Friday, April 29, 2005

A Fresh Start

Forget about counting sheep to fall asleep, I was counting cows. I figure there were at least 3 of them out there, in the dark Delhi streets, moo-ing the night away as I tossed and turned, frustrated that each passing second took away from the 2-1/2 hours I had before the alarm would beep to life. Why couldn't they just silently chew their cud at this time of the morning? You may not realize how loud a cow's moo is -- thankfully, we in the developed world have separated our lives from those of livestock.

Earlier in the day, we bought plane tickets at a travel agency in the Pahar Ganj area of Delhi, India's backpacker grotto -- similar to Thailand's Koh San Road -- where, in the travel circuit, there seems to be a license for bad haircuts and clothing one's self like a pauper or post-apocalyptic Burning Man refugee.

Oddly, almost every employee in the travel agency was a woman and perhaps in an attempt to make up for the inefficiency found all over the rest of India, where all employees are men, our travel agent erred on the side of caution when giving us instructions for our 7:50 a.m. flight. We were to be at the airport 3 hours in advance, meaning we had to leave for the airport 4 hours prior, even at that ungodly hour of the morning. A car was to pick us up at 3:45 a.m. sharp.

As I laid there in bed, having given up on the prospect of falling asleep for all the noise... the power had gone out and a few generators kicked on... I thought about how when I 'woke' I'd be leaving India -- moving onto a new place, a fresh start. It would be a great time, I thought, to break bad habits; the perfect time to 'start over' with things that needed 'starting over'. Moving on from India felt a bit like a mini-New Year, a time for resolutions.

I could only really come up with one thing, though; it was something that had been bothering me for several weeks. I decided that my resolution would be to discontinue the habit I'd developed of wearing the same clothes for several days before washing them. The longest I've gone in the same clothes is three days, and it's not that I always wear the same thing for three days -- sometimes it's two, and they are not always consecutive days, but usually, they are. And I just want to add that I do have a powerful deodorant and I do change my underwear every day. Unlike the shirts I put on when I want to wear something 'new', my underwear are always clean -- except for once or twice, but I had no choice. The laundry wasn't back from the dobhi wallah yet.

It's not that I'm developing my own, secret recipe for perfume or cologne (watch out Calvin Klein)... and it's not that I lack interest in variety... And while my options are limited to 2 pairs of pants and 4 shirts, there is still room to 'mix it up' -- well, for at least 4 days, 8 if I wore each shirt with one pair of pants and then wore each shirt again with the other pair. But that takes a lot of planning, and it's enough to plan my daily comings, goings, and expenditures. It's just easier to put the things on that I left on the floor the night before. Of course, a quick smell-check is done before I leave the hotel -- but in India, I would have to have some kind of odorous disease to make the smell of a-few-days-old clothes stand out.

There's the timing of getting laundry back that interferes with that whole 8-days-of-outfits strategy I mentioned earlier -- if you hand your dirty stuff over in the afternoon, you won't get it back for 24 hours. That means that you will be wearing the same thing for 2 days back to back as that will be all that's left in your possession. Then, you figure, if you're going to be on the road, heading to a new place in the day or two after getting your laundry back, it would be silly to soil the fresh, clean clothes that were just returned to you. It's easier to pack a bunch of clean clothes together in your pack than having separate groups for clean and dirty -- and you certainly don't want to mix the clean and dirty together. So you see, it's really quite easy to end up wearing the same thing for days on end, like it or not.

Aside from all of the algebra required to figure out how to work with a limited number of clothes, preventing repetitious outfits and the wearing of things for days on end, there is another issue... a matter of function.

I consider each article of my clothing as a mechanic considers his tools. Each piece has a job to do and its own special feature that makes it work better for certain situations over others. For example, one of my shirts has an inside pocket that's accessible from the outside, a zippered pocket on the side, UV protection of SPF 30, air vents, and a collar that I can unfold to protect the back of my neck from the sun. It's the Swiss Army knife of button downs. I like to wear this shirt when we're out for the day visiting a palace, or ruins, or just exploring a town. My cash is nicely hidden and easily accessible via the inside pocket, and the zippered side pocket is perfect for my camera lens. The other shirts I have -- the plain ones, without bells and whistles or any pockets, require that I have a backpack and/or pants with pockets to carry my things. Incidentally, I made the mistake of bringing one pair of pants without pockets -- it's hell when I'm left with nothing to wear but the pocketless pair of pants and a pocketless shirt.

You can see that getting dressed is not as straightforward as one would think. Before leaving home to travel, I figured that getting dressed while on the road, with the minimal amount of clothing I would have, would be simple... a no-brainer. And in some ways it has been simple -- it's when I'm confronted with an entire closet full of clothes at home that I freeze up and ironically, end up wearing the same type of outfits on a daily basis. All of you who know me probably envision me in jeans and a black t-shirt when you think of me... Let me add here that while at home I may wear the same type of clothing, at least the clothes are clean.

So here I am, and having worked through some 'issues' through writing this piece, I've discovered that maybe my resolution to stop wearing the same thing for days on end is futile because, to a large extent, with the schedules of traveling and laundry and all... sometimes it's beyond my control. And, equally important, my clothes are more than a mere fashion statement... my clothes are more than a personal expression of my style -- my clothes are not apparel. My clothes are tools.

A Change of Venue

Dear Readers

You may noticed that the blog has a new title, 'Sawasdee'. The name will change to the word for 'hello', in the local language, for each country we visit.

We're now in Bangkok, Thailand. It's not really part of our general itinerary, to be in Thailand at this date, but several factors have brought us here for about one week, a 'pit stop' on our way to China.

For one, it's cheaper to fly from India to Bangkok and then from Bangkok to China. Don't know why, but that's the way it is. India, while super cheap to travel, has some cost prohibitive features, like air travel both in country and out.

Also, and this brings me to the second reason for our detour to Thailand, India slaps on huge taxes to inbound packages. We're expecting a package from home with a certain piece of electronics to replace the hunk-o-junk we brought with us. Had we stayed in India to receive it, we would have paid an whopping 18% - 36% import tax.

So, "Sawasdee Thailand!", it was!

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

Food Porn

I've always taken the simple sandwich for granted -- even the 'special' sandwiches have always had a 'been there, done that' appeal. But for some reason, as I've been traveling through India, the sandwich has become the star in my episodes of food porn.

Not just any sandwich, mind you, my cravings have centered around the submarine variety. The thought of shredded lettuce, dripping with oil and vinegar, has become one of the leading players of my fixation. Its crunchy texture and moisture impregnated slivers send shivers down my spine. Shredded lettuce is like happy, wet confetti, bursting from the seams and folds of toasted, crispy bread. There's always a bit left over at the end, too, what some might call, 'sloppy seconds'.

I haven't forgotten the allure of thinly sliced onions and tomatoes... and condiments, oh yes! Mayonnaise, mustard, oil and vinegar, all working together like a well chosen cast of extras who do their job well for the sheer love of the work rather than pursuit of the spotlight or public acclaim. Condiments are the unsung heroes of the sandwich. They put the 'OOH' in ooze and the 'AAH' in 'I love it' (well, when said with a southern accent, that is -- and who doesn't love to break into a southern drawl now and then)...

Let's not forget about the cheese, as those of us who count calories often shamefully do... I'm talking about the moldy type of cheese, the kind created by nature and time... and I like cheese of all colors, I don't discriminate when it comes to my sandwich. I'm speaking of firm cheese, cheese without stage fright -- not the liquid, processed, white cheese found all over India. That stuff will clog you up -- there's no worse crime than to 'fake it' where cheese is concerned.

