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a beginning, a middle and an end.

25 Nov

i have been putting off this post for weeks.

instead, i’ve been rightly filling my time chasing the mouse-maybe-rat (thanks for nothing, 120 year old house), consuming oaked white wines and nourishing my deeply committed relationship with cheese.

and while i’d like to think of myself as almost a seasoned professional in my procrastination abilities, the time has come to face the inevitable. to walk the metaphorical plank, so to speak, to put my head on the guillotine whilst violently screaming: “vive la france!”

no? too far? anyway, point is – i need to wrap this shit up. and well, kittens, it’s been a real ride, hasn’t it?

like most things i do, you may recall that i was wildly unprepared to write this blog linked to my rando move to india.  in the beginning, i knew that i didn’t want to write about, like, all the creepy-ass goats i was seeing on the street and so on, highlighting 24/7 how completely different life was in calcutta. i mean – it’s a scooch implied that life is different in india – it’s f*&king india.

so i quickly realized that the best way to your wonderfully weird little hearts was by telling you some of my best secrets, trash talking the laundry list of jerks i’ve known in my 28 years and enlightening you on exactly how two bone fide crazy newlyweds make it through their first year of marriage -while 12,952 km apart.

and so it was: one long, swear-word encrusted (bedazzled, really) teenage telephone conversation – that sometimes referred to india.

but by the middle of it all, finally finding my voice simply wasn’t enough – it had turned out that randomly moving to india wasn’t so easy afterall. work became difficult, the thrill of living in the country of dust-turned-mud-turned-dust-again and spice had quickly worn off. basically, it blew. hardcore.

and frankly it was you, kind readers, who came to the rescue in so many ways. your mostly-insane comments, your revelations of devotion to this humble teenaged telephone conversation of a blog, your personal messages and – in some cases – your packages filled with booty (pirate, not ass – here and here too!) helped me get over my self-imposed exile.

(and let’s be honest here, the americans filled in the rest of the blanks with their exceptional taste in imported wine, unwavering devotion to western tv shows and propensity for hosting mexcian-themed murder mysteries. ole indeed, bitches.)

then just as quickly as i began this craziness, got over the fact that india – yes, all 1.2 billion of it – was a jerk, things were over. because for the many oh-so-complicated reasons, i left my work early for the homeland where the nachos are free range and the sewers are closed.

but doing as i have done leaves you different. even now – and probs for a while to come –  i am struggling to figure out what it all meant. working to convince myself that it’s ok to let this experience change me – even if it’s maybe not for the best.

this has been our journey together. and this is where it ends – for now.

listen, you don’t realize it, but you owe me. i’ve rarely preached to you about crap like “politics” and the “economic crisis” etc and so on. i’ve kept it to the interesting stuff  – like how i ditched my now husband while dressed like a pirate-hooker . the truly important discussions, ya know?

so now, you must listen to me as i take my moment to preach atop the metaphorical soapbox.

whoever, wherever and whatever you are – i am telling you that we are all able to do almost anything we want in this life. the path that is defined for us – whatever that path looks like in your world – isn’t always the way we have to play it.

it’s totes ok to take b.f.r’s (big f&*king risks) because not only do they give you mad street cred (“well when i was living in calcutta…” = kind of bad ass) but they are often the ones that are the most worthwhile. remember i told you once that nothing worth fighting for is ever easy? well it’s true.

i leave you with this: sometimes when it’s a bajillion degrees celcius during a 2 hour black out and you’ve just frantically stepped in a sewer that reaches your almost-knee-cap, whilst skinning your arm trying to protect your face from the garbage which you will surely fall into because of the whole leg-in-sewer thang, you enjoy a good old fashioned motivational quote.

this is the one that i repeated to myself that night, covered in shit, while being laughed at by probably 50 + indians:  “at any given moment you have the power to say ‘this is not how the story is going to end’.” and that’s a fact.

fact.

thank you, everyone. for everything.

xo al

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the things we think are normal.

26 Sep

so, i am not sure i completely think that the concept of normal actually exists.

i mean, i know for a fact my ability to watch the first 2 seconds of any friends episode and then tell you what season it is from along with the general synopsis of the entire episode – including the quippiest of quotes – is not normal. actually, it’s a little messed up, let’s be real here.

and even the people who we yearn to be like, because they are so incredibly normal, are probably not even anywhere near the embodiment of this phenomenon.

so when everyone had told me that bihar, a state in northern india, is “not normal” – i was keffuffled. what exactly is normal, especially in the context of this country of dust slash mud and spice?

last week i headed to bihar via train to visit our regional operations. when i got to patna (the capital city) i looked around, saw the typical delights of rickshaw drivers, hustling autos, mud, a bajillion people and honking vehicles and thought “what’s the big deal, yo?”

even arriving to my hotel, i kept thinking that this was nowhere as ghetto-fab as everyone (including my american industry colleague who called bihar “gangster” – no joke) made it out to be.

but by day 2, something funny happened.

the more i actually looked around, experienced the people, met with our clients in their homes, enjoyed the regional office and moved from place to place i realized that yup, holy f&$kballs, this place is pretty freeking gangster. indeed.

