30 April 2008

The Frankincense Trail to the Yemen

If I won't be doing a Road to Damascus post, the Frankincense Trail will have to suffice. And I'm not making it up, either--after the Silk Road (check), the incense trail through South Arabia is the next most famousest. Sad to say, it's a bit boring. The destinations, however, more than make up for it. So jump on your camel, beg Allah's mercy, and join me as we travel 3000 km from Muscat to Sana'a...

After the red deserts of Dubai and the craggy crags around Muscat, I was hoping for some "killer" scenery on the 12 hour bus trip to Salalah. I wasn't disappointed--the entire thousand-plus kilometer journey was through one of the flattest, bleakest, deadly-hottest deserts I've ever seen (and I've seen, basically, them all). One passenger literally melted when we got off at the lunch stop. His ticket was refunded to his family (company policy). Salalah, I am told, is the place to be in Arabia in July, when a light monsoon blows over from India to make the place as green and misty as England (and boy do they love it there!). April, one of the best months everywhere else on Earth, is not in. The only notable thing that happened was a nice shopkeeper asking me, incredulous, why I was going to Yemen. Didn't I hear about the recent fighting/bombings in Ma'reb (on my route)? Just like the US State Department's travel advisory warning Americans against all non-essential travel to Yemen, however, I brushed his concerns aside (just to be clear, all my travel is essential thank you). When I asked him, "What is Yemen like?" he said first that Oman is better and second that it's totally different, for example, it's poor and dirty and some of the taxis don't even have doors! Hearing this, I knew which country I was going to prefer.

I woke up at 5 am for the second day in a row (feel the impact, readers) to board the second leg bus to Seiyun, Yemen. Like the first bus, it was frigid when I boarded, but at midday, they turned down the A/C, making most of the journey sweaty and uncomfortable. Why? At the border post, the true differences between rich and poor Arabia became immediately clear. Pristine conditions on the Oman side. A truck waiting to give the strung-out Yemenis their qat fix (more later) on the decrepit Yemen side (I changed my money in a shack-shop thing). Still, the Yemeni officials were the nicest I've ever met--far more considerate than the British customs officer who wondered, aloud, why the hell I and all the other Americans felt it necessary to celebrate the millennium in London. I think he would benefit from sensitivity training. In Yemen. Also--and I am a connoisseur of such things--the Yemeni visa sticker is the most gorgeous there is, bar none; it's big, it's green, it's got a shiny star as a security device: it clearly eats up 10% of their national budget, easy. Armed once again with my overpriced permission to cross the frontier, we proceeded through another deadly and deadening landscape to Wadi Hadramawt. Remember that a wadi is like a canyon, or, more accurately, a dry river bed. Hadramawt is a big, complex on and looks like a fjord, just in the middle of a desert. Much of this wadi's floor is under cultivation, so there were some splashes of color to break the monotony of beige as we decended into it: mostly date palms, crop fields, and female goatherds dressed all in black but with a distinctive high, straw hat. They looked like the mage character from Final Fantasy. There's something else you should know about Wadi Hadramawt: IT'S ONE OF THE MOST SPECTACULAR PLACES ON EARTH. Did you hear that?

Muslim countries are not as popular among backpackers as the Buddhist, Christian, or even the whatever-the-hell-India-is ones. Alcohol can be difficult to find, beach parties (and beaches... and parties) are typically nonexistent, and--this is the deal breaker for the guys--you can't run around boning everything that moves. But it's too bad more of them don't suffer these hardships, because there is much to appreciate in these dry (and dry) places. Of all the countries I've been to, Yemen is so far the closest to that imaginary land of authenticity where everyone is still authentic for which (mostly annoying) travelers are often looking. The people are more tribal than nationalistic, the men still wear huge ceremonial blades in their belts (which stick up from them exactly like an erection so I'm not even sure it's "symbolic" at this point), mud brick is the construction material of choice, and the women dress like ninjas. It's also got authentic tribal violence committed sporadically by authentic warlords who authentically don't want to be ruled over by the state and who sometimes authentically kill foreigners because, like the xenophobic people of most authentic societies, they authentically hate them. In many ways, it's the Mexico of Arabia (or the Bolivia, given all the qat chewing), except for the aforementioned lack of alcohol, beach parties, and the walking bonable. It is definitely poor. It is definitely dirty. It is definitely cheap. It is definitely chaotic. And I definitely felt at home right away.

Back to Wadi Hadramawt. I wish I had weeks! Realistically, it's just too hot to enjoy at the moment, but I am eager to return in "winter" when it's bearable. Even at 110 degrees F, though, it is just a wonderful place--like another world. The wadi itself is huge--its rocky tendrils reach and fan out for hundreds of kilometers into the high plateau that stretches all the way from the Empty Quarter to the coast. The settlements are almost invariably comprised of mud-brick apartment buildings. Big ones. Bigger ones than there should be. It sometimes looked like the Lower East Side of Manhattan, except in the desert and much, much dirti... er... cleaner. Seiyun, the Wadi's city, has plenty of these, too, and also a lovely, white Sultan's palace (former Sultan--Yemen is presently the Arabian peninsula's only democracy) that shines against the night sky in a way that reminded me instantly of the Potala Palace in Lhasa. My principal reason for stopping at Seiyun was to visit Shibam, a UNESCO mini-city of tall mud-brick apartment blocks, many incredibly reaching 8-10 stories or more and most centuries old. It was so incredible, in fact, I actually took photos. Three.

The final leg of my journey to Sana'a (I never actually bought frankincense, by the way, or myrrh) was to be yet another 12 hour bus marathon across harsh and unforgiving landscapes. This time, however, harsh and unforgiving tribal militants would be thrown in for added excitement. Most of the time, this route is closed to foreigners, so the travel gods were smiling on me (or, uh, not) that I was allowed to go. I had to get a permit, though, and ten copies of it to hand over at the innumerable (OK, ten) checkpoints along the way. Naturally, I chose the night bus. We were never stopped, a video of my post-kidnapping decapitation was not uploaded to YouTube, and I still have all those damn permit copies. Yemen dangerous? Pfft.

I arrived in Sana'a at 4:30 am. I sat and drank tea until six, which I deemed a proper enough time to contact my local Couchsurfing host... who never answered his phone, not even three hours later. So. I hoofed it. Sana'a is reputed, like Damascus and Varanasi and who knows where else, to be the oldest city in the world. Legend says, and this is the trump, that it was founded by Shem! Like, Shem the son of Noah Shem! Can't beat that! Unlike its rival claimants, too, it still looks like an ancient city. As in the wadi, most of the buildings in Old Sana'a are tall, mudbrick apartment blocks (or family houses, actually). Here, though, they are decorated to look exactly like gingerbread houses. The foundations are stone, and these are the really old bits (at least a thousand years give or take a millennium). Higher stories rise in brick... and rise, and rise. Imagine that, imagine 14,000 of these magical ancient buildings together, really, and you may have some inkling of what Sana'a is like. It's hard to believe such a place exists on Earth. I'm here right now, and I still don't believe it.

Anyway, from six in the morning until about nine, I wandered--with my big backpack--around and among and betwixt just about all of these gingerbread houses on steroids looking for a hotel. This was no problem, because Sana'a is higher than 2000 meters and the mornings are chilly. I was somewhat taken aback that I couldn't find a hotel, though. Delightfully taken aback in a way, but I did want to dump my bag somewhere, and I sure had that post-12 hour bus trip through the desert at night, really want to take a shower feeling going. Finally, defeated, I climbed to the top of one of the more expensive options I *did* find, to the cafe, and found sitting there my savior: a Japanese man with a copy of the Lonely Planet pages for Sana'a. We chatted amicably, I told him about the insane Japanese guy I inevitably discovered was traveling across Yemen by bicycle, and he was only too happy to let me copy them for myself. He even directed me to the cheapest hotel in town (the usual Japanese flophouse that seems to exist in every city on Earth) that was not listed in the increasingly upmarket and disappointing LP. Who ever said I was wasting my time learning their ridiculous language? Miraculously (oh ye travel gods!), the hotel itself had a copier and even--gulp--did it for me for free! Tourism has not taken hold here, people.

Much of the rest of the day I spent weaving in and out and around and among and betwixt the buildings of Old Sana'a some more. For lunch, I ventured to try the "must-try" local specialty: salta. Not just a city in northern Argentina, salta is a spicy stew that you eat by scooping it up with torn pieces of naan-like flatbread. I don't know exactly what went into my stew, but I know it had emotions, so chalk yet another beast up to my international culinary experimentations. Must-try my ass, by the way, though the guys who ate it with me apparently paid for it, too. What nice people, these Yemenis, when they aren't engaging in communal violence!

Following my salta feast, I wandered some more and eventually decided to visit a museum I'd read about, one of the ancient houses opened to let tourists see how beautiful they are on the inside, too. This is when my luck took a decided turn... for the even more amazing. Even as I walked into the third floor family room, a Yemeni woman (whose face, bizarrely, was showing), greeted me. Startled, I looked around a bit, then came back and wondered if her brothers were waiting in the next room to stone me if I answered her. In the end, they didn't stone me, shoot me in a stadium, or set me on fire, because they weren't even there! They were a figment of my imagination! So I did end up talking after all to a Yemeni woman (my first conversation with any Arab woman anywhere, I think), and she eventually invited me upstairs (like, way way upstairs) to another diwan (great view) where she and a few of her colleagues were gathering to talk and chew qat. Even her hair made an appearance at this point. Totally certain that I was being set up for an honor killing, Nawal put me at ease by shoving qat into my mouth. OK, now we get to the part of this post where I tell you what "qat" is. Well, it's a leaf. And the Yemenis spend most of their lives chewing it (hence the depressed economy--qat is illegal everywhere else in the world, for the most part, though strangely not the UK). I guess it's some kind of very mild drug, but I can't tell you what the effects are because I didn't feel any. But this was another must-try thing in Yemen, so I gave it my best, even though I almost choked at the first, bitterest-of-bitter taste and never got the hang of storing the wad in my cheek without swallowing it. I swallowed leaf, stem, juice and all but at least figured I'd earn a better high for my ineptness. No such luck. But we ended up chewing for hours, they for far more hours than I could certainly tolerate. We were there so long, I heard the Muslim call to prayer from the neighboring mosque twice. I think they're still there. I left when I finally got bored of not being able to understand Arabic. But I left with an entire Sana'a social network. If I ever come back here for language study, and I am seriously considering this (note the now-defunct poll results agree), I already have people to practice and hang out with. And on the top foor of that really cool rich person's traditional six hundred year old house. Really, I want to know: how do I do it? I sure don't think I deserve having these things happen to me. Right place, right time? Down to the second?

