From October of 2002 to March of 2003, my fiance and I traveled in Nepal and India. These emails are an account of our journey.
Subject: Kimbap in Kathmandu
Date: Wed Oct 2, 2002
We’ve made it. Tonight I’m writing to you from a cybercafe instead of a PC-bang. Yesterday we woke up in Korea, had a gorgeous Chinese lunch in Hong Kong, and then for dinner ate Tibetan momos and drank butter tea: three currencies in a single jet lag-extended day.
Kathmandu has its own smell which is completely unlike the asphalt tang of New York or the sour smoke-and-pickles of Seoul. It’s a mix of incense and burning butter, diesel and dust and cardamom. Four years ago that smell seemed so exotic, but today it felt like home. The rickshaws, the thanka shops, the “Yes, hello, good price” doesn’t phase me at all. Well, okay, maybe a little bit, but I can’t get over how normal it feels. Korea with all its modern trappings feels like the foreignness I’m shrugging off; I’m far more at ease in Kathmandu’s clutter and tradition and willful exoticism.
Today we had an early breakfast — fried Tibetan bread with marmalade, chai, fried potatoes, salt-butter tea — then walked down to Durbar Square at the center of town. On the way we wandered into a temple where a crowd of men and women sat on a small platform singing, playing cymbals and harmoniums, chanting. Inside was a Buddhist monk along with the Hindu mendicants and pilgrims. Later we made the long hike up to Swayambu, the Monkey Temple, another Hindu-Buddhist holy site in this endlessly multicultural country. Inside one shrine, Tibetan Buddhist monks (some of them Westerners) played gongs and horns and conches, sending up a fabulous racket, while outside Indian tourists swirled about the great white Buddhist dome that dominates the temple complex. In the afternoon we wandered around the tourist district of Thamel, looking at crafts and clothes and books.
Nepal is astonishingly beautiful, whether you’re looking at a clothing stall or a 16th-century temple, a painted rickshaw or a tiny Ganesh shrine. The culture here is intensely alive. At the most obscure shrines as at the World Heritage temple sites, the daily business of worship goes on, with all the wear and tear it causes to ancient statues caked in bits of rice and color, to great fences of prayer-wheels, to the gates that protect a holy relic at the core of a great pagoda temple. Butter lamps and incense burn everywhere. Bells ring. People chant. People fly by on motorcycles or sell each other hair brushes and copper bowls.
In Korea, I felt like the culture was buried, stifled. I don’t mean to say that somehow the unmodernized ritual of Nepal is more authentic than pop music; it’s more than that, and more vague. I don’t yet have a theory to explain it or the relevant examples to demonstrate why, but the tiniest slices of Kathmandu thrill me more than the greatest monuments of Korea.
Anyway, we’ve made it. We’re here. this is a place I have longed to return to for many years, and it’s very, very good to be back.
More relaxed than I’ve been in a year,
PS: In our wanders today we discovered a Korean restaurant with a menu all in Hangeul. You can get kimbap, bibimbap, twechi galbi. But we won’t. I’ll admit that Korean food was never my favorite; we are incredibly thrilled to be surrounded by Tibetan and Indian cuisine.
“To find oneself where one has longed to be always, to a reflective mind, gives food for thought.”
– Virginia Woolf, “Orlando”
Subject: Eating Well, but Cautiously
Date: Sat Oct 5, 2002
Kathmandu is famous for its densely packed, medieval Old City, full of temples, shrines, stupas, gods, goddesses, ornate wooden windows, clouds of incense, bolts of sari cloth, rows of butter lamps flickering next to rickshaws; it is also famous for Thamel, the overcrowded tourist haven where they show the latest movies in all the cafes and the food is indescribably fabulous and very poor men from the hills follow you around trying to sell you horrible little violins and chess sets. Caught between the obsequious desperation of Thamel and the picturesque poverty further downtown, one begins to feel claustrophobic; you are assailed by the notion that all the wealth and luxury in the country is reserved for the foreigners.
Yesterday we decided to wander away from the touristed parts of town, across the thoroughfare of Kantipath and into the flow of ordinary Nepalis in the newer part of town. There we found the shops where the better-off women can buy their shalwar kameez (traditional dress and pants) and their more modern clothes. We sat in a park where Nepalis relaxed, groups of young men and the occasional couple. We sat in an Internet shop next to well-dressed Nepali boys with glasses who were browsing Australian cricket websites. It was reassuring to discover that there is indeed a middle class here, albeit a very, very small one. As Jenny put it, she had begun to wonder if people with money here simply spent it differently than do people everywhere else. It turns out that they don’t; as in the rest of the world, people want a bigger house on a street where they can park their car. They want nice clothes and good food and satellite dishes. And such things do exist here. In discovering them, we felt we had deepened our sense of Kathmandu considerably. It’s worth keeping perspective on just how tiny and tenuous this middle class might be, but it’s instructive to see the choices that have been made by those lucky enough to be successful.
Today we awoke to discover that the king had sacked the prime minister, dissolved the parliament and assumed executive power. According to the papers, the king was actually attempting to reinforce democracy; his justification was that the PM had failed to arrange for the elections scheduled for November 14th, and had instead agreed with all other parties to postpone them for a year.
In the tourist neighborhood of Thamel, we noticed that the mood was strangely subdued, with many of the shops closed. At first we wondered if it was the political situation that had changed the atmosphere, but then we realized that today is Saturday, the Nepali day off.
In general, the response has been fairly low-key. A small, well-ordered demonstration marched up the street in Thamel in support of the king. When you ask people about democracy here — which has been the mode of government since a popular uprising in 1990 — they universally tell you it’s been a failure. According to the owner of our hotel, tax money disappears into politicians’ pockets, development goes nowhere, and in rural areas the Maoist rebels “tax” the locals, demanding protection money. Industry is down, jobs are scarce, and the instability in the region is keeping many of the tourists away.
Nepalis are cold in their hearts, the hotelier went on, about the present situation and also about the king. Before the royal massacre he was the unpopular brother of the now-late king, and Nepalis are wary of him, but they have no one else to turn to. Whether it’s true or not, I have no idea, but our hotelier told us the Chinese give money to the Maoists, while the Indians support the corrupt politicians. The king is their only hope for change, though they don’t seem especially confident.
In the meantime, we are still here in Kathmandu, where the world is decidedly not coming to an end. We have been eating fabulously: lavish breakfasts of eggs and sausage and muesli in yogurt; buff steak and chicken Kiev; potato momos and lightly spiced thalis. We’re taking things easy, reading a lot, wandering some, shopping a little. And we’re enjoying the version of Western culture that the Nepalis reflect back at us. In Korea, Americans are either soldiers or businesspeople (teachers are in the latter category), and Korea’s rendition of Western culture involves cowboy bars, prostitutes and bad spaghetti. The visitors here are of a different order: hippies, religious seekers, mountaineers, ecotourists, people with an interest in art and culture. Portishead and Tom Waits waft from CD shops and bars, mingling with Indian and fusion music, and with the ubiquitous New Age “Om Mani Padme Hum” CD. Instead of T-shirts with Bill the Cat drinking soju, we’re offered pretty sweaters and “I Love Buddhism” stickers. Instead of bars named “Nashville” and “Starbutts,” there are lodges with names like “Pacifist” and “Peace.” Instead of Popeye’s Chicken, there’s fresh brown bread.
Tomorrow we will go to Kopan Monastery as planned, and we’ll stay there until the meditation course ends on October 16th. By that time our Indian visas will be ready (we went to the embassy yesterday), so we can reassess the political situation and leave then if necessary. Hopefully, though, we’ll be able to stick to our plans and go trekking. To put things in some perspective, we’re happy that there are no Al Qaeda cells, anthrax-laced letters or rooftop snipers wandering loose around here. And yes, we’ll be careful.
Happy and well fed,
“To find oneself where one has longed to be always, to a reflective mind, gives food for thought.”
– Virginia Woolf, “Orlando”
Subject: The Buddha, Purity and Rubber Lovin’
Date: Fri Oct 18, 2002
I went to Kopan Monastery looking for spirituality. Unfortunately, what I got was religion instead.
Tibetans are the Catholics of the Buddhist world, and medieval Catholics at that. They see themselves as the keepers of the only complete lineage directly from the Buddha, and therefore the sole possessors of the complete path to Enlightenment (as opposed to mere Nirvana — and no, I will not explain the difference). Their temples are elaborately decorated with dragons, deities, incarnations, emanations, flames, clouds, animals and symbols. So are their metaphysics. As in medieval Europe, the monasteries are the centers of practice and learning, as well as the wealthiest institutions around. And as with the Catholics in those days, the Tibetan Buddhists aren’t really sure what to make of the laity, who are largely uneducated in the complex theology considered necessary for real spiritual progress. And just as the monks of Europe famously argued over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin, the Tibetan monks engage in lively debate over the most abstruse points of metaphysics, the only empirical points of reference being the scriptures and their own meditative experiences.
Even so, the real problems with the course had to do with the Western nun who was teaching it. Karin Valham is a Swedish ex-Catholic who spent her wild years floating around Southeast Asia in a druggy haze and then found God on a small hill full of Tibetan refugees. Within a year of her arrival at Kopan in 1974, she had already become a nun in the order. To a great extent, then, what she found compelling about Tibetan Buddhism couldn’t have been its philosophy, at least not primarily. She mentioned at one point that coming to Kopan felt like coming home, and she explained that she chose Buddhism over her native Catholicism because the former gave her a more distinct program of practice. As such, her Buddhism tended to come across as a kind of crypto-Catholicism. Our course began with a catechism in some of the most hard-to-believe aspects of Tibetan Buddhism — reincarnation and karma and the various realms of existence — and stayed grimly focused on how we must spend this lifetime preparing ourselves for a better rebirth and fearing a rebirth into the hell realms. The words “purity” and “virtue” came up far more often than “compassion.” There were also a number of guided meditations on the glowing light of the omniscient Buddha, which felt an awful lot like letting the light of Christ fill our hearts.
With this cosmology went an ideology of retreat from engagement with the world. She bragged about lay practitioners who took on severely onerous “purifications” (read “penances”), such as chanting a mantra 400,000 times or making 100,000 prostrations to the Buddha; and about those who went on the most extreme retreats, like a married couple who built themselves separate shacks in the Vermont woods and stayed hidden away for three years. On our final day, she proposed to give us a talk on how to bring our Buddhism with us into the world. She recommended that we find quiet spaces to meditate, that we go about the world chanting mantras (which she described as “mind protectors”), that we visit dharma centers in our own countries. She even suggested that we go sit in churches and meditate. In other words, her idea of how to be Buddhist in the world was to find as many ways as possible of retreating from it. Such an approach seems completely out of synch with the Buddhism I’ve read about in books by Thich Nhat Hanh, Pema Chodron, Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, D.T. Suzuki and the Dalai Lama, and the Tibetan monks at the monastery didn’t seem to share it. Considering how regularly Karin was wrong or confused about other subjects and how poorly she answered questions, I came to doubt her understanding of Tibetan Buddhism. She was clearly out of her depth when she engaged in philosophical debate with us, discussed current events or talked about science. I didn’t trust her intellectually, so I was unable to trust her teachings on the subject at hand.
Karin’s most bizarre performance came on the fifth day, when she gave us her brief history of Buddhism and Tibet. She declared that the Buddhists and Hindus never engaged in combat, only in intellectual debate, which makes me wonder whether the great Buddhist emperor Ashoka simply talked his way to power across all of northern India. She also seemed to believe that the Muslims waged a great holy war to eradicate Buddhism in India, which simply never happened. In her version of history, this jihad nearly wiped out Buddhism, and only the Tibetans managed to carry off the complete teachings of the Buddha. She spoke disparagingly of the “Hinayana” Buddhist practitioners (they prefer the term “Theravada”) who trace their lineage to the Sri Lankan transmission of the Buddha’s teachings, and who constitute most of the Buddhists in Southeast Asia. Later, in explaining Buddhism’s decline in Indonesia, she guessed that the Muslims came there and made war, because “That’s just their way.” (Actually, Islam came to Indonesia by way of peaceful merchants.) This whole history came just after a declaration that Buddhism isn’t sectarian and has no missionaries, and just before she proudly told us how her branch of Buddhism is running TV shows in Mongolia to help spread the Buddha’s teachings there and combat the Christian missionaries, whom she regarded as some kind of demonic presence leading the people astray. (“They pay people to go to church!” she hissed; a couple of days later we sat in on a lengthy puja [prayer ceremony] during which the kids were all handed crisp new 50-rupee notes and plastic bags full of junk food. To be fair, though, the recipients were all monks who already lived at the monastery.) When Jenny bravely raised her hand to ask why the TV show wasn’t missionary activity, Karin explained that it was because the Mongolians were already Buddhists and had simply forgotten during the years of Soviet domination. Jenny and I were appalled, and we considered leaving after that; Jenny’s roommate had already declared Karin “a mean old nun” and slipped away on the third day. (Men and women stay in separate rooms at the monastery.)
In the end, we decided to stay. Despite Karin’s shortcomings as a teacher, there was much to value at Kopan. Each morning we woke up at 5:45, a few minutes before sunrise, and wandered over to the dining hall for cups of tea as we watched the sun come up over the mountains, setting alight the streams of fog that ran along the bends and crevasses of the Kathmandu Valley below. As we sipped quietly — we maintained silence until lunchtime — we could hear the monks chanting and playing their horns and conches and cymbals in the main gompa (meditation hall) across from us. By 6:30 it was time for our morning meditations, which tended to focus on quieting the mind and developing concentration and mental focus. For all my doubts about Karin, she did teach us some useful techniques, and it was a worthwhile experience simply to have the discipline to meditate for an hour each morning for ten days straight. After a long break for breakfast, we went for the morning teachings from 9:15 to 11:45 — the source of all the trouble. Then came lunch — typically Indian and Nepali food, and quite good. At 2 in the afternoon we broke into lively discussion groups, each of which had a young monk to answer our questions.
At 3:30 we had a class with a geshe (a Tibetan doctor of philosophy) who was teaching Westerners for the first time. He was sweet enough, if a bit shy and unsure what to do with us. His translator, though, was an energetic young man who is taking time off from Buddhist monk college to await the arrival of the reincarnation of his guru, Lama Konchog, who died one year ago. The afternoon sessions were often hard to follow, but the geshe was teaching us a specific book — The 37 Practices of a Boddhisattva — so we knew he wasn’t just making it all up out of his head, something I began to worry was happening in our morning sessions with Karin. Also unlike Karin, the geshe was willing to admit it when he didn’t know the answer to a question. And the cultural differences made for some entertaining moments. In a discussion about karma in which good looks and riches in this life were ascribed to good deeds in past lives, someone asked whether that meant the people of Hollywood all had the best karma. “Hollywood is in America?” responded the translator. At another point, we were informed that sexual misconduct included incest, rape, doing it in holy places or in front of holy objects, and doing it during the day. At the end of the session, an earnest young German man raised his hand to ask why it was wrong to have sex during the day. After a lengthy back-and-forth between the geshe and the translator, the translator blushed and told us that he’d made a mistake. The point, apparently, was just not to have sex where others were likely to see you. This made far more sense to us.
It was also much earthier and more humane than Karin’s warning that we shouldn’t put our Buddha statues next to the bed, because we should feel embarrassed about having sex in front of him, even though “He sees all, he knows all.” In the evenings, before and after dinner, we had sessions of guided meditation with Karin, and these were in some ways even more problematic than her teachings. They tended to require detailed visualizations of the very concepts we found unbelievable. For example, in one meditation we tried to generate compassion for all the millions of goats that were slaughtered for the Hindu festival of Dassain. That was fine, but I got into trouble when we were supposed to start imagining all these goats in the Bardo — a mystical realm where minds hang out before rebirth, apparently with a maximum stay of 49 days (and no, I didn’t ask what constituted a day in the Bardo). Worse yet, we were supposed to pray that these goats would all receive “precious human rebirths” that would allow them to practice Buddhism. That’s all well and good, but there are a limited number of human conceptions that can possibly take place in the next 49 days, and we’d been told that there are “countless” minds in the Bardo at any given time; thus, when we were praying for the goats to get into human rebirths, we were necessarily praying against some other beings. Either that or we were hoping for some kind of apocalyptic scenario in which there would be trillions of human births and no animal births for the foreseeable future. So here I was with my mathematical conundrum, and I still had a half an hour to sit there and meditate on this nonsense. After dinner was even worse, as we tended to meditate on various deities, and never as metaphor. (Curiously, Karin used the term “deity,” not “incarnation” or “emanation.”) Much as I was trying to keep an open mind, I simply couldn’t take seriously a literal interpretation of a thousand-armed, eleven-faced god of compassion.
To some extent, I think Karin’s approach and our difficulties with it were generational. The baby boomers who came to Asia were looking for grand visions and exotic mysticism; it was the age of Carlos Castaneda and LSD. A couple of the older students seemed to be looking for just that sort of revelation. They were what people in the Neo-Pagan community refer to as “white-lighters,” people who are looking for mystic visions around every corner. They tended to discuss mediums and reiki very earnestly. Most of us, though, were of a younger and more practical generation. We want techniques, not visions, and we don’t think the East has a monopoly on wisdom. We’re here to learn, not to believe.