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the streets were actually infinitely dirtier than those in calcutta – meaning there were piles of garbage on the “sidewalks” and gutters that didn’t get removed at the end of each day. it was a veritable archeological dig of 5 years of trash. moreover, the garbage dumps – which  can sometimes be found on the side of the road here – were literally everywhere in patna.  a true feast for the senses!

a good portion of the buildings were dilapidated, or barely hanging on. there were very few new buildings, and a myriad of shacks and thatched-roof edifices that frankly, i’m surprised survived any kind of rumble from the recent earthquake.

and speaking of rumbles, bihar’s famous ‘7 km long bridge’ (maybe you’ve heard of it? no?) over the ganges river actually shook violently as we waited in traffic about ½ way across. maybe it was the deteriorated cement, maybe it was the insane amount of vehicles – who knows.

as i told the perpetually-paranoid miss jp yesterday, i was 96% convinced that i was going to die on that bridge. she said: “well i didn’t want to say anything, but we aren’t even allowed to travel by train. i’m just glad that they didn’t blow up your train tracks.”

(um, so i still have no idea who “they” are, but i nodded my head enthusiastically in agreement, nonetheless.)

so as if the garbage and infrastructure wasn’t enough – many of the people were really vulgar. the status of women is not great in bihar as it stands, and because it’s generally not recommended for tourists, they don’t see many white women. to say i was obsessively open-mouth gawked at would be an understatement.

i actually stopped traffic, bitches!

the scratching, snorting, spitting, peeing, farting and general disgusting bodily functions made me feel physically nauseous – and i like to think i am able to handle a lot of crudity. (cruditay? cruite? sounds like a delicious french hors d’oeuvre.)

and of course, what goes hand-in-hand with this is the general lack of cleanliness and sanitary living conditions in bihar. almost everyone i met was wearing dirty clothes and many of them were living uncomfortably close to cow shit.

yup, i guess this is poverty.

but what gets me, is that our clients in calcutta, who are generally pretty poor themselves, have higher standards of ‘normal’ for cleanliness/manners/infrastructure etc than the ones in bihar. so that makes me wonder what exactly is normal?

our ceo said to me today as we were gabbing about these differences: “it’s about what people are used to.”

and that’s just it: what’s normal for me, isn’t normal for you because we have different life experiences and expectations.

and even if the biharis knew that they could improve their situation, maybe buying solar lights to deal with the rampant power cuts for example, well would they? my guess is no, because power cuts are just normal and dealing with them is just…well…normal. their lives have adjusted to everything that the place they call home as to offer – good and bad.

to wrap this up, i have been implored to tell you that on this trip i got fairly fantastically shit on by a cow.

the cow was stationed only about 3 feet behind me, so perhaps i should have seen it coming. i was simply trying not to look like the holier-than-thou white girl too good to sit on the ground.

and when the cow shit on me, after laughing awkwardly loud, i thought: “well f*&k it, i guess that right now this is my normal.”

end scene.

a good old fashioned bitch-fest.

19 Aug

true story.

so for me, the last three years have been one big  never-ending job hunt. while others have been climbing the corporate ladder,  i have been traipsing around from one thing to the next trying to build up a professional focus in economic development.

and alright, it’s going ok.  i have this gig  in india, i’m finally experiencing field-level microfinance operations and i am broadening my understanding of humankind. blah blah blah.

overall, i guess this crazy fellowship is removing some of the barriers to better economic development job opportunities.

despite what i am reaping from this year, it’s time once again to renew the perpetual job hunt in anticipation of my return home in six months.  so, over the last week i have been prowling the job boards looking for neat opportunities and exploring the qualifications.

all good in the hood right?

or not. holy f*&kballs – what i have sadly discovered with this new round of job hunting is that apparently a masters degree is the new bachelors degree! what a simply stellar turn of events!

not only did i have to spend a year away in the merde (that’s french for shit –god  i’m so fancy) to get a decent job at my current professional level,  i now have to go back to school for an mba or some other ridiculous business masters?

pretty sure that’s total crap.

because i can literally see some of your heads exploding (cough, hannah, cough), i will say that i see the value in higher education – obviously. actually, i hope to one day get an advanced degree.

but to have it so viciously imposed on me for non-executive, non-specialist roles is beyond annoying. i just honestly don’t buy it  that a masters is needed to realize success in these roles.

i am starting to think that this push for higher education qualifications is a conspiracy to get us to spend more money on degrees.

actually, right now i”m trying to work out the economics of how this would benefit the world’s rich – as the best conspiracies do – but a chorus line of dancing ferrel cats just plowed through my train of thought. and i’m now envisioning them in tiny little cabaret outfits. ohmygodyouguys they’re so cute. do do dah do do, heel toe, heel toe.

um, where was i?

ok while my conspiracy theory may be lacking real proof, the point is that i would just much rather pursue an advanced degree when i’m ready to sharpen my skills in an area i’m passionate about – and not just to satisfy a recruiter.

in the words of liz lemon: blerg.

the best days of my (indian) life.

