Thursday, March 31, 2005

Take Tea and See

I had my magic Darljeeling moment this morning, sipping strong black tea on the balcony of the Tower View Guest House, overlooking the nearly vertical city and... clouds. I have yet to see the crisp white peaks of the Himalayas which postcards here boast of, but I'm happy as a clam just to be here. And to have survived the hair-raising, stomach-churning 3 hour drive up here in a shared jeep.

At 7000 feet above sea level, the weather is... cold. During the day it's about 10-15 C, in the low 50s F. I'm wearing a fleece and still had to buy a wool wrap to walk around in yesterday. But I'm thrilled to be from Kolkata's oppressive, sticky heat. I have a bounce in my step, even when I'm walking up a 45 degree incline, which is often.

It really doesn't feel like India, especially because the people here are either Nepali (the country is, like, five feet away) or weathy Bengalis on holiday. They're just as eager for fresh air as I am, and more importantly, they're not selling anything. The Nepalis are more mellow than Indians. They still do the head bobble, and listen to Bollywood tracks at a high volume, just not speaker-breaking. They hang pastal-colored posters of Lord Ganeshji, but only one or two per room. Best of all, the working class Nepali men actually carry their own weight--literally, they strap loads of bricks and boxes onto their backs, instead of making their women balance everything on their heads.


Monday, March 28, 2005

Meanwhile, in Kolkata

So there are ironic t-shirt wearing Bengalis who call themselves global citizens and visit malls fetishizing "ethnic" Indian culture. But naturally there is a flip side.

It's Monday and Kolkata is bustling again. Today we saw the city's namesake temple, Kalighat, and our personal mecca, the railway station. The approach to Kalighat was predictably intense, even at 7:30am, with all the vendors hawking red flowers, glittery red handkerchefs, and tiny photos of the awesome Kali, who is Shiva's wife, the goddess of destruction. Every morning goats are sacrificed to appease her; I guess offering red trickets is better than nothing.

The rotting flower-draped statue inside the temple was crawling with cockroaches, so we left quickly, heading down the lane a bit to Kalighat, the holy stairs leading into a shit-clogged, stagnant sewage canal that is what remains of the Ganges River when it reaches Kolkata. People hold their nose and come to worship by the river. I only saw one man swimming, or rather sifting through the sludge with a metal sieve (did he lose something? his sanity?). But they were selling the holy water, yellowish in the morning sun, for just Rs. 10.

Across from the revered ghats there was a shanty town. We walked across the river on a three old row boats placed in a row as a makeshift bridge, praying that they wouldn't break. On the other side there were no touts here, just tiny homes, shops and a one room temple to Shiva, the god of creation.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

The Last Days of Disco

I'm still in Kolkata, hanging with Bengali's, the so-called French of India. Politics are progressive-- actually I'm fairly sure the Marxist party rules West Bengal--and nearly all the (admittedly upper class) couples I've met have married for love. But it's all relative. I still haven't seen a single cow in the city, but a herd of goats crossed the (residential) street as we trotted down to find this iWay cyber cafe.

We've made a stab at seeing the sights, despite the thick, intensifying heat. Today we strolled through the oh-so-British Victoria Memorial gardens, under parasols; yesterday we browsed book stands on College Street, then had strong coffees in the no-frills but evidently popular Worker's Cooperative Coffee Shop. A crowd of cerebral-looking Bengali chatted and smoked cigarettes under the high ceiling.

But aside from this, we've met with a lot of closed signs, and the vague half explanations so typical to this country. The lovely Eden Gardens are shut indefinitely due to some military dispute over ticket price (according to the sign, shockingly printed in English). North Kolkata's Marble Palace is closed all weekend because of Holi, according to the guard, who did let us walk into the marvelously overgrown grounds after we slipped him a 100 note. The marble mansion is falling apart, in a glamorous, "very Mrs. Havisham" way, in the words of our friend Sita. Sita is an ex-Veerni volunteer visiting Kolkata in the name of research. She's writing a detective novel set partly here and partly in London, where she lives.

