Thursday, February 26, 2009

Geographically Polyamorous

(This is almost a stream-of-consciousness bit of writing - be warned.)

Me and the Boy at Dukem Ethiopian Restaurant in DC. If I look tired in that photo, it's because I was.

Reverse culture shock is a bitch.

Now that I've been in Taiwan for almost 3 years, it's doubly hard because I feel it on both ends of the plane ride. Both are home; I love them and I feel weird pangs for them. It's like having two boyfriends, Taiwan and the USA, and India as a fling on the side.

When we got off the plane in New York, I saw Brendan off to the SkyTrain and I took the bus into New York. It began with hearing familiar New York accents on cell phones and seeing the city skyline peep above the buildings as we left Queens (or did we skirt through Brooklyn?) and realizing that I am in a country where I am not a minority. Then there was the cold wind as I entered Grand Central Station and waited at the big clock to meet my friend (and former guy-I-dated) Matthew. The big clock isn't very big at all, and it sits atop an information kiosk in the center of the main hall. All around me, people were waiting. An Asian girl who chatted in flawless English on her cell phone until her friends arrived and the language shifted to Japanese. A tough-looking blond in a long red coat . She wore dark sunglasses despite the fact that it was evening and quite overcast, not to mention that we were indoors. A tall man in a yarmulke throwing staccato yelps into a phone when his business partner failed to arrive. And me, a chubby redhead, waiting for a tall, lanky guy in a suit. Without the benefit of a cell phone, I looked the most uncomfortable. I couldn't seem to stay out of the snake-lines unfurling from the kiosk. Kept shifting the bags at my feet - jute bag from India between my ankles, black duffel in front, awkwardly held backpack.

Eating Italian food as we chatted and heard the train announcements for the Harlem Line, the Hudson Line, the New Haven line. Happy in the security of my relationship, knowing that Brendan wasn't worried in the least about my meeting up with Matthew, who is now happily engaged.

The sounds and smells were all too familiar (I'd once waited in this station at midnight with a friend, avoiding a puddle of vomit on the stairs, as a late-night train took its sweet time to arrive). I'm not even from New York City and already I felt it.

The sound of my parents' white Honda as they picked me up in Poughkeepsie. The crisp, Hudson-smelling air around the train station.

The next morning I awoke with a fluffy black coon cat on my legs; Cinders wanted food and figured I wouldn't know that mom had already fed the cuddly little beasts. The same drafts from the circa-1910 windows, the same creaks of my parents' old farmhouse. I came downstairs to the smell of expensive coffee and the pontifications of some guy on Today Now! With Annoying Cute Blonde and Generic Handsome Man or Good Morning America or Morning Joe or one of those typical morning programs I always associate with a visit home. Why? Because thanks to jet lag, I am invariably awake at the unacceptable hour of 7am to watch them.

Side note: Indonesia has the same kind of programs. Imagine my double-culture-shock when, over breakfast in Sumatra, something along the lines of Good Morning Indonesia came on - complete with generically attractive hosts, trite guests, and rattan furniture set in a studio with large windows overlooking tropical ferns and hibiscus flowers.

Then, of course, there was Honey Bunches of Oats. Honey! Bunches! Of! Oats! With that unique farmer's market milk that my parents always buy. It snowed a bit - snow! Ice! Cold weather! Things I haven't felt or seen for years.

After I went shopping with my parents at Adam's Fairacre Farms (we got the usual - olives, Wensleydale cheese, White English Stilton with mango and ginger, goat cheese, truffle mousse pate, table water crackers, three other kinds of cheese, olives and a bunch of other food I can't remember), we came back and watched, of all things, Antiques Roadshow. Antiques Roadshow! Rainbow, the oldest and weirdest of our cats, curled up on mom's neck like a dead fox stole the way she always does.

My adorable cousin Nikola with plastic wineglass. He's training early in the family art of drinking like Europeans (his mother is an actual European, at least. The rest of us pretend with our wine and our cheese and our British comedies on PBS).

Then I thought: all these little things remind me of home far more than the big things. It wasn't seeing my parents - we talk on the phone often enough - or driving up to our house. It wasn't hearing spoken English around me or not having to communicate in a second language. It wasn't any of the major stuff; all of my reverse culture shock stems from 1910 windows, Honey Bunches of Oats, that particular shade of filtered light and blow of cold river wind that defines the Hudson Valley winter, Good Morning America, the announcements at Grand Central Station and Antiques Roadshow.

