29 February 2008

A merely informative post

My lazy days in Kolkata are drawing to a close as I prepare for my first Indian sleeper train journey. I expect it to be exactly like "The Darjeeling Limited." Exactly. You know what I mean!

Today, I, uhh, checked email for most of the morning, since I haven't written back to anyone (except dad, who receives priority treatment) in many days, in some cases weeks. In the evening, I finally got my third rabies booster, so I can finally engage in my favorite sport, fox kicking, without consequence. The doctor was an interesting, funny guy, and, as I indeed told him, the best doctor I've ever had. When he administered the injection, I didn't feel the needle at all, and I mean I didn't feel anything--I didn't even know he'd done anything once it was done. He might even cure my allergy problem, which has been bad recently. He recommended I try rubbing mustard oil into my nose, which is supposed to prevent allergens from sticking. You may be thinking what I thought, "Why would I want to put mustard oil in my nose?" But once it stops burning, it seems to help. It's an ancient village cure, he said. I said that in America we don't have ancient villages, so we just stick with pills. The vaccine cost slightly less than $10. In Japan and the US, it's $100-$125 per dose. The office visit was only 100 rupees ($2.50). I felt like I should tip him. When I expressed amazement at how cheap it was, he joked that I could pay him the same amount in dollars instead of rupees. I laughed and gave him rupees.

The doctor was recommend by Kajori's friend Durga. Durga owns a bookshop that also publishes editions of literary works. When it came up that I'm a budding English professor, she asked me if I might like to write or edit for them! I never thought it would be so easy to get published. Most of her editions include critical essays, and some of the essayists are quite highly regarded (not least one I saw from Rutgers). Durga also sells academic texts and, to put it briefly, every kind of book I want to buy, but at Indian prices. For example, the average $8-15 Penguin edition she sells for $2.50. She also has ALL of those cool "Introducing..." books with the illustrations for the same price. I told her I'm going to have her ship like a thousand books to me once I get home, and I'm probably not joking. Tomorrow, we're going to the Kolkata Book Fair, which is supposed to be the largest such in Asia, though Kajori claims that this year there will be "only" around 600 booths. Oh, and after the rabies injection, and after I had my fifth cup of tea for the day and bought even more books from Durga, Ananda took me to a private club (Raj era I guess) for a jazz/folk fusion concert and beer. That was nice. These people are such excellent hosts and great conversationalists, I really don't want to leave. Alas, I am St. Christopher's bitch.

I've been meaning to get to the promised half-baked cultural analysis. And I will. But I have to come up with a way to discuss India without sounding either naively sentimental, like the hippies, or depressing and cynical like, well, the Indians (V.S. Naipaul sets a bad precedent). Calcutta is not the city of hopeless poverty you might imagine, desperate to be saved by as many Patrick Swayzes as the whites can spare. It is a bit of a freak show on some of the streets, with folks offering the uniquest deformities guilt can buy off, but it's otherwise a typical Asian city with the typical problems but still maintains a vibrancy with light brushings of prosperity here and there.

Tomorrow evening I head overnight by train to Bodhgaya, where the Buddha achieved enlightenment. The following evening, I head for a 4 am arrival to Varanasi, on the banks of India's holiest, and possibly dirtiest, river, Mother Ganga. I'll spend a few days there watching bodies burn or whatever it is tourists go there for, visit Sarnath, where Buddha preached his first sermon (he's like Jesus, this guy), and then make an epic journey back to the coast, to Puri, home of the original juggernaut.

Details to follow.

It's getting hot here.

28 February 2008

Video retry

For those not equipped with Facebook, ye select, I am attempting to post my prostration video here again. If it doesn't work this time, you'll have to sign up for Facebook. Perhaps I am working for them.


27 February 2008


I'm still in Calkata/Kolcutta, but I ain't doing much. I moved into Kajori and Ananda's apartment, though, thus sparing me the expense of a hotel (approx. $2/night) and affording me the luxury of the finest companionship. Ellora, if you're reading this, I am in your debt for the local contact. No news or adventures to report. I'll try to write one of my half-baked cultural analyses later.

25 February 2008

Calcutta/Kolkata: Day Two

Last night, I was quite fortunate to meet up with friends of an Indian colleague from America. We had a long, serious chat--maybe the only kind of which I am capable--and then went out for pizza at the Kolkata branch of Fire and Ice. I'd mentioned my fondness for it in passing, and lo and behold the only other branch is here. I know it seems silly that I'm eating Western food in India, but remember that we go out for Indian food on occasion in America; we don't eat it every day. And I don't want to eat it every day. They invited me to stay at their apartment, and I intend to take them up on the offer before moving on to Bodhgaya.