After this dead end, we gave up on chugging through the smoggy evening in our Ambassador taxi. Sita retired to the deliciously kitschy Fairlawn Hotel, where the lobby is surrounded by cascading Christmas lights, plastic leaves and faux fruit. Jess and I headed to a party at a friend's flat and then... to the "Disc"! The boite de nuit, inexplicably called Dublin, was tucked in the basement of the Sheraton, near the airport. The interior was swank, the dance floor was packed, the beats were thumping--bhangra, classic Bollywood, and ohmygod, at the end, Usher and Biggy. Our Bengali pals showed off their stuff, too; even the bespectacled engineers were working it. We closed the place at 3am, dripping in sweat.

Good times, good times... But unfortunately, I have to do some writing of my own. I'm headed to sequester myself in Darjeeling in a couple days, a cool hill station where I'm hoping to bang out text for an article due in a few weeks.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Holi festivities. Jess and I are second and third from left in the back, gripping our bhang milk pot.  Posted by Hello

Holi Culture Shock

There are no cows on the street in Kolkata. This city feels like home, or at least Eastern Europe, it's so modern. Billboards are in English, because everyone actually speaks this language. There are no puttering, inefficient autorickshaws, only yellow Ambassador taxis.

Our entrance into this city was all the more surreal yesterday because it was Holi, the festival of color: the streets were almost deserted, in a notoriously chaotic city (I feel like I've described each Indian city this way, but really, Kolkata traffic is supposed to be nutty).

In Varanasi, they've been "playing Holi" all week. I was an unwilling participant, strolling on the ghats the other day. A fuschia-colored boy pelted me with a pink water balloon, staining the new linen trousers I had tailor-made in Jaipur. We (Jessica met me here the other day) half wanted to stay on, to see how crazy things would get--plus, we were exhausted--but we'd booked tickets on. So we hauled ourselves to the train station for the 17 hour ride to Kolkata.

No one plays Holi in the streets here--you get fined--so most people get messy behind closed doors. Yesterday we plunked our stuff down, put on our worst clothes and got really, really pink. The family we're staying with took us to a neighbor's roof party, and we were immediately smeared in orange, yellow, green, and pink powders. They dowsed us in water to make the powder take hold and handed us small clay pots with a "herb" cocktail. Everyone from the stern Reiki Grand Master to his teenage daughter had a cup of this drink, a blend of almond milk, ground nuts, and bhang. We sipped ours gingerly, looking out of the balcony onto coconut trees, giant black crows, and high rise apartments ringed by slums.

Later, hair and hands still bright pink, we were taken out for vodka tonics at a kind of lounge restaurant. The band was awful, spouting badly covered Backstreet Boys and George Michael sung by a fake blond Indian women. Conversation revolved around parties, low-carb dieting, and bargaining tactics to get time off work to travel abroad.

I'm reminded of something an English man told me in Jodhpur during my first week in India. I was still in shock, way overstimulated by, er, everything. He laughed and said don't worry, you'll start to love it. The chaos is addicting.

So Kolkata hasn't delivered, yet, but I'm sure my addiction can be sated with a visit to the markets today. If not, I'm going to need another hit of Varanasi.

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

From Dawn till Dusk

This morning I woke up at 6:30 to Hindu prayers broadcast over loudspeakers from down by Pandhey Ghat. Dhobis (clothes washers) were flubbing garments against the rocks in the Ganges, next to Varanasi's bathing denizens. Already, sharp sunlight cut through the fog--aka pollution--resting over the old city. Boats ferried wide-eyed (and wide lens-toting) tourists back and forth down the river to gawk at the puja-making, and body burning.

Right, the bodies. Varanasi, an ancient city built along the west bank of the revered Ganges River, is the holiest city in Hinduism. Devout Hindus go to this city to die. Families bring bodies to be cremated. Cow owners bring their well-kept herd (these are the best fed bunch I've seen) to swim.

But I didn't head to the ghats right away. Upon arrival in Varanasi I was feeling way, way over stimulated. The Mahrudhar Express, which runs all the way from Jodhpur to Varanasi, pulled into the last station at 12:33pm, just over 3 hours late.

Actually, though, for a 23 hour and 30 minute train ride, it was downright relaxing. I napped on my top bunk (of three), under three whirling fans, and later sat on the steps leaning outside to watch the sunset over the desert--for the last time, dammit!--chatting with some Israeli hippies from the next car over. All six of them, like many of their fellow dreadlocked, drum-toting countrymen have been shanti-shantiying abroad for over a year.