So as Karin herself put it, if nothing else, we had a chance to practice patience. We also had a fascinating evening with Lama Lhundrup, Kopan’s abbot, a charming little man with a fantastic laugh that he used liberally. He spent an hour and a half answering our questions straightforwardly and with genuine wisdom. When I asked him what to do about the poverty and suffering that I saw around me here in Nepal and in India, he said to learn as much as I could about a particular situation, then get involved in a knowledgeable way; he suggested that I find a way to support education, as this was vital to the future of the communities I wanted to help. His answer was sensible, compassionate and engaged; until that point, I’d gotten the sense that the Tibetan Buddhist way of helping others was to sit on a mountain and send them “positive merit.” Later we watched a film about another lama who had spent decades living in caves in the mountains. At first his life seemed like the very model of retreat, but as the video progressed, it became clear that much of his time as a hermit was actually spent building a school and nunnery for the local community, helping to finance it, teaching there, and ministering to the villagers.
That was the Buddhism I’d come to learn more about. While I can see the value in taking breaks to renew oneself, I have no intention of becoming a monk on a mountain or retreating from the world. In any spiritual practice, what I am seeking is not a way to hide from the world, but a way to live in it fully, richly, compassionately, peacefully and happily. Meditation and reflection are vital if one is to act with wisdom — to use what Buddhists call “skillful means.” But the real test comes outside of the meditation hall, in the grit and confusion of everyday life.
Back in our hotel room in Kathmandu, I put on my headphones and listened to the neurotic funk of Macy Gray, an antidote if ever there was one to too much talk of purity and virtue. And there it was, as clear a statement of the Buddha’s teachings as I’d heard in all my time at Kopan: “Spread your rubber lovin’, and it’ll bounce right back to you.” And when Macy says it, I believe it.
Living life as fully as I know how,
“To find oneself where one has longed to be always, to a reflective mind, gives food for thought.”
– Virginia Woolf, “Orlando”
Subject: Is It Real?
Date: Tue Oct 22, 2002
The other day Jenny and I were riding in a taxi to Patan, the Kathmandu Valley’s second-largest city. The driver and I had gone through the standard formalities: “Which country?” “USA.” “Ah! Good country!” “Thank you.” “This Nepal first time?” “Second time. I came here before in 1997.” “Ah! Two-thousand-two.”
After a moment of silence, the driver spoke up again. “Can I ask you a question?”
“Sure. Go ahead.”
“You know American wrestling? On TV?”
The driver peered into his mirror to see my face. “The fighting,” he said. “Is it real?”
As an emissary of American culture, it was my sad duty to tell this Nepali man that no, it’s not real. “But so many people watching!” he objected. I explained that it was all stunts, like watching a magic show.
The central square of Patan is densely packed with temples, palaces and statues. Patan used to be its own kingdom, but now the royal palace has been marvelously restored in a fusion of modern and traditional styles and turned into one of the best museums Jenny or I have ever visited anywhere in the world (see http://www.asianart.com/patan-museum/). Focusing mainly on Nepali brass and stone statuary, it manages to make sense out of the richly complex iconography of Hinduism and Buddhism. The texts are detailed and clear, and the art, generally of very high quality, is exquisitely displayed. There are also photos and etchings of Kathmandu and Patan from the late 19th century. The contrast with similar exhibits in Korea is striking. There, the difference between Seoul in 1955 — a devastated wasteland — and Seoul by the 1980s is almost total. Here, by contrast, the main squares look almost exactly the same (sometimes with an extra temple or two that toppled in the 1934 earthquake), and the people too look similar. You see fewer turbans today, and the men tend to dress in Western clothing, but the women are still in saris, although the shalwar kameez has largely displaced them among younger women.
When we emerged from the museum, a boy in the square pointed us toward a monumental carved doorway into the courtyard of an adjacent palace. “Come see! Ritual!” he shouted. Inside the courtyard we discovered a mostly Nepali group of spectators ringing a troupe of masked dancers who shivered and twitched to the rhythms as several young men played bell cymbals and an older man drummed and crooned a strange wordless chant. In the center, one dancer paid elaborate homage to the bloody severed head of a buffalo, next to which an assistant held a butter torch. Eventually the dancers were all given swords covered in tikka (colored powder used for rituals), and they began a slow, whirling group dance.
I can make guesses as to what the ceremony was about, but what stands out is its very strangeness — the wild, matted hair of the masks; the old men underneath dressed as tribal women with earrings and bracelets and necklaces; the hypnotic clang of the cymbals and the ragged line of the old man’s wordless singing; the raw power of the sacrificed head still trickling blood.
At last the dancers and musicians formed a procession and disappeared through a side door, and the ritual was over. We walked back out into the square, the ever-present New Age strains of a popular “Om Mani Padme Hum” CD competing for our attention with the cries of taxi drivers.
On another day we visited Bhaktapur, the third-largest city in the valley and probably the most beautiful. At a slight remove from Kathmandu and Patan, Bhaktapur has a feel all its own. For one thing, auto traffic is largely banned there, which makes wandering its streets a peaceful respite from the Kathmandu experience. But there’s more to it than that. Bhaktapur is a center for wood carving, and building after building has spectacular doors and windows and roof struts — not just in the main squares, but even down alleyways and in side streets. At this time of year, every available courtyard is covered with mats on which grain is drying. Women toss the grain with hoes, and clouds of chaff blow on the breeze. We wandered here and there through the streets until we came to the river (which unfortunately smells like a sewer). We sat for a time at Ram Ghat, where hundreds of Shiva and Buddha and Nandi and Parvati statues and lingams are packed together. Despite their sheer bewildering density and number, the fresh tikka and offerings proved them to be well attended. Close to the water, a Brahmin was going carefully through an offering of sweets and giving ritual assistance to the small family who had brought them. From a window above us came the sound of students practicing harmonium and tabla.
Back in Kathmandu we’ve been eating and sleeping and reading, and we’ve fallen into a bit of a daze. Tonight, to break the torpor, we went out to Bouda, site of the valley’s largest stupa (Buddhist dome), where in the evening the large and thriving Tibetan community comes out to circumambulate the base of the great monument. Old women cackle at each other between prostrations to the Buddha. Monks line up on the ground and chant. As the sun fades, tables appear and women cover them with butter lamps. Prayer wheels spin. Old men chant mantras between meetings with their friends. Little clumps of teenagers and young men climb up to the higher levels of the stupa to get away from the adults and gossip.
A young newspaper reporter stops us for an interview. Are we scared of the Maoists? No, we tell him. We have terrorists in our country too, but we think that people should come and visit anyway. We’ll be careful, but we don’t want to let terrorists keep us from seeing the world. We think Americans should still come to Nepal, and they should go to New York and Bali too.
Tomorrow is our last day in Kathmandu. On Thursday morning we’ll take the bus to Pokhara, and from there we’ll begin our trek into the Annapurnas. I’m looking forward to being on the move again — to traveling, as opposed to vacationing, which is what we’ve been doing for much of our time here in Kathmandu.
We’ll be in touch by email from Pokhara both before and after our trek, which should take about two weeks.
I hope you’re all well!
“To find oneself where one has longed to be always, to a reflective mind, gives food for thought.”
– Virginia Woolf, “Orlando”
Subject: Alive and Well in Pokhara
Date: Fri Oct 25, 2002
Hi everyone. Unfortunately the Internet connections here are deadly slow, so I can’t answer all your individual emails right now, but I just wanted to let everyone know that we’re here in Pokhara where the air is good, the lake is beautiful and the peaks of the Annapurna range are very, very big. We’ll be departing tomorrow to begin our walk in among those peaks, and we should be back by about two weeks from now, give or take a few days. Email to follow.
“To find oneself where one has longed to be always, to a reflective mind, gives food for thought.”
– Virginia Woolf, “Orlando”
Subject: Back from the Mountains
Date: Mon Nov 11, 2002
Hi everyone! I’ll soon be sending a much more detailed (and no doubt lengthy) email about our trek in the Himalayas, but I just wanted to let everyone know that Jenny and I are safe and sound, back in the (relatively) lowland city of Pokhara. We had a marvelous time, ate much apple crumble — Nepal is far enough south that they grow apples, apricots and even mangoes at 10,000 ft/3,000 m — walked up and down a great deal, saw many very large things, and generally enjoyed ourselves. I will admit, however, that I was very happy today to leave the icy winds of Jomsom (about 10,000 ft/3,000 m) and fly back to the warm, thick air of Pokhara. Anyway, more soon!
Hope you’re all well,
“To find oneself where one has longed to be always, to a reflective mind, gives food for thought.”
– Virginia Woolf, “Orlando”
Subject: Trekking I: From the Hungry Eye to the Super View
Date: Tue Nov 12, 2002
In case you’ve been imagining that Jenny and I had gone adventuring into some mysterious Himalayan hinterland, it might be instructive to point out that we began our trek in a taxi. From Pokhara it’s about an hour’s drive to the trailhead at Nayapul, up and down a steep ridge on cliffside roads that vary at random from pavement to gravel to muddy ruts, and rarely widen to what one could genuinely call two lanes. During our ride we were treated to what the driver seemed to think was appropriate music: sitar melodies over a go-go beat, like some kind of Austin Powers-style parody of 1960s Indophilia. As we drove, I thought back to the “cultural show” we’d seen the night before at the Hungry Eye restaurant (next to which one finds the upstart Tasty Tongue). Mostly it was the sort of second-rate folk singing and dancing you’d expect, but at one point a dancer emerged dressed as a trekker — complete with backpack, two trekking poles and a big, fat belly — and proceeded to clown about, pointing at everything around him.
On this day, I was on a mission to become that clown. For reasons that remain unclear, Westerners take great pleasure in strapping themselves into a bunch of fancy equipment — my boots cost more than the Nepali per capita income, and let’s not even get into the cost of the backpack, the down sleeping bag, the telescoping aluminum trekking pole, the Coolmax shirts, etc. — and slogging off into the mountains, grunting and heaving and pointing and photographing the whole way.
For our own such adventure, Jenny and I had chosen the Jomsom trek, which begins at Nayapul (1050m/3449ft); climbs up over Poon Hill (3193m/10,476ft) for a spectacular panoramic view of the Annapurna Massif and towering Dhaulagiri; descends again to the hot springs of Tatopani (1190m/3904ft); then climbs again to the high desert of Lower Mustang, at last coming to the Hindu and Buddhist holy site of Muktinath (3800m/12,467ft).
When it comes to Himalayan trekking, a walk through the Annapurna range — and particularly along the western side of the enormous Annapurna Massif, where Jenny and I spent 14 days — is about as cushy as it gets. You sleep every night in lodges, often of high quality, where friendly Nepali innkeepers cook you delicious meals and often provide you with hot showers. You’re never all that far from the next village and the next inn, and if you get hurt, you can be sure that horses will be along sooner or later, and you can hitch a ride to the nearest medical post, of which there are several along the route. (Trains of pack horses are so common, in fact, that we often used their fresh dung as trail identifiers.) That being said, there’s no getting around the fact that the Himalayas are very big and very steep, and walking through them means walking up and down them. Forgoing porters and guides, we carried our own belongings on our backs and worked out the route — generally easy enough to do — using only a couple of guidebooks and a map.
For most of the way, the trail follows the Kali Gandaki River (known as the Thak Khola in its upper reaches) through what is said to be the deepest gorge in the world, along what was once a major trade route with Tibet. Going back at least as far as the 18th century, the Nepalis produced ample grain in the terraced fields of the lower mountains, which they carried up to the Thak Khola region — formerly part of Tibet — and traded for Tibetan salt. (I have no idea what, if anything, went on along the Kali Gandaki before then.) By the early 20th century the trade with Tibet went into decline as Nepalis switched to Indian salt, which was both cheaper and iodized; previously, goiters were common among Himalayan peoples. In 1959 the Chinese brought about the final collapse of the old trade when they invaded Tibet and closed its borders.
For some years the region languished in economic decline, and the once important villages of the Thak Khola began to crumble away. The villagers became subsistence farmers, or else they moved to more prosperous regions of Nepal, such as the Kathmandu and Pokhara valleys. By the late 1970s, however, a new kind of traveler began to arrive: the Western tourist. Calling on their long experience as innkeepers and traders, the local people caught on quickly to the new industry, and lodges sprang up everywhere along the trail, their menus becoming ever more elaborate and inventive. The new prosperity brought with it serious environmental damage from deforestation (for fuel), litter, and unchecked development, but in the last decade or so, even these problems have become much better managed. The regional Annapurna Conservation Area Project (ACAP) has been quite successful in educating both trekkers and lodge owners about environmental issues, providing clean water stations along the route (to reduce the trash from mineral water bottles), encouraging the use of solar power, and starting reforestation programs. Meanwhile, local people — usually with the help of foreign aid — have taken advantage of the region’s ample hydroelectric potential to create several small-scale power plants, which bring intermittent electricity to many of the remotest villages. These days, the western Annapurna region is probably one of the more prosperous districts in Nepal — which is a bit like saying it’s one of the more mountainous counties in Kansas, but still. The people are fed and clothed and housed, and there is even some access to basic medical care. The foreign cash allows for the purchase of occasional luxuries and for investment in local improvements, and you can decide for yourself which category the TVs and satellite dishes fall into. When I asked the local people what improvements they most hoped for in their region, the answer was unanimous: better education, both so that they could better develop their own region, and because it made it easier to find work when they slipped into Japan, Germany or the US, legally or otherwise.
The trail begins at Nayapul, a dismal collection of corrugated shacks by the side of the road. After a brief, muddy slalom down to the banks of a small river, however, Nayapul comes to an end, and from there the uphill begins. For the first two days, the trail climbed steadily; we were sore and exhausted when we collapsed at our lodge in Tikhedhunga at the end of Day 1, and it wasn’t even 4 o’clock yet! The next day began with an extended slog up the Endless Staircase to Ulleri — various counts put the number of steps at around 3,200. From there the trail flattens out considerably, though it continues to climb, but by now we were facing the added difficulty of trekking at elevation. In the afternoon we walked through spectacular forests of rhododendron and oak, but I’ll admit that we were both very glad when we reached the mountain pass town of Ghorepani, where we would spend the night.
The thing to do when you’re in Ghorepani is to wake up at 5 a.m. and climb the hour up to Poon Hill for a sunrise view of the Annapurnas. I remember standing blearily up there five years ago with a shockingly large crowd of other trekkers, admiring the dawn briefly, and hurrying down again to warmth and coffee. This time we had the good sense to tell the hotel owner we’d be sleeping in. In the predawn, sure enough, we heard the thumping and chatter of other travelers getting up; from the next room a mournful voice cried out its protests: “No! I’ll see it later … I don’t know … Later … I’ll see it later … No!” Grateful as I was not to be getting up, I still sneaked a look out the window, where the snowcapped peaks were lit up by the moonlight and crowned with a sky full of stars. (Our hotel, the Super View, was aptly named.) When at last we did get up at a slothful 7 a.m., and once we’d had our breakfast, we decided to head for Poon Hill despite the late hour. The sky was immaculately clear, and we had the viewing platform to ourselves. The mountains looked close and freshly frosted, as if we could reach out our fingers and take a scoop of vanilla icing off the top.
Like trekking, writing about trekking takes time, and so we’ll let the story unfold over a few emails. Stay tuned: next time there’ll be tattooed Israelis in bikinis and chocolate meringue cake.
Sin (tune in next time for Cere and Ly — put them all together and win a Secret Decoder Ring!),
“To find oneself where one has longed to be always, to a reflective mind, gives food for thought.”
– Virginia Woolf, “Orlando”
Subject: Trekking II: Bikinis, Goat’s Blood and Apple Pie
Date: Thu Nov 14, 2002
From Ghorepani and Poon Hill (3193m/10,476ft), it’s a long, knee-torturing descent to the hot springs and French chocolate cakes of Tatopani (1190m/3904ft). But just because you’re losing 6,500 feet of elevation in two days, that doesn’t mean you don’t have to climb uphill plenty as well. As we descended, the forests grew more lush, and then gave way to village after stone-walled village, each lined with terraced fields that had been recently harvested. Also, it got hotter. After you finally reach the river at the bottom of the gorge, crossing a tributary and then the Kali Gandaki herself on swaying steel suspension bridges, you think that you must be nearly there. Indeed, there are even a couple of lodges with “Tatopani” on their signboards. But before you reach the fabled hot springs, you face a very nasty climb over a very dusty landslide, with no shade at all as you plod up the trail of slippery mica dust and gravel. But at last, that final barrier crossed, you come into the flagstone streets — well, street — of Tatopani.
Tatopani is a curious beast. Most of the tourists there have come all the way around the Annapurnas, crossing the Thorung La pass (5416m/17,900ft); for them, Tatopani comes at the end of a long and difficult journey. Other tourists come in from Annapurna Base Camp, or at least they’ve gone over the pass at Ghorepani, like we did. But despite all the effort that trekkers put into reaching it, Tatopani is actually just one day’s level hike from the nearest road, and consequently full of surprising luxuries — not least, its tropical climate and relatively thick air. Citrus trees are everywhere, and also poinsettias the size of small trees.
And then, of course, there are the hot springs. Tatopani is perched on a cliff above the river, and the climb down a steep, uneven staircase to the pools below was nearly too much for our aching legs, but it was worth it. In the afternoons especially, the pools fill up with trekkers as well as Nepali families down for a bath, and the place takes on a kind of beach resort feel, complete with tattooed Israeli girls in very small bikinis and Canadians handing around joints. We ended up staying in Tatopani for two rest days, partly because Jenny was fighting off a cold, but also partly because it was nice.
