Part of the challenge of keeping up with this blog is staying current on what's happening in the subcontinent but just biding my time waiting to get back. To this end, there are always lots of great deals and new places to discover, such as this recent National geographic article about Kaziranga National Park in Assam. Wow, lots of rhinos!
And I just came across the Great Circular Indian Railway Challenge. It's elegant in its simplicity: "See the Length and Breadth of India in 2 weeks for £100 ($156)."
The New York Times did a piece on "36 Hours in Mumbai" this past weekend. It's a bit heavy on food and drink but it does do a good job of highlighting some of the more modern Mumbai stops that aren't the usual collection of monuments and sightseeing photo-ops. And 36 hours may be rushed but it might also be just enough time in the big city before heading out to smaller-town India.
As he says, "Unlike in many countries, walks and walking tours are not common or popular in India. This series intends to promote the idea of walks that can enable travellers to see and experience the places better by getting closer."
A good idea and well executed with each amble including: detailed description of the walk along with maps, difficulty level, best season and time of day to do the walk, distance and helpful Google maps.
In a quote reminiscent of the ailing Lou Gehrig, Albert Brunner, the CEO of the Bengaluru International Airport (a consortium composed of the private enterprises Unique Zurich Airport, Siemens Project Ventures and Larsen & Toubro and the state-owned Airport Authority of India and Karnataka government) was widely quoted as saying, "I am the happiest man in the world," upon the airport's opening. (On the management page for the airport where the Swiss honchos are all pictured, they are all smiling in a way that is uncharacteristic for the rather staid Swiss and for management photos in general; "See, look how happy we are!" they radiate. Stephan Widrig, the Chief Commercial Officer looks like he's almost painfully happy.)
What Brunner was probably trying to say was, "I am the most relieved man in the world" after the fast-track project was "marred by controversies, litigations, protests and cost over-runs, the much-awaited launch was put off thrice (March 28, May 11 & 23) due to delays in setting up the air traffic control, training operators, government clearances and finally the poll panel's directive to it put-off by a day."
If you're headed to the company-cum-airport known as Bangalore (aka Bengaluru) International Airport Limited also known as BIAL, be sure to use BLR as your code; BIA will put you in France.
China's hosting of the Olympics could very well be a boon for tourism there; but it can get one thinking that sometimes tourism might be too much of a good thing – that is, there might be too much to handle. In Asia's other big country, India, the country's strong economy and increases in tourism are bumping up against sufficient places to lay one's head. While India doesn't look to have an Olympiad in the next decade, it will still be hosting some big events, notably the Commonwealth Games. The Wall Street Journal reports that:
NPR did a story today about India's dhobis or clothes washers (I suppose they would be "launderers" or "laundresses" which are words that don't seem to get much print these days). As I realize by looking back at my stacks of pictures from my time in India, I really felt myself mesmerized by the daily washing ritual that happens all across the country. Although the same fabric-flogging is seen in developing countries all over the world, there was something about it in India that lent a true sense of place whether in the big cities or the small towns and numerous riverbanks in between. Reporter Laura Sydell posits that the iconic dhobis may become a thing of the past as a result of the increasing prevalence of washing machines and the general march of modernization.
This is my photo of Dhobi Ghat in Mumbai where thousands of launderers smack wet clothes (and hotel linens) against their stones in a weird harmony.
Bollywood is cranking out movies by the barrel-load (probably to feed the supply of Indian actors-turned politicians). Although set in India, they don't exactly convey what it's like for a foreigner to visit the subcontinent; certainly there's a truism to that across cultures; what one sees in a Hollywood blockbuster, after all, isn't exactly a mirror of everyday life in the US; similarly, Bollywood isn't a perfect reflection of a typical life in India. Hollywood's foray into India – the treatment of the East through the eyes of the West – has been understandably limited. Richard Attenborough's Gandhi (1982) is a possible exception although it is an Indian story about Indians. George Stevens's 1939 film, Gunga Din (based partly on a poem by Rudyard Kipling) mixes Indian and non-Indian characters but in a plot that doesn't exactly resonate with the realities on the ground today:
In 19th century India, three British soldiers and a native waterbearer must stop a secret mass revival of the murderous Thuggee cult before it can rampage across the land.
However, Wes Anderson (The Life Aquatic, Royal Tenenbaums) has set his latest film, The Darjeeling Limited (currently making the rounds at the festival circuit) in modern India. This week's New Yorker has a review of The Darjeeling Limited (which, frankly, is a bit kinder than most of the critics so far). (Watch the DL trailer.) I'm not sure if one can issue a spoiler alert for a movie review but I'll caution you anyway … Anthony Lane draws the parallel between the romance of train travel and the journey a viewer makes from start to finish in a movie, he notes that the "mood of the film is blithe, and its coloration peacock-bright " and, finally, he summarizes the movie as “How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the East.” That seems to be good advice when visiting India.
That same theme could probably be found in Outsourced, which describes itself as:
A modern day comedy of cross-cultural conflict and romance. Todd Anderson (Josh Hamilton) spends his days managing a customer call center in Seattle until his job, along with those of the entire office, are outsourced to India. Adding insult to injury, Todd must travel to India to train his new replacement. As he navigates through the chaos of Bombay and an office paralyzed by constant cultural misunderstandings, Todd yearns to return to the comforts of home. But it is through his team of quirky yet likable Indian call center workers … that Todd realizes that he too has a lot to learn - not only about India and America, but about himself. He soon discovers that being outsourced may be the best thing that ever happened to him.
I just did an interview for The Indian Photographer which discusses my experiences shooting photos in India and the resultant photo exhibition that has come out of it. There are some other good interviews and tips on the site for photographers, Indian or not.
Topics covered by the panel range from the rise of India's middle class to India's spiritual allure for travelers to the role of Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) in shaping the country's tourism economy. The series of concise Q&A interviews is available free online at www.IndiaTravelInsights.org.
I took some short videos when I was in India and posted them online. I guess I could have posted them on YouTube but I just did it on my own site. Now uber travel publisher Lonely Planet has sort of merged the ideas with LonelyPlanet.tv. It's still young and growing but it's a neat idea to let travelers send a slice of their travels to the world at large. One of the recent posts that's gotten some buzz is a New Yorker's video take on a virgin visit to India. A bit of a pessimistic view, yes, but some precious scenes -- I particularly like the shots of people jumping into the moving train. Also, as if anyone doubted this advice before: pay the extra few rupees to your hotel or whatever and have someone else buy your train tickets because Westerns aren't very good at it and that mistake can cost you frustrating hours better spent elsewhere.
It's hard to visit India and not see the Ganges River. Not just at the holy city of Varanasi, the river plays a fundamental role in daily life in India. And it's not just ritual and religion; the Ganges handles a lot of the day-to-day washing and waste removal of northern India. And it's also drinking water for millions.
In the lead story of today's New York Times travel section, Jonathan Allen outlines some trip itineraries for the new travel hotspot: India. (Actually, the article has a published date of March 25 -- tomorrow -- so kudos to the Times for printing tomorrow's news today!) Allen's message is that "a well-planned short visit to India doesn't have to bypass major tourist sites."
Further, he writes:
For the first-time visitor to India, the sheer vastness of the country - more than a million square miles - all but defeats the romantic notion of seeing all that this place has to offer in anything approaching the usual time frame of a normal vacation ... But what about the rest of us who are limited to one or two weeks of vacation a year? Is India completely beyond our grasp? In a word, no. Even sampling the tiniest geographical crumb of India over a period of 7 to 10 days can be a satisfying travel experience.
Alongside the article is a "sights and sounds of Delhi"slideshow that has some nice photos by Tomas Munita and also does a good job of weaving in the ever-present background music of Old Delhi. The photos are disproportionately of the city's Islamic side but still pretty typical.
Of course, in terms of setting India to moving pictures, I'm partial to my new screensaver.
Part of what I was interested about when I went to India was what was life like in India. What looked like a "normal" day for my friends and co-workers? For that matter, what was life like for the people I'd talk to on support lines? What did they see when they left the confines of their call centers?
Not that this little parody of a call center movie settles all that, but it's pretty funny.
If you're browsing through the site, it will not surprise you that I have a lot of pictures of India. In an effort to share them I've just created a screensaver with some of my favorite India photos. I think it captures a bit of the life and color that I feel makes India so photogenic. It's free and available for PCs.
Last year around this time I was on the beach in Kerala
watching the locals burn a huge Santa Claus effigy.There don't seem to be any effigies in my
neck of the woods this year although they seem to be popular in Iraq
during this particular New Year's.
I'm a big Ben Kingsley fan and Ash is probably great at her craft but personally I'm looking forward to the release (in late 2007?)
of The Darjeeling Limited,
a project directed by Wes Anderson (The
Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou, The Royal Tenenbaums, Rushmore) and starring Owen Wilson, Adrien Brody and Jason Schwartzman.Apparently they're supposed to be brothers.I guess we have to ignore the fact that hey
don't really look like kin and just focus on the fact that they all have characteristic
noses. Ah, the suspension of disbelief!
Greetings to Komando fans.I'm Kim Komando's Cool Site of the Day which is pretty cool (thanks Kim!).If you're reading this, that's a good sign - the site has been a bit busy from the newsletter this
morning and I'm happy it still seems to be accessible.I think if you listen carefully you can hear the
web servers panting to keep up.
Please, feel free to contact me if you have questions or
comments. I'm sensing a trend in some of the messages I've already gotten this
morning about flashpacking so I figure maybe I have some explaining to do ...
First of all, I didn't set out to "flashpack"
across India.In fact, I hadn't heard of the term when I boarded
my flight to Delhi.I just wanted to share my experience and the
old paradigm of traveling didn't seem so friendly for doing that.Turns out that in going high-tech I unwittingly
became the poster child for flashpacking.Who knew?
There's actually some disagreement as to what flashpacking is. To some it's pricier, high-end backpacking. Others
have defined it as tech-heavy backpacking. I fall into the latter category.
Certainly the way I traveled through India
was different from previous trips but as Komando readers will understand it's
almost par for the course that many backpackers now travel with a digital
camera, iPod and cell phone.Carrying all
of those gadgets hardly seems extraordinary today - but that's exactly the
point: technology is really insinuating itself into travel.
I've gotten some questions about flashpacking and it seems people want to know a bit more of the specifics of what I had with me on the
Kodak z740 digital camera with two 1GB memory cards for it.I could have gone more upmarket but in
general the camera did what I needed it to do.The optical zoom was clearly the selling point for me (the digital zoom
got a little fuzzy) and it also had enough manual controls like shutter delay
to keep me happy.
An Ericsson T39m GSM cell phone.I picked up a SIM card (and service) from
Airtel when I got to India.
My "laptop" - an AlphaSmart Neo. (This is what I'm typing on in the picture.) Not fancy but perfect for what I needed.Light, durable and compact, and the best part:
it goes for weeks on a single set of three plain old AA batteries with no
1 GB Sony MicroVault USB memory drive
Then I had all of the supporting gear - a few sets of
rechargeable batteries and chargers as well as the charger for my phone and
then cables for the camera and Neo, a US-to-India
plug adaptor and a few CD-RWs to back up my photos from my camera cards.
This service behind this web site, SiteKreator was a great
help because of its very easy and intuitive interface.Remember I was often using some very basic computers
at cyber cafes (including the dreaded Windows 98 os) and the prospect of downloading
content and fiddling with it in Dreamweaver was just not realistic.
Also, I should note that the auto-save function in Gmail was
great for the many times when my computer froze up or the power went out when I
was writing an e-mail.I also used Google's
e-mail interface to write my blog entries before posting them for the same
reason - we all know how annoying it is to get halfway through something and
then have it disappear.
GoToMyPc.com - I used this to connect to my laptop which I left on at home. It's hardly a new development but it's funny to be sitting in a little dingy backroom in India and fiddling with my files on the other side of the world.
