Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Rain and Sunshine in a Bamboo Hut in Goa

hi everyone, i'm sorry i've been out of touch -- the places i've been have not been so up with the email and somehow the connections have been so slow that replies don't go through. i'm in bombay now, waiting for my flight, and wanted to send my itinerary and a brief rehash of my week.


28 sep lufthansa mumbai to frankfurt 2:50am to 7:50am
28 sep lufthansa frankfurt to dulles int'l 10:50am to 1:40pm

brief rehash:

sat in restaurants on the beach watching the rain, reading, writing, thinking, eating, drinking, meeting random people. sun came out for the last three days, so sat on the beach, played in the surf, got a sunburn, couldn't stand the pain of the ayuverdic massage post-sand-and-sunburn (even a few grains of sand felt like shards of glass being ground into my damaged skin -- OUCH!), ate, read, wrote, met random people, went for walks, talked to local merchants, thought. not a lot! which was just what i wanted. i met some fun and interesting people, some of whom i will keep in touch with and others whom i will remember fondly when i think of my time in goa. the folks i hung out with for the past two days are actually living in dc, so there is a chance we'll actually develop a further friendship on the other side.

now i am in bombay, as i mentioned, where i have done a whirlwind of a shopping spree -- not really a spree, but you know what i mean. the towns i was in didn't have some of the things stephanie and i wanted to bring back, so i arrived into the domestic terminal, took the shuttle to the international terminal, stored my luggage, grabbed a taxi to the bazaar area of town, wandered around a while looking for things and being ever directed to the wrong place. tons of people! so much activity! way different from delhi. way different from most other places i've been. on the way in we drove past miles of slums -- i didn't understand how many people really live like this here until i saw it. and that was just on one stretch of highway. shanty towns, really. make-shift single room dwellings, some (the luckier ones) with a bedframe on the street in front of the doorway -- this would be the equivalent of having furniture. wash in the street in full view of everyone. and here in the city center, everyone is moving moving moving, and it's infectious -- i found that i was rushing as if i knew exactly where i was headed and what for.

anyway, i'm going to sit and have a bite to eat before heading back to the airport to catch my flight. i'm exhausted (we stayed out late -- went to bed at 4:30am and up at 8:00am to pack and have my last shower for a while and get a bit of breakfast before catching a taxi for the 2 hour drive back to the goa airport and then here and i've just kept going and man i can't wait to fall asleep on the plane.

on that note, i'm going to end. will call everyone when i get in. actually, will probably just call mom and dad because i'll be really exhausted and jet lagged and i have an upper respiratory infection that i'm sure the travel and sleep derprivation will do wonders for.

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Sunrise on the Ganges

in varanasi, we stayed at a hotel in the nicer part of town because they were supposed to have massage, henna, and internet there. it was comfortable, but the people there didn't want to give us an extra towel and participated in a scam, which was super lame of them. that's to come.

that morning we went down to the river ganges and had breakfast with the other white people, then went to try to find one of the hindu temples mentioned in the book. we found it and went in, and i received a blessing with a branch, holy water, and vermillion stained water, and was given a thread around my wrist for protection. i think it confused people to see me walking around with that, because a lot more people spoke to me in hindi after that.

then we decided to head back toward the river to walk along the ghats (which, as i understand it, are basically docks where people walk down to the river and perform various religious ceremonies, wash clothes, and cremate bodies). on the way some man struck up a conversation with us and offered to show us to the once-a-week market we are so lucky to be here on the one day the market is open the biggest market we ever see just right this way down this narrow alley away from the busy street. stephanie and i thanked him and left, although he tried two more times to speak to us again. icky.

we went down to the river and walked. and walked. stepping carefully so as to avoid the obvious sewage and its products. the ganges is heavily heavily polluted with raw sewage, soap, and decomposing bodies, but it is considered holy water and pilgrims from all over india come here to bathe and drink. stephanie and i used a lot of purell that day and took very long showers. stephanie also threw out the shoes she wore.

we walked from assi ghat to the main ghat, passing on the way one of the secondary burning ghats, where bodies are cremated before the ashes are collected and, if the ashes are from the chest or pelvic area, strewn into the river by a family member. bodies are burned 24 hours a day.

from the main ghat we walked through the big bazaar to a place for lunch, which was ok. we asked there for a recommendation for threading (the indian equivalent of tweezing) and were directed to a place across the street. we asked if they did henna also and massage. at first they said no hand henna, only hair henna, and no body massage, only head massage. after our faces were threaded, though (it really hurt, and my face is completely broken out now -- i mean, like people you see as the commercial representatives for the "before" pictures in acne product advertisements, really bad) they said, oh, yes we do henna and yes we do do ayuverdic body massage. stephanie was going to get a manicure and pedicure while i had a massage and then we were going to switch. i got upstairs, though, undressed, and received what i am now angry to report was a violation of my body -- this woman definitely does not give professional massage. i should clarify. there was nothing inappropriate about the way that she touched me, only the fact that she is not really a professional massage therapist means that it was totally inappropriate and i feel violated for that reason. some random woman saw me naked and touched me and was going to ask me to pay for it! i was so angry. i realized fairly quickly that she did not know what she was doing and got up and left. and she had the nerve to request 50Rs for the part that she did do. audacious.