This morning I spent practicing my Japanese (I still suck) with one of my dorm mates, an affable student from Nagoya. He just happened to have the latest Radiohead album on his iPod, and, since I hadn't heard it yet, he let me listen to the whole thing. Then we went out for cappuccinos, where I read in the local newspaper about the Academy Awards. I forgot about them and the writers' strike. Anyway, I was glad to see that Javier Bardem won for his role in "No Country for Old Men." More deserving acting in more deserving a film there has not been for as long as I can remember. But he's deadly sinister, so I have to warn the tame among you, my friends, away from it. I may even read the book. Michael Wood wrote about it and the film recently in the LRB. Good cred. BUT--I discovered a bookstall here that sells those lovely Routledge and Palgrave philosophy reprints (does anyone know what I'm talking about?) for, like, 30% of the normal price (for sale in the Indian subcontinent only). I already bought Foucault's "The Archaeology of Knowledge" for about $6, and I may just buy the whole collection and ship it home. I really hope I do not do that. Also in another bookstore--the luxurious "Oxford" bookstore--I found a clothbound, three-volume edition of "The Complete Calvin and Hobbes," which I must someday buy for my child: the best education of the wit one can have at a young age. Near that, I spotted a large-size album of the "wonders of the world" and became rueful, after flipping through it, because I've already seen most of them. What will be left for me after this trip? Timbuktu? So much for spreading the experience of the world over the entirety of a lifetime when the only novelty remaining for one's old age is the statue of Christ Reedemer.

I really have nothing interesting to say about Calcutta today. I mean, here I am talking about the Oscars and bookstores. After this, I have to find a place to buy sunblock and a clinic to get a rabies booster. See, not so exciting. There's not much to see in this city, and that's fine with me. I'm just "chilling" for the time being. I'll try to get myself into more trouble soon so I have more stories to tell. Until then, Happy Chinese New Year.

24 February 2008

City of Joy

Once again, I have had to take nearly every conceivable form of transport to haul myself out of Bangladesh and thrust myself back into Bharat (which you whites call India). In the morning, I woke early on a cruise ship in the middle Sundarbans. We took a brief rowboat trip up a river to find wildlife and then returned to motor our way back to stinky civilization. From the port, I was brought in one of those funny Toyota Noahs ("onebox" in "Japanese") to a dusty bus stand. From the bus stand, I was escorted in a jam-packed bus (I got to hang out the door!) to a dirty bus station. At the bus station, I changed to another bus. At the next bus station, somewhat less dirty, I changed to another bus, somewhat less comfortable. From the middle of the road where I was finally dropped off, I took a flatbed rickshaw down a polluted road to the border. At the border, I changed my taka back into rupees. Naturally, right after I did this, the bastards told me had to pay a 300 taka exit tax, and the blood rushed to my face. Also, I was told a few bus stations back that I had plenty of time for all this since the border closes at 8:30 pm. Knowing this to be a lie, I nevertheless reached the metal gate to India right as the guard was clinking the lock into place at 6:30. Mercifully, he let me in, and then a random guy ushered me through the somewhat confusing customs building (I wrote my name wrong once, then the date wrong, on two different forms.. sigh) before demanding baksheesh--welcome to India! Then (how many times do I have to write "then"?), I had to take another rickshaw to the nearest train station, 30 minutes away in the dark on an unlit road. Luckily, I got a train to Kolkata (also jam-packed and then some) right away, then a taxi to the dilapidated hotel neighborhood where I and my ilk sleep. I have no complaints about any of this. It's just an example of what I typically have to do to get around. And the weather was quite nice.

So, the Sundarbans. I really can't say it was worth what I paid (I as a backpacker, that is), but it was nice to be on a river for a few days and not have to worry about meals and travel logistics and so forth. We saw a giant crocodile the first day but no tigers at all. I think the guides were relieved about the latter. As for other wildlife, we only had four French children to keep us excited, our group consisting of a French expat family, a Danish consul, and me.

This morning, in Calcutta, I visited Motherhouse, the weird name for Mother Teresa's former abode and the headquarters of her evil regime. Inside, you can visit her bedroom (a bit like mine save photos of myself with the Pope), a reverential museum with relics from her life and descriptions of the heroic stands she took against legalized abortion and contraception, and her tomb (in a rare display of missionary wit, a sign out Motherhouse says that MT is "in"). A mass was underway in the chapel containing her tomb, so I watched, but I could not bring myself to take communion as I had done in Sapa, Vietnam. I thought if I did, I would cry. I'm not sure why I felt this way--perhaps I felt like a hypocrite, or I was overwhelmed by the thought of all those poor little babies who will die from hunger and disease because of Church policy. Anyway, I didn't want to draw any attention, especially from nuns. The Dark One takes many forms, my friends, the most insidious often the most alluring. Sorry, but I can't trust someone who claims to converse with Jesus and whose best friend is the Antichrist. The Martyr from Macedonia did say one thing I agree with, though: "poverty is freedom." I am hardly one to disagree. I think I've said it myself.

Directly across the street from Motherhouse is an internet cafe. I thought that was funny. I'd be writing this from there if the net hadn't cut out. Nothing else to report yet about Kolkata, but I like its vibe so far. The retro yellow taxis are adorable if taxis can be called adorable. And my hotel is full of Japanese!

I am considering ditching my current plans for June and July and studying Latin in Rome this summer instead. Considering. Does anyone have a friend there I can stay with? I'll do the dishes and make the cappuccinos!

