Feasts and Digestion

Once again, a holiday snuck up on me here in Imphal. As was the case with Holi, I did not know we had a day off of work on Thursday for New Year’s Day.

I know, I know, it’s April, not January. And I know, it was not even April 1 on Thursday (if I was trying to make the argument for a confusion of months). But, nonetheless, here in Manipur the Meetei (Mei tei, not to be confused with Mai Tai – it is a dry state, after all) people celebrated New Years on Thursday.

I did not know there was a day off of work until Wednesday morning, when everyone was talking about what their plans for the next day would be. The kids who live upstairs would be traveling to “the village” for a wedding, the Accountant, Ronita, would be having a feast and then she “had some programs” (her words, not mine), and the Director of Finance, Inaocha, told me he would be walking up Cheiraoching. These things could very well seem all unrelated, but to the now practiced ear, I knew there must be something to all of these plans. And, knowing I had to be nosy to get information (again, well-practiced, not rude) I started asking questions.

It turns out that Thursday would be a holiday because of Meetei New Year. Everything, including our office, would be closed. The Meetei people celebrate New Years Day by making a big feast, offering fish and fresh vegetables to their ancestors (Ronita’s “program”), and then walking up the nearest hill (Inaocha’s plans). I asked why, thinking it seemed like a very silly idea to do physical activity immediately after eating. After all, my mom always told me to stay put for a minute after eating let my food digest. Turns out, the Meetei people walk up the hill precisely for that purpose – to let their food digest. I asked if there was any other reason; maybe it was symbolic to walk to the top of a hill as opposed to around on the flatland. The answer I got was pretty unsatisfactory so I decided to pursue the answer over the course of the next 24 hours.

Thursday morning came, and I awoke at 6 with the crowing of the rooster. I was just getting into my yoga (that’s right, I do yoga in India and I’m a cliché) when one of the sons from upstairs barged in, telling me it was time to go. After a lot of confusion, the details to which I will spare you, I ended up hopping in the car at 6:55 to head to Motbung for a family wedding send off.

As is tradition, the send off is hosted by the bride’s family, and the whole village is invited, in addition to whatever extended family is able to show up. There are no formal invitations, no “save the date” cards, just word of mouth. We went early because “our family” is the bride’s family, and therefore we would have to help with the preparations.

It is customary for a pig to be killed for the send off feast. The pig is cut in half; half is served at the send off and half is presented to the groom’s family. The tenderloins, cut from the back, are given to the pastor as a church offering.

In Thursday’s case, a half of a pig was not going to be enough food.

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In light of this, the men of the bride’s side of the family slaughtered a cow to go along with the pig.

I’m always interested in the kitchen at events like these. Even at home, when my parents host a dinner or party, I spend much of the time helping in the kitchen. I like the hustle and bustle, the sense of purpose before sitting down to grub. Naturally, I migrated to where the cooking was taking place.

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Out of ten pots of this size, on this type of “stove”, 7 were boiling rice. Three were committed to meat.

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It this doesn’t spur your appetite, I don’t know what would.

The plan, they told me, was to boil the meat to cook it, and then chop it up and cook it with the masalas.

While I was chatting with the chefs, a meal was served. Everyone got rice and dal. It is unbelievable the amount of rice that was cooked and consumed. There was a trash can full of rice, 7 more pots on the way, and a trash can that had been half emptied throughout the dal service. 

The day carried on, the service lasted almost 5 hours, and after it was completed, it was time to eat the curries that had been cooking all day.

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Finally, it was time to leave Motbung. I rushed home, hoping I hadn’t missed the great climb.

Not to worry, it wasn’t too late. The sun was starting to set as I rushed with Inaocha and his wife and daughter to the starting point for our walk up the hill.

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I have not seen this many people in one place in Manipur. It even surpassed Holi and Thabal Chongba. Honestly, a sea of people were walking on this path, slowly but steadily making their way up the mountain.

The side of the road was littered with vendors selling offerings for the makeshift temple at the top of the hill as well as ice cream and drinks for the sweating walkers.

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There were also quite a few carnival games. Manipuris had taken the carnival games that we know and love and had created versions that they could actually play, given the limited resources.

