Monday, March 28, 2005

From Varkala to the Backwaters

Arrival in Alleppey: March 23

In the cool of the morning, we left Varkala -- which after 4 days had become something of a womb for us -- and jumped on a train headed north to a city called Alleppey, famous for its Backwater cruises aboard house boats.

When I say we jumped on the train, I mean it in the literal sense.

We bought second class tickets for the 2 hour train ride, which in terms of the Indian railway system, means we bought tickets for a mosh pit without the band. Second class is the lowest class one can travel by train, except for what I call, "The Hobo Class." At a train station in Northern India, I saw what looked to be a cattle car full of people... it was the last car of the train and from the pitch black interior, I could see white eyes gazing out from the darkness, like a Scooby Doo cartoon. There appeared to be no seats, lights, or fans. And the people looked like the zombies from Michael Jackson's Thriller video, except they weren't really missing chunks of flesh, although how could I really tell? It was pretty dark, and there is leprosy in India...

But back to second class. There are no reserved seats, so when the train approaches, the people waiting on the platform, who up until the train's arrival had been politely engaged in quiet conversations, form into packs of wild dogs running up and down the platform in anticipation of an open door when the train finally stops.

When the train pulls in, ever so slowly, people jump off and jump on, even while it's still in motion. The doorways are hardly doorways as they are packed with people, five deep. All that one can really see is a writhing mass of arms and legs and the occasional body spit out of the car, as if the train is giving birth.

It was into this mass of sweaty body parts that we were thrust into the train, propelled by the weight of our backpacks. A backpack is a great thing, except when forced into a cramped space full of people who can too easily become victims to the unnatural extension of it upon your back. Each turn can pack a wallop to an old man's head, or knock a person to the ground, with the force of an all star linebacker. We were not well liked on the train that day.

We arrived in Alleppey and were spit out of the train -- a feat, I must say, we could only have pulled off by using our packs as battering rams. We were spit out of the suffocating train and into the hands of a rickshaw driver, who offered to take us to the main boat jetty for 20 rupees. We didn't have a boat reserved, although we told him that we did, but that didn't stop him from stopping 5 times along the way at various tourist agencies... Eventually we were deposited at the main boat jetty, after a false-drop, an increased far, and lots of arguing.

Alleppey is home to numerous house boats, which look like organic, floating palaces made with local materials such as bamboo and coconut fiber. The boats cruise the Backwaters, a 1500 km area comprised of a chain of canals, lagoons, rivers, lakes, and massive coconut tree groves that seem to spread and sprawl all over Kerala. In fact, Kerala's name is taken from the sanskrit word for coconut.

A typical Backwater cruise includes 24 hours, visits to local villages, a nap on pillows under the boat's canopy, a dip in the water, a night spent under the stars, and all meals (traditional Keralan dishes) thoughtfully prepared by your own personal chef. The houseboats are equipped with a kitchen, bathroom, and bedrooms complete with mosquito netting and fans.

We hired a boat, the two of us accompanied by a staff of three, and sailed off into the Backwaters, leaving our troubles and the rickshaw driver behind us on the shore, and tuned into the gentle sound of water lapping against the boat, the splash of a passing canoe's paddle, twittering birds, converstations of shore bound villagers, the breeze caught in palm fronds, the sound of song carried upon the wind. At night, I heard the symphony of a forest, with crickets and other mysterious sounds of the night. In the morning, the cry of a baby, the wake up call of a rooster, a high pitched, "Bo-oop," which, I found out from our guide, is the call of men who paddle their canoes as if they were ice cream trucks, instead selling fish to the water-bound communities of the Backwaters.

The scenery, the broad strokes like a layered cake, consisted of glistening water, green coconut trees, and blue sky. Up closer, there are rice farms, fish markets, churches, local shops, villagers planting rice, women doing the wash, children playing games, men relaxing.

Our cruise in the Backwaters was a refreshing, pleasant detour. It felt like we'd left India and were, perhaps, in Polynesia, Indonesia, or some other tropical paradise far, far away. As we drifted back to Alleppey, both in mind and in body, we felt ready, once again, to leave the womb as we had in Varkala the previous day.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Are We Having Fun Yet?

Some friends have asked if we're having fun... they've mentioned that we sound weary...

The answer is, yes we're having fun... but I've realized there are two kinds of fun: fun that you know you are having when it's happening, and fun that you don't realize you had until time has passed.

I believe having fun in India falls into the second camp. It's just that all the terrible, bad, frustrating things so powerfully overwhelm the good... it will just take some time to sift the good memories from the bad, so we can remember India with a smile.

Traveling in India is Tough -- yes, Tough with a capital 'T'. Sometimes I feel like I'm wearing a t-shirt with the words 'Screw Me Over' printed on it. Benjamin's t-shirt says 'Please suck the living spirit out of me and then spit it out onto my shoe - or the gutter - whichever you prefer'.

India is a test. It's an 'Eco Challenge' for the soul. India requires patience. From bureaucracy so thick nothing gets done with any efficiency... to the touts and rickshaw drivers who only want to make a commision off of you... to the people who stare and gawk when they're curious, but ignore you when you need assistance... to the local friends you make, who tell you how poor they are (reminding you how rich you are)... to the mumbling beggar with one hand out and the other tugging on your sleeve, limp infants held by street urchins who are asking for baksheesh, the smell of feces and urine, garbage littered everywhere, dead puppies on the beach, rat turds on your bed, a single black hair in every meal, constant beeping horns, cow paddies in the street, the never ending requests to 'buy something from me', coffee cups with handles too small to hold, disgusting bathrooms, lewd hand gestures and remarks from men, machismo, mediocre 'Western food', made-for-tourists local food, the rail system, drinking everything through a straw, plastic water bottles, the sound of loogies, hard beds, harder pillows.