DC was another gauntlet of reverse culture shock. We used to live in a lovely wood-floored townhouse off Columbia Pike. My closest friend in DC, M. (her name is very unique so if I post it, it'd be too easy to identify her in real life) still lives on the Pike, but a little further up. The sound of Spanish, Amharic, Moroccan Arabic and other languages being spoken around me brought back some memories; the Ethiopian breakfast we enjoyed at Dama brought back others with its dark, jammy coffee and selse - spiced eggs with crusty bread. The Lideta Gebeya where we picked up berbere spice to make my famous Ethiopian chicken satay and the "Esoterico" store next door that sells Peruvian spices, plastic saints, old baskets, fifteen million kinds of dried beans, general religious accoutrements for your home shrine, and trinkets galore. The sushi restaurant next to the Cinema and Drafthouse, which shows second-run movies and cold beer. Mrs. Chen's Kitchen of Delicacies, serving horrific and wonderful American Chinese, Altacatl Salvadorean Restaurant, El Pollo Rey, Rappahannock Coffee, Bob&Edith's, Bangkok 54...and the #16 bus that cuts through it all. I love that neighborhood - the fact that it is not rich and nowhere near gentrified, it's cool but not hip (rather like Taiwan), it's honest and working class, and generally safe - you can tell from its age and diversity that it is very, very real. I can only hope it doesn't become chi-chi. Arlington does not need another Crate&Barrel or Wolfgang Puck, and I don't want to see it turned into a fake-funky U Street.

U Street - I love the place but it's gotten a bit gentrified. Lines of white folks at Ben's Chili Bowl! Overpriced Ethiopian food (whaaa?)! U-Sushi and Mocha Hut. Gah.

Brendan and his cousin David, who is showing off his $2.50 can of Coke. Two-fitty? What?!

We held a dinner party our first night there, with Dana and Ernesto as hosts and M. as the organizer. Whenever someone had a question - "what's this?" "Why is Jenna in the kitchen?" "There sure is a lot of wine, isn't there?", "What is that smell?"- the answer was inevitably "It's a Jenna Party!". These are the parties that have become iconic through the years: foreign food, a guest list that starts at 8 and caps at 15 or so, laughter and dirty jokes, horrendous board games for which we should never be judged in the afterlife, slight but becoming drunkenness that is funny, rather than embarrassing, the next morning. We made Ethiopian Chicken Satay served with injera, hummus, Iranian salad, Iranian rice, olives and a vegetable plate, brie and baguettes, and a chocolate truffle cake (triple the cocoa for any basic chocolate cake recipe, and add some liquor and extra cream. Make two. Brush with alcohol reduced with preserves or sugar. Spread the top of the first cake with a thick layer of truffle batter (chocolate, cream, butter, spices and alcohol), place second cake on top. Pour heated pure chocolate flavored with more alcohol on top. Allow to cool and decorate with confectioner's sugar, cinnamon, cocoa and truffles made with leftover batter. Use only dark chocolate. Any alcohol will do - I usually use Godiva chocolate liqueur and flavor with amaretto, Frangelico or Chambord.)

Me, Judy, Brendan and Beth in Crystal City.

I freaked out in a Target while I was home. It's just so...big. Fifty hundred jabillion kinds of moisturizer. An entire rack of different kinds of licorice. Do you want this kind of toilet paper, that kind, or one of the two hundred other kinds? We ran rings around the store looking for some basic items. Clothes that actually fit! Trying to get anywhere was like doing laps across a football field of merchandise through wide, pearly aisles. Whoa. I thought I might be coming down with Target-induced epilepsophrenia, so we finished up our shopping and left.

American airport security - "Why are you going to Taiwan?" "We work there." "So you both live in Taiwan?" "Yes." "Can you prove it?" we hand over our ARCs, which we are pretty sure the check-in clerk can't even read.

M., her boyfriend Tom and Beth at Dukem on U Street

The problem with traveling is that I like almost everyplace I go. That means I form attachments easily, and maintain them with several places. I'm describing reverse culture shock from visiting the USA, but the truth is I feel it almost everywhere I go for the second time. I spent a semester in India years ago and still feel a little jolt whenever I return; rickshaws and aluminum tumblers filled with foamy coffee, strings of jasmine and marigolds and masala dosa on flat platters or banana leaves. Milk sweets! Charmingly archaic Indian Newspaper English. Long-distance train trips in 3-tier sleeper cars. Shock when I see how things have changed; fewer people on the streets begging, more people looking as though they enjoy three square meals. More paved roads, more ATMs. You can buy train tickets and reserve mid-range hotels online now. More honesty. A glittering shopping center and a few funky bars off MG Road in Bangalore. At least there still seems to be livestock everywhere. I think I'd cry if that went away.

