Eating like monkeys

| Friday, July 30, 2010
This post is about India. The title is both relevant and misleading.

I'll just get the bad thing out of the way. Just about everything I encountered in India, specifically the city? of Trivandrum (or Thiruvananthapuram) in Kerala was different than in my usual suburbs of Chicago. That wasn't the bad thing. That was my attempt to lead into something like "everything was different, some of it I didn't like, but almost none of it was objectively bad." The sole exception was their airport which was the first and last thing I saw and a giant pile of crap. India wins no cleanliness awards, inevitable due to the climate (not to dismiss human action), but I never really thought "wow this is terrible, how can they live like this?" Except at the airport. It's a dirty, disorganized, ugly place which appears to have been build too long ago, fixed up approximately never, and seems to have never ever been cleaned, based on the truly amazing buildup of ticket-related debris everywhere. I take that back, the vast waiting areas for customs and immigration appeared to have clean floors and I believe the fans were newish, just not turned on and clearly styled to match the ugliness of the rest of the airport.

Upon leaving the airport I was given my first impression of non-airport India: lots and lots of people. I'm no stranger to cities or crowds, but nothing before has managed to so fully express the idea that there are over a billion people in a country. Walking out of the airport and seeing the crowds and cars felt as if a few thousand people had showed up to personally tell me that there are a lot of people there. Then I got in a cab.

I believe India has the best drivers in the world. This is based on simple natural selection: bad drivers would be dead ten times in ten seconds. You see, they don't drive like in America. Here we tend to crash because we're speeding or not paying attention. We pick a lane and stay in that lane unless we switch to what is distinctly a different lane and we are in that lane. We have traffic lights and stop signs and when we get into traffic jams we beep for no conceivable benefit. Indian drivers use a different system, which is approximately summed up as
- Lanes are a suggestion.
- Honking is an acceptable substitute for turn signals, brakes, and music on the radio.
- There is no such thing as personal space, only wasted space that something could have fit into. In other words, motorcyclists don't get a whole lane to themselves. Instead they share that lane with other riders, small cars, trucks, buses, and pedestrians who are somehow successfully playing real life Frogger.
In the cities I felt safe because no one went particularly fast, so any accident is more of a slow crunch than a deadly event. On the highway I learned to hide behind other seats on the logic that what I can't see happening is not a bus about to smash into us head on at 60 miles an hour. What we'd consider narrow one-lane highways with a dirt shoulder, they used as one lane each direction, but with plenty of space for people to be passing constantly and in both directions at once. They seem to survive by using the strange strategy of paying attention.

The reason for being there was my older brother's wedding. His wife is born in America, but her parents are from India and most of her family is in India. Note that family means more than parents, cousins, aunts, uncles, grandparents. In that case she might have had about 50-50 US-India. Instead family counted great uncles and cousins once removed and uncles of cousins and nephews of cousins and let's just say it all added up to quite a lot of people, to the point that at the reception we ran out of tables and many people were in rows of chairs.

My first meal there was at her uncle's house. He'd, by he I mean his wife and servants and maybe mother, had created a traditional meal for the area. The central part was a pile of rice, which was then mixed bit by bit with various sauces placed around the rice. Served on a banana leaf. Eaten by hand. It was delicious. I'll say more later, but for now I want to ensure that you know that eating Indian food with your hands while surrounded by new family is a great experience. Forks are overrated. Their ice cream is different, and I think better.

Apparently Kerala is a very conservative area, something I believed based on the fact that except for the few family who came from America, I did not see a single woman who was not wearing a saree. Or is it sari? I see it sari here, but signs there said saree. Supposedly in other areas women wear strange clothes like pants and skirts, but we didn't have time to go exploring all of India.

I encountered some wonderful contradictions, or what would seem to be contradictions to a stereotyping idiot (me). One family we visited (I don't remember the connection, I think an aunt) had chickens in their backyard and a coconut tree next to their house that they regularly harvested for the coconuts (that's right, they do not harvest bananas or tomatoes from coconut trees). I forgot the father's job, but the mother was a biologist, one of those people who can casually talk about the parts of plants in scientific terms and is in all likelihood better educated than whoever you are reading this. It seemed a bit odd to me, until I realized that my own family of highly educated middle-class white Americans has a vegetable garden, which isn't even as conveniently accessible as the coconut tree, which bore fruit right at the level of their terraced roof. The chickens made less noise than the kids next door riding around in their miniature car. They also had two dogs. Both were friendly toward people, but one had a strange hatred of ducks and if not caged would kill all their ducks. He didn't mind chickens, even when their chicks would wander into his space.

The wedding was disorganized and a fun experience. It didn't involve me standing facing the sun for an hour like my oldest brother's. It did start late, resulting in the choir starting their practice while we were taking pictures. Or maybe sooner. I suspect they snuck in and used the wedding hymns as part of their practice.

Only my brother (the groom), my dad, and I were able to go. As such, we adopted the photographer as a fake sister to fill out some of the pictures. We were still outnumbered at least 50:1. This led to a revelation. As a white American I tend to think of myself as part of a majority, with everyone else being a minority. Only by actually seeing somewhere other than America or Canada could I fully understand that on a global scale, there aren't a whole lot of us. But we're not alone, there aren't all that many people of African descent either (that is, if you don't go general and include the entire human species). It took a day or so after coming back to stop thinking that white people looked weird, though in comparison I still think American women dress like whores (they show shoulders! and ankles! ANKLES, can you believe it? well, and other stuff, but I'm trying to be silly).

