The wet and the dead: India day 30 (Haridwar) Part 2

Here in Haridwar, at the source of the Ganges river, people go to the ghats here to purify themselves in the waters. But every night thousands come here to honor their dead. So, just before sunset, we set out to the river Ghats, for the sunset ceremony.

When we got there, people were sitting on the steps and platforms for probably a solid half-kilometer of the river, most of them purchasing or already holding small floats consisting of leaves, flower petals, and a small candle. We snuggled in on the steps among the mourners. Across the Ghat from us, a family poured ashes into the river from a plastic shopping bag, then bathed themselves in the water, openly weeping.

Occasionally someone in a uniform would shout orders at the crowds, in a tone that seemed more explanatory than harsh. I’m pretty sure he was telling all of us how the ceremony would go, what to do, and when. Occasionally he would reach his hand into the water and splash everybody, making him seem like some sort of jovial univormed tour guide. Natacha freaked out at having the water splashed on her, and I wasn’t too happy about it either. As it turns out, since it’s the source of the ganges, it’s fairly clean and extremely cold.

The sun set and the ceremony began. A number of people had jumped the gun earlier, but once the sky darkened, thousands of little floats, each lit by a single candle, made their way down the Ganges, each one a remembrance of a dead loved one.

Later in the ceremony, a main stage area had some bona fide fire rituals, using torches and loud chanting. That was something to see.

I took dozens of pictures of this very beautiful (if frenetic) ceremony.

Natacha bought these crazy handbags made from unused sheets of product wrapping—M & Ms, Friskies, etc.

Walking along the ghats after the ceremony was just as nuts, if not more so because everyone was on the move. It felt like walking on the bordwalk of a beachside holiday town…or rather, four holiday towns on top of one another. So much to see!

There were people swimming in the cold, strong-current Ganges, changing in and out of swimsuits in tents along the ghats. At night! People walking from temple to souvenir stall to restaurant to temple again. Food stalls. Red-powder stalls. It was nuts, and a little overwhelming.

That night we ate dinner at the same place we had lunch—it was a ways away from the ghats and as such nice and quiet.

But for some reason, a horn & drum band—not the one we saw earlier, I don’t think—decided to start playing across the street from the restaurant. With a PA and their own lighting, no less!

Nuts. But fascinating.

Day of the dead (and the just sleepy): India Day 30 (Haridwar) Part 1

Despite the early wake-up and extensive traveling, this was another tentpole day of the trip. The evening river ritual in Haridwar is an event that rivals that of Varanassi, without the twelve-hour train trip (or, at this time of year, the murderous heat). It was recommended to us by a friend of a friend, and we said what the hell. The train up was relatively uneventful. We chose the higher-class section this time, thank you, and got soft  seats and food & water served to us. While waiting for the bathroom, I struck up a conversation with an old man in spotless white robes. He had one of those crazy-eyes old-men faces, and took great pains to tell me that Barak Obama is a muslim, and that once elected would unleash his secret muslim agenda on the world.

The guy was a classic old-school Hindu; he meant well, but had a head full of right-wing propaganda. He freaked me out enough that I quickly excused myself and hightailed it back to my seat.

So: an early train out of Delhi, dropping us off into an unfamiliar city at (as usual) the hottest time of day. For us, this was typical travel.

We looked for an i-café in the guide book, to discover that it had gone under. We searched for a tourist office, that was closed B/C it was Sunday. After walking aimlessly for an hour or more (and yes, snapping at each other b/c of the heat), Natacha & I did the right thing and tucked into an A/c restaurant with great food, and more important, A/c.

Haridwar is a true Indian tourist town. i.e. it’s all Indian tourists and no gringos. The town is the alleged source of the Ganges. There are three rivers that merge at Haridwar, becoming the Ganges, making this a holy place. The streets were hot and busy, and every so often an open truck with a marching band on it or an impromptou parade would come down the main street, banners, etc. Something religious, but I couldn’t guess what. Nuts.

And here’s something that fascinates me about India. Religion is intermingled with society in curious ways. In the case of Haridwar, it’s mixed with tourism. It’s one of the holiest places in India, but it’s like a holiday town: hotels everywhere, souvenir shops for days, and a hilltop temple surrounded by snack bars. Oh, and served by a cable sky-tram like something out of a ski lodge.

I guess it’s not that different from Mormons visiting Salt Lake City, or Catholics visiting the Vatican. I myself have a souvenir bottle opener with the Pope John Paul II’s face on it. I call it “The Popener.”

Of course, the Vatican doesn't have a creepy guy in a turban stick a live python in your face and say, "Picture!"  Does it?

After finding a cheap room (we were only staying one night, after all), we set out on the town, which really was this crazy mix of holy city/tourist town. We decided to take the cable car up to the holy temple, which was absolutely packed. Maybe because it was a Sunday? Who knows. The Temple was surrounded with little shops that sold a variety of things from flowers and other temple offerings to jewelry and ice cream to…one other thing I’ll mention in a sec.

At the temple, I heard someone calling out to me—it was spotted crazy old hindu man from the train. He was in fact with his family, but he’d scared me enough on the train that I exchanged a few words with him and then went on my way.

The temple was shoulder-to-shoulder, as we inched along the passageways, lit incense, had sandalwood paint touched to our foreheads, etc. I didn’t receive the paint because most people assumed the little white patch on my forehead was a holy marking (it was cream to heal the cut on my forehead).

The temple was beautiful, if cramped, and it felt weird that there were so many people inside it, lining up to get in, lingering around it, buying souvenir statuettes next to it.

But then, Natacha and I found this photo booth service thing.

You know those cheesy sepia tone photos you can take that make you look like y ou’re in the old west, or the industrial revolution? This hill temple had a “service” where they took your picture dressed up in traditional India costume. Bejewled robes, headpieces, even a sword. I talked Natacha into having ours taken. It came out superbly and is our holiday card this year.

There were sample pictures where  couple would have the sword, and the man would have it against the wife’s throat. That didn’t suit me at all…but I REALLY wanted the sword. So when we posed, we held the sword together. I think she held the hilt and I held the scabbard.

We then waited in a VERY long line to take the tram back down the hill, and who should we end up in line with but crazy old guy and his family.

It turns out that he’s not “crazy” old guy after all. He was actually a very sweet man who brings takes his family up from Delhi to Haridwar once a year for a day-long pilgrimage. They bathe in the river’s holy waters, visit the temple, and go back to Delhi the same day.

He even introduced us to his brother, and his adorable grandkids. He was so proud that one of them was acting in an upcoming school play, and was a pretty good hand with English. While waiting in line for the tram wasn’t that pleasant, it was very nice to spend some time getting to know this family.

I also took the best close-up picture of a monkey I will ever get. It didn’t even occur to me that it could’ve possibly reached through the fence & ripped my face off.

From hot to f@#%ing HOTTER: India Day 29 (Kochin to Delhi)

fishing nets near sundownTraveling in India in the second-hottest month of the year, we lamented the weather many times during our travels. But here we were, in the south of india, i.e., India, only hotter.

We liked Cochi as a town, liked the time we spent in Kerala. I mean, how could you not—Varkala, the backwaters, the 400 year old synagogue? It was the most humane, least mercenary time we’ve had so far in the country. But the heat was just too much. We had to leave.