from there we walked back toward the bazaar to look for some trinkets and buy a pomegranite. then we went to a silk shop in the market, where we stayed for a couple of hours before heading back down to the ghat for a nightly ceremony that includes traditional religious dress, fire, and flags on the water. still not clear exactly what it is, but it was pretty anyway. then we had dinner and then we were going to head back to the hotel, but there were no autorickshaws anywhere to be found. after walking for some time, we hired a cycle rickshaw, but stephanie was extremely uncomfortable with it (it feels a lot less secure, particularly your first time and at night) and i noticed that he was heading in the wrong direction, so we paid him the fare and got off. we found an autorickshaw driver who would not negotiate and, due to the lateness of the hour, agreed on his price anyway.

the ride back was adventurous, and our driver a bit... off. he laughed a lot. and sang a lot. and laughed. somewhat maniacally. and ran over a cow's leg. and when stephanie pointed it out, he laughed again. it was totally bizarre.

next morning we were up at the crack of dawn for a boat tour of the ganges. this is a must do in varanasi. it's the hour when all the pilgrims perform their rituals, and the hour when the river looks the least disgusting. we had a knowledgable boat guide, which was good, and were able to view varanasi from a different perspective. we went to the main burning ghat and witnessed an old man, head shaved and in traditional mourning white loin cloth, sending the pelvic ashes of his wife's body into the ganges water. we also witnessed a body floating by -- the bodies that are not cremated (those of particularly holy people) are buried in the ganges, wrapped in cloth and weighed down with rocks that are supposed to keep them on the river floor, on occasion, the rocks are swept off, and the bodies resurface. it is not upsetting to anyone, not a cause for either alarm or distress, only a cause for calling the supervisor to come retrieve the body and re-weight it for reburial.

after the boat tour we went to a couple of temples, then stephanie and i managed to make it to mass at st. thomas (the first church we went to was closed, but we found an actual mass at a church near our hotel), followed by eucharistic adoration. it was beautiful.

then back to the hotel to have a speedy breakfast and head out to the silk sari shop nearby recommended by our hotel. we set the tempo from the beginning telling them that we had an appointment at our hotel at 11:30 and had to leave by 11:00am. we found a couple of very beautiful saris, and the prices shot up as soon as we expressed our interest. we really should contain our enthusiasm. that and be more aggressive in making sure that no random rickshaw driver follows us into the shop to secure a hefty commission for "bringing us there." we were suspicious of him (i noticed him following us from the street) but when we arrived someone told us that he worked there. maybe true in the sense that he has an arrangement with the owners to sidetrack unwitting tourists and direct them to that shop. but we were not aggressive enough about making sure that they knew that he was not with us, and i am certain at least 40% additional was tagged on for his commission. anyway, we were so frustrated by the end at their obvious manipulation and inflation that we left without buying anything.

when we got back to the hotel, particularly ready for the ayuverdic massages we had scheduled, we were told by the manager on duty (who was on the phone right then) that our massages had been mysteriously cancelled because the massage woman had family problems. stephanie reminded him that there were supposed to be two women, and did they both have family problems?!? yes, they both had family problems. yeah, right. as if we would actually then turn around and return to the sari shop.

we went up to our room to shower and pack and when coconut oil massage suddenly became available we declined. pretty soon it was time to get to the airport to catch our flight back to delhi. we had really bad airport food (which would make stephanie sick later on) and our pomegranate and boarded. in delhi we went to the international terminal (stopping once for said sickness), repacked my bag (thank you once again, stephanie, for carrying my stuff back!), and spent at least an hour trying to get through to a hotel for me to stay at for the night. no success. finally i decided to just take a taxi to one of them and try my luck. stephanie and i said our goodbyes and parted ways, stephanie through security into the western world of the international terminal and i back out into india.

i stayed at a place on the main bazaar which is total backpacker central. like khao sahn road in bangkok. and tons of israelies. it was pretty crappy, but cheap and a place to sleep until my flight to goa the next day. all i did was check email and sleep.

i planned to rise early and experience more of delhi, but slept right through and was running very late. and just my luck no taxis to the airport. i got into three autorickshaws (first didn't run, second asked too much, third was fine) and told the driver i had a flight at noon. by then it was after 11:00. once we got out of the congestion of the city center, he hailed a taxi for me, paid him, and saw me on my way. the taxi driver hit on me the whole time (blatant - just one kiss, please, just one kiss, you are very beautiful, i like you, please, just one kiss) but did get me to the airport just in time for final boarding call.

