Sunday, June 29, 2008

Culture Shock and Chennai

For the first time in my life, I have experienced culture shock upon arriving in India.  It's honestly never happened before, and I'm not sure why it happened this time.  Maybe it's because I came back from an idyllic two month trip, rather than just Minnesota, but for whatever reason, I've been squeamish about eating street food, street smells (usually a blend of human excreta, pollution, and food), the insane traffic, and the complete lack of personal space. 

It didn't help that my family hasn't stopped making fun of me since I arrived; as you can see from the photo of me at Uluwatu, I have a pretty mighty tan, and in India, a tan is not a good thing.  As you might know, like a lot of Asian countries, Indians subscribe to an implicit color caste system, in which lighter is better.  In the matrimonial sections of the newspaper classifieds (yes, people advertise eligible bachelors and bachelorettes in the newspaper here), almost every prospective spouse is advertised as fair (most of them are lying).  Moreover, there is an entire industry of skin bleaching products, with creams such as "Fair and Lovely."

Thus, as I'm hardly fair skinned anymore after three weeks of surfing, every time a family member sees me for the first time, they squeal with laughter, exclaiming "He's turned black, he's turned black!"  The clinic staff shout a chorus of "Negro, Negro!" anytime I get near......Indians have never won points for being politically correct.

Thankfully, I wasn't in Hyderabad long.  As some of you might know, I'm starting a new job, and traveled to Chennai, in the Deep South, to receive my orientation two days after arriving back in India.  My new employers, the Poverty Action Lab/Center for Microfinance require me to complete a number of formalities with the Indian government in order to begin work, so here I am.  Although it's good to get away from my family, I have to confess that Chennai is absurdly boring.  Despite being India's 4th largest city, and hub of growth in manufacturing, IT, and biotechnology, it's also very conservative.  The city more or less shuts down after 10:30 (including bars and nightclubs, no joke).  The climate is pretty awful (daytime temperatures around 100 degrees), the auto drivers extortionate, and it's actually pretty tough for non-Tamil speakers to get around.  Hyderabad is somewhat unique for the South in that Urdu/Hindi is quite commonly spoken because of the large Muslim population.  In Chennai on the other hand, there are virtually no Hindi speakers, making it difficult for even Indians to get around the city (I think I'm starting to understand what a tourist in India might feel like). 

Chennai apart, very little has happened involving my job.  I've actually spent the last five days sitting around my hostel room waiting for my new bank account to open (because I need the bank account to apply for a PAN card, the Indian equivalent of a social security ID).  In the meantime, I've been reading up on the microfinance industry (expect a summary post in the coming days), and applying to medical school (expect another summary post).

Perhentian pictures, Ubud, Surfing and Going Home

In case anyone is still curious, here are some pictures from the Perhentians, those tropical islands I visited in Malaysia some weeks ago:

It’s been a while since my last post, so I’ll quickly summarize my remaining weeks in Bali.

Before I do so though, I should comment on the experience of being Indian in Bali; the island sees droves of tourists every year, and we weren’t expecting special treatment. However, Indonesians LOVE Bollywood movies, and as were three of maybe six Indian tourists on the entire island (an almost certainly the only Indian surfers), invariably shopkeepers, touts, hotel owners, waiters, anyone really, would see us and start inquiring:
“You’re not from Australia, are you?”
“No, we’re not”
“New Delhi?”
“Yes” (it was easier than trying to teach them how to pronounce “Hyderabad”)
“Hey, hey, Kuch Kuch Hota Hai, Kabhi Kushi Kabhi Gum, Kaal Ho Na Ho....
(all titles of Bollywood movies)
They would go on like this for a while, and soon start calling us by the names of certain actors. My cousin Sahan is about 6’2, and so would invariably be compared to Abishek Bachan. I was usually Shah Rukh Khan (not sure if that’s a compliment). Sadly, wherever Naj went, he was still Osama Bin Laden (to be fair though, he had a ridiculously large beard by this time).
I know a few Indian dance moves, and it would always elicit peals of laughter from crowds of spectators when I started dancing around, so by the second week in Bali, we more or less had a scripted performance to serve as an icebreaker. It was actually a lot of fun, and helped us meet a lot of people we would normally have never spoken to.