The rickshaw drivers are the worst. Countless times, they have doubled the fare we negotiated upon arrival at our destination or made numerous, unsolicited stops along the way from point A to B, trying to get us to buy things from their friends' shops at inflated prices, or have dropped us off somewhere other than where we wanted. It's all a scam, a sham, a way to make a buck of the rich tourists with white skin. Benjamin calls them sharks. We encountered one the other night, up close and personal.

We took a local friend out for a drink and this other guy, Renu (part time rikshaw driver/part time software engineer) moved in. It was some big dog, little dog game -- the impoverished screwing over the impoverished. We're not sure what the racket is, but our friend got quiet, the price of the drinks went up, and things went south.

Renu, in my mind, is representative of all the con-men out there. His world view is based on how much he can pocket from travelers he encounters. Renu told us how the Dutch don't spend money, but the English, French, and Spanish do (he likes them) -- Americans are not friendly -- Germans are weird. He told us how the rikshaw drivers target the elderly, or anyone traveling in group tours, as they are most likely to spend money at shops where the driver gets a commission. He, and the others, see people with white skin as dollar signs.

"You are rich," I heard more than once that night.

"It's all relative," I replied each time, to deaf ears I'm sure.

So, here we are... a little more cynical, a little less trusting, a little more brusque, a little less friendly...

But, I *think* we are having fun, and I promise to write about the good stuff, it's just a matter of time.


The heat. It doesn't stop. Finding AC is near impossible... there are few stores, restaurants, or meat lockers to take refuge in. I'm sure if I tried, I could cook an egg on the top of my head, it's that hot.

"You've come to India at the wrong time," we've been told. December is the best month to visit, but it's also the high season. In March, the mercury moves up the scale, continuing through April and into May. I've read that people who travel here in May are either insane or really stupid. We plan to be in China by then.

The heat. The thought that there is no escaping it wreaks havoc on the mind. Sometimes I wonder if a person can go insane from relentless heat. At the worst of times, I go to my 'happy place'.

I zone out and envision myself rolling around on a massive block of ice, the size of a shopping mall, with little sun umbrellas stuck into it to ground me in the present. I see myslef frolicking with polar bears wearing parkas in the North Pole. I try to remember what it feels like to have 'brain freeze' from eating ice cream too fast. I think about igloos, frosty breath, mountain streams, Catholic nuns... anything cold.

Everything swells during the day. I don't even recognize my own feet -- they are plump and puffy. My fingers bloat into fat cherub hands in the heat of the day... and at night when things cool down a few degrees, the wrinkly excess skin hangs from my fingers like loose stockings bunched up around an old woman's ankles. My clothes are plastered to my body... as if I've covered myself with honey before getting dressed. My face is greasy, my hands are sticky, my hair is limp.

The worst part about the whole thing: after sitting for any length of time, I leave an imprint of sweat when I get up. Is my butt really that big?

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Small Talk

We spent our last evening in Varkala "hanging out with the boys." Benjamin has a knack for befriending the waiters at the restaurants where we hang out when traveling. I'm just the girl who tags along... especially in India, where a woman's role, from what I can tell, is to be invisible. The guys were nice enough, though, despite the fact that I'm not male, and the thought of a drink of whisky sounded pretty good.

Earlier in the day, Benjamin told me that we were going to have whisky that night. "Whisky!" I exclaimed, "Where did you get that?" The feeling was like scoring alcohol in high school, its lure exaggerated by the fact that it was hard to come by.

"The guys are going to take care of it. They want to have a party for our last night." Apparently Benjamin had given them a 500 rupee note for the 250 rupee bottle... change was to come later. But when later came, we found out that we were the patrons of the party. We were invited to a party that we paid for. The Indian way, I guess!

The sun set, we had dinner, and then the party began. Our "hosts" were Lal (pronounced lol), Dalin (which sounds like darlin' with a southern accent), and Jacob (pronounced yay-cub). Lal ran the hotel where we stayed; Dalin was the waiter at the 'Fisherman's Nest', our frequent hangout next door to the hotel, and Jacob was the waiter at the 'Brown Indian Mini Cafe', next door to the 'Fisherman's Nest'.

The three of them were good hosts, and spent our money well: they procured the whisky (and some grass) and provided beer, water, soda, and some snacks: an omelette and a plate of spicy beef (in Kerala, beef is not taboo as in the rest of India).

I'm not great with small talk, even in my native language, so when Benjamin had run out of things to say, the night was full of long stretches of silence -- the kind that live on the border of uncomfort and relief. After a significantly long stretch of quiet, I thought of a great ice breaker.

"What do you guys do for fun?" I asked.

I was met with blank stares.

I asked again, this time louder. For some reason, people speak louder when trying to communicate with someone who speaks a different language, as if the volume will suddenly make things clear...

Again, blank expressions.

I asked again, this time louder AND slower. When trying to break the communication barrier, slowing things down usually does the trick. If not completely understood, the question will be regarded with a nod of the head or some similar feedback that lets you know the question was, at least, heard. You'd expect this kind of reaction to the 'increase volume' technique... I think the 'slow it down' technique gets the response because by this time, it's the third time the question has been asked, and it's just too embarassing to go at it for another round.


Sensing that the question needed to be rephrased, I finally asked, "What do you do in your free time?"

An uproar ensued. "Aaaah, O-oo-oh! Ha, ha, ha."

They understood.

"We have no free time," they chuckled at the ridiculous question. "We just work. Every day is the same: Eat, work, eat, sleep... next day same." I wasn't all that unfamiliar with the pattern, but at least I can make time for a hobby, a night out with a friend, a game of cards, a good book, a movie, a museum, reality tv. Their work day starts at 6 am and ends at 10 pm, all for 80 rupees. That's about U.S. $2.00.

As expected, my next topic of converstation went nowhere. Neither Lal, Dalin, or Jacob could think of one UFO sighting. Either India has none, or they have just never heard about it, or they didn't understand my question and answered with a nod after the 'slow it down' technique was applied, just to get the conversation over with.

