Sunday, October 18, 2015

Greyhound – On Luggage and the New Jersey Turnpike

Since I moved back to New York City in February, I have been living the freelancer’s lifestyle, known to some as “only getting dressed 3-4 times a week”. In said freelancer lifestyle, there are weeks that I am busy enough that I go several nights without sleep and eat exclusively at the deli next door. Then there are weeks during which I spend most of my time staring at the ceiling and contemplating life questions, like what it’s like to have gills, whether I ran out of cookies, the meaning of my existence and if I’ll need a liquor license to open a bar on Mars.

When it became apparent I would be having one of the ceiling weeks in mid-October, I decided to make a trip down to Virginia to see my parents. After all, there’s nothing like relaxing among family while secretly regretting not going to med school (sorry, dad). Considering I basically booked my ticket to Thailand on the way to the airport, I thought I was pretty damn amazing for looking up train tickets to Virginia a whole three days before leaving. Amtrak thought I was amazing as well, going so far as to offer me a fare that is only roughly equivalent to half of their annual profits (i.e. $90). Unfortunately the website Amtrak built back in 2001 that runs on a combination of HTMLolz and Ruby on deRails finally crashed. After an unsuccessful day of refreshing the page while eating cookies, I gave up. Flights from New York to Richmond typically cost the same as a flight to Europe, so that left me with one choice: the bus.

As some of you may have read, I hate HATE the bus. Whether in Germany, Trinidad, on the way to third grade or in my dreams, something exceedingly stupid happens 9 out of 10 times that I ride the bus. Thanks to the bus, I have landed next to a crazy Turkish woman buying dog food at 4 AM, someone having a heart attack, and briefly as the leader of a Chinese drug ring. Still, my parents’ couches are really comfortable, so I swallowed my better judgment with a swig of milk and booked a ticket on Greyhound. Fortunately, Greyhound tickets now come pre-packaged with two custom death threats to expedite the boarding process.

Much of the clientele that rides Greyhound between New York City and Richmond, VA falls in between the “silent killer < -- > outspoken batshit crazy” scale. This set of passengers did not disappoint with a count including one guy who was drunk (two vomits before 8 AM), three people who might have been carrying cocaine, one person with a smelly fish sandwich, at least four people who were probably on the wrong bus, and one college student who desperately wanted to tell me every detail about her life. I have learned to adopt the silent killer persona while on Greyhound and was thankfully able to deflect all of their attempts at conversation.

On the whole, New Yorkers are concerned about eating healthy. Sadly this concern does not always extend to the carbon footprints of their healthy food, making our fine city constantly congested with trucks carrying the latest ridiculous food trend through the five boroughs. As the bus driver claimed, somehow in the short distance between the Port Authority and the tunnel out of the City, the Greyhound bus I was on was swiped by one of said trucks. I believe this particular truck was carrying organic, gluten free, non-fat, no calorie, no flavor custom-made hand-crafted quinoa kale almond crusted bars.*

At this point, I was already several songs deep into my “Mala’s Favorite Hits, Volume 1” album (circa 1999) and didn’t even notice the truck until after the bus was supposedly hit. The bus appeared to be operating as normal, so the driver continued on to the New Jersey Turnpike as planned. Not ten seconds after we passed the toll did I feel two heavy bumps. While American roads have many potholes and pitfalls, placing speed bumps in the middle of a toll lane is not one. Naturally, I thus assumed this bout of bus idiocy included a large flattened animal. The driver finally took it upon herself to stop the bus, which is when she uttered some of the worst words any passenger could ever hear, “Uh oh! The side luggage compartment is open!”

Praying to God that my future did not include a lawsuit against Greyhound to recoup compensation for my bag and everything it contained, I followed a few other flabbergasted passengers outside. Thankfully, my bag lay in its normal Greyhound state – crushed under the weight of a colossal suitcase. For once, the poor logical thinking skills of Greyhound luggage loaders paid off; the enormous suitcase had held mine place.

Screaming at the passengers that it was a hugely reckless for us to be out on the road, the bus driver then asked for a set of volunteers to walk a mile in the middle of New Jersey Turnpike traffic to recoup the missing bags. Not particularly needing to be a hero, I shrunk back into my seat and did my best to deflate any sign of muscle on my person. Armed with her troop of volunteers, the bus driver set out down the middle of one of America’s busiest highways while reiterated how dangerous it would be for anyone to leave the bus in her absence. At least seven people stepped outside to smoke a cigarette as soon as she was out of view.

45 minutes later, the driver and volunteers reappeared with predictable recon – two crushed suitcases, and a mountain of clothes and shoes. Surviving a Greyhound bus ride requires a special brand of defeatism, and the passengers whose luggage was destroyed were remarkably calm thanks to already having given up on life.

Together, my fellow passengers and I filled out a form on what happened and waited for a replacement bus. Then we waited more. And more. And still more. Then the 9 AM Greyhound bus to Richmond pulled up beside us, honked, and kept going because it was full. And then a State Trooper came to the scene to tell us to wait some more. After more than hour of waiting, I could feel the tension inside the bus rise, because like me, most people on the bus live in New York City and could have walked home by now. But, determined to fulfill her duties as guardian of our road trip, the bus driver matched the passengers’ agitation with increasingly nervous cries for everyone to shut up and sit down. There’s nothing like a completely frantic person reiterated they are to drive you the next six hours in a giant metal box.

In the midst of one of the bus driver’s shouting bouts complete with a flashlight held as a sword, the replacement bus finally pulled up. The second driver apologized for the delay, as the bus was sent from Philadelphia. Thank you, New York, for never having anything to spare. I retrieved my bag from the wide-open luggage compartment and placed it safely in the corner of the new bus. In the background, the driver continued to argue with the passengers, this time to assure them that the two-hour delay would only result in us being five minutes late to Richmond. For those who can understand English and do basic math, this was clearly a lie, though everyone was sufficiently exhausted from waking up at a God awful hour only to see the 9 AM bus fly past us five miles from our point of origin.

I found my new seat on the bus and resumed “Mala’s Favorite Hits, Volume 2” (circa 2000). For a brief moment after we pulled back into traffic, I found a burst of inspiration and typed out the first two paragraphs of this post. But of course, the defeatism that comes with Greyhound soon reappeared. So instead, I turned my music and attitude up to high and spent the rest of the ride debating the same life questions as my ceiling weeks. I’ve decided I would not like having gills.

* To be fair, these are great for the environment. Well, minus the fact they require 7 billion gallons of water per bar to manufacture.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Come snow, come Moscow

For those of you who have been following my 15 nanoseconds of fame, you may know that I recently quit my job with UNICEF for personal and professional reasons. Doing so came on the heels of my 30th birthday, and as I rounded the bend of the last days of my 20s, I decided that this decade will be dedicated to making responsible decisions and creating more stability in my life. Then I thought it would way more fun to go to Thailand. So two days after I turned 30, I took off for three weeks.

