Monday, December 23, 2013

Body Language


To me, being a teacher is about sharing my love for words, and so much more. It's how we share life. We charge words and release them and that gives us so much power. But the physical world plays a big part in how we communicate, no where more so than the Chinese language which takes the word 'literal' to a whole different arena. I used to wonder why a people would choose to take the hardest path and create a language that's more art than structure. But you know, there is an immense beauty in their choice... The Chinese word for wisdom has two symbols. The one above is a broom. Below it lies the heart. When the broom sweeps the heart clean, it makes it free of anger and negativity, then there is space for wisdom to enter. Isn't that so very special?

Animals have a language that can be very vocal. But there are times that they rely on their drool to do the talking for them. Then again, you can't say they aren't creative. Like when I returned home this time after a two month absence. I opened the door, saw a blur, a tongue, two eyes, and then suddenly it started raining inside the house. I thought it was a miracle. It wasn't. You've seen those rotating sprinklers in gardens? Pivot an upside down puppy on one of them, one that's apparently lost bladder control and you'll understand what chaos the next few minutes were. Afterwards, once we'd disinfected the house, and me, I looked around and noticed things like the new paint job on the walls, the flower arrangements and my family. This canine re-defined 'body language' for me.

Speaking of which, isn't it funny how we've brought physical distances into our vocabulary to describe relationships? It's like we use distances to measure what we feel-  some people you wouldn't touch with a ten foot pole, you'd rather hit them with it. Or you want to keep someone at arm's length. For some, you'd go the extra mile or there are some you feel close to. And then there's the parable about a sage who explains that the reason we shout at someone when we're angry with them is because at that moment, our hearts are so distant that we shout to be heard across it.

It reminds me of a word I like- communion. It's what I was trying to express once when I said "friends, soulmates, kindred spirits- we all find each other in a place beyond words...." because to me, one of the best times of my life were moments of such connection. I was in the first year of college, sharing a house with my cousins- a brother and sister. He was an intern at a hospital nearby and he'd mostly come home in the middle of the night- 1 or 2 A.M. A few times a week, he's shake me awake and gesture silently. We'd slip out and take off for a ride on his bike. Most often, we'd take the roads that led out of the city to remote villages, changing from tar to dirt to tar again. On roads that he knew like the back of his hand, he'd switch off the headlights and there'd be nothing but the stars, and the fields, the night and us. And silence. We almost never talked. Just two bodies hurtling towards nowhere in particular. To this day, I can close my eyes and go back there easily and I always feel peace.

Of course, we had our share of stories from it. Like the time we got hopelessly lost and there wasn't a soul to be seen. We were driving along this narrow dirt trail in a deserted field and finally, we saw a man in the distance. An old man, squatting as he brushed his teeth with a neem stick. This was the savior who'd lead us back home. So my cousin stopped about 2 feet away from him and as he started to ask for directions, we realized that the old farmer was doing more than brushing his teeth. He was taking care of ALL his morning ablutions, if you know what I mean. Undeterred, as is the way of my people, he enthusiastically pointed this way and that and we thanked him, choking on our words, just waiting to go a respectable distance so that we could cry laughing. Another instance of 'body language' I'll never forget ;)

It's something we pick up even as children, maybe especially then; looking for clues and cues into the mysterious ways of adults. My father was never mysterious though. Any time he found anything funny, Boom! A large hand would descend to whack the back of my head. When I resurfaced, I'd crawl away, disoriented but determined to save myself.

When I moved to Chennai, there were roads that I named solely on their effect on my body. It started when an acquaintance called a bridge 'The Bridge of Love'. I didn't understand, until the day I drove on it. Small speed-bumps at regular 10 feet intervals.  Drive any vehicle on it and your mind and body start sending confused signals to each other. 'Wait a minute- what's happening? Should I start making noises now?' My advice- desist. You'll respect yourself more in the morning. Another excuse for a road that I had the privilege of naming- 'The Anti-Boob-Job road'. Gaping pits leading to hell followed by mountains that made you giddy- all within centimeters of each other. Driving on that road, I used to wish for reinforced steel bras as well as shock absorbers for the rest of my body.

There's a lot we learn by just looking at each other and the world around us. I like looking.... Ahem :P


Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Listen...Can You?!