20 February 2008

Green Party still exists!

Just one more note: I should be keeping better track of these things, but in my apathy I didn't notice until now that the Green Party does indeed have a Presidential candidate this year, or at least it will once its own round of primaries are over. Ralph Nader is one of the contenders, but so is Cynthia McKinney, a former Democratic representative from Georgia. I suppose it's too late for me to do other than wait for a decision on this, but I wanted to let my faithful readers (most Obama supporters, no doubt, who now hate me once again for supporting a potential election-theft from an even more popular candidate than, time-travel with me for some ironic irony here, Al Gore) know that there ARE other parties and other options. Visit www.gp.org for more information.

Obama has a good story and says all the right things, but that only proves just how dangerous a figure he is. As for Hillary, I can only say this: her daughter, who was no doubt instilled with a heavy dose of Clinton values, and is now campaigning among "young people" for mom, works for a New York hedge fund. Seriously, if you really love these liberal capitalists so much, why don't we just install the two founders of Google as Godkings for Life of Planet Earth and get it over with? They're going to take over anyway, and their own mission statement, which we can adopt as the Constitution of the World, is to "Do good" or some crap like that.

Go Greens!

I'm going to go Sundarban-anas!

Sorry for the lame joke, but where there's an opportunity, I CANNOT RESIST.

And it makes me think of Arrested Development (remember the frozen banana stand?). I heard recently that talks are in progress for a movie. Sounds like good news to me, though I'd prefer a completed third season plus infinity more seasons after. But I'll take what I can get.

Bangladeshi men, I have noticed, are always wearing really cool designer shirts. Since they're dirt poor, I have to wonder where they're buying them, though I'd need to resist buying a thousand myself. Now I understand: many Western labels do their manufacturing here. The result? $200 button-downs for the stylishly-dressed in the US, farmers and rickshaw-drivers with the same one for a dollar, plus longgyi or Calvin Klein jeans, all liberally coated with dirt, in Bangladesh. What a world.

Today marks my sixth month travel-versary. You can't say sixth month anniversary, like annoying couples do, because anni- means "year". So, annoying couples, stop saying it! I started traveling on August 19, 2007. I can't believe I'm only HALF WAY through the thing. It feels much longer. Almost forever. Not that I'm tired yet...

Anyway, the computer here in Khulna is really slow, so I'm not sticking around. Today, I went to World Heritage Bagerhat. Bagerhat means "a bunch of semi-interesting mosques" in Bangla (not really). Tonight, I board the M.L. Bon Bibi, and tomorrow I begin my four day tour of the Sundarbans. Please pray to your god(s) that I am not devoured by the wildlife.

16 February 2008

Hussein Obama vs. Rodham Clinton: my endorsement

Since everyone in Bangladesh, from the illiterate peasant to the city sophisticate, wants to know what I think about the "Hillary or Obama" contest, I thought I would set the record straight for everyone, in public, right here:

I don't care.

Thank you.


Dhaka is weird for two reasons: there aren't five internet cafes on every corner like in most developing countries (ten in Peru) and it's impossible to get around. So I was not able to wish you all a Happy Valentine's Day, which pains me, my friends, my loyal readers, because I have so much love for all of you. Incidentally, I heard the Saudis banned red roses in Riyadh. Yeah, (sarcasm alert) there's going to be an east-west cultural detente some time reeeeeeeeeeeal soon. Now, in a city of 20 gajillion people, you'd think transportation would be no problem. In most places I've been, I've had to beat the taxi drivers away with a light saber. In Cairo, it required the entire Death Star. Here, they don't even want to take me! Neither do the rickshaw drivers; neither do the baby taxi/tuk tuk drivers. Apparently, there is so much traffic in Dhaka, these guys don't want to go anywhere unless it's really far away (cha-ching) if they want to go anywhere at all. Last night, my host Himmu had to threaten a driver to call the traffic police if he wouldn't take us (my suggestion). And two nights ago, when I was alone quite late, I couldn't even find a taxi in the upscale expat embassy district. Well, one guy was willing, at 4x the usual price. So I started walking, got lost, and was waylaid by an MP with the intelligence of a dead jellyfish. He asked to see my passport (I told him I didn't have it), asked for my address in Dhaka (I told him I didn't know it), asked for my phone number (I told him I didn't have one), and asked to be my friend (I told him absolutely!). He didn't really speak English, mind you: all this was communicated to me through grunting. But I am truly grateful that Nazrid (or whatever) offered me his friendship. Where would we be in strange places without the kindness of strangers? To prove this point, when I was still lost after this encounter, and had grown too tired to continue my stubborn male charade of pretending I could eventually find the way, I asked a laundry owner for help. He phoned Himmu, negotiated with a rickshaw driver to take me home, and even bought me a mango juice.