19 Jul

for the first two months that i was at work, miss j had bryan adams’ “summer of 69” as her cell phone ringer.  and like, not the whole song – no no – just the first guitar riff – you know bah, bah bah. bah, bah bah.

it was awesome – the first 3 times.

anyway, when i sat down to write this after a 14 hour day of traipsing around one of our branches – this little bryan adams memory popped into my head and i thought to myself: “f*&k that was an annoying ringtone – but the song is damn appropriate for today!”

today was one of the best days i’ve had here so far – and i’m going to walk you through these best moments right now! because like a flipping genius – i have photo documented all of them!!!

cue my standing ovation, please. no? ok. onward then.

moment 1: a roadside pick-me-up.

i was pretty conservative on roadside anything for my first couple months here, understandably of course. but since i seem to be have a new-found stomach of steel, the last six weeks i’ve been testing the roadside food waters. and man, the waters are delicious.

hack hack

today it was coconut milk, freshly hacked, followed by eating the soft coconut on the inside. it was the perfect morning pick-me-up. and as shown by this truly hideous picture of me, i needed a pick-me-up.

this is what 5.30 am and not caring looks like.

moment 2: the kids are alright.

as previously shown here, the indian kidlets are pretty cute – but capturing them on camera is not always easy. i usually have to go through several rounds of open-mouthed gawking (guess they don’t get a lot of white folks round their way), sometimes rude comments (“are you a man?” – really happened today thanks to an 8-year old) and genuine fear of the unknown.

but i have prevailed – mainly by dive-bombing them and taking their picture anyway. (like a minx.) i make sure to show the kidlets their pictures right away, because experience has shown me that they love love love seeing themselves on camera. and as soon as they see the shots they generally ham it up big time.

all except this girl – who i tried to capture several times, to no avail:

a last minute turn around from the camera - shy!

ironically, it’s my favorite shot of the day because in the end it captured her so completely perfectly as she moved away from me at the last second.

this motley crew was also a tough nut to crack. they were all watching me intently from afar and i totally camera dive-bombed them after being rejected a few times for a picture. (they literally scattered like flies at the sight of my camera but then slowly crept back to check me out)

completely un-posed. completely skeptical of me.

happily, this photo is completely un-posed. this is literally how they stood watching me, looking wonderfully skeptical as hell.

moment 3: monkey-ing around.

monkeys are preeeeetty much right up there with birds and fish for me – they’re just a little too unpredictable for my taste. so i’ll keep my monkeys in the zoo, thanks.

anyway, today i saw my first indian monkey. my colleague, we’ll call him mr ss, decided to taunt him by practicing his monkey calls – great! sadly for us though, the attempt ended with the monkey calling his monkey buddies to come kick our asses. we ran. the end.

little bastard

moment 4: and speaking of zoos.

we often get spectators during our repayment (photo documented here!) but today i was definitely the main attraction as we conducted the meeting. check it out:

checking me out through the window

they kids et al. were clamouring to get a peek at me, which struck me both as uncomfortable and endearing. and a bit zoo-ish.

moment 5: don’t go around it, go through it.

it’s the monsoon season here, as i have noted a few times now, and what this means is it’s all rain, all the time. a lot of the communities where we work have terrible drainage, so even when it’s not raining there are giant puddles of water.

well, mr. ss and the branch head decided to wear their fanciest dress shoes today (i wore my uniform of flip-flops – win) and they paid for it handsomely.

standing at a fairly substantial lake of water that separated us from our clients’ home, with no hope of tip-toeing around it in sight, i screamed: “shoes and socks off boys! we’re going through it!”

and while i was 50% joking, they actually obliged.

i thought that this was pretty awesome – considering the water was highly putrid. since something so hardcore would never happen at home, i was smiling the whole time – ankle-deep in shit and piss water for 1/2 a kilometer.

so, while i am sure you will draw your own conclusions about the overall greatness of my day, there is no better way to end this than with mr. adams:

“when i look back now, that summer seemed to last forever. and if i had the choice, yeah, id always wanna be there – those were the best days of my life.”

the things i wanted to ask you.

15 Jul

the husband told me not too long ago: “i love the blog posts that are funny. the other ones are ok too, but the funny ones are the best.”

and while i, more than anyone, appreciate the hilarity of an uncomfortable story at my expense,  i’ll tell you in advance husband (et al.) the following is sort of long and not really all that funny.

but you should read it anyway.

so i spent yesterday in the field not too far away from our office. the day started with two repayments in the morning – where we go to the ‘center’ (a pre-agreed client’s home) and collect their weekly loan installment.  i’ve seen probably fifty to sixty repayments so far, but yesterday morning’s was particularly amazing.

we turned off the bustling semi-urban street into an alley about 1.5 meters wide and maybe 1 km long. being a self-proclaimed giant, i had to crouch a good part of the time we were walking to save my head from being taken off by the roofs (rooves? who knows.)

well it may have been a tight space, but man was there ever life happening.

the water taps had just turned on so everyone was carting fresh water back to their houses. brightly colored and buckets were stacked outside almost every door. women, wearing their day dresses that look like nighties, were washing clothes and dishes in their kitchens and kids, cats and dogs were roaming around looking for trouble.

it amazed me how life can carry on, and carry on so vibrantly, in a confined space such as this one. it was like its own self-contained  world.

