"Coffee Wars" boils over!

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oMqutKBS5iE&hl=en_US&feature=player_embedded&version=3] I've spent a sizable chunk of my spare time this past year writing and teaching for Killing My Lobster, the Second City of San Francisco. And while I feel like I spent the first few months making my bones, earning the respect of my talented co-writers and our equally gifted actors and directors, I like to think I've gone on to acquit myself over this year's shows.

The latest, and possibly most satisfying, example of this is the film I wrote and produced for Killing My Lobster Holds the Mayo, their final show of the year. The film is called The Coffee Wars and it's a Ken Burns parody, showcasing the rivalry between two of the best-known (and my favorite) artisan coffee brands in town.

It's blown up beyond all (well, my) expectations thus far, garnering over 8,00014,000 hits in less than three days, and crazy amounts of Twitter chatter. It's even attracted a hater or two, which is always a sure sign of online heat.

Kudos to director Rand Courtney, actors Fred Wickham and Sarah Mitchell, and the rest of the superb cast, crew, and musicians who made this film such a joy to make and, I hope, to watch. With apologies to Joan Baez.

Varkala, interrupted: India Day 20-21 (Delhi--Trivandrum)

The morning in Delhi just flew by, what with getting ready, taking it easy that day, and what not. We got to the airport in the late afternoon for our plane from Delhi to Trivandrum, the closest airport to Varkala. Why Varkala? Well, we wanted to see India’s south, and had planed to meet Dani there, but my hospital stay prevented that. But we had the plane tickets so off we went.

Before that, though, we were off to Dani & Ashik’s hotel. Unlike our ten-dollar-a-day diet, they chose a fancy, FANCY resort outside Delhi, close to the airport. So we went to visit them there. VERY kibosh. I think they had marble floors. And a swimming pool! You have no idea how nice a swimming pool can feel until you’ve been in India two weeks.

(Natacha doesn't want me to post those pictures because, you know, bathing suits)

We hauled ass (late!) to the Delhi airport, with the usual hassles and late flights. Natch ate some in-flight food that didn’t agree with her, and was sick by the next morning. That’s right, folks. poor natacha can only eat soupFantastic ThaliIndia is such hard traveling that even the AIRPLANE food will get you.

The next morning I found us an A/C room that she would be more comfortable in and searched for clean bandages for my forehead. It was across from a soccer field and near at least one good restaurant. We had an amazing Thali—um, actually, I had it, Natacha wasn’t feeling up to it and had a bowl of soup instead.

We found our way to the outdoor market, which was a cramped and full of exciting visuals, but Natacha wasn’t feeling her usual market-loving self.

So we walked across town back to our neighborhood for a quiet dinner, spotting the local YMCA along the way, with this unfortunately named class: "Catch them Young."

unfortunate class title

Trivandrum isn’t anything to be excited about…just a place to wait until your wife feels better. Give it a miss.

The Dehli Recovery Plan: India day 18-19

a parade goes on underneath us 2 dani, natacha, ashikunfortunate fast food productWhen recovering from a hospital stay, I wouldn’t choose Delhi as a city to recover in. But there I was. Fortunately, Natacha’s friend Dani and our new friend Ashik were in town for a few days, so Natacha didn’t have to be bored to tears while I rested in the room and drank water and ate bananas. I joined them for meals, coming out to eat, mostly at Sam's restaurant at the top of the Vivek hotel.

family restaurant

But even in the afternoon, if a restaurant was too hot or something, I would get dizzy and have to leave. Thanks to the whole hospital trauma, whenever my body got a little overheated, it would remember what happened before and tense up I'd get anxious and that would make things worse and...no more passing out, thank god, but it took some weeks for my body to not freak out if I got too hot.

Going out at night wasn't a problem though.

Locals-only cafe, 10 PM, Delhi

Natacha took a shopping excursion with D & A, as they were looking for items that Ashik could sell in Germany when the two of them traveled there later in the year.

from a rooftop restaurant

a parade goes on underneath us 3A couple of highlights: we ran into one of our French student friends at our favorite restaurant, the Banana Leaf.

And one night, while having dinner at Sam's rooftop restaurant in the Paranganj, I watched a parade go by underneath us, horses, carriages, floats, and marchers: I don't know what it was about, but it was quite a sight in that dark Delhi evening. Mostly we just prepped for Varkala, for a VERY well-earned beach vacation.

Sick as a Delhi dog: India Day 15 (Delhi part 2 Day 1)

Definitely a sweeps-week two parter this time, folks.

I awoke on the train around 7 AM, (seven hours to go!) feeling like shit, dryer than the dust that the fans whipped around. Read more of my book on India (eighty pages on India and Pakisatan? Come on, Luce). Buying Chai from a vendor calling out “Chai, chai chai” in the reediest most haggard voice you can imagine. Watching legless men drag themselves from berth to berth, sweeping under the bunks and begging for rupees. Watching Natacha play cards with students on their way to Delhi—and win.

We exited the Delhi train station just before noon. Walked straight to the Paranganj, and found a hotel—I don’t know how we chose the Lords Hotel, but we did. They gave us a room on the fourth floor. So we had to climb up all the stairs with our stuff. I flopped onto the bed, feeling genuinely sick. Natacha turned on the “air cooler,” which a many of you know, is a big fan with a pan of water in it that is supposed to blow “cooled” air into the room. It didn’t. I fell asleep, fading in and out for a couple hours while Natacha made plans to change our flight to Varkala. We were supposed to fly out the next day to meet her friend Dani down there, but with me sick, that was no longer an option.

After a while it was clear that the air cooler wasn’t doing shit, so Natacha had us moved to the one room they had left with air conditioning, a windowless cell on the first floor. I hadn’t gotten any better, ans so Natacha got some food for herself and got some more water and bananas for me.