On day 7, Jenny and I were on the move again, heading upward. The first half of the day was fine, but by lunchtime we’d picked up an unfortunate follower: a sickly black dog, one ear largely eaten away, clumps of fur missing, and with worms crawling out of his anus like rats abandoning a sinking ship. We had absolutely no desire to come near this unfortunate beast, but he seemed to think we were his friends, and he followed us for a good long time, growling at every passing dog and plenty of passing trekkers. At last we managed to drive him off, but only by waving sticks at him, and then by throwing rocks at his feet. And once the dog was gone, we faced a grueling climb up a steep, dusty landslide. To make matters worse, train after train of ponies stumbled past, churning up the dust. The wind was rising too in the narrow canyon. By the time we reached the top, we were exhausted, so we fell into the first inn we could.
The town of Pairothapla (which I later learned just means “landslide”) is not in any of the guidebooks or on any of the maps. Likewise, the Bimala Hilton is not, so far as I know, associated with the international chain of five-star hotels. It is, however, the only Hilton I’ve stayed at that had handprints of goat’s blood on the doors to all the rooms — a remnant of the Dashain festival a few weeks earlier and certainly intended as a blessing, but a bit disconcerting nonetheless. The walls and floor of our room were made of mud, and a certain faint scent suggested dung as another possible ingredient. There was an outhouse around the back, just past the goat. Our room did have electric lighting of a sort, which would glow brightly for a few minutes, then gradually fade to almost nothing, only to come back again at the last possible moment. For all that, it was a decent enough place, run by a friendly family who could fix a passable chow mein. The dining room, like those of most of the trekking lodges, was decorated with pictures of Swiss mountains and maudlin posters of little children and country houses, with slogans like “God made the first garden, and the first city Cain.” (And never mind that a joint with goat’s blood on the doors shouldn’t toss Cain’s name around.)
After Pairothapla, the trail continues to climb, but more gently, and soon you come to Ghasa, the first Thakali village. The Thakali people are Buddhists of Tibetan descent, although with their own languages and customs, and their slate-built villages are quite distinct from the Hindu towns lower down. In Ghasa we saw a few relics of the old trade route: elaborately carved wooden windows on the houses that used to belong to the wealthiest merchants. From Ghasa the trail passes through more forest before opening out onto a sort of plateau, the wide valley of the Thak Khola (the Thakali name of the Kali Gandaki river). Here you are surrounded by vast, snow-capped peaks and ridges to the west, north and east; Dhaulagiri looms especially large.
We took the next few days slowly, lingering in the charming towns of the Thak Khola, their whitewashed, flat-roofed slate houses huddled together in mountain folds to avoid the fierce wind that blows north up the valley each afternoon. The oak forests give way to pine, and then to desert, but the snowmelt provides enough water to irrigate orchards of apple and apricot and peach, as well as fields of vegetables and grain. In Tukuche we visited both the gompa (Buddhist monastery) and the distillery, where we tasted various brandies and walked away with a small bottle of peach. Tukuche was once the village where the Tibetans with their salt met the Nepalis with their grain and traded; along the western side of the city, you can see the old warehouses crumbling away. The next major village is Marpha, whose horticultural center, founded some years ago by a Sherpa, has helped to introduce many of the newer crops to the region, including the fruit trees. Apple products are everywhere, and over the course of a few days we managed to drink tremendous quantities of apple juice and eat a good many pieces of apple crumble and apple pie. Finally, the last Thakali town is Jomsom, a sprawling entity that includes both the airstrip and the Nepali army’s high mountain warfare training center.
And after Jomsom? The desert.
Tune in next time for a great deal of dust, minor altitude sickness and the rich smell of the Middle Ages on the bottom of your boot. And yaks.
“To find oneself where one has longed to be always, to a reflective mind, gives food for thought.”
– Virginia Woolf, “Orlando”
Subject: Trekking III: How Many Manutes to a Dhaulagiri?
Date: Fri Nov 15, 2002
When you look out at the peaks of the Himalayas, there is simply nothing to compare them against. How big are they? Big. Bigger than anything. But what does that mean? The scale is incomprehensible; the only visible measure is the trees, and they disappear below the snowline. I found myself trying to connect the mountains to other objects as a reference. From Jomsom, at nearly 10,000 feet, you could stack a dozen Empire State Buildings on each other and still fall short of the top of Dhaulagiri. Yosemite’s looming El Capitan would be a footnote here, a spur or a crag on the way up. Most of the peaks here are about 3,000 Manutes high (one Manute equalling 7’7″, the height of Manute Bol, the tallest man ever to play basketball in the NBA). If you were to hollow out Nilgiri and fill it with blue whales, that would be a whole lot of blue whales.
Past Jomsom, the landscape quickly turns to desert: sagebrush and scrubby little pine trees cling to the looming brown mountains on either side of the broad gravel riverbed. The high peaks drift out of view and the landscape becomes smaller, but that merely serves to bring the scale down to the (barely) comprehensible. Still, it’s easy to be fooled. Looking out across the river bed — mostly dry this time of year, although the meandering Kali Gandaki is still too deep to cross — I would sometimes think that the far side of the valley was fairly close, but then I would spot a horseman or a flock of sheep looking tiny and distant, and I would have to revise my estimate. At one point we passed a boulder on which were carved and painted the Tibetan letters for the Buddhist mantra, “Om Mani Padme Hum.” I decided to go stand next to it so Jenny could take a picture; when I reached it, just five minutes off the trail, I was startled to discover that the letters were actually as tall as me. It’s a little like getting out of your car on the freeway: suddenly the signs look much bigger than they did when you were going past at 70 miles an hour.
Because of pressure changes in Tibet and Nepal as the sun heats the air, the Thak Khola valley is daily subjected to fierce winds that begin around 11 a.m. and gradually intensify until they taper off after sunset. The wind was at our backs, but it was still hard going. The force of the gusts was actually enough to blow us off course, and the cold whorls of dust spattering us were no pleasure either, so we were quite glad to reach our destination of Kagbeni.
To paraphrase Monty Python, you can tell that Kagbeni is medieval because it’s got shit all over it. The village seems to have been built in and around and under and through (and several other prepositions) the old mud fort, bits of which are still crumbling away in the wind. It doesn’t have streets so much as tunnels and passageways and canyons; these afford some protection from the wind for its residents, which include a great many yaks, cows, chickens, ponies, burros and dogs, all of whom shit everywhere. And despite the desert landscape surrounding, Kagbeni is surprisingly damp. Water is drawn up from the river, used, and then dumped in the streets, where it mingles with the effluent to create a rich, muddy murk.
That being said, Kagbeni is fabulous. Its tumbledown whitewashed houses with their dugout-log ladders and drying yak skins, its strange mud folk sculptures of gods and demons, its collapsing fort walls, its big red gompa (monastery) are all heartbreakingly picturesque — heartbreaking because, well, it’s cool to take pictures of the Middle Ages but sucky to live in them. When we visited the gompa, we were shown a Tibetan prayer book of the Prajnaparamita (Heart) Sutra, painted in silver and gold on black paper; the monk told us it was over 700 years old. I told him that was older than my country, which unfortunately confused him.
We were in Kagbeni for the final night of Tihar, the Nepali Hindu festival that coincides with India’s Diwali. Several innkeepers told us that Tihar wasn’t celebrated up here in the Buddhist Thak Khola, but the local folk culture is syncretic. Even in the Buddhist monasteries, you find paintings of popular Hindu gods, and after all, we were on our way to Muktinath, a holy site for both Buddhists and Hindus. Besides, even if the locals are Buddhists, the many porters and trekking guides passing through are largely Hindu. And everyone likes a party.
As far as I could gather, Tihar is celebrated by getting drunk and singing Nepali folk songs and dancing. There is also a custom something like trick-or-treating, in which groups of singers and musicians and dancers go from one house or shop or lodge to another and beg for money: pay them and you receive their blessing; don’t pay them, and they don’t go away. We met one such group at lunch on our way to Kagbeni, and they were already well sozzled by then. We gave them a few rupees and had our foreheads tapped by a trident, the symbol of Shiva, and were then left to eat in peace. When the same crew arrived several hours later at our lodge in Kagbeni, they were barely able to stand. Later another group came and sang and danced — one of them made the incredibly self-conscious declaration, “This is culture!” — and then made their pitch for money. “We use the money for the community,”one singer said, “to build bridges, fix trails.” “Or maybe we go on a picnic!” declared another. “You give us some money, we can buy alcohol,” admitted a third. It was a holiday, so we all gave. (Of course, having filled the lodge with such Hindu nonsense, the owners felt it necessary to bring in several Buddhist monks to sit in the small prayer room and do puja [prayer] all the next day, with much clanging of bells and cymbals and blowing of horns and conches.)
After Kagbeni came our final ascent, a long climb up to Muktinath at 12,500 feet. You begin with a long, steady climb that takes you at last out of the Kali Gandaki valley and up among the peaks. As we walked, the field shouts of Kagbeni’s planters drifted up to us, until at last we turned a corner and the next great valley opened up in front of us. In the heavily eroded folds of the valley walls gape great caves like mouths, and you can almost imagine them as some kind of Tolkienesque living beings. Higher up, curious little red and white villages huddle in clumps on the brown slopes, surrounded by thin bands of fields and orchards. And above them, wreathed in shifting clouds, rise the snowy peaks, looking closer and more forbidding than at any point so far.
We made our final breathless climb up to the village of Ranipauwa, just below the Muktinath shrine, and dragged ourselves into a lodge we’d had recommended, only to find an Irish woman and her Nepali guide with whom we’d been chatting the night before in Kagbeni. After some tea and rest, the four of us made the walk up to the temple complex — which is, of course, above a flight of steep stairs. The guide was a great help, leading us around Muktinath and explaining parts of it, though when it came to the Buddhist symbols, I found myself explaining things to him.
Though the temple enclosure is blessed with enough spring water to provide for a dense grove of poplars, there is no architectural or artistic masterpiece to see, unless you count nature’s impressive handiwork in the peaks that rise all around. Muktinath is a holy site not because of what’s been built there, but because of a curious geothermal phenomenon: two jets of flame that appear to burn upon flowing springs. Hindu legend has it that when Brahma created the world, he himself created these flames as prayer offerings. What the Buddhists make of them I’m not sure, but it’s a Buddhist temple that houses the flames, which you can just see if you get down on the floor and peer through the metal gratings. The other major holy site within the complex is a Vishnu temple, behind which 108 water taps flow with fresh spring water. The story here is that if you bathe in all of them, your sins are washed away and you go to heaven. This is a curious notion, considering that Hindus don’t believe in heaven, but I suppose one doesn’t look to folk religion for logical consistency.
The next morning I awoke before dawn, climbed out of bed and walked alone back up to Muktinath. The gates were open, and I went to sit up among the chortens and watch the sun rise. The high cirrus clouds turned pink, then gradually whitened as the first full sunlight illuminated the highest peaks to the west. I watched the light creep down the peaks until the whole vast ridgeline was aglow. Then, making my own small prayers, I began the long descent.
From Muktinath it was another day down to Kagbeni, then a morning ride on horseback to Jomsom — we were indulging Jenny’s Mongol Warrior/Lawrence of Arabia fantasies, though we both ended up with entirely new sets of sore muscles. In Jomsom we stayed in a hotel so posh that we had a TV in our room; we watched BBC World to catch up on things, then switched to French rap videos. The next morning, after the usual confusion that attends third-world travel plans, we boarded a little German prop plane and in 20 minutes flew the entire distance of our trek and landed in Pokhara, glad to be warm again and to breathe the lush air of the lowlands.
Our return coincided with a three-day strike called by the Maoists, which had little effect on Pokhara but kept the long-distance buses off the road. Then Jenny came down with an awful stomach bug — cramps, projectile vomiting, the whole deal. Now I’ve got it, though I think I’m getting better. This, in any case, is how one loses weight in the Subcontinent.
We’ll probably be here in Pokhara for another day or two while we recover. After that we’ll head for Royal Chitwan National Park, where we expect to ride an elephant and see some rhinos and maybe go to the elephant breeding center and wash the baby elephants. And maybe, just maybe, we’ll see a tiger. You never know.
PS: Graeme, we thought you would be amused to know that we spotted a Nepali trekking guide wearing an All Blacks cap.
“To find oneself where one has longed to be always, to a reflective mind, gives food for thought.”
– Virginia Woolf, “Orlando”
Subject: Rhinos, Heffalumps and Falling Rats
Date: Thu Nov 28, 2002
On our third night in Sauraha, a sleepy farming village on the edge of Royal Chitwan National Park, a rat fell out of the thatched ceiling of our mud-walled bungalow, landed on our bed, squeaked once, twitched twice and died. The night before, a rhino came nosing and snuffling its way through the rice field behind our bungalow and stood munching just out our window. When they promise you an up-close wildlife experience at Chitwan, they aren’t kidding.
As recently as half a century ago, the only people who lived in the Terai were Tharus, indigenous tribespeople who didn’t die of the malaria that killed everyone else who spent much time there. It was the liberal use of DDT that made the Terai habitable, and land-starved Nepalis came slashing and burning through the jungle with a vengeance. By now about half of all Nepalis live in the Terai, mostly as subsistence or tenant farmers. Fortunately the government has set aside an old royal hunting ground as a wildlife preserve, and today Chitwan boasts an increasing population of tigers, rhinos, deer, birds of all kinds, crocodiles of two varieties, rhesus macaques and langur monkeys, among other critters.
Just getting to Sauraha was a bit of an adventure. The long, slow, cramped bus journey from Pokhara took us down out of the foothills of the Himalayas, which give way suddenly to the wide plain that is the Terai. At Tandi Bazaar, we were disgorged from the bus and into a waiting frenzy of screaming touts, all offering free jeep-rides to Sauraha proper if only you’ll stay at their hotel. Fortunately we managed to find our way into the jeep belonging to the hotel we wanted to stay at, and in a few minutes we were bouncing down into a muddy river bed, then right through the water itself.
The highlight of our stay was a two-day walk into the jungle, led by a charming guide who is working toward his master’s degree in English literature and philosophy. He spoke an English you don’t hear much anymore, one learned from Jane Austen and John Milton rather than from Austin Powers and Milton Berle, and he went by the name of John, at least among the foreigners. His knowledge about the flora and fauna of Chitwan was impressive — he frequently told us not just the common and Nepali names for plants, but also their Latin names.
Our walk began early, about an hour after the Incident of the Falling Rat. In the early morning mist we crossed the Rapti River into the park, riding low in the water in a dugout canoe that the ferryman pushed along with a great bamboo pole. “Tonight,” John said, “remind me to tell you the story of why there is mist on the water. It’s a long story, and if I tell you now, I’ll be talking and we won’t see any wildlife.”
The jungle doesn’t start right at the edge of the Rapti. First you have to pass through the grasslands, and I’m not talking about the kind of grass they have in Flushing Meadows, or even the thick grasses that cover the hills of Northern California. This is elephant grass, which is in fact taller than the elephants that feed on it. It looms up in great dense tussocks topped with purplish tails of grain. In no time John had led us right into the middle of it — never mind about trails. The giant blades of grass slashed at our arms as we shoved our way through. At long last we pushed out onto the muddy banks of the river, in search of rhinos. We didn’t see any — we managed not to see any at all in the park, though they came to visit nearly every night next to our hotel room — but we did see crocodiles sunning themselves on the banks. Then it was back through the grasses, across trickles and creeks, back up again, along muddy banks into which I managed to sink ankle-deep at one point, and finally back onto a trail. It was exhausting, but good fun. And after that came the jungle.
Americans are surprisingly obsessed with jungles, considering that we don’t actually have any in the continental U.S. What we do have are the asphalt jungle and the blackboard jungle, “Welcome to the Jungle” and “Jungle Boogie.” In business it’s the law of the jungle, in romance it’s jungle fever, in politics it’s jungle warfare and Save the Rainforests. Disney has made cartoons of Tarzan and The Jungle Book. Metaphorically speaking, it’s a jungle out there.
It’s surprising then to realize that there’s no precise meaning for the word. When we think of it, we usually think of Vietnam or Africa or South America, though the word comes from the Hindi jangal, which simply means forest. In Chitwan the jungle consists of sal forests, which are not quite as densely overgrown as the pictures I’ve seen of South-East Asian or South American rain forests. I’m not sure I would even have thought to classify it as jungle, though Kipling’s Jungle Book takes place in a sal forest not far from Chitwan. But it had none of the menace that we usually associate with jungles; it seemed, in fact, a benevolent place full of fruits and berries and lush vegetation, and never mind about the leeches. It was into just such a forest that the Buddha slipped away when he became a wandering ascetic; likewise, in the Ramayana, it was in sal forests, overgrown with giant vines and filled with monkeys and exotic birds, that Rama took refuge. In fact, Chitwan is very close to both Lumbini, the Buddha’s birthplace, and the birthplace of Valmiki, the original author of the Ramayana. In Hindu culture, the jungle is not the malevolent universe of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but a place for escape and renewal and spiritual development.
In the early evening, we came out of the forest again and stopped at a small lake to wait for the rhinos, who of course failed to show up. Still, we saw more crocodiles, and in the trees were a fantastic range of birds: turquoise and orange stork-billed kingfishers, green parakeets, big brown vultures and dozens more. Now and again, giant swarms of bees would pass in great clouds overhead. As the sun neared the horizon, we continued through a patch of forest that was filled with pink-faced rhesus macaques, who leaped acrobatically from tree to tree, limb to limb. At last we came to the river again, crossed it in another dugout canoe, walked through a game of soccer on the flat river plain, and climbed up to our lodge for the night.
