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|Thursday, October 14th, 2004|
Well, this is it.
My plane leaves in less than twelve hours.
The train ride was long and uneventful. I read a half-dozen magazines (they cost thirty cents apiece at most) and dozed most of the time. I sat next to a guy who looked exactly like the debauched Devadas on the train who eventually told me all about his world travels. He said I remind me of him when he was young- which makes me kind of happy- he's been all over the world. The Canadian took advantage of India's over-the-counter valium policy and slept most of the trip.
We had Kona coffee from a beaker (which isn't the first time I've had Kona coffee from a beaker in India- I'm beginning to think that Kona coffee means coffee from a beaker here) at a fancy Cannaught Place coffeeshop and said our goodbyes on the street as the Canadian hopped what seems to be the first reasonably priced rickshaw he's seen. Althought I was getting pretty tired and annoyed near the end of the trip, it was good travelling with him. It's good to have someone intellegent to talk to at dinner and someone to keep you from freaking out when you end up on some wierd bus in the middle of nowhere.
Which is exactly what I then did.
I decided to spend the money I would have spent on a taxi to Guragon on souveneirs and just take a bus. The tourist police helpfully told me where to go and how much is should cost and even told the rickshaw driver to find me a seat and that I should tip him five ruppees if he did. I caught a bus, figuring that I could catch a taxi or rickshaw from the Guragon bus stand and that'd at least be closer (and cheaper) than Delhi. The Guragon bus stand ends up to be way out there somewhere strange, but a nice girl marched me down the road and flagged down a (packed to the gills) bus to South City, where Dan lives. Except this bus dropped me off at a dusty crossroads instead of the relativly metropolitan collection of highrises near Dan. I was trying to figure things out with an rickshaw driver when he told me I should get in the car with this private family that was driving up. The family was game and it became pretty obvious that they were used to giving rides from this dusty crossroads. The car was clearly a family and mostly women so I hopped in. They drove into a suburban development and asked what house number, and it became all too clear that I was really, truely in the wrong place. I ended up in South City Sector Two when what I really needed was the all-imporant Sector One. So they drove around finding someone that spoke English. We worked out that I wanted to go to Dan's complex, and that it was somewhat nearby, and I was pretty sure they were going to take me (although not altogether sure of this). The round matriarch of the family took me in and talked to me the whole time in tiny, faltering bits of English. She took me back to their house and fed me lemonade, showed me baby pictures of the entire family, and asked me to write my name in her address book. Then she somehow managed to find someone that actually lives in Dan's complex to take me there. I can't belive this family went through so much to help a stranger they found literally at the side of the road. They refused my offers of money for the ride. I'm truely touched. I can't believe the kindness you can find in this world.
At Dan's we caught up, I saw Jitu again (it ends up I missed him a lot- it'll be hard to leave someone I consider I friend) and I went off to see the movie "Bride and Prejudice". It's an English language Bollywood style fluff piece thats still a lot of fun.
At one point, during a dance sequence with a bunch of colorfully turbaned seiks dancing through Amristar, I got tears in my eyes. I can't believe I'm leaving. So many things I may never see again. For so long I've kind of looked forward to going home, but now it seems like I'm leaving something I love. I wanted to tell everyone in the theater that this was my last day. That I had to leave. Dan said he always hated laving. I'll never forget the motorcyle ride back from the theater- the newly cool Delhi air blowing clean and fresh. India buzzing with life all around. I said some gushing goodbyes to the people at Dan's work who I now regret I didn't really get to meet. And now all I have is some fresh new tears and a messy bedroom that needs packing up.
Goodbye India. I'll never forget you. I can't forget you.
|Wednesday, October 13th, 2004|
After a few days of wandering around rocky ruins in Mamallapuram, it was time to head to Chennei to catch the train.
Our bus took three hours to traverse the thirty kilometers to Chennei, but there was no livestock on board and no people on the roof, so it wasn't so bad. The roads were smooth and scenic.
We arrived at the distant suburban Chennei bus stand. This bus stand isn't just any bus stand. It is the king of bus stands. THE bus stand. The center of all busdom. It looks like an airport- this giant neon-crowned pulsating thing amdist a sea of a thousand busses radiating from every direction as far as one can see. An endless stream of busses moved through it's complicated arteries according to an arane set of rules that only the busdrivers may ever understand.
We decided to take the Rough Guide's advice that Chennei busses were "easy to use" and "surprisingly not crowded" in contrast to every other city bus in all of India. I ended up nearly crushing a tiny Indian woman on one side and with an old woman's gigantic sari-swatched belly wedged between my face and the seat in front of me. The Canadian was lost somewhere in the crowd. Our luggage drifted in to a sea of smartly dressed proffesional girls who scowled at it and occasionally attempted to wedge it back into my lap between me and the stomach. The busdriver helpfully dropped us off at the wrong place. We asked for "Devi Cinema" and we got "long, dark stretch of deserted road bounded on one side by a forboding wall and the other by shutterd very-much-not-Devi-cinema shops". The heavens- with their insane glee at reminding me how smart it was for me to plan a trip to India during the monsoons- chose that moment to pour down the most rain I've ever seen. It rained for exactly the thirty seconds we were outside between getting kicked off the bus and ducking into the nearest chai stall. In that thirty seconds we got soaked to the bone. Those thirty seconds were the only rain we saw in Chennei.
The Candian huddled in the dingy stall over maps trying to work out where we were. It was a hopeless cause-all we had to go on was "dark area of town" with "long deserted streets". We knew none of the terms of the equation. Looking at the map was useless. But he persisted. By this time, a large group of feeble old men were interested in what these strange folks were doing in their chai shop and asked (mostly in Tamil) where we were trying to go. The Canadian steadfastly and not-to-politley refused to tell them. He seems to believe that everyone in India is out to lie or rip him off, and that the fewer people you talk to the better. Thats just not true. It happens, but most people are amazingly helpful. I never cease to be amazed that nearly any average-Indian-on-the-street can somehow recall train and bus schedules and locations all over the state when asked. He told me "I just don't want to pay twenty rupees if the hotel is around the block". I reminded him that we had no idea where were and we were unlikely to somehow divine that from looking at a contextless map, and finally told him I'd be glad to pay the forty darn cents to avoid walking around tired, lost, luggling our baggage through a dark city in the rain. I pointedly ignored the fact that it was no longer raining. I'm sure if we ended up lost in a dark city lugging our bags, it would have.
Our rickshaw found the hotel (through a maze of indecipherable allyways) fine. The hotel had sparkly clean tiled walls ("I just want to lick the tiles- it's all so clean!" I said) and perfectly white sheets. The friendly owner offered to bring us buckets of hot water to bathe in and we got plenty of exersize running up and down the five flights of stairs.
We ate that night at an American diner. They had a salad bar with real lettuce- which I've never seen in India. Their french fries were absolutely perfect. Even their buffulo-wingesque BBQ paneer with ranch dressing was convicing. They were so close to having American food down just right. But they made one fatal error. My burger came with pickles- real American pickles, not the strangely compelling lime ones that taste like chemistry. But they were real American sweet pickles.
I woke up the next day and immediatly felt like the best plan was simply to stay in bed. But the Canadian was feeling explorative, and I hated to waste my last days in India. The plan was to go to a nearby Chinese restraunt through the back streets- far away from Chennei's alluringly named main drag, Anna Selai. But somehow we ended up walking miles down Anna herself.
I was in one of those delirious semi-migraine states, where every sound is ampliphied a million times and every light is it's very own blinding sun. I couldn't make sense of what was going on around me or how to react to it. I didn't know how far away things were, how fast they were going, or how I was supposed to react to them. All I remember that day is the feel of my sweat-drenched shirt rubbing against my back, the crazed look of murderous rickshaw drivers as they carreened straight towards me, a few hyperventilated breathes as the crowd pressed in and threatend to swallow me, watching the Canadian's feet through my tunneled vision to avoid misteps on the cumbly pavement, and the above all the ceaseless maddening blare of horns. Van Gogh would have cut off his ear much sooner if he lived on Anna Selai. I was in the typical third world urban hell. Every sense was bomarded by painful, horrifying things. I just wanted to cry. Through my dreamy delirium, I was terrifed that I was going to die one of the hundreds of gory deaths that await anyone that loses concentration for even a second on a busy Indian street- and so close to when I was to go home. I should have never been out there. I resolve from now on to believe my body when it tells me to stay in bed.