I've saved the best for last, of course, and that is the meat. And boy do I love meat! I haven't had much of it in India. Sure, it's possible to find chicken in most places, all but the holy towns of pilgrimage, which are purely vegetarian. But chicken is boring, even at home where I only have it every now and then. No... I'm talking about big, bold flavored meat with hard-to-pronounce Italian names. I'd spell them out here if only I could say them in the first place... Benjamin says I sometimes call them out at night when I'm sleeping, but I think he's pulling my leg.

So it was to my great joy, today, to discover a Subway sandwich shop in Delhi. Of all places in the world to find a good, meaty sandwich, I thought Delhi, in name alone, should be it. Not that a Subway sandwich could measure up to my submarine fantasy. Subway, in fact, gets a 'G' rating in comparison to the sandwich of my submarine dreams.

But it was better than nothing.

I clapped my hands when I looked at the menu board. I was hoping for a 'BMT' and there it was, in all its three-lettered-glory. Those of you who know Subway know of the 'BMT', all but the vegetarians I should say... it's a sandwich based on the principle that all sandwiches should have no less than three types of meat. I've never exactly been sure about what 'BMT' actually stands for, but true meaning aside, to me the 'BMT' means 'By-God, Meat's The-way-to-go'.

Gazing at the sandwich fillings through the sneeze-proof glass window, I was dismayed to see that the lettuce was not shredded. I heard a loud popping sound. The noise came from the invisible bubble over my head labeled, 'fantasy item #1'. No matter, all the other items to be stuffed into the warm embrace of my italian-style bread were there: meat, cheese, green peppers, jalapenos, olives, onions, tomatoes... And of course, the swingin' condiment family was eagerly awaiting its turn to join the party.

I ordered the 12-incher.

My intentions were to go easy on myself and get the 6-inch sub... As Indian food has become tiring after 2 months and the Western-style fare is mediocre at best, my appetite has almost disappeared... But as soon as I heard Benjamin say, "Gimme the foot long," my decision was sealed in gluttonous glee. "I shall get the 12-incher, too!" I cried out. My eyes said, "No," but my lips said, "Yes, Yes, Yes!"

Our moment of love was nothing but a sham.

The sandwich was a big disappointment. There was no 'ooh' and 'aah' about it. I finished the first 6 inches, but that was because I was dedicated to my cause and well, yes... a little hungry. But I could not face the full brunt of the second half. The sub just wasn't that good. My expectations were low to begin with... as I said, Subway is rated 'G' in terms of the sandwich I'd been fantasizing about for so long.

As with all Western-style food in India, the sub was not quite right. The mayo was too sweet and the meat, well, the revelation that the ham was actually made of chicken and the salami was made of lamb was a big let down. Why they called it a 'BMT' is beyond me -- a name like 'CL' would have been more appropriate, it would stand for Cham and Lamboni, clever marketing names for chicken-ham and lamb-salomi.

And I thought the worst crime of all was 'faking it' with cheese...

Monday, April 25, 2005

The Kenyan in Udaipur

When you travel, you not only 'go' to the country you are visiting, but you also 'go' to places all over the world -- through the people you meet on the road, usually other travelers. And sometimes, they take you to places that don't exist on a physical map, places that are only found in the head and heart... These encounters are a gift of travel, a reason to leave home and 'see' the world, if for no other.

Strolling through the twisting, narrow lanes of Udaipur, under the hot Rajasthan sun and amidst all the clamor and color of India, we came upon George.

"Excuse me, where are you from?"

To our surprise, standing before us was an African -- tall, thin, and very black. Indians passing by our group in the street, for once, didn't even take note of us. They couldn't take their eyes of George. Apparently, he was an unusual sight. Dressed in a threadbare soccer team shirt, holding a pair of pliers in one hand and a screwdriver in the other, George quickly ascertained that we were from America and told us that he wanted to learn about the 'common man' from our country -- the kind of people who he cannot find on TV shows or in the movies.

In a strong accent I wasn't used to deciphering (I'd just gotten used to the sing song English of Indians) he asked, "Do you have some time to talk to me?"

And then, with a directness that took me by surprise, he said, "I am from Kenya. What do you know about my country?"

Benjamin and I looked at each other. I couldn't think of anything but heat, poverty, drought, ethnic fighting, violent political rallies, AIDS... I couldn't think of anything positive to say, so I just smiled and replied, "It's a very interesting place." Perhaps Indian hospitality has rubbed off on me throughout my travels. An Indian would rather tell you 'yes' when the answer is 'no' so as not to disappoint you.

George told us about his family -- how his father is a politician. "I know he is corrupt," he said with a smile, "I do not like it." His family is now living in New Jersey, his sister attends medical school. George would also like to be a doctor, but a doctor in economics rather than medicine. It's too expensive to study in the states, so he's going to school in India. As he explained all of this to us, his voice became excited at the mention of getting his PhD. "I cannot wait for the day that I go back to my country with Dr. George printed on the plane ticket," he said with an enormous smile. His ambition was contagious. There was no doubt in my mind that George will return to Africa as a doctor.

He spoke passionately about Kenya, his jubilant mood turning dark as he told us of his country's problems with pollution and it's effect on the environment, and issues of drought and AIDs. He told us a story about returning to his village for a festival -- his voice cracked under the weight of pain, his eyes tortured by the images recalled in his mind. The number of villagers had dropped significantly from AIDs, the people not yet dead as good as walking corpses, with hollow eyes, skin stretched taught on bones. He had been looking for friends who were no longer there.

"Your country should not send aid money to Africa," George implored, "you should send people. Teach a man to fish." I smiled at the sentiment, Benjamin and I often use the same expression.

"The money is taken by the corrupt government. The people never see it."

At this point, I had to take a few steps back from George. He speaks with his hands and he was speaking with fervor, still holding the pliers and screwdriver, waving them about absentmindedly in my direction.

George noticed my nervous eyes on his tools and explained that he'd gone to fix a simple electrical problem in a local village. He was paid 800 rupees (about $20) for the job, a fortune for the amount of work done. He makes money in this way to pay for his expenses -- enough money that he's told his father not to send funds. He prefers to make his own way.

He came to India because it's cheap. "I know I can survive, even if there are times that I don't have a roof over my head and I have to sleep under the stars," he smiled. "That is life. Life is difficult, sometimes more and sometimes less, that's just the way it is." He spoke in a carefree manner, like a person who's never faced hardship... yet I knew that George has been witness to much suffering in his lifetime, suffering that is unknown to me -- despite the times I've felt like the world was caving in.

George knows how to take the bad with the good. Or maybe saying that he makes the bad good, good in its own way, is more accurate. He lives life welcoming difficulty as a simple fact of life -- part of the process of living a complete existence... the natural order of things.

George inspired me. He had such a fire in his soul, big dreams, and the right attitude to achieve his goals. He's the kind of person I might someday see in the news for humanitarian achievements or I might know of his fame for social work in Africa. There is no stopping someone like George, a person who loves life, hardships and all.

Three's a Crowd

We're traveling with Benjamin's new friend Gerald. I don't recall how we first ran into Gerald, but he's popped up here and there for the last several weeks... first in Kochin, then Mumbai, and Delhi... The thing with Gerald is that he's a nuisance. We've never really invited him to hang around with us, which he often does for days on end when we meet up. We'd prefer to avoid him completely but as luck would have it, we run into him on a train or bus and the next thing I know, he and Benjamin are inseparable.

I'm not jealous, no... I'm not jealous when Benjamin says he can't do this or that because Gerald isn't in the mood. I just leave them to spend the day together, often laying around in bed. Yes! They spend entire afternoons in bed together.

