Friday, November 27, 2009

On language.

I don't consider myself a shy nor clammish person, but I feel totally at odds with people at my workplace, not least because they speak almost exclusively in Hindi. Sometimes I go an entire work day without opening my mouth, save for ordering food at the cafeteria. A colleague's birthday was last week, and I, the lone foreigner, was dragged to the office party. I shoved my hands in my pockets, not knowing how to express myself or when to interject amidst all the Hindi. The only English they spoke was to ask me whether I wanted a soft drink. I'm sure they meant no ill, but I was absolutely isolated.

My discomfort kick-started some musings about language that I've had in the back of my mind since I arrived.

One estimate says that in the next century, the world's current 6000 languages will have dwindled down to just 600. How do languages die? Indigenous peoples, historically living on the edges of modern society, will migrate towards urban centers, where they will mingle with speakers of dominant languages like English. Their children will speak the language to their parents, but not in the public realm. A generation or two later, the indigenous language will be forgotten. Trying to preserve all these tongues against the forces of globalization is like trying to keep ice from melting in the summer.

I've loved languages for as long as I can remember. To me, they are at once aesthetically pleasing, academically interesting, and steeped in the culture and psyche of its speakers. It is hard for me to think objectively about the death of a language, but there are two sides of the coin.

Obviously, language extinction is no cause for joy, but what are the legitimate benefits to having an internationally dominant tongue, for the price of a thousand others? Are our anxieties about culture dying along with language as dire as we instinctively feel?

The second question can be restated: Which came first, culture or language? If you assume that if a language dies then culture is lost with it, then you're assuming that culture depends on language, which implies that language came first. But what about the distinctive culture of blacks in America? And Aussies and New Zealanders and the British? It seems that the culture of these English-speaking groups can still be clearly distinguished from each other, despite the common language. Can the same be said for separate tribal groups who come to share a tongue?

We can think about language like we think about evolution; they diverge on a geographical basis. A lanugage that originates in a central location will mutate and develop in different ways if its original speakers are physically separated. And if the peoples are separated, they will adapt to their respective environments and social situations in different ways. Hence, culture. Now, suppose we once again artificially reinstate a uniform language among these divergent groups. Do the cultures bleed together once again just because their languages are now the same?

Hindi has no immediate threat of extinction, as my office experiences clearly show, but there is evidence of fading. Since English is the official language of India, it is quite easy to live here without any knowledge of Hindi. Everything is written in English. Except for the poorest residents, everyone speaks it, and fluency closely correlates with education level (or, I suppose, years in the tourism industry). Bollywood movies, television, and radio programs often use an amusing "Hindenglish" blend, and countless English words have become integrated into Hindi itself.

Many Indians are now unable to read or write Hindi, and it's not just the younger generation. The father of one of my Indian friends is totally illiterate, being a successful businessman who uses primarily English in his work, and I know he's not alone in that demographic. One colleague told me recently that having grown up speaking Bengali, her English is now better than her Hindi, despite having lived in India all her life.

The most apparent benefit of more English in India is, ironically, cultural exchange. I can talk to more people, read more books, more easily travel, watch more movies, and generally feel more aware of what this country is about. And let's not forget that the reason why I've been able to befriend the other foreign interns here is because they've all shed their home languages in favor of English, but precisely because of this, we can more effectively learn about our differences.

The thought of the world's languages merging into one uniform tongue should, and does, make us feel uncomfortable, but perhaps not because of the potential loss of culture, but because of aesthetic and intellectual reasons.

Give me thoughts, readers. What are some points that I'm overlooking?

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Not time to go home yet.

Long story short: I couldn’t get my visa extension made official, so I’m now going to Nepal to apply for a new one.

The full story is a little complicated.

Beginning of November, I went to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) to apply for a visa extension. That same day, the extension was approved, and I was directed to a separate office, the FRRO, to get my passport stamped. This was the beginning of a headache like I’ve never known.

First time at FRRO: I showed up with just the letter stating the approval of my extension. After waiting in a line for almost four hours, I was told that I needed to show a specific set of documents in order to make official my extension. No one had ever informed me of these requirements. Annoying, but at this point I brushed off the inconvenience.