People talk a lot. I prefer listening. You'd think it was a perfect set-up but it's not. Listening is often under-rated when it comes to its level of difficulty. It's all coming back to me now as I prepare to leave for home. Sitting in the car, right in the middle seat, all alone, I'm looking around me bewildered. My family, you see, is standing around the vehicle, and each one of them is declaring where they will sit and where each of the others should sit...They're postulating and reasoning and gesticulating, and the voices are getting louder. As what started as consideration quickly escalates towards violence, I am reminded of other instances where people have pushed the boundaries.

My colleague in a previous job was a pleasant, efficient lady. We had similiar duties and she loved to talk to me about them and anything else that came up during work. There was only one problem. A few wires in her brain had short-circuited at some point in her life, and she had lost most of her sense of personal space. She'd get so close to you when she was talking that you could see the pores on her face. Magnification, a process that used to interest me, lost all lustre after these encounters. It would take a superhuman effort to focus on her eyes because they'd be so close to yours. As I tried each time to uncross my eyes, I'd wonder if she went through life thinking that most people are sadly cross-eyed. So complete was this woman's need to get up-close that her subconsious had been programmed to compensate for and match any shift in the other person's spatial trajectory. My need to step away and breathe always led us in this totally unromantic dance down the corridor. I'd lead, she'd follow. We did the two-step, the fox trot, the jig. At desperate times, we've even moved through the samba, and touched on a bit of salsa. But nothing worked. My biggest comfort was that she never articulated her 'p's or 't's with any amount of force, so I was saved from the pain of spittle at least. Not that the errant projectile never found its mark.

I found a different type of person waiting for me at my next job, a different sort of challenge. She was a passionate, inspiring woman. Except when she slept through our conversations. Always polite, I never knew if I should stop talking or become a more interesting person. Sometimes she'd wake up and nod and it planted huge seeds of doubt in me. Was she bluffing? Could a sleeping face be a poker face? I never found out. I'd just continue talking, gradually tilting my head and body down and sideways, trying to point my words at her ears as her head slid steadily. When she awoke, we'd both jerk up.

I moved on to a job where my acting prowess was tested sorely. A boss with one foot in the world of movies is not such a great thing. Especially when he got me in the seat opposite him and dropped names and places as easily as the peanuts he was paying me, followed by a look of expectation. 'How awesome am I?', his eyes asked me every other day. How many expressions of admiration or being impressed can I make? Hah! I know the answer to that one. Zillions. One combination is right eyebrow up + lips pressed together + head tilt left 30 degrees. Another is both eyebrows up + mouth half open + 2 nods. The simplest is three rapid blinks + leaning backward. I got so good at it that after I quit, he couldn't live with the void I left behind. I considered his proposal of marriage with awe- a lifetime of that? I refused mainly because I feared my eyebrows would never descend again.

So yeah, all these gurus who talk and talk about the art of talking? I can teach those fellas a thing or two about listening. It's my turn to talk now. Just as soon as my family figure out that any butt can fit in any seat and we finally make it home.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Way Back

I'm back in brown town! Here are 3 things that helped me know I was home before I even got here.

 1. The Search-for-Peace Lounge

 (At the airport in Bangkok) I changed seats the first time because I had this group of men sitting right behind me loudly tallying an endless list of expenses that they'd apparently raked up in Bangkok. My new seat gave me the vantage point of observing a very young couple. I hope I'm forgiven this unkind generalization, but it's a common dynamic I've seen. He's this spindly fellow who can't believe she's letting him do things to her, if you know what I mean, as you can see from his eyes that follow her and fingers that pick at her hair or corner of her dress. She knows she's the better looking one and therefore, has most or all of the power in the relationship, as evidenced by the fact that she barely acknowledged his attentions and when she does, there's this slight disdain on her face. I remember being fascinated by symbiosis when studying Biology in school, and as I grew up, the kinds of symbiosis that human psyches are capable of have become equally fascinating. But there's only so much of that one can take. I changed seats again. The couple I sat next to this time cruelly pulled out a two year old from between them who decided his life's work would be to bang metal things together and if denied that pleasure, scream. The lady had a high-pitched nasal voice which she used to beg her son. Together, their symphony was like the musical I'd imagine accompanying a specter of death. I didn't change seats again. Buddha, or some other nirvana success story, said that if you have inner peace, outside disturbances do not matter. They won't affect you. So I didn't move. I tested myself. So basically, I just sat there and prayed for the apocalypse. Then I got on to the airplane.