At some point in the night, talk turned to religion. We were 1 atheist and 1 agnostic (or 'undecided' as we told the guys), a muslim, hindu, and christian... It was interesting to be in the company of such a varied bunch. In Kerala, all religions are practiced, without friction. Even single families reflect the mix of our little party.

Kerala's religious tolerance goes beyond a chosen faith -- a lot of 'rules' were broken that night. Lal, a Hindu, ate some beef. Jacob, a muslim, drank alcohol. Dalin, a Christian, had some fun. Benjamin and I, obviously, broke no rules because we don't have any to abide to.

P.S. to Looking is Free...

Did I say it might be a good thing that the merchants send us home with souvenirs? What was I thinking? Was I high? Oh, no... wait a minute... it must have been a delusion brought on by the swelling of the brain, due to the heat.

We woke on our last full day to an empty town. The tourists had all completely disappeared, making us moving targets -- or rather sitting ducks -- for the people selling bed coverings and sarongs with elephant motifs and elegant embroidery, ankee bracelets that jingle when you walk, necklaces made of shells, silk scarves, decorative boxes made of fish bone, shirts, pants, skirts, stickers, shoes, belts and hand bags with shiny mirrors sewed in...

People were desperate to sell -- trudging through the sand with their wares, shoulders slumped, with a look of despair until they spotted us and suddenly their gate quickened, a glimmer of hope sparkled in their eye, and they were upon us.

"Business bad," they tell us, "tsunami." Or, "Everyone gone. Give me good price," while holding out something we didn't want or need. Sometimes they'd make the gesture for food, with the 5 finger tips pinched together and brought up to the mouth. This gesture, the "elbow curl" as I like to call it, is usually only used by the beggars.

Although the tsunami struck the opposite side of the country, apparently people have been avoiding South India altogether. Even the high season was low this year, and now the low season was slower than usual.

Sometimes it gets to me, when the merchants imply they won't eat if they don't make a sale. I feel bad. I have so much, they have so little. And they're only trying to make ends meet... but I can't buy everything and I can't save the world with rupees. I can't make a difference. Life goes on.

Monday, March 21, 2005

Looking is Free

Varkala's restaurants, shops, hotels, yoga and ayurvedic centers sprawl along a dirt footpath that winds along the top of a cliff, and so far, it appears to be the main throughfare for visitors. Seems there is no need to venture off into the streets. When we arrived, I was surprised at how empty the streets were: void of people, places, things... the usual hub-bub of an Indian city. But the streets here are the back door to the action. Ocean-side is where everyone wants to be, especially for the breeze. It's damn hot. When the breeze (or electricity) stops suddenly, the heat makes itself known through an onslaught of sweat and heat rash.

Our thermometer claims it's in the mid/upper 90s -- and that's not including the humidity. The heat is why things here are slow. The high season is from December - February. In March, things heat up and the town shuts down. We're at the waning, tail end of the end of the high season.

Despite the heat, visiting in the 'off' season has its advantages: few people and good prices. Every time I've purchased anything from anyone, they tell me I'm their first customer of the day -- and my shopping tends to happen in the late afternoon, when the heat and humidity have beaten me senseless and the vendors can easily have their way with me.

Even so, I've scored some good deals... it's easy to bargain when you're the only customer of the day. Some merchants don't even bother and offer you their wares at rock bottom prices, to the degree that coming back with a counter offer would embarass your family name.

The problem is that EVERYONE wants you to at least LOOK at their store, which can be anything from an open stall under a tree to a full fledged shop with four walls and a door (these are more like traps, as once you're in, you're in...). "Looking is free," they all say. We usually tell them, "We'll stop by on our way back." Of course, this is just a lame, passive agressive method of dealing with the merchants. We should just tell them the truth, "We will, at all costs, avoid your store from this point on."

But nevertheless, we tell them we'll come back, and they tell us, "I'll wait for you." And they do! If you walk by the store, no matter how many hours have passed, they will call out, "Hey, you! You said you'd come back. Please, looking is free," You don't have much choice in passing the store, as all foot traffic happens along the cliff, where all the shops are located. It's only a matter of time until you look, and you buy... just for peace of mind.

Neither Benjamin nor I like to shop. For bees not interested in pollen, there is no reason to visit the flower. Likewise, there's no reason for us to go 'shopping'. So in a way, perhaps it's good for us, this lack of tourists and their dollars. The merchants can grab us, give us good deals, and send us home with a few souvenirs.


Varkala (AKA Barksalot -- Benjamin cannot remember the name)

Ah. This is the life... just what the 'doctor' ordered, and what Benjamin needed to maintain sanity and interest in India. We are in Varkala, a seemingly tiny town, and with a population of over 42,000, by Indian standards, it is.

We have a round beach hut with thatched roof, faux marble floors, hot water, electricity... the works. From the chairs on our small porch, we can see the Arabian Sea. A breeze stirs the air, the sound of palm fronds rustle in the wind, birds caw, the clink of a toast rings in the tropical air. We've arrived in the perfect spot for our vacation from our vacation.

There's always paper work to be done when arriving somewhere in India. "For the police," we're told. Apparently, as we found out in Kolkata, there is even paper work done for bakseesh, which is essentially the documentation of a bribe... for the police. Hmmm.

We filled out the paper work for our beach hut and I imagined the carbon copy winding up in the central police station somewhere (maybe in Bhopal, it being the center of India and all). The carbon copy will be filed with the others, under a giant map with colored pins and string plotting our course through India. I'm sure the police chief would know that they could put our map away for a while, maybe take a few days off... because, he would figure, with the pace we've been moving, surely we'd stay put for a while (at least 4 or 5 days) -- in Kerala, or more specifically, Barksalot.


