Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Breaking down the "Global South"

So we're in Delhi now, in fact it's the morning of the penultimate day of the trip, and several ideas have been percolating in my mind for a while. The one I want to write about this morning, though, has to do with similarity and difference, the general and the particular.

So as I mentioned in an earlier post, for the first few days after our arrival in Tamil Nadu, far southern India, I felt all these flashes of similarity to Brazil.

Of course, the tropical warmth was a huge part of it, but I felt other senses of how people acted, traffic patterns, layouts of buildings, etc (I realized that as most of our time was spent in Pondichery, a former French colony, perhaps commonalities of city-layouts and architecture between French and Portuguese colonial administrations might partly explain it).

Amber from Chris Henke
However, when we went north, to Jaipur and Amber, the similarity-sense I immediately felt was to Bulgaria, where I've spent some significant time, as well. The differences were pretty stark from the first week of the trip in Tamil Nadu; people looked different, dressed different (it's chilly here in the north!), and of course the architecture is quite different. Even the color of the dirt was different: red in the south (like much of Brazil), and brownish-gray in the north (like Bulgaria), and there's more dust here, and the scrubby vegetation in the hills around Amber, as well as on the roadsides, reminds of scrabbling up Shipka pass in 1997 and again in 2008. 

Thinking about the feeling of the air, the people, the vegetation, the buildings in Jaipur and Amber, and their similarities to Bulgaria reminded me of a thought I had the first time I ever really went south in Russia, taking the train in the spring of 2000 from Volgograd to Astrakhan. Volgograd seemed like a pretty typical Russian/Soviet city, but Astrakhan (as well as places I subsequently visited in the Caucasus and the Stavropol region) had this flavor of what I then called, in my mind, "the South"; as with Bulgaria, it seems to have to do partly with the air, but then also how people behave in that air, the speed of movements, where they take leisure (outside vs inside), what kinds of foods they are cooking on the street (very little open-air oil-frying in the north).

These impressions, and a dozen others, to me made up my sense of what I then (before having ever visited Brazil) called "the South," and then felt later in other places, too: in Turkey, Greece, Romania, Italy, as well as in parts of Mexico.

But Brazil, which I first visited in 2003, was different--I guess a lot having to do with climate, the kinds of lichens and moss on buildings, damp warmth vs dry warmth (even though it's chilly now here in northern India, the responses of people in dress to chilly in a warm climate are of course totally different than those of people in, say, central Russia when the weather turns colder in the fall). And as I said before, Tamil Nadu definitely was reminiscent of Brazil, but very different from southeastern Europe and southern Russia, while Jaipur and Amber and Delhi are more like those later places.

This has led me to thinking about bands of people in their climates around the globe, and how my conception of "the South" from Astrakhan and Bulgaria was in a lot of ways useful for drawing out similarities to some areas, was by no means descriptive of everything south.

Social scientists concerned with the world beyond America's shores often use this term "the Global South," which is one of the latest iterations of terms like "the Third World" or "Developing Countries" or something that tries to put a more politically correct categorization on countries of whom the main common attribute we (and by "we" I admit that I mean, for the most part, academics in wealthy countries) are concerned with is poverty.

Some of these terms are more useful than others, and focus on different aspects of what we think is of concern or interest. But in considering what is similar between the band of places like Bulgaria, Jaipur, Italy, Mexico, and what is different between these and the more tropical south places like Tamil Nadu and Brazil (and even in Brazil, in fact, far southern states like Santa Catarina and Rio Grande do Sul drop out of this latter grouping in terms the sense of how people live), it seems more and more like big terms, especially the "Global South" (which excises for PC reasons any mention of the poverty, sub-alternation, or human or ecological problems that might link up my interest and concern in this collection of places), are more frustrating than useful. This highlights the desperate need for knowing actual details (hard as they might be to remember!) about just how things are in a particular place, what exactly is similar or different from one place to another. An eye for detail is so critical to know the world today, and yet as we create more and more details to stuff up our brains (like the proper proxy settings to get your computer to connect to the hotel wireless server!), we seem to let details, things we need to remember in particular, fall by the wayside of importance--they're a waste of time, or don't provide return on mental investment, it sometimes seems is the implicit reasoning. But this approach risks us becoming "global citizens" merely of all the worlds' malls and aiports and luxury hotels (with wireless!).

I think that brings me to my favorite particular similarity between north India and other places I've visited: the musicians and dancers playing for the tourists at Jantar Mantar, the big open-air observatory in Jaipur. The way these women dressed and moved, and the quick beats and lively notes the bands played, could, but for a few slight variations, have come wafting across the plaza of small town in northern Mexico, or filled a corner of the yard at a Bulgarian bus station.

Although these Indian musicians didn't play with an accordion, as Balkan or norteña musicians would have, they did have a set of bagpipes, which are common to every herding culture in the world, and certainly, I realized, must have been in part what the accordion grew out of (just consider its other name, "squeeze-box"!). It's been details like this, particularities, that have meant the most to me on this trip to India, even if they don't "capture" the whole nation, or even the city of Jaipur, in any representative way. The opportunity to collect a hundred, a thousand moments of particularity, to store them away (easier these days with a digital camera, but requiring brainwork nonetheless) is the irreplaceable treasure aspect travel to places that are different from what we are familiar and comfortable with, and the more different, the better!

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