Pity that North and South Yemen reunified in 1990 (you heard, right??), otherwise I'd have gotten credit for visiting two remarkable countries instead of just one. Ongoing civil unrest ensures that I've still got a shot, though. My only question is, will it count if I was there when they were still unified? Ditto all those breakaway provinces in Armenia and Georgia: unofficial, non-recognized nation states, here I come!

26 April 2008

Arabian Nights

Sometimes I wonder why, and if, anyone is still reading my blog. My journeys are often uncomfortable and tedious--to describe as well as live through; I frequently resort to crude and offensive language either to add color to my little anecdotes or simply to vent off pent-up frustrations; and I have an alarming tendency to keep you, my dear readers, whose attention I ought to covet and sensibility to respect, informed as to the precise condition of my bowels (speaking of which, I am happy to report that the consistency of my excreta has jumped up a notch from soupy to chunky). Surely you would have a better time watching the Travel Channel (or even the Weather Channel) or possibly darning your docks. And yet, for as long as you remain faithful to me, I shall ever do likewise. And now, on to the show...

Arabian nights, like Arabian days, more often than not really are hotter than hot, but I'm not sure in what good ways. Muscat, which name reminds me of a dessert wine, is not really a city per se but more like a region with lots of little enclaves packed into the canyons, or "waids", that dominate the terrain of this part of Oman. The architectural guidelines ensure that all the enclaves are uniformly bland and cute: all the buildings are low-rise, painted white, and have some kind of Arabesque detailing. The only way around the enclaves, some of them genuinely historical, is by taxi. This is expensive, so I only really did it today. For the same reason, I've only really been eating falafel, which is universally available. Muscat does have a nice "corniche" which every coastal Arab city I've been to has. There are enormous cruise ships and oil tankers parked in this one. Naturally, there's a souvenir souk, too. The older part of town is dominated by a genuine Sultan's palace (the Omanis love him and the oil checks he sends them, but word on the street is that the heirless Sultan is fabulous). But ho-hum, what I actually did today was take a taxi to the old city, wander around, wander into the wrong museum (of French-Oman relations--boy do I not give a rat's f*cking ass about that!), take another cab to the corniche, where the cab driver refused to take any money because I wouldn't give him 200 baisa instead of 100 (he is not aware that backpackers like myself have no honor), find the right museum, fail to gain admittance because of the afternoon siesta, walk defeated through the scorching Arabian sun through the dusty, traffic-filled wadi to the CBD enclave, buy myself bus tickets onward through to Seiyun, Yemen, get another taxi to the Oman Museum in Qurm (closed!) and then to the Embassy of Yemen (closed!) and then back to Susan's place (I have the key!). I offered the cabbie 3 rial for his pains--it took us awhile to find the places I wanted to go because a) he doesn't speak English, b) my Arabic has atrophied into non-existence, and c) he didn't know where anything is--but he wanted an outrageous 5 (remember that a rial is $2.60, not a currency with which to be trifled). I told him I'm a poor student with no money, so he said OK 4 rial. I said how about 3.50? He said No, 4 rial last price. I reached into my pocket, past all the big notes, and slowly picked out, one at a time, 3.80 rial worth of small change. OK? Sheepishly. OK. Haha. Still got it.

Moving back in time, yesterday was Super Susan's day off, and she superly volunteered to drive me into the Omani mountains, up to the traditional capital of Nizwa, where we intended to visit the famous Nizwa fort, which was closed. Friday is the weekend here, but it's also a holy day, but it's also the day people can go see stuff, but they still close stuff early. How annoying! But I saw another highly-remodeled expensive Omani souk. I bought a falooda. There was a cute Taiwanese girl there, too, starring in a TV program of some sort. We drove over to Bahla next to check out the (closed) UNESCO castle. Then further into the awesomely-beautiful mountains to see some also UNESCO-listed beehive-shaped rock tomb things. Open, but not exactly Machu Picchu. In the evening, we went drinkin' at the Hyatt (thanks for the drink, Susan! I can't afford $10 beers!), but Susan didn't like the cover band, and I spent most of the time watching professional wrestling on the TV and secretly glancing at all the Filipina prostitutes, so we left early. This morning, before she went to work, she brought me over to the Grand Mosque (usually closed so I finally got one right) to see the world's largest carpet. It's pretty damn big, people. Like 100 feet x 100 feet (I don't feel like looking it up) and inside one of the more ridiculously opulent mosques I've seen in my short little life. It's the only mosque I'll be seeing in Arabia, since the rest in Oman and all of them in Yemen are closed to non-Muslims. I've developed an appreciation for mosques, not as religious institutions (could care almost less than French-Oman relations) but as parts of urban fabric. Since they're always pointed toward Mecca, they're often out of alignment with their surroundings. Slightly ajar or tilted, they introduce a nice modicum of dissonance into rigid streetscapes. Extra, "useless" land seems to result, grassy, landscaped bits sometimes, and these become de facto plazas or parks or meeting areas. I think it's a sweet effect. Or unintended consequence? To use popular jargon. And now we've come full circle.

Since my toilet time has finally regularized again, I'll be leaving Muscat tomorrow morning. First stop, Salalah (lalalala), after a 10-12 hour slog through nothingness. The following day, I enter Yemen during another 10-12 hour slog but hopefully through more attractive scenery. And hopefully the Yemenis will let me into their country, too. The visa should be no problem, but the security situation is always changing, and I don't have any of the required permits you're supposed to have with many photocopies of to make, as a foreigner, any of these journeys into the heart of Arabia. But I have my smile. And all of you should know how effective that is. Roadblocks beware!

If the smile doesn't work, I also have money.

23 April 2008

Oh, man!

In true Arabian fashion, I have been treated to quite fine hospitality here. My couchsurfing host in Dubai took me out, drove me around a bit, and had an apartment full of amenities to leave at my disposal. His Syrian roommate was unbelievably welcoming, too: two minutes after meeting me, upon learning of my difficulties in procuring a visa to his country, he called his friend at the Syrian consulate and told me it was all taken care of. I'd still have to wait a week for approval from Damascus, though, so I don't think I'll be able to take advantage of his kindness. Still, what connections! He even gave me one of his necklaces as a going away present. To thank Ismail and Hassan, I made pasta for them one night. I know this sounds like the lamest possible meal to cook, but I made the sauce from scratch, as is my custom. I don't think they'd ever had it before, because when they served themselves, they separated the pasta and sauce on either side of their plate and used the sauce like a dip. How amusing our cultural differences can be sometimes!

Yesterday, as usual, I just barely managed to make the Dubai-Muscat Express bus. And now I am in a country called Oman, which my new couchsurfing host, Susan, who is possibly even more hospitable, calls the jewel of the Gulf. She's not mistaken: this country seems even nicer than the UAE. Even the border post looks more like a Sultan's palace than a government facility. Everything appears to be new. Everything is clean. Everything is detail-perfect. You would have a hard time imagining this kind of wealth if you never saw it. I mean, what country spends money decorating highway rotaries with elaborate sculpture? Or even plants flowers in them?

Look, people, if you think the Middle East is just an impoverished breeding ground for terrorists, you need to make one of these countries your next vacation destination, OK? Oman is nicer than America! The whole place is like an Aladdin theme park, every building and even the highway viaducts conforming to Arabian Nights architectural codes, with domes and arches and crenelations all over everything. Many hundreds of years ago, the fabulous wealth of the infidel Orient was legendary in Europe. I can assure you, friends, that the legend is real in our own day. The only difference is that the men in white thobes and women in black hijabs drive cars instead of camels--expensive ones, too; even the lowliest engineer in Oman seems to have an Audi TT as his ride.

The woman I'm staying with now is a dental hygienist from Canada. Like so many people in the Gulf States, she is a foreigner (one-third of Muscat's population are ex-pats, mostly Indian, she tells me) who has come here looking for new opportunities and a higher standard of living. Her apartment, in which I am now sitting, is huge and immaculate, really much nicer than anything I ever expect to have in America, at least in such a good location.

Unfortunately, I won't be going out to tour the forts and sample the hummus today: once again, I have acquired a case of explosive diarrhea (in Dubai of all places?!). Susan, just back from India herself, sympathizes. Constant trips to the toilet have made me weary, so I'm just going to lay around watching her collection of DVDs. And why not? It's the weekend in Oman, time to be lazy and escape the heat, and nothing will be open anyway. When I'm back to solid stools, I'll be back here to enthuse more about the jewel of the Gulf. Oh, man!

22 April 2008

United Indian Emirates

Holy Jesus Fuck is this place rich! Disgustingly rich! Blasphemously rich! I don't even know where to begin... perhaps where I began, on the quiet marble (!) floors of Sharjah International Airport, where I asked how I could make a phone call... no problem, just get a phone card. How much is the cheapest one? Only $10.


I knew I was in for it. A mobile phone salesman pitied me and passed a hunk of plastic with a screen over the counter to me. I gazed warily at the strange device, until he demonstrated how to operate it, and it was thus that I had my first old-man-not-with-the-times moment, a product, perhaps, of having spent the last few months in Indialand and, before that, usually being broke.

So in the last few days, I've seen the new tallest building in the world, the Burj Dubai, and no building better deserves the name skyscraper or maybe skyscratcher than this elegant tower that juts up like a stalagmite from the Dubaian desert floor; an indoor ski slope attached to the most obscenely expensive and frighteningly ostentatious shopping mall, the Mall of the Emirates, I've ever seen (my friends here inform me that the Ibn Battuta Mall, named and themed after the famed Arab explorer, is even "better"); the Burj Al-Arab seven-star hotel you've all heard about (ho-hum after the strangely similarly-named Burj Dubai); and that island shaped like a palm tree--oops, there are THREE of them, so which one do I mean?? Oh, I went to the "old town" area and the Dubai Museum, too, but I have been far more impressed (overawed? intimidated? disgusted?) by the stratospheric affluence dripping from the palaces of consumerism.