After the most hellish hours of my life, we ended up at the dingy chinese restraunt we started out at. I picked at my rice while the Canadian berated the poor waiter for half an hour about the un-Chinese quality of the noodles. On the way back, the Canadian got so annoyed by the first rickshaw driver he tried to negotiate with we ended up walking home- despite my insistance that I was far too disoriented to walk and would pay for the rickshaw- and didn't even have enough time to shower before the 33 hour journey to Delhi.
|Friday, October 8th, 2004|
I'd had my last chocolate croissant.
I'd enjoyed my last cow-free day.
It was time to get out of Pondicherry.
Unfortunatly, it was also time for a general strike in Pondicherry. We dragged our backpacks into the nearest rickshaw and ignored the driver's usual insistance that we couldn't take a bus and must use his friends taxi, or whatever. But when we arrived at the bus station, there really were no busses. All the shops were shuttered. We couldn't even get a glass of chai.
We asked the enquiry office, and they said a lot of stuff we didn't really understand (English is not as prevelent here than elsewhere). Then we went to the tourist enquiry booth, which told us we could wait until six, or else we could take an autorickshaw outside of city limits and catch a bus there. We didn't really want to stew in the heat eating melting croissants for eight hours, so we tried to get a rickshaw. A whole stream of rickshaw wallahs were running up offering us absurd prices, so we went near some nice policemen and hoped for a reasonable price. The policemen gave us several half-understandable and overwhelmingly complicated plans for getting out of town, and finally we found a rickshaw that would take us to city limits for a decent price. We hopped in.
First, he took us to a different city bus stand that was predictably closed, and offered us the use of his good friend's taxi. We politely (well, the Canadian wasn't quite as polite) asked that he take us where we asked him to go. So we drove to city limits and found a bus to Chennei, which isn't Mamalapuram, but is at least in the right direction. Then the rickshaw driver demanded several times the fare we agreed on and claimed that the reasonable fare was just to this closed bus stand we never asked to go to. I jumped on the bus and staked out some seats while the Canadian got in quite a yelling match. The whole bus was cheering for him.
India has really brought out the laid-back Californian in me. I'm not really too concerned that I'm getting overcharged by twenty cents or the bus doesn't really go to the place I want to go or the chai wallah just picked a fly out of the cup of chai he's handing me or my hotel room isn't fit for use as an American jail cell. Few things can go wrong here that can't be fixed with forty rupees. And everything that happens is interesting at the least. I never expect things to be easy- if you try to get somewhere three times, and suceed once, I call that a win. If you ask three people something and one person gives you accurate meaningful information, that's fine with me. I just assume that some amount of the things I do aren't going to work out and that a certain percentage of people are going to lie to or harrass me. It's all part of the deal. I've become increadably unperturbable.
But this Canadian doesn't have the same kind of amused patience I have for the endless touts, liars and hassels- especially the ones involved in getting from one place to another. In this case he won, but it's a little hard travelling with someone that gets worked up about the unavoidable facts of India- especially the rickshaw drivers. He'll lug his bags four kilometers in the heat because he doesn't like rickshaw drivers prepositioning him. He'll seek out arcane overpacked city busses because the rickshaws overcharge by ten rupees. He'll walk blindly looking for the right bus because he doesn't like the lies and hassles that come with asking people what bus to take- even if someone will inevitably point you the right way.
Anyway, we rode through the flat palm-tree studded paddy fields of Tamil Nadu for a few hours. It's a poor area- lots of thatch huts and fields plowed by oxen. Eventually we hit some strange bus stand where a flurry of converstations between various bus drivers, ticket takers, passerbyers and chai-wallahs led us to be directed to a bus to "Changlputti". That bus was packed and a shared a three person seat with a family of four. Then a nice student helped us find the bus from Changlputti to Mamalapuram (which a passing taxi driver helpfully claimed didn't exist). We'd finally made it.
Everywhere you go in Mamalapuram, you hear the “plink plink plink’ of hammer and stone. If you don’t hear that, you at least hear the endless cries of stoneworkers yelling “Come, you like my shop.” Mamalapuram is the stonecarving center of India. They produce all the stone statues required for temples across the nation, as well as all those stone elephants with little elephants inside that you find in tourist shops everywhere. All this stone stuff really is handmade. Only a few of the artists have motorized tools. Mostly it’s hammers and chisels and years of learning. They claim they will teach you how to carve stone. Maybe one day when I’m rich and leisureful I’ll come stay a few months and learn.
Besides the stonecarvers, there are several old stone monuments scattered Hampi-style throughout the hills. The famous Shore Temple isn’t that exiteing after seeing so many huge temples. It’s a small lumpish thing surrounded by garbage strewn rocks. But the beach here is increadable- full of boats made out of nothing but a few weathered logs and string. There are vast fields of tiny silver fish drying in the sun, and groups of fishemen milling about. In the water are playful boys splashing around in the waves and clumps of colorful women screeching as the water hits their ankles. Families of pigs live in the corners of the beaches, and men on strong healthy looking horse ride around looking to give tourists rides. Yesterday I even saw acrobats doing backflips across the sand.
Theres not a lot here- only two streets, a beach, and a pile of rocks. The tourist scene is thoroughly developed- you can buy all the banana pancakes and Kashmiri handcrafts you want here. White people roam in “Om” tee-shirted packs. But the place has a bit of magic to it and is a great place to wind up my trip.
|Wednesday, October 6th, 2004|
Well, I'm still in Pondicherry. I've spent the last three days in the throws of what I insist is a short lived bout of dysentary, or giardia at the least. Okay, so it's probably just a case of traveller's diarhea, but still. I havn't been able to do much more than toss around in agonizing pain, leave strange but constant deposits in the toilet and weakly totter to the front desk to order greasy room service pseudo-chinese noodles (which for some reason seemed to by the world's most perfect food). My attempts to venture outside for dinner ended in disaster, with me unable to walk in a straight line and unable to convince the waiter I really did just want soup and naan...no, no gravy...just soup and naan...okay, ummm...aloo ghobi and naan...no, no more soup...uhhh...whatever. The funny thing is, when considering what to eat with my stomach in such a delicate state, I automatically assumed that my stomach might not be up to exotic western food and I ought to stick to something familier like dosas.
I gotta tell you, if your going to be laid up, it's good to be laid up in a hotel room with hot water, a television, and room service. They even changed the sheets once! The Continental Hotel in Pondicherry is a low-budget wonder.
Anyway, I woke up today finally able to stand for more than two minutes at a streach and confident that I could survive outside a ten meter radius from a toilet. I had coffee and chocolate truffle cake for breakfast and now the caffeine is coursing through me like magic. We missed our checkout time in the hotel, so we're gonna stick around Pondicherry for one more night. Then it's off to some seaside temple town who's name I can't pronounce, and then Chennai, and then a thirty three hour train ride to Delhi, where I'll stay overnight and catch my plane to America the next morning.
|Saturday, October 2nd, 2004|
Pondicherry was the last outpost of French India, part of France's attempt to get in on Colonialism. The French packed up and left fifty years ago, and Pondicherry hasn't changed a bit since. The town is fronted by a long empty seaside prominade, lined with townhouses with cast iron fences that now house cheap hotels and grungy ice cream joints. The streets are wide and leafy and quiet. The green well-maintained parks are full of white kids with brown nannies. The candlelit restraunts serving European food are packed with the few French left here. They wear stylish salwaar-kammezes and push their little blonde kids around in designer baby carriages. They live in high-walled gated houses filled with antiques and hardwood floors. The overpriced imported wine flows freely and French music blares from the Worldspace sattalite radios.
At night, the Indians turn out in full force to stroll on the sea eating ice cream, popcorn and street snacks. This weekend there is a police festival, so there are marching bands, Christmas lights on all the police buildings, and displays of old French-style police unifroms and weapons (used by the police? captured by the police? who knows?). There really isn't a lot to do besides eat croissants and real coffee, walk through the parks and streets, and enjoy the ambiance. No matter how much you love India (and I do) any break from India is a welcome break.
The other big force in Pondicherry is the Sri Aurobino Ashram, and Auroville, it's utopian new-age community. This is the undisputed new-age center of the world. Koruger calls them "the wierdos", but I kind of consider them my new-age California spirit brothers. Anyway, the ashram owns half the town. We stayed the first night in one of their many guesthouses. The rooms were big and clean and beautiful (albeit dominated by pictures of Mr. Aurobino and "the Mother") and right by the sea. You could hear the waves crash as you sleep. But apparently the devout are supposed to be early to bed and early to rise, because they lock the gates at then thirty at night and start loud contruction work at eight thirty in the morning. For us godless lazy people, it just wasn't workable. So the next day we packed up for a cheap guesthouse, which amazingly sports televisions with actual decent reception (we spent a good chunk of yesterday watching the presidential debates) and hot water on request. I havn't had a hot shower in a month.
