30 March 2008

Everything I ever wanted to know about sex, and I'm not afraid to ask.

I am curious about the gender demographics of my readership. I don't know why; but please tell me which of the following two categories best describes you: female, male. I have added a new poll for this purpose. If you are one of my transsexual, transgendered, or hermaphrodite friends, sorry, I didn't know I had any!

Old Delhi

Yesterday, I went to New Delhi. Today, I visited Old Delhi. Makes sense, right?

Unfortunately, I can't really make my day sound interesting. I walked into Old Delhi from the New Delhi train station (which is located, strangely, in Old Delhi). My first stop was Raj Ghat, where Gandhi was cremated, thus bringing to an appropriate closure my Gandhi-related sightseeing. I then walked further on to the site of Jawaharlal Nehru's pyre. In the movie, he's Gandhi's friend with the hat. Later, he becomes the first prime minister, and his family, which he renames Gandhi (?), continues to rule India raj-like until, basically, now. Just about all of them were assassinated and have memorials along the river, but it was hot today so I didn't visit them all. After this, I went to the Jama Masjid, India's largest mosque. To my delight, I was able to ascend to the top of one of the minarets for a view of the city. People, Delhi is really, really big! I think the population is 16 godzillion. It was all concrete chaos to the horizon. Strangely beautiful in a way. In a way. Next up was the obligatory Red Fort, which I also felt let down by (given that tickets, as at Purana Qila, cost 100 Rs. for foreigners). I have decided that most of these monuments are less for historical interest than they are giant, well-maintained parks for Indian families and young lovers to escape to, given the dearth of green spaces in the cities here and since Indians only have to pay 10 Rs. (a quarter) to get in. So people-watching opportunities abound, but personally I'd rather not pay $2.50 a pop for them. I left the Red Fort to wander around the market area outside, and when that got old (quickly), I took the amazingly modern and lovely metro back down to Connaught Place so I could sit in Barista's and read. Which I did. That's it! Not exactly the stuff of epic-romance. I'll try and up the body count tomorrow (snap! double-entendre!).

29 March 2008

I promise not to pun on the word "Delhi"

The day after visiting the Taj Mahal THE MOST BEAUTIFUL MONUMENT TO LOVE EVER BUILT (and the only one, to my knowledge) I took a bus from Agra over to the UNESCO site of Fatehpur Sikri. I went because I could not resist the description "Mughal ghost town". I went because I had nothing else to do that day. I went because Kajori told me to, and Kajori will not be denied.

Fatehpur Sikri was built to be Akbar (Ahkbar? Akbhar? Ahkbhar?) the Great's personal capital city in the 16th century. Like most private capital ventures of this sort, however, it failed for lack of long-term planning (that is, for lack of available water sources). Strategically located--wait for it--on a hill, the red sandstone city lords it over the modern SLT of Fatehpur Sikri below, where tour guides mate and breed. I was quite stunned by the state of the city's preservation--quite good! The main mosque is ginormous, its entrance "Arch of Victory" possibly the largest arch of victory in Asia (and therefore the world? Europe, hello?). In the city itself, one cannot help feeling it was a pity the site didn't last, given the exquisiteness of the decorative carvings on many of the structures and the intriguing architectural styles employed throughout. I was intrigued. One lone guard tower is studded with elephant tusks.

I only stuck around FS for a few hours, because I had a train to catch to Delhi, a train I barely made. You see, I had arranged with a rickshaw driver to take me to a bunch of shops around Agra. The deal was, each shop would pay him 100 Rs. just for bringing me there to browse, and he would split that with me. I learned of this neat little scam from the Swiss guy I met in Hampi, I think. Unfortunately, I didn't get back to Agra in time for the execution, so I'm going to have to work it again here in Delhi, where I am now (in time, but not in the course of this narrative--hang on). Anyway, when I got to the train station, I met a French girl going to the same place. We had adjacent seats, so we chatted. She's studying Arabic in Cairo. We were also seated with two Chinese girls studying Hindi in Agra. What am I studying? English, in America! Anyway, the French girl was cool and is the first French person I've met who laughs at jokes and even my bad French accent, which I adopted for her amusement for the rest of the trip. An Indian guy joined us partway through the trip and ended up inviting me to visit him in Amritsar even though the first thing I said to him when he introduced himself was "Please don't ask me 20 questions!"

Upon reaching Delhi, I found a cheap dormitory by following the Japanese. That is, I looked for a hotel with a name rendered in katakana, where I knew I'd find a low price and reliable dormmates. And I did! A ten bed dorm with one Japanese guy and no other people (and a hot shower! my first in India! even though I don't need it!) for only 150 Rs. a night. Score! Everything in India closes at like 10 pm, annoyingly, so it was difficult for me to find a place to drink with the French girl. But she was flying back to Cairo the next morning--spending the entire night at the airport--so it seemed proper to get her drunk to make things go more smoothly. At last, I found an SLR that was willing to illegally sell us bottles of beer wrapped in plastic bags. Cool.

The next day, I decided to check out New Delhi. I'm an idiot, you see, and didn't even realize I'd be arriving here at the beginning of the weekend, so now I have to wait until Monday for the Syrian embassy to open. But I'll make the most of it. Everyone I've met has told me that Delhi is smelly, but so far, I think it's really an OK place. The seedy neighborhood where I'm staying is dirty and crowded as hell, but it's more (God forgive me for using this word) authentic than sucky Thamel in Kathmandu. Thamel sucks! And New Delhi is lovely enough, built at the inhuman scale of most planned capitals (except Fatehpur Sikri), but not unwalkable (ahem, for me). Kajori, I walked from Main Bazaar near the New Delhi train station to Connaught Place, then down to the Parliament area, further along to the Gandhi memorial, and then from there to India Gate and finally to the definitely-not-worth-100 Rs. Purana Qila fortress. In Crocs! Please tell these people how awesome I am for doing that. They'll never understand.

En route, I bought a copy of the Lonely Planet guide to Mediterranean Europe at the truly fab Oxford Bookstore. Luckily, the store had a toilet, because I had to run to it after looking up the prices I should expect once I *get* to Mediterranean Europe.

The Gandhi memorial deserves explication at greater length. In Hindi, it's called the Gandhi Smriti. "Smriti" reminds me of "smrt", my favorite Czech word, which means death. This is strangely appropriate since the memorial is located at the site where Ben Kingsley was assassinated. Lame Richard Attenborough jokes aside, the memorial and accompanying exhibit is one of the most top quality monuments I've ever seen. The rooms Gandhi occupied during his last 144 days are perfectly preserved. Adjoining them are several long corridors of beautifully done (if loooooong) photo-accompanied narrative of Gandhi's life, accomplishments, final days, and legacy. Upstairs is a remarkable multimedia exhibition that allows you to do such things as imitate Gandhi's seating postures, checking yourself against the real thing; light up a "tower of castelessness" by joining hands with people; and experience what salt feels like (or something). No, really, this thing has high production values. I would have loved it when I was a kid or if I were drunk. Someday, I'll take all seven of *my* kids to see it. It's really cool! Finally, outside, a paved path, complete with raised concrete footprints, follows the route Gandhi took on the day of his martyrdom, ending at a modest stone pillar. The guards yelled at me when I tried to touch it. I was genuinely moved and impressed by the Gandhi Smriti and spent quite a long time there, enjoying its informativeness and historic resonance as well as its beauty and serenity. When I learned that this whole affair is run by the government, I had to run to the toilet *again*!

