforded such a thing. I was in Rajasthan for a month, working on an excavation at the site of Gilund, and the only homes I really visited were those of the villagers of Gilund village. The village had only recently been wired to the grid to receive electricity. What I remember most about those homes is the copious amounts of kheer I ate while we went from house to house on Eid. Yum! But off topic...

Back to the point! Home internet, including broadband by DSL is much more common now. It is, however, a HUGE pain to get set up (something I blogged about before). Now, the both the technology and tools of staying in touch have changed radically. There are so many options, more and better, and far cheaper than before.

Here is a list of what the tools I currently use to keep in touch. If you're using the internet (and you must be if you're reading this), you have probably heard of these things:
Instant messanger (Adium - which combines AIM, MSN, Yahoo, G-Chat, and many more).
(A fairly short list, and yet still somehow it's an overwhelming amount of in-touch-ness!)

In order to connect to the internet I use a USB cellular modem, which (though a bit slow) allows me to connect to the internet anywhere there is cell service. I have mine through Tata Indicom (primarily because I found that they are the only brand with a modem that is compatible with Mac OS). It took some working still, to get it running with the Mac, and the Tata people had no idea how to help me. I found this PDF guide, which, though outdated, was still clear enough to show me what to do. I currently pay Rs. 849/month for unlimited time and data, on a pre-paid basis. This works out to between $17 and $20/month.

Probably the neatest new set of tools for communication is the system I found (through a lot of internet research) of having a local American phone number that forwards to my Indian cell number. I won't give out my phone number here... but I will give away the secret that means that American friends and family can call me for basically free (no one pays long distance anymore after cell phones), and I pay 1.8 cents/min to forward the call to my Indian phone.

For a basic version of this service, and purely incoming calls, you can just use They are the company that does the basic job, giving you a local US number which friends can call, and they set up the forwarding to the Indian (or other international) phone number. They charge 1.8 cents to India, different rates to other countries around the world. It takes a few days to set up, and you have to maintain a pre-paid balance on the site. You have to request a local phone number, but you can request where it is local to, and most places/area codes seem covered. Once you have the incoming number, you can forward to an international number for cheap, cheap, cheap.

My Indian cell phone, which is a pre-paid SIM from Airtel, has free incoming calls, at least in the state of Tamil Nadu, which is considered my local network, and is where I spend most of my time.

I have enhanced this with the addition of Google Voice. Google voice is a service that used to be called "Grand Central" which allowed you to create a single incoming phone number, and forward calls to any other number you had, home, work, cell, etc. However, presently, Google Voice only works forwarding to American phone numbers. The pros of using Google Voice are:
  1. I have the same US phone number now as when was in the US, now it just forwards to my Indian phone.
  2. I can use Google Voice - the website, to call any phone in America, and it calls my Indian cell first (making it an incoming call, and therefore free as far as the Indian cell service is concerned), and then dialing the American number. So I can make outgoing calls (using the internet) for the same 1.8 cent rate I get for incoming calls.
  3. If I don't manage to get to the phone in time, or if it's off, I get voicemail! My Indian pre-paid cell service doesn't come with voicemail. And more than just voicemail, it sends me a transcript of the voicemail, in email. Now, granted, those transcripts are frequently VASTLY wrong, since their voice recognition software isn't very good yet, but it's still a neat service and the audio clip of the voice mail is right there to listen to as well. If you do happen to call me and get my Google Voice voicemail, please speak clearly... :)
The cons are:
  1. Google Voice doesn't just forward directly to an international phone. (Though they indicate in future they are planning to make that available).
  2. I have to have a computer and an internet connection in order to make an outgoing call for the same 1.8 cent rate.
If anyone knows of any other neat or new methods/technologies of staying in touch across vast oceans and distances, let me know, I'm always open to new things!

Note: The Google Voice service is currently available by invitation only. I don't have any invites, and I got my own by signing up on their website.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Wildlife and not-so-wild-life of Tamil Nadu

I've seen some amazing wildlife here in Tamil Nadu, and some other not-so-wild life. I decided one way to show "what India is like", is to show some of the life that I have seen.