Catholic churchWe did take a walk around the town citadel, first, and saw parts of the town where I wished we could’ve spent more time in: The coast, with those huge Chinese fishing nets (we actually got to see those in action and they were impressive. Like a Gilligan’s island trap, only eight times bigger and they worked. We saw the area church (another centuries-old building), did a teeny bit more shopping, and piled into a cab.

The cab to the airport was about 90 minutes longer than we’d expected. Our driver, as it turns out, also fancied himself a psychic. He foresaw great career success for Natacha in the future—interesting since she’s going back to school for the next few years. I don’t think he predicted anything for me.

He certainly didn’t predict the hour or so of torrential rainstorms that started just as we entered the airport. Nor did he predict the dozens of soldiers that filled the airport lobby, after which they escorted out two guys in coveralls, lingered around a while longer, and left. But I imagine he could’ve predicted our plane would take off late. Hell, I could've predicted that. This is India, after all.

We got into Delhi around 8 PM, at which time the temperature was 40 degrees Celsius. At 8 PM. Fortunately, we’d reserved an AC room in a decent place.  Slept with the intent to get up crazy early for a train north, to Haridwar.


No arms, no chocolate

In which we find religion (our own): India Day 28 (Kochin)

Paradesi Synagogue, from my POV sitting at the pew

Photos of the Kochi paradesi synagogue interior courtesy of Wouter Hagens via Wikipedia Commons. We weren't allowed to take photos in the synagogue.

After a fun day of shopping, chatting, and exploring, we took a crack at going to a 400-year old synagogue for Shabbat. It was closed during the day b/c of Passover, but we were told that it might be open for the Friday service. Worth a shot.

The 400 year old Synagogue (exterior)

Once there, a Keralan man told us that there would be a service, but that it would be a short one, as it was Passover weekend and there weren’t enough men around that weekend for a minion (people were visiting their families and whatnot). I think that man might have been a shabbas-goy or something.

Eventually, a thin little old man in his 70s (80s?) in huge glasses and a kippah showed up. He looked like a cross between an Indian Don Ameche and my Grandpa Ned. He spoke to the Shabbas-goy in Hindi, then asked us if we wanted to come in for Shabbat. We eagerly nodded yes.

He led us in, and we removed our shoes, even though he said we didn’t have to.

The synagogue was beautiful, oozing 400 years of history from every wooden pew, every mosaic’d tile, from each ornate chandelier and each of the hundreds of colored blown-glass globes hanging from the ceiling.

It was smallish for a synagogue—maybe the size of two winnebagos side-by-side, with maybe a dozen pews in the back, a half-dozen along one side, and a few long benches along the other side. The walls, the ceiling, the podium—everything was touched by a love for this place and its history. Multiple chandeliers hung down, as did the hundreds of blown-glass bubbles (sea-glass?) and other ornaments

The center podium was similarly ornate. The floor was bare. A few stacks of siddurim lay next to the center podium. The three of us were the only people in the synagogue.

The old man motioned for Natacha to sit on the women’s; side, and bade me sit next to him on the men’s side. He had decent English, with an accent that was part Indian, part almost Yiddish. I wish I knew the man’s history, but I didn’t want to pry.

He had huge thick glasses. I imagined him to be a long-lived merchant in the area. I took a prayer book and sat in the back pew next to him.

We talked for a while, mostly me answering questions about where I was from and about American politics. I so wanted to ask him about himself, his life in India, but I was a guest in a revered place, and I didn’t feel it was my place.

A heavyset man in a sarong and kippah showed up and spoke to the old man in Hindi, glancing at me briefly. They chatted for a bit, then in accented English, he asked me where I grew up. I told him, “Los Angeles. California.” He smirked and said, “Los Angeles. California. Like I don’t know where Los Angeles is.” He would tease me about that several times over the course of the evening. Turns out the guy was a teacher from Cleveland, dividing his time between India and Israel (which would account for the accent).

He then hammered me with questions about where I was from, my religious background, my job, all in that asserting-status sort of way that I find Israelis do. He asked me where I spent Passover, and criticized me for not finding somewhere to spend Passover in India.” The Internet,” he said. “look up India and Passover,” as if it was as easy as that. Hell, maybe it was.

Soon, we all settled down and the men started praying. I’d read what I could from the siddur, and look around this beautiful space, at the blown-glass spheres in the ceiling…

…and this feeling came over me. Like I belonged, in a way I don’t anywhere else. The fact that here I was, half-way around the world, and these people took me in; and that together we enacted thousand-year-old rituals together, ones we all KNEW…filled me with such a sense of connection, of belonging, that I got choked up afterwards.

II felt so grateful to be there, to be accepted. Particularly in a country where we’re so out of place.

At the end of the service, the old man had the caretaker guy open up the arc, and we got to see and touch the four Torahs, each with a breast plate that was one of the first things that the Jews brought to Cochin, centuries ago.

We did the Kiddush over the wine at the center podium, then separated as the regulars went home or went visiting. It was one of the most genuinely moving experiences I’ve had in this country. Or ever.

The Man From Viagra: India day 28 (Kochi)

One of the most consistent irritants when traveling abroad is this: people are constantly asking you where you’re from. Every tout and huckster.  Every schoolkid who knows three words of English. Every employee at every store. Every rickshaw driver. Without fail. I think part of it is to get your measure, and determine how much money you might have. After a while, it gets invasive and unpleasant.

The same thing happened to me when I traveled through Indonesia years ago. After a while, I gave joke answers. My favorite was “Disneyland,” but the locals just thought I’d said “New Zealand” so it didn’t work.

But upon entering Kerala, I made up another fake country name: “Viagra.” Natacha didn’t want me to do it. But I figured if I was going to get the same annoying question thirty times a day, I should have a little fun with it.

The first time I tried it was in the spice shop. The guys there barely missed a beat, looked at each other with a little confusion, and said, “That is a drug, yes?”


Then they laughed. So not only did it backfire, but I basically told them I came from an ED drug.

But it sure felt better than saying “USA” for the four hundredth time.

To Jew Town and back: India Day 28 (Kochin/Erkulam)

We didn’t love Kochi on a whole (which I blame largely on the very-hot time of year), but this day in particular was one of the most amazing times we spent in India.

The first place we hit in the morning—by my request--was Kochi’s famous “Jew town.”

Jewtown bookshop

Jew cemetary signCochin was home to a large Jewish population centuries ago, and that part of town still carried the moniker. We tried to enter the 400-year –old synagogue, but were told that it was closed for the Passover holiday. We did take a look at the spice market—Jew town was the center of Kochi’s spice trade—and the nearby Jewish cemetery.

But then moved on to do something, in turn, that Natacha wanted to do: shop.

For that, we took a ferry to Erkulam, the “real city” to Cochin’s “old town.” Natacha was looking for some of Kerala’s famous spices, and maybe a sari.

To get out of the heat, we took a long break at the Bubble Café, which turned out to be a restaurant in one of Erkulam’s fanciest hotels. It was so fancy, it not only had a ceiling-wide skylight, it had a sprinkler system constantly pouring water on it, to supplement the AC so it wasn’t like eating lunch in a greenhouse. We ordered a coffee and a coconut juice and nursed them.