One of these required docs was a “letter of undertaking”, which is a legal statement saying that someone will take responsibility for my actions while I’m in the country. The FRRO said they needed this letter from my company, Educomp. I talked to the secretary at Educomp, and she said that she couldn’t issue me this statement, and to ask AIESEC for it instead (the organization that manages my internship).

Second time at FRRO: I had gotten everything I needed, including the letter of undertaking from AIESEC. This time, I waited in line for three hours, just to have them tell me that they can’t accept the letter from AIESEC. It has to be from Educomp, because the conditions of my visa are related to my work with Educomp, not AIESEC.

I made a million phone calls and wrote a million emails. Finally Educomp told me that they would agree to write me a letter. The letter of undertaking has a specific format required by the FRRO. I showed the Educomp secretary this format, and she brushed it off saying that it would be fine if she did it her own way.

Several days later, she gave me the letter, and it wasn’t a letter of undertaking at all. Rather than say that Educomp would take responsibility for me, it only mentioned the fact that I’m an intern with them and that I would like to make official my visa extension.

I was highly skeptical that the FRRO would accept this, but considering the fluidity of most rules in India, I decided to fudge it and try again anyway.

Third time at FRRO: I begged and pleaded, visibly upset. They simply would not accept either the letter from Educomp or the undertaking from AIESEC. My hands and feet were tied. I even had the visa office call the secretary and my supervisor at Educomp to explain to them my situation in person. None of it worked. The secretary kept repeating that it was against company policy to give me this letter, which struck me as strange because I have never heard of any other interns’ companies having such a policy. When I told her, nearly in tears, that if I don’t receive this document, I’ll have to go home in two weeks, she said to me in a curt manner, “Go home then, that’s fine.”

This is the fault of this brick wall that is Indian bureaucracy. I can understand having rules and a system of doing things, especially something so important to a populous country as managing who comes and goes, but my experience was simply unreasonable. Here I have one Indian office (MHA) saying that I have permission to stay, but another office (FRRO) stubbornly refuses. What does it matter who writes my letter of undertaking? Whether AIESEC or Educomp decides to take responsibility for my actions in India, what’s the difference?

For the past three weeks, my fate in India has been determined by factors and bodies outside my control. I’m tired of pleading. I’m tired of making machines see reason.

For that, I’m headed to Nepal at the beginning of December. The current plan is to take a train to the Indian city of Gorakhpur, then a bus to the Nepal border, then another bus to Kathmandu. I’ll spend a week there where I’ll apply for a new Indian visa. According to every account that I’ve read, this is easy to do. Despite the unhappy events that are bringing me there, I’m excited for the chance to see Nepal. In the unlikely event that my visa application is denied, I’m entertaining the idea of either staying in Nepal or going to China, namely Tibet. Anything to fill up the time until March.

The point is, I’m trying everything in my power to not come home until I have to. I miss my family and I’m excited to see them when it’s time. But this is a time for me to explore, and I am determined not to let anything let this end prematurely.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Camels and deserts in Jaisalmer.

This one wins the Best Trip Award so far, by a long shot. Despite the fact that we spent more time on the train than at the destination, the romance of our desert adventure was more cinematic than any of us had anticipated.

We started off the journey by frantically leaping onto the closest train compartments we could get our hands on, as we realized that the train was pulling out of the station without us. After the first panicked half-hour when we got separated and had to confusedly locate our correct compartment, the rest of the 17-hour train ride was uneventful. We all slept the entire way, and in the morning found ourselves covered with a layer of sand that drifted in overnight from the open windows. Welcome to the desert.

Lunch at a local restaurant, where we ate paneer do pyaza (paneer cheese with onion), palak tam tam (spinach curry with whole tomatoes), and stuffed tomato chili (tomatoes stuffed with spiced potatoes).

After lunch, we met the very picturesque Mr. Desert (more about him later) at his office, where we arranged our overnight camel trek. Five minutes later, we hopped into a jeep and drove a ways out into the Rajasthani desert, away from the city and away from people.

Along the way, we made a pit stop to an abandoned town called Khuldara, which used to be occupied by an affluent community of traders from the Silk Road.

We drove a little more and finally arrived at the place where our camels and guides were waiting for us. I got acquainted with my camel, Babaloo, and soon, we headed off on our trek.

