Fulbright Phooey! Part 3

Michael Rose

[January 2007.]

The Good

Things have been getting better over the last few weeks. Once the grant came through, we went to Sri Lanka to get new visas. Plenty of beautiful places, natural and religious. The Buddhist sites are great: monumental statues and ancient cave paintings, and in particular, the ruins of a city that begins at ground level and rises to a climax atop something more plateau than mountain. Unlike our Kerala temple experiences, these temple complexes are calm and inviting. Then there’s the food we haven’t seen since New York: cappuccino and sushi, even chocolate mousse! As you might have guessed, food has become central to our lives. Between grocery shopping, cooking around power outages, unclean water, lack of refrigeration, limited restaurant menus and getting sickened by one of the local staples, it’s been a hell of a trip. If the very thought of rice nauseates, you’re pretty much left with instant coffee — which is to say, we gorged ourselves in Colombo. The visas took far too long, due largely to the bottomless well of Fulbright fuck-ups. But I’ve discovered it could have been worse. Two grantees already in Asia had their paperwork sent to the US, delaying by weeks work on their grants and of course funding.

On return I was finally able to register for classes, which have been good when they actually happen. I put together a schedule that the school appears willing to work with. It includes the stuff my grant’s supposed to focus on (music in Kathakali dance-drama) while leaving time to continue mridangam (drum) and Malayalam (language) study, which I wasn’t sure they’d go for. It also calls for interviews, not a strong suit of mine but something I’m now happy for, since I’ve already met some excellent, and interested, candidates. One potentially big thing to come out of this year is a collaboration with a traditional Mohiniyattam dancer. Her family was the first we were friendly with here, her husband found us our house, and Miriam is tutoring their son in English. They recently suggested my composing something for piano for her to dance to. It’s tentative at this point, and I’m a little suspicious of her motives. I don’t think she actually likes what I write. Perhaps she thinks that this could get her to Europe or the US for performances. Even if that’s the case, the project might be interesting. Incidentally, she hopes to be on the Guinness Book TV show setting the record for “longest dance.” The show’s mostly a drawn-out spectacle of self-mutilation and grossness. There are bound to be some painful highlights in an eight-hour dance. Miriam’s been enlisted to research Guinness procedure. Stay tuned.

Only three days into classes and it’s already Christmas break. This too has been good, with friends visiting from New York (our first visitors!) and a little more traveling. Christmas in Cochin was interesting. Plenty of Hindus and Moslems put out “Christmas stars,” large paper sunbursts with lights inside, and everyone not catering to tourists is on vacation. A festival along the shore featured American Idol-type acts interspersed with English and Malayalam Christian tunes and current film hits. It seems as if all the Indian hit music is from films, with composing amounting to writing for the movies, which makes it difficult to convey what I do. Most Keralans don’t recognize Beethoven’s name, despite Für Elise’s ringtone prominence. Along with music and the usual tourist vendors, a makeshift boxing ring occupied the playground, with a large, squared-off crowd of men substituting for ropes. I’m not sure how this fits in with Christmas. Our friends spent a few days around Delhi before coming south. They say it’s a completely different country. While it feels anything but calm here in Kerala, from all reports it’s nothing like the craziness of Delhi or Mumbai. We’ll get up there after the school year ends on March 31st — really not that far off.

The Bad

I’ve been trying not to focus on complaints. Now that matters are on an upswing, I can come right out and say it: Our first three months in India were miserable — strung along by Fulbright, thinking for weeks on end that things might move forward any day. Sure, there’s been the adjustment to a new culture and all, but I could have handled that better if arrangements had been what they were supposed to be, or if we’d come for vacation with no thoughts of study or money worries. Stressed as we were to begin with, each new difficulty added another straw. I’m better able now to appreciate our surroundings. When we arrived, I’d hoped for a landscape filled with ancient temples and tradition. But that’s just not Kerala. The North’s hectic pace may have gotten to me, too. In any case, with Fulbright handling things as they did, we’d have been unhappy anywhere. If only they’d been honest with us. As far as I can figure, they’re trying to conceal their screw-ups over the last two years, leaving grantees in limbo and living off savings. It’s hard to convey how much time and energy we wasted. With less than half the grant time remaining, at least conditions are improving.

I’m leading a letter-writing campaign to Fulbright. So far more than half of this year’s grantees have signed on. We’re addressing US government officials from the Secretary of State on down in hope of recovering some of our money and making lasting changes to the program. If this doesn’t yield results, we’ll put the story in as many newspapers, alumni magazines, etc., as possible.

In my last email, I’d written that Fulbright was guilty of “lies of omission.” I’d put it more forcefully now. We were misled. I’ve recently learned that the same mess happened last year. A group of Fulbrighters still waiting in January 2006 for their grants wrote the head of USEFI (US Educational Foundation in India, which handles our grants once they’ve cleared the initial American part of the application process) and were told in writing that this year’s applicants would be informed about the ongoing problems. To the contrary, the possibility of delays was minimized. My many requests for information about last year’s grant dates have been ignored, and, further, we’ve been told that this year’s delays are unusual. Did they think we wouldn’t find out about last year? Do they not realize how they’ve disrupted dozens of lives? I hope to hell there’s a big Fulbright shakeup by the time we’re through.