Even in the heat of India, a cold shower just doesn't cut it. You hastily spash water on yourself and call it "clean". But this black filmy gunk (like what you find behind your ears and in your bellybutton) eventually builds up all over. You can scrape it off your colorbone and stomach with your fingers. But it's too hard to stand under a freezing cold tap long enough to truely get clean. I've been showering twice a day like mad, just because I can.
I bought my train tickets to Delhi today. I've only got a week left on the road. I can't believe that America really exists, and that I'm really going back there.
I spent the next day in Madurai getting seduced into buying even more silk clothing. I ended up with two dresses, two jackets, a pair of pants and six shirts- all for less than fifty bucks (and all made while-you-wait). Koruger suggested that I have quite a few things made up and start selling them in the states. It seemed like a good idea for a few moments, before I realized that would be called running a sweatshop.
We left for Pondicherry late at night. Despite the enquiry officer's insistance that we didn't need a ticket, the bus was. But while I was waiting, I befriended an Indian woman about my age. She was headed to Pondicherry, too, and knew how to get using the bus to Chennai. So we followed here and ended up on an only slightly horrible bus to Virripurum, an hour from Pondicherry.
Whenever I start talking with an Indian woman alone, it always ends up the same. She asks about America, I clarify that it is a nice place, but it isn't perfect. I diplomatically try to point out the things I like about India. Then she drops the bomb. "I can't leave the house without my husband's permission".
This woman told me all she knew about America- she knew we dated and lived together and nobody cared. She said that was impossible in India- girls get killed for that sort of thing. She said she'd live like we did in America if she could. But, she shugged, pointing to her three year old child, that just can't be done in India. She was going to go to America- she majored in Chemistry in college and got accepted to grad school in America. Her Dad supported her going, but her mother was already upset with the burden of having had a daughter and just wanted her married off as soon as possible. An unmarried girl of twenty-one is a huge liability for a family. So now she can't leave the house alone (the trip from Madurai to Pondicherry to visit her mother was her first time on her own...her husband couldn't get leave to accompany her) and has a three year old kid and spends her life cooking (which she hates doing) and taking care of the kid. She hates living in Madurai, which she says is backwards and dirty compared to her hometown of Pondicherry. But she has no choice about where she lives. Her greatest wish is to travel. She is twenty-two years old- just one year younger than me. And she is already resigned to stay in the house for the rest of her life.
It's unebelieveable. These arn't stupid people. These are women with degrees, women who know what the rest of the world is like (Sex in the City is a big hit here) and they know there could be so much more. These are women that grew up dreaming of being doctors or scientists and all the things we all dreamed of. But their lives are spent chopping potatoes and staring out the barred windows.
Whenever I read fiction by Indian women, it always seems ambivelent about the lot of women. They say it's confined, but full of family bonds and has a lot of room for joy. But every Indian woman I talked candidly to has had no say at all in her destiny, and fully realizes that she's missed her chance to have a life. Their families are huge potentially threatening burdens, their beloved kids are their joy but are also reminders that they are stuck and will never get out, they love their husbands but hate that their husbands control every aspect of their life.
I feel so strange, freewheeling around India alone, deciding every moment of my life for myself and knowing that everything I do is up to me alone. I never realized that deciding my own destiny was such a privledge. But every time I meet my Indian counterparts- tired women of twenty two with old husbands and growing kids- I feel immensly sad and lucky at the same time.
|Tuesday, September 28th, 2004|
Madurai is one of the oldest cities in Asia. You have to squint your eyes to see it's age. Only when you look past the neon signs and rickshaws do you realize that the same street food stalls, religious shops, beggars, fortune tellers and touts have been plying these streets almost as long as humanity has gathered in great numbers. It's a fairly laid back city with a carnival air to it. The four main towers of the huge temple (more on that later) dominate the skyline. Half the traffic on the slow moving street are pilgrims streaming (along with the accompanying flute salesmen, scam artists, beggars, and kids in Haruman costumes) towards the temple.
We ate wonderful dosas and iddly at a dirty menuless dining hall (and managed to watch a firework laden religious procession on the way) and walked around a bit- just missing the temple's open hours. Koruger was pretty tired so he headed back to the hotel to rest while I wandered the small streets that radiate in a square pattern (an ancient street layout) and poked my head into various shops and markets.
I ended up in a deep dark covered market. The whole market was sunk down from the streets and filled with a forest of stone pillars carved with horses and gods and buxom maidens. Two mossy black Gods, covered in colored powder and flowered garlands presided over the rows of men on ancient sewing machines and shops selling brass and bangles. After venturing deep in the dark heart of the market, through a maze of stalls and past the very last kid in a monkey-god costume, I ended up in a clothing stall selling shimmering silks tailor made at amazing prices. The measured me up and told me to come back two hours later for my two dresses and jacket.
Lunch was a scrumptious banana leaf thali in a hall of long low tables. The old man serving me carfully told me how to eat each dish, fetched me spoons and mineral water, and even brought out my thali on a metal tray, lined of course with a banana leaf. I was quite the spectacle. The old man watched over me and all the waiters stood around watching me nervously interacting with the cute little Indian kid sitting next to me. It can be kind of hard to eat with people watching- especially if you don't really know what your eating and only have the slightest grasp on how your supposed to eat it. I'm always afraid I'm going to do the equivelent of pouring milk on a pizza.
I always assume that when parents bring their kids up to shake my hand and say "Hello, how are you?" that they are trying to acclimize them to Westerners, emphasize the importance of English and generally prepare them for the prosperous global information economy. I always though meeting the Westerner was kind of a learning experience for them. It only recently dawned on me that maybe I'm wrong. Koruger claims they are just being welcoming. And I know that I'm a bit of a curiousity and people look for excuses to talk to me. I guess it's mostly because so many parents make a beeline over to me and then pretty much force their shy confused kids to talk to me. Anyway, I'm still a fan of the giggling shy ladies at the temples, who get up the nerve to talk, shake my hand quickly, and then fall into heaps of giggles trying to hide shyly beingd their friends and run away.
After lunch, I fetched Koruger and we ran back for my clothes, which were ready as promised. The dresses- one in shimmery purple-champagne and one in a bluish purple are nice if a bit plainly shaped. But my Chinese style jacket in bright blue raw silk is a wonder to behold. Plus, since I lost my glorious perfect sweater on the train, I've been worried that I won't have anything to wear in the October cold of San Francisco when I get home. Now I can arrive in style.
Next came the temple, the focus of town and truely the main event.
We entered in the hall of 1000 pillars. It actually has 982 pillars. Inside are merchants selling garish plaster gods, pre-bundled offering plates of coconuts, bananas and flowers, and shiny religious posters. It seems as ancient a bazaar and ancient bazaars get. We passed a courtyard where the temple elephant doles out blessings and came in to a dark pillared hall of small shrines. The temple is said to have three million statues. It seems absurd until you enter. There are statues and carving everywhere, and it seems like a devotee has placed some powder, lit a candle or hung a flower on each one of them. The room is smoky with sacred fires. Only tiny shafts of light peek out from the pillars. Shirtless preists in white loinclothes and their hair in wild looking topknots walk slowly around doing the things that keep the universe going. The air smells like smoke and jasmine from women's hair and everywhere you here the heavy swish of ankle bells.
We passed long rowns of lingums in little cells and endless shrines. Each shrine had a family unpacking offerings, a prostrate worshipper, a group of giggling young women bowing and offering prayers, a cage of parrots trained to praise the gods, a pile of colored powder or at least a ghee fueled candle in front of it. We ended up at the temple tank- an amazing red and white striped affair with a giant golden lotus floating in it and huge flocks of birds swirling madly above. Little girls in their Sunday best played tag, men sat on the steps talking and people lurked in dark cornders selling offerings. Even the modern waterworks equiptment seemed ancient and fitting. Then there were more rooms, more shrines (non-Hindus arn't allowed in the main ones), and more mysterious rituals. The temple is like a small ancient city- cavernous and complex. A family can spend days there. Little chrimas light strewn stalls with bright signs sell holy food like popcorn. The main donation office- in a dim cell in the center of the deepest darkest hall- looks like a bank and the light up sign declares that they accept all credit cards.