Since the youth hostel in Dubai still costs $50/night, I was lucky to find another couchsurfing opportunity here and am therefore paying $0/night to stay in a gorgeous new apartment buildings out in the desert near the malls. The downside is that it's fairly remote from everything else, so I have to take buses everywhere--not usually a problem for me, but there's only one inconvenient route that serves this "neighborhood". Even today, I had to walk an hour and a half back across the desert from the Mall of the Emirates because I got tired of waiting for the bus. This place is like a combination of Singapore and Las Vegas: a commercial port city in the desert with randomly scattered blocks of development separated by tracts of sand and empty lots, the whole decorated with architectural features ranging from the gaudy to the grotesque.

I really can't begin to describe what this place is like. I think the next generation of critical theorists would have a field day here, as the last generation did in Los Angeles, if critical theory were allowed here (I didn't see any Adorno in the bookstores). Because this city is a mirage in the desert, a deceitful appearance of paradise just over the next dune, thirsty, grasping, treasure-seeking people are drawn here from all over the world, particularly India (I left India only to arrive in one of its satellite states--hence the title of this post--most people here speak Hindi). It may be capitalism hurtled toward its logical conclusion: government as administration, civics as shopping. You are welcome to come here and gorge yourself so long as you obey the masters--those guys in white robes and black head cords that drift around the place like ghosts, owning everything, lording it over everything. I suggested to some people that Dubai is like Alamut, the mountain stronghold of Hassan-i-Sabbah and the assassins. Hassan would drug his would-be servants, and they would awake to find themselves in male heaven: plates overflowing with food, unlimited quantities of hashish, lusty young women, and whatever else young men crave (brylcreem?). They would then fall asleep again only to awake once more in Hassan's presence, where they would quickly swear total allegiance to him in return for eternal life in his paradise. I think something much the same is going on here.

What Dubai offers is unparalleled comfort and luxury, all in return for your professional contribution to the oil-enriched Islamo-fascists (tee-hee) that govern the place. And for your docility. Because there are no politics here, none of the participation in communal and civic life that has traditionally rooted and empowered people... somewhere, in a place, a realm of belonging with a history and a meaning. Is there even a here, here? Dubai doesn't seem like a real place with real people at all. And most people I've asked don't like it. They say it's fake, boring, etc. But the money is addictive. Actually, I don't think it's fake at all. If anything, I think it's the realest place I've ever been. Social relations are not hidden. Perhaps in our own societies, there are things we don't see or would prefer not to: the ghosts that roam among us. Here, the ghosts are quite visible, whether the aforementioned guys in perfectly white robes or the endless supply of immigrant labor that has built this place and is still building it, that offers you hand towels in the bathrooms, that sells you everything you buy, and that washes your tax-free luxury SUV while you shop in the mall (!). Dubai is a social experiment, I think, one in which you can enjoy a simulated Western lifestyle (even better, actually) without Western freedom--just like that game, The Sims, in which life is stripped down to a course of needs, compulsions, and petty career advancement. What, then, is life for? What we don't appreciate is how much it has become this way in the West itself, where we claim money isn't everything, that shopping is not a panacea, that democracy is the only path to happiness. If none of this is true, we may all be doomed to follow Dubai's example, if Dubai is the city of the future (like that other fast-growing city of dreams in the desert, mostly broken, Las Vegas). This, I think, is too depressing to think about.

The standard of living can't possibly be higher anywhere else--the grass is greener than Ireland, and what the hell is grass even doing here? But there's a major prostitution problem. I don't mean the one that periodically clogs the Burj Al-Arab's plumbing with used condoms, I mean the kind of life everyone here seems to be living. Whoever comes, comes only for money--they are bought by the Arabs to do their bidding, the Arabs the ones with the real money around here. They are bought by the Arabs to build their society and economy for them so they don't have to do anything themselves, after which they are invited to leave again, so the Emiratis can pretend that their culture, despite foreign influences, remains intact and on their own terms. Since most people living here aren't native, there may yet be a revolution one day, but I doubt it while people are living this well. That's the creepiest thing of all. Everyone here is like a commodity, and I worry that in a place like this, you can only ever treat other people that way, as you yourself are treated (shit always gets passed down, doesn't it?). I've seen this sort of thing before--usually in ex-colonial states where white men escape the strictures and conventions of their own societies to play feudal lord (and doesn't the local patriarchy just imitate this?). Here, though, it's the Westerners who are the serfs (not to mention the hordes of non-Gulf Arabs, Indians, and Southeast Asians who are the serfs of the serfs). And nobody complains because there's enough money to go around to appease everyone.

I think it creates awful people out of good people. I wonder if such people even think anymore at all, or feel anymore, or just avoid such difficulties by taking Hassan's hashish, happily, dreamily secure in their mindless devotion to their oblivious overlords.

For all of this, I can't say I dislike Dubai--I leave that to the long-term residents. For me, it's a fascinating place, a fertile place for the sort of musings I've written in this post. It's also rich, clean, safe, and sometimes beautiful. Even part of me wants to live here. But I hope I never do.

20 April 2008

The Steve's Guide to Hagglin'

Since I am in that region of the world, stretching from Morocco to China, where you have to tediously negotiate the price of everything, I thought I would share some of my notes on the subject gathered after long experience. Most of this applies specifically to India, where I have been most recently, but since they invented the subtle art, these strategies will work anywhere crafty merchants are trying to rip you off.

1. Don't believe anything they say. This is Rule Number One.

2. Know the product and what it's worth, especially expensive items like carpets and statues. If you're ignorant about what you're buying, such as where it's made, by whom, and out of what, then you deserve to get Shanghaied.

3. Don't be in a rush. Check several shops before deciding. If shopkeepers sense you are hurrying through the process, they will stonewall you.

4. Avoid trick questions: What country are you from? Is this your first time in (e.g.) India? What is your profession? What other shops have you been to? Etc. They ask them to figure out your likely income and gullibility levels. Dodge them, lie, or don't even listen.

5. Ignore friendliness, meekness, servility, unctuousness, avuncularism, and cool dudeism--it's total bullshit and these pretenses often hide significant nastiness, which surfaces when you refuse to buy. Refer to Rule Number One.

6. Don't let them become your friend. Don't let them drag you into long conversations about your country, your family, life philosophy, etc. Ignore attempts to convert you to Islam. Your relationship is antagonistic--remember that. These people are not going to send you birthday cards. Why do you people insist on forgetting Rule Number One?

7. Wave away any attempts on their part to justify their prices or level of customer satisfaction with material evidence like logbooks or photos. Or look without seeing. If you play it cool, they may figure out that you're not going to be fooled so easily. Smile+glazed expression=success.

8. Don't ever feel pressured or guilty. Even if they follow you around, show you everything in the store, take things out of storage for you, and spend half a day explaining the virtues of their merchandise, you are not obligated to spend a dime. They are just doing their job and most of the time more of a job than you ever asked them to do. Ignore them when they claim they can't lower prices because they'd be losing money, get in trouble with their boss, or their families will starve to death. It's all bullshit. Refer to Rule Number One, please.
Note: at some shops, you will be asked to sit down to drink tea, especially at shops selling expensive items like carpets or other high-end items. This is a normal custom, not part of the scam, per se, so feel free to enjoy it, but don't feel pressured to buy a $2000 statue of Vishnu just because the salesman offered you a 50 cent cup of tea. Good salesmen won't actually rush you through such significant purchases, while deceitful ones will seem rather panicky about getting you to buy as quickly as possible so you don't have time to think and consider.

9. Ignore price qualifications, and by this I mean any justification they offer as a reason for the unusually "amazing" deal they allege to be offering you. This comes in many forms: because you're, e.g., American and they like Americans or their daughter/son/nephew is married to one; because you're a student/teacher/doctor/very good man/woman; because you're the first/last sale of the day; etc. Also pay no attention when they say "fixed price" or "last price." Sometimes some of these things can be true, but you'll never know when they are or when they're just trying to con you. Also ignore reasons for unacceptably high prices: better material; made in Europe; natural/organic/pure/real product, hard to find, my shop only, handmade, high cost of fuel; antique; one-of-a-kind; belonged to my dead great-greatmother; etc. Remember Rule Number One.

10. Don't volunteer information, but do ask leading questions. Avoid being drawn into tedious, off-topic conversations, but try to be skeptical and informed by inquiring about the workmanship of products, methods of manufacture, materials, and other fine details. If they dodge you ("very good! don't worry!"), it often means they don't know the answers or don't want to tell you. Honest shopkeepers, and they exist, will be forthcoming about such things. If you've shopped around, you can also tell when people are feeding you standard bullshit and when they're being honest. It happens!

11. If you want to buy, express no more than casual interest in the product you want, or better yet, in several products, only one of which you really want. Act bored but not tired. Point out as many flaws as possible, even imaginary ones. Don't enthuse about how nice it is. Don't stare at it for a long time. Be prepared to walk away without buying it if you don't get the price you want (usually half of the asking price or less depending on where you are and what it is--common items are often highly marked up, sometimes 5x the proper price, especially in tourist areas). Ask as politely as you can for price reductions--don't just feel entitled to them, or you risk offending the shopkeeper's fragile honor. Offering to buy more than one of something, or a number of things all together, should almost always procure further discounts.

12. When it comes down to settling on a price--the actual haggling--learn through experience. I can't explain this part. The usual method is to offer a much lower price than you're comfortable paying, then the shopkeeper offers a higher one, but lower than the original, then you go back and forth until you settle somewhere in the middle, both sides engaging in various forms of emotional subterfuge. It's an art and one you get better at with time and practice.