From this point on, we saw not a single other tourist, sign of civilization, nor even a piece of trash. The view on all sides for as far as I could see was all sand and shrubbery, and there were no sounds at all except the clop of camel hooves and the banter between our guides. We set out in late afternoon, and since our camels were taking us east-ward, we literally walked right into the sunset.

The place where we made camp was nestled right underneath a series of sand dunes. We wasted no time at all and had a shriekingly good time, running up and down the dunes, taking silly photos, jumping, wrestling, acting like children who’ve never before seen sand.

While we played, Mr. Desert and his helpers prepared dinner for us all. I watched him fry up onions and garlic, stew tomatoes, sprinkle in cumin and turmeric and garam masala. I saw him mix saffron into the basmati rice and simmer dhal over a low fire.

When dinner was almost ready, Mr. Desert called us over to the bonfire. He laid mats all around for us to sit on, and spent the next hour telling us his incredible life story.

He started life off as a poor truck driver, and in the early ‘90s decided to enter a Rajasthani pageant called the “Mr. Desert” competition in its opening year. He won, not just once, but for the next two consecutive years, earning him the personal title of Mr. Desert Emeritus. Wanting to make some use of his local fame, he started his camel trekking agency. However, he was soon discouraged by observing that he wasn’t getting any business, and the most successful safari operators were dishonest and aggressively hustled their customers. He decided that this was out of line with his principles, and was ready to close shop. Then one day, two foreigners came up to him, telling him that they liked his face, and would he mind if they take a few photos of him? He obliged, and two weeks later, he received a phone call congratulating him on landing a national advertisement with his photograph. Since then, he has been in magazine spreads and television commercials, including a fairly recent Coca-cola commercial with several Bollywood actors, and his face is instantly recognizable to many Indians.

Mr. Desert was a wonderful storyteller and a genuine character. Sitting in a circle listening to him against the fire was the highlight of the trip.

Then, dinner was served. We had dhal (lentils), mixed vegetable curry, and a spicy chilli curry, served with handmade chapati (whole-wheat flat bread toasted on a skillet) and rice. The simplicity of the food made it all the more delicious. We all had second and third helpings.

After dinner, our guides went to bed, and we seven friends had a hilarious rest of the night. We sat around the campfire doing massages and playing child’s games and telling stories to non-stop laughs. When we finally fell asleep, we were wrapped in the thickest blankets I’ve ever seen, under a sky full of stars, surrounded by a desert that was absolute in silence.

The sunrise awoke us. As soon as I stepped out from under the covers, the cold air hit my bones. Everything was covered in a layer of sand and morning dew.

Mr. Bengali, as we called him, brewed us fresh chai with ginger and cardamom, which we sipped as we watched him prepare our breakfast.

We had toast with jam, hard-boiled eggs, and bananas.

With the sun rising steadily in the sky, we packed up our camels, and left the camp.

The trek today gave me a sunburn on one side as well as a sore bum, and was full of camel farts. We went through several small desert villages, with grass huts for houses and colorful people with their small goat herds.

Our jeep met us with the camels, and we drove back to the city of Jaisalmer. The rest of the afternoon was spent lounging around in Mr. Desert’s cafĂ© (yes, the man is expanding his business operations!) where we ate an obscene amount of food – a local Rajasthani Indian dish, two orders of pakoras (deep-fried balls of dough stuffed with onion or potato), two banana chocolate lassis, and a banana chocolate pancake.

There wasn’t too much else to see in Jaisalmer, and so much the better, because it was time to go home.

But ah, yes, the weekend so far had gone too perfectly. In India, there is always something unexpected that happens, and this weekend was no excuse. Upon arriving at the station, I was suddenly jolted into the realization that I had mistakenly purchased everyone’s ticket home for the next day. Ten minutes before the due departure time, I sprinted to the ticket booth, begged and pleaded, and came back with Rs170 (<$4) one-way general-seating tickets. After having refunded the original tickets, I think we even came out ahead, cost-wise.

More pictures from the weekend here.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009


This is the city of the most annoying people on earth. Since I traveled with four other foreign girls, people landed on us like flies -- rickshaw drivers, salespeople, street peddlers, beggars, gaping men -- and it was impossible to brush them off. We couldn't stand still for one minute without them flocking around us, trying to sell us their wares or poke their noses into our business. Even a harsh word or a shove was interpreted as encouragement. In short, Jaipur made sure that I felt like a foreigner in a city that makes money off of foreigners.