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Who doesn’t want to play “ring around the…. Money stacks” and “horse…tire”? 

I will make a very long story short by saying that we made it to the top, sweaty and exhausted, and immediately turned back. Yes, there was a feeling of victory and accomplishment associated with our triumph, but it was definitely overtaken by extreme heat. 

But don’t worry, before descending, I managed to snap a photo with this famous Manipuri. I’d also like to highlight the fact that five other people (at least) also managed to snap this photo … of me. I guess my picture will be littering strangers’ mantlepieces in the new year.

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Holi: Because one day, one name, and one way to celebrate aren’t enough

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(this blog was originally posted to Kiva: http://fellowsblog.kiva.org/fellowsblog/2013/04/04/holi-because-one-day-one-name-and-one-way-to-celebrate-arent-enough) 

This past weekend I celebrated Holi for the first time. Holi is known the world around as the Festival of Color for the rainbow of powders that can be seen on every person who sets foot outside their homes during the holiday.

Leading up to Holi, I’ll admit I was pretty excited. It would be nice to see Imphal go a little crazy. I would ask my colleagues at WSDS what I should expect to see, imagining pure mayhem in a typically composed city (for India, anyway). Where could I go to get doused in color? Where should I avoid going to prevent getting doused in color (I wanted to be fully prepared for either extreme)? Does everyone celebrate? What is their favorite part?

The responses to these questions actually just led to more questions. It seems Holi is a mix of two holidays here in Manipur. This combination of two holidays is celebrated for 5 full days instead of the customary 2 or 3 in other parts of India. There are also several elements to the holiday beyond the colors that are more popular to Manipuri people. This is a list of highlights for this region, as I saw it.

 

1.    The burning of the hut

Holi began on Wednesday night with a Hindu tradition: burning a small straw hut. Each locality in Imphal has a designated Brahmin who performs all the rituals and services for that locality. Sometimes there is a temple for him to use, sometimes there isn’t. In the case of Holi, the Brahmin needs a space where a hut can be built and burned safely. For our locality, that space happened to be in the yard of the local government school, which seems as safe a place as any.

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This hut, I’m told, is large for Imphal. You can imagine, I’m sure, that in a crowded city it’s rare to find enough space to build a hut of this size, let alone burn it down without anything else catching fire.

I am told that out in the villages, the huts can reach the size of small houses, and in very crowded localities in Imphal, they can be as small as a shoebox. In this ritual, size doesn’t matter; it’s all about the sacrificial offerings.

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These huts are constructed by the children and teenagers of the locality during the day on Wednesday. When the sun begins to go down, the Brahmin of the locality will come to the hut with a group of men from his temple. A pretty sizeable crowd gathers as he prepares the entrance to the hut with an idol of Holika, the demoness around which the story of Holi is told. The onlookers put various offerings in front of the hut as well, including fruits and flowers, as the Brahmin begins chanting the prayer.

After some time, a little patience, and a lot of incense, the offerings and idol are removed and the hut is lit on fire.

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Once the hut has burned to the ground, Holi actually begins. Kids run off to throw colors on each other, and start going house to house asking for money to prepare the Holi feasts.

My first question following this ritual was obviously “… but why?” and I assume you are wondering the same. 

The history of Holi is long; there are anthropological findings to support the hut burning and color throwing for thousands of years in the countries of India and Nepal, among others. It all stems from a story about a demon, a demoness, and Lord Vishnu.

As the story goes, there was a demon named Hiranyakshipu who aspired to be the most powerful king, powerful enough to seek vengeance on Vishnu, who had killed his brother. This demon had acquired immortality, essentially, from Brahma, so he was immune to fire, as was his sister, Holika. Hiranyakshipu had a son, Prahalad, who, to the demon’s horror, worshipped Vishnu despite his father’s hatred of him. Hiranyakshipu was convinced that he must kill his own son; this was the only way to stop him from worshipping a god he hated so much. The demon tried to kill his son many times; he tried poison (which turned to syrup in his son’s mouth), a stampede of elephants (his son remained unscathed), and drowning (his son was able to breathe in the water), but nothing killed him. 