The whole temple is dedicated to a version of Shiva and Parvati, who keep cycle of creation going with their passionate goings-on. In one room there is a statue of Shiva and Parvati having a dance contest. Women with chalk paintings and flowers sit in front praying- they look like they've been there awhile. Devotees cirle the gods and throw little balls of butter on them to cool them down as they dance. Even though the statues are still and will never move, you really do get the feeling that somehow this is all important. Somehow these images and the rituals around them- shadows of some truer more divine world- represent something meaningful. I'm not looking to embrace Hinduism or anything, but it is the first time it all started to look less like a bunch of rituals and demands for cash.
It's always strange to have your stereotypes fulfilled. This temple felt like something out of Indiana Jones. It was ancient and mysterious and exotic and a tiny bit menacing. I know from all my college classes that it is bad to exotisize and romantisize, but when confronted with people that tell fortunes by having parrots pick tarot cards and dark smoky temple with complete with gold idols it's hard not to get carried away by it all.
Dinner was at one of the most popular places in town- an unpromising looking canteen. Koruger and I sat next to a group of high school girls. They were giddy about the whole thing and showered us with questions, handshakes and giggles. We couldn't really eat the excellent food with a gaggle of girls watching our every move. You really truely do start feeling like a rock star. These girls kept coming back with their shy giggling friends for handshakes and finally even their teachers came to meet us. It's annoying and flattering at the same time. But it's also a good indication of how friendly and truely welcoming most Indian people are.
I'm already having to think about going home. Whenever an Indian asks me how I like India, I say I don't want to leave. And I don't.
But even the best things have to end. After a few beach studded days in Varkala, we decided to move on the capital of Kerala, Thiruvananthapuram (known as "Triv-and-durum"). The train ride was a cramped hour long journey in general where I sat practiacally on some nice old lady's lap and wormed out of holding her month-old grandaughter on the grounds that I don't know what to do with babies and would hate to screw it up. We checked in to our hotel, ate, wandered a bit and discovered that we'd come at just the wrong time- the palaces and museums were going to be closed on the next day. We wandered at night down the main road to the huge temple. We arn't allowed in as non-Hindus, but some guy showed us around the outside and took us to the temple wood-carving shop. Then he demanded 100 rupees backsheesh "for the poor people". I handed him the five that is customary and we walked away to his protests of "not possible!" On the say back, there was a musical performance in front of on the bright plaster Ganesh statues that litter every town since Ganesh day. A loudspeaker blared a Christian revival down the street, which must drive the Hindus nuts. Meanwhile it started raining like mad. Triv is a colorful and bright place, but we couldn't spare the time to wait until the sites were open. We headed out the next day for Tamil Nadu.
When I was a kid, I used to read these "mini mystery" books in class, with little page long mysteries and the answer in the back. India is sometimes like this, except without the answers. It took us forever to learn that the constant explosions in Varkala were just them doing something or another at the tempe (what do they blow up? why? who knows?). We woke up in Triv to a rap at the door followed by a strange word. The language here sounds like soda bubbles popping all the time. I had no idea- did he want more money for the room? was he a Muslim calling us to pray. He did went down the halls doing the same to each room, and then back up for good measure. I pulled my pillow over my head. Then I realized...he was saying "Pay-puh". The morning paper. Of course!
Our bus to Madurai was an hour late, and to our horror it was one of the dreaded video busses. These add ear splitting to the usual Indian-bus list of nail biting, stomach churning, butt bruising and mind numbing. The movies were snowy to the point of unwatchabily, but that didn't keep the attendent from turning it up to top volume. The bus took something like nine hours. Some people on it were headed to Chennai- another seventeen hours away. We arrived tired and pissed off, and couldn't get a straight answer from anyone which bus would take us in to town so we ended up shelling out for a rickshaw. Our "spotlessly clean room with television and hot water" was a dirty musty mess with a broken water heater and a tv that only got snowy bollywood music videos (which greeted us from the next room at six sharp the next morning.) The elevator were broken and the room was on the fifth floor and an all night construction crew worked busily just outside.
Luckly, Madurai more than makes up for the hassles.
Kollum had little to reccommend itself, so we headed out to Varkala, the fabled relatively untouched beachside temple town.
Varkala isn't exactly untouched. Our rickshaw driver proudly told us how much commision he gets from each hotel. I had to convince him I'd give him money before he'd take us to the backsheesh-free government guest house. This one, right across from the super posh Taj Garden Hotel, was once the maharaja's palace. It sported similer cheap beautiful rooms and nice grounds, with the addition of an increadably friendly staff.
A typical day in Varkala is a cheap spicy set breakfast (usually some kind of rice pancake, super spicy potatoes, sambar and coconut chutney) at a templeside canteen. Then it's past the huge ancient temple tank (a giant square holy pool- still in use despite the jungle's attempts to take over) to the beach, where we can mingle with the pilgrims and watch Indian children run from the waves. Once I was greated by a priest at the beach asking "need puja?" The water here cleanses one of sin- hence all the reluctent kids being dunked by their parents. We are usually quite the spectacle and much handshaking and "what is your good name"ing ensues.
Then it's up the beautiful red palm studded cliff past dozens of agressive shopowners, restrauntiers showing off their fish and promising beer later (Kerela's liquor laws are pretty intense- most shops offer "special tea", which is beer served in an inconspicuous teapot) and women offering mehndi and ayervedic massage. At the end there is a beach where foreigners frolic in the waves wearing forbidden bikinis and the like. They are quite a site for the young Indian men who stand on the cliffs and watch them play frisbee and the like.
Then there is the uninspired dinner at the foreigner friendly (and spice-free) restraunts that line the cliffs. The tradeoff for mediocre food is an amazing red sunset on the beach and the endless cliffs that wind north. I can't really describe it. As the sun sets, the fishermen turn on their lamps and the ocean fills with what looks like a hundred bobbing stars, a mirrior of the heavens.
Life in Varkala isn't half bad.
We woke up tommorow for our backwaters tour, which the guidebook said "people come from all around the world" to see, and that it is "faintly embarrasing". Our tickets were double price because it's the off season. Apparently thats how things work around here.
The boat was half foreign, half indian. It was a little two story thing with a nice deck. The scenery was pretty, but it was kind of embarrasing watching all these people in the waterside villages washing their clothes, bathing, and doing whatever else they do in what is essentially their backyards. We saw more chinese fishing nets, tiny villages centered on the canal, giant flocks of eagles, a lot of people boating goods and people around and more palm tress that you can imagine. The wierdest sight was a village with a huge, strange, christmas light studded church. Throughout the village loudspeakers blared this strange chant. The language here sounds strange enough as is, and when it is droning over an entire waterbound village as the sun sets and hawks circle the sky, it seems outright surreal.
We ended in Kollum, another old trade town. Nowdays it is as busting as anyplace else in India. We stayed at the "government guest house". It was amazing- a hundred year old mansion wit it's origional dark wood and rattan furniture on sprawling grounds. The rooms were huge with a forchamber before the bathroom, a western and a squat toilet, and twenty foot high ceilings. Apparently government officials come here for holidays and the occasional lunch in the huge dusty public rooms. It's a dacha! A genuine communist government dacha! It's pretty amazing.
Sadly, we couldn't stay in Kochi forever, however tempting a prospect that was. We left for Allepy (Allupuzha) around noon. Our helpful rickshaw driver/tour provider/real estate manager helped us find the secret bus stand and we hopped right out of the rickshaw for a long local bus ride to Allepy.
Once in Allepy, there wasn't really a lot to do. We ate an amazing thali with puffy rice. The thali is an amzing thing. In America "thali" usually means they are going to want to charge you $12.00 for a few dishes and a scoop of rice. In India the thali is around $.50. For this sum, you get a metal plate (or, more often, a nice clean banana leaf...this is something we really have to pick up in the States. Cleanup is so easy. I may just start Santa Cruz's first banana leaf farm) with a big mound of hot steaming rice in the middle. It is surrounded by four to eight little metal dishes of vegetables, dal, yogurt, sweets, pickles, sambar, and other delictable wonderful things. Usually you get some chapatis or papadums to go with it. Sometimes they come with as many as five different types of bread, As you eat, people come around ladling out second (or third) portions and sometimes adding new things. You mix stuff with the rice and scoop it up with your right hand. It's a great way to eat until you get sick.
After the thali, we napped and walked around. The bazaars were full of spice traders. They'd crumble a muscat flower or cardamom pod and let you smell it. All the spice plantations are just up in the hills. I never knew cumin could smell so strong and wonderful. You can taste how fresh the spices are in the food here. No wonder the Europeans were so in to it.
