Thursday, December 3, 2009

Man Down

My day started off like most any; I snoozed three times, choose my least wrinkled shirt, and gulped down a cup of chai while I searched the paper for the most amusing headline. It was a chilly commute on the motorcycle but I enjoyed the brisk air; it was invigorating. Half way into my commute I see a dozen or so cow about to cross the street 100 meters in front of me. Normally I wouldn’t think anything of this sight except this time it was different. These cows were going hammers to hell with a small pack of dogs nipping at their heels. I had never seen these huge (usually lumbering) beasts move this fast, they bucked at an all out sprint towards the street. As if the cold air wasn’t enough to wake me up the stampede decided to hang a right when it got to the road, setting them and me on a collision course.

Alright, as I’m writing this I’m thinking to myself this doesn’t happen, no one is going to believe you, if this is you bear with me because it gets even worse.

Of course I begin to slow down and formulate an exit strategy for myself from the path the cows had chosen. They were covering a lot of ground very quickly and left me with no other choice but to yield off of the right hand side of the road. Apparently the lead cow choose the left hand side (his left my right, you get the idea. We both pulled out of this game of chicken at the same instant and both chose poorly. Now in a dirt field with nothing but 15 feet between us I see his wild eyes and flared nostrils, and I realized that he hadn’t slowed down a bit. Fearing the business end of his horns I hit the brakes hard and laid the bike down. Ok, I crashed. I rolled out of the accident leaving the bike between him and me. He threaded the needle between me and the tea stand (more on that in a minute) and he and his posse rounded the corner, out of sight and out of my life, I hope.

Before I got to my feet I was surrounded, some lady I had never seen before was yelling, “James are you alright, are you ok” (everyone knows who I am) and the owner of the tea stall started asking me the same question in Gujarati. I tried as best as I could to explain to them that I was fine and that luckily the feces in my pants had cushioned my fall.

The bike had flooded and I laughed it off during the minute or two it took to restart it. I understand that usually the humor in something like this isn’t discovered for hours or days and sadly sometimes never. I had no such problem, from the moment I landed in filth I was smiling uncontrollably and laughing wildly. Happy to be alive and ungored.

So, back to the tea stall. It is a dirt field where 50 or so men were standing around drinking tea. The scene of the accident was about 20 feet away from the edge of the crowd. They stared blankly at this hyena that had just nearly been killed as he waved goodbye to them. No time to make small talk, I thought, and besides the ambassadorial role Fulbright had in mind for me does not include this audience…or does it. Back on the bike I realized that these same men had witnessed my accident two weeks prior. The very same people saw me three months earlier kicking my legs wildly in the air as I drove to avoid a stray dog that had it out for me. Statistically speaking, it is the most dangerous 200ft stretch of road in the world, for me anyway. I began thinking do all of these guys show up every morning for the tea? We’ll find out tomorrow. If the crowd has doubled in size and starts yelling, “get ready, here he comes” I will have my answer. For all I know, my morning commute could be the highlight of other people’s day. The kind of stuff bookies make a living off of. Maybe I could get the proprietor of this tea stall to sponsor my morning commute.

By the time I got to school everyone knew, and I do mean everyone. The director of the school came to see me within two minutes of my arrival to see for himself. He asked me if I was ok and had this look on his face like kids do when they are waiting for a clown to do something funny. The rest of the day was uneventful. A science fair where kids were sticking bare wires into outlets and using hydrochloric acid without safety glasses, pretty standard stuff.

As I write this I find myself completely exhausted, I spent a week’s worth of energy in about three seconds. I must take rest. The picture you see was ripped from the internet, I would have taken one myself but I was too busy crashing.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Maybe there are things to do in Rajkot.