As we waited for dinner, John lit up a hash cigarette and began to tell us the story of the morning mist. In the Ramayana, the evil demon Ravana steals Sita, Rama’s wife, and runs off with her to his kingdom of Lanka in the south. Lanka, of course, is an island, which is hard to attack. Here’s where Hanuman, the monkey god, comes in. He marshalled his monkey minions, and they stretched themselves out to create a bridge on which Rama’s warriors were able to cross into Lanka. But Hanuman himself was captured. After much debate, the Lankans decided to punish him by wrapping his tail in oil-soaked rags and setting fire to it. But Hanuman, tail alight, took revenge by leaping from house to house, setting them all on fire and burning down Ravana’s kingdom. Then he rushed to the water’s edge and thrust his burning tail into it, sending up a vast cloud of steam. And that is why there is mist on the waters in the morning.
Later, John told us another story — this one, he warned us, rather bawdy. We told him to go ahead. Why, he asked, does Nandi the Bull, Shiva’s vehicle, wait outside the door of the great Shiva temple of Pashupati in Kathmandu? Well, when Shiva and Parvati were married, Parvati begged and begged to be allowed to go home and visit her family. In Hindu culture, a new wife leaves her birth family pretty much for good and joins her new one, so Shiva denied her request at first, but she was insistent. Anyway, she promised to return after two days. But she didn’t. The days rolled on, and Shiva, without his Parvati, began to feel a certain frustration. Likewise, for some reason there were no cows around, so Nandi was also feeling rather pent-up. Ultimately he and Shiva struck a deal: they would take turns and satisfy each other. Shiva went first, and then it was his turn to accommodate Nandi. That’s when he saw the size of Nandi’s equipment. Immediately Shiva fled, Nandi running close behind, until at last Shiva ducked through the narrow doors of the temple of Pashupati — too narrow for a great big bull. And so Nandi sits outside the temple, still waiting for his turn.
Ahem. I told you it was bawdy.
The second day of the hike was much like the first, except in reverse, and with a stop at the crocodile breeding center. The next morning, back in Sauraha, we took a ride on an elephant’s back through a different forest. The elephant’s mahout (keeper) was a young man whose voice kept cracking, Hitler-like, as he barked commands at his charge and whacked her regularly with a big stick. In response, the elephant would grumble deep in her belly before letting out an impressive trumpet. At one point, just because, she paused by the side of the trail and ripped out a small tree.
The next day we headed for the elephant breeding center to see the baby elephants. They were, of course, utterly adorable, the two tiniest toddling about and not in complete control of their legs or trunks. One accidentally stumbled into Jenny and stepped on her foot. Even a baby elephant is a big animal, and that night Jenny had a nasty bruise, though it fortunately went away by morning.
Having had our jungle adventure, seen rhinos and monkeys and crocs and falling rats and staggering baby elephants, it was time for us at last to say goodbye to Nepal and hello to India. But that will have to wait for another email.
“To find oneself where one has longed to be always, to a reflective mind, gives food for thought.”
– Virginia Woolf, “Orlando”
The Gangetic Plain
Subject: Happy Thanksgiving
Date: Thu Nov 28, 2002
Happy Thanksgiving everyone! Here in India, of course, Thanksgiving doesn’t make the radar at all. It’s not Hindu, Muslim, Jain, Buddhist or even Christian, and the only people who celebrate it are Americans (and Canadians, though they get the date wrong). The only reason I even know it’s Thanksgiving is that they mentioned it on BBC World.
But anyway, I just wanted to let you know how thankful I am for all my friends and family in various places around the globe. Happy Thanksgiving, and a wonderful holiday season to you all!
From a place where Turkey is a country not a bird,
Date: Mon Dec 2
After our wildlife adventure in Chitwan, it was finally time to say goodbye to Nepal. Of course, this being the third world, you don’t just get in a comfortable box in one place and come out in another. Simply to get from Sauraha to the Indian border town of Sunauli, we had to get back in a jeep, this time with a motorcycle crammed into the back with us; ride through the river again; get onto a bus that took us to a town that is almost but not quite Sunauli; and get into a cycle-rickshaw that took us the final four kilometers.
Sunauli is everything you’d expect of a border town between two poor countries. It’s sprawling, unplanned, filthy and unpleasant, and virtually every business on the Nepali side was dedicated in one way or another to providing poor services to tourists at inflated prices. Everyone in town helpfully told us what time the train left for Varanasi, and each answer was different. As it turned out, despite our rickshaw-wallah’s assurance that he would take us right across the border and to the train, there is no train from Sunauli. What there was instead was a travel agent who could book us on a bus from Sunauli to the nearest train station — three hours away — and from there to Varanasi. Needless to say, neither the dishonest rickshaw-wallah nor the travel agent got any further business from us.
Eventually we managed to fill out all the necessary forms at both the Nepali and Indian border posts, and at last we were into India. And even though the border is unrestricted for Indians and Nepalis, the differences between the two countries were immediately apparent. Jenny noticed that the merchandise in the shops was nicer, and the cars and motorcycles were nicer too. People had better shoes. There was an entire shop devoted to sporting goods — cricket bats, soccer balls — which suggested that there were enough people with discretionary income to support it.
I will spare you the complexities of our travel decisions and the negotiations that followed, but we ended up sharing a taxi to Gorakhpur — a very shiny Maruti SUV, no less! — with two Israeli women and a Nepali man who turned out to be a member of a Gurkha regiment in the Indian army and had been decorated in the Kargil War in Kashmir. A couple of hours later, we arrived at the Gorakhpur train station.
Gorakhpur is a city of over two million people, most of whom can’t possibly deserve such a fate. According to the Lonely Planet, the local tourist office provides the helpful information that “There are no sights in Gorakhpur,” and the city is regularly attacked by flies and mosquitoes in plague proportions. The air was thick and smoky, almost as foul as Anyang at its worst. The train station, like most in India, was a concrete vault teeming with people, cows, people, dogs, people and more people. Once we’d worked out when to come for the train in the morning, we retreated to a dirty but passable hotel across the street. It boasted a restaurant, which turned out to be nothing more than some plastic chairs and tables on the bare cement rooftop, and we braced ourselves for the worst. It came as a shock, then, that the chicken tikka masala and paneer dopiaza were in fact of the highest quality. Sadly, the same cannot be said for anything else we experienced in Gorakhpur.
The next morning, however, we got our first taste of Indian Railways, which is good fun. The trains roll along at a leisurely pace, stopping often and letting on an ever-changing assortment of food and drink vendors. To the amusement of the biochemist from Lucknow who sat across from us, we sampled dish after dish — samosas for a rupee (2 cents) a piece, various lentil salads for two rupees a leaf-ful — and washed it all down with excellent chai, similarly priced. Supposedly there are some folks who have actually worked out which stations are best for which dishes and plan accordingly, but we were happy with what came to us by random happenstance.
This email is now probably as long as our journey from Chitwan to Varanasi, but we did finally arrive at the end, and so have you. Next time I’ll tell you about our adventures in the streets and silk shops of Benares.
Somewhere laborious to get to but fascinating to be,
“To find oneself where one has longed to be always, to a reflective mind, gives food for thought.”
– Virginia Woolf, “Orlando”
Subject: Death and Silks in Varanasi
Date: Sun Dec 8, 2002
Varanasi is India at its best and worst. Colorful, crowded, ancient and crumbling, Varanasi (formerly called Benares) is probably the holiest and busiest center of Hinduism in the world. To paraphrase Mark Twain, it is one of the oldest cities in the world, and it looks like it. It strings along a curve in the holy Ganges river for a few miles, and it has been stringing along credulous pilgrims and tourists for thousands of years.
When we first arrived, we were marked by our backpacks, and everyone in the entire Old City had a hotel that was just right for us. After wandering through the maze of back streets for a couple of hours, we finally managed to find a location that corresponded to something in the guidebook, and we took a dingy room in the dingy Golden Lodge because it was less dingy than the Yogi Lodge and we were tired.
Hindus regard Benares as the most auspicious place to die. Down on the ghats — the long stairways that lead to the edge of the Ganges — unhelpful self-appointed guides invariably point you towards “cremation ghat.” That’s where they burn the bodies of the dearly departed, in full view of whoever happens to be walking by (though cameras are strongly discouraged). When we passed, we counted thirteen fires in progress: thirteen people who had died just hours earlier. As you walk the streets near the burning ghats, chances are good that you will be passed by a group of men carrying a shrouded body on a bamboo stretcher while chanting a perfunctory “Ram nam sat hai” (The name of God is true). Closer to the river’s edge are the merchants who weigh out the wood and the incense, who sell the shrouds and flower garlands. For the bereaved, it’s a predatory process — far worse than the endless pressure for “massage?” and “hello boat going?” that assaults every Westerner who draws near. To produce such a prodigious supply of corpses, you need to have a lot of dying people around. The Old City of Varanasi boasts numerous dormitories that specialize in either sick or old people; we were told that the two categories of nearly-dead are kept separate.
Indeed, decay and death are unavoidable on its crowded streets. Dying dogs and rats and cows are everywhere, as are their more-or-less healthy counterparts and the waste they produce. Septic Ganges water is pumped up into the city and used to hose it off, which means that the streets, and especially the steep, narrow alleyways of the Old City, are constantly running with trickles of fecal mud and garbage. The air, too, is filthy. The auto-rickshaws, cars, trucks, motorcycles all pour toxins into the air, which mix with the smoke from thousands of cooking and garbage fires. When the electricity is out, which is often, diesel generators belch black clouds into the main street. And on top of all that, Varanasi has probably the worst noise pollution on earth. Every temple has bells, and people are constantly ringing them, but that’s nothing compared to the loudspeakers. Every morning from 4 to 6, we were subjected to a woman chanting her puja to the accompaniment of harmonium, all blasted through low-fi cones at rock-concert decibels. The chanting and singing and clanging of bells was then continuous until about 2 am, when they would taper off and leave us to just the lowing of cows, the barking of dogs and the shouts of human passers-by.
Then why, you must be asking, did we decide to come to Varanasi? What could have possessed us to make it our *first destination* in helter-skelter India? The answer is that Varanasi is not only filthy and chaotic but endlessly compelling. It’s India in microcosm. The ghats and the Old City are bursting with amazing architecture in every Indian style — a Nepali temple here, there a South Indian shikara-style temple, a mosque built by the Mughal emperor Aurangzeb, a white marble Rajput palace built by the maharaja of Udaipur. There are so many monuments of such incalculable cultural value that half of them are lived in by squatters or converted into sari shops. Walking the streets are women in beautiful saris and Punjabi suits and men with their faces painted in a dozen different ways to show their religious status and devotions. Mendicants and holy men with long gray hair and beards wander about in saffron or white robes. Chattering families of shopping tourists back up traffic in the narrow lanes by pausing en masse to bow at a Ganesh shrine which is also a Hindipop tape shop. Standing out against the swirl and color are black-clad Muslim women, sometimes veiled. Down by the ghats, Brahmins wash buffalo in the water, rich Indians bathe ritually in the holy river, poor Indians do their laundry there. Every evening an elaborate ceremony is performed, a kind of ritual dance involving fire and incense while bells ring and floating candles are released in their hundreds out into the current of the Ganga.
Benares is also a center of learning and traditional Hindu culture. It’s the home of Benares Hindu University, one of the best in the country. Like most holy cities — think of Rome or Jerusalem — it’s a conservative town. In India, conservatism too often means Hindu fundamentalism, which too often means anti-Muslim sentiment. After the BJP — now the ruling party in India — fomented the riots that led to the destruction of the mosque at Ayodhya a decade ago, they let it be known that Aurangzeb’s mosque in Varanasi was next on the hit list. It’s consequently surrounded by high iron bars and scads of police officers, and you have to go through a metal detector before you can get anywhere near it. Just outside the perimeter is a ring of Hindu idol shops and shrines. The atmosphere is menacing. Behind the mosque is a no-man’s land; empty of people, it has become a popular lounging spot for Varanasi’s vast monkey population.
Hindus in Benares talk freely of war with Pakistan. Our hotel-keeper gave us a speech that we’ve heard all too often. “Every day they are killing-killing with the terror in Kashmir. Why? If India makes a war, just *one day* — shp! — Pakistan finished.” Disturbingly, the BJP minister of Gujarat — a state that’s been torn apart by Hindu-Muslim violence — has made much the same argument, frankly challenging Pakistan to a fight. It’s true that in terms of conventional weapons, Pakistan is no match for India. That’s why Pakistan has refused to rule out first use of its nuclear arsenal. If India threatens to take Islamabad or Karachi, chances are good that Delhi and Mumbai will cease to exist. When I suggested as much to our hotel-wallah, he informed me that India would simply knock the Pakistani missiles out of the sky.
Stunned, I tried to explain that no such missile defense actually exists — that even America has only recently decided to build such a thing, and many scientists say it’s impossible — but I’m not sure he believed me. And even if he did, too many Hindu Indians — mostly the high-caste supporters of the BJP, like our Brahmin hotel-wallah — believe in their own country’s invincibility and are hankering for war.
Besides death, religion and scholarship, Varanasi is also known for its silks. Before we arrived, Jenny told me she wanted to see about finding a guide, maybe a local woman, who could take her to a nice place to buy Indian clothes and help her through the process. So that evening when we met an American who claimed to be doing business at the best silk shop in Benares, we decided to take him up on his offer to show us the place. Colin was a cheerful young man who runs a textile shop in Chicago; he told us he’d come to Varanasi three years ago, and after much searching discovered Cottage Silk Emporium. It’s exactly like every other silk shop, except that its proprietor, Anil, has impeccable taste, access to the best silks in the city, and a friendly relationship with an astonishingly good tailor. Colin, before he left town, showed us the clothes he’d had made: a perfect copy of a pair of Diesel jeans, done in thick black raw silk, and a masterful copy of a YSL dress shirt to go with it. So when Anil asked us what we were looking for, we told him: wedding clothes.
Jenny and I were planning to get our wedding clothes in India. Granted, this was our first destination in the country, but when would we have another opportunity like this? We had good reasons to trust Anil, and trust is a rare commodity in India. So we went ahead and let Anil guide us through the process, which stretched out over our entire ten-day stay.
Shopping for silks is a sumptuous experience. You slip off your shoes and spread out on the white cloth mat while the shopkeeper tosses out scarves or other bolts of fabric, until you are surrounded by great heaps of shimmering textiles.
We’d been to a few shops before we discovered Anil’s. Jenny bought a few scarves, I got myself a couple of kurta pajama outfits that actually caused me to look so Indian that people began speaking to me in Hindi on the street, and led a Japanese man at an Internet cafe to ask me for an ashtray. (At another Internet cafe, it was decided that my Indian shirt made me look like Atal Bihari Vajpayee, prime minister of India.) So we were familiar with the process of looking at silks, and also with the quality available. But Anil’s approach was different. When it came to our wedding clothes, he listened closely to what we wanted, looked at the pictures we’d printed out from the Internet, and told us to come back that evening. When we returned, he showed us only three or four different fabrics, but he could have stopped after the first: it was perfect. It was a creamy white silk woven with floral patterns in silver and gold, and Jenny and I fell in love with it immediately.
Over subsequent days, the rest of the clothes came together. We found just the right trim for Jenny’s dress, and the right scarf for her veil. Then came the fabric for my suit. Time was getting tight — Anil had to leave town for a couple of days, so we needed to go to the tailor’s shop for measuring that evening. In the morning I agreed to go ahead with a particular fabric, but it wasn’t quite right, and by afternoon I was ready to say no. When we met Anil that evening, I told him as much. “I thought so,” he said. “I thought, Maybe this isn’t right for Josh. So I also got this fabric.” He pulled a bolt of cloth from the shelf, and it was exactly right.
So we went to the tailor’s and were measured, and then came several days of anxiety as we waited to see what exactly we’d end up with. (The nervousness was made worse by the bout of stomach flu Jenny and I went through; Anil, going way above and beyond the call of duty, took us to a doctor who gave us medicine that patched us right up.) Jenny was absolutely terrified that she’d asked for trim on the collar, which is not at all what she’d wanted. More nebulously, we were worried that we’d end up with clothes that just weren’t *it*, that we would spend our money and end up with also-rans. We were at Anil’s shop as soon as the clothes were supposed to be ready, but this is India and there were delays. “Yesterday no power coming,” he told us, “so the tailor couldn’t finish the job. But tonight I will have the clothes.”
It was a very long day, but as it turned out, we needn’t have stressed. We tried the clothes that evening and they were perfect. Jenny thought I looked handsome in my suit, and I know for an absolute fact that Jenny looked gorgeous in her dress. (Yes, yes, I’m not supposed to see the wedding dress until the day of the wedding, but who else was going to let Jenny know whether it pooched out in the back or something?) We were so charged up that we even let Anil talk us into looking at traditional men’s shoes and buying me a pair of silk-brocade pointy ones. They’re very silly, and fairly unlikely to find their way to our wedding, but they were only $8 and they’re good fun. I can wear them with my Vajpayee shirt when I feel like looking like a maharaja. In the meantime, the silks are on their way to California via DHL, along with all the other trinkets we’ve picked up on the way. Our work done and our packs lightened, we said goodbye to our new friend Anil and boarded the overnight train for Orchha.
Orchha is a place Indians have never heard of. It’s name means “hidden place,” and it’s a sleepy little town that boasts a surprisingly extensive collection of palaces and temples, now largely ruined. Our hotel was in the old maharaja’s palace, which makes it sound more romantic than it actually was. Unfortunately the proprietors have managed to turn the sumptuous vaulted rooms of the palace into humdrum Indian hotel rooms, with the usual hard beds, dusty sheets and spotty electrical work. (In this case, it was the water heater that wouldn’t turn on; we were given buckets of hot water instead. I’m beginning to think these water heaters are largely ornamental.) We spent two nights enjoying the peace and quiet — good God, quiet! — and wandering about the parrot-infested palaces before moving on to Gwalior.