I laid in bed for the rest of the day, listening endlessly to my Comedy Death Ray MP3’s and trying to ingest water and bananas. When Natacha went out to dinner, I opened up the cookies I bought at the Jaipur train station and ate those. Not the smartest thing to do, but I wanted to treat myself to some because I felt so miserable.

Nighttime hit, and despite sleeping all day I suspected sleeping all night was not going to be a problem. I took my malaria pill, concerned about having missed a day, went straight to sleep.

That’s when everything went to shit. Sort of literally.

I won’t draw you a picture—and DEFINITELY not a color one. Suffice to say that I woke up around 11 PM with intense, stabbing stomach pain. I passed out in the bathroom and hit my head on the wall, cutting my forehead.

The part I wasn’t conscious for was this: Natacha couldn’t open the door because my body was blocking it. She finally pushed her way in and found me unconscious with blood running down my face. Pleasant!

She couldn’t rouse me. She yelled for help, over and over, and the only people that came by were women. One of them ran and got the men at the hotel desk, around which time Natacha managed to wake me up.

Once the guys from the hotel got to us, Natacha barked orders right and left. She told them to get a car to take us to the hospital. I was still half-conscious, and not able to get to my feet, so I crawled on hands and knees out of the room and down the hall, stopping only to cover the stairs with vomit.

I crawled through the lobby, down the hallway, and into a vehicle of some sort. I insist it was a van, but Natacha tells me that it was a fancy tuk-tuk of some sort, as vans and cars aren’t allowed in the Paranganj. Whatever, completely-in-command-of-her-facilities Natacha. Half-conscious-Ken calls bullshit.

There’s a few pertinent things I remember about that ride. I remember passing the hospital and asking why. I remember being taken instead to a “medical center” that handled westerners (and as such was probably better equipped & more hygienic than the local hospital).

I remember getting put on a gurney (or was it a wheelchair?) and placed in a room. I remember a bellowing Germanic voice complaining about something. I remember loud rock music. And I remember Natacha telling the loud Germanic voice to turn down the music, and the loud Germanic voice refusing to unless we turned off the air conditioning. I remember getting an IV, and then falling asleep.

To be continued, obviously…


India at 80 KPH

A few thoughts while natacha’s off using skype

India Day 4: Musical Guesthouses

India Day 6: Huckster Ghats and Hippie Ghettos

India Day 7: Guilt and Papayas

India Day 8: City Palace, yes. Lake Palace…?

Desert Sunrise: India Day 13 (Camel Trek day two)

sunrise 10 As is wont to happen when you’ve tried to sleep through a sandstorm, getting up and having to tiptoe past sleeping camels and stray dogs just to take a piss, and having to haul a sandy blanket over yourself to stay warm, we didn’t really sleep in.

In fact, Natacha & I were up early enough that we could hike to the top dune and watch the desert sun rise over the dunes. A treasured moment.

sunrise 12 sunrise 3

We brushed what sand we could out of various crevices, knocked back some chai and—believe it or not, eggs—and saddled up once again to head out of the desert.

By the way, did I mention that Brit Kate was basically c-teasing Brit Richard the whole trip? Oh yes. Hopefully Natacha will fill in the details on that, as she has a better memory of it. But yep. British girls are famous across the travelers’ communities for basically treating the world like spring break, and our duo was no exception: flirting with the camel herders, looking for dude attention wherever they could find it, and drinking and toking whatever was offered them.

(Here's a New York Times article on how horrendous British tourists are. They're the new "ugly Americans!")

Tennessee rode on Emma’s camel on the way back and I wondered if that didn’t represent some new intimacy they might have had. And by “new intimacy,” I mean the night before, maybe they did it. Though to be fair, the dual-camel ride was my only proof.

Earlier in the trip Emma had mentioned that they might spend the night at a guest house in the fort. I mentioned that the Lonely Planet was trying to warn people away from that, as all the water runoff of the city (from showers, toilets, etc.) erodes the sandstone foundation of the fort. On the trek back, she said, “Ken, Tennessee tells me that the lonely planet just says that because the hotels outside the fort pay them to.” Oh, okay, Emma. Instead of believing the backpacker’s authority on the area (Lonely Planet, not me) and UNESCO, it makes more sense to believe a guy who’s paycheck comes from a tourism company located inside the fort. Whom you probably did it with.

camels continue

Richard hoofs it 2

On the way back, Richard was sick of riding his camel, so he decided to walk along the herd. In flip-flops. Frankly, it seemed he’d only gone on the trip to follow Kate and Emma (mostly Kate, who had been traveling for the last 8 months sans boyfriend).

Considering the amazing places Rich had traveled to in the past two years (Mongolia, for one) I have never seen someone traveling for two years be such a complainer.

I do remember Emma cooing to him, “Riiiiiiiiich, Riiiiiiich, is that more comfortable than riiiiiiding?

Should Iiiiiiiiiii get off my camel toooo?” And Rich basically having a plume of black smoke coming off his head, he was so miserable. Kind of hilarious.

Richard hoofs it 1

We made it back to the trailhead in about two hours, posed for a group photo and got back to Jaisalmer by noon or so.

We and found a cheap guest house (like six-bucks cheap) And spent the rest of the day looking around the fort.

Remember what I said how amazing the fort was from a distance? It was no less impressive from inside…just a fascinating place. Narrow streets, Ancient temples, a palace, cows, dogs, tiny shops…there were ramparts all along the edge with fantastic views of the city around us. We walked around, shopped a bit, and mostly imagined what fort life would’ve been like.

