Sunday, January 9, 2011

Write your own damn blog posts, I'm at the beach

OK, fine. After a year of not blogging enough because of stress, my excuse now is excessive relaxation.

This is the opposite reaction almost everyone in the world has, of course, in traveling from the serene Himalayas to their hyper-populated neighbors. The theme of the year has been anchoring, that most deeply human phenomenon in which your happiness is entirely relative, based not on some fundamental quality of your identity but on your tangible experiences and exposure to a certain set of circumstances; it's the phenomenon that explains why millionaires are not ecstatic all the time, and in fact many are rather depressed. This can only begin to explain to all of you how being constantly offered sure scams, tourist-trap accommodations, and suspect aid is both a comfort and a relief to me.

The most difficult and most successful teaching I did all year involved two weeks in which I tried to teach the concept of critical analysis using my least favorite part of the syllabus, a propaganda speech by Bhutan’s prime minister about the concept of Gross National Happiness. In it, he shares an anecdote in which the government tries a pilot program of giving rural farmers genetically modified, high-yield rice. After a single year, one farmer has doubled his rice production. Thrilled, the Department of Agriculture begins talking with him about expansion, increased labor, etc. The farmer, though, interrupts them mid-consult to declare that instead of producing twice as much rice, he would simply take a year off from farming and live at the same standard as before.

The prime minister wanted us to see this as a sign that the Bhutanese do not care for material wealth so much as their own contentment. (I used it to prod the students about the definability of happiness, and the impossibility of absolute equality, for which the concept of anchoring played an important role.) Safely out of Bhutan, I can now admit that my initial reaction was, Damn, that guy is lazy. Having filtered my perceptions of Asia solely through Bhutan, I was slow to judge. As expected, having spent less than a full week in India, I am now ready to judge the hell out of them.
If Bhutan is content, India is the opposite. People here do not seem unhappy on the whole, but they are all striving. In Bhutan, store owners would frequently tell you to go next door to buy something they sell rather than stand up and get it for you. Thus, it has been something of a comfort to walk down the street and be yelled at by twenty consecutive vendors. Surely it is a betrayal of my capitalist upbringing and prejudices, but it’s just nice to see people hustling so hard to make something of themselves.

That said, big-city India is incredibly depressing. Chennai offered very little in the way of non-Indian-food-related fun. (The Wikitravel introduction to Chennai reads something like, “So, you have arrived as a tourist in Chennai! Why did you do that? There is nothing to see here. Perhaps you are seeking a job in the IT sector?”) Once we made our way to Trivandrum and now Aleppey, though, it’s been much more relaxing. Trivandrum would still be considered a medium-sized city by most, but we were able to wander up and down almost the whole thing, cover all the non-temple sites in the tourist pamphlet (sorry, we’re just done with temples), and spend a glorious half day at the beach. Aleppey isn’t thrilling, but we haven’t yet taken a boat through the backwaters of the jungle, which is what you come here to do.

In general, I’ve been very happy striking a balance between getting tourist things done and doing nothing, which we feel we deserve after our year of hard work. It’s a tenuous balance, given we may not actually deserve it, all of us being unemployed now and whatnot. But for now we are not worrying about that, because it is 85 degrees out, there is a beach, delicious Indian food is $1 per meal, and, for a brief, shining, glorious moment, we do not work with children.

This country good

The rate of signage in India is approximately 1 sign per square area that will fit a sign. These are my favorites, or the most confusing ones.

"Doctors' relaxation center"

"Shoppers Shop"

"GOLD!!!" (this one is pretty frequent, and makes me question Adi's claim that there are no Jews in India)

"Witch shake" (on a juice shop signboard)

"Wine Shop (A Government of Kerala Undertaking)"

I like this country.