 2. The Imported Swiss Mountain Echo

When things happen to me, I don't get subtle. I get swamped. So of course, there were men on board,chock full of fascinating conversation separated from each other by the pesky aisle, who of course weren't about to let that deter them. I heard a lot. I'm really truly glad, because I found one of them fascinating. He was the listener and this other guy was enlightening him with that air of having been blessed with divine knowledge. Listener guy apparently acknowledges people by echoing them, with emphatic head nods. The conversation, translated from Tamil, was like this-
They take a straight 5 hour flight which is non-stop.
Listener: Non-stop
They even have a hotel called transit
Listener: Transit
They mainly prefer Germany
Listener: prefer
Everything has changed
Listener: changed
.....
(The exact moment the flight landed, the oracle spoke again)
Ah, In Chennai, we have landed.
Listener: Landed

I hope they didn't see me hunched forward, shoulders shaking. It was a hilarious exchange. I can't wait to try it out on an unsuspecting someone and see how they take to being echoed this way.

3. The Gender Swap

I had the aisle seat on the plane, and it was next to a couple. When I reached it, the woman was near the window and the man was in between. He looked at me, had a whispered conversation with wifey and with great difficulty they switched seats. Therefore, I remained pure throughout my flight.

 Like I said, I'm home, and truly loving it ;)

Monday, November 25, 2013

Poo! And Adieu!

The Poo:
 
Poo, to clarify for the non-south-indian population, means flower. It is NOT one half of what kids call their, well, poo-poo. That's why its the title of this post. Flower. That's Poo!.......Stop giggling. Honestly, I don't know why I bother.

Pak Khlong Talat. Sounds like Klingon for 'your bottom end' to me. It's the place where the flower market is, the one I despaired of getting to coz I just couldn't say it right! Seriously, you know why I like my native language? We pronounce all our syllables. We don't leave some of them hanging in the air. But this 'Pak Khlong Talat', when repeated back to me by the enlightened tuk tuk driver, was half of what its supposed to be. The only reason he got it was because I had literally drawn the name in Thai on a piece of paper and taken it with me. The Thais have taught me that much- be prepared to the point of paranoia.

Did you notice I said tuk-tuk? Yeah. I thought it'd never happen, not when motorbike taxis are around everywhere, but I stood around waiting for so long and no two-wheeled savior came to my rescue. So finally, after 2 months, I got properly fleeced by a tuk tuk guy and completed my initiation as a tourist in Bangkok.


The flower market was very beautiful, everything the websites promise it to be. I took some side lanes and found the vegetable wholesale sections, with heaps of vegetables in run down lanes- scenes that just transported me back to India, in a good way. I can't get over how we use the same vegetables everyday in such different ways. The same eggplant and ridge gourd and even sundakkai (turkey berry)!



The Adieu:

I'm leaving Bangkok for a couple of months, now that I've finished the TEFL course. Going back home to face some pretty loud music. Not all celebratory, once the folks hear the news. Soon, with the new year, this blog will become all about the experiences of an English teacher in Bangkok. Once I escape from the attic my father will lock me in, that is. So, I'm going to be leaving for awhile and I'm looking back at two months here that have been quite interesting.

The things I've learnt... A lot about myself. That I could live for months in a space that's approx. 8' by 7'- lesser than 56 sq.feet, most of it taken up by the bed. This from a woman who used to draw sketch after sketch of a future home that was more like a small village. My room-



I've never liked the adage 'people who live in glass houses shouldn't throw stones'. It's got the right message, but I find the image disturbing. Maybe I'd have liked something better involving wooden houses and stomping ;) It's had its message too, for me. Somehow, living here, having to make sure my feet touch the floor lightly has seeped in and made me tread through life more gently. I'm calmer.

