Some photos from Thailand

19 03 2010

http://picasaweb.google.com/thefifthchamber/BangkokPhuketAndPattaya#

More to come, from the Chiang Mai part of my trip to Thailand. Depending on your tolerance for looking at travel photos, I realize that this may or may not be a good thing. ūüėČ

A real entry soon. I promise. Maybe even tonight, if I’m feeling restless…





Watermark

23 02 2010

I have been in Phuket for 9 days now, and I still do not know how to get to the local beach, which is reportedly walking distance from my hostel.  If I were the type of person who enjoys long lazy afternoons in the sand and surf I probably would have sorted out some directions by now, but I prefer shade and solid land and more coverage than a bathing suit offers Рboth for me and for the people around me.  I dislike swimming, I hate sand sticking to my body, and I am repulsed by the prospect of getting a tan.  As you might imagine, this significantly diminishes my dating prospects back home in sunny Southern California, and it does little to explain why I would tolerate the high cost of living in Los Angeles when I do not take advantage of one of the main draws of the area. 

So, why would I pay a lot of money to vacation in a place known for gorgeous beaches, when I ignore them completely when they’re practically in my backyard?

Well, because I wanted to learn how to scuba dive. ¬†It is not as counterintuitive as it sounds… scuba diving does not involve sand, and when you’re underwater the sun¬†is little more than¬†nice overhead lighting for viewing¬†marine life.¬†¬† I love being close to nature and I love aquariums (the big kind that you pay admission for), so diving seems like a good way to¬†experience the best of¬†both.¬†¬†I’m pretty sure I would not get around to doing such a thing in Los Angeles when there are so many land-based activities with non-aquatic friends to enjoy, so spending over a week at the beach in Thailand was the only way: I would have nothing to do BUT learn how to dive.¬† Brilliant.

Oh, but the swimming part…

My parents paid for many summers of swimming lessons when I was a child – probably not because they¬†hoped I would one day¬†have a beautiful backstroke, but rather to¬†ensure that their daughter’s death by drowning would be¬†one less thing¬†for them¬†to worry about.¬† Despite these efforts, I still managed to lure a fully-dressed woman into the pool by flailing wildly in the deep end at some kid’s birthday party when I was 8ish.¬†

My skills have progressed to include a¬†hybrid stroke (something¬†between the American¬†crawl and the¬†“doggie paddle”), a slow-moving backfloat,¬†and¬†treading water without looking like I am two gulps of water shy of requiring CPR.¬† Fortunately, these three things were about all that was needed to pass the swimming test for scuba diving.¬† And really, scuba diving is not like normal swimming… it involves fins and a mask and breathing apparatus, so getting around is easy and that whole pesky face-in-the-water part of swimming is avoided altogether.

Or so I thought.¬† It turns out that masks sometimes fill with water, or get kicked off.¬† When you’re 18 meters below the surface, a mad dash up to cough out the water you just inhaled is not an option.¬† After several attempts that involved ingesting large quantities of pool water I managed to pass the portion of my scuba class that involved mask malfunctions, but was still concerned about the possibility of this happening during a dive…¬†however, I¬†was determined to continue, and began planning a dive style that involved one hand on my mask and the other in front of me to ward off anything that might knock it loose.

My instructor was not pleased with this solution on our first ocean dive, since hands are supposed to be held peacefully clasped at your waist when they are not checking instruments.  So I modified my technique to include watching him closely for signs that he was about to turn around, so that I could resume the proper pose.

In the end, however,¬†my major problem had nothing do to with my mask.¬† The whole time I had been diving – even in the 3 meter swimming pool – I had been having trouble equalizing my ears.¬† On that first 9 meter dive, it was worse.¬† By the second dive, I could not even make it to 3 meters without significant pain that my attempts to equalize would not correct… so the instructor and I agreed that it was best to not continue until I had it checked out by a doctor.¬† I went the next day, and an ENT used some fancy equipment to show me my bloody and bruised middle ears magnified on a computer screen.¬†¬†Steroids and antibiotics were prescribed.¬† She encouraged me to try diving again after a checkup to make sure the problem is cleared, but I’ve had time to come to terms with the fact that my best option for exploring the sea might be snorkeling…¬†which is pretty awesome as well, and does not involve problems that can’t be immediately resolved by lifting my head¬†a few¬†inches.

________________________________________________________

The trip to Phuket has not been in vain, though… I made some awesome new friends at my hostel, and several of us are¬†meeting up for round 2 in Bangkok.

I was not looking forward to dorm-style hostels at first… the idea of sleeping in a bunk bed in a room with several other people seemed so undignified, and promised to be awkward in mixed gender accommodations.¬† And it is awkward to walk in on my male roommates in their underwear, but not unpleasantly so.¬† It’s kind of like living in a few episodes of a reality show: strangers from far-flung places share close quarters in an exotic location.¬† Drama and hilarity ensue.¬† Alliances and outcasts are determined¬†by mysterious (and sometimes not-so-mysterious) undercurrents.¬†

_______________________________________________________

Airports are such fabulous places Рeveryone with a story to tell.  In Kathmandu, while waiting on my flight to Delhi, I spotted a woman dressed in a strange array of maroon and red fabric with dreadlocks piled on top of her head to make a beehive, but with a small unmatted ponytail in back.  Odd.  I snuck a photo.  I was curious about her, but not curious enough to approach her.

The flight was delayed again, and all of the passengers were invited upstairs to eat lunch.¬† There were not enough tables for everyone to have their own, so I chose to sit with her… it turned out that these “strange” clothes and dreadlocks were the attire¬†of a Buddhist nun.¬† We ended up spending the next hour talking about past, present, and future incarnations, the six realms of Buddhism (http://tinyurl.com/ylavpaj), and what my¬†self-professed happiness in this life means (her answer: ignorance, said in the most positive and cheerful way possible).¬† On the plane, she switched seats so we could continue chatting… we talked about her choice, at 20, to¬†renounce the typical life of a young Austrian woman¬†in exchange for¬†this life of asceticism.¬†¬†In turn, she asked about the direction of my life; when the subject of children came up and I mentioned that I may adopt someday, she paused for a moment before telling me about the dilemma she faced when – after deciding that she was going to follow the path of a nun – she discovered that she was pregnant.¬† Once a year, she visits the 17-year-old daughter that she gave to an Austrian couple in an open adoption.