"Flashpacking is just backpacking, with an awful lot of tech gear
going along for the ride," said Lee Gimpel, 29, a writer from Virginia
who "flashpacked" around India for a few months and recorded his
adventures at http://www.PassingThroughIndia.com.
"I sometimes felt that half of what I was carrying was tech stuff:
digital camera and memory cards, USB memory drive, a laptop, cell
phone, three battery chargers, a dozen rechargeable batteries, a power
adaptor, blank CD-RWs and a handful of cables and cords," he said.
Have you flashpacked? What do you think it is? Add a quick comment.
It's good to be home.Back in the, back in the, back in the USA
Yeah, a bit of culture shock, but it is offset by a few
things.While there are the usual biggies we miss when we're away - friends and family of course - there are the little
things as well.Like taking a shower and not
soaking the whole bathroom because the shower is really just stuck on the wall
in most places rather than compartmentalized in a tub.I'm glad to have a quiet night of sleep,
undisturbed by fighting dogs, prayer bells and honking horns.I missed The
Daily Show although I'd hoped that The
Colbert Report would have dramatically improved while I was gone.It hasn't.And, yes, I missed cheese.(I
like cheese.)Sounds silly I know but
it's hard to get real cheese in India.Funny because, as you may be aware, there are
an awful lot of cows.
Further, I'm glad to sleep in the same bed for more than
three nights in a row.I'm also happy to
be out of cities where blowing one's nose results in an unseemly grayish
sample, the result of the exhaust, dust and general detritus that colors India's
On the other hand, it's tough to adjust to the prices.Everything in the US
now seems so darn expensive.I have to
fight the urge to ring for the manager at my local supermarket and berate him
for the cost of an apple or a jug of milk and then offer a more reasonable
price from which we can begin our haggling.
Another tricky adjustment is what I'll call Bodysnatcher Syndrome.I'll go out to get the mail or drive to the
store (yes, driving in a more rule-bound system is different as well - as is
crossing the street as I now keep checking right - left - left - right - right - left to
compensate for the left-side drive and the possibility of reverse traffic on
one-way streets) and it hits me: Where
are all the people?!?!The amount of
space is a bit eerie after the chockablock crowds of India; no one in India
will say "sorry" or "excuse me" if he or she bumps into you - why bother when
there are a billion people, it's a fact that you're going to rub shoulders once
in a while so why waste time apologizing for it?
As for what I'll miss about India
that I can't take home, there's a lot.My
surroundings seem rather plain without India's
dollops of unexpected color everywhere.The fresh food was great - save for the rather bland McAloo Tikki burger
and its fellow offerings at the world's favorite fast food joint.But to that end, I'm also going to
miss the luxury of having a whole country that understands how to make a
meatless dish.We haven't quite gotten
to the point here at home.A few years
ago I went to a lunch event where I'd requested the vegetarian meal.I showed up and found hot dogs and
hamburgers.When I asked what the
vegetarian option was one of the servers directed me to a dip tray with a few
pieces of broccoli and baby carrots.Not
much of a lunch.
And then there's the energy.I guess there's a bit of Charles' Law or thermodynamics or whatever with
India: there are a lot of people in a confined space all moving around so
there's bound to be some energy created.But it's more than just a swirl of people coming together.India
has a feel.You can't neglect the
poverty, but it is generally upbeat and positive.It's interesting to be in the midst of
societal change on a continental level.Argue as you will whether it's a good thing that India
is changing and modernizing, there's no escaping that the feel here is
different than other developing countries (I grew up with the term "third
world" but that seems un-PC these days).In Syria,
or a host of other countries that are even doing better than India
on a per-capita basis, (India:
$620, Syria: $1190,
you don't get the feeling there's a lot of optimism there.Syria
may not be much different in 10 years (um, provided they don't get a surprise
visit from the Third Army) but India
in a decade will certainly look different.
Ever wondered what it's like to spend a day as
Madonna or Bono? India lets you sample the forbidden fruits of
super-stardom, albeit at a smaller level, but also without the bother
of having to wear outrageous lingerie in public or try to save the
world in between cutting albums.
has seen its fair share of foreigners. If it wasn't the various
invaders over the centuries, it was the trading partners-cum-invaders
of the Portuguese, Dutch, French and, of course, the British.
Smack in the heart of the spice routes, India has gotten
visitors. But that doesn't change the fact that foreigners today
are still strange and wondrous beings for much of the populace.
Maybe not at a "Gods Must Be Crazy" level, but it's still a bit of a
change to be, if not revered, at least the center of attention wherever
you go. (For better or worse, Indians are still savvy enough to
know that you're not a great white god as Pizarro found to his
in India you can feel a bit like a rock star. The only
qualification you need is to look different. White skin
helps. As do shorts or other funny, non-Indian garb.
Cameras are a bit of a giveaway. And, of course, blond hair is
worth its weight in gold. Rumpelstiltskin would be proud.
took family pictures with families I didn't know. I was given
newborn babies to hold. I became the "it" thing to see and touch
for groups of school kids on field trips who were supposed to be
looking at murals, statues or the like. I would be singled out in
a crowd so locals could shake my hand. I signed autographs, being
sure to add "USA" next to my name as if I was the starting point guard
on Team America's basketball squad (Condi Rice plays the 2 spot).
Trips in buses, cars, rickshaws, etc. sometimes had the feel of an
inauguration parade as people on the sidewalks would spontaneously
start waving and I'd feel compelled to wave back looking like the
Queen; well, looking like a queen who had been wearing the same T-shirt
for a week. Well, not really looking like a queen at all.
Year's was a trip as shaking hands with a foreigner seemed to be an
omen of good tidings for the coming year and those who were not Indian
were besieged by well-wishers wanting to press the flesh. Imagine
a handful of foreigners among a sea of thousands of well wishers.
had to duck away from groups of kids if I saw them coming just because
I couldn't afford another afternoon of answering the same cute
questions about where I'm from and taking photo after photo of the kids
by themselves or the kids with me. Even in fairly well traveled
cities, you can walk down the main street without drawing a crowd but
turn a corner and kids will light up at the good fortune of having a
foreigner on their street; as I kept managing to get myself lost in
cities, I had a lot of experience with this.
that brings up the other side of what it must be like to be a
celeb. You're always on stage so to speak and you have to grin
and bear it at times. I must have answered the same few questions
hundreds of times while in India - often a half dozen or a dozen times
in a day: What is my name, Where am I from, What my job is, Where I
have visited in India, etc.
it's fun to be a celeb but it's nice to be able to step away from it
too. After some long days you start to understand how celebrities
sometimes just lose it and start rampaging through the paparazzi or
I know I need a haircut. But it hasn't been
that long. The last place I got my haircut was in Varanasi ...
which was the site of bomb blasts that killed 17 people on March
7. Today the city witnessed a small blast that injured one
person. I didn't feel unsafe in Varanasi (or in the whole of
India for that matter), but to be so close to such an event is a bit
disquieting. It takes some of the shine off my generally upbeat
assessment of India. My haircut was fine -- just about the right
length -- but explosions at a train station that one recently passed
though is a bit too close for comfort.
I actually walked into
the police station near the temple that was hit. What can I say
it -- looked like an interesting building. I was quickly shown
out; the cops seemed a bit jumpy about having an outsider inside.
And here I thought they were just paranoid.
Well, all good things must come to an end. And I'm nearing mine at least vis-a-vis my time in India. Not to worry though; India will keep its American presence in balance as Bush arrives as I depart. I feel like it's a bad trade for India though. In preparation for the state visit the boulevard in the diplomatic district is lined with the Stars and Bars. It's very refreshing to be in a country on the other side of the world and see American flags ... that aren't on fire.
In fact as a whole India is quite refreshing as an American destination (perhaps a well kept secret as we're few and far between here; I've met only marginally more Yanks as Finns if that illustrates the point). It is perhaps the most pro-American country in the world. Therefore while you may get a hard look or be forced into an extemporaneous explanation of American foreign policy in many other countries (if you're not drawn and quartered), in India, no need to be defensive. As part of the standard 20 Questions that foreigners endure here, everyone wants to know where you're from. When I say "America" it is met with a fairly standard response: "Ah, America -- good country!" It's the same if you're from England or Australia or basically any other country that's on Indians' radar (thus, the Finns are met with quizzical expressions unless they are misheard as having come from Eng-land rather than Fin-land). But Indians aren't too concerned with American hegemony or our collective stance on Danish cartoons. If one has a brother, cousin (or the unique Indian combination of "brother-cousin"), or uncle who is living in New Jersey, America is good and that's the end of the story. We'll ignore the trifling fact that New Jersey is not really America.
Your mind may be wandering and you may be wondering how it is that I've managed to get a few entries and an e-mail update done in the past few days. If not, bear with me because I needed some transition here. Well, I managed to find a hotel room in New Delhi which has not only broadband Internet access but also has a computer in the room. This might be fairly unique anywhere but I mention it because (a) it's India where one would assume such things don't happen, and (b) my room cost me a shade less than $7 per night. Now don't go thinking that it's a glamorous room. It's not but it has a big bed, a Western toilet, cable TV and a hot water shower.
Indians are friendly -- even towards Americans. Actually I'd say there's a healthy amount of pure curiosity that is expressed as friendliness but we'll leave it at simple friendliness. That's always a good thing as a foreign visitor. In fact there's a saying here that the guest is [a] god. And you do feel well treated in general -- again, while it may not always be smooth sailing, the vast, overwhelming majority of tourists I've met say that traveling in India is far easier than they anticipated. But the other major selling point of a trip to India (beyond all of the culture and history and quotidian laughs you get) is the one that I have managed to gloss over but is very much at the heart of having a great experience here: the country is so very, very cheap.
You can stay at really, really nice hotels and eat really, really nice meals here. India has, by some accounts, the best spa resort in the world now. There truly is luxury to be had here. But with even a very minimal budget you can do a lot and enjoy yourself while doing it. Almost every meal I've had has been well under $5. Well under. More like $2. And that's often at a sit-down place with real tablecloths. Coke in a bottle will run you about $.30. An all-you-can-eat buffet will set you back a dollar. Travel a few hundred miles by train and you're talking $10 or $20 unless you go deluxe and the price doubles to a whole $40.
When I was in Mumbai I ate at what may be the top place in town and thus perhaps the top restaurant in the country. Maybe it isn't but it's still a big deal.
For less than $20, here's what I had:
A starter of a half-dozen types of bread (a whole wheat, foccacia with onions, rolls, etc.) with regular and herbed butter followed by my soup, cold carrot and ginger with dill and sour cream. Then my main course: fresh saffron fettuccine with roasted eggplant, peppers, sun-dried tomatoes, bocconcini and pine nuts. That alone set me back a whole $7. Then I had some dessert (how can you not): a date and almond torte with ginger and caramelized bananas served with pink peppercorn ice cream and jaggery rum sauce. Add some drinks and the meal comes to the cost of a large pizza back home.
I mention the extreme affordability of India not to gloat or hold it up as a place where you can live like a king. You indeed can live in a higher strata but what the difference in buying power between dollars, euros, pounds or yen means is that it's a lot easier to just explore and not worry so much about missing things or facing tough trade-offs. With the exception of the Taj Mahal and a few other landmarks, entrance fees are anywhere from $.10 to $2 per person -- very palatable even when nearly every major attraction in India also has a domestic rate which is usually 10-20 percent of the foreigner rate. You can hire a taxi or rickshaw for perhaps $10 for the day. If that. And because meals cost about a dollar you can order at will and not worry that you'll break the bank if it's not what you expected and you have to order something else. When you get cheated it's almost laughable that you got taken for an extra 10, 20 or 100 rupees -- a quarter to two dollars. (Still I've had my moments where I had to stand on principle and waited twenty minutes for a cabbie to give me the right fare -- usually a difference of $.50.)