We ended up in a palm grove by a lagoon. The moon was a pefect half moon, prompting the Canadian to only halfway sarcastically wax poetic about duality and yin and yang and all that. Apparently he is the best Tai Chi master in Bangkok, so I guess he's allowed that. The lagoon was full of these woven housboats that tourists rent out. We were in Allepy for the low-budget version- the all day backwaters tour. Suddenly a boat docked and they started pulling out all this film equiptment. We'd stumbled upon the end of a shoot. It's the third movie shoot I've seen so far. I know that movies are a big part of life here, but I underestimated how common movie shoots are.
The night ended on a less pleasant noteas I walked in to my room and promptly started screaming like a girl. There were no less than ten big palm-sized cockroaches and innumerable small ones- plus a few catapillers and a big red spider. Streams of bugs would scurry out of my backpack for the safty of under the bed every time I tried to pick it up and throw it out of the room. Needless to say, I found another room I could sleep in.
|Wednesday, September 22nd, 2004|
I guess I left you hanging there...
We only had to wait two hours in Calicut until we could get a nice luxery bus to Kochi.
Kerela is amazing. Nobody tells you this, but it is Communist. There are red flags and hammers and sickles everywhere. It is also prosperous despite a low per capita income. It has great literacy rates (Kochi has several commie reading rooms), a high status afforded to women (remnents of the matriarchal cultures that thrived here) and generally lacks the squalor and hopelessness found elsewhere in India. Plus, it's beautiful, with lush palm forests and scenic canals.
Kochi is amazing. I've spent quite a few days here wandering the spice markets (still very industrial- mostly geared towards pepper- the thing that brought so many colonizers here), eating fish steamed in palm leaves and smeared with increadably complex spices, watching strange spectacles such as a Christian parade complete with firecrackers and a brass band and watching beautiful sunset after sunset on the beaches (full of frolicing Indian families). Kochi really seems perfect- small and peaceful (especially after the last ferry leaves the island), a thriving arts scene (the only example of a living modern art scene I've seen in India), great food, friendly people and yet the tourists are contained and it is still very much a working city. I keep trying to think of ways I could get grants to live here- if only I could write a movie set here. I don't want to leave for a long, long, long time.
But I have to. Today me and the Canadian are heading off to the backwaters of Kerela.
A side note- The Canadian had a breif crisis because his ATM card wouldn't work at any Indian machines and he thought he'd have to go home. Luckly, Citibank, that bastion of civilization, worked.
|Saturday, September 18th, 2004|
The Canadian (who I've known long enough now to use his real name...from now on he's Kruger)and I bummed around Mysore a bit more. Mysore is a small busy town teeming with street stalls selling all manner of things. Some businesses consist of one guy with a fifty year old scale who'll tell you your weight for a rupee. Or a pile of lurid red fried fish. One guy had a tarp covered in twenty year old blenders and old rotary telephones. It's a hectic place, but pleasent for a busy Indian town.
We saw the temple, the sacred hill, the palace, the picturesque market, etc. I think every town in India has some combination of these things. All we needed was a fort and we'd have it all. The temples here have little price lists for how much each ritual costs. A marriage is 300 ruppees (about six dollars). Blessing your car is about 100, and a big truck or bus is 120. People stand outside hawking flowers and coconuts to offer to the gods (sometimes going as far as to shove the offerings in your hands). The guy that watches your shoes charges a rupee. People throw coins on to the plate during the fire blessing. There is a thriving business ferrying busloads of pilgrims on whistlestop tours of the local holy places. It all seems disturbingly commericial to me, but I guess I'm not really qualified to comment on other people's religion. Every religion demands money one way or another.
We spent the day looking for this mysterious "wonderful festival" with "old ladies making incense" that everyone kept talking about. We ended up at an elemetry school, where a kid offered to take us to see people making incense and bidis (small cigarettes). For five rupess it was a deal. He took us through the picturesque backstreets of Mysore to a small dark doorway. Inside was a two story building with old men working with small baskets of tobacco leaves. They roll 1500 a day. It's as low tech as it gets- I doubt the building even had electricity. In India you really get to understand industry. I always thought more stuff was made in factories somewhere. But so much is still made by hand.
We then saw a shop where they make sandlwood trinkets and furniture. All with hand tools. It's amazing.
The kid was cool (even if he did try to take us to "his uncle's shop), but one of his friends showed up and he was really annoying. We gave the kid his five rupees and ditched them. But not before he let drop this gem:
"In India, anything is possible."
At some point in the day, we eneded up at a Chai shop. Some old tootless man thought Kruger was from California. "Ahhh...the Eagles..." he said. For a moment I thought he was talking about our national bird (many people have pointed out that the Tiger is the national animal to me...they are more into that sort of thing than us). My fears were dispelled when he started singing "Hotel California". Kruger sat in this dirty old chai stall (where the chai is served by a one eyed boy) singing the Eagles with this old man.
At night it calmed down a bit, and we walked in the rain and ended up at an amazing reastraunt where you get a thali of about ten different dishes and breads for fifty cents. It's amazing. Our hotel (which, granted, did come complete with palm sized cockroaches and a reastraunt full of drunk men downstairs) cost a buck fifty. Dinner costs fifty cents. We're talking India on four dollars a day here.
The next day was a leadup to a big Ganesh festival. The streets were crowded- like Times Square crowded. Through the whole city. It was almost impossible to move around. When you think that there are cities like this- as crowded as this- throughout India- it's almost unthinkable.
I was eager to get out of crowded hectic Mysore and to the countryside of Kerala. We booked a nice big luxery state bus, with four-across seats (as opposed to the usual five and occasional horrible six). At eleven o'clock at night we showed up at the bus station, asked a few questions, and boarded to Kerela State bus.
Now, I should have known something was wrong. The seats were five across, and nobody seemed to impressed with the seat assignments on our ticket. I was confused when we kept making local stops, and people filled up the aisles. But I didn't figure it out until the ticket taker came.
We'd caught a bus to Calicut- a good five hours away from Kochi, where we wanted to be.
|Tuesday, September 14th, 2004|
I walked in to the ceromony a bit late, and took a seat in the back next to the rest of the confused looking Westerners that somehow ended up invited. There was a lot of chanting and religious stuff up front, but it was hard to see and kind of boring to someone who has no idea what is going on. But it seems like every kid in the village was there running around, rough houseing, and wreaking havoc. The parents didn't seem to mind. Kids here are generally well behaved, but their parents lavish attention on them and they can really do no wrote. It's kind of nice to see kids included in church, and not forced to be quiet or hidden away. It seems like kids are considered more of a fact of life here, and the things that they do in public don't raise eyebrows.
About halfway through the ceromony, the brass band started up. Then they did some stuff with throwing rice and fire and flowers, and put the idols on a small gaudy float, powered by a loud generator. We all followed it along (I think we were replaying Shiva and Parvati's wedding procession) through the streets. The very stoic temple elephant led things, and he was surprisingly calm in the face of a brass band and dozens of fireworks that were being set off right in front of him. At the end we were able to recieve a blessing from him in exchange for giving him coins (which he sucks up with his trunk before patting you on the head). It was really amazing to be in this medieval temple which is still in use, and to see what happens in village life when the tourists aren't looking. The hotel owner is a big man in the village (he was once mayor) so he has to put on these events every once in a while to confirm his status.
Throughout the whole procession, a four year old boy held my hand and occasionally veered off towards stores where he pointed at all the stuff he'd like me to buy him.
Then we stayed up late drinking chai and eating papadums and raita (finally, I found something to substitute for chips and salsa while I'm here) while talking to the French and Japanses tourists we've met on the way.
Then came my last day in Hampi. I did some low-grade temple exploration, and a bit of shopping. The little boys selling postcards are really persistant. Martin, the German, started joking with them by asking them for "ten rupees" and "school pen" (two common requests made by screaming kids). Then I started trying to sell them my postcards from Santa Cruz. I told them I was mean and I wouldn't buy a postcard until I was eighty years old. Pretty soon we were all friends, and every time I'd walk out they'd run out and say "Hey, American!". They'd even protect me from the other kids trying to sell me stuff.
The train ride started out pretty bad. Our tickets were actually unreserved, despite my insistance on reserve tickets, and it took a while to get gaurenteed berths. They ended up putting me in the ladies' compartment next to the American I've been hanging out with (a science writer). Unfortunatly we were also next to a bunch of very excited people singing songs, clapping, telling jokes and having a great time late into the night. I fell asleep to Keralan folk songs and women's laughter.
I also (all too) breifly met two young women from Bangalore. It was so refreshing to see such confident, well-spoken Indian women. They seemed to have such great hope for India, and seemed so excited about the way the future is shaping up to be. I'm used to most of the educated young people I talk to being rowdy boys trying to hit on me. I wish I could have talked to these women a bit longer.