Any way that I could tell you about my experience with this woman, other than by giving you the cold hard facts, would fall so short of describing it.  The closest I can get to letting you know how it felt is by saying that, when the plane landed and she told me to have a good life, it felt more like a heartfelt blessing than a farewell. 

Such wisdom and peace.





Photos from Nepal

20 02 2010

http://picasaweb.google.com/thefifthchamber/Nepal#





Curry Pie

7 02 2010

I had a wonderful tour guide today in Kathmandu… not just due to the knowledge he imparted about the sights, but also thanks to our long conversations about Nepali culture.¬† One important thing I learned today: given the opportunity, Nepalis¬†will be¬†all up in your business,¬†no matter who you are.

The conversation went something like this:

“Traveling alone isn’t so bad… you meet interesting people along the way.¬† I made friends with two Germans in Pokhara…”

“You had two German boyfriends in Pokhara?” (based on an earlier conversation, I knew that by ‘boyfriend’ he meant ‘guy a girl has slept with’ rather than ‘guy whose company a girl enjoys’)

“What?!”

“I knew you had one boyfriend, but I didn’t know he was German.¬† And I didn’t hear about the second.”

Let me clarify. ¬†I made friends with a 20-year-old German guy who has a girlfriend (and whose assessment of my looks was, “in Germany, we call your hair color ‘street dog blonde.’¬† But ‘dog’ is too nice of a word… what would you call a really dirty dog that nobody wants to touch?¬† A mongrel?¬† Ok, your hair is ‘street mongrel blonde’ then.”¬† I would have liked to come up with a snappy retort, but really the only criticism I could have offered would have been, ‘yeah?¬† well you’re… skinny…’).¬† I also made friends with a 69-year-old German lady who lives in France and who told me stories about her life/how my life will be in 38 years.¬† She’s incredible, and she invited me to stay¬†at her home in Provence this summer.¬† I wasn’t planning to go to the south of France, but do you think I should try to swing that?¬† Yeah.

Ok, so back to Cederic… I met him¬†at a cafe, where we started chitchatting¬†like fellow backpackers tend to do.¬† We ended up¬†doing some sightseeing together since that sort of thing is more fun¬†with company, and we were both traveling alone.¬† When he told me that his hostel had no hot water and he had no nail clippers, I offered to let him use my shower and my swiss army knife.¬† This involved me showing him up to my room, telling him which unmarked travel-size container held my shampoo, handing him the knife, and then heading downstairs to use the internet so he would have some privacy.¬† I thought the only risk I was taking was that he would run off with my backpack full of dirty clothes, but instead I should have been worried¬†that the¬†presumptuous jerk at the front desk¬†of the hotel would call my travel agent in Kathmandu to tattle about the steamy affair that I was not actually having.¬† And then I should have worried that the travel agent would¬†proceed¬†to¬†tell my tour guide – whom I had not yet even met – that he was soon to make the acquaintance¬†of the type of girl who would¬†seduce strange men after having been in a new town for only a matter of hours¬†(winkwink).¬†

I mean, come on… I was¬†in plain view in¬†the lobby.¬† If I were to¬†be up to something naughty, wouldn’t it make sense for me to at least stay in the room with the guy?¬† Logistically speaking, this was¬†the worst non-affair I’ve ever had.¬† And it’s convenient that they left out the¬†German lady that I was also seen spending time with; I guess there wasn’t a juicy enough explanation for that one.¬†

Anyhow, lesson #2 about Nepali culture is that Nepali girls must be very vigilant about their reputations.¬† Once I told the re-told the story in context to my guide, he¬†said that, regardless of explanations, a Nepali girl would have completely ruined her marriage prospects with this kind of speculation being spread through the community.¬† Plus she might be disowned by her parents¬†if they caught wind of it… which, of course, they would.

My lesson to him about American culture is that you cannot assume anything, ever.¬† The most innocent-seeming person might just be the best liar, or the most experienced at covering a trail.¬† The person that you think is doing all sorts of “bad” things could¬†have a ton of misleading evidence against them,¬†since it would not occur to them to hide something for appearances’ sake if there is nothing at the root of it¬†for which they should be ashamed.

I also just realized that, when I told my travel agent¬†yesterday that I was meeting up with a friend of a friend while in Kathmandu, he probably added this to the fictitious list of my slatternly acts.¬† I’m sure he would¬†be surprised to learn¬†that I¬†spent the evening with¬†the man’s wife and 13-month-old¬†son as well.

______________________________________________________

My German far-from-lover had also just come to Nepal from India, which is part of what got us talking.  I asked him about his experience as a Westerner there, and (among other things) he told me about his conversations with Indian men about foreign women.  It is apparently a common misperception that foreign women are very promiscuous, and that if they are willing to talk to a man in a friendly manner, they want to sleep with him. 

This idea was backed¬†up by my tour guide today, who claimed that when he takes women on treks through the mountains, he could sleep with 9 out of 10 of them if he wanted to.¬†¬†I must point out¬†that this is a¬†5’6″ greasy-haired 27-year-old guy with a premature Ganesh¬†potbelly¬†and a case of rotting teeth that made for some very unpleasant time in the close quarters of the car.¬† He is also a¬†virgin who says that he knows he will be good in bed on his wedding night because he has watched porn.¬† If a foreign woman were to come to Nepal wanting sex,¬†he is not likely to be a part of her target demographic.