It makes jumping in very easy. The major cost of touring India is just getting here.
I recently returned to the heart of India
after a refreshing
week and a half in its northernmost reaches: the state of Sikkim (which
nothing to do with the Sikhs which would make too much sense).
(For an idea of where in the world Carmen Sandiego would be if she was
in Sikkim, check out this map and look near Bhutan.) I spent
the first two and a half days in the capital of Gangtok acclimating to the
altitude. Actually, I was just wasting time trying to find a tour group
that was a fit for my time and budget and just say I was
"acclimatizing" because it sounds more positive. As the proverb
goes, "He travels fastest who travels alone." But when trying to put
together a trip to the hinterlands, traveling alone can be a real pain.
Unless you're willing to shell out lots of dough for your own private jeep,
driver, guide, etc. Which I wasn't.
Gangtok is an ok city although it
certainly falls into the category of "Who thought it would be a good idea to
build a town here?!?!" Its half million residents live draped over
a crinkle of Himalayan hills; not exactly an ideal place to build ...
particularly if you like driving in a straight line from A to B rather than
turning every journey into a winding, gear-shifting corkscrew. A day of
waiting around was enough and two was certainly more than adequate. My
desire to get out o' town might have been slowed if the fog had lifted and allowed
a view of the mountains which are the raison d'etre for all of the city's balconied restaurants. Still, it's hard to dislike a city where orchids grow wild.
But, orchids aside, the neat part of Sikkim is that it's different.
Have you ever been in a part of a country that just didn't belong - a nook that
just seemed out of place?
Sikkim is India's New Jersey. That's not to say that one could ever
confuse Sikkim for New Jersey. For one thing the predominant mode of
transport here is jeep rather than Camaro. Second,
the music tends towards screechy Oriental ditties rather than BonJovi or Springsteen. Third, no one in Sikkim has a
beef with how Italian-Americans are portrayed on The Sopranos.
And, of course, China could care less whether New Jersey was part of the US or
Not so with Sikkim where one of every two people wears camo. And not without good reason. After
all, Sikkim isn't really India but was absorbed in the 1970s. It is much
closer in culture to Nepal or Tibet. Indeed, visiting Sikkim allows you
to travel through the aforementioned countries (or semi-autonomous regions
which may or may not be recognized as sovereign states by international bodies:
we're talking about you Tibet) without the hassle of actually going to
to work. I'm making that stat up but if it's not 2:1, it's at least 1:1
and if it's not an even split between military and civilian, then it must be at
least 1:2 and if - well, you get the picture: there is a very big and very
obvious military presence there.
But that's the rub. You see if you're in some way
related to Tibet, China feels like you should be part of their empire. (Isn't it fun to think that, voila!, this humble little web site
just got blacklisted from the online browsing of some one billion
people?!) Where the world's two most populous countries butt up against
each other and squabble over territory, there's bound to be some tension (the
ever-accurate CIA estimates that India can call up 219,471,999 men for the
military and China could field 281,240,272). And then there is the
sporadic freedom fight in the Northeastern Indian states and the insurrection
in Nepal, only a few kilometers away. Clearly India doesn't want any of
that spilling over to its side. But hey, what fun is an insurrection if
you can't share it?
Therefore, my time in Sikkim was perhaps remarkable for the
fact that, sporadically during the day, over dinner, and throughout the night,
you hear gunfire. They're just practicing but it's still a bit
unsettling. Unless perhaps you're from Detroit. In which case it
would feel just like home.
Luckily my group had two Austrians in it. There's
something comforting about going into alpine situations (gunfire or not) with
the only people on earth who count mountaineers as national celebrities and
probably have trading cards for them (as I'm sure you know, you'd need to hand
over two Karl Blodig cards for one rookie Hermann Buhl).
It does, however, take something away from the moment when the Austrians tell
you (in their Terminator voices) that the vistas look just like back
home. Or the Rockies or Andes.
But, my, what views! Huge, soaring, snow-capped peaks
that appear to rise straight out of the earth. After too many hours of
driving packed into a jeep (seven of us and a guide and driver) along mountain
roads that were in good repair but still often gave you the chance to see what
it looks like to look straight down a 500' cliff, we finally got to see the
mountains bright and early after spending a cold first night in Lachen
near the Tibetan border. Even if you live in Colorado it's hard to
replicate waking up at sunrise and having hot chai in bed
as you gaze through your windows and see some of the world's tallest bits of terrafirma. And to offset the
seen-one-mountain-you've-seen-them-all syndrome, the abundance of colorful prayer
flags that flap without stop in the Buddhist stronghold of Sikkim also help tag
the mountains as distinctly Himalayan. The red, yellow, blue, white and
green flags are everywhere. They give the place a foreign, spiritual
quality and add some color to the surroundings. Then again, they also
sort of make the place look a bit like a giant used car lot. ("C'mon down to Crazy Tenzig's for a great
In the face of such beauty (which surely isn't the right
word for it), one has no choice but to pull out the camera and shoot
away. I took lots and lots and lots of photos. There's something
truly ridiculous -- absurd even -- about trying to take a picture of the
Himalayas. They rise above you (even when you're at 14,000'), way into
the clouds, and there you are feeling about as
insignificant as one can feel in the face of nature, and the best you can do to
appreciate the moment is to point a little machine at them and capture some
small portion of the larger panorama. Then, to add insult to the whole
feeling of meekness, the camera marks the occasion, paying homage to the
awesome spectacle of nature with a pathetic little "click" as if that
could possibly capture what's in front of you (although it would surely still
be futile if a giant thunder clap accompanied each click of the shutter).
Sikkim's tag line is "Small but beautiful," having passed up the
second choice, "Size doesn't matter, honestly." When the
fog, mist and clouds clear and you can see what they're talking about, they've
got a point.
I'm starting to understand how Dickens must have felt
when the pressure was on to write serialized works. It's hard to
keep up sometimes -- granted ol' Chuck wasn't traveling through India
at the time. However, it is fairly easy to take out the camera
and fire away. Then again, for all the photos I'm taking it's
tricky to get them downsized and then uploaded with computers and
connections that are iffy at times.
So I'm going to link to some new, hard-won pictures
in this entry but I'm also going to cheat a bit and provide reading
material courtesy of some other folks I've met while, ahem, passing through India.
The authors of Fivetospare and Mickey were part of my tour group in the
Himalayas. Nice people but posting the same photos I have makes
it look too easy to take good pix here. Actually, I'd say many
are better than mine. Really some good shots. The two
together are a good tag team, writing and shooting and thankfully
they're not taking themselves too seriously -- Karen's take on the trip
is that she's keeping a travelblog "about where we're going, what we're
doing, why we're doing it, & how long I've gone without
diarrhea." They're on a two-year tour. Who's jealous?
- for those looking for a fix of Dutch traveling wisdom; a good site
translated in English with fun scorecards for each city. And they
could win for easiest blog address.
nomaditude.blogs.com - en francais but some good pictures courtesy of a couple I met in Kochi ad re-met in Madurai par coincidence.
I used to think that the top job at GE would be the most challenging one in the world. You'd have to have at least some sort of grasp on businesses from TV to lighting to missiles. Here in India, you can't escape Tata and the top job there may be even more difficult. The company has its hands in everything. It's almost a joke, it controls so much of India's economy.
Among its 93 companies are Tata Indicom (telecom), Taj Hotels and Resorts, Tata Consulting Services (among the leading global information technology consulting firms), Tata Tea, Tata Power (one of India's largest energy utilities), Tata Motors, Tata-AIG Life Insurance company, and Tata Pipes. It makes Trump's eponymous holdings seem wussy by comparison.
The only thing more omnipresent in India may be Amitabh Bachan. You can't escape the guy.
The Olympics are apparently in full swing now. Sitting here in India, you'd never know it. Not exactly a country suited for winter sports, India has just four athletes in Italy. And the other day the Super Bowl made no news here -- not even the questionable refereeing.
Here it is cricket or nuthin'. Thankfully the Indian team has finally handed Pakistan a few losses so the country seems to be in better spirits. Why the Indians are not the world's most super-dominant cricket power escapes me. It sort of seems like soccer in Brazil; you have a country with a billion people, half of whom seem to be playing cricket at any given time and often in the most unlikely places. That's a huge talent pool to draw from.
Met some folks in Varanasi who are also doing a blog and figured I'd give them a shout out, even though there appears to be something wrong with their site -- it's a bit difficult to read, like it's all gibberish or something. Some good pix too.
One of the great things about traveling is not what you see, but whom you meet. It's easy to read through here and, as some of you have indeed done, say, "Wow, what an adventure." And that's only the parts I've had time to record in this forum. Last week I saw a tiger in the wild. Well, two actually, but why gloat about it? We were in an open jeep and maybe less than 10 meters away. Damn they're big.
But just when you start to feel like you've done a lot and seen a lot and had some amazing adventures, you meet someone over a hot chai (and, my god, do they serve tea steaming here!) who sort of blows your mind with what he or she is doing or has done.
I had dinner in Varanasi with four people who were on round-the-world trips that are taking the better part of a year. I've met people who have been driving their motorcycles across this corner of the world, traveling through Iran and Pakistan to get to India. I met a British guy who drove his car from the UK to Mongolia where he lived with eagle hunters (sounds amazing but I feel they'd laugh at my vegetarian ways unless the eagles are also trained to hunt tofu and carrots, which seems very un-eagle-y); he sold the car and flew to Korea and then landed next in India. My companions on the train last night had spent a few weeks at the Sisters of Charity mission in Kolkata.
Humbling and inspiring. And it just goes to show you that there's a lot to see out there. And a lot to learn.
"The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page." - St. Augustine
India is a big country. It's easy to forget
that. And then you try traveling here. Yesterday I departed
Varanasi for Sikkim, waaaaay up north in the Himalayas. You might as well think of it as Nepal or Bhutan.
Some 14 hours on an overnight train and then another four to five on a shared jeep to the capital, Gangtok.
With the exception of one or two long trips -- mostly
buses -- I've been pleased with how one can cover ground here in India,
although it can be humbling to see how much ground there is to cover.
But traveling in India, particularly by train, has its
own special vibe. I went super deluxe on the train last night and
bought the very expensive top class of sleeper berth. It comes
with bedding and a curtained off section. But you get the same
early morning vendors that the other classes get. So I woke up to
the singsong parade of hot beverage vendors who pass through the
That I'm used to but in the dim morning hours I got a
good laugh (or as much of a laugh as you get so early in the morn) from
one of the vendors who was selling three or four things, one of which
was scientific calculators. It's not necessarily crazy that
someone would be selling scientific calculators in India and if anyone
might be interested it might be the more educated, upper-class people
in my car.
But even in my half-conscious state I had to think
about the chance that there was a passenger who was saying to himself,
"Wow, I'm on the train and I really need a scientific calculator.
Right now -- at 5:30. Thank god they're selling them!!!"
I mean, what are the odds?
I'd tell you, but, alas, I left my calculator in my other pants.
Here I am in Varanasi and death is in the air.
It's not just a figure off speech. The heart of Hinduism on the
banks of the Ganges, Varanasi is not like any other city I've been
to. At least the riverside part of it - the city part is just
like every big city in India. Which is to say crazy and
fascinating all at the same time.
The temptation would be to compare the riverside to
someplace like Venice. But that would only be for the waterfront
orientation of things.