the alley

after finishing repayment and eating some lunch, we hosted 20 clients in the branch for their loan disbursement. with the indian microfinance crisis still affecting our business, disbursement is few and far between these days. t’s a real treat to see it go down.

the women arrived dressed to the nines  – quite a contrast from their housework attire in the morning. they had on brightly colored sarees with gold edging and they talked quietly among themselves while they waited.

disbursement day is an exciting time for them – one that has the potential to make things a little easier for their families in the coming year.

waiting for their loans

as i was sitting in the room with these women, i couldn’t stop staring. something about the contrast between the morning’s living conditions and the well-coiffed people sitting in the office really hit me more than usual.  so many things were running through my mind:

are you nice to your friends? do you ever bully your loan group members? do you treat your children with respect? do you worry if they will always take care of you? what will this money do for you? will you respect the process and repay? have you been truthful, or will you do anything to get money?

when the branch head eventually gave them their money about 30 minutes later they were beyond elated. they got almost giddy, but then tried to tone it down when they thought i was watching them. (which i was, like a jc-esque creeper)

with huge smiles on their faces, a quick goodbye “namaskar” (pronounced namoushkar) and carrying their purses filled with cash, the women left the branch. we then rushed off to facilitate a loan test.

these tests are administered to sanction a loan so that we can be confident that they understand the process and terms.  this is one of the realities of dealing with often uneducated clients who are – at times – desperate for money.

we meet the group in a community that is quite possibly the most active i have seen so far. it’s an urban slum located, almost ironically, across the street from a new crop of luxury apartments and a big shopping mall. 

kids and dogs were running everywhere,  rickshaw and motorbikes were trying to squeeze through the lanes, cooking, laundry and baths were happening by the pond – all in a small space like you could never imagine. the houses themselves had thatched walls and clay tile roofs – like most i’ve seen so far – and were finished off with tarps or garbage bags to protect the structures from the rain.

once you enter inside these homes you almost forget that they aren’t made of much more than bamboo.

the house for the test had two rooms, a separate kitchen with tiles and a gas stove like my own – they even had a table for eating. the other room had a tv, fan and a giant family bed with plenty of floor space for sitting. (although these houses perpetually smell damp and musty, this one was among the better i’ve been in)

the group was made of four women ranging in ages from 25 – 50.  the youngest, and the most vocal, was absolutely beautiful. she had lovely white straight teeth (fairly uncommon) and a warm face at which i just couldn’t stop staring. i am fully aware that this sounds weird – but hey –  beauty is beauty.

and seeing as she was so enchanting – and close to my age – my mind started to once again race with questions:

are you married? is your husband good to you? do you have children already? do you enjoy life? do you want more than this? do you know that there is more than this? what do you hope for? what do you look forward to? what is your biggest fear?

and as we wrapped up the test, i found it oddly hard to say goodbye to this woman and walk out of the slum.  for the first time since i got here i felt really struck by the poverty juxtaposed with how life goes innocently – almost unknowingly – on. it’s a sort of beautiful thing really, if you think about it.

and with another day under my belt, the journey continues to understand our clients.  my mind is, and always will be, buzzing with things that in any other context i could somehow manage to strategically ask and understand. but not here.  here, i have to observe and make my best guesses – and in many cases – i have to keep wondering.

so to the women who i have met, and who i will meet, if you somehow read this in a distant time, please know that these are the things i wanted to ask.  these are the things i wanted to learn from your lives.

whats behind door #1?

the end of a really big fight.

10 Jul

well, its been almost 2 weeks since i took a break from india  prompted by the fact that the entire country (yes, entire) was acting like a bitch towards me. so i started talking about other important things, like my sister, minxeses (minkseses?) and my handicapped dog. as you do.

but now that’s all over. i am pleased to announce that after some heavy drinking, new earphones to listen to marvin gaye and an empathetic email from my friend josh – i am ready to end my really big fight with india.

i’m a little sad actually, because it was kind of fun being angry at 1.2 billion people for a while. sigh.

no, but realistically, i guess now is a good time to start an upswing because i had a good week. minus the fact that i caught the flu during the first half, i had a stellar few days visiting clients and their businesses in the field.

since my interest is primarily in financial services small businesses, it was wonderful to finally meet some truly amazing entrepreneurs who have literally pulled their family out of poverty.

at the risk of losing your easily-distracted interest (you’re basically cats, people), i will only tell you one story.

i met a  guy who takes old pants, pulls them apart and recycles them to make kicky shorts. he uses scraps of cloth from other garment vendors to add design detail to the new shorts and even resells the zippers from the original pants to make additional profit.

so not only is the guy running a highly environmentally-friendly social business, but he’s making a killing while doing it. he has been able to transform his family’s lifestyle.

it’s so f*&king badass!

on top of my field visits, work in general has been going suspiciously well.  i feel like i might be earning a smidge of respect from my colleagues and that my projects have a small hope of being successful.  don’t get me wrong, i’m still my perpetually cynical self – but at least there is a glimmer of hope now.

