Friday, May 29, 2009

Magic, Monkeys, Momos & Matches

Thanks to all my family and friends who posted on the blog (and of course to Adrienne for thinking up such a great idea), from the local fortune teller’s robot. Notice the technological sophistication of the robot’s head, which is taped onto its body with some old duck tape. For a mere ten rupees, try on a headset and listen if you dare. The sign indicates that all payments should be made before the fortune is dispensed.

Us foreigners (plus Rani, my language tutor) together for a birthday dinner. Soon after the picture was taken, a fierce hailstorm knocked out the power and threatened to blow away the restaurant. Moving clockwise from me: Chang O (Korean), Katarina (Italian), Hyo Jung (Korean), Rani (Indian), Essha (Japanese) and Theresa (German). For my birthday, Hyo Jung made me a card (written in Hindi for me to struggle over) and Chang O bought me a florid-patterned, pink and baby blue silk scarf. When I wore it the next day, I got a lot of sideways glances from locals, which affirmed my suspicion that my shawl is perhaps exclusively a female fashion.

Chang O and I at Khalsangs Tibetan Restaurant. Their cheese potato momos (dumplings) have a city-wide reputation. One funny anecdote from lunch: I ordered a Tom Yum soup for us (Thai, not Tibetan). When Chang O tried his first bite he was clearly disgusted by the lemongrass spice. But instead of having me lose face for ordering something unappetizing, he put down his spoon and said: “I am really full. I don’t think I can eat another bite!” Asian-style indirect communication in action.

A box of matches. Some deconstructionist could have a field day with the box art: a Caucasian midget wearing a prison uniform and Gandhi’s spectacles, lighting a cigarette under a traditional Hindu parasol while floating in outer space like the cosmic embryo in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Some local Tibetan students giving a new coat of paint to the neighborhood Stupa (reliquary mound). They lashed some wood into an approximation of a scaffold, and then laid rickety window shutters over top as a platform.

This immigrant boy and his Mataji have just arrived in the Manhattan harbor on a steamer from Czechoslovakia. They will change their names from Suddha and Ashok Aggarwal to Sally and Bob Johnston, and then head straight to the election booth to vote five times for the party machine (no worry that Bob is but 11). After being awarded citizenship, they will take an apprenticeship in the paper factory.

Bhalu, or Bear. In the morning, I sit on the same green bench for four hours studying Hindi, and he will sleep on the grass besides me. If anyone comes too close, he will give a dreamy growl. In the far background you can see the chaukiedar, or watchman, in a coolie-red shirt. His job is to slingshot rocks at the monkeys, dogs, donkeys and occasional cows that stray onto church property. His salary is $50 a month. At first he was against Bhalu joining me on the church bench, but he relented after I told him in broken Hindi that I couldn’t understand his request. Still, he will look at me helplessly when Bhalu growls at the chubby Indian tourists and sends them running for sanctuary inside the church, taking refuge in whatever god is most accessible at that moment, as is the Hindu way.

The cleanest cat in all of India, on the hunt in a spice patch.

A family of monkeys perched atop the mountain canopy. I threw the mother a banana, but it missed the mark and tumbled down the mountainside. In this picture, you can see her wishing that I had better aim, and wondering if it’s worth it to attack me.

After lunch I am met on the road by Uncha Vala, or the Tall One. A few times a week he’ll come back to my apartment and sleep from mid-afternoon until seven or eight. He is nursing a wicked neck wound (on his other side, no doubt from Bhalu or some other gangster dog), and before he leaves and roams for the night I’ll disinfect it with warm soapy water. There are no veterinarians in Mussoorie, and most dogs have easily treatable but often neglected health conditions.

Papu, my cook, wearing a WWF t-shirt and chopping up bland cabbage and tasteless carrots for my Tibetan lunch (Thantuk, or flat noodles). He is 19; the other servant (“Nauker” in Hindi) is 12. They were both plucked from Bihar, a nearby state with low literacy and high criminality, and taken into the service of the Tibetan family, where they have been for three years. They are both illiterate and work long hours (7am to 10pm, 7 days a week). Their salary is $15 a month, free rent and new clothes when necessary. But through all his tribulations, which have no counterpart in the US or the developed world, he manages to be happy pretty much all the time. Unless he’s the White Tiger (written by Aravind Adiga, and winner of the Booker Prize last year – has anyone read it?), and he’s plotting to visit his master's throat with a broken whisky bottle and then start a new life in Bangalore. Sometimes it’s hard to know where one's affections should lie.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Birthday Wishes for Stephen

Dear Stephen,

Your family and friends thought that it would be nice to send you some long-distance birthday wishes this year! We're thinking of you even though you're far away. Hope you enjoy!!