Travel tip: always lie to military police (unless it's an officer)

So that was Dhaka day one. Day two involved a long walk from Himmu's abode (I mentioned that Himmu's aunt, Sultana, graciously offered to let me stay with them?) to Old Dhaka. Sounds like a place no doubt imbued with some sort of historic, colonial charm and riddled by endearing maziness, eh? Well, it's not! It's shite! Sorry, Bangladeshi friends, if you come to read this. I am reluctant to say anything negative about your country (a side effect of travel, for the integrity of my blog, I had not anticipated), but I must be honest, however much it ruins my future shot at winning the Iowa caucus: Old Dhaka is shite. And I don't mean that metaphorically--it's lying all over the place, amidst the squatting farmers creating more of it; verily, the place seems to be built from it. It's so difficult, isn't it, to be one of those "I love everything on its own terms" tolerant relativist multiculturalist weenies (guilty) when confronted with a mess like Old Dhaka. According to my travel guide, it's a place you will come to fall in love with, which convinces me that the Lonely Planet corporation is run by coke-snorting hippies (according to them, everything on Earth is wonderful--must be a better inducement to purchase their guides). I am going to produce a rival series of guides: The Cynical Asshole's Guide. The entry for Dhaka in The Cynical Asshole's Guide to Bangladesh will look like this:

Dhaka (pop. 20 gajillion)
Don't miss the bus station ticket counter, where you can arrange transport out of Dhaka. Try to stay with Himmu. Old Dhaka is shite.

People, you know I was born to do this.

Anyway, my Dhaka experience has by no means been negative. Himmu, his uncle, and his older brother have been wonderful hosts. The brother works for BBC and not only gave me a cool BBC T-shirt with devanagari writing on it, but he's going to procure for me that most precious of commodities in this Islamic land: beer. Last night, Himmu and his friend accompanied me while I unsuccessfully attempted to hunt down the same. Failing that, I ended up purchasing a bunch of DVDs for less than a dollar each at the Sheraton Hotel gift shop (since it was the Sheraton, I am sure they are legal...). I intend to watch these for the next two days rather than venture outside again and have to breathe more of Dhaka's allergy-inducing air. While in the DVD shop, a South African guy entered, acting like a distracted, attention-addicted celebrity. It turns out he was a celebrity, though not one any of you are likely to know since he's a cricket player. The South African team, in all its overmuscled burliness, is in Bangladesh for a "match." A number of children were around, and they kept asking permission to take his photo. He told me I should buy some Tiger Balm. He asked the shop owner if they stocked pornos.

That day, I also bought a little Muslim hat and a Quran. The opening of the Quran is a bit confused and hasn't grabbed my attention the way the book of Genesis, with its vivid anthropomorphism and special effects, or even the Book of Mormon, with its satirical take on the life of Jesus, do. But I'm sure it gets better. According to Wikipedia, there are between 1.3 and 1.5 billion Muslims in the world. Surely, they must have some collective sense of literary propriety and aesthetics. And I like the hat.

Today, I booked my trip to the Sunderbans. Once again, I urge everyone to read "Midnight's Children," at least the bit set in the Sundarbans, to get some idea of why I am drawn there. I have decided, sadly, to skip St. Martin's Island, Cox's Bazaar, and that whole beach-walking project. Hopefully, though, I can still take the paddle steamer to Khulna. The Sundarbans tour leaves when it leaves, and I couldn't choose the date. Neither can I do everything there is to do, see everything there is to see in every country I visit. Even if I try, I tend always to want to move on. The road beckons! And I get bored pretty quickly. My father, I'm sure, can attest to that.

12 February 2008

O, the things that happen to me!

Good things, people! This post is about why I travel.

According to my guidebook, it should take around two hours by bus to reach Paharpur. Five hours later, I arrived and sat down to have lunch and tea with a guy from the bus who sort of led me there (no English). When the bill came, I guess I was nominated to pay. Since I don't know how to say, "Pay for your own lunch, f**ker" in Bangla, I shrugged and handed over the $1.80 or whatever it was.

Paharpur is Bangladesh's most important archaeological site. I suppose that's like saying Rutgers is New Brunswick's most important university, but the ruins at Paharpur once comprised the largest Buddhist monastery south of the Himalayas (certainly the largest I've ever seen anywhere, including the Himalayas). It's not Angkor Wat, but the central structure certainly stands out in an otherwise flat country of endless rice paddies; and the decorative, terracota plaques that circumscribe it accent the remains nicely.

Now for the interesting part. When I had ambled my way around to the front of the central temple, where a staircase leads to the upper terraces, I encountered a Bangladeshi archaeological team roping off said staircase, which I was forbidden to climb. The guy who forbad me--Mahabub--seemed to be in charge, and I casually mentioned to him that I had done archaeological work in both Greece and Israel. This piqued his interest, and he invited me to sit down for a chat. I told him about myself and my experiences, and that, combined, no doubt, with the undeniable Syrek charm, led to him asking me to join the dig. He offered me a room at the site's guest house (meals included) and said I could stay as long as I like. Although I had planned to leave for Dhaka that afternoon (undoubtedly an interminable journey), how could I refuse such an offer? And refuse I did not.