Bathe in the holy waters of the Great Mother and your
sins are washed away. Die and be cremated (which is to say
burned, not "made into ice cream" which would be a new twist on death)
and achieve moksha and thus stop the endless cycle of birth and
death during which you have no choice but to get stuck in traffic and
watch reality TV. Converts to Hinduism, the line starts to the
(A bit of a cultural side note: there are no lines in
India. The British gave India many things - some not so good to
be sure - such as a more-or-less common language, a legal system,
railways, etc., but one of the things that didn't rub off from 300
years of Britishness was the singular British ability to form a neat
and orderly queue. Last year when the London tube was rocked with
bombs, rather than panic, millions of Englishmen (at least as shown by
TV footage) appeared to form neat, orderly queues and head not just for
the exits but then walk all the way out to London's suburbs as if they
were school kids returning to class from afternoon tea. India does
not have lines. It's one of the things that's a bit confounding
as a tourist, particularly one who is - of course - concerned about
maintaining the sparkling clean reputation of considerate American
travelers abroad. Just when you think you're at the front of the
amorphous scrum that serves as a line, say at a railway station,
someone - or "someones" more often - will slide in front of you from
the sides. There never seems to be any animosity, it's just a
simple fact that Indians are largely unconcerned with an orderly flow
of people or vehicles.)
We join this blog update already in progress -
I thought I would end my Indian adventure in Varanasi
and thus make it the fitting end of my subcontinental cycle. To
make a long story short, a had a change of plans that involved
self-prescribing Tinidazole, and Varanasi made sense as a next step
rather than the last one.
But I digress, which shouldn't surprise you by now.
The major architectural feature of the city is its riverside ghats which is probably redundant because a "ghat" is a slope or set of steps often near a river. Look it up if you don't believe me. There are dozens of them along the Holy Mother
and it is along the riverbank that the city's hallmark activities take
place. It is here that Hindu devotees (and the occasional
overzealous Japanese tourist) take the plunge and bathe in the
river. It really has to be a leap of faith and not just for the
mythological side of which god did what with the river. No,
rather the faith one has in bathing in the Ganges must go hand in hand
with the city's other main attraction if you can call it that: the end
of the line for Hindus in the form of cremation. (Again, I was
going to say that this has nothing to do with milk or cream or butter,
but, in fact, I think ghee is sometimes involved.) The issue is
that as someone who has not, as they say here, "expired" (i.e. "died")
yet (ah, c'mon, it's inevitable, right?), bathing in the river could
easily lead to the deadly side of town: the burning ghats with their
funeral pyres. You see, the holiest water for the world's billion
Hindus (give or take) is also one of the world's more polluted
I met a scientist-cum-religious scholar-cum-computer
technician yesterday (which probably is not an atypical business card
here) who told me that he was doing research on the river and Hinduism
and mental processes and mantra vibration (yada, yada, yada) and that
this area of India was purified by the earth's gravitational pull (he
told me the exact coefficient (and gave me a banana too) and I'm sure
that said number had a "point" and a "three" in it). Thus, the
Ganges was safe to swim in, whereas a dirty river in the south of
country was not. I was thinking that that would make Boston
Harbor fine and dandy but surely there's an X-factor I'm not aware of.
But the city's lack of hygiene is largely
disregarded. It is one of the few cities in the world (one would
hope) where you can see dozens of people doing their wash in the river
... within a few short meters of a body being burned. Likewise,
it would seem to be one of the few cities where you can see people
swimming and washing themselves not far from a body floating in the
river. But that is the impression that persists about Varanasi:
it is largely death and ritual bathing in huge, outlandish,
Indian-sized quantities. In fact, much of the town is fairly
tranquil along the water where many of the buildings sit quiet and
empty, perhaps inwardly holding their forefingers to their thumbs and
I expected throngs of faithful running to the water
like an old fashioned backwoods baptism. Not so. In a few
weeks, that may indeed be the case and this may be the quiet before the
storm which arrives at the end of the month. And the burning
ghats are a small, small minority of the river real estate. And
for a city so connected to death it is strangely absent of a sense of
the macabre. I met a girl a few weeks ago who had already passed
through this neck of the woods and she described Varanasi as "a place
where death is beautiful." I'm not sure if I'm in full agreement
but the air here is a lot cleaner than you'd expect both literally and
The death rituals have a certain beauty in
themselves but they are not overly clouded by sadness; I have not seen
tears here and maybe I need to look harder but with so many funerals,
I'd have thought that would be par for the course. In the way
that Varanasi is unique in the world, it may also be the only place
where the trees and power lines around crematoria are festooned with
kites that met their own (non-fiery) ends there. A little bit of Charlie Brown comedy in an atmosphere noire.
What I mean to say, in case the metaphor is too
oblique, is that here in Varanasi, life and joy take their place right
next to death. People sell chai next to the pyres, nonchalantly
tossing aside the terracotta cups, and cows walk up and down the stairs
step for step with the untouchables who carry the wood for the fires
(it takes surprisingly little for the pyres, but it's all split and
carried by hand).
In the same way, life along the ghats is a grab
bag. As the garland sellers sold strings of marigolds, I got a
shave and a haircut (for about two bits, for real) outside in front of
the main religious temple and then added on a plein air full
body massage for another dollar. (Fear not good readers, I was
clothed this time and there was no oil. Hopefully you've read the
previous entries or this will make no sense. Or it will make
sense, but the wrong kind of sense.) All of this was within arm's
reach of a cow and just as I finished, the very serious evening poojas
commenced in the same spot. With the bell ringing (with audience
participation this time), of course.
The other day (ok, it was a week ago at least but I've been a bit limited by Internet access in these parts) I was in Orchha and with the benefit of a few days to reflect on my time there I realized something: whether it knows it or not, this little town in the state of Madya Pradesh in central India appears to be holding the line against the allied Forces of Darkness. It is a town that could very well be on its way to becoming the dark fortress of a nefarious ne'er-do-well or necromancer of the likes of Sauron, or, for that matter, Skeletor. We've all seen movies and read books where the bad guy has a menacing evil castle complex but have you ever wondered how such towns develop or, as the case may be, devolve? Well, Orchha is, I think, pitted in a struggle for its immortal soul, unknowingly trying to spare itself the fate of becoming the lair of evil.
As I see it, there is a balance of good versus evil, light versus dark, creamy versus chunky if you will.
(Pardon the excessive use of "evil" in this missive - I blame it on an indoctrination in current American political rhetoric that hasn't yet worn off in my time abroad.)
On the side of goodness and light, the town has much going for it.
First, it is surrounded by a veritable sea of happy yellow mustard flowers which would certainly not be a welcome mat to someone evil. Certainly not dark fortress dwellers like Gargamel or Cobra Commander who would never be caught dead hiding out amid such a cheery landscape.
Second it has some of the brightest, feel-good doorways this side of the Ganges. (Ok, to be honest, I have no idea if doors look any different on the other side of the river.) A good many of the little homes are newly painted and the doors are done in brilliant shades of aquamarine, red and yellow. Like the Dodge Neon, the homes just seem to be smiling at you. That's nice. Of course it certainly detracts from the manliness factor of the Neon; yes, even the turbocharged SRT-4 version.
Third, rumor has it that the local river (i.e. not the Ganges) is actually clean. This might actually be a cause for concern in India as it is totally out of character; you could imagine Fred from Scooby-Doo looking at the river pensively and saying, "It sure is clean gang [thoughtful pause while he strokes his masculine chin] but maybe it's too clean!" Still, we're going to count the clean river as a plus for the town - and for all that is right and good in the world.
Fourth, the town has an abundance of sweets vendors. There is certainly a downside to this which we'll get to shortly but it's hard for a town to be uber evil if the streets (all two of them) are lined by people selling pistachio paste confections. I mean a town with lots of sugary stuff, how bad can it be? (Hmm, ignore Jonestown and its Kool-Aid.)
Finally, like the rest of India (at least this time of year), the sky is bright blue without a cloud to be found; it's even minimal in the smog department.
However on the other side, there are clearly signs that Orchha could fall into dark times and become the sort of capstone residence in a mythically unfriendly place of the likes of Mordor.
First and most obvious is the hard-to-overlook fact that the town is abandoned or was before becoming a minor tourist outpost. What was a former empire capital of 15,000 now counts about 6,000 residents and not a one of them is living what Ricky Martin might call "La Vida Maharaja." The shine is off this town. (Considering the number of once great civilizations and city-states that have dotted India, there may be a lesson to other great powers.)
The modern town is built around the ruins of the former Bundelas capital city. Actually, "ruins" isn't quite right because while Hampi truly looks ruined, Orchha's 400-year-old fortress-like palaces and temples are in a pretty good state of affairs. I mean they look good for their age and centuries of neglect. But you can certainly see that they're going south. Walls are turning a foreboding gray (or darker) from mildew and lichens. It's not a good sign because as anyone will tell you, once an abandoned fortress goes black, it never goes back.
The buildings themselves are picture perfect for an evil city complex. First they are big, dominating the skyline with a series of towers and domes that reach maybe 50m in height and dwarf the modern one- or two-story buildings that house travel agents, auto parts stores and tailors (sometimes combinations thereof as well which makes for interesting shopping). The architecture itself, though built in light-colored stone, looks ripe for an evil stronghold. The Hindu-Mughal hybrid means layered spires and cathedral-like vaults with internal mazes of balconies and stairwells. And the foreboding silhouette of the buildings is only magnified by the birds.
Yes there are lots and lots of green squawking parrots and they would certainly be counted on the side of goodness. But it's hard to ignore the uncomfortable amount of what I'll call "bad birds," namely crows and vultures, which perch on the old buildings and fly lazy circles in the sky like airborne sharks. (Is it a bad analogy to compare circling sharks to circling vultures? I think it may be somehow redundant, no?) Their lack of haste almost seems to indicate that they're just biding their time, waiting for something - perhaps for the town to die en masse.
And not to belabor (or belabour if we're using local spellings) the point but there are a lot of them. Habitated cities can have great numbers of pigeons or maybe a few birds of prey. Even New York's hawks don't seem to portend evil (there are other elements in the Big Apple to do that). But when you have one vulture or crow to every resident in town it should make you wonder if there is something about your town that has a smell of carrion.
It could actually be that the town smells, well, like crap. Maybe not much more so than the average Indian town which struggles a bit with waste disposal but I will say that there are more flies in Orchha than I've seen elsewhere in one place in India. So while the copious sweets vendors are good, the clouds of flies that cover the mounds of pistachio cookies do dock points.
In the same family of things that should make Orchha wonder about its future is its bee population and said population's questionable intent and behavior. In many of India's old monuments one can find huge hives; this is true even at the Taj Mahal which is very well maintained. They are big, perhaps five or six feet long and two or three feet high; each must be home to thousands of bees. (If you're a bear you might also be thinking that they'd be home to lots of yummy honey.) Now I was only in town for a few days and I only saw this happen once but given the odds, I'd imagine it happens quite a bit: at one point in the afternoon as I was on the top floor of the Jehangir Palace, a swarm of Biblical proportions rose up outside the walls and moved inside the structure, filling the internal courtyard that is probably 15m high. I was standing with an Italian guy and we were both open-jawed; the tour group on the ground seemed mildly terrified. No doubt a cloud of stinging insects is not a harbinger of good things.
Finally, while it may not have the import of the previous points, I feel compelled to point out that this part of Madya Pradesh appears to be a major producer of dried cow patties. They're used for fuel as well as a foundation for festive holiday decorations (which you'd know if you'd seen Martha Stewart's special: "Christmas Decorating with Turds"). It seems a harmless enough endeavor but when even a small part of your economy is devoted to systematically cultivating manure and manipulating it into perfect round forms, you may not be heading in the right direction. As they say, poo farming rarely leads to anything good.
And then there are a few things that I'm not quite sure about. It is a tourist town but there are hardly any postcards to be found. Those that exist in one or two shops look like they've been around for decades and have the faded, weary appearance of Miss Havisham's dress (my apologies if the allusion upsets anyone who still gets hives thinking about reading Dickens in high school). Tourists keep away bad guys (as do "meddling kids") and the fact that such a mainstay of tourism is on the decline would seem to not bode well.