One of the great phenomenon about much of North America is seasons, which allow the body to endure freezing cold and burning hot temperatures within the span of six months in a sort of masochistic ritual of weight fluctuations and beatings to the skin. No wonder retail did so well in America. The thing about having seasons is that there is always some kind of weather event that can make traveling internationally a total pain. Whether it’s a hurricane, sleet, floods, or a snowstorm, any consistent traveler can at some point in their life count on dealing with a heinous delay getting back home to New York City. I had just hoped my heinous delay would happen in oh, say, Paris, or Cape Town, or some other beautiful, open place. But no. Where did my heinous delay transpire?


Don’t get me wrong, Russia has always been on my list of travel destinations. Well, I shouldn’t say always. Really, my desire to go to Russia could be traced to around my 16th birthday, when the fake lesbian Russian duo t.A.t.U. graced American media with poorly translated songs (“You to be have my love this tonight morning!”) and a message of sexual equality that seemed to cater to creepy old white men who had a strong undertone of pedophilia. (Now I use Pussy Riot as an actual equality and Russian muse.) Sadly, the Russian Federation has since taken a turn for the homophobic worst, proving that a Communist empire is for lovers – but only if you’re straight. With this death of equality came the death of my desire to pay to go to Russia. A long layover in Russia, however, is totally fine, as it satisfies my travel curiosity without a total meltdown of moral standards. When the opportunity presented itself in the form of a super cheap ticket to Bangkok with a super long layover in Moscow, I figured I had my chance to take an illegal picture of my Pride flag covered book against the Kremlin.

Alas, for American citizens, the visa process to get outside of the airport is about as complicated as particle physics and about as logical as the Tea Party manifesto. I decided to forgo the time and misery of making use of my long layovers in Moscow, and instead resigned myself to people watching and avoiding duty free perfume in the airport. For an 18-hour layover, this airport arrest seemed doable. When news of the blizzards of all blizzards would be hitting NYC right on the day I was to get back, I knew, however, that this already long endeavor would turn into days. Low and behold, I was right.

With an original layover of “only” 18 hours long, I had decided that I absolutely needed to sit at the front of the plane to make a quick exit ahead of all the poor saps who had 20 minutes to clear one-hundred years of historical inefficiency. After a Ukrainian guy started a fight with the Russian passport control agent, it was my go in line. I handed over my passport sweating with the look of an innocent person who forgot how to appear not guilty. Because my second flight – the one back to New York – had been scheduled a day after I landed in Moscow, I didn’t have a second boarding pass, which was required to get through.

Fortunately, the passport agent was grateful I was not a Ukrainian guy who came to start a fight, and she waved me to the ticket agent behind. After a surprisingly pleasant conversation with a friendly Russian woman, I found out my original flight had been cancelled. To make up for the five-hour delay until the following flight, Aeroflot gave me a voucher equivalent to $8, which is enough to buy half a sandwich at Burger King or a small bag of M&Ms. When spaced out properly, this amounted to approximately one M&M per hour, which is one more M&M per hour any given American airline would offer for a five-hour delay.

I decided to spend the evening in the “Capsule Hotel,” which is the Moscow airport hotel that tries to mimic Pod Hotel. In all respects, the Capsule Hotel captures the spirit of Pod Hotel, except for the years of stale smoke, poor lighting, gross bathroom, ratty carpets, and thin walls that permeate their rooms. The next morning, I awoke after a particularly disturbing dream of my life as Edward Snowden (Snowed-In?), and saw that my second flight had too been cancelled. So, I set off for Terminal D to ask the guy at the information counter whether I would automatically get rebooked for a second time. He looked at me and grunted, finally answering,

“You have food voucher, yes?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Well, you use food voucher until 9. Then you come back at 9 and we put you in hotel.”

His awkward phrasing threw me into “dealing with any African government ever” mode, and I stood there a few extra minutes asking questions to make sure I had heard right and he had spoken correctly.

“Ok, so I go use the voucher and then I come back at 9? Where can I use the voucher until 9? It is 6:30 now, so I come back in 2.5 hours, at 9?”

“Lady, you like word 9.”
“9. Ok.”

Confident 9 was not code for 11 or 12 or tomorrow, I decided to follow his advice and stopped at a coffee shop on the way back. The barista helped me decide on what items would total up to the exact 490 ruble voucher, and after buying a coffee the size of a shot glass, a dry muffin and two bananas, I locked myself away for another few hours until it was time to go back to Terminal D.

Bogged down with 40 pounds of carry-on luggage, I saw a comforting sight as I returned to the information desk – a group of Hasidic Jews, two Chinese people, two Japanese people, two hipster musicians with Brooklyn Industries bags, a hippie girl, three college students, an elderly rich Arab couple, a black guy and a quiet Italian girl. In other words, a typical slice of New York City. Obviously, I was not the only person in this heinous delay predicament.

The same guy as before led us down to a separate passport control area I had not previously seen, and told us to wait there. Over the course of the next four hours, five very serious looking Aeroflot and airport staff took our passports in inexplicable groups, printed off a series of papers, and ducked in and out of a stainless steel and tripled-paned glass edifice while peering at our faces while we pretended to look away. The less seasoned travelers of the group made it habit to loudly declare they had no idea what was going on, but my days at The New School taking a class taught by a famous Russian-American politicist had proven useful. I was sure they were running a series of background checks before confirming whether we’d be allowed to go stay in an offsite hotel. Fortunately, I made the cut with my fellow New Yorkers. Albeit, I was next-to-last in the approval process thanks to God knows how many visas associated with my name and a skin tone that matches darker Chechens. Seriously.

Finally making it through another two rounds of baggage security checks, we were taken through the basement of the airport down to a loading dock and on to a bus…and driven approximately three feet away from the Terminal to the hotel. On the way over, I chatted with the hippie girl, who was also coming from Bangkok. Like the proud idiot I am, I mentioned my book, even pulling out a copy to show her. She quietly read the back cover, and then told me that sounded like an amazing plot, “Especially the part about the lesbians!” I silently died inside while expecting to be arrested in the next few hours.

The Novotel we were to call home for the next night or two checked us in ten at a time. When my group of ten came up, were lead to the front lobby…and then past the front lobby to another basement. In what appeared to be the barracks quarters of the hotel, we were informed that we’d be sharing a room with someone else, and we were not permitted to leave the hallway. I kid you not. We were not even allowed to walk through the rest of the hotel. As soon as our keys were distributed, the hotel staff not so subtly motioned for us to look at the end of the hall, where a burly looking security guard who fulfilled every possible Russian stereotype had been placed in our honor.