This idea of promiscuous foreigners¬†has a bit of truth¬†to it, since there are¬†accounts of women who do want to get laid while on vacation… but these guys totally overlook the hundreds of foreign women that they and their friends have had conversations with who did not subsequently¬†hop into bed with a local.¬† They cling to the story about their one friend who one time met one woman at a club who happened to be¬†American, and they had sex… and all of a sudden¬†every¬†lone female traveler is a¬†loose woman prowling¬†Asia¬†in search of some garam masala, or spicy pickle, or what-have-you.

______________________________________________________

Another lesson from my tour guide: “95% of South Asian guys who date Western women are looking for either sex before marriage, which they can’t get from a South Asian girl, or they want to get married for a Green Card, and they will divorce her after they get it.”

I do not believe this statistic, but it did make me laugh even harder when he joked that he would buy me a ring that I looked at as we passed a street stand if I would marry him, and then later tried to talk me into letting him take me on a trek.

_____________________________________________________

Earlier this week, somewhere high above Pokhara:

I spotted a flat spot off to the side of the path, covered with a nice layer of leaves.  I briefly fantasized about joining them to decompose for a bit.  It was only half an hour into my 9-hour trek through the Himalayas.

As I am ashamed¬†to admit, my commitment to physical fitness has all but disappeared since starting this trip… but in my defense, I was also way above sea level, with a sinus infection, and my travel agent had failed to mention that the first 2 hours of my journey would be all steps, and steep steps at that.¬† He did tell me that the¬†trek from Pokhara¬†to Dhampus¬†was one typically done in two days instead of one (2 hours from Pokhara¬†to Sarangkot, then 6 hours to Dhampus¬†on the second day), but imagining myself to be¬†the hardy sort, I insisted on going the extra mile(s).¬† After all, when I visited Havasupai I hiked 7 hours out of the canyon!¬† What kind of wussy only hikes 2 hours?

Except somehow, my overly inflated ego had overlooked the fact that¬†the 7 hour hike out of the canyon was mostly flat, with about an hour¬†of stairs at the end.¬† And those were wide and short stairs… not like¬†the brutal climb I was facing on the way to Sarangkot.¬† Quite literally, I was stopping every¬†few steps¬†to catch my breath.¬† Fortunately, the hike from Sarangkot to Dhampus was much easier – though with another 40 minutes of nothing but stairs at the end.¬† All of this with a backpack, made even heavier by the guilt of watching wrinkled little Nepali¬†mountain women¬†hustle past in flip-flops with giant baskets of dirt and bundles of wood strapped to their heads.

Of course, all of the work made the view at the end even sweeter… but I have to say that I’ll be mighty tempted to take a car next time… especially now that I know that the trekking guide is probably hoping he’ll get more than a tip in exchange for his help.





Pics from the Golden Triangle

5 02 2010

Delhi, Jaipur, and Agra… http://picasaweb.google.com/thefifthchamber

I’ve already taken 300+ photos¬†in Nepal… it’s that good, but of course my little point-and-shoot does not do this beautiful country justice.¬† And don’t worry… I’ll narrow them down a bit before posting.¬† ūüėȬ† I’ve been mostly in Pokhara so far, but I return to Kathmandu tomorrow for some sightseeing.¬†

By the way, I’m always looking for locals to hang out with in these places I’m visiting, or friends who can meet up with me along the way.¬† So if you know of anyone or you have some vacation time to burn, drop me a line.¬† I’ll be keeping the “travel dates” page updated as my plans are dreamt up, changed, and finalized.





Bosom “Buddies”

1 02 2010

Alternate title: “How I Was Felt Up by Three People on the Same Day.”

This kid – probably 13 or 14 – ¬†rides up beside me on his bicycle.¬† “What’s your name? Where are you from?”¬† These are typical questions, and I answer them politely.¬† Then he says, “kiss me.”

“What?!”

“KISS me.”

(laughing) “No!”

“Please kiss me.”

“NO.”

And then he reached over and grabbed my boob.¬† So I hit him.¬† I wish I had punched him¬†hard enough to knock him down, so that I could¬†give him a stern talking-to,¬†and maybe steal his bike as vengeance (kind of like what I would do to the cab driver¬†two entries back… hmm, I’m seeing a trend…).¬†¬†However, I was in too¬†much in shock to think about how to react,¬†and he was already taking off… so all he got was a feeble slap on his shoulder as he rode away.¬† Little bastard.

Even though this was one of the less offensive gropings I could have experienced in India, it still left me feeling icky.  If this slimeball is already so awful as a teenager, imagine what a disgusting adult he will be.

_________________________________________________

I had my first and last ayurvedic massage in Jaipur.¬† It involved a wooden table that looked like a medieval torture device, a vat of hot oil, two masseuses, and¬†a small strip of¬†stiff, paper-y fabric held around my waist by a string.¬† They handed this bit of apparel to¬†me and shooed¬†me off into the bathroom to “get changed,” but after I put it on, I stood there wondering if I really was meant to wander back into the massage room in all of my near-nakedness.¬† After all, this is a very conservative country… surely there is a towel for me to put on as well?¬†¬†I scoured the bathroom,¬†but there was nothing.¬† So I went out, and was instructed to sit on a stool for my head massage.¬† Still, no towel was produced.¬†¬†I sat there in my paper¬†panties getting my head rubbed by one woman while the other puttered around the room, getting things ready for what I now feared was going to continue to be an uncomfortably¬†vulnerable experience for me.¬† When the head massage was over, they had me lie face up on the wood table.¬† Still no towel.¬† Shit.¬† “All a part of the authentic experience,” I thought to myself, as they commenced rubbing things that I thought I would never hire a person to rub.¬† When it was time for me to flip over, there was so much oil on me and on the table that they each had to grab an arm as I turned, so I wouldn’t slip.¬† Now, face-down on all of this oil, I had to hang onto the top of the table as they rubbed so I wouldn’t slide away.¬† I was clinging to my last shred of modesty, now that my breasts were no longer exposed and I had 4 inches of¬†cloth covering my ass.¬† This modesty was completely demolished when they untied the string around my waist.¬† Of course, it was way too late for a towel at this point, but that did not stop me from spending that 30 minutes wishing for one.¬† When we were all done, they mercifully retied the string before helping me up from the table and escorting me to the shower, where I soaped and shampooed twice in an effort to remove all of the oil… but I think I needed hardcore dish soap rather than the organic herbal stuff I was given.¬† While I showered, they came in and out of the bathroom to draw water from the sink to wash the massage table.¬† Normally, I would be upset by uninvited company in the bathroom as I showered… but now I was just happy that there was a curtain between us.¬† When I finally emerged, still greasy, they descended upon me with a blowdryer, then parted my hair in the middle and dotted colored powder on my scalp and sent me off with a blessing.