Another thing that puzzles me is the number of Koreans. For whatever reason the place is really popular with them. Now I have nothing against Koreans. In fact, I'm quite fond of the mobile phones and TVs they turn out (never mind that most have been reverse engineered from Japanese products) and you can even feel safe sitting in a Hyundai how. But what do we really know about the Koreans? I'd say that at the very least, someone should keep an eye on them. Think about it: they travel in packs and they come from a land-starved country. Wouldn't India be an attractive takeover target, particularly given its abundance of rice, an Asian staple? All I'm saying is, stay alert India.
Finally there are the monkeys (why is the plural not "monkies"?). The too could go either way. On one hand, everyone likes their cute little old men's faces and spunky antics. And then there's the comical way they eat fruit. On the other hand I'm reminded of a sinister side of simians (yes, I was reaching for the alliteration there); I know a certain Kansas farm girl and "her little dog too" who'd tell you that monkeys - particularly the flying variety - are no good.
It's tricky to see how it will end for li'l ol' Orchha. But, for the sake of all humankind, let's hope goodness prevails. If you want to help, visit Orchha. Just remember to bring happy flowers and buy the postcards. The fate of the world may depend on it.
I went to my first Indian wedding last night. And what better place to do so than in India? Over and over I've heard that if you can make it to an Indian wedding, do so. And if you can make it to a Punjabi wedding in Delhi, it doesn't get any better. Or so they say. I have to say that of all the weddings I've been to, this one would certainly have to be the most memorable. (But don't they always say that about your first?)
I was one of 500 or so guests at the wedding which might actually be on the small side when it comes to such affairs. Still I felt honored to witness the event. However there were a lot of people in my shoes last night; I'm told that as it was an auspicious day vis-a-vis the stars and there were some 1,500 or 15,000 weddings in the Delhi area alone (depending on the source). As seems to be the case with India (you'll notice this in some previous postings), people throw around crazy statistics here that are hard to believe (and hard to verify as India doesn't exactly lend itself to neat surveys); but when you have a billion people I guess it's easier to buy some of them.
Aside from the scope of the wedding the thing that I noticed first is that an Indian wedding (at least in the north), like the rest of India, is a lot to get your fingers around. So many people, so many things happening -- and lots and lots of noise. When the evening began we in the groom's party convened at a tent about a kilometer from the actual outdoor wedding venue. To accommodate the number of weddings in Delhi and the number of people in each wedding much of the outskirts of the city is fairgrounds-cum-wedding fields. Even though these places are inundated with weddings the infrastructure is still a bit ersatz so the tent where Round I of the festivities takes place is powered by a big diesel generator set just off stage left of the tent, perhaps 20 feet from where the priest is doing his groove thing. The tent is set just off the access road to the fairgrounds and a hundred meters from the main highway (which itself seems to exist solely to ferry bus loads of Patels, Shankars and Sharmas to their weddings). And just for good measure every wedding has its own marching band of maybe a dozen pieces and while I admit that the subtleties of Indian wedding march music are lost on me, from my perspective it seems the overriding directive to these bands is to simply play as loud as possible. And if that wasn't enough, well wishers set off fireworks on a continuous basis. And bear in mind that as your wedding is happening there are a half dozen in the general vicinity, all competing for India's crowded aural bandwidth. If evil spirits are scared off by loud noises, Indian unions certainly start on the right foot.
As the groom's party, we parade down the street with the groom (covered in a garland of rupee notes) on horseback -- perhaps the world's most docile horse given the circumstances; that or it's heavily tranquilized -- and the band playing to, well, beat the band ... or the other neighboring bands as the case may be. And then the dancing starts. So we're perhaps a party of 100 dancing in the streets and, silly me, I think, what the heck, I'll try my hand at Indian dancing. The cousins and nephews and aunts and uncles (most of whose names rhymed with something-"nish" so I sort of lost track of who was who) were only too happy to include me. Thus, the kilometer-long walk became a good-natured tutorial in the finer points of hip swishing and hand swirling, Indian style. I'm pretty sure I made a grand fool of myself; the copious videos of the event will bear that out. When you're dancing it, a kilometer seems like a really, really long distance.
By the time we finally arrive at the main venue where the bride's family (ok, to be fair, probably a whole village) is waiting. It's not such a bad place to be waiting though as there is food galore. Usually you hear stories about the tough decisions one makes in choosing what extras one will have at a wedding; Do I get the dessert bar and three entrees in the buffet or should I get more horsd'oeuvres instead, etc.? While I'm sure the host families said "no" to some options, they said "yes" to an awful lot; imagine a combination of a lavish garden party and the food row at the state fair -- albeit a state fair that serves pav bhaji and samosas rather than corn dogs and funnel cake -- and you have some idea of what the scene looked like. A dozen snack stalls, a giant buffet, a dessert corner, a juice bar, etc. It's not easy to feed 500 people.
And that seems to be the main raisond'etre for the gathering. That and taking photos. Lots and lots of photos. Lots, really. And almost every photo has the bride and groom so over the course of the evening they must sit for more than a thousand snaps; mercifully you get flashblind in the first half hour so the rest of the night is just a blur. "Just a blur" -- get it?
But seriously, being the stars of the show among so may people is hard work. I remember when I was in junior high and we had try-outs for the soccer team, our coach would just run us for days, never even taking out a ball to see if we had any skills in that seemingly important department. Instead it was a sort of athletic triage; survival of the fittest and only from those who could survive days of running (certainly easier than dancing the distance now that I think about it with my newfound appreciation of the rigors of long-distance dancing) would the real try-outs begin.
Indian weddings seem to follow a similar pattern where the couple's stamina (and patience one assumes) is put to the limit via a marathon of successive ceremonies over the course of a few days. ("Honey if we could survive our wedding, we can make it though anything!") After a late afternoon start and lakhs of pictures (bonus points if you remember what a lakh is from earlier postings), the final vows were exchanged at about 3 am. By then only the heartiest and most dedicated friends and family (ok, basically immediate family and curious ol' me, a former colleague of the groom's brother-in-law, which makes me like a brother, right?) remained and many were only barely there; young and old alike would drift in and out of wakefulness with the only remedy being a lifeline of strong coffee. The bride and groom then get a few short hours before the morning session begins. I slept through that one. Whoops. (Although I did catch the traditional house call by the resident good luck eunuchs but that's another story.)
It's hard to sum up an Indian wedding but there's certainly more pageantry than I'm accustomed to. Say what you will about the utility of the perfect black dress and western formal attire, a collage of bright silk saris with embroidery and brocade and tons of ornate gold jewelry makes for a spectacular backdrop. And far from the simple exchange of rings, the joining of the bride and groom has so many steps -- many accompanied by fire, flowers and foodstuffs -- that I lost track.
But, yes indeed, quite an experience. So if you get a chance to attend one, I'd take it ... just be careful that the videographer doesn't catch you trying to dance like a Bollywood star in the middle of the street.
To get a better sense of the wedding process than I can relate, check out WeMarryThisWay.com, a thorough site created by my good friend Manoj who is not only the aforementioned brother-in-law but is also a very creative and gifted artist. And, yes, he's included the eunuch dancing.
But in Hampi
you can't take the same picture standing under the same rock that
everyone else takes; there are just way too many rocks that look like
they're hanging by a string. In fact the whole region looks ready
to tumble loose if somebody were to bump into it by accident.
Looking at the old buildings perched under huge boulders
you might guess that said rocks might spell the demise of the
civilization that lived here. But, no, in the end it was the
marauding Muslims that did in the Hindu Vijayanagara empire.
Ain't no keeping them down.
It's perhaps a bit ironic that the place is overrun
today by Israelis. (Ok, it's not actually ironic at all.)
The stats that people throw around are something like of the 5 million
Israelis, some 30,000 are in India at any given time. Maybe it's
right, maybe it isn't but you can order a mediocre "Israeli breakfast"
at almost any restaurant in the country.
Why do people come to Hampi? Well, it's
interesting. Aside from the ruins, the landscape is amazing --
truly deserving as a destination on its own merits. And it's
chill, save for the usual cacophony that goes along with Hindu temples
and their pilgrims, the small town is absent the noise and clatter of
the big cities from which most visitors come. As opposed to even
the freshest English muffin, you could wander for weeks and probably
not discover all of the nooks and crannies of Hampi. The
civilization once had half a million inhabitants so seeing everything
that's left is a tricky assignment which is why it could arguably be
counted among the world's great ghost towns.
What is particularly nice about Hampi is that it is so
expansive that it swallows up the relatively few tourists who come to
check out the ruins (as well as a horde of sinewy rock climbers from
around the world, drawn by the top-notch bouldering
opportunities at every turn). Spread over miles and miles of
buff-colored rock interspersed with carvings from the 14th century it's
easy to feel like a latter day Schliemann
which is a bit like feeling like a Latter Day Saint, except you get off
easier on the tithing. Although you know that just about every
inch of the ground has been traced by other tourists and
archaeologists, the place still maintains a Lost World feel. (You do need to ignore the occasional power lines to fully believe that of course.) If you've been to Cappadocia in Turkey you might have felt a bit the same; it's like getting to visit Rome but without modern-day Italy getting in the way.
Beyond the scope of the place, Hampi is refreshing --
if not a bit scary -- because you really get a sense for the different
levels of personal responsibility that one assumes in the US or the
developed world and a country like India where litigiousness has not
yet reared its ugly head to the extreme, for better or worse.
It's not as ultra safe as back home but you do feel a bit more at ease
getting off the beaten track.
I'd perhaps compare Hampi to a less popular version of
the Grand Canyon. But in Hampi there are no signs that tell you
that the ground may be unstable. There are no railings or
banisters that restrain you. There are no pesky guards to tell
you that this or that is off limits because it's too dangerous.
At one point along a ridge I did see a white line painted at what would
logically be the edge of the cliff to demarcate in the most basic way,
"Hey, feel free to cross this line but we wouldn't be recommending it."
(Hopefully you read that in your best Kannada, i.e. Indian, accent.)
When I was on my elephant-and-tiger safari a few weeks
ago our local guides would shimmy up trees to look for wildlife.
When one of them believed that he could see an elephant in the
distance, he asked us, "You climbing the trees?" Sure, why
not? So up went one of the guys in our group, a big Aussie with
no qualms. Haven't you ever been in such a situation and wanted to
climb the @#$!&* tree (be it a metaphoric one or not) and been told
that you couldn't do whatever it was because of insurance
liability? On the way back it was faster to climb down an old
metal ladder, cross a dam (with no handrails, of course) and then climb
back up another old ladder to the top of the gully. The guide
asks, "You can swim?" Sure, mate, why not -- and over we
went. The issue that might stop tour guides at home would be
this: the dam which was perhaps two feet across and 30 meters long fell
away to the water on one side, a drop of perhaps 15 feet. If you
were, however, to lose your balance on the other side, you'd tumble maybe 50 feet to a much more unpleasant (but drier) end where being a decent swimmer would be a moot issue.
So Hampi has that laissez-faire thing going for it --
if you like that sort of thing. But it also has a few other
important elements. First, it has lots of things to climb -- or
at least get to the top of. If there is one sure bet with
tourists it's that they love climbing things, ostensibly for the view
from the top but who knows the real reason. If some town wants to
bring in tourists, a good bet would be to build something tall and then
charge people to go to the top. I'm pretty sure that's the only
reason that Paris has the Eiffel Tower and St. Louis has the Gateway Arch.
I don't know how many church steeples I've climbed for no other reason
than they were there. I've climbed hundreds of steps up tall
buildings in the same city to see the same thing from the top ... from
only marginally different angles. It's madness when you think
about it. (But I like to think that George Mallory would have understood my less ambitious summits.)
The other thing that Hampi has is, of course, its
ruins. Tourists love ruins, preferably those of whole
civilizations which ideally perished in some spectacular and/or enigmatic fashion.
