News, sketches, thoughts and updates from the desk of Chad Crowe.
“To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.” – Aldous Huxley
“India.” One word that often strikes fear into the hearts of Americans contemplating not only ancient architecture, surreal landscapes and amazing food, but also severe stomach illness, chaotic traffic, lecherous men, mind-bending heat and even packs of raging monkeys mistaking your arm for a banana. This might sound a little exaggerated to your average Indian, but these are often the types of thoughts that spring to the minds of my fellow countrymen. Perhaps this is the reason my wife and I were paralyzed with excitement, and a little fear, when a contract was offered to be an Illustrator with The Times of India for one year. We had a house, comfortable jobs, and good friends, but how could we turn down an offer to move to an entirely different culture(s), half a world away?
We arrived in Delhi on May 29, 2014. Immediately India’s campaign of “Shock and Awe” had begun. Exiting the airport we were blasted with crematorium-levels of heat and rushed through what seemed like an ant-pile of people to a jeep that careened us into the chaos of Delhi traffic. I knew there were over 300 million Hindu gods, but wanted to quickly find the one responsible for Traffic Safety and make immediate offerings. Crowds of people, cows, garbage, dust and monkeys could be seen from the window through our jet-lagged eyes and we thought, perhaps, we had arrived on the movie set for a post-apocalyptic dystopian thriller
At first adapting was quite challenging, and simple tasks seemed to involve a massive amount of effort. Obtaining an operating SIM card and cell phone plan seemed more logistically difficult than an elderly couple completing all the moves of the Kama Sutra in one night. Mailing a package of goodies home for my mother’s birthday took three hours, and multiple interrogations, in a baking post office. Obtaining an operating Wi-Fi Dongle was cause for celebration after one week of dealing with a Kafkaesque bureaucracy.
We almost gave up and went home, but after a few weeks we began to relax. The traffic, food and chaos didn’t seem so frightening anymore. Americans are quite individualistic, and pampered in some ways, and believe they can rise above their situations and create their own destinies. This is helped by an efficient system and infrastructure that is already in place and a culture that allows this viewpoint to have some degree of merit. This is why India is such a challenge to Americans: you might have some autonomy, but you have to surrender to the chaos around you or you will surely go mad. Only a few things might be in your control, and just getting to work, and being at work, can take up most of the day (not to mention actually working).
One year has passed quickly, and it is difficult to reflect on how this country has changed me.
Perhaps the biggest change has been my level of patience. Small things don’t bother me much anymore and I’ve become accustomed to some degree of suffering without too much internal whining: sitting in a rickshaw in 45 degrees in a traffic jam is not fun, but I no longer want to scream at the other autos and try to imagine I’m just relaxing in a Finnish sauna. And the constant horns blaring in your ear: I might have to find an Ambient Horn Soundtrack just to sleep when I get back to the US.
Also, I value my life a little less. When one has to cross a busy road, commute in gladiatorial traffic, or inhale the toxic pea soup that is Delhi’s air, you realize you are making a deal with your own mortality. You are not so special, but one of the 20 million people in a megacity scrambling to get through another day, which is an excellent lesson in humility.
My eating habits have also changed. Americans like their own food and don’t typically want to share, although this is changing. Now I don’t mind having cookies grabbed out of my hand, or half-eaten mango ice cream bars shoved in my face. Using your fingers as culinary utensils is a completely viable option.
Large crowds used to be cause for avoidance, but now I’m used to the crush of humanity, and would not find a small family squatting in my armpit any cause for surprise or concern. I am also the object of constant staring. It took me months to be comfortable feeling like a recently escaped animal from the Delhi Zoo.
The largest impact of this year has been the people we’ve met. There are many Indian, and expat, friends who have opened their hearts, and houses, to us and will be very difficult to leave. India is a large and complicated country with many challenges, and often faces much criticism from the West for not behaving as logically, or efficiently, as it might. But if you can relax and keep an open mind, you realize the charm is in its heart, and the things that will open up to you if you give this chaotic place a chance.
So much time has past since my last blog post: I was making a giant snow monkey in the cold north of Japan and now I find myself in one of the hottest and most uncomfortable climates on planet Earth: summer in New Delhi. I was offered a year contract as an illustrator and cartoonist with India’s largest financial newspaper, The Economic Times, and found the opportunity too exciting to pass up. Although I am keeping a few freelance clients from home for the year, it is the first office job I’ve ever had and now find myself in the strange position of working in a cubicle surrounded by the chaos of a busy Indian newsroom. The offices are located in central Delhi on Bahadur Shah Zafar Marg, a collection of newspapers buildings that is the Indian equivalent of London’s Fleet Street. Except it’s a Fleet Street with monkeys. They live behind the newspaper offices in a large green space and old Muslim graveyard.