Our next table consisted of a half-dozen thirtysomething Indians who worked in England but came to Kochi for holiday. We had a great time talking to them, mostly about Obama and Clinton (whom at this point were still going at it hammer-and-tongs), and about Bush and the sorry state of the US government.

They teased us about all the corruption in our government, so at one point I said, “sure—because India wouldn’t know anything about a corrupt government.” They laughed and one of them said, sure, of course India has an incredibly corrupt government, “but with us, it’s expected. For you, it’s a surprise.”

Natch asked ‘em where would be a good place to buy gold jewelry; they suggested Bima’s. About which more later.

First we had lunch at Bimbi’s, a sort of restaurant/bakery chain for Dosas, with a long dessert counter. We took our sweet tooths for a stroll and sampled a dozen desserts, finding a few that interested us. Funny how Indian desserts are so colorful, but most of them taste pretty much the same.

After that, it was off to Erkulam’s own Jew Street, home to shops, shops and more shops: kitchen appliances, clothing, and of course spices, spices, and more spices—Kerala’s specialty.

Natacha picked a place and came out with several types of cardamom pods and peppercorns, the former of which I look forward to filtering into my coffee when we get home.

We also looked for and found Bima’s, for gold jewelry.

Bima’s, as it turns out, is a 2-3 floor jewelry emporium with a Bobs-big-boy-looking cartoon of a boy plastered on the sign in front. I’m guessing that’s Bima. Despite being the middle of the day Friday, the place was PACKED with Indians. I could not be more bored than gold shopping, so I eventually found a chair and caught up on my reading, sit ting there in my flowy green camel-trek shit and my made-in-Varkala blue drawstring pants, with my brown bandana hiding my bandage, drawing fewer stares than expected. Tired from lack of sleep, I chewed gum to stay awake, suddenly craving good coffee and comic book stores.

Kochi is a surprisingly laid-back city. Even the big-city part of it, Erkulam, has been easy to walk around in (more so than North India). Man, if the weather here wasn’t so murderous, I’d stay in the south a lot longer.

Natacha came by to pick me up, not having bought a crumb of gold. I think she expected to find bargains, but I mean, face it, India is cheap, but not gold-is-cheap-here cheap.

She also looked through one sari store where she liked the quality but disliked the patterns, finding the bored, bratty teen shop girls no help whatsoever. I loved the shop’s full-blast A/C; it definitely made you want to linger.

We headed back to the ferry and made it back to Kochi’s Jew Town in time to see if the synagogue would be open for Shabbat. About which I’ll talk about in my next post.

Back to the backwaters: India day 27 (Kerala Backwaters to Kochi)

washing by the river with a knowing smile Don’t let anyone tell you that sleeping by the river is “cool,” not temperature-wise, anyway. Natacha & I barely slept during our night on the Kerala backwaters. the mosquito net was too close to the bed, which meant that it rested on my foot and/or cheek most of the night, unless I laid diagonal on the bed, which needless to say is not fun for Natacha.

big honking cup of chaiThat was really the only drawback to our trip, though. From our room, we watched the sun rise over the canals, had a yummy coconut-laced breakfast, and enjoyed a nice, slow return to the houseboat docks. One of the most worthwhile experiences of our trip. Our boat & captain

In fact, we liked it so much, as soon as we got off the boat, we immediately booked a longboat excursion, so we could visit the small canals that the big houseboat couldn’t go.

This took three hours and was just as wonderful. These were the backwaters of the backwaters: tiny networks of shallow waters where we saw close-up what the houseboats couldn’t get near. We saw people’s homes, farms, their ducks and chickens, their neighborhoods, and really stunning foliage.

ox shack

family occasion

post-backwater thaliAfter a quick lunch in Aleppey, we got on a bus to Kochi, a town we’d heard much about. After a sleepless night, four hours in the hot Kerala sun, and several hours on buses and taxis, we were EXHAUSTED.

We found a room in the third place we looked at (not the cleanest, but it had a/c and we were the only people there). I wasn’t feeling my best (it had been a nutty week, after all), but we found a neat couple to have dinner with. They were a young French duo who had chosen to travel India and China on—get this--a tandem bicycle. i.e. they were nuts. We joined them for dessert as well, and listened to their various stories of traveling through India on a FUCKING TANDEM BICYCLE. Insane.

Tried to sleep, failed, did 90 min of yoga, finally slept.

Forward, to the backwaters: India Day 26 (Varkala to Alleppey

our boat pilot Jesus! That took some doing. Woke up in Varkala, though not too early, thank good. Instead of getting up at 5 AM, we decided to take the late train to the bus to Allepey.

The famous slow boat trip along these south Indian backwaters are universally recognized as one of the best excursions you can take in the entire country. After a tuk-tuk to a train to a bus, we arrived about three hours later at a dusty bus station in Alleppey, not 100% knowing how to take the next step. i.e. booking a houseboat to sail us along the Kerala backwaters. We couldn’t even find the boat docks.

And as was our habit, we ended up there during the hottest part of the day. Of course, it didn’t take long for the touts to arrive. Even rested and refreshed as we were, it was still a horrendous ordeal. We were beset by several, and waved them off as best we could. The most persistent one, well, persisted, and we gave in after he offered to hire a tuk-tuk at his expense to take us to the boat docks. Twenty minutes later, we found ourselves in front of several dozen houseboats, all lined up shoulder-to-shoulder.

Our tout, whom I’ll call “Hazel” as he had these crazy hazelnut-colored eyes, called to various boats, apparently taking us to the ones who would work with him. We started with a small boat, captained by Hazel’s cousin, which was ok but not great. We’d stashed our stuff there and tried others, getting farther and farther away from our bags as we went down the line.

The second boat was a good one, but in negotiating, the captain seemed dead set on overcharging and undersupplying us. This guy was also apparently Hazel’s cousin. Uh-oh.

After this point, we set off to get our bags and get rid of hazel. But he—guess what—persisted, and together we found the right boat. Built for a much larger party than us, it was still willing to take us—not least because it was low season and most boats had gotten booked an hour before we showed up.

Hazel negotiated it for us, but couldn’t get the price we wanted. No big surprise, given that his commission probably figured into it. We insisted on talking with the boat’s owner, who showed up an hour later. We got closer, but still paid a bit more than we wanted: around $120. But given that the price covered 24 hours on a 2-bedroom houseboat, a crew of 5, and three meals, we didn’t mind flashpacking a little. Say what you will about India, but the prices are nothing to sneeze at.

Besides, the roof deck on this boat was awesome.

Natacha, backwater pimpin'

house boat fin They call the boat a slow boat for a reason: It travels very S-L-O-W-L-Y. But the slowness really takes you to a different place, or rather, pace. We inched down palm-lined waterways for hours, watching life among the rivers and canals of this beautiful area.

We saw villagers wash their clothes (or themselves), walk down the jetties, sit in chairs watching the boats go by, and turn their heads away when I tried to take their photos.

boy rowing a chest of drawers, apparently

man washing clothes

Birds flew from palm to palm. No one waved, simply going along with their business.

woven boat

At one point from the roof deck, Natacha looked out on the waters and said, “It’s supremely beautiful.” Good a way as any to describe it.

Teatime consisted of fried bananas.

