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Friday, June 22, 2007

Life in Chennai #17: Why We Have Bars

The strangest, oddest fucking thing happened to me last night. It was surreal. I’m still shaking my head about it, trying to resolve the details.

So it’s 3am and I’m sleeping. I’m not sleeping that soundly actually. I was up late reading, my brain is still spinning and I can’t seem to get comfortable. So I’m rolling a lot. But I’m mostly asleep listening to the washing patter of rain through the nearby trees. Every once in a while it is punctuated by a snap and thud as the ripe mangos in the tree outside my window get heavy with water, break and fall heavily and satisfyingly to the pavement below. Occasionally a squirrel makes a racket, a vehicle passes along a nearby street, or a truck honks its horn, at who this time of night God only knows.

With all that, I am a little surprised I heard it. Perhaps it was simply the closeness or perhaps it was just a sound that was distinctly out of place, our brains adapted through the eons to pick out discrepancies in the background. Whatever the reason, the odd soft, scrape and knock stirred me.

You know when you’re in a sleepy state, your mind not quite awake and you’re not sure if you’re really awake. That was me. And even fuzzier without my glasses or contacts in.

But I swear I thought I saw a large dark shadow drift down out of sight outside my window. Now that is a very odd thing to see. I wasn’t sure I saw it. There was no sound, just movement of dark in front of the city-warmed night sky and building across the yard. Sleepy as I was, I was having trouble processing what I thought I saw. I thought, “monkey?” but it was too large to be a monkey. Bird? It didn’t move like a bird. It kind of just looked like it sunk. It had human size, but I’m on the 3rd floor (that’s 4 storeys off the ground for those in North America. India counts the ground floor always as 0). And last I recalled, although admittedly I was quite tired and still very fuzzy, people didn’t sink silently and smoothly through the air.

Truth be told, I’m a little fuzzy about all that as I was not fully awake. I was starting to wonder if I had picked up a half-dream from having watched part of “The Exorcism of Emily Rose” and an episode of “Heroes” earlier than night. That combo will fuck up your dreams if anything does.

But something still wasn’t right. You know the feeling. Humans are very, very good at picking up subtle queues, even when you can’t put your finger on it. The dark swath shadow of the curtain bunched to the side of my window kept my eye. It didn’t move right as a curtain does and I was thinking it was too big. Don’t ask me how I decided this at 3am. But then it moved and resolved into a man-shape.

Holy shit. There was a man outside my barred, but open window four storeys up at 3am! I can’t say the adrenaline hit me and I leaped to action. I think it was the silence of it all. There was no sound other than the rain. But I swiftly got out of bed and moved to the window as the man slipped silently and smoothly up over the deep overhang and to the roof just above. I gave a quick yell, but didn’t run out of the flat to catch them coming down the stairs. I’m in India, I don’t know how many people are up there and I don’t have any sort of weapon I can grab before they’d be down and gone. Simply not a good idea. Let them go. They didn’t harm me.

But mostly, I stood there because I didn’t feel any fear since they weren’t going to get through the bars on the window and without that fear (and it being 3am), there wasn’t really anger either. Just puzzlement. I stood at the window trying to sort out what I had seen and how it had worked, thinking, “What the Fuck. Did I really just see that?”

How the Hell did he get there and move around so quietly? He was obviously making some noise that woke me. But the roof overhang is at least 2 feet from the wall, the open window panes form a narrow outward barrier to reaching through the bars. And funnily enough I actually have personal experience of how slippery the walls and ledges are from the grime and dirt – and that’s when it is dry, let alone tonight when it is pouring rain. Being a climber, I know how hard it is to pull oneself up over a ledge or even up a rope, let alone quietly and in the rain. I didn’t see a rope hanging. What is this guy, Spiderman, Batman or some sort of circus freak? He moved so smoothly and quietly. I was left with respect for his acrobatics and boldness for what he had to know was a low and uncertain payoff, just whatever was in reach.