We then picked up our train tickets from Jaisalmer to Delhi, and later, had dinner with our travel pals Marie and Greg (whom we ran into when picking up our packs from the trekking office), taking them to the rooftop restaurant we’d been to before. In our last night in Jaisalmer, it was a pleasure to share the dazzling evening views of the fort with them.


India at 80 KPH

A few thoughts while natacha’s off using skype

India Day 4: Musical Guesthouses

India Day 6: Huckster Ghats and Hippie Ghettos

India Day 7: Guilt and Papayas

India Day 8: City Palace, yes. Lake Palace…?

Hell train: India Day 14 (Jaisalmer--Delhi)

The day started out fantastic. Seriously.

Because any day spent in and around the Jaisalmer fort is a fantastic one. Once again, we ventured from our phenomenally cheap guest house (so cheap that it had Indian residents living in it!), into the Jaisalmer fort. Just walking around the perimeter threw us back a hundred years.

We had breakfast at the July 8th Natural Restaurant, a little place by the camel trek office where the fruit shakes were safe and the owner was a chatty mom-type who told me that she hurt her leg when she was pushed while disembarking a train, but her dish washer had mystical powers and he healed it.

She also offered to make us vegetable Paranthas for the train—“with yogurt, not water, so they will not go bad without refrigeration”—and I took her up on that. Thanks new Indian Mom!

We did the audio tour of the Jaisalmer palace, which was a pleasant walk through the history of the place and reiterated that the preservation society was working hard to save the fort from the increased water runoff from inside the fort (so there, Emma!).

After that, we had some horrible Italian food, walked around a bunch more, shopped for jewelry but didn’t buy anything, and shopped for fabrics and did: On a tiny side-street we stumbled across one of the very few women-owned shops in the fort. Natacha talked with the proprietress for an hour or so, hearing about the difficulties of being a woman shop owner. How she can’t put her best pieces outside to draw foot traffic because the men from the other shops vandalize or steal them. She gets her inventory directly from women in the surrounding weaving villages, and she did have some lovely blankets, pillow cases, scarves and such.

Natacha bought a bunch from her, as N likes to support women-run businesses when we travel. The woman hadn’t made a sale in days, and was so grateful she gave us free stuff, like a shoulder bag that Natacha used every day for the next three months.

Come afternoon, we grabbed our bags and made our way to the train station. This was our first sleeper train in India (our first train in India, period). We took “sleeper” class, the lowest-class sleeper car, to save a few bucks; plus, since the desert nights were cool, we figured we didn’t need A/C; just keeping the windows open should do the trick.

We struck up conversations with the brit couple and the lone Kiwi on the platform. On the platform, we met a few other tourists, all of whom had higher-class tickets than us. Each time we told a backpacker what class we had, they sort of shifted uneasily and said, “well, it’s probably fine…” I swear you could hear the ellipse.

Occasionally we’d see skeevy looking Indian guys hawking locks and chains for luggage. Guide books generally recommended that you keep an eye on your bags at all times, and if you can’t, lock ‘em up. We suspected that the skeeves had some sort of racket where they had keys to all the locks they sold.

Once on the train, the berths were bench-hard. The bottom berths were benches where you’d sit during the daylight hours. We made it a point to have our bags up with us at all times—under the bottom bunk while sitting, and with us in the top berth when lying down to sleep.

Maybe a couple hours into the trip, they started closing all the windows, because too much dust was coming in. Around that time, I did the math, and realized that we would not on the train for 14 hours, but 19. And the misery began.

Despite the one-berth-one-passenger rule of sleeper cars, our berths were crowded with young Indian men, who, though they each had their own bunk farther up or down the train, preferred to sit four-to-a bunk and keep each other company. They noticed that Natacha’s book was about Hinduism, and mine had Indian imagery on the cover as well (it was Edward Luce’s excellent In Spite of The Gods), and started to ask Natacha about both of them. We talked with them for hours (mostly Natacha; my social skills had taken a header in India), and found out that they were soldiers being transferred from Jaisalmer to Jaipur.

One of the soldiers showed us photos from his travels in Jaisalmer and Udaipur. He always posed the same way, not smiling and some elbows-back model move. We teased him about that. It’s funny how non-westerners so rarely smile for photographs.

So we talked, and laughed, and tried to make sense to each other. At one point they insisted that we share their dinner with us, and I had a few bites. Definitely the spiciest food I ate in India.

On the one hand, this airless, dusty, crowded train voyage was hell. We spent hours straining to forget we were being constantly stared and/or laughed at. I’d wish it on no one I liked. BUT, it was the first time we experience the Real India. And by this I mean we spent time with Indians who were genuinely interested in talking to us. Who were not looking for our money. Their English wasn’t fantastic, but as will always happen when traveling, we made do.

After a while, the heat and dryness took its toll. It wore us down. We ran low on water. I ran out when the train stopped in Jaipur and bought some grubby bottles and some snacks. I counted off each hour as it slipped by. I hope I never have to utter the phrase, “six hours down, thirteen to go” ever again.

Sleeping in the top bunks made it even hotter. There were two fans in the ceiling which seemed to have no effect whatsoever. I spent the night propped up on my day pack and a sack of laundry. Natacha had the bulk of our bags in her bunk, to her credit. I popped a Benadryl to help me sleep. Not one of my better ideas, as it left me drier than that pack of tissues in your glove compartment.


India at 80 KPH

A few thoughts while natacha’s off using skype

India Day 4: Musical Guesthouses

India Day 6: Huckster Ghats and Hippie Ghettos

India Day 7: Guilt and Papayas

India Day 8: City Palace, yes. Lake Palace…?

