Who is Anthony?
I'm a 25-year-old scribbler who, like Claudia, isn't too much on career paths. Writing and traveling have always been my biggest passions, and one way or another my life always entwines them.
For example, after getting a BA in Engish and journalism, I headed off to Scotland and Ireland for a bit, then for 3 years I was a writing and editing "BootBoy" at the BootsnAll Travel Network, which is where Claudia and I met.
Roanoke, Virginia is where I grew up. My mom, Linda, loves to clean houses, work on the yard, and take "hug breaks" with my stepdad Ron, who does supervisory work in a steel mill and is a genius at landscaping and redoing houses. My dad, Terry, owns a contracting business and believes that sunny days should be spent on the back of a Harley. They all seem to have adapted pretty well to this odd boy moving across the US to Eugene, Oregon, then getting engaged, giving up his old job, and going to India. Life is just funny sometimes, though for me it seems to be funny damn near all the time.
I'll be traveling with Claudia for 3 months, from October 2003 through January 2004. First we're in India, then Thailand... though who knows where else we might wind up. Check out our ramblings, leave your comments, and let's see what happens.
There is a lot of waiting around in India. To keep ourselves occupied, Ant and I have started to carry around books with us. I had been reading a good bit before India, but lately, I've been tearing through my books like mad. I thought I'd enlighten people to what I amuse myself with all day. Here is the Claudia/PC reading list for the last 2-3 months:
Harry Potter & The Philosopher's Stone
Harry Potter & THe Chamber of Secrets(both of these were recommended by Vicky McPhie in Inverness and she hooked me up with free copies so how could I say no??)
Vagabond - The title was intrigueing, but as I should have known, it sucked because it's a Bernard Cornwell novel.
Bonfire of the Vanities - I stole it from some hostel, what a shit read.
The Road to Omaha - Another crap read, though this time by Robert Ludlum.
Dr. No - Slightly more amusing, and a step up from my previous effort.
Thunderball - Same as above.
Here's where I started reading good stuff again because I found a decent used book shop in Stirling.
Dune - Loved it. I am trying and read more of the books on the BBC 100 Big Read list.
Little Women - Sappy, but on the 100 Big Read list. Also stolen from a hostel.
Eucalyptus - This was a SHIT book. I borrowed it from Kathy on the Intrepid tour, who also found it to be shit. I have never read a book that was so blatantly and obviously TRYING to be subtle. A painful read at best.
Big Chief Elizabeth - A really great book about the English attempts to colonize America during the reign of Elizabeth I. It talks about how messed up the English were in their thinking. THey would just ditch settlers in America and conviently forget about them when the price for supplies/ships became too high or it was an inconvenient time to sail. It also describes the initial contact the English had with the natives and how the natives didn't hate/distrust the newcomers until the English "accidentally" slaughtered the wrong tribe, and other "minor" breaches in courtesy. Very disturbing. Also included was a section on how tobacco was originally introduced to England as a medicinal herb.
Holy Cow by Sarah McDonald- A great read which I barely wanted to return to Shane, another Intrepid traveler. The author follows her boyfriend/husband to India so he can work for ABC in Delhi. He is barely ever around so she wanders India keeping herself amused. Her writing is still making me laugh because it was so dead on about the "spirituality" many people seek when they arrive here. She samples different religions (Hinduism, Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Judiasm, Zorastrianism, etc.) and takes a bit from each. Her comments on experiences and day to day dealings in India are balls on, and I can't wait to find another copy so I can re-read it and laugh some more.
Seven Years in Tibet by Heinrich Herrer - A really beautiful book written by an Austrian who escapes a POW camp through the Himalayas in India during WWII. Eventually, he gets to Llasa, where he becomes the unlikely friend and informal tutor to the young Dalai Lama. I did have a hard time not imagining Heinrich as Brad Pitt, though I suppose there are worse people I could imagine.... :) Anyway, the book has made me want to go to Tibet proper (as opposed to the border regions I was in last year) really badly, even if what is left is only a pale shadow of what he saw.
My Land and My People by His Holiness, The Dalai Lama - While relaxing in deepville Rishikesh, books on the Dalai Lama were highly popular and I took the opportunity to read more about Tibet. This older memoir by the DL shows just how naive the Tibetans were in their quest for ridding themselves of Chinese occupation.
May You Be the Mother of 100 Sons - Whoa. Another eye opening read. THis book talks about the issues many urban and rural/village women face. Just a few of the horrifying topics include bride burning (when a girl doesn't bring enough dowry with her the husband and mother in-law conspire to kill her in a kitchen "accident" so he can remarry someone for more dowry money), sati (in particular a 1987 case where an 18 yo girl was burned on her husband of 8 months' pyre, and it was never determined if she did it willingly or was held down so her in-laws would not have to pay for her "upkeep"), female infantcide in rural villages compared with sex selective abortion in urban Bombay among the upper classes, dowry and the problems it causes, failed population control, as well as arranged marriages and widowhood. What a compelling book....
The Inscrutable Americans - A hysterical read after such a serious one. Gopal, a hick Indian from Jajau attends a college in Oklahoma for a year and comes prepared for American life after having views the all encompassing films of Deep Throat and Saturday Night Fever, as well as having read through Penthouse Letters.
Ladies' Coupe by Anita Nair - Another great book, this time about a 45 yr old unmarried woman's quest to see if a woman in India is complete without a man. She listens to 5 different women while on an overnight train in the ladies' coupe compartment.
Karma Cola by Gita Mehta - Wow, and I thought I was cynical about people coming to India to discover their spirituality. She goes through a million and one stories about different Westerns she has met who are doing crazy, stupid, and naive things to attain enlightenment. This book was almost too negative for me, but the author makes many good points about how Western minds can so easily misinterpret Eastern thought and vice versa. Also, it showed just how corrupt and money hungry so many sadhu/gurus are and how many westerners live in such pathetic conditions while in India because they get hooked on opium/heroin or other drugs.
I will keep updating the list as it grows on and on and on.....
Tempting fate, yes, but probably for the last time.
We lounged a lot yesterday. Our room is huge, comfy, with a couch and a seaside balcony. We didn't want to leave, but finally we admitted that we needed to eat. First it was off to the bus station, to see about advance express bus tickets for Chennai... which we can only get on the day, annoyingly enough. This irked Claudia substantially, so we went for a beer.
Beer in India is an odd experience. Kingfisher or "Budfisher", as I've dubbed it is the #1 beer in India. It blows. But I'm a micro-swilling snob from Oregon. Prior to coming here, Claudia's hardly bothered with drinking. It's expensive, and not very tasty to her.
Tamil Nadu, however, doesn't charge the exorbitant taxes other states charge, and they have a decent range of beer. It's all lager-type stuff that's a bit stronger than the Buds, Coors and Michelobs of the US, but currently, hey, that's the beer culture here. The Budfisher we bought in Kolkata cost 80 rupee. The Royal Challenge &151; a tastier beer that almost tastes like the real thing was 615 ml of 40-rupee goodness (90 cents! Line 'em up!). We forgot about the bus.
After our appetizer, we set off to find Satsanga's Restaurant. Let's Go recommends this place highly. The restaurant had moved since publication, so after wandering into a hotel we finally got put on the right street, and at last found ourselves in a cozy thatched lot, with grass, gravel, trees, thatched roof, and a nice view of the starry sky.