You see, Gerald is a parasite living in Benjamin's lower intestine... at least we think that's what's going on. He's had stomach cramps that last for several days at a time. They come and go, here one week, gone the next... a symptom of Giardia. They say you get this parasite from contact with feces, and it's not too difficult to have contact with feces in India. Here, feces is even a commodity -- conical towers of cow paddies line the roads and some people make their living as 'cow paddy paddiers', molding and shaping and slapping the cow dung into paddies for cooking fuel, building material, and God knows what else.

Giardia, we've read, is transmitted through the fecal-oral route. In name, it's genius... such a practical yet colorfully descriptive term. It's direct and to-the-point without losing its ability to create a vivid mental image. It sounds almost majestic, like the name of a super highway such as the 'Autobahn'. The name captures the imagination, like scenic byways such as 'Route 66' or 'The Pacific Coast Highway'. It sounds like an historical trading route, such as the 'Silk Road'... and come to think of it, I guess it is like an historical trading route, the fecal-oral route must have been around for ages...

I can picture the words in colorful neon, shining proudly from a billboard with an arrow of blinking lights that points down to invisible trails all over India. Trails like the ones in the 'Family Circus' comic strip, circuitous dotted lines that wind their way from latrines - through kitchens - on cutlery, dishware, and food - on notes of currency - computer keyboards - shoes - hands that are shaked in greeting - the mouth - the digestive tract.

We don't know whose fecal matter Benjamin ingested or which trail it traveled. It could have been from water in a freshly washed glass or it could have come from a fly (they love cow paddies) or it could have come from touching just about anything. In any case, anonymity is a good thing. In some ways, it makes the whole thing less personal -- detached from a face and a name... except Gerald, that is, which is easier to say (and more fun) than Giardia.

In the end (no pun intended), we're not sure if Benjamin actually has Giardia... the symptoms have disappeared, at least for the time being. But if Gerald makes his return, Benjamin is armed with medication we bought from the chemist -- no prescription needed -- a four day supply for 25 cents.

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

I am an American

We haven't met any other Americans on the road. We've heard about one in the travel circuit gossip circles, an American riding a Royal Enfield through India, but we haven't actually met him.

We met a couple, a Swedish girl with a Malaysian boyfriend, in Udaipur who told us of this American -- they had gone on a camel safari with him. It becomes a point of conversation when people meet us. "Oh, you're the first Americans we've met on the road," or, "There aren't many of you traveling, are there?" When we met our Dutch friends several days later in Jaisalmer, they told us of the American as well -- they had met him in Vietnam some months earlier and saw him again the previous day. Funny thing is that he'd told them about the Swedish/Malaysian couple. The travel circuit reinforces the notion of a 'small world'. It's also a bit of a 'bubble buster' -- making the exotic and adventurous world of extended travel seem almost commonplace as everyone is running into each other, directly or indirectly.

The first question asked of us by every Indian we meet is, "What country?" I've heard other travelers complaining about this -- it gets tiring to be asked the same question all the time -- this one is usually followed up with 'first time in India?' or 'how long are you here?' or 'what do you do?'. We might as well wear t-shirts with all of the answers printed on them so we can skip all of this inane small talk and get to the point, which most likely has something to do with their pockets and our money going into them.

When Indians ask us what country we are from, we usually say, "California."

"Oh, Copeecorneea," some reply with a look of confusion while nodding their head, feigning knowledge of this strange land. Some have asked to see our Copeecorneea currency.

We don't say this to play with peoples' minds or to confuse them on purpose. We answer the question in a roundabout way because we don't like the association made between us and President Bush, war, and global imperialism. In addition, I believe that this conversation starter, "What country?", is a way of sizing tourists up. Every tourist leaves an impression in the locals' minds on the nature of their compatriots. I've heard from Indians how the British spend a lot of money and how the Dutch are cheap. I figure if they're going to scam me out of money because I come from a rich country, they should earn their pay... so I'd prefer to keep them guessing.

The more educated people know that when we say 'California', we are from the U.S. "America..." they say, "you're the first Americans I've met in a long time." Most people accept us with friendliness, despite the fact that to everyone BUT Americans, America is a country to fear for its power. One Indian told me that many in his country consider Bush the biggest terrorist on the planet.

When people find out we're Americans, the conversation inevitably leads to the reelection of George W. Bush. No one -- people from North America, Europe, Asia -- can understand why the American people put him back in office. They look to me and Benjamin for some answer, some nugget of information that will suddenly make it all clear... like those pictures that they sell at cheezy art stores in the mall, the ones made up of a bunch of fuzzy dots where if you squint your eyes and stare, an image of a boat or a spaceship or some such thing will appear. I've never been able to make out the picture -- and I've certainly never been able to figure out what Americans see in Bush.

The Indians always express their dislike of Bush. We tell them we don't like
Bush either, while pointing at our heads to make the international 'he's cuckoo' gesture with our fingers. They tell us that all of the Americans they've met say the same thing, that they don't like Bush. "If no one likes him, how can he be president?" I guess it boils down to the fact that Indians don't meet Bush supporters because they won't admit it or they don't travel... or maybe they are telling people they are from Canada, as many Americans are doing these days.

I just met an American woman in the hotel lobby as I was checking in. The hotel clerk pointed at my passport and said to her, "Another American." She replied, "I see that, the poor girl..." Then she turned to me, "Aren't you embarassed? I tell people I'm from Canada. It's just easier that way." Apparently a few years ago, when the war was in full swing, she adopted Canada as her country when she got off a train to find someone painting 'Down with American imperialists' on the wall.

But I am bad at telling lies... the only time I used Canada as my country, I was asked what province I was from. Geography lessons from the 4th grade failed me. Luckily, I was offered the answer... after a pause the shop keeper asked, "Toronto?" While it's a city rather than a province, I said, "Yes! I'm from Toronto."

Aside from being bad at lying, I'm also proud to be from America -- the idea of America, that is -- maybe it's not the America the world knows today, but I'm not one to desert a friend who's made a mistake. Every time I travel, I rediscover the great things about my country... from simple things like clean air and paved roads to the more complex things like social structures that allow women freedom and people to deam of a better future. I don't want to turn my back on America by pretending I'm from Canada -- maybe if people meet Americans who are traveling, their opinions of America will change.

A shop owner in Rajasthan told me, "It's good that you are traveling from America, so people will meet you and know they should not be afraid of you (Americans)."

Friday, April 15, 2005

Dinner Date

We had a dinner engagement the other night. The email in my inbox suggested a restaurant in Jaisalmer, The Trio, at 7:00 pm.

We'd met Michiel and Karen, a blonde-haired-blue-eyed Dutch couple, on the train platform in Kolkata, a few days after arriving in India. We were all headed to Darjeeling and met each other wandering around the station in search of our coach. We shared a jeep to Darjeeling, stayed at the same hotel, and continued on together 6 days later, as a foursome, to Varanasi. Traveling as a group, all of us 'babes' in the nascent phase of our voyage in the subcontinent, bound us together in a net of safety, shared expenses, and companionship.

After 3 nights in Varanasi, we parted ways in mid March -- they to the West and us to the South. After splitting off, Benjamin and I spent the rest of the month with little contact with other Westerners. In fact, aside from the occasional greeting here and there, we didn't speak to a single 'foreigner' until reaching Rajasthan at the beginning of April. We were sole companions thrown into the chaos of India -- one leaning on the other in times of distress, forever hoping that at least one of us was always capable to quell the anxieties of the other... for if neither of us were capable, we'd become paralyzed, immobile... 'lambs for the slaughter' so to speak. Of course it never came to that... and leaning upon each other, sharing the roles of the strong and the weak, is what makes us so compatible as a couple and as travel companions.