I've learnt a lot about people and life; travel sometimes fast-tracks experiences, I think. I've seen beautiful things. I've mapped out a tentative dream for my life, when before everything was just a haze. I've made friends, some for life. I've learnt to be happy. I've learnt to be even more 'me'. Don't shudder- it's a good thing! :D


So, as tempted as I am to burst into song, with perfect rhymes that include 'me', 'free' and 'happy', I'll spare you the torture and simply end with this pic I did one night (crudely, on notebook paper) when I was thinking about where I am in my life...




Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Goody Foodie

So. Being a foodie, I have apparently let my public down. Or so I've been told. Well, in my defense, I am an alien here, an abnormality in a land of normals. Meat-loving, bone-chewing normals....Ok, they're too cute to chew bones. Still. There were days when, for some reasons, I had limited access to markets and I feasted on wheat bread and water. But apparently, my 'friends' don't want to hear my heart-rending tales of woe and suffering. They just wanna see food. Fine. Whatever. Hmpf. I so empathize with whoever did this piece of graffiti...



Thailand has its share of ultra-refined supermarkets laden with imported products, farmers' markets bursting with fresh produce and such. I appreciate I have a refined audience who've seen it all and would not gawk at all that like a country bumpkin fresh off the boat from a drought-ridden village in a third world country. Just saying.... Not that that was me......Moving on.

Street food dominates the food scene in this country. It's vibrant, it's interesting and it's everywhere. Some of the stuff I see as I walk the streets...

This I really do see a lot of! Various types of meat on sticks, that sell anywhere from 10 to 50 rupees or so depending on the meat.


So, this guy I really love watching. It's kinda like Subway on the street. He makes made-to-order omelets. You can pick your ingredients, which he puts into the steel cup, breaks in an egg or two, adds seasonings and sauces and fries it up.



Fruits. A big packet of a chopped up fruit of your choice costs Rs.40. It's kept on crushed ice, so its refreshingly cold and crisp when you bite into it, just like God intended.


Wayside eateries operate on narrow strips of pavement. They usually serve meat with noodles, soup or rice. This one specializes in the most popular dish I've seen here in Bangkok, eaten morning, noon and night- a fried egg or an omelet served over steamed rice, with some sides of meat. They usually operate in a tiny space- a small dish-washing area, a cooking area and a strip of road that's the serving area.


This is a delicious dessert that will make the fat molecules in your body send out a clarion call to the fat molecules floating in the Universe with the message, 'Come home.'



The sign reads:
Roti with egg and banana  Rs. 70
Roti with banana              Rs. 60
Roti with (I forgot)             Rs. 40
Roti, pandan flavored         Rs. 30
Roti                                 Rs. 24

So the plain one, she flattens the dough ball, fries it in enough butter to make you look to the stars for divine help, douses it in enough condensed milk to let you know that help ain't never coming, asks you audaciously if you want a liberal helping of sugar and then rolls it up. I got the banana one; it's stretched out and therefore thinner-



Some stuff... I cannot fathom what they are, and having less signing skills than the more advanced gorillas, all I know is that this is some sort of sweet thing.


They're big on desserts here. There's sticky rice, sometimes colored and flavored, jellies, glass noodles, dried/preserved fruits, different types of beans and stuff, all swimming in coconut milk or other sweetened liquids....


This is an ultra thin crepe, with some marshmallowy thingy on top. It takes a lot to put me off anything sweet, but somehow this manages it nicely. 


And the same thing exists in a sickly sweet and savory combo. Thin sweet crepe, quail egg and a tiny meat sausage. Rolled up and served. I had a sans sausage version and felt like puking after the first bite. So yeah, not a fan!

This crepe is very diferent. While the ones above are crispy like our South Indian dosa, this one is super spongy soft. At first I thought they dip a cloth in the batter and rub it on the skillet, but it looks like the batter itself, which is of a somewhat solid sticky consistency, is applied directly by hand. They stack 'em up and sell them to people who take it away.



Sushi is popular, as expected and very pretty to look at.


At night, they become hard core and bring out all kinds of grilled squid.


Apart from that, there's the stuff you find that's very common. The chicken on a stick sold with packets of sticky rice, fruit juices, papaya salad, steamed dumplings, deep fried meat, milk tea with bubbles....