Service? Not bad. Sweet lemon sodas? My lips are still puckered. Lemon chicken... tart as well, but good.
We saw chicken on the menu, and couldn't resist. Claudia wasn't nearly as keen on her Chicken with Red Wine Sauce though. It's been so long since she's consistently eaten meat, that the chicken just wasn't as appealing to her. (I wonder what will happen when she finally orders a steak...) I made short work of my lemon chicken and mashed potatoes though despite the little part of my mind chanting "You'll never leave the toilet... you'll never leave the toilet..."
Well, I've hardly been. This has been our second experience with meat in restaurants, and we came out unscathed. Though neither of us is as keen on flesh as we thought; it'll just be veg from here on out. Until Thailand, anyway.
But I make no guarantees about the beer.
When mozzies (mosquitoes) bite, we fight back.
Before leaving for India, I went to REI and spent about $20 on insect repellent. I haven't used a drop. Claudia will be inheriting all of it; apparently, she's the only insect repellent I need.
Morning after morning, she wakes up with a new crop of bug bites. DustyShoes and her parents among their many other kindnesses gave us lotion to treat them, and so far she's been not scratching, though she still gets a few new ones here and there. On the other hand, I got my first bite the other day. I'm guessing the garlic and chili sauce in my blood sends the mozzies away for fear of their lives. Or maybe Indian mozzies like girls more than they like boys. Who knows.
Claudia and I have taken the offensive though. Yesterday morning in the Ajantha Guesthouse (on Beach Road in Pondicherry), we went on a full assault for any mozzie we saw. Towels snapped, hands clapped, and one after another, the little bastards fell dead and crushed. Like the Red Baron with his dogfight kills from World War I, we've decided to start marking off our kills, as a warning to the mozzie population. Current score:
Take that, you tossers. The battle has not been without some disgusting moments though. I prefer the hand clap method: target the little vamp between my hands, and nail it with both palms. It's effective, but messy. One mozzy, fresh from feeding on my sweetie apparently, colored my palms red. Another mozzy that we've dubbed the "poo-squito" was full of older, darker blood; it looked like it'd been feeding off the cow pies in the street. Ick.
In our new room at the Park Guest House though, we're on the third floor (2nd floor, if you're not a Yank). No mozzies. But still we train diligently. No mosquito will be safe. No mosquito will be spared, until our veins can pump in peace.
Auroville is FREAKY
Today Ant and I decided to take a tour of the city of Pondicherry. Most of the tour was uninteresting except for a surreal stop at Auroville. Auroville is an alternative way of living, which is summed up by their charter.
When you get to Auroville, you are herded like cattle into this single file line. No bags, cameras, water bottles. THere was more security and checks than most embassies (esp. the Indian one in NYC that let me in with my knife). Every 50-100 feet there was someone waving us into line.
No talking allowed. Shuffle in line quietly.
What followed were some really pretty gardens, and I actually did appreciate the strict silence rule. It was the first time in ages I had heard nothing but my breathe.
Then you walk around a corner and there is this massive round building that looks like gold plated satellite dishes were faced outwards, beaming out their brainwashing cult telecasts. Think Disney's EPCOT center. Instead of pretty triangle sections that look like a golfball, the dimples are round and gold.
We shuffle a little further and are relieved of our footwear.
A bit further and COMPLETE silence is enforced.
We walk up to the structure, which is not silent because it is still being constructed. I try to ignore it. As I am about to walk into the building, a young western blond guy with a big beard looks at me, and tries his best not to crack up. What is all this nonsense about?? What are we going to see??? I read something about a crystal ball but after all this preparation, I don't know what to expect.
We walk in, walk around the inside ramps (also similar to EPCOT), and then come to the main show. You are given about 5-10 seconds to gaze into a surreal room. THe walls are all white and the floor and walls seems to merge. In the middle is a single beam of light, focused on a massive and beautiful crystal ball.
I felt like I was in the last scene of 2001: A Space Odyssey. Was the StarCHild going to show up?? What the funk. As soon as it begins, the viewing is over and you are shoved out.
The crystal ball itself was very beautiful and I could see why the room could be a major meditation aid. What was up with all the pomp and circumstance of herding us to the crystal ball though? WHat was I supposed to see or learn?? I don't know, I just left thinking that a) the crystal would have made a nice prop in the Lord of the RIngs movies as a palantir (I know, I'm a geek) and b) I think the purpose of herding us like cattle was just a game to amuse the Auroville inmates.
After leaving the "silent" area, I couldn't help but laughing at all the hippies and other deep type folk I saw. One lady whose name HAD to be Starchild was introducing some relatives to one of the volunteers. SHe was complete with a tight band around her unruly blonde hair and forehead.
Ahhh.... gotta love deep people.....
For pics of this highly deep place, click here.
No kidding. After a few days here, the greenery, the coffee, the tech, the laidback feeling constantly the thought runs through my head that this town is similar to Portland, Oregon. And that is a compliment Bangalore deserves.
Claudia and I have been loving it here. She's gotten a chance to relax, and she and the famed DustyShoes have been getting along like sisters. I've dug starting to see how different north and south India are. The north is so rushed, and so much more in your face. So far in the south though and we've seen Bangalore and Mysore to-date we've hardly been hassled. Claudia hardly even gets leered at.
Home-cooked meals have also been nice. Dusty and her family have been great and hospitable hosts; I just hope Claudia and I have been decent guests, and not just these two fast-talking Yank oddities who drink water out of large plastic kegs. We have, however, greatly improved at eating food with our right hands, which is the traditional way in which Indians eat. We still use forks with rice dishes, but even I've finally gotten the hang of one-handedly ripping a chappati Indian flat-bread, like a tortilla into little strips for scooping up food.
We've shopped on MG Road (the main drag; "MG" is short for "Mahatma Gandhi, and most cities have an MG road), started enjoying some of the coffee south India is so reknown for (and which may cause me not to leave!), and been to many parks. Dusty also arranged a day tour to Mysore for us, but more on that another time.
Yesterday we spent the morning in the city's botanical garden. It was beautiful and peaceful. There are trees from all over Asia, including a massive Javan tree that had the largest root structure we've ever seen.
In the garden we also discovered a beverage delicacy: grape juice. And not your supermarket Welches stuff either, or your hippie all-organic $5-a-shot rot. It was deep purple, sweet and grapey, 5 rupees and thist-quenching. I wanted to buy a case off the wallah...
We also got a big laugh from a toilet wallah, when I trekked off to the gent's. The toilet wallah doesn't sell toilets, but rather collects a "toilet toll" from people using the facilities. Nice racket, huh? You find them in parks and train stations, and yes, they charge the locals too.
The guy in front of me handed the wallah a 10-rupee note, and got back change. When I went up though, our man tried to charge me 10! "No way!" I said. "He gave you ten, and got back change!"
The wallah grinned. "No, no... twenty. Twenty."
"Twenty! Bah!" I started laughing. "Knock it off, how much."
He chuckled back. "Well, what do you have?"
I handed him 3 rupees. "That's all I've got," I said, and we both laughed as I walked into the toilet.