In Gwalior, the thing to see is the fort, which is giant and reputedly impregnable, which is why it’s changed hands so many times over its history. This afternoon we went on a lovely guided tour. The highlight was the main palace building, which boasted 16th-century air conditioning and intercom systems — the latter were tubes cut into the stone walls and running from one room to another across the palace. There were also temples, a Sikh gurdwara, and a surly gang of very expensively dressed young Indian men who made a great show of not paying the 5-rupee entrance fee.
The other great thing in town is the ridiculous 19th century palace of the Scindia family, which is decorated in a style that William Randolph Hearst would love. It’s full of the ugliest expensive things you can imagine, like Belgian cut-glass furniture. There’s even a gallery of bad high-end erotica, the piece de resistance being a marble sculpture of Leda getting very nasty indeed with her swan. Like Hearst Castle, it was definitely good for a laugh.
So that’s Gwalior. Tomorrow we head for Delhi. On the one hand, we’re really looking forward to the Western food; the hotel we’ve picked out is very close to a Pizza Hut, a McDonald’s, a TGI Friday’s and a Bennigan’s. On the other hand, no city in India is more chaotic and congested. And unlike Varanasi or Mumbai, Delhi is a place I’ve never been before. Pray for us.
Able to turn Indian in a single costume change,
“To find oneself where one has longed to be always, to a reflective mind, gives food for thought.”
– Virginia Woolf, “Orlando”
The Mughal Capitals
Subject: Delhi, Carter and Orders of Magnitude
Date: Sun Dec 15, 2002
Delhi was a place I was braced for. Everything I’d heard or read suggested that it would be maddening beyond belief. As the most popular arrival point for blinking, jet-lagged tourists, Delhi has developed scamming the unwary into a high art. In the Lonely Planet, a special boxed text goes on for two pages about “Dodgy Delhi,” detailing schemes such as the Riots in Delhi story: the taxi-wallah charges you an exorbitant rate to go to a “safe” hotel which pays him an added commission, which of course comes out of your pocket in the end. When I last traveled in India, I met two girls who’d been so frightened by the imaginary riots that they ended up paying close to $500 to be driven directly to Agra, a two-and-a-half hour ride that costs $3 a head by train.
Considering its reputation, our arrival at Nizamuddin Station, New Delhi was downright relaxed. Yes, a taxi-wallah sidled up to us almost immediately as we stepped onto the platform, but he was low-key about it and quoted us a realistic price to take us where we wanted to go. Still, he did try to tell us that there was an auto-rickshaw strike, which was odd considering we’d already agreed to his services at his price. As I gazed out upon the sea of auto-rickshaws waiting in the train station parking lot, I could only assume that the tendency to subterfuge ran so deep that the taxi-wallahs didn’t remember anymore how to shut it off when it wasn’t needed.
As we drove through the spacious streets of New Delhi, Jenny told me it reminded her of Los Angeles. It felt roomy, relaxed, frankly pleasant. Even the traffic was better than we’d feared; we’d read in the Times of India that Delhi was approaching permanent gridlock, but we had no trouble at all cruising along the well-maintained boulevards to Connaught Place, the geographical heart of Delhi. At Connaught, which is a circular park surrounded by concentric rings and spoke roads, we found our hotel with little trouble, then headed out to explore.
Delhi is the biggest city we’d been in since Hong Kong, and certainly the most worldly. What had us all hot and bothered was the food. After months of dyspeptic travel, our dinner at TGI Friday’s was the kind of ecstatic experience Sufis like to write poems about. (And not only that, but by the bottom of my margarita I felt a bit like a whirling Dervish.) I used to spurn the chain restaurants when I lived in New York, but life abroad has taught me the deep satisfaction of the predictable, especially when it comes to food. If I order a pizza at Pizza Hut, I don’t have to worry that it will involve chapati or kimchi.
We plan to return to Delhi several times; it makes a convenient place to store excess luggage, and it’s got a major airport as well. Thus we didn’t feel pressed to see all of Delhi’s sites on our first visit. We did go to the famous Red Fort, in which most of the buildings were closed for repair. To get there, we went on a long wander through the Old City, weaving our way through the machine tools district, the stationery district, the sari district. In its density and organization it reminded me of Dongdaemun and Namdaemun markets in Seoul, except more colorful. As we waded through dense traffic in a cycle-rickshaw on our way out, Jenny and I tried to pinpoint what it was that made the Indian clutter so much more appealing than the Korean. We decided that it was decoration: the Indians decorate *everything*. Motorcycle shops are hung with marigold garlands and tinsel; crumbling tenements have elaborate wrought-iron railings and stone screenwork windows. Sweepers and haulers wear colorful saris or turbans. Even the trees wind up painted.
That was our one foray into Old Delhi. The rest of the time we spent enjoying the middle-class comforts of New Delhi: eating good Western food, watching Star TV in our hotel room (I’ve developed a real taste for the Cartoon Network), shopping.
We went to Hauz Khas Village, an upscale shopping and gallery district, and were stunned at the high prices. Yes, the quality was good, but we were amazed to find ourselves looking at $90 designer T-shirts and $600 saris. When we moved on to the middle-class strip malls of Greater Kailash, our shock turned to chagrin. How on earth could the ordinary mallrat clothes cost so much? You’d think there’d be a huge market for clothes that looked like MTV and cost very little, and considering the low prices of both textiles and labor, it was downright bizarre that no such thing existed.
Then we realized we were doing the math wrong.
Mysteriously, we’d been doing the division wrong all day, overestimating the cost of clothes by an order of magnitude. Substantially relieved, we plunged into Fab India, a traditional clothing shop that’s supposedly popular with young Indian parliamentarians. We didn’t quite find anything, but I’m sure we’ll be back. The next day, our math deficiency corrected, we shopped around close to our hotel and were quite pleased at the prices. You can get Levi’s here for $24, and they tailor them for free. Good dress shoes are $30, fine silk ties run about $6, brand-name dress shirts and chinos can be had for under $25. It ain’t exotic, but it’s handy. I’m sure we’ll be stocking up before we head home.
For all the comforts and low prices, Delhi does have a darker side. The streets and pedestrian subways are a gallery of disturbing mutilations — withered legs, leprous stumps, one woman whose upper arm was so thoroughly broken that the rest of her arm simply dangled. Somehow the poverty is harder to take when you’re surrounded by jewelry shops and fancy restaurants, though I realize how unfair that is. Crushing poverty is made neither worse nor better by its proximity to someone else’s good meal.
On BBC’s Hard Talk, I saw an interview with the highest-paid female executive in the country, the director of capital markets for HSBC India. The interviewer kept pressing her about the 430 million people in her country who live below the poverty line. I wished she’d responded by asking why she was more responsible for them than he was. Still, he was right to suggest that there is something especially dangerous about so much poverty surrounding so much wealth. How long will the poor here allow themselves to be shunted aside by the well fed strutting by in our brand new designer jeans?
We also watched an interview with Jimmy Carter, along with much of the Nobel ceremony. We learned that the Carter Foundation has nearly wiped out the horrific, crippling tropical disease of Guinea Worm. Though the foundation has only 150 employees, they somehow managed to get to over 25,000 villages to provide treatment and education. Even with the stature of the American presidency behind you, it’s a phenomenal achievement, yet it’s only a small part of the work Carter has done to resolve conflicts and fight disease throughout the world. A man as idealistic as Jimmy Carter makes a poor leader of a country that has to stand up to Brezhnev and Khomeini, but as a private citizen his humanitarianism has been stunningly effective. If Jenny and I get into the Foreign Service, we hope that we can learn enough to make that kind of difference, if on a far smaller scale. I see our current travels as part of that learning process, even if the lessons are sometimes hard to look at and the answers hard to come by.
Well fed, wishing the rest of the world was, and not at all certain how to fix the problem,
“Nothing in the country is ever quite what you expect, and the only thing to expect is the unexpected which comes in many forms and will always want to sit next to you.” – Lonely Planet India
Subject: One Step Closer to Eating for My Country
Date: Wed Dec 18, 2002 11:53pm
According to our friend Graeme, an American diplomat in China was once heard to remark that his job consisted of “eating for my country.” Today I found out that I am one step closer to saying, “What a fascinating way to stew a rodent!” to the agriculture minister of somewhere.
That’s right: I passed the Foreign Service Exam!
This does *not* mean I’m a diplomat yet. It means that out of the 20,000 people who took the test this year, I’m one of the 3,500 or so they are inviting to the Oral Assessment. On May 19th, 2003, in Washington DC, I will be subjected to a full day of interviews, situational tests, etc., and the State Department will begin my security check. Hopefully I will then be one of the 500 people the Foreign Service actually hires.
Still, this is incredibly fabulous news. We still don’t know yet whether Jenny passed, but the chances are good that if I did, she did, because I’m pretty sure she’s smarter than me. So wish her luck, and wish me luck on the Oral Assessment, and hopefully in a year or two I’ll be telling you all about what the Kyrgyz eat at banquets.
Hoping I’ll never have to pay a parking ticket ever again,
“Nothing in the country is ever quite what you expect, and the only thing to expect is the unexpected which comes in many forms and will always want to sit next to you.” – Lonely Planet India
Subject: Eating for My Country: Addendum
Date: Thu Dec 19, 2002 11:23pm
Jenny found out today that she passed the Foreign Service Exam as well. We’re both past the first hurdle, and even if we don’t make it all the way this time, we now know it’s possible.
“Nothing in the country is ever quite what you expect, and the only thing to expect is the unexpected which comes in many forms and will always want to sit next to you.” – Lonely Planet India
Subject: Agra: The Best and the Worst
Date: Sun Dec 22, 2002 1:00pm
You’ve all seen pictures of the Taj Mahal, so you think you know what it looks like.
I’m not going to go into a lengthy description of the Taj Mahal; others have done it better, and besides, there’s really no point. You’ll just have to come see it. The Red Fort of Agra is similarly exquisite, as is the Tomb of Salim Chishti at the mosque in Fatehpur Sikri, and the lovely palace that the Mughals built there and then abandoned because there wasn’t enough water around. If you want a good description of Agra’s monuments, pick up “The Far East Suite” by Duke Ellington and listen to track 7; he does a better job in music than most people can in words.
Unfortunately, the city of Agra is about as bad as the monuments are good. It’s a polluted town with very little of its own cultural life — too close to Delhi for that — and as the de facto tourist capital of India, the harassment levels are off the scale. You can’t walk anywhere without getting yelled at, purred at, followed, blocked, waved at, pointed at, clicked at, etc. Every rickshaw-wallah wants to take you somewhere cheap, and they all want to stop at a marble factory (read “shop”) or a jewelry shop on the way to collect a commission for themselves, which they receive even if the tourists don’t buy anything. The situation is so bad, in fact, that rickshaw-wallahs have begun to present themselves as brave protectors against that kind of bad business.
Babu was a case in point. Yes, he was hanging around in front of our hotel just like the other predatory rickshaw-wallahs, but once we’d gotten some distance away, he began to warn us off the others. He promised us he would take us where we wanted to go without stopping for commissions, and that we could genuinely pay “as you like,” which is usually a euphemism that means “as *I* demand once we arrive.” For the first day or so, all this seemed to be true. Babu even pulled out a book of handwritten recommendations and photos given to him by his satisfied customers, many of whom praised him to the skies. He kept us reading out loud for quite some time — he told us he couldn’t read them himself, and I think it was nice for him to hear how much he was appreciated. Still, it was a bit much, particularly when we wanted to go back to the hotel rather than sit there reading his praises. And the next day, sure enough, he pressured us desperately to “do something for me,” which consisted of — you guessed it — going to a jewelry shop so he could collect a commission.
I suppose it’s like that at every major tourist monument. Certainly one doesn’t go bargain-hunting on Liberty Island, and I’m guessing the pyramids in Egypt must be a nightmare. The worst scheme we heard of in Agra involved poisoning people’s meals, then whisking them off to doctors who charge exorbitant rates to “cure” them of their passing distemper. Two people died from a similar scheme in Varanasi, but so far Agra’s kept down the mortality rate.
Having seen what there was to see in Agra, we moved on into Rajasthan, where we are now, in the Pink City of Jaipur. More on that later. Next we’ll be heading back to Delhi to drop off everything we buy here — Jaipur’s quite the town for shopping — and then we’ll plunge back into Rajasthan, hopefully heading straight to relaxing Pushkar, where we can mellow out for a week or three.
Not particularly interested in going to the marble factory,
Subject: We Wish You a Delhi Christmas: Jaipur, Delhi, Pushkar
Date: Sun Dec 29, 2002
Jaipur boasts one of the most pleasant old cities in India. Instead of the usual dense maze of narrow alleyways, there are wide avenues with raised sidewalks on either side, and the whole thing is laid out in a sensible grid. Trees grow in the medians, and there are fountains at the centers of some of the bigger intersections. Rajasthan’s pink-painted capital is, in fact, a planned city, established in the 18th century by the brilliant astronomer, scientist, patron of the arts and military leader Jai Singh, the first maharaja (and namesake) of Jaipur.
I make a point of this because city planning has such a curious history in India. The Indus River Valley civilization, one of the earliest in the world, planned their cities in immaculate detail. Cities hundreds of miles apart were laid out in exactly the same way down to the smallest details, as if some prehistoric architecture firm had faxed the same set of blueprints to builders from Afghanistan to Baluchistan to the Punjab.
The decline of the Indus civilization is shrouded in mystery, but when they disappeared, they took the art of city planning with them; according the historian John Keyes, theirs was the last example of urban design until the 18th century, when the British and other colonial powers reintroduced the idea.
To be fair to the Indians, it’s not as if 16th-century Paris was a convenient place to park. And the elaborately dense, organic old cities — Delhi and Varanasi are good examples — are typically much older than Jaipur. They give one an enveloping, sometimes claustrophobic sense of being inside a very old, very strange animal. Jaipur by contrast feels rational, sophisticated, cool. The Jai Singh dynasty were promoters of art and science, close allies of the Mughals yet resolutely Hindu, tolerant and forward-thinking. The current maharaja still lives in part of the palace, and another part has been dedicated to masters of traditional Rajasthani crafts, whose work is supported by an endowment from the royal family.
In fact, the old feudal maharajas have played a vital role in the modern history of India. When India became independent in 1948, it was easy enough for the British to hand their territories over to the new governments of India and Pakistan. But the British were in direct control of only a portion of the land; the rest was still officially in the hands of independent (though always compliant) maharajas. An agreement was reached in which the maharajas would retain their residencies and some official status, including stipends, in exchange for joining their territories to the new states. (In India, those powers were largely curtailed during the Emergency period of Indira Gandhi’s rule in the 1970s.) Each maharaja was given the right to choose whether he would join Pakistan or India. In Kashmir, even though his subjects were predominantly Muslim, the Hindu maharaja chose to join India, and this has been a centerpiece of India’s argument that it owns the disputed territory. India’s position would be more persuasive had India itself not annexed a chunk of Gujarat when the Muslim ruler decided to join his largely Hindu realm with Pakistan. To this day, Kashmir and Gujarat are focal points of the Hindu-Muslim tension that dominates the politics of the Subcontinent.
Jaipur manages to have a mixed population of Hindus and Muslims with relatively little tension, and this again might be attributable to the wisdom of the Singhs, who managed to align themselves with the ruling Mughals but were never subsumed by them. Among their relics are a phenomenal set of palaces and monuments. A few kilometers outside Jaipur is Amber Fort, the prior home of Jai Singh. It’s a marvelous maze of passageways and halls and stairs and ramps that seem to fold in upon themselves in a way that M.C. Escher would have liked. The main gates are all fantastically painted with vines and flowers in bright colors, and the most prominent building is a small vaulted hall completely covered in shimmering mirror inlay. The effect is somewhere between Versailles and Hearst Castle, with a bit of Pink Floyd concert thrown in.
In the heart of Jaipur is the Hawa Mahal, or Palace of Winds, little more than a facade of elaborately screened windows behind which the ladies of the court could watch the action on the main boulevard of Johari Bazar. Nearby is the City Palace, which is now a museum. Among other things, you can see the clothes of one of the maharajas who just happened to be 7 feet tall and 250 kilograms. His jacket looks like a tent for a baby elephant who needs room to turn around. There are paintings of him in a boat with about six people on the other end to act as counterbalances. There are, fortunately, no paintings of him with his many wives.
But the most fascinating of Jaipur’s sights is the Jantar Mantar, or astronomical observatory, created by Jai Singh. The instruments of masonry and marble look like some kind of weird modernist sculpture park, but our guide carefully explained and demonstrated how they all worked. Giant sundials told the time precisely; a whole series of devices helped to identify rising signs for newborns; azimuths and zeniths and a lot of other things I don’t quite understand could be measured as well.
Sights are fascinating until they’re not. While we enjoyed seeing these exotic palaces and forts and observatories, there comes a point when it all blurs together, like when you’ve spent too much time in the Metropolitan Museum of Art and can no longer tell whether you’re looking at a Rembrandt or a mummy or a fire extinguisher. To some extent we relieved this burnout with shopping, but that too can get wearisome, especially as stepping into a shop in India means having an intense relationship, entirely one-sided, which goes as follows:
“Yes, hello! Have a look! We have more inside. What you like? Look, see, have a look, this one. Okay, this one. You like that one? Here, I have many more. No? Why no? Leaving? Why? What happened? Please, wait! I have many more! Very cheaper price! Wait! What’s wrong? Hello!”