12. Remain as friendly and cheerful as possible the entire time, even if they are pissing you off. Emotional tension will not get you anywhere and will often make shopkeepers stubborn and sulky if they don't just ask you to leave. Do not say "but I saw this exact item cheaper elsewhere." It doesn't work (then why don't you just go buy it there?), and it often pisses them off. Also, try not begin haggling unless you seriously intend to buy something. You may like to price things out this way, but it's not proper form, and the shopkeepers won't appreciate it if you keep doing it. Remember that they do this every day, for a living, so they will see through your ruses easily. They will also respect a good negotiator, though, especially one who respects and doesn't offend them and doesn't force any significant breaches of etiquette. Bear in mind--they may be trying to rip you off, but they would prefer to sell at a reasonable price than not sell at all. They are businessmen first and foremost and are just trying to do business, even if it's in a way to which you aren't accustomed. The thing is, you at least have a chance to negotiate a good price and get a nice souvenir or quality product for much less than you'd pay in your own country. At Disneyland, you will get ripped off whether you like it or not: there's no negotiating in the Magic Kingdom.

13. Don't appear confused or indecisive. Avoid awkward silences.

14. If you can't get a price with which you're satisfied, then walk away. They may chase after you or give up on you. They will not entertain ridiculously low prices (especially in tourist areas where people are easy to rip off) anymore than you will ridiculously high ones. You can always come back again later. Or, if you really want the item, just accept their price, which is the consequence of really wanting something and not maintaining your detachment. Very few of these touristy souvenir shops will have items you can't get elsewhere, though. Naturally, unique products are harder to negotiate for, but stuff that every shop has, and therefore isn't as sought after, shouldn't be hard to acquire for a reasonable price. Many people leave their shopping for the last few days of their trips. I don't recommend this, because it will mean you're in a rush to buy, and you're more likely to pay too much. It's better, in my opinion, to purchase things as you come across them, when you're in a relaxed state of mind (not the "I have to shop for so and so" or "right now I am shopping" states of mind), and when it's a casual, unplanned part of your day--a happenstance. Buy if you like and don't buy if you don't. If you really do see something you like, but you don't want to pay, you can undoubtedly find something similar, or just something else, that you like just as much somewhere else. You'll get over not buying something sooner than you will paying too much for some junky thing you'll later realize isn't so important to you (shopper's remorse). You will occasionally get ripped off, but try to take it in stride--it happens to everybody, including the experienced. You will also get some amazing deals if you're patient, skilled, and a little bit lucky. The two tend to even out, and, unless you're buying real estate, you probably won't get ripped off too much, relative to your own currency.

15. Finally, once again, DON'T BELIEVE ANYTHING THEY SAY! For some reason, this is the hardest one for people to learn. As P. T. Barnum once said, there's a sucker born every minute. Try not to be one of them.

19 April 2008

Om Shanti Shanti Shanti

I am leaving India, and the subcontinent where I have been for so long, and it seems appropriate that I write some kind of sentimental summing up of things. In the spirit of my original declaration, I will keep it brief.

I had a good time. I never came here to "find myself" or lose myself, though it seems so many foreigners do come to reinvent themselves, improve themselves, or just to be someone else for awhile. India must be the perfect place for this, because, as they themselves often say, everything is possible here. Still, I can't help but feel that despite visiting, I am still 16,000 miles away from most of them. There are mysteries hidden behind their mustaches that no amount of earnest chit-chat can penetrate. India does an excellent job of appearing to be open, accessible, and permeable by every possible influence, idea, or kind of person with whatever kind of agenda. But I think there is something illusory about that. Westerners, in particular, are invited to come and indulge (inexpensively) in every possible pursuit, whether material (trekking, sightseeing, eating) or spiritual (yoga, meditation, transformational hypnotherapy). The level of permissiveness is seductive, too, because it's a permissiveness we don't experience at home any more than the Indians themselves are able to enjoy it here--and yet we seem to think, to the extent that it makes us feel so free and pure, that it bridges some gap between our Western societies lost to modernity and the ancient wisdom we believe resides in Asia. Certainly, there are sincere attempts and sincere successes at doing just that: whether it's Western backpackers spurning material comfort for austerity practices in an ashram or a middle-class Indian family abandoning the banalities of tradition for Western consumerism, hands are always reaching across whatever gaps persists between us. The problem, I suppose, is that what we are grasping for is not always what's reaching out from the other side--we could miss in the middle. Personally, I have long been intrigued by the scholarly notion of the "Indo-European", which suggests there are ancient affinities, more than just linguistic, between East and West, at least among Europeans and the Indian peoples. I thought I could get some sense of those affinities by coming here, but it will take time--and distance--before my ideas on the subject are properly matured.

I am leaving India. Today, I will enter into an entirely different civilization, society, and mentality: the Arabian. And after that, the Eastern Orthodox. And after that, the Turkish. One almost has to keep ones defenses up to be able to confront so many and still return an intact person. I am leaving India, but part of my thoughts will remain here, even if at rest, in a place that defies any kind of easy or cursory examination such as I have attempted to do these past few months. Most of all, I will miss the cows.


Hare Om!

Many nights in Bangkok

This post concludes the series of my retrospective adventures. Should I have time, I may endeavor to review my year on Planet Japan, if only in regret that I didn't keep a blog with that title when I was actually there. Such an undertaking, needless to say, daunts me, so you will forgive me if I never attempt it.

I arrived in Bangkok on a sultry day. I like this city very much--I would even consider living there if not for the acrimonious air--and I was glad to be accepted back into its however fetid embrace. I chose to stay at the famous and rambling Suk11 Hotel on Sukhumvit Road, and I recommend this place if you can manage to get a reservation (often full and they're lazy about returning emails). Sukhumvit had changed a lot since last I visited in 1999. For example, they built a "Skytrain" mass transit system, the sole purpose of which seems to be to connect all the fancy hotels and giant shopping malls they also built. This part of Bangkok now looks more "futuristic" than Tokyo, or the Tokyo people imagine anyway, since Tokyo only looks futuristic circa 1985. You will not be surprised that I spent a certain amount of time in the cheap but beautiful cinema megaplexes, foregoing, however, the $12 VIP seating (some in "racecars"). I also spent a certain amount of time wandering around goggle-eyed at all the high-end retail shopping and high-end retail shoppers.

I had even more excitement in store because the very same day I arrived, I was set to meet my good friend Miss Fern, who was flying over to Thailand to take a massage course. Despite some confusion at the airport, I managed to pick her up with the assistance of my "Miss Fern" sign. We spent the next few days poking around the endlessly wonderful and labyrinthine markets and some of the more interesting neighborhoods. I let Fern set the agenda since a) I'd been there before and b) I was primarily occupied with gorging myself on street food (safe to eat in Bangkok). We also moved to a different hotel, the Sri Ayuttaya Guest House in Thewet (north of the infamous Khao San Road), which I only mention because it's a lovely place where you should also stay, except the desk staff are bitches.

Once Fern was feeling comfortable in the exotic environs, we planned our jaunt to the north. We visited the ancient city of Sukhothai, where an Italian gentleman tried chatting Fern up, and also the less-visited city of Nan. At Nan, we organized a hill tribe trek, which is this thing that everyone does in Thailand and is kind of a questionable practice. Basically, every traveler to this part of Asia wants to see whatever scrap of "authentic" culture remains there. Since none does, for the most part, these trips end up being exploitative: you're put into a giant group, sent to the hills to visit a tribal village which has become more like a zoo or circus, the natives dance around and sell souvenirs, and then you go back fully loaded with anthropological musings on the nativity of the human condition--or, more likely, disappointment. Chiang Mai is notorious for this. Seeking to avoid a carnival atmosphere, Fern and I booked an overnight trek to a Hmong village with the only agency in relatively obscure Nan and had a wonderful time. The highlight of this trip was definitely our strange encounter with the Yellow Leaf people. These are actual, real, modern-day hunter-gatherers. When we met them, they were sitting, a man and a woman, half-naked, under a lean-to of banana leaves. We gave them some bamboo tubes of pork and rice as an offering and then proceeded to have a cultural exchange which consisted of us staring at each other. I could wax sentimental about my feelings at this time, but I'll save it for meetings-in-person. It will suffice for me to say that this is high on my list of awesome things I've been able to do. I wish I could find out more about the Yellow Leaf people, but they are extremely secretive. Even their language is basically unknown, but it's beautiful and they sound like they're singing when they speak. Doesn't it make you wonder what has been lost to time?

The second highlight of the trip came when we witnessed two dogs, recently finished copulating, who, despite their strugglings, were unable to "disengage". Animals are funny.

After Nan, we visited Chiang Mai, Thailand's second city, though it hardly feels like one. Lots of temples, lots of nice restaurants, lots of peace and quiet, cheap: Chiang Mai is good. On our last afternoon before parting, as Fern was to begin her Thai massage course, we visited a monastery in the countryside to attend a Buddhist lecture. The lecture itself I don't remember, but afterward, the monk started spinning off some fascinating conspiracy theories. For example, he opined that Hurricane Katrina was karmic retribution for the Iraq war. I asked him what he made, then, of the tsunami in Indonesia, and I think he waffled and said global warming. He also explained that the US government keeps thousands of psychics employed in underground bunkers they aren't allowed to leave from which they conduct psychic warfare on our enemies--their offensive and defensive powers being the reason for our victory in the Cold War and continued dominance in the world. I believed him.

Leaving Fern to her Thai massage (and, by the way, I had one of these every day I was in Thailand--$5/hour!), I made my way further north, almost to the border with China, to the little hippie village of Pai. Other than being a laid back travelers' hangout, Pai is a launching point for multiple-day rafting trips to Mae Hong Son on the Burmese border, and I went specifically to book one of these. The agency I chose was run by a nice Frenchman who said when he first arrived, Pai didn't even have a bank. "Wow," I said, in my best young-person-listening-to-an-old-person-yak-about-the-past voice. Most of the other rafters were also French and, I thought, a little bit weird. Nonetheless, there's nothing like rafting all day, then sleeping in a camp on the side of the river, and then rafting all day the following day, too. The rapids weren't too impressive, but I had a nice time and returned to Chiang Mai refreshed and satisfied by my adventure.

From there, Air Asia came to the rescue again--$20 back to Bangkok, from which I bounced down to Kuala Lumpur. I managed to get a stopover in KL just to check it out, and I found it pretty boring. I saw the Petronas Towers, the colonial district, and even a major festival celebrating 50 years of Malaysian independence. A television reporter approached me there and asked if she could interview me. She wanted me, I gather, to say glowing things about Malaysia and the festival. Having only just landed an hour before, I told her I didn't know anything about Malaysia or the festival and suggested she find another white person who did. She was clearly flustered by this and clearly didn't care what I actually knew or said, but even while traveling, I am not prone to lending myself out as a tool of the corporate media (eat it, military-industrial complex!). Well, it's not like she offered me a free meal...