My feet were sore by the time I got to Purana Qila, which is not worthy of explication, so I got an autorickshaw back to Connaught Place, the double-circus of high-end boutiques and cafes in the north part of New Delhi. I asked the driver to bring me to the subway. Next to the subway, to my delight, was a Subway! I immediately went in and ordered a 6" veggie pattie on hearty italian. I picked out an Israeli couple and sat down with them for a nice chat. We're going to meet later for beers. In fact, I'm running late, so I'd better finish up. Don't you think this is too much detail?

27 March 2008

I am New7Wondersful!!!!!!!

Hey chumps, I just realized that as of today, I (unlike you) have seen all the "new" seven wonders of the world, which are:

Angkor Wat*
Chichen Itza
Great Wall of China
Maccu Picchu
Taj Mahal

So allow me to take this opportunity, unusual for me, humble guy that I am, to BOAST!


There. Thank you. Sorry, my friends. You aren't really chumps. Bye.

*Angkor Wat is not actually an official wonder. Neither are the Pyramids, as you can see. But I've seen them both, and they certainly kick Christ Redeemer's ass. I do not acknowledge that so-called "wonder" (more like.. plunder!). For what it's worth, I saw a bigger one in Cochabamba anyway.

Wow wow wow part 2

My initial reaction seemed to need a post of its own, so as to convey the acuteness of the feeling. It isn't often anymore that I have an awe-gasm when I see something supposedly "amazing." I had one when I saw the Potala Palace in Lhasa. Choquequirao, Peru qualified. I think I had two at Yosemite. And today I had one when first I saw the Taj, which we've all seen a million times, and those million times prepare you for the real thing NOT AT ALL.

I think it's appropriate that many tourists have their photo taken with their arm raised and fingers pinched above the Taj, so they will appear to be dangling it like an ornament. It *is* an ornament! But is it really an ornament of love? Mumtaz was dead, Mr. Jahan, and it could only have served your own ego to build such a thing, and it is only poetic justice that you were imprisoned at the end of your life, only able to gaze at it from afar (and not do much else). What I realized when being blinded by this miracle of marble--honestly, I couldn't look straight at it--was that it might be India's last great monument. Wasn't it built at the zenith of Mughal civilization, the last great Indian suzerainty? Didn't the Mughal empire start to fall apart shortly thereafter, only to be conquered by the British, who stuck arguably fetching statues of Victoria everywhere? Doesn't it always happen this way?

But forget all that Jared Diamond nonsense. The thing is spectacular in ways I can't describe after a beer, and it was worth paying $18 to get in--oh wait, they made a mistake and only charged me $6. Still worth it! And they give foreign tourists a free bottle of water so we don't dehydrate and die in the vast gardens out front--good thing, because I passed more than one Indian (I counted three, actually) taking a piss in them. Real nice, guys! India's most important monument and one of the most famous in the world--your own national heritage of which you should be proud--and you piss all over it! I think they worked there on the restoration team. I yelled at two of them and even tried to embarrass one. Didn't work. So I just told the police and assume nothing will be done. Sigh.

So the Taj. How to describe. Google "Taj Mahal" and see for yourself. See how lazy I am getting with this blog thing? Didn't my posts used to employ extravagant verbosity and literary flair--at moments? OK, it's like a giant wedding cake with lots of yummy frosting and highly detailed colored icing piped on by a pro (and a Muslim pro at that). I sat on a bench for two hours staring at it, eating it in my imagination. Then I left and ate real food, Indian food, which in India they call Indian food. Seriously!

Oh yeah, I also saw Agra Fort.

Wow wow wow

I saw the Taj Mahal today! Wow!

26 March 2008

Slum Lord

In overcoming the petty adversities of daily life, I find it useful, howsoever trite, to reflect on the miseries of others--not for the sake of schadenfreude, mind you, but so, when socks go missing, plans unexpectedly change, or bags are stolen, I spare myself the indignity of freaking the f*ck out. In that spirit, I signed up for a day-long tour of Dharavi, the largest slum in Asia, and the heart of Mumbai. I read about Dharavi in a few places, including The Economist, so I wanted to have a look for myself. Luckily, a company called "Reality Tours" makes this possible. I have to admit, the last "reality tour" I went on was a Seinfeld tour of New York City guided by the real-life Kramer. I wonder if the Mumbai branch is aware of this connection. Anyway, a slum tour in 96 degree heat is probably the last thing most of you rich people would want to do, but Dharavi is actually a fascinating place. Contrary to most slums--which are ruled by the triumvirate of crime, substance abuse, and desperation--Dharavi boasts an air, however fecund, of prosperity. Residents of the slum collect plastic trash from all over the city and process it for recycling; they engage in various kinds of manufacturing; they make pottery and cook up pappadams. Altogether, Dharavi has an economy of $665 million/year. It's still a dirty, stinky, makeshift, claustrophobic slum (though with nary a plastic bottle in sight), but it's a slum with power and dignity. The people there have won the right to their homes and businesses, all of which squat on government land, and the city even provides water and electricity. All is not well, though. The Indian government would like to eliminate all of its urban slums, including Dharavi, and redevelopment schemes have already begun. This raises interesting ethical questions--should the slum dwellers be left as they are, poor but productive and with a strong community, or would they be better off shunted into new apartment blocks where their quality of life would increase but their industry possibly suffer? My friends, I am grateful that it is not left to me to be answerable to such questions.

After visiting Dharavi, I planted myself in one of the Starbucks-esque cafes sprouting up in Indian cities and which I have grown shamelessly to love. Finding myself next to an Asian woman, I asked her if she was Japanese. No.. American, as it turns out. When she produced a Lonely Planet guide to India, I became excited, wide-eyed, dare I say lustful. Tongue dry, palms moist, my voice twittering with anxiety, I asked her if I could borrow it. Sure! she said. I could even photocopy it! Which I did! And now I am basically back to where I was before my bag was stolen, except I lost my address book, so I wouldn't expect any postcards from me anytime soon, my friends.

When I left the cafe, I thought I was going to meet Charlie for the taping of Yeh Hai Jalwa (actual name). I was keen to go, because I saw the celebrity I "met" the previous night on at least 50,000 billboards around the city. Pop culture is still culture, isn't it? Any of you Indians sitting around reading the Ramayana while doing yoga in intense states of transcendental meditation? Didn't think so! Alas, twas not meant to be. Charlie's cell phone couldn't get a signal inside the studio--unairconditioned that day, so just as well--and I couldn't get through to him. So no live television taping for me. And I didn't even get to be an extra in a Bollywood movie like every other whitie tourist I met here. Instead, I walked along the shore up to Chowpatty Beach, across the city to Breach Candy, past the Parsi Towers of Silence (where vultures pick at their dead), and on to Mahalaxmi Temple (where folks worship money?) and this cool mosque that's on an island way out in the water. OK, the mosque isn't so cool, but it's white and floodlit--a mesmerizing sight from the shore at night, as is the city skyline when you walk out to it and look back. I read about these places in "Midnight's Children" and possibly "The Satanic Verses"; I enjoy a good literary walk. That was that day.