Finally, Hiranyakshipu decided that he must burn his son to death. Knowing that he and his sister were both immune to fire, the demon ordered his sister to sit with his son, Prahalad, on her lap, and he would light them on fire. In theory, she would survive and his son would die in the flames.

However, the opposite happened. Vishnu saved the boy’s life, and instead the demon mother was killed. It is from her name, Holika, that the holiday’s name, Holi, is derived. The hut is burned every year to start the festival as a way to remind Hindus of the greatness of Vishnu, that he saved the boy who worshipped him, despite his own father’s disapproval.

 

2.    The first full day of Holi

After my “uplifting” Wednesday night experience with the hut burning, Thursday morning came around and it was time to go to the Govinda Temple.

As it was the first full day of Holi, revelers were out and about, blasting music out of autorickshaws on their way to various neighborhood parties. I walked with one of my colleagues to the Govinda Temple, the second largest temple in Imphal. It is here that Holi is “kicked off” because, I am told, it is a Krishna temple, and Krishna is basically the God of all Gods.

Over the course of four hours at the temple, I watched group after group of worshippers from different localities within and surrounding Imphal come to the temple. They all waited their turn to enter the main center; once inside, they performed a song and dance that is specifically for Holi. As the song comes to a head, there are designated men with buckets of pink dye that wreak havoc on the revelers, spraying the pink everywhere and on anyone in the vicinity.

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I could have been wise. I could have caught on to this and avoided the scene altogether. When a group of girls covered in paint came up to me, asking for a photo, I could have said no. 

Instead, I enthusiastically obliged, and, of course, just as the photographer was clicking our photo, one of the designated men with a bucket and spray tube of pink came up and gave me a hefty spray of pink.

It wouldn’t have been Holi without a little color now, would it?

They say Holi, beyond the burning of the demoness Holika, is a celebration of spring. The colors originally came from all of the natural flowers and plants that finally bloomed in the springtime, and Hindus everywhere thanked Krishna for the change of seasons. This is the reason for the vibrant colors and honestly a nice reminder to stop and pay attention to how lovely the landscape looks after a dry and dusty winter.

 

3.    Yaosang 

Yaosang is technically just the Manipuri word for Holi, but the way Manipur celebrates Holi on the whole makes it seem like an entirely different holiday. Until about ten years ago, Imphal seemed like any other Indian city during Holi: colors were thrown, people of all ages were running amok, and businesses were shut down. Today, businesses still close – and for a full five days – but the environment is very tame.

The reason for this is that the government started an initiative, promoting organized athletic activities within localities during the five days of Holi. So now, in Imphal, instead of seeing moms, dads, kids, and grandparents alike throwing colors in the streets, you have to go searching for the action.

This is actually the easy part; from every nook and cranny of the crowded streets you can hear loudspeakers playing music or the announcer’s voice, so following the speakers leads you to an athletic event. During the day, the kids play various sports, and in the evening the adults have their turn.

These games are just within the locality; there’s no inter-locality competition, but it’s fun to see everyone out, spectating, nonetheless. To my delight, it turns out the most popular game for the women is a version of musical chairs, the most competitive of sports.

It is on the outskirts of these games that you see kids sneakily throwing colored powdered on one another; they keep this activity on the down-low since the government has technically asked that no one throw colors anymore.

On top of this, actually, the government has issued an initiative, after what I’ve been led to believe were days of meetings, stating that in the future, Yaosang will only be celebrated for three days instead of five. They say people are tired of the disturbances and tired of being asked for money by the children and teenagers of the locality for both the Holi feasts and Thabal Chongba, the ritual dancing in each locality.

 

4.    Thabal Chongba

Thabal Chongba had been described to me (in detail) at least five times before Yaosang began. Whenever I met someone new, if they asked me how long I’d be here in Imphal, upon learning that I’d be here until May they would proceed to explain Yaosang and Thabal Chongba to me.

I’m not ashamed to admit, then, that I made sure to ask my colleagues and host family every day leading up to and during Yaosang when our locality’s Thabal Chongba would take place. I had gotten so excited from all these stories that I definitely did not want to miss it.

I ended up attending two, so I will happily explain a “typical” Thabal Chongba.

