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.

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…?

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…?

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.


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

I write this from one of India's many internet cafes (roughly 80 cents an hour!), and there is another one right next door...or rather, there was. Their servers were down all day today, and this evening they place seemed to be gutted, and there are construction noises coming through the wall as I write this.

So. Udaipur Day Two started off in a very india-style fashion, with Natacha and I waiting on the roof of our guest house for the yoga instructor who supposedly gives classes there every morning. He arrived 45 minutes late, saying he was sorry, he was out late as his office party was last night. We later found out that he's a government employee who is a friend of the guesthouse owner. Most likely he just does this so he can get a practice in every morning and juice the guests for donations. Which he did. He led us through a practice that was fine for him but too advanced for us, with no instruction but "change" (positions) We have yet to understand why India is the yoga captial of the world, and not, say, Marin County.

After that was breakfast at the guesthouse's rooftop resto, some chatting with the other diners, and off to Udaipur's City Palace. This is the one in the middle of the Old City; we decided to hold off on seeing the lake palaces until the end of day, so we could take a boat around them at sunset.

The Udaipur City Palace was impressive, more so than Jaipur's. plus we had a tour guide giving us the lowdown. Like the courtyard is so big the entertainment there was elephant tug-of-wars. And there is a huge centuries-old tree that seems to be rooted on the fourth floor of the palace. Think about that for a moment. (HInt: the palace is built on a hill).

I know, we've seen a couple of palaces already, and we'll see more before we're done, but Udaipur's was nothing less than sensational. Tiles from Holland. Ornaments from Russia. Gold this, gold that. Humongous courtyards, inside and out. Magnificent views of the city. Complex rope-and-pulley systems that allow the servants to operate (read: pull) the fan that keeps the prince cool in his room round-the-clock. But I guess when you can afford a pair of palaces on the lake and one in the city, a decorating budget is easy to scare up.

Turns out the latest Maharaja of Udaipur is a young man at Uni in Australia. And I understand he's single, ladies.

After that, there was a long lunch at another rooftop restaurant, this one with an insane view of a huge Jain temple smack dab in the middle of the city. And a long conversation with a lovely British couple (he a biologist, she a nurse) on the cusp of finishing a year of traveling. And just in time, as she was pregnant. Planned but sooner than planned. So long lunches were par for them at this point.

(We've met a number of couples travelling for a year or more, mostly european, and while they've all been great to talk to (my faves being Marie and Greg), I'm jealous as hell of them. Compared to them, our three months looks wimpish. I have to remind myself that they are europeans, and as such get tons of vacation time, they get to have "career breaks," etc. Considering we suckers in the USA get barely a third of the vacation time that they do), our three months is comprable--and to Americans, it's HUGE. So there, Ken. Okay, that's my one paragraph of whingeing I'm allowed.)

By the time we get to the boat to the lake palaces, it was POURING rain. in the friggin' desert for frick's sake! So the boat to the palaces isn't going. But we are, out of Udaipur, to Jodphur, the next day. So no Octopussy moment for us.

And Udaipur? Not so romantic. and the heavy foot & rickshaw traffic kinda takes the shine off those narrow european type streets. If I had the choice again, I might just give it a miss.

Ah well. We had an amazing sunset the day before. And there is a lot of beauty here. Gotta appreciate what you've got. And there's dinner with the charming Marie and Greg, whom we first met & dined with in Pushkar and Natacha ran into here later in the eve. Travel, it giveth and it...well, it mostly giveth. Which is nice.

India Day 7: Guilt and Papayas

So. We get up at the f'n CRACK, throw on our clothes & packs, and stumble through the streets of Pushkar in efforts to meet Ramesh at the 6:30 am meeting time.

While stumbling, it occurred to us that, this early in the morning, we were less likely of being harrassed by priestouts at the ghats, and took a quick detour to visit one of the larger ghats. And so were 15 minutes late to meet Ramesh.

Which normally wouldn't have been a problem.

Turns out there were some seriously crossed wires going on. See, we told him that we'd call him if we wanted to get picked up later than 6:30. No call meant "6:30 A-OK!" We thought.

But HE thought that we were going to call to check in regardless. So he got there at 6 AM, and when we showed up, boy was he pissed.

Once we got on the road, he really let us have it. He told us all the cautionary tales about Pushkar, dangerous land of backpacker grifts.

There was the couple who went to a crooked guest house (run, in Ramesh's telling, by Muslims, of course) and got robbed, drugs planted on them, some such. Then there's the infamous "Bang Lassi" story, in which a hapless femalie is given a drugged yoghurt drink. Think "roofie." We later heard the story of a friend of a fellow traveler who did have one of those, but it was by choice (like an Amsterdam "space cake."). Then there was the guy who got dope planted on him by his guest house, so he had to pay off the cops (and the guest house got a piece).