This afternoon, I am taking a night train to Agra. Yes, I was originally going to visit Ellora and/or Ajanta, but after talking to people about them, seeing pictures, trying and failing to book tickets there, and assessing my own reserves of patience and wherewithal to continue sight-seeing, I decided to chuck it in and just see the damn Taj Mahal. I hope the slots are loose, because I've been overspending lately and could use a big score.

23 March 2008

Where do I fucking begin?

20 March. Hampi. Spent the day at The Mango Tree cafe filling out postcards and chatting. Afternoon. Rushed back to hotel to get backpack; rushed back across river to catch an autorickshaw to Hospet, 30 minutes away, whence my bus--expensive, secure luxury bus--to Mumbai departs. Met a Canadian and a Swede en route. Shared rickshaw with them, little time to lose. Reach Hospet barely on time--in fact, rickshaw driver has to intercept bus, which is just leaving. Relief.

20 March. Evening. Settle into seat. Chat with nice Indian man next to me. He explains what's going on in the Bollywood movie playing on the TV, "Aaja Nachle." The production values are high. In the evening we stop for dinner, where I meet one of the few other foreign passengers, Emily, also Canadian. We converse.

21 March. Very early morning hours. Bus stops for fuel. I stagger outside to take a piss. Return. Notice my water bottle in the overhead rack. Alone. My daypack, which I had uncharacteristically placed overhead with it, probably for the first time in my life, is gone. Filled with dread and wonder, I look around the overhead rack, hoping it had just slid somewhere. It is nowhere. I alert the bus attendant. He doesn't speak English. He does nothing. I sit down. I consider causing a scene or demanding the bus be stopped and searched. I don't do this. I know. It's gone. I feel sick. I sleep. Fitfully.

21 March. Morning. Mumbai. Bus stops at the company office. I inform them that my bag is stolen. They jabber and dither. For about two hours. Lady asks why I didn't insist the bus be stopped and searched. I said, I don't know. I've never been robbed. It was 2 am. I told the attendant. Why didn't he insist? Why is she suggesting it's my fault? Just making me feel even worse? She invites me to register a complaint. I write down details. Bus drivers take me aside. Beg me not to complain. Bus company president evil and corrupt. They will be held responsible. Fined. Their jobs at risk. They offer me 1000 Rs. each ($50). A bribe. I am filled with dread and wonder. Never been bribed before. I tear up the complaint. Pointless anyway. I refuse their money.

Nothing valuable to anyone except me lost. But my address book. Lost. Allergy medication. Lost. Convulsion medication. Lost. Headlamp. Lost. Sunglasses. Lost. Hemp hat. Lost. Treasured washcloth from Harrod's--the cruelest stroke of all--lost. Captain Picard figurine. Lost (the second time! fare thee well, captain).


21 March. Late morning. Ask Emily to save me. She does. We go to Bentley Hotel in Colaba. We go to airport to pick up another Canadian, Andrew. Mumbai International Airport is pathetic. We have to wait outside. He arrives. Joyous occasion. For them. We return to Colaba. Visit Leopold's Cafe, which is famous. Sidenote. Every traveler in India is reading "Shantaram" by David Gregory Roberts (or Gregory David Roberts or Robert David Gregories). If you aren't also reading it or haven't read it, you must, they tell you. I am getting sick of this. Leopold's features in Shantaram. Johnny Depp will feature in the movie. End sidenote. We eat. I drink. Heavily. Bliss. I buy white Muslim clothes. Return to hotel. Pass out.

22 March. Today is Holi, the Hindu festival of color, noteworthy because everyone is supposed to assault you with powdered and liquid paint of various colors. It can stain skin and hair, poison eyes. I wanted to avoid it. Emily and Andrew wanted to participate. So. Don white Muslim clothes. Lock passport in backpack. Realize I need something from backpack. Realize the key to backpack lock is now inside backpack. Realize that other key is where I usually keep it--with small daypack, now stolen. Hotel employees come and saw lock off the bag. Embarrassing. Leave hotel. Meet Raheem, another Canadian, at random on the street. Head to Colaba market. Colorful men and dirty children assault us with powdered and liquid paint of various colors. My white Muslim clothes act as a canvas. As intended. Had loads of fun. As intended. Bought my own powders of various colors. Assaulted people with them. Chased children down streets, down alleys. I was covered. No touts would approach. Taxis shied away. Clean people were afraid. Finally turned the tables on the Indians. Had loads of fun. As intended. At Gateway to India, a photographer approaches. Takes photos of us. Google "Holi" for some idea of what I looked like. Gateway to India is under restoration. Whole area torn up, dusty, dirty. Pathetic. India, you can do better than this.

22 March. Afternoon. After showering, met Charlie Narayan, a local couchsurfing host. Very talkative guy, which gives me a break. We all wander together around Colaba. Eat falafels. Visit UNESCO listed Victoria Terminal (renamed Chatraapataachchtrai Sivajajari Terminal or something). Old man approaches me. Asks to draw my picture. No. Won't go away. No. Wants money. No. Follows us. For some time. No. No. No. Charlie works in television production, so offers old man job if he can do storyboarding. We go to cafe. Old man tries to draw a scene for Charlie. Charlie asks for changes. Old man bristles, his pride wounded. Charlie gives up.

22 March. Evening. Canadians go to see four hour Bollywood epic. Charlie and I go to Taj Mahal Hotel. Bar. We drink. Charlie is lovelorn. Which is fine, since I am also lorn. We leave, go back to Leopold's. Upstairs, a bit clubby. We drink more. Canadians arrive, quickly leave again. Drunk. I dance a bit, but seems Indian girls won't dance with other people if their boyfriends are with them (or, possibly, at all). So, as my dad likes to say, fuck 'em. Nice Indian guy tries to chat me up. Wants to see me again. Probably thinks I'm gay. Indian girls make me wish I were. Charlie chats up Israeli girl. She also has a boyfriend. Poor Charlie. She offers me unsolicited advice of the usual sage-backpacker fatalism variety. Note to future twenty-somethings: I don't want your fucking advice. That night, I stay at Charlie's.

23 March. Morning. Charlie and I wake early. He's working on a new dance competition/reality TV show called "Heh dai Jalwa" or something. I want to see the shooting process. En route, I read to Charlie "A Piece of Monologue" by Samuel Beckett. I think he likes it. We arrive at his office at 7 am, as requested. Locked. Nobody there. He calls his colleagues. Everyone was told to arrive at a different time. No equipment available. No one responsible around. This is normal. I am told. We look for breakfast. Nothing open. I buy cookies. Return to office. Finally, other people arrive. Equipment arrives. We go to shoot at old woman's apartment. She is in the dance competition. Charlie interviews her and family for some time. For the "reality" segment of the show. It is very hot. I pass out on the floor. Her daughter wakes me and offers lychee juice. Delicious!