Throughout the day for three days, teenage girls from our locality stood in the road, blocking it down to one lane with wooden benches. They stopped traffic and demanded money from everyone who tried to pass. I actually witnessed a few fights from my window, the girls yelling at drivers who didn’t hand over enough cash.

On the morning of the last day of Holi, long, thick, bamboo poles were piled outside our front door, and construction had begun. By the end of the day, a large, oval bamboo pole skeleton had been built and lights hung on it.

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By 7 that evening, a sound system was set up and someone was playing the latest Justin Beiber and One Direction jams from a phone. It’s safe to say anticipation and excitement were mounting. Who doesn’t love deafeningly loud boy band music?

From 8 pm until midnight, this is basically what happened.

Some of the girls from the locality, dressed to the nines in their traditional Manipuri wrap skirts and shawls, joined hands and began a sort of line-dancing train inside the oval bamboo structure. At first it was only a handful, jumping to the rhythmic sound of the live band that had shown up to play.

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Over time, more and more girls joined in. In the middle of this circle stood some teenage boys and 20-something men. These are the local boys and men from this locality. They are not allowed to dance with the girls, but rather serve as a type of guard. After the girls have had a few turns around the oval, there is an announcement made that now the dance floor is open. Boys and young men clamor into the ring, inserting themselves in between girls and joining in the dancing train. Everyone knows the steps, which is hugely impressive given what our high school dance floors in the U.S. typically look like.

This tradition was actually started as a sort of matchmaking dance. The girls from each locality would host their own Thabal Chongba, and boys from that locality were not allowed to join in. Instead, only boys from other localities would be allowed to dance with the girls, to promote mingling and meeting between areas. This continues to today, but “body guards” are needed in case the boys from outside localities get too rowdy (this doesn’t seem to happen much, from what I can tell, but you do see the occasional drunk who is quickly kicked out of the circle for sloppy dance moves).

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To sum it up, I will say that all the hype was totally warranted. For a city that is typically so conservative, the government prohibiting the use of color during Holi and shortening the festival by two days, Thabal Chongba offers a night of rowdy revelry. Boys and girls hold hands, kids are running around after dark, and deafeningly loud music is played past midnight. It is pure fun steeped in tradition, a balance Manipur is particularly good at achieving.

 

News from Imphal

This is a sampling of headlines from the local newspaper that I find particularly interesting.

In terms of US News, if I didn’t read Google News I’d think these were the most important pieces of news from America:

“Vegas Murder Suspect Brags Online about Fast Life”

“US Dog Shoots his Owner”

“Arrest of Vegas Fugitive in LA Surprises Neighbor”

“New Pope had One Lung Removed During Childhood”

“Naked woman’s picture flashes up during church”

Somehow it seems that Vegas is a fascinating topic. It also seems that the newsworthy item about the Pope isn’t that… well… there’s a new pope, but that it’s a lungless new pope.

People seem pretty invested in celebrities here as well. I know more about Justin Beiber and Amanda Seyfried than I would like to. Here are the news tidbits Imphalians apparently like to read about their favorite celebs:

“Julianne Hough ripped her pants break dancing”

“Hilton spends birthday in hospital” (to give context here, she was not hospitalized, she was just visiting someone who was.
“‘I’m attracted to creeps’ – Amanda Seyfried”

“After Winning Oscar, Jenniver Lawrence wants to relax”

“Lohan to star in Anger Management” – this article says that Charlie Sheen “believes she is smart and is confident that she will overcome her troubles.”

“Janet Jackson got married last year” — this is clearly breaking news

“Fan throws shoe at Styles”

“I thought about taking herion yesterday — Russell Brand”

“Justin Beiber: My lungs are hurting”

And on a separate and more serious note, these are some headlines and stories that I am actually thrilled and impressed to read:

“Sit in at Moreh – Women folks of Moreh have today staged a sit-in protest at Moreh Ima Keithel against smugglings of drugs into the State.”
“Women March CMS Office” (In response to drug smuggler punishments)

“Young Housewife found hung to death”

“Women Folk Secure Release of Arrested Man”

“Rape Victim Attempts Suicide”

And finally, yesterday I read a story in which women vendors stopped the irrational beating of two adolescent boys by police security forces in one of the villages in Manipur. (http://www.hueiyenlanpao.com/headlines/item/8356-cdos-beat-up-youths-for-refusing-to-buy-khaini-for-them)

“It’s Complicated” with Paan

For those of you who have been to India (or, actually, any hill area in Southeast Asia) before, you may be familiar with the sight of stained teeth. I remember that in the hill tribes of Vietnam, it was most common among older women. We would try to take photos with them, and they’d cover their mouths, knowing their teeth were stained brown.