Chicken on a stick


The most popular juices are orange and passion fruit. The costliest one at Rs.100 is pomegranate and the cheapest at Rs.20 is actually vallaara keerai juice! (Centella asiatica). It's not as common as the others and tastes, um, not great. But I bet its healthy as heck! I've had it only once. *bows head in shame.

Steamed Dumplings

Omelette on plain steamed rice


Fried fish. Now, I don't know about your mommy but if you had an Indian mommy who saw this, like I do, she'll gasp, cover her mouth with her hand and wonder about the fish guts that are obviously still inside the fish. She'll walk away, shaking her head, smug in a way that only an Indian housewife who's been cooking perfect meals for multiple generations can be smug.


Milk Tea, various flavors, with 'bubbles'. I swear, if they lined up the tins of condensed milk used in this country per day, it would probably set some record like stretching from one coastline to another or something...



So, that's the street food I've seen. I may have left out a thing or two. I don't go to any restaurants, especially the wayside ones I'd love to try if I could eat there. But I do accompany friends on weekends and I chomp on french fries or make a smoothie last unnaturally long. The usual stuff like Pad Thai or Tom Yum soup are delicious, I hear. I traveled some distance to get this vegetarian version of Tom Yum and it's worth it- chock full of flavor!


As usual, some of the restos have menus that they've goofed up on big time. They're good fun, though and I particularly enjoyed the menu at a place called 'The Beer Park'.

Crispy peanuts and cripy ones, anyone? I'm glad they didn't have a choice of 'crappy'; they'd have run out of peanuts, for sure.


(Apparently, the thai version reads peanuts/cashewnuts)

Next,


Move past the pig intestines, people, and take a look at the hunks of meat below! Our group was mostly women, so this caused quite a few raised eyebrows. I myself was all for it. It caused a long conversation that went something like:

Ooo, let's order this one.
Yeah! I'd like me some vikings!
Do they serve them hot?
I don't know if one serving will do....
We can share!
But I don't wanna share.
What?! I thought you were my friend!
But I want my own...
So that's how it is.
But...
Don't. I can't even look at you right now.
Hey, you wanna get some Vikings?
I'll take 'em to go!

That's the gist of it. The Thai version says spicy chickens. I don't know if someone conned these poor owners into printing this, but they have my undying admiration. If anyone came to me for help of this nature, God save the initial draft of their menus, before my conscience kicks in, or rather, kicks me.

Finishing off with a pic of the food I eat- multiple variations of tofu and soy proteins cooked with different vegetables and spices. You see the deep fried stuff on the counter, on the top right of the picture? That's sticky sweet batter fried mushroom, kinda like the chicken on the stick, I think. I eat that everyday, rain or shine. It's that good.


So, that's a nice post on food, eh? I've done my bit for the public... apart from the great joy I bestow by simply existing?... (so many eyes rolled for that one that the earth's axis shifted a bit). Anyway, here's hoping you always enjoy your food- we're blessed to be living in countries where we have so many opportunities to exercise choice... *Now, which one of you three vikings will do for dessert, hmm? 

;)


Sunday, November 17, 2013

Go forth and sink no more!

It's funny how we all come together and part- like the undulating units of an ocean, we brush, delve into or crash against each other and silently glide away, over and over. Maybe the magic of life is riding the troughs, looking at the moonlight glistening on the crests, welcoming the dawn together, uncaring of where we're all going, or perhaps, helping each other understand that there's nowhere to go. We're just here to dance into each other. Easier said than done, I know, but what a peaceful, intimate picture. I mention it because I see so many of us paddling frantically. We should learn to float.