Ken in the houseboat living room

Around six, we watched the sunset from the roof deck. After sunset we walked along the riverbank, running into a brit couple and walking together for a while. Then it was back to the boat for dinner, which was DELICIOUS…not least of which because everything was made with some form of coconut: Chopped, shredded, milk. Note to self: cooking with coconut = yum!



Vaycay from our Vaycay: India Day 22-25 (Varkala)

Five days of rest, relaxation, and bloody hot sun--and boy, did we need it.

Most people traveling in India for any length of time spend weeks in Goa to recover from, well, travel in India. We didn't have any desire to visit Goa, so we found a beach elsewhere.  Varkala was much lower key and had way fewer people--especially in the post-season, when we went. The weather was getting too hot for most, meaning no crowds. Fewer restaurants and stores were open, but who cares? We didn’t go there for the scene.

Avoiding the resorts farther up the cliffs and sticking mostly to the area around our pleasant $28/night a/c room, we found Varkala to be a great place to recharge our batteries. Most of our five days were filled with great views of the beach from the cliffs above, fresh fish every night, and the best body-surfing I’ve ever done. The water was warm and it felt like it genuinely wanted me to have a good time. In low tide, that is. In high tide, it threw me around viciously and it felt like the surf genuinely wanted me to break my neck. Still fun though.

A typical day went as such:

  • Wake up
  • Eat breakfast
  • Go to the beach for sun and swimming
  • Eat lunch
  • Nap or read indoors (out of the noon sun)
  • Eat dinner
  • Go to bed

What’s not to love?

There were a few exceptions, of course, little adventures here and there, such as:

-My one and only Varkala yoga session with a yogi I can best describe as “pissy.” He had supposedly written a book on yoga that was used by the Indian armed forces (what, did you think they did jumping jacks?) . He complained about my not wanting to commit for a full week’s “study” (because how was I going to truly learn yoga?), but I think that he was more pissed that he didn’t have any students, period. I was the only one who showed up for his regular morning practice.

-Planning the next leg of the trip, which required lots of time at the one A/C internet café on the cliffs.

-A homemade thali dinner in the backyard of Kumari, a woman Dani recommended to us, who made a special dinner for Natacha, I, and the British woman who co-ran the Internet café.

last dinner

Varkala also happened to be a vacation spot for Indians as well. We met a lot of nice folks there, most of whom were curious to encounter westerners like us. Lots of families and students on weekend trips.

All in all, we got lots of rest and relaxation, and I read a ton of Salman Rushdie’s MIDNIGHTS CHILDREN there. Good times.


Escape from TVD: India Day 21 (Trivandrum--Varkala)

With Natacha feeling better, and myself on the mend as well, we packed up our packs and headed to the TVD train station. waiter at India Coffee ShopOur breakfast was at a fascinating Indian Coffee shop, actually called the India Coffee Shop. This one had this nutty winding hallway where you literally had to climb higher and higher to get to your table. It was a chain; like an Indian Denny’s. Families went there, people celebrated there, and it was a reliable place to go to get your morning dosa & coffee.

En route to AllepeyA 45-minute train to Varkala was all it took for us to start our vacation (from our vacation). Once we got to Varkala, everything was just easier. We got a tuk tuk from the trains station without any problem. We stayed at the first guest house we found.

our room, our mosquito net We spent the day doing nothing but walking along the Cliffs that overlooked the beach, just checking out the scene. We took in so much, including the sun, that we ended up getting overheated.

Somewhere in there, I got another haircut and shave. Having not shaved nor bathed properly in several days, it just made more sense to cut my hair off. The shave part was just plain indulgent. post-hospital shave

Natacha photographed it, to make sure that there'd be no funny business with the razor. We lunched at an underwhelming place (thanks for the recco Lonely Planet!), where we chatted and played around with a 5 year old orphan who was taken in by the family that ran the restaurant. They had ho money to school him, so they watched over him at the restaurant.

We ate at a vegetarian place with almost no light by which to read the menu, and went to sleep. Lovely part of the world.

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.

Hospital Hijinx: India day 17 (Dehli part 2 day 3)

We get cheated I’ll say this for the East/West medical center. They took good care of me. In the two days I spent there, I met with three different doctors, always had a full saline IV, and had a battery of tests, all in less than 48 hours. Plus, they let Natacha stay in the room with me, and fed us three meals a day the whole time we were there. I really did get back to health during my stay there.

Only to nearly faint again. When they presented us with the bill.

If Insurance had taken care of it, I wouldn’t have had a problem. But the front desk screwed up the contact with our insurance company, so we had to pay it up front. Which is when we looked at the bill.

And saw that every saline bag, every bit of medicine, every stool test (the first one came back negative; they told us the last two were “just to make sure”), and all three doctors visits…they charged for everything.

We soon realized that, actually, we could have left the day before…but they asked us to stay just a bit longer so the senior doctor could take a look at me. That senior doctor spent five minutes with me and told me that I was looking good, but should stick around the night just in case.

And when they couldn’t over-service, they over-charged. They charged Natacha a full bed rate for staying in my room, when the first night she slept in a chair and the second night a mattress on the floor. And we still shared the room with Sven the asshole. In fact, there was a variety of things they charged us for that they didn’t even supply!

We could have left at 11 am that Sunday morning, but arguing the bill took so long—including angry phone calls with an off-site administrator—that we didn’t get out of there until 4 PM. We argued with the young guy at the front desk who didn’t know how to do anything. We argued with the doctor on call who told the guy at the front desk to do things he didn’t know how to do. We argued with on offsite administrator by phone. Little by little, we pared down the bill to as closes as could to a fair price. And it still wasn’t all that fair. Whomever coined the term “India always wins” wasn’t kidding.

On the one hand, I did appreciate that they took good care of me. The hospital was clean, theneedles were sterile, and the food was decent. On the other hand, they also wantged to prescribe an MRI to me, even though I didn’t have a concussion, just so they could collect the money on the procedure. They were clearly taking advantage of me in a time of literal weakness. That’s just fucked up.

And we weren’t the only patients complaining about our bill. The East/West Medical center had two other patients yelling at them at the same time we were.

Come on…who needs three stool tests in two days?

We did make one friend while there—no, not Sven, smartass. A sweet-natured French lady whose three-year-old son came in for severe dehydration. He was doing much better by the time we left, running up and down the halls in a cape and generally being a healthy little handful. Why a woman was traveling in India with a three-year-old is another story altogether, one which in interest of her privacy I won’t tell here (though it’s a GOOD one).

By the time N & I left, it was almost 5 PM and we didn’t have enough time to find a new hotel room. We had kept our super-grotty A/C cel at the Lords, so we stayed in that for the night. Thanks to the gents there for cleaning the place up before we got back.

Having been in the hospital for two days, the friends we’d planned on visiting in Varkala had already left there. But, they had just arrived in Delhi, to run some errands before traveling to Kashmir and eventually Germany. Dani is a filmmaker friend of Natacha’s from New York, who had been spending time in India working on a film about her friend Ashik. Ashik was a Kashmiri jewler who had met Dani while working in Varkala. Dani was planning to make a film about his sister’s arranged marriage in Kashmir, and the two of them were getting some production errands done in Delhi before going up north. Which was fortunate, as it meant we got to spend some time with them while I recovered in Delhi. We had dinner with them in the Paranganj, me with a huge bandage on my head from when I passed out & cut my forehead. We hadn’t seen Dani in almost two years, and watching her & Natacha reunite was a true pleasure.