Not so wild:

Puppy at the University

The puppy seems to belong to one of the stray dogs on the Tamil University campus. I haven't seen him with his mom, but he's been sleeping and hanging out by the front steps of the canteen where I eat lunch every day. Today, when I picked him up, he seemed to be healthy, if a bit scared and out of sorts. It was probably the first time he'd been picked up. People here in South India like dogs better than they do in the North, where they kick them hard, and throw rocks at them to go away. But they tend not to view them as something cuddly, that you'd actually pick up and pet and such. This was one cuddly and adorable puppy, and once he got used to it, he seemed to enjoy being held.

Puppy at the University


The owl was just sitting on the ledge, during the daytime, at the university, and appeared to be resting/sleeping. It didn't pay much attention to me taking pictures, and I got pretty close to it. It has an amazing speckle to its belly, and I have no idea what kind of owl it is. But it's one of the neatest animal encounters I have had here yet.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

IAWAWSA: International Association for Women Archaeologists Working in South Asia

In September, on a whim, I decided to start a new organization. The International Association for Women Archaeologists Working in South Asia -- or IAWAWSA for short. It wasn't an idea that I spent a very long time thinking about explicitly before I decided to try to make it a reality.

I came up with the idea, when, after a series of scares relating to my permissions and visa to do research in India, I found myself contacting and relying on a knowledge and support network of my fellow women archaeologists working in South Asia. I also realized, that in addition to my advisor and faculty at my own university, I had in some capacity for many years relied on my own network of friends and adviser-ly figures, who were, either by accident or design, primarily women. The thought suddenly occurred to me that maybe we should have a formal association.

Once the thought struck, it also stuck in my brain. I couldn't stop thinking about what an organization might be like, and what it could do. It was such an exciting idea, I couldn't stop thinking about it, so I decided to just start it up, first with a Facebook group (an easy way to get a bunch of people to belong), and then by creating a website.

As for what the organization can do, and what I hope it will do, the goals are as follows:

  1. To be a support and information network of women scholars at all stages of their career. To help encourage women to pursue archaeology in South Asia, and to empower them do so, by creating mentoring relationships, and giving support.
  2. To provide a forum for discussing the issues that women face in conducting archaeological research in South Asia.
  3. To promote research (especially by women) in archaeology in South Asia by:

a) Providing forums to discuss research, such as meetings, workshops, conferences, and publications.

b) To foster international collaboration between scholars from around the world with interests in the archeology of South Asia, especially to bridge the divide between the countries of South Asia, and foreigners who come from countries outside South Asia.

c) Offering grants and fellowships to scholars, to support research, travel, and writing, which we hope will also have the effect of empowering women to continue to pursue archaeology and archaeological research.

It turns out, that creating an organization such as the one I outlined above, with goals as grand in scale, as the ones outlined above, takes a LOT of work.

I am just now beginning the process of filing for non-profit/tax exempt status for IAWAWSA under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue code. This is an unbelievable amount of work, and I'm just beginning to realize how much it's going to take to get to the point where I can even *begin* to raise the funds that I want, in order to do the things I want to do.

It's incredibly daunting, but perhaps that's the point the IRS is trying to make. They don't want to make it easy for organizations that may have a lot of money at some point in the future, do anything to evade taxes, if they don't have to.

Forms galore to be filled in, in addition to a lot of "supporting documents". To name a few, we need "articles of incorporation", by-laws, statements regarding our policies for non-discrimination, a "narrative description of the activities, past, present, and future" of the organization, policies for employment, policies for nominating officers, board members, trustees. We need policies for how we will obtain funding, and for what we will do with it. We need policies stating what criteria we will use in giving out grants and funding. The list goes on and on. And the truth is, I'm a) not a lawyer, b) have no clue how to write most of this stuff, and c) have no idea how to lay out clearly and effectively such things as what criteria we should use to select to whom we should award grants and fellowships.

In addition, I need to fund-raise the $400 filing fee to become a non-profit, and yet, seem somehow prohibited from fund-raising without yet being a non-profit organization. And all this immense amount of work that goes into the filing, is just the beginning. Once we have the letter granting exemption under the 510(c)(3) code, then the REAL work will begin, to write grant proposals and solicit donations, to raise funds for the organization DO all the things I hope it will some day do.

As much as this organization is becoming a method of sometimes procrastinating the other "real" work I have to do, which is my own research and writing towards the completion of my Ph.D., working on developing IAWAWSA is always simultaneously a source of motivation to do my own work. I can hardly be the spearhead/founder/director of an organization for women archaeologists, if I can't successfully become one myself. So each time I sit down and work on the organization, I also end up feeling more motivated to get my own work done. So that in the future, not only can I continue to pursue my own research interests, but I can help others pursue their goals as well.