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so in celebration of the end of the big fight and my better-than-most week – i am currently drinking around 2 L of homemade sangria for which i trekked across the city this morning to procure the fixins.

now, i plan on getting completely belligerent and dancing around my apartment for the next 3 hours to 60’s rock and roll.

wish you were here yet?

how to light a fire under your butt. like a minx.

5 Jul

as we previously discussed, india and i are on a break. so if you’re looking for pictures of cute babies and spices and other indian whatsits – move along for today okthankyouverymuch.

so i think i have finally pinpointed what’s been driving me bat-ass crazy about work for the last month: i’m completely and perfectly unmotivated.

i guess i never realized how much energy i derived from those around me until i came here. i mean, the days i’m in the field are obviously ripe with disney-song-esque inspiration, but as far as my day-to-day work environment goes it’s all very….meh.

at every job i’ve had so far i’ve had the pleasure of working with high-energy and ridiculously bananas people. so to experience less-than-bananas has been a real drain on my desire to do much of anything. (anything except eat sour cream and onion chips – because those little bastards have me hooked.)

my colleagues just don’t really seem to enjoy their work. personally, i don’t think they see how dynamic microfinance is in the big scheme of things. or they do, and they’re hiding it really well. either way, it’s meh.

so after weeks of moping around, depending on solely on the pounding of grape (real phrase) to make me happy – i am actively trying to find my groove. just call me stella, bitches.

and what i’ve decided is that i’ve been really afraid of moving projects forward without any clear support. while my projects are finally interesting, i know it’s going to be a complete disaster trying to make any of them successful based on how decisions are made and implemented here.

but that’s a totally lame reason to not try, right?

what popped into my head on saturday when i thought about this was the following experience:

about 13 years ago i was in muskoka visiting my most favorite family’s cottage. my most favorite auntie, being as sporty as she is, proposed going for a long distance swim in the lake.  now i have never been one to turn down a challenge, but i do not enjoy fish and other such lake-dwelling creatures. gag me with a spoon.

regardless,  i said something along the lines of “f*&k it” to myself and went for the swim anyway.  i was literally scared shitless the entire time – scared of touching logs in the water and of being slapped by fish fins. these are real-life fears, ok? god.

but despite how beyond panicked i was, i finished that swim like a champ.  and all these years later i still remember that it felt completely amazing – i was/am so proud.  there truly is nothing like taking something scary head on and saying: “nobody puts baby in a corner!”

(you’re thinking: “oh snap, she did not just quote patrick swayze!”- well i did. i freeking did.)

the aforementioned feat – no matter how seemingly small –  is actually motivating me today to not be paralyzed by all the failures that are surely about to rain down on me at work. while it’s sometimes ok to fail, it has never been ok in my books to give up trying.

so now what i’m going to do is say “f*&k it”, dive in and then keep swimming. like a minx. or is it mink?

this was a poorly thought out ending.

don't think that finding my groove = giving up pounding the grape. cause it doesn't. cheers friends!

deer gone wild.

21 Jun

i just got back from 12 hours of traipsing around rural west bengal. it was my first foray into exploring our branches outside of the metro area – which meant a whole new look and feel to poverty.

i’m literally exhausted. i have a layer of dirt so thick on my face that i look like i’ve just stepped off a 7-day 6-night royal caribbean cruise and i have a headache that could cut nails. but, i just had to summon up my last tidbits of strength to post the below pictures for you.  (i’m so selfless)

because my brain honestly can’t convey all the things i saw today, i will sum it up like this:

my old boss (from the halifax days) had a deer – a f*&king deer – break through a plate-glass window at one of his stores yesterday morning.  apparently it scared the bejesus out of everyone – a natural reaction i suppose.

i emailed him to say sorry about the deer and all, and this was his 2-word response:

“crazy shit…”

i feel confident that his response also doubles as my reaction to today’s events.  if i ever get enough strength to relive them – i might tell you the stories someday.  but for now, a few choice shots – picture, not drink  – will have to do.

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the science of getting married.

9 Jun

kittens, i’ve specifically chosen to avoid being all preachy and political on this blog. i guess i figured that cracking inappropriate jokes and using the f-word a lot would be more fun. (i was right, by the way.)

but i had a conversation last week that was slightly more on the preachy/political side that i have to share with you.

my office has a cute little balcony where my 4th floor cubicle is and sometimes my colleagues and i (miss j and mrs s) take breaks out there to watch the afternoon storm clouds roll in.

miss j is sweet – she’s my age, is pretty western-ized, speaks perfect english, lives at home and is unmarried.  frankly her life is a bit like mine was at 14: her actions are mostly informed by the will of her parents.

as we watched the clouds become increasingly ominous, my wedding came up – as it often does.  after answering a few questions about my family, i had the nerve to ask miss j if, when the time came, she would have to take an arranged marriage.

she said, smiling coyly: “i don’t know. i guess we’ll have to see. maybe in a year i’ll ask my parents.”

a little shocked, i said: “well, do you want an arranged marriage?”

miss j answered: “i’d prefer to find someone on my own, but where would i find them? my parents still have to approve so why would i waste my time on someone who they might not like?”

mrs s piped up at this point. while also very sweet, she’s shy about her english so we communicate mostly in a series of smiles and wild hand gestures.

she said: “either way, in the end you still have to do what your husband says.”