23 March. Afternoon. Lunchtime. Crew plus me visits local restaurant. I order Veg. Afghani with naan. I think it's the best thing I've ever had. I ask Charlie if he worries that, by working on a dance competition reality TV show, he's contributing to the corruption and ruination of Indian civilization. He says, overall, yes. I laugh.

23 March. Evening. We visit a few dance studios to watch dance teams rehearse. Each team has a "celebrity" leader. One is a tall Italian woman who is probably too old by now to catch the Bollywood break she desires; another is a woman my age named Rachi (sounds like "Rocky" and I say this while singing the theme song and jumping up and down Sylvestor Stallone-at-the-Philly-Museum-of-Art-style but no one gets it). She has an interesting story--from the slums, became successful, etc. Somewhat of a bitch to her colleagues but nice to me. I tell her to break a leg. I hope she understands. We watch an episode of the show. On Tuesday, I can see a taping if I want. Production values are high. I fall asleep. Charlie wakes me and we visit nearby Western shopping mall. I purchase new sunglasses and new backpack locks. Eat pizza for $2.50/slice. We go home. Watch "Michael Clayton". Sleep.

24 March. Today.

19 March 2008

Ahhhhhhhhhhhh... Hampi...

If you close your eyes and try to imagine India, I think your faculties of contrivance are likely to conjure a place very like Hampi, where I landed yesterday. Keep your eyes closed. Now, ask someone to go into your pantry and open every box, unscrew every jar, expose to the air every grain, condiment, meal, and spice. Ask someone to open the refrigerator, dump all the produce onto the floor, and stomp on it. Wait a few days. Have all your friends bring over their dogs, children, and grandparents, and invite them to relieve themselves freely. Find a CD of high-pitched, whiny music, and play it at maximum volume in the cheapest available stereo (make sure you bash the speaker a bit first). Ask the dogs to bark, the children to beg, and the grandparents to chatter. Still have your eyes closed? Good--now you know what India generally smells and sounds like. But you still have that lovely image of rivers meandering under a blue sky and high, yellow sun; forests of palm trees swaying gently in the breeze, their swaying like a dance to the horizon, back and forth; rolling hills; red soil; rice fields a magical shade of green; and the landscape dotted with small, tidy villages, their colorful women, layabout men, excited children, and listless cows. And that *is* Hampi. But, keeping that image, increase the people tenfold, then tenfold again; in fact, just fill your field of vision with people. Make those cute villages endless, not-so-cute towns, filling every available low place with tin-roofed shacks, gaudy little temples, communal water basins, street food shops, and random other shops. Pour in a liberal amount of autorickshaws and giant, lumbering buses gaudier than the temples. Obscure your view with dust and smog. Scatter trash on sides of roads, centers of fields, and basically everywhere else where there isn't trash already. Had enough? You may now open your eyes and ask the dogs, etc. to leave.

That beautiful India we started with is still under there somewhere, but you have to accept the rest of India layered on top of it if you want to *see* India--arguably, the crowded feculence I so flippantly describe is also beautiful, if chaotic: a beautiful, moving expression of a dynamic humanity. But let's not be too sentimental, shall we? I've been searching for metaphors by which to describe India today, because it was very hot, and my higher brain functions took a holiday. Anyway, here's what I came up with: a golden sewer, clogged with filth. So, the heart of India is gold, but like an untended sewer, the heart's been befouled and corrupted. Clean away the grime, though, or see past it, and the gold shines as ever. Hmm, I am not entirely satisfied with this image. "Sewer" isn't a nice word, after all, and I wouldn't want to imply that, though gold, India is essentially a civilization-size waste disposal system (though it could certainly use one of those).

I left Pondicherry on the morning of St. Patrick's Day and arrived in India's IT capital, Bangalore, in the afternoon. I have never heard anything good said about Bangalore, but I have nothing bad to say against the place. I was only there for an afternoon, after all, and I spent it, I have to admit, at a movie theater watching the implausibly ahistorical "10,000 B.C." Do I need another period here? Kajori? After, I took a sleeper class train to Hampi. This was an experiment, because sleeper class is non-A/C. It was fine! And SO cheap! Yesterday and today, I've been spending half my time lazing in my hotel's I don't know what to call it, relaxation area? with fantastic view, by the way, and the first I've seen in India not bursting at the seams with people, and half my time hiking around the monuments of this ancient Hindi capital beneath a pitiless Indian sun (I even got a little burned today). Please--Google "Hampi" and check out the lovely scenery, the strange rock formations (hill upon hill of high-piled boulders), the typically romantic ruins. Etc. Experience it with me. Because, like most of India, I strain at the description. Words are inadequate. But Hampi is a wonder. Hampi is a sight! Hampi is a relief.

15 March 2008


"Auroville wants to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities. The purpose of Auroville is to realise human unity."

Thus saith the Mother, a crazy Frenchwoman who moved to India a hundred years ago, shacked up with a guru, and then decided to personally direct the future evolution of humanity (into a realm of experience she referred to as the "supramental" which sounds to me like a joke from "Catch-22") by establishing an international, non-profit city in the countryside north of Pondicherry. The original plan called for an ultimate population of 50,000 people (all further applicants would be left to remain in the mediocre-mental state?). Right now, the figure stands just shy of 2000. Given that India's population has, what, quintupled over the same period of time, I'd say that I am fully justified running my sarcasm blasters on high. Here's some more. Part of the plan called for the construction of an enormous monument at the center of the (naturally, "galaxy"-shaped) city. Called the Matrimandir, it looks like a giant, golden, slightly-squashed golf ball (Google "Auroville"), which, located as it is in the Tamil countryside of South India, can only be described as "incongruous." Do you know what's inside? Of course, non "Aurovillians" are not permitted to enter without special permission (by the way, they still haven't finished building this thing after 30 years), so I didn't see it myself, but I did see a video that shows the all-white, air-conditioned meditation chamber within where residents are invited to discover/explore their consciousness or something. The chamber is lit by a single shaft of sunlight that enters through an aperture in the ceiling and is diffused by the (world's largest?) crystal ball mounted in the center of the room. I can say, with all honesty, that I've never had so much fun since I went on a tour of the Mormon temple in New York City.

But please don't take my jibing too seriously, friends. I do find Auroville, its founder, and its inhabitants to be silly and deluded, but I also happen to believe in almost everything they are doing. Their construction practices and energy sources are ecological, they try to have sustainable lifestyles, and organic spirulina-lemon-honey shakes are widely available (oh God are they disgusting). I am not willing to "be the willing servitor of the Divine Consciousness" as mandated by the Auroville Charter, but I do believe the spiritual side is missing from most of our lives. I think the experience, for me, is akin to an experience in reality of something you've always dreamed about. When the dream becomes a reality, it is not exciting, but traumatizing. I am so glad someone spared me the trouble of going through this process myself, because I wanted to build my own city once, too ("Stevetown". I was 9.).