(Note: In a future post I will discuss some of the reasons why this organization is needed. Why, especially, in a period in which the status of women seems better than it's ever been, this organization still has something to contribute. I will present some of my anthropological/sociological observations on gender in academia, especially in academia in Indian institutions, and the prospects of women in India and other countries in South Asia who aspire to do archaeology.)

Sunday, November 15, 2009

My present location and the local wild life

This is where I am presently located:

View Larger Map

This is a very strange and large insect I cannot identify that has been buzzing around my apartment banging into walls:

This is a goat who got up on the wall to eat the leaves of the mango tree in the yard:

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Monsoon Mice and a Philosophy of Hardship

The rain is pouring so hard outside I can hardly hear. The power just went out, but I am using laptop battery and a USB cellular modem, so I can just continue to type away. Handy.

I arrived yesterday back in Thanjavur where I spent 4 months between March and June of this year, and before that 10 months in 2007. I kept my apartment here, paid 2 months advance rent to the landlord, and paid another 2 months rent through my friend S. when I decided to postpone my departure from the US. It's easy to do when the rent is Rs. 1000/month, which comes to between $20 and $25 per month depending on the exchange rate.

The place is kind of shabby, but it's home. When I arrived yesterday, I discovered a mouse (or mice) had built a nest behind where I had leaned my mattress against a wall. They had chewed through the plastic cover of the mattress and chewed through other things like paper towels, newspaper, and dragged other assorted garbage into the pile. The entire place was filled with dust, dirt, mouse droppings, leaves blown in and spider webs. I should have expected something like this. I expected it to be dirty, but the mouse issue added a lot of ick to the process of cleaning up.

The rain sort of seeps in through the ceiling, though it does not drip, the ceiling gets damp. In heavy rain, parts of the roof in the kitchen seem to drip. Everything is so damp, when I went to light a candle, the matches would hardly strike, or they'd strike and go out because the wood is damp. The leaking roof/ceiling is an issue, but it's not the end of the world. I sort of think it's part and parcel of the territory, and living in such cheap accommodations. I could probably spend twice as much money per month, and have ceilings that weren't damp. But I guess this seems like a fair exchange.

The power is still out and though I conveniently still have my laptop and internet connection, I inconveniently can't use my electric stove, electric rice cooker or electric kettle. When I was here for my last long research stint, I got a canister of cooking gas for cooking, but getting it was a huge hassle, so since I came back last time for only a few months, I decided not to bother with that and bought the electric stove. Maybe now I'll get one again. Or at least see about getting it. It'd be nice to cook dinner even when the power's out.

There are few generalizations I can draw about India. Whenever anyone asks "What's India like?", my best answer is to say it is so diverse that it covers the entire spectrum, in any sense you can think of. That is the only generalization I can make, that it's almost impossible to make any sort of generalized statement at all, and be even reasonably accurate.

But there is one other somewhat generalizable thing in my experience: India is hard. It's a hard place to be, hard place to live, hard place to get things done. It's hard, even given what you might call the relative advantage of being from the US, of having greater resources relative to most of the population. Getting home phone and broadband DSL internet connection was so hard last time, this time I decided not to bother. The USB cellular connection is handy in its own ways, but still frustrating. Both the pre-paid and post-paid SIM cards I was using the last time I was here expired, and I have to make a new application for a "new connection" complete with a passport sized photograph, photocopy of my rental agreement, and other "proofs" of local residence.

I have to re-register with the police, a process that takes almost a full day every time, with forms and official form-filler-outers, who type in the forms on ancient, pre-independence typewriters with carbon copy paper between sheets. I will then photocopy those forms in quadruplicate, submit multiple passport-sized photographs, and submit them to the police to rubber stamp, even though I was just here, and still have the old documents, and the only thing that's changed is the visa number and expiration date.

But here's the thing. As much as I complain about these difficulties. As much as I despise the bureaucracy, the multiplicates and the passport sized photographs, I enjoy the challenge. I enjoy the challenge that every day brings. I like the feeling that I've accomplished something when I manage to negotiate my way through labyrinthine bureaucratic processes, and come out the other side with an internet connection, or a cooking gas cylinder. I feel like I've won.