I remember that on my last trip to India, the stretch from Varanasi through Agra and Jaipur was one of the loneliest. They’re big cities where it’s awkward to talk to strangers, even other Westerners, just as it would be weird to go up and say hi to a random backpacker in New York or London. This time Jenny and I had each other, but by the time we finished up in Jaipur it had been weeks since our last noncommercial conversation with anyone else. What with the holidays and the isolation, Jenny was feeling pretty depressed. (For me, the lack of Christmas here is something of a relief; the holiday blues hit me in September, not December.) We decided to go back to Delhi on Christmas Eve so that we could have a festive dinner (and festive margaritas) at TGI Friday’s.
Unfortunately, Christmas Day started out badly. On our way back from breakfast we stopped to consult our Lonely Planet and, as usual, were surrounded by faux-helpful Indians who typically either want to guide us to their travel agency or else just poke the funny white monkeys. In this case, it was a bunch of rich young men of the sort who get involved in “Eve teasing,” India’s euphemism for sexual harassment. They began pestering Jenny with personal questions while I was consulting the book, and when we began to walk away they shouted at us. “Why are you so *rude*!” they cried. “You don’t talk to Indians? You’re too good?” It’s a totally obnoxious and all-too-common ploy that plays on Western liberal guilt, which it shouldn’t: we talk to Indians plenty, but we don’t talk to crowds of strangers on busy city streets, and neither would any self-respecting Indian under similar circumstances. Still, it was enough to reduce Jenny to tears.
When she thought it through later, Jenny decided that it wasn’t the rudeness or the attempt at making her guilty that made her feel so rotten, but the way that India required her to be nasty to people. I agreed. India is exhausting, and the worst of it is suspecting absolutely everyone you meet of having threatening motives. Jenny wasn’t sure she could handle another three months of it, and frankly neither was I. But having traveled here before, I knew something that Jenny didn’t: I knew the transformative power of Pushkar. “We’ll go there,” I told her, “and we’ll meet other travelers, and we’ll have conversations, and we’ll relax. We can think things through once we get there.”
The rest of Christmas was in fact an improvement. We met two Scotsmen in kilts and Santa hats who were off in search of liquor and the new James Bond movie, because “it wouldn’t be Chraistmas without James Bond.” Just that little conversation cheered us up enormously, and we spent the rest of the afternoon shopping with the hordes of Indians who had the day off.
By the afternoon of December 26th, we were in the charming little town of Pushkar, and life here is decidedly good. There are sunsets over the lake, made all the more pleasant by the crowds of hippies and backpackers who gather there each night, by the fine ensemble of Indian and Western drummers who play underneath the great tree between the Sunset Cafe and the ghats, and by the special green lassis served up by the Sunset’s laid-back waiters. It’s changed in the last five years. The crowds are bigger, and the Sunset has an elaborate new facade of curlicue arches plus a cement patio. But much has remained the same, too. Joseph David, Christian from Kerala (as he always introduced himself) is still on the staff, looking a little bit grayer. And there is still that super-mellow, aimless vibe that feels so good after the jangly bustle of the big cities.
These days Pushkar seems to be something of a way-station for long-term Western travelers who’ve spent the early season in the mountains of Himachal Pradesh, living among the Tibetan refugees at Dharamsala, and who will spend the late season on the beach in Goa, but don’t want to be there for the overblown Christmas-New Year’s scene. There are a surprising number of families with small children, most of whom seem to be well cared for. As in California, the “alternative lifestyle” scene here is now old enough that the first and even second and third waves now have kids, and it changes the dynamic. When you’ve got a baby, you become less interested in which gurus throw the best orgies and more interested in which temples have the best ayurvedic doctors.
Still, India remains a destination for the aimless: where else can you waste so much time for so little money? There are plenty of naive kids fresh from college or army service floating around here — I was one of them the last time I visited — and they’re very much into the hippie versions of preening and posturing: making loud noises on their Royal Enfield motorcycles, twirling poles or fire-sticks, beating their drums, wearing their cloaks and bell-bottoms dashingly. It’s all very high school in its way. (Daniel, I’m not sure if you’d love it or hate it, but I’m guessing that if you played your cards right, you could have scantily clad European girls worshipping you like a god in no time.)
The crowd tends to divide by age. There are the world-weary baby boomers who’ve been doing this for decades, know exactly what they think of everything, and have absolutely no interest in hearing anything new from anyone younger. They tend to sit up by the cafe rather than down on the ghats, and they have old-people-on-the-porch conversations about how it used to be better and cost less, and how Ibiza is such a *scene* these days, not like it used to be. The next bracket down are the older Gen-Xers, who like to gather and spew angry outsider leftist vitriol at each other for fun, always assuming that everyone will agree with whatever conspiracy theory they propound. If you used to read Common Cause in the ’80s and miss it, you should come here; they all hate Reagan just as much as Jello Biafra and Dennis Miller did.
Jenny and I are in the age group between the Gen-X Leftists and the preeningly graduated. We like to get together and talk about the artful ways in which we’ve been laid off. We’re still a starry-eyed bunch, but a lot of us are actually in the process of doing things that mean a great deal to us, no longer adrift but not yet disillusioned.
The night before last we had a long conversation with a couple who are on tour with Princess Superstar. He’s a dj who’s worked with the Chemical Brothers, she’s a former London fashion-mag editor who went to interview Princess Superstar and immediately became her best friend. (And who’s Princess Superstar? She’s a New York hipster phenomenon, a sort of Lawn-Guyland Italian trash-talking princess type who happens to be a badass rapper and has worked with just about every other super-cool New York hipster musician.) So when Princess Superstar went on tour, she invited this woman along, and they’ve been touring the world with this bizarre, wild novelty act and meeting cool people wherever they go.
So this couple is doing something absolutely cool. Five years ago I might have felt jealous or pathetic talking to them, but I don’t now. Jenny and I agreed that they definitely out-hipped us (and after a year in Korea, it feels so good to be around people hipper than us!), but they didn’t particularly out-cool us. It’s a subtle distinction, but it matters. Yes, they hang around people like Beck, Jon Spencer, Kool Keith, Prince Paul, Chuck D, and that’s very, very hip. (If you’ve never heard of any of these people, just nod and smile and pretend you like their music very much.) Suburban Korean children and their teachers are not typically a very hip crowd, but it turns out that hanging out with them for a year is pretty spectacularly cool. And if you spend all your time with record company executives, expat kindergarten teachers probably seem that much cooler.
I guess Jenny and I are lucky to have so many friends who are doing very cool things that are pretty much what they wanted to do: producing and directing their own plays and movies, sewing wings for Victoria’s Secret models, practicing law, doing social work, playing in a Judas Priest cover band, taking foster kids into their home, raising their children. And some of it is the luck of being American: we get a lot of opportunities, something you realize when you see children every day who are so poor that they’ll probably never get to play with a kite. In any case, it’s good to be past that first wave of anxiety that comes with stepping into the adult world.
It’s also good to hear what the other backpackers have to say. For weeks we’ve been cocooned in our own experiences, with no reference point against which to judge them. Now at last we can talk to other people and find out what they like, what they hate, how they cope. We met a young Dutch man who got away from the tourist hype by looking at his map, looking at his Lonely Planet, and going to towns that were in the former but not the latter. He said he got stared at by great crowds, and some nights he ended up sleeping on the floors of temples, but that it was great. I don’t know that Jenny and I will end up doing something like that, but it’s an approach we hadn’t even thought of. Other travelers have shared more conventional intelligence about which towns they liked, where there was good food, where it was beautiful and where it was ugly. It’s gotten us excited about being here again. We’re now halfway through our travel, and we’re ready to plunge back in for an even better second half, armed with all the knowledge and experience we’ve gained so far.
Well, almost ready. For now, it’s good to have an aimless week or two to just sit and absorb what we’ve done so far. We’ve been reading a lot, playing a lot of chess, sitting and staring a fair amount, then heading to the Sunset in the afternoons to do all of the above in a more social setting. I’m on a very tight schedule, and it’s now sometime in the afternoon, so I think I have to wander back to the hotel now and get ready to wander somewhere else and eat. Or something. Whatever it is, it’ll be mellow, and that feels very, very good.
More relaxed than … um … whatever’s more uptight than me,
Subject: My Global New Year
Date: Sat Jan 4, 2003
Long ago I decided never to do something on New Year’s Eve that I wouldn’t enjoy doing on some other day of the year. This is one reason why I have never chosen to huddle in a crowd of hundreds of thousands of drunk people in the freezing cold in Times Square. There were periods of my life when I had to bundle up and slog through crowds in Times Square as part of my daily commute; why would I want to add alcohol to that scene and do it at midnight?
So for this New Year’s Eve, Jenny and I did pretty much what we’ve done every other day in Pushkar: we went to the Sunset Cafe. It’s a great place to sit for hours on end, chatting with whatever tourists happen to be floating through, gazing out at the lights of the village reflected in the lake, and eating surprisingly good Italian and Indian food. They’d put up a sign up promising a buffet, a New Year’s cake, live music and fire juggling, but we would have been there even without the sign.
As evening came on, the usual crowd of tourists gathered at the edge of the lake, but with some differences. The hardcore party element — the fresh-from-the-army Israelis in purple pants, the Europeans fleeing the pressures of uni, the Renfaire-cloak hippies from Australia and North America — were conspicuously absent. Pushkar is a dry town, so the serious chemical extravaganzas were held at random spots out in the desert nearby. (Also absent was the Bicycle Man, a terrifyingly underfed Indian whose nightly act involves posing in various ways on a moving bicycle; suspending the bike dangerously over a little girl, possibly his daughter, who looks bored to death; taking off his shirt, smearing his body with paraffin, then lighting an inner tube on fire and rubbing it all over himself; and, as a finale, eating of a fluorescent light bulb. It’s the sort of act that actually disperses crowds that are standing nearby.)
To replace the party crowd, we had an influx of middle-class Indian couples and families on short holidays from Delhi and Agra and Jaipur — the sort of people who choose to go to a dry town near home to celebrate New Year’s. So it was a mellow crowd that huddled in the cold and waited for something to happen.
Eventually a crash of drums signalled that the live performance was about to begin. We had been expecting Rajasthani gypsies or something, but instead we got a group of Aussies practiced in the hippie arts. Two didgeridoo players accompanied a few drummers, while the black-clad, face-painted jugglers dribbled motor oil onto their tools, careful not to let any polluting substance drip on the ground. Then they set fire to their poles and their balls on chains, twirling them impressively to trace circles of fire in the air. Each crescendo was met by Indian-accented cries of “Bravo!” and “Brilliant!” and “Wo-o-ow!” The Western gypsies have been in India long enough by now to have become a tourist attraction for Indians.
By the time the twirling came to an end, it was close to eleven and very, very cold. Jenny and I slipped away and passed the Moment buried in our blankets back at the hotel. We could hear fire-crackers exploding over by the Sunset, and then booming techno music that kept up until about three, but we were happy enough to go to sleep, praying that the beginning of 2003 would be at least a little warmer than the end of 2002.
A foreigner who can juggle dependent clauses but not fire,
Subject: A Note on Geography
Date: Sun Jan 5, 2003
When I last visited India, I met a man on the beach in Puri who insisted that America was flat. Then he asked me, “What is tree of America?” That America might have many environments and many varieties of tree simply hadn’t occurred to him.
The world is very large and very complicated, and I understand that most people in most places have no real reason to know where Moldova is or whether Botswana even has a capital. It’s necessary to generalize. Still, there are a few mysteries that can be cleared up with a quick glance at a world map, so my friends and family can stop being surprised that it snows in Korea and gets chilly in India.
WHERE IS KOREA?
Korea is on roughly the same latitude as Japan, Beijing, southern France and the American Mid-Atlantic states. It snows in most of those places; in the Mediterranean and Europe generally, ocean currents keep the weather warmer than at other places with similar latitudes. North Korea actually borders on Russia.
WHERE IS INDIA?
India is very big. The far north reaches as high as southern Korea and the American Mid-Atlantic; the south stretches down below Vietnam. Here in the Rajasthani desert, it gets quite cold at night, just as it does in the deserts of the American Southwest during winter; we are on a similar latitude.
REALLY? IT’S COLD IN INDIA?
Yes. Really. The far northern states of Kashmir and Himachal Pradesh are not only not tropical, they’re also mountainous. They’re the Himalayas, after all. It snows and freezes plenty.
IS IT COLD IN ALL OF INDIA?
No. It’s hot in the south. It’s always hot in the south.
WHY ARE YOU TELLING ME ALL OF THIS?
Because I’m a pedant.
WHAT’S A PEDANT?
For that, go to Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.
Pedantically yours, but at least now you know where,
Subject: Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Pt. 1: The Blue City
Date: Fri Jan 17, 2003
After our long, relaxing layover in the tourist haven of Pushkar, Jenny and I at last felt it was time to get back into India. Jenny especially was a bit nervous about it. Yes, Pushkar had been nice, but now we were headed back into that great beast that had made her feel so lonely and exhausted during our first month here. Would we be plunging back into that same grind?
Having been here before, I knew that western Rajasthan would be a very different experience from the jangling chaos of Varanasi, the mediocrity of Orchha and Gwalior, and the big-city, big-tourism pressure of what is called the Golden Triangle of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. For one thing, the cities are smaller. Jodhpur is the biggest of them, with a population of about 750,000; Jaisalmer is really just a grandiose village in the desert. But it was more than that. I couldn’t remember what exactly had been so different, but I knew that in western Rajasthan I had felt India opening up to me, and I hoped Jenny would have a similar experience.
Jodhpur was our first destination after Pushkar. I’d been before in 1998, but I hadn’t enjoyed it, and here’s why. That time I’d been in Jaisalmer first, and while there I’d gone to the bank to withdraw some money on my credit card. In the process, I’d taken my passport out of my money belt; when I returned exhausted to my hotel, I simply tossed the passport and money belt under my mattress. The next morning I reached under the mattress, took my money belt, and left Jaisalmer for Jodhpur. When I got there, I was horrified to discover that my passport wasn’t with me.
My travel partner, a Faroese woman named Bjorg, saved the day. She remembered the name of the hotel where two French friends of ours were staying, managed to ring them up, left a detailed message with the hotel manager. Miraculously, the message got to the French women and they found my passport and they found us in Jodhpur and all was well, and I didn’t have to spend three weeks in Delhi trying to get a new Indian visa. Still, Jodhpur remained in my memory no more than a blur of fort and an overwhelming sense of my own idiocy.
I looked forward to giving Jodhpur a second chance. Perched on the edge of the Great Thar Desert, it’s dominated by the gigantic Mehrangarh Fort, which looms imposingly atop a craggy thrust of sandstone. All around Mehrangarh is the Old City of Jodhpur, known as the Blue City because of the tradition of painting the houses of Brahmins with indigo. (By now the tradition has spread to other castes.) The blue varies in shade from powder to Columbia to a deep indigo, and many of the buildings have green doors and windows. Intermixed with the blue buildings are constructions in the yellow and ochre sandstone of the region. From the rooftop of our hotel in the old city, we could look out on this sea of exquisite color and watch the sun set behind the fort.
Even though it’s hard to get through Western Rajasthan without visiting Jodhpur, it doesn’t get all that many foreign tourists. The smiles and hellos we received were largely out of curiosity, not an attempt to sell us anything. Even on the road leading down from the fort, the town’s most obvious tourist attraction, no one tried to sell us anything more exotic than mineral water. Thus Jodhpur is a marvelous town to walk around in. The streets of the Old City wander and weave past exquisite old buildings; astonishingly picturesque tableaux in blue and ochre await around every bend. The pleasure is increased by the bright colors of the Rajasthanis themselves. The women adorn themselves in great bolts of shocking pink, bright orange, electric green, and even the men get into it with their tie-dyed turbans.
Our hotel added to the experience. Built in the style of an old haveli (a Rajasthani mansion, pronounced ha-vay-lee) and decorated with beautiful local textile work, its best feature is the window seats on the front rooms. We could sit outside in the mornings and afternoons on our cushioned, pillared seat, play a game of chess, and gaze up through our arched windows to look at the fort. “Still there?” Jenny would ask. “Still there,” I would confirm.
As we prepared to leave after lingering a few days, Jenny told me that this was the first place in India in which she’d genuinely enjoyed herself without reservations (other than Pushkar, which hardly counts). “Just wait,” I told her. “Jaisalmer is even better.”
“How is it better?” she asked.
“Um … I can’t remember exactly. It just is.” I hoped I was right.
Tune in next time to hear how I was turned inside out in Jaisalmer!
Subject: Jodhpur, Jaisalmer pt. 2: Getting There is Half the Fun
Date: Fri Jan 24, 2003
Once you get out to western Rajasthan, transport gets problematic. There used to be flights out to Jaisalmer — the last serious town before you reach the Pakistani border –but those have been suspended indefinitely. You can take the train from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer, but it only runs at night, which would have been just ridiculously cold. (North India is currently in the midst of an unusual and deadly cold snap.) You can hire a private car, but that’s expensive. The remaining alternative, of course, is the bus.