A narrow, fecund strip at the Southwest tip of India, Kerala is verdant, fruitful,lush, luxurious -- a tropical paradise incongruous to the dry, hot, umber India that we've been traveling so far. I've read it called the 'gentle' side of India. Here, you can hear yourself think. You can be still. You an take the place in at your leisure. Here, things move at a snail's pace... elsewhere in India, they move at the speed of light (except for these internet cafes I write from).

The rest of India has been a blur. Aside from covering the Eastern half, from north to south in a matter of several weeks, there's a constancy of motion, chaos, clatter, confusion. But that's what makes it an interesting place to visit. India is a barrage to the senses -- like a topsy-turvy roller coaster ride ridden, from start to finish, with a blindfold on that slips every now and again, giving a glimpse of commotion without complete comprehension.

But 'glimpse' is too light a word... for this glimpse holds a thousand scenes, even more people, a multitude of languages, every color of the rainbow, the best and worst humanity have to offer, and a few cows thrown in for good measure.

Kerala is different.

Kerala's history reads like a page from an archaic, romantic novel about the sea, sailors, and the spice trade. Traders have been coming here for more than 3,000 years -- Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs, Chinese. The Portugese, Dutch, and English got in on the act, as well, giving today's Kerala a diverse blend of cultures, art, customs, and festivals.

Beach towns, tea plantations, wildlife sanctuaries, lagoons and canals -- all can be found in Kerala. And here, a glimpse can linger...

Friday, March 18, 2005

The Center of Attention

I don't know how many of my friends will agree, but I'm a pretty shy person. I don't like to be the center of attention. Especially when I'm eating.

For lunch today I ordered what South Indians call the 'meal'. It very well may have another name, or at least a more descriptive name, like the 'everyday meal', but the bill said 'meal' so that's what I shall call it.

You might be wondering how I ordered food without really knowing the name. When the waiter came to take my order, I just pointed at the stack of giant, verdant banana leaves slung over his arm. He laid one on the table and within moments, it became my tablecloth-cum-plate, with 9 or so small silver bowls filled with food and sauces, several dollops of condiments, a scoop of red rice, and dish of white rice.

While in North India, I'd read an article in the newspaper about South Indian cuisine and knew that I was to eat this 'meal' with my fingers. I just wasn't sure how to go about it.

Not to worry -- there were plenty of waiters in the place eager to show me. I got the feeling they were happy that I was trying their traditional fare for lunch... and maybe they were a bit eager to see just what I'd do with it, too. They pointed to each dish and explained what it was (not that I understood) and then signalled that I should dump the white rice onto the leaf, mix in the contents from the silver bowls (I recognized Daal), mash it about with my fingers, and then scoop it into my mouth.

How glorious it is to eat with your fingers IN PUBLIC without committing a disgraceful faux pas. If I'd known about this custom in childhood, I most certainly would have spent the years between 4 and 12 begging my parents to move to India so I could eat with my fingers. The only thing is, it's just a little difficult to eat rice with your fingers. The Indians have a technique where they kind of form a ball with it and gracefully toss it into their mouths. Myself, I wasn't so elegant and ended up mashing the rice onto my face, with many bits stuck to my cheek or falling from my hand and others being 'inhaled', causing me to cough.

All of this was done for an audience -- I could feel at least 3 waiters hovering behind me to instruct or watch the white chick eat the 'meal'. Several made sure to point out the desert with a big smile. Everyone likes desert. Everyone also knows that women don't like to be watched while eating, but my discomfort went beyond that. However, it was nice to feel "loved" in this land of flimflammers (at least where the 'tourist' is concerned).

Yesterday, on an excursion to the odd Governement Museum, Benjamin and I came the closest we'll ever come to celebrity. There were lots of school kids at the museum, of many ages and different shools. Seems that day was THE day for field trips throughout the city of Chennai. We were resting on a bench and were surrounded by a horde of children who wanted to shake our hands, ask our names, and say, "Hello!"

At one point, there was a crowd that must have been three deep. Most of them were little girls, with braids or long black hair, and strings of small white Lillys decorating their locks (many women and girls wear the lillys in their hair -- today a woman at the train station gave me hers when I commented on how nice they smelled).

We couldn't move anywhere in the museum without our entourage of 'fans' -- the kids risking retribution from their teacher for breaking away from the group just to touch us and continue our converstation that consisted of one word that we could both understand: "hello".

I wrote before that India is full of moments that continuously swing one's feelings on a pendulum from hate to love, and from love to hate. So now we know both sides of India's emotional dichotomy.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

The Long Journey to the South

Location: Chennai, SE India

We're finding that what 'they' say is true: it's tough traveling here in India. Case in point: I just hit a windfall. I've 'acquired' three small rolls of toilet paper from the fancy hotel bathroom that's connected to the bar we just came from. Note: we're not staying in the fancy hotel and bars in India are hard to come by. Hindus, by rule, don't drink.

So the three rolls really amount to 1/4 of a roll from home, but here, toilet paper is a commodity, so opportunist that I've become (where TP is concerned), I'll not let those rolls stay in that lonely 'ole bathroom. Another thing to note: bars here are dark and full of men. I'm usually the only female present, because India is a man's world. More on that to come in future entries... But I guess this doesn't REALLY speak to why it's 'tough' to travel here in India...

Maybe it's because we're always on the go, and when you're on the go, prices have to be negotiated, destinations have to be found, language barriers must be conquered, and all of it is difficult when you don't know what the hell you're doing.

We are a bit road weary, and the problem stems in covering so much territory in so little time. In the 2.5 weeks we've been on the road, we've taken a number of trains. Our last journey began in Varanasi. We traveled overnight to a place called Bhopal, whose only claim to fame is that the town is in the center of India and also happens to be the location of a major industrial disaster.