After the trip I decided that it was for the best that my oldest brother and mother hadn't gone. My mother would have not liked the traffic (have I mentioned the shortage of seatbelts?) or the perpetual disorganization. My brother has a bad habit of making fun of anything different. This leads to the monkeys.

At lunch yesterday I was telling him about the tendency to eat with one's hands. He reacted with some nonsense about it being unsanitary and uncivilized and "eating like a monkey". I pointed out that some Asians would find him to be uncivilized with his use of forks. Can you imagine the barbaric nature of eating with the same type of tool that you use to prepare food? Chopsticks are the only civilized way to eat! His response was some sort of vaguely politically correct nonsense about different cultures have their ways and that's fine, followed up with more about it being uncivilized and unsanitary. I pointed out that we can wash our hands, which he didn't seem to see as enough.

So I brought up his lunch, which included two apples (eaten by hand) and a sandwich or two (also eaten by hand). How uncivilized! He claimed that his hands didn't get dirty so it was okay. Fine. A person can use a lot of naan (it's somewhat like a pita; some lazy places will just use pita as a substitute) to keep their hands clean. Besides, it was only a few weeks ago that we'd eaten quite messy barbecue when we were in Georgia, a mess possibly worse than sauce and rice based on being much stickier. In the 'civilized' Georgia they gave us a lot of napkins (actually they were more pragmatic and just put a roll of paper towels at each table) while the 'uncivilized' India houses (and the banquet hall for the wedding reception) all had small sinks near the tables where we could actually wash our hands rather than just gluing bits of napkin to them.

It saddens me that an educated person like my brother (though still less educated than the uncivilized Indian families who we stayed with) is so blind, that he cannot see that all cultures are adaptive, that their customs work for where they are. Using banana leaves as plates (actually this wasn't common on the trip, but let's just run with it) makes sense when they literally grow on trees, right next to the house, and are free unlike paper plates. For more durable dishes we used what were basically wide metal pots, strange-looking, but far better at keeping food on the plate than the shallow, nearly-flat dishes I'm used to. They build homes of concrete which are hard to remodel and decorate, but which unlike wood won't rot to the ground in five years in the tropics; making American wood homes look stupid in comparison, except that wood works in a cooler, less humid, less buggy area with still tons and tons of trees ideal for construction. While there is a lot of ornamental, and possibly wasteful, culture, the core of all cultures is practical: survival in the environment which births it.

I guess that got a bit preachy, didn't it?

Our flight path was Chicago to London to Abu Dhabi to Trivandrum. The Atlantic flight was on American Airlines and wasn't much fun at all. Their food is mediocre and the in-flight entertainment was lacking. The Abu Dhabi flights were on Etihad, which was a lot nicer, with a pretty decent entertainment system, good food, and seats that weren't a depressing and claustrophobia-inducing dark blue. I still can't say I enjoy 8 hour flights. Something about the constant vibration and air pressure change makes me feel ill. Have I mentioned that the airport in India was terrible? They haven't even figured out the idea of those trays to put stuff in before going through the metal detector, or maybe they just haven't figured out that people carry metal objects that aren't cell phones. Also they had none of those giant boards that tell you your flight is delayed and it doesn't have a gate yet.


Ninjasuperspy said...

I had a US Gov't professor who spent time in Cameroon and would tell us about how different it was there. Apparently traffic signs didn't exist in force and right of way at intersections was decided by giving right of way to whichever car had the most dents. Stop lights actually increased accidents because there were people who would disregard them and use the old system. Also with half of the country being French and half being English colonially there were some citizens who when going to the doctor would only accept injections as therapy and some that would only accept pills. Customs can be really odd minefields.

And it was incredibly annoying to hear my cousin refer to sushi as "bait" while eating crab claws in pasta salad.

Shintar said...

That was great.

pedestrians who are somehow successfully playing real life Frogger

was my favourite line, but the whole thing was both interesting and entertaining.

RIver said...

I love learning about new cultures, as I probably will never have the type of money that required in travelling.

Your from suburbs of Chicago, very cool so am I. The south burbs.

I should have a Chicago WoW blogger meeting, theres a few of us.

Zahraah said...

Sounds like a very interesting trip :) Perhaps your brother needed to get his hands dirty to appreciate what souhds like an eye opening experience

Klepsacovic said...

@Ninjasuperspy: Sometimes I think Africa is actually a gigantic social experiment to see what happens when people are randomly grouped and separated.

@Shintar: I hope it wasn't too rambling. :)

@River: I'll have to do some poking around to see about this. The idea intrigues me, but I fear the fallout from it being revealed that I am awkward and sarcastic in real life.

@Zahraah: I wish that would work, but as my other brother agreed, he just makes fun of anything different.

Crucifer said...

eating Indian food with your hands

Always eat with your right hand only. Your left is considered unclean.

There is a certain texture to foods that a fork removes from experiencing. Lemon rice with vegetable curry, cooked eggplant, juices coating your fingers. Rice cakes nearby to soak it all up and naan bread for the rest. And all of this on a banana leaf.

Icecreams - Try Raas Malai next time you are out there.

Airports - If you want a giant pile of crap, go to Heathrow [Thiefrow].

Heywood Djiblomi said...

"In the 'civilized' Georgia..."

Careful... else you'll lump Illinois transplants in with that.

Klepsacovic said...

@Crucifer: I should have been specific: yes, only with my right hand. At the least I need a clean hand for my water glass.

@Forreststump: Are you suggesting that Illinoisans are civilized? Our perpetual corruption disagrees.

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