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.