Arriving in Bhopal, we disembarked from the train and set off to look for the hotel zone, which was within walking distance from the train station according to Lonely Planet. Unfortunatley, we weren't quite sure which way to walk and no-one would give us directions without a few rupees in hand. We asked several people... a young boy laughed at us (probably showing off for the two girls he was walking with) and a merchant selling Chai shooed us off with a wave of the hand. Tuk tuk drivers lent a deaf ear... it was maddening. Finally some government officals gave us the right information, although by that time we didn't really trust them and the silhouette of our backpacks were etched upon our backs in sweat.

Seems that if you don't pay, you will get the opposite directions to where you want to go. But with no other choice, we followed their guidance and eventually wound up in the right place.

Why were we in Bhopal, anyway? We stopped there to break up the long trip to the South. Otherwise, it would have been a 52 hour train ride.

So let me explain in more deatil: from Varanasi, we took the overnight train to Bhopal, where we could get off, stay the night, and stretch our legs. The morning after our arrival we secured tickets on the overnight train to Chennai: FIRST CLASS. In India, Benjamin and I can afford to travel first class, at least once in a while, so that evening, we were on the 24 hour train to Chennai (which is still, unfortunatley, an overnight ride from our desired locale, Kerala).

Going first class is grand. We had our own compartment on the train, free from hawkers with shoe shine kits and baskets of potato chips, watches, walkmans, newspapers, reading glasses, and a multitude of other things a backpacker does not need... in the other train classes, we've been constantly intruded upon by street urchins, vendors, and eunichs looking for a little income from a captive audience.

No matter how you go, the view from the train is worthwhile. You see many snippets of life, scenes, that weave a rich tapestry of life in-between places:

Fields a wheat in a patchwork of yellow and green, fences made of twigs and sticks, a white shirt or a cobalt blue sari in the monochromatic palette of a dry country side, homes of brick with tiled roofs, homes of mud with thatched roofs, cement dwellings of faded blue and green, goat herders, water buffalos with skin stretched tightly over the haunches, clothes strung up on lines or laid upon bushes to dry in the sun, connicle domes of cow paddies, women pumping water from a well... The peacefullness and tranquility that comes with open space, the sight of the horizon, fields, forests, grazing animals, birds on telephone wires, families gathered around a communal fire, the breeze blowing a purple scarf against dark brown skin.

Sometimes, the homes are built so close to the tracks, you might be sitting next to someone's grandma, having a conversation neither of you can understand, or you might accidentally feel the spittle from the man on the bench chewing betel. You can pick up a snack from the vendor selling peanuts, samosas, and carrots. You can watch the men who are making carpets or throwing pottery on a wheel. You can cheer for the children playing cricket or wave to them from their bedroom window.

When on a train, you can go to sleep and wake to an entirely different landscape, a totally new place. I woke to see a dry landscape, looking crispy and fried like vegetable pakoras, camels munching on trees, a bicycle leaning against a shady tree: it was a bit like a lemonade commercial, that bicycle... despite the heat that I knew baked the lands outside of the air conditioned train, that bicycle and tree looked too refreshing.

At times, staring out the window, I felt like I'd traveled back in time... to 'Jesus days'. Wooden carts pulled by donkeys, figures off in the distance walking along a dusty tract in the fields with robes flowing behind them in a rare breeze, people carrying water in silver vessels upon their heads... The only thing that brought me back to the present was the occasional electricity tower.

So we are in Chennai are will be on another train tomorrow night to Kerala, where we will finally slow things down -- in the tropical beauty of beach towns and along the canals and waterways of the backwaters...

Stay tuned...

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Holy Shit

The cows are holy here in India. It's why there is no beef to eat and why there are cows roaming everywhere, from the alleyways filled with garbage to the busiest intersections.

Cow dung is also everywhere, and in fact, one of the first things I did upon arriving in Varanasi was to plant my foot smack dab in the middle of one. With so much cow dung all over the place, the people have come to use it as cheap fuel, for cooking fires. Some also use it to make money off tourists, like myself and Benjamin.

Today we were walking along the ghats and came upon three young girls making cow paddies. They had a silver bowl with manure from which they would grab a ball, flatten it out, and smack it against the side of a building (where it sticks) to dry in the sun. They asked if I'd like to take their photo. I said, "No rupees," as it seems nothing can be done in India without a fee. "No charge," their sing-song, sweet voices rang out in unison. I had my doubts, but when would I get another chance to photograph children working with shit?

Of course, after the click of the shutter, the girls surrounded us with their nasty poopy hands, and asked for 10 rupees. "You said no charge!" I cried. "No, 10 rupees for photo," they pressed, getting closer and closer with their hands covered in manure -- I could see now that it was laced with bits of straw. I became convinced they would smear the cow dung all over us if we didn't comply to their fee.

"Give them the money," I said to Benjamin without hesitation. Thank God we had 10 Rps -- it's hard to keep small bills around here. I think they wanted 10 rupees each, but after giving the bill to one girl who ran off, the others followed... probably to fight over it.

Both Benjamin and I agree that the 'shit paddy scam' is the best and most creative we've encountered so far...

Cremation Information

Ganga River, Varanasi

"I give cremation information," the man told us. He said he worked at the burning ghat, weighing the wood for the funeral pyres and providing aid to people who wait to die at the hospice behind us. When I got my notebook out, halfway through his spiel, he started again from the beginning, keen that I got all the information correct:

When a person dies, their body is washed with sandalwood oil, honey, milk curd, butter curd, and massage oil. Men are covered in a white cloth (old men with gold), and women are covered with a red cloth. The body is carried through the streets on a stretcher by 'body wallahs' or 'outcasts' as I've read in the Lonely Planet guidebook. Once they reach the river, the body is dunked in the waters of the Ganga and set in the sun to dry as the funeral pyre is prepared. Sandalwood, Banyan Tree, and three other types of wood are used, each costing a different amount, each burning at a different rate of speed.

Once the body is placed upon the wood, it is lit with fire, an 'eternal flame' kept within a building just beyond. The family walks around the body 5 times to represent the 5 elements inside the body: fire, water, art, air, and the soul.