Having arrived in Northern India, to Rajasthan, a destination our Dutch friends had headed towards, we sent an email to check on their progress and were happy to find that our paths would again cross. Sole companionship has its perks: often sentences can be finished before they're even spoken, which saves on the effort it takes to form a thought in the mind and force it from your lips with words... But a reunion with friends -- old, yet new -- represented alternate conversation paths, new jokes, a different point of view, fresh stories... It's not that Benjamin and I have run out of things to talk about (India provides plenty of fodder), but the prospect of socializing with other people who speak succint English, who share a similar cultural understanding -- people who are friends, was exciting.

It was kismet that we should all find ourselves in Jaisalmer at the same time, after what seemed like eons since our parting. As they say, all things happen for a reason and perhaps the sickness that held them up in Jaipur and then train fiascos that drove us to air travel, brought us all together one more time.

All day, in anticipation of our dinner date, I would tap on Benjamin's arm and with a wink of the eye, I'd say, "Tonight, we have plans!" It was an odd feeling, to be excited about having plans. At home, the concept of plans felt restrictive, or so commonplace that having plans meant nothing special, in and of themselves. Plans are like silent vowels -- their existence, though necessary, always overshadowed by something more interesting to pay attention to. At home, it wasn't the plans I got excited about, it was the people I was going to see or the places I was going to go.

On this occasion, however, not only was I excited about reconnecting with Michiel and Karen, but I was also excited about having plans in the first place. For the first time since leaving San Francisco, time had meaning... we had a purpose.

It sounds strange, I know, as our purpose for traveling was, to a large extent, to shed the structures of time -- our purpose was to explore the foreign places of our world. But once here, once doing it, purpose lost its meaning... because when you travel, time and purpose have no meaning... you are just a person in the world, sometimes here, other times there.

The day, the date are soon things of mystery -- unless there is a train or bus to catch, a clock and a schedule are of little use. Time becomes endless. Existence is measured only by the rising and setting of the sun and grumbles of the stomach that alert you to 'breakfast time' or 'dinner time'. Life becomes a series of impromptu decisions about where to go, what to do, when to do it. Purpose is lost in spontaneity. Ironically, the longer this goes on -- living life 'off the cuff' -- spontaneity becomes routine... and having a 'plan', like our dinner date, becomes something to look forward to. It's concrete. It breaks up the routine of not having a routine. An ironic twist I had not expected...

Contemplating this, I've resolved that living from one moment to the next without a clear idea of how the days, weeks, months will unfold creates a kind of inertia.

Questions are asked half-heartedly, "What should we do tomorrow?" or, "When should we move on?"

The answer, an indifferent, "I dunno. Let's figure it out later." In this manner, a decision can take days to make.

Without having a time frame or purpose, life moves slowly and the answers to the questions are not really even necessary. There is always 'time' to do something, if not today then the next, or possibly the day after. This isn't to suggest there is anything wrong with this. The pace is beautiful... but it all just makes having a 'plan' so remarkable.

At home in San Francisco, I would occasionally take a different way to work just to break up the monotony of my daily routine. When the other passengers on the J Church -- strangers -- became familiar faces, I would walk to Market Street and take the F. It made the rest of the day feel less ordinary.

Oddly, here it is the opposite. Instead of seeking the unusual to break up the usual, the usual has become the unusual... travel has made 'plans' and 'purpose' exotic.

Monday, April 11, 2005

Mr. Pen Demands a Dowry

Every time Mr. Pen mentions his wife, I get extremely agitated. After all this time that we've been dating and he never told me he was married. That bastard! Then I remember he's talking about me, his "wife" while we travel. Silly me.

Benjamin has recently been asking about the dowry. It's customary in India for a woman's family to offer the prospective husband a dowry. I've learned it's at least 1 Lak, which is 100,000 rupees (around $2,380.00), and 1 powem of gold (8 grams). Sometimes it's more -- and the bigger the dowry, the easier it is to marry one's daughter off. I imagine if the young woman is not so pretty or has buck teeth, the dowry would need to be quite high. Considering the salary for poor Indians might be 40 - 80 rupees per day (around $1.00 - $2.00), 1 Lak is an impressive sum.

Our friend from Fort Cochin, Ansar, told us he's helping his sister with her dowry. He works hard, fulfilling his family duty, to help marry her off. Sisters must be a burden for this reason... their brothers sacrificing so that they may have a husband. And if a sister is a burden, she also is a burden as a daughter.

Ansar and Rajeesh told us that families are happier when boys are born -- they earn money for the family and don't require a small fortune to get rid of. Before coming to India, I'd read about the practice of female infanticide. The government had to make the abortion of female fetuses illegal; 'Sex determination' clinics were banned.

I also read about 'dowry burning', where a woman is set to flames because her husband or his family want more dowry money and are willing to kill his wife so he may marry again -- divorce would be much easier, but it's looked down upon. Not that people support the burning of brides, but less than 10 percent of reported cases are pursued through the legal system... and many cases go unreported in the first place. A lot of times the women survive and they end up on the street. In Kolkata, I saw a woman begging for money on the corner of 2 busy streets. She was blinded from severe burns and no longer had a nose.

From my reading, I expected to find countless 'Cinderella stories' in the streets of India -- girl children that were lucky enough to make it into the world, and unlucky enough to be born in India, where they were more of a curse than a blessing. I imagined to see them dressed in rags, trailing behind a family of well dressed boys. I pictured them with birds' nests in their hair and a whisk broom in their hands. I thought maybe I wouldn't even see any girls at all -- perhaps their brothers had locked them in cages back at their house.

But it's not the case. There are plenty of happy, health little girls about... many of them pampered as if they have just arrived in India from the pages of a fairy tale book. They are daddy's girls -- proudly held in his arms, the girl children of well-to-do families. In fact, these toddlers don't even wear shoes as they are constantly held or carried. I've never seen one of them actually walking on her own. She is barefoot, has a twinkling ankle bracelet on each leg and a princess-poofy dress -- so frilly and full of pom poms, lace, and ruffles that it would make a prom queen from the '50s sick. She has a decoration in her hair, gold around her neck and wrists, black khol lining her eyes.

But I digress. Back to that dowry... Benjamin won't settle for less than 3 Laks but promises he won't burn me after he's spent it all. He's a good catch!

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Introducing Mr. and Mrs. Pen

To our parents' delight and surprise, Benjamin and I are now married -- our names, here in India, Mr. and Mrs. Pen (a mispronunciation of Ben).

Our marriage was quiet, not the traditional raucous way of India with a marching band and wedding parade winding through the streets, with horns wailing and drums beating excitement into the air. Rather, our marriage was one of unceremonious convenience. In a culture where a single woman of my age is considered a sad, pitiful spinster, and in a country where men and women live somewhat segregated lives, it seemed best for us to lie and tell our Indian hosts and friends what they'd prefer to hear, that we are married.

Most coversations here start the same way. They used to go like this:

"What country?"
"Are you married?"
"How long?"
"5 years."
"Why not?!?"

Now they go like this:

"What country?"
"California. We've been married for 5 years and don't have any children. It's not that we don't like children, but there are just a lot of things - like travel - that we want to do before having kids."

To hear that we have no kids, one might think that the Indian we're speaking with were told that we are allergic to our own skin. The reaction is always one of awe, shock, and mild horror. I don't bother mentioning that I may never have kids, I think that might be too much for our acquaintances to bear.

The way it works here, when a couple gets married, they 'get busy' on the wedding night. A child usually arrives 9 - 12 mos later. There's no reason to wait. Children are important as the culture is built around the family, maybe like America back in its founding days, when children and parents and grandparents all knew each other well, throughout the entirety of their lives, living with or near each other, all pitching in to one single cause: that of the family. In India, family businesses are handed down from one generation to the next and children are expected to take care of their parents when they are old. A child insures there will always be a household income.