I waved goodbye to them at the train station, expecting to run into them on the ghats in town. But as always I met others a few minutes later. It's funny how the backpacker scene works like this. It's like hey, where're you from, wanna come with us to the market? How about dinner?

Actually, the market was too much, much too much. So I broke away with one Israeli guy, a laid back but tragically dust-allergic teacher, to explore the ghats. Sadhus give neck rubs at the nearby Dasawamedh Ghat (named for the 10 horse sacrifice done by Brahma, the creator), wiley children hawk postcards, boat men vie for business, offering us rides first for Rs 200 then going down to Rs 25 per person. But it was too hot.

It wasn't until late evening that we passed by Harishchandra, one of two ghats where bodies are cremated after an elaborate, if rapidly carried-out (there're always more bodies in the queue) ceremony, their ashes then scattered in the Ganges. First I saw the massive stack of firewood, and a small crowd of tourists gawking from a platform. We walked closer. No one's really paying attention to you, it's just business as usual: kids run around, goats blessed with red powder (tika) eat flowers already used in the ceremony, fat black cows swim nearby. There was a charred torso in the fire, and another corpse nearby on a bamboo stretcher, covered with a gold cloth and flower necklace. A man in flip flops pushed more wood on the fire, which was smoking a lot. I felt uneasy standing so close, and the smoke was quite thick, so we walked away, up the stairs past a rushing small river of sewage.

Later, at night, we walked by the ghat again. The drumming hadn't ceased, the bells still rang out, the fires still burned. Death stops for no man.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Do the Locomotion

I was supposed to be on a bus to see one of the seven wonders of the world today. Instead, I'm still in Jaipur fending off heat stroke with cold showers every few hours.

Saturday morning was spent at Jaipur's train station having a crash course in Indian bureaucracy. I was trying to secure a ride between Agra, the city where the Taj Mahal stands, and Varanasi.

After waiting in the designated queue for Senior Citizens, Handicapped Persons, and
Foreign Visitors, a disgruntled, balding man sent me to check routes around the corner, at Reservations Inquires.

At the front of the line, finally, elbowing out all the men trying to cut, we--I and about 6 other tourists trying for this route--were told that the Agra-Varanasi train was booked. The whole week. Skeptical--everything in India is possible, right?--I asked about 2nd tier a/c sleeper, 3rd tier a/c sleeper, 2nd class, 1st class, 10th class, I don't know, everything. "Not possible."

Refusing to go home empty-handed, I thought to buy a ticket for the next leg of the trip, Varanasi-Kolkata. I set out to break the India Railway Atlas code, that ingeniously encripted listing of every route with all its major stops. Realizing Kolkata was alternatively spelled Calcutta, or Haora, one of about 15 subsidiary stations, I deciphered the route to that West Bengal city from Varanasi. Crowing with pride, I promptly purchased two tickets for a whopping Rs 800 each--it is a 16 hour journey--for the wrong date, the 25th. This means Jessica and I will arrive in Kolkata, a notoriously chaotic city--Indians are saying this, you must understand--at 11am on March 26: in the midst of the notoriously chaotic annual festival of Holi.

Brooding about the likelyhood of Jess and I emerging unscathed from the street mobs that rally on the festival of color, I bumped smack into Bhati outside the railway station. He was looking after his fleet of Ambassadors from the shade of the motercycle parking shelter. He motioned for me to have a seat on one of the bikes' wide leather seats. Over salty lassis, fetched in plastic bags by one of his lackies, he dismissed the idea that a train ticket to Varanasi on Monday would be impossible. "Anything is possible, you just have to ask me," he reminded me.

In a moment my driver Jagat Singh had scurryed over to the station to see about this ticket. I tried to picture him walking in and ... then what? He obviously wasn't going to the same window I was. Where, where did he go?

In seven minutes I was told the ticket would be forthcoming. Another buzz on Bhati's cell and it was confirmed. "Monday morning ticket will come," he said. But Monday is when I'm supposed to leave, I pointed out. "Well then Sunday you will have the ticket." Sunday the station is closed. Nevermind, Bhati knows the guy in charge. Undoubtedly, there were some rupees enchanged.

Such is the way of India. The bureaucracy is intolerably inefficient, so those with money don't tolerate it. If you need a phone line put in, you'll be filling out papers and pleading with officials to stamp this and that for 6, 9 months. Obviously, you skip those unbecoming steps and fork over the expected bribe.

I'll just go on a tangent now and note that the justice system is no different. From what I hear, if you get convicted of a crime, a speeding ticket or a triple murder, there is an amount of money that will extracate you from the situation. It might be whatever you've got in your pocket when if the officer's poor, Rs 50 or 100. Or your aunty's cousin's brother finds the right man and pays him the correct sum.

Is it Rajasthan that is this backwards? I have one day left in this 'land of kings' and then I'll see. If I ask the right person.

Friday, March 18, 2005

Seeing Pink

A day in India is not complete without a meltdown. Ok, maybe in Jodhpur there were a few days when we'd stay in the realm of friends and co-workers, and thus out of the maddenly aggressive/unpredictable outside world. Today was not one of those days.

The day and my temper started out cool. I was picked up by my driver, whose name I asked and promptly forgot, at 8:30. We drove out past the normal motley roadside crew--photos to be posted later--to Amber Fort, where I sprinted up the stairs past crews of tourist-laden elephants to the top. It felt good as hell to get some exercise. I tagged along with an American tour group for laughs, and some explanation of the labyrinth-like structure. Obviously the Rs 75 entry fee did not cover the printing of signs. There were however tour leaders yelling over each other in English, French, German, and Hindi. The American tour guide was visibly condescending to his fat, pale, and well-winded herd. I saw why when one of the fanny-packed women asked if the hooks in the ceiling were for "for the slaves." He politely but firmly explained that neither Mughals nor Hindus historically held slaves; "unlike you Americans" was unspoken and probably unappreciated by the larger audience. One of the younger men sported a too-tight t-shirt boasting of his Crawford heritage: "The home of George W. Bush."

Moving on, I checked out some awesome vistas of the 9km stone wall snaking up and over the surrounding hills, the separate quarters for the Maharaja's 300 concubines, and admired the forward-thinking engineering of an air conditioning system rigged up with piped-in water and narrow, textured stone canals.

My driver suggested the next couple stops, but even knowing the so-obvious commission to expect to be tacked onto the price, I agreed. I don't think I'm paying for this driver, I should note, and I wanted to make sure my Indian pal Bhati who's arranged it gets a cut.

So we went to a textiles emporium called Areweli. I picked out two pairs of trousers and three tops, and balked at the price: Rs 2040, a fortune. He threw in a yellow scarf, so I said ok.

I said I didn't want jewelry but I was taken to Monto Bello gems "just for look." They brought out the chai. I mentioned my palm reader's prescription to wear moonstone or diamonds for protection and was soon showed about 1500 specimens of both. The diamonds were beautiful, but I decided against spending $200 on a microscopic nose ring. Right, I hadn't meant to buy anything, but here we were at least 45 minutes into my browsing session. I got a ring for $6, probably what I'd pay in the states, so I hope Mr. Bhati got a cut.

Then somebody's sweaty, balding uncle decides to read my palm. "In 15 seconds I know everything about your forecast," he promised. I was already feeling annoyed that I'd wasted an hour inside this joint but didn't move away. He told me--shocking--that I like to travel. "Your education is not much, it was bumpy," he continued, "you will not have success in teaching or journalism"--the two work stints I'd mentioned to his cousins--"and you think too much." Yeah, I wasted a freaking hour in this shop deciding between white and whiter moonstones; he was right. I shook his hand and exited.

Ok, that's not exactly true. There was that afore mentioned meltdown. I mentioned my English literature degree as proof that I wasn't an illiterate schmuck, and he shook his head: "this is not educated; this is your native tongue." Oh really? "No, chemistry degree, engineering, this is education." He was telling me to write about Hinduism, that it was an all-knowing science which could foretell the future. I responded with a lot of silly words, like relativism, faith, rationality. Soon this became "and you're WRONG about EVERYTHING."