Returning to the room that night, we found the hotel travel agent, so we could settle up for the transportation to the hospital that he had arranged that fateful night. He charged us about five times a normal rate. We talked him down to triple rate, and even at that price I almost spat on his desk. India always wins.

Introducing Sven, the biggest asshole I’ve ever met: India day 16 (Dehli part 2 day 2)

Sven the asshole Before I begin, let me stress that the Sven in this post is NOT the Sven I worked with at a recent job. That Sven is a bright, good-natured young man and a pleasure to work with.

No, I’m talking about my roommate at Delhi’s East-West Medical Center, Sven from Switzerland. The most horrid, little prick I’ve ever encountered. If not for his general insistence on making Natacha and I feel as uncomfortable as possible, I honestly think I could've left there at least a half-day-earlier.

The night before, when I was rushed to this hospital, I recalled my wife arguing with a heavy Germanic voice. It turned out that this voice was my new roommate, who, I also learned, (1) was supposed to have the room to himself, (2) didn’t want the A/C to be turned on, and (3) in retribution, planned to crank his music until the A/C was turned off.

He clearly could care less that that the guy who was wheeled into his room in the middle of the night (ie me) was (1) in no condition to be moved to an upstairs room, (2) suffering severe dehydration and as such might need his Delhi hospital room to be cool, and (3) might need to get some fucking sleep.

Eventually Natasha convinced him to dial down his pre-school negotiating style and agree to have the a/c on, sans music, and we all got to sleep.

I woke up that morning to find Natacha having a cordial but still tense conversation with him, wherein Natacha was pretty much charming him into keeping the A/C on.

This did not stop Sven from booting up his laptop and marking his territory by playing two kinds of music I hate, the latter I didn’t know I hated until I heard it that first time: (1) The Doors, and (2) Swiss hip-hop.

I ignored him at first, opting to use the bathroom. The sink had four little bars of soap on it, each one sporting pubic hairs. Classy dude.

Eventually, as some sort of peace offering, he asked us if there was any music we wanted to hear. He & I started talking all civilized-like, and I learned many things about Sven:

  • He was Swiss (/German), and was traveling through India to escape the Swiss draft.
  • Out of all the young Europeans I’d ever met, his English was the worst.
  • He liked America a lot, especially the “red Indians” he met on a motorcycle trip across the U.S.
  • His experience with the “red Indians” was why he kept a feather tied in his unkempt curly hair. Apparently he used to have an eagle feather, but lost it, so he took a feather he found on the ground in India and tied that into his hair instead.
  • He was in the hospital because he'd scraped up his leg while motorcycling in the North of India. Normally, a few scrapes wouldn't send you into the hospital. But someone told him to put some ointment on it, and just leave it. Not wash it, not change the bandage…just leave it. And he believed that. Two months later it probably looked like something Tom Savini cooked up and I imagine he almost died from it. He had been at the medical center for the past six weeks, getting a series of skin grafts.
  • Instead of a crutch, he “found” an ax handle on an Indian construction site and was carving it with the intention of putting gems in it and making it a “really cool” walking stick. It was too short for him, but he said he wanted to put some sort of skull on the top of it, like Snoop Dogg.
  • He didn’t have anyone to talk to at the med center, so he hung out on the outdoor patio and tried to chat with the copious Israeli backpackers that ended up there. They’d talk with him in English for a few minutes, then go back to talking to each other in Hebrew and ignore him.
  • He complained that the A/C made him cold, but refused to wear a shirt.

Sven was the classic Euro hippie wannabe: He chose the backpacker lifestyle not to learn about other cultures or to supplement his life experience, but because it was easier than dealing with real life, going to work/school, or bathing.

Every time we mentioned him to a doctor or nurse, he or she apologized for our having to room with him. He'd been terrorizing the staff for weeks.

You might think I’m overdoing it with my description of him. Perhaps because I haven’t finished my story.

Sven the assholeLater that day, we seemed to all be copacetic. Natacha & I were just finishing lunch (She stayed in the room with me, making sure I was being taken care of and that Sven didn’t pull any shit). Sven held up his headphones and said that they’re shorting out on him, would we mind if he played his music some more. I said no, I didn’t mind, but could he keep the volume down a little?

And he went off.

Oh, how he bitched and moaned, ranting again about the A/C, yelling about how this was HIS room, HIS insurance was paying for a single room, HE was cold and didn’t have a shirt (paying no attention to the freshly laundered clothes at the foot of his bed). On and on he went. All in his clunky English and heavy Germanic accent, which was the aural equivalent of getting hit with balls of raw dough.

All I did was ask him to keep his music turned down a little, and now the guy WOULD. NOT. SHUT. UP. Even the hardcore Swiss hip-hop was better than this.

Natacha and I both responded to him, trying to keep things civilized, trying not to yell back. Finally, we just plain ignored him, talking between ourselves and/or reading. By taking away the fuel, he could only do a slow burn on his own. Which he did.

He berated us with insults from his bed; the non-four-letter ones were “You are original Americans” (he meant “typical,” but it was funny given his love of native Americans) and told us we “loved Bush.” In between his smoke breaks and attempts to chat with the Israelis, he would come back and call us Bush-lovers and what not.

Oh, and "terrorists." He called us that as well.

Sven the assholeAt one point, he fired up his iTunes and loudly played a mix of anti-American songs at us. They included Frank Zappa’s “Bobby Brown,” and some sappy protest ballad called “Dear Mr. President.” (UPDATE: it's by Pink.) Charming. And mature.

All because we wanted to use a hospital room to heal and recover.

Congratulations, Sven, my roommate from the East/West Medical Center. In my umpthy-umph years on this planet, You are officially the biggest asshole I have ever met.

Bobby Brown - Frank Zappa [youtube=]


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…?

Road to Jodphur: India Day 9

(See below for my previous India posts. It's been a while since I last posted for our trip.)

On the move, always on the move. After an enjoyable couple of days in Udaipur, we had another 6-hour drive, which made me wonder if the trip to Udaipur was worth it.

That said, if we hadn't done the driver-to-Udaipur thing, we wouldn't have gotten to visit Ranakpur, which was well worth the time. Ranakpur is home to the largest (or second largest) Jain temple in the country. AMAZING.

We got there over an hour before it was due to open to the public (those Jains are strict!), so we piled into a nearby roadside restaurant, where we figured we'd have a couple of masala chais and listen to Ramesh make fun of us in Hindi some more. But Ramesh also called over a very interesting guy, a gentleman whose name escapes me, with slicked back hair and a goatee and a red dot, who told us a great deal about the temples to pass the time to opening, and even bought us a chai.

He was a local who, as we found that English speaking Indian locals are wont to do, told us about his friends abroad and how they love to visit him here. His beard also reminded me a little of my pal Butch Schuman, so that charmed me as well. We sat and chatted until it was close to the time for the temple to open. Which is when he offered, as had most of the people we met through Ramesh, to do a service that would relieve us of some money.

Being Hindi, our man could not work as a guide in the Jain temple. BUT, he could "by chance, meet us" in the temple, give us info and background on the temple as a guide would, and maybe we could help him out with a few rupees on the way out. As Ramesh-related schemes went, it was a tame one, so we took him up on it.