miss j, nodding seemingly in agreement said: “this is why girls go to work or study in america – so they can have the freedom to date who they want and live how they want.”

while stunned, i nodded in agreement and proceeded to get lost in my thoughts.

listen, generally i try not to have overly defined views because i truly believe that life is fluid and can’t be understood through static opinions. but in regards to this arranged marriage stuff, it does blow my mind that miss j – a 27 year old woman with an mba and a promising career in finance  – is leaving her future happiness in the hands of her parents.

at the same time, i guess i can’t blame her either.

arranged marriage has likely worked for her parents and their parents before that.  and though not everyone forces their kids into this type of union (mr. s for example won’t need to take one), it is a socially acceptable way to roll here.

culture takes a long time to shift. and while things are undeniably changing in india, we can’t fault people for upholding their traditions in the meantime.

(i should point out here before you go all nuts on me, that this post is in no way meant to  condone or address marriage or women’s issues in india that hinge on human rights violations.)

that being said, miss j proves that some people remain perpetually un-excited by the concept. does she want to choose her own mate? hell yes. but if her parents decide that arranged marriage is her path, she will have to oblige.

and until she has that parental tete-a-tete on the science of marriage, the delightful miss j remains in romantic limbo.

this morning she proudly tapped me on the shoulder and said: “allison! have you ever been to brazil? no? well i’m going there on my honeymoon!”

i replied: “hey, at least that’s one thing sorted.”

what it takes to be nice.

1 Jun

so today i spent most of the afternoon in the field with our clients for a ‘customer refresher meeting’.  these meetings are designed to bring clients together so they can air any grievances with the branch head and field officers, ask questions and be reminded of key loan terms.

it’s a neat concept, especially since the success of microfinance depends on the client’s respect for the repayment process.

branch head updating the clients on industry issues

anyway, while these meetings are meant to be informative and collaborative, they are also intended to be fun. the group plays games and sings together, and they leave with a box of sweets and other prizes. i figured that this low-key setting was a great opportunity to get some 1-on-1 time with clients.

listening intently

in doing so i met kalvita – a fifty-something woman who runs a small handicraft group that makes hand-embroidered sarees for trade fairs.  kalvita’s husband,  biml, owns a pipe fitting business which he has had for the past 35 years. kalvita and her husband have two grown sons –  bani and brath – and two grandchildren.

kalvita

kalvita told me that she took her loan (valued at about US $ 125) to help pay labor and buy stock for her saree business so she could attend more trade fairs and increase her income. since she took the loan last year she said her plan has been pretty successful, and as a result, she has been able to help out her sons.

she said her primary reason for taking the loan was so she could make more money to support her son bani, who became disabled after 2 accidents.  kalvita is helping to send his kids to school as well as paying for some of their living expenses.

in her own words (in english!) she said: “i am a friend to my children.”

how poignant, i thought, as  i told her that she was a wonderful mother. kalvita was proud to tell me that she could truly help out her sons because of her business – and i think that’s pretty cool. as i have said before – family really matters here.

not only did i get to learn about kalvita today, but i was asked to sing in front of the 40 women (‘mary had a little lamb’ – i panicked, ok?), sign a few autographs, take pictures and shake everyone’s hand. my face still hurts from uncontrollable smiling – it was awesome.

at the end of all the excitement a client called tumpa managed to sneak a kiss on my cheek as she was leaving, saying: “you are a very nice person.”

well i’m not about to argue with her, now am i.

tumpa

do you want some of this?

16 May

so i’m kind of weird about food.

not only am i the only person i know who is deathly allergic to fish, but i don’t really eat much (or any) meat. the reason? it’s totally gross when meat looks like the animal it used to be.  i.e chicken legs. chicken wings.

shut up, it’s logical.

anyway, these food ‘quirks’ are exacerbated here in india. fish is used for a ton of dishes and as for the meat, well, let’s just say that one minute the chicken is in front of your meandering around and then the next it’s in a bag for your convenient transportation home.  squawk.

so i think it goes without saying that i’ve gone almost completely veg here.

but despite the few things i can’t waiver on – like witnessing bird murder – i have to give myself props:   i have been unquestionably brave since i got here.

i haven’t hesitated to try anything – even chicken that basically looks like it hit the chopping block about 10 seconds ago. (mind you, i won’t be trying it again, but that’s not the point now is it…)

lunch is the time that i get to experience the most new food. i eat with my colleagues and they are never shy about offering me a nibble. actually, if i’m being honest here, they usually put it on my plate without asking.

and this propensity for sharing was a wonderful surprise because while i worked at engineers without borders last year, i came to love having different forks in my lunch. of course  it freaked me out at first (hello, strangers eating your food?) but i soon learned to look forward to it.

in the last few weeks i’ve tried the most amazing dishes courtesy of my colleagues. saucy-rice-spice-veg, mango chutney, fried chip-like roti, cold spicy pasta, fried soya beans and pod vegetables in delicious yellow sauce. and no, i cannot pronounce or write the names of these dishes. i’m still working on ‘how are you’, give me a break.

i'm having a love affair with lentils and spice.

anyway, this is all to say that despite my initial (quite serious) doubts, indian food and i are getting along.

and the best part is that while i miss my old colleagues from ewb – i am carrying a little part of them with me in the form of a big/messy/loud communal lunch.

so what are you waiting for? go stick a fork in it.

the language of failure.