We were told that it takes 3 hours for the cremation to be complete. Afterwards, the family takes a bath and does nothing for 13 days except wash and pray. On the 10th day, the men shave their heads and the women cut thier nails (you'll never see a bald Indian woman -- short hair is considered rebellious).

The entire time the man was telling this story, and in between the notes I was taking, I could not take my eyes of the bodies wrapped in wet cloth upon the ghat steps and upon stacks of wood. I could see the outline of their ears through the sheets. When I looked at a pile of wood on fire, I saw feet sticking out from the sticks and logs. Feet that looked like normal, healthy feet. A short time later, they were charred and even later, completely disconnected from the rest of the body. Occasionally a body wallah visits each pyre with a stick and pokes at the bodies, like you do with logs while tending a camp fire.

"You can donate money so the poor people can be burned here," I hear the man say. "No, no," I said, closing my notebook. "You can donate to the dying in the hospice," he said. "No," said Benjamin, "We don't have money."

"You are a liar," the man spat the words at us and then demanded I tear the pages from my notebook. He called over a friend carrying a think stick. Were we supposed to be afraid of the twig?

We walked away and the man kept calling us a liar. His friend followed us for a bit, saying I owed the guy some money for the time he spent explaining things to us. This is the India we have come to know in Varanasi. The people are starting to creep us out. Everyone wants something. No one is genuine.

In fact, everyone we meet tells us not to talk to others, that they are tricksters. And then we find out that they are in the game themselves, trying to gain our trust by telling us of the flimflam artists. Every conversation leads to a request to donate money or buy silk from a friend or give them a hand out. Only the people burning on the funeral pyres left us alone today.

The Ganga

Yesterday we took a boat ride on the Ganges, or Ganga as they call it here. We arose at 5:30 a.m. to catch the sun rise over the river. It was worth getting up early to see the giant red ball suspended in the sky, defying gravity.

Along the Ganga, there's a 7 km stretch of ghats, or steps, which rise from it's banks. Every day, 60,000 people come to the ghats for a spiritual bath in the septic waters of the river -- the water is heavily polluted and full of fecal bacteria, with 30 sewars pumping into it. In addition to the sewage and piles of garbage strewn along the river bank, there are also human remains in the Ganga.

Bodies are cremated at several 'burning ghats' -- the ash dumped into the river. Animals, pregnant women, holy men, children, people with leprosy or smallpox, and people who have died from snake bites don't get cremated -- they just get dumped into the middle of the river. It's not unusual to see a dead body bobbing along with the current. Luckily, we didn't see anything but a dead pig float by our boat.

As we rowed down the river, I felt like a voyeur, watching people celebrate their faith by 'cleansing' their bodies and souls in the defiled Ganga water. It is beyond comprehension -- not only that people submerge themselves in water of their waste and their dead, but also that people who hold something so holy would contaminate it with pollutants.

In addition to spiritual cleansing, the river is used as a giant washing machine. The 'dobi wallahs' (the Indian name for the wash people) do laundry on the steps of the ghats, thrashing the clothing about, literally beating them clean. The river is also used as a giant bath tub. People sit upon the steps with a bar of soap and lather up, rinsing off in the water. They also brush their teeth here, using their finger instead of a tooth brush. I might have seen one man using the river mud as tooth paste, but I'm not sure... I can say with some certainty that no tooth paste company I can think of would make a paste of brown.

Despite the picture I have thus painted, the trip down the Ganga was quite peaceful and scenic. There was music in the air -- flutes, bells, and Hindi songs sung by women with high pitched voices (or maybe it's one woman who sings all the songs -- it always sounds like the same voice to me). Ancient looking buildings, 10 shades of brown, monkeys scampering upon embellished rooftops, hot pink, red, copper and silver vessels, the gentle vibration of water on the boat, the rhythmic dip of the boatman's oar, the laughter of children, the hum of salvation.

Friday, March 11, 2005

Now THIS is India

After nearly two weeks, I've finally arrived to the India I'd imagined... the "hard core" India, with images taken from the movies, books, postcards, dreams -- even, nightmares...

We left Darjeeling last night and arrived early this afternoon in Varanasi, India's holiest city. This is where the pilgrims come to bathe in the Ganges river, to wash away their sins. The old come here to die, as it's believed that passing here in Varanasi will stop the cycles of rebirth. It's said to be the oldest living city in the history of the world. Mark Twain described it as older than history, older than legends, and older than both combined.

I know I've not yet said enough about Darjeeling -- I haven't mentioned how much it reminded me of home: the chill in the air, the fog, the hills. Oh, the hills. The city is comprised of steep, curvy walkways that wind along the hillsides through clusters of homes and shops, narrow alleys of precipitous steps, magnolia trees, firs, pines, and ferns... Occasionally, during a walk, I'd pass a line of beggars sitting by the way, counting their coins, stacking them in neat piles -- or a Sadhu (holy man) with white lines smeared on his forehead and robes of orange, asking for 'baksheesh' while holding out a copper urn -- or school children dressed in uniform playfully walking with their friends. I could see the corrugated rooftops of all the buildings below me, glinting in the sun, many with the morning's wash laid out to dry: blankets, shirts, trousers. At one of the nicer hotels, I saw a pile of white gloves on the roof -- the gloves, and old-school turbans, are worn by the staff who serve high tea, a call back to the Raj days, when India was more British than Indian.

But here I am in Varanasi, where it is hot and dirty and colorful in the way that has nothing to do with hue, tint, or value. It's interesting, but 'interesting' is just too plain a word to describe it.

On the way into town from the train station, from the windows of the cab, I saw thatched roof huts in the midst of ruinous brick buildings, tent encampments of blankets and tarps, shantys, stacks of cow paddies drying in the sun, cows, goats, dogs. I saw people bathing, doing laundry, shopping, cooking, and getting their hair cut while sitting on a brick. Life happens in public, as with the rest of India that I've seen, but here, it just seems so raw.