arrived in goa yesterday afternoon and took a taxi here to anjuna, a sleepy little town in a totally different part of india. rural, tropical, beaches and palm trees and bamboo forests. it's good. i'm in a small village called anjuna, where i will stay for another couple of days. dirt roads only, no street names, lots of small houses and a community of mostly roman catholics. nothing to do here, and by that i mean, nothing is what you do here. eat, sit, read, write, think and look out at the ocean. it's great. i'll head out to southern goa on thursday after the big flea market on wednesday. i'll try to write again in a few days.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

NB: The Taj Mahal is Closed on Fridays

we were starving by the time we arrived in agra, and stephanie had the splendid idea to treat us to a fine lunch at a nice restaurant overlooking the taj. we found the fine lunch and nice restaurant (in a fancy hotel where we were the only visitors who arrived by autorickety-shaw -- a dissonant sight against the clean, shiney, well-groomed grounds of the multiple star hotel) but had to sacrifice the view because for some reason the restaurant is on the ground floor. wow. it was really yummy. and such a strange feeling to walk into america -- that's what it felt like, stepping through the looking glass doors into a western land of fine decor, staff in costume, our reflections in the floor following us across the lobby past the huge bouquet of fresh tiger lilies and down the stairs past the rose petals floating in basins of rose water to our cushioned chairs and thickly clothed table with silverware laid out with proper etiquette. actually, it was just what we needed. that and the soft toilet tissue i took from the first stall in the bathroom.

from there we walked back out and our lemon of a rickshaw pulled back into the lot (not allowed to wait for us inside the gates of the hotel) and picked us up and took us to the back side of the taj mahal, a vantage point from which you can see the entire structure. he tried to convince us that we should first go to a factory, but humorously backed off to our repetitive chorus of no, no factories, no factories, no, no! "one more time?" he asked us. funny.

we went to the taj and soaked in its splendor, the only white people there on the rainy friday afternoon. we declined the camel ride, toys children were selling, but gave in to the man selling the powder bindi kits. i also gave in and bought a couple of other items, which are pretty funny things to buy outside the taj, but i plan to give them as gifts, so i'll leave you in suspense for now.

then back to train station to get on the overnight train to india's holiest city, varanasi (bananas? yes, i want some bananas. -- varanasi sounds a lot like bananas when pronounced correctly in hindi, and we were hungry for fresh fruit.)

more to come about varanasi...

Thursday, September 15, 2005

We'll Be Just Fine If We Never See Another Cow's Reproductive Anatomy Again

jaipur was really nice. we had a nice, comfortable room and friendly, helpful hosts (even if they were a bit slow with service). we arrived into jaipur in the late morning, and were immediately assaulted by several autorickshaw drivers who wanted to give us tourist information and take us to a hotel, anywhere in jaipur 10Rs my rickshaw madame. we made arrangements at the place i mentioned and were grateful that they came to pick us up. fixing our jaws and walking with determination, we rebuffed the persistant offers for help and were told to "be good tourists" -- to which stephanie replied with enthusiasm and a note of exasperation, "be a good autorickshaw driver!" we got into the hotel jeep and were whisked away from the swarm to our comfy hotel.

by the time we were settled in, in was late in the afternoon and we were ready for a massage. we went to one place that had only one man who knew ayurverdic massage, and was charging 900Rs for one hour. we thanked them and left, deciding to have a slow evening walking the street and window shopping from a safe distance so as not to be aggressively invited in for just looking, madame, looking free. we rounded a corner and happened upon another beauty shop, that did not do threading or massage, but that did have some shampoo that seemed like a reasonable replacement for the empty bottle i was about to be carrying around. i bought the shampoo and stephanie bought some henna. back out onto the street to marvel at the giant hogs grunting and nosing around in the garbage in the middle of the street. jaipur has the most diverse traffic of any city we've been to -- the usual autorickshaws, cars, cows, bicycles, motorcycles, people, the occasional monkey, chicken, dog, person pulling a cart, horse pulling a cart, donkey pulling a cart, a greater number of cycle rickshaws, and the new addition of hogs and camel carts. stephanie and i agreed that we would be just fine if we never saw another cow anus or vagina (these are at eye level when you are in an autorickshaw).

we walked around a bit more, stopped into an ayuverdic beauty supply store, and headed back to our room for dinner. up the next day and meet mr. abdul, the autorickshaw wallah (driver) we hired for the day. we needed to get to the travel agency to book our onward train tickets and return to delhi, and i to book my return to the us (i think most of you will be happy to hear that i am due to arrive in dc on lufthansa from frankfurt at around 2:00pm on the 28th of this month). what a hassle and a waste of time. indian inefficiency and "10 minutes only" turned our quick stop into a two hour sit and search for stephanie's jewel. we finally said that we would go and return later in the day.