Finally, the Canadian and I arrived in Mysore. It's chaotic and crazy just like any other city. Our hotel is a shabby but ungodly cheap ($1.50) guesthouse with huge dingy rooms on a busy street. The Canadian has been travelling in Asia for over a year- more like two years. I'm really jelous of his travels, and I hope I can do the same one day. He has tons of stories about Vietnam and Thailand (which sounds like a travel-friendly paradise) and Laos. And he's well-read, well-spoken and very observant of the culture and politics here. We read newspapers and discuss current events a lot. I'm lucky to have met up with such a good person to travel with.
We ate, walked around a bit, and then went to watch a movie. It was in Kannada, the local language. The state has banned non-Kannada movies for seven weeks in an attempt to boost the local industry. The theater was a huge fan-cooled affair with a ladies' section and sixty cent tickets. The movie was some sort of ghost story. It's nice to watch movies now that I understand the scenery, houses, cars and stuff. It makes more sense. It was fun to be in a loud racous movie house (lots of yelling and whistles- kind of like and old school melodrama). But I'll admit that we snuck out during interval (intermission). The train ride left us too tired and having a taste of Bollywood (or Bangawood, I guess) was all we really needed.
After a nap, we set out in the rain to this great covered produce market. It was full of fruit and incense and flowers and great heaps of colored powder. Someone dabbed me with perfume that smells like jasmine. I bought some new bangles and some bananas (as an aside- I must title a movie "hello banana".....a call you hear on many street corners). It was rediculously picturesque.
Speaking of incense, everyone keeps telling us about this "festivals" where "women age sixty eighty" make incense "this hour only. One hour they stop". Everyone from rickshaw wallahs to shopkeepers to stall owners. It's kind of suspicious and disturbing. At one point some random guy stopped us on the street (everyone wants to know where we are from, what are names are, etc. etc. The giggling women nervously shaking my hand are the best- they'd even run up to the train window at stations to talk) and said "you know this festival..." to which the Candian said "With old ladies making incense...." and the guy said "how'd you know?!?!" and the Candian then claimed to know everything while I giggled. It was great.
We went book shopping (there was a great bookstore with a great selection- we were just hoping for "Frontline", a great semi-scholorly weekly current events magazine that I hope I can get back home) and then to this place that claims to have 25 types of dosa. But it ends up they only had ice cream. So I had the "honeymoon special"- kind of an Indian spumoni full of dried fruit and various flavors of ice cream and we giggleed over the "what men want in sex" issue of the Indian equivelent of "Time" magazine. Apparently what they want is coy beautiful virgins in saris.
|Sunday, September 12th, 2004|
I am on the world's slowest and least reliable Internet connection (and it took stops at three net cafes to find a computer that could even dial in), so I am going to try to make this brief...
I took the train down to Anjuna in Goa, which is supposably the most happening place to go. But it's the off-season, and the town (beautiful thought it was with old Portuguese mansions set in palm groves)was very sleepy. The only sign of Anjuna's wild and crazy reputation was one small, completly empty beach restraunt blasting bad techno and glowing black lights across the empty beach late into the night. Well, that and the somewhat surreal experience of barefoot kids running down the dirt roads yelling "You like buy trance cd?"
Travelling alone is way more fun that I could have imagined. If I want to do something stupid, like walk down some wierd lane just to see what is there or eat lunch twice just to try something different, I can. I don't have to worry if anyone else is having fun, or what anyone else wants to do. I feel like I could keep traveling forever. I keep running in to people with six month visas and stories of Thailand and Laos...I hope I can come back soon. It's so tempting to just stay and wander. You are rarely really alone- travelers find each other, stick to each other and drift apart. I've met travellers from all over- even one that went to UCSC. The people I meet have been wandering around Asia for years. I'm jelous that they can afford to stop for weeks at a time here or there. But I'm still the youngest traveller I've met, so I guess I have plenty of time to go wandering around.
In Anjuna, I stayed at a simple guesthouse with a wide variety of animal and insect life in the room (frogs, lizards, millipedes...you name it) and a cool open shower (not so nice in the rain) There I met a talkative German traffic engineer and a Canadian physicist that lost his faith in physics. I spent a few days in Anjuna walking through beaches and palm groves, sipping chai (and once a ten cent glass of feni- the local cashew liquor...oh my!) in cafes and reading from the guesthouse's small library. Every once in a while, the sky would turn black and I'd nap for a couple hours at it rained.
Beaches are nice, but party beaches arn't so fun when there are nobody but bored tribal women selling gaudy dancewear and the occasional busful of Indian men hoping to see some skin on the beach. It was cool seeing the well-kept colonial bungalos and decrepet whitewashed churches overgrown with jungle plants. They are many Christians in Goa (which explains the availibilty of alchohol and even beef) but it is definately an Indian form of Christiany. The shrines look just the same, except there is an image of Jesus peeking through the flowered garlands and burning incense. The buses are adorned with bright gaudy signs saying "Jesu Christo" instead of "Hare Krishna".
After a few days, me, the German and the Canadian got a little restless. They were heading out to Hampi in Karantaka, so I did the same. I hadn't planned on Hampi, but the German swore it was a highlight of India (he's been here five times and spent literally years motorcycling up and down India) and I figured I had plenty of beaches back home, so I joined them.
The bus ride took all day. We travelled through the Western Ghat mountains- full of jungles and rivers and hints of tigers. Then it settled out into dusty plains. The dhabas here serve idli sambar and dosas and deep fried dough things instead of the dal and chapati of the north. As we rode into Hampi, night fell. The German knew of a guesthouse owned by the mayor with a nice rooftop restraunt. We rented some rooms (very nicely painted with murals of the gods- the owner is a big Shiva devotee) and slept.
When I woke up and stumbled up for coffee (espresso!), I was amazed. Just outside our rooms was a giant ornately carved temple. All around were strange rock formations. Huge boulders piled up in unlikely ways...as far as you can see. Strange golden mountains of smooth stones. Scattered throughout are hundreds of ruins. Five hundred years ago, Hampi was one of the most amazing cities in the world. I can't even imagine how glorius it must have been in it's heyday- miles of paved roads, beautiful temples and palaces. But it was completely destroyed by Muslim invaders. Now the ruins are scarred throughout the desolate surreal landscape.
There is a sinister side to Hampi, as well. There are rumors of theft and worse. They request you register at the police station (set magnificently in the temple courtyard) where the pictures of foreign hippies arrested for drugs and faded photos of wanted men are overshadowed by a grisly picture of a murdered woman. It's quite jarring in a country with so little violent crime. According to the mayor-hotel owner they've caught the people causing trouble, but the tourist maps still mark out areas that tourists should avoid, and warn not to go out into the ruins alone. But between me, the German, the Canadian and a small group of Japanese tourists that have attached themselves to us, we'll be fine.
Really though, none of that is enough to tarnish how amazing it is here. The nursury school is housed in the ruins of the old bazaar. The bazaar is still set in the old covered arcades leading up to the temple. Everywhere you go there are ruined temples with buxom women and scary animal-gods. The main temple is active twenty four hours a day. Even deep in the hills there are constant echos of bells and chanting. Processions march through the tiny town several times daily. the local tribal women wear backless mirriored shirts, pounds of heavy silver jewelry (including double nose rings) and put up their their hair in huge ratty pigtails with bells and colored ribbons woven in.
Yesterday, we walked up the river, to an abandon bridge. Hampi is a UNESCO world heritage site, and apparently they nixed the bridge. So it stands with a ten foot gap in the middle and rebar sticking out all over. Underneath is a jetty, where little round boats cross (people ride their motorcycles right on to the boats). We thought there was a Hauraman temple, so we crossed the river. We walked for miles and miles through a beautiful town full of rice paddies, ruins, fighting bulls (that part was scary) and huge mountains of rocks. It was increadable. We stopped for tea in a tiny village. Finally we reached the temple, which was on top of a huge hill. We were way too tired to go up. So we hopped a bumpy bus back to the nearest coracle jetty, where our boats raced the impending black rain clouds back to the bazaar.
I spent the evening drinking spicy milkless chai with a Kashmiri shopkeeper who told me all kinds of stories about the crazy foreigners he's met and his entire philosophy of life. It was a really pleasent evening.