Of all the 'boys' we've met -- they call themselves boys when they want to avert some 'manly' duty, but call temselves men when it suits the situation, a dual role of innocence and independance -- of all the 'boys' we've met, none want to get married. When the topic comes up, they assume the innocent role, "Me? Married? (nervous chucckle) No way! I am too young, just a boy..." This said with a practiced smile of sweetness and a coy cock of the head. I've not had the chance to talk with girls/women about their point of view on the matter since being in India, I've not spoken to one Indian female -- they are just not 'available'.

We learned from our friend Rajeesh that boys aren't expected to marry until 25 years of age -- probably about the time that women might be nearing the beginning of the 'danger zone' for spinsterhood. An acquaintance, Azar, told us he won't marry until he's 40 so he can work on his family's business without the distraction of a wife who might want earrings one day, an expensive sari the next... He liked his independance too much for marriage, it could wait until he was done pursuing his interests.

I asked Azar what would happen if, say, his sister felt the same way as he did, wanting a career or a least some freedom instead of marriage. I asked him if it was possible for her to pursue independance like he was. His eyebrows furrowed as if I'd asked him to answer the riddle of the universe.

"Women don't work," he told me, "they stay at home with the children. My sisters's husbands have good jobs, make good money so they are fine. My sisters are happy."

Another usual question in conversation is in regards to the size of our families. Many people appear sorry for Benjamin that he is an only child, as if some great curse was bestowed upon him at birth. Some have offered to be his surrogate brother, so Benjamin does not have to live out a life of solitude in the world. In India, a small family consists of 3 children, so 1 child must seem like a tragic mistake.

I wondered if Indian families were large because when the girls grow up, get married, and move in with their husbands' households, they leave the family... literally. Azar told us that he had 3 brothers and 2 sisters, but later told us he had a family of 5: he, his 2 brothers, and his parents. Apparently when his sisters married and moved out of the house, they were no longer considered or 'counted' as family members per se.

I assumed Azar's sisters' marriages were arranged, a tradition still widely practiced in India, but I didn't get the chance to ask. When we were in Varanasi, I'd read about attitudes towards arranged marriage in the paper. A couple was interviewed -- the husband, a romantic, believed in the strength of passion that a 'love marriage' has. His wife, pragmatic, believed in the durablity of an arranged marriage. She felt that more 'love marriages' ended in divorce (uncommon as they are in India). I was surprised that the husband was for love and the wife was for arrangement because of simplistic male/female stereotypes. I figured that the man would be more inclined to the business aspect of an arranged marriage and the woman would be more inclined to the fairy tale of romantic love in a 'love marriage'.

As for our marriage, that of Mr. and Mrs. Pen, ours is one of both love and arrangement.

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Yes, Sir...

"Good morning, Sir."
"What is your good name, Sir?"
"Are you finished with that, Sir?"
"Yes, Sir..."

India is a man's world. Everywhere you look, you see men: men working in the restaurants, men working in the hotels, men working in the internet cafes, souvenir stalls, at the train stations, as cab and rickshaw drivers, as tour guides, at museums, any other business one can imagine. Everywhere, men. And it seems that for every one job, there are 3 men to do it. There are always 3X the amount of employees necessary milling about in restaurants, for example.

When we first arrived in India, I noticed when we were greeted in the morning, it was, "Good morning, Sir," directed to Benjamin, rather than just, "Good morning," directed at both of us. I noticed when we were finished with a meal, the waiter would ask Benjamin if we were done or if we'd like anything else. When I paid a bill with my credit card, the hotel clerk would watch me remove the card from my wallet, yet would return the card and transaction slip to Benjamin. I began making a big show of noisily sliding my credit card across the counter and writing my name with a conspicuous flourish on the receipt. When someone would ask Sir Benjamin a question, I would answer, "Yes, I would like another Pepsi," or, "No, I'm not interested in a tour guide."

Once in a while the men humor me. They'll notice me standing there and after shaking Benjamin's hand, will extend a limp hand out towards me, a hand limp like a dead fish. It's more like a finger shake, really, as no full grasping of the hand takes place, as if I'd been out making cow paddies with the locals.

Occasionally, I've noticed at various guesthouses where we've stayed, that when I slip away to use the bathroom or retrieve something from our room, I come back to find Benjamin in a conversation with the hotel proprietor. When I sit down, he invariably departs our company. "What did he want?" I'll ask. Usually he's filling Benjamin in on the sites and things to do around town. Apparently, things I need not know or would not be interested in...

Of course, this invisible role I play here in India sometimes works to my advantage. I don't have to deal with the harassment of the touts, vendors, and rickshaw drivers near as much as Benjamin. I don't have to hold conversations with people when I'm not in the mood to chat.

Where are all the women? Most are at home, with the chores and the children. The only women I saw at work were out in the fields or hauling baskets of rock on their head at construction sites. The women, it seems, are doing all the manual labor... and they do it in style, wearing their elegant saris whether they're herding water buffalo or working at a gravel pit.

I've read in the newspaper about women's initiatives, getting them out in the work force and all of that. It would be a good thing, I think, to have a woman's touch in the cafes, restaurants, and hotels. Often, and this is from my perspective as a 'backpacker' so I'm not visiting top end places, but often the restaurants and internet cafes and shops are in disarray, with torn furniture and cords and empty wrappers and dust bunnies in the corner... Entering one is like walking into a giant gym locker with no thought, no attention to detail, none of the 'little things' that give a place atmosphere and charm.

India is a man's world, inside and out.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005


As a kid, I could spend hours staring at those illustrated posters that show a city scene, a cross-section of life happening in one 'snap shot' view... the kind where walls of buildings were stripped away to show students in a classroom learing their ABCs while firemen in the fire house cook their lunch while a woman in her bedroom applies perfume while traffic cops deal with a traffic jam in the streets far below her window while mothers with babies shop for groceries and men get their hair cut in the barber shop, people in business attire sit as desks in an office building, a dog barks at a mail man, a repairman fixes the water fountain in the park, a bird feeds her young way up high in a treetop...

Moving through an Indian street has a similar effect -- a pastiche of everday activities so routine for the people who are going about their business, but so fascinating for people like me who normally move through their lives with blinders on, getting from home to work or from work to the grocery store without much notice of all the lives and things happening around them.

This morning, we left the 'old town' of Udaipur by auto en route to an ancient fort and Jain temple outside of town. Driving through the streets was a much different experience than walking through them. I was reminded of my fascination with those posters... as all the activities of the local residents were seen together, all happening at once as they do in reality, instead of happening one at time, as they do in our own personal experiences of the world.

Sadhus in weathered robes lit up a joint, a line of women in colorful saris sat on the ground with baskets full of fruit and vegetables for sale, a man struggled with a cart carrying silver urns of milk, marigolds and rose petals were strung together for temple offerings, a howler monkey let out a gruff cry and scampered across the street nearly tripping a woman carrying grass in a basket on her head, a chai vendor poured tiny glasses of tea while baby pigs snorted as they scurried along the wall behind him...

All of this in a setting of faded elegance, like a grandmother's china cabinet full of chipped dishes and an out-of-date pattern. All of this in a city that is old, with the stains of time like black smudges from carbon paper on its walls, the chalky color of SweetTarts. A city with narrow alleyways and open doorways where women and children call out "hello" to passersby. A town of crubmling walls and pristine palaces that rise above a tangle of buildings, tightly built on hills. A town with a jumble of buildings laid out centuries upon centuries ago, with decorative arches, minarets, and curly Q details. A single view delivers a scene of layered buildings, with hundreds of rooflines that form incongruous shapes that give the impression of structured chaos -- harmony in disorder.