And the Ugly

The keyboard, that is. Here is the last letter I received from the Indonesian from whom I ordered. Under other circumstances, it could even be seen as poetry:

Dear Sir,

I’m sorry beforehand. Because we experienced the disaster in sending your order. I hoped you understood our condition and could be patient was waiting for the sending from our company. I will inform further information to you.

Best Regards

I responded with requests for clarification, followed by repeated demands for a refund. While I may find recourse through the bank or wiring company, I’m not optimistic

This keyboard mess began with Fulbright conveying the impression that finding something here would be no problem. On coming up with nothing usable in Kerala, ordering became difficult owing to our having moved around a lot the first few weeks. And of course we were without income until the grant kicked in. We had no idea acquiring a keyboard would take so long. We eventually decided to order from the US and promptly learned that the company I contacted had just sold their last affordable keyboard. The delay would amount to at least a few weeks, thus leading to yet another online search and the discovery of this Indonesian company (or lone swindler). In the interim, countless emails, phone calls and waiting: phone numbers that didn’t work, sellers taking days to email back as often as not with the wrong information, days more for the right information, and yet more delay to work out shipping and payment options.… Seems impossible that it’s taken three and a half months. As with the Fulbright, the delays were accompanied with some fresh reason to hope that the waiting was near an end.

On a Lighter Note, Top Five Signs

5. DIC(K) – Democratic Indira Congress something or other, a political party.

4. “Possession of Drugs Punishable by Death” (Sri Lankan customs). The Colombo airport has a nice one. “Bank and Prayer Room.”

3. “Scalpel-less Vasectomies Performed Here.” Details on request.

2. In Malayalam, a billboard for one of the Communist groups, somewhat confusing but with clear sentiment: a large picture of a baby curled up in a fetal position with an American flag planted in its bloody scalp. Bush is not popular here.

1. “Follow the spirit of the queue” from The Ten Commandments of railway travel. It seems to mean, push as hard as you can. Another, the highly unpopular Thou Shalt Not Litter commandment, urges passengers to “Keep our National Treasure Pick and Span.” For the most part, garbage is tossed out train windows.

Miscommunication

“I”d like to make a hotel reservation.”
“Hello?”
“Yes, I”m calling to reserve a room on December first.” “[something in Malayalam]”
“Reservation? December 1?”
“Ah, reservation?”
“Yes. December one.”
“Tonight?”
“No, December one.”
“Hello?”

Death from Above

A Jain would be appalled. I’ve killed, to my best estimation, thousands of ants, hundreds of mosquitoes, who knows how many other flying insects, a few spiders and frogs, and one scorpion. The offed frogs were collateral damage: ant powder. They’re cute little guys who hop farther than seems possible. On one occasion, we had so many mosquitoes in the bathroom that it was possible to hit any part of the wall and come away with a palmful of death splotches. We light mosquito coils, but they take a while to work and are a temporary fix. As for the ants, there’s no stopping them. We’ve tried ant powder on all the window sills, spraying Off! along their main routes, and putting every crumb in storage containers. To no avail. They’ll find their way into all but the most airtight containers. They’ll even crawl inside the computer. They are, however, good for cleaning up dead mosquitoes. They’ll be gone by morning. Late-night work crews take away the dead for food, I suppose, though I like to imagine a thriving corpse hotel, with mosquito pillows, beetle-shell walls and scorpion chandeliers. And about that scorpion — it was small. Still, a scorpion’s a scorpion, and my thoughts about removing it to the out of doors were short-lived. Killing it took some doing. I know they’re related to spiders, but didn’t know that they could produce something like web-thread. This one dangled a while and it took several tries to knock it off its thread. In the end, though, my shoe carried the day. I had a pair of those thin-sole slippers you pick up in Chinatown. After not wearing them for a while, I found mysterious little moth balls inside. On shaking them out, I discovered they were actually eggs, probably geckos, and they didn’t respond well to being disturbed. An unfortunate end.

What’s the Rush?

Getting on or off any form of transportation raises a question. Exiting a ferry, for instance, means a hundred or so people bottleneck through two exits, everyone shoving to be first off. It doesn’t matter that, once off, most will walk slowly or sometimes just stop and wait on the platform. Not that there’s a stench or threat or whatever that needs getting away from. It’s the same story getting on. There may be no seats left on a bus, but people have to get to that coveted aisle position — the one far from the doors where you’ll get stepped on, people grabbing the overhead railing elbowing you in the head or shoving their armpits in your face, the fare-collector forcing you aside every time a new passenger gets on. Even parents carrying infants in their arms, old women, it doesn’t matter who, they’ll claw their way on or off any machine that moves.

Orderly queues are a hazy concept at best. Buying tickets for the train is in itself a trip: the line pressing ever tighter, the ticket window a jumble with waving arms. ATM behavior tends to be more civil, probably because only one person at a time is allowed into the transaction room. People will elbow their way to a ticket window when the prize is getting one’s ticket, but fighting one’s way to a door where the victor has to wait and perhaps be displaced doesn’t make much sense. It was, however, at an ATM I launched my first cusswords. Shoving smilingly past us and ignoring our attempts at polite protest, the guy definitely had a “fucking asshole” coming. We’ve been told that such English-language felicitations are often the first or only acquired, so he probably understood. However, people who exited as we were going in probably didn’t witness my bon mot. My Fulbright-assigned mission as “cultural ambassador” most likely remains untarnished.

 

[Return to Part 1 and Part 2.]