The hippie girl asked if I wanted to share a room, and I agreed after realizing my other options consisted of guys I had never met before. We were given half an hour to drop our stuff in our rooms before being told that it was time for lunch. In the gastronomic monotony of endless flying, never in my life had I been more grateful for hotel food. As the waiter walked in with our first course, I actually felt my heart take a leap up. This sad appreciation was for naught, however, for in my naiveté, I missed the sign written in broken English plastered at the end of our guarded hallway: “Meal will to be serve airplane Aeroflot food.” Yes indeed, though disguised on real plates and with the fancy kind of plastic cutlery, there was no mistaking that our lunch was in fact, Aeroflot airplane food. Very sure we would all end up with food poisoning, my fellow New Yorkers and I managed to stuff down a few bites of the fake food out of pure hunger and desperation.

I passed the next few hours talking to my roommate, sleeping, swearing at the shit Internet, stopping by the musicians’ room for a glass of vodka, and avoiding the creepiest of all the creeps of the group. Dinnertime rolled around, and I decided that a constantly devaluing ruble was occasion enough to avoid an airline dinner meal. Instead, I ordered room service. Not being particularly adept to Russian portions, I decided to get everything on the menu I had actually heard of: blinis with caviar, pork loin, and a borsch. If my calculations are correct, this is the equivalent of my caloric intake of next week.

Despite the lunch letdown, I couldn’t help but again let my heart leap for joy at the thought of non-airplane food, and I greeted the woman who brought my tray a little too warmly. Note to the wise, Russians do not appreciate hugs from strangers. I positioned my laptop in front of me to play the one video I have that does not have any queer subject matter, and gleefully removed the cover from my dishes. The blinis looked fantastic, the borsch was nice and dark. Then there was the pork loin. Any normal person would have appreciated the nice presentation, the few grilled vegetables and the nice thick sauce. I, on the other hand, almost vomited. For three months in 2014, I lived in a hotel in central Africa, forced to eat the hotel food more often than any human being should have to. For three months, I dealt with grey sauces, oil-laden bread, and wilted steamed vegetables. Though infinitely better in quality, one look at my Russian pork loin, and I was overcome with flashbacks to my days in central Africa. There is nothing that will send me into a frenzy quicker than a thick, grey sauce.

After pacing around the room debating what to do, I brought myself to take a small bite. Thank God, it was delicious. But my God, I still felt so gross. Much like when I was forced to contend with a brilliantly flavored rat, I was torn between raging hunger and gag reflexes. Finally deciding, I scarfed down my entire meal before a single episode of “30 Rock” had finished, before I had too long to consider what I was doing. In another strange flashback to my days in Burundi, I picked up my tray of conflicted leftovers, and laid it outside for collection. I fell asleep an hour later to the sound of my nervous laughter.

At 6 AM, the phone rang with an important message:


Not having a clue what the hell that meant, I slammed down the receiver and went back to bed. 45 minutes later, a security guard with a terrible crew cut and an even worse attitude banged on all of our doors. When I went to open mine, he stared at me and shouted,

“Get up! You leave at 7.”
“What? You’re telling us now that we have 15 minutes to get ready?”
“You have wake-up call at 6.”
“You mean the announcement?”
“Yes. Announcement is get up.”

I silently debated whether to argue with the guy before concluding I had already pushed my luck with the gayness and hug-ness of my time in Russia. In record time (25 minutes), I showered, changed and packed. My roommate and I made it two steps outside of our room before an Aeroflot personnel stopped us and asked us to check a list of passengers. Having already seen my second rebooking, I knew I wasn’t on this list. Neither was my roommate.

“So do we go to the airport now?” I asked.
“No, this only for 9 AM flight,” she replied.
“And when do we leave?”
“In five hours?”

I made sure to catch the eye of morning offender before smugly returning to my room to wait another 300 minutes. He looked embarrassed. That made me happy.

Finally, in tow with our three security guards, the rest of us made our way back onto the saddest, greyest bus ever to be driven back to the airport. We collected our boarding passes, ate more mediocre food, and pushed our way onto the plane. Somewhere over Greenland, I sank back into my chair and chuckled at the randomness of my life. Stability may be nowhere close in my new decade, but that does remind me to write Aeroflot and thank them for helping me keep consistent – always random, always interesting.

Come snow, come Moscow.

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

DC ou le RDC?

Over the years of being in international development, and being just generally nosy, I have met people of many races, religions, ethnic origins, classes, language groups, etc. living in or from a country not generally associated with their background. When I make this claim, I am not merely speaking from the average American standard of understanding of foreign lands:

"Wait, if you're from Switzerland, why do you speak Italian? Why don't you speak Swiss?"

I'm saying by even an informed standpoint, I know people who grew up in country that is often not associated with their background, such as Jewish people in Mexico, Russian people in Argentina, or Indians in Norway. In particular, I have met a few white Belgians who grew up in the DR Congo, or as it's said in French, Le RDC. In fact, the night before I took my vacation within a vacation to Corsica, I met a white Belgian RDC-er in Paris.

I got the studio in which I stayed in Ajaccio through AirBNB. I guess whatever language one's browser or home location is set to determines the default language in which the results load. So, even though I was searching for places in Corsica while I was in Paris, the results showed up in English. One in particular looked great - nice place, air conditioning (a rarity in France), super close to the beach and to restaurants. There were also great reviews for the host, who had written a description in perfect English.

Alas, part of the reason I came to France was to practice the language (as I say while writing this in English), so I communicated only in French to the host to make arrangements for my arrival. When she - a white woman in her mid-30s - came to let me in the building, she offered to help me carry my bag up to the fifth floor. Balancing the monstrosity of a bag that I claimed had "only the essentials" was a bit cumbersome for two people, so I thanked her for her effort before hoisting the boulder onto my shoulder to carry it the remainder of the way by myself.

In the midst of my sweating, grunting, and occasional "Oh putain, merde!" (I like to curse in the local language, as I find it to be more polite), we tried to make conversation. Between my exhaustion from the Paris Roissy airport, the 25 kilo bag, and the stairs, I didn't say much in excess of my authentic cursing efforts.

She asked where I am from, and I replied "Je suis New Yorkaise." Though born and raised New Yorkers would dispute such wording, I own this description every time I go to France, as I have found the words "Je suis New Yorkaise" synonymous with "Give me respect" in nearly every corner of the world.

I looked back briefly and saw my AirBNB host smile and say, "Ah! Je...DC." I missed the words in between. Most French people deduce after a few sentences that I am not French, but in fact an ambiguously dressed Indian-American. However, I do pride myself on a really good French accent - enough to fool even the Frenchiest of the French for at least a few minutes. So when I heard this woman and half of her sentence, I had to wonder if I had just met the queen of Frenchy deception? Someone who was capable of trumping my relatively amateur level of Frenchy deception? Was this woman a native of the American neighbor of Washington? My seconds of hesitation threw the host off-guard, so she decided to keep explaining things about the apartment to me in French. She left me a few minutes later to stir in my confusion and recall that I was now a twenty second walk away from the beach. Yay, beach!