our driver took us to a place for massage, where we each had a full hour ayuverdic massage (yes, the full body kind), and 20 minutes with herbal pouches dipped in hot oil as the massage instrument. it was great. and stephanie's hair looked awesome after the scalp massage part. :)

from there we headed out for a quick bite to eat (i refuse to own where) and then to see a site where a maharaja, his wife, and 14 of his children are all buried. we wanted to see the amber fort (actually, it turns out that we wanted to see the amber palace, a semantic mistake that would frustrate and exhaust us later), so we went from there past the floating palace and out to amber. our driver instructed us how to ascend the path to the fort (the elephants that usually carry tourists up the semi-steep path were unavailable when we were there because one elephant went a bit mad and trampled and killed a couple of people). we indeed ascended the path to the fort, which was not the 10 minutes that he had said, but closer to 45 minutes, this because we failed to turn into the destination we really wanted, the palace. the fort was lame, but it did have a nice view, and we did get some exercise. stephanie was tempted to take a camel back down (you know you are in a foreign country when travel by camel is an option to consider), but we decided against it in the end and walked. we were a bit bummed to have missed the palace, which is supposed to be very pretty on the inside, but such is the way of things, and we had to get back to the travel agency before close to make sure that we would be able to depart the next morning for agra and the taj mahal.

we retrieved our tickets and headed back into the old city -- the pink city as it is known because ithe entire city was painted pink in the early 1900s as a show of welcome for the british king at the time -- for some shopping. jaipur is famous for gems and textiles, and we went to look at gems. per the stephanie and raquel standard for shopping and bargaining, we took a couple of hours to decide on a few items, and by then it was late and time for dinner and getting ready for bed. we had dinner in the room again, recieved our gem dealer at midnight (he had to make some alterations and bring the jewelry by our room), and were asleep for four hours before having to rise for our train to agra.

back to the monkey station (tens of monkeys of all ages live at the train station. they climb, play, drink from the leaks in the pipes, eat of the crumbs and passenger-discarded bits of food, and occasionally are bold enough to run up and knock fruit or bread from the hands of unalert passers by) and on the train early. on the train we discovered that the taj mahal is actually closed on fridays, which was the day we were to be in agra, and we took some time to reconsider our itinerary. leave in the evening as planned and go to varanasi? stay overnight in agra and go to varanasi for a few hours before heading back to delhi? stay overnight in agra and return to jaipur? we decided at the station to skip the inside of the taj and continue with our original itinerary. a wise decision.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Al Pacino, The Prince, Mr. Omar, and Trang-n-Trangs in Kashmir

ok, so continuing from where i left off last time. (wait, i just got a permanent failure message from mom's work email -- apparently this ip address is in a spam list, and mom's work email won't accept it from me. would one of you guys please forward these two messages to mom?)

when i got to the airport, i bought my ticket and went to check in. it is important to note, i think, that no one in the airport proper asks for identification. just a ticket and boarding pass. but no proof of id. so i checked in and then went to go through security but was turned back to tag my purse. back again to try a second time, through the special line for women only (behind a curtain to retain our modesty) and sent back because i neglected to put my swiss army knife into my checked baggage. back to have them locate my bag, repack the knife, back again through the line, and finally on my way. a couple of hours later, i arrived in delhi at the domestic terminal. the international terminal, where i was going to meet stephanie, is actually 10km away. ugh.

so, i have to get a taxi (wait in a long line for a prepaid taxi, put up with that woman who unapologetically cuts right in front of me), and trek over to the other part of the airport. it was almost 12:30am, stephanie's flight was due in at close to 11:00pm, we had said if we didn't see each other by 12:30am we would meet at the hotel. i didn't see her flight listed and was concerned that she had arrived early and i had missed her. just as i was about to head to the hotel, i saw a pink backpack on the back of a very tall, light-skinned, extremely beautiful woman. i was so happy to see stephanie.

we got a prepaid taxi to the hotel we stayed at for the first two nights we were in delhi. it was super late by the time we arrived and though we were both really happy to be together, we were also really tired and ready for sleep. we got up the next day and decided to find breakfast and decide over breakfast where to go from there. the previous night when we were checking in, though, the hotel dudes had mentioned that there are a lot of tourist agencies so that if we wanted to know where the government agency was they would show us, it is right around the corner and just let them know. i should have known when, as stephanie and i were on our way out, the guy at the desk said, are you in room [-whatever our room was-]? you want the government tourist office? yes, i will take you now. way too interested in making sure he took us. am i setting the stage for a more developed story? oh, yeah. stephanie and i thought we'd get a map and head out because we were really hungry. but once we passed through those doors of the "government tourist agency" everything changed...

enter "al pacino", a smooth talking, joke-telling, charmer of a man (who first claimed to be named osama bin laden) who would convince us, along with "the prince", and manzur, that we could not miss the himilayas at this time of year. this part, at least, was true, and we do have al pacino to thank for our trip to kashmir, both the good and the bad.

