07 July 2010

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Mountain air

At this point I have collected three bags of traditional Keralan dried snacks, three hand-dyed silk scarves, five holiday cards, a bag of jackfruit seeds, a cloth-bound journal, a sandalwood mala, a lungi and an assortment of papers, pamphlets and small books for my family. These little treasures filled up the entire extra bag I had bought and although this all fit into Amara’s big, mostly empty backpack, I really wanted to send the stuff home. I had been trying since Bengalaru, but thought Mumbai might be easier. Then Kushboo told us about the great shopping in Rajasthan, so we thought we would buy some more gifts then send the whole package home. Well, as you know not much shopping happened, but we had a bit of time in Agra at the train station. I trudged through the one hundred and twelve degrees, drenched in sweat, to the post office to buy a box and send it out, but all I got was an offer to get in a stranger’s car (mom told me not to do that) so it went back in Amara’s luggage.

We boarded the tiny train to Shimla with two tiny cups of tea. We spilled the hot hot stuff on our clothing, the ground, numerous seats and a table where we finally set them as we clumsily dragged our bags and tired bodies around. In the end we still had a few sips of the steaming, heavily sweetened, mostly full-fat milk though, and it renewed our energy. We were dirty, if not delirious, but happy as we settled into our seats across from three foreign boys, one each from France, Germany and South Africa, everyone nicely fitting into our idea of their homeland stereotypes with both accent and demeanor. We all swapped stories, the boys of days since their chance encounter, weeks as volunteers and months travelling, ours being dozens of local characters, hundreds of degrees and thousands of miles. The train seemed to take an eternity; our griminess increasing with every hour, until we finally arrived at the tiptop of a big green mountain. We said goodbye to our new friends and hiked up an incredibly steep hill to our hotel, with one quick, unsuccessful stop at the post office. This brought us to vow to send off the damn package while we were in Shimla – we had a few days until we needed to head down the hill to Satoli, a small village Rajeev had arranged for us to visit. We took a few hours longer nap than expected, then headed into town. Bag of stuff in hand.

It was a pleasant half hour stroll into town, most of the road without any cars but many other walkers on their way to hotels, shops, jobs and schools. We arrived at the main post office and announced we wanted to mail this big ol bag to ‘Merica. The postman said no. Huh? You need to package it. Well, yes, clearly. May I buy a box? No. Where can I buy a box? The tailor. The tailor? Yes, then get it wrapped in cloth. Wrapped in cloth? Ok, ok, joke’s on the white girl. Really, may I mail this? No. End of conversation. We stopped for a drink before we set off to…the tailor. We also found a bookstore on the way where we bought a box for three quarters of a dollar. We meandered through the alleyways of electronics, fruits and vegetables, bottles and pots, toiletries, medicine and of course cloth. We must have asked half a dozen shops if they sewed parcels (we realized no other word was appropriate for the stuff, although it all sounded strange to us) before we found a man behind a sewing machine willing to make a mailing outfit for our box. But he didn’t have any cloth. So we started asking for parcel cloth instead. We found new toothbrushes, small towels (ask us what they are for some time) and a number of other things we had not had time to buy in the past few weeks but not until after sunset did we find cloth. Now to find a tailor again. We had gotten quite lost in the maze of the market, but finally, at the top of the hill we found a man willing to sew up our box. And sew it up he did – it took nearly an hour, measuring and remeasuring, checking every seam and making each corner was even. The sun sank lower and lower and we got anxious, like I really don’t think it matters what the box dress looks like, good sir. We were wrong…then next day we came back to the post office and waited in line for a half hour before an old lady pushed us to the front (ladies line!) and we handed over the box. The postman measured, checked and inspected every seam and corner then handed it back. I almost wouldn’t take it, but he said we just needed to write an address with a name (not just ‘the family’). We handed it back and he took it! Who knows if it will ever arrive in the USA, but at least we don’t have to carry it around any more. With that we were free to roam, we went up to a monkey temple and offered the monkey god a juice box, we went to the tailor again with fifteen meters of fabric and got measured for three long flowered dresses. We ate ice cream and trout from the river, we walked up and down the hills and mountains, sometimes with a stick in hand to keep the monkeys away from us, sometimes with a flashlight in hand to keep us away from the potholes. It is a lovely town.