I was asked to fill out a comment card in the lobby, but it was not big enough for me to explain the cultural divide.

__________________________________________________

When checking in at the Jaipur airport for my flight to Kathmandu yesterday, the young woman helping me looked at my¬†passport and commented that I look young for 31.¬† Then she asked if I am married… and then asked if I have a boyfriend… and then said she didn’t believe that I don’t, and asked if I ever have had a boyfriend… this was all getting rather personal, but since she had buttered me up a little, I was happy to go along with the interrogation.¬† After she finished checking me in, she bade me farewell with a wish that I find my soulmate soon.¬† Huh?¬†

People in India are very interested in the topic of marriage.¬† And if you’re 31 and unmarried, this is cause for concern –¬†regardless of the person’s relationship to the singleton in question.¬† There seems to be a disproportionately high number of people who also think that they can read palms or otherwise “see” things about you, and they always have an opinion on one’s marriage prospects.¬† You do not need to ask for their insight, or pay them for it… it will come up in conversation.¬† A shopkeeper will start speculating about your life with a faux-knowing look in their eye, or someone will casually ask to see your hand in the middle of small talk, and then start manipulating your fingers and folding your palm to see the lines better.¬† Next thing you know, they’re predicting that you will meet the person you will marry this year, or furrowing their brow at a reading that says marriage is not in your future.¬† I had these two experiences within days of one another.

________________________________________________

¬†I¬†spent three weeks in India, and¬†all I got was this lousy cold.¬† Well, and a lot of jewelry, as previously mentioned.¬† I could really use some lotion-y Kleenexes, but they¬†don’t appear to exist in South Asia… so I’m stuck with toilet paper that isn’t even close to being Charmin.¬†

Other than cushy paper products, here is my list of things I miss about the U.S. so far:

1.) Readily available wine; preferably of the high-quality but cheap variety.
2.) Reliable electricity.
3.) Central heating.

That’s it.¬† I’m sure the list will grow as this year goes on, but for now I am pretty happy in this crazy little corner of the world.¬† I saw a quote the other day… something about wanting to never feel at home while traveling.¬† On a short trip, that’s an excellent idea… but when traveling as long as I am, I think one would go crazy with that approach.¬† I am trying to spend at least a week each place I go, with the hopes of having downtime and feeling a little less lost in unfamiliar surroundings some days.

I took a bus to Pokhara today… a nice bus, without¬†people spitting… and spent the afternoon wandering around.¬† Tomorrow I also have no plans, but then the following day I will do some sightseeing.¬† My last two days here will be spent on a short trek.¬† You would think the Himalayas would be freezing this time of year, but it’s actually t-shirt weather during the day, and sweater weather at night.¬† Kathmandu was a bit colder, but still not too bad.

Oh, and it is gorgeous.¬† ūüôā





“After we are to marrying, Green Card will coming no problem.”

29 01 2010

Men in India definitely do not have committment issues, at least when it comes to American citizens.¬† And they are quick to put things on the table… without any prompting or encouragement,¬†I have been told¬†the following by various men here:

a.) Approximate net worth, although this includes anything owned by their brothers and their parents, since “family” in India means “ours” rather than “mine.”
b.) Future plans for their career, including their imminent move to live with me (completely uninvited, mind you…) in America.
c.) They will graciously provide me with multiple children.¬† When I ask, “what if I don’t want children?” they look very confused.
d.) They have always wanted an older woman… apparently, I am over the hill in India.
e.) I am the most beautiful woman they have ever seen.  I am a dream angel.  I look like one of the Kapoor sisters.  If that last one is not true, does it negate the first two as well?

In any case… if any of you¬†U.S. passport holding ladies¬†out there are tired of American guys’ BS and¬†would like a man who kinda sorta owns 3 rickshaws, a car, and who lives with his parents, let me know and I will make some arrangements.

 ______________________________________________________

I’ve been spending a lot of money on jewelry on this trip: $225 in Mumbai, $230 in Jaipur.¬† I did this with the intention of giving some of these things as gifts, but deep in my heart I know that I am actually keeping all of the sparkly earrings and the pretty rings and the lovely amethyst necklace (ladies, if you really want something from my trip, see offer above).¬†

So, when it came time to plan my trip to Agra yesterday, I was faced with keeping my hired driver for the 10-hour round-trip drive (also see section above… this could make for an uncomfortable day…) for Rs. 3500 – about $78 – or taking a bus, which is practically free.¬† Feeling guilty about Wednesday’s splurge, and convincing myself that taking a bus is all a part of the “authentic experience,” I opted for the latter.¬†

An 8:00 bus actually leaves at 8:36.¬† A 5-hour drive is actually 7, by bus.¬† The diesel fumes left me with a noseful of gray snot.¬† A man spat on the ground in the aisle across from me.¬† The rest stop in the middle means a place with no running water or soap (so I can’t eat any of the food, other than prepackaged chips and chocolate¬†– bummer), and the “toilet” – which I know I said I would not write about again, but this is an integral part of my Indian bus experience – was a concrete cubicle short enough and in-the-middle-of-everything-enough¬†that I could see all of the vendors and fellow miserable bus denizens over the top of the wall.¬† There was not even a hole in the ground… there were two bricks to stand on, to keep your feet out of the pee.