We attracted even more attention when Henny, a German exchange student joined our group; Henny is the stereotypical Aryan, with platinum blonde hair (it almost glowed in the the dark), blue eyes, and very fair skin. Naj pointed out that we looked like Goldilocks and the Three Bears when we were all together.

Following my last post, I made a three day trip to Ubud, the epicenter of art and culture in Bali. A village located 20 km inland from the ocean, Ubud became a center for the arts under the patronage of the Gianyar dynasty a few hundred years ago, and attracted artists and performer from across the island. Such was the inertia of this patronage, Ubud continued to be a cultural hotbed long after the end of royal support; its status was bolstered considerably by the influx of a large number of expatriate painters during the 20th century. Attracted by the lush, temperate climate (Ubud is vibrantly green), the spectacular vistas (traditional Balinese village life, rice paddy landscapes, volcano backdrops, you get the idea....), and the existing artistic traditions, these artists were to provoke a cultural renaissance, giving rise to the Ubud schoolof painting, a striking contemporary movement. I went to Ubud primarily to experience the fruits of Ubud’s artistic traditions and was not disappointed. The Neka Art museum, one of multiple collections in Ubud, has the largest concentration of top-quality works, and I was taken aback by the quality and accessibility of the art. Some of the work, particularly by a luminary import from Holland, Walter Spies (image at right), looked like something Diego Rivera might have painted had he lived in Bali. Moreover, many pieces were imbued with a sarcastic and raunchy sense of humor, subtly mocking politicians, sexual practices, tourism and other aspects of 20th century Balinese life.

In addition to sampling Ubud’s visual traditions, I enjoyed two traditional Balinese dance performances. I went to the performance with low expectations (because I’ve seen “traditional dances” staged specially for tourists in India, and was shocked by how poor they are compared traditional temple dances), but both performances were quite good. The first, accompanied by a ~20 man orchestra consisted of a medley of dances, all interpretations of a central Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. They are similar in style to South Indian dance, although they involve no facial expression, and tend to employ rather spectacular costumes (in one instance, a ten foot long mythical monster). The second dance was quite raucous. Probably the most recognizable Balinese dance, the Kecak, consists of a 50 man a capella chorus who also serve as extras and human set pieces as needed. By varying tone, rhythm and volume, the Kecak dancer/singers are able to create an almost orchestral sound by making only the sound “cak,” making for both an atmospheric and humorous backdrop the action of the main dancers.
When I wasn’t sampling Ubud’s cultural fares, I was sure to make trips out into the surrounding rice paddies. The Ubud countryside was characterized by mesmerizing vistas, in which staggered, geometrical panes of water (the flooded rice paddies), reflecting mountains and clouds animate the stillness.

Photos from the two dance performances, and a bike ride through the country side:

After returning from Ubud, our time more or less centered around surfing. By this point we had a stable group of friends, consisting of Jacopo, the Italian couchsurfer we had first met, Phillipe (a Swiss friend friend of Jacopo) and Henny, a German exchange student who was living in Bali. All of us were there to surf, and so a usual day would go something like this:

- Wake up, grab our boards, and surf until whatever break we were at got too crowded (by midday, some breaks were so crowded, you ran the risk of getting in fight with other surfers over a wave)
- Lounge on the beach till late afternoon, and depending on what the tide was going to be for the evening, head to surf spot that works best at low, medium or high tide.
- After surfing till sunset, the whole gang cleans up at their respective homes, and we’d all get on our motorcycles to meet up for dinner at one of the hundreds of restaurants in the Kuta-Legian-Seminyak area
- After dinner, go home and play guitar/watch a movie/talk about where we’re going to surf tomorrow

Below are some sunset pictures from Kuta beach at low tide:

The week before we left, a pretty epic swell hit the South Bali coastline, and waves were in the 8 - 10 feet range. That might not sound very big, but when you’re in the water, it’s pretty heavy (anything 10 feet and above begins to be potentially dangerous). The first day the swell hit, we didn’t even bother getting in the water. Even at the easiest surf spots, the waves were massive barrels that were closing out (i.e. breaking and then rapidly collapsing onto themselves, offering no ridable face). To underline the point, we saw a number of surfers limping out of the water with broken boards that day.
The surf did mellow out as the week wore on though, and the two days before we left made for some spectacular surfing. The day before we left, we visited on of Bali’s best and most visually spectacular spots, Uluwatu. Consisting of five different breaks, Uluwatu is rendered particularly dramatic by the jagged cliffs that overlook the breaks; moreover, to access any of the breaks, you have to descend a steep flight of stairs in to a cave which floods at high tide. Once in the cave, you hop on your board and paddle out over tropical reefs to gorgeous aquamarine waves (my photos are taken a low tide, so the cave is sort of dry)
I would have loved to surf Uluwatu, but it can be a dangerous break for beginners. The swell wasn’t particularly large, but the wave breaks over reef. If you wipe out (which I frequently do), there’s a good chance you’ll land on the reef, which has the texture of jagged concrete. I’d seen enough surfers in Kuta with entire sides bandaged to know it was a bad idea to go in. But as you can see from the photos below, plenty of surfers were catching great rides.

Leaving Bali was hard. I woke up early to surf the day we left, and enjoyed some of the best waves of the entire trip in a deserted line-up under a beautiful dawn sky....pretty, damn idyllic. My cousin Naj and I had been discussing how difficult it was going to be to go back to India (the overpopulation, the smell, the hassle, etc.). Sure enough, as soon as we get on our Thai Airways flight, we’ve been seated next to one of the only Indian men on the flight. When I try to get to my seat, instead of getting up into the aisle like most polite passengers, he merely slides his knees back a half inch, and gives me a stupid grin, as if he expects a gold star for effort. Naj and I actually burst out laughing. He then passed extremely foul gas the entire trip back, and snapped his fingers at air hostesses whenever he needed something. Bloody Indians......
When we landed in Hyderabad, it was no better. The customs officials regarded our surfboards with complete befuddlement, trying to decide if they could charge us import tax on “two dining tables with no legs.” The surfboards caused further problems when we got picked up as both were almost longer than the tiny 3-cylinder Maruti my family owns. Eventually, we reclined the seat and put Naj under both boards for the hour long ride home (you can see him at the end of the slide show above). The trip was largely uneventful, but it was nonetheless hard to go from island paradise to an overcrowded, polluted Indian city.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Indonesian Contexts

Indonesia is the world's fourth most populous country (after China, India and America), encompasses the planets largest Archipelago, and constitutes its largest Muslim country, which makes me wonder why I know so damn little about it. Maybe it's just me, but it sometimes seems like the world forgets about the Indonesians. Whatever that case, I'll try to shed light on what I've learned since arriving.

Indonesia officially came into being as a modern nation state in 1949. Previously a Dutch colony, it declared its independence in 1945, three days after the Japanese surrender. The Dutch retook their colony by force, but international pressure, particularly from the US, which questioned the use of Marshall Plan investment for violent warfare. Shortly thereafter, the Republic of Indonesia came into being. Its initial years were disastrous, with widespread corruption, inflation and mismanagement. The situation worsened under the rule of Sukarno, who established his position with increasingly authoritarian policies. A miliary coup in 1965, though unsuccessful, resulted in a weakened Sukarno, who fell prey to the head of the military, General Suharto. Suharto was to rule for thirty years, from 1968 to 1998, and his reign was a mixed bag. The benefits of his policies of courting foreign investment, curbing inflation and re-entering the world economy (significantly bolstered by the countries abundance of natural resources), were curbed by his suppression of political opposition. The situation remained stable, aided by an unspoken social contract in which Indonesians saw their prosperity rise as long as they did not oppose Suharto's rule. However, the scales tipped in the Asian financial crisis of the late nineties, and Suharto was forced to resign. Shortly thereafter, Suharto's party lost badly in general elections. Since then, Indonesia has witnessed a gradual return to democracy.

Presently, Indonesia finds itself slowly crawling the ladder of economic development, while tackling endemic problems of corruption, terrorism and poverty. Although 16% of the country lives below the poverty line, I'd have to say that what I've seen thus far is better of than India. The roads are better, nobody looks like they're starving, and it's less polluted.