Ranakpur is home to two temples, a small one and a big one. The small temple was lovely, and we were actually allowed to take photos in it. We looked around the top and bottom floors in it, and even received sandalwood color dots on our foreheads. Outside, there were carvings of apsaras in a variety of positions, including a number of sexual ones. Gotta love that. There were a few monks walking in & out of the temple, and normal Indian folks going in to make offerings and receive blessings, though they pretty much ignored us.

Soon enough, we did “run into”: our goateed friend, and, friendly sort that he was for a stranger, he told us more about the myths and legends of the Jain religion, and how that was to inform the things we would see in the main temple. We thanked him, told him we were glad to meet him, and went on our way. Were we supposed to give him money surreptitiously right there & then? I couldn’t remember. I don’t think so.

Both lovely but the big one is something special. INCREDIBLY detailed sculpture and ceramics work from floor to ceiling. There were something like 133 pillars in the place, all straight as a line except for the 133rd one, which was intentionally made crooked as a reminder that only god is perfect.

We also saw a carving that looked like our friend Steve.

One of the holy men at the temple was taking sandalwood to make it into paint, and offered to let me take his photo. I did gladly, after which he pointed decisively to his donation bowl. How pious. Guess the holy man shtick doesn’t pay as well as one thinks.

The jain temples we encountered tend to be made of white or grey marble, and spotlessly clean. Very different from, say, the hindu temple we visited in Delhi, which seemed to be spotted with every type of animal shit known to man. Hindu temples are crowded, colorful, cluttered affairs, whereas the Jain temples were anything but.

After spending a blissful hour or so mesmerized by the intricacy and beauty of the place, we left. On the way off of the grounds, I took a group photo for a clean-cut young family making pilgrimage to this place. They were so appreciative that they asked me if I’d take a photo with them. Sure, why not?

some special species of birdThen, on to Jodhpur. On the way, we stopped at another of Ramesh’s tourist trap restaurants…huge places in the middle of nowhere, that all looked alike: dozens of tableclothed tables, exorbitant prices, western candies and chips for sale at the cashier, and a huge attached gift shop. It was like visiting an Indian Stuckey’s.

On our way in to the Stuckeys, Ramesh pointed out a couple of men with headdresses, waiting by a nearby intersection. Ramesh indicated that they were not only Muslims, but Mafia; that they would follow unsuspecting Hindus to the nearby temple and sell them something, I didn’t quite get what. Flowers, maybe? Ramesh must have been making some of this shit up.

We arrived in Jodhpur several hours later, tired and cranky. We visited a couple of guest houses that looked okay but were too expensive. We were pretty sure that they’d spotted the car, and automatically jacked up the prices on us. Because we clearly had money? Because they knew they’d have to pay the driver commission? We weren’t sure. Ramesh criticized our choices, and after we couldn’t find a place we liked, suggested one that he insisted was much better. Again, wiped out as we were, we decided what the hell, let’s see it. It turned out to be a hotel with dozens of rooms, but we found one that we managed to negotiate down to a reasonable rate (provided we didn’t’ turn on the AC), and ate dinner at the hotel rest. outside our guesthouse room We met a swiss couple who looked fairly tired, and were in fact on a car & driver tour as well. Turns out they didn’t realize just how big rajastan was, and by booking a 7-day trip, they were being driven maybe 10 hours a day to each destination, seeing it for a minimum of time, then on to the next planned stop with barely the time to look around. They made our trip look like luxury.

But our day didn’t stop there, oh no. having eaten, rested, washed, and even done a bit of laundry, we set out into the old town’s open market. It was dusty, packed, busy, noisy, and wonderful. Fruit stands abounded, stands selling new and used clothing, meats, fabrics, snacks, spices, even fruit juices. I tried to haggle for fruit and was soundly rebuffed, leading me to wonder if, hey, maybe they are giving me the actual price for this stuff. That was our first sign that this market was not here for the tourists, but was in fact, real. The crowds of Indians should have tipped us off, but still.

All it took was a glimpse of fabric and sari stalls for Natacha to lead us on a merry chase for saris and, what we soon discovered were sumbwa suits—a sort of three-piece sari-like pants suit that caught natacha’s eye. We ventured deep, DEEP into the market labyrinth, checking what seemed like dozens of fabric and clothing shops, looking for just the right ones. I believe that’s the night I bought my new sarongs. They were actually a three-piece sumbwa suit that, like all of them, were just the fabric. For the actual suit, one has to go to a tailor to get it fitted. We did find Natacha a long top or two that she liked and wore for the rest of our trip.

On the way back, something happened that made us love Jodhpur even more

We were doing out best to find the clock tower (the central point of the market), and failing, getting caught in foot traffic, people traffic, and that uniquely Indian combination of both.

A man with a very young child asked us where we were going. Backpackers will know this question as the ubiquitous question asked all travelers, sometimes to start a sales pitch, sometimes as entre to practice their English, rarely out of actual concern. Except in this case. We told him where we wanted to go, he told us, and kept walking. To us, this was so far unheard of. He ACTUALLY gave us directions!

Not only that, but once he noticed we werer getting off track (we were all in shoulder-to-shoulder foot traffic), he came back over and pointed out the proper direction. Thus making Jodhpur the only city thus far where we were actually treated like people and not wallets with legs.


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 days 16-18: Stumbling into Paradise

(Photos from Wikipedia until I can get mine put up on Flickr.)

Vietnam has been kind to us so far. By pure dumb luck, and for the price of a Herald Square hotel room, we just spent a weekend on our own private island. The trip involved kayaking, solitude, and views so sublime they're on the UNESCO preservation list.

Natacha has wanted to visit Halong Bay ever since spotting it in a travel magazine while planning our honeymoon a few years back. It's a bay full of thousands of tiny, uninhabited, sheer islands (limestone karsts, actually) amongst emerald water. If it hasn't been the setting for a james bond speedboat chase, it should be. (UPDATE: It has.)

there are hundreds of tours offered in the area, where you take a boat for a day and two nights and view the islands, swim on some beach for an hour, etc. But somewhere Natch saw the word "kayak" in relation to the area and that's what we set our sights on.

Our research showed us that there was one reputable agency that had kayak tours, good guides, and we later found out, "the good kayaks" in the area. We signed up with them, knowing that we'd be sharing the trip with 6-8 other kayakers, even thought it was a bit pricier than the dozens-of people-on-a-big-junk tours. We didn't care. We love kayaking and this seemed like a great way to get up close to these amazing structures in a way the big boats couldn't.

So we pry ourselves our of our bed at Hanoi's lavish $20-a-night Golden Buffalo hotel(!) to make it on time for our 6 AM pickup, to discover that we were the only folks on the trip. Which means essentially a private car to the ferry. Then a private taxi to the other boat. Such luxury!

After 4 hours of private transpo, we arrived bleary-eyed and loagy to Cat Ba island the largest island in the Bay and our departure point for the tour. the company came to pick us up in a tour boat--a BIG one, in which we were the only passengers. On the way, we saw a series of floating villages, where people live in houses on pontoons and operate cottage-industry fisheries or oyster farms. they all have guard dogs, too. None of whom get walked, but who I imagine get to pee wherver they like.