To join Auroville, you need a minumum of $35,000 in order to buy property for the city (you can't personally own it) and support yourself. Once a resident, you are not allowed to work for profit. The Mother decreed that the city would function without money, beyond the greed and striving of the capitalistic world. Nevertheless, you are expected to continue making regular financial contributions to the group cause for as long as you live there. So, to a certain extent, these people are full of s.

Tomorrow morning, I leave Sebastien and Pondy for Bangalore, whence I will take a train to the ancient ruined city of Hampi. I have found, my friends, that I don't properly belong in any visionary city of the future. Where I truly belong is in the cities of the past.

Violence in Tibet!

Please inform yourselves about this.

It could become a tragedy; it could be an opportunity.

In either case, I am very upset by it.

14 March 2008

Who wants to be my homecoming date?

It keeps raining here! It's not supposed to be doing that!

So, yesterday I also did very little. Last night, I had pizza for dinner. At the restaurant, I met some nice Austrians, and I've been hanging around with them a little. Tonight, we're going to go drink beer on the beach.

Today, I did very little. I finally got around to seeing the colonial architecture of Pondicherry and realized that, while it's pretty, I don't give a f*ck about colonial architecture. Especially when most of it's being restored into boutique hotels, where rich whites can safely intoxicate themselves away from prying eyes.

Mostly, I just want to keep drinking lattes.

There are SO many French people here. I feel very unsophisticated. The way they speak, they sound so nuanced. When the American opens his mouth, only harsh tones come out.

OK, since I can't fit anymore scalps from conquered enemies into my backpack, I am planning my triumphant return home. The cheapest flights I can find depart from London and Madrid, on or around July 30th or August 6th. So I have to pick a city and a date. If any of you, dear readers, are going to be in either place around either of those dates, let me know, and I may be able to meet you. Getting up to London may be some trouble, since I should be in Spain, but if I manage to find a free place to stay for a few days, I'd be happy to visit blighty again. I never did get to see the new Tate. Contact me ASAP!

Tomorrow, Auroville for sure.

12 March 2008

I Love Puducherry


OK, enough lame posts and off-color humor. Here's what's going on:

I arrived in Puducherry/Pondicherry two evenings ago, and met up with Sebastien, a Frenchman who works here (only a coincidence that Pondicherry used to be a French colony). He lives out near Auroville (about which more is forthcoming) and kindly indulged my request to couchsurf at his place. During my first day here, it rained! So I sat in a cafe all day drinking fancy coffees and doing my taxes. This morning, it started raining again, worrying me. You see, my friends, because I am a Master Planner, I organized my travel schedule around all the rainy seasons in the world I might happen to pass through, so that, it has only rained on my parade twice in the last seven months. But, my fears were unfounded, my ego assuaged, because the sun eventually did come out--with a vengeance. When it cools off, I guess I'll wander around Pondicherry's delightful French colonial neighborhood, trying to avoid the less delightful motorbikes and auto rickshaws swarming around the place, as everywhere else in India.

Do you see now why I resort to filler?

Love the 'stache

Women of India: do you really like those thick, dust-broom mustaches half the men here sport?

Governor Says He Will Now Focus on His Family

Actually, I think this is a shame. Spitzer may have been unwise fooling around with high-class hookers (that is, because he's a public figure, not because it's wrong), but I kind of liked the guy and his crusading spirit--a bright light in the dismal wastes of American democracy. It's unfortunate that, in America, this sort of behavior will not be condoned, as though private morality has some bearing on a public office, whether for a governor (of New Jersey or New York) or the President. Didn't Mandeville say that private vice is actually *good* for public virtue? I guess he didn't mean it in quite this way; then again, he *was* French.

What else in the news? In addition to Spitzer walking off the job, there is more news of walks. A group of Tibetans have recently set out from Dharamsala, India on a six month protest walk to Tibet, their arrival timed to the start of the Beijing Olympics. I am almost tempted to join them--not because I am such a Free Tibet supporter (I think it's a complicated issue), but because it's such a brilliant move. All those who were against the awarding of the games to China should be glad it's given the world, and Steven Spielberg, a chance to embarrass the hell out of the wretched Chinese government.

I read in Time magazine about a British guy who attempted to walk from Britain to India without any money, relying entirely on the kindness of strangers. He made it as far as Calais.

This brings to mind The Goliath Expedition, which I may have mentioned already: one man's attempt to walk from Patagonia to John O'Groats. I gather he's been stuck in Alaska for awhile, because the Russians won't grant him a visa (and because he can't figure out--I'm not joking--how to cross the Bering Strait on foot?). See http://goliath.mail2web.com/ for details.

Hey, wait a minute, this is a travel blog, not a news blog. Let me try again to post something travel-related...

11 March 2008

Erect in Conscious Integrity

I hadn't planned on visiting Madras at all--even Lonely Planet has negative things to say about it. But I had to pass through, so I thought I should give India's fourth-largest city (still about 6 million people) a chance. I'm glad I did, because I uncovered some gems. Overall, it's a fairly relaxed place by Indian standards, though still high octane compared to America. Allow me to proceed in reverse order, skipping unnecessary details.

Santhome Cathedral ballyhoos itself as being only one of three churches in the world built atop the tomb of an apostle of Jesus Christ (one free samosa if you can name the other two)--in this case, St. Thomas. You may know him from the cliche "doubting Thomas" (as in, don't be one). St. Thomas, after sticking his fingers into Christ's resurrected kidneys (eww), came to India to preach and whatnot. He ended up in Madras, or whatever it was called before it actually existed, and--wait for it--was martyred. Believe it? I don't! But I've already visited one other tomb-church, and I plan to visit the third this summer (oops! hint! make that half a samosa!), and soon I'll be able to say I visited the only three churches in the world built atop the tombs of apostles of Jesus Christ (applause). And I didn't even know it was here! I love it.

Just before that, I visited a colorful Dravidian-style temple, its main tower a riotous, tapered display of festive figures (in procession, like Trajan's Column, but in Technicolor 3-D). I had to take off my shoes to go inside, was overcharged for storing them, and filthified my socks before learning, I should I have known, that non-Hindus are barred from the inner sanctum. At least I dodged that woman who tried to put a garland of flowers around my head! Nice try, begum!

Near the Hindu temple was a Jain temple, my first. It was so beautiful! Ah! And all in white marble. And I was allowed inside! And I didn't have to pay to leave my shoes! Jains rule.