Yes, Bangalore is nice. We've had a great time, and on Tuesday we leave for the east coast, to Pondicherry.
Today is the Indian New Year. Ant and I have been spending some quality time relaxing at the home of Dustyshoes, a friend of ours who with her family has been extremely generous in putting our sorry butts up for a while.
We've been living in LUXURY.
Hot showers, tasty morsels, no bugs, good company and two solid games of Word Search (the ladies won of course) are just a few of the great things we've gotten to experience.
Dusty had arranged a day trip for sightseeing in Mysore, a city about 2-3 hours away from here. There were three major highlights, the Maharaja's Palace, The Tipu Sultan Summer Palace, and the Mysore Zoo.
The Maharaja's Palace was built around the turn of the 20th century and just spells wealth. Everything was covered in gold in the throne room, and there were huge silver doors. The doors not covered with precious metal were equally as impressive because of how beautiful the teak wood was carved.
At the Summer Palace there are great gardens, as well as a well preserved teak house, which bordered on mansion.
Finally, the zoo. We only got to spent about 25 minutes there because of really heavy rain, but I was able to glimpse my first look at a White Tiger. VERY impressive and majestically beautiful. We also saw a few giraffes, but couldn't tell if they were evil or not because they weren't eating leaves. :) Peacocks, gaurs, and monkeys were also seen.
As for Bangalore itself, it ROCKS. This is India meets New York. There are busy sidewalks (not a common thing so far in India) and beautiful gardens (Limbargh Park), shops, restaurants, book shops, cafes, you name it. I had the best frappe I've ever had at Cafe Coffee Day.... mmmmm.....
I shopped a bit and bought a new salwar kameez, as well as a new punjabi shirt which is a silk/cotton blend... very snazzy and useful for home too.
Anywho, life is good, and for those who might have been to Dione's wedding, tell me details please!!!!
And The Eagles say, "Welcome, to the Ho-tel Mar-i-juana..."
Every time I leave our room, the smell of burning pot transports me back to Eugene, home of hippies and hemp. Some contact buzz, huh?
Our first day at Hotel Potma er, Padma I walked out of the room to see an Indian man, older with a good-sized white beard, sitting on a chair in the lobby and smoking a long pipe. The sickly sweet burning smell filled the air, and my lungs.
Pot is technically illegal in India. Let's Go India & Nepal (2003) says that "Marijuana (ganja) and hashish (charas) are grown throughout the Himalayas and are extremely cheap, but they are illegal and considered socially unacceptable by most Indians and Nepalis. [emphasis theirs]"
Of course, it's also illegal in the U.S. Which is why no one in the U.S. smokes pot. At all. Ever. Just like in India.
Let's Go also notes that some ethnic groups and holy men "also use ganja and charas with no stigma." Walking through the lobby, I was still spaced from the train ride and didn't think to ask the chap if he was a sadhu (holy man), or if he just liked the taste of some dank herb. Or both.
Our last night in Bhubaneswar, I went to see if the manager could help us arrange a rickshaw for our 2 a.m. journey to the train station. A lot of giggles erupted from the manager and 2 men around the desk. At first thought, it seemed the cause was the unreasonableness of my request understandable, since Bhubaneswar ain't known for nightlife. At 2 a.m., good rickshaw and taxi drivers are asleep or are already at the train station, waiting.
At first whiff though, I realized that everyone was stoned off their gourds.
I forged on with my request anyway, though really I was starting to want a pizza now more than a rickshaw later. The two guys, giggling, went outside to see if they could find a driver with night-owl tendencies.
They returned a few minutes later. There was some chat among the three, in Oriya (the state of Orissa's main tongue) or Hindi, I don't know. Then raucous laughter. The manager, giggling, looked at me and said, "One hundred rupees."
I want to ride in a rickshaw, not buy one, I thought. The ride from the train station to the hotel, at 5 a.m., had only cost 20 rupees. "Why 100?" I asked.
More giggles. "Very hee-hee late."
"You want?" Giggle. Giggle.
"I'll go confer with my other half," I said, and walked back to the room, giggling a bit myself.
An auto-rickshaw for 100 rupees? Yeah, right! Claudia and I walked to the station in about 15, 20 minutes a quarter- to half-mile. But I hope the boys at the hotel had some extra rupees; I'm sure that by the end of the shift, they all wanted chocolate biscuits and samosas. Or maybe a pizza. Or maybe they were all just the sadhus of the Hotel Potma.
Despite the ganja which is more funny than annoying, depending on your attitude towards wacky-backy Hotel Padma is a decent place to stay. Claudia and I got a double room with attached bath (with Indian-style toilet and cold-water shower) for 200 rupees per night. You'll find Hotel Padma in Kalpana Square; take an auto-rickshaw from the train station. It cost us 20 rupees, but you can probably get 10. Go for it.
Oh, slather up on DEET before going to bed. Claudia currently has enough mosquito bites for me to draw constellations on her. You can close up the door and windows, but there are small grate-like openings at the top of the room that you can't do anything about. Bhub-town's open sewers also run nearby, so mozzies will be a problem. Unless you're me I've been spared. I don't know why. I was going to ask the hotel staff, but I figured they'd just charge me 100R for the answer, though I'm sure it'd be deep and thought-provoking, man.
As I prepared for Anthony to get here back about a week and a half ago, I decided to pamper myself a bit.
Many of the other girlies on my Rajasthan tour had been waxed at various points along the way so I decided to follow suit. Why not?? The same full leg and bikini wax and would cost me and a fortune at home. I visited the Chinese Beauty Salon in Varanasi, in the Assi Ghat area. There were no Chinese people or Chinese techniques employed, but that didn't bother me. My last experience with Chinese massage ended in my back having huge cup marks from the sucking massage treatment I got in Chengdu.
Anywho, I walked in and the ladies sat me down. I explained what I wanted and they inspected my legs. I'm a razor girl but with all this lack of hot water, I haven't had much chance to shave, and I needed some work, BAD.
I was promptly scolded for using a razor.
"Indian ladies, NO razor" as they pointed to their hairless arms and legs.
Yes, but I have the lovely vampiric coloring of one of Anne Rice's characters and black resilient hair of a Mediterranean. Basically, when I shave my legs, it grows back in about 12 hours. I'm not alone in this and my sister told me she suffers the same thing but not as badly.
The mother/daughter poke and prod some more and pick which wax is appropriate. They giggled and I said "yes I know, hairy like monkey."
Then out came the strips of material that will be the bane of my existance for the next 2 hours. They heat up the wax, apply it, and RIP it off. I nearly cried out, but I somehow kept it to myself. I look down. My leg looks NO different. How is that possible??
This went on for 2 hours.
Wax on, rip off. Chai. Wax on, rip off.
Finally, mother/daughter look somewhat pleased. Was I now hairless?? Who cares!!! I had had enough!!! Let me outta there. But NO! They weren't done, they wanted to "thread" certain areas. Oh screw it... let me OUT!!!!
After all of that (and 125 rupees) I had a decently clean bikini line (don't even ask about the pain) and my legs were less hairy, but definately not clean. I gave up. I know if I had let them, they would have continued until every hair was gone. I just didn't have it in me. Although, I did get to have a laugh and use a line that another beautician had said to Sue on my Rajasthan trip. "Italian woman, hairy like MONKEY!!!"
