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.

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