And then, leaving the city limits, the view changed to a desert scene, barren but beautiful in the way only deserts can be: desolate but spell-binding, dry but full of life, rugged and delicate all at once. From the window, I saw spindly palms and leafy trees, all shades of green... trees that looked more like giant dead twigs poking up from the ground that, upon closer inspection, had tiny, verdant leaves at the end of each branch, delicate as the fillament in a lightbulb. Some trees had tufts of shocking orange flowers that screamed out against the sepia tones of the earth. There were winding walls of tightly packed stone, black rock protruding from the ground with a light raking of stringy grass, rolling hills and mountains that caputured the sun in their folds.

And the people, the rural people... their attire, sparked life into the desert. They ignite it with the fiery colors of their garb -- sizzling hues -- the pigments of passion, exuberance, energy, and life. The men wore dazzling turbans that look something like giant loaves of colorful knotted bread. Women wore huge hoop earrings in their nose, thick metal bracelets around their ankles, armfuls of bangles, vibrant red and orange saris, gold jewelry that spilled from the part in their hair and onto their forehead from underneath a scarf with sparkling trim.

Even in the dusty desert heat, the people dressed with pride, pizzazz. It may have been that there was a festival on this day.

We actually drove through it. As we slowly made our way through the crowds that, until our arrival, had ignored the road, we were consumed by a living rainbow that wrapped itself around the car. The girls, dressed in their best, peered into the car with black kohl rimmed eyes. The boys were interested, too. One of them reached into the window and touched my hair. I felt as if I were in a zoo exhibit, a 'safari ride' in reverse... where the exotic animals pass by the viewers in vehicles instead of the other way around. Later a group of children, high from the adrenaline of the festivities, formed a road block, asking for 5 rupess for passage through the human wall they'd constructed. Again, our car seemed buried under yards of colorful silk saris as the children stared at us through the windows and beat their hands on the glass.

Our foray out of town took us first to the Kumbhalgarh Fort, built in the 15th century, in the Aravalli Mountains. It's surrounded by a massive wall of rock that hugs the hillside, twisting and turning, and fading off into the horizon for its shear size -- second in length to the Great Wall of China, we were told. Inside the wall: a palace last occupied in the '40s, 360 temples, and gardens. The place is well preserved and the palace a steep climb but well worth the pain and heartache at seeing yet another set of stairs.

There was an old man inside the palace courtyard who carried a heavy ring of keys and gave us a tour in perfunctory English, unlocking each creaking door as we went. He even sang for us inside the bedroom chambers so we could hear how music once played there reverberated from the tall, domed celing... As we stood at the highest point, some 3,000 feet in altitude, the old man told us in the monsoon season, we'd be standing above the clouds. That is why it's also known as the 'Cloud Palace'... a name, I thought, that pefectly matched the mournful beauty of the place.

Our other destination, a Jain temple, the largest in India. The Jain religion is an off-shoot of Buddhism. Jains believe one can reach 'liberation' by purity of the soul, which can be obtained by shedding karma through fasting, meditation, and solitude -- the Jain temple was, seemingly, in the middle of nowhere. Non-violence is fundamental ro the religion and this is taken to the extreme by monks and devotees who go to any extent to avoid killing any living thing, such as sweeping their path with a broom as they walk or by wearing a piece of cloth over their mouth to prevent inhalation of insects.

The temple left us in awe as we wandered through 1444 pillars of intricately carved marble -- they say no 2 are alike. With massive domes that seem to hover in the air despite their size and construction and 29 halls for worship, the temple was an easy place to get lost. The glow of white marble, in shade and sun, created a world of solitude and peace that could have kept us there for days.

Udaipur, Rajasthan

Udaipur is, most likely, the only city in the world with nightly showings of the 007 flick, Octopussy. It was filmed at the Lake Palace Hotel, originally a palace built in 1754, but today is a luxury hotel that's also an island on Lake Pichola. We arrived here by bus, at 4:00 in the morning, when the city was asleep -- the cows and dogs in repose along the sides of the streets, like lazy, acquiescent sentinels.

Udaipur is a relaxed yet bustling small town full of palaces, havelis, temples, aged charm and romance... some call it 'The Venice of the East'. A walk through its narrow streets evokes a feeling of intimacy as friendly people smile and say "hello". At any given time, women and children can be found gathering water at the public wells. Homes crowd the narrow lanes -- some with painted handprints on the exterior walls next to the doorways. Back in the olden days, when husbands went off to battle, women put their handprints on the wall of their home and if a woman's husband was killed in war, she would throw herself into a funeral pyre. Udaipur is located in Rajasthan, a land of warrior clans, legends, heroes, kings, palaces, and chivalric code... death before dishonor.

The historical relics of ancient kingdoms, so well preserved in the arid heat,
make Rajasthan a tourist magnet... although now, as the heat of May approaches, the numbers are at a low. It's a world apart from the India Benjamin and I have seen so far. It's the romantic, fanciful, exotic India from daydreams.

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Stranded in Mumbai

We ended up staying another night in suburban Mumbai -- but not at the Ramee. It was way out of our league, 10x than what our budget allowed.

I'm sure you've guessed by now that the reason for the delay had something to do with our onward train tickets to Jodhpur.

We arrived at the Bandar station early. Mumbai traffic is so bad, the bell hop at the hotel suggested we leave 45 minutes before our departure time for the 7 - 10 km distance. I added 15 minutes to this, just to be on the safe side.

We found our train, and our car, but couldn't find our names on the list pasted outside of the entrance.

"How come our names are never on these things?" Benjamin asked with annoyance.

I thought about it -- when things were OK, our names had been on the lists, it was only when things were not OK that our names were not there.

A dark cloud passed overhead...

"Why does it say March 31st?" Benjamin pointed to the date on the passenger list. Our tickets were for the 30th.

"Well I'm sure they wouldn't post a list for this train, that goes to Jodhpur today, with tomorrow's list... That makes no sense," I replied.

We were perplexed. And then all of a sudden it dawned on us. We'd missed our train by a full 24 hours!

Panic set in. Alarm bells in Benjamin's head were so loud, I thought there was a fire alarm going off at the station.

Like in a movie, where the action suddenly freezes and then plays in slow motion so the audience can put complexities of the plot together before things speed up again and move on, I was playing the events over in my head...

When we'd made the arrangements with the travel agent, we originally asked for plane and train tickets for the same day -- but he told us it wasn't possible because the train departs at the same time the plane arrives -- so our tickets required one night's stay in Mumbai. We'd checked over every detail on the tickets when we received them except the dates.

One possible explanation for this is that we often have no clue about the date or even the day of the week. After several weeks on the road, we began to move from one day into the next as if there really is no separation... no distinguishing borders... time became fluid, punctuated by a rhythmical cycle of eating and sleeping.

The travel agent, our newfound savior in the religion of transportation woes, had let us down. He made a mistake and booked train tickets we never could have used, even if we did notice the departure date before it was the day after.

Benjamin's alarm bells were ringing even louder now, snapping things back to regular speed, the slow mo reverie gone in an instant.

We looked at the clock. We had 30 minutes to sort things out so we could get on the train to Jodphur or else... or else... what???

I began to feel helpless - desperate - frantic, even. The reality of missing the train because of botched dates that we didn't check was just too much for my fragile nerves. For one thing, Mumbai is an impossible chaotic and huge city, and we had nowhere to go. It was easy being stranded in Kochi. We could simply go back to our cozy guesthouse in Fort Cochin to regroup. We couldn't afford to go back to the Ramee, and the extraordinarily high cab fare was ravaging our wallets as well. We could have gone into the city proper to find a cheaper guesthouse, but for some reason the idea of sitting in jammed traffic for several hours and finding 'last minute' accommodation seemed as insurmountable as scaling Mt Everest in high heels.