After a fine day of dodging tourists to avoid the fact that I was indeed a tourist myself, I made my way back to the AirBNB studio before realizing that a very important World Cup match was on that night. The previous night, I had made a mad dash to the grocery store to get the necessities (Nutella, prosciutto, carbonated water), after which I watched the two matches of the night at a local bar. Its ambiance was as good as any, though the importance of this match was too great to waste on a hit-or-miss venue.

Since the AirBNB host was the only person in Corsica I had really spoken to, I figured I should ask her. I went to pick up my phone, then stopped. We had never sorted out her mysterious point of origin.

"Oh shit. Did she say she's from DC or the RDC?" I asked myself.

On any other night, who cares?  People are who they are, I don't care where they are from. But that night, I did. Why? Well, you see, this most important match was between two teams of comparable caliber:

USA versus Belgium

Like Tim Howard, I circled around my phone for a solid half-hour, saying curse words (this time in English) for intimidation purposes and as an involuntary reaction resulting from a disorder that neuroscientists are only beginning to understand.* I jumped, I dove, I charged, I tried to anticipate any sudden moves, crosses to the center, or overage charges my telecom company unfairly delivered.

Finally, I decided to make a strategic change to the lineup, and had the courage to text the host:

"Tina, est-ce que vous avez dit que vous venez de DC ou le RDC ?"
("Tina, did you say you are from DC or the DR Congo?")

Her response?

"Salut!  Non non j'ai dit qu j'étais d'ici :) Tout se passe bien? Dites moi si ca vous dit d'aller boire un verre!"

(Hi! No no, I said I was from here. :) Everything going ok? Let me know if you'd like to grab a drink!")

So we did, and it was great. As an unbiased, totally cool French woman, she, her boyfriend and I watched the game at a bar that was instantly transformed into a pro-America venue with my "New Yorkaise" presence. If you ever make your way to Corsica, find this couple. They are guaranteed to be a highlight of your stay, no matter where you are from.

*I don't actually have Tourette Syndrome. The stupid things I say are completely voluntary.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Heart Attacks in Trinidad

As a kid growing up in the middle of Virginia, I told myself I would one day see the world. Now in my late 20s, I am happy to report that I am doing a decent job of fulfilling that kid’s dream, though I had envisioned more glamour in the travel and less cramming my shoulders in a coach seat for 12 hours at a time and trying not to fall asleep at my morning meeting in the middle of Africa or Europe or wherever. When the opportunity to take an actual vacation abroad instead of going for work or school came along, I went for it. I’ve always been one to make random decisions, and randomly decided the random country of Trinidad would be my random destination. I booked the ticket and painted the decision as a brilliant move few people would understand.

And indeed it was a brilliant decision few people understood! My career may not be good for things like obtaining health care benefits or, you know, progressing in life, but my God, it is really good for assessing the vacation quality of a country in under 20 minutes! Not only is Trinidad not bombarded with the average, annoying selection of Caribbean tourists – including the mid-life crisis population of Canada, Americans who can’t bring themselves to leave North America, and every law student ever – it has a brilliant landscape, a rich history, a number of cultural and architectural monuments, and solid public transportation, all of which I knew about before going.

Thanks to the auspices of Couchsurfers and friends of friends, I am happy to say I took advantage of a number of these things. But. Let’s be honest. As intellectually curious as I can be, at some point my trip to Trinidad really was a summer vacation, and all I wanted to do was fall asleep in the sand of a pretty beach while listening to the same mediocre song on repeat because I am too lazy to make a playlist on my iPod. So I decided to go to Tobago.

Even though taking the bus to the airport instead of a taxi required waking up 3 hours earlier, walking 2.5 miles in the blazing hot sun, enduring a bumpy ride along some beaten paths, and…riding the bus (I hate buses), I decided paying 1/30th of the price was well worth the effort. Those of you who know me have probably realized that I assume it takes 30 minutes to get anywhere, regardless of the distance, time of day, traffic patterns, whatever. Ergo, in predictable fashion, I left myself 30 minutes to walk to the bus station even though I had done the same thing the two previous days and knew it would definitely take 40 minutes.

So I missed the bus. To kill time before the next one came, I decided to go to the Trinidadian equivalent of Starbucks and get a donut the size of my head. Nothing like loading up on sugar right before you take pictures of yourself in a swimsuit. Of course whereas the first bus I tried to catch left precisely on time, the second bus came 15 minutes late, putting me 45 minutes behind the arbitrary schedule I had calculated in my head. But no matter, after successfully appropriating an entire row of seats to myself, I determined I still had 30 minutes of leeway.

Riding the subway in New York is an Olympic sport. Between hauling all of your things up and down staircases meant to accommodate a fraction of the people underground, nauseating performers demanding money for their ridiculous songs, and tourists who fail to understand why the city does not stop because they think they’re going the wrong direction, riding the train requires a good amount of physical agility. That’s why old people rarely ride the subway; they take the bus. New York City buses are certainly more forgiving than the subway, but buses in this fair concrete jungle still require a lot of flexibility. Are you handicapped? Too bad, you still might have to stand. Forgot your metro card? Too bad, you have to go buy another one and wait for the next bus. Missed your stop? Too bad, get down and ride the return bus back. There are simply too many people in New York for anyone to make special accommodations because you or the driver screwed up

Apparently this is not the case in Trinidad. Not 20 minutes after I settled into my row of seats with my head-sized donut did I hear a woman start screaming for bloody mercy.

            “You missed my stop! You didn’t STOP!! YOU HAVE TO GO BACK!!!”

But the driver kept going, arguing that the stop she so vehemently demanded was only an actual stop going in the other direction. So the screaming continued for another five minutes, with each second finding a new bus passenger echoing the concern. My happy little picture of Trinidadians as a peaceful people was abruptly spoiled with a full out screaming match between the other passengers and the driver. I, on the other hand, was a happy New Yorker with a giant donut, and could care less if this woman missed her stop. It happens all the damn time in New York – take the next bus back! Missing a stop is so not a big deal. Besides, I thought, I now only had 25 minutes of leeway and that driver continuing on was saving me time. Right? Ha.

A few hundred feet from the next stop, the screaming woman began walking down the aisle to jump straight off as the bus doors opened. As I was about to go in for the next bite of donut, I heard a loud thud right next to me. Looking down, I saw the woman was not in her mid-30s as I had guessed from her voice, but was much older – like 60. She was also face down in the aisle. I know by now that my first reaction to these situations is to freeze, so as I sat there stupidly with sugar crumbs all over my face, I heard a set of panicked passengers crowd around her and begin to pull her tight grip from the row of seats I had appropriated for myself.

From my cardiologist father, I know all of the heart buzzwords; it wasn’t until someone plopped the woman down in a seat and she muttered “nitroglycerin” that I realized what had happened – this woman had had a f**king heart attack! Suddenly my donut was not so delicious.[1] By then, one other passenger in particular had made tormenting the bus driver her personal vendetta. Somewhere in the middle of her threatening to pull out a knife and cut off his testicles, the driver fortunately had the clarity to call an ambulance.