As I was preparing to leave the apartment yesterday morning there appeared a young girl at the door. Not the one I hat hit the day prior, but the daughter of my neighbor, she had a note explaining that the president of the Mumbai Planetary society and nationally renowned astrophysicist J.J. Rawal would be speaking this evening at the community center. My Neighbor a physics teacher at a local college guessed correctly that I would be very interested in attending. This is just the type of thing I would jump at the chance to attend at home. She wanted me to inform my students and I ensured her that I would and that I was personally looking forward to this evening. “You are planning on going?” “I hope to attend”, I said realizing how ambiguous my answers to questions have become. I informed all of my classes but it was received with little interest, still I held out hope that I would see at least one of them there in the evening.

I arrived sharply at 6:00 and spent the next ten minutes getting bounced around on a wild auditorium chase where each person escorted me to another who was slightly more proficient in English than the last. Even though I was 10 minutes late I still managed to be 20 minutes early. When something is supposed to start at 6:00 what it really means is that it won’t start before 6:00. When I arrived I saw that all of the students I had told had better things to do with their evening than to show up here. While we waited for the speaker to arrive my neighbor introduced me to the director of the community center. He escorted me into his office and we tried to solve some of the world’s problems.

The speaker arrived and we adjourned to the auditorium. The director began by introducing the speaker and listing his accomplishments as his support staff began to take pictures and set up. My excitement quickly turned to disappointment as the speaker began his talk in Gujarati. For two hours I endured this presentation, snapping out of my daydream every 10 minutes or so to recognizable words “blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah black hole blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah big bang.” It was awful. I was running my own mental marathon of trying to stay awake and appearing attentive. I felt like Oddie from Garfield when John is talking to him. I also realized how someone very interested in what the speaker is saying could be in the same room with somebody who is bored out of their gourd. I wondered if I ever sound like this.

So why did I stay you ask? I had placed myself near to the door as a contingency plan for this exact scenario. Realizing that this could happen I had a plan in place, I decided that if the presentation were in one of the hundreds of languages that I do not understand I would wait for that instant of darkness between slides and bolt for the door, Houdini!

So what happened…oh yeah, I forgot to mention that the director introduced me before the keynote speaker. Again in a language I do not speak, but with a hand extended in my direction he mentioned my name said something about America, physicist, teacher, and welcome. This was followed by a round of applause and I was unsure if I should clap along or stand up with a couple of peace signs, safer to just sit and blush. So what were they taking pictures of in the beginning of the presentation? Me, of course, should look great in the new Rajkot community center flyer. When the lights came on my neighbor made the great escape and has been avoiding me ever since. I wasn’t that far behind her. Good grief.

Monday, November 16, 2009


I’m back. I said I wouldn’t forget about you and I haven’t. I did however forget about this blog for a while. If I were to give a few excuses as to why I haven’t been writing they would sound something like this. 1, I have been unable to write because I have been traveling and internet access isn’t that readily available. 2, I’ve been in Rajkot and internet access is not that readily available. And 3, I have found that the less I try to do (like blog entries) the less that can go wrong.

I spent two wonderful weeks traveling with first my father and then my girlfriend Meghan. This pan-Indian trip allowed me to see, taste, and experience many of the different flavors of India that cannot be found in Rajkot. You can read all about our recent travels at Meghan’s blog, It was great to see Meghan’s and my Father’s reaction (positive and otherwise) to strange new things that I have grown familiar with was over time.

If you ask most teenagers, “so how do you like East Haven, Warren, or whatever town you live in” you will most likely get the same response, “It’s lame, there is absolutely nothing to do here.” The first experience I had with this mindset from a Rajkotian was on my two hour flight from Mumbai to Rajkot back in August. He offered his thoughts on Rajkot without my prodding after I told him that I would be spending the next five months here. “Why are you going to Rajkot, there is absolutely nothing to do there.” ‘What does he know’, I thought and I resolved to make my own decision about my new home. During my travels I ran into many people that would ask what I was doing in India. Without fail many of them would give me the oh-you-poor-thing look when I told them that I was living in Rajkot. I was during this trip that I fully came to terms with the idea that I had been suspecting and feared since that first flight. I had drawn the short straw when I ended up in Rajkot. I have been placed in an industrial city where the consumption of ‘nonveg’ is unacceptable, prohibition is alive and well, and anything worth seeing is impossibly far away. Ask any of the amazing, wonderful people I have met here in Rajkot and they will most likely confirm this.