In it's own way, this was a really funny way to get to chat with some funny locals.
An exchange with an Indian chap (maybe in his mid-50s?), on the sleeper train from Varanasi to Kolkata:
"How old are you?" he asks me.
"You look much younger," he says. Claudia snickers. "You very small, more like our boys here!"
We have a good laugh. He's right, after all. In Hong Kong I was beside myself; short of standing in the middle of a day care center, at 5-foot-4 HK was the first place I was the same height - or taller! - than most of the populace. In India though, I'm short again.
And boyish. Before I left the U.S. I thought about shaving off my goatee. I'm glad I didn't. In the U.S., without facial hair I get carded for R-rated movies. C'mon! I can drink and gamble, dammit. Half the time the person carding me probably has a curfew and "home room" in the morning. Another few years, and I won't even be eligible for the draft!
Oh well. Gads, if I'd shaved, Indian immigration probably wouldn't have let me into the country until they found out where my parents were...
My first real job was at a newspaper, The Roanoke Times, in Virginia. One of my favorite parts of the job was skimming the news wires, and over the New York Times wire there would now and again be an awesome gem called "NY Lites". It was put together by someone, or maybe a couple of someones, at the New York Times, and it was just a big composite of anecdotes, jokes, overheard conversations, you name it. It's one of the most enjoyable things I've ever read, and as I go through India, I'm going to try to do something similar. Here we go... with Bhubaneswar Lites:
I got my coffee just fine, but I'm learning that in India you always have to repeat your order in full, at least twice, to up your chances of getting everything. After 10 minutes, I had no samosas. I waved over my waiter and asked, "How long for samosas ready?"
Dammit, not again! I thought. "No. No juice." I pointed to "Samosa" under the "Snaxs" (or "tiffin") part of the menu. "Samosa," I explained.
"Ah. Sah-mosa." I caught how his pronunciation differed from mine.
"Yes. Sah-mosa. One," I said mimicking him and holding up one finger.
A couple of minutes later, I was snacking on my sah-mosas. I sipped my coffee. Here's to better travels in India, I thought, one syllable at a time.
Behind us, 4 trays are set at a tilt in front of the frying counter. Pakoras, samosas, other crispy snaxs keep catching my eye - which in turn catches the eye of our "boy," who asks if I want any. I say no; the snaxs have been sitting out for a while, which increases the odds of dodginess, and dodginess causes mad loo dashes - something I don't need on the upcoming 30-hour train ride to Bangalore.
At a break in the rain, we go to pay for the sodas. "The bottle says 6 rupees," Claudia tells me.
I dig out 12R as we go to the counter, but no attendants are both visible and available. Claudia steps around, sees a guy; we hand over the coin. The man raises 2 fingers. "Two more," he says.
This catches me off-guard, but Claudia is already swinging. "What!" Her eyes flash. Poor bugger.
"Six is printed on the bottle."
"Six is on the bottle." I would not want to be on the receiving end of her glare. Neither does he. "Okay," he says, while doing the diagonal tilt-head-shake-looking nod that, until you get used to this Indian gesture, looks a bit like a nervous tic. (Sorry, it does!) We walk off, shaking our heads and grinning at the absurdity of the ripoff attempt.
I'm almost 100% recovered from my battle with dehydration and all seems to be back to normal, including my appetite.
One of the things I have been making sure to do is to be really vigilant with my choices of venue and cuisine here in India. I don't want to have to dictate my blog posts to Ant from a squat toilet. So, he's had to deal with me saying "NO STREET FOOD" everytime we pass a pakora or samosa place.
To his delight, across the street from our hotel is a clean veggie restaurant that was open when we cruised by at 10:45 this morning. It was early and Ant wanted a thali, which isn't really breakfast food. The exchange went something like this:
Ant: Can I get a thali?
Waiter: Not until 11 o'clock.
Ant: Ok, can you bring me a thali at 11 then, it's 10:45.
Waiter: Mmmm, juice?
Me: Can I have a lassi?
Waiter: Samosas only. Juice? (Forget the fact he had just handed us a menu)
Ant: Errr... ok can I have a samosa??
Waiter: Ok, juice?
Ant: No, just the samosas.
Fast forward 10 minutes....
Ant: Can I get the bill?
Ant: No, the BILL.
Waiter: No juice??
What is this???? Who's on first?? What's on second?? I was ready to bang my head on the table, but now in hind sight, it was really funny. Is there a high demand for juice in this town???
Repeat the same exercise at lunchtime but instead of not having anything but samosas, the place had no rotis, chapatis, naan, whatever. Instead, they'd point to rice.
OH!! And I nearly forget the best part of the day in terms of food. Ant ordered this drink he's been after for a few days, some scary concoction called jal jeera. Well, it looked like raw sewage and I tried to taunt him into drinking all of it.... no luck. Not even a bet would get him to do it. He had to admit is was absolutely disgusting and looked like it came straight out of the toilet. :)
Right now, Ant and I are in Bhubaneswar, a city on the eastern side of India, about a third way down from the top. It's known for it's temples, and there are hundreds of 'em!!!
As with all other tourist attractions (or pilgrim sites) in India there are scam artists. I actually have been having a good bit of fun picking them out now. Today's attempted scam was to remove about 200-500 rupees from my wallet because I looked over a wall into a working Hindu temple from a viewing platform. A guy with an "official" register came over and asked us to sign. When I noticed the donation column I asked what that was all about. He said it was for the temple.
Mmm hmmm... SURRRRRRREE it is. The temple of his pocket. So I signed and then told him "ok, later."
About 3 minutes later, Ant and I snickered to ourselves as we walked off the platform. Of course as we descended our friend followed and hassled us for many rupees. Finally, he said "then why did you say you would???"
"Because I'm a liar!!! I replied, which in itself was complete truth. I wa a liar, but so was he. A donation for a temple is one thing, but I wasn't born yesterday and I know his little scam had nothing to do with the temple, nor would it ever reap the benefits.
It may sound like a negative experience, but in truth, it was really funny. The guy even realized the humor in it I think because I thought I heard him laughing as well. Ant and I got a real chuckle out of it. It also put us (or at least me) in a good mood for the rest of the temples we explored.
Bottled water: 10R
Sweet lassi: 13R
Toilet paper: 25R
Taxi to Kolkata's Howrah train station? Well, that depends...
Chowringhee Street at the corner of Sudder was a taxi scrum. A river of yellow tops stood stalled; there was hardly room to cross the street, though of course people managed to squeeze their way.
Claudia and I, pack-laden, were cab-hunting for Howrah Station so we could catch our 2045 train to Bhubeneswar. Many hire lights were off. A taxi pulled into the "lane" nearest our bit of curb. I saw the flash of a hand. "It's all you babe," said Claudia.
Game face, on. I walked over and stuck my head in the open window. "How much to Howrah?"
"Ninety? We went there for 70 the other day!" (Well, not really. But from our other day's arrival in the City of Grey Air the metered fare from Howrah to Sudder Street was 78R.)
"All right." Claudia and I piled in, and he turned around into the taxi scrum. I'll spare you the details of the drive to Howrah. It was hair-raising here, mellow there, and always smelling of diesel, pollution, and a few million people stuck in a hot, humid city. Really, it wasn't too bad at all, if you're used to feeling like a salmon swimming upstream with 2,000,000 other fish on both sides of you.