Among the other people working there, he introduced me to Sultana, an official from the Department of Archaeology, who had her 10-year old son, Dibya, with her. I asked if Dibya was attending school. No, unfortunately. So I offered to give him free English lessons in the evening (thus keeping both of us preoccupied and out of trouble). Dibya readily agreed, and I have been impressed with his attitude--he is keen to learn, much more so than were, for the most part, my Japanese high school students (gomenasai, friends from Nippon).

My first day on the site was also the first day of the dig, so not much digging actually went on. Also, since labor here only costs $1.30/day, there isn't any labor per se for me to do. So I still need to work out how I can participate effectively, lest I grow bored or, even worse, simply get in the way. I did manage to get a look at a recently published UNESCO pamphlet (Paharpur is a World Heritage Site) that laments the destruction wrought by recent restoration work on the main temple and the neglect of the site as a whole (e.g., lack of proper drainage, destruction of protective concrete "membranes", no toilets). It recommends an action plan that would cost ("only") about $5 million to implement. You can imagine the scale of their ambitions in such a low-cost country. Even Mahabub--he revealed to me--only earns $100 a month, and he's put in decades of service. I mean, seriously, can you imagine that? $100 a month to live on? You hear such figures and think of the most abject destitution (the whole $2 a day thing), but Mahabub is a middle-class, educated professional earning that (same salary as the cafe girl from Beijing, as I recall). And along come I, my unkempt pockets casually stuffed with his entire annual salary in loose change. How else can one come to feel like utter, undeserving crap? And the next day, yesterday, when he invited me to visit his home in Rajshahi, he still paid for my train ticket.

But let me forestall any rambling. I wasn't actually too keen to visit Rajshahi, the regional capital, because it meant more traveling in a short time, and I was quite content to enjoy bucolic solace at Paharpur. But Mahabub had told his friend, a history professor, about me, and his friend told his three sons, who told their counsins... well, I had to go. OK, I thought, have a good attitude--they are, indeed, wonderful people, they're willing to feed me, and this *is* what I wanted, right? So here I am, in an internet "cafe" in Rajshahi, after spending a night at the lovely house of the history professor and family (I taught the sons Eucher), writing a post so you don't wonder what happened to me (no internet in Paharpur, just plenty of mosquitos). One of the three sons--the middle child--has graciously acted as my tour guide today. We went for a nice walk along the Padma River (known in India as the Ganges--you may have heard of it), visited the small Raj-era museum, and strolled around the campus of Rajshahi University (#2 in Bangladesh, I hear), where I couldn't find an English professor to converse with.

Tonight, I'll be staying at Mahabub's house, and we're catching an early train back to Paharpur tomorrow morning. I may leave the following day for Dhaka. I might could stay longer, but without any actual work to do, with the traveler's drive to continue lest I lose inertia, and with no great love for eating the same food every meal, every day, with no other options available (and however good it is), I think it's the best choice. Sultana has offered to let me stay with her husband in Dhaka, and her nephew (cool guy, English speaking, not religious) will accompany me there. On Friday, he's taking an entrance exam for Dhaka University. Following, I may have convinced him to walk the length of Cox's Bazaar with me--it's the world's longest beach and currently the number one contender among candidates for the new seven wonders of the natural world (Sundarbans number two!). I don't particularly enjoy laying on beaches, but walking on them is fine. And this one, except for one town, is commercially undeveloped. I think the walk will take three or four days. After that, I may go scuba diving on St. Martin's Island, details forthcoming on that remotest of Bangladeshi locations.

Quite an unexpected pleasure, this Bangladesh!

09 February 2008

Where I've Been

For those who are interested, I have put an interactive map of the places I've been in the world at the bottom of the page (courtesy of Facebook, where it resides). I will periodically update it. Thanks.

Jolly Bengali

I've found that international borders, no matter how easy to cross a map would lead you to believe, are never so. Even if neighboring countries share a common culture, or were once the same country, the border seems to send people scurrying to the heartland, like blood in a cold body. Neighboring countries, however much they have in common, are still palpably different, and I, at least, always feel that difference hard upon crossing, as much as I have always felt a certain unease when traveling just from New Jersey to New York, where the people are crazy. When you try to push through them, borders push back at you. They resist, not like a hard wall, but rather like a spring (threatening to send you rocketing back the way you came) or a sponge (soaking up your time). For example: the border at Changrabandha between India and Bangladesh. This is a crossing point between the most densely populated region of the second most populous country on Earth and the most densely populated country on Earth, period. But there isn't even a direct bus to the border (I had to take a rickshaw partway on both sides), and at the border, there is hardly anything going on, hardly any international traffic. Obviously, this crossing I chose is not a major one, but I'm not complaining. The immigration formalities themselves, a bit absurdly protracted on the Indian side, were relatively swift, as I was apparently one of the only people going to Bangladesh that day. But there is still so much waiting and so many transportation connections to make. From Darjeeling to Rangpur, a mere hundred or so kilometers on the map, it took me over 12 hours to traverse--not uncomfortably, mind you: the lowland breezes were warm and gentle, a welcome relief from the mountain chill. I took nearly ever conceivable form of transportation to make the journey: jeep, bus, rickshaw, tuk-tuk. As soon as I crossed over, Bangladeshis ran up to greet me. Most people in developing countries have a habit of addressing you as "friend," but these guys (and only guys) called me "brother"; isn't that nice? Unfortunately, that's as far as it may go with most people. Nobody seems to speak English here, and I am very disappointed with the British Raj on that account. On the other hand, the words "food" and "breakfast" or frantic gestures indicating the same are understood well enough, and since the food, however delicious, lacks variety, it'll do. On the third hand, this is a Muslim country, so beer isn't on sale anywhere, except in clandestine corners I haven't yet located.