where were we going? we mentioned what we thought our itinerary would be. why did we want to go to kolkata? it is just another big city. why were we not going to the himilayas? this is the best time of year to be there, and how could we come to india and not see the most beautiful mountains God has created? his recommendation: go trekking in the north for five days, return to delhi and from there drive to jaipur then to agra then to varanasi and then return to delhi. he could give us a deal, and it would include all of this stuff, and we would do this really great two week tour. stephanie and i said we wanted to go for breakfast and discuss, and that we would come back after.

now, you all know what my thoughts are about tours. i much prefer to do it on my own. i am skeptical about the value, and i prefer the independence and flexibility of doing it myself. i also value the self-sufficiency aspect of independent travel, which is one of the reasons that traveling alone is so therapeutic for me. but the himilayas sounded like a good idea, and stephanie was inclined to reap the benefits of tour-guided travel, i.e. not having to do it on our own, not having to deal with finding our own taxi, buying our own tickets, getting ourselves to the stations, arranging our own lodging. i said i was willing to do it that way if it was stephanie's preference because i had time on either end to travel the way that i like to travel. we both wanted to go hiking in the mountains, but neither of us had considered it mostly because it is so much farther north it just didn't seem like it could be part of our two week itinerary. once it seemed feasible, we were both really into the idea, and many people both at home and in india and given us this same advice about traveling in the mountains at this time of year. we decided that we would negotiate a lower price for the himilaya part of the trip, and that we would only commit to that portion of the tour and decide after the first half whether to hire them for the second half.

now let me give a quick run-down of the next week, since we are running out of time here at the internet place. i'll fill in with more details when i can. [i just finished the run-down draft and have a couple of minutes left so i will start to fill in a bit...]

they sent a man back to the breakfast place at which we were eating (another indicator?) to escort us back to the office, where al pacino sat waiting for us along with a man we call "the prince." shefir is al pacino's real name, but he really does look a lot like al pacino. the other man i don't even remember his real name. we call him the prince because he looks like he could be royalty from the colonial era -- hair slightly waved, parted in the middle and flat against his head, a well-groomed moustache with the slightest hint of an upward curl at the ends, and very smooth, proper, polite english. between al pacino and the prince we were only able to negotiate down to $15 above our asking price, but then they included hotel and dinner (although now that we are here they are not making good on the dinner part) on our return to delhi, and we accepted the first half of the tour. al pacino described it: today, tour around delhi, you will see the red fort, the lahore gate, humayoun's tomb, and the old city. tomorrow morning , you are picked up at your hotel and driven to the airport for a breathtaking flight into srinigar. someone will be there with a sign that says "saroki" and will take you to your houseboat on nagin lake, where you will stay for four nights, with all meals included, but trekking is extra. [we asked three times how much a trek would cost, and he was, on reflection, very evasive; he gave us a range between $20 and $60 a day depending on what we would do]. after your four nights, you will be taken to the bus stop, you will have a mindblowing bus ride back to delhi, where you will be picked up and returned to the office.

so the rundown version of the next few days: had a "tour" around delhi, were picked up the next morning and taken to the airport where we were through security and on our plane within 15 minutes (once again, no id check). we flew into srinigar, kashmir, where we were greeted by manzur's father and brother-in-law and driven to nagin lake, where we would be sleeping in a house boat for the next several nights. srinigar was a lot like afghanistan-- predominantly muslim, a military presence, women in headscarves and more than a few in full burqa, men in shalwar kameez, mountainous, poor, cattle in the streets. missing were the bombed out buildings, but otherwise, very much a kabul feel.

the first day we didn't do much, just ate with the family and had tea, napped, and then argued and caused a scandal because we refused (and actually expressed how offended we were) to pay the exorbitant price they asked for three days around srinigar. "the manager" (a 15 year old boy, very smart, articulate, excellent english) asked $170 per person (!) for an itinerary that we knew we could d for about $50 each. they tried to intimidate us with safety concerns into accepting their package for a minimum of $90 each, if we paid for our own pony ride and cable cars. we refused, and were not invited to have dinner with the family that night (or breakfast, lunch, or dinner on any of the following days thereafter).

stephanie and i donned our head-scarves (stephanie actually looks very natural in this kind of attire, and were it not for the fact that she is about a foot taller than most women here, she would blend perfectly), and, side-stepping some additional attempts at manipulation, found our way to dal lake by way of auto-rickshaw. from there we went to the tourist office, across from which is a tourist taxi stand which has posted, fixed rates to several popular nearby destinations.