Finally, or firstly, I stopped at the Raj-era Fort St. George to see if there's anything interesting there. Guess what? No! But! I also stopped, within, at St. Mary's Church, which ballyhoos itself as the oldest Anglican church east of the Suez. Huzzah! Completed in 1680, the church itself is nothing spectacular, but inside I found what I intend to be the model for my own epitaph:

To the memory of JOSIAH WEBBE, Esquire.
For many years Chief Secretary to the Government of Madras
and afterwards resident at the court of Scindia, where he died
the 9th of November 1804, aged 37 years.
His mind, by nature firm, lofty, energetic, was formed by classic study
to a tone of independence and patriotism not unworthy
the best days of Greece and Rome.
Disdaining the little arts of private influence or vulgar popularity
and erect in conscious integrity, he rested his claims to
public honours on public merit.
An extensive knowledge of the Eastern languages forwarded his
rise to stations of high trust, where his ambition was fired to
exalt the honour and interests of his country.
But in the midst of a career thus useful and distinguished
preferring the public weal to personal safety,
he fell a martyr to an ungenial climate in the prime of life
beloved with fervour by his friends
particularly lamented by the governors of India.
Admired and regretted by all.

To his public and private virtues this monument is
dedicated by his friends.

I, too, aspire to rise to stations of high trust, erect in conscious integrity. Executors, please maintain the British 'u' spellings in my version. Also, replace "Madras" with "the Celestial Spheres", "Scindia" with "Cthulhu", and "India" with "the Multiverse."

Now, as if that weren't enough, some of you privileged bastards who went to Yale may know that your university was originally named after an otherwise obscure British merchant who sent over a box of random crap to New Haven when its college's Puritan founders begged for someone to make a bequest. In a corner of St. Mary's, I discovered *this* plaque:

Commemorating the 250th anniversary of the naming of Yale College in honor of Elihu Yale, Governor of Fort St. George 1687-1692 and vestryman and treasurer of St. Mary's Church, the classmates of Chester Bowles, Yale 1924, American ambassador to India, have made donations for lasting improvements in this church.

October 6, 1968

Lux et Veritas

So there you have it. Proof that people in the US once actually had names like "Chester Bowles."

The church must be proud of this Yale connection, because next to the plaque is a glass case full of Elihu memorabilia, like the wedding register in which his name is inscribed and a photo of his tombstone in Wrexham, Wales. This poem appears on the tomb:

Born in America, in Europe bred
In Africa travell'd and in Asia wed
Where long he liv'd and thriv'd; In London dead
Much good, some ill, he did; so hope all's even
And that his soul thro' mercy's gone to Heaven
You that survive and read this tale, take care
For this most certain exit to prepare
Where blest in peace, the actions of the just
Smell sweet and blossom in silent dust.

This is an example of the kind of epitaph I do NOT want.

I was quite surprised to learn that Mr. Yale made it all the way to India and ruled the fort at Madras. Here is a precis on his governance from Wikipedia:

"As governor of Fort St. George, Yale purchased territory for private purposes with East India Company funds, including a fort atTevnapatam (now Cuddalore ). Yale imposed high taxes for the maintenance of the colonial garrison and town, resulting in an unpopular regime and several revolts by Indians, brutally quelled by garrison soldiers. Yale was also notorious for arresting and trying Indians on his own private authority, including the hanging of a stable boy who had absconded with a Company horse."

I'm glad that Yale's contemporary graduates are maintaining the fine traditions and example set by its namesake benefactor.

Since I'm doing amusing-out-of-context quotes today, I will close with a complaint of John Adams, Founding Father of the United States and our second President, on the predominant notoriety of Benjamin Franklin and George Washington, found in a book I recently finished, "The Americanization of Benjamin Franklin" by Gordon Wood:

"The history of our Revolution will be one continued Lye from one end to the other. The essence of the whole will be that Dr. Franklin's electrical Rod, smote the Earth and out sprung General Washington. That Franklin electrified him with his rod--and thence forward these two conducted all the Policy, Negotiations, Legislatures and War."

Zing! I'll bet even Alexander Hamilton got a chuckle out of that one.

Stupid White Women

Hey Dad, when I was 15, would you have left me alone for two weeks in a third world country, in a part of that country that is especially known for the free availability of drugs and alcohol, for having lax and corrupt law enforcement, and that has a reputation for posing risks to foreigners?

10 March 2008

A Confession


Yesterday, I was fortunate to enjoy a most excellent outing to Chilika Lake with my new friends, Takao and Tomo. We saw loads of dolphins, ate fresh tiger prawns on the beach, and practiced each others' languages--naturally, I taught them mostly profanity. The Japanese continue to seduce me, even so far away, with their generosity of heart and kindness of spirit. That same evening, I had to depart Puri. This evening, after another 20+ hour train journey on the Coromandel Express, I arrived in Madras. Actually, the city is now called Chennai, but I hate that name. It sounds like food. I feel justified in my disdain, having met a young Indian guy who himself finds most of the name changes objectionable, his particular scorn reserved for "Bengaluru", Bangalore's new name, which he considers "pathetic." I decided to treat myself to a nice hotel tonight, for just one night--it cost almost $20! To my astonishment, the room still doesn't include A/C, but it does have a TV, on which I randomly stumbled on the George C. Scott movie, "The Hospital", which I've never seen, but maybe he won an Oscar for it? I don't plan to stay here long. Tomorrow, I will finally reach Pondicherry, now called "Puducherry"--I don't even want to say what *that* sounds like.

My Confession

I hate having to go through with this, friends, but when I started this blog project lo so many moons ago, I believe I made a commitment to tell you the truth (more or less) about what I'm doing and, more importantly, what I'm thinking. And tonight, after doping myself on more allergy medications than any reasonable doctor would prescribe, I have been confronted with an infelicitous truth: I don't think I can enjoy India.

No! It cannot be!

I'm sorry, but I realized this only a moment ago--really--and I happened to be next to an Internet cafe, so you're getting breaking news straight from my heart. Earlier today, I decided that India is probably the best country in the world in which to travel independently. Here, you can find the perfect balance between what it is possible to do and what is challenging to get accomplished. Southeast Asia, by contrast, is too easy. You don't even have to think to travel there. The Middle East, on the other hand, is altogether more difficult--I had to learn Arabic, and the hassle is infinitely greater. In India, however, there is hardly the sense that tourists are being catered to. Remember, I travel outside the bounds of guided tours, five star hotel chains, and international quality service. India is built for Indians. Things usually work pretty well, too, even if they can go monstrously wrong. I don't think America, at least, does much better (witness NJ Transit and its lesser disaster, Hurricane Katrina). Anyway, you have to negotiate within the system as it exists. This is often challenging, but it's the sort of challenge most travelers enjoy. I've often said that independent travel is a form of problem solving. The more you do it, the better you get at handling all sorts of complicated situations, especially those with a high degree of miscommunication involved.