Presumably most of you have ridden a long-distance bus at one time or another in your home country: the US, New Zealand, Korea, whatever. Indian buses are not like that. Yes, they have a fixed number of seats, and if you buy a ticket, you get a seat. The twist is that you can get on pretty much anywhere along the route and stand in the aisle for a negotiated price to some other point along the route. Again, this seems reasonable enough at first. Unlike the fixed number of seats, however, there is no obvious limiting factor to the number of people who can crowd into the aisle, or the sizes and quantities of bundles they can bring aboard. At one point on our return trip from Jaisalmer, an entire village got on board. I’m not joking or exaggerating. Granted it was a small desert village, but the aisle was already packed when the swarm of men in turbans and dhotis, women in saris and gold jewelry, and hordes of children all climbed aboard and pretty much sat all over the people in the aisle seats. The experience is not improved by the state of the roads, which vary from bumpy to hellish. You might think that the buses here don’t have shocks, but in fact they offer severe shocks every few seconds. A lengthy bus ride is synonymous with internal damage.
For our trip from Jodhpur to Jaisalmer, we took our hotelier’s advice and went on the 6 am bus because it was supposedly newer and better. What this meant was that the TV and VCR were in perfect working order. The very loud, very bad Hindi movie began as soon as the bus departed, which ruled out any sleep. To make matters worse, our hotelier had gone out of his way to get us the very front seats, which are considered auspicious for reasons that elude me. It’s true that they allow you to see your approaching near-death out the front window as the driver veers into oncoming traffic to pass trucks, horse carts, motorcycles, camels, etc. But they have absolutely no leg room, and whenever crowds of people climb on to ride in the aisle, they dump their luggage on you as they get situated. Plus, of course, the movie up there is painfully loud and impossible to ignore.
Needless to say, we were not at our best when we arrived in Jaisalmer. Still, we managed to find our way to a hotel in a marvelous 500-year-old haveli (mansion). I asked for a room with attached bath, and the man showed me first a bedroom, then a bathroom down the hall. “No, no, no,” I said, “attached bath.” The man gestured at the bedroom, the adjoining sitting room, the bathroom. “This all one room!” he explained. We had a giant suite to ourselves just inside the walls of the fort, all for a mere $12 a night — steep by Rajasthani standards, but how often do you get to stay in a bit of fairy tale history?
Unfortunately, I came to rue that long, long hallway to the toilet. But that’s a story for next time, and you probably shouldn’t read it while you’re eating.
Subject: Jodhpur, Jaisalmer pt. 3: The Vagabond Pukes
Date: Sun Jan 26, 2003 3:54pm
A warning: This piece is gross. It’s about bodily functions. You probably shouldn’t read this over breakfast.
There is an illness which is quaintly known as “traveler’s diarrhea.” This name is not nearly squalid and horrible enough. The word “travelers” makes me think of specially designed wallets, or else very tan people swapping tales over drinks. I do not think of the nightmarish misery I experienced that first night in Jaisalmer.
As we ate our Italian dinner and watched the sunset on the ramparts of the fort (Jaisalmer’s fort is actually a city within a city), I began to feel the cold closing in on me; by the time we got the check, I couldn’t stop shivering. Granted it was genuinely chilly, but this was odd, especially because Jenny wasn’t cold at all. She’s usually the chilly one between the two of us. By the time we got back to the hotel, I was feeling bleary and headachey, but I assumed it was just mild hypothermia. I stood by our hotelier’s campfire in the street outside and it warmed me some, but still I didn’t feel right.
Back inside, I just couldn’t get warm, even fully dressed under three wool blankets. At times the shivering would taper off, and then I would feel cold inside but hot on the surface, like my face was flushed. And then with a sudden blast I was hit with an incredible wave of simultaneous cold, shivering, ill feeling and intense paranoia. “I’m really scared,” I told Jenny. She reached out to comfort me, but jerked her hand back when she touched me. My skin was burning. When we took my temperature, it was 103.1 (39.5 C).
Not long after that, the diarrhea and vomiting began. It was that horrible situation where you’re not sure which end to put on the toilet first. According to our Little Red Book of Doom (the mountain and wilderness survival manual we picked up in Nepal), these were all the symptoms of bacterial diarrhea. Unfortunately, they were also most of the symptoms of malaria. As I lay in bed between trips to the bathroom, I had the paranoid thought that I shouldn’t fall asleep, as it might be a malarial fever coma.
Needless to say, it was a long and awful night. In my fevered imagination I began to rue triangles, of all things: the triangular area of my abdomen where I would feel the stab of pain that meant I had to wake up and trudge to the bathroom again; the triangle formed by my bed, the hook where my jacket was hanging, and my slippers; and the triangle formed by the bedroom, the corner by the hallway, and the bathroom far, far away. The giant hotel suite that had seemed so exciting that morning now felt like a kind of torture device.
By a few hours into this ordeal, I had excreted or vomited everything I could possibly imagine might have been in my digestive tract, and I hoped I would at last be able to rest. No dice. Instead I began to shit water, and now I was worried about dehydration. The Tylenol and Imodium I’d managed to keep down hadn’t broken the fever or stopped the flow. It was only around 8 the next morning that I was finally able to collapse into real sleep, which was only interrupted every hour or two.
When I woke up again at 2 the next afternoon, I was feeling somewhat better. By now we’d worked out that it wasn’t malaria, but I still had the fever, so we asked the hotelier to call us a doctor. (“He is not doctor, he is god-man!” our hotelier declared.) India is a country where doctors still make house calls, and this one cost us a whopping $5 for an entirely competent examination, diagnosis and prescription, including the medicine. We were hugely reassured to hear from a local doctor that I did indeed have what we thought I had — traveler’s diarrhea — and not some bizarre other thing.
When I had finally recovered enough to have a sense of humor again, I suggested to Jenny that a better name for the illness might be “the vagabond pukes.” She suggested “the wandering wastrel upchucks,” which is also pretty good. The experience ranks as the worst I’ve had in all my travels, but at least it was fleeting and quick. After a couple of doses of antibiotics, the fever finally broke, and after another day of rest I was well again. And despite the miseries of the vagabond pukes, Jaisalmer turned out to be our favorite destination so far.
In the next couple of emails I’ll tell you what was so good about Jaisalmer, what was so lame about Udaipur, and how to get from there to Bombay overnight without sleeping a wink.
Healthy in Bombay,
Subject: Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Pt. 4: Enough Already! Plus Udaipur and Bombay
Date: Tue Jan 28, 2003
Built of honey-hued sandstone in the midst of the Thar Desert, Jaisalmer is a place that should exist only in a fairy tale. It’s a small but opulent city that made its wealth from the rich caravans passing between India and Central Asia, and at its heart is the strange, magnificent, totally improbable fort.
India is full of forts, of course, which can be anything from a wall and a cannon to fabulous palace complexes. But they’re usually lifeless government museums — relics. As far as I know, Jaisalmer Fort is the only one in India that is a living city within a city, where the individual buildings are privately owned by the families who have lived there for generations. It’s a Brahmin enclave, and virtually everyone shares the family name Vyas, so there’s a close-knit community culture that’s different from the opportunistic atmosphere you find in so many other Indian tourist towns.
Jaisalmer’s glory may have faded with the closing of the Pakistani border and the decline in the old trade to Central Asia, but the citizens of the fort still form a conservative, educated upper class. When Jenny and I went to family-run “Bobby Heena” to get Ayurvedic massages, facials, manicures and henna work — well, I got the first two — the grandfather masseur tried to get me to pay for a palm reading; he assured me it would be worthwhile because he was a Brahmin, “The highest cast in the world!” He also explained that the only reason he still works is to raise money to pay for his daughter’s dowries, which will run him close to $8,000 a pop. They’re both in their late twenties already, and one of them told Jenny that she was still waiting for a good man. They were very impressed that I cook. They spoke excellent English, too, though they had a disarmingly cute tendency to say things like “Take off your shoeses” or “Put your clotheses over here.” And Bobby told Jenny that when men crowd around her or harass her, she should just slap them. I tend to agree.
But more even than the culture, it’s the sheer exuberant beauty of Jaisalmer’s architecture that makes it so special. The fort walls undulate with dozens of ramparts, and the buildings are covered in ornate carvings. Deep in the fort are the spectacular Jain temples, which are covered in statues of dancers and gods. And draped over walls in the narrow lanes are gorgeous quilts and tapestries for sale, and brightly colored turbans (I even bought one and learned how to tie it). We were welcomed onto one of the parapets by the proprietor of Kila Bhawan, which is a hotel we weren’t even staying at. “I just like people, you know?” he explained as he brought us chai and let us gaze out at the fort gates and the maharaja’s palace and the city below. And down in the city are still more astonishing buildings, great havelis heaped up upon themselves with domes and arches and peacock carvings, while the people themselves provide vivid splashes of color with their brilliant saris and turbans in lime, saffron, candy-apple, Barbie pink — yes, there are shocking pink turbans — and even the men drip with gold jewelry.
When you’re in Jaisalmer, it’s pretty much inevitable that you’ll wind up on a camel. I went on a three-day safari five years ago, which involved my saddle falling off the camel while I happened to be sitting in it, and landing me face-down in a thornbush. My camel driver ran up shouting, “Oh no! Saddle broken! Very expensive!” Considering the current cold snap, the charm of camels and their drivers, my recent illness and my past experiences in the desert, I had little desire to do anything so ambitious. But Jenny has a certain penchant for riding on the backs of animals, and she had a Lawrence of Arabia fantasy to fulfill, so we took the wimpy option and did the two-hour safari to the lovely but garbage-littered and overpopulated Sam sand dunes for sunset. During these two hours upon the farting beasts, Jenny somehow managed to accumulate a frightening set of bruises upon her posterior.
We also learned a bit about life in the desert. On the drive out there we’d seen half-heartedly plowed fields in the sand, the crops stunted and withered. For three years there’s been no rain. Abdul, our camel driver, told us that all the “goats, sheep, goats” in his village had starved to death; only the camels have been kept alive, because they bring in cash from the tourist trade. On the one hand, I feel bad for the villagers in the desert who are suffering. On the other hand, though, it’s the damn desert. There’s a drought because it’s a desert. That’s sort of how deserts work. It reminds me of the news reports we saw from an African capital (I forget which) that had just been destroyed by a volcano. The citizens were actually walking over the thin crust of solid rock above the molten magma and beginning to rebuild. You want to shake these people and shout, “MOVE! For heaven’s sake, just move over a couple of miles so you’re out of the lava flow!”
In Jaisalmer we met a couple from Seattle, Tamiko and Andy, and we’ve been traveling with them ever since. She’s half-Japanese, he’s half-Amish, and they’re the kind of people we would actually make friends with if we were back home. Like me, Andy quit his dot-com job, and off they went to travel in the East. Sound familiar?
We met up with them again in Jodhpur, and then traveled down to Udaipur, which is known as the Venice of India. This reputation is wildly overstated. Like Pushkar, Udaipur is a white city on a lake, and it’s pretty enough from certain angles. But it’s a resort town, and resort towns suck unless you’re spending the money to stay in the snazzy resorts. And we weren’t. Instead we were stuck in the most irritatingly over-touristed enclave we’ve stayed in yet, where we were constantly hounded by people selling crap we didn’t want. All the restaurants show Octopussy every night because about five minutes of it were filmed in Udaipur. Andy even met a shopkeeper who claimed to have sold a dhoti to Roger Moore. Worse yet, there was a continuous wedding in the hotel across from ours, which went on for three days and involved much blasting of Hindipop on their crappy boombox.
India is, in fact, in wedding overdrive right now. For obvious reasons, winter is a good time for weddings: it’s cool enough and dry enough for relatives to travel. Usually the weddings taper off by mid-January, but this year there are twice as many as usual, because the astrologers have decided that next year is inauspicious. As such, not a night went by in Udaipur without an Indian brass band marching by in Sgt. Pepper uniforms and creating an unholy ruckus. (In Jodhpur there were weddings too, but at least we were out of earshot. I only saw them when I went out in the evening to buy chocolate and mineral water. One night I saw three at once on the main road. The shopkeeper pointed to the closest one and explained, “Marriage. Brother, sister, marriage.” I’m not sure what he meant, but I’m assuming it wasn’t *that*.)
The main good thing about Udaipur is that it’s the home town of a family of very good artists who own several very good art galleries. Jenny and I bought a small painting and two etchings. Otherwise, we were largely disappointed. Even the city palace was lousy. It’s the sort of place William Randolph Hearst and Elvis might have come up with if they’d worked together, full of colored glass and mirrors and bad sparkly things. “See the luxury in which the maharajas lived!” an Indian fellow-tourist cried out to me. If by luxury he means green and red foil, then sure, I saw it.
To get from Udaipur to Bombay, you can take an airplane, but that’s expensive. Otherwise, you’re stuck with two unfortunate options: you can take a train to the miserably filthy and polluted city of Ahmedabad, then wait for a train to take you the rest of the way, stretching the journey to at least 24 hours; or you can take an overnight bus for 16 hours. We opted for the latter, reassured that it was a “sleeper bus.”
This was a misnomer. Certainly there was space to lie down — the four of us actually had our own room at the back — but one does not sleep by lying across the rear axle of an Indian bus. We bounced, yes. We jiggled. We thumped. We even dozed. But the only real sleep came when the bus was stopped for an hour at some kind of detour. I dreamt that they were rolling the bus onto pontoons to cross a lake. Then I dreamt that we all got out of the bus and looked at the signs; they pointed to Udaipur, to Delhi, to a dozen cities, but not to Bombay. Then we met two young Western travelers who were there as part of “a special program.” The young woman told me they would be moving the program soon to Chabad of Marin, which is my family’s synagogue back in California. This struck me as such a phenomenal coincidence that we had no choice but to get off the bus and sleep in the travelers’ cabin for the night.
Sadly, this dream came to an end when the bus began rolling again. By morning Jenny thought she might have internal injuries. Eventually we were let off the bus three hours late somewhere in the vast northern suburbs of Bombay. From there it was another hour by taxi to reach Colaba, the tourist ghetto, and then another half hour of wandering around trying to find a hotel with two double rooms with attached bath. (“Do you have two double rooms with attached bath?” “Yes. Bath outside.”) At last we found a hotel which is called White Pearl on the outside and Gulf Flower on the inside. Since half the streets and monuments in Bombay (Mumbai) have changed their names, this only makes sense. But it was clean, it had a bed, and it even had cable TV.
At long last we were out of Rajasthan. For the next few days, we would gorge ourselves on beef and the Cartoon Network. But that’s a story for next time. Not much of a story, maybe, but it’ll be better than that email about puking.
Maharashtra and the South
Subject: Where Cows Belong
Date: Sat Feb 8, 2003
When I came to India for the first time five years ago, I landed in Bombay. In the middle of the night I was transported by deluxe taxi (“Regular taxi not available”) to my deluxe hotel room (“Regular room not available”) in the tourist ghetto of Colaba, and it got worse from there. Both the air and the food were hot, thick and soupy. I couldn’t step out of my hotel without being attacked by beggars, fake holy men, people selling inscrutable services (“Your toes very bad. I clean!”). If I stood still for more than two minutes, children began to offer me drugs and prostitutes. Along Colaba Causeway, the main drag with all the restaurants that the Lonely Planet lists, I could barely walk: the hawkers leaped in my way, waving idiotic hippie shirts at me and shouting, “Yes! Hello! Havalook!” I was so overwhelmed by it all that I chucked my itinerary and headed straight out of India to Kathmandu on the next available flight.
Coming back to Bombay now, I can’t for the life of me work out what caused me so much torment. Sure, it’s full of beggars and hawkers, but you just walk past them (or give a little money and move on). And as for the food, it’s phenomenal. True, the best places weren’t here five years ago. We’ve been breakfasting at Basilico, a cafe where you can get smoked salmon, melted cheddar and a poached egg on a bagel, and for splurges we go out to dinner at Indigo and have steaks or duck or tuna medallions. But the less fancy places are great too. Our hotel is mostly frequented by travelers from Gulf states, and outside it are a string of kebab stands that do exquisite things to small bits of mutton and chicken. Up the road I can get a fine roast beef at Churchill’s, a savory orange chicken at Ming’s Palace, even a Lebanese falafel at Piccadilly’s. I suppose none of this would be terribly exciting if I’d just come from Manhattan, but I haven’t. First I spent a year in Korea, where good Western food comes from TGI Friday’s, and then I traveled through India and Nepal for four months. For the first time in well over a year, I’m in a city where the cultural elite actually knows what brie is.
Considering this phenomenal bounty, it’s a wonder we’ve done anything other than eat. But then there’s the charm and sophistication of the city itself. Good bookstores and music stores are nestled into whimsical Victorian confections left by the British, and all of it is overhung with giant trees trailing long roots from their branches. There are no cows on the street — they stay on the plate where they belong — and no bullock carts, auto-rickshaws or cycle-rickshaws either. Taxi drivers simply turn on their meters when you get in — no haggling. Further uptown are the chaotic old markets, including the famous Chor Bazaar or Thieves’ Market — now a place to buy old video cassettes and stolen car stereos — but even there, you can always escape into a taxi and head back to the comfort and rationality of Colaba.
Did I just say “comfort and rationality” while talking about Bombay? Man, I *have* been away too long.
We did take a break from Bombay for a week to visit the famous cave temples of Ajanta and Ellora. These are collections of Buddhist, Hindu and Jain temples and monasteries that were laboriously carved into mountainsides — the sort of insane projects India is famous for. The temples at both sites are impressive, some of them downright lovely, and all of them quite mad.
I won’t go on about the paintings and carvings; if you want to know about them, go buy a book. But one design element did stand out. At Ellora in a Buddhist cave from 600 AD, and again at Ajanta in a Buddhist cave from 200 BC, Jenny and I found ourselves standing in what was clearly a Romanesque cathedral. The ceiling was ribbed with arches that fed into rows of columns along either side. In the front wall was a window to let in light, while the rear section consisted of a semidome, within which was seated the Buddha statue — just where the altar would be in a church. At Ajanta, there were even paintings of the Buddha and other sages with head haloes and full-body haloes that could have come straight from a Greek or Russian icon painting. They looked like no Buddhist art or temples we’d ever seen before, and they couldn’t have been influenced by Christianity because the first one was built 200 years before Christ.