Hello camel, good-bye car: India Day 12 (Camel trek Day 1)

street oxen A big day, not just because we were about to embark on a fabulous two-day camel trek. But the day we gave Ramesh the FUCKING heave.

street cricket The night before, we told him we were letting him go, and asked to meet him early the next morning to give him his tip. We arranged to meet him in one of the main town squares ,just before we were to meet the camel guides. This way, he couldn’t pull any shit because we wear in public.

We wanted to give him a tip before sending him on his way. He did meet us, coming off with a strange combination of nervous, preoccupied, and angry. He asked us to write a note to his boss saying that we were relieving him of his duties. We did so. He also offered to stay in Jaisalmer while we were on our trek, in case anything went wrong on the trek. We said NO, thank you. He then walked to the edge of the square and made a cel phone call and sulked.

Soon, the camel trek guides showed up in a jeep. Soon another of the trekkers showed up, Richard, a tall young British guy who had been traveling for the past two years. He came by to tell us his two companions were on their way. So we waited, and waited.

Ramesh came back, holding out his cel phone. He said his boss, who wanted to know why we were letting him go, was on the line. Natacha took the phone and said that Ramesh was a very good driver, but that we didn’t want to take a car for the balance of our trip. We figured there was no reason to complain about his attitude or his scams. The guy has to make a living…we just didn’t want it to be at our expense. He refused to take a tip, which was fine with me, and then we were DONE with him.

Finally, about 45 min late, the two British girls, Kate and Emma (of COURSE those were their names) showed up. They had just spent long holidays in Goa and were on the tail end of their trip. Kate looked like the blonde from the British “Coupling” and Emma looked like a taller, meatier version of Jenny Agutter. I’m pretty sure part of the reason they were late is that they had to do their makeup.

We all piled into the jeep, Natacha and I hi-fiving each other for finally leaving Ramesh behind.

After a group breakfast with the Brits and two Spanish girls—our full group—we piled into a van and headed out to the desert

The camels, along with a half-dozen guides, were waiting for us, each loaded up with blankets and reins.

One of them had a nasty gash on its head, but they had him out there nonetheless.

damaged camel 1natacha on the camel, loving itgunga ken 1

Each one kneeled down so we could climb up on him.

We rode these big, lopey animals in a line several hours into the dessert, over hills, dunes, and past trees and scrub. I named my camel Perry, after a kid I went to junior high with. He was way too tall for his age and in PE he had a loping gait that reminded me of my camel. my camel About two hours in, at the hottest part of the day, we camped out under a massive shade tree and had lunch. The guides lit a fire and fried up pakora and chips of some sort.

Kate and Emma talked about their weddings---or rather, the weddings they expected to have. They went on and on, egged on by me. It was fascinating in a real-life-Bridget-Jones sort of way. The subject got to the “first dance” song. Kate wanted hers to be “You Do Something To Me” by Paul Weller. I asked if it was a cover of the Cole Porter song and she didn’t know who I was talking about. Emma wanted some horrible Billy Joel song for her wedding; I can’t remember which. I really hope it wasn’t “I love you just the way you are.” That would have been too horrible for comprehension.

After lunch and a short nap, we continued trekking until we hit the dunes—lush, smooth hillsides and soft, gradual ripples of sand. It’s here where we set up camp. Natacha & I took photos of each other on the dunes and climbed around for a while.

hello, natacha!

That evening, we ate paranthas—there’s really only so much “real” food you can pack onto camels and eat. Not so much in the way of veggies in the desert. Or dessert, for that matter.

Stray dogs followed us but mostly kept their distance.

wild dog sleeps

At sundown, one of the guides, who wore a NY Liberty shirt and called himself “Tennessee,” asked who wanted to climb up to the highest dune at sunset. We were all a bit tired out, but Emma went—just her, Tennessee, and I think a few other guides. I think Tennessee was trying to get with Emma.

Natacha & I watched the sunset on our own:

ken at sunset 1

sunset over the dunes 2

They all came back after sunset, and the guides lit a fire and Tennessee took out an empty water bottle—one of these big plastic sparkletts-type things that had been drained of drinking water—and began to sing what we believe are the songs of the camel herders. He had a strong, clear voice and the songs were evocative of lonely dessert nights tending to your flock. singing around the fire 2

He used the bottle for percussion—big resonant hits with low tones. I recorded some of the songs. There was even some dancing going on.

emma dances with a camel herder

After a few tunes, he offered the bottle to us to sing songs of our own. Everyone was timid and passed on it. I said what the hell, and with the bottle in my lap, did the song I knew with the most basic drum hook I could think of: “Love Stinks” by the J. Geils band. None of them had ever heard the song before but It went over very well.

The brits eventually tried their hand at some Oasis songs, which was fun—I think Oasis are destined to become the new classic rock sing-alongs; our next “Sweet home Alabama,” “Satisfaction,” “Yellow Submarine,” etc. Some industrious desert nomad came along earlier in the evening and had pot and cold beer to sell—putting the now-warm bottles Emma and I bought before leaving Jaisalmer to shame. So there was some getting wasted going on, though not by N & I.

We decided to turn in, just as the guides decided to really get singing. So not so much sleeping for a while. “turning in,” incidentally, consisted of lying down on one of the many camel blankets and covering ourselves with our spanking new sarongs.

In the middle of the night a sandstorm kicked up, so we found more blankets to cover ourselves with. It got cold, and we were full of sand in the morning, but damn, what a fantastic night.

Have I mentioned how amazing this trip is?


India at 80 KPH

A few thoughts while natacha’s off using skype

India Day 4: Musical Guesthouses

India Day 6: Huckster Ghats and Hippie Ghettos

India Day 7: Guilt and Papayas

India Day 8: City Palace, yes. Lake Palace…?

The last drive: India Day 11 (Jodhpur--> Jaisalmer)

(Alternate title: “The last straw.”)