I have to hand it to Trinidad – though the ambulance and all of its equipment were positively filthy, the EMTs made it to the bus in under 15 minutes. Sadly, they worked as fast as a blind monkey. After ten minutes to finally get the gross oxygen tank out and operating, it was clear that the woman who had the heart attack would be fine. She was breathing almost normally, was talking and moving, and I knew she could easily make it to a hospital to rest. Unfortunately, the second woman had returned to her “batshit crazy” mode and had resumed making death threats against the driver. I did my best to curl up into a ball and stare out the window, but could not completely avoid the scary moments of eye contact this woman made with me. On the third of such occasion, she looked straight at me said,

“This bus driver should die! This bus is for the people, it is not his bus! Yes!?”

Of course in my head, I was thinking something like,

“Why me?! I’m going to miss my flight! Sand! iPod! Beeeeaaaaach!”

But all I said was a garbled, 


Thankfully, Trinidadian Indians have some common characteristics with us American Indians, namely – work before all else. After the other EMTs had finished fumbling with the oxygen tank, the Indian origin EMT took one look at the other passengers and forced the heart attack woman off the bus, explaining,

            “These people need to get to work.”

Normally I would have been in full echo of the EMT’s concerns, though I could really only think about one thing:


Very happily, crazy woman decided to go with heart attack woman to the hospital, leaving the bus driver with his testicles intact to take us to the rest of the stops, and finally, the airport! I had planned to save half of my head donut for the plane, but the unnecessary drama of the incident forced me to eat the rest. That is not a logical statement. But shut up. Beeeeaaaaaaaaaaaccccccccccchhhhhh!

As we pulled into the airport terminal, it was my turn to shove my way to the front of the bus, though I managed to avoid having a heart attack in the process. It turns out the flights to Tobago from Trinidad have their own little dingy security area, so showing up a full two minutes before check-in was scheduled to close was 30 minutes earlier than absolutely necessary. The (Indian origin) airline employee even gave me a slight pat on the shoulder of reassurance before handing me a napkin to wipe off the sugar crumbs. So sweet, literally.

In case you’re curious about whether I had an amazing time that day once I got to Tobago – the answer is no. Five minutes after I got to the beeeeeaaaaccch, it started raining like crazy, like batshit crazy. But the next day was amazing! Look at the picture I got below!

[1] Who am I kidding? It totally was.

Mala(droite) is Mala(ly) Dressed in Trinidad

When I was 20, there was one place I always wanted to go to: Europe. As you may recall, this unhealthy obsession with the continent resulted in many episodes, a particularly traumatizing one of which resulted in a maniacal bubble bath incident. Now that I am older (no comments on the wiser), my tastes have become less geographically dependent. In other words, if I have to see another European church, I will throw up. Then perhaps I will take a bubble bath.

These days, my only criteria in traveling are to see something I haven’t seen before, or see friends and eat junk food.  So when I finally knew for sure a move to South Africa would not be happening for work, I decided to use 9 days of the inevitable downtime brought on by a lackluster New York international development community summer to go to a new country. That box must be ticked every year; it’s imperative.

Even though my understanding of the world has dramatically changed over the years, my decision making process for most things still consists of the same three steps:

1.     Choose something random
2.     Justify said random thing in my head through mind tricks and self-conditioning
3.     Bombard friends, family, or unsuspecting interns with unanswerable questions to reinforce my justification of said random thing.

After spending an hour zooming in and out of the world on Google Earth, I finally landed on a small country I’d once heard has a ton of my brethren – Trinidad. A little scared off by the prospect of once again assuming my position as the awkward Indian, I decided that the cost to get there trumped all other factors. After all, the plane ticket price difference between Trinidad and EUROPE could buy at least 10 hours of therapy. I figured that should be enough to work through any identity crises.

In the midst of my mind tricks and self-conditioning to justify my decision, I took the occasion to demonstrate to the world the degree of my nerdiness by looking up the following:

·      Weather data to see if rainfall patterns will make it an enjoyable experience during the specific period I am there
·      The GINI coefficient, GDP per capita, infrastructure, and transparency indexes
·      The 3G and WIFI coverage across the country

Satisfied with the information I found, I then moved to step three of my decision making process in the form of interrogating our office interns. Like most people in America, they both knew of people who were from, had been to, or had heard of Trinidad. Based on the combined twelve seconds of conversation this country had taken in their lives, I asked a series of questions pertaining to specific cultural phenomenon, the transitioning economic status, and the logistics of getting around the country. Though their answers mostly consisted of blank stares and a few hints that end of my tenure in the office could not come soon enough, I felt I successfully fulfilled step three, and booked a ticket.

For those of you international development/affairs/anthropology people reading this post, I know you can relate to the very complicated and delicate process of packing for a trip like this. Though I was going on a vacation, assembling my outfits required a semi-sacred ceremony that comes with fieldwork: the Ceremony of Clothes Separation.

The Ceremony of Clothes Separation is especially important for the female sex, and involves the painstaking process of organizing clothes by both appropriateness and crappiness. Ceremonies generally result in four categories of clothes, as follows:

-       Category 1, Bumf**k Developing Country: These are clothes that have once doubled as rags, your dog’s chew toy, or clothes you wore while painting your apartment. The ONLY appropriate location to wear clothes that fall into Category 1 is in bumf**k Africa, Asia, South America or the like. No matter what dirt surface you must use as a bed, no matter what insect, animal, or child attacks you, no matter how blazing hot the sun may be, no matter how much you sweat, poop, or urinate yourself, it does not matter; there are no standards to be met in Category 1 clothes.

-       Category 2, Big City Developing Country: One solid step above Category 1, Category 2 clothes are appropriate to be seen in big African, Asian, South American, or the like cities, but are still meant to be sweated through in poorly ventilated markets, public health facilities, or government offices. These clothes provide moderate comfort while ensuring those around you that you are neither a prostitute nor trying to be blatantly disrespectful of the prevailing culture or religion.

-       Category 3, Middle America: These are clothes appropriate in the company of middle, suburban Americans (and Canadians), and are generally found in Kohl’s, American Eagle, or other blah stores.

-       Category 4, Normal Life: Normal life clothes are those you wear in your day-to-day existence at home in New York, San Francisco, Europe, Dubai, Tokyo, Montreal, or the like. One or two Category 4 outfits must be included in your suitcase regardless of the final developing country destination, as completely leaving these outfits out will inevitably be met with your long lost friend inviting you to dinner during your layover in Paris, forcing you to roam the streets in smelly, sweat-stained Category 1 or 2 clothes, and resulting in immediate entry denial at the door of your favorite restaurant. No crêpes for you, Mademoiselle, no crêpes for you.