I always thought that the Indian tradition of taking off one’s shoes before entering homes, houses of worship, and some businesses was a good idea.¬† Now I realize exactly how important it is in this country… you truly never know where those¬†things have been.¬† When I returned to my hostel, I kicked off my shoes outside the door.

_______________________________________________________

The Taj Mahal – my whole reason for braving the bus ride to Agra – was as beautiful and amazing as I hoped it would be.¬† It is a study in symmetry – a mosque on one side is mirrored by an almost identical building on the other.¬† The Taj Mahal itself is as wide as it is high.¬† The arch of the gateway entering the complex echoes the arch of the front of the Taj Mahal… which to give you an idea of how large the¬†centerpiece is, when you look through the gateway at the mausoleum, it looks like another arch of the same size, just on the other side of the gateway.¬† Then you walk through and realize that the Taj Mahal is actually quite far away, and¬†your visual¬†perspective has played a trick on you.

Someone pointed out that a temple in Jaipur is much “better” – it is also white marble, and large, and striking… but it was completed in 1988, as opposed to being built in the 1600s, which is much more impressive in my book.¬† The temple in Jaipur is also covered in carvings and sculptures, but there was such a gorgeous simplicity to the Taj Mahal – as a mausoleum, Muslim tradition says that it cannot be elaborately decorated.¬† And the fact that it is, at it’s core, a grave¬†is part of what makes the Taj Mahal so moving… this was not built for God, it was built for a woman.¬† May we all find love that makes us want to do great things, and be loved by someone who wants to¬†do great things for us.

_____________________________________________________

Jaipur, due to its proximity to Agra and some pretty impressive sights of its own (and by that I do not mean just the jewelry stores), has a lot of tourists.¬† So people here are very accommodating, and in some cases¬†they expect¬†that there is some money in it for them when they are… one notable exception being a man with a burlap sack full of past-their-prime vegetables at the monkey temple.

The monkey temple is a long, winding walk up a hill to – you guessed it – a temple, and along the way there are lots of – wow, you guessed it again! – monkeys.¬† There are¬†plenty of local kids that will try to follow you up, claiming that they will protect you from the monkeys for a few rupees.¬† There are people selling¬†peanuts for the monkeys at the base of the hill.¬† And then there was this guy with the burlap sack, offering me free veggies and entertaining me by¬†making the monkeys clown around to get food.¬† I did not believe his claims of “free,” but finally caved in and started feeding the monkeys.¬† A hungry cow headbutted my rear-end in an attempt to get in on the fun.¬† The man offered to take photos and video for me.¬†

I had not planned to pay him (since a deal is a deal) – but he was so wonderful that I tried to give him 50 rupees, when 20 would have been enough.¬† He refused, which brings us to the topic of Indian hospitality…

If you are¬†the guest of an Indian, they will give you their bedroom to sleep in, even if you are just a friend of their kid or of their niece.¬† You are welcome to visit their home anytime, and they will feed you and give you lots of tea.¬† In some cases, they will present you with spontaneous gifts, even if it is the first time you’ve met.¬† They will make sure you get where you need to go, arrange tickets to events, and they will call friends to find out where you can stay in another city.¬† They will tell you when you cannot eat any of the food available at a given place, even though you are starving, but it is because they are more worried about your health than you are.¬† If you were to get sick, they would take you to the doctor.¬† You will be offered chai in stores, free tours in exchange for a chance to practice English (and no, he would not accept money either), and strangers will occasionally walk up to you to welcome you to their country and ask if you are happy here.¬† Maids will smile at you as they squat to polish your floor.¬† Cooks will¬†take note of the fact¬†that you like two cups of tea in the morning, or eggs over easy, and that is what you will be served every subsequent morning until you tell them you fancy it any other way.

On the bus from Delhi to Jaipur (a nice bus Рnot like the Agra bus), the man checking tickets tried to charge me 25% extra because I did not have a printout of the ticket I had bought online.  The three Indians in my row all pitched a fit on my behalf, until he finally gave up.  When we arrived, a fourth person offered to let me use his cell phone to call my ride from the bus station.

Oh, it’s wonderful.¬† Americans could learn a lot from Indians about making a person feel at home.

________________________________________________________

I did go to yoga the other morning, by the way.¬† But only because I would have been ashamed to admit to you that I hadn’t – all of the anonymous hits on my blog are kind of a silent accountability partner.¬† It was not like American yoga, with a sexybendyperson talking in soothing tones about “listening to what’s right for your body today” over new-age music under dim lights… it was a mustachioed skinny Indian guy who would not accept that my elbow did not want to go on the opposite side of my right knee and concurrently grab my right ankle as I twisted my entire body around to face the back of the room, while my legs remained crossed in front of me.¬† He was also not ok with the fact that my feet, while sitting with them pressed together in front of me, could not be pulled all the way in to touch my…¬†ahem…¬†root chakra.¬† There was no music, and the lights were bright and fluorescent.

Indians could learn a lot from Americans about yoga.





8:30 a.m., Delhi

25 01 2010

Safety while traveling

When I tell people that I’ll be traveling alone this year – which I have not been, thus far, but will be, as of today – they suddenly go all parental on me and start warning me of the dangers that face me in this big bad world. “I know, I know…” I reply, as if I were a teenager again. It is good that they tell me about the two handsome men who invited two American girls out for dinner in Sao Paulo and then robbed them at the table, after sharing a nice meal and good conversation. And good that they tell me about cabs that can only be opened from the outside, and the driver takes off into the middle of nowhere to rob a person and then abandon them. And good that (I’m not making this up) I am warned about how barracudas like shiny objects, and I should beware of them if scuba diving with a headlamp, because a friend of his had her scuba mask bitten through by one of these little beasts and lost an eye, then had to wait a week to be med-evac’d out of Thailand. People need to be careful in unfamiliar places, and stories like these help keep one mindful of that.