A fruit seller charging double at the next corner was on the receiving end of another tantrum: "it's because I'm WHITE isn't it?"

Then I went home and dunked in the pool. Hey, it could be a lot worse.

There's a French girl I met recently who can't go anywhere without attracting hoards of men staring, or worse, grabbing. Every day she returns to her guest house in furious tears. I just heard she had Rs 5000 stolen in Jaiselmer.

An Australian girl I met on the train got a kidney infection her first week in India. She was doubled over in pain, peeing blood, before she finally went to the hospital. The doctors said it was something in the water.

In India there is harassment, there are exorbitant foreigner prices. But with a little anger management comes perspective. I'm not Indian. My lungs will recuperate after a month of coughing up black sludge. Back home, dirty children are playing in the sandboxes, not begging at stoplights. No one looks twice at me in New York, unless I'm walking too slowly. Even at the ripe old age of 25, I'm not having my marriage arranged. In Soho, fixed price really does mean fixed, whether you're white, brown or green. And it will be a hell of a lot more expensive.

Thursday, March 17, 2005

In the Pink

Yipes, I'm in Jaipur. Traffic in the pink city--so dubbed for the the old city walls' dusky shade of pink is much more hectic than Jodhpur, what with Jaipur's 3.5 million inhabitants. On the upside, non diesel-spewing rickshaw bicycles make up a good proportion of the road mayham. I have yet to try one but hear you can get a lift for only 5 rupees (like 10 cents).

I'm sure it's nothing compared to Dehli, which I'm skipping. Everyone says it's expensive, horrendously crowded, polluted, and so sprawled in every direction it's impossible to get anywhere in under an hour.

Here in Jaipur I'm staying at Sajjan Niwas, a cute Martha's Vinyard-meets-Arabian Nights style guest house next to an even more outrageous piece of gingerbread Decor de l'Este called Umaid Bhawan. Both are owned by members of my Sun City mama Neeta's family, so I'm well looked after. Good thing, too, because it's my first step out into India on my own. I have no itinary, just the pressure of the skyrocketing temperature to urge me east to meet friends in Kolkata. My non-plan is basically to arrive before there Holi, the Hindu festival on March 27 that sounds like a chaoticly Indian version of paint gun play. It's a raucous event in which crowds in the streets pelt each other with colors in the form of powder, liquid and colored water balloons. It's a day you should be somewhere with friends, I'm told, as the throngs in cities can get aggressive.

Speaking of aggressive, yesterday I ventured into the old city bazaars, which even with its shockingly perpendicular street grid were disorienting. As usual the shop signs are in Hindi and though the shops are numbered all the streets look identical. I miss having Jodhpur's looming fort to orient myself. I browsed in Johari gate, the jewelry district, then bought some leather thongs and a delicious papaya lassi for 10 rupees. But the traffic, heat and smog was exhausting, so I dialed my Jaipur guru Bhati for help. According to his own account, Bhati is a driver boss/textiles exporter/ex-journalist/party person whom I've met through Jessica. When she was FOP (the shell-shocked state one enters into upon deplaning in India) he showed her around Jaipur. Actually it's probably due to him that she didn't get right back on the plane.

Yesterday I could relate. Luckily, just when my energy was flagging Bhati zipped over in his silver painted Ambassador taxi. We chugged through the conjested streets, past the Floating Palace, which unlike Udaipur's is still sitting in water, albeit a much-depleted, stinky lake. We tooled up the hills and drove through a narrow entryway into the old Tiger Fort, another of the Maharaja's old roosts. Sitting atop a watchtower, we had cold Kingfishers and watched the day wane. As the sun got dim and orange the unworldly dine of prayers rose up the cliff from countless incanters in mosques below. This is an unofficially segregated Muslim neighborhood (could you call anything in India official?). 30% of Jaipur is Muslim but they're mostly poor laborers (and their women, who sit sideways on the back of motorcycles in long black burkas). From the watchtower, I looked down at hundreds of their thin tin roofs anchored on with piles of rocks.

Bhati wants to take me to the Taj Mahal, but I think I'll decline. It seems to me he's looking to relive his last visit to this great monument to love. He went 8 years ago with his English girlfriend, who subsequently dumped him and married someone in her own country. He was heartbroken and tells the story to anyone who'll listen.