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(photo courtesy of http://poorfish.me/flickr/detail.asp?id=3441300463)

They also seemed to be chewing something and spitting it out, which reminded me of tobacco-chewing men.

Before now, the only explanation I’ve received has been “it’s betelnut.” What does that mean!? What is betelnut? What do you mean “it’s betelnut”? Are they chewing it? Are they eating it? Is it plain? Have they boiled it? Is it caffeinated? If so, where can I get some?

Over the course of a month in Imphal, I have seen countless people with bulges in their mouths, chewing and spitting brown liquid. My Kiva Coordinator particularly enjoys this habit, seeming to always have whatever it is in his mouth.

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One day, he and the HR manager approached me. They were on their way out to the Paan Dukan and wanted to know if I wanted Paan.

“Excuse me, what?”

“Paan.”

… as though I know what that is.

“It is what I have been chewing. Betelnut.”

Why would I want to put something that looks like that in my mouth? Why would I want to chew something that will clearly stain my teeth?

…. Because it smells like heaven. Paan is essentially a lovely little leaf-wrapped packet of betelnut, dried cherry, fresh coconut, toasted coconut and ground limestone. If you’re really hard core, Paan is just a leaf filled with betelnut, tobacco, and limestone. Regardless, the smell is pretty amazing.

I decided to resist. First of all, I’m fairly confident chewing and consuming limestone is bad for your teeth. Second of all, I’m fairly confident if everyone else’s teeth are stained from Paan mine will be too. Third of all, I am very nervous of the fact that a man who looks like this, sitting on the side of the road, is touching something with his bare hands that I will end up putting in my mouth.

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Then, my 26th birthday rolled around. Feeling stale, washed up, and stuck in my ways, I finally succumbed to the peer (and honestly self) pressure and decided to give it a try. What’s the harm in one time, right?

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Honestly, I’ve never had anything worse in my mouth. It’s not that the taste is that bad; at first, it’s quite a pleasant surprise. But within a few minutes, my cheek felt raw. The whole leaf and its contents turned into such a brown mush that I felt like I was eating dirt. My mouth was watering uncomfortably. I spit brown fluid out the window of the car so many times in one minute I thought I was going to throw up. I embarrassed everyone in the car so much that they didn’t want to pull over and subject themselves to the heckling of even the youngest children who understood that I am being a pansy.

I’m so dramatic.

Needless to say I survived. I finally managed to spit out my wad of dirt. It turns out my coworker had bought be the “savory” Paan, i.e. the one containing tobacco. Rookie mistake, my female colleague tells me. You never start someone with tobacco Paan. Always with the sweet.

It took me a whopping three days to have another go at it. Did I mention it smells like heaven?

This time, there was no dirt. There was no spitting. There was no heckling by wee children. I chewed that leaf up real nice, savoring every bit of toasty coconutty goodness.

I assumed that I was in the clear re: health issues, given that I wasn’t chewing tobacco. But as I began to write this blog, I decided I should probably do some Googling to see what’s actually the appeal here. If it doesn’t supply some sort of buzz on its own, why bother chewing it? What is this cult following paan has managed to develop all about?

To shed some more light on what exactly the appeal is, I spoke pretty extensively with one of my coworkers about his habits.

He actually compiles his own paan chew. After 26 years of chewing, he’s gotten [rightfully] picky about his ingredients. He goes to the market and buys all of the necessary components and stores them in his home. I ask him why he chooses to do this, because from what I can tell it is not any cheaper to do it this way.

He explains that the tobacco the paan shops use is not genuine; that it is often cheap and therefore doesn’t taste good.

In addition, he has noticed that some of the shops don’t wash the leaves properly, so there’s dirt remaining (which obviously does not taste good). He’s also impeccable with his leaf storage, washing each one carefully and storing them with damp cloths between layers. If any leaves are spoiled or become spoiled, he removes them from the bunch. This way the whole lot of them stays fresher longer.