Wishes from family:

Steve, Happy Birthday little bro! Okay, 25 is not so little anymore. I can remember when you were born! No joke, I was out at recess at my Catholic elementary school and Eric or Bryan (can't remember which) walked over from his school across the street to tell me that you had just been born. So many great memories through the years of you, but nothing beats Gospel Bill, a hamper to draw on and a bathroom for hours and hours! What is the point of a public blog if you can't use it to embarrass someone??

Anyway, can't wait to hang out for a month! Deep bonding going on this summer I feel.

My pic is a cute pic of us from Dave and Katie's wedding. We kept shooting it until we got "real" smiles! Many more pics to come of us in India together! With monkeys I hope!

Love You Lots, Vicki

Wendy, Nathan, and I want to wish you a Happy 25th BDay. I realize that you probably don't understand why people congratulate others on their BDays, its just part of nature and happens automatically. I guess the reason is more to celebrate one's life up to that point. Stephen, I have watched you grow every year since your birth (with a few misses in there) and you never cease to amaze me. Each year you expand your mind and experiences more than anyone else I know. The last 24 years have made you such a unique individual and each year I look forward to seeing what is next in your life saga. Have a didactic 25th year. HUG!

Happy Birthday! Twenty-five? How can it be? So happy you are able to do the traveling and study that feeds your inquisitive mind. Love, Dad and Linda

Happy Birthday, Buddy - Where the heck are you?

Oh sagacious brother of fewer compiled years on this good planet Earth. You have reached 25... a quarter of a century. You are possibly 1/4 way through your life (assuming you live to the nice round number of 100... which is quite likely given your deprivation of diabolical red meat). Let us consider one quarter.

For a quarter I can go to a gumball machine and turn the steel knob to see a brightly colored ball pop out. So glossy and inviting with a taste so vibrant yet short-lived.

For a quarter you can place a call from an antiquated phone booth stinking of human pee. Only that call better be short and surely must be local (not from India).

One quarter of an hour leaves us with just enough time for an afternoon siesta. Time to rest our heavy eye balls and visit a far off dream land. Or perhaps time for a brief mediation on loving-kindness. The sensation of a stray dog licking our hands or petting the lumpy skin of a newborn puppy born invaded by malignant tumors.

Couscous often calls for one and 1/4 cups of water. Couscous, so plain and lackluster. Yet when combined with the proper far eastern seasonings can be such a treat.

A quarter of Steelers football... typically a power struggle for field position. Hard hitting Bettis ramming it up the middle for 2 yards at a time. Perhaps a field goal or two. But nothing too dramatic.

What exactly am I trying to convey? I believe it is something along the lines of: You haven't even begun yet. This has been just a mere gumball, a local call, a siesta, a cup of bland couscous, an opening quarter to survey the other team. You have seen what you are up against. You are the cartographer defining the parameters of your life. You are the Stratego player recognizing where the bombs are. You are just developing your taste for the best nan breads. You understand how many apples you'll need to climb the Himalayas.

So I await in the wings. Looking on in anticipatory glee at the next 3/4 of your life. Will Big Ben make another game saving tackle? Will you successfully save whole herds of goats, chickens, cows with your life long diet? Will your beard reach guru proportions permitting you a devoted flock of followers? Will you write a dissertation bringing together your varied interests in religions, beasts, and sexuality? Will you write a novel or autobiography at the intersection of these interests? Perhaps.

One thing is for sure: I respect your journey on the road less traveled. Your first quarter of life has been unorthodox even heterodox. You have not shrunk from uncertainty but embraced it. You move forward resisting the urge for comfort. Novelty is your muse. Adventure your carrot. Seeking the bliss of life in the seeming smallness of everything. Your senses are sharpened on the grindstone of unfamiliarity. And these faculties will serve you greatly in the next period of your life. I hope they are put to maximum use in whatever you do.

I leave you with a quote:

Age does not diminish the extreme disappointment of having a scoop of ice cream fall from the cone. ~Jim Fiebig

P.S. The attached photos illustrate the powerful effects of aging. Only 1 year! Perhaps why I've been banished to the over 70 rec basketball league.