I have just realized, I have just come to accept the fact that I just don't trust anybody here (except Kajori and Ananda--I miss you guys!). I've had this problem before: in Egypt, especially. But I was only in Egypt for about six weeks, and by the time my rage-o-meter went red, it was time to go home. This time, however, I'm way past the six week mark if you include the entire subcontinent, and I still have an indeterminate number of weeks to go. Now, I realize what I'm saying is heresy, because everyone loves or is supposed to love India. Secretly, I think the India-lover backpackers only love what they permit inside the highly-protected shell we all walk around with. So the India they love is a highly selective version of India. And I don't hate India by any means. But I don't think I can go on enjoying it for such a length of time if I must constantly be subjected to so many unsolicited solicitations. Every time I walk out of a train station or hotel or, really, any type of building whatsoever (and sometimes there isn't a building so basically every time I walk or even stand still), I have to deal with a whole tribe of people who want to help me. Sometimes, their offers are no doubt genuine. But in any case, they are always overbearing. They won't leave me alone; they won't stop following me, or talking to me; they don't understand English, but think they do, so they say "yes" to everything I say or talk so fast I can't get a word in. And sometimes people are rude. They talk loudly on their cell phones on a night train; they shove you out of the way on the street; they drive like total a**holes, they squeeze five more people onto a seat than can reasonably fit; they read over your shoulder or just take your book; they cut right in front of you when you're in line, even if you're at the ticket window or counter, even if you're talking to the ticket agent, EVEN IF YOU'RE IN THE PROCESS OF ACTUALLY HANDING THE TICKET AGENT MONEY--and, get this, the ticket agent will often take their money and ignore you until you start becoming as rude and pushy as everyone else! I don't want this to turn into a complaint, though. This is just to give you a flavor of my daily frustrations, compounded, I think, by the sheer number of people here (I'm still a country boy at heart) and the increasing heat. What, of these things, couldn't be said about so many other countries? I don't know. I'm just saying it now, about India, because that's where I am, man.

There are plenty of positive things I could say, too--far more than there are negative things, I reckon. But the experience in general is of an intensity that I find draining, on all fronts, and I don't know how much more I can put up with it. I'm a seasoned traveler, so I can probably suffer forever like this. But tonight is the first time I've questioned whether I really want to. I went into a bar for a glass of solace but turned away again when I saw that the entire clientele were men. I wasn't looking to score, but I find roomfuls of drinking men sort of weird. Mixed crowds at bars may not be on so much in India.

I fully intend and expect to refute everything I've said here sometime in the next few weeks. To be fair, I've only scratched the surface of this multifarious country, and tonight's confession, I think, along with my maligning of the hippies, is merely the product of stress and being in a rather pissy mood at the time of writing. I'm not in a pissy mood right now, but I am fatigued by the thought of waking up to another day in a place where everyone seems to want something from me and is desperate to get it.

Thank god for chai. It makes all the difference.

08 March 2008

In Defense of Hippies

Friends, I have to apologize for my drunken rant last night against the good folks in funny colors. I believe that the combined effects of heat, alcohol, travel-weariness, and having to listen to hippies speak for so long have partially damaged my brain. I don't know if you will accept these mitigating circumstances, especially if you are yourself a hippie, but, at least in that case, I find comfort in knowing you will soon enough forget my transgression. Peace.

Did you know that in Hell, people say, "Man, it's hot as India down here!"

Where was I? I think I said that Veer Bhadra Mishra invited me to volunteer in Varanasi, but, to be honest, as much as I might like to jump at this opportunity, Varanasi is stinky, and I don't think I want to spend a month there. I may change my mind, however, as planning a trip around India is exhausting me. I have considered a number of alternatives, but everything takes so much time. If I want to see one tenth of this country, I'll have to give up going to Yemen. And what about that yoga I planned to do in Rishikesh? Is a week even worth it? What length of time *is* worth it? I don't know! Help me, people! Maybe I'll just have to create another poll. But seriously, I am at a loss. And it is so hot. So hot. So so so hot.

After the train ride, I drank beer.. yeah I did mention that. Ok, next day (today) I went over to the Jagannath Temple, which I was not allowed to enter, being non-Hindu. In compensation, the library across the street was kind enough to extort 100 Rs. out of me for a shitty view of nothing from its roof. Why did I want to go to this temple, out of the 1.5 billion temples in India? And don't you hate rhetorical questions? Basically, Jagannath is the origin of the English word "juggernaut." That's it. I can't even convince myself there's another reason. Once a year, they do in fact wheel a juggernaut through the streets of Puri, but not any time soon. I think I read about the juggernaut in Joseph Campbell's "The Hero with a Thousand Faces." If anyone can think of a better reason to visit a place, I challenge you to come up with one. Afterward, I took a bus into the countryside to visit World Heritage Konark, site of the truly impressive Sun Temple. Really, it is very impressive. The temple itself is massive and every inch is carved, mostly with erotic images, and I felt weird leering at them with all the middle-aged Indian men. More impressively, there are 24 giant stone wheels attached to the temple, because the temple is actually a chariot--the chariot of the sun god--pulled by seven stone horses. In one word: awesome.

Returning to Puri, I ran into a Japanese couple I'd met the previous night while writing my diatribe against those-who-do-not-shower in the Internet cafe. We got to chatting, and I mentioned that I was not so seriously thinking about going to a nearby lake--Chilika Lake--tomorrow. Chilika Lake is Asia's largest brackish lagoon. Want to go? The Japanese did! So I thought, WTF. It's only 110 Rs. though I expect better value than I got at the library. Tomorrow evening, I am off to Madras, another 20+ hour train journey. I reckon I'll have to modify my future plans a great deal, and I've been frantically flipping through my LP all day trying to make the tough choices. So far: impasse. Think of me, my friends, no matter how bad my attitude, how intransigent my unwillingness to accept the hippies and their message of love and drugs. Think of me, and pray for me. Pray that I survive this journey, but, most of all, pray that I survive myself.

07 March 2008

Puri Express

Kajori and Ananda warned me that trains in India are often delayed, and they were right. Varanasi to Puri, already a 21 hour journey, delayed 5 hours. I didn't care. Mughal Serai station had a nice snack bar, and I sat there chatting the whole time with a 24 year old Indian guy who'd done IT in Silicon Valley and who had far too much advice and quite strong opinions for a 24 year old, I told him. Nice guy. I liked him. By the way, right now, I'm drunk. I thought it would be interesting to drunk-post.

I met Veer Bhadra Mishra again in Varanasi. He is also known as Mahanji since he is, in addition to being a professor of hydraulic engineering, a spiritual leader. He filled me on the status of the Ganga. Status: bad. Not much has happened since that Alexander Stille piece. Government incompetence and so forth. Shame. Mananji is a fascinating guy, though. I felt drawn to him somewhat. And there was the possibility that I could stay on there, for months, as a volunteer. Should I do that? I don't know. I can't decide now what I should do in India, with the rest of my trip. Study yoga, volunteer for some hopeless cause, get the hell out.. I don't know. Help me.

One of the interesting/frustrating/difficult parts of travel is constantly landing in different countries with different languages and alphabets to learn. India's even worse because every state has a different language and a different alphabet. Now I'm in Orissa, and the writing is all different again, not like Hindi, which I can't read anyway, but whatever the rickshaw drivers are the same--which is to say, the culture of extortion is universal no matter the language. But Puri seems nice.