Wait, one important detail, that we didn't see till we got in, and that of course our driver hadn't mentioned: the taxi was metered (not all of them are).
This changes things.
I leaned over to Claudia's ear. "He and I agreed 75, but this taxi's metered. What do you think?"
"That could work in our favor."
Eventually we arrived. Claudia got out of the taxi and started taking out our bags. I stayed put behind the driver and drew my wallet. The meter stopped at 27R. He turned to me, hand out.
I handed him three 10-rupee notes.
I pointed at the meter. "It says 27."
"No," but there was little conviction behind it. He held the notes tight in his hand and looked at me petulantly. "That's not--"
"Then why do you have a meter?"
He said nothing; I got out of the taxi. Keep the change, I thought.
Taxi to Kolkata's Howrah train station: 27R (plus 3R tip).
Winning your first minor haggling battle: priceless.
How Claudia and I look at India is totally, literally different: she looks down, and I look at.
Today is the first time that difference has hit me. We were walking down Kolkata's Chittaranjan Ave., a massive thoroughfare with tons and tons of people. One of the routines we've established, is that I always walk either behind Claudia, or beside and a little behind her. It seemed to divert a little, ahem, unwanted attention (though if I got 10 rupees from every guy who eyed her up and down, I could easily travel for another year).
As we walk, Claudia looks down. As a woman, she said, making eye contact with Indian men isn't a good idea. She explained to me that one of the ways a man in India can identify, say, a Hindu prostitute, is that if he stares at her, she stares back. If Claudia looks a man in the eye here he isn't necessarily going to think she's a hooker, but there will be an unconscious - or, yes, maybe conscious - association as he stares back at this Western girl. So she looks down when she walks.
I tend to look people in the eye. Not always; it's a habit that I don't have to break here. Usually, I catch the eye of people who are eyeing up her. (Guy moment: Ladies, we always know when a man is looking at you. It's a bit of telepathy we have going on; maybe it's some sort of protective instinct, but we always know.)
Here in India, it's even easier to tell. You don't need an instinct: Staring is not a taboo here as it is in the States. Men passing by us today - and especially a traffic cop who gave himself slow whiplash as we crossed a street - did nothing but elevator-eye her. I would usually broadcast a quick look - another bit of guy telepathy - "Oy jackass, don't look at my wife like that!" (She isn't mind you, but still).
Call it a chauvanistic society. Call me protective. It is, and I am. Do the stares bother me? A little. Claudia's always gotten looks (though she never believes me); here it's just more blatant. Does my eye contact and little mental message stop the stares? No. My hope is that they discourage a progression from casual eye-up to a quick bout of "oh, let's see if I can pinch the white girl's ass."
What bothers me most, is knowing that Claudia looks down because she shouldn't risk looking people in the eye while just walking down a street. She has to pull more defensive diligence than I could ever know. If someone approaches me, after all, at the worst they're after my money. If someone approaches Claudia, yeah, they could be after her money... or a quick grope... or, hell, why not both?
If someone actually did grope Claudia, she'd knock them flat. I probably wouldn't have to make a move - I doubt I'd even have time to. She can fight, but she shouldn't look up. So I look on, and she watches the feet of India go by.
Like the title says, I think I'm on the mend.
I watched minimal TV, which is also a sign. It also could have been the oh so pleasant documentary on how global warming is going to lead to Armageddon in 50 years. That turned me off to the boob tube for a while. :) It just reaffirmed why I am traveling now.
As for India, I think I am having some "let's get to Southern India" spasms. It's time for a change.
Also, though this is not related to heading south, I am craving steak like you wouldn't believe. I was doing SO well with the self imposed moratorium on meat until the last few days. Nick, my veggie brother, would have been so proud. Then I read something in a Thailand guidebook about steaks and my mouth literally started watering.
Obviously, in the land of holy cows I couldn't get any steak. I had the next best thing, pork dumplings at a chinese restaurant. Ok, I swore after seeing some really nasty pigs on the roadside that I wouldn't eat swine anymore, but I couldn't help it. They were so tasty and SALTY. MMMmmm and the soy sauce.....
Ant promptly quoted Jules from Pulp Fiction and how "sewer rat may taste like pumpkin pie but I wouldn't know because I won't eat the dirty motherfuckers." Yeah yeah, I know, I shouldn't be eating meat in India because if anything is going to give the ol' Delhi Belly, it will likely be sketchy meat.
What can you do?? I was weak!!!!!!
Speaking of weak, my last few posts have been mighty weak, so I will try to improve and attempt to keep up with Ant's poetic observations. :) I nearly banned him from my blog for them.
Well, 2 carnivores anyway. Yes, yes, we know that eating meat in India is poo-poo'ed. Vegetarian, vegetarian, vegetarian. If meat, then expect lots of toilet.
Telling that to me and Claudia though... well, look, we aren't Hindus. We. Like. Meat.
Yesterday afternoon we headed back to the hotel to wait out the rain, and for some reason we started flipping through the guidebook restaurant pages... and then we started talking about steaks.
Having been living in on the Left Coast's crunchville of Eugene, Oregon for the past few years, my own diet is somewhat vegetarian. I eat meat, but not too often; a few times a week. Still, one look at a pepperoni pizza, or one whiff of a barbecue, and as I lick my lips I remind myself why I will always be carnivorous.
Claudia is far, far worse. She's a New-Yokkah, after all - a hard-ass chick who likes her flesh served bloody and mooing. Sitting in the hotel room, she suddenly curled up into a wee ball and cried out: "I want a steak! I want a steak!"
We knew we probably wouldn't find a steak, so instead we went for Chinese. How Hua, on Mirza Ghalib Street, is a recommended restaurant in Let's Go, and a few other guides, I believe. We gorged. On fried pork dumplings, bean curd and veg (5 a day you know), and Manchurian chicken balls. It was salty; we tore the flesh with our teeth; we mopped up rice, and we smiled, sitting back, full and happy.
We have eaten flesh in India - and our guts have not poo-poo'ed our feasting.
Now let's see... we're leaving for Bhubaneswar in a few hours, but that's plenty of time to hit a few of the dozens of kebab shops on Park Street...
I'm going to beat the shit out of someone.
I am still not 100% mended. However, I can't lie around all day in a hotel room so Ant and I went out to Barista, as a treat for me. Barista is a Starbucks style coffee joint that serves frappes with ice cream and has blissful airconditioning. I sucked on down my frappe (it just didn't taste as good as in Jaipur or Delhi) and ate my boring tomato and cheese sammie. Eating and drinking are just so completely unappealing to me right now. The less taste something has right now, the better. Even drinking water is a chore.
So when a small beggar child hassled me this morning, she made the mistake of touching me. I'm not big on people touching me, so I promptly slapped her in the head. Cruel, maybe, but I'm sick and tired right now.
Soon we head to Bhubeneswar, which I am hoping will breathe some more life into me and get rid of some of my nastiness and irritability. Though, it is a city of temples, and I've also had it with the sadhus (religious holy men who beg for alms and are mourned as dead by their families) so I might be just as bad there. I'm hoping not though. If nothing else, I hope the air is a little cleaner so my respiratory system can relax a bit. Things have been coming out of my mouth and nose that are just WRONG.