I felt it in Japan - we only spent 45 minutes in the airport, but in that 45 minutes a lot came back. White-gloved security personnel who maintained a brisk pace through the X-ray and baggage screening, and who had painstakingly memorized questions in English ("Are you carrying any riquids or flammable items?"). Bathrooms that smell of mint chocolate and sinks emit a perfectly warm stream of air and freshly cented foamy soap. Duty-free shops chock full of consumer goods - Chivas Regal for the men, Coach and Dolce for the women, and Japanese fans, jackets, kimonos, soaps, tea, shoes, dolls, paper, etc. etc. etc. etc. etc. for the foreigners - all staffed by perfectly attentive sales clerks in pristine uniforms who beckon you inside. Signs that say "Welcome to Japan" in English, but "Welcome Home" in Japanese.

And I felt it again in Taiwan - Huanying Guanyiiiiiin! from the duty-free shops. The damp, cool air of midnight as we left the airport. Guo-Guang airport bus. That particular sound of traffic as it burbles around Taipei Main Station at all hours of day or night. The little beepy sounds that the taxis make, and the beaded seatcovers that drivers favor. Roosevelt Road late at night, light wind and the threat of rain. Even at night, you can tell its cloudy. Two quick dinners from 7-11, which is glittering and bright, unlike its ghetto brethren in the USA. Speaking Chinese at the cash register. The particularly whiny meow of Zhao-Zhao and the chicken coop down the street as its doomed inhabitants settle in for the night. The red-and-yellow glow of a Wellcome sign on the wet streets. Waking up to Coughing Old Man, Roosevelt Road traffic, chirping birds and Zhao-Zhao, who wants to catch them. The particular smell of apartments and cement that wafts in our window on the soft dawn breeze. I have jet lag again, and I can't sleep. This time, there is no Today Now! show to wake up to, and only one cat to feed.

It was a great trip, but I'm happy to be back...home? Is it home? I love all of these places and I'd like to call them all home. Is that even allowed? If I spend a month in Vietnam getting my CELTA certificate and love that too, does it qualify as 'cheating'? If we realize our dream (well, my dream but Brendan likes the idea) of volunteering for a few years in an Indian village as teachers, is that a betrayal of Taiwan? If I stay in Taiwan forever and don't move back to the USA, is that a betrayal of my native country? Is geographical polyamory acceptable?

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

All Sortsa Extra Photos

Egyptian Relief Carving, Karnak

Various photos from the trip that I never posted from Egypt and Southern India. We're at our respective families' homes now, visiting relatives and relaxing until it's time to head to Washington DC to see our old college friends. It's entirely too cold here, and Taipei-acclimated hothouse orchid that I am, 35 degrees feels like -100 to me. DC is apparently very pleasant and while I'll miss my family, I'm looking forward to warmer climes.

Painting in Karnak

Veggie Shopping in Luxor

Luxor Temple and Old Saint's Tomb

Kathakali in Kerala

Planting Crops in Wayanad

Theyyam in northern Kerala - this was the first guy to invite possession by the gods of this small temple 20km from Kannur

Stones and Sand in Kannur on hte Malabar Coast

Kathakali performance - a female demon captures women for her brother's pleasure

The demon disguised as a beautiful woman tries to seduce a warrior (the dude in green)

Makeup for Kathakali

Cochin Fisherman and his net

Feeding the Pigeons at the Jain Temple

Window in "Jew Town" (hey I didn't choose the name)

Cochin Harbor

God Heads at an Antique Store

Syrian Christian Advertising, Cochin

In India, Nothing is so Special as the Relationship Between a Man and His Bike

The Malayalis are big on democratically-elected Communist governments.

1100-year old Moppila Muslim mosque, Calicut

Sunset in Cochin

Tribal Matriarch, Wayanad, Kerala

Shiva Nataraj, Elephanta Island, Mumbai

Coptic Christian relief in Cairo

Gods and Stuff on Trees

Cairo Pot

Tiny Lamps Light Up the Night, in Ernakulam, Kerala

Sunset on the Nile, Aswan

Tea pots, Cairo

Gateway to the Khan el-Khalili

Lamps in a Mosque, Cairo

Man Making Wall Hangings, Cairo (formerly Tent-makers Street)

Lamps and pots in Luxor

Huge Columns of Karnak, Luxor


Giant Broken Obelisk, Karnak

Gateway of Ramses II, Karnak

The Deserts of Nubia, Aswan

Aswan Souq

Ruins of Abu, Elephantine Island, Aswan

Thursday, February 12, 2009

On The Road

When I met up with Shormistha earlier this month, we expounded for a bit on hotels while traveling. We came up with the following:

There are two kinds of hotels in developing countries.