The culture shock was quite intense, and the most difficult initial adjustment was getting used to the insanity of the traffic. Rickshaws dodge around huge trucks and barely miss bicycles coming towards oncoming vehicles as occasional cows wander through the roads. We even saw two grown men having a casual conversation in the middle of a four lane highway, seemingly undisturbed at the concept of imminent death. Although a skeptic, I found myself quickly wanting to find out who the Hindu God of Traffic Safety might be and offering my most intense devotion, and best sticks of incense.
India is a challenge. Not just for westerners, but also for many Indians as well. The lack of infrastructure, the extreme weather and the labyrinth of bureaucracy are enough to make most foreigners look for the nearest airport. Or pharmacy. But there are many positives as well: an ancient history with awe-inducing ruins, kind friends who would do almost anything for you, incredible varieties of culinary delights and the chance to learn much more about a country that is so confusingly different. It will be an interesting year. I just hope a monkey, or editor, doesn’t bite me and I’ll have to go in for the series of rabies shots.
The oddest, and most enjoyable, assignment in the last few years involved creating a drawing for the US Snow Sculpture Team to compete at the 2013 Sapporo Snow Festival this past February. My wife and I (who collectively know nothing about sculpture) found ourselves on a three person team, and had three 12-hour days to chisel something recognizable out of a 3 meter block of compressed snow. Luckily we had an experienced sculptor join us as the team captain, and managed to carve out a sasquatch, beaver and duck (drinking sake) going on a toboggan ride. It was an amazing experience, and we managed to learn a good deal about sculpture as a byproduct. You can read more about the adventure here: http://www.oregonlive.com/travel/index.ssf/2013/02/snow_business_in_sapporo.html
One of the most enjoyable recent projects to come through the illustration assignment pipeline was for my good friend Josh Flenniken. His first novel, “The Pequod’s Coffin,” has just been released by Black Rose Writing, and is an incredibly funny take on an individual’s challenges working in the belly of an inhumane and colossally bureaucratic health care company. It was an honor to be asked to create the cover art for such an intelligent and humorous story, and for someone I’ve been buddies with since 4th grade. If you are not easily offended, understand the frustrations of working for a large corporation, or just enjoy some rebellious sarcasm, you would like this book. You don’t even need to have read Moby Dick. It’s available at Black Rose Writing at a slight discount, but also Amazon and Barnes and Noble:
“Monsieur Flatulenzi was a pigeon from Aix and the most respected, and feared, food critic of his time. He lived a privileged and excessive lifestyle that his little pigeon heart found difficult to sustain. One night, after consuming a table of oil-soaked hazelnuts, sun-flower encrusted white sturgeon, earthworm farfalla with black truffle sauce, bourbon-glazed leg of field mouse over polenta, nightcrawler cassoulet, pepper-dusted bacon-wrapped grasshoppers, four kinds of cheese, two glasses of Pernod, three bottles of Burgundy, and a magnum of Dom Perignon, a fois gras-stuffed profiterole lodged in his left ventricle and his little pigeon heart exploded.”
Monsieur Flatulenzi is one of the eccentric characters from the book “Birds of the Belle Epoque,” and shares the spotlight with a questionable cast of deranged hookbills, lustful parakeets, and a bearded barbet with an Oedipus complex. What started as a habit of drawing birds in top hats has eventually led to a collection of characters from the Belle Epoque, when Paris was the epicenter for art, entertainment, and debauchery. Toulouse-Lautrec, the most celebrated drunken and lecherous dwarf in all of art history, is the most likely inspiration for these drawings. As an art student forced to write a few research papers, no other artist’s subject matter compared with the boozers, prostitutes, brothels, and nightlife that he chronicled during the late 19th Century in Paris. It was certainly more interesting than analyzing the painted squares of a Dutch modernist or deconstructing the pixels in a Roy Lichtenstein painting. This has become a long-winded explanation for what is really a collection of silly drawings about ridiculous birds. I just hope you laugh once or twice, and it is probably wise to guzzle a bottle of absinthe before you begin reading. Probably after as well.
Stationary and other items through Cafe Press: Cards and Stationary.
Although I have lived in Portland for ten years, I have not been commissioned often to do illustrations for local publications. It was a pleasure to be called last week by Chris Onstott at The Portland Tribune to create an illustration for a cover story on the legal challenges to free speech, which focused primarily on the police, courts, and TSA.