So far, I quite like Bangladesh. The countryside is lovely, the transportation system works efficiently (very important to me), the people are outstandingly generous, the hotels are cheap, and the cheap hotels are comfortable. There are no tourists or even tourist facilities (hence no touts or ripping-off), either, which makes it the kind of travel adventure I haven't enjoyed since the days of my Egyptian military convoys. The people here are genuinely shocked to see me wherever I go, which also means they stare a lot, but that's OK: I'm used to that, being so good-looking and all (rim shot). Today, I reached Bogra, a regional capital. I can't say there's much going on here, but 90% of the street traffic is colorful rickshaws. There are surprisingly few automobiles, so the air is full, not of the noxious sound of honking, revving motor vehicles, but of the gentle tinkling of bicycle bells. To spice things up, I did go on a few rusty amusement park rides for 10 cents each, built on the grounds of a former palace, but that's as much as I'll be risking my life in this country until I visit the tiger-infested Sundarbans (just kidding: the intercity buses, river ferries, and paddle steamships are way more likely to kill me). Tomorrow, the plan is to visit some nearbyish ruins (the best in the country: I can't resist) and then make my way to the maelstrom of Dhaka. I tried to find a couchsurfing gig there, but no go so far. Hopefully, I'll have better luck in Kolkata. These $2-5 hotel rooms are really draining away my wealth.

07 February 2008

Tea Fields

Well, I didn't make it out of Darjeeling, after all. I ended up stopping at a renowned tea shop and bought a year's supply. But that wasn't what took so much time. What took so much time was posting it (and other accumulated travel detritus) home. When I asked if someone could pack my things at the post office, I had to wait almost an hour for some guy to show up and bring me to a dark, dusty storefront next to his family pharmacy. There, he proceeded to stitch up my package in a white cloth and seal the edges with hot wax. "What the hell are you doing?" I asked, actually in a more polite way, and he told me this is how things are packed here. When I asked why, he said, "Because this is India." I hope that doesn't become a refrain on this trip every time something of this odd nature happens. Anyway, it took awhile for this whole stitching/waxing process to finish, by which point it was far too late to contemplate a border crossing. Just as well, what with protestors in the area looting and burning vehicles, etc. I also asked at the post office why they bother with this cumbersome wrapping process, and he said it's to prevent theft or something. "Doesn't a box and tape work well enough?" I wondered. But I should know better by now than to engage in these sorts of conversations. Oddly (especially for India, I gather), I didn't have to fill out a detailed customs form for the package. The sewer/waxer dude just tore a strip of paper for me and told me to write down the contents. Then he rolled it and waxed that on top of the lot, writing "declaration form -->" next to it. Cute. So dad, you can expect yet another package in a few months, that is, if US Customs, wondering why it isn't accompanied by proper documentation, doesn't set it on fire. After my hours-long post office adventure, I went down to the Happy Valley Tea fields for an amble. Sadly, there is no tea production going on right now, so I haven't been able to visit a factory. But I am properly wired, having sampled just about every variety of black, white, and green tea that grows around here. My business and pleasure in Darjeeling both completed, tomorrow morning, ca. 6 am, I am definitely going to start my border run. I should make it to Bogra, Bangladesh by the late afternoon, that is, if angry Bengali demonstrators don't set *me* on fire.

06 February 2008

Experiencer of Calamities

Having reluctantly decided to dose myself with antibiotics, I have returned to my usual state of robust health. I don't like taking pills, but I'm also starting malaria prophylaxis, so I figured I might as well kill everything swimming around in my organs.

Well, it's been exciting times as usual in the tumultuous subcontinent: bird flu outbreaks in Bangladesh and West Bengal, both places I'm going; demonstrations in Darjeeling, where Gurkha Nepalis want their own state (called, naturally, "Gurkhaland" hee hee); violence on the road between Siliguri and Bangladesh, which I'm traveling today, where police thought it prudent to shoot and kill protesters; and a state-wide bandh (strike) in West Bengal coming as a result of the former, which hopefully won't slow me up too much. Fear not. None of it will affect me.