Long drive to Jaisalmer, so up early and off early. We made our usual Stuckey’s stop earlier than usual. Then, after lots of road, small towns, and the occasional herd of road goats, got within visual distance of Jaisalmer.

What can I say about the Jaisalmer fort? A real-life sand castle. A Star Wars set piece. An outtake from “Dune.” It is one of the most magnificent things I’ve ever seen—the photo doesn’t do it justice. Truly one of the most glorious sights I’ve ever seen.

And then came the last straw with Ramesh. Jaisalmer being on the edge of the Rajastani desert, camel treks are quite popular there. Ramesh promised us he could find us a good place to have a camel trek, and that he could get it for us at “half-price”—something about me being a writer would come in handy. He assurued us that he could make it happen, and after all, he did find us a good place to stay in Jodhpur, so we said what the hell.

He took us to an area outside Rajastan that was known for decent camel trekking. So far so good. He took us to a compound with a series of huts, sort of a guest house for a camel experience. We noticed that a couple of the huts had their own air conditioners. Again, all right. Then we med the guy who ran the place, a tall dude with a loud starched shirt and a long pinky nail…the kind of guy you’d expect to sell you fake gold jewelry or style your hair in Queens. Not very camel-y.

We sat down with some tea and talked options for camel trek. He talked about taking us out into the desert on a “camel cart” (basically a horse-drawn cart with blankets) for a few hours at night. For a price at around double that of an actual camel trek. We explained what we wanted, and he said to get it would cost even more money. Then told us a cautionary tale about the German tourist on a camel trek who wanted to sleep by the fire, and got bitten by scorpions as a result, and whose life was saved because the trek guides were there. He said to get a trek at the price we were asking, he couldn’t guarantee that he could have guides to stay with us and protect us from god-knows-what-in-the-desert. Trying to scare us into paying his price. You can imagine how Natacha reacted to that.

Basically, Ramesh took us to a rip-off joint. And lied to us for the commission.

Equals the last straw.

We had Ramesh take us into Jaisalmer and said good-bye for the next two days, not telling him where we were staying. Once we got situated, we found a place to book a full camel trek for the next day, for about 1/2 of what jewelry boy quoted us. Then we bought light billowy shirts and pants for the desert heat. And after walking around the town a bit and having a nice dinner at a gorgeous rooftop restaurant in full view of the fort, we called Ramesh and told us we were firing him. Which worried us a little bit, but also felt FUCKING AWESOME. Um, I mean, it was a relief.

beauty parlor sign


India Day 1: Good God, We’re Here

Day Two/Delhi: In Which We Punt

India Day 3: Boo-yah

India at 80 KPH

A few thoughts while natacha’s off using skype

India Day 4: Musical Guesthouses

India Day 5: Jaipur, Fort, Shopping

India Day 6: Huckster Ghats and Hippie Ghettos

(UPDATE: Many) Indians are short

India Day 7: Guilt and Papayas

India Day 8: City Palace, yes. Lake Palace…?

Forts, spices, pushy drivers: India Day 10 (Jodphur day 2)

view of the blue city You know that moment where you realize that no matter how bad a situation is, it’s not THAT bad because some one else has it worse? We had ours at breakfast today.

Natacha in the courtyardOver chai and muesli, we met a haggard-looking pair of Italian ladies at our hotel restaurant, who also had a driver and were just shy of terrified of him. Their tour (also not the best planned), consisted of driving all day and staying at whatever hotel their driver told them to. Since they usually arrived near sundown, they were generally too wiped out to argue, and the times they did, their driver bullied them into compliance—if he spoke to them at all! So here they were on some forced death-march of a car tour, and our biggest problem is that we only won most of our arguments with Ramesh. I didn’t hear the Love Boat theme or anything, but I did feel a little better that we seemed to be doing better than other tourists in our situation.

That said, we did notice that all the drivers seemed to be taking their charges to this hotel. So we did get sucked into that.

Today was really one of my favorite days of our trip, because we saw what would become one of my favorite sites: The Jodhpur fort.Jodhpur fort, from waaaaaay below

If you’ve read previous entries, you know that I’m quickly running out of superlatives. So let me just tell you what I’ve learned.

  • Rajastan literally means “the land of kings.” That’s because each city was its own kingdom.
  • Each of these kingdoms had to project itself, so each one built a fort
  • each fort contained one (or several) palaces, one (or several) temples, and quarters, open squares, defense emplacements and a hell of a lot more.
  • we’re talking big forts

Not having seen Delhi’s Red Fort and not realizing the Ghost City was one of these as well, Jodphur was really my first conscious exploration of one of these. And I was frankly blown away. HUGE, this place.

The fact that it’s high on a hill does a few things for it: makes it even more majestic, and of course defensible. So, you know, good call there.

It also afforded spectacular views of the city of Jodhpur. Jodphur’s known as the “blue city” because its buildings and homes are in fact painted blue—have been for centuries. view of the blue city

Supposedly makes the buildings cooler and—get this—repels mosquitoes. Yet another reason to join Blue Man Group.

Also great (if smoggy) view of the current rajah's current palace: the city & the current palace

Great stories abound in this place, such as the one about the dead concubines. Now hear me out. When an invading army deposed a king, he was killed, as were his concubines. ramparts cannon 1Just inside the main doors to the palace, there are a row of tiny handprints in the concrete…these are of a particular defeated king’s concubines, just before they were put to the sword. Gruesome!

Also impressive are the high battlements around the palace perimeter, on which cannons bought and gifted from around the world were kept. Many came from Portugal and China, but I spotted a number from Britain and possibly the USA as well; all the result of trading with the kingdom of Jodhpur.