Being a woman traveling alone, assembling the clothes I would take could make or break my experience in Trinidad, for how to not draw attention to myself while also not passing out from heatstroke while also being allowed in public places in proper cities is a delicate balance. Somehow, some way, after all of my trips to Africa and Asia, I made a cardinal mistake – nearly all of the clothes I packed fell in Category 2. After all, there would be no major European or Middle Eastern city layovers on this trip. Made sense to me. Unfortunately it did not make sense to Trinidad.

From my nerd research, I knew Trinidad is solidly a middle income/medium economically developed country. What I forgot is that countries that fall in this area of the economic development spectrum often take on a strange phenomenon – a lot of people in major cities have enough money to buy nice things, including nice clothes, nice shoes, good jewelry, etc. BUT, the idea that economically developed countries have of appropriateness still has not taken root.

Put another way, people are always overdressed. Go to a casual dinner, and the majority of the people in the restaurant look like they’re about to go to prom. Go to an informal meeting at a temple or church, and everyone has on a suit. Sure, many people, especially those who have lived abroad in Europe, Canada or the States understand the importance of jeans and shoes that don’t kill your feet, but the majority of the wealthy people on any given outing in a major city in a middle income country will be wearing something I would consider appropriate for a wedding.

Then there was me. In Category 2 clothes. Sweating. A lot. Don’t get me wrong; the people I met in Trinidad were by and large very kind, though they all asked me the same question: “Why are you dressed like a homeless person?”

And compared to everyone else in the country, it was a valid question. Some examples:

Location One: Zip-lining
What I am wearing: Shorts, stained t-shirt, 3-year old tennis shoes
What they are wearing: Tightly fitted jeans, halter-top, new Pumas, jewelry

Location Two: Hiking in the middle of the mountains
What I am wearing: Same shorts, a different stained t-shirt, 3-year old tennis shoes
What they are wearing: $100 tights, $100 sport shorts, new Pumas, $100 basketball jersey. And a similar outfit to change into after hiking

Location Three: Temple in the Sea
What I am wearing: Linen pants, t-shirt (no stain), Converse shoes with holes in them, $20 kameez I bought in Queens to take one picture before ripping it off out of fear of passing out
What they are wearing: Tightly fitted jeans, tightly fitted kameez out of every Bollywood movie ever, 4-inch stilettos, ton of jewelry, full make-up, incredulous look at what I have on

As evidenced by the Ceremony of Clothes Separation, one of the most stressful parts about traveling abroad for work is trying to look at all professional after pulling your shoulders out of that terrible 12-hour coach flight seat AND trying to feel safe AND not trying to ruin your clothes at the same  time. Hopefully you can thus understand why completely misjudging where Trinidad sits on the Ceremony of Clothes Separation, drawing attention to myself for no other reason than looking like a hobo, and not having to care about my appearances was AWESOME.

Normally I have a heightened paranoia about someone stealing my stuff. In Trinidad, I that paranoia was not to be seen. When I found out I’d need to pay the guesthouse in cash, I marched straight up to the closest ATM, withdrew 2600 Trinidadian dollars (about US $420), stuck the cash in my linen pants pocket and slowly sauntered back. Usually withdrawing that kind of cash would result in at least four plastic bags, 5 rubber bands, three pockets, a lock, a bat, and the fastest non-suspicious walk possible. In Trinidad, I accidentally dropped the giant wad of cash on the ground and barely blinked in response.

Normally when I buy any expensive article of clothing, I take hours to get on and off the subway in New York. The painstaking process of making sure no one scuffs my new shoes on my commute home is exhausting. In Trinidad, I didn’t care what the hell I stepped in, who the hell stepped on me, the amount of rain that soaked my clothes, or what stains I amassed running around the island. It made for much more efficient travel, I must say.

All in all, I had a great time in Trinidad, because I could give a crap about how I looked. Of course within 2 hours of returning home, I was back to doing my expensive shoes, new glasses, "Do you like my pants?" dance, but I will always relish admiring those beautiful Trinidadian landmarks while looking like a slob. If you ever get the chance to go to a random country and not care about appearances, I highly recommend taking full advantage. Just make sure there are no Normal Life layovers in the process. Crêpes are important.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Senegal: Part - I'm baaaack!

This one time in Senegal: Part I’m baaaack!

For those of you know me, you know I am good at many things, like exaggerating how many things I’m good at. You probably also know that my nearly non-existent sense of direction has gotten into trouble with burly German bus drivers and almost got me kicked out of Switzerland from a heinous bubble bath incident. Despite this fact, when I found out I would be returning to Senegal for the first time since my hilarious banterings of running around in blue shorts, I took it upon myself to subtly announce to the world how well I know the city of Dakar. Among my announcement methods were:

-       Shouting through a megaphone on Third Avenue
-       Posting flyers on the lockers in the gym
-       Texting random combinations of numbers on my phone

Needless to say, by the time we got to Dakar, every last one of my colleagues had a detailed run-down Mala exposure au Sénégal.

Because this trip involved two countries back-to-back and leaving the day after a full work week, the first day we had in Senegal was the only day in three weeks that did not involve travel and/or work for most of us. To revel in the limited freedom, we bargained down from the original asking price of the taxi drivers (five bazillion francs per person) to a more reasonable rate (500 francs per person), loaded up, and made our way over to a nice resort for lunch.

Two seconds after walking into the resort, I made the harrowing discovery that this was the exact same ex-pat-y venue I and my fellow classmates summarily told to go to hell four years ago. Two seconds after that, I made the even more harrowing discovery that I no longer give a sh*t about how ex-pat-y the place was – they serve lobster and éclairs! After selling my soul in the form of 1500+ calories, my colleagues I and went for a stroll by the beach to get pictures and make comments about how the Dutch members of our team are like four feet taller than the rest of us. Not wanting to squander any part of our one free day, we again loaded up and made our way to the western most tip of the city.

Two mostly unwanted beers later (add 400 calories), and we decided to head back to the hotel for the night. I plus the two others in my cab all speak French with a very solid command. Trust me, I can tell you all about basic insurance terms and drought models in said language – I’m really good at it. So after bargaining our price from seven-hundred bajallion francs per person down to 400 francs per person, the three of us settled in the car for our quick ride back to the hotel.

These are some characteristics that I knew about the ride between where we were and our hotel:

-       It is about 15 minutes
-       There is no giant statue of a family along the way
-       We do not pass the delicious evil resort where we had lunch

Yet at some point in the taxi, I noticed the following about our ride:

-       I've been in the taxi for 35 minutes
-       We passed a giant statue of a family along the way…twice
-       Hey! That’s where we had lunch! That place is delicious evil!

I suppose someone with any logical reasoning skills would tell their brain to make the connection, but if I had logical reasoning skills, there is no way the UN would hire me. (Kidding! Sort of.) Fortunately, one of my Amazonian-statured Dutch colleagues only works part time for the UN, and thus pointed out that we were in fact no where close to where we were supposed to go. The driver didn't take too kindly to this little revelation given that he had been expecting approximately 4000 times more than what we agreed to pay in cab fare. He was even less pleased when I and my two colleagues decided to pick up a fourth person we had never met, hand her the cab, and leave the car without paying anything at all. After all, the driver had just squandered 20 minutes of our precious non-working time au Senegal.