The one thing I did enjoy about KL was the metro. It's automatic, so you can stand at the very front of the train and stare through the window as you travel through the twisty tunnels. It's like one of those simulated rides they use to have (do they still have those?), except it's real, except it's a subway so it's tame and doesn't feel like much more than staring at a screen. I loved it.

For the sake of taking one day trip away from KL, I visited Melaka, a former Portuguese colonial, former Dutch colonial, former Chinese merchant city on the southwest coast. Melaka is famed (mostly to Singaporeans) for its "Baba" cuisine, which is like Chinese food but with spicy Southeast Asian influences. I had some, and it lives up. I also had local Malaysian coffee, which, I'm sorry to say, doesn't. Melaka also has a fort.

At the time, I said my trip around Southeast Asia was the best so far of my life, for many reasons--the people I met, the sights I saw, the food, the massages, the stunning scenery, that cafe owner in Hoi An who invited me to drink beer and watch the World Cup with him, etc. And I never even went to the beach! I would later say the same about South America. So do things keep getting better, or is it just my attitude that demands the constant surpassing of expectations? I don't know, my friends, but I do hope things continue to get better as they have done, especially as I approach my 30th birthday, as I am about to embark on yet another chapter in my personal odyssey, so that I am able to share ever more exciting experiences with you all, for which opportunity I am most grateful and most glad.

PS - Comments are welcome, but sanctimonious blatherings are not. This is my blog, and I cannot bear having my sardonic wit undermined. Have a nice day.

18 April 2008

Angkor What?!

I know so many people who fell in love with Cambodia when they went there, who claim it is their favorite country in Southeast Asia if not the world. They enthuse about the gorgeous countryside scenery, the friendliness of the people, the awe-inspiring antiquities, and so much more that made the country for them the most endearing of travel destinations.

I, my friends, am not one of them. But I won't dwell on the negative. Here's what happened:

As I related in my last Vietnam post, I crossed the border by river, trying to feel as much as possible like a young Martin Sheen. On the Vietnamese side, eager gangs of crazed children offered to change our money and sell us Cokes. On the Cambodian side, people were just sort of laying around. After receiving my sticker visa, we were off to the happiest city on Earth, Phnom Penh. Cruel sarcasm aside, I did find Phnom Penh to be a singularly depressing place. I think it's the only city I've been to with dirt roads and no street lighting to speak of--creepy. The main tourist attractions are Tuol Sleng Prison, a converted schoolhouse where the Khmer Rouge tortured to death anyone who wore glasses; and a lovely rural spot outside town known as the Killing Fields, where people were also tortured to death (often with the blunt ends of bamboo poles--nice) and buried in shallow graves. While walking around the Killing Fields, wondering what the hell I was doing there, I often stumbled across bits of cloth and bone poking up through the dust. Like I said, I'm positive many people like this city. I'm just not one of them.

My next stop was Battambang, the second city of Cambodia. Battambang is a bit more chilled out, as the Californians say, but still no street lighting and mostly crickets and tarantulas available for dinner. When I arrived, I was immediately acquired by a tout who escorted me to my intended hotel and then put me on the back of his motorbike (no helmet! no problem!) for a tour of the countryside. This was pretty cool. We set out in the afternoon, so we didn't have much time to travel the 50 km to our first stop: a large cave where the Khmer Rouge tortured people to death (can you detect a theme?). Not really being a genocide buff, I left pretty quickly with moto-dude for our next stop: Wat something or other (does the name actually matter?). En route, we got caught in a bitchin' thunderstorm. The rain came pounding down, drenching us both in seconds, powerful blasts of lightning striking the fields all around us. It being a particularly hot summer day in Cambodia, and having the kind of latent death wish necessary for this sort of travel, I didn't so much mind this. My driver, though, was terrified, and at one point jumped off his bike, looking around for cover. This was the Cambodian countryside, however--treeless and flat as a pancake--so there was no cover (evil laugh). Anyway, we did finally arrive at the temple (kudos to him for not just cancelling it). It was my first Khmer temple, and I was delighted by its awesome size, steepness, and romantic jungle setting. Despite the inclement weather, there was still a woman at the bottom selling soft drinks. Back in Battambang, my driver offered, for $5, to bring me to the "famous" bamboo railway. I'd heard about this before, though I'm still not exactly sure what the hell it is, but I was really attached to my $5, so I demurred.

The next day, I took an extremely packed and overburdened high-speed ferry down the river and across the enormous and picturesque Tonle Sap lake to Siem Reap. This took about seven hours, I think. On the Siem Reap side, I was collected ("for free") by a friend of my driver from Battambang, who brought me to the hotel of my choice ($3/night) on condition that I hire him for the duration of my stay at Angkor. This didn't seem unreasonable, since even I wasn't about to walk from temple to temple in this huge area, so we agreed on a fair price for my multiple-day visit. I even had time on the afternoon I arrived to take a quick sunset look at Angkor Wat itself, where it rained, and I got drenched, again.

OK, here's the thing: I cannot possibly describe this place adequately, not in what is supposed to be a briefish summary post of a previous year's trip. Angkor is huge, just huge, with all the beauty and mystery that could be packed into a lifetime of imagination. It takes days even to see the major sites cursorily, and if you're really that interested in them, I recommend you do some Wikipedia researching, ask me about it in person (I even have photos) or, best of all, go there yourself. For me, it was just a stop on the road, but truly it is (like Petra in Jordan) an experience of a lifetime. It is a bit weird to be admiring these monuments in dumbfounded awe while the descendents of their builders, who live in squalor among them, frantically try to sell you cold drinks ("one dolla!"). This strange contradiction is why I didn't like Cambodia. It's not that I don't like the people (though I am suspicious about the extent of their participation in the Khmer Rouge massacres, most of the perpetrators being still unpunished), it's just not a place in and about which I had good feelings. Mais, c'est la vie.

Angkor was also where I met my Japanese friend, Ryoko. I was quite impressed when I saw her tooling around the ruins on a bicycle--no mean feat in the Cambodian summer given the distances involved--and I wondered if she were, in fact, Japanese since, I figured, only a Japanese person would do this. Not only did she turn out to be Japanese, but she speaks several languages, has been all over the world (even Antarctica), and--perhaps her only ever lapse in judgment--agreed to join me the next day on a laborious walk around the walls of Angkor Thom, a mere 12 km, but under the silent gaze of the stone faces of my favorite Buddhist protector-god, Avalokiteshvara.

Actually, the day before we even did that, I casually mentioned to Ryoko that I was eager to see two Khmer sites hours away from Siem Reap in the jungle, one a pyramid called Koh Ker, the other a misty, jungle-enfolded temple-of-my-dreams called Beng Mealea, but that it was impossible because it was low season and there weren't any groups going. Well did I get my first taste of Japanese effectivity! Ryoko was staying at a Japanese hotel, where she somehow managed to round up six other people to go with us. The entire day trip, not including admission fees, cost $15/person (instead of the $125 or more it would have cost me alone). "Wow," I thought, duly impressed by this display of organization and group power. I was also excited by this turn of events because I ended up making Japanese friends right before going to Japan for a year. I ended up seeing Ryoko quite a few times--she even met me at my hotel the night I arrived in Tokyo--and twice she organized reunion dinners for the "Siem Reap members".

From Siem Reap, I returned to Phnom Penh, thus completing a circuit of the Tonle Sap, but more importantly to catch a cheap flight to Bangkok. There is a bus from Siem Reap to Bangkok, but it's probably the most notoriously awful bus journey on Earth, the mythical stuff of backpacking nightmares. Perhaps the situation has changed in 2008, but I wouldn't be surprised if it hasn't. Take my advice: go Air Asia all the way.

And that's it for Cambodia. I'm sorry my descriptions of Angkor are lacking, but it's really too too much for me even to get into. I'd have to start using expressions like "churning the milk of the cosmos" and "the stunning reliefs of apsara dancers." So you're better off. Trust me. Go see for yourself.

16 April 2008

Frequent flyer?

I just read that most US airlines are going to start charging a $25 fee for additional checked bags after the first on all domestic flights, the bastards. So travelers, beware: it is becoming more important than ever to pack light. Their next policy change will be to institute a fee per pound for obese passengers. Naturally, this will impact the US market quite severely.

It seems noteworthy to mention that I have spotted numerous Orthodox Jews ambling around Rishikesh, hanging up signs. I can scarcely imagine what these bearded, black-hatted, betassled fellows, who appear to have stepped through a magic portal in Jerusalem, are doing.

It seems amusing to mention that, since my ashram closes at 9:30 pm, in order to get inside most nights, I have to basically break in by climbing onto the roof from the adjacent building.

Today or tomorrow, I'll be taking my final yoga class in India. My forward bends still suck, but I can just about grab my toes now. My chakrasana, however, is awesome: I think I'll be able to bend backward and grab my heels for full wheel pose before long. Then I can just roll to exotic destinations rather than paying expensive airfares. Sugoi!


Note to new readers or the easily confused: I am presently in India, not Vietnam. I was in Vietnam and Southeast Asia from May to July 2006. These are just recaps since I wasn't keeping a blog then.

Mr. Saigon

The only reason I'm writing the third part now is it's raining like hell outside, which is pretty unusual, and I don't even want to imagine what that's going to do to the roads around here and their fine coating of dirt, mud, garbage, piss, and shit.

So away we go!

In dramatic fashion (one of the Trangs came to say goodbye and ran after the train waving as it pulled out), I departed Hanoi for Dong Ha on the edge of the former Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between North and South Vietnam. Sounds dangerous, doesn't it? Or at least like a good name for a dance club. I had arranged a tour at Harry's DMZ Cafe (or something), and Harry was there to collect me at the train station and put me on the back of a motorcycle (with helmet!) which careered at an alarming velocity from sight to site around the DMZ. God, that was a hot day. So hot... Phew... Anyway, we visited a piece of the Ho Chi Minh Trail; the extraordinary Vinh Moc tunnels, where hundreds of families lived during the war in conditions so horrible and requiring such resilience that I was convinced we never had a chance to beat these people; a reforested field pockmarked with bomb craters; a former US Army "base" (more like a shed) still surrounded by a dangerous mine field I chose not to run around cavorting in; and a beach.

