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

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 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.

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…?

Day Two/Delhi: In Which We Punt

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" for us). Snack kiosk

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 encounter 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. government-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. afternoon rickshawsAnd 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. But I've no doubt shamed myself in the eyes of my buddy James Murphy.

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 on this crappy guest house PC, and failing. More later!

India Day 1: Good God, We're Here

Delhi, that is. As in India. Mercy. HELL of a trip to get here...hell, it took us a day-and-a-half just to get to LAX. We had about a day and a half to finish getting the house ready, didn't leave 'til rush hour, spent the night in a Days Inn where the I-5 and Highway 41 meet, and got in to LA a hearty 9 hours before we were due at the airport. We had a wierd and utterly scrumptious lunch with my Dad at a Oxacan restaurant he found in WLA/ freakin' mole north of the border.

Then it was errand frenzy for, you know, four hours, packing, re-packing, going to Longs Drugs and asking the Pharmacist's assistant's assistant which over the counter eye lube works better (instead of asking her why so few answers, so much attitude, so little bathing, and what was up with that colony of moles on her cheek?)

Then a lightning-fast dinner in Santa Monica. And Ila & Mort shlepping us to the airport three hours early so we could hurry up and wait. Then me embarassing Natacha by insiting on finishing up my yoga routine by the departure gate.

The plane trip--all two legs and 22 ours of it--were fairly uneventful. Except for my popping an Ambien and waking up 6 hours later in the next seat over. Turns out the little filippino lady sitting between me & natacha had to pee and couldn't get past me. At least that's what I was told.

Caught like 4 movies on the flight(s): Juno (made me cry), Beowolf (hair-raising yet strangely literary thrill ride), and August Rush which, as I told Natacha after viewing it, was "more like Nauseous Gush." Total cavity-inducing suckfest, but Natacha fell asleep on my shoulder ten minutes in and one thing I've learned about being a husband is sometimes it's more important to just be a pillow.

Also some fun little Tawainese TV shows, which I took some phone snaps of and will upload later. Nutty!

Then there was Delhi--meeting frenchies, dodging tuk-tuks, eating fantastic food, disparaging touts, and just soaking up being in India--but I've blown so much time

uploading my photos and writing this post so far that I need to go to bed.

Here's a few photies to keep all three of you reading this. Check the Flickr site for captions that tell more of a story.

Stop! In the name of God Night Bazar, Backpacker's Ghetto, Delhi Race ya! Night Bazar, Backpacker's Ghetto, Delhi

We get up in like five hours to go on a twelve-day trip to Rajastan. Can't wait.