However, like India, Indonesia finds itself challenged to forge a national identity where there was none. The archipelago is vast and culurally very diverse, prompting the use of "Unity in Diversity" as a national motto. However, that has entailed an identity that is often dominated by the largest ethnic group, the Muslim Javans. Understandly, this causes tensions in places like Bali (which is Hindu majority). As such, the little news one often receives of Indonesia is reports of separatist violence and ethnic tensions.

I can't comment too much more on the political situation, but I can add a little based on personal impressions of Bali:

Balinese Hinduism: not Hinduism in its Indian sense, but more a blend of Indian Hinduism, Buddhism, and local animist beliefs. Balinese devotion is very tangible, as even the most touristed locales see the setting out of small devotional offerings on practically every door step every morning (they consist of cute little banana leaf boxes containing food and flowers). The temples are also ubiquitous, and very beautiful. Aesthetically, they balance the over-exuberance of Indian temples with the over-minimalist east Asian layouts, consisting of courtyards showered with stone statutes and covered with lush green moss and tropical vegetation. Finally, to add to the mix, almost all temples feature regular performances of dance and drama.

Indonesian Food: While it lacks the sophistication and exuberance of food found elsewhere in Asia, it's respectable, and VERY cheap (you can get a huge plate of food for less that a dollar). Mostly fried rices, and noodles, but some good soups as well.

Big Waves = Lazy Blogger

I've been pretty lazy about posting recently, but I think it's understandable. I arrived in Bali, Indonesia about two weeks ago, with one goal in mind: to learn how to surf.

Bali was "discovered" as a holiday destination in the 1930's and has been attracting droves of visitors ever since. The island is the crown jewel of Indonesia's tourist industry, with most of the development concentrated in the frenetic Kuta area. It draws a very diverse crowd, Australian/Japanese surfers, shoestring backpackers, ethnotourist, and upmarket luxury travelers.

What is surprising is that Balinese culture of the island is surprisingly intact. The local population is still very much traditional, and somehow manages to intake mass tourism while preserving the bulk of its traditions (see "Indonesian Contexts" for more on such traditions).

But back to surfing: I tried surfing for the first time about 9 months ago, in California, and was instantly hooked. I'm not one for adrenaline sports, but surfing blends a physical rush with a certain organic beauty; sweeping across the ocean on waves breaking against tropical beaches is often nothing short of sublime.

A little history lesson: The sport originated in Polynesia, notably Hawaii, having been firmly established as part of island culture there when Captain Cook arrived in 1778. Upon witnessing a surfer, the captain stated "I could not help concluding this man felt the most supreme pleasure while he was driven on so smoothly by the sea." He got it right.

However, the sport truly took off in the 20th century with the invention of lighter fiberglass boards, and mass media (surfing movies such as "Gidget" telegraphing the experience across America and the world). By the 1950's, millions had taken up the sport, and a professional surfing circuit was coalescing. Fast forward to the present, and surfing has a worldwide following marketed to by a multibillion dollar global industry.

I won't bore you with a discussion on wave mechanics, so in short, a wave "breaks" or rise up out of the seat to form a ridable face when it passes over certain seafloor topologies. As such, waves can break over beaces, reefs, and so on. A surfer will paddle out to the "line-up" (usually identified by triangulating your position with two landmarks), and watch for approaching waves. Waves tend to come in sets of anywhere from ~5 to 20 waves, so often you can find yourself sitting on your board for a while. However, when you spot a wave, you start paddling towards shore, in an effort to match its speed and thus catch it. As soon as it starts to carry the surfboard, you quickly spring to your feet, executing the "pop-up," probably one of the toughest things for a beginner to learn. Once on the wave, you can ride it directly into shore, but its more fun to ride diagonally across the face of the wave. If you're good, you can execute various manuveurs, slashing up and down the wave, and even accelerating vertically over it. The most exciting, coveted and iconic of advanced surfing techniques is riding a "tube" or getting "barrelled." Only possible at a specific type of wave, tube riding entails surfing inside a wave that is breaking onto itself, thus forming a hollowed out tube of water. Since such waves often form in shallow water, and exert considerable hydraulics, they can be very dangerous (a notable example being the Banzi pipeline, where surfers have been killed).

Surfing is a strenuous sport, requiring considerable physical strength. You have to paddle constantly, to get out to the line-up, or to maintain position out in the ocean (there can be a lot of currents, rip tides and wind) and the pop-up entails rapidly hoisting your own bodyweight. Additionally it can be dangerous depending on conditions and experience.