The most interesting thing about the DMZ is probably how uninteresting it is. Most of it has been reclaimed and repurposed, as though it never existed. I speculated at the time that this was appropriate given the attitude of most Vietnamese people to the war: they seem simply to have forgotten it. Or they don't care. Or, in the case of young people, they don't know *and* they don't care. Though they suffered more, they seem to have gotten over it in a way Americans should have by now but haven't. I can't really say for sure, but it doesn't seem to occupy a traumatic region in their national imagination or to have produced a romanticized fiction of a collective loss of innocence that continues to fester, pustulating from time to time into such things as banal political rhetoric and Oliver Stone. Maybe it's a Buddhist thing, not worrying so much about the past, or a Chinese/practical/entrepreneurial thing, concentrating more on the future. In any case, I don't recommend a visit to the DMZ.

My next stop was Hue, the former imperial capital. I was in luck, because I chanced to stumble assbackward into the Hue International Festival, a multiday affair that began right when I arrived. I totally seriously recommend you try to attend this one day. It only happens in even-numbered years. So instead of wandering half-dazed around the Forbidden City-esque palace, pretending to be interested, I got to see the most amazing cultural performances from a dozen countries held in and around the palace: a series of spectacular shows, many running simultaneously, in a spectacular setting. I thought the Chinese opera (I think it was opera) was the best. But I like anything that combines singing and dancing with acrobatics and sword-fighting. The second night, I was offered my first "happy ending" at a massage parlor in Asia. It would not be the last.

Moving right along... my next stop, everyone's next stop in Vietnam, was the UNESCO-listed ancient Chinese trading town, Hoi An. Hoi An is quite small and comprised mostly of pretty, old Chinese-style mansions of the type hard to find (I can now say) in China itself. I even stayed in one for $3/night: The Ancient House Hotel or something. Hoi An was a convenient base for me to visit the also UNESCO-listed Cham ruins of My Son and the infamous village of My Lai, where the eponymous massacre took place and where I, trying, while staring at the present site's emptiness and placidity, to drink this in, drank tea.

The most popular things for tourists to do in Hoi An itself, other than (yawn) look at temples, are to take a cooking course (check) and to buy a f*ckload of tailor-made clothes (check). For some reason, the tailors there are famous and famously cheap. I probably had more fun, I reluctantly admit, picking out innumerable patterns, colors, and materials than I had doing anything else in Vietnam (so I obviously turned down the happy ending) and walked away with, I don't know, fifty shirts, twenty pairs of pants, underwear, coats, jackets, shoes, blah blah blah for quantitatively more money than I should have spent but relatively nothing in Western terms. I pleased the endless family that sold them all to me, anyway, because they took me out to dinner at a restaurant on the beach. The food was the most delicious I had in Vietnam. The next day, I woke up sick.

"No, no, I'm just hungover!" I cheerily told the tailoring family before groggily setting off for Danang. I skipped China Beach and went, after a brief museum visit, straight to the airport, where I lay uncomfortably across several seats for five hours before my cheap-ass flight to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City or HCMC).

There's really only one reason I wanted to visit Saigon. Can those of you who know me well guess what it is? I'll give you a minute to figure it out.

Still not sure? OK, one more minute.

Give up? It's so I could wake up in the morning, look around perplexedly, and say, a la Martin Sheen from Apocalypse Now!, "Saigon. I'm still only in Saigon." Anyone surprised?

I have to say, I quite liked North Vietnam more than South Vietnam. They do actually feel like different countries when you're there. The South, for example, seems more boisterous, commercial, and American. Ergo, I didn't like it. It's also flat and lacks the lovely undulating terrain of the North. I forgot to mention that my volunteer situation included a weekend trip to Ha Long Bay, the major (UNESCO!) attraction near Hanoi. It's basically a sea of giant karst formations that project out of the water in a lovely fashion. We did this trip entirely the wrong way--that is, in two days. Day one, we motored to Cat Ba Island, where we spent the night. On day two, we motored back. Lovely scenery both ways, but we missed out on our chance to explore the *really* lovely Cat Ba Island. But I, you shouldn't be surprised, sprang into action to correct this oversight as best I could. The night we arrived, I ran around to all the hotels until I found one where I could arrange with, basically, some guy to pick me up with his motorbike at 5 am and take me on an impromptu tour of the island. And this is what he did. Our first stop were some caves once used by the Viet Minh during the French colonial period. The guard guide guy there showed me around and then sung patriotic anthems until we asked him to stop. Then, we went through some villages to a national park. Scrambling up through the dense and wet foliage, we finally arrived at an observation tower. From the top, such an incredible view as can't be described in some pedestrian travel blog as this... those same upward-jutting karst formations, but these jutting upward from a jungly and misty landscape, themselves greened over and providing homes to squadrons of colorful birds and oddly-oriented trees and such. My favorite book as a child was Dr. Seuss's "On Beyond Zebra", and gazing at this bizarrely Seussian landscape, I myself felt it necessary to invent new letters in order to describe it. Ah, perhaps *that* explains all the wiggles and squiggles and marks! I was so pleased with this little tour (and, honestly, with myself for having thought of it), that I paid the driver double the price we'd agreed on (150,000 dong, or $10 US, but it's funnier to say "dong").

See what I mean? I so much preferred the North, that I'm still talking about it in the section about the South! So back to the South. Oh yeah, I arrived in Saigon with Ho Chi Minh's Revenge. So I went to the hospital, they stuck an IV in me, charged me hundreds of dollars, there's a long and boring story about how I finally after a year got my insurance company to pay for this and then, in HCMC itself, since there's nothing to see except the famous reunification palace (scene of the Saigon airlift), I just ate delicious food. I also took a day tour to see 1. the main temple of the weirdest religion you'll ever have heard of, Cao Dai (or Caodaism), and you'll really have to Google it to enjoy the full extent of its peculiarity, their Victor Hugo-venerating (!) doctrine impressively straining credibility even more than that of the Mormons; and 2. the Cu Chi tunnels, similar to the Vinh Moc situation, but without the prime beachfront location, but with an exhibit of gruesome, American-killing traps, including an AK-47 firing range (I didn't partake), but these tunnels have been widened for the comfort of fat, Western people so perhaps the effect is lost.

I left HCMC/Saigon on a bus that eventually became a boat. You see, my friends, I had found a novel way to cross the border into Cambodia: by river ferry! First, though, I had a three day tour of the Mekong Delta to enjoy (or, given the quantity of durian for sale in the Mekong's floating markets, suffer through). This tour wasn't that interesting, except I got to try snake meat, so I'm going to skip describing it. On my last legal day in Vietnam, I went to the top of sacred Sam Mountain, which is more like a hill, but lined all the way to the top, Chinese style, with souvenir shops and noodle shops. At the top, anticlimactically, is another noodle shop. From the top, though, you can see the Cambodian-Vietnamese border stand out starkly in the countryside: the Vietnam side appeared green and flourishing while the Cambodian side was brown and parched. Getting to Sam Mountain was something of an adventure in itself. Not because it was so far from my border town hotel (love those border towns!), but because not one person spoke one word of English there. Let this be a lesson to the would-be travelers among you: when you want to accomplish something in a foreign land where you don't speak the language and they don't speak yours, just keep frantically gesturing at people and repeating the same words until they give you what you want. Never fails (because they eventually get annoyed and want you to go away).

I woke up on my last morning in Vietnam, before taking the boat to Phnom Penh, to a strong and familiar odor. Stepping into the lobby, I saw that the hotel owner had made an offering at his little family shrine, naturally, to me, the most offensive and disgusting offering possible: a giant, spiky, stinky durian.

Ah, Vietnam.

15 April 2008

Agent The Steve (Vietnam Part Two)

I have breakfast at the same cafe every morning in Rishikesh: it has one of the best locations I've ever seen, overlooking the river and the bridge with its fascinating and endless stream of foot traffic. Also every day, I seem to get engrossed there in conversation with the citizens of the world for hours over coffee. Today, I didn't get out until almost 1 pm. So now you know one reason for my lackadaisical attitude toward posting lately. Another is the recurrent power cuts, which always seem to happen exactly as I'm finished writing a long post or email, even as I am maneuvering the mouse cursor toward the "save" button. Flash! It's gone! This is discouraging, and it makes me believe that Shiva doesn't want me publishing my news from the banks of his sacred river. Sorry, Shiva, but the public has a right to know... the second part of my adventures in Vietnam two years ago.

Here we go again. I'm saving after every sentence this time.

So. I returned from rice paddying in Sapa to join my volunteer assignment on the outskirts of Hanoi. You can Google "Vietnam Friendship Village" to learn more about the location: it's less a village than a small rehab and recreation facility for the victims of Agent Orange spraying by the US during the Vietnam War (known in Vietnam, without irony, as the American War). Arguments about its harmlessness notwithstanding (one general famously drank like a gallon of it or something), the children of the folks exposed to it are often born with physical and mental disabilities ranging from terrible to horrible. Some of them are so completely awful, I can't even bear to describe them. But the attitude and sheer joy of being alive of the less-challenged among them--those that can at least run around and play--is definitely better than mine. Every day, when we would arrive, they would barrel out of the compound and jump all over us. Literally: I frequently ended up pinned to the ground by their enthusiasm.

The work group was a mix of itinerant internationals and local Vietnamese students trying to pad their C.V.s. I got on quite well with the Vietnamese, who all spoke English pretty well. The foreigners I had less interest in, probably because the Vietnamese were more appreciative of my lame attempts to be entertaining. Usually, I do this by learning a few phrases in the local language and then turning them into pop songs, which I sing incessantly during working hours to pass the time. I've performed in Hebrew, Spanish, Vietnamese, and Japanese--to much acclaim. At least, to my own acclaim. The foreigners were also more reserved than the pushy, fun-loving, Starcraft-having-mastered Vietnamese, and I think I was the only one to connect with them. So although we slept on the floor in dark, windowless rooms, had one bathroom for over a dozen people, and ate the same meal of rice, "morning glory" (green spinachy stuff), and fried things every day for every meal, I had a great time living at the "Peace House" with my new workmates. I even regretted that we had ever gone to war against them.