That was what really hit home in the Jodhpur fort: KINGS. These were actual Kingdoms, with royal courts, where representatives from other kingdoms would be presented, and there would be trading with other countries, but you had to respect the laws of the kingdom. princes palace

Camel races! Elephant tug-of-wars! Armories of hand-crafted guns, and knives, and knives that shot bullets, and armor made to fight and kill and take over other kingdoms! This is the kind of place where Rudyard Kipling books and David Lean movies were born. Amazing.

Anyway, I was so entranced by the cannons that I lost Natacha up there. I looked for her at the celebration at the fort’s Jain temple. lionNot there. I looked along the outdoor market that sold flowers and food to leave at the temple altars. Nope. I went back up to the cannon ramparts, back into the palace, even to the gift shop where I’d bought some postcards and an elephant painting. No dice. Almost drove myself to dehydration running around looking for her in that hot desert sun. After we found each other again, We resolved to always have a planned meeting place when we’re touring around like this. We’ve been breaking that resolution ever since.

After a side trip to another, smaller palace on the way, Ramesh dropped us back into town. We spotted a spice store, which was in our guide book but I think Ramesh warned us away from. but we went in anyway. We’re pretty sure of why he didn’t want us to go in there: it was run by a woman. We spent a lovely hour there talking about, trying, and eventually buying spices from a very charming young lady. The spice store had been started by her father, but he’d retired (passed?) not long ago and his seven daughters were running the two stores. Natacha took every chance she could to try to give women her business while in India. We bought some wonderful aromatic spice teas and a number of cooking spices from her while there. Jodhpur has been a center for trading for years and is perhaps most famous for its spice trade. We were happy to have captured our own little part of that history.

We walked around a part of town we hadn’t seen yet, where I bought a sumbwa suit for myself. Well, three gorgeous blue-patterned pieces of cloth that would make a sumbwa suit, which we used as sarongs for the rest of the trip. Later, a group of small kids in a broken pedal-cart followed us around for a few hundred meters and try to get our attention, grabbing at our hands and clothes. It was like being in a Little Rascals episode, if the Little Rascals were starving.

By the time we shook Vijay and Our Gang, them, it was dark and we did a bit more shopping, not finding much of anything but a watermelon we planned to eat the next morning. Then, we walked back through the outdoor market, missing it already.


India Day 1: Good God, We’re Here

Day Two/Delhi: In Which We Punt

India Day 3: Boo-yah

India at 80 KPH

A few thoughts while natacha’s off using skype

India Day 4: Musical Guesthouses

India Day 5: Jaipur, Fort, Shopping

India Day 6: Huckster Ghats and Hippie Ghettos

(UPDATE: Many) Indians are short

India Day 7: Guilt and Papayas

India Day 8: City Palace, yes. Lake Palace…?

Vietnam Day 3-4: Dow-now-NYEAH-nyow, DOW-now-neyow-now

...Which is guitarspeak for "We're on the Mekong Delta and I can't get 'Purple Haze" out of my head." Call me Ugly American all you want, but I dare you to come from my generation, take a boat up these admittedly gorgeous rivers, and NOT think of every Vietnam War movie you've ever seen.

We've just finished up a two-day tour of the Mekon Delta, primarily so Natacha could get an up-close look at the noted Floating Markets of the Mekong. Pretty great things to see: boats from all over VN and Cambodia carrying all kinds of produce, selling to boats from all over. The good news is we saw two of them. The bad news is that they start at 2 AM(!), and by the time we got to them (11 AM and 8 AM, respectively), they've started to wind down.

(Photos at some point, promise)

But we had some good times nonetheless. The ass-early-morning bus they poured us into at Ho Chi Minh City hauled us three hours to a riverboat, which sped us up the delta. On the way, we saw how people lived on the delta. I'll post some pictures when I have a chance.

We passed one of the (tail-ended) floating markets, which consisted of, well, boats that sold things,primarily produce. You could tell selling boat and what it sold because it had a long pole with the items in question attached to it. I pineapple boat had pineapples on their pole, etc. I noticed no one sold wide-screen TVs.

Although we didn't see too much, I was impressed with the idea of these floating markets. The Mekong delta consists of rrivers, tributaries and islands galore, which means that people come in from miles around to buy & sell at these things, even as far as Cambodia, as the border isn't too far off.

Our 2 day/1 night tour also included yet more gorgeous Mekong river-and-jungle scenery, and stop at a couple of islands. One was a tourist trap where they showed demonstrations of how they made puffed-rice ( like popcorn but with hot sand instead of oil) and coconut candy, a fillings-tugging taffy that was flavor-free and generally horrendous. Natacha and I ditched the demos and found a coconut to drink.

Island #2 was lunch and bicycle rental. We grabbed a couple of bikes and Natch found us a side road where we could bike along the delta and over to some villages not on the tourist path, thank god. Again, it was a pleasure to see how people lived on these tiny islands: bathing in the river, poling longboats here and there, letting their oxen get a cool dip in the waters.

Oh, and did I mention that our guide was a compete tool? Obviously going from some sort of corny-joke-laden guide script with jokes like:

"And remember, when you leave bus, take bag with you. Take camera with you. And take wife with you, because driver single. HA ha ha."

"And remember, make sure you have hotel key. If you lose key, you can come to my room. HA ha ha."

And other relatively misogynist yuks that surely play with the rubes from the midwest.

We also hit a land market with some fantastic produce. And people selling a lot of snakes. To eat, use their venom, and god knows what else. But there they were. Snakes. All kinds. For sale.

