Monday, August 11, 2014

Dinner and a show, with some questions on the side

Quick fact for you guys: What's the cost of living in Bangalore? All-around, about 1/4 the cost for the same living standard in the US. There's a reason that US companies outsource even skilled tech jobs - well, the cost of living, plus the presence of millions of people with engineering degrees competing for some thousands of spots in good companies. MIT students take note : we have it pretty easy.

By and large, this cost of living feels a little bit odd to me. You know that awkward feeling when you walk into a restaurant and realize it's waaay fancier than you expected from the outside? Eek.
Okay, now forget all the, awkward gulping-at-prices, because instead of being stuck between shuffling out the door or pretending that all I wanted was a cup of coffee, in Bangalore this mistake is usually about as costly as forgetting my sandwich and buying lunch from Chipotle's. Except that instead of a cardboard-wrapped burrito, you get open-air views, fashionable cutlery, and a lower risk of food poisoning. There may even be a clean bathroom. With soap.
A nice Italian restaurant - watermelon sangria turns out to be a rather wonderful invention.
Okay. I won't pretend this isn't fun, but I do mostly prefer simpler, Indian food. It surprises me. Lassi drinks, made of frothed milk and yogurt, come in many flavors - sweet; fruity; and masala, or spice. Think cumin-flavored yogurt sipped through a straw. Other regulars are salty lime soda, or spicy lentil sambar for breakfast. 

Street vendor roasting corn
I don't have much of a kitchen to try out any recipes here, but let's just say I hope to have a few tricks up my sleeve by the next time I cook ;-)


Even more awesome? I can go to dance and theatre performances whenever I like!
Well, OK. Whenever I can navigate poor online directions, unlisted bus schedules and an hour's commute into central Bangalore. Nonetheless, a professional performance here sets me back about $5. Most of what I've seen here has been very good, and culturally fantastic.

Today, I went to see a performance of Odissi Dance.
Sharmila Mukherjee's Odessi Dance Team (website photos - cameras not allowed in the theatre!)
A helpful English voiceover explained the basics to fill out my Wikipedia-based knowledge. Odissi is one of India's oldest dance forms - in fact, it was nearly eradicated a few centuries ago and was reconstructed from temple carvings and the work of a few surviving dancers.

After this, explanation was unnecessary. The dance was a spectacle. Odissi is in turns precise and sensuous. In my favorite piece, a tribute to the goddess Ganga who is the mouth of the Ganges, the dancers alternate snaking, flowing motions with their arms, and a rhythmic chant where they stamped their feet and clinked their anklets and hip bands to mimic rainfall or fish scales.
In a piece taken from a 12th century poem (a date which speaks to the depth of India's history), the lead dancer led her arms offstage. Beckoning. Smiled. Wiped her arms across her hips and shoulder. Was she putting on a sari? I wasn't sure, but enjoyed the cross-cultural guesswork.
There is a particular expression of Indian women which appears in every love song, and probably hides in every American fantasy of an Eastern mystique. It's flirtacious, audacious, and so rare to appear among the commuting and shopping multitudes who appear on the streets that I had almost dismissed it as the stuff of Bollywood. Then these dancers appear, and have mastered it - a slow, enigmatic smile at the floor, fanned by a bright beckoning glance from the corner of the eye. Practiced, calculated as it clearly was - the glance exists. When it hits you, it scorches.

Interestingly, the male in Odissi is barely distinguished from the female dancer. His costume is the same, except bare-breasted, and his jewelry is more sharp and masculine and defined by two silver bands which hug his biceps. Like his counterparts, he dances with his hips thrust outwards, beckons from heavily made-up eyes, and makes curving motions with his arms and upper body. I've never seen a man move like that before. I could barely take my eyes away.

This accessibility of culture is quite fantastic. I haven't decided yet whether what I've seen so far has all been very good; or whether the styles of performance here are so different that everything is fresh and captivating to me. I'm like a child watching her first magic show.


The exchange rate is great. However, before I go - let me add a disclaimer for you to think about.

"I can't eat that. They might have not have used bottled water to wash the vegetables."
"Oh, I don't mind if the silk merchants cheat me a little. It's still half the price it would be back home."

This sounds pretty obnoxious to my ears. The context does help - I am getting cheated pretty frequently, and careless eating has gotten me multiple rounds of food poisoning which I can tell you is not fun at all
However, telling you about a country like India - living in a country like India - by talking about fancy restaurants, while working in a Western company in a gated community, is awfully one-dimensional.

When I studied the Great Depression, I was told that somewhere in the stimulus package, Roosevelt's administration paid men to walk in the parks with balloons and scare pigeons away from the statues. This was held up to the class as near-absurd inefficiency.
Bangalore beats it everyday.

What does it take to maintain a happy one-dimensional picture for people like me?
- I pass eight guards on the four-minute walk from bedroom to office
- The toilets at work are cleaned approximately every other time they are used
- At large buildings, two women stand at the gate to make sure everyone goes through the security detector (it always beeps. No one is ever stopped).
- Every store has a guard to check bags on entering the stores
- and another guard to check receipts when you leave
- The 4-story mall nearest me has a guard at every elevator. He has a whistle and blows it if anyone breaks the elevator rules.
- Women, often elderly, sweep the streets by hand

I can write this list, but it's too brief. These are only the people it took weeks to notice and count.
Would I lose my comfort and safety if you took most of these people away? Certainly not - I listed here the most visible jobs, which are often the most useless.

How many people are at the edges of my nice little picture?
How many pictures am I missing entirely?

Cow grazing in front of the modern medical clinic next to my office.

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