enter mr. omar. the first day we went to gulmarg, a nearby mountain, for a cable car ride up to the top (but not the tippy top because that's a bunch more money), a terrible packed lunch of stale bread and nasty butter and bruised pears (as stephanie so aptly pointed out, passive aggression on the part of our hosts) and a bit of hiking around (we got "bit" by some poisonous plant -- my finger was numb for several days) and enjoying the vista of the entire valley. beautiful. supposedly from the tippy tippy top on a clear day you can see K2, but not from where we were. second day we met mr. omar again and went to sonamarg -- one of the top three most beautiful places i've ever seen. we rode horses guided by a man in a heavy long burlap-like tunic and his young son. it was just breath-taking. it was a cloudy day and we both commented that it looked like it was out of a tolkein book. we had tea, hiked up to this "glacier" -- not really a glacier, since glaciers float in water, but a big chunk of ice in the side of the mountain that has been melting in such a way as to form a sort of cave at the mouth of this soon-to-be mountain stream -- entertained a bit (funny faces, trang and trangs), and headed back. next day, we planned to get up early to go to the floating vegetable market (we had tried but failed the previous day thanks primarily to a torrential downpour right when we were supposed to go) which is only out on the lake at dawn for about two hours. we did get up early, to stephanie vomiting. we decided to sleep in, and soon i realized that i was also really sick. but we wanted to go to mass, so we got up, found a bus that would take us near the church (there are, as you might expect, only a few churches in the area), asked a very very handsome young man where to get off, and made our way to mass in time fort the last half.

then we were to meet mr. omar for a city tour and some shopping, but i was really having a hard time, so stephanie went in and did all the hard bargaining and i stayed in the car and slept. after she had done most of the hard work, i went in and did a bit of my own negotiating to get really great christmas gifts for the women in our family. i think you will like them! then we went to get some chicken soup, but i couldn't sit up so i had to leave the restaurant and lie down in the car. i threw it all up as soon as we got home. i was actually relieved to confirm that i had a fever since i was worried that i was just being a wuss. i had some oral rehydration, pepto, ibuprofen, and went to sleep. i didn't get up until the next day, which was yesterday, but seems like today because all we've done since then basically is sit on a bus and poop in squatters in small towns on the road between kashmir and delhi. 27 hours. oh, yeah. we got back to delhi today, went directly to the hotel (part of the package) and decided not to even return to the tourist office. we took 1.5 hours to get through traffic to lunch, and then came here where we have been doing email for three and a half hours. just enough time to give this run-down but still not enough for all of the details!

tomorrow we are getting an early train to jaipur, and from there we will go to agra, and from there to varanasi. and we'll do it on our own.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Pondicherry to Chennai

hi everyone! i know it's been forever since i have written, but that is good news because it's because stephanie and i have been having very full days together.

when was the last time i wrote? if the below is the most recent messgae, then it has really been a long time and i have lots to report.

(NB: this computer is a bit slow, and i type faster than the screen registers. i'm going to not worry about correcting the typos because of the delay)

ok. so last time i wrote was before i went to auroville. the day i went turned out to be the day that the major interesting sights are closed, so that was a bit of a bummer (supposedly the largest whole crystal in the world), but you still get a feel for the place. it really is a commune, with people from all over the world. it is a whole little community with schools and health centers and cafeterias and everything. they are all about self sufficiency and responsible alternatives to environmental devastation. pretty interesting. there is also a requirement for having attained a certian level of... i don't know exactly what the word is... it's what you work toward... enlightenment i suppose. you have to be particularly enlightened and super committed to the yoga to live there. i'd be interested to talk to some of the kids that grew up here and see how they think about the world and interact with it.

anyway, from there i went back to pondicherry and met up with the guy i mentioned in the previous email and his son (14 years old) -- the only way i would agree to meet him was if it was public and not alone. he offered to bring his young children and i thought that seemed pretty safe. so i met them and they took me to this place -- alright, get ready -- to get my nose pierced. i know! i mentioned i was thinking about doing that, but i wanted to know where to go, and so i asked around from ladies around here and these two took me to the place that are friends of their familiy. it hurt! and i brought my own disinfectants -- even though he passed it through the fire, i had him use my stuff as well. i got the smallest they had. i wonder what y'all will think of it. i think it looks nice, but maybe makes me seem younger. stephanie thinks it looks good, but she's my friend.

after the nose piercing we met the rest of the family -- mom, dad, brother, sister, niece -- and i had tea and shared photos with them and they had me take their pulses and look over their medical records. i tried my best to explain that i am really not qualified yet to give any medical advice, but i did give some general health advice to the dad who is in his late 70s and has heart problems. no yolk, stop smoking, no fried foods, fish is good, cut back on meat, cut back on salty foods. they were just lovely. we took photos, they gave me a bindi (to indicate that i am married, which is my story when i travel alone), braided my hair and pinned lilacs into it (all the south indian women wear these ropes of lilacs in their hair and it smells just wonderful), and everyone invited me to stay with them the next time i am in pondicherry. they describe their home as large, which i suppose it is for indian standards, but anyone from the states would consider it a very poor, small place in moderate disrepair.