But what about all of the good stuff? The times people can be trusted, and the times that travelers have emerged from adventures more than whole? Now, before leaving I did joke about how I’m planning on getting sick and robbed and lost in foreign countries on this trip, so that when it happens I won’t be too upset. I’ll just say, “well, I knew this would happen.” And to some extent I still think it will, but I’m pretty sure it will be far outweighed by the amazing things.

This is all a pep talk, by the way. I’m scared as hell for me, too.

My brother bought me a small taser for Christmas. I don’t think it will work on barracudas, but I imagine it would put a cab driver out of commission long enough for me to climb into the front seat and escape. No wait, make that: shove his worthless, unconscious body from the car (and possibly deliver a swift kick to his left kidney) and then drive away in sputters and jerks, since his taxi is probably a stick shift and I kind of suck at driving those.

Health while traveling

I have been meat-free and alcohol-free for an entire week now. It was not my goal, in coming to Delhi, to detox, but I guess my body might be cleaner now. I don’t feel any different, but I’m kind of proud of myself… however, given that neither of those things was available anyhow, I suppose I don’t really deserve any credit for willpower.

I imagined myself dropping weight while traveling, due to being on the move as well as certain problems travelers face when visiting this part of the world. I also came here with plans of crunches/push-ups/etc. in the morning and yoga at night. But so far I’m eating without restraint (other than ordering a plain naan instead of a butter naan at dinner the other night), my body is digesting everything without a peep, and I have excercised for a combined total of 11 minutes. Even the walking part hasn’t panned out… with rickshaws for less than a dollar per trip, and dangerous street crossings, it just makes sense to not bother. I think that my chai-swilling habit is probably the healthiest thing I’ve adopted since arriving in India: it has antioxidants, you know.

The family that I’m staying with manufactures and distributes ayurvedic products (www.kamadhenuayurveda.com), so I’ve been learning a bit about doshas. I am Vata-Pitta, which roughly translates to, “forgetful, mercurial, and needs to be fed often.” It’s nice to have a new way to explain my shortcomings.

Northern India has been quite cold and damp… temperatures dipping so low at night that I piled on two pairs of long underwear, a sweater, and wool socks, then climbed under two blankets and pulled the electric heater close to the side of the bed. Bathing has been dreadful, due to limited hot water paired with an icy house… I caught a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror during one particularly frigid shower (the one before I decided that daily baths were completely unnecessary), with an expression fit for a certain other shower scene, set in the Bates Motel. The damp air results in laundry and used towels staying wet for days – which, when I didn’t realize that my wash would not be ready the next day, resulted in a shameful amount of time between underwear changes.

Language while traveling

I taught my friend (and host) Shikha the term “TMI,” which of course would be a useful response to stories like that last one. My whole trip to Delhi was a wonderful lesson in exactly how complicated American English can be… all the little ins and outs of how we speak can be completely bewildering to a non-native, even if they are fluent in textbook English.

I know a few words in Hindi, but it’s not a language that one can screw up without worrying that one is saying something completely rude and/or filthy. For example, the word for “small” (or is it “short”?) sounds an awful lot like the word for “fuck.” So when I was asking Shikha’s grand-aunt for a small towel to wash my face with the other night, I resorted to¬†charades rather than attempting to ask for one in Hindi – because the translation was likely to be, “give me a fucking towel” instead of, “could I please have a small towel?”

It’s the kind of thing that is more funny to imagine than to experience, I’m sure.

Wildlife while traveling

Creatures I have seen so far in India, that I would have to go to a zoo to see in the U.S.:

Рan elephant crossing the road, on the way out of the mountains in Tamil Nadu. 
– a wild boar… which my friend tried to argue is not actually “wild,” but if it does not belong to someone, I maintain that it is wild
– a flock of green parrots
– at least two different kinds of monkeys
– a herd of camels… which were not exactly in their natural habitat, as they were being ridden by a troop of border patrol guards, but still…

Every time I see something along these lines, I get very excited, point, take photos, and then tell people afterwards what I have seen. Shikha pointed out that this is not unlike the reaction that people in her grandmother’s village in Haryana had to me yesterday. I felt like the pied piper at one point, with a group of kids following me down the street… and again like a celebrity, with the photo requests and handshaking.

Driving while traveling

There should be a video game to simulate driving in India: you’re going 40 mph, and a bus turns into your lane. And then a scooter going the wrong direction on the left side of your car forces you into oncoming traffic on your right. A minute later, a cow, which was grazing peacefully in the median a second ago, decides to cross the street. Oh! There’s a pile of gravel in the street! Just drive over the edge of it. Something is honking insistently behind you… a rickshaw zips past and clips your side mirror. A pedestrian spits a stream of betelnut-laced saliva on your hood. A car is passing you, and almost has a head-on collision with a truck. You swerve to let him in, and come dangerously close to a camel pulling a cart of bricks. Night falls, and you have to pay extra close attention so as to not rear-end a vehicle with no lights on, or worse – a bicyclist with no lights or reflectors. You nearly miss a dog. It’s foggy, and most cars have their high beams on. This whole time, everyone is honking. And you have passengers – including a mother holding her child in the front seat – who refuse to wear seatbelts. In this video game, the kid flies through the windshield if you have an accident. Game over.

It’s no wonder people hire drivers here. I can’t even ride in the front seat, much less drive… on top of the additional fear factor that comes with sitting in front, I nearly caused an accident yesterday by grabbing the driver’s arm as he maneuvered us out of a very close call… so much for survival instincts.