And when I think about how easy it is to do everything in the US... How quickly paperwork is dealt with, and forms submitted electronically, and how gas just comes to your house, through a pipe, along with water, electricity, and all the other amenities... I wonder if maybe it's all too easy.

Of course, after a while I will come to miss living day-to-day without the challenge of power-outages, without the bureaucracy. It does get exhausting after a while. I still wonder, if the ease with which things come to people in America, if the lack of challenge and struggle in daily life isn't actually the Achilles heel of American culture. I don't know what to say, really, about doomsday scenarios -- books and movies supply them aplenty. But I can't help but notice that people who are accustomed to more challenge, more hardship in daily life than your average middle class American seem to cope with it better, even when they're confronted by the bigger, more insurmountable challenges the world has to offer.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

On Arrival

I just arrived back in India for a full year. The flight was just over an hour late, but it hardly seemed to make any difference. I can't even mentally calculate the amount of time I was in transit. I have to do it written down. So lets see, 5.5 hrs from LA to Chicago, 1.5 hrs waiting in Chicago, 7.5 hrs from Chicago to Frankfurt, 5 hours waiting in Frankfurt airport, a late departure from Frankfurt, waiting on the plane about 45 minutes because someone decided they felt sick and didn't want to go to India and their baggage had to be unloaded. Then another 8.5 hours (which I think turned out to be 9 hrs) in the air. That adds up to just over 29 hours of travel time. Not to mention going through customs, collecting my luggage, and the cab ride to the hotel… UGH.

Enough of that. I mainly wanted to recount the sort of stream of thoughts that proceeded through my brain immediately after arriving.

1. I have finally arrived in the land of coconut chutney. It's not the land of milk and honey, but I think I might prefer coconut chutney. Also tomato chutney, and coriander chutney.

2. I have so many visas for India in my passport the guy at the immigration desk can't find the correct one. It's the last page, and as he paged through, I watched his look of consternation to compare the visa number listed on the form with the paper visa in my passport. I knew this would happen. "It's on the last page" I told him in Tamil, and he found it, stamped it, and smiled. He didn't look the least bit surprised that I spoke Tamil, which surprised me. Usually people hear me speak Tamil and are shocked. I'm so used to that response; I get surprised when they're not.

3. More surprises. I only saw one cow in the street on the way to the hotel.

4. The taxi driver drove surprisingly slowly and cautiously. And as I noticed that he wasn't the fastest car on the road, that he was, in fact, not roaring through the city, I wondered if my standards have changed. Would I have thought it was scary, if this was my first trip? Would I have thought he was driving fast or recklessly? It seems that the roads and the driving was very frightening at first. But what used to scare me, and what used to be jarringly different about India is hard to even remember now.

It was (and still kind of is) hard to conceive of the next 12 months of my life here in India. I have a lot I want and need to accomplish. It seems different than so many of my other trips. Longer at one stretch than ever before, but at the same time, I feel so much more able to cope with that.

I'm not dealing with any particular culture shock. The only thing I really have to deal with is jetlag.

I still feel some anxiety and trepidation about how this whole thing will work out. But I also feel pretty confident that it will be a good and productive year. I guess that is how it goes. This is what I signed up for. This is my life. And this funding for a full year is a great opportunity that I'm grateful for.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Cultural Homogeneity and Its Discontents

"The problem is not technology itself; the Sioux Indians did not stop being Sioux when they gave up the bow and arrow, any more than Americans stopped being American when they gave up the horse and buggy. It's not change, or technology, that threatens the integrity of the ethnosphere, it is power. The crude faith of domination. And whenever you look around the world, you realize, that these are not cultures destined to fade away, these are dynamic living peoples being driven out of existence by identifiable forces that are beyond their capacity to adapt to."

I watched this video, a talk by Wade Davis, and even though it didn't tell me anything factually, that I didn't already know, it was still thought-provoking, and moving, nonetheless. He tells of the loss of cultural knowledge, the death of over 50% of the worlds' languages, the ever-increasing homogenization of people and culture around the globe. I knew all that, at least in a factual sense. But he still manages to bring a new perspective to the issue, which I appreciate greatly.

Wade Davis started out as a graduate student in ethnobotany, looking for the plant poison or compound used to make zombies. This lead him to a life of living with indigenous cultures, tribal and ethnic groups all over the world, and writing about it for National Geographic.