from there, we went to a friend of the family's to look at saris. basically it was a dress-up session for me. this woman dressed me in a turquoise sari (the top was way too tight, and she shoved my boobs in and forced it closed -- interesting how differently people view personal space and bodies in other countries), rebraided my hair, added bangles and necklaces and put a bit of red powder on my forehead as well. then we all took photos together and laughed and had a good old time before i left. i had intended to buy a sari, but the top was just too tight and i couldn't communicate that i wanted to buy one that was larger. i gave her 50 Rs as thanks, which felt a bit weird, but it's all i have to give as gifts here, and i know that she could use it. the fitting was in her home, which is a thatched-roof hut, with dirt floors, one room separated into two with a couple of pieces of furniture. the whole place (where she and her son and maybe a husband? live together) is no bigger than my bedroom in brookline, maybe even a bit smaller. and these are not the poor, at least not here. this gives you an idea of how much poverty there is here. this family is not one that is considered to be suffering in poverty -- they do have a tv set, after all -- and they are happy and clean and would never consider begging in the street.

i thanked them and we set off for a quick bite to eat before he took me back to my hotel (brake for monkeys crossing the street!) so that i could get ready to leave the next day.

back to the room, shower and pack, writing a bit and enjoying the last night out on the balcony, then to bed. up early the next day and took an autorickshaw to the bus station to catch a bus back to chennai. so difficult! i joined a crowd of people on the platform and when the bus arrived a rush of people crammed to the doors and windows and there were no seats left before i could even blink. one man told me that we would get the next bus and it would be better. i followed him to a different platform where we waited and another bus came and another crowd of people forced their way onto the bus (not even waiting for the arriving passengers to disembark) before the bus was even stopped in the platform. one more bus and on the fourth bus i was able to put my bag in through the window to save a seat. funny how this works, but it does. i sat next to this man who was nice at first and quickly became too nice. total invasion of my personal space -- "but we are good friends now" -- actually, no, you need to move over. it was fine, but irritating. 3 1/2 hours later we arrived in chennai, and i caught a rickshaw to the hotel i had booked for the night i was going to spend there before meeting stephanie in delhi..

the first rickshaw driver asked for 150 Rs. i said i would pay no more than 100. he said no, 120 that's the lowest. i said 100 finish. he let me walk on. the next guy asked for 250! that guy just said 120. no i no the area and you cannot go for less than this. i said i will pay 100 to get there, there are many rickshaws. the next guy agreed to take me and everyone got angry at him and yelled at him and he just kept his head down and we went.

my room there was small but clean, and i was able to shower and change before heading out to meet some of the folks that dr. velandy had wanted me to met. the first i met was gopal, who is a ham radio operator and is clearly rich, at least for indian standards. he lives in a two story penthouse with a balcony garden and has a servant. it was the first place i've been that could have been in a wealthy country. he was very kind, funny, sympathetic, and offered to help me in whatever way he could if i am able to return.

from there i went to meet vani, another of dr. v's folks, over at her place, and with her i went to meet v. pushpa, dr. v's sister. we had tea in dr. pushpa's home, which is much more modest. vani and dr. pushpa are characters! vani is this very elegant and somewhat eccentric older woman, tiny, giggling all of the time, joking and laughing and with a spunk that doesn't quit. dr. pushpa has a very calm and serene presence, she sits very straight, speaks slowly and quietly, and is absolutely hilarious. it's quite unexpected to hear such funny things coming from such a personality. and the two of them together are quite charming and amusing. they are very very good people, very warm, very easy to be with. i enjoyed them immensely and regret that i did not have more time with them.

they arranged for me to get back to my hotel and also arranged for a friend of theirs to come and check on me to make sure i got back ok. late that night i went out to make a phone call to lynn and to stephanie, then back to the room to go back to sleep and get ready to get up early the next day for the visit to loyola university, where i met with other folks through the dr. v network.

again, these people were absolutely wonderful. i think i will not spend too much time here writing about that, only i will mention that i am still struck by the different perspectives we have on what is important... oh, i don't know how to say what i mean. i am thinking here of the work that they do and the setting in which they do it -- dirt, concrete, very old very basic furniture, fans, few computers, often doing without electricity (until the generator kicks in) -- and comparing that to our standards for an environment conducive to doing good work. but they do do good work. i'm not being very articulate. i will have to think about this more and write again on that or talk with you about that when i have more organized thoughts.

from there i went back to the hotel (i had one of the guys there call the rickshaw for me and arrange the fare, then i get in -- this way i don't get the "white face mark up") so that i could get my stuff out of my room by 2:00pm which was check out time. then i stored my stuff at the front desk and went to do email -- wait, why didn't i write then? or did i? -- i think i only had time to do work-related email (i still haven't finalized my plans for the next several months, though i am supposed to speak with lynn this week). from there i went to call lynn, and from there i went across the street for a lassi. a young woman came up and asked me to buy medicine for her grandmother for 700Rs. i said i couldn't and she asked me to buy her a kilogram of rice for 500Rs instead. i offered to buy her a lassi. she asked me to buy her some shampoo. i said i was sorry. she accepted the lassi and thanked me and i went into the restaurant i had lunched at the previous day (i didn't even mention this yet, did i?) to touch base with the friend i had made there the day before -- shankar.