The first is the 'country hotel'. Though you can sometimes find these in cities (we stayed in one in Bangalore) they are usually found in towns of moderate-to-middling size, with maybe one or two spots of interest to visitors, and even those are the B-list celebrities of the tourism world. Curious or off-the-beaten-path travelers pass through but rarely; most visitors are there for weddings or funerals.

When you walk into these hotels, you can expect to see a room. It will be painted pastel green, pink or possibly both and have a ratty brown chair, at least 30 years old, in one corner. There will be grime on the walls and it will smell of incense and goats.

This room may or may not have a reception desk and there may or may not be anyone manning it. If someone is there, he is likely to be sleeping. Possibly in a chair, and possibly with a cricket match on the television in front of him.

One thing this room almost always has is a photograph (black and white or cheap technicolor) of a long-dead relative of the proprietor, hung high on the wall. In India, this photograph will be decorated with incense, sandalwood paste and marigolds.

When you finally wake up the sleeping person, you will find that he isn't actually the concierge. He may be a watchman or errand-boy, a friend of the concierge, a relative of the owner or just some guy who wandered in and took a nap.
"I want a room," you ask - in the local language if you're savvy like that.
"Room?" he will reply.
"Yes, room!"
He will putter around and finally leave, coming back ten minutes later (if you're lucky) with another guy.
"Room?" you ask.
"Room?" the other guy replies. The two guys look at each other as if silently asking - "do we have rooms here?"

When you finally establish that they do indeed have rooms, a third guy comes in and takes out a Tome. This Tome is about 2,000 pages long and almost as many years old, and is disintegrating at the edges. He'll blow the dust off it and open it up - if you look back to the first page you can expect to see Mary and Joseph, who tried to get a room here when the place first opened.

The tome is approximately the size and weight of a Gutenberg Bible.

In this Tome, you painstakingly enter your full name, age, date of birth, father's name, passport number, visa number, duration of stay, nationality, father's nationality, three phone numbers, address, permanent address, email address, port of embarkation, port of disembarkation, previous destination, next destination, purpose of visit, flight number, exact time of check-in, number of children, number of children traveling with you, a local reference (if you have one), occupation, salary, marital status, name and age of spouse, number of bags, type of room requested and type of room granted. Each space given for this information is approximately 2 cemtimeters wide.

The second kind of hotel is the 'city hotel' - this one has about ten people in the lobby, all with specific jobs and all requiring baksheesh to do them. There are three to five clocks on the wall - one says "London", one "New York", one is for the capital of the country you are in, and any others are for completely random destinations (in Mumbai our hotel had clocks for Delhi, London, New York, Kandahar and Anchorage, Alaska). None of them tell the correct time in any of those destinations.

When you arrive, people are running around and screaming. The computer system is either down, was recently down, or is working but not running properly. A child is crying in the corner while her mother fights with the elevator boy, and at least one guy who should be working is standing around and smoking. All the couches and chairs are occupied, and you are pretty sure that none of the occupants are employees or guests.

"I have a booking," you say.
"Just a moment," says the officious brillantined man behind the counter, before he checks his coiffure in the mirrored wall behind you. He calls another guy, who calls a boy of about 8, who runs outside and returns five minutes later with a piece of paper that proves, apparently, that you do have a booking.
"Here is your key, and we provide a coupon for breakfast," says Mr. Brillantine.
"Thanks. When can I get my coupon, then?"
"I will give it to you now."

Ten minutes later, he's run away to deal with some of the screaming people, and you are standing there waiting for your breakfast coupon.

"Breakfast coupon?"
"You want breakfast now?"
"No, we were told we would get the coupon for tomorrow."
"Oh yes."

Then that guy runs away and comes back five minutes later, having done nothing.
"OK now?" he asks.
"Well, actually no, we still need our breakfast coupon."
"Oh that! We will send it to your room with the boy."

The boy never comes, you go to breakfast the next day and nobody asks you for any coupon, nor did they seem to think that such a coupon ever existed.

The boy, meanwhile, stops by your room with your laundry, hoping for more baksheesh.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Medieval Cairo and Aswan

Kids in Aswan

Dried hibiscus for karkadeh - a local cool drink

Backstreets of Aswan

The Nile at Aswan

Nubian guy selling baskets in Aswan.

...I'll have to adjust that one so it's not skewed. Felucca boat on the Nile at sunset.

...but in this one, the building is skewed, not the photo.

Local woman shopping in the Khan el-Khalili

Skyline of Islamic Cairo