India 2004 travel log.
Left Singapore saturday night. We had spent the day there looking at the
sights. It was very hot and humid, not too interesting. It is as you said, a
big shopping mall. The little india section had more personality.
Left Raghav in Bangalore today. Now I am in Mysore. Jet lagged. Consuming much
beer. I arrived via train. Nice ride. Soaked the scenery along -lush palm
trees, bony oxen plowing fields, men and women hunched over rice paddies,
slums, and abject poverty like I had never seen. First impressions:
suprisingly cool so far, traffic is complete chaos, friendly people with quick
smiles, strong pungent smells everywhere for better or worse: from spicy and
exotic sandalwoods to a mixture of garbage, diarrhea, and diesel exhaust.
I am taking pictures with the digital camera but I am becoming pessimistic as
to the main photo project. The principal obstacle to working on it is not so
much the lack of opportunities as the disturbance that my presence seems to
create. I am constantly followed, pandered, solicited, and bugged beyond
belief, so I cannot move around anonymously, let alone set any kind of shoot
without a traffic-stopping audience of dozens of curious onlookers. Louts
cling to me like parasites. The hotel grounds (off-limits to the unwashed
masses) seems to be my only sanctuary. I hope I will get used to all this
unwanted attention and learn to ignore all the stares. Also, my long hair has
me pegged for a pot-user...
I am moving around in motorized rickshaws. Each ride is a crap-shoot as far as
the reliability of the driver, his machine, and the probability of surviving
the trip. Some are honest, some others resort to silly and funny tricks to
squeeze out a few more rupees from me. I dont mind because in the end it's
just costing me only a few extra cents.
The food is spicy but delicious. In south India they like to drink an aromatic
chai tea with ceram that is like candy. I can't get enough of it. Tonight I
had dinner at the Hotel's restaurant which is considered a posh place. It was
really good. The most expensive dish on the menu barely tops $3.
The weather is typical of a tropical monsoon season -warm with short, furious
showers that clean the air every few hours.
Well I went to the saree auction after all. It was quite an experience. I
believe these sarees are seconds with small blemishes, but according to
participants the cloth quality can be top notch. I don't mind since I will
probably have them cut up and use them for the fabric which is fantastic. I
was the only westerner participating in the auction. I found that to be really
surprising. The crowd looked at me with a mixture of amusement and amazement.
I came prepared with I sign I made that said "+ 50 Rs." which is about $1. I
was going to use the sign as my bid increment which seemed reasonable. But
when I first pulled it out people gasped and there was much confusion. I was
quickly informed that the bid increment was 10 Rs and that no one in their
right mind would bid in increments of 50. The auction proceeded gingerly as
they kept pulling out each saree from 3 big piles. They passed each one around
quickly as men and women touched it to feel the quality before the bidding
started. There was lots of murmuring every time I decided to bid on one.
However, I decided to bid only on the ones that I really liked best. After a
while only newcomers would bid against me. This had the added effect that once
I started bidding others would stop cold, so that perversely I ended up paying
even less since I had no contenders almost from the beginning. Of course I
ended up getting all the ones I wanted, 4 sarees in total (1 cotton, 3 silk)
for $21. Then I waved the crowd goodbye and left to a round of applause. What
fun! Now I will have to pay the real price -carrying them all the way home.
Ok, I have finally figured out that the sideways head bobbing means: 'mostly
yes'. Almost exactly as it means 'definitely no' in the western world. As you
can imagine, this has been the source of much confusion, sometimes with comic
results. Why didn't Raghav warn me! I am trying to use other body language
when I mean 'no' but it's harder than you would think.
Arrived in Mangalore tired at 7 PM. after an 8 hr bone-jarring
teeth-chattering kamikaze bus ride over a mountain ridge. The rule to riding
buses in India is that you never seat at the front where you can see the road.
Went past farms, rice paddies, and coffee plantations at the higher
elevations. There were also lots of banana trees, and occasionally cannabis
plants. I found Mangalore soaking with heavy rain. Turns out the hotel I
booked was a total shithole. I decided to treat myself to a good place for the
next night. Mangalore is a hot and very humid town in a typical tropical
setting on the coast of the Arabian Sea (think of Hilo in Hawaii but hotter).
It used to be a Portuguese colony founded in 1526. The seafood here is very
tasty, I've been having some rocking good grilled fish! This area of Karnataka
is decidedly less visited by westerners when compared to Mysore. As usual the
people are very friendly. I am used to the intense scrutiny by now, and I
sometimes joke around with people. Men stare and women peek discreetly. Kids
play cricket on the streets. Most of the men seem bored stiff for most of the
day. You may walk by shops with lethargic keepers lying about and as soon as
they see you coming they spring into action as if jolted by a lightning bolt:
"Hello! You from?", "What you want? I have! I have!". Women on the other hand,
have busy schedules. They tend to the livestock, shop for food, cook, sweep,
wash, carry heavy loads on their heads, and go to the hand-cranked water wells
loaded with all sorts of containers. This is clearly not a country you want to
be born into as female.