this place serves thalis (sort of like a grab bag -- they give a set variety of the foods they have that day) on banana leaves. you eat with your hands (actually, just the right hand since the left is for wiping (!) -- everyone everywhere does this here) and get as much as you like. shankar had offered to show me around, blah blah blah, but i did enjoy his company so i went back to visit a bit in the hour i had before i had to head out to the airport to get my flight to delhi to meet stephanie. we had yummy masala chai and talked a bit and then he arranged a rickshaw to the airport for me and i was off...

Sunday, September 04, 2005

Not to Give. I think.

hi again. so the new policy is to be retired, but i'm not sure what policy ought to replace it. after i left here, i walked down toward the botanical gardens and first came upon the church. i went in, had a look around (errata: the sign reads: YES to The Lord is a YES to suffering) and heard the sound of a baby crying around the corner. it sounded so terrible, i went to see what was wrong. on the other side of the gate was a small child, motionless, naked, covered in flies, on a blanket in the street. an old woman was next to him, and another child holding a baby. a very young woman who must have been the mother was there as well. i gave them 80 rupees and turned as a crowd was beginning to gather. they called to my back, "madame, madame!" and i kept walking with my head down and eyes shut. i suppose they figured i would have to exit at some time, and by the time i left the church several minutes later, an even bigger crowd of children, women, and some men as well (this i found a bit offensive -- grown, healthy-looking men reaching over the heads of raggedly dressed children). i gave more, but no one was satisfied. i tried to move forward, they followed, tugging at my clothes, asking for more. i still had to walk away shaking my head and saying "i'm sorry."

from there i found my way to the botanical garden's which was a welcome change from the city streets. huge beautiful trees and plants, benches, rocks to sit on. i wandered around a while, people-watching, and then sat and relaxed a bit before heading back toward my room. i walked east to the ocean, and sat along the promenade. several men and boys came up to me and requested that i take their photo. people love to have their picture taken, even though they will not see the result. with digital cameras it is a bit different because they can see a miniature right away, but still... anyway, i took their photos, gave to another old woman, and then was drawn into conversation by a rather modern looking indian man who spoke fairly good english. he reprimanded me for giving to the beggars, and we got into an entire discussion about it. i confessed i had given away all of my money -- 400 Rupees -- and had not eaten lunch. he shook his head and explained that i am encouraging people not to work, and am supporting the raising of children who will learn that begging is the way they should get money. he told me that there are many many organizations, missionaries, public works departments that provide food, shelter, education, health care, and that they are underutilized. he said it was ok to give to crippled people who can't work, but that i am part of the problem because i encourage people to keep begging in the street rather than accept work or help from these local organizations. i was discouraged. what is the right thing to do in this place for these individual people? am i really being part of the problem? i decided i'd start asking other indians about this.

so the indian guy invited me to dinner with his friends and offered to take me to auroville (more about that place later), which of course declined. i am surprised by how many men think that women in foreign countries would travel alone with a man they just met anywhere. i mean, really.

i went back to the room, showered, wrote, and took a nap before dinner. i went down to this restaurant around the corner from where i am staying that has a nice roof-top seating area (where, if i'm not mistaken, kenny g was playing in the background). i waited for an hour for my meal before requesting it to go since the gate to the hotel closes at 10:30 and it was 10:15. very annoying. and the table next to me had been waiting for 2 hours for their food to come. too bad. the food was good and the atmosphere was nice and the staff were pleasant, but the service was just ridiculously inexcusably slow. turned out well for me, i just took it back to the room and enjoyed it out on the balcony overlooking the ocean and enjoying the breeze.

this morning i asked some other folks about the giving of alms, and again was told that i should not give except maybe to old crippled people. they had the same arguments that the other man did -- that there are many programs to help but that these people make more money by begging than many people do by working and so we who give encourage begging as a profession. there were stories about beggars dying with thousands of rupees stashed away (i'm not sure where the stash is), men who would adopt a terrible story about a sick wife and make a bunch of money in city after city, and stories about families sending out their children and elderly to beg and bring back the money as a condition for staying in the home and being fed. i'm sure some of these are true, but how many? and how should i factor that into what i do as i meet these people on the street? maybe i feel better to give something, because it feels so terrible to walk past and say no, but if giving is really part of the problem then i ought to accept those bad feelings and do the right thing. i just don't know. what do y'all think?

ok. now i am going back to the hotel to read before heading out to auroville. auroville is an international community -- a commune, really, recognized by unesco as a model for international living. should be interesting.

ok everyone. i hope you are all well. love you.