Sorry the post isn't as colorful as Ant's but he's been out exploring what is new and exciting to him (as he should be) and I've been watching a fuzzy version of Globe Trekker on The Discovery Channel. If anyone's seen the Tunisia episode with Ian Wright, he visits the old sets of the first Star Wars movie and runs around in a cape with a plastic light saber.... great stuff. Also saw a show on the NYC subway system and the new super rail station being built which is supposed to cut the commute time from Long Island by 40 minutes!
Oh, and when I was in Barista this morning, I saw that the featured movie on Star Movies tonight is none other than my favorite, ET. I'm telling you, that little bastard is out to get me. :)
Right now, I am having a low period, which is to be expected at times. Can ya tell?? I do miss things from home in a big way, especially my bed, the shower, and the air you can't see. I'm just a lot more homesick than I could have ever imagined. I told Ant I just want to sit around somewhere easy for a while (such as Goa) and read books and sip lassis or chai.
This post is all over the place. My mind is a little fuzzy right now. :) Sorry.
As we move south in India, things will improve.
Well, save for the weather, though today hasn't been nearly as bad as the past couple of days - mainly because it's raining. Claudia and I ducked into NetFreaks on Sudder Street, which has some pretty fast connections and a lot of terminals, to check email and see if we can wait out the storm, or if we'll need to choof it fast back to our nearby hotel.
Otherwise, Calcutta has been hot. My shirt is always glued to my back; I stink; if I tilt my head my sunglasses nearly fall off my nose. I'm always chugging bottled water, or sodas (15-20 rupees - or 25-50 cents; why not!), or lassis.
And you know what? It's fun.
After the debacles of our first day in Kolkata (the city's new name, after it changed it back from Calcutta a couple of years ago), I'm feeling pretty cool about the place now. Cities are cities; whichever one you're in, there's really only so much that changes. Accents, the speech you overhear, what the vendors sell (pretzels and hot dogs in New York, sugarcane juice and kebabs in Calcutta). Traffic always snarls and is subtly out to kill you. Buildings trap heat. Your boogers turn black.
Yesterday though, I started to get to know more of the city. Claudia was feeling a bit under snuff, so she chilled out in the room with the Discovery Channel. We also left our windowless, institutional-green cell, for another, larger, airier, windowed, room (that was even 50 rupees cheaper). It's helped both our spirits, plus we haven't had to kill any cucharachas. Yet.
Rain is pounding on roofs and cars outside; I just saw umbrellas for the first time. I think the monsoon just returned for an encore.
Anyway. With Claudia safetly ensconced with a big bottle of water, some food, and a remote control, I decided to hit the streets. First stop, the Asiatic Society. It was founded by a Brit, for the purpose of preserving Indian art and culture. They have a teeny museum; it smells like diesel, and has everything from excerpts of an 18th century Koran, to old printing plates, to letters from British officers to their COs. The most interesting piece is a huge hunk of rock, an edict from an emperor who converted to Buddhism.
The AS was also my first experience with the strange disordered structure of India. I signed about 3 or 4 guestbooks (I lost count). The people at the entrance then sent me to the next floor. The people up there - after having my sign their book - sent me to the top floor. I chatted with a guy, who sent me back down... and the people down there since me up again, to see someone whose name, I think, is Deelay. No kidding.
Mr. Deelay sat me down in his air-cooled office, looked at my passport, had me sign another guestbook. Then he sent me downstairs again. A man there kept asking me for something; he mimed what looked like filling out a form; I tried to explain that Mr. Deelay had given me no form. He took me back upstairs. Back in Mr. Deelay's office, I shrugged as if to say, "I don't know - he just marched me back up." Mr. Deelay caught on though, said something in Hindi or Bengali, and suddenly, bam, I was in the museum.
Afterwards, I just walked. A little like Varanasi, I just started up and down random streets. There are main thoroughfares like Park Street and Mirza Ghalib (near our own Sudder Street), and then there are tons of little alleyways - where the locals live. You see people hanging out and chatting, or, my favorite from yesterday, 2 kids playing badminton. I felt totally safe. Granted, I carry a pocketknife and, despite the dreamy, absent, wowed look on my face, I also actually have my wits about me, but I never felt anything but fine. Would I walk the same back streets at night? I don't know.
What's really surprised me is how little India-shock I've felt. Yes, there's tons of pollution and overcrowding. Animals walk the streets (and every dog gets a wary, watchful eye from me, since so many dogs in India are rabid). Beggars and touts are everywhere, vying for your attention and your money - well, really just vying for your money. None of it bothers me. Maybe it's a cumulative shock and frustration; I'm still pretty fresh, after all. We'll see how I feel in a few weeks. Maybe the little dreamworld I exist in helps all this chaos and noise and smell roll off me. I don't know, but so far, I'm digging it.
My last stop was the New Market, a massive indoor market with everything from sunglasses to jewelry to freshly chopped hooves and live chickens. Touts follow you everywhere; they carry baskets, and are apparently your "assistants" in the market. One tenacious chap kept following me, despite many no's and a couple of "Bas" (my new favorite word, it's Hindi for "stop!).
"What you want to buy?"
"No? Please, say yes."
Claudia has told me to feel free to be harsh, loud, but I'm not. Yet. Often I just can't help but laugh; besides, the touts are just doing their job, which is to separate you from your money. That's very difficult to do with me. Finally we stopped.
"I'm not here to buy anything."
It took him a second; I don't think he's ever heard anyone say that before.
"Nothing. I'm just here to look."
"But don't you want--"
"No, I don't. Even if I did, I never buy on the first day. I always look around first." I tapped my head. "It helps me make good decisions."
"Thanks though. I know you're just doing your job. But I'm doing the rest alone."
I walked away; he didn't follow. A few minutes later I sat in the Curd Corner, at the corner (go figah) of Sudder Street and Chowringhee Lane, drinking a 14-rupee Sweet Lemon Lassi. These guys can have allllll of my money that they want, as long as I can drink my lassis and watch the day and people go by.
Calcutta is CRAAAAAAAAAAAZY.
We arrived in Calcutta this morning after a long-ish train ride from Varanasi. People are just everywhere. We attempted to go find a place to eat and between the heat and the hunger, Ant and I almost killed each other. We found some place with aircon and chilled out. After a long nap and some TV (I take full advantage of TV whenever I can) we were in much better spirits.
Then came the massive cockroach.
I made Ant kill it even though I was just as capable. We had just visited the Indian Museum (which had a weird mix of random exhibits) and this insect put some of their specimens to shame. I've dealt with mosquitos, midgies, dung beetles, fleas, bedbugs, locusts (ate 'em BBQ style in China), massive grasshoppers, etc, but nothing was a gross as the slime that came out of this cockroach. It also just HAD to be in the shower.... ick.
Tomorrow Ant is going to attempt to find us a new place while I sit around and soak in a bit more boob tube. Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh..........
On our last day in Varanasi, Claudia and I thought about taking a sunrise boat ride up the Ganges. She's still not feeling quite up to snuff though, so after getting up at 5:30 we talked it over and decided not to go. She went back to the room to rest, but I needed some solo exploration time. I hit the streets and promptly got myself lost.