By the time we'd hit Can Tho, where we spent the night in an under-construction guest house, we'd developed a little retinue for ourselves: A (slightly) older, terribly attractive French couple living in New Caledonia who adored travel so much that they'd taken their infant children up mountains and what not. Good to know that's possible. Also met an equally adorable young couple, he from Finland, she from Italy, who had been maintaining a long-distance relationship (he in Fin, she in various NGO gigs in various countries) since meeting in an international college program in Malta several years back. I told them my cousin had spent something like seven years in a long-distance relship, and was now living with her man and they'd just had their first child. It's hard to tell if a story that ends in a nice now-they-have-a-baby ending has any sort of positive effect on kids in their early 20's. We had some nice meals with these folks and spent a pleasant evening along the riverside in Can Tho. Where they have a lovely statue of Ho Chi Minh apparently wearing an incredibly thick suit.

Next morning we got up around 6, let's say, and still got to the Can Tho market too late to see much floating-marketing going on. Granted, the market was open. There were boats, and they were selling their pineapples and what not. But it was 9AM, the market had been open for a whopping 7 hours already. Cruising around in our 12-person boat full of gringos, we were just another target for the pineapple boat to sell their wares to at a drastic mark-up.

We also took the boat to a rice factory--a legitimate one this time, with dangerous-looking processing machinery that, were it the West, they wouldn't allow tourists anywhere near. After that it was back to the bus and a too-long trip back to Saigon.

But what was so striking about it was this place we were, that we boated through. The place I'd seen in some of my country's most critically acclaimed movies: Apocalypse now, The Deer Hunter, Platoon, hell, even Forrest Gump. And I was IN it, fortunately in a much more aesthetically and politically pleasing context. Well, it just affected me is all. I guess in that holy-shit-I'm-walking-through-Scorsese's-New-York way I used to get in NYC. But Jake Lamotta never napalmed the Lower East Side.

India Day 4: Musical Guesthouses

Not the best day for Natacha, but it ultimately worked out ok.

The previous night was a sleepless one, in a very cheap guesthouse (which our driver recommended), where the heat was sweltering, and the screens on the windows were busted. meaning we slept drenched in DEET with the fan on--and 'Tach was so concerned by skeeters that she slept fully clothed. I don't know if you've ever done this yourself, but your first time out just traumatizes your body. She ate nothing for breakfast & spent the morning sleepingin the car on the way to our next destination, the Rajastani city of Jaipur.

Ramesh our driver told us from the beginning that he was from Jaipur, so we gave him the benefit of the doubt and asked him to suggest a guesthouse that had, for Natacha's sake, had AC, and fit our budget. So.

He took us to a place that seemed servicable at first, so we dropped off our stuff and hung out in the room to relax. Until I realzed the bed was dirty. and had human hair in it.

And there was a docrot's office two floors down, directly above the restaurant. which is one of those tourist grifts they tell you about--the restaurant gives you food poisoning, and you're immediately taken to the doctor. oH but there's more.

Because the hotel was in the middle ofr what seemed to be a parking lot for tour busses. And for some reason, these (parked) tour busses seened to need to test their horns. Constantly. How much are we hating our driver right now?

So, despite the fact that Tash needed to rest in an A/C room, I took us out of there and made Ramesh take us to another hotel. Which turned out to be too expensive, but he got to collect his commission anyway, just for taking us there. And then another. Which turned out to be more than we wanted to pay, but less than the other one, and was clean, comfortable, and all around fantastic. The Pearl Palace Hotel in Jaipur, if you're wondering.

I got Tash settled in to rest, left her to sleep and went to visit Jaipur's charming-but-after-the-Taj-unimpressive City Palace.

Then back to the Pearl, where I had a lovely dinner convo with an 80 yr old British lady named Una, a retired child psychologist who was in the middle of a sort of "These are all the sights I want to see before I die" trip: Petra, Jodphur, Angkor Wat, etc. Natch slept that whole day and night, and after that we knew better than to put our trust in ol' Ramesh.

Good Name/Bad Name game

I'll populate this  with actual travel news soon, promise. Stuff's just been so hectic. But on a particularly long train trip from Jaisalmer to Delhi we made recently,  I talked Natcha into playing this travel game I made up, just to keep our brains working and our pop culture senses relatively fresh.


Simple game: Find a TV show or movie with a name that would would be the worst possible thing to name you genetailia.

And c'mon, you know you name your junk.  We all do it.

Finalists listed here. Scroll down to the bottom of each list for the winners.

[MALE Division]


"Dragonball Z"

"Gentle Ben"


"The Thing"

"The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly"

"Gentle Ben"

"Grizzly Adams"

"The Fountainhead"

"Battlestar Galactica"


"The Breakfast Club" (accent on that last word)

"The Sting"

WINNER: "James and the Giant Peach"


[FEMALE Division]:


"The Comfy Chair"

"The Wall"

"The Thing"

"The Closer"

"Patch Adams"

"Get Shorty"

"Lost In Space"


"A Fish Called Wanda"

"Pretty In Pink"

"Monster in a Box"

WINNER: "The Last Temptation of Christ"

Suggestions? Hit the comments below.

India at 80 KPH

Call it an advantage or a disadvantage, but one of the unique aspects of Rajahstan by road is the things you see from your car seat. Needless to say, driving in India is like little else--you see thatched roof huts next to under-construction A/C shopping malls next to churches--all interspersed with patches of seemingly unarable land that, a half-hour down the road, you see wheat being grown on.

LOVING my Powershot 850 whatever camera for this, as it incredibly captured these images while we were zooming along. More of these at the flickr site and as I can get 'em up.


India Day 3: Boo-yah

entrance to the Taj Mahal

It never occurred to me how long I'd wanted to see the Taj Mahal. Maybe all my life. And when we passed through the gate above, to see this amazing structure in its glory, It was an emotional moment for me. Scratch that one off the bucket list.