So be it. Bloom where you’re planted, loved the one you’re with, make lemonade any of these ideas would be beneficial for me to subscribe to and I do most of the time. The idea that our lives are 10% situational and 90% how we react to them is one of my favorite and I constantly try to remind myself of this, it’s just that sometimes that 10% REALLY SUCKS. Take this week for example. On Sunday the trusty crux left me stranded. No big deal, I wasn’t in a hurry, didn’t need to be anywhere, I was safe and healthy, and besides I could use the exercise of pushing a motorcycle a kilometer or two. Next day the bike was returned to my door washed and waxed running like a high mileage top and all it cost me was $11. The 10/90 idea applies itself well here. Monday morning greets me with a flat tire, the second in three months. Again no big deal, I didn’t have a class 1st period so I enjoyed the extra time, exercised my bike pushing muscles once again, got to know my mechanic that much better, saw the parts of my commute that can only be noticed on foot, and again I was safe and healthy. The 10/90 principle is a cinch. Tuesday I find it impossible to watch a movie, but I relished in the small victory of being able to purchase crackers. Wednesday, I noticed how all of my clothes were becoming destroyed, but they are still really, really nice clothes relatively speaking and I feel lucky to have them. You can find the good in almost everything when you want to. Thursday is when the fit hit the shan. And I had difficulty finding the good in all the fit.

Thursday morning found me on a still shiny crux now moving under its own power and complete with two air filed tires; I was off to a good start. I had noticed the curie stains on my pants earlier that morning and was now thinking of various ways to remove them when it happened. It started out like most text book physics problems and ended with a little girl crying and me wanting to throw up. As I was about to pass her from behind, she turned sharply and began to cross the road without looking, without signaling, without a helmet. I hit the brakes hard, the horn blared and I tried as best I could to swerve around her. That was close I thought as my body and the front half of the motorcycle past her. That was too close I thought as I felt her wheel and my rear turn signal connect. By the time I pulled over and ran to her a small crowd had gathered to dust her off and help her pick up her things. She was crying and I was almost crying and the crowd held me at arm’s length as I tried to help, you’ve done enough already they might have been saying, who knows really. I felt horrible.

The girl gathered her things as I tried to gather my thoughts and the crowd basically told me to get lost. We did not exchange contact numbers, the police hadn’t been called and we both went on our ways. I tried to control the 90% I could, by thinking of all the ways it could have turned out worse. I was about two hours into my work day before I was able to explain to my mentor and good friend what had happened. “Is she alright?” “Did a mob develop?” “Did the police come?” “Did the crowd try to extort money from you?” “Yes, a small one, no, no” I had answered all of the questions correctly. “Then don’t worry about it, these types of things happen all the time in India.” This somehow made me feel better, not for her or the children of India but it eased my guilty conscience some. I realized that somewhere in Rajkot a little girl was probably busy blogging about how she is becoming tired of always getting hit by motorcycles on her way to school. Love it or leave it, I think I am starting to get the real insider’s experience of India.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Haven't forgotten about you guys....

I'm busy tearing up the countryside for the next week. Check back after that for a complete update on life in India.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Ahh, the open road...well kind of.

The last few weeks have been very busy, but I’ve managed to find a few minutes to write a quick story before my next hiatus. The Diwali Holiday and the Hindu New Year are fast approaching so our school gives the students and some staff two weeks off to celebrate the Diwali festival season. I leave in a few hours for Mumbai where I will travel with my Dad for a few days and later my girlfriend Meghan for the rest of the holiday. I’m so excited to spend time with the both of them and be able to experience other parts of India. My city is by no means small, but I have felt its walls closing in on me as of late. I came to India to teach and to experience life somewhere else but also to travel. I feel like I have seen everything in this city (which of course is not true) and I’m so anxious to see the Himalayas, the Taj, caves, heritage sights wildlife, beaches, people, eat different foods, hear different dialects and languages, view festivals, museums, and if I’m feeling really crazy maybe eat an egg or some chicken and wash it down with a beer. I’m a squirrel in a cage that can’t wait until my train arrives and I can really cut loose.