Our guesthouse is near the Ganges, and all of this is just beyond the front door. That, plus a whole 'nother slew of sights and sounds. Holy men, travelers who have been on the road way too long (what Westerner in their right mind would walk barefoot in the mucky streets), touts, merchants.

While looking for our guesthouse this afternoon, I met a tuk tuk driver named Manjot who warned of the 'bad people' who might try to sell things at dishonest prices, or pull scams and the like. He held out his hand and pointed to each digit as he professed that people are like fingers: they are all different. Some are good, some are bad.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

A Typical Day in Darjeeling

It must be human nature to live by routine, for during our short stay in Darjeeling, Benjamin and I have established a daily regimen.

We start the day at 6 or 7 a.m., 8 a.m. if we sleep in (B's mom and dad must be gasping)and head to the Glenary cafe for breakfast. There, we order up pastries (25 cents each) or porridge (50 cents) or eggs and bacon (1 dollar). We'll read the English paper, "The Statesman," while we sip coffee or tea. I go for the coffee, despite the fact that we are in Darjeeling and can see the plantations where the tea is picked right there below us, from the picture window next to our table.

My favorite part about the morning ritual is reading the crossword puzzle in the paper. Following are a few of the 'best' clues from today:

- Dictionary-maker to apologize humbly, having ommitted line
- Come on Americans! King is in trouble
- Cart taking lover for execution
- Should I rise to seize power, for best results?
- With smell overcoming resistance, one gets stuck into dinner

After breakfast, we'll do some sight seeing. We clocked ourselves at 6.8 miles one day. Darjeeling is a pedestrian town, with lots of hills. Funny thing... they all seem to lead up! It's very tiring and I usually find myself in need of a nap in the early afternoon -- yet there is too much people watching to be had at Chowrasta Square, just up the way from our hotel.

In the afternoon, we can be found with others who laze on the benches that line the square. A cup of Chai Tea cost 3 Rps (14 cents)... or sitting at a cafe with a Coke float and Dosa, a snack from Southern India that's similar to a crepe.

Evening comes and often we eat a light meal and are ready for bed by 8 pm!

Monday, March 07, 2005

Maintain the 'Q'

People say they both love and hate India, all at the same time. We're beginning to understand why. Today is the first day that I've felt angry and helpless...

Yesterday, we were peacefully strolling through the hills of Darjeeling -- past teenagers sneaking kisses along remote pathways, men carrying baskets of tea leaves into town, and children playing cricket in the streets near the market...

This morning, we found ourselves in a crowd of line-cutters and curt ticket agents at the train station... we left frustrated and infuriated -- and with NO tickets, mind you. We gave up. We threw our hands into the air and left, lest we make a scene (and it would have to be a doozy of a scene, as in India, everything is out of the ordinary). Benjamin is a man of infinite patience, and for him to say, "f*** it and succomb to frustration is a rare occurence indeed.

To purchase a train ticket, first you must speak to the man behind the 'enquiry' window. Here, you find out about the availability of seats. Then you proceed to the 'reservation' window to book the ticket.

There is a sign posted on the window at the counter, "Maintain Q." Ha. No one pays attention to that sign. There are 2 lines to "Q" in, as well: Enquiry and Reservation. It's hard to make out where the line actually is... people suddenly appear in front of you and to the sides of the counter window and soon a single file line turns into a tight crowd akin to groupies waiting to see their favorite rock group exit a building. Once we made it up to the window, after telling several locals to get to the back of the line (a few did manage to cut in front of us), we had to postition ourselves aggressively in front of the counter to hold our place. I felt like a miser hunched over his coins.

You cannot simply ask the 'enquiry' man for the first available ticket to wherever it is you want to go. You can't even ask about options. You must have the train number and desired date of travel at the ready or else be shood away. The 'enquiry' man will look up the train/date and tell you, "yes," or, more frequently, "no." If it's the latter of the two, you must start over with a new train/date.

Once you do find available seats, you must fill out a form and proceed to the 'reservation' window. Of course, there is a line to wait in and the chances are great that by the time you make it to the window, the train you wanted, the one you 'enquired' about, has been booked solid in time spent navigating the lines and reservation "Q". At this point, you must return to the 'enquiry Q' and start all over again.

After all this and several hours, Benjamin and I left without any tickets. The trains going where we want to go are full for the next week or two, or so we were told. So we are thinking of another way to approach the problem and trying to remain cool-headed.

I must keep reminding myself, it's all part of the experience... and as I travel with the mantra, "Find the humor," I have decided that the humor of this morning's experience can only be found in the fact that finally, Benjamin is just as impatient as me (he always says that patience is my "lesson" in life).

Journey to Darjeeling

“Better late than dead.”

My sentiments exactly, I thought, as our jeep careened up the curvy mountain road that leads to Darjeeling. Whoever wrote that sign has a funny sense of humor and obviously appreciates the concept of comic relief. I was happy for the distraction from the swaying motion of the jeep at each hair-pin turn and the frequent “close calls” with oncoming traffic. The road was exceedingly narrow, forcing the driver to fold the jeep’s side mirror in to make room for passing vehicles. Like in Kolkata,traffic moved like an intricately choreographed dance, with everything just barely missing everything else, as if a cosmic force with a bent for suspense had planned it all out ahead of time.

The signage along the road is there to caution drivers, but it also entertains. Other signs read, “Hurry-Burry spoils the curry,” “Don’t gossip. Let him drive,” “Donate blood in the blood bank. Not on this road,” and, “Enjoy it, but not on wheels.”

I was excited to reach Darjeeling. From the road signs, it appeared that the town would be a mellow, happy-go-lucky sort of place, a contrast to the frenzied, serious, cheerless Kolkata.

When we arrived, a grueling 158 miles later, the fog had settled in, clinging to the mountainsides, and filling the vast basin below us. It was as if we’d landed not in India, but in a fairy tale kingdom built on top of clouds, lost to the rest of the world.