After four hours of Delhi to Agra traffic, lunch at a tourist trap our driver "recommended" to us (ie he gets free lunch and a commission), we made it to the Taj at the hottest time of the day...and none of that f***ing mattered. It was one of the most beautiful sights I've ever seen.

And it's not just the structure that's beautiful. Here's a few details from various parts of the Taj: detail 5detail 3detail 8detail 4detail 6 detail 2detail 1

Here's the interior dome of the mosque: interior of the mosque

Part of me just wanted to stay there all day...have lunch...cocktails...do laundry...curl up on one of the marble floors...but or course none of that's allowed. Except for the laundry thing--I forgot to ask.

From there, it was off to the "Ghost City," Fatehpur Sikri, a kingdom built centuries ago, but abandoned due to drought. It's still intact, right down to the walls and temples.

Entrance 2

One of them, called the "baby taj," is supposedly the building that inspired the architecture of the Taj Mahal.

ghostcity 3--the "baby taj"

prayer yarn in dark templeOne of the temples had an altar covered with little ties of brilliantly colored yarn. If you wanted to pray to someone, for their good health, success, etc., you took a piece of yarn, tied it there, and said a little prayer.

It's an amazing place, but the touts are thick as flies in this place...including some of the most annoying children, constantly trying to touch you, beg you for money, and generally keep themselves entertained at your expense. annoying kids

We also had a young man glom onto us, offering to be our guide, asking no donation, as he was supposedly the equivalent of a park ranger. We let him, but ditched him when the "tour" stopped by the "best" craft vendor. Odds are he was lying and this was yet another grift. Does that make us sound like jerks? Sorry. I guess you'd have to be there.

From there, we drove another two hours to Baratpur, a town on the way to Jaipur. we chose from one of two guide-"recommended" guest houses, took the cheaper one, and in our first non-AC bed in India, almost got heatstroke as the power quit for most of the night and we learned a valuable lesson about (1) choosing a place with ventilation, and (2) NOT choosing a place that our guide recommends. Well, actually we didn't learn that lesson until the next day. But that's a "day 4" story.

Ghost City sky

natacha at the tip of the shadow 1

Okay. So day one was great. We landed, the hotel guys came and took us to our mid-priced-but-swanky-for-us hotel (which I splurged on as a sort of "culture shock airlock"). Headed across various highways towards Delhi, seeing two and three people per motorcycle, cars that looked simultaneously new and forty years out of date, and impossibly thin dirty children living under the overpasses. That, and everything around us looked oven-baked. Welcome to Delhi. We got to the marble-floored (did I mention swanky) hotel lobby, and no sooner than we do does Natacha spot a french accent and starts up a convo with the young couple checking in next to us. They're grad students doing a semester in India, and they're helping get two friends of theirs checked in.

So we end up going to lunch with the four frenchies at a dynamite southern indian place in nearby Connaught Place, learning about the dos and dont's of India, and generally having a great time. This barely 90 minutes after touching down in the country. We joined them for a bit of a walk-around CP, spent some time at a city temple where people stopped by to pay worship ($, food, flowars) at the altars of a dozen different gods. As Chuck's girlfriend Debbie warned us, many of these people brought their animals with them, and since you have to remove your shoes before entering a temple, I had my first real exposure to the "everything in India is covered in a thin layer of shit" theory one of Natacha's friend shared with us. We then headed to the room to wash thoroughly and sleep off the 20-odd hour flight.

So that was Day One.

Day Two, we spent walking around CP (the city center) and formulating travel plans. Needless to day, Delhi is an incredibly vibrant city, teeming with life and color. It's also teeming with dirt, traffic, and people who seemed to view us as wallets with legs. Beggars galore, and also what the Lonely Planet calls "touts:" people who latch onto you in the street and try to sell you things, mostly transportation or tours, or they're trying to "direct" you towards the "good" travel agency. A typical tout enconter is this:

You're walking down a street in Delhi. An Indian man keeps pace with you for a while, then greets you, sympathizes with how hot it is, and immediately tries to offer you things. And doesn't stop. And doesn't take no for an answer the first 50 times. Occasionally, you'll get one who says that he's not trying to sell you anything, but is trying to "helpfully" guide you towards the "real," i.e. govenment-approved, travel agency. after the first dozen of them you catch on. And your sense of humor is all that will keep you from an international murder rap.

So after hours of these guys--including one at the restaurant who I though was being a genuinely nice guy, but Natacha knew better--we FINALLY find the ACTUAL government-approved travel agency, i.e. the one that won't rip us off. And it's our second day. And we (mostly I) REALLY want to visit the sights of Rajastan, which hosts most of the "classicly india" sights like the Taj Mahal and the Jaisalmer fort. And we have 13 days before we have to meet Natacha's friend at the southernmost tip of the country. And the sights of Rajastan loop takes most people two weeks minimum. And after hours of Delhi heat and touts affecting our judgement. So we, as I put it, punted. We took the decidedly tourist move of hiring a car & driver to take us around Rajastan.

Now, it's not entirely unheard of to do this. My dad, who's covered more ground than Alexander the Great, does this in most places he goes. People we talked to who'd been here, had suggested it as a viable alternative to India's oft-chaotic bus and train process. And we'd just gotten there, for christ's sake, and didn't know if we could handle the classic forms of backpacker transport, at least not when faced with a deadline.

So we did it, pondered our decision for hours, but were still genuinely glad we'd made one. It's not going to sink us financially...we'll do the night trains and bus station slaloms in the last 3 weeks of our time here.

Anyhoo, as I write this, we've continued to have a wonderful time, despite almost getting heatstroke in the middle of the night, Natacha getting sick for a day but bouncing back in time to go shopping, and my getting my breath taken away by the Taj Mahal. One of the Seven Wonders, folks.

Desperately trying to upload photos and failing. More later!