It’s a crime but I have been here two months and have only left town twice. The day I met my roommate he told me that “everything is possible, nothing is impossible all that matters is your interests, enthusiasm, and dedication to the cause.” I don’t think he was referring to traveling anywhere because as it turns out, it is actually impossible. The stars have to be perfectly aligned for you to go anywhere. Working Saturdays blows most travel considerations out of the water immediately. Two, there needs to be a road or railroad tracks between where you are and where you want to go. And three, that road must be somewhat passable. Navigating these roads makes you feel like you are taking part in a defensive driving course. On a major highway it is common to find all types of vehicles; two, three, four or more wheeled vehicles passing you, parked, overturned, beeping, coming AT YOU , and sometimes driving reasonably. Several times I have come across large car swallowing holes in the middle of the road probably a result of sinkholes and less likely the result of highway improvement construction but never less they are usually marked by placing a radiator sized rock on the road right in front of it, I guess the guy going the wrong way down the road is on his own. I read a sad article the other day about a three wheeled vehicle that overturned outside of Rajkot killing two of its occupants. The article said that the tricycle was carrying twelve people from gondola to Rajkot when the accident happened and that investigations were currently underway. I wondered what there was to investigate, I’m not a crash scene reconstruction expert but I knew the cause it was a dangerously overloaded thing on something that by definition is technically a road. It’s so frustrating to read things like this. Six people on one motorcycle is the most efficient use of a motorcycle or the most negligent use of a motorcycle (depending on what country you’re in) that I have seen so far, three adults, two toddlers, and a baby. I remember hearing myself that first day in Delhi, “shouldn’t that child be in a car seat?” I read or see things like this daily. I suppose most of this goes unnoticed here. You can call it blissful ignorance but with one death every 9 seconds traveling here can be hazardous to your health.

Number two on my list of things I don’t like about transportation in India is convenience. Two weekends ago I was given a Saturday off and I was determined to take advantage of this time and get the heck out of dodge (it’s a neighborhood in Rajkot). I got on a train at 2:00am that night that rocked me to sleep. 5 hours later I woke up 75% of the way to my final destination. From there, a rickshaw to the bus station where I would try to arrange the rest of my journey. I asked the guy in the information booth which bus would take me to Diu. He pointed over my shoulder and said “number two bus”. I looked where he was gesturing and stopped myself from saying, “you mean the one with wheels on it.” You can’t make this stuff up. Finally the bus with wheels loaded up. We immediately pulled into a garage where they put an additional wheel on top of the bus for good measure; I figure it was to keep the roof on. This bus was a Frankenstein, the bus cemeteries at each bus station let me know that these busses were continually recycled. Seats, wheels, bodies, engines, windows, transmissions, brakes (I hope) are all interchangeable, whatever it takes to keep them on the road. I figure parts of the bus I was riding on dated back to the bronze age. We stopped once to switch busses, something had broken on ours, and three short hours later I was there. All in all it took a little over twelve hours do go the equivalent of Connecticut to Boston. My buddy Eric told me yesterday that the pleasure is in the journey, but I’m still looking. Diu was amazing, I spent more time traveling than I actually spent there but the payoff was worth it.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Who says you can't wear white after labor day?

Labor Day weekend was spent in a manner befitting the name. I labored Saturday, and I labored again on Monday. As an American I was not that excited about the prospects of spending my weekend in this manner but it wasn’t all that bad. Saturday Sept, 5th was the birthday of Dr Radhakhrishnan the first vice president of India. He declared that his birthday should be recognized as teacher’s day across India. This is a day akin to teacher appreciation day in the States but taken seriously. Throughout the day students would approach me and say, “Namaste. Happy teacher’s day Mr. James (or sir). May we take your blessing?” Sure why not, I’ve got lots of them. So each student would then bend down and touch the mandals, stand up, and then anoint their heads with one of the blessings, pretty much just like any other day back in the states.