There are lots of hippies here. There were in Varanasi, too. Ok, I am quite drunk. I went to a restaurant, and the only other customer was a Japanese woman from Shizuoka, so I sat with her and got drunk. Then she left for Kolkata, so I finished her beer (Kingfisher Strong) and got more drunk. So now I can say, without mincing words, that I HATE HIPPIES. Sorry, I know some of you readers are hippies, and I am sure I don't hate you, because you are probably sincere hippies, like me, even though I don't wear the stupid clothing. But the ones who travel around seeking enlightenment and the stupidest clothing possible: I hate you. Why? I try not to hate anyone, of course, because Buddha wouldn't like it, but I think the hippies are just middle-class show-offs who dress like they do something meaningful with their lives (like the show-off sadhus who are almost as bad) but who really do nothing except dread-lock their hair and terrorize other people with their feckless opinions. The guys, especially, piss me off, because I think they're just acting like magical sex objects (Google: "wizard of New Zealand") while pretending to be acting the part of something more profound they don't understand--not something one ought casually to be doing; you certainly won't find any Indians acting this way (unless they're trying to make money off the idiot hippies who think they can fish spirituality out of the Ganges). And these guys are easy marks. They may wear clown pants, tattoos, and way too many piercings; they may walk around with their hands clasped in prayer; but they still shout at the beggars and the touts and the kids selling candles to leave them alone--to their bliss, presumably. Everyone else wears blue jeans. Yes, the Indians don't even notice these pretensions, which means they don't respect them, these pretensions to be on some kind of quest or whatever. No matter what we do, we are foreigners and from foreigners they can make money. That's it.

Now I feel better. My anger has been extirpated for the moment. I just spent 24 hours on a train, remember, and, by the way, the AC induced a massive allergy attack which lasted the whole time, made all the worse because everyone was staring at me the whole time. But it still wasn't a bad ride. I have a similar one coming up in a few days, when I go to Madras.

India, India, India. What a lie, this name India. India has everything, I think. It contains everything. Everything you can imagine! From one end of all spectrums to the other. And is there another country that still produces philosophies the way India does? Or politics? These are dead letters back home. Subjects of, at best, archaeology. Sigh. I can't continue this pointless screed, because the cafe manager told me they're closing, but I'd be a coward not to just go ahead and publish it anyway. In the coming days, I'll tell you more about temples. I promise.

05 March 2008

What I saw in Varanasi

I saw men carrying body after body to the Ganges to be burned, each sprinkled with little, orange flowers and draped in gold-embossed shrouds.

I saw the corpse of a small child, bloated and floating face down in the river.

I saw people washing their clothes and washing themselves in the same water, sharing it with cows, the scattered remains of cremations, and all the junk of civilization.

I saw boats crammed to capacity with tourists bewildered, enchanted, and taking photos of everything.

I saw a train station carpeted with people inside, outside, on the platforms, along the rails--everywhere.

I saw a tall white guy with a ponytail, glasses, sophisticated mien, and red Fremont T-shirt.

I saw the most colorfully-dressed women in the world laying out on the ghats to dry the most colorful laundry in the world.

I saw a man crouched over the edge of a step, defecating without shame, in daylight, in the open and full view, though his back was to the river, in which he wiped himself--with his right hand.

I saw children playing games with discarded tires, swimming with livestock, and laughing about everything.

I saw two dogs on the riverbank ravaging a dead body wrapped in a white bag, one dog using his front paw to hold it in place while it tore off a pinkish limb.

I crossed the Ganges over a rickety bridge made of floating pontoons.

I saw men building a giant Shiva symbol out of small candles argue about the best way to light them. Then, I saw it lit.

I saw the Shivaratra festival, or all the individual celebrations and public devotions which comprise it, which I hadn't even known was on.

I saw a performance of classical Indian music. The singer bobbed his head, gesticulated wildly, and shook his head thoughtfully, as though singing were only an afterthought to his private meditations. Later, on the ghats, I ran across another one.

I met Veer Bhadra Mishra, a professor who is trying to save the Ganges River, and about whom I read and taught using Rutgers' New Humanities Reader. He was surprised that Alexander Stille included an article about him in a book and asked me to get him a copy.

At Sarnath, I saw a giant, ruined stupa that marks the spot where the Buddha preached his first sermon after achieving Enlightenment in Bodhgaya. I also saw the most impressive Tibetan temple I've encountered outside Tibet.

I found an upscale, Japanese-style cafe and restaurant in the rather unsalubrious backstreets of the city behind the ghats. I had tempura udon. As a Shivaratra special, for every 100 rupees you spent, they allowed patrons to roll two dice. Doubles won a T-shirt. I won.

I saw candles, incense, flowers, colored powder, and offerings. Everywhere.

I saw enormous crowds rushing into the water and enormous crowds huddled together on one ghat while neighboring ghats were empty.

I saw holy men.

I saw more dread-locked hair than I've ever seen before in one place.

I saw more garbage, shit, and beggars than I've ever seen before in one place.

I saw a beautiful, ancient city struggling for space with the ugly, modern city superimposed on top of it. I saw a vibrant people, both ancient and modern, struggling for the same.

01 March 2008

In the Footsteps of... the Buddha.

After more hospitality than would have merited a thousand lifetimes of right acting, I departed Kolkata last night, without ever having seen the Victoria Memorial, and am now in Bodhgaya. My first rail journey in India came off unepisodically (辞書を作ってください!), and I look forward to many more (naturally I do, because I'm not part of that unenviable, in fact pitiable, scrum of humanity loaded into the steerage compartments, restlessly milling about, wriggling in hunger and agitation like insects under a recently lifted rock). As I mentioned, Bodhgaya is the site of Mr. Gautama's enlightenment under a bodhi tree. Said tree, or at least an offshoot of it, like the Burning Bush I saw betimes in Sinai, still grows on the exact spot--the Ground Zero of universal peace and salvation you might say. Do you believe it? I don't! But who cares? Bodhgaya is a wonderful little town, more navigable than Lumbini certainly, that latter's sites spread over an impressively large chunk of Terai under an oppressively hot Terai sun. It's still hot here, and I didn't have too many hours to sleep on the train, so unlike the other whites at the main temple, I did not submit myself to any devotions, devoting myself instead to walking in circles, lazily checking out the girls, and staring intently into the middle distance. I believe, however, that I am closer to the true intention of Buddhism than the others.

What else of note? I ate okanomiyaki for lunch, which is a yummy Japanese omelette sort of thing. My Japanese friends and fellow expats, and ex-expats like me, will know just how yummy it is. I believe the hottest part of the day has passed, and I may now venture outside again.


これを見た人の中には英語の練習にも使っている人がいます。もっと難しい文法を書くつもりです。なぜなら僕は友人にペラペラになってほしいからです。ほんとに、なって欲しいんですよ!じゃあ、僕はチャレンジを作らなければならないのです。もちろん皆さんはこれに"ありがとうございます!"と言います。知っています。友達たちさん、問題ない!僕の英語の書き方や文章は読むには難しいものだと分かっています。多分僕の日本語の書き方も分かりづらいと思いますけど、僕も言語の練習がしたいです。OK です。十分です。じゃあ、これで日本語は終わります。