Which goes to show you that sometimes the best thing a city can do to
attract tourists is to cease to exist. Why do you think people
are so bent on looking for Atlantis? If anyone manages to dig it
up it would be the world's biggest tourist bonanza (especially if we
discover that the Atlantans had tall buildings to climb). Still,
I'd like to be at the town council meeting where a marketing consultant
pitches this idea:
"With our new plan, we can cut costs and increase tourism. But it will take time and patience."
What if someone told you that you could go back
in time and put yourself in pre-boom Silicon Valley, say around
1995? Think of the possibilities, the energy, the
excitement. Would you go back?
It may not be California, but people here in
Bangalore see it as Silicon Valley before Silicon Valley matured.
Yes, the big boys of tech -- IBM, Texas Instruments, InfoSys, etc. --
have been here for years and it's not like Bangalore is
undiscovered. But what the headlines seem to miss is that
in-between stats about call-center jobs and FDI, Bangalore has a
certain je ne sais quoi, a go-get-em vibe and tech companies on
every street corner ... and it's also got boom-town traffic. Of
course if you were in the San Jose environ in the mid-1990s and wished
that there were more cows wandering around between the smoked glass
buildings, then you might actually prefer Bangalore.
This week I sort of took myself a bit off the
tourist track -- which isn't hard here in Bangalore because while the
Bull Temple and Lal Bagh Garden are nice they aren't exactly the reason
why the streets are crowded.
I met up with some old software colleagues here and
made a few tech stops. One of the complaints leveled at the
Indian IT industry is that it can't innovate. Copy and follow
directions, yes, but create new things, no. While the industry as
a whole may be ok improving on process rather than content, I stopped
to see a demo of the company's technology for automated photo
search. Imagine you have tons and tons of digital pictures and
want to quickly find one or sort them but you don't want to spend hours
manually typing what each one shows? Riya's folks are part of the
race to commercialize photo search software and it's pretty cool:
identify one person in a picture and then have the software find other
instances where that person appears. And so on. Now that
I've taken a few GB of pix on this trip, the idea of having a bit of
technology sort them for me is pretty appealing. Of course the
program might just give up on my photos and reply that I have entirely
too many photos of bulls -- the result of a day at jallikattu.
Earlier I stopped in at Wipro, one of the world's
largest IT services companies. You may not buy anything from them
but your company sure may. If your IT assets were in any way,
shape or form, "made in India," there's a good chance that Wipro had a
hand in it. As opposed to Riya, Wipro is perfecting the services
model, creating value by improving on the process while also playing
the role of IT ringer for start-ups abroad. The company's success
has had a real impact on its surroundings -- in a very real way.
What was once a small access road to the town's granite and marble
district is now a major tech thoroughfare for the company's
employees. Inside the campus it's all 21st Century stuff; outside
the road repair crew is using bowls to scoop out dirt and ox carts move
Not to get too swept away by nouveau-riche Bangalore
I also stopped in at Myrada a non-profit that has gotten itself into
the business of promoting micro-credit schemes for the region's
poor. In many respects, what the non-profit is doing may be more
significant than what's happening in the glitzy office buildings with
the marquee names and sleek logos. Imagine Bangalore as an island
of wealth and prosperity among a sea of poverty. It is here that
Myrada is encouraging small groups of 1-20 people to start their own
savings clubs, putting away perhaps a quarter per person per
week. Today there are some 9,000 such groups which are largely
self-administered even though it is the rare group with someone who is
literate. Originally the groups were restricted to using their
funds for "productive" means -- e.g. new equipment, etc. -- but it
turns out that a dollar here or there might be what helped a child get
health care or what paid off debts of a few dollars (that persisted
for years) from a money lender at exorbitant rates. Pretty
Language here in India often sounds different even when it's your own. I keep running into really great self-promotional statements and I figured I'd share one with you that I've been saving for weeks. I'm presenting it exactly as I found it:
Welcome to a delightful spread of the daintiest, delicacies, the most winning hospitality and a wholesomeness that can only be experienced to be understood.
Like a glorious morning there is serenity and blessedness in the ambience of Shiv Sagar that revives your spirits and appetite for life.
Its bouteous spread of delicacies raises you to a new level of good taste and a great time.
Our master chef offers the choicest and most varied range of Veg. Indian, Chinese and South Indian, Mexican delicacies, which is known to season the palate and tingle the taste buds to the T.
The service too is inspirational as it anticipates and addresses your needs even before you can spell them out.
Yes like the morning run, the place is a miracle, that makes your day everyday.
How can you not like a place like that? And it's not all hot air; the food was quite good and as I was scribbling the mission statement down on a scrap piece of paper, my waiter arrived and asked if I'd like him to photocopy it for me - inspirational service indeed.
Sometimes it's hard to comprehend what people will do for a pot. Yes, a pot.
Granted, in many contests (or reality TV shows) where people risk life and limb, the risk is often undertaken for pride rather than material gain. Yet here in the outskirts of Madurai, I guess I expected the material reward to be, well, just a bit more material.
In mid-January the district hosts Jallikattu, India's version of the Running of the Bulls that's a bit more like the Wrestling of the Bulls. It makes Pamplona look cute and cuddly and just not all that dangerous in comparison. I ran in Pamplona few years ago and (not that the tourist office folks probably would have let me if I'd wanted to) but I wouldn't have even contemplated a run here where the line between courage and stupidity is very, very thin. It makes news when someone is killed in Spain's annual event; here the pool is on how many handfuls of people will die. The cobblestone streets of Pamplona are filled with a more-or-less equal mix of locals and foreigners (with an exceptionally disproportionate amount of foolhardy Aussies as I recall) but I don't think there was single person in the bull scrum who wasn't Indian. I can't say this more bluntly: it's really dangerous.
Jallikattu translates as "tied up money" in Tamil (which I'm sure you knew because doesn't everyone speak Tamil?) because originally the prizes (mostly coins) that you'd win for wrestling a bull were actually tied to said bull. Now there's more of a judging panel that hands down awards from on high but the idea is the same today as it was a hundred years ago: when a bull is released into the crowd, try to hang on to its hump for as long as you can. (Think of it as rodeo without the rodeo - rather than starting on the animal, the dance starts with you on the ground with a ton of pissed off bull coming at you.)
Now you may be thinking: "Piece of cake." If only it were that easy. There are more than 400 bulls that come from villages all over the district and each bull's owner has one singular objective in the weeks leading up to Jallikattu: don't be disgraced as the owner of a bull that one of your neighbors could hang on to. So the bulls are put through their paces, practicing 10 hours a day so they will be in fighting form by the time Pongal rolls around. To make things even more interesting, the bulls are not only decorated in streamers, flowers, bells, flowers and bright paint splotches but they are also slathered in hair grease to make them hard to hold on to (as if trying to throw your arms around a one-ton beast that's bucking like the dickens and swinging foot-long horns in your direction isn't enough). It seems to do the trick but, going on my own personal Indian experience, I'd guess that herbal ayurvedic oil would be a suitable alternative.
On top of all of this fun, consider that you as a young Tamil villager (it's all male and mostly late teens and twenties) are stuck in what is a mosh pit of thousands that is always a second away from becoming a human stampede depending on which way the bull turns and what solid objects block the crowd's path. (The news figured attendance at 100,000 but that's hard to corroborate so suffice it to say that there were a lot of people.) And if you thought an agitated horned animal was something to worry about, you should see Tamil villagers when door prizes are at stake; the usual tranquil Indian character seems to utterly (no pun intended) break down (ok, yes, I meant to use the pun) in this bovine celebration.
While the bulls are the ones responsible for the deaths, a far greater number of injuries (albeit non-life threatening) results from flared tempers in the chute. You as someone who probably doesn't look forward to wrestling bulls every year might figure that fisticuffs erupt because someone felt that someone else pushed him in front of an oncoming bull. Nope. Just the opposite: punches are thrown when someone jumps between you and the bull. But of course.
After all, if you snag the hump and hang on you win a pot. Seriously. In addition to small color TVs and cots (mattresses not included), the most oft-awarded prize appeared to be a two-gallon steel cooking pot. It's kind of a mix of Roman gladiator sport and kitchen-give-away night with the local amateur hockey team as the judging panel which is seated above the fracas throws down a prize commensurate with the skill displayed. And the best part of the gathering is that the rampaging bulls aren't necessarily confined to one area; occasionally a bull breaks out and roams through the fairgrounds, thereby letting unaware bystanders unwittingly participate, quickly jolting one from enjoying a nice fried pakora treat to running for one's life. Never a dull moment in Incredible India.
I remember a few years ago I was driving down a main highway (at home in the US) the week after Thanksgiving and it seemed that every other car had a pine tree strapped to the roof. Of course if you're accustomed to the American holiday season this annual pilgrimage to find the perfect Christmas tree is quite normal. But I wondered what it would look like to foreigners who didn't know what was going on. They'd certainly think we'd gone mad.
I got a little of that medicine the other day here in Madurai in the heartland of Tamil Nadu. It is Pongal here, the state's big harvest festival. To celebrate, the decor that is de rigueur is sugar cane. Therefore every corner in the city has a heap of cane for sale. Leaves and bits of purplish stalks litter the road. Nearly every doorway has a leafy arch over it and crisscrossed canes adorn nearly every vehicle, making the small yellow rickshaws look like weird (but adorable) war chargers. Just arriving this week you'd think the whole populace survived on nothing but the sweet stalk; starchy white jetsam flies from bus windows and collects in the gutters.
The dish du jour is called Pongal Rice or just Pongal for short. It's sweet rice cooked slowly in sugar and the traditional preparation which I saw today is quite a show in itself with stalks of turmeric tied around the pot which is allowed to bubble over. It's quite tasty -- and this is coming from someone who will always choose chocolate cake over anything vaguely pudding-esque. "Pudding-esque"? Is that the proper way to say that? And eating it with your hands might add to the taste. Not that anyone here will give you a choice in the matter.
Yesterday I basically had free run of the city as it was a weekend holiday and things were a bit slower -- which is to say that there wasn't a ton of traffic. I took a long cycle-rickshaw ride around the city as it's an easy yet efficient way to see what's going on (and shoot pictures) as the scenery seems to zoom by in an auto. The streets were filled with garland-makers (truth be told, India's streets are always filled with garland makers; flower necklaces must be a billion-dollar industry here) turning out strands of orange, fuchsia and yellow. I browsed through a big rice retail place (all rice, all the time); I'm trying to imagine a storefront at home that sold nothing but dozens of different kinds of rice -- the most expensive appeared to be Rs29 (a bit more than $.65) which is special for biryani dishes while the cheaper stock (Rs8-9) is used for rice flour (the mill is around the block). On the other side of town I saw guys weaving long silk strands into a 6m sari on the street in front of a giant temple tank (or man-made lake). Today the cows were painted in celebration making the country's most popular beast look like it had been made over by Dr. Seuss; a rainbow of spots on the body and red and green horns with fresh, bright blooms on the head.
No matter where you go in Madurai you pass temples and shrines and even the bus driver will stop for a fraction-of-a-second meditation when he passes one. The city bills itself as "Temple City" and for good reason but apparently the government decided last year that having a temple on every corner wasn't the best use of space and knocked down a bunch. Still, there's no ignoring the sheer number of shrines and, of course, the riotous color and architecture of Sri Meenakshi. The locals are pushing for it to become the 8th Wonder of the World. It's got the credentials but I'm not sure who exactly receives that petition: the UN, National Geographic, Santa? Still, it's probably got a more realistic chance than Oprah winning the Nobel Peace Prize (will they just give the darn thing to Bono already?!?!). And some Madurai-folk have by-passed the pesky step of waiting for the "Wonder of the World" certificate to come through and freely tell you that Meenakshi is already on the list. It is one of those world landmarks that is hard to comprehend because of its size and scope. Suffice it to say that it took a lot of work to make it and kudos to Madurai for keeping it in good repair (although it is in the middle of the city and part of the complex has become a hive of 300 tailor shops). It feels like a great injustice to only spend a few hours trying to see something where every few feet represents years of work.