Mostly though, it's just really fun. Couchsurfing once again proved to be the greatest travel tool, as I linked up with a local expat surfer upon arrival, Jacopo Simonetta, a laid-back Italian who moved to Bali 6 years ago to surf full-time. Jacopo was great, stereotypical italian meets surfer dude, who served as our surf mentor. I was to learn that Jacopo liked to push his students, when he took us to our first surf break, Batu Balan. As soon as I got out there, I knew it was going to be a rough ride. I'm in decent shape, but after paddling 200 meters out to the lineup, I was exhausted as the first set came in. I was also about to learn what it was to be "caught inside." When sets of waves break, it's a good idea to be outside where the waves are breaking (generally, this means left of right of the breaking face). It's a bad idea to be directly in the path of the wave, which is exactly where I was that first day out in the water. I won't soon forget watching a 6 foot wave jack up in front of me, as I experienced a sinking feeling that would soon become tangible. A second later, and I've been ripped off my board, as I swirl around underwater, feeling like I'm in a washing machine. Erupting to the surface, gasping for air, I look over just in time to see the next wave of the set bearing down on me. Repeat steps one and two a few times, and by the end of my first day, I was pretty beat. I tried catching a few waves, but it was just a another iteration of the same two step process, except that instead of being immediately dumped on by the waves, I was thrown face-first into the water (while trying to pop-up), and then dumped on by the waves.

A few days later, I still hadn't popped up on a wave at Batu Balan, but Jacopo decided to mess with us anyways by taking us to Dreamland, a pleasantly named surf break that is completely misleading. Dreamland is no doubt a gorgeous spot, where aquamarine waves break a few hundred meters out from soaring limestone cliffs. But the day we went out, it was a big swell, generating 6-10 foot waves. That might not sound very big, but when you're an inexperience surfer, it will scare the sh-t out of you. My cousin Naj and I paddled out, but I decided to wait outside the line-up while I watched Naj try a wave. Things looked optimistic, as Naj started to pop-up on a giant wave, and I cheered him on, but he hadn't generated enough speed to actually catch the fast moving waves. He also wasn't fast enough to evade the next wave of the set, and this time, he was caught "inside." I saw his little brown head disappear behind a wall of blue, and a second later, his board fluttered up into the air, having been vertically ejected by the force of the wave. I could only grimace, and I carefully paddled back to shore myself. There was no way in hell I was going to offer myself as a sacrifical lamb before the surf.

The next few days, we retreated to smaller breaks with 1-3 foot waves, and finally learned to pop-up. For the past week or so, I've been sticking to it, slowly grasping how to contend, and harness the turbulence of a breaking wave. It's been incredibly frustrating at times; I can't count how many times I've paddled into the line-up next to a pretty surfer girl, stroked for a wave, hoping to pop-up and impress previously identified girl, only to make face-first contact with the water shortly after popping up. And to add insult to injury, the same girl has then often cruised effortlessly by on the next wave as I get caught inside. To add injury to injury, one of the most dangerous components of surfing is your board itself. When you wipe-out, there's no time to see where you're board's going, and sometimes it's heading right at you. In the past three days, my board has given me a bloody nose and has left a large gash in my forehead (a wave caught my board from behind me, shot it into the air, and it landed fin-first on my head).

But as trite as it sounds, the challenge is a big part of what makes it such an addicting sport. It's not a team sport, and outside of professional surfing, it's not about competition. It's a very individual pursuit, one that almost underlines the existential loneliness of the human experience. You're out there, all alone, on an infinite canvas of water, and although a mentor can give you advice on shore, learning how to pop-up, to drop-in, to cut-back, all of that comes much more with experience in the water. And you face a lot of danger alone, be it perceived, or real. It's amazing how little a human voice carries on open water, and when you get caught inside, pulled out by a rip tide, or nailed by your own board, it's largely up to you to get yourself out safe.

The other big part of the sport is riding the waves of course. Racing at 10, 20 or 30 miles an hour across the ocean, gliding up and down a wave is pretty indescribable. One cannot help but conclude that such a man feels "the most supreme pleasure while he was driven on so smoothly by the sea."