We were in a minor accident the other night – rear-ended in the fog. Everyone just kept right on driving. Unless it’s a bad accident, there’s no point in stopping; the other person will just say that it was not their fault, it was because it is foggy. Which, although it is not a good excuse, is an excuse that will keep you arguing by the side of the road for half an hour before you finally give up any hope of being compensated for the damages. Might as well forget it. And then yesterday, the driver hit a motorcycle. Not hard – just a tap on the side of the thing. The motorcyclist was pissed, but simply drove away. Tempers flare, and subside immediately.

Fashion while traveling

Backpackers pack for functionality, space, ¬†and versatility – not style. After we throw in some “local flavor,” we still look like a poorly-dressed foreigner in whatever place we’re visiting, but we also look like a poorly-dressed Goodwill-shopping hippie in our own country. Add cold weather, and you have me dressed like an Indian aunty – with an open jacket exposing a pullover sweater on top of a kurta, baggy pants over leggings, tabi socks (they have a split toe… I can’t believe I own these now…), and flip flops. Oh, and the¬†hallmark¬†greasy hair to top it all off, of¬†course…

_________________________________________________

I have more to tell you, but I’m posting this at 11 p.m. in Jaipur, and I think I will try to wake up at 6 a.m. for yoga. We’ll see… the last time I woke up that early for yoga was when the instructor was a buff Latin guy with a sexy accent, instead of some scrawny dude like I am sure to find tomorrow. Eh.





Mumbai, Ahmedabad

20 01 2010

There is only one thing that I really hate about India so far.¬† It is not¬†the toilet facilities¬†(more on that later).¬† It is not the pollution, which is so bad¬†that I¬†have to scrape black goo from¬†under my fingernails¬†after scratching my¬†arm.¬† It is not the constant noise, or the crazy traffic.¬†¬†¬†It’s Vodafone.

Setting up¬†my cell phone and then keeping my service active¬†has¬†turned out¬†to be more difficult than acquiring a visa to enter this country to begin with.¬† For starters, they needed a copy of my passport and visa, a passport-sized photograph, a local reference (as if I’m joining a country club or something), a copy of my local reference’s local identification, and¬†approximately 15 signatures from both me and my reference – which all had to match perfectly with the signatures on our IDs.¬† Then they called my reference¬†twice after we left the store, to verify that she was willing to vouch for me.¬† Finally my phone was active – for¬†6 days, before they sent a text message to say that my service would be cut off if I did not submit the necessary documents.¬† What… there’s MORE?¬† I called customer service, and was told that the dealer did not place a stamp in the correct column, and so I would have to resubmit everything at a store in Mumbai (it’s their fault, but I need to fix it?!).¬† Nevermind the fact that I was in Ahmedabad at the moment… there was apparently nothing they could do until I was able to present myself in a store in the same place where I set up the phone.

Fine.¬† I waited until I returned to Mumbai.¬† I went to a store, and the kind service representative simply called the store which filed my documents incorrectly to begin with, and asked them to resubmit them with the stamp in the correct column.¬† Now, that was easy!¬† Why couldn’t Vodafone have done that to begin with?¬† My service was restored immediately.

Three days later, I awoke to another text message informing me that my phone had been cut off again.¬† I called customer care, and amidst an irritating flurry of insincere “sorry for the inconvenience”-type-statements, the representative informed me that nothing had, in fact, been resolved, and that I would need to resubmit my documents at a store in Mumbai.¬† Nevermind the fact that I am now in Delhi.

I explained through an interpreter (more because I was at the point of shouting obscenities rather than due to an actual language barrier) that I am not returning to Mumbai, and this problem needs to be resolved in Delhi.  The representative finally concedes that there MAY be a way.  We visit a store in Delhi.  My passport and visa are recopied.  I give them a new passport-sized photograph.  I sign things again.  Service is restored.

I awoke this morning to find that I cannot send text messages.  I wondered if I have run out of money on my prepaid card, so I called to check my balance, and the automated system said that my SIM card is not active.  I called Mumbai customer service (since it is impossible to get anything accomplished by calling local customer service, as it is like working with two totally different phone companies), and they say there is no record of my visit to the store in Delhi yesterday and that I need to resubmit my documents at a store in Mumbai.  I call Delhi customer service, in a last ditch effort, and am told that they have no record of my visit, and that I need to call Mumbai customer service.

Maybe the answer behind all of this is that I aroused suspicion by placing calls to a friend in Pakistan, and I am now being investigated for potential terrorist activity.  In any case, it sure feels like Vodafone is dead set against me being able to place calls from India.

————–End phone rant, begin toilet rant—————–

I promise to not write about Indian toilets again, after this:

American toilets, when the seat is not put down, are wide enough to fall into…¬† I know about this firsthand, thanks to my father’s negligence when I was 6.¬† Of all scarring experiences a person can have as a child, this ranks pretty low on the traumameter, but I do sort of have an irrational fear of things falling in (now extending beyond my own rear end, and encompassing cellular phones – even if serviced by Vodafone -/keys/hats/etc.¬† I did actually have a hat fall in once, while taking a bathroom break from snowboarding in Breckenridge… of course that was due to the fact that I forgot that I had tucked it into my pants as extra padding for my multiple falls, but STILL – my point is that it can happen).¬† I also have a not-so-irrational fear of the germs that go flying around the bathroom and then find themselves attracted, magnet-like, to my toothbrush after the¬†toilet is flushed.¬† I counteract both of these issues by keeping the lid closed when the toilet is not in use.¬† Now, Indian toilets – being little more than a¬†hole in the ground that flushes – pose a whole new level of threat.¬† Here, I can actually walk into a toilet if I don’t mind my step.¬† Not that it has happened, but it could.¬† And to make matters worse,¬†there is no lid.

I’m staying at a home in Delhi right now,¬†where I am faced with using one of these for a whole week.¬† I will not entertain you with the details, but let’s just say that it’s a challenge.