Perhaps it's unfair to other locales to form an opinion of a city when it's festival time there but Madurai has been great. Tune in next time to see the less tranquil side of cow-based celebration, Tamil style ...
With its dramatic seaside cliffs, white-skinned populace with tribal tats and yoga-altera-centric culture, you'd be forgiven for thinking that this was California and not India. The tourist draw is fairly obvious because, aside from the scenery (which makes for really nice sunsets over the Arabian Sea), the state of Kerala is the capital of ayurveda and Varkala may be its center with nearly 60 clinics.
In fact this was my second (and less intimate) run-in with ayurveda. Last week I did a full body oil massage that was supposed to "rejuvenate the nervous system and impart youthfulness and vigor." Hey, if you've been following along you know that after the week I had I could have used a little rejuvenation. That massage was basically the orientation massage; real ayurveda treatments can last weeks in an effort to fix one's internal flows.
Having gotten the flavor of what it's like to have some dude (most massage places here in India are "gents for gents only and ladies for ladies) smother you with herbal oil, I figured I'd back up and start "at the top" so to speak. I felt like I couldn't miss the head massage which is, after all, the hallmark of this 5000-year old some-say-it-is-some-say-it-isn't-medical practice. What can I say, I finally succumbed to the advertising maxim that if you promote something enough - no matter how silly or crazy it seems at first - people will buy into it and there are signs up all over the place here in Kerala (most using the same stock photography) showing people enraptured by this particular treatment. So, I figured how could I miss out on an hour of having warm oil poured over my third eye?
I did relax a bit over the course of my hour of treatment but for the first five minutes or so I felt like I was either going to cry or my head would explode because of the continuous warm, wet feeling just over my eyes which seemed to activate something that isn't usually activated just above my eyebrows. When the doctor asked me how I felt at the end of the session I had to tell him honestly that rather than "refreshed" or "rejuvenated" I felt "oily." Clearly this wasn't the answer he was looking for which prompted him to admit that I didn't seem tuned in to what he was doing. However, on the plus side, the session was really good for one thing: my hair.
After a few weeks of travel filled with desert air, pollution and hard water, my hair wasn't exactly looking like the star of a Pantene ad. But, it's amazing how shiny and smooth it gets after an hour-long oil massage. Granted, some of that luster dulled a bit when the doc's assistant rubbed what I think was cedar powder into my scalp as a capstone to the treatment to - and I'm paraphrasing here - close up the hole they made in my head chakra so I wouldn't catch a cold.
It may have killed the radio star, but I hope you won't object to my addition of a few videos. Check out a few short clips on the photos page. Hopefully there will be more coming but it's a bit tricky to upload such big files from your average Internet cafe -- never mind the issue of editing the files down to a more reasonable size.
Sometimes when you're on the road, you just get swept up by your surroundings. Yesterday was one of those days for me.
was a day where I truly got to experience India and I learned something
that might seem like common sense until you've experienced it: it's
never a good feeling to be sitting in a police station in a foreign
country while people thumb through your passport, look sideways at you
and speak seriously amongst themselves in a language you don't
My day actually began a few days ago when I took a
tour of the tea and spice plantations which cover the steep hillsides
of the Western Ghats around Kumily in the state of Kerala. (It's
a shame that time, space and power outages have prevented me from
documenting those days -- including a tiger and elephant safari two
days ago -- but I will say that eating the bark of a cinnamon tree is
another one of those experiences that's hard to describe but really
worth doing in the flesh.) At the end of the tour I asked the
guide to point me to a good local eatery where I could get some real
South Indian fare. He dropped me at a place where my
all-you-can-eat buffet cost a dollar and my whole bill with two sodas
and fresh naan bread came to less than two dollars. Oh, and the
food was quite tasty too.
Apparently I'm not the only one that
thought so as the place is pretty well known among locals and, as I was
sitting alone, a few Indians sat down with me. In broken English
one of them explained that he was part of a group of pilgrims walking
from Tamil Nadu on a 41-day trek to some temple nearby where the lot of
them hoped to, as he said: "pour ghee on the god there." I thought to
myself in disbelief: "You're walking for more than a month so you can
smear clarified butter on a statue?!?!"
I didn't think much more about it but I began
to see how Kumily was overrun by pilgrims carrying their few
possessions tied on a bundle on their heads, all topped off with a
garland of flowers. And the roads are crammed with cars carrying
the faithful that look like moveable shrines they are so bedecked in
flower strands. The only thing I can compare it to is game-day
between two giant football programs in Texas or Ohio.
So I got curious and asked around. Turns out they're on their way the Sabarimala Temple,
one of India's biggest annual religious pilgrimages. Estimates
from people I asked put the number of visitors at between "two lakh"
(i.e. 200,000) to "10 crore" (i.e. 100 million). (It seems the
real number of the two months it's open is about 30 million.) It
ain't in the guidebook. To see what all the fuss was about I
decided I'd check it out for myself.
Easier said than
done. The temple is not easily accessible and I had to take a
40km bus (which took 1.5 hours) and then I had a 7km mountain hike in
front of me. To make this more efficient, let's just skip ahead
many hours to the point where I arrive at the temple after my hike.
had pictured a remote temple with a few thousand faithful camped out, a
la Woodstock. What greeted me was a city-like complex bursting
with people. I couldn't even make out the temple and certainly
had no idea what I was looking at with a labyrinth of buildings and
queues of thousands upon thousands of people that made me think I was
at a big water park and the pilgrims were waiting for the log flume
rather than a fat-coated idol.
And I'm feeling a bit out place
here. From the time I left the mini-tourist stopover of Kumily, I
did not see another non-Indian for the rest of the day (which it turned
out would stretch until 3:00 am the next day). Not only am I the
only non-Indian, I am very obviously the only non-Indian among this
throng of people that would fill any one of the world's largest
stadiums. And I'm the only one wearing shoes.
Yes, that's right, almost every single one of these people has hiked in barefoot -- many after hundreds of miles of walking.
the hike down I was playing the usual celebrity part that foreigners
often play in India - taking pictures with strangers, signing
autographs and shaking hands with passers-by while answering a standard
battery of questions about what country I come from, what I do as a job
and what my "good name" is -- but now that I was nearly at the sanctum
sanctorum, people are looking at me a bit more like, "So what exactly are you doing here?"
the mild discomfort this caused, I was glad for it. This was a
part of India I had been missing. Finally I got a sense for what
happens when you combine a deeply spiritual country with one that has a
billion people: you get some very large, very genuine religious
gatherings. This was definitely not India gussied up for the
tourist dollar (or Euro or yen).
As a non-devotee I was not
allowed into the inner sanctuary where the ghee smearing happens but I
did get to walk around the complex watching groups of men congregate
around plates of fire and I saw devotees hurl coconuts at a wall by the
thousands. The whole time I'm enveloped by smoke, I'm jumping
from the regular canon-like explosions that accompany prayers and my
bare feet (I had to remove my shoes around the temple too) are coated
with a combination of dirt, ritual powders, toe jam and lots of excess
Having had my fill and feeling a bit overwhelmed, I
decided it was time to turn back. Clearly I wasn't thinking
straight because, despite all logic, I thought I could retrace my steps
downhill in 45 minutes (yup -- five miles of challenging mountainous
terrain in less than an hour!) before darkness fell. Luckily a
group of pilgrims on their way down stopped me with the following: You
can't go this way because (a) it's not allowed by the park service now,
and (b) you''ll likely be attacked by tigers or elephants.
Right -- welcome to the real, untamed India.
thanking my stars, I turned back to head out of the other entrance to
catch the 150km bus back to where I was to lay my head at night.
If only it were that easy.
5km path is much easier than the 7km one through the mountains but it's
still no picnic: it's heavily trafficked by coolies bringing provisions
to and from the quasi-city, carrying huge sacks and boxes atop their
heads; imagine that every day for two months there was a game at
Wembley Stadium or the Rose Bowl with 100,000 fans and the only way to
get all of the supplies there was for men to carry them three miles.
I make it about 2km down the path but I don't see any signs for buses so I decide to ask at the guard shack. Big mistake.
this point let me point out that I have asked directions or interacted
with a dozen or two dozen guards and other security personnel; I have
walked right up to the main police buildings and I am clearly on
everyone's radar because I am the only non-Indian in the entire
crowd and it's very obvious.
However the guy in charge of the
checkpoint gets all bent out of shape when I tell him that I am not
arriving but that I am now leaving; I have already been through the
temple complex and just need to know where to catch the bus to
Kumily. Even though I don't know what he's saying I can tell that
he's not pleased by this news.
He tells me that a few of his
deputies will walk me back to the bus stop which I've apparently missed
a kilometer back on the path. I'm a little wary of this because,
unless it was a secret path right out of 007, I'm pretty sure I would
have seen it. Also, I have four guys to keep me company.
I keep repeating that I just need the bus back to Kumily
(which I'm told will take three hours) and I'm pretty sure there aren't
any buses this way. They keep telling me that, oh, yes, sure,
there are indeed buses this way; I start to seriously wonder how long
it will take for anyone I know to track me down and call the embassy
and whether that would be enough time to keep me alive. I'm also
wondering what the going rate is for police payoffs and if I have
enough on my person. Yes, things are not looking good.
only am I bound for questioning (mind you, after spending hours walking
around the complex -- good thing the bad guys never think about using
the secondary entrance) but I am really, really tired and I'm still
looking at a really, really long night even without a police
date. You see I've hiked at least 7km downhill, sweating bullets
in the heat and humidity, then walked another 2km or so in the complex
and then hiked back another 1km to where I had to turn around because
of elephants and tigers and then walked 2km to the point where I was
rerouted by the officer in charge and then back another 3km to the
police chief's office -- and I know I still have at least another 5km
to walk before hopping on a three-plus hour bus trip. And it's
already well past sunset.
One of the good things about being
American is there is something in your blood that allows you to be calm
and a little cocky in such situations -- we're also really good at
being indignant but I didn't seem to have the proper cards for that at
the time -- so I'm sitting in the chair in front of the police chief,
chugging water and offering it to the guys who brought me while joking
with them that they did a really good job fooling me into thinking I
was going to the bus: "Aw, shucks, you little devils, you got me!"
seriously, as I said at the beginning, it's not a great situation to be
in. Luckily they finally contented themselves that I was not a
terrorist and offered me a chai and an, ahem, hearty apology because,
as you know, we can't be too safe these days.
Right, because I
would have made a great terrorist. I mean, I've never seen
terrorist training videos but I'm sure they don't advise trainees to
approach police officers and ask them for directions when they're
almost home free. And it's not like I was hiding. If they
put out an APB alert for me, any of the following would have worked:
"Look for the guy: (a) who's the only non-Indian." (b) wearing a T-shirt." (c) wearing pants." (d) wearing shoes."
It would be like playing the world's easiest game of "Where's Waldo?"
at 8:00 pm or so they let me go, albeit escorted off the property in
the company of a guard who actually turned out to be quite
amiable. So then I retraced my steps to the checkpoint and then
on another 2.5km where I had to find a bus back to Kumily. This
is the main entrance to the temple and even in the dark, thousands upon
thousands of devotees were pouring in and I had to fight my way against
the stream like an exhausted, non-Indian salmon.
The bus I needed was just leaving when I arrived and there were no seats left. Of course.
begged the ticket guy to let me on and reluctantly he did. The
driver indicated that I should sit next to him on the engine cowling,
right up against the windshield -- so I could best watch the horror of
driving on the wrong side of the dark, narrow, winding mountain road as
we passed other buses on blind curves with sheer drop-offs below.
Whatever; I was happy to be getting away, hoping to be in bed in three
short hours. This was at about 9:30 pm.