I can’t be certain, by a long stretch, whether the first shadow I saw was a second man who dropped down or if it was just one guy who dropped below my window panes and back up to the wall beside them where I finally made him. If there was a rope, I didn’t see it although without my glasses, expert witness I am not. Was there someone hauling him up from the roof? Or did he climb like the geckos that sometimes look at me curiously from the ceiling?

To be honest, so completely odd, even for India, that it was, I’m not sure I would have been sure I saw it at all except that he left his reaching device stuck through the window bars and leaning up on my desk. So I had physical proof of the short affair, but it still left me to sort out puzzle of the unlikelihood of the events.

What he had been doing was trying to steal the stuff from my pockets that I drop messily on my desk – cell phone, ipod, wallet, keys, coins, pen. I don’t know of course what, if anything, he could make out in the dark was there versus how much he was just hoping. He was reaching through with a strip of plastic. It was one of those flat wall panels meant to hide wires and the like – about 1 inch wide, ridges forming a wide “C” along the sides to give it some rigidity. Considering my presumed sophistication of his Spiderman routine, I kind of thought he would use something more specialized to grab things, but who knows. I suppose if you could get the strip under the cell phone, you could tilt it up and slide it smoothly down between the side ridges. And I suppose you could hook it in the fold of the wallet and lift it out too. But all that presents a degree of dexterity and smoothness not anticipated by a person clinging outside a window and trying not to make any noise. It was obviously the nearby soft scraping of the plastic against my desk that was the out of place sound that pinged my sleeping brain.

My next line of questioning was whether I had been targeted as a foreigner who presumably has more value lying around. It is possible as I’ve never been good with closing the curtains. Maybe someone saw from across the next building. But one has to be careful assuming you’re special in India with a billion people and when so much happens at random. Perhaps they just saw me reading tonight. Perhaps it was totally random. Who knows.

As to how they got to the roof, well, that part I know: the watchman, as nearly all watchmen uselessly do, sleeps like the dead all night and the roof is open from the stairwell. I’ve come home several times late on a Saturday night and had to jump the chained gate, tromp past the sleeping watchmen and up the stairs. I’ve no doubt a group of would-be petty thieves could wander in and out dragging furniture and the elephants from their escaped circus and no one would notice. Ah well, such is the way of things here: all watchmen of all buildings seem to sleep so there is no use firing him.

So the whole affair of 2 minutes and then several more questioning the sanity of the universe was over. Nothing taken. A stupid plastic strip as a souvenir. A little bothered because of how close someone had been, only 10 feet or so, but no risk to my person and I was not particularly shaken. What does one do, but go back to bed. Just a weird, surreal story that I had to share or risk starting to wonder if I was crazy.

I’ve always lamented and questioned the bars on the windows and balconies and double locks and deadbolts on all the doors. I hate feeling like a prisoner and not being able to lean out. I haven’t heard of Chennai having a particular petty theft problem, not like Vancouver where having your car or even your apartment broken into has become almost not worth commenting on. And I’ve always thought, come on, 3rd floor? What are they going to do, drop down with a rope and come through the windows? Yeah, that is what they are going to do. There is always one more surprise living here.

So that I now see is why we have bars on our windows. Utter madness, but there it is.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Life in Chennai #16: Rain, rain, come again

We’ve been having rain. Actual water falling from the sky (that isn’t coming from a bucket off someone’s balcony). I’m excited.

Now my friends in Vancouver, who are en masse reporting giddiness on their Facebook profiles for their current sunny spell, are surely dumbstruck and sputtering about such a comment. It is raining. And you’re happy about it? Yup.

It isn’t so weird really. We haven’t had much rain yet this calendar year. I certainly have had no complaints that the weather forecast nearly every day has been sunny and lovely, but the rain, beyond just being a nice change of pace, does bring some benefit.