Somewhere along the way we got word that Satoli was no longer an option. The foreign boys on the train had mentioned it would be the Dalai Lama’s birthday the next week and we both knew immediately we would reroute our trip to the north. You don’t end up a short ten-hour bus ride away from the Dalai Lama’s birthday party, in his hometown, in the Himalayas, every day.

02 July 2010

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Desert fever

The sea has never gone inside the mosque
After a few more tasty meals and lively conversations at Janani’s house, I headed to the airport. As I walked up to the doors I was overwhelmed with excitement for the clean, quiet familiarity of an airport, this one especially so as it looked shiny and new. I settled in to one of a thousand indistinguishable seats with a lemon iced tea (after the barista mentioned the restaurant’s plugs didn’t work as he handed me the passport, wallet and plane ticket that I had forgotten at the counter) and suddenly burst out laughing at the enjoyment I had found in the Bengalaru domestic terminal. I have never in my life (I am so sure I will even keep that never in the sentence) thought of an airport as feeling familiar, quiet or clean in any way before now. I have actively thought of airports as the antithesis of all of those things, in fact. But my mind has changed. I felt comfortable and calm and un-overwhelmed in public for the first time in a while. I felt markedly less so in Mumbai when I waited for a ride to Nimesh’s house upon arrival or when I waited to pick up Amara late that night. But the stars aligned somehow to make that moment in the Bengalaru airport just what I needed, which was reassuring seeing has how it was the third plane ticket I had purchased for this leg of my trip.

Tea time!
The remains of a taxi driver strike were lingering around Mumbai when I arrived, making a bit of a disaster out of my transportation situation. I first called a private cab and after a long hot hour I gave up and called Shailja, Nimesh’s mom, to help me decide what kind of ride to get. I was hounded by touts, but when I tried to get a rickshaw they would just drive away and auto drivers quoted me three and four times the normal price – after negotiations.  Luckily Shailja’s driver was headed back into town though, so after another hour or so he came and got me. In the meantime, I struck up conversations with the touts as they were beginning to think I was just going to stay there and I knew had settled my business now that I had a ride secured. They sometimes wandered away once they realized I wasn’t on the market for a journey, but sometimes they just made fun of me for standing there for so long, and although standing there wasn’t so funny, a few almost got me to smile.

We totally fit in around here...
Upon arrival, Shailja knew exactly what I needed: a delicious snack of classic Mumbai fare, a run down of classic Mumbai sights and a nap. Her driver was ready to take me to pick up Amara at one AM and I tried really hard to shake off my post-nap bad mood in time to see her walk out the airport doors. I had been imagining the moment for a while, and although she looked a little differently than I remembered (since when did she get curly hair anyways?) it was as surreal as meeting my baby sister at two AM in Mumbai should be. Amazing. Not only did I make here, which is pretty crazy, but so did she. New adventure, commence!

Well, the new adventure commenced with sleeping. When we woke up, Shailja told the driver where we wanted to go in the city (a list of the top tourist sights) and we were off. It was slow going winding through the streets of Mumbai and somewhere along the way it started pouring. After that, the driver wouldn’t let us out of the car until we called Shailja and had her translate that we needed some lunch. In the seven or so hours we drove, we managed to see the Gate of India (where we were swarmed for pictures) and a lot of the city from the inside of the car where it was cool and dry. It was like an old person’s tour, which I rather liked, but wasn’t the exactly the Indian adventure I had been touting to Amara. That part started later in the evening, when a couple of Nimesh’s friends took us out on the town where we had Mexican food and Coronas, spotted Bollywood actors (actually, one of them is a Bollywood actor) and despite out grubby, hippie, bumish travel clothes, felt like classy Mumbites (I made that word up) in the big city.

Lotus ladies
The next day we tried to sight see again, this time spending the first half of the day getting plane, train and bus tickets so we could ensure the continuation of our journey. It was hot and expensive and frustrating, and the office we were in had a 5 foot ceiling (yes, really), so we tried to take frequent juice and tea breaks. Once we finally had a way out of Mumbai for Sunday and out of India for the 12th of July, we set off shopping. As we realized the night before, people in Mumbai dress up quite a bit, so we needed to get something nice for the evening. Kushboo, my friend Sonny’s girlfriend, would be taking us out and we wanted to look a little less like road warriors….we hopped on a local bus (actually, I shoved Amara on the bus, past old ladies and young men alike, as it drove off from the bus stand), then a local train (in the ladies car, thank god), and finally a taxi to Bandra, a shopping district where the streets were lined with stalls selling sandals and bangles and cheap cotton goods. I will warn you, neither of us likes to shop, but we tend to do better when we have specific goals. Three hours later we were running out of time as we wandered deeper and deeper into underground alleys of the most random assortment of Western-style clothing I could have ever imagined. Each rack started with fairly new stuff, usually branded perhaps from local factories, and as you moved to the right, the clothing got laughably old. In one of those laughably old sections, I found two rather odd mid-eighties dresses that I fell in love with and purchased immediately for four hundred rupees (eight dollars). A few stalls later Amara found two dresses on the left side of the rack (her style is much more modern) and a pair of shorts, just what she needed, and we were off for accessories. Rapid-fire sandal and bangle purchases and we were off to meet Kushboo and Bjorn, my German friend from St Gallen.

Amara trying to shop in a mini-store
The club we went to had massive statues of goddesses and four story-high ceilings, it was gorgeous. Not the intimate Los Angeles-style place we had been the night before, but a whole different vibe, which was perfect for our short trip. We stayed out too late to go back to Shailja’s so we slept at Kushboo’s beautiful downtown flat and got up as early as we could to grab Bjorn, run up to Shailja’s for our stuff, and head out to see the sights we had missed the past few days.

I would like to add that when we say run, we mean take a taxi with no air conditioning in bumper-to-bumper traffic for two in a half hours, but we made it to all of our stops.

Both the temple and the mosque were amazing, and I had a fun time as tour guide for Bjorn and Amara, neither of who had been to a Hindu temple before. We bought gifts for Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, and covered our hair to go into the mosque. Mumbai was really starting to grow on us, and we had one last evening to enjoy it before heading up to the desert. Kushboo took us to an open-air hookah place and we called it an early night to catch our flight (oo so fancy) to Jaipur.

Yep, its a desert.
I had debated long and hard about Jaipur. It dropped off the itinerary with all my conversations with Westerners, only to be added back in after talking to Indians. The land of Kings must be seen, we finally decided, and we would brave the heat to do so. Stepping off the plane we exclaimed, it’s not even that hot! And after dropping our bags at the cute little Pearl Palace Hotel, we scurried off to a nighttime circus like place to see a bit of ‘traditional’ Rajasthan culture. About fifty paces in, we realized it was that hot. It was about nine at night, dark as anything, but we could barely move. We found out later it was a hundred and seven. We dragged ourselves to the camel, pet him, and sat. We slowly, slowly got to the bowl-balanced dancy lady and then sat. Same for the palm reader, the swings, the magician, the ice cream seller, the water seller, the tight ropewalker, the elephant, the water seller, the huge white cows and the strange plastic jungle. Finally we made it to a deserted stage, where I forced Amara to do a rain dance with me before we collapsed into a rickshaw. The driver, of course, got lost five hundred times (ok, that’s an exaggeration, but literally fifty times he asked for directions) before we just got out and called the hotel to pick us up. By that time we were feeling woozy and could barely manage a shower before passing out.

More tea please.
In the morning we realized that it wasn’t just the heat wiping us out, but we were both quite ill. I had a fever over a hundred and couldn’t really get up. Thank all of the gods and the not gods and the Lonely Planet and everything else we can thank that the hotel had room service, and they brought us tea after tea after tea while we tried to recover enough to get on the train at five the next morning. We had the Taj Mahal to see….

I was really worried I wouldn’t be able to make the journey, and I told Amara if we could do this, I think we could do anything. The plan was to leave Jaipur at 5:15am and arrive in Agra at 11am in time for the heat of the day (47C) and a quick tour to the Taj. At 4pm we would leave for Delhi, arriving at 8 to change stations. Leaving at 9:45 to Kalka, arriving at 5am to catch the 5:30 train to Shimla where we had a nice hotel reserved. It was by far the most aggressive schedule yet and was intended to see the sights as quickly as possible, to get out of the heat without missing the main stuff. Some of our train tickets were reserved, some waitlisted, and around 8am I realized in the fog of the fever I forgot to even buy one of them (which we solved with a travel agent in Agra). So, as I said, now with the heat, the disease and the schedule, if we can do this we can do anything.

There were camels & elephants on the streets too!
Somehow my fever broke in the night and we got on the train. Amara started to deteriorate at that time, so we rented an AC taxi to take us around Agra. It seems you have to actually walk into the Taj Mahal and there is (apparently) only one single spot outside of the gates where you can see it at all. It happened to be located directly over a river of open sewage, but hey, we saw the Taj...and if you look really hard you can see it too in that pic. Hehe. Luckily Amara could sleep on the top berth once we got on the train, and only had to wake up long enough to change trains in Delhi – no small feat. Again winding through the exhaust filled streets I bought her a string of Jasmine to freshen the air and we tried to relax as the clock ticked closer and closer to our departure time and the wheels sat still. The only time we seemed to move was long enough for a pair of boys on a motorcycle to reach in and grab at us, which made us scream but the driver didn’t seem to notice at all. We ran through the Delhi station, searching for our platform then our train then our car then our seat. Amara curled into the top berth of the sleeper, clutching the Jasmine and a bottle of water. It was a long, hot night with frequent stops where the air stagnated and I would check to make sure Amara with still there, and breathing.
Look reeeeally hard to the left of that forked branch
Around two AM we reached some place high enough that the air cooled and I slept for a few hours. Stepping off of that train in Kalka to brush our teeth and wash our face so we could be seen in our first class car to Shimla we knew we could make it. Amara was feeling a little better after a night’s (and almost the whole day’s) rest (how she slept in that heat I will never know – I suppose that’s how sick she was) and we were both the happiest little things just to be in fresh, cool air. A few hours left, but I think we made it. The mountains! Home! Air! Breathing! We haven't gotten to eating yet either, but hopefully soon...

Oh my. Ooooh my.

24 June 2010

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Monkeys and scooters and other new things

I discovered captions!
I eventually got tired of sitting in the door and wandered through the cars til I found an unoccupied spot on a bench. Every time I approached the conductor with my ticket in hand he waved me away without so much as a word. I was getting frustrated and extremely curious about what the deal was with this guy, my ticket, this train, the whole railways system, etc. Questions running through my head were to the effect of ‘how can a country this huge and this modern with the kind of global business and production and people it has be unable to properly give me a seat on a damn train?’ It wasn’t until I was kicked out of my third resting spot that the rightful seat owner explained I did not actually have a ticket. I had purchased the right to enter the train and sit in the unreserved car, which he also informed me was so packed I would be unable to stand. I stood in the doorway for a while again, this time somewhat relieved that I was not being somehow prosecuted and there was not some beautiful, cushy, and most importantly, empty seat waiting for me somewhere on the train. With that I wandered through the cars again, careful to hide from the ticket collector lest he banish me to my rightful place, this time somewhat at ease. Not only did I know understand what had happened, but I noticed dozens of other people in the same position and I decided to sit on the corner of someone’s berth as many of them were. I found a girl about my age and asked if I could rest on her bed. At first she said no, but she eventually gave in and after a few hours even let me put my feet up. I slept on and off, compulsively checking that my now two bags (more on that later) were still there and that the time was still moving. Around daybreak the guy sleeping in the berth above us came down to stand at the door and I went up to finally sleep lying down for a bit. The guy who explained my (un)ticket woke me up at my stop and I began the hunt for a power outlet. My phone had been malfunctioning and in my attempt to fix it the battery died, leaving me unable to call (or find the phone numbers of) Ram’s friends Paulani and Pradeep with whom I would be staying. In the end as uncomfortable as it was, the night wasn't a total failure. I arrived in Bengalaru and I felt much more comfortable with trains. Shit, I'll ride a cargo train next time...

I happily bought myself a cold coffee with ice cream in exchange for power use in the station cafĂ©. As I stared down at my phone with a trance-like intensity it became clear that this phone would not be functioning any longer without some serious work. I searched my brain for where else I might have stored Ram’s phone number and set to work retrieving it from an old chat message on my computer. I used a pay phone (which spits out a little receipt to hand to the attendant) to call Ram and Paulani, verifying the wild address I had written down, filled with Symphonies, numbered highway pillars and long unpronounceable words, leaving my other check-in calls to once I had repaired my phone and could locate phone numbers.

Apparently too dangerous to stay for the colors
It took more than an hour to arrive, but Paulani and Pradeep had a beautiful apartment and I think one look at me and they knew I needed to ‘freshen up’ before we could really chat. They fed me delicious French toast and sent me off on a nap before we headed out for lunch (McDonalds – I have not been able to eat Indian food today, so we decided it would be western food day) and to the Iskcon temple. It was a huge, modern place on the other side of the city, which allowed me to see both a large part of Bengalaru and the newer incarnations of Hindu temples. I made us Tiffany-style Italian pasta for dinner and we all went to bed early, exhausted by the beautiful but traffic-ridden city.

Then next morning I met Janani, Ram’s friend Hari’s cousin who I went to Pondicherry with on my first day in India. She took me along with a few of her friends and sister to see a new Bollywood film Raavan, based on a classic Hindu myth, the Ramayana. Neither of us understands Hindi, but one of her friends gave us a basic translation and I was so entertained by the lively crowd, choreographed dancing and hunky warrier men I didn’t mind much that the plot was improbable and I had no idea what they were saying.

The celebration included lots of food, ceremony and music.
The night on the train and being without a cell phone had left me a bit behind in my planning, so Janani took me back to her house and her mom cooked us food while we used the internet. I was unsettled, hearing reports of rain to the west (where I had planned to go) and that the Mangalore airport was still damaged from the crash the week before, making canceled flights highly probable. To clear my mind, Janani took me shopping to get a Salwar (a long, dress-like shirt and pajama-like pants) and to a friend’s brother’s engagement party. It was an amazing glimpse into some of the tradition surrounding important life events and we rode around the city on Janani’s scooter, which was a revolutionary glimpse into how to survive in an Indian city. We skirted the insane amount of traffic which had handicapped my journeys just one day before, and as my hair blew in the wind I felt free as a bird. When we returned later that night I knew I needed to reroute my travels, so I called up my family while I bought new plane tickets, canceled hotel reservations and arranged for new bus routes.

In the mornings Janani’s mom made me the most delicious khichdi I have ever had – it was rich and buttery and what every morning should be made of. She packed me a lunch for the bus ride and I brought only my stuff for the night – a much, much better way to travel. Janani dropped me off at the bus stop and I felt a bit like a schoolgirl, but on an adventure with a nice business hotel, a temple on the top of a hill and the famous Mysore Palace on the treasure map.

Immediately following the monkey attack...
I decided to get a driver for the afternoon, since I didn’t have a whole lot of time, and he took me up to the top of Chamundi hill. As I went into the temple, practicing all of the rituals I had picked up along the way, people watched and pointed and smiled and asked for pictures. I obliged, but to get some solice walked around the back to a smaller temple, which I had all to myself. I stopped for a juice box along the way, still whistful about the cold stone temples with the deep smell of insence. I enjoyed the mango juice as I walked back into the crowd until I was suddenly grabbed on both shoulders. I immediately stopped, screaming and grabbing my purse out of instinct, until I realized it was two monkeys. They grabbed at my delicious, cold and refreshing mango juice but I didn’t let their grubby little paws take my thirty cents of joy away. I stood frozen in the spot until a man pulled the monkeys off of my shoulders, only for an even bigger one to pounce on me again a few steps away. By this time the juice was all over me and I could see people taking pictures as I scowled at them and asked for help. Those monkey teeth sure look like things I want to keep away from my flesh.

The Mysore Palace at night
I escaped back to the driver and we went to a giant nandi (my favorite!) and the pilgrams steps and waited for the sun to set, or as long as he would let me, citing danger at dusk. I asked him to drive me through the market and to a large palace converted into a hotel for dinner. I had my first fancy dinner, stuffed potato curry and a yogurt cucumber salad, and feeling like a princess I headed to bed so I could get up early to see the big palace and head back to Bengalaru to catch my flight to Mumbai. I still had a few tasks to accomplish: mail the great number of gifts I had accumulated (now filling a whole nother bag) and to get a new cell phone before the moment was finally upon me – I would meet Amara in just a few hours and I was so excited not just to have a travel companion, but to see my baby sister! And in India…who would have thought.