P.P.S. Consider moving to Seattle... very moist.

Wishes from friends:

~michael and chai lei

Dressing up at the Pirate exhibit at the Field Museum in Chicago.
That's my hair too. Anyway, been a long time man. Hope we can see each other soon.
And happy B-Day!

Best, Brian

Janam Din ki badhai!! It's "Happy Birthday" in Hindi. Now you're turning mid-twenties but you're still too young! :)

The skyscraper picture was taken in Haeundae, Busan and this is another aspect of Korea besides temples and mountains. Plus, I want you to keep good memories of Busan, not bad ones like Busan boss.

I'm happy to know a good teacher as well as a good friend. Even though you're younger than me, I've learned a lot from you. Thanks, Steve.

I hope you have a super wonderful day!! :) hugs!! BTW, when are you planning to shave your beard?

Love, Jeong Yi

Foreign bonanza. Stephen and former colleague Robbie win back-to-back raffles at BNU's faculty party, December 2006. Contents include stained bed sheets from the Tang Dynasty.

Wanderlust is contagious. May the same be said of God's Love.

long white eyebrows mean long life in chinese culture, i happened to see this picture in a theatre and i think it's a good birthday present. happy birthday, stephen. from your friend mengmeng

Wish you have a happy birthday in India!
Let's meet up in NYC!
Just call me if you need Kimchi!

Chase Chang O Son

Love, Ethan and Azi

Happy Birthday Stephen! My picture is of a few assorted items that make me think of you. I'll let you parse through it for meanings on your own -- I suspect you'll enjoy that more :). Remember: nothing is accidental. ...except for those things that are. I couldn't get a crisp shot of the Risk cards, so I'll tell you that they're "Eastern United States," "India," "China," and "Kamchatka," (in that order). (I couldn't find one for South Korea :)). Also, the book on the far right is the Bhagavad Gita. Oh, and the reason the bishop's miter is gone is because Misty ate it years ago. (But is that *really* why the bishop's miter is gone?) -- Oh, and the title of this little piece? "Home Sweet Home." Peace my friend, Jeff

Nothing to be said
Nothing to be done
Only the splash of a falling rock

Happy Birthday Steve!
Love, Bob, the lunatic artist

Steve, from the majestic Atlantic, I send you a warm Birthday Blessing: May your heart be a sanctuary of peace, and may your very being give rise to the joy which comes with each new day.

--your friend, Chad

We are sending pictures we took at Endsville last weekend. It was a beautiful, although somewhat chilly, spring day. The white dogwood was glorious and everything was that special green that one sees only from May to June. I planted 200 individual nasturtium seeds one by one all around the house at the base of the deck and porch. (I had actually asked Adrienne if she thought there were really 200 seeds in the packets - when I poured them out to soak for a while, it didn't look like that many; once I started planting, however, I was sure that it was closer to 1000.)

Happy happy birthday and many special greetings of the day. We miss you. We love you.
Marian and Bruce

And for my gift to you, I thought you might like to come on a little walk with me, to some places we like to go. Can you guess them?

I know, this one's easy.

If you look closely at this one you'll see many familiar sights. In the background is a place you went last year on your birthday and in the top left corner there's a great place for early morning hot chocolates :)

Sending you special wishes from your favorite places here in Pittsburgh. (And so is Bob the cat.)

All of us who contributed hope that you've enjoyed this blog - it was a lot of fun to put it together.

...and okay, I promised I would put up a picture of DW. You asked for it:

Unfortunately, I couldn't find him as Edgar. So I settled for John the Baptist.

Bonus photo.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Maytime Mussoorie

The monsoon season has started in spurts this year. Every morning there is a dense mist that comes sweeping across Dehra Dun and enfolds Mussoorie. Rain is always threatening. In this picture, I am relying on candle-power to get through an outage.

All the roofs in Mussoorie are made of tin. You can always tell when a monkey is crossing your roof because of the unique metallic ping of monkey claws on metal. While rain can make a din, nothing compares to hail. Being under a tin roof through a hailstorm is like spending an afternoon in a Japanese pachinko bar. In this picture, my neighbor’s kids, who themselves are little noise machines, are enjoying the hail.