First of all and most importantly, it has knocked the temperature down 10 degrees from a month ago, which is positively wonderful. As I reported, I was getting used to the heat, but the ability of sleeping without a fan and its constant white noise, with a nice cool breeze through the window and rhythmic patter of rain on the trees and roof is a rare luxury. I’ve had to start sleeping with a top sheet again, which is novel.

So after a bit of a dig, I’ve pulled my rain shell from my pack, gone back to closed-toed shoes for the week and enjoyed being wet from the outside for once.

Of course with the rain, comes puddles, giant, street-spanning puddles and traffic is slowed and jostled even more than usual. I didn’t miss that from last year’s monsoon season. With less street space, especially along the pedestrian sides, walking the streets to lunch and elsewhere becomes a fresh new extreme sport again. I didn’t really miss that either although I’m more steely about rubbing shoulders with moving traffic since Nov.

The only real negative is that the mosquitoes are also back with all the lovely new standing water to breed in, but they're still small and slow-moving so are easy to kill so far. I guess I’ll have to go back to using the plug-in repellent.

Mostly we’ve been having the occasional afternoon thunderstorms, but this week a big system moved in and stuck and we’ve actually had rain all day and night, quite rare for here where most parts of South Asia are used to getting their rain in short, drenching buckets. My colleagues all commented on its unusualness. So it’s all about a change of scenery. For Vancouver, it is much deserved sun after a long, wet winter, but for us, a little water from the sky is a nice cool break, as long as it doesn’t last more than a week!

So rain, rain, go away and come again another day. :-)

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Culture #10: Prayer Flags

Nepal - Kathmandu - Boudhanath Stupa

Prayer flags are one of my favourite religious observances and a sight I’ve come to cherish and love in the Tibetan and Nepali world. Strung from every place, structure or object of height or significance, their 5-coloured squares of fabric are always fluttering in the wind. Big, small, vertical poles (Darchor) or long, sweeping strands (Lung Ta), alone or by the hundred, no scene in the Himalayan and Tibetan world is complete without them. The 5 colours are: blue, white, red, green and yellow, always in that order (left to right), the blue symbolizes sky, the white wind, the red fire, the green water and the yellow earth.

Nepal - Flags on a rooftopI love them for several reasons. Romantically and piously, I love the idea of prayers floating off the fabric in the wind to God (Buddha) and their deities. It is a supremely simple idea. The many mantras and prayers written on the fabric are blown upwards and promote peace, prosperity and wisdom to all who the wind reaches. As the images and flags themselves deteriorate with the elements, they become permanent part of the universe and are renewed by the Tibetans by hanging new ones alongside the old.

Nepal - Sagamartha Trek - Translucent flagsThey also tickle my practical side for their supreme efficiency: Buddhism, without a doubt, has the greatest concentration of prayers per person than any other religion. How do we get even more prayers to the gods with our monks already reciting mantras and clicking of prayer beads 24-7? Simple, get the wind to do the work for us! (And enterprising as they are, they’ve also hooked up prayer wheels to streams for continuous water-driven prayers! What genius!). It does help that Nepal and particularly Tibet are very windy places.

Hundred of flags in TibetBut I think I love them most for their aesthetic beauty. On stupas and Chorten, their fluttering colour contrasts beautifully with the clean, simple lines and clean, white surface of the monuments. Placed on bridges, passes, peaks and even special trees, their human element contrasts, but somehow pleasantly, with the striking, but often stark landscape they are set in. Whether in front of barren, alpine valleys, gleaming white peaks or lush green forest, their translucent colour catches the sun and the eye, complimenting the scene. They would welcome you into town. They would welcome you to the monasteries. They would let you know you’d reached the top of the pass or peak.

Nepal - Prayer flag pole in front of Lhotse and EverestPerhaps because of their simplicity and colour, it is not like a “Kilroy was here” graffiti scrawl or the discovery of a candy bar wrapper on a pristine beach, but rather a more subtle sign that, yes, humans were here and they found this place to be special and beautiful and went to the trouble of leaving an offering for it. You too can share this spot.