5 May

i may be a lot of things (awkward, slightly chubby, loud, flaky etc.), but i am definitely not an ignorant person.  ok while lack of ignorance is generally the rule, i have just realized a less-than-exceptional exception.

so as we have established, i didn’t really do much in the way of preparation for this year.  what little i did do  included spending no more than 5 seconds thinking about language issues.  literally, this was my thought process:

second 1: “wow, india is far away. shit.”

second 2 – 3: “[looking at google images] that’s really weird writing on those signs. what language is that?”

second 4 – 5: “bah who gives a care. weren’t they a british colony for like…ever? everyone will speak english anyway. ooh look, a cookie!”

so you see, kind readers, this ingenious line of thinking (which is true, sadly, and not simply for your amusement) has brought me here, to a country that i have only just come to realize is filled with 18 official languages. none of which are english. thanks, imperialism.

ugh – i’m ignorant.

anyway, this unfortunateness brings me to today, as i waited ever-so-patiently  in line at the ramakrishna cultural school for the language class admissions officer to comb over my visa. about 15 minutes later, after watching him look at every page of my passport, he announced the following: “well, your visa looks valid.”

“no shit, sherlock. i’m standing in front of you”, i was thinking. “i’m through immigration and past the guys with the big guns! so sign me up for beginner hindi or feel my wrath!”

while my internal voice was going b-a-n-a-n-a-s, on the outside i was simply nodding my head and smiling sweetly in the passive aggressive way only canadians know best. it was super effective, as always.

60 minutes later and several more angry stares in, mr. investigative immigration officer slash admissions man finally announced that hindi classes were on tuesday and saturdays 6.30 – 8. oh joy! oh bliss! but my elation was short-lived, as he then said i couldn’t sign up today – i’d have to come back saturday.

i don’t think i’ve actually stomped off anywhere since i was like 2 1/2. 

you guys – seriously – i’ve been containing myself so well since i got here with their weird (lack of) processes and blatant disregard of timing. unfortunately today i lost my patience. but, while amusing, i guess that’s not really the point of this tale.

having realized my sheer language ignorance, i am now almost frantically desperate to learn hindi – evidenced by the above tirade.  i need to have the freedom of india’s main language so i can talk to taxi drivers, pizza delivery men, market ladies, clients in the field, colleagues and most importantly – my caretaker tapas. 

tapas, his wife (name as yet to be discovered) and baby (who i am calling habib, because the name sounds something like this) have been so amazing to me.  he has facilitated my toilet-fixing escapade, the gas-getting and he even brought me the six glorious beers of last friday. she has made me tea, invited me into their 1-room apartment and has fed me many a delicious snack. 

and little habib? well he has entertained me with his incredible propensity to slap people across the face and then giggle uncontrollably. 

baby habib and tapas's wife. who actually isn't angry at me - although she looks it here...

 

unlike my clear language ignorance, the land lady said tapas knew right after i moved in that  he’d have to learn english to take care of me.  and he’s doing just that, impressively enough. (although i’m not sure who is teaching him because he keeps calling my maid the “washer lady”.  which amuses me, so i don’t correct him.)

really, this long-winded post is to tell you that while i am trying to avoid being the i-word here as much as possible, it happens.  and when it does, i am finding inspiration to change from wonderful people like tapas and his family.

now let’s see what happens on saturday.

bribery is my friend.

30 Apr

today is a big day.  the biggest ever, perhaps.

today, i cunningly took from the pages of the “brenna donoghue guide to relationship building and being awesome”, and bribed the bleeping bleep out of my coworkers with cookies to get them to like me.

just in case you aren’t up to date on the developing story of awkwardness at my office (how dare you, by the way), the quick run down is that it’s been a challenge to build good connections with my colleagues here. i’ve been calling it my hideous regression back into high school.  and if we know anything kids, we know that i hated high school.

so here is the bribing bounty, purchased last night at a delicious sweet shop near mr. s’s house.

they tasted like shortbread. don't ask me what they're called though.

and now, loyal followers, i can confidently say that bribery works!

making my way around our 4-story office building with the sweets i managed to get a smile out of almost everyone. i even had a few quick conversations with some colleagues who i hadn’t met yet. ok, so they mainly asked me about generic topics like the weather (“it’s hot here, no?”) and the food (“how are you finding the spice?”), but it still counts. it does!

as i distributed the confections almost everyone asked “what are these for?”, to which i said: “because it’s saturday!  we should at least get sweets if we have to work on saturday.”

they laughed – maybe out of pity, i’m unclear – but either way i think i’m one step closer to becoming one of them.

ok brenna, now i ask with the greatest of anticipation: what comes after the cookie bribery?

i hated high school.