I decided to poke my head into Sikkim since it's so close. Sikkim was an independent Buddhist kingdom sandwiched between Nepal and Bhutan until 1975, when the government of India informed it that it wasn't independent after all. The government of China, however, never recognized this move, resulting in tension that persists to this day. Given this situation, I had to get a special permit (stamp stamp) to visit. I only went for an overnighter, but it was definitely worth it. The people are calm, the scenery--including the third highest mountain in the world, Khunchamanamungasomething--is stunning, and the roads are well-maintained (signposts in the tricky bits read "Be Gentle on My Curves" along with various other slogans, some of which, wonderfully, horribly, rhyme). Yes, Sikkim is a wonderful, pleasant place, and I highly recommend it. It's very small, but it might nevertheless serve as an alternative to tourist and tout-frenzied Nepal. Hey, there's a poem, in there:

Come to Sikkim; though it's quite small,
We think that you'll like it more than Nepal.

Specifically, I went to see the Losar (Tibetan New Year) celebrations at a monastery near a town called Pelling, about five hours and three bus changes from Darjeeling. The ride up was lovely, with nice warm breezes. When I arrived, I was just in time for the festivities. Chanting monks, accompanied by drums and off-key horns, blessed the crowd (only two other whites!) and drove off evil spirits. Monks wearing funny masks went around teasing people, especially me. One ceremony involved flinging various ritual objects into a kind of square, bamboo hoop, after which they were set on fire. The monks also buried something (evil?) in the courtyard of the monastery and lit a fire above that, too. This was followed by dancing. Afterward, we all lined up for the water of life (tasted like whisky, hmm) and barley flour distributed into eager, reaching hands by the head monks with the biggest hats. At one point, I don't know why, we threw rice. The next day, I walked back up to see the ritual unfurling of a giant thangka painting from the rafters of the prayer hall. We threw more rice, drank tea (so nice of them to serve it to us!), prayed, and then received blessings from the monks--more whisky, more barley flour, and even tsompa (barley flour balls) were given out. After having my head tapped by various things, I began the long journey back to Darjeeling, where I was lucky to arrive the same evening. I initially had planned to stay a few days in Sikkim, perhaps take in a hike, but the cold, COLD night in Pelling convinced me that it's time for me to get the hell out of the mountains. I again went for tea at the fancy British hotel last night, and I met an elderly American couple from near Washington, DC. The wife volunteers at the Smithsonian--the Museum of American Art I think (is there one?)--on Friday afternoons, so I might go visit her some day. They also informed me that the pendulum has been removed from the Museum of American History. Whoever made that decision, in my opinion, should be put to the sword.

If there's no bandh today, I am going to attempt the border crossing into steamy Bangladesh and see how far I can get. In fact, what am I doing still sitting here? Time's a wastin'!

04 February 2008

Is the video working?

Please comment here if the Lhasa video isn't working for you. I can't get it to work from here. I also posted it, and one other, with more pictures on my Facebook page.

To Darjeeling, Patience Limited

Friends, by now you must know how much pleasure it gives me to relate from abroad from tales of suffering and woe. They are, I suspect, the most popular. Today, I have another one.

Kathmandu, Nepal to Darjeeling, India. No problem. There's a direct route, easy bus connections, and a quiet border. Here's my story. I took a night bus from KTM to my first stop at Janakpur. There were no day buses available, so I had no choice but to sit nearly upright from 6 pm to 8 am. At least there was a blanket available (one for whole bus), but partway through the trip, someone stole it from me, claiming they were cold (like, I wasn't?). The traffic just getting out of Kathmandu was horrendous, and more and more people kept getting on the bus as we meandered our way through the fog back to the Terai. Closer to Janakpur, the bus turned on to a bumpy, barely paved road for the final bit. Luckily, the seat was padded enough to prevent too much damage to my bony butt, and I seem to have slept quite a bit. Once in Janakpur, I inquired about onward transport to the border at Kakarbhitta, excited to finally be getting out of Nepal. Oh, no bus tomorrow, there's a one day strike! Just my luck, and I've already been suffering the severe truth of Murphy's Law for days. Upset by this hardly unexpected turn of events, I wandered around town. Janakpur, like every other SLT in Nepal, was once the capital of now defunct kingdom, in this case Mithila, which also incorporated part of Bihar, India. Mithila is famous for the art the women there produce, which depicts the ordeals of domestic life. I may have said so before, but I'll say it again: I think women in the developing world are the only ones who do any work. And on top of that, they paint pictures--of all the work they do! In their free time?! I bought a nice cloth tapestry and a small bowl ideal for tea ceremony.

Janakpur is also featured in the Indian epic, the Ramayana, and this is where Rama lived with his wife Sita. There is an enormous temple dedicated to Vishnu in his Rama incarnation--please don't hold me to any of these details--and several other temples in town that have something to do with Rama/Sita. There is also a "big monkey temple" where a live monkey is worshipped as a god. Truly my tolerant multiculturalist sensibilities were put on trial by this, since I think worshipping monkeys is, well, ridiculous. But at least one of our Presidential nominees doesn't believe in evolution and another is a Mormon, so who am I to judge?

I asked another bus ticket seller-dude about the strike, since I heard it was only a possibility, but this one said it was definitely on--but for two days! My friends, I was at the end of my tether, but my tether had yet more to endure. Instead of waiting two more days for a bus, I reluctantly decided to take another night bus to Kakarbhitta. I had a feeling the trip would be completely awful.