Or there are the stories of Pushkar men who work in the shops & restaurants, who seduce & marry tourist women, go back to their country, then take all their money, go back to Pushkar, and start over. Beware, Ladies!

Were any of these stories true? Ramesh seemed to think so. But more important, he said that when a professional guide is in charge of tourists that go missing, the Guide gets arrested for losing track of them! And since cars weren't allowed in Pushkar, he couldn't check on us. So we felt bad. We apologized and in return got stonewalled by Ramesh. Which didn't suck.

Regardless, it was a long drive to our next stop, Udaipur.

If you've ever looked at Udaipur on a map, you know that it's out of the way on the standard Rajastan loop--5-7 hours south of Pushkar, 5-7 hours south of Jodphur. But the Lonely Planet said the lake palace was amazing, and other travelers told us that it was "romantic and european," so we put it on our itinerary.

Because of the length of the drive, it was late in the day when we asked Ramesh if we could stop for lunch. There weren't any of his beloved tourist trap commission places along the way, so we ended up at a little roadside stand just outside the hills surrounding Udaipur.

We sat down on woven flats to eat a couple of very spicy dishes with Parantha (bread), sitting with Ramesh as he told jokes about us in Hindi to the men at the stand. Everyone was laughing but N & I.

But as we ate, a bunch of girls gathered at the stairs leading behind the stand. They were the wives, mothers, and (mostly) daughters of the men who ran the place. They looked at us a giggled a while. Because, of course, we are white and foreign and therefore hilarious.

Finally one of them said something to one of the men, who said something to Ramesh, who passed it to us: Could they take Natacha to their home? It was right behind & just below the stand. Natacha agreed and went with these 7 or so females. 20 minutes later, she returned, carrying a huge green papaya. Turns out they'd shown her the kitchen, and were just generally mezmerized with her. We stayed a while longer to talk with them (via Ramesh) and take some photos.

Natacha, kind soul that she is, worried about not having any gifts to given them in return. So she dug into her pack and gave them hair chopsticks and cough drops. Hey, what would YOU have done?

Finally heading into Udaipur, Ramesh offered once again to find us a place to stay. Since we still felt guilty about the Pushkar thing, we let him lead the way. He took us to a place that the Lonely Planet did mention, a lovely hotel with a swimming pool that was roughly double what we'd dream of paying. Big "R" was in top form.

After getting lost a few times in the center of Udaipur old town, we located a place ourselves and sent him on his way so we could spend two Ramesh-less nights in Udaipur.

We spent that first afternoon walking through the narrow, crowded streets and sitting on the Ghat overlooking the lake. You can see the golden palace in the lake, an immense white structure immortalized in the film "Octopussy." We found a fancy hotel with a rooftop restaurant, ordered the cheap dishes, and watched the sun set over the lake, the twin palaces, a mosque, and a very busy day.

(UPDATE: Many) Indians are short

(Caveat: this post was written after bumping my head on yet another doorway here in India. What can I say? It gets me mad. Apologies to my peeps Lakshman, Kapil and Rahul, who are all quite tall, and to anyone of Indian persuasion who is not in the business of planning or building doorways in India. And now, the post:) Is this a generalization? I say no.

How do I know this? Because in our thirty days thus far, I have bumped my head on like A HUNDRED FUCKING DOORWAYS.

Goddamn OUCH!

Granted, I've met Indian people who are tall. Okay, like three. But they're not the ones building the fucking DOORWAYS, are they?

Nothing makes me want to hulk out and smash stuff like bumping my head on a doorway. And I'm a sloucher, for god's sake!

No, it's not the Indians' fault that they're a short(ish) people...but it IS their fault that they don't build their doorways higher.

And I imagine I'm going to have a BALL in Southeast Asia. :-(

Did I mention OUCH?

India Day 6: Huckster Ghats and Hippie Ghettos

I have discovered that no matter where we are in the world--or how FREAKING hot it is in our room--nothing puts me to sleep faster than listening to people talk on my MP3 player. So far my talk of choice is comedy--I downloaded the Comedy Death Ray collection before we left--something like two hours of mostly-great standup for the price of lunch at In N Out. But I had no idea I'd be listening to it so often. You can only listen to Paul F. Tompkins do his bee fetish routine so many times.

So I'm frantically downloading as many talkshow & comedy podcasts as I can shove over this Internet Cafe's broadband connex. Jimmy Pardo, do not fail me as a sleep aid or I swear I will geld you.

Anyways, the long download times let me get into a really interesting destination on our trip: Pushkar.