The work itself consisted of carrying bricks around and weeding the garden. The village was constructing a new path through said garden for the enjoyment of the people there and was using us as the hard labor. Really, they probably could have hired a couple of local guys for next to nothing to build the thing in two days, so I gather our presence there for two weeks was more of an international cooperation exercise than anything else. I began to suspect this when I found out we had a three hour lunch break every day, which we took after about two hours of "work". I think they were afraid it was too hot and humid for the foreigners to handle much more than that. I was not arguing. One other American--also from New Jersey, as it turned out--did, however, have a problem with this. In typical American fashion, she complained constantly about our lack of effective leadership, organization, and productivity. I tried to appease her with song, but to no avail.

Back in Hanoi, I also had the opportunity to gorge on the local cuisine, which has become my favorite. I often snuck away from the evening's morning glory with a few of the Vietnamese in tow (I forced them) to search for "gỏi cuốn" (fresh spring rolls), dragon fruit, noodle soup, and cheap beer. Sidenote: isn't written Vietnamese so funny-looking? It's like someone took the Roman alphabet and, deciding it was a trifle dull, added little embellishments to it to liven things up: swirls, whorls, dots, squiggles, curves, and flourishes. I mentioned before my love of Vietnamese coffee (cà phê sữa), and I was in luck at the Vietnam Friendship Village. Just outside the gates, across from a dog meat restaurant, was a cafe where I happily overloaded on the stuff every mid-morning when I was feeling particularly discomfited by the objurgations (Word of the Day!) of the New Jersey girl. One night at the Peace House, the foreigners were called upon to prepare dishes from their own countries. Not wanting to horrify the locals with the sight of "American" food, I instead blended up an enormous batch of Spanish gazpacho with a blender I purchased myself for the occasion. Sadly, Vietnamese people don't like the taste of raw tomatoes--except for Trang; she was all over it. I should mention that almost all Vietnamese girls are named Trang; we had three or four, and I don't specifically remember which Trang it was. I'll have to ask my other workmate and friend, Trang. Even more sadly, the following day we returned from a hot day of work looking forward to some nice, cold soup only to discover that the house girl had dumped the rest out. I never forgave her for that, and I never will.

There are so many more interesting and delicious things I could relate to you about my time in Hanoi, like the time I saw John McCain's flight suit at the "Hanoi Hilton" and the other time I ate so much for dinner I didn't feel like green bean ice cream for dessert. But I think retrospective posts ought to be shorter than this, so I will stop here and continue the adventures, in greater brevity, in a new post.

14 April 2008

Sorry for the delay

I wrote a long second part to my Vietnamese adventures yesterday, but I accidentally deleted it before it could be posted. Demoralized, I haven't felt like doing any blogging since. I may do a rewrite tonight or tomorrow. In the meantime, I can happily report that I can hold head stand for a minute and shoulder stand for at least five minutes. I also shaved my head again. Since I've got you, I might as well tell you my current schedule, which is as firm as the credit used for the plane tickets I've already purchased:

20 April - flight Delhi, India to Dubai
travel Dubai, Oman, Yemen

2 May - flight Sana'a, Yemen to Yerevan, Armenia
travel Armenia, Georgia, cross into Turkey, continue in westerly direction

~~figure out what to do between Turkey and Spain~~

30 July - flight Barcelona, Spain to New York JFK

Please plan your lives accordingly.

11 April 2008

White Album

Yesterday, I visited the former ashram of the Maharishi Maheshyogi, where the Beatles once stayed to practice transcendental meditation. I dangerously snuck in the back way (thanks, Chelsea!) so I wouldn't have to bribe the guard. It's a huge, huge place--almost a mini-city--that was once self-sustaining but is now abandoned and slowly being consumed by the forest: a vision of the future? The site is peppered with weirdly-shaped meditation huts, including the little cells where John, Paul, George, and Ringo wrote the White Album, so it is said. Strange but spookily beautiful place.

That's all I feel like writing today.

09 April 2008


Due to family matters I will not be posting for a few days because I don't feel like it please don't worry about it be back soon.

07 April 2008

Revenge is a dish best served cold

This is a funny thing I forgot to, but must, mention. When I was in the STA Travel office in Delhi, I noticed a new slogan they're using on their posters:

"Better to die on your feet than live on your knees."

Other than being, in my opinion, a rather poor choice for a student travel company with nervous parents to placate (better to die..?), this is a famous Klingon proverb, so there's obviously a Star Trek geek in the upper echelons of the STA marketing department.

They would have been better advised to choose this quote of Kahless the Unforgettable: "To those who are overly cautious, everything is impossible."


Tour of Duty: Vietnam

This will be the first in a brief series of retrospective posts written to catch my readers up on the first half of my two-year sabbatical.

In mid-May, 2006, I arrived in Hanoi after a long flight from EWR via Kuala Lumpur. Malaysian Airlines lives up to its "5 star airline" self-promoting, too. Great service, great food, attractive flight attendants: just like in the advertisements. I had arranged for an airport pick-up--usually I do this at the beginning of a long trip to help ease me into the parallel universe I call Travel Land--and fortunately my driver was there, with sign, to whisk me away to my dormitory bed downtown, so cheap I don't even remember how much it cost.

Hanoi is wonderful. I could tell right away. Sure, every street is a river of motorbikes, but it's a tranquil river, nonetheless, and when you learn the secrets of its flow, crossing the street is not a problem. Central Hanoi is where most travelers hang out. French colonial structures in various conditions of disrepair lend this quarter a quasi-romantic atmosphere lacking in most jumbo Asian cities. Food is everywhere. Cheap, delicious food.

Vietnamese food is so good, describing it daunts my pathetic writing skills. In most places, you're served whatever dishes you order alongside a tray of various seasonings, sauces, pastes, and always a lime or two. It's up to you how salty, spicy, citrusy, or fishy you want to make your meal; clearly, the Vietnamese have finessed eating into an art. My habit was to ineptly dump on a little bit of everything. And the coffee! Well, I'd had Vietnamese coffee many times before visiting its motherland. But! I never had it cold, and that simple difference made all the difference. The fact that it cost, like, 5 cents instead of $3.00 also helped. They give you a glass of ice cubes with a little percolator thingy on top (I bought a percolator thingy as a souvenir, so everyone come to my house for Vietnamese coffee when I get back, please). From the percolator thingy, the coffee, uh, percolates into the glass, which also contains a thick layer of condensed milk (so obviously, this stuff can kill you). You then mix it up, drink, and enter your heavenly bliss. But there are some things on the menu I have to admit avoiding. Vietnamese people eat the following things which I do not eat: dogs, cats, snakes (the heart being especially prized, the blood drunk by couples on dates), chicken embryos, duck placentas, various insects, and, the most horrible of all, durian fruit, which smells like a rotting corpse from 100 feet away. Only the wonderful dragon fruit is capable of compensating for this bane of banes.

Hanoi is a nice place for a stroll. There are several lakes, one of them enormous, and there are pretty little temples everywhere. And ice cream. One of the premier attractions is the Temple of Literature. Of course, I made a beeline for that. I mean, what a novel idea! A Temple dedicated to my greatest love! I shouldn't have gotten too excited, though, because it was just a Confucian academy.

I only spent a few days in Hanoi before taking my first overnight sleeper train ever up to the hill station of Sapa. On the train, I met an enlightened backpacker from Canada who seemed like a nice guy. We were both in the market for a hill tribe trek, so we decided to do it together. Boy, did I get sick of him real fast! The hill tribe trek was good, though. What I wanted to see, I saw: gorgeously green terraced rice fields. We spent the night in a village near a waterfall, and I helped a bit with the rice replanting (tedious work--I can't believe these people spend their lives doing it). One old, bent, sun-wrinkled woman I saw working the fields turned out to be in her thirties. Yikes. On the way back to Sapa town, I took a dive and received my famous Vietnam injury. The exact cirumstances are embarrassing, so I'm going to skip them. Anyway, we rearrived with time to wander around town. Mr. Canada suggested we visit Ba Ca market the next day, which sounded good to me, but for that night, I wanted to avoid him, so I went to the bustling Catholic church. It was strange to see all the traditionally-garbed Montangards inside. These people are Catholic? What odd legacies of colonialism there be. Anyway, it turned out to be a wedding service. When the couple came in, they ended up standing only inches away from me. The groom even handed me (why me?) his camera to take their photo. I obliged. On the way back to my hotel, some cute Vietnamese girls, who the day before were tribally dressed for the tourists' benefit, asked me to take them to a bar to play pool, but I evaded their little trap.

The next day, I went to the market. What can I say? It was a market like any other in the developing world: noise, dirt, fruit, vegetables, cheap clothes, junky toys, miscellanious animal abuse, and loads of annoying souvenir hawkers. Haven't been to one? Go. They're all the same. As part of the market tour, we also got to visit the Vietnam-China border. As you know, I like border towns, so it was exciting for me to gaze across the river to the enormous, kanji-bespeckled Middle Kingdom that stretched, so I thought, into infinity. "Next year!" I shook my fist at China, "I'll be seeing you!"

Then, I went back to Hanoi. To be continued.

Daily Life in Rishikesh

I have already delineated a program for myself. From 8:00 am - 9:30 am at Omkarananda Ashram, where I am now staying, I have an easy class of Hatha yoga with Murti. For the rest of the day, nothing, or maybe I will try to tolerate my way through a spiritual teaching here and there. At 6:00 pm, I have Ashtanga yoga with the delightfully effeminate Kaman. That runs for more than two hours and is really intense. I've never done Ashtanga before, so it was fast and confusing, but I caught on quickly enough. I even did the headstand posture for the first time. That's my schedule. I may otherwise try to fit in some Ganges rafting or a Reiki class. Life is good here. And cheap. Cheap is a synonym for good.