If there is one thing I cannot criticize about the UN, it's the diversity, especially in thought. While some of think that éclairs are only mildly delicious, some of think that éclairs are very delicious. It's this diversity that brings relevance to the often criticized set of institutions. Oh, also, we all reacted very differently to the situation. Here's a basic breakdown:

The Italian: Deny we ever got lost. If someone does find out we got lost, blame it Berlusconi, because in a way, it probably is his fault. Also, Berlusconi is just generally despicable. Then go watch the rest of your country vote for Berlusconi.

The Dutchwoman: Be very straightforward in what happened, this is a learning process that requires thorough evaluation to avoid any repeats in the future. Then complain about how low the roofs are of Senegalese taxis.

Me (the American): Aggrandize the entire adventure, make sure I was the hero of the story while vehemently denying any associated fault with the entire situation. Then get another evil éclair or two. Eating doesn't cause obesity, obesity causes obesity. That's what the NRA told me.

Needless to say, the story got out...because I told everyone. I prefer to look my unabashed announcements as a nice chuckle of a break between the following deep discussions about drought, rain, saving Africa, and how terrible Berlusconi is for the world. I'd also like to make a deep connection to the many life lessons this fine land of Senegal provided to me all of those years (like 4) back. Unfortunately, this trip au Sénégal really was just about work and a brief catch up session with Ngoné (her father died the week I was there, we saw each other at the funeral. Seriously.). Normally this lack of conclusion would be upsetting, but as Ngoné reminded me during my first round, "There is always another trip to Senegal waiting to happen." Indeed there must be. Those éclairs were really delicious. I should know how hard it is to find good éclairs. I'm really good at it.

Monday, October 8, 2012

A Literary Adventure in South Africa

For those of you who have had the...pleasure of interacting with me in the last year face-to-face, on the phone, via email or by sighing annoyingly at my Facebook statuses, you may have heard that I, through the help of a good friend and that magician's kit I bought, landed myself an awesome job at the UN. I know, right!? I show up to the same location every day! And I'm on time like 65% of the time! I'm growing up! Where the hell did I put my Legos?! 

In my short time at the UN thus far, I have learned many things. Mostly, how to go to my inner happy place while the really smart people I work with talk about the weather and Africa. It seems that I have also learned how to throw around impressive phrases like "disaster risk management" and "pre-planting coefficients" enough that I got myself included on a few trips for work, the latest of which was in South Africa. Despite my absolute fascination (obsession?) with relatively benign things like puppies, miniature objects, and iPods, I think I do a decent job of taking advantage of where I am in terms of cultural, political, and artistic activities and events. But saying "disaster risk management" 50 times a day while using magician's kit is exhausting, so when I had the opportunity to go to Cape Town for a few days after work, I settled on one requirement for my vacation:

I don't want to learn anything.

Of course this excluded learning basic things like:

- Where is my hotel?
- Is there a museum of miniature objects in Cape Town?
- What kind of puppy is that?
- Am I wearing pants?

But you get the point. Anything involving history, books, or words with more than two syllables were thus summarily banned from my vacation repertoire, including the words "summarily" and "repertoire." Then I looked at the list of things I had to do in Cape Town. And realized only three things on the list were actually in Cape Town, two of which were closed. Being the American't I am, properly driving a stick shift car is out of my range, and driving on the left side of the road is like asking me to fit in at a Republican convention, so I figured I'd last approximately 3 seconds if I managed to convince some unsuspecting South African to let me rent a car. This created a dilemma, for my lack of preparation in coming to Cape Town masked the simple reality that there is not a lot to do in Cape Town unless I am willing to learn something. Bleh.

I instead settled on putting on pants and going to see a mountain that is flat and apparently famous. Smart phones are both empowering and destructive, for I feel total confidence in walking outside in a new country with zero inclination of where I am, yet I scream bloody murder if my phone doesn't have all the answers. Siri was being a sassy that day, and instead of telling me how to get to the bus, decided to lead me down a few harbors and two cafes (she was thirsty). So I shut her up and stormed in the only direction that makes sense (backwards). Two hours later, I realized all I had managed to do was make twelve wrong turns and walk halfway to Pretoria.

As though the God of Nerds had commanded its wish, I realized I was 30 feet away from the main venue of a literary festival someone told me about the night before. My un-learned instincts told me to stay away, but the rain told me to get the hell out of the middle of the street, so I went inside. What I saw inside was frightful...there they were - the ultimate evil of all mindless vacations: BOOKS. Despite all efforts of resistance, the God of Nerds used its awkward pocket-protected power to push me to the table of bound paper that would inevitably make its way into my bag and proceed to sit on my nightstand for 10 years in a guilty dust-gathering silence.

Slowly but surely, the God of Nerds infected me with its learning virus, and I found myself back at the literary festival two days later after another failed tourist attraction visit. (Castle of Good Hope, my ass.) The most interesting event on the literary event agenda was a conversation hour with two people I'd never heard of and Kiran Desai, who wrote a book called the "Inheritance of Loss", which, over the years, has taught me how to spell the word "inheritence" "inheritance." Being the Grade A planner I am, I forgot to get tickets. So when I walked up to the cashier and expected to be gladly ushered into the event, I was annoyed to find out that the only event that still had tickets available for that time was a few French people talking about a bunch of short stories they wrote that no one really cares to read. C'est geniale quoi. NOT. But eh, you know, je speak francais sometimes, so I got tickets anyway. The God of Nerds was pleased.

The other American I was with and I stood in the middle of the waiting area to demonstrate the poor walking skills of what appears to the whole of South Africa (seriously, they're worse than New Yorkers). Five minutes and 4 broken toes later, we were pushed (literally) in with a giant masse of people towards the back of the venue. The woman ushering the audience told us we could either sit in the very back or the very front of the theater. As appealing as the nose bleed section sounded, the God of Nerds virus had successfully infiltrated my brain, and I vraiment speak francais de temps to time, so the front it was.

There are many passions in my life, one of them being complaining about artificial overhead light, of which there was a lot in said theater. After giving myself a few minutes to adjust to the grating waves, my eyes focused in a small stack of books that looked anything but francais and short. Then I saw the first part of the title on one of the books: I-n-h-e-r-i-t-a-n-c-e. Oops. I was in the event that was sold out.

My first inclination was to tell someone we had wandered into the wrong event. That lasted approximately 0.2 nanoseconds. Screw that, Cape Town ruined my "me no learny" policy for vacation, so if I was going to commit to breaking my only requirement, I was going to go all the way! As I relished in this moment of Nerd rebellion, the person I was with reminded me to not be a dumbass and get rid of my ticket that clearly said, "Pretentious French event." In a classic Mala exaggeration, I decided the only ways to get rid of said ticket was to do one of the following:

1. Light it on fire
2. Eat it whole
3. Bust out the magician's kit and make it disappear
4. Create a wormhole and send it to another dimension.