He has coined the term "ethnosphere" as an analog to the concept of the "biosphere" the sum total of the world's biological, or in this case, cultural diversity. As I listened to his talk, I was impressed by his passion for the subject, for the knowledge of these indigenous cultures all over the world, and his sadness at their loss.

He makes many compelling arguments for why we should care about indigenous people and the cultural knowledge that they carry. (Just watch the video to hear what he has to say.) But he didn't make one argument that seems obvious to me. Maybe it's an idea he thinks is too obvious, maybe he has written or talked about it elsewhere. It is the concept, as in the "biosphere" and population genetics, that diversity is adaptive; that diversity is advantageous.

To have a wide and diverse "ethnosphere" is to have a greater body of knowledge, ideas, and ways of thinking for our species to draw from. Just as decreased genetic diversity in a population of any organism creates inherent risks for that organism to survive new diseases and adapt to new conditions, decreased cultural diversity of humanity creates inherent risks for our long-term survival as well.

What are the forces that are killing indigenous cultures (and sometimes indigenous people)? It is the villain in so many modern stories: global consumer capitalism. What Wade Davis calls simply, "power". Are we helpless to stop it? I hope not.

And I hope he's right, that through stories like those in National Geographic and elsewhere, or by any means at all really, that people everywhere come to value cultural diversity, and not degrade it. It's not even about individual human lives, which also have value. It is about the sum total of culture, of knowledge, and belief, and world-view, of logics and ways of seeing the world, that are being lost. And that is greater than any individual. As it has always been, culture is greater than the sum of it's parts (the sum of its people). But when you reduce the sum of the parts to zero, there is nothing left of culture either.

Monday, March 02, 2009


Brahmagiri is considered one of the most important archaeological sites in South India, primarily for it's position in the history of south Indian archaeology as the site which defined the sequence and chronology from the late Neolithic, through the Iron Age to the Early Historic period (Wheeler 1948). It was excavated by Sir Mortimer Wheeler in 1947, and ultimately became one of the most important and best known sites in the region.

View North-East from the slopes of Brahmagiri hill just above the Asokan Edict.

He chose to excavate there, based on the previous work of Dr. M.H. Krishna, hoping that it would show a long depth of chronology, as well as allow some connection between the ceramic sequence/chronology with the Asokan rock edicts, and the Russet Coated Painted Ware, or Andhra Ware, already cross dated with roman coins to the first centuries AD at Arikamedu (Wheeler 1946; Casal 1949; Begley 1996).

Since the site was dug long before radiocarbon dating, or any other method of secure absolute chronology, Wheeler presumed that the known date of the edicts would help him date the rest of the occupation. Though he managed to associate the rock edict with the black-and-red ware in the megalithic burials, and the same black-and-red ware in the habitation area, he vastly underestimated the amount of time that was represented by this ceramic type.

Recent re-analysis by Dr. Kathleen Morrison has shown that the site's chronology is indeed very deep, and that much of Wheeler's analysis of the ceramic sequence turns out to be problematic (Morrison 2005). Despite the early work done at Brahmagiri, it's prominence in archaeological writings on South India, and the recent work by Dr. Morrison, much research remains to be done.

The Asokan Rock Edict at Brahmagiri. Now enclosed in a concrete structure.

Close up of the Brahmi writing of the Asokan edict.

For the full set of pictures go here.

Begley, V. (1996) Ancient Port of Arikamedu: New Excavations and Researches 1989-1992. École Française D'Extreme-Orient, Pondicherry.

Casal, J. M. (1949) Fouilles de Virampatnam-Arikamedu. Imprimerie Nationale, Paris.

Morrison, K. D. (2005) Brahamagiri Revisited: a Re-analysis of the South Indian Sequence. In South Asian Archaeology 2001, edited by C. Jarrige, & V. Lefèvre, Editions Recherche sur les Civilisations ADPF, Paris.

Wheeler, R. E. M., Ghosh, M. A., & Deva, K. (1946) Arikamedu - An Indo-Roman trading station on the east coast of India. Ancient India, 2: 17-124.

Wheeler, R. E. M. (1948) Brahmagiri and Chandravalli 1947: Megalithic and Other Cultures in the Chitaldrug District, Mysore State. Ancient India, 4: 181-310.