At 2:45 am (i.e.
more than five hours later), we rolled into Kumily. With the
exception of some crackers I'd bought before getting on the bus, the
last food I'd had was at about 1:00 pm when some pilgrims shared a
banana leaf packet of lemon rice with me. I got back to the
hotel, hungry, tired, and . . . locked out.
After I was finally able to wake up the proprietor I think I was asleep before my head hit the pillow.
are long days and then there are very loooong days. But, as they
say, if you don't leave home, what stories can you tell?
Happy New Year. I got to 2006 a half day faster than I would have if I'd just stayed home.
Yesterday I spent the day cruising the balmy, palmy backwaters of Kerala,
watched men in mini-skirts play tug-of-war and, and saw a 10m-high
Santa Claus burned in celebratory effigy. Yup, just your usual
New Year's Eve.
Kerala is famous for its backwaters - canals through
tropical palm swamps. You ride through on a boat that is piloted
by two gondoliers who use bamboo poles to drive the craft. It's
all really quite peaceful. I wish we'd had a bit more instruction
from our driver/guide (e.g. One of my fellow passengers: "What is that
white flower?" Guide: "That is called 'white flower.'") but it
was still great to pick out our own sights: white eagles, iridescent
kingfishers and, of course, the local life on the shore. I don't
know why I'm so captivated by seeing people do their wash in the river
but I am. We probably saw a half-dozen methods of fishing on the
The highlight of the day was probably lunch. We
stopped on a small peninsula and feasted on South Indian fare, all laid
out on a banana leaf as a plate. The menu consisted of big fluffy
rice, watery stew called samber, fried rounds of bead, mango pickle,
and two vegetable dishes, one of which I think was cooked in coconut
milk. The place is truly swimming with coconuts. Of course
we ate with our hands which is pretty normal here. It's a bit of
a tricky mental adaptation but it does make you feel a bit more involve
with your meal. It's just funny to get pruny fingers from a
half-hour of eating.
We returned to Ft. Kochi, inspired by rumors of big
beach-side festivities for New Year's; parties that might serve coconut
beer which is a local delicacy that is made from the naturally
fermented sap (ok, maybe it's not really sap but it's some sort of
internal juice) that is tapped from the trees. It turned out that
the beer was not to be had - or, at least, not to be found, but I did
get in a good walk around town before nightfall. I gave a few
rupees to kids dressed up as Santa who were trick-or-treating (for lack
of a more precise term), and then watched some of the locals as they
played Indian pinata and an inspired few rounds of tug-of-war in the
region's traditional dhoti wraps. In the background, a giant
Christmas-cum-New Year's tree towered over a local park, festooned with
stars and streamers.
Aside from occasional fireworks that people were
shooting off, there wasn't much build up to the final countdown to
midnight. In fact, I don't think there was any of the 10-9-8 -
stuff, unless it was in Malayalam and I didn't understand it. It
was funny to not have any contact with the outside world at the time;
I'm so accustomed to watching TV and seeing what's happening in other
cities in other time zones. At the stroke of 12, a giant Santa
Claus structure was set on fie on the beach. Throughout the
evening we heard about this immolation of St. Nick but I just couldn't
believe that was the tradition here in Kerala which maintains its
strong Portuguese and Dutch Christian heritage. I asked a lady at
my hotel why they do it - bear in mind that my hotel has Psalms as
decoration and an eerie red-light-lit framed photo of Jesus - and she
said it wasn't a Christian tradition but has evolved by mischief makers
here in town. Well, whatever the story is, it was probably the
first and only time I'll see the old year pass in such a fashion.
After the big burning, a bunch of us headed back to
the restaurant bar and tried to make an evening of it. Mostly a
British group, they kept the beer coming - which is served here with a
nod and a wink in tea pots (so you have to order the "special tea" if
you want beer). Despite the big crows of locals in dhotis (India
seems to have a special advantage in rallying huge crowds of people),
the sound of tabla drums and the flutes I associate with snake-charming
in the background, and the fishy smell from the seashore, it all seemed
very Western for a time. I decided it was time to call it a night
when I began to seriously discuss doing a modern-day stagecoach trip
across Europe with one of the Brits who's planning such an endeavor.
A very happy, healthy, and prosperous 2006 to all.
One of the challenges of blogging this trip is trying to capture an experience that is hard to confine to the limited dimensions and senses of a computer screen. For any real-life-to-print endeavor that's a challenge but India is a place that everyone describes as an assault on the senses.
Take today for example. I am now in Kochi (i.e. Kochin) in the western coastal state of Kerala.
How am I supposed to convey what it smells like to walk into a ginger wholesaler's warehouse? I guess the obvious answer is that it smells like ginger - but imagine bags and bags of the dried root with stacks more waiting to be processed. This was all in the spice market in town which is a neat walk-around, particularly considering all the other handicrafts, essential oils and antiques that are on sale in the other stores along the route.
The aforementioned items are, of course, sold all over India. But now that I'm in south India, it really drives home the fact that India is incredibly diverse. Each state here is a country unto itself. While English and Hindi are widely spoken here, there are 14 other official languages: Bengali, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, Urdu, Gujarati, Malayalam, Kannada, Oriya, Punjabi, Assamese, Kashmiri, Sindhi, and Sanskrit. (I'm in Malayalam territory now. The proprietor at my hotel pointed out that the word is a palindrome and I traded him "racecar" and "A man, a plan, a canal: Panama" which sort of impressed him.) Basically being down here in the south means the few words of Hindi I've learned are now completely useless.
Whereas the northern part of the country is getting quite cold now, it is warm and sultry here on the coast of the Arabian Sea. It is forecast to be between the low 70s to high 80s for the next week (22-31° C) which makes me particularly happy (a) coming from chilly northern India, and (b) remembering that it's hovering near the freezing point back home.
Here there are palm trees, the men wear dhotis which they can never seem to get just right for their taste, and there is a real tropical feel to the place. Kochi (or Fort Kochi where I'm actually staying) is a fishing village that got hit fairly hard by the tsunami a year ago (it's all relative next to what happened on the east coast of India). This morning I hung out with some of the fisherman who man the huge Chinese nets on the tip of the island; they even let me help haul them up. We didn't catch much - although it gave me a good opportunity to take some pictures I wouldn't be able to take in many places in the world.
Pune may be a microcosm of India: traditional and modern all at the same time. And it seems well represented vis-a-vis the things that bring foreigners to India or put India on the map: technology and spirituality. Aside from being a major tech center with gleaming new office buildings going up around town, Pune is also famous as the home base of the Osho International Meditation Resort. It is a VERY big deal in Pune.
Osho (the name apparently comes from the soothing sound of "ocean" as noted by Henry James) was one of the big guns of Indian meditation and became quite the guru for Westerners. Osho did something right: at one point he had more than 90 Rolls-Royces.
Now I'm not much about meditation. In fact that is a gross understatement. So I walked in a skeptic but when in Pune you really have no choice but to see what all the hubbub is about. I paid about $30 and then still had to buy a maroon robe which is required whenever you are in the expansive leafy, well groomed grounds of the ashram. (Maroon swimwear is required for poolside activities.) Around town you see people walking around in maroon robes which seems - ok, I'll say it - a bit cultish.
People say that the ashram has changed and become much more of a commercial enterprise over the years, particularly since Osho's death. I don't know what it was like before but the new mantra seems to be, "And that is available for purchase in the Galleria." Special socks, silence buttons, robes, required white robes for the evening session, elaborate maroon frocks and of course a plethora of Osho books and audio lessons available in a dozen languages.
I did the standard orientation session which seemed to involve an inordinate amount of dancing. It turns out that no matter your nationality (and there were probably 20 countries represented in my session of about 50 people), very few people buy into just letting loose and dancing in front of strangers early in the morning. Of course we were supposed to get beyond those societal constructs - we even put on real Halloween masks to symbolize how we needed to strip off what society has made us and become who we are really supposed to be; Osho would call that our inner Buddha. A bit cliche, yes.
I had very little success on the inner Buddha front, although I did play along and do the deep breathing, grunting, and jumping around in place. To be fair I didn't really feel comfortable with the meditation via cathartic yelling or talking in gibberish. I think you have to warm up to that; there are people who are doing three-month stays at the ashram so I'd guess you grow more comfortable with it all.
I did an afternoon session where I learned that sitting in place on a cold marble floor for an hour is a lot harder than it sounds. It was 15 minutes each of: humming and then palms up and palms down hand circles and then quiet repose. In the back of my mind I'm thinking it's basically "wax-on, wax-off" from The Karate Kid, but I bit my tongue when the facilitator was explaining it.
Well, I'm pretty sure I'm not a better meditator now - although I'm quite sure that I wasn't supposed to be humming "Hey Jude" - but I did at least walk out thinking that forcing yourself to sit and think once in a while is probably not such a bad thing in a life that's always on the go. And if you can get people to pay you to sit at your place and think, all the better. You gotta admire the ashram's business plan.
Ok, so let me backtrack a bit here. I am a bit embarrassed to say that I was prepared to find India hard to love. Perhaps that's an understatement. I expected traveling in India to be a real slog. That's what the books say. That's what everyone says. But it just isn't that bad.
Yes, the traffic is crazy with cars and rickshaws and bikes all jockeying for space. And "one-way" doesn't necessarily mean that you can't drive the opposite direction here. And the pollution, particularly in the cities, is pretty bad. It stings the eyes and turns the insides of your nostrils a sooty shade of gray. And, India has a curious omnipresent smell that is a combination of urine, rotting garbage, incense, exhaust, fresh fruit and cooking oil (among other elements). And there is definitely poverty which makes you sad.
Aside from the relative ease of getting around here, I have been most surprised by the energy. I'd expected to find a "siesta culture" of work-when-you-want that I've often found in developing countries. Not so in India. People are hustling here. Early to rise and late to bed. You can walk down the streets at 10 or 11 at night and see guys moving huge carts laden with goods or vegetables, carrying stacks of bricks, welding and building houses. It ain't just the folks pretending to be named "Mike" and "Mary" at the call centers who are tying to get a piece of the action; on the whole, people here have gotten a taste of what development brings and they are movin' on up. There's still a long way to go to be sure, but wow. It's no secret that the subcontinent is on the fast track, but being here really drives home the point: watch out world, here comes India!
Today I'm in Pune which is also acceptably spelled Poona. I'm about four hours from Mumbai - in fact it's hard to tell where Mumbai ends on the train ride to Pune which used to be a vacation capital for those administering the big city of Bombay.
I've come halfway around the world to meet a cousin. I don't think he qualifies as "long-lost" as I've always known where he was but when one lives on the East Coast and then has family on the West Coast and one of said cousins from Oregon then moves to India, it makes being in touch a bit tricky. But after a few weeks on the road in a foreign country now it's nice to feel like you're truly welcome somewhere and Kevin and his wife Leena (and her family) have done that. I've been eating big home cooked meals which are helping me put back on the weight I've been losing from eating less and exercising more. And perhaps the best part - they've got a shower curtain in the bathroom which makes me feel a little more competent when I shower as most bathrooms here are one enmeshed unit and taking a shower means soaking the entire room.
While Americans tend to be transient and thus break down family bonds, it's interesting to see how close Indian families remain as they often live together - kids, parents, extended family, etc. It's kind of nice although you do hear the younger generation trying to balance a desire for more freedom (i.e. moving away from the familial home) with a real appreciation for the value of a close-knit family. So far though it seems that traditional values are winning out. It's a refrain I hear over and over; Indians like the newfound successes bred by Western economics but they are still, on the whole, resistant to chuck their own culture lock, stock, and barrel for Americana. Having the weight of a billion people and 5000 years of culture certainly helps.
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I'm currently working on a book about my trip. For more info or to excerpt words or pictures, please contact me. Also contact me for interviews (blogs welcome) about India, travel, flashpacking, etc.