I was right.

I hung around the "bus park" (huge, filthy lot) for about 2 hours waiting for the bus to arrive. Naturally, it was late and dark when it finally showed up after 7 pm. When it stopped, a gang of Nepalis just mobbed it, out of nowhere, and I did not know what was going on--the usual third world chaos, I assumed. When I saw someone official-looking, I shoved my ticket in his face, and he beckoned me on board, where I was assigned a lovely front row seat--right next to the door and with a bit more leg room. Such small blessings make all the difference, believe me. When we finally departed, I thought it would be, more or less, smooth sailing... because I am a fool! We'd gone no more than a quarter mile before we stopped at a traffic circle, where, I roughly calculated, half the population of Nepal tried to force its way inside. I was jounced, jossled, and jolted by arms, ankles, feet, knees, luggage, and peoples' butts. When stability returned, we were packed in like sardines. One guy tried to put his overloaded duffle bag on my lap, but the gentleman sitting next to me (a guy from Nagaland! Nagaland! Cool name, I thought, I want to go *there*!) told him, so I gathered, that I am a white man tourist and therefore entitled special treatment. And this, I felt, was correct. We made another stop a bit farther on, and then the other half of the population jumped on board. This continued for awhile. I was amazed at how much humanity could be crammed into such a small, steel box, was willing to be crammed into such a small, steel box, and I began preparing for my death. Anyway, I've been on buses like this before, and at least I had a seat, so I thought, with my earplugs and sleepmask, I could make the best of it as usual.

When we cleared the town, the ticket collector shut the door at last. The night chill was coming on, and I thought all the bodies would at least warm things up. But I forgot about Murphy's Law: when the door slammed shut, the entire glass pane fell out and shattered on the ground. So for the next, oh, 10 hours, we sailed along the highway subjected to the merciless blast of the cold night air. Don't forget! I had the good seat next to the door! Not only did I really think I was going to die at this point, my friends; I wanted to die. So, what else? The seat was uncomfortable, so I couldn't really sleep (as if the wind would let me anyway). The guy behind me kept putting his knees up, preventing me from reclining. We periodically stopped in the middle of nowhere. At midnight, we stopped for, I don't know, dinner? Not hungry, I instead sat by the hearth outside the tin shack restaurant, where a few other guys also warmed themselves at the little, dung-fueled fire. I got to see how chapati are made, at least: a true cultural experience, this was! I considered asking for one, but demurred when I saw the guy handle the bread and add more shit to the fire with the same hand. Appetite: gone! When we pulled out, I noticed that someone had put cardboard up over the door-hole, and this was a tender mercy. I managed to get a few hours sleep before we reached the border, where the bus sat for a few more hours waiting for it to open. With time to kill, I went over in my mind all the horrible bus journeys I've taken in my travels--quite a few--and determined that, yes, this was the worse. But I survived to tell you about it, my friends, and, as the opening title sequence of "Conan the Barbarian" informs us, whatever doesn't kill you only makes you stronger.

(PS - I also had diarrhea the whole time.)

Things were a bit easier in the morning. I changed money at the bank at 7 am, hurled myself across the border with no hassle (thereby traveling back in time 15 minutes), and left the year 2064 (in Nepal) to rejoin the rest of humanity in 2008, in Incredible !ndia. From the border, it was only another 5 hour journey to the hilltop town of Darjeeling, famous for its tea (and I hope you know that, you philistines), a place I've longed to visit. Darjeeling tea is my favorite! I already enjoyed high tea at a fancy colonial-era hotel, where I met British John, who edits things for the WHO and the Asian Development Bank. He lives near Manila with his Filipina wife and invited me to visit him there. Don't think I won't, John!

Now I'm comfortable again, in a country that speaks English, that doesn't lose power, that has passable roads, and where hot showers are actually available. I bargained my hotel rate down from 400 rupees to 250 (40 Rs. to the dollar in India) and spent the night watching the Action Network (I love the sunglasses dude on CSI: Miami) and HBO (!). February is "Hollywood's Best" month. Last night's "best of" offering was "Bicentennial Man" starring Robin Williams. Even better, there's a movie theater here. I haven't seen a movie in a theater in months. They're showing two destined-to-be-classics: "Rambo 4" and "Alien vs. Predator 2". Normally, I'd opt for the former, because Sly's my boy, but it's dubbed in Hindi (naturally). Since I didn't see the first "Alien vs. Predator" movie, I'm worried I won't understand the plot if I go see this one, but who can resist the tagline, which I might also apply to my trip: "On Earth, everyone can hear you scream." Priceless.

01 February 2008

New Release: Video from Lhasa

I have finally gotten a copy of the video someone took of my ritual prostration around Jokhor Temple in Lhasa, Tibet. In this clip, I perform a few typical prostrations wearing my Tibetan coat. I did several hundred of these over the course of a few hours. As you can guess, cleansing one's spirit often involves soiling one's body: