Looking at the world through multi-colored Indian glasses

When I first arrived in India and saw people walking out on the street barefoot I took notice.  But now, I find it all perfectly normal.  So normal that sometimes, I walk around barefoot outside of my cottage too.  Yesterday someone who recently arrived in India worried that her cottage windows didn’t have any mosquito netting.  Just four weeks ago I would have said the same thing, but of course I’m now completely the opposite.  I have all of my windows wide open during the day to let the air flow right in, along with any other creature that might come with it.  I have ants inside and outside of my cottage.  These ants crawl all over the vanity and around the edges of my room.  Sometimes I even see them crawling on me but I choose to just live with them.  I saw a roach the other night on that same vanity.  If I were in my New York apartment, I would have called someone to rid of that roach, and his friends and family would have met the same fate.  Here in India, I just turned the light off and went back to sleep.  What’s happening to me?

Laundry drying in the sun

My perspective on cleanliness or my definition of what is clean has also changed.  When I asked for a clean towel the other day, a lady came to my cottage some 3 hours later with a raggedy towel with its edges all frayed.  The towel was a bit dingy looking, in a grayish brown shade with a few spots here and there.  She presented it to me, I gladly took it, and thanked her.  I was sure this was a “clean” towel even if it didn’t appear to be clean.  I see how they wash their clothes here- if there is a water source nearby, such as a river, they’ll go down to the riverside and smash the clothes/sheets/towels against a big rock and swoosh around the water.  Then the towels get dried in the sun, on any flat surface they can find.  Sometimes it’s on a tall bush, on grass, or on not so dusty piece of land.  A little dust during the drying process doesn’t mean the towel isn’t clean!  In fact, I washed some socks yesterday and I put them outside to dry on some rocks.  They’re clean.  The same measurement of cleanliness now applies to my room, floor, furniture, etc.  My cottage has fine spider webs and ants, random holes in the walls, and it’s dusty.  I ignored the holes and the ants, wiped some of the surfaces down a bit and/or put some plastic bags on top of it.  And voila!  It’s “clean” and functioning.  I no longer think of things being clean as in “clinically sanitized and disinfected.”  If it looks clean enough, I’m fine with it.


What is safe or what is dangerous in India is different, too.  I often see a dozen kids all piled into an auto-rickshaw going to school, most of them just standing and holding onto each other (of course there are no seat belts!).  I think I’ve seen a dozen grown men try to squeeze into an auto-rickshaw as well.  People travel on the bus with most of their body parts hanging outside the door or literally hanging on the back of the bus.  They are all acceptable and done thousand times over in a day here in India.  It’s New Year’s Eve and you want fireworks?  You want to set a palm tree on fire and put all of your fireworks inside the tree so that they explode, possibly blinding or setting the spectators on fire?  Why of course, “we do that every year for our New Year’s celebration.”  That’s what the locals told me when I asked them about the exploding palm tree.  Inside of my cottage, I mean villa here, there is a slot where I have to insert my keycard in order for the electricity to turn on.  The keycard board is torn off the wall and the wires behind the board are all exposed.  How long has it been like this?  I have no idea.  Has anyone fixed it?  No.  Do I think to complain or mention it?  No.  It works fine!  The same is true for the cracked and crumbling walls, and a giant patch on the wall that seems to be damp (possible water damage?)  Why make a fuss when it’s not (or doesn’t appear to be) harmful?

When you think of a villa an image of a beautiful Tuscan house comes to my mind.  I am staying at a place called “Ayurveda Yoga Villa” in India.  Is it a villa?  Or is it a crumbly, insect infested, dusty, damp, dimly lit hut that could potentially electrocute its guests?  I think it’s all relative.  During my usual walk today, I saw a village woman going through her morning routine washing her face, brushing her teeth, etc.  I could see her because she was washing from a faucet on the side of the road, at least 50 yards away from her house.  My guess is that she doesn’t have running water in her house.  When she was finished, she picked up her things and walked back with her dog following her a few steps back.  My cottage with indoor plumbing, running hot water, and electricity is definitely a villa in India.