I just had another great seafood dinner. Some guy working for an NGO in Kerala
decided to introduce himself and seat with me to tell me about his job. I
listened to him while I watched a cockroach climb along his sleeve. He
actually does interesting work gathering research data for a project to fight
crop diseases (pepper in this case).
Jim- good to hear you're recovering. Tomorrow I'm going to a temple and I'll
make an offering on your behalf.
Rebecca- I'm not watching the olympics but I see people watch them on TV. So
far I don't have good rants either. I'm at peace with the world, as I recite:
ommmmmm, ommmmmm. Don't worry about my health. I started taking the pills. I
had delayed as much as possible taking the malaria pills because of their
unpleasant side effects. But I am traveling through rural areas now, and the
monsoon rains keep everything wet and there's lots of mosquitoes.
Tomorrow I head north to Udupi where the wedding will take place.
Raghav's cousin Vishnu was kind enough to pick me up in one of those
ubiquitous 1960's Ambassador taxis. The cab was already full of people. Taxis
in India are routinely shared and people hop on and off along the way. This
particular one had 9 (yes, nine) people crammed in the back seat all twisted
and sweaty. Mercifully, Vishnu had purchased the entire front passenger seat
for us. The drawback of course is that for the next 40 kilometers I got see
the road ahead all too well. It was another hair-raising ride with the masses
in the back quietly resigned to fate. We cheated death once more and arrived
in Thumbe (Raghav's house) just in time for lunch. Meals are served over
banana leaves. Normally you sit on the floor and eat with your fingers. The
food is delicious. In the afternoon we all filed into a bus and headed north
to Udupi. This time I faced the back of the bus.
A south Indian Brahmin Hindu wedding is quite a fantastic event. It is a noisy
high-energy gathering of hundreds of people with musicians playing, women
chanting, children running about, and guests conversing loudly all at once.
There is also smoke from incense, coconut, and palm wood burning. Somehow it
all reflects the organic chaos of daily life in India itself. Within this
maelstrom however, rituals are performed in a careful and orderly fashion by
two hindu priests and assorted members of both families. The rituals are so
elaborate that most participants need to be coached along. The way I perceived
it, they fall into four broad categories:
- The bride's parents give her away to the groom's family.
- The bride and groom profess love and devotion to one another, although the
bride's surrender to the groom is far more unconditional.
- There are complex rituals between different members of both families. This
was the longest and most puzzling set.
- The presentation to society of the couple as newlyweds.
The actual festivities started the night before with performances and
incredible dances by various relatives. Altogether the festivities lasted for
3.5 days. The whole thing is extremely colorful compared to Christian
weddings. Women looked stunningly beautiful in their sarees and
forehead-to-toe jewelry. The bride had her hands and arms tattooed with henna.
The groom wore an elaborate headgear and carried a bamboo staff (for those of
you interested I will post a slide show of the trip pictures in my website
http://soler.us after I return home). The formal ceremonies of the main day
lasted for over 4 hours, although I'm told that they have been greatly
compressed to accommodate for modern times. There were 300 to 400 guests. I
was the only westerner. There were several food servings all throughout the
festivities. It was banana leaf plates again lined up in long rows. Waiters in
diapers went up and down each row slapping little chunks of food on the
leaves. The next couple of days the festivities continued at the bride and
groom's houses. After the third day it was all a bit too much for me and I
decided to move to a quiet bungalow on the beach.
This time of the year the Arabian Sea is pretty rough, great surfing breaks
though. There is quite a mix of religions on the coast of Karnataka. Hindus,
muslims, and christians coexist peacefully here. There are mosques everywhere
and the morning call to prayer, broadcast from the minarets, never fails to
wake me before 6.
Jaipur is the capital of Rajasthan, the region to the east of Pakistan. It is
surrounded by hills with forts and palaces. I hooked up with some other
travelers and visited a few of them. The most impressive one was the Amber
Palace which is truly magnificent. We took elephant rides to go up the hill.
The other forts are somewhat in a state of neglect.
Once again, the first impressions had to do with life on the streets. I
thought I had seen the craziest traffic on earth, until I arrived in Jaipur.
The streets here are a zoo! On the roofs monkeys jump around and I have also
seen peacocks. On the street trucks, motorbikes, cycle and motor rickshaws,
buses, cars, horses, cows, stray dogs, pigs, ox carts, elephants, bicycles,
donkeys, sheep, and camels are all racing to get somewhere fast. Roundabout
intersections are like mad loud honking tornadoes spewing vehicles and animals
in all directions. It's a miracle there are not lots accidents on a continuous
basis, although I did see the police pick someone up that may have been killed
from a head injury. The most common mode of transport is the small engine
motor bike (< 250 cc.). It's a good thing that the engine is small because if
they were more powerful people would be squashing themselves everywhere. You
also see the damnest things on the streets, for example a fakir walking on
wood blocks with nails, a cobra tamer, and an old man with a death wish that
was lying flat on his stomach while the river of honking traffic parted around
him. What could he be doing? It seems the streets are an integral part of life
in India. Everything (except sex) happens on them for everyone to see:
conducting all sorts of business, cooking, eating, washing, sleeping,
spitting, pissing, shitting, birthing, dying...
