Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Guest Post: Jodi Weinberger

Hello readers of Norm Rasmussen!

I figured since Norm is struggling with blogging about his day-to-day life, I would throw him a bone and write a guest post. That, and I have a pretty good story to tell…

Before I start, introductions are in order. My name is Jodi and I am working at Fireflies Ashram, about 40 km outside Bangalore, and about 2 hours from RT Nagar where Norm lives. I too completed the South India Study Abroad program in 2008 and fell in love with India. My passion for cows, curry, and the smell of burnt garbage combined with the crashing economy brought me back for a second round. My tasks here have been simple thus far: re-do the Fireflies website (I have little to no prior knowledge of web design) and hang out/make friends with the other staff (this includes a lot of me sitting and smiling while I am almost certain they are making fun of me in Kannada).

My story starts on Thursday. Norm came to Fireflies and I introduced him to all the new staff that had come to work here after we left. Included in these introductions was one woman I knew he would instantly love. Her name is Lakshmama. My guess at her age is somewhere between 40 and 60 but the special part about her is that she speaks almost every language in India: Kannada (the local language in Karnataka), Tamil, Malayalum, Urdu, Hindi and English. Norm and her bonded right away and soon she was explaining to us that she had American dollars she wanted exchanged for rupees. I was eager to help and told her that of course I could take her money into the city and exchange it. Where the money was and how she acquired it was not fully disclosed at that time.

Fast forward to Sunday. I wake up, eat some breakfast, talk to my parents on skype. I told them I had a boring day planned; attempting to do some bucket laundry and reading outside. My day turned out to be anything but boring…

Purnabas (a staff member who speaks broken English) asked me if I wanted to walk with him to a function in the next village. Where I live is considered Dinnepalya. Utthari, where we were going, is about a kilometer away. One of the drivers for Fireflies, Muniraj (Moon-ee-raj) and another staff member, Rajesh, both live in that village. Muniraj is the president of the branch of the caste that both him and Rajesh belong to in Utthari. I’m not actually sure what the function was about, and if that explanation seems hazy it’s because it was explained to me while I was riding on the back of a motorcycle that Rajesh was driving from Utthari to Dinnepalya.

Purnabas and I walk to Utthari and along the way I slowly acquire a parade of children who follow me and ask me what my name is, they then repeat my name (CHO-TI) all the way to the village. About half way there we also run into the man who is giving Purnabas harmonium lessons. He demands Purnabas leave and go back to Fireflies with him to practice the harmonium. So now it is just myself attending a function where no English is spoken. I show up to a colorful tent and see Muniraj speaking enthusiastically into a microphone. Although all the villagers attention is on him, it still spreads quickly that there is a foreigner in the audience and all eyes turn to look at me as I am ushered into a seat.

Many women give me evil looks until I fold my hands together and say “Namaskara”. They look relieved and smile broadly back. Children cautiously peer at me and I smile back at their intense stares. About a half hour into watching the events of the function unfold I feel a tap on my shoulder. I think nothing of it as the whole time I am sitting I know the little Indian children are poking at my white skin. But another harder jab comes and I turn around to see Lakshmama. She whispers in my ear, “my sister is waiting for us around the corner.”

It’s important to note that every time Lakshmama has talked to me about exchanging money it is always in private and she reminds me that no one should know about this. She told Norm and I she had about $60 to exchange, we thought maybe a tip from someone who had come to Fireflies.

Lakshmama and I walk to meet her sister and once there she pulls out a piece of computer paper, on it are photocopies of the back and front of a bill. A 1,000,000-dollar bill. My immediate response was to laugh, but as I look at Lakshmama and her sister’s face I know they are serious about getting this exchanged into rupees. I calmly explained that what she handed me is fake. She replied yes, it is a Xerox. I tried to tell her that this amount of money is not printed, but her sister had to catch a bus and a lot was lost in translation, so we decided meet with Purnabas later that night where he could translate between Hindi and English.

I call Norm and explain this ridiculous situation I am now in on my way back to the function. I barely make it to a seat when a man taps me and says “Madam, please” and motions for me to move forward in the audience. I am reluctant, but he is persistent and leads me to the front row. The men who are on stage all smile and whisper to one another while gesturing to me. As the function goes on it is clear they are celebrating certain leaders in the community. I notice they are talking about me more and more and without notice a man leaps down from the stage and makes me stand up while he places flowers around my neck and has the photographer take pictures of me. I was very embarrassed that the only qualification it seemed that I had for receiving this honor was being white. No one else seemed to question the flowers or the plaque that gets handed to me a few minutes later. Although I was worried that the Indians wouldn’t want me invading their function, I wasn’t too happy with the opposite reaction either: an overwhelming welcoming. I am not sure how to react in those situations, or how to thank them. After the function appeared to be over, big buckets of rice were brought out and I was forced to sit and eat. A little girl who had befriended me quickly reprimanded me for using the wrong hand to eat with (it’s the right hand if you ever find yourself in a similar situation) and all the other kids surrounded me to watch the odd way I shoveled rice in my mouth and inquire about my mother, father, sister and brother’s names. Finally Rajesh rescued me and took me back to Fireflies on his motorcycle.

My day was not over… I still had to meat with Lakshmama to explain to her about the fake money. On my way up to the computer lab I hear her call my name and I see her in the kitchen talking with Purnabas. She tells me she has explained to Purnabas about the money. When I ask her how she got her hands on such a bill, she told me she took it out of a donation jar. Why someone would put a fake million-dollar bill in a donation jar and why she would take it out is still a mystery. I also think that when she told Norm and I $60, maybe she meant 6 zeros? I did my best to explain to her that on the photocopy of the bill she gave me, it said it was not actual money, and also that they don’t print that much money. However, she wasn’t convinced and said that she would bring it to my room in 2 days.

So for now the situation is not resolved. Hopefully Lakshmama will not be too disappointed when she realizes that they money she thinks she has is fake.

Anyway, that was my supposed-to-be-lazy-Sunday turned into quite an exciting day with situations that would only happen in India.


If you, or anyone you know would like to contribute a guest post (it can be about anything you want, it's not reserved for India only), send me an e-mail and I'll post: norman.rasmussen@gmail.com

Other than that stay tuned for the next in the series, The Apartment (parts I AND II), and Your Weekly Fridge!

1 comment:

  1. Hi Jodi,
    We really enjoyed your description of a day with you.
    As you probably know I have a subset of blog readers in the Village where my wife and I live. There are 15 people who read and enjoy the reflections from India.
    Thanks alot.
    Norm (Norm's Grandfather)