Archive for February, 2011

North Tour Preview: Where I’ll be from 28 February to 25 March

February 27, 2011

How many people have the chance to visit the Taj Mahal?

Now how many people who visit the Taj Mahal can claim it may not be the most interesting thing they do in a 26-day stretch?

Once again, I’m incredibly lucky to be on a month long tour of India, and this one looks to be even better than the last. The Taj Mahal in Agra is like The Great Wall of China, The Eiffel Tower and the Leaning Tower of Pisa all rolled into one. It’s the first piece of architecture that comes to mind when one thinks of India. It’s one of the wonders of the world.

But I can’t say it’s the most exciting thing I have to look forward to on this tour.

So if not the Taj Mahal, what is?

The Pink City of Jaipur and its monumental palaces? A camel ride through Rajasthan and a nighttime campout in the desert? Dharamsala, a monastery wherein the Dalai Lama resides? Manali, perhaps the only place in India I’m likely to step in snow? White-water rafting in Himachal Pradesh? Delhi, the capital of India and the site of monuments such as the Red Fort, the India Gate, and Lotus Temple? Varanasi, one of the world’s oldest cities, on the banks of the Ganges River? Darjeeling, which provides a view of the third-highest peak in the world, Mt. Kanchenjunga? Gangtok, where we’ll celebrate Holi at two miles above sea level? Kolkata, the cultural capital of India?

I can’t tell you now.

But four weeks from now, when I’ve completed all that and more, I should be able to.

🙂

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Cricket: A new kind of fandom

February 23, 2011

Ask anyone who’s known me since the age of eight to associate one word with me, and there’s a good change “baseball” would be the first in their mind.

It’s understandable. There’s no denying my obsession with baseball and the Chicago Cubs, which began in 2001 when Sammy Sosa‘s home run hops convinced me to board the bandwagon for both. Ten years later, I have no plans to leave either one. I’ve spent more time than I’d like to admit playing fantasy baseball in recent years, and it’s possible I’ve used Bleed Cubbie Blue as a timepass more than any other website. I’ve bored a number of friends with my baseball lectures on Gmail Chat (intentionally, I have to admit). That said, without my knowledge of the sport, I probably wouldn’t have won the 2010 Illinois state sports writing championship.

Then I came to India, and fell in love with a different bat and ball sport.

For seven months I’ve lived in the land where balls are bowled, not pitched. Where a ball hit over the boundary is a “6” not a home run. Where games have just one or two innings, but take between three hours and five days to play.

Cricket is king in India, and no other sport even comes close. There’s not a country in the world with more cricket fans than India. Field hockey is actually the country’s national sport, but cricket’s popularity transcends any other. Badminton, basketball and soccer have sizable followings in India, but none is even a tenth that of cricket.

Admittedly, people here pay baseball its due when I tell them what country I’m from. Pride glimmers in me every time people are quick to acknowledge the sport – usually before basketball and (American) football. At least to the outside world, baseball is still America’s national pastime, and when discussing America’s landmarks, I always put Wrigley Field up there with The Grand Canyon, Mount Rushmore and The Golden Gate Bridge.

But cricket isn’t baseball.

I found myself on the learning curve for a sport for the first time in about a decade upon my arrival in India. This time, Sports Illustrated for Kids didn’t offer me much help. In the primal stages of my sports fandom I’d been eased into several games simultaneously. I acquired at least a baseline knowledge for baseball, basketball, football, hockey, golf, tennis, NASCAR and soccer, choosing to further pursue the sports in which I gained the most interest. In time, I became reasonably literate in other sports – swimming, volleyball, softball, lacrosse, track and field, cross country, field hockey. In July, I could probably have even gone on a tangent about billiards if you asked me.

But not cricket.

Before I got the news I was coming to India, I knew precisely three things about cricket: that it was played with a bat and a ball, that they used these things called wickets, and that it had something to do with tea.

I expected to learn about cricket while in India, but that didn’t keep what I learned from surprising me. The learning curve wasn’t so much steep as it was congested and full of detours. In America, baseball is packaged nicely into 30 teams belonging to 28 cities, thanks to the omnipotence of its preeminent league – MLB. You root for the team with familial ties in a familiar location, so the Chicago Cubs were a natural fit. Same for the NFL, the NBA and the NHL. You root for one club, and root against its opponent from some other North American city. It’s just how America does sports.

I ran into trouble when I applied that Western thinking to cricket. So Nagpur doesn’t have a franchise in the Indian Premier League (IPL)? Fine. I’ll just root for whatever team my host family roots for. So which one is it? The Mumbai Indians? The Deccan Chargers? The Bangalore Royal Challengers?

Eventually, I learned I’d been focusing my fandom onto a fledgling two-year-old league that used the newest, shortest and most controversial of cricket’s three main formats – T20. None of its teams had regional fanbases akin to those of American teams, and most here have chosen to root for teams with the most Indian players rather than those with geographical proximity.

The IPL is young, and has tremendous potential for growth. But real cricket fans root for their country’s team, not their city’s.

Team India is one of, if not the best cricket teams in the world. In any format, really, but Test Matches and One Day Internationals (ODIs) will get the most people to watch. There might not be anything that unites the 1.1 billion people in India better than its cricket team. For 12 months a year, up to 12 hours a day, you’ll find TVs across India tuned to cricket. Trying to find an Indian who’s not a cricket fan is like trying to find an American rooting against their country in the Olympics: they exist, but very few are willing to openly admit it.

Now the Olympics of cricket have come to South Asia. To Nagpur itself.

The Cricket World Cup is underway. And I’m going.

🙂

To be continued…

Happy birthday!