06 April 2008

Escape from New Delhi, Part Two


I think I paid for my scams, friends. Karmically. You see, every bus ride in [the world?] has the potential to become the Bus Ride from Hell, and I think I was scammed myself when I was overbooked onto the overnight hippie bus from Delhi to Rishikesh. I met a nice Canadian girl who lived in Japan for the last three years, so we had lots to chat about. Unfortunately, we were among the last to board the bus. So she got a broken seat, and I got... no seat! Instead, they put me into the driver's cabin up front, on a bench, where, typically, they later squeezed in eight more Indians. I expressed my dismay to the bus attendant, to the effect that I paid for a seat and would find it difficult to sleep sitting upright with no leg room on a "bench" to which he replied--"Sleep OK! No problem!" You will not be surprised by now when I tell you, my friends, that I wanted to kill this man.

To be honest, I didn't suffer too badly. I think that bus ride in Nepal steeled me for anything. I was able to switch eventually to the also broken seat next to the Canadian girl, but that one was on a tilt, so it kept tipping me into her whenever there was a bump, and I don't think she appreciated that. Finally, the extended family in the back cleared out and I actually had a place to lay down. Forty-five minutes later, we arrived in Rishikesh. I had the foresight to call ahead to an ashram for accommodation, but it turned out to be full until Tuesday. The manager/yoga teacher invited me to sleep, as a stopgap measure, on a wooden platform inside the giant yoga room or on a bed squeezed into the dirty, narrow kitchen. I picked the kitchen but then later found a hotel and splurged for a $2.50 room with private bath. I am so spoiled sometimes.

I met Sahara, the dude from New Jersey who taught one of my yoga classes at Rutgers and who's served as my contact in Rishikesh since I've been in India. Really nice guy! He might introduce me to his spiritual teacher, ShantiMayi, a Vedic saint, and possibly a nearly 100 year-old yoga teacher. He also told Canadian Stacie and I where to go for illegal beer. Which we did. This morning, slightly hungover, I had my first yoga class at Omkarananda Ashram. Hatha style, so I was familiar with the asanas. Good stuff.

I may not have much to write about for the next two weeks, while I'm just hanging around Rishikesh doing yoga. I'll try to come up with some lies to tell or possibly do retrospective posts on my excursion to Southeast Asia, May-July 2006 and my year in Japan immediately following. How does that sound, readers?

Subscribe for only $0.00/month

I added a subscription gadget to the left-hand pane, so you can add my blog to your news reader if you like. Be informed the moment I do... something!

05 April 2008

Escape from New Delhi

Well, friends. I've finally made it out of not-so-bad-actually-quite-cool-but-I-still-didn't-want-to-spend-nine-days-there Delhi. Let's turn back the clock, though, so I can tell you chronologically what I've been up to.

Each morning for the last week, basically, I went to STA Travel only to be denied an ISIC card for lack of proper proof that I'm a student. Am I actually a student? I'm not sure. But Rutgers is willing to admit that I am (after charging me $2000), so that's good enough for me. I had to drink lots of coffee to keep myself in a good mood, because each denial, deferral, and delay meant I had to spend another day in the city. OK, no problem! as the Indians are constantly telling me. I have consistently managed to find something worthwhile to do.

One day, the same day I went to the Syrian embassy and learned that a visa costs Americans a whopping $250, I also visited a friend of a colleague from Rutgers, and a Rutgers Ph.D. herself, Giti. I had to hire a taxi for the day to do this, since she lives in one of Delhi's outlying satellite communities (which are divided, futuristically, into "sectors" and usually called, somewhat ironically, "colonies"). We chatted nostalgically and literarily for awhile over tea. How civilized!

The next day, after STA denied me again, I was so depressed I had my nails done and then wandered around unenthusiastically. I practically lived in Barista and Cafe Coffee Day this week.

Remembering that another colleague had given me another contact, I arranged to meet this contact, a young Sociology student nicknamed Shubho, at Delhi University. There, I strolled with him around the very nice campus environs, which included passing by the former garden of the Lord-Governor, where Mountbatten romanced Edwina, I am told. How civilized!

The next day, STA turned down my request for an international student ID, and I was thinking about plotting revenge, when I realized I hadn't yet visited the Baha'i prayer hall, which looks like the Sydney Opera House but shaped like a lotus flower about to blossom instead of whatever the hell the Sydney Opera House is supposed to be (sails? a jack-knifed palm tree?). Upon exodusing, I was assaulted by the usual motley of rickshaw drivers. I asked how much to Humayan's Tomb.

Rickshaw-wallah: 100 Rs.

I: 30 Rs.

R-w: OK, but we stop at one shop.

I: If we're stopping at one shop, then you take me for free to Humayun's Tomb and then to the Museum of Modern Art after that.

R-w: Ok, but then we stop two shops.

I: Fine.

...we depart and time passes...

R-w: If you visit one more shop, I take you back to Connaught Place.

I: Ok, but you also pay me 50 Rs.

R-w: Ok, but you visit two shops.

I: Two shops? Then you pay me 100 Rs.

R-w: No, 50 Rs.

I: Ok, I take metro.

R-w: Ok, 100 Rs.

...time passes, I visit museum, see nice photography exhibit, etc., it inexplicably rains, we visit more shops, I buy nothing, we head to Connaught Place...

I: How many shops do you know?

R-w: About 15.

I: Ok, tomorrow, you meet me my hotel 10:30, you take me to shops, we split everything.

R-w: Ok!

I: How much can I make?

R-w: I think you can earn 500 Rs.

I: Sweet.

You see, my friends, I have figured out India: this is a country full of scams. Everyone seems to have one, or more, running at the same time. As a tourist, I am subject to the minor ones, really. Regular Indian people have to deal with corrupt police, venal officials, pushy and deceptive salespeople, incompetent or unreliable employees, two-faced holy men, price-gouging for everything from bananas to real estate, and, at a higher level, more sublime scams like the Delhi metro, the Commonwealth Games, and The World is Flat. It's like a web of scams at the civilization level. You can complain about this, but complaints aren't going to dislodge the combined scamming of a billion people. The only way to survive is join in the scamming yourself.

So I was quite happy to be carted from shop to shop all day, getting a free guided tour of Delhi in the process, honing my haggling skills, and comparing prices for things I had no intention of buying--each shop paying my rickshaw driver 100 Rs. as part of a scam to lure in tourists to buy handicrafts and carpets at marked-up prices, and my rickshaw driver paying me as part of our scam against them (and mine against him--finally I get the upper hand with the rickshaw-wallahs!). Actually, I can recommend this scam as a great way to see Delhi for free and without having to deal constantly with transport issues. They will be happy to take you to all the sights, since that's where the souvenir shops are located, too. Of course you can buy things if you want--some of the things they sell are genuinely fine--but make sure you arrange to split the 5% commission your rickshaw-wallah receives on any expensive items. The salespeople at these shops tend to be very pushy (one told me straightaway when I told him to stop following me, "OK, but you should buy something"), but it's a good test of patience and resilience. Also, it's fun to listen to the smooth-talking carpet salesmen (and these guys deserve their legendary status) discuss the history and merits of their carpets at great length over tea. I even learned enough about them to start demanding the giant 9x6, 426 knot, naturally dyed yak wool on cotton pieces from Kashmir. After visiting a number of shops, mulling over my options, and negotiating hard for a good deal, I finally settled on a crimson yak carpet with an ornate tree of life design in the center for $1600, tax and tariff free, inclusive of door-to-door overseas delivery. Satisfied with both selection and price, I bought the carpet (in my imagination) and thanked the salesman for his time.

And, I forgot to mention, in the morning my ISIC scam finally came to fruition, as well. After the English graduate secretary emailed STA Travel for the third time with a letter alleging my studentness, they finally believed me (it's true, right?) and issued me the coveted, blue discount card. Then, I was finally free to leave the city, about which I will write more, presently.

The rest of this post was lost in an Internet service interruption. I will reproduce it at another time.

02 April 2008

Sorry, sir!

1. I can't get a Syrian visa from the Syrian embassy in Delhi, because I'm American. So my application has to receive special clearance from Damascus. This may take anywhere between one day and never. Sorry, sir!

2. If I am granted a visa, also since I am American, I can only get a single entry, contrary to what I've heard elsewhere, which means I cannot visit Lebanon and then return to Syria to go on to Turkey. I would have to fly to Beirut and its semi-functioning airport and then enter Syria from Lebanon, assuming the border is open. Or skip Lebanon. Sorry, sir!

3. If I am granted a visa, also since I am American, I have to pay a fee of $100 PLUS 6000 Rs. ($150), which seems like an insane amount of money, reciprocity or no, since the visa is only good for two weeks. Sorry, sir!

4. I cannot book a flight to either country until I get the Syrian visa.

5. There are some special discount fares available to both Beirut and Damascus for exactly the day I'd like to leave India, but they are student fares, so I need a valid student ID to book them. Sorry, sir!

6. My international student ID expired on March 31, 2008. STA Travel in Delhi refuses to renew it, book my flights, or be at all flexible or helpful in any way. One more time: my ISIC card expired THREE DAYS AGO. Sorry, sir!

7. I contacted Rutgers, hoping I could get a letter or something emailed to STA Travel, which said an email would do. The Graduate English secretary kindly sent them such an email after I paid Rutgers a $2000 re-registration fee ("I" meaning concerned interests on my behalf).

8. STA Travel now insists that an email will not do. I need a scanned image of a signed and stamped letter (stamped!? is this "Brazil"?). I pleaded to no avail. Friends, all I want is avail. I used to live near Avail! But now avail is lost to me. Sorry, sir!

9. I asked STA Travel if I could book my flight over the phone, because I have no other reason to stay in Delhi, except to wait for my Syrian visa, which I can collect anytime once my application is approved. They said, "No." They cannot take credit card numbers over the phone. Email? No. They have to swipe my card in person. I have to admire their security precautions, though, this being India (apologies, friends), I am quite surprised by them. They even seem unbribable. Sorry, sir! They said I could leave cash with them and, if I ended up not booking a flight, they would refund it to me. I looked at them askance.

10. I cannot book a flight until I get a Syrian visa. STA will not let me book a special discount flight until I have an ISIC card. I can't get an ISIC card until Rutgers sends documentation to STA that STA finds acceptable. I can't book the special discount flights outside of Delhi, therefore, I cannot leave Delhi until I book a flight. I am stuck in Delhi.

Postscript: I hope everyone who read yesterday's post noticed the date. Seems half and half from the reactions I've been getting.