He also prefers to select his own betelnuts. Often, they are old, or have worms, or lack the right density for his preference, so he goes to the market and picks the type and size he likes.

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As for tobacco, he knows to buy the “big bag” and keep it very well sealed. This way it stays fresh, when it isn’t exposed to the air. What he does is take out a small portion into a smaller bag; he will take tobacco leaves from this bag whenever he makes a new paan, rather than from the large pack (again, to maintain freshness).

His other trick is to mix the powdered limestone with water early on, and let it sit for a few weeks before using it. This way, he says, it will not burn his mouth as much when he chews it.

This all may seem excessive, but when you realize these are the well-practiced habits of someone who has been chewing paan since he was 14, it seems reasonable enough. He’s even suffered chipped teeth as a result of betelnut pieces, which has not deterred him from continuing to chew.

If that’s not dedication, I don’t know what is.

The issue, of course, is that there are some serious health concerns associated with paan. Obviously, we all know the health effects of chewing tobacco. (You remember those ads with the former professional baseball players with missing jawbone? That.) But what people don’t know is that there’s something about the combination of the Betel leaf and the limestone that causes not just forms of mouth cancer, but esophageal, stomach, and various other forms of cancer as well. Beyond that, it erodes your tooth enamel!

Finally, I’ll share a little glimpse into a typical day at the office.

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Essentially what happens is this: Someone in the office decides they want paan. They basically yell out that they’re going to get some, and then everyone who wants some yells that they want some too.

Today, I went with them for funzies, and also for the purpose of taking photos for this blog. We walk down the street to the “good” paan shop. The one next to the office simply won’t do for this special occasion.

We ask the fine gentleman (who I pictured above) if he will kindly make us five Paans. Mine will be sans tobacco and hence the “sweet” kind.

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Clearly, he obliges. We walk back to the office.

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It’s pretty typical for tobacco-chewers to spit. So, it’s pretty typical for tobacco paan chewers to spit. Therefore, this is what the ground outside the window of our office looks like on a paan day.

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Despite the fact that it looks absolutely disgusting, I feel the desire to chew paan almost daily now. Each time I want it, though, I have to remind myself of this scary Wikipedia article [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paan] that tells me all of the terrible things that will happen to me if I continue to chew this betel leaf, the betel leaf with the limestone, and the betelnut itself. It can’t be good for you.

Maybe if I ask for it without the limestone paste…..

Jokes from the Office

This is just a collection of jokes I have been told or overheard in the office over the past few weeks. Once they began, I started asking for more, naturally, so some of them were prompted. I’m opting not to comment on any of them (you are welcome). 

1. 

An Indian guy named “Anantharaman Subbaraman” arrived at New York airport and was waiting for his visa for about 2 hours for the authorities to call his name. he got fed up and went to them and asked why they hadn’t called his name yet. They said that they have been calling him for the last 2 hours as “Anotherman Superman” 

2. This one came in the form of a text message: 

How to impress a young sexy male beggar?

.

.

.

.

.

.

I can’t believe it. You are interested. 

3. 

Sardar felt like smoking a cigarette at night…! He searched everywhere for a match box…! When he didn’t get it, he blew off the candle and went to sleep. 

4. 

Mr. Kamesh love letter

My deer, u r looflee, que tea, u r a track thief, u r my pressless lower and my hurt.

Your,

Come less

5. 

News reports predict a great tsunami in NE India, particularly in Manipur. However, it was delayed because of the Manipur Bandh”**

6. 

Have you ever wondered why our ass cracks are vertical instead of horizontal?

Because if it were horizontal it would clap clap down the stairs

7. 

Everything you give to a woman, she will return it to you bigger.

You give her money, she will give you good home. You give her sperm, she will give you a baby. 

 

** A Bandh is basically a protest. Insurgent groups from the area surrounding Imphal will often instate a Bandh in an attempt to have a voice in the government. When there is a Bandh surrounding Imphal, all the roads are blocked, so goods and sometimes people cannot get into the city. As a result, many businesses sort of just … stop. 