But my friend suggested I put it in my pocket. Oh.

After sweating bullets for another ten minutes, the authors and the moderator took the stage, and I determined I would not indeed get caught and thrown out of the city of Cape Town for life. (That's an appropriate punishment for crashing the event, right?) The authors and moderators engaged in a series of quips, anecdotes and senseless banter before the moderator opened up the floor for questions from the audience. Apparently the quips, anecdotes and senseless banter flew straight over the audience, however, because the 100+ people in the room sat in a strange silence for a solid minute since no one seemed to have a question. Finally, I raised my hand.

I have a tendency to say a smattering of the stupid thoughts that run threw my head, so I fully suspected I would blurt out something like,

"I'm not supposed to be here."


"Where's the bathroom?"

But instead, I managed something like this,

"You all spoke of the nascent stages of your writing career; as I suspect I am one of several burgeoning writers in the audience, how did you address the issues of intersectionality your books cover? What advice can give to someone trying to carve their space out with agents and publishers without being pigeon-holed in a particular discipline or genre?"


One of the authors gave an answer that completely missed the point of the question, which of course made me cross-eyed and cross-armed. A few seconds later, though, a small smile crept over Kiran Desai's face. The moderator noticed, and asked Kiran if she wanted to say something. Kiran simply shrugged. But then! She looked directly at me and said,

"I just want to wish the young lady good luck. Keep at it."

Yeah, that happened. A world renowned author told me to keep at my writing. And that, my friends, was my Literary Adventure in South Africa.

"It pays to learn."

- God of Nerds

Sunday, June 10, 2012

The Awkward Indian of Uganda

As you may recall from a very uncomfortable marriage proposal, Indians who grew up in the motherland often lose basic bodily functions and any trace of manners when seeing another Indian outside of said motherland. Though I have been graced with a number of uncomfortable encounters across my smattering of travels, which proves the existence of Indians wandering the streets from Milan to Manila, this awkward reaction never seems to waver in the African and European continents. Then I went to Uganda.

For those not in the know, Uganda is a little country in eastern Africa that is often overshadowed by its bigger, more diverse, and more Obama-y neighbor, Kenya. It is also one of the most homophobic countries on the planet. Ergo, after dropping gentle hints to my boss that I'd like to travel at least once to Africa for the "African Risk Capacity" project, you could understand my slight internal conflict when the first opportunity presented itself in the form of Kenya's neighbor Uganda. But beggars can't be choosers unless they're idiots, so Uganda it was.

Normally before I go on a trip to a new country, I make sure to do the basics:

  • Read the Wikipedia page. Unless it's long, in which case, skim the Wikipedia page/acknowledge the Wikipedia page's existence
  • Contact anyone I know who has been there and drop vague, useless information.

    "I'll be staying in a hotel with a pool!"
  • Practice a few lines about how my experience ten years ago in a country 2000 miles away is at all relevant to the upcoming quest
  • Pack Pepto Bismol

Unfortunately, my new life in the UN has firmly cemented itself in my inner being, and I found out for sure that I would be going just 10 days before. Preparing the materials for the workshop I'd be helping lead left me all of 12 seconds to do any general research, so I left for Nairobi Kampala without covering any of the basics, and ill prepared in every sense of the Kenyan Ugandan country save its tricky drought profile.

OMFG, there are so many Indians in Uganda! Somewhere in the back of my mind I knew the basics of the history of religious persecution that brought a cohort of Indians to Eastern African a few generations back, but damn! I thought it was like maybe 10 or 20 that went over, not half the state of Gujurat! I suppose I should have been better alerted to the Indian invasion of Uganda seeing that "Prabhat" was supposed to pick me up from the airport, and every email from the hotel concierge was addressed, "Dear Madam." Still, I was a bit shocked to see the following establishments in Uganda are Indian-owned:
  • My hotel
  • The restaurant I went to to meet my roommate's old roommate
  • Everything else.

There are so many Indians in Uganda that none of them bothered me the entire time I was there. Coming off of 27 years of stupid questions, pointing, grunting, and the occasional prod, this was a bit more than I could handle. By day three, I had all but gone into an existential crisis questioning my very appearance. Sure, my dad swears that the most Indian thing about me is...well, him, but I still look Indian, right? Right? RIGHT!?

Wholly convinced that I had somehow morphed into a white girl, I decided I'd spend my last day in the country asserting my Indian-ness. Unfortunately I ended up falling asleep for 8 hours (hello, exhaustion!), so by the afternoon, I realized I only had 5 hours before I had to leave for the airport to rectify the lack of awkward encounters with my Indian people.

My last ditch opportunity presented itself when going out to meet the roommate's old roommate for an afternoon stroll through the city of Mombasa Kampala. She, her boyfriend and I started by climbing up a few random hills to see a few random churches in an attempt to crash a few random weddings. Not seeing any stores, I knew this would be less than fruitful in verifying my Indian-ness, as all the Indians there are Muslim. They suggested we take a scooter ride down to a few local markets so I could buy the obligatory worthless crap to distribute to friends, family and boss to prove I indeed make it to Africa. After stalling with a few stupid lines ("I'm allergic to two-wheeled vehicles"), I finally heard the words I'd been looking for, "Okay, want to go to a bar and get a beer?"

Yes! Because a bar is an establishment, and every establishment in Uganda is owned by Indians. So after a quick stroll back through the weddings, the churches and the hills, we ended up at a grocery store/bar/thrift store/satellite dish store and got a beer. Before settling down at the one plastic table of said establishment, I made a concerted effort to point out everything Indian.

     "Look at these! These are biscuits frequently eaten in India!"

     "You have a Bata shoes across the street! I used to buy all my Indian shoes from there!"

     "You're from Gujurat! I'm from Bangalore, in southern India!"

Confident I successfully showcased my Indian-ness, I sat down and proceeded to have a very confusing conversation about Marxism and Indian accents in (mostly) English and French. With an extended interruption of Indian shop owner #2 trying to get us all to buy satellite dish subscriptions, the three of us passed a fine hour of nonsensical theoretical talk to prove we are all intelligent and sometimes gainfully employed.

Before leaving, I decided to drop more Indian-ness in the store by moving a few of the very Indian items around and making hilarious and clever comments about the variety of spices and naan the shop stocked. As I rounded the last shelf to make sure I had covered all corners, I moved just out of sight of the owners. That's when I heard the most harrowing words of my life.

     "That girl is very strange, always commenting and pointing at us with Indian products in hand.
     Very strange."

It was then that I realized my worst nightmare had come true.

I was the awkward Indian.
But other than that, Kenya Uganda was awesome.