Traffic aside, this so called Pink City has really interesting architecture
and is the most colorful city I have seen so far. Perhaps it's the desert
light but colors seem more vibrant. Women cover their heads with brightly
colored sarees. Buildings are pink and earth tones. The cow dung is still
brown. Jaipur, as most other cities in India, is full of small enterprising
craftsmen who carve out a niche and eek out a living from things you could not
imagine. In India nothing goes to waste. Not even waste! -households routinely
sell their garbage. Craftsmen repair everything you can think of, from TV sets
to lowly cheap rubber flip-flops. It's all a matter of finding the right
specialist in the right neighborhood cluster. It truly is the antithesis of
the west's culture of disposable consumerism. Nevertheless there is an
enormous amount of garbage floating around. Nobody seems to care about
littering. The authorities don't seem to mind either, I guess fining someone
for littering or polluting would be as absurd as handing out speeding tickets
at the Indianapolis 500.
I have taken up haggling as a sport and I quite enjoy it! I have just finished
a purchase from a man with orange dyed hair who claims is a gypsy. Orange hair
for some reason seems to be all the rage with middle-aged business men here. I
decided to walk back to the hotel with two beckoning rickshaws in tow. They
don't understand why someone who could afford a ride would want to walk.
It's hot & humid in here, rains have stopped. The monsoon season is
'officially' over. All that was mud is now dust, and thanks to the Delhi metro
construction there is lots of it everywhere. Some roadways look like a
stampede in a dust bowl. Ah, in all my rants about traffic I forgot to mention
that everybody leans on the horn constantly. Honking is not a sign of
displeasure here, but rather a vehicle location aid that has its place in the
chaos. It's sort of saying 'hey, I'm on your right/left/etc'. In fact most
trucks have hand-painted signs on the back that say "Please sound horn".
The people in south India are intensely curious and the friendliest yet. In
contrast, north Indians are more reserved. Panhandlers in Delhi are more
aggressive and far more tenacious. Navigating city streets can be confusing.
There are no visible street signs or house numbers and, most of the time, not
even sidewalks (you really have to watch your step). Yet somehow people and
things make it to their destinations. Its all got quite an organic feel to it.
Old Delhi is a maze of narrow, dark, somewhat filthy alleys lined with all
sorts of interesting shops and colorful sights and jammed with people. Some
westerners don't dare enter the area, especially after they are warned by
locals that it is dangerous. It is not true. It's just one more scheme to
extract protection money from scared tourists. Rickshaw rides continue to be
an endless source of small adventures. Something about the culture here makes
people agree with you even though they have not understood a single word you
said. Q: What do you do when after riding on a rickshaw for a while you
realize he has no idea where he's going, cant read hindi (let alone english),
cant read a map, and won't stop to ask someone? A: stop get off and LOL when
he tries to stick you with a huge fare. If you're not in a hurry it can be all
a bit comical.
From the start I was impressed by how deeply spiritual Indians are in general.
Since I had already visited several Hindu temples I decided I would now check
out some other places of worship. First I visited the largest Sikh temple in
Delhi, the Gurdwara Bangla Sahib. I learned a little bit about the Sikh faith.
It is largely based on common sense and communal spirit. I find myself
agreeing with many of their principles, but since I don't like to wear a
turban there's little chance I will convert. Next I visited Delhi's largest
mosque, the Jama Masjid. What an impressive sight! I wandered into the
mosque's Madrass (?) school where the local muslim zealots are busy minting a
fresh generation of ignorant boys. As you probably know, they are only taught
rote memorization of the Quran -no science, no humanities, no nothing. It just
reinforced my perception of Islam as the most blind, backward, and intolerant
of all religions. I got into a little bit of trouble when I took their picture
so I hi-tailed out of there as quick as I could walk in the borrowed mosque
regulation skirt I was made to wear. It seems they are not so proud to show
the world how they brainwash their kids. Another day I went to a Tibetan
Buddhist temple and refugee colony (Ladakh Bodh Vihai). I find Buddhism deeply
intriguing but I didn't learn much from my visit to the temple so I decided to
wander around the colony. It's sort of a ghetto, in the better sense, with
good himalayan food restaurants and Tibetan craft stores. It is also a painful
reminder of the chinese oppression and forceful occupation of Tibet.
An experienced traveler told me there's two kinds of tourists in India. There
are the 'packaged tour' tourists, they stick in groups and are generally
scared to wander off on their own. They buy stuff only from overpriced hotel
shops or from wherever their guide (who works on commission) takes them. They
want to be insulated from the filth and feel safe. Then there's independent
travelers, who put up with more discomforts but are richly rewarded with great
experiences, and wonderful sights, and get to meet all sorts of interesting
people along the way, including adventurers with gnarly stories.
India is a beautiful land and an amazing place in many ways, and no amount of
words can describe the things you experience here. It is a land of surprises
and contradictions, where you see the best and the worst of humanity side by
side. So if you ever get a chance and feel a little adventurous you should
come to India, at least once in your lifetime. You will be glad you did.
I met a woman who predicted I would return some day...
Thanks y'all for putting up with this one last spam. I hope you have found my
little chronicles entertaining.