That's what I was telling my 'krathong' to do, when I released it. Heh, no, it's not a piece of swimwear I let loose in the murky waters of Bangkok; it's a beautiful arrangement of flowers with candles and incense. The Loi Krathong festival was celebrated in Thailand yesterday. I was personally thrilled since it coincided with the Karthigai Deepam festival back home- to me, more the 'Festival of Lights' than Diwali will ever be. So my friends and I made our way to the nearest pier, only to find a mass of humanity there, all bent on getting onto the ferries. We weren't in the mood for drowning, so I had to make do with releasing the krathong at the pier itself, but I do think it looked beautifull! -


Lanterns were released into the air and again, it was such a beautiful sight. None of our pics came out decently, so I'm flicking one off the net-



I also made my way back to China Town the day before. I found it exactly as it should be- a place where you can get lost, something that I'm very good at, thank you very much. There were so many things to see! But first, for those who know me well enough to know about the earring fetish, listen up! Did I find Chinatown's wholesale earrings lane? Yes, I did! Did I start bouncing off the walls? Heck, yeah!
(Ahem, lady friends writhing in jealousy back home, please message me privately and we'll discuss my being nice to you ;))




There was a lot of food. Especially the dried foods shops. I couldn't make out what a few things were at all... I got some type of dried citrus thingy, a species of dried mushroom that looks so pretty and some tiny dried chillies; just to start with.


I look forward to experimenting with Thai spices and foods eventually. I was thinking that as I was walking along a lane when I blinked and suddenly I saw this vision of rasagullas and gulab jamuns. I thought 'Ok, I've finally cracked. THIS is the final stage of masala dosa withdrawal!' But I'd just wandered into the Indian section. Or rather, the Sikh section. The Sikh community has a very strong presence here- I've seen them driving around, owners of shops, a few International schools, many restaurants and businesses...there's an Indo-Thai population as a result, which I'm quite interested in learning more about!



Traveling there and back on the river... what is it about the sound of water and the sight of waves?!....


I also attended a really cool art exhibit. It was actually a couple of warehouses within a compound, with a resto and a bar, where a few artists live and do their work. Some of the beautiful work-




They have this room full of crudely crafted spoons done in some really rad shapes. Like!



I usually gripe about not being able to understand modern art, but this painting is one that I would gladly get for my home- I found it powerful...



Thursday, November 7, 2013

When Nature Calls...Go visit Jim Thompson.

I actually wanted the title to be 'When nature calls, put on your leaf and go answer the door' but it wouldn't fit, and it has nothing to do with my post. (See how craftily I snuck it in anyway, eh? eh?) So,...I have my lunch everyday at a Thai vegetarian eatery, a street away from where I stay. It's a beautiful location, with rough wooden furniture set out in an open courtyard with a small waterfall.



I usually have a book with me, or my notebook and headphones to watch a show while I eat. But everyday, invariably, I'm constantly distracted by these critters that I have become very fond of. I think they're lizards, I'm not sure. But they are super bold! They poke their noses over the edge and kinda feel you out. They sense weakness, I'm sure and they manage to figure out everyday that I'm just a lump of putty. They run right up to my plate and stop at the edge! There's a tense standoff as we stare into each others eyes. Then they  make a kinda  'It's mine! My ancestors could have eaten you for supper!' movement.

I'll go, 'Oh no you don't, short stuff. I evolved, I win!' and pull my plate away. Then the beady eyes become beadier, I relent and put a morsel or two on the bench. They pounce on it and leave, only to return a while later. Here are videos of two of 'em (sorry about the bad quality):



Sometimes they disdainfully spit it out. Oh sorry, did I say spit? I meant propel it out, with a flick of the head, so that it goes flying. Sigh.

They'd have felt right at home, though, in Jim Thompson's house. It's a popular tourist spot, but its one of those places that justify being one. I loved the serenity and beauty of this old house that nestles in what is better called a tropical jungle than a garden. It's breathtaking in places. Inside the house itself are many worn out delicate silk paintings that enraptured me because each was a scene of some story- I wish I knew what the stories were....

Jim Thompson's story itself is interesting. To put it briefly, he was an American who reconstructed this beautiful house by transporting several ancient Thai houses and putting them together, only to disappear mysteriously a few years later in Malayasia. He did much in his time to revive the dying Thai silk industry, becoming all the more popular after it was the featured clothing in the movie, The King and I.

They don't allow photography inside the house and usually, I whine about this. But this time, I kinda get it. You'd better just go see it for yourself. Some pics from the outside...



This guy below was doing the actual process of getting the fine strands of silk from the cocoons. It seems a delicate procedure and I understand it takes great skill. It's also large scale murder, but let's not go there.



All the animals I meet lately are snobs. This guy's nose never once touched the horizontal axis the whole time I was sitting there.