————End all rants, begin “normal”-sounding blog entry————

I flew to Ahmedabad on the 13th, for a day of kite flying on the 14th.¬† It might sound like a lot of trouble to go through for something that I could easily do from any rooftop or large open space in the U.S. – and generally choose not to¬†– but this is kind of a big deal in the state of Gujarat: more about the¬†cultural experience for a visitor than just about flying a kite.¬† And, of course, I’m all about cultural experiences.¬† I will save that explanation for a later entry, since it involves a rant on “Eat, Pray, Love.”

So anyhow, I found myself (not in the “Eat, Pray, Love” sense… ugh…) in Gujarat,¬†sleeping in¬†the home of¬†the grandparents of¬†a person¬†that I hardly knew, riding around on a scooter (another not-so-irrational fear of mine),¬†watching an elephant and assorted cows and buffalo herds walk down the street amidst motorized traffic, learning about different¬†Indian religions,¬†visiting some interesting sites, attending a sitar¬†& tabla performance, and yes… flying kites.¬† I made it out alive, with a new friend and some pretty cool photos to show for it.

The 14th was a holiday in Ahmedabad… the streets were empty, restaurants and businesses were closed, and everyone gathered on their rooftops to enjoy each others’ company and to wage war against their neighbors’ kites.¬† After a string is cut, the¬†person with a kite still flying¬†shouts, “Kaipoche!” to announce their victory.¬† My friend Chinar told me that the holiday’s roots go back to a woman sending messages to her beloved on the battlefield via kites… apparently, Gujaratis don’t need much of an excuse to have a good time.

One of the really wonderful things we saw was recommended by my friend Soham: the Adalaj Vav.  There are several photos of it in the album posted in my last update, and here is an excerpt of the online info:

Adalaj Vav was built by Queen Rudabai, in 1499 AD. She was the wife of the Vaghela king, Veer Sinh. A beautifully chiseled step well, Adalaj Vav is counted amongst the finest architectural structures of Gujarat. According to the folklore, Sultan Beghara killed Veer Sinh in order to expand his territory. He then sent a marriage proposal to his wife, Queen Rudabai.

She begged for some time from the Sultan, so that she could complete the well that she was building in the memory of her loving husband. The Sultan agreed without knowing the true intentions of the queen. Queen Rudabai dragged the construction work for 20 years. Losing patience, the Sultan again insisted for marriage. He queen reciprocated by jumping from one of the balconies in the well. It is said that she took Jal Samadhi (suicide by drowning) in order to save her honor and to please the Jal Devi (water goddess) to maintain constant flow of water in the well.

The missing canopy of the well tells us that it is still not complete.

_____________________________________________________

In Mumbai, I am not of too much interest to most Indians… unless they are trying to sell me something, and are hoping that I will be willing to pay quadruple the price of their fellow Indians.¬† I do get stared at here and there, since I am very much in the minority as a white-skinned, blue-eyed foreigner who towers over all of the women and many of the men, but after a glance people in this cosmopolitan city generally carry on with whatever else they were doing… the notable exception being an assistant in a salon where I had my hair washed and dried (easier than dealing with the water shortage), who had her hands slapped away several times by the stylist when she kept trying to play with my hair as if I were an exotic creature in a petting zoo.¬†

In Ahmedabad, however, I felt a little bit like what I imagine a minor celebrity might feel like… random people shaking my hand¬†and¬†asking to take photos of me or with me, skipping the wait at a popular restaurant, and many more and longer stares than I got in Mumbai.¬† My only experience with locals’ fascination in Delhi so far has been the woman who patted me down in the subway security check last night, and stopped her work to ask, “you are from countries?”¬† “The United States,” I answered.¬† She gave me an excited smile.

_________________________________________________

When I returned to Mumbai from Ahmedabad on the 15th, my custody was transferred from Arzan¬†(a friend from Houston), to Kevin (a friend from L.A.).¬† With Arzan, I was staying in her family’s home in Bandra… her parents, an aunt and an uncle, her sister, and her husband Ruzbeh who was also visiting from Houston.¬† We also visited some of Ruzbeh’s family.¬† With Kevin, I was staying in a bachelor pad in Andheri¬†consisting of him, two Spaniards, and an American.¬†¬†However, I kept in touch with the civilized world by going for a facial.

(I’m kidding… these were actually very civilized bachelors, with a taste for good restaurants and evenings at the ocean… even if those evenings at the ocean involved massive cans of beer and petting stray dogs.¬† And their apartment was surprisingly clean, considering that they do not employ a cleaning lady.)

I also had the pleasure of visiting the set of a film that Kevin is working on, along the seashore in Andheri.¬† The filming that day was in what was supposed to be a seedy bar, and it might have fit the description if the surrounding area hadn’t appeared so wholesome – it was a fishing village, with kids running around in the street, women drying fish and working in their homes, and men “at the office” in their tiny boats.¬† For about a quarter of a mile as we drove in, there were power cords strung along the ground to fuel the lights and cameras.¬† Once we arrived, I saw an actor on set who is also on “Heroes” –¬†which would have been cooler if I watched that show.

My last night in Mumbai, I went to a play with Arzan and her aforementioned crew.¬† It was a great show, and then we went for street food… the¬†meal was delicious, but the fun part is watching it being prepared: utensils clanging and chopped vegetables flying.¬† This was also my first encounter with a “disco rickshaw” – sparkly, neon-lit interior, and Sean Paul on the sound system with bass pounding.¬† We took it for a spin, dancing and laughing the entire way.

______________________________________________________

Oh, you’re still here?¬† I will try to update more often, so as to not subject you to a marathon post next time.¬† ūüôā

Coming soon: stories from Delhi, none of which will involve toilets or (hopefully) Vodafone.





Photos, phinally

18 01 2010

http://picasaweb.google.com/thefifthchamber/MumbaiOotyAhmedabad#

These photos cover three segments of the trip so far… Mumbai, Ooty (in the mountains of Tamil Nadu), and a kite festival in Ahmedabad (in the state of Gujarat).