Although I am not about to turn Buddhist, I wanted a strand ever since being in Tibet last year and regretting not coming back with one. So this time I made sure to pick one up and now have it strung across 2 walls of my room. My room needed some colour. I turn the ever-present ceiling fan back on and they flutter satisfactory. It is not a mountaintop of course – any prayers freed are likely trapped swirling around my room like the moth that struggled chaotically about last night, but I hope, like the moth, eventually that some make it out of the windows and are taken up by the warm breeze.
Nepal - Summit prayer flags on Gokyo Ri in front of 8000m Cho Oyu

Friday, June 15, 2007

Life in Chennai #15: The New Helmet Law

So Chennai finally decided to make wearing a helmet mandatory for all 2-wheelers (motorcycles and scooters). No, they weren’t before. Sorry mom and dad. On the plus side, traffic rarely goes more than 30 km an hour during the day. But despite a public disinterest, a court order prompted the government to finally decide to make it mandatory in the name of public safety. June 1, last Friday, was the enforcement date (for the major urban centres, with the rest of the State July 1). It gives a fascinating and telling picture of how politics works here.

Here is how it went.

Pre-law helmet use: maybe 5%.
All last week suddenly roadside stands and wallahs stocking tall pyramids of boxed helmets appear everywhere. They do a killer business. My colleague told me helmets run from Rs 500 to Rs 1500 for proper ones, but although some premiums appeared that week most were kept reasonable by intense competition. Like anything else in India, a need was created and entrepreneurs filled it immediately from who know what supply chain. Apparently and unsurprisingly, the ones sold on the street, the North American equivalent of being sold out of the back of a van, are not up to standards and are of no use in an accident, but rather only to comply with the law and can be hand for under Rs 500.

So we haven’t even started the law yet and this doesn’t seem like it is having the intending effect...

Thursday, May 31, 1 day before: helmet use still 5%
No one seems to be warming up, practicing for the big day. They gave people a pretty good amount of time to get ready from the Feb 22 law passing, but everyone just waited to the last moment and then complained. I wonder how this is all going to go tomorrow. The local paper reports a mix of malaise and malign against the new law coming into force tomorrow.

Friday, June 1: helmet use 95%
Amazingly, out of closets, cupboards or just under their shirt everyone suddenly has a helmet on. If you don’t you’re getting in trouble.

Police are out in force on nearly every corner handing out tickets to those who were foolish to forget. Apparently fines are Rs 300 with a receipt and Rs 100 without. Ah yes... Without the receipt, you pay less and the policeman pockets it. This is very normal and I question if they even bother paying their traffic police for the “tips” they make. However on a day like this, without a receipt you are just going to get stopped again 2 blocks down and then again and again. With low-end helmets costing not much more than a ticket and policemen saving for their kids’ college and dowry funds, there is a strong financial reason to follow the law.

Typical of how these sorts of decisions are made and implemented here, the politicians decided that it was a good idea, set a date and that was that. They’re going with the stick approach, sorry Bugs Bunny. On June 1, if you don’t have a helmet, you get fined, simple as that.

So tough love, but at least it works, or so you would think: they’ve just successfully got everyone to buy, carry and wear their helmets.

But wait, this is India – things don’t go smooth like that, even when instigated in such a heavy-handed way. Nothing in India can ever be called simple and inertia reigns supreme.

Saturday, June 2: helmet use steady at 95%
Police still out in force. The government congratulates itself in the local papers.

Sunday, June 3: government flip-flops
Despite their law being by court order, the government panders to popular discontent and issues a decree for police to not “harass 2-wheeler riders” for not wearing helmets. So it is still mandatory, but not enforceable, sort of? Brilliant.