That evening my colleagues and I attended a Teacher’s day celebration where veteran teachers were given special recognition for completing 10 and 25 years of teaching. The event was only two hours long and filled with dance, song, and celebration; a perfect time to try out my new kurta. I think this Kurta says “look at me” and “what are you looking at” all at the same time. You may have trouble believing this but despite all my efforts to assimilate into society I still manage to stick out.

Upon arriving here I needed to register with the foreign registry office to inform them of my stay. If you go there today you will find that I have my very own manila folder. In a rather large city I am the first American not of Indian origin to register with their office. I’m kind of a big deal. For many people I expect I am the first westerner they have seen unless they stop what they are doing and physically turn around to stare at everyone as they walk by. Less gaulking and more walking, please. There was even a dog for a little while that I am sure recognized me as not from around these parts and wanted to make sure I knew I wasn’t welcome. For three consecutive mornings I would watch him let three or four locals by and then I would try and pass myself. It would bark, snap and chase me down the street, almost as fast as the crux could manage. I varied my route and my time schedule and was able to outsmart him over the course of a few days.

The majority of the times, the people I meet go out of their way to make me feel welcome. Everyday complete strangers approach me at any time with questions, when I’m shopping, when I’m eating, when I’m trying not to die on my motorcycle. Where are you from? What are you doing here? What is your good name? How do you like the food? How do you like India? The last seems to be the most popular question so far. Everyone is anxious to know how I am finding India.

Even uncomfortable situations have turned around for the best. Most recently, about 30 minutes ago, I was racially profiled by two traffic cops. Here I am driving along obeying all of traffic laws I think should exist and I am pulled over by a whistle and a bamboo pole. For an instant I thought about playing dumb and ignoring them as they were on foot and I was on the crux. Fight or flight? I pulled over. I immediately thought of the warning I had received about having to someday provide a police officer with a grease payment, and I desperately tried to remember how I had done this the last time in Mexico. He asked to see my license and I told him I didn’t have it with me. This is partially true; I did not take the time to explain to him how I never got one. I handed him a photocopy of my passport and he looked it over for a minute or two while I babbled about what I was doing here. He stuck out his hand pointing slightly upward, I took a chance and slipped my hand into his and shook it up and down a couple of times. He smiled showing me his golden front tooth, and told me I had a strong hand shake. I almost started cracking up. He handed back my “license” and I was out of there.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Sometimes you've just got to dance!

Put yourself in the shoes of a high school student and ask yourself this. What are you to do when you are given a 20 minute break in the middle of the day? If you said avoid social contact by plugging into your iPod or texting a remote person instead of talking to those people right next to you than you need to visit India. Navratri is right around the corner, it literally means nine nights. It’s a festival that last for I forget how many nights and you can be sure to hear more about it in a couple of weeks. This was recorded this morning when the entire school joined together in an unprompted celebration of the traditional Navratri Garba dance. It looks like fun. Now the students don’t dance every day at this time, but there is always a celebration of some kind or another. I mean the way they do things is a celebration, a cricket match, a game of tug-o-war, a musical performance, just kids or young adults having a blast, enjoying each other’s company, not being too embarrassed to dance, and living passionately in the moment. These students do have stresses in their lives as well, huge stresses, just like anywhere, but during my stay here I have not heard a student once use these stresses as an explanation for why their life sucks so much or why nobody ‘gets’ them. I remember being in high school and loving it, I miss the energy and the enthusiasm I use to have for life, I was invincible the world was mine and nobody could tell me that something was out of reach. So what has changed in the last ten years of my life to make me feel differently? Financial responsibility? Pressure to excel professionally? Keeping up with the Jonsers? Whatever it is I felt like in some way I got a little bit of me back today. Wherever you are it is never too late to change your outlook on life.