Today has been really sunny, and quite hot. So I've spent it napping, recovering from the cold I've managed to pick up, doing laundry, finding a net cafe that actually has a net connection, and eating. Our hotel owner is sponcering a ceremony at the temple tonight, so he had the whole family over for lunch. He invited us and we ate rice, sambar, breaded fried peppers, a spicy pepper seed salad, jellobi and a sweet rice cake off palm leaves. it was increadable. It's hard to find local food in India. Most of the tourist industry serves up strange imitations of western food (gluey pasta, paneer covered 'pizza', Israli food, really bizarre things they call 'Maxican food' and things like jam-vegetable sandwiches) or cater to Indian tourists that want what they consider special occasion food- rich Mughul cusine with the occasional South Indian restraunt for variety. Most tourists are indian and want to get away from the stuff they eat at home. So it was a real treat to have the equivelent of Christmas dinner with the hotel owners' family. He invited us to the temple tonight. It should be intersting.
Hampi is a great place to stay for a while. The town is touristy, but the huge temple presence and amazing natural setting make it interesting. And there are infinate places to wander off to (with a small group, of course). I don't think you could ever see all the ruins. But tommorow night me and the Canadian are going to hop a train to Mysore, after which I'll head to Kerala. I'd rather see temples and different cultures (the south is very different than the north) than hang out on beaches that look the same as Mexico or Hawaii or anywhere else.
On a sidenote, I'm reading a book I picked up in Anjuna called "Ka". It's a retelling/explainations of/meditation on Hindu mythology. I've read lots of rundowns of the big stories and characters, but this book really get in to what it all means- what these people are actually worshipping about the gods- what the cermonies mean- and the motivations and personalities of the Gods that caused them to do the things they did. And mostly how all these stories relate to a philosophy of the world. Not only do I understand the Gods better, but I get how all these (to me) bizarre cermonies and beliefs jell together to form a very complex religion that makes some kind of sense. It's amazing how much more meaningful so much of the stuff I'm seeing is after reading this book. It's by Roberto Classo. Supposably he has one about Greek myths, too. I can't wait to pick it up.
Hopefully cell reception and Internet facilities will be a bit better, but I can't count on it.
|Monday, September 6th, 2004|
No time to update, but I want to give a quick rundown....
We went to Varanasi and I dropped my camera in the Ganges. Then we got stuck in Allalabad, where it looked like we might never get a train out. But we persevered and finally made it to Agra, where we saw the Taj Mahal despite the "scary forest" our cycle rickshaw driver insisted surrounded our hotel. Then I spent a few days relaxing in Delhi. Then we went to the Ellora caves, where we thought a rickshaw driver stole my luggage. It turned out he was only going to the mosque to pray and came right back with everything. We saw the Great Bombay Circus (complete with a sad looking troupe of Chinese acrobats and a few very incoungrous Western girls) before we boarded a train to Bombay. In Bombay, we got denied entry to Film City, walked up Marine Drive, took a rainy ferry to a rainy island and visited what is probably the best water park in the world.
Now I'm just waiting for my train to Goa. Jitu has stuff to do, so I'm on my own in the south. It's rainy now, so hopefully it will clear up soon. If not, I guess that will leave plenty of time for a full update.
|Thursday, September 2nd, 2004|
The next day we woke up and hiked through the jungle to the crossroads, where we caught a bus to the border.
The only thing worse than an Indian bus is a Nepali bus. Our bus was like tetnus on wheels. Not a single surface was free of rust. The seats were not secured. The walls were great peeling sheets of rusty metal. It looked like it was about to fall apart any minute. And it was packed in men with those Nepali hats, chattering women who had no problems staring right at me, huge sacks of grain and god-knows-what and cans of milk on their way to the nearest processing plant (a few hours away) in the aisle. No factory farms here. It was a long bone jarring journey.
We arrived at the border, where we were harrassed by about six different beauracracies (customs, Nepali immigration, Indian immigration, a random police station we apparently had to register with....) before we could get through. Once again, everything was done by hand in big books with cloth covers. But this border was much busier and the officials much more self-important, so it was a long process.
We ate a quick, kind of gross meal and hopped the next train to a major junction. On the train, a huge flock of college aged guys started talking to Jitu. We had at least twenty people in our little seat-for-six area. Jitu feels like he has to talk to everyone who talks to him- and everyone talks to him. He was a bit paranoid that they would do bad things to him if he was not as friendly as possible. I know Jitu knows India better than me, but he also tends to cause a lot more trouble than me. So he is contantly paranoid that everyone is out to make trouble for him. Sometimes his concerns may be justified, but judgeing from his stories it seems like he plays a pretty big role in the trouble he gets in. Sometimes it is annyoing how suspicious he is of everyone. Anyway, I just sat there reading. They just wanted to gawk at the Western girl anyway. Soon they left.
I forget the name of the rail junction we were in. Jitu had a friend there, and didn't trust the train and bus information he had. He was afraid we were going to end up in a bad situation. So he wanted to visit this friend who would probably have the best information. Knowing this friend was a girl Jitu's age, I envisioned a girl in an apartment. Of course, this is India and I was totally wrong.
It was a good forty minutes with a suicidal autorickshaw to get to her house. I stayed in the rickshaw while Jitu went in to the dark compound. He finally waved me in.
We took seats on a mattress in a small entranceway opposite a hand water pump. Jitu's friend and her husband quietly greeted us and served us dried fruit and these wonderful sweet pastries stuffed with nuts. We talked quietly by gas lamp light for a while. They wanted us to stay over, and since it was one in the morning and there was no way out of town that night, we agreed.
It turns out that Jitu and this girl had been close friends. Her parents didn't like this, and married her off as far away from their hometown as possible. Her husband owns a lot of land, but they live very simply. Everyone in her village is related to each other. Still, she is not allowed to the leave the home. She only has the roof to go to when she wants fresh air. She is a smart girl, but she spends all day in the small smoky kitchen cooking for her whole family over a cow-dung fueled stove. It's like slavery, and it is such a waste of humanity. It was hard to see. It was really hard for Jitu to see. She was very unhappy. I was beginning to think that maybe there was some equality in the whole husband-wife devision of labor. In the country, the man works all day in the fields, the women work all day in the home and the both work together for the harvest. In a world where everyone works hard on a small plot of land, it doesn't seem so unfair. But it is. That is one thing about the West. We have oppressed and married off our women like the best of them. But we have never secluded them. We have never kept them from having a public life. I can't imagine all those wasted life and wasted dreams. The women stuck as wives now are educated. They've seen more and wanted more. But still so many are stuck by honor and religion with noplace else to go.
She put on a brave face, but a few tears slipped out.
We slept up on the roof under the clearest stars ever. They have a four year old daughter, Arsoo, who is a joy to be around. She was playful and talkative and a bundle of energy. Although she didn't quite understand why I had no idea what she was saying to me. I must have seemed pretty dumb to her. It's maddening to not know the langauge. At night she cuddled between me and Jitu and declared that this is how she was going to sleep every night. Me, her and Jitu.
I hope Arsoo isn't married before she is fourteen. I hope she has a choice about her life. She is in school now. I hope that education is not wasted.
In the morning, it threatened rain. We packed up the bedding and moved in to the small dingy house. I can't believe how many people live in such a small place. I played with Arsoo for a while until breakfast. During breakfast Jitu's friend made paranthas on a cowdung stove. It's amazing how much skill these women have. I can't believe the meals they turn out on a stove that is just a small lump of clay with a hole for the pot and a hold for the fuel. But it was a sad scene. The kitchen was dark and dirty, and it must be unbearably cold in the winter. The smoke stings
We showered in the outdoor shower (a bucket and a handpump for water). By this time the whole village knew about us, and we were greeted by a bunch of toothless old ladies and playful kids. They were nice though, and respectful. Few of these people have probably ever seen a Westerner.
We caught a communal taxi in to town. Jitu's friend stepped in to the front courtyard to see us off. Her husband quietly asked her why she didn't stay in the house. Jitu told her that this was the last time he could come here. It was too hard.
We caught a bus to Varanasi.
|Royal Bardia National Park
We woke up that morning to sunny skies. I spent the early morning hours peering out my window at village life. The village is full of animals- pigs and goats mostly. Goats are big in Nepal, and you'll see kids herding huge herds of goats through the gentle green hills. I really like goats. They are so cute and playful.
There isn't a lot of privacy in village life in Nepal. You can hear people call their kids in at night. You know who is walking around with a flashlight heading towards a toilet. In the mornings, you can watch them comb their hair in the small front yards of their houses and bring water from the river. The women wear tight wrapped skirts, heavy beaded necklaces, tight low cut midriff bearing shirts and their hair in loose ponytails or wrapped in colorful scarves. They seem a lot louder and a lot more outspoken than the women in India. They travel on the bus and laugh and joke and point. They walk around that village and the streets just the same as men. They keep shops, manage the animals and live as much of a public life as men do.