We were picked up at our Jaipur guest house by Ramesh, who was noticeably grumpy, likely because we stayed at a place that was actually comfortable and popular, and therefore had no need to pay him a commission for taking us there. Good. We piled in and headed to Pushkar, a place we were told was a very spiritual one: 130 temples surrounding a lake in the middle of desert. not on our orig itinerary but sounded great. Ramesh thought that we'd stay in Amer, the larger city outside of Pushkar, and got a bit pissy when we told him,no, we wanted to stay in Pushkar proper. Obviously he wanted to get us into a commission hotel. obviously we were itching to be rid of him for a day and a night.

He drove us as far has he could into Pushkar (cars aren't allowed there) and we agreed to meet him at the same spot at 6:30, and that we'd call him on his cel if we wanted to leave later. As soon as we left the car, we were set upon by one priest after another. Or rather, "priests." See, Pushkar is filled with these guys who try to give you ceremonial flowers to throw into Pushkar's famous Ghats, then lead you through the ritual, then ask for a donation. Really annoying. and of course Ramesh did nothing to ward them away from us. Y'know, like a guide is paid to do.

So we shook him, and them, off and headed down the main drag, getting touted by more priests, auto-rickshaw drivers, guest houses, clothing, shops, etc. every step of the way. It was like we were back in Delhi. It was hot and annoying but we eventually found our way to the guesthouse that was recco'd to us by a French woman we met at the Pearl Palace. It was a quiet (yay!) cheap oasis from the Pushkar chaos.

Once we got a little space, we noticed that the town was full of backpackers, all making themselves comfortable as only backpackers do: eating jaffles, drinking tea, trying not to look too stoned, etc. That, and the plethora of restaurants advertising Israeli food, made us realize that this was a total backpacker's ghetto. Skinny Dutch dudes in sarongs with no shirts and braided facial hair. That kind of thing. It's a place where backpackers come, and stay for days. And why not? Plenty of home-type food, cafes to hang out in, and stuff to buy. It's also a place where you can take a a course in painting, yoga, etc.

But except for the temples and the ghats, it's also a place sans culture.

The lake, and the ghats & temples that surrounded it, were peaceful & sublime, but hard to enjoy without getting touted everywhere.

we did manage to walk around the lake, even in the intense heat.

At the opposite side we met a charming israeli couple, who confirmed the Israelis-are-everywhere-in-India syndrome. After their army service, they go travelling. He said, that these young, newly free kids settle in somewhere and change it to suit them. "Well," I replied, "If you can do it to the desert, you can do it anywhere, eh?" We had a good laugh at that.

We also met a crazy dutch guy who talked in travel-vernacular non-sequiturs and proved to us that too much solo travel isn't necessarily a good thing.

Eventually we got back to the town center and took a yoga class. Just us in a room full of open shutters. He took some time to explain yoga was, but his accent was so think I didn't get all of it. I gathered it was mostly about balance- each position has it's active & passive muscles, etc.

By The end of the practice, the wind really picked up outside. The lights went out so the teacher lit the practice with his cel phone. Then all the shutters started slamming open & shut. It was really interesting to have the elements outside be so active during our session.

When we finished, we walked into the courtyard, which the yoga place shared with a large temple. Which was holding a festival of some sort. Which infolved everyone pushig a huge wooden idol on a wheeled altar around the courtyard while the people sang, held torches near it, and banged drums. Facinating.

The wind continued to pick up and then, rain. Then a blackout--everything on the streets, dark.

WE found a restaurant that was serving despite that, a rooftop place atop a four-story building. They served Mexican food, played Bob Marley. One of Pushkar's many hippie backpacker joints. After we ordered, the wind REALLY picked up. So much that the 15-foot-high sign outside the restaurant broke a tether and threatened to fall four stories to the ground. AS it swung to & fro, we heard screams from the ground. Fortunately the staff grabbed it and brought it inside in time, propping it up on the wall near us.

We and the other customers were ushered into a room indside the building and served there. People kept coming in, and eventually the room was crammed with Canadian college jocks, mixed-race couples in flowing fabrics, middle-aged women talking about their side businesses selling fabrics and jewlery, even the dutch guy with the hair showed up. It was a real microcosm of backpacker culture.

Later that night, when the lights were back on everywhere but the streets, I did something stupid. After trying to upload my photos at a cyber-cafe and failing--until midnight, mind you--I walked home, after all the stores were closed, which meant I had to walk the 4-5 blocks back through the dirt streets in pitch darkness. I tried to use my camera flash to light my way (see photos below)...which was just as stupid. I stepped into at least one puddle, and at some point a dog barked at me and aI almost shat myself. So that was Pushkar.