21 Apr

ok, who didn’t – right? (and if you didn’t, well now i hate you just a little bit.)

so i hated high school because each day was like being thrown to the dogs – or so it felt at the time anyway.  you are endlessly awkward around your (cough, more popular, cough) classmates, you’re an idiot around the dude you like (i was), you are consistently paranoid that your friends are talking behind your back (they were) and you never have the right outfit on (never did).

of course i’m saying ‘you’ assuming that every teenager was as blindly paranoid and self conscious as i was. no? ok then. moving on.

now, because it’s highly probably that a few people with whom i went to high school will read this, i can’t lie and tell you that i was always treated with cruelty and deprived of compassion.  (god, i wish i could because then i’d have a much more compelling sob-story.) the truth is, is that while i did struggle to get by in teenage hell – i was a giant ass to a lot of people. you can’t win ‘em all folks.

anyway, this rather self-deprecating beginning is all to say that starting a new job in a developing country in a changing industry with a foreign language is just like high school.  and as we have established, i wasn’t a fan.

so far, each day at work i have been mustering my strength to walk through the door of my new office, remember complicated indian names, say hello and try to make friends.  even at my desk, i have been unsuccessfully attempting to integrate myself into the conversation of the wonderfully chatty girls sitting next to me. (they’re talking in bengali, so safe to say the odds aren’t in my favor.) i think they’re nice though? maybe?

basically, right now i’m 16 all over again.

an unfortunate example: yesterday i had a meeting with the team leader of one of the microfinance products. “her” name is joyanta.  pretty sure i went up to a guy thinking he could help me, asked for joyanta, and he said “that’s me.”  awesome move.

it felt just like this picture from 2002 looks: terrible.

a hideous picture, for a hideous moment.

so, long story short  – i’ve decided that enough is enough. i’m not getting very far with my award-winning personality and ability to pronounce bengali words – so tomorrow i’m going to bribe them all with candy to get them to like me.  go ahead – judge me! i know bribery will work, and this too shall pass.

man, i wish that – like in the workplace – i had the opportunity to use bribery in high school. hey, maybe then i wouldn’t have hated it so much.

lunch.

14 Apr

there are two things that have set this week in gurgaon (delhi) apart: watching life go by at break-neck speeds in the taxi to the office each morning, and, less exoticly, lunch.

lord knows i love to eat,  yet oddly enough the anticipation with which i have been expecting lunchtime has little to do with the food.  (actually it has nothing to do with the food, if you read yesterday’s post.) it’s the conversation, that’s got me going.

so the office is a typical firm: a tight-knit boys club, with seven or eight staff members who are hard-nosed, smart as hell and true businessmen. moreover, many are well-travelled indians, and  have spent several years living in the west . to put it bluntly, these guys are intimidating.

but lunch seems to be when they let loose a little.

each day at 1 pm, the staff gather together in the boardroom and sit down to a rather formal lunch.  we’re talking actual plates, cutlery and napkins here people – real high-class stuff.

today’s conversation started when one of the guys turned to me, as i picked away at my rice, and said “allison, tell me about canada’s cuisine. what is a distinct canadian dish?”

i paused for a moment, went to speak, paused some more, and then eloquently said: “poutine?”

is this all we got canada? fries and gravy?

so after a lengthy attempted explanation on my part of what a cheese curd is (and frankly, now i’m not sure i actually know), a fellow staffer, seemingly unimpressed with my answer, said:

“you know, what blew me away when i moved to new york – other than the  bland food and size of the people – were the beggars.”

the reaction at the table from those who had never been to north america was interesting – they were suprised to hear we had issues in this area at all. (as i still sit on the board of one of toronto’s struggling ‘soup kitchens’, at this point i began to think the convo was taking an awkward turn.)

he continued, “i’m obviously used to beggars in principle, but the  guys who were sitting outside mcdonald’s day after day on lexington with signs that said ‘broke, want money for burger’ were truly shocking. i distinctly remember thinking: “isn’t that a little lazy and…mission-based?”

no joke, i almost spit out my rice.

continuing, as i pulled myself together, he said: “so i gave the guy some money the first time, but then the second time i saw him i thought – i don’t believe you.”

he has a point.

begging is mission-based, which if you think about it, is so ridiculous. alright, so the guy outside mcdonald’s is surely poor and likely feeling pretty low –  but does he really want money for that burger? probably not – he just wants your money, full stop.

the staffers great anecdote got me thinking that the north american begging scene is a song and dance – a show –  put on in whatever way possible to induce pity so you’ll spare some change.

and we’ve demanded it: we (you, me and…dupree.) want to be convinced that you truly need our money, so the beggars slap on a little shimmer, light the lights, and put on a show for us so we’ll pay attention.

to me, it seemed that my indian colleague was shocked upon his arrival in new york, because he never expected to face such indignity in north america.

i expected this week to see india a little more clearly, instead i was looking back at home with a new perspective. so i guess i have lunch to thank for that.

poutine, anyone?

predicting le future.

12 Apr

i can predict the future. swear. 

right now it’s tuesday in india, yet at home it’s still monday.  so let me be the first to tell you all (ya’ll, for hannah) that tuesday is coming – and it’s going to be a good day.

im off to work, my first day of training with the venture capital firm in delhi, before heading to the microfinance institution on friday:

do i look like someone who knows what they're talking about?

im already sweating.  this doesn’t bode well.  have a great day!