Getting my Whites White in India

I’m completely piggybacking on the trend my fellow fellow began over a week ago, but my laundry day is also worth sharing.

I had imagined doing laundry here would not be the same as in the United States. I’m not sure what exactly tipped me off to this idea; maybe it was the frequent power outages. Maybe it was the lack of hot running water. It could have been the fact that all of my neighbors always have clothes hung out to dry — what did I think, they were doing it for decoration? Or maybe it was the fact that, to put it plainly, in a city that looks like this:

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There’s just no way washing machines are a common presence in a household.

That being said, I’m about to look like a liar by showing you that the family whose building I live in (I live above the office and below the home of the CEO of the company I’m working with) does in fact have a washing machine. And I will further prove that I am NOT a liar by sharing that they never use it because – you guessed it – power outages and lack of running water. So, in the end, I don’t really stand corrected.

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Moving along. Allow me to narrate my Sunday.

7 AM: The rooster has been crowing for 2 hours. I think it is time to get up. Open my computer to check the news, weather, emails, etc. Notice that there is no internet. No internet means no electricity. So much for my day of email catch-up and blog posting.

7:30 AM: Tea time on the porch

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8 AM: Notice that everyone seems to be up and about around me, feel shamed for sitting like a cat in the sun with the only newspaper in the building, and decide I should probably clean today.

Action item 1: clean my floors.

Over the course of just a week in my new digs, the hardwood floor of my bedroom managed to collect a fine film of dust. Your room would too if your streets looked like this (please remember this image when you take a peek at the filth of my clothing later in this entry):

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To remedy this issue, I would need to sweep and then mop. You thought you were dealing with a cleaning newbie? Think again; I know what’s up. So, in search of a broom I went. I found this:

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While it looks too skinny to accomplish anything, it actually is amazingly effective. Fashioned out of a long grass/hay type plant, there are actually bristles capable of sweeping all along the sides. So this broom is used laterally, and is capable of sweeping dust out of even the narrowest of crevices. Genius.

Next, I went in search of a mop. Ting, the Mrs., politely shook her head at me and told me that if I wanted my floors to stay dust-free for longer, I would need to use a rag on my hands and knees. “It will be much better,” she tells me.

So, onto my hands and knees I went, and boy, do my floors shine.

9:30 AM: Now we get to the good stuff: laundry.

“You know how to wash clothes?”

…. Is there some secret difficulty to washing clothing by hands here in India that I should know about? Pretty sure using a bucket of water to wash clothes would be the same here, in Argentina, when camping, or wherever.

So, away I go to wash my clothes. I boil a pot of water, put it in the bin, added some cold water and some laundry detergent, and dump my “whites” in. It’s best to let them stew in their own soapy filth for a while. This really loosens the dirt and makes them scrub-able. After about half an hour, I decide it’s time to scrub ‘em. I find the water is so filthy, though, that I feel shamed to scrub them in there, thinking the dirt will just scrub back in.

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That’s a thing, right? I have to dump out the water and put some in, fresh, right? This isn’t wasting water, is it? There’s no way everyone else just scrubs in their own filth.

Actually, turns out, in Imphal, some people wash their clothes in everyone’s filth:

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I decide I can be a princess about the second bucket of water. My hygiene neuroses might loosen with time, but right now I want my whites white, damn it.

I remove my clothes and put them into my fresh bucket of water. To give you an idea of just how dirty India is, I’ve decided to put away my pride and embarrassment and share a photo of what the water looked like after the 30 minute soak:

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You’re breathing a sigh of relief that I got that second bucket, aren’t you? See? Had to be done.

So I scrub and rinse, scrub and rinse, until eventually the whites do in fact look white. I move to the roof for hanging.

1 PM: the roof.

Already overrun with clotheslines, my work here is easy. Some pointers for those of you looking into hand washing as an option for hygiene in your future:

  1. It is essential to wring out your clothing as best as possible before hanging
  2. It is even more essential to give each item a good flail about in the air to remove the creases from said ringing before you hang. You don’t want tie-dye shaped creases in your items.

Come to me any time with questions. As you can see, I am a pro:

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Everything you [n]ever wanted to know about Manipur

I thought I’d open this blog with a little Q&A. I figure this is the easiest way to hammer out what I assume are the most pressing questions about where I am. 