February 22, 2011

I’d like to send out happy birthday wishes to someone who’s made a great impact on this blog, this year, and my life overall. May today and the coming year bring you nothing but the best!

🙂

Because I like to self-promote sometimes

February 18, 2011

This evening, my friend Ashish became the 10,000th person to read my blog.

I’m flattered, although you’d expect me to say that anyway. I take no shame in having closely monitored the site stats lately – it’s the goal of every writer to be read, after all. But 10,000 is just a tenth of a lakh. It’s still just a number. You can find longer-established, wider-read, far-superior publications a couple clicks away.

I’d like to take this opportunity to ask you what you want out of my remaining time here.

What do you want to read about? I have just over three months remaining in India, one of which will be spent on a tour of North India. Two more mega-entries are coming, one of which I’ll put up some time after my plane lands in Chicago this summer. You can count on a comparison of cricket and baseball, a detailed analysis of Indian food, and (with their consent) some long-overdue introductions to the people who have made my life here absolutely wonderful.

But what else do you want to hear? What don’t you want to hear? What have you enjoyed the most so far? What has tuned you out? What do you like most about this site? What do you like the least?

What about the North Tour? Do you have any suggestions for how I cover that?

What else do you want to know about India?

I’ve asked enough for now. Thank you for letting me take you with me on An Indian Year. You are the reason I write this blog. You are the reason I exercise my fingers on this laptop each week. You are the fuel for every word that I publish.

Thank you.

🙂

“Foreigner!” – The saga of standing out in India, Part three

February 17, 2011

In the last 32 days, I have heard the word “foreigner” 589 times.

That’s 18.4 times per day. 129 times a week. A pace of 6700 times over the course of 12 months.

Yes, I’ve been keeping track of this very diligently. I could even tell you the standard deviation if you’re interested. But these numbers don’t tell the story of life as a foreigner in India. And I have two more of those to tell.

The morning after Wednesday’s bike-scapade, Nisha and I took a rickshaw across town to Hindi class. As we walked away from the auto, a man’s voice called out to us. Another Indian intent on teasing us, perhaps?

No. Nisha’s phone was lying idle in the car’s backseat. The man had called our attention to it, in spite of the attention taking a foreigner’s phone would have provided. Nisha went to pick it up with gratitude. This wasn’t the first time she’d lost – and soon found – her phone since coming to Nagpur.

See, there are good people in India. They’re everywhere. The trouble is, good people give us the least trouble and the least attention. They stand by, awaiting the opportunity to make lives better – like pointing out when our tires have punctures, or insisting on fixing them for free when we don’t have enough change.

After Thursday’s class, Anaïs, Michelle and I went to fix our bikes. This in itself was another adventure, my third trip to a cycle-wallah in the last 18 hours. A group assembled around us as we watched our bikes being repaired. Three boys lingered without making the effort to conceal themselves, even going so far as to pretend their obviously working bikes were broken too. Understandable, perhaps. But nonetheless obnoxious.

Then again, after what we did the next day, are we any better?

We received a frantic phone call from Michelle about an hour before sunset on Friday. Foreigners had been spotted, and they weren’t exchange students. Anaïs, Nisha and I rode our now-functioning bikes back to Poonam Chambers for the sole purpose of meeting them.

Consider the rarity of meeting other foreigners in India. Aside from the places we ventured on the South Tour, whereon pockets of foreigners were found abound, I’d only run into Indian outsiders about once every two weeks. Usually we’d just pass each other by, an aura of significance exchanged at most, and one-sided obliviousness in the least. Sometimes we’d strike up conversations – as Anaïs and I did with an Austrian outside a zoo two weeks ago – but even those normally remained curt, however exciting the other’s presence was for either party.

The foreigners we met on Friday were mostly American, with one Canadian among their number as well. (This made Nisha very happy.) About 20 in number, they ranged from 20-somes to 70-somes – college-aged, middle-aged and retirement-aged. One of them even recognized my Chicago Cubs baseball cap. We spent half an hour orienting them to India, talking to them about the culture, showing them where to go in Nagpur, and discussing with them the attention foreigners receive – a fact they were aware of despite having been in India for less than a week.

I don’t think they knew we’d driven around Nagpur just to see them. I wonder how they’d have reacted if they’d known we did. It’s certainly not a meeting that would have taken place in the U.S., a country where foreigners melt in, meld in, and become indistinguishable from everyone else. Women in mini-skirts and burqas can be best friends. Only one’s accent or passport can give away one’s nationality in America, and even then, they don’t have to. I never appreciated the diversity of my friends, my community, and my home country until I came to India, where that diversity is of a variety that’s subtler and far more difficult to discern.

It may seem counterintuitive that Rotary every year sends foreigners to a country of over a billion people with relatively similar outward appearances. There’s no denying the unique attention foreigners receive here. The cynic would say exchange students are guinea pigs, nothing more than barometers for India’s perception of the outside world.

But that’s just not the truth.

I’m reminded of Rotary’s motto for the 2010-11 year, one that is splashed prominently across two of my T-shirts from July’s conference in Grand Rapids. I read it every time I put one on, and I’m often given a reason to ponder what it says.

“Building communities. Bridging continents.”

Every time I take my bike through the streets of Nagpur, I’m unable to suppress a grin as I consider how bizarre it is that I am where I am. I smile and wave when the neighbor kids shout at me as I pass – “Chris! Hi!” When people look and shout at me, I don’t want them to think I have it better than they do because of my appearance, that my heroism parallels my bike’s namesake (Hercules), that America is some magical utopian haven to which they can and should escape.

What I hope for those people is that they realize the ever-increasing truth:

For a place with nearly 7 billion people, the world is a pretty small place.

I just happen to come from the other side of it.

🙂