It was great. I started turning down random alleys and side streets, sometimes coming to dead ends, sometimes to ghats, sometimes to other twists and turns. The whole time, I carried my little notebook with me (I always have at least one), and stopped here and there to scribble down observations. Here's some of them:
Well, we can't let Claudia have all the fun. This is Anthony, chiming in for the first time on here. I just joined up with Claudia in Varanasi, and now that the jetlag has worn off and - so far - my guts are intact, it's time to get online.
I got to India on Saturday, after 3 days worth of flying and layovers. 15 hours in Hong Kong, by the way, is loads of fun - some rain kept me off Victoria Peak, but still I got to check out the Tsing Ma bridge, Central, and Kowloon (via the Star Ferry - a very nice wee boat ride).
This is my first time in Asia, and after landing in HK for a while I kept grinning and repeating "I'm in Asia. Ohmigod I'm in Asia." Landing in Delhi at 1:30 Saturday morning, I also got myself promptly ripped off by a taxi driver, but hey, at least now I better understand how they work. And besides, ohmigod, I'm in India.
Varanasi's airport is an odd place all its own, mainly in that it's the size of a one-story house. Outside there is the usual assortment of taxis and all-too-willing-to-help-drivers. A cab to the city centre was quoted anywhere between 300-370 rupees. Bugger that; I took the shuttle bus for 35. Somewhere just inside the northwest of town they threw us to the rickshaw drivers; mine carted me to the hotel for only 50 rupee, pretty fair for the distance, and only once did he make a mistake and wonder if I, ahem, wanted to "at least have a look" at another hotel.
According to Claudia, Varanasi has been pretty tame today. It's Sunday, and walking around the main drags there's been little hassle and touting, as almost all the shops were closed. We could even walk around without too much crazy dodging and swerving, even with all the cows out for their Sunday walks.
It's been hot, but not sweltering. People approach, but it's no worries; over the past day I've gotten very good at the word "no". Traveling with Claudia is also fun - of course we're just getting underway - but so far I'm digging her company more than traveling solo. We both take care of ourselves and look after each other well, plus I dig knowing that I don't have to worry about her (though I'm sure there are times she's concerned about pulling me out of my dream world so a cow doesn't run me over).
Well, Ant arrived safe and sound. Instead of him being jet-lagged and pooped, it is me who was beat and all lathargic. I keep coughing and hacking, which is very tiring. I might have a few hours with no coughing and hacking, but then it comes back with a vengeance.
Way back in Udaipur (like 2+ weeks ago) I went for meds and the pharmacist gave me cipro and cough syrup. The cipro wasn't doing much of anything, and not to be gross, but all the boogies were clear so I don't think I have a respiratory infection. It seems like this is completely smog and pollution related. When I get around dust, my cough goes wild, accompanied by mad sneezing. :(
Tomorrow we head to Calcutta, which of course will only aggrevate the situation. We have an overnight train and it should be cake, especially since Anthony is adjusting well. I do feel like I am constantly saying "watch the cow poo," to him though. Tonight I was proud because he negotiated our rickshaw ride home all on his own.
I feel like I am not showing Ant the right way to haggle either. Today, we stopped in a small toy shop and purchased a few things. I knew we could have sat and had tea and haggled more, but I just couldn't be bothered over 85 cents. I was hungry at that point and I wanted to get to the place we picked for dinner (turned out to be a good choice too).
A final note: where the heck has everyone been?? I haven't gotten email from most people in ages. I feel highly unloved. :(
I have just completed a 22 day tour of northern India with a great small group tour company called Intrepid Travel. It really prepared me for my solo time here in India. However, the best part of taking this trip was being able to share so many experiences with really great people.
Cat- Thanks for being a fun roomie who dealt really well with me being a forgetful with keys and locking you into rooms by accident. Also, having chats at night about what we experienced during the day was really great.
Kathy- You have the most inspirational spirit and it was great to spend time with you and hear of all your travels, ups/downs, and just general experiences. You should write a book.
Sue- Thanks for educating me on how exactly to get back at people (fish heads in the hubcaps) and the ailments of male horses. Also, as I read Seven Years in Tibet yesterday and they described the western men with beards as "hairy like monkey."
Vanessa and Kellie- Thanks for reminding me that good friends CAN travel together, something I know, but haven't had the chance to experience in a while. Also, I was able to drink beer vicariously through you guys so I didn't have to. :)
Shane and Jane- Thanks for looking after me here and there, especially on the train post tour. You guys are just too sweet, and I made it here to Rishikesh in one piece with no problem.
Terry- Thanks for the post tour brief "marriage of convenience" but more importantly being an outlet for the Eddie Izzard freak in me. There are floppy eared manOOOUvering beekeepers everywhere that are needed on the side of the Sean Connery/Noah built ark!!!
Jan/Ohna/Jannie- Thanks for being the most normal and well traveled family I know. You guys are a rare thing and it was great to know people like you actually do exist. :) I hope you guys can choose between Alaska and floating down the Ganges!!!
Taesh- Thanks for getting me through northern India without a hitch and making me feel confident enough travel around India on my own. Just watching you deal with people taught me a lot.
Too many deep people...
I have been in Rishikesh's Swarg Ashram area for about a day and a half now. I must say, I am throughly unimpressed. I am staying at a blah hotel (Green Hotel) that has a redeeming Italian restaurant downstairs. It lacks a rooftop hangout area which I have become so used to here in India. The Interpid tour I just finished up could have also been named "Rooftops of Northern India" just as easily as "India Unplugged."
There just seem to be too many "deep" people here for my liking. I understand that yoga and meditation (why people come to Rishikesh) are meant to turn you inwards and blah blah blah, but I just find all the overt searching for spirituality really dull. REALLY dull. I thought that the Shah's daily life was pretty boring, but the idea of talking to some of the soul searching people here in Rishikesh makes sticking my face in fresh cow shit sound good.
The other thing that is really pissing me off is the insistant "pilgrims" begging for alms. Some of them might very well be religious pilgrims asking for alms, but when I sat and observed them for a while, I noticed they only asked westerners for "hallo, just one rupee". I am generally annoyed by the clanging of the metal bucket for money by people who chose to be poor when there are real poor people who didn't choose to be.
This is not to say I am not relaxing and having a decent time. I have sampled many lassis, and I finished the book Seven Years In Tibet in 2 days. Also, that made me want to buy the Dalai Lama's autobiography. I could only find it in one shop, and the guy wouldn't swap or give me a discount if I gave him my just finished book. Instead I bought the DL's memoirs at a different shop for half the price.
Tomorrow I will head to Haridwar in the evening so I can catch the train to Delhi early the next morning.
Meeting people has been the focus of the last few days.
I've been meeting people all over the place now that I am on my own. I took the train from Delhi to Haridwar and met an Indian American from LA who stood out more than I did. He was a sweet guy and we chatted about movies and travel for 5 hours. I left the train station on a good note.
I then proceeded to get into a heated, and I mean HEATED argument with a rickshaw driver. I of course knew he was ripping me off and then he had the nerve to have other passengers in the rickshaw. So I refused to pay him until he drove me around to find a hotel. I finally couldn't be bothered with him and decided to hoof it a bit. So he couldn't chase me down for more money, I slipped into some small alleys and got myself lost. As I tried to get my bearings, I stopped by a tiny shop and asked for a cold drink, which turned out to be more than a Coke.