But even with the aggravating people and the searing 90+ degree weather, there were redeeming factors of the weekend.


Jaipur is a (relatively) short 6-hour busride away from Delhi. We arrived early in the morning, and checked into the most wonderful guest house called Sunder Palace. The place was artfully decorated, with spotless rooms and a charming rooftop restaurant where we spent the morning lounging around -- all for Rs200 ($4) a night.

The city itself wasn't much to speak of, but the attractions were very interesting.

First, we visited the Jantar Mantar observatory. It was built in the 17th century by emperor Jai Singh, who was obsessed (obsessed may even be too light a word) with astrology and astronomy. He devoted his life to studying celestial movements, and for that purpose he built 18 gigantic structures. Walking into the park was like walking into some futuristic zone with toys made by giants. The scientific rigor apparent in the instruments was impressive; one of them is the world's largest sundial at 90ft high, which displays the time to 2 seconds accuracy. It is worth reading more about them here.

Giant sundial -- the panel that swoops down catches the shade from the sun and is demarcated by the hours/minutes/seconds of the day.

Two corresponding hemispheres representing the earth. There are lines on the marble representing zodiac signs. Look closely and you'll see a wire suspended over the top, with a copper disc in the middle. The shadow of the disc rises and falls during the day. Whichever zodiac line the shadow touches is the relevant sign for the present period.

Next, we walked to the City Palace, also constructed by Jai Singh, home of the royal family. Royal descendants still live on the premises.

Connected to the City Palace was the Hawa Mahal, the women's chamber, which was historically constructed so that women could observe the goings-on in the streets without being seen themselves.

Thoroughly starving after exploring main Jaipur on foot, we had a late lunch of stuffed tomato curry, makai roganjosh (baby corn curry), kashmiri pulao (fruit rice), paneer tikka (marinated and baked cheese), and of course, sweet lassi.

We spent the rest of the day wandering Jaipur's bazaars. The city is the textile and jewelry place in India, which was made apparent by the neverending rows of shops.

A pair of leather shoes and peacock-motif harem pants and a couple of scarves later, we went back to our hotel, had some pineapple and milkshakes, and called it a night.


Ambled on over next door to the neighboring guest house, Peacock Hotel, to check out their rooftop restaurant. Had a luxuriously slow, delicious brunch of baigan ka bharta (roasted, fried, spiced eggplant) and karai chicken (fall-off-the-bone and soaked in spices!), with nutella toast for dessert and an iced coffee that gives Starbucks a run for its money.

Today, we took an auto to Amber Fort, which lies a ways outside of the city proper. The ancient citadel was situated atop an imposing hillside, surrounded on all sides by 10 miles of a giant barrier reminiscent of the Great Wall. The view from outside was stunning. Inside, the architecture was an interesting blend of both Hindu and Muslim influences.

This is only half of the Amber Fort. The citadel was perhaps three times as expansive as this photo shows.

From the Amber Fort, we did some exploration of the 1000-year-old Old City of Jaipur, which included a visit to a government textile emporium. There, we saw a demonstration of traditional block-printing methods, as well as rug-weaving.

On the way out of the Old City, we stopped by a floating palace, the Jal Mahal. The only way there is by boat. Which begs the question of how on earth this was constructed.

The roadside was lined with elephants, and we considered riding one for fun, but decided that a highway wasn't the best backdrop for something as romantic as an elephant ride.

Our last stop of the day was the Monkey Temple, located in a small neighboring town called Galta. The place was absolutely overrun by playful monkeys. We decided that their antics were much more interesting than yet another temple, so we spent the whole time observing them.

Incredible views from the top of the cobbled climb to the temple.

For dinner, we switched things up and sampled some South Indian cuisine: mysore masala dosa (fried dough stuffed with spiced potatoes), tomato dosa, cheese uttapam (a sort of pancake topped with tomato, onion, and paneer cheese), and sauteed mushrooms. The dosas were fine, but I think I prefer North Indian food.


Today we did nothing. Well, nothing except lounge around the Peacock rooftop restaurant, eating and chatting. We had banana nutella crepes, followed by alu palak (spinach and tomato curry).

I was happy to go home. Even at our slow, unrushed pace, we had seen all of Jaipur we wanted to see.

More pictures here.