Q. Are you even in India? 

A. Fortunately for my visa and immunization record, yes, I am in India. Manipur, and more specifically Imphal, is in the very very North East part of India. You know, that little triangle between Bangladesh and Myanmar [Burma] that you probably think is … Bangladesh or Burma. The people here resemble Burmese people, rather than the Bollywood stars we all know and love.

Q: Why are you in India? 

A. Great question. I’m working with an organization called Kiva (www.kiva.org) that is a microlending platform connecting people like you and me (“Lenders”) to entrepreneurs throughout the world through microloans. Kiva sends Fellows to work with various Field Partners (local NGOs and MFIs) to streamline their Kiva processes. I’ve been asked to come work with WSDS, based in Imphal, that has been a microfinance organization for over 20 years.

Q: I heard it’s dangerous up there. Are you going to get raped or kidnapped? 

A. All signs so far point to “no.” You may have read about the recent rape cases throughout the country, or head people refer to Delhi as the “rape capital of the world.” This is truly a tragedy in so many ways; the abuse of women in countries like India has to stop, not only for women’s sake but also for the nation’s progress in terms of development. Manipur, and Imphal specifically, isn’t necessarily exempt from this idea; rape and sexual abuse is found here as well. The difference is the emphasis on social dynamics. Rape here is used as a weapon, mostly by insurgent groups in the hills. Random rape in the city and from the city streets is not at all common. In fact, Imphal often has a curfew instated to keep people off the streets after dark and protected from insurgent groups.

This brings me to kidnapping. Technically being kidnapped would be a possible risk for me. The only reason they occur is because insurgent groups want to collect ransoms. Often, a wife, or child, or employee of a “rich” man will get kidnapped so that an insurgent group can get money. I don’t have the statistics on how common this is, however, because, well, people don’t talk about it.

Q: Do you have to be vegan? No one eats cows, do they? 

A. The best thing about Manipur is that this isn’t true here! Christian missionaries came through the region, converting the tribal people to Baptist Christians. So, lucky for me, the people here eat all sorts of meat products.

Q: India is dirty, right? Do you have to close your eyes when you wash your face and take a shower because of the parasites in the water? 

A. Once again, I have lucked out here. Manipur is so close to the border with Burma, and so close to the source of the water that runs through the pipes, that it isn’t yet as infested as the water in the rest of the country. While you definitely CANNOT drink water straight from the tap, it isn’t absolutely terrifying if a drop of water gets mixed in with your sterilized water.

As for the shower question… well… I don’t really have the option to sit under a shower head, singing Justin Beiber songs as I lather away with my Garnier Fructis shampoo, increasing my risk of contaminated water sneaking into my eye sockets. There’s no hot running water here, so bucket showers are my best friend. I think this severely minimizes my risk of infection. Again, what luck!

Q: Do you get to wear a Sari to work every day? 

A: Not even a little bit. In fact, people in this region don’t wear Saris. Each tribal group has their own pattern of wrap skirt, so the women wear these skirts, some sort of shirt, and occasionally a scarf that matches on a special occasion (or when it is cold). I have been gifted a lovely blue skirt from a borrower group near Churachandpur, as well as a scarf. It has the “elephant knee” pattern, which I obviously think is outstanding given my love of elephants.

Moving along.

Q: What do you do for fun?

A: Ah, the age old question of solo travelers. I loaded up my kindle with books on books on books. I’ve signed up for two online courses. I have two decks of cards. I insisted on being able to use the office wi-fi even AFTER everyone leaves the office. (note: we only work from 10 ish to 4 or 5 ish. These 7 hours include a lunch break and two tea breaks) Sometimes, when I’m feeling really wild, I use my lunch breaks to walk to the market (always with company. I am not allowed to be alone for safety reasons). Oh, and yoga with my boss’ kids. Along with pretty much any other activity they’re doing, including indoor cricket.

 

Q: When will you post another blog? 

A: I would do it daily, internet and electricity-permitting. Unfortunately, the power and internet go out fairly frequently, so I’m aiming for an average of one post per week. I promise that they won’t all be as dry as this one.