After picking up the "good" kayaks, we made it to where we were staying. Which was a small karst. i.e. an island. The place consisted of a dining hut, a relaxing hut, a shower/toilet hut, and off to the side, five or six guest huts. and we were the only guests. Like it was our private island getaway.

And the VIEW. just water and dramatic karst islands, and the odd fishing boat. nothing else. NO ONE else. Lucky? Yes. And, as Don adams used to say, loving it.

By day, we kayaked around these UNESCO-listed wonders, buzzed another floating villages, entered caves and paddled through lagoons. by night, we ate huge meals of fresh fish (like caught-next-door fresh) and slugged rice whiskey with the staff. The best cooked oysters and the bar-none freshest crab i've ever eaten.

The tide moved in and out so quickly that we could walk to the karst across from us in the morning, and by afternoon we would kayak around it & past it to other sights.

We kayaked across emerald waters to hidden lagoons, past floating fishing villages where guard dogs chased us to the end of their pontoon but didn't dare jump in the water (thus saving us any ugly No Country For Old Men dog-chase scenes).

We ate with the three guys who cooked the food and took care around the island. They kept trying to feed us fresh oysters and mussels (picked up from a floating next-door neighbor) after we'd stuffed ourselves at dinner. One of them was a park ranger, one of them didn't speak, and the third guy, and 24-year-old pistol named Lam (which means "dragon," we're told), kept trying to get us drunk on rice whiskey. On the second night, we pulled out our last little bottle of duty-free Glenfiddich and tried to share it. They hated the taste and sheepishly poured their shares back into our glasses, which I couldn't really bitch about. "We like Baileys," Lam told us.

But the real surprise? Going swimming at night to discover that the water has bio-luminiscent plankton. Each swimming stroke bequeathed dazzling below-surface light trails and tinkerbell-like sparkles.

We loved it so much that we asked to stay a second night. Turns out we had the place to ourselves that night too. It's an amazing thing to wake up in the morning and look out on your beach.

After two days, we got another "private" boat back to Cat Ba and stayed in a hotel overlooking the harbor. More boats and floating villages. Turns out we ate something that didn't agree with us on the island (my money's on the funny-smelling potato soup), so we spent most of the time laying in bed, walking to the rain-drenched outdoor market, and looking for new books to read. I scraped up a Sue Grafton thriller (note: not so thrilling) and some Michael Connally book I haven't cracked open yet. But I still think back on our little private island, and the cinema-worthy scenery, and the lights in the water, and I hope I will for a long time to come.

Out of Rajasthan

(Photo source: BBC) Well, it's been almost a month since we left India, but after reading about these caste riots in Rajasthan (which N brought to my attention), I feel like we dodged a bullet. The Gujjar tribe has been protesting their position, blocking roads and stopping train service, preventing passage between Delhi and Agra (where the Taj Mahal is), among other places. Oh, and both police and protesters are being killed.

The best Article I've found on the piece so far is from the UK Guardian. Here's a snippet:

The violence began when police shot four protesters dead in running battles with thousands of Gujjars, traditionally sheep-rearers, who had gathered on a main highway and blocked traffic near Jaipur, early this morning.

When the news of the shootings spread, crowds gathered in Bundi, three hours drive from Jaipur, and police again resorted to baton charges, teargas and finally, bullets, to end the blockade. Four more protesters were left dead by the fighting.

In retaliation, a police officer was said to have been beaten to death. Riot police were also kidnapped before being released unharmed.

The caste system in India is a complex, and certainly by most outsiders' opinions, unfair system. The Gujjars are protesting for more seats in University and more government jobs. Indians see that education is the catapult over caste, and the quotas for lower castes for seats in university are (some might say pathetically) few.  And if there's one thing I learned from Edward Luce's book In Spite of the Gods, it's that a government job is the holy grail of Indian employment: job security and plenty of opportunity to skim.

Pair that with what must be 40c-plus temperatures in the area, and you've got, well, this:

What with roads being blocked into Delhi, (as well as two major tourist routes) and over 2/3 of Rajasthan fraught with violence, I could not be happier that we're not there now. Rajasthan was a fantastic place to visit, and our travel hassles there seem very small in comparison to this.


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.

Vietnam Day 2: Cu Chi, Cu Chi, Cu

Has it been a lifelong dream of mine to crawl through old Viet Nam war tunnels? Of course not. But. Some of you know that umpty-ump years ago, I worked in New York City as a comic book editor. One of the books I helped Howard Zimmerman edit was a series of war comics, a revival of the classic war comics series TWO-FISTED TALES, called HARVEY KURTZMAN'S NEW TWO-FISTED TALES.

One of my favorite stories I worked on was written and drawn by a Viet Nam war vet (two tours), the gruff but amicable writer/artist Don Lomax. Don churned out a half-dozen eight-to-twelve pagers for us with lightning speed, each one a note-perfect TFT-style two-thirds-splash-page-with-twist-ending war-is-hell tale about 'Nam.

But my favorite one was "Queen of Cu Chi," a tale about the tunnel rats of the Vietnam war (soldiers assigned to flush out the network of underground tunnels the Viet Cong established to get around the US Army), and the dogs who were trained to support those soldiers. A heart breaker, not least of which because it had a dog in it. And you know me.

But little did I know that I'd get a chance to visit the place where the story was set. Our two days in Saigon stretched into three, and with that our chance to take a couple of tours into the outerlying areas. I saw a half-day trip to Cu Chi and the next day we were off.

cu chi tunnelThe historical background you need to know is this: The Viet Minh dug tunnels in the 40s and 50s in order to hide from, escape from, and otherwise fight the French. In the 60s & 70s, the Viet Cong used them to do the same for the US.

The tunnels were narrow, dark, claustrophobic, and made it extremely difficult for the US Army to find the Viet Cong. So the Army trained soldiers, called Tunnel Rats, to fight the Cong in the tunnels. Grim stuff.

And now, for the price of a movie and popcorn, we took a boat up the Mekong delta, trekked through the jungle, and crawled around the tunnels.

N & I took a motor boat up the Mekong, to the Cu Chi area, where we hooked up with another tour group, led by an oder Vietnamese guy who as it turns out worked with the U.S. agaist his own people. He later came back to Viet Nam (or was he captured? I forget) where he underwent "rehabilitation" --for which he has no regrets--and now likely makes decent scratch as a tour guide with all the cheesy jokes a tour guide is likely to make. Mostly about how all tourists in Vietnam eat hamburgers and drink Tiger Beer. Oh, and he made the obvious "booby trap" joke, which offended my wife to no end.

So our guide led us through this jungle path, on which were a number of exhibits along the way, including:

-A below-ground sniper hole that would freak out even the slightest claustrophobe.

-A display of a variety of spike traps (hence the "booby trap" line)

-Several tableau of VN soldiers doing typical VN soldier activities, like cooking food, sharpening sticks, sawing open unexploded shells for explosives & scrap metal, etc.

-A firing range where you could shoot an AK for something like a dollar a shell.

-Oh, and there was a fantastic VN propaganda film praising the local villagers and soldiers for building the Cu Chi tunnels and killing so many American Soldiers. I'll upload video I took of that, and photos for the above, when I can.

All with lots of jokes from our guide among all the seriousness. So the tour was not without cheese. And the thing I came there for, the tunnels themselves, was of course held until the end.

