Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Sweet Baby Jesus

This is a pretty long-overdue entry. A lot (lot) has happened since I last wrote. Let's see if I can give a quick digest. I spent a couple of months doing public affairs work. Got a cat. Went 10 months before leaving India (36 hours in Dubai, never thought I'd be New York Timey). Subsequently went to Uzbekistan, Moscow, Turkey and Mexico. Spent my 29th birthday at a national park/ theme park on the Yucatan. Did New Year's in Thailand. Learned how to adjudicate immigrant visas. Learned how to facilitate the shipment of remains back to the US. Drove an autorickshaw. Rode a bullock cart. Put a bunch of dings in my formerly pristine car. Pooja'd (blessed) the hell out of that car in order to prevent more dings. That failed. Got a soda maker. Said goodbye to a few people and welcomed some others to Chennai. Too much stuff.

Anyway, I promise I'll try to update more regularly. So, that's my belated New Year's resolution. 

Tuesday, March 9, 2010


This weekend, I went to Bangalore to meet my friend Marriaine. It was my first time visiting, and while Marriaine kept commenting about how much it looked like Cambodia (read "developing"), I kept rapturously declaring how clean and convenient it was. It really is much cleaner than Chennai. Chennai's dirt has its own charm, honestly. I don't mind it, but it was interesting to see how another city keeps things fresh.

Enough about the cleanliness. What I really want to talk about are the roads. Bangalore looks, at first glance, to be a confusing mishmash of streets, the same as any other Indian city. But signs, oh, Bangalore has signs. There are signs on every street that are legible and clear. The streets are more or less in a grid. You tell someone an address, and it may be possible to find that place without many stops to ask men loitering at tea stalls if you're hot or cold.

Chennai is a different story altogether. I don't claim to be any sort of expert on Indian urban planning, so I can't comment on how unique a case it is. But, Chennai is monstrous to navigate. Even people who've lived here all their lives have a tough time. I didn't know the name of the street I live on for at least two months after I moved in. Now, I know the street name, but it doesn't help me to tell anyone. It's not written anywhere, and even if it were, it's not a notable enough street to be widely known.

For example, I'll get into an auto rickshaw to ride home. First, I'll try saying the name of my street. "Bheemana Garden Road." Nope, no comprehension. What about the slightly easier to understand cross street? "Bawa Road." Nope. Ok, how about the street that runs perpendicular, but is three blocks east? "CP Ramaswamy Road?" Success! the guy knows it. Ok, so now how do I explain where on that road he should turn. I live near the Abhiramapuram traffic police station. A wise man once told me that everyone in Chennai knows exactly where police stations are. I'm not quite sure what that means, and maybe I can ponder it later. Back to the matter at hand. I mention that police station, but actually, Abhiramapuram itself is across CP Ramaswamy from where I live. Meaning, if the driver doesn't hear or understand when I say "police station," I'm doomed to have him turn the wrong way (often despite my protestations).

If this hassle and grand confusion occur when I know well where I'm headed, imagine the shenanigans that go on when I'm not quite sure. For this reason, it's almost impossible to go anyplace that you haven't already been before. Catch 22, you say? Indeed. I know it's petty and whiny considering that I have a car, two feet, a good head on my shoulders, and many friends who employ drivers for just this reason, but I feel severely limited in my mobility here in Chennai. I can't just hop into a rickshaw or my car and try to find someplace new. For the first few months of living here, I felt completely helpless. I'm used to feeling like a giant baby in foreign cultures. When I was living in China, I would frequently joke about how my poor Mandarin sounded like a giant baby's (a la the Maury Povitch show). But this baby always had legs! Even if I sounded like an idiot, or got somewhat lost, at least I could ask someone where I was. Here, it feels like even the people who are there don't know where they are.

Ponder that!

Friday, March 5, 2010

Kicking the Habit

This is just a short note to say, I am web-logging now. I'm not sure if one diplomat's experiences in South India will be interesting to anyone, but there are absurd and wonderful things to be shared.

I'll eventually be comfortable saying that I am a blogger. In the meantime, I'll share this article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/28/magazine/28FOB-onlanguage-t.html?ref=magazine.

At least three times a day, I'm forced to say the word, "webinar," at work. I hate this word. I'm resolutely in favor of portmanteaus, but something about this word gives me the willies. I've tried avoiding it. "Web seminars," I'll say in conversations with coworkers. I've tried to sneak that into emailed invitations to the dreaded events, only to have the thing edited back into linguistic grossness. I know it's not very web 2.0 of me to hate the word. I don't consider myself a Luddite, but if saying "webinar," is part of today's zeitgeist, then I say, "back to the days of the printing press!"

Anyway, look for more random scribblings from me to come. I'll try to keep this light, clean, and only slightly curry-scented.

Terrible Hearing

My ears are rusty. I sometimes resort to holding an imaginary ear horn, which is not the coolest thing a young lady can do. I say this to excuse myself, in part, for having such a hard time understanding South Indians on the phone. Face to face, I'm usually ok; but put someone on the phone with me, even if they have impeccable English, and it's a disaster.

Last night, I got a call from the night guard at the Consulate. He told me that a gentleman named Lawrence was there to see me. Aha! I was expecting a Lawrence, but at my house, not at work. It was 8 pm and he was meant to be measuring my beloved, ratty, good-boned couch for reupholstery.

"Oh no!," I said to the guard on the phone. "Do not let him in!" I had visions of causing a security breach and then so-long diplomacy career. I remember being very clear that he should not be let inside. I called Lawrence to tell him to come to my house. I had sent him gigantic SMS the day before to explain the address - more on addresses in Chennai another time - so I was pretty peeved that he had gone to the Consulate.

"Mr. Lawrence," I said, "Why haven't you come to my house?"
"Madam, I am downstairs only."
"Yes, downstairs at the Consulate. The guard told me. Please come to my house."
"Madam, I am downstairs only. I can't come."
"Ok. Whatever. Just come tomorrow."

At this point, I opened my door to find Lawrence and the security guard standing on the landing outside. Seriously, am I so bad at understanding?

This kind of thing happens all the time. Earlier in the evening, someone (who I think said they were) from the Consulate buzzed my house to try to return my cigarettes. A confusing few minutes followed, until I suggested that he try ringing my upstairs neighbor, who smokes.

Anywhoo, the couch is measured, the cigarettes are (presumably) returned to their rightful owner, and all is well in the world.