The shopkeeper offered me a chair and after a few minutes, offered me his spare room. I was brought into the house to meet the fam. Niranjan Shah introduced me to his beautiful wife Geeta, his son Ram, and his daughter Rama. I forget the other two girls names. He then insisted I wash my filthy hair. I can only imagine how gross I must have looked. :) Then the eldest daughter oiled my hair up with some weird product and put it in ridiculous pigtails. We chatted about my "husband" and I pulled out photos to show everyone off. (Steph, when they saw the wedding pic you gave me, they asked if you were an actress.) To the picture of Vanessa they said "SAME SAME!!!" and "achaa" which means good. I guess it's good I have a similar looking sister??? I don't know.
Geeta promptly put the red dot on my forehead which I think (but I'm not sure) means I am married. It seemed to work because later when I was in a very non-touristy area, not one person said boo to me, not even "hello."
We took pictures this morning and I hope to send them back a nice big copy. Ram/Rama are now my "brother/sister". When I attempted to pay them for the accomodation they insisted I give the money to the children as gifts instead.
Staying in an average Indian home was really insightful. It's a very laid back lifestyle. Everyone sits around basically doing not much at all and the living space in the house is all very communal. The presence of privacy was not something I found. Only one of the children went to school (the middle girl Rama who is very bright and very artistically talented) while the eldest girl, Ram, and youngest daughter sat around at home. This perplexed me, but our communication was too basic for me to figure out the reason. It was a great experience, but I couldn't take advantage and left today. I hope I meet more such giving and friendly people in other areas because it really makes my travel experience so much more incredible.
Since coming to India, and before, people have warned me about Varanasi, the city where my tour concludes. It's evil, you will be molested, it's a terrible place is the consensus.
I disagree. Maybe it's my ability to stick my nose up and feign deafness or maybe I'm just adjusted to the ways of India, but I like Varanasi. Last night a friend and I got separated from our group and had no problems. We explored a local festival and were treated politely. No one bothered us and no one annoyed us with "yes madam, look." In fact, most of the people here have been very polite.
On the way back from the burning ghats and a visit to a hospice I encountered a young boy on the street who asked my name. I said I didn't remember (with a smile) and did he know his? He did (I forget) and he asked if I remembered "what country?". I replied with Aruba. Sometimes I am from Jamaica, Argentina, Papua New Guinea, anywhere but the US because then they ask "job?" They are trying to figure out how much you make and the exchange rate. I say unemployed or farmer/shop keeper. At times it can be a fun game, at times it can be annoying, depending on the person.
I think I am adjusting to India well and I am looking forward to the rest of my time here, on my own in Rishikesh and again with Anthony next week. :)
In the immortal words of Keanu Reeves, "whoa."
There are a few times I have been awed like this. No, I take that back, just one. When I saw the Pyramids, my breathe was taken away. When I saw the Taj Mahal at sunset, I gasped as well.
I wasn't sure the cost was going to be worth it. 750 rupees seemed a bit like extortion when locals pay 20. I don't even mind 350, but 750 put a bad taste in my mouth. I knew I was being taken, but there was nothing I could do. I felt especially taken because I know the money earned from entry fees is a hot topic and the head of the state was recently sacked on corruption. She had been up to no good, as is so often the case here. I can't read the paper without seeing an article on someone getting caught or tried on corruption charges. So, I felt like I was just feeding money into someone's pocket.
The minute I laid eyes on the Taj, I forgot all about my misgivings. Is is possibly the most beautiful monument I have ever seen. The white marble is shaped into the sensual curves and the muslim minarets only add to the balance of the design. I can't do it justice so you will just have to go see it for yourself.
The Mughal emperor Akbar (I think) learned that his favorite wife (known as Mumtaz Mahal, or "elect of the palace") had died after 18 years of marriage while she was giving birth to their 14th child. He decided to build the ultimate tomb for her, and this turned out to be the Taj. Every aspect of the Taj is symmetrical, with one ironic exception. The very man who built it is the only thing throwing it off because his tomb was also put here, although that was never his plan. He apparently didn't ever want his plans recreated though because there is a legend that the architect's hand was lopped off as insurance.
There are pools of water reflecting the Taj and I sat for my best Princess Diana shot (there is a very famous photo of her making big eyes in front of the most famous monument to love). I was surprised just how far a 10 rupee baksheesh would get me on my quest for a decent portrait of me sitting on the marble bench Di sat on. My guard literally beat other Indians away to make sure my photo was composed well, and he did the same for my friends. After, many of the Indians invited us to pose with them, and occurance that happened throughout our time there, and we often found babies be thrust in our hands while their parents preened them for the photo.
Another great aspect of visiting the Taj is the array of drop dead gorgeous saris. I am always drawn to deep purples and blues and there was no lack of them for me to admire. I saw the different ways to wear them, which are posh, which are plain, etc. I think I will have to splurge before I leave India on a sari, and then master putting it on.
I also visited the mosque and deserted palaces of Fetphur Sikri and was throughly impressed, a tough thing after seeing the stunning Taj. Agra was not the horrendous place that other travelers have made it out to be. :)
As I was about to write about my experiences in Agra, I realized I had forgotten about a great day in Jaipur.
The begining of the day slips my mind and I think it involved the Amber Fort which I did write about. Later, after a relaxing and needed shower a few of us bargained for a richshaw to the polo grounds to watch a game. It sounded silly and snobby to me but I figured what the hell. We caught our driver in a sneaky attempt to drive us to a textile factory and corrected his "error". We arrived safe and sound and sat with the locals on some concrete platforms.
About 5 minutes in, we are hailed by a wealthy appearing Indian to come sit up on the bandstand for a better view because we are from the Diggi Palace Hotel. It turns out he is a friend of the owner of our hotel and brings us to the "Diamond Seats" whatever that means. We are watching the team that is going to the World Cup we are told and it is a very exciting game because the underdogs nearly come back at the last minute and the final score is 7-6. It was actually much more exciting than I had ever imagined polo to be. I also though of Prince Charles and his massive ears rather than a bunch of skinny old Indian men chewing paan and betelnut.
After the game, the girls and I got another rickshaw for dirt cheap to some swanky hotel with The Polo Bar. The local maharaja had died playing polo when he was 40 and this hotel was named after him. We drank whisky sours and chatted with our waiter, who was very sweet. As we wandered around the hotel we encountered no security like we would have in a NYC hotel of the same caliber. In fact in NYC we would have not been allowed in the door. Anyway, as we gawked at the expensive furnishings and commented how we needed a few nights in a place like this, we were dragged by a local dancer into a circle and given sticks to bang together with the music. It was very hypnotic and and all the spinning made us light headed. Spinning and banging and then clapping and more spinning. By the time it was over we felt like pros.
(Random note, as I write this, the perv next to me looks at the Indian equivalent of porn I think- Indian girls with VERY skimpy outfits and very voluptuous curves. Great, now he's grinding along...)
Jaipur turned out to be a great town and if I come back to India, it will be on the list of places to revisit.