Situated in the heart of the Himalayas, Darjeeling does not feel like India at all. Enclosed by mountains, clinging to steep slopes at an altitude of 7,000 feet, Darjeeling is bordered by Bhutan to the East and Nepal to the West. The snow capped mountain peek of Khangchendzonga, India's tallest mountain and the third higest in the world, dominates the view when the fog lifts. On a clear day, you can see Mt. Everest.

Aside from a strong Nepalese and Tibetan influence, there are also traces of colonial England. The town was actually laid out by Lord Napier of the Royal Engineers back in the early/mid 1800s. The Brits built Darjeeling as an outpost, a place of R&R for weary soldiers. Later, the forests were cleared to make way for the tea plantations for which Darjeeling is known today.

Friday, March 04, 2005

Life in Kolkata

Lepers, cripples, begging children. These are the image conjured when one thinks of Kolkata. And yes, they do exist, but there is much more to this place and the people who live here.

There is an overwhelming sense of formality, be it in the paperwork -- no transaction goes without a written receipt, with carbon copy -- and in the behavior of the people. We are always greeted as "Sir" or "Madame" by merchants or hotel staff. Others, those seeking money, greet us as "Uncle," "Aunt," or "Sister."

"Sister, buy some milk for my baby."
A woman holds a baby in her arms while waiving a dirty bottle in the air. Some of the babies look extremely unhealthy, with skin disorders or physical handicaps. Others look cheery and relatively healthy.

"Aunt, please, I have no parents. I am hungry."
A child grabs onto my hand and holds it as I walk down the street. Looking into his eyes, I see sorrow and sometimes I see happiness. A child of no more than 3 years of age followed us the length of 2 large city blocks, a far distance from his mother and infant sibling sitting upon a blanket on the sidewalk.

It may sound cold, but it's easy to ignore the begging. Although on a radically different scale, the street life in San Francisco has dulled my senses, guilt, and sympathy for beggars. I've read about the scams in the guidebooks, too. The women who beg for milk just go around the corner and sell it. And the children... well... there are a lot of homeless, parentless children here, but it's impossible to give money out to everyone who asks. Instead, today I donated a decent sum to the Brahmins of the Kali Temple. They provide food for the poor.

But back to the things that don't have to do with the deprivation and poverty of Kolkata... the formality of the people seems to stem from a sense of duty and diligence. Paperwork is done with painstaking care. It is quite a process to check in to a hotel, even the cheap guest house variety, as information needs to be logged in a giant leather bound book that spans the entire width of the desk.

The seriousness of the people is worn on their faces. It is rare to find a smiling face in a crowd. Benjamin is on a mission to find an Indian who can appreciate a good joke. It's odd, because I've heard so much about the great Bengali sense of humor. Perhaps we are just making the wrong jokes or perhaps we are just too interesting to look at, so the humor escapes them. We get plenty of stares, a common experience for people of white skin in these parts.

The people here are persistent and tell you what you want to hear. I think they should regroup and open up 'politician traning camps'.

If you ask a yes/no question, they will most likely tell you "yes," just because they don't want to disappoint you. Yesterday we followed an ancient man with sunken cheeks around the market. We were looking for a book with train schedules and he said he had what we wanted. After zig-zagging around a maze of stalls, we climbed up a flight of stairs to find ourselves not in a book shop, but among tapestries and statues.

Regarding persistence: a simple "No," won't do. In fact, a hundred "Nos" won't do. It takes about 1/4 of a mile to get the point across. It can be trying, but as a traveler, you must find the humor in things. Benjamin and I made a game of it. A hide and seek game with the coolies in the market. We would speed up, slow down, duck down an alley or change directions swiftly. It was impossible to shake one guy who was just dying to help us buy things (and make a commision in the process). We could hear him following behind, the flap-flap of his shuffling, flip-flop clad feet. We lost him when another, older man without any front teeth took over. Being older and wiser, he must have felt more adept at handling our kind. But he was easy to lose as the number of his years prevented him from the nimble movements required in following us.
However, later in the day, we came across him once more and he laughed, "it's you!"

I guess we'd found our Indian with a sense of humor afterall....

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Arrival in Kolkata

Even in the internet cafe, one cannot escape the sound of traffic -- noisy vehicles, honking horns, near collisions... funny thing is, the racket is coming from a computer game instead of the street.

We arrived last night after almost 30 hours of travel and are easing our way into India (and our adventure as a whole, for that matter). When I say 'ease', I mean that we actually had a room reserved and even transport from the airport arranged. Stepping from the shabby airport into the muggy Kolkata night, we were greeted by a friendly face and placard displaying our name.

The air is thick here. Thick with the smell of diesel, plumes of smoke, pollution, and mosquitos. we had to wade through them to get to the car. Benjamin, who was non-commital about taking anti-malaria pills before arriving, has changed his mind.

The ride to our hotel, an eccentric place called the Fairlawn, was an adventure to say the least. The streets are clogged with vehicles of all sorts, from wooden carts drawn by bicycle to rickshaws, ancient cars, new cars, and busses packed from seam to seam. The 'signage' painted onto the back of the busses say everything that needs to be said about the traffic here: "Danger" and "Honk Your Horn". There seem to be few other rules, except that when traffic comes to a dead halt, turn the vehicle off and wait patiently. These sort of stops happen often and can last a few minutes to an hour or more from what I've read. Luckily, the longest we had to wait was less than 10 minutes.

Today, our first full day, we did some walking, visted a cemetary (the only place to find tranquility in this city is with the dead), and spent much of the day napping --probably a mistake to comply with the fatigue that comes with jet lag. I hope we are able to sleep tonight after that 5 hour nap! Tomorrow we shall find a new guesthouse (one that is much cheaper than the Fairlawn) and look into train tickets to Darjeeling.