So I'm at a crossroads. Either I venture on to this Wonder of the World alone--in notoriously aggressive Agra--or skip it and head to Varanasi.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

One of the circus posters around Jodhpur. We are still trying to snag one but they're pasted on pretty well. Posted by Hello

Sushila Suthar stands up straight. She's the 11 year old sister of one of Jessica's students. This is her family's one room home.  Posted by Hello

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

It's Getting Hot in Herre

Oh my goodness, get me out of the desert now. It's been two months since I touched down in India and aside from one frantic Mumbai day I've spent the entire time staring at a flat beige landscape. I'm accustomed to the same five scrawny dogs fight over bones all night every night, though I still harbor hope of shooing them away by throwing things at them from our balcony. The same garishly painted rickshaws putter back and forth, honking at bumps in the road. The dust and diesel particles in the air have settled down inside my lungs, now uncomplaining. I stopped coughing ages ago. It's no longer alarming that my nose is coated in black grime.

Enough complaining. I'm working on a project that's keeping me here in Jodhpur past my teaching stint with the Veerni Project. It's a study of child marriage, an archaic practice that's still thrieving here in backwards Rajasthani villages. Actually I saw one my first day teaching in Khatawas, though they told me at the time the brides were 18. Yeah right, they were barely 4 feet tall. I thought they were hunched over, swaddled in veils, but I've discovered since they actually were 12 years old at most. I'm going to the village tomorrow to find out more.

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

A Piece of Cake

Neeta Rathore and the Sun City Guest House staff threw Jessica the best cake-and-streamers birthday she'd had since she was 10. As usual this little rascal stole the show (at least until 12 year old Sourage, a live-in servant, came out in drag). Samdeen wiggled and jiggled up a storm at the impromptu dance party, to the ultra-popular Dhoom soundtrack, that followed cake. And sure enough, vomiting ensued in the courtyard. Posted by Hello

Smell You Later

Speaking of vomit, please read no further if you've just eaten. Uh, and don't look at the picture. One of these elephants was having a stomach disaster, judging from the yellow/brown rivelets oozing down his back legs. The smell got worse after the stuff sat under the hot lights, especially for those close to the ring in the expensive "Raj Circle" seats. This was the last circus act I stayed for.  Posted by Hello

Sit Up Straight

Elephants stacking themselves. Later they walked over a strong man. Posted by Hello

Bunkiss Reincarnated as a Circus Act

Lulled near to sleep with the oppresive heat under the tent, I woke up when three white dogs trooped in to do tricks. They look just like 'ol Bunkiss Reis, and are equally skittish, it seems, for circus acts at least. Right after this photo was taken two of them made a break for it and escaped out the back. One was left to jump through burning hoops alone that were barely bigger than himself.  Posted by Hello

Remember to Use Flouride, Kids

These girls were each gripping the line with their teeth, spinning rapidly as they were yanked up and down in the air by a pulley. On the other end of the pulley was a rope held by 5 skinny teenage boys. The girls, apparently, are the reason most people come. They're dressed like dancers in a 50 Cent video--ok not that hoed-out--but pretty racy by Jodhpur standards. Also, they're like 13.  Posted by Hello

All Together Now

During the circus overture, the whole cast trooped out to half-wave hello. The midgets were actually the best trampoliners, doing crazy spins and flips. Posted by Hello

A Colorful Crowd

Spectators at the Rajkamal Circus in Jodhpur. Though entertaining, it was typically cruel to its participants, and for a change also to the audience. Halfway through the 3.5 hour show it was at least 95 degrees under the not-so-Big Top, which was also effective in trapping every the scent of every beast--wet rhinos, donkeys, moterbikes, ect--that entered the ring. Posted by Hello

On the sand dune. Posted by Hello

Me and Tee Tee. Posted by Hello

Camel's Eye View

Fellow Veerni volunteer Nisha and I rented camels for an afternoon in Osian, a small town an hour north of Jodhpur. You have to mount the camel when he's lying on the ground, they're so massive. Then you hang on while he straightens first his forelegs--whoa!--then his back legs. These babies are racing camels so their legs alone are about five feet high.  Posted by Hello