December 7, 2012

Looking at Each Other

My first few days in Jaipur were filled with what I called "neocolonialist guilt." At my guesthouse I was waited on by at least three servants at dinnertime, who would all gather around and stare silently at me as I ate alone at the table. Every night I would try my best to make conversation, but my limited Hindi prevented much more beyond "Oh, potatoes. Very good. Yes, very good," which is not captivating table talk. Sitting there by myself, getting my water refilled after every sip, I felt like I was resurrecting the British Raj singlehandedly, and I kept expecting a fourth servant to show up behind me wafting a punkah to keep me cool.

Gradually, the white expat anxiety gave way to plain irritation as I got smothered by the same excessive attention out and about. Stepping into a department store for a pair of paints, five sales clerks instantly enveloped me and followed my every move, so that the moment I touched a piece of clothing they would pick up five completely dissimilar items to present to me. "If you like those shorts, sir, why don’t you also consider this winter jacket?" Meanwhile, I’ve been trying desperately to form personal relationships with the owner and front desk manager of my guesthouse, checking in every day to say hello, but no matter what I say the response is invariably: "Any problems with your room? What more do you need?" And then of course, there’s the constant staring on the street, the staring at work, and the sense that I stand out like a sore thumb. The attention and the impenetrable formality have put a sort of cage over me, and I'm feeling boxed in.

Only recently have I realized that this "caged animal on display" analysis is awfully self-centered. To assume that everyone I meets alters their behavior around me or feels compelled to lavish me with attention because of my blond hair is a pretty internalized interpretation, and that sort of assumption is as much a stale remnant of colonialism as anything else. So what if it's something I've been missing about Indian culture in general all this time?

New Yorkers commonly cite their proximity to eight million other people as an excuse for what outsiders would term rudeness. "I walk by dozens of people on the sidewalk every day," they argue. "We're packed into subways like sardines. You expect me to stop and shake hands with everyone who comes my way?" Curtness is a practical survival strategy. India suffers a similar overcrowding problem--on the scale of, say, 1.2 billion people. But methinks they've opted for an altogether different tack than ignoring one another; instead, I think they've made a determined commitment to actually acknowledge each other. If putting up with millions of other people in your life is an unavoidable reality, Indians have chosen to excel at it. I compare it to infamous Indian traffic chaos: sure, jampacked streets full of motorcycles, rickshaws, and cows will inevitably create a few crashes, but they'll create infinitely more oustanding drivers.

So what does excelling at living alongside each other look like? For starters, staring can be forgiven. People are interesting, so why not look at who's in front of you instead of spending your life staring down at the pavement? But more importantly, hospitality is sacred. We're all guests at one time or another, and in India one is nearly always sharing a roof with other people, so we ought to take it as a serious duty when it's our turn to play host. As for weddings, well, drawing up a finite guest list and leaving someone out of the celebration is tantamount to social heresy, so better to open the dancefloor up to the masses. If we have no control over who we're surrounded by, why not embrace inclusion? New Yorkers have tackled overcrowding by treating others with respect as a mandate; Indians have taken a more affirming approach and have adopted "the more the merrier" as a mantra.

I think that's something I can adjust to. I'm willing to trade in some personal space in exchange for the fruits of human connection. Take the gym I've started attending, for instance. My first week I thought I could slip in, spend some quality time with a treadmill and my headphones, and slip out again. Oh, no no. Here at least five trainers prowl the floors, and upon arrival every day I'm seized, presented with a daily list of exercises, and required to complete them--and get my completion card signed off--before getting permission to leave. And let me tell you, getting caught skipping warm-up stretches is bad news. Naturally, it was a bit infurating my first few days not to step onto a cycle without getting my posture corrected. But then it hit me -- why be annoyed by free personal trainers who will actually make sure I do what I'm supposed to? I can get used to extra attention.

That being said, India has also come up with a grimmer solution to the challenge of living side by side that is, if anything, the opposite of inclusiveness. Its intricately stratified class and caste system, rooted in centuries of tradition and institutionalized by the categorically-minded British, influences every human interaction. Between every two people there is an encoded status of superior and inferior, master and servant. For those with higher status, the world is conveniently compressed, as the servant class can be more or less invisible to them. The servants, on the other hand, are obliged to constantly acknowledge their superiors. In this eternal pecking order, it's easy to imagine the roles of guest and host taking on the dynamic of master and servant.

The challenge for me, then, in forgiving the excesses of Indian hospitality, is to not let anyone become invisible. If everyone in India is going to stare at me, I'm determined to look right back at all of them. The employee who cleans my room every day and summons me to dinner--whom the guesthouse management call "the boy"--is a deaf man who I'm told applied for years to desk jobs but was denied them because there were no allowances for his condition. He must have finally gotten fed up with me over-excitedly waving and smiling at him every time we ran into each other, and this morning he gifted me with an Indian Sign Language alphabet sheet. I can't wait to finally have dinnertime conversation. 

November 21, 2012


So I've survived my first Diwali. It was touch-and-go throughout, but I dodged just enough cultural faux-pas and falling firecrackers to make it out and report. That's not to say I escaped entirely unscathed.

On the morning of the main day of Diwali, Hinduism's biggest festival, celebrants bless their workspace and pray for prosperity for the coming year. They do the same at their homes with family in the evening. I was invited to participate in my office's puja, which began at 9am. When I arrived, all my coworkers were already stuffed into my boss's office together, sitting cross-legged on the floor in brightly colored, brand-new kurtas before a shrine of marigolds, bananas, coconuts, palm fronds, and incense. I removed my shoes and squeezed in between the wall and the door. The manager of the office and his wife sat before the colorful spread and were led through a 45-minute ritual of prayers by two priests who patiently cued them like officiants at a wedding.

Halfway through the ceremony, the priests lit a small fire in a pot on the floor (the fire alarms had been carefully disabled beforehand). My coworkers began to pass around small bowls of rice, and soon I was presented with one too. The whole ceremony seemed to grind to a halt, and all eyes turned to me expectantly. My uncertainty must have been sending out a distress signal. 

"Toss the rice in the fire," my boss calmly explained. 

"Toss the rice in the fire?" I confirmed.

"Yes. In the fire." 

Dutifully, I took aim, fired, and was very pleased with myself when my kernel landed in the flames.

The room collectively gasped with horror. The horror gave way to shocked giggles as my coworkers turned to each other in embarrassment and my boss and his wife looked apologetically at the visiting priests. What my boss hadn't told me was not to throw the rice in the fire yet. The head priest cocked one eyebrow with irritation and then seemed to decide I hadn't ruined the entire ceremony with my ignorance. Sighing, he continued on. 

Hinduism is indeed a faith of forgiveness, as afterward I was still permitted to receive a red tilak between my eyebrows and a handful of sweets as a sort of ceremony completion certificate. Afterward, we had a brief reception with coffee, dumplings and cakes before everyone retired to spend the day with family. 

Fortunately several friends of an Oxford chum happened to be backpacking through Jaipur that day, so I didn't have to spend it alone. As evening set in, the four of us positioned ourselves on the rooftop of their hotel to observe the night's festivities from a safe vantage point. To an American, Diwali at nighttime might best be described as a grand union of Christmas and the Fourth of July. Every building blankets itself in lights, something I found mildly disorienting without any snow or freezing temperatures. And as twilight sets in and families finish up their Diwali prayers for the home, the firecrackers begin. 

Ostensibly, the loud booms and bright flashes are meant to drive off evil spirits, which is the general notion of the holiday. But let's be honest--every country just loves a good excuse for fireworks.  Some countries manage to scrape up better rationale for them than others. In the US, they're meant to evoke the cannon fire that secured America's freedom. Makes sense. For the UK's Guy Fawkes Day, they supposedly commemorate thwarting a terrorist who did not blow up Parliament. That's a bit more of a stretch. But of any holiday Diwali, billed as the Festival of Light, may make the strongest case.

An unexpected perk of living in a country with a dearth of government oversight means basically no regulations on firework sales, adding an element of danger to your holiday. As we watched from our perch, gigantic, terrifying booms and blasts began springing up all around us at random. As the night went on, things began to feel less like a holiday and more like a BBC war zone briefing. Somehow that only made us grow restless, and soon we decided we should probably throw ourselves into the melee and see what happened. 

Right outside the hotel, the street was strewn with celebrants lighting short fuses in the middle of the road and then running for their lives. Whenever a passing car failed to see a lit fuse, the entire street held its breath and hoped the blast didn't take its engines out. Wending our way through the mayhem felt more or less like traversing a minefield. Time and again, our first warning sign would be someone standing several feet away from us nervously plugging their ears; then we would look down at our feet, see a scrap of paper quietly sparking, and dash to the curb before it exploded into the air in a burst of green and gold. 

One of my friends got infected by the urge to blow things up and purchased some dubious but satisfyingly gigantic rocket-shaped fireworks from a sidewalk vendor. After he carefully placed the first rocket skyward in a jar and lit the fuse, the rocket shot out, took an immediate left turn, and charted a horizontal course straight into the hotel wall. Frankly I'm astonished there aren't more Diwali fatalities every year. As for me, I got singed only twice: first by an overexcited sparkler, and second by some rooftop miscreants using us for target practice. 

India, without fail, is a country of extremes, and the serene puja in the morning and the citywide pandemonium in the evening barely seemed like the same world, much less the same holiday. For me, the common link was a heightened sense of community. Squeezing in with my coworkers on my boss's floor evoked the same sort of intimacy that I shared with strangers at night as we dodged blasts or cheered together for the greatest fireballs. I found just as much to cherish in quiet meditation shared between coworkers as I did in the collective glee in the streets. 

August 31, 2010

That Time I Got Interrogated by the Nigerian Police

As if the stampede wasn’t exciting enough, last night I got dragged to a Nigerian police station. I’m so very glad I get to have all these new experiences before I leave.

I’m still scratching my head about how it all happened. Basically, through a carefully coordinated mix of miscommunications and coincidences, my friend Uche and I were accused of real estate fraud and hauled in for questioning. It played out like this: I had arranged to meet with Uche, a film editor, for dinner, and since I had lost my phone he gave me the address of a large, easy-to-spot house he lived near to meet in front of. When I got there, I didn’t spot Uche so I asked a chap on the sidewalk if he knew him, mentioning we were supposed to meet at this address. As misfortune would have it, the man happened to be the owner of the house, and being a crotchety and generally awful person (and a bit drunk) he leapt to some faulty conclusions.

A widespread phenomenon in Nigeria is “419 fraud,” when a fraudster sells a piece of real estate to someone when it’s not actually for sale. The foolish buyer purchases a house without seeing the inside, and then when he tries moving in he discovers someone else living there who has no intention of leaving. So common is this trick that owners often put signs in front of their homes saying “This house is NOT for sale.”

Well, this paranoid (and a bit drunk) bloke immediately decided I was trying to buy his house. When Uche eventually showed up, he was accosted by the guy and called a criminal. The uproar aroused the curiosity of the entire neighborhood, and soon we were surrounded by a mob of people who thought they could help by all yelling to each other their personal take on the situation. When we tried quietly slipping away, the homeowner cornered us and demanded we go and explain ourselves to the cops. He had a pack of cronies on his side that made it difficult to decline, so off we went. Along the way a woman kept sneaking up behind me and pinching me, and I can’t shake the notion that the homeowner told her to steal one of my hairs and put a hex on me or something.

Unexpectedly, the Nigerian police are the real heroes of the story. As soon as Uche and I calmly explained that we were just trying to get some soup when a crazy man accused us of trying to sell off his house, they rolled their eyes, took all our information, and told everyone to please leave and get on with their lives. Hear, hear.

August 30, 2010


I’ve been trying for weeks to join one of my friends from the film set at his church, and this week he finally wasn't shooting and was able to take me. I’ve heard plenty about the Pentecostal boom in Nigeria, with mega-churches springing up left and right, and I know that Nigerians know how to get down with their praise music, so I was gearing up for some culture shock. What I got instead was reverse culture shock -- I may as well have been visiting a mega-church in Colorado Springs. Besides feeling like I was in a small city (the sanctuary seated several thousand; the church has a fleet of 100 buses to shuttle them there), everything else was familiar: the same praise songs, the same projector screens flashing the day's Bible excerpt, the same fliers listing upcoming events. The most glaring difference was a gigantic crane camera that zoomed over the congregation and intermittently flashed close-ups of people's faces on the big screens as if we were Oscar nominees. Oh, and the massive gospel choir that closed the service totally rocked it.

August 29, 2010

The Osun Festival

The Osun Festival is essentially a communal prayer to Osun, the river goddess. As its main event, the entire city follows a young girl carrying a symbolic calabash from the center of town down to the banks of the river deep within the forest. Along the way, everyone sweeps their hands over their heads to purify themselves for the ceremony. My friends and I arrived a bit late to the procession, which meant there were only, oh, several hundred thousand people between us and the calabash. But Kola and Taofeek were bent on me seeing it, so they started tugging me through the throng. Right at the entrance to the forest a group of VIPs swept past us, parting the crowd like the Red Sea. Kola hatched the idea of jumping in behind them and riding their coattails to the front of the procession. Unfortunately, everyone else around us had the same idea.

In seconds, the crowd crashed back together and it felt like the sea had just collapsed on top of me. I was suddenly in the type of stampede where people don’t just get trampled but where they can suffocate to death. I made it out within a minute, but my phone wasn’t so lucky. While I had had both my hands firmly on my wallet in my right pocket, another pair of hands managed to slip my phone out of my left. I really have to give the thief credit; don't you agree that wrestling a phone out of a denim jean pocket can be a chore even when they’re your own jeans?

Truth is, my phone was on its last legs a year ago and I was on the verge of duct-taping it together, so I’m actually stoked life gave me an excuse to get a new one. And I’m only in Nigeria four more days, so I can manage until then. So I shrugged it off and got back to the festival: lots and lots of drumming and trumpets welcoming manifestations of the Yoruba gods, like the cloaked Eyos:

They used those sticks to beat me back when I got too close with my photographing. Unfortunately, being a white guy also meant it was impossible to walk around the festival without being assaulted for money, usually by the gods themselves. And you really can’t get out of tipping a god. Within seconds of snapping a pic of a fellow on stilts, the guy stomped over, straddled me, and surrounded me with a cabal of drummers who pounded into my ears until I coughed up some change. I think getting pinned down by a guy on stilts was probably more terrifying than the stampede.

August 28, 2010

Oshogbo Sacred Forest

This weekend I escaped Lagos and headed north to attend Nigeria’s biggest cultural event, the Osun Festival. The festival draws thousands of pilgrims every August to the Oshogbo Sacred Forest, a UNESCO World Heritage Site regarded as the heart of the traditional religion of the Yoruba people. In an odd twist, the sacred space was actually developed by a white Austrian woman. The artist Susanne Wenger came to Nigeria in the 1960s, became a born-again Yoruba priestess and filled the forest with all sorts of eerie wooden sculptures that she called refuges for the Yoruba gods that the modern world had abandoned. During the festival, the Yoruba travel to the forest to pay the gods their respects.

I traveled to Oshogbo via a Dodge Caravan that I hitched a ride with at a Lagos transport hub. Each vehicle in the hub puts a sign on its roof advertising its destination, and it only leaves once it’s filled to capacity. I was the first passenger to arrive, which meant I waited for half an hour while literally everything a person might need was peddled to me: hankies, wristwatches, rat poison, pirated copies of Hannah Montana. And the peddling didn’t stop there; whenever the van drove through any city, it was assailed by hordes of street vendors who literally sprinted alongside it. Sometimes the poor salesmen would be midway through an exchange before the van started speeding up again, which meant they had to dash after it to collect payment. I saw a guy who could quite possibly beat Usain Bolt run down the highway, losing a sandal in the process, just to deliver the proper change. Such is the fate of every Nigerian who falls victim to the country’s 50% unemployment rate: grab a box of cupcakes or pirated CDs and go stand in the middle of the highway.

Once in Oshogbo, I met up with two awesome guys, Kola and Taofeek, who a friend had arranged to be my guides for the weekend. I don’t even know how to explain how great they were—they made it their personal mission to keep me safe and see as much as possible and just keep me company, which any lone traveler probably needs more than anything. They also kept me well-fed even though they were fasting all day for Ramadan; Oshogbo is roughly half Christian and half Muslim, but still 100% traditionally Yoruba.

Our first stop was to the king’s palace. We were walking along when Kola and Taofeek suddenly bent down onto the ground; in front of them sat a wizened old man in a throne, eyeing me skeptically. Kola stood up and frantically whispered, “Prostrate yourself! Prostrate yourself!” So I bowed down and pressed my head to the ground before the king. Add that to the “things I never expected to do in my life” list. He was nice enough to let me snap a photo with him after I stood back up.

Inside his palace was a shrine with a priestess ringing a bell and accepting prayers. Pilgrims prostrated themselves before her and paid money for her to cast a handful of nuts on the ground; how the nuts landed predicted the pilgrim’s fortune.

More on the festival in my next post.

August 27, 2010

Being Mr. President

With only a week to go before I leave, I’ve had to use aggressive tactics to nab interviews with industry bigwigs. I tried chasing down a few guild presidents after a press conference yesterday, and I got about ten minutes with the Creative Designers president before she literally ran away from me. I’ve been doggedly calling Segun Arinze, the Actors Guild President—and an A-list celebrity—and today he finally acquiesced. Well, kind of: he told me I could ride along in his car and throw questions at him as he drove across town. I figured it was better than nothing; I would probably manage fifteen minutes with him before he kicked me out and I had to take a cab back home.

What I didn’t know is that I would actually spend the entire day—from noon to 9 pm—in his passenger seat, hopping around town with him from one appointment to the next. After the third stop, by which point I was on the complete other side of the city from my house, I announced I had been kidnapped.

He kept apologizing exasperatedly for his hectic schedule, but I’m convinced he enjoyed showing off just how in-demand he is. We were frequently assailed by carfuls of women honking and waving, and at one congested intersection Mr. Arinze beckoned over a traffic cop to complain about the holdup. “So sorry, Shegun Arinze!” the cop stammered, rushing to part the traffic and let us through.

At one point along the road he let out a big groan. “I told them I didn’t like my expression in that photo,” he said with utter annoyance, drawing my attention to a gigantic billboard advertisement with his face plastered on it.

“So have you put Omo to the stains test?” I inquired.

“Like you wouldn’t believe.”

I’ll say this for Mr. President (as everyone, everywhere called him) - he can certainly cram a lot into one day:

Stop 1: recording voiceover for a movie trailer. We were in and out in less than 10 minutes after Mr. Arinze read through each line only twice. (“Coming to a theater near you…coming to a theater…near you.”)

Stop 2: filming a scene for a soap opera. Though I didn't know that at the time. We walked into a packed room with ten teenage actors on one end and a long table at the other. We were quickly seated at the table, then someone yelled “Action!” and the ten actors began taking turns approaching the table, stating their names, and shadow-boxing. This all happened within five minutes of our arrival, so I had absolutely no idea what was going on. I finally deduced that they were filming a scene of an audition for a boxing movie, and Mr. Arinze played the director of the movie within the show. Yeah, I was still confused after we left, just half an hour later.

Stop 3: a photoshoot for a juice company. Mr. Arinze and his fake, beautiful family all stood in front of a canvas holding juice bottles and smiling delightedly. Oddly, this took over two hours.

Stop 4: a chicken shack for dinner, inhabited entirely by Nollywood actors who all hailed their chief when he strolled in.

Stop 5: Ojez Nightclub, for an important meeting in the back room to discuss a serious crisis within Actors Guild politics. Or so I presume from all the hushed tones and furrowed brows.

I finally insisted that I needed to get home before they locked me out of the house. Somehow I had started the day begging an A-lister to speak to me, and now I just wanted him to let me go home and sleep. At least he didn't make me pay ransom.

August 25, 2010

Mr. O

Since moving into the "Nigerian Idol" house, I've been living a life of decadence: sinks with flowing water! Fans that stay on all night! Lukewarm showers!

But there are other realities about life here in the compound that make me less comfortable. When I arrived, I learned that my patron had summoned an elderly housekeeper, Mr. O, to come stay with me. I first met Mr. O scrubbing the kitchen floor in his underwear. I learned he lives with his family three hours away, and on Sunday he left at 7 in the morning to travel those three hours to be with them in church.

The day I moved in, my friend Vocal Slender dropped by and told me he wanted to take me to Ajigule, the slum he grew up in. We were in the posh part of town, amid rows of fenced in mansions, so I figured we’d have far to travel to reach the slums. Instead, Slender took me a few paces from my house, turned down a narrow alley made of planks laid over a sewer line, and led me to the banks of a smelly and polluted river. And there, just on the opposite bank, was the sprawling slum. For 10 Naira (6 cents), a punt took us to the other side. I honestly couldn't shake the feeling that Charon was ferrying me across the River Styx. On the opposite bank was the sort of thing I had expected to see in all of Lagos but had remained hidden until now: pollution, desperation, dirt, smells of cooking oil and petrol. This was where clusters of kids squealed “Oyibo!” and followed me around the streets, where I had a delicious meal of pounded yam for $1 at a chop house, and where I got to hear and record Slender and his musician friends improvise a song on their front stoop. “This neighborhood,” Slender explained as we left, “is where all the staff live for the houses across the river."

I returned home to my mansion. Mr. O had washed all the floors, made the bed, and sprayed my room with anti-mosquito spray. When I asked if there was potable water, he dashed out to buy several liters before I could stop him. At first I felt purely guilty; just because I had wanted a few hours of comfort, I had made an old man toil away all day. Then I thought of Nigeria’s staggering unemployment rate, and I wondered: is Mr. O getting paid tonight when he otherwise wouldn’t have? Does he need this extra money to support his family? And I thought of Ajigule; is Mr. O grateful to spend a night in a cool room, with a soft bed? So have I clumsily benefited him or only inconvenienced him? I've decided, for the time being, that these questions are outside of my control, and for the next few days at least, it's best I try not to answer them.