The Westerner had already headed to wherever he was going. Jitu and I had tea and caught a bus in to Royal Bardia National Park. Once again we were stopped several times and passed many machine gun nests and roadblocks. They are keeping out poachers as well as insurgents this time. We ended up at the intersection of a tiny tropical town, where we sat watching peacocks with an old toothless lady until a taxi could come take us to our hotel at the gates of the park.
The ride there was rough. We had a couple kids and bike on the roof. We crossed right through a small river. The houses we passed were square thatch and mud buildings with buffulos in front and animal designs of raised mud surrounding the doors. This is true tribal land. Caste and religion are very important forces here. Most people are substinance farmers- mostly growing rice in small bright green fields. Although they are hoping for more tourism, few people make it out here. The villages are plagued by wild elephants that eat the freshly harvested crops. The villagers scare them off with drums in the night. If you order chicken at a restraunt, you have to order three hours in advance so that they can buy a chicken off someone.
We finally arrived at our hotel- Jungle Forest Hideaway, or something like that. It was beautiful. A tropical garden with thatched roofs over bamboo tables. The mud and thatch rooms were large with excellent bathrooms, cute porches with cushioned bamboo seats, mosquito nets and loaner flip-flops to wear around the resort. Each room had a little booklet with articles and advice about the area, the villages, and the wildlife. The large breezy restraunt/bar had a well stocked bookshelf and an extensive menu. It felt just like Hawaii. Flowers everywhere.
Except that it was completly empty. It was me, Jitu, and the staff of three that hadn't seen a guest in a week. They offered us coffee, and said they'd offer cold drinks...but they wern't currently very cold.
It's a shame. In a way I feel lucky. This is what every traveller is looking for. A place without a single tourist in sight- and with beautiful comfortable facilities to boot. But these people are trying to make a living. The villagers don't quite get conservation- as far as they are concerned, elephants and tigers are menaces. Tourism is one of the few things that can make these parks survive. And yet the tourists are staying away in droves. I can only hope that the situation cools off and tourists realize what a beautiful place they are missing. I wish them the best. If anyone wants to visit Nepal, I can certify that it is an amazing beautiful place, and that Royal Bardia National Park is a bit of paradise. I hope Nepal finds the peace it's people deserve.
We ate yet another dal-rice plate and Jitu slept in his cool comfortable bed while I read on the porch out front. Then we went off on a walking safari. I'll tell you ahead of time that we didn't see anything more exciting than monkeys, deer, and a distant crocodile. It was the wrong season. But our guides tried really hard, and it was pretty thrilling just knowing you were walking through a forest of wild elephants, tigers, and rhinos with nothing more than guides carrying sticks. In fact, that part was kind of creepy. The books in the rooms explain what to do if you do face hostile wildlife. It's not safe to be outside the resort area without a guide. Wow. Regardless, it was a nice walk through pristine jungle (well, the leeches wern't so nice). I never thought I'd see elephant grass that was actually frequented by elephants.
We returned by evening after stopping for sodas at an outrageously overpriced (they don't control prices of food in Nepal like they do in India. Jitu was upset, but I explained to him that gougeing captive audiences is a wordwide passtime) stall. It was cool to hang out with the villagers. The village around the park was big but spread out- lots of homes set on brilliant green rice fields. The people in the village were not overly interested in us, but they were friendly and always had a smile. There wern't hordes of kids asking for money and curious onlookers looking for handshakes like there are everywhere in India.
We ate at the resort restraunt (Jitu ordered his chicken well in advance- poor chicken!) and talked to the hotel owner late into the night. He talked about Maoists and Nepal. He (and a few others I talked to in Nepal) seemed especially interested in Cuba and how communism was working out elsewhere in the world. I think they have a sense that that is where they are headed. It is hard for them to get information out here- the radio reports are not timely or trustworthy and travellers are few. I showed him my postcards of Santa Cruz, and he was surprised that none of the buildings had thatched roofs. I couldn't really begin to describe what a roller coaster was. It's a totally different world.
I was bitten by a thousand mosquitos that night. They say Japanese encelpehlitis is not an issue unless you are in pig raising rice growing areas during the monsoons. Oops. Here's hoping all those mosquitos were okay mosquitos!
When I got to Nepal, I felt like I had come to the best place.
We took kind of an unconventional route. We entered from western Nepal. Most tourist don't do this as it takes them through the hotbeds of Maoist activity and there really isn't a lot to see out there. The ride there was long and rainy. We met a Western guy on the bus to the border that was headed the same places we were- although he was going to stay in Nepal for three months. The bus stopped a few miles from the border, and we caught a cycle-rickshaw across.
The process for getting a Nepali visa is pretty simple. They check your name in a big handwritten book of people that arn't allowed in Nepal. Then they write it down in another big book. Then they ask for thrirty dollars, peel a sticker off and put it in your passport, and give you a big stamp. I felt like I was crossing the border in the 1920s. It all seemed so archaic. I imagine when they have a new person that isn't allowed in Nepal, they just call all the border stations and they add his name to the book. I'm not quite sure what use a handwritten record of my entry in to Nepal at some obscure border checkpoint will ever be
One of the first things I noticed was that there was no pollution. The long shady road across the border was full of high school kids on bicycles. The girls just tied their dupattas across their back and rode just like the boys. There were no load engines and honking horns to cover the sounds of their laughter. Everyone was smiling and joking. Everything was green and cool and shady. The mountains provided a deep blue backdrop to the whole scene.
Nepal is a lot like India, but not as squalid. The villages all look like places you might want to be. The kids look happy riding along the street on buffulo and playing in the trees. There isn't garbage on the sides of the roads and the smell of sewage in the air. Most of that is that there arn't so many people. It's way more rural, and probably ultimately poorer than India, but Nepal seems like a peaceful bucolic tropical (the part of Nepal that isn't mountain is jungle) paradise.
Of course, it isn't that peaceful. While we were there, Maoist insurgents were blockadeing Kathmandu. The Maoists generally don't bother tourists- they intend on actually governing Nepal and they know when the do that tourism will be a major part of the economy- but they did recently bomb a five star hotel that was connected to the monarchy. Apparently in the hills, you will find villages of women. The Maoist go from village to village throwing parties and wooing people to their side. Then the men either join the Maoists or flee from the clashes that will inevitably happen. The word on the street is that the Maoists will win. Apparently when the military kills Maoists, they tend to empty a couple boxes of bullets. But the Maoists kill with just one.
Most people agree with the Maoists to some degree. They see that the big landowners are squeezing the peasents- often tricking them into signing away their lives and lands. Nepal has a high illiteracy rate, and people don't know what they are signing. People see that it is not fair that the big landowners should own so much when most people have so little. But few agree with the Maoist's tactics. They wish the fighting would stop so they could sleep in peace, and the men could return to their homes, and the tourists would return.
Our bus was searched about five or six times as we traveled through Nepal. Sometimes they make all the men get out and walk a half mile or so. Apparently military men have gotten shot on busses at checkpoints and this prevents that from happening so easily.
Jitu, the Westerner and I travelled through the beautiful landscape until we arrived at the muddy, rainy, and unusually inhospitable village of Chisopani- the closest stop to Royal Bardia National Park. We found a restraunt that had a few very basic rooms to rent (plywood walls, wooden beds, a bottle of kerosene for lights) and a great view over the tiny village (which was mostly made of tarps). The shower facilites were a bucket of water on the rooftop in the pouring rain. We ate a bland meal of dal (Nepali food is usually little more than dal, rice and maybe some pickles) and talked to the Westerner, the innkeepers friendly kids and a freaky strung out looking guy from Amsterdam. He was the first of the legendary drugged out burned out Westerners of South Asia that I met. I can't figure out for the life of me why he choose to crash in such a miserable village. As we ate, a couple of men from the army came by. The peered in the windows, asked where I was from, wished me a good time and went on their way. We had no way of knowing if they were military or Maoist (we later learned they were most likely military, as there is a high military presense due to a totally incongrous ultra modern strategic suspension bridge.
We slept uneasily that night. There were rumors of kidnapping and beheading around, and who knew if this was the time that the Maoist decided to stop taking care of the tourists. I stayed up half the night looking out the tiny window at the thousands upon thousands of fireflies that swirled around the valley. It's one of the most beautiful sights I've ever seen.
|Sunday, August 29th, 2004|
Just wanted to say I'm back in Delhi after trekking through jungles full of Maoist rebels and wild tigers in an abandon Nepali resort, dropping my camera in the sacred Ganges in Varanasi and finally seeing once and for all the Taj Mahal. More details to come...