In addition, the Bandar station was decrepit and located in the center of a massive slum... outside, a crowd of beggars, rickshaw drivers, and touts loitered, waiting to pounce on people like us. There was no place to find peace, to collect the thoughts in our heads.

We felt truly stranded. I had the feeling from dreams where you are standing in your high school auditorium in front of the whole student body naked... it's a certain sort of devastation that seems so vast, you might never recover.

The sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach fired up into a burst of adrenaline. WE raced down the long platform like giant turtles on speed (with our packs on, we looked a bit like turtles).

We chose a counter with the shortest line, only to be told by the clerk that we had to go around the corner to counter #4.

We turned the corner, to our dismay, to find a room of lines that at minimum would take an hour, and we only had 15 minutes. Counter #4, of course, was closed -- so we went to counter #9. It had the only English sign and said, "Last minute reservations." In the window, there was a handwritten sign that said, "Refunds available." Seemed like the right place, a one-stop-shop for us.

We got in the 'Q' and soon after a man of similar age walked up, gave us the once over, and then promptly stood in front of us. Benjamin and I looked at each other in disbelief. "Excuse me, but the Q starts behind us," Benjamin said to him. The man moved to stand behind us asking, "What country are you from?"

I was used to this question. Almost everyone you speak with has the same script for small talk. "What country are you from? What do you do? How long are you here?"

The other script: "Are you married? How long? Do you have children? Why not?"

I told him we were from California.

"The U.S.," he said flatly, "that's why the arrogance."

I couldn't believe he was calling us arrogant for asking him to maintain the 'Q' as the signs all around us so clearly request. I ignored him, turning my back before my fragile nerves became unbound and flailed around the room like a downed power line.

Eventually he cut in front of us again, and after a few minutes turned to us with a condescending smile, waved his train ticket in our faces mockingly, and snorted, "See? This is India."

I made some remarks about the level of politeness I've found in Indian 'Q's, which ignited a flurry of comments from him about George W. Bush, I'm sure to do with arrogant Americans, which we most certainly are not. I told him we don't like Bush either so his criticism fell upon deaf ears. Benjamin told me to save my breath and told him to go away.

By this time, Benjamin had reached his boiling point, and when we were told to go to another counter for information on what to do about our tickets, he'd about had it.

To speed up the story, I'll just say that what ensued was a pinball game with us bouncing around the station from one counter to another, to the platform, and back. We couldn't get a straight answer from anyone.

Finally we were at the end of our rope, in search of the train conductor to plead our case. The first guy we found didn't want to deal with us -- simply turned his head and acted like we weren't there. The main conductor finally showed up and wouldn't allow us on the train, but mentioned that if we boarded anyway, we'd be charged the full ticket price and penalty fees. I'd been in India too long to feel comfortable with this option. I pictured us paying enormous baksheesh to the conductor in 'fines' only to be kicked off the train in the middle of nowhere because we were in someone else's seats.

We walked off, heads hung low, accepting the fact that the train was not an option anymore. That's when we decided to go to the airport. The international airport, that is.

It seemed impossible to move around India and if the train didn't work for us, why not fly? And if we were going to spend money on a plane ticket, why not just get the fuck out of India? To Benjamin, fleeing to another country altogether was the most logical move we could make in light of the numerous train incidents we'd encountered in India.

I'd like to describe Benjamin's anger at this point, but I'm not sure how to do it. That's how angry he was. I'd never seen anything like it in the 6 years that I've known him. I'm fairly certain every Indian who walked past us that day will never forget the sight: his eyes had turned red, giant claws emerged from his fingernail beds, steam was coming from his nose in violent puffs, fangs the length of swords were hungry for blood.

We ended up at the international terminal at 4 pm looking for tickets to Bangkok, where we could get our Chinese visas and continue with our trip wearing regular clothes rather than straight jackets or prison attire.

Luckily there were no flights for 12 hours, giving us time to simmer down and fully discuss whether we really wanted to give up on India so hastily. A few tears of frustration and a handshake later, we'd agreed to give it another shot. Benjamin had seen a train reservation booth somewhere nearby... (he's a glutton for punishment).

Note: the story continues with a "good samaritan", a free aiport shuttle to a nearby hotel, a travel agent, bus tickets to Udaipur, one more night in Mumbai...

Sunday, April 03, 2005

A World of Comfort and Luxury

The brochure boasted the hotel as, "A World of Comfort and Luxury." We found ourselves there by accident, at this fancy hotel in Juhu, a faded beach resort area of Mumbai near the domestic airport, where we'd arrived, and the Bandra train station, where we were to depart the next day.

We flew to Mumbai from Fort Cochin to save time and avoid the rail system... we needed a little 'time out' from the rail system -- like a relationship on the rocks, we were constantly giving and giving to the train reservation process, only to get nothing back in return. When we became stranded in Fort Cochin, we decided to make our lives easier by using a travel agent for future arrangements. Forget what I've said in the past about the importance of securing our own tickets. A commission is, I've decided, well worth the headache of doing things yourself in India.

In addition to the plane tickets, we asked the travel agent to secure train tickets to Jodhpur, leaving Mumbai as soon as possible -- we were anxious to get to Rajasthan for our last month in India, before the country turns into a giant tandoor oven. We had one night to kill in Mumbai before catching our train to Jodhpur the next afternoon.

So there we were in Juhu, a neighborhood largely ignored by the Lonely Planet guidebook, save for a few meager listings of hotels for the benefit of people like us... people in suburban Mumbai for a night, people in transit... a sort of travel purgatory, when you're in a place with too much time to kill, but not enough time to explore.

We blindly picked one of the hotels listed -- it was, at least, a destination to give the cab driver. Arriving as the Iskon, we discovered it to be an odd combination of an Hare Krishna Ashram and Hotel. "This should be interesting," I thought as we entered the building, passing several men in orange robes with funny hair cuts. I wondered what kind of peculiarities were in store, not being an Hare Krishna devotee, and all. Unfortunately or maybe fortunately, there were no rooms available. We left the hotel without a map, no clear idea of where to go... in search of a place to stay for the night.

After a while of huffing it through the sun baked streets of Juhu with our packs, we stumbled upon the Ramee Guestline Juhu Hotel. It appeared too expensive for our budget, but we had no choice. It was the kind of a place with a doorman, central air, and a wall of clocks set to show the time in cities like New York, London, and Dubai. Waiters in faux tuxedos proffered glasses of water on trays, there was a candy dish on the front desk at our disposal, and people greeted us with big, friednly smiles, all despite the fact that we'd arrived with backpacks and everyone knows backpackers are dirty and cheap bastards.

After some horror at the price (internalized, of course... I didn't want to look like a dirty, cheap backpacker), we agreed to take a room at the hotel. As I mentioned before, we had no choice -- we didn't really know what might be around the corner, and I'm glad we stopped looking for upon further exploration later that evening, we did not find one 'budget' hotel. There didn't even appear to be restaurants. Seemed that a trip to the beach resort of Juhu consisted mostly of checking into fancy hotels and staying there except a foray onto the beach now and then.

I decided to take full advantage of our splurge, rather -- to get every rupee's worth of 'comfort and luxury' that I could in 24 hours, which entailed dialing the AC up to full blast, snuggling under the covers in a comfy bed, and channel surfing the satellite cable TV.