Mussoorie is roughly divided into three parts. To the far west is Happy Valley, where the Tibetans and Nepalese descendents of the ghorkas live. In the center is Mussoorie proper, with its mall, touristed streets and many restaurants. I was told that Mussoorie has 40,000 live-in citizens, but over 2,000,000 domestic tourists will visit each year. Perhaps local lore – I haven’t been able to substantiate the claim. My end of town is called Landour, and luckily it doesn’t offer many tourist attractions and remains peaceful. In the distance, you can see a white stupa, or Buddhist reliquary mound.

This Christian house (cross on the door) is about as cute as a gingerbread house.

My Korean friends, Chang O (the guy) and Hyo Jung. Chang O works at Koongmin bank, and is here to learn Hindi in the hopes of opening a bank branch in Delhi. Hyo Jung originally came here to learn Hindi for her job, but ended up extending her leave of absence for another year. They both studied for eight months in Delhi, and will go back for a second year after leaving Mussoorie. When I went to their house for a Korean meal, I was astonished to see how many Korean imports they had. In this picture, you can see Chang O grasping his most precious bottle of Soju, the lifeblood of Koreans.

Again with Soju. Chang O had recently returned from a visit to Korea, and he brought back to India an entire box of Soju, a kilogram of kimchi, glass noodles, pepper paste, soy sauce, individual-sized tubes of Korean coffee and tea…

The main attraction of the meal was kimchi chigae, or kimchi soup. Hyo Jung thinks we could have cooked it for a little longer, but I think it tasted just as good as a Pocheon brew. Back in Korea I would eat kimchi chigae a few times a week. Even writing about it is making my mouth salivate.

The Indian national elections were on the 13th. After they’re done fixing the vote, they’ll announce the winners on the 16th. It was neat to see the democratic process in action. All this past month there have been political rallies, even in a sleepy town like Mussoorie. Other places like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh must have been seething with chaos. In this picture, my tutor Rani and I are holding up our fingers. Rani had voted earlier that morning, and the official marked her index finger with black ink. A blackened finger is the way that the government attempts to contain one person to one vote. The ink can take as long as a month to rub off. When I saw her inked finger, it reminded me of the albino monk who turns up dead in a vat of pig’s blood with a blackened tongue and forefinger in The Name of the Rose.

Election posters. The only way to get anything to stick to lime-washed walls is to adhere it with glue. Lucky for the politicians, these posters will probably still be there when the next election cycle rolls around. These posters are for the predominately caste-based Bahujan Samaj Party, led by Mayawati, the female dalit from Uttar Pradesh. Their symbol is the white elephant. BJP is a lotus flower and Congress is the upraised palm. There’s something very Rauschenberg about this wall.

A Sai Baba festival outside the Sai Baba temple. Sai Baba is the living reincarnation of god who has a divine afro. In this picture, Sai Babaists are feeding the community.

Sai Baba

When Babaism becomes Dadaism...

…becomes Miroian Surrealism. Mussoorie at night.

On the twisting road outside my apartment with my neighbor.

Sable Paws enjoying a snooze.

Relaxing on a wall overlooking a lethal precipice.

If you examine the edge of the wall closely, you will see the hairy digits of a baby languor (a white-faced, black-bodied monkey). We played hide-and-seek until I took out my camera, and then he swung away. Monkeys have two opposing reactions when you point a camera at them: they either high-tail out of there, or they treat your camera like a surface-to-air missile launcher and counterstrike.

Right outside my apartment is a litter of puppies. This is baby season: all the monkeys and dogs have ‘em. This puppy made it through the cold, rainy night by linking with his siblings into one big ball of fur.

Passing stranger! you do not know how longingly I look upon you,
You must be he I was seeking, or she I was seeking, (it comes to me as of a dream),
I have somewhere surely lived a life of joy with you,
All is recall'd as we flit by each other, fluid, affectionate, chaste, matured,
You grew up with me, were a boy with me or a girl with me,
I ate with you and slept with you, your body has become not yours only nor has left my body mine only,
You give me the pleasure of your eyes, face, flesh, as we pass,
you take of my beard, breast, hands, in return,
I am not to speak to you, I am to think of you when I sit alone or wake at night alone,
I am to wait, I do not doubt I am to meet you again.

The ghost trapped inside my computer.
Today marks the two year anniversary of my vegetarianism. It was two years ago to this day that I, having fled the duck platters of Peking and the mutton momo mountains of Tibet, met Adrienne in India, where we both took to a Brahminical diet. It stuck (not counting fish in Korea and Japan). My main nutrients now come from vegetables, beans and basmati rice…
And my daily bag of Kurkure! It has 100% of the masala amino acids that growing boys need.