There were over 200 kilometers of tunnels in this area, and we were allowed to crawl through about 200 meters of them. There were a series of "chicken exits" every 10 meters or so, and most of the tourists bailed out early. Not me. I insisted on crawling every dirty step of the way.

Was I able to "put myself in their shoes?" Hell no. Okay, maybe a little. Those tunnels are pretty scary. Even the big slavic guy who hung on our guide's every word and egged him on at every gory joke bailed out after the first exit.

So it was fun, if touristic in a morbid sort of way. But here's what I realized: after working my ass off on HARVEY KURTZMAN'S THE NEW TWO FISTED TALES and having the publisher pull out after just two issues, maybe it helped me get a little closure on that whole part of my life. Whether it needed it or not.

So I'd like to dedicate this post to my old boss at Byron Preiss, Howard Zimmerman, who edited HKTNTFT and let me cut my editorial teeth on it, and my co-worker at BPVP, Steven Roman...because they were there, man. In the shit.

Cambodia day 6: In Which I am a F@$*&ing Rock Star

At least I think it was day 6. We're moving so fast now that I barely have enough time to blog...but I absolutely HAVE to document our Saturday night in Siem Reap...easily one of the most fun nights in my thirty-some-odd years.

John had been talking up the possibility of my performing in Cambodia (stressing a dearth of live music) since we told him we were coming. And sure enough, during a trip to his old stomping grounds of Siem Reap, I got my chance.

All the elements transpired to make it happen, thanks to much "working it" on John's part. His married musician friends, Jet and Melanie, brought up guitars (they each did a set as well). John's friend Renaud, who owns a magnificent bar/grill in town, the Abacus Cafe, gave us a slot on Saturday night.

And then there were the African musicians and acrobats.

See, there's this school of acrobats from Guniea touring in Cambodia. And Renaud had invited them to perform at Abacus's outdoor spaces the night before. They came with their own band--mostly drummers, singers, one guitarist and one xylophone player. We attended that Friday night show of acrobatics and dance, culminating with the band playing and folks dancing 'til the morning. Enormous fun. And he invited the musicians to come back the following night. Would we play with them? Could we? With no rehearsal, no less? Um, shyea!

Natacha and I showed up to soundcheck, and met Jet there to discuss logistics with Renaud. Renaumd supplied the PA (left over from last night's circus), Jet brought the guitars (shlepped up from Phnom Penh by Melanie). And the Centre d’Art Acrobatique musicians showed up. Turns out the only euroish language they spoke was French. But Jet and I and their bandleader/xylophone player, Baba set up in a corner to figure out how in the world we were going to make this work. We got together in a little bandstand in the corner and worked it out. I discovered that Baba's best key was G, which is pretty much my favorite guitar key, and it was on. Jet and I altered our sets to include songs that would help showcase the band's talents.

I dragged Natacha over to translate (which she gladly did) and work out the plan. I asked Baba if it would be okay if Jet/Melanie/I did a few songs ourselves, then invited the band up for each set? Baba gave an easy nod and replied, "All musicians come from the same mother and father." Which touched me so much I almost teared up. Seriously.

I did my set first, doing the various covers I do when I don't have rehearsal time ("Centerfold," "Surrender," "Tainted Love"). Enthusiastic, polite applause from a mostly-french-expat audience who had never heard most of these songs before. I've had worse audiences.

Then I invited the musicians up, adding two songs in G which I could do with more of a world beat. Go time.

I sounded out the first beat: "Bom-Bom-Bom-Bom. PAK! Bom-Bom-Bom-Bom. PAK! " The band picked it up immediately and put some extra spin on it. And I launched into "Oh, Dear," A song I wrote back in college and still one of my favorite compositions. A little pop song with a quirky latin beat. Perfect.

And it was like I'd accellerated into another dimension, one that was bright and clear and powerful and full of the kind of energy I hadn't felt what seems like years. The band was as on as on gets. I left space for Baba to solo, which he did with fluid excellence. I gave the singers some room sing, the dancers room to move, and I felt like I was in a Youssou N'Dour video.

The sheer alchemy of the evening was unexpected and incredibly joyous, showcasing me and my little song as if I was David Freaking Byrne doing Once In a Lifetime.

I did one more song with the band, "Walk on the Wild Side," Which was every bit as jamming as the first song. I'll put up some video once I'm back using big American bandwidth. And I appeared a couple of times later in the evening, jamming with Jet during his set, and later jamming with the musicians, just filling out their songs with licks for another hour or so. Which I loved.

At 17, I traveled through Europe with two friends, busking in the streets, and we landed a gig at a bar in Amsterdam, playing for some Dutch and a bunch of Brits having a bachelor party. we played for 3 hours, I broke 10 strings, and at one point jumped up so high to do a pete townsend move that I hit a ceiling light. I hi That was the greatest night of my life up to that point, and this night in Siem Reap was on a par with that. No question.

John managed to record some of "Oh Dear." on his phone. It's mostly me jamming on the tail end of the songs with the African musicians and it's not the highest quality, but holy crap there it is. A cherished moment in my life as quicktime file.

Kudos and thanks to my new brothers and sisters at Centre d’Art Acrobatique Keita Fodeba / Tinafan, who made this evening the incredible blowout that it was. Thanks to Jet and Melanie, without whom there would have been no guitars (awesome SG Mel!) And of course props to Renaud for allowing the whole blissful experiement to happen. And to Natch for translating and supporting as is her wonderful way. But most of my gratitude goes to my longtime buddy and almost-as-long-Cambodia-resident John Weeks, without whom none of it would have taken place.

NEW MEME: Create the sitcom based on your life

Make something of your life: entertainment. I made this up as a travel game for Natacha & I, but it's too fun a creative exercise not to share. Here's the challenge: Take as many elements of your life as possible and construct a sitcom pitch out of them. You don't have to tell a true story...just take your life and morph it into something you think people might want to watch.

Here's Mine:

SERIES PITCH: "Half Lotus"

He's trying to start his life over. But which one?

"A 40-year-old former advertising creative has just finished five years in an Indian ashram to recovering from a work-related nervous breakdown. He returns to San Francisco a yogi, only to discover that in order to support himself and his 14-year-old runaway godson, he has to return to the very job that put him there.

Yes, 40-year-old Ben Roebling has found himself in a seriously twisted position. His last job, at a bigtime ad agency, ended in a nervous breakdown and a 5-year retreat to India to become a yogi. He returns to San Francisco with his head on straight and his priorities in order, only to find out his wife has filed for divorce and his 14-year-old godson has run away. Realizing he can't support the two of them on a yoga instructor's salary, Ben goes back to his old advertising job, where he has to deal with the egos, the pressure, and general craziness that put him in the ashram in the first place.

Hilarity--and pathos--ensue as Ben tries to use his spiritual teachings to deal with his past, win back his wife, and raise a rambunctious teen at the same time. All without going crazy. Again.

I stress that while many aspects of my series pitch reflect my life (that's the whole point of the exercise!), I did NOT go crazy, did NOT spend five years in an ashram, and I do NOT have a 14-year-old runaway godson. And I'm still married.

I have plenty more material for the show, including character descriptions and episode ideas. Maybe I'll put that up later.

By the way, the most fun you'll have with this: Choosing your cast. Calling Paul Rudd!