Monday, June 4: helmet use maybe 70%
It’s only been 3 days and already the enthusiasm has waned. I’m seeing more and more people driving without helmets. Without the enforcement, the stick, and with the politicians waffling things are sliding back downhill quickly and people are back to doing what they can get away with. I think the only reason that the rates are not dropping off faster is that with all the confusion, some people have yet to hear what the situation is. And of course police can still selectively target people as they do with every other law, to pocket the fee.

Admittedly, I partially understand why people prefer not to wear one: they are hot and uncomfortable and you suddenly need one for all 6 family members you cart around on your bike. According to one article, surveys of Indian drivers also cite, “discomfort, fear of hair-loss, headache, neck pain, and some other reasons,” as why they don’t wear one. So many reasons why the drivers don’t want it, some perhaps fair, some ridiculous, but I’m still stuck on why the government gung-ho has fizzled so quickly. I’m quizzing my colleague to try to understand how the various levels of government relate and how laws are getting passed and upheld.

But it goes on...

Tuesday, June 5: helmet use 50% and falling
Backpedal, backpedal...

So apparently, after weathering petitions and a court challenge that upheld the new law, suddenly the politicians had a change of heart, decided they wanted to be the men of the people and on Tuesday revoked the law for women and children. Yes, that is correct, women and children are now exempt again from having to wear helmets while driving. Now, there are some given reasons: for women including the effects on the important cultural practice of putting flowers in hair and excessive sweatiness in the helmet; for children, a concern with the weight of the helmet on their developing necks. All fine and good, sort of, but no crash helmets for women and children? Really?

And more over, if these are such needed exemptions, how did no one think of this just a teeny bit earlier... like last Thursday before everyone had to go out and buy one?

This is one of those things that I’ve learned enough to get that it happens, see some how it happens, but not yet enough to understand the underlying why it happens.

Friday, June 7: helmet use back to 5%
So after a brief excitement period of doing something, it appears the whole deal has simply been forgotten and everything gone back to normal. Oh, helmets still have officially changed from optional to mandatory for men – laws can be changed – but chalk up another example of failing to change cultural practices and of politicians choosing to be popular rather than any sort of leader. But this isn’t simply an Indian inertia thing. Who would ever expect to change people’s practices with so little effort? In order to get Canadians to wear bicycle helmets took years of sustained and multi-pronged effort. Yeah, “sustained” and “multi-pronged” don’t exactly come to mind here.

It reminds me of the auto rickshaw rate enforcement and their fizzled attempts to enforce meter use back in March. Yeah, like where did that all go? It was heralded as such a big deal, the government congratulating themselves all over the papers. But I’ve still only ever used a meter twice and was shocked both times. Oh, the papers would report 15 autos this day with licences revoked for not having running meters or a hundred that day fined for not having the new fare rates programmed in, but it is a feel-good promotion for the government. On the street nothing has changed with the 100,000 auto drivers in the city. You absorb the same through the media news about plans and actions of slum clearance, environmental improvement or following traffic rules – talk is made, money is spent, paper is set a-flying, but a day, a week, a month later, very little changes. You can’t really expect things to change overnight of course, so the sanest solution, true everywhere, is to mostly ignore the politicians making names for themselves and be patient; real change takes longer to take root.

Why do things happen this way? “It’s India”, said with a shrug, the equivalent of the French “c’est la vie”. That is the answer to most questions of “why?” we encounter here. It comes up all the time. To attempt a fuller answer usually doesn’t make it any clearer without a much deeper understanding of their complex socio-political history, of which I am certainly not qualified.

So, a week of excitement, confusion and field-days for the cops and the newspapers and everyone now has a nice shiny new helmet in their closet. Beyond that, not sure what we’ve accomplished: another law on the books that isn’t enforced effectively or consistently, another chance for politicians to play the heroes of the people and a week for me to confusingly quiz my colleague at lunch over WTF is going on today?

Sometimes, much of the time I think, India is like watching TV on fast forward and 8 channels on picture-in-picture. *Shrug* It’s India...