Later, we found ourselves in the dining room downstairs, staring at -- of all things -- a wine list. "Should we get a glass?" Benjamin asked. The prices made me uncomfortable... but part of me wondered, since we are splurging on the hotel, should we not just take it all the way... and treat ourselves to a bottle? The watier, sensing the winos in our spirits, teased us with a taste and the next thing we knew, we had a bottle of Indian Cabernet on our table, and had placed two orders of steak and fries for dinner. Since we were taking our residency in 'a world of comfort and luxury' literally, we thought beef would be safe and it wasn't much more expensive than anything else on the menu, which was all overpriced as one might imagine. But we had no choice.

After we'd finished eating, an Indian gentlemen with henna'd hair, a slight English accent, and some major bling was seated next to us. He was wearing several thick gold chains with giant medallions that would make P Diddy turn green. Indian bling is common, though not usually so over-the-top, as it shows a person's wealth, his/her place in society. In addition, this gentleman was highly religious, a follower of Lord Ganesh, who was engraved on one of his medallions -- the one he kissed before eating a bite of his dinner. Otherwise, he was fairly ordinary: early 40s, plaid shirt, plain trousers, argyle socks, tan leather loafers.

We struck up a conversation -- he'd lived in the US for a period of time and recounted stories of visits to Hollywood where people would drive around in limousines with 6 doors, where lights shined in the night like a galaxy had fallen into the valley... we talked about strange things like the quality of American cotton... we discussed places like Colorado, and Cedar Rapids where he worked for a few years. He said Americans get 10 out of 10 for attitude in the workplace, but 7 out of 10 for quality of work done. The Brits, he added, scored the same in the reverse: 7 out of 10 for attitude and 10 out of 10 for quality of work.

After about an hour, he looked at his watch, motioned for the bill and instructed the waiter to add our bill onto his own. We were flabbergasted. I'd been feeling a little guilty over dinner about our 'splurge' (although each sip of wine helped me to rationalize the expense...). He ignored our half-hearted pleas, "No, no... you can't do that..." Secretly, I was excited that he was picking up the tab, and even though it was too extravagant for a total stranger to pay, I was clicking my heals in my head, fealing quite lucky, but mostly I was in awe. Later, the waiter told us that he was like a Santa Claus for us, that we were very lucky, and will probably never have that happen to us ever again in India. Never.

A world of comfort and luxury, indeed.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Holy Days

Fort Cochin, Easter Weekend

We arrived in Fort Cochin, a community comprised of Christians, Muslims, Jews, and Hindus, just in time for the Christian holidays of Good Friday and Easter, the Jewish Sabbath (Saturday), and Hindu's Holi Festival. It was also Benjamin's birthday weekend, which is, of course, also considered a holy day to all of his fans.

Good Friday was our first full day in town, and almost everything was closed. I was surprised to be in a predominantly Hindu country, and inconvenienced by Christian traditions... but the state of Kerala boasts religious variety and tolerance, and all of India is deeply spiritual. Every Indian we met that weekend took great pains to wish us, "Happy Easter," assuming that every Westerner is Christian.

Good Friday also happened to fall upon the day Hindus celebrate Holi, a festival marking the beginning of spring. Though the Nothern states more commonly celebrate Holi, what with the heat and humidity in the South... where it's ALWAYS summer... No matter. As we sat on the beach sipping on a cool drink, we saw Holi victims stumble up to the water, laughing, with swaths of green and bright pink, yellow, and orange smeared all over their face, coloring their hair, streaked across their clothes.

The celebration of Holi, you see, involves throwing, wiping, grinding, and smearing colored chalk onto people, turning them into a living canvas for all colors of the rainbow to live upon, if just for one day. The Holi celbration spilled into the next day, as well -- Benjamin's birthday -- and we spent the evening at a Kathakali performance, me with a purple 5 o'clock shadow, Benjamin made up as a drag queen with hot pink cheeks. We'd been "attacked" by Holi revelers on our way to the theater...

Home Away from Home

Fort Cochin, March 24 - 30

Fort Cochin called to us from the guidebook. The map looks a lot like a map of San Francisco... a thumb of land surrounded by the sea, connected to the mainland by several bridges and ferries, with a few small islands as cozy neighbors. There are cargo ships in the harbour, small fishing boats that float along with dolphins at play in the sun-glittered water, and a lighthouse off in the distance that shines upon on the Lakshadweep Sea at night.

Fort Cochin is part of a larger city known as Kochi, a cluster of islands and narrow peninsulas in central Kerala. It's a laid-back place -- mellow -- with a slow pace and an intimacy that pricks the romantic's heart... a gem in the hurly burly world of India.

Often, the intrigue of a place cannot be truly known, or fully appreciated, without knowledge of its history. An otherwise ordinary town can turn into a mythical place from a dream -- not that Fort Cochin is ordinary. Its sunsets massage the sky into colors of cotton candy that make the mouth water, colors of tart purple and sizzling pink. The tropical air is steamy, heavy with a creative spirit that can be found in traditional Keralan dance and musical performances, and in contemporary art galleries. It is a place where trees are worshiped; where the streets are lined with signs adorned with poems and witty quips, philosophizing on life and beauty.

Fort Cochin's narrow streets are lined with mosques, churches, temples, and homes that whisper tales of the Portugese, Dutch, and British captors of the past. The Portugese captured it in the early 1500s, only to lose it to the Dutch Protestants in 1663, who lost it to the British in the late 1700s.

Giant catilevered Chinese fishing nets, called 'Cheena Vala' in Malayalam (the Keralan language) line the coconut-strewn beach. They were introduced by traders from the court of Kublai Kahn, back in 1350. The enormous fishing nets hang from bamboo or teak posts, which operate as giant levers that haul the net -- and fish -- from the sea and require 6 men to operate, tugging and pulling on the primitive counterweights, a series of large rocks tied with rope.

The spicy aroma of Cinnamon, Cumin, Tumeric, and Cloves fills the air of the spice market in Jew Town, an historic home to Jews who fled Palestine 2,000 years ago. A synagogue was erected there in 1586, destroyed by the Portugese in 1662, and rebuilt by the Dutch in 1664. Nowadays, the Jewish population is down to a few families -- the others lost to the migration to Israel -- but the spice market is in full swing, mostly occupied by curio and antique shops that could eat up entire afternoons with wistful browsing of trinkets, statues, jewelry -- even whole pieces of ancient buildings.


We spent more time in Fort Cochin than the three nights we'd planned... in fact, we spent 6 nights there -- not by choice, but it's not like we minded. It is a nice place. Transportation issues (read incompetence of the Indian rail system) 'stranded' us in Kochi, making us something like honorary residents. We couldn't walk down the street or turn the corner without the call, "Hello! My friend!" The call came from the boys at the restaurants where we hung out, of course, and were usually directed at Benjamin. It's not that he's more likeable than me (although some of you may disagree), it's just that males and females don't really mingle in India outside of the home -- and I'm making an assumption that they mingle IN the home as I've never witnessed it in person. Once, to my surprise, I heard someone yell out, "Sher-eeeen! Hello!" But it was just the guy with the dirty-old-man-vibe.

We made some friends, Rajeesh and Ansar, who we spent a few evenings with. We learned a lot about Indian culture from them (more on that to come), and they learned about America from us. Rajeesh even taught me some nasty words to say to the dirty-old-man types. He and Ansar thought it was so funny to teach us the words they were nearly rolling in the grass with laughter. I still don't know what their English equivalents are, so I'll use them with restraint.

Our last day, Rajeesh and Ansar took us on a tour of the city, which included the usual sights -- the ones which were closed on Good Friday -- a visit to the barber for Benjamin, and a trip to the Coconut Toddy shop (a non-alcoholic drink). The two of them, with honest and loving souls, are good for India. Or rather, good for our perception of Indian. They polished the tarnish from our hearts...