On the topic of lights, here is something interesting I have found in at least half of the 8 places I have stayed so far in India.  They are not very keen on lampshades but extremely fond of light and power switches.  There are four bare light bulbs (one on each wall) in my cottage but I think I have at least 14 light switches.  You can easily calculate based on the simple figures here that more than half of the light switches don’t do anything.  I imagine that perhaps there were plans for ceiling fans and other fancy things to be installed, but all of those plans never came to fruition.  That’s my thinking but some other guests here told me that once they figured out which switch does what, they don’t touch the other ones in fear that they’d set off something terrible.  My light switches are on a long strip and they are all on different walls.  There are no lights by the bed or on the bedside table, so I have to walk around the room turning the lights off and make my way back to the bed with a flashlight.  Even when I have all the lights on, the lighting is so poor that I can’t really read after it gets dark.  But, it’s just as well since we all tend to go to bed after dinner, around 9PM.  The power goes out at least once if not three times a day, so if you have a hot water heater in your bathroom and the power is out, your options are very clear.  You wait to shower later or a cold shower it is for you.  The light switches, by the way, work the opposite way in India than in the States.  If you have the switch in the “on” position it’s “off” here.  In other words, you press the bottom of the switch and the top part is popped up, it’s “on.”

Toilet, shower, bucket, faucet all togetherThere are, however, things I find very well planned.  The typical bathrooms in India hold a toilet, a sink, and a faucet/shower in the same room without any sort of a divider.  It’s common to find a bathroom where you have the toilet on one side and two feet away from it a showerhead and a faucet.  The only thing I have to remember, if I want to take a shower, is to take the toilet paper away so that it doesn’t get soaked.  But I imagine that most Indians are not using the shower but rather a large bucket and a pail that are always present in the bathroom under the faucet.  You get a bucket of water, soap up, and you wash yourself by pouring the water over your head, all presumably while squatting or half standing.  There are no shower curtains, no dividers, and certainly not a tub where you’d waste all that water.  Taking an aromatic bubble bath is a luxury that doesn’t make any sense given so many variables here- aforementioned hot water heaters, the hot and humid weather in parts of India, water supply, and who has the time?  I found the bathroom set up a bit strange at first, but now I think it’s very clever and efficient.  You save so much water when you don’t take baths or even a conventional shower.  Yes, I’ve converted to the bucket and pail method…

I often see men sharing a drink amongst each other with just one tin cup.  One pours out how much he wants to drink into a cup and without touching any part of the cup, he’ll tilt his head and slowly drain the liquid into his mouth.  When he is finished, the cup is then passed to the next person who does the same.  I’ve seen them do this with a bottle of water, soda, etc. as well.  You take a sip without your lips touching the bottle so that you can share that same bottle of water with many others.  It is an acquired skill though.  I’ve tried it with tin cups and water bottles; I find that it’s the hardest when the bottle or the cup is full.  I usually end up with some of the liquid on my shirt and dribbling like a baby.  But with practice, I think I can do this like a seasoned Indian rickshaw driver.  Give me a few more months here.  It’s so much more hygienic, efficient, and saves on paper or those styrofoam cups!  I know it’s not going to catch on as the thing to do at picnics in Central Park but I for one, am all for it.

The one thing I was always comfortable with was getting my hands dirty (well, just my right hand to be sure) to eat here in India.  Everyday for almost two weeks I had to eat on the floor and with my hands at the Sivananda ashram, so I think I’m almost a pro now.  I can feel out the appropriate liquid to starch ratio in order to make a little bite sized morsel out of my food, and pop it into my mouth without making a mess.  I quite like eating this way, actually.  They always give me a spoon when I eat out somewhere but when I eat with my hands, it makes me feel like I’m living an Indian life even if it’s for just for an hour or two at a time.

That’s all I have for today but I know my list of everyday Indian life lessons will continue!

This entry was posted in 2011, India, Travel and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Looking at the world through multi-colored Indian glasses

  1. asami says:

    So true that everything is relative. I know you used to be a germophobe so this change is a great sign of your adaptability!

    I too find different bathroom setups very interesting. Showering over the toilet is very space-saving, yet I am pretty sure every westerner has soaked a roll of toilet paper at least once before learning to remove it before turning the water on. You haven’t mentioned using a pail to “flush” the toilet, so I’m guessing Indian toilets work like western ones. I am always amazed that you really can flush without 10 gallons of water in the toilet tank sucking down all that water.

    I’m so loving your postings.


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