It got us to thinking about the spread of culture westward from India. We tend to think of Central Asia — Afghanistan, Iran, the former Soviet republics — as one great swathe of Islam, but of course Islam didn’t exist before 622 AD, and it didn’t reach all these far-flung lands until centuries after that. And we tend to think of Buddhism as an East Asian religion, prevalent from Tibet and China across to Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia. But I’ve read of ancient Chinese travelers making their way to Afghanistan on pilgrimage to Buddhist shrines. And of course Alexander passed through, sprinkling the whole region with Greek culture. Perhaps the design for European cathedrals comes from the Greeks. Whatever the case, it’s surprising how many links there are between this farthest eastward bit of Indo-European culture and the parts with which we’re more familiar.
Aurangabad is the hub city for Ajanta and Ellora, and it has to be our least favorite city in India so far. To begin with, the hotel was atrocious. If you ordered a boiled egg sandwich, you got boiled eggs and had to send them back for further processing. If you ordered anything else, what you got was inedible. In the evenings the restaurant offered live music, which consisted of an Indian band with drum pad, keyboards, guitar and vocals, each musician playing his own separate melody at very high volume and very badly. They performed immediately next to our room.
Like all Indian hotels they offered laundry service, but I had to go up to the roof to reclaim one of my shirts — it had been moved into a pile of someone else’s dirty laundry — and several pairs of my underwear disappeared. When I demanded a small discount on my bill to cover the cost of new underwear, I was informed that “The laundry man, he is very poor man.” This was undoubtedly true, but I still didn’t have any clean underwear. I told the clerk to pass this particular charity case on to the hotel owner and see what he thought.
And then there was the Internet service. The hotel did have Internet service, but I was never actually able to use it. It was always in use, or unavailable right now, or the office was closed.
Still, if it had been just our hotel, I might have liked Aurangabad. But it was the food that made it such a horrible place. The restaurants tended to have “Food” in their names — Foodwallah’s, Food Lovers — as if to reassure us. Their menus were varied, but it didn’t matter because whatever you ordered had been deep-fried into oblivion anyway. Apparently Aurangabad specializes in mysterious chicken, because all the menus offer such delights as chicken 65, chicken Kentucky and chicken lollipop. Okay, so maybe the chicken dishes were bad news, so why not order something else? Jenny ordered paneer tikka, which is usually squares of Indian cheese that have been dyed with tikka and lightly grilled, but which in Aurangabad were about as cheesy as fried okra is vegetabley in South Carolina. The best we managed over the course of a week were the slightly gray boiled egg sandwiches at our hotel.
Nor did the town have much more to offer. No, we never went to the smaller version of the Taj Mahal, nor did we visit the water park or the 17th-century water wheel. But what we did see of Aurangabad was grim in the extreme — just smoggy and dull, really. When we got back to Bombay, we were once again gorging ourselves at the restaurants, scarfing down kebabs as if we’d been away at sea.
We’re back in Bombay now, enjoying a lengthy sojourn here. We sleep in, go out, eat, come back, watch cable. We’ve met a few locals — friends of friends — which has made it a more interesting place to be. We’ve shopped a bit, gone to the very fine Prince of Wales museum. But it’s been slow and lazy, and that’s been pleasant. Still, one of these days we really should get back to India while we still have time. I expect we’ll move on sometime this week, heading south to Madras and the tropical mysteries of Tamil Nadu.
Eating my weight in beef every 36 hours,
PS: Mom, that last thing was a joke. I’m not actually getting huge here. Relax.
Subject: Beach Bumming
Date: Mon Feb 17, 2003
We’re now in Mamallapuram, a small beach town in the state of Tamil Nadu on India’s east coast. The pace here is slow (and that includes Internet connections), the weather is warm but not overwhelmingly hot, the ocean is deliciously cool and stunningly turquoise, and it’s the middle of February. As we start our tour of the south, deep in the tropics, I’ve begun by adjusting my wardrobe. I’ve now got a couple of lungis, the blue-and-green plaid sarongs the locals wear, but of course when us palefaces put them on we tend to look more Scottish than Tamil.
To get here, we had to go first from Bombay to Madras by train (or from Mumbai to Chennai, as they’re now officially known), which takes 26 hours or so. After careful consideration, we decided to go first class in a 2-tier AC car, and it’s amazing how much you can improve services by paying six times as much for them. Obviously one advantage is air conditioning, but there’s more than that. On the AC cars, they actually give you your own bedding and hot meals. And with two tiers instead of three, you have a third fewer people. But the biggest difference between the first-class AC cars and the second-class cars is that on the latter, anyone with an unreserved ticket can squat anywhere within the car. So technically there’s nothing wrong with standing right over people with actual seats, or sitting under their feet. Only in first class are you given rights not only to your seat, but to the surrounding air space.
The downside of the AC cars is that they isolate you. You peer through yellow-tinted windows that don’t open, and you feel a million miles away from the commotion outside at stations, or from the passing banana groves and palm trees. At times I would walk to the end of the car and lean out the door to get a feel for the outside air — progressively hotter and denser — and the new surroundings — men in lungis and dhotis (lungis tucked under like diapers), darker faces, curlier hair.
India’s south is a different world from its north, with a very different history. The story of the north is one of recurrent land invasions from north and west: the ancient Aryans who brought Brahmanic Hinduism and the caste system, Alexander the Great, the Muslim invaders of the 11th and 12th centuries, the Mughals, and at last the British (though they marched in from Bengal in the east). These jostling population waves and their attendant conflicts are still central to north Indian politics, as Dalits (untouchables) struggle for recognition in an Aryan-dominated society, Muslims and even Sikhs face increasing hostility from Hindu fundamentalism, and the government struggles to mold the British-style bureaucracy into something more useful for Indians.
The south by contrast has seen far less conquest. The Aryans never conquered the south but didn’t colonize it, and the languages here are Dravidian, not Indo-European. The Muslim invaders never got down here either; what Muslims there are arrived as traders from Arabia. The Dutch, French and Portuguese carved out small half-moon-shaped colonies along the coasts, but these were really trading posts more than conquests, and they fit with a long tradition of giving land to traders from outside — even the Jews of Cochin once had their own small kingdom. The south’s links with the outside world are extensive, and they have largely to do with trade: the Arabians, the Indonesians and Southeast Asians, the Chinese, even the Greeks sent ships to both coasts of the Indian peninsula. Only the British ever seriously colonized the south, and then for far less time and with far less vigor than in the north.
Ultimately the south’s deepest conflict is probably with the north, rather than with some outside power. The vast populations who speak Dravidian languages are fiercely opposed to the creeping process of making Hindi the national language. And because Brahmins are an ethnic group that came from the north, there are relatively few in the south, and their religious status is less respected; instead there are more indigenous devotional cults to various deities and gurus. The south even has its own version of the great Indian epic the Ramayana. Originally written by Valmiki, a sage who lived in what is now southern Nepal, it tells the story of King Rama, who reigned in the north. Rama’s wife Sita is kidnapped by the evil demon Ravana and taken back to his kingdom in Lanka (today’s Sri Lanka); eventually Rama defeats Ravana, with the help of Hanuman the Monkey God. (Readers of The Iliad can note the similarities.) In Valmiki’s telling, Ravana is simply evil as an archetype, like Darth Vader. But there is a Tamil retelling in which Ravana becomes a sort of antihero, a sympathetic and popular character. Like the expansion of Islam, the Aryan invasion is a dynamic process that continues to this day, as does resistance against it.
There is a shore temple in Mamallapuram, and some lovely carved rocks, but mostly we’ve been enjoying the mellow beach town aspect of the place. Over the weekend there’s been some kind of Hindu festival, which drew colorful crowds to the beach, and we joined in the bustle and hubbub on Saturday night as the full moon lit up the incoming tide. Now and then we’d see a group of men in dhotis, their faces painted up with tikka, carrying some cloth-and-flower-covered god on a palanquin. They take them down to the ocean to bathe. And in a large freshwater tank along the road to Mamallapuram’s famous shore temple, we saw great big floats decorated in flowers and flashing lights.
But mostly we’ve just been enjoying the slowness, the warmth, the gorgeous beach. It can be hard when you’re traveling to adjust to the different pace of each town you go to, from the madness of Varanasi to the exotic industriousness of Rajasthan to the thrum of Bombay, and now into this tropical languor. But a couple of days seems to have done the trick, and I’m adjusting well to beach bumming.
Today we leave Mamallapuram and head for Pondicherry, a former French colony further down the coast. I’ll tell you how that is when I find out.
Happy February from a man in a cotton skirt,
Subject: Life Among the Tamil Nadudes
Date: Wed Feb 26, 2003
The coastal town of Pondicherry is not actually in Tamil Nadu; rather it forms the bulk of the Union Territory of Pondicherry, the rest of which consists of small bits as far away as Orissa to the north and Kerala on the opposite coast. It’s as if the state of Rhode Island included Santa Barbara and a small chunk of Maine. What these pockets have in common is that as France’s colonial territory in India — once the largest holdings of any European power — declined, these were the bits that remained French until independence.
Pondy, as it’s known, is still very much in India, but there are numerous reminders of its colonial past: street signs referring to “Rue” this or that, the tricolor flying over the French consulate, the red-tiled pastel buildings, the restaurants offering French cuisine, the old Catholic churches. But there is something to the whole vibe of the place, a bit less tangible, that also feels different. It’s a small town, but with a kind of bustle and even a degree of hipness, which is surprising. The Indian aesthetics have been mixed with a French flair for creating dramatic spaces, so that instead of mere shops, you find yourself delighting in boutiques.
Other than its Frenchness, Pondicherry is best known for the Sri Aurobindo Ashram, which was founded in 1926 by the guru Sri Aurobindo and his “spiritual collaborator,” a Frenchwoman who became known as The Mother. Under her guidance, the ashram grew into a major cultural presence, running schools, hotels, businesses and charities, and it remains both prominent and popular among the people of Pondicherry. (Their philosophy, as far as I was able to gather, involves something about a universal Self from which we are separated by the incongruities of matter, but which we can come to know through a process of mental evolution.)
The Mother is a highly respected figure in Pondicherry and in India more generally. Which is why her birthday is considered a holiday, on which devotees file through the Ashram and receive *darshan* — a moment in which you and a god make eye contact — by viewing her personal belongings. Which is why great numbers of worshippers arrive in town in the days leading up to her birthday. Which is why, 2003 being her birth’s 125th anniversary, the president of India (a largely ceremonial post) was making his first-ever visit to the Union Territory of Pondicherry. Which is why, when we arrived in the late afternoon knowing nothing about any of this, we couldn’t find a hotel room.
The places run by the ashram were hopelessly booked out, and so were a couple of other hotels we tried. Sweaty and exhausted after wandering about with our backpacks in the tropical sun, we finally climbed into a rickshaw and offered the driver 50 rupees ($1) if he could find us a hotel room. It took him a couple of tries, and we were almost ready to despair, but at last he found us a reasonable place, where for 350 rupees we could stay in a concrete bunker, but a spacious one with a television.
Pondicherry looked infinitely more appealing the next day, after we’d showered and had a good sleep. There was decent food to eat for light meals, and some very nice French restaurants for dinner, and we enjoyed ourselves mostly by shopping in the stylish boutiques. After a couple of days, we’d seen what Pondicherry had to offer, and we decided to get out of town before the day of the darshan proper.
From Pondy we took a local bus that wound along tiny roads through villages of thatched buildings and past palm-fringed fields and banana groves, eventually crawling into our next destination, Chidambaram, which is known for its sizeable temple. This was back in Tamil Nadu, and there was something grim about the place. It had all the grubbiness and discomfort of an industrial city, but was too small to offer much of anything in return. The best restaurants in town aren’t actually good. And unfortunately, neither was the temple.
Transport in Tamil Nadu can be quite a hassle because it’s mostly done on local buses, which are great crowded rattling heaps — fine for three or four hours, but we weren’t keen on sitting on one for the eight or ten it would take to get to Madurai. So instead we gave up on Tamil Nadu and decided to go to Cochin as soon as possible.
Of course, from Chidambaram you can’t get to Cochin. We decided to make our way to the nearest attraction with a rail hub, and that was Thanjavur (Tanjore). With a population of nearly 400,000, it was the biggest Tamil city we’d spent any time in, and it felt far more vibrant than the villages. And unlike Chidambaram, Thanjavur has a phenomenal temple. The gates are great towering wedges encrusted with sculpture, and the central courtyard is full of interesting, elaborately carved shrines. Dominating the scene is the enormous tower of the main shrine, inside of which is a Shiva lingam (phallus) that’s something like 4 meters across.
The temple is also notable in that the local maharaja, under Gandhi’s influence, opened it to all people, even Harijans (untouchables), a category in which we casteless foreigners are included. So anyone who wants to is free to wander the grounds, and plenty of locals took advantage of its spacious, tree-shaded grass fields as a place to while away the afternoon.
In fact, the temple was so good and so interesting that we almost considered changing plans and staying in Tamil Nadu. Almost. But then Cochin was beckoning us, famous Cochin, capital of the Indian spice trade, home to Jews and Muslims, still carrying the marks of the passing Chinese and Portuguese and Dutch. It was time to leave Tamil Nadu behind.
Next time, Cochin: Most Charming Place on Earth?
Subject: Cochin, pt. I
Date: Sat Mar 1, 2003
When I approach the synagogue, the heavy blue doors are closed, but I notice they’re not locked. I hesitate: I’m early for the Friday evening prayers that welcome the Sabbath. Perhaps the doors will open in another ten minutes? An Indian man sees me wavering, leans towards me and says, “Knock first, then go in.” I do as he says, feeling as if I am stealing my way into some secret conclave. I half expect someone to be waiting just behind the door, ready to bark “Shalom aleichem!” at newcomers to see if they know the password response: “Aleichem shalom.” But of course no such thing happens. I knock, I enter, and I see a small group of old men and younger Israelis gathered together by the entrance of the main sanctuary. There’s a pile of sandals by the door, and a pile of mismatched yarmulkes unceremoniously dumped on a ledge. I select a mauve satin number, slightly tattered; printed on the inside is “Cochin Synagogue, 1568 – 1968: 400 Years.”
The state of Kerala, formerly known as Travancore, is a fertile strip that stretches inland no more than 100 miles, hemmed in by the Western Ghats, India’s highest mountain range south of the Himalayas; it has always looked outward toward the sea, and the Malabar Coast was known to the Phoenicians and the Romans, as well as the Arabs and the Chinese. As Salman Rushdie puts it in The Moor’s Last Sigh, they came for the hot stuff: the ginger, the cardamom, the cinnamon, and above all the Malabar black pepper.
When the first Jews arrived is a matter of debate. Some say that they came as traders during Solomon’s reign in the 10th century BCE, and there is a shred of linguistic evidence: the Hebrew and Tamil words for “peacock” are almost the same. The Babylonian Talmud, written in the 6th century BCE, mentions a rabbi who converted from Hinduism, though it fails to mention where in India he was from. Certainly Jews were here in Roman times, and legend has it that Saint Thomas the Apostle was greeted on his arrival by a Jewish girl playing the flute. And the local community traces its origins to the Roman expulsion in 70 CE.
More curious still, and no less imprecise, is the history of the Jewish kingdom at Cranganore, a bit north of Cochin. The Pardesi Synagogue in Cochin still houses the copper plates on which King Bhaskara Ravi Varman I granted to one Joseph Rabban all the rights of kingship, including tax revenues and the use of the palanquin and the parasol. The local tradition holds that the concession was made in 379 CE, but scholars have placed the date anywhere from centuries earlier to as late as the 10th century. Whenever it started, however, there is no doubt that the Jewish community of Cranganore was destroyed by the Portuguese in the 16th century, and eventually the survivors settled in Cochin and grew rich in the spice trade.
As for the synagogue itself, it was first built in 1568, then destroyed by the Portuguese in 1662 and rebuilt two years later. For all its age and fame, it’s a bit of a dumpy affair, which makes it a lot like pretty much every other orthodox synagogue I’ve ever been in. It’s a squarish wooden box that’s been haphazardly fancied up with various touches that don’t quite go together: a forest of chintzy glass chandeliers, some of them green and blue and red, to hold oil lamps; a great carpeted wooden bimah (pulpit) stranded out in the middle of the room like the prow of a sinking ship; and of course the famous blue-and-white Chinese tiles, brought from Canton in the 18th century by Ezekial Rahabi. The synagogue’s promotional material declares proudly that each tile is unique, but in fact they’re all painted with one of two patterns, and the uniqueness comes simply from the fact that they were hand-painted, and not all that nicely either. Seating is on mismatched wooden and wicker benches that ring the open floor, or occasionally wander into the middle of it.
I have come to this ancient synagogue here on the eastern edge of the Jewish world because I want to see and hear the ceremony and compare it with my own Jewish experiences. (I came here also in 1998, but at the time I was badly sunburned and possibly feverish, and my memories of the event are gauzy at best.) During one of our struggles over Judaism, I remember my father telling me that I should learn to daven (to recite the Hebrew prayers) because I would then be able to walk into any synagogue anywhere in the world and know what to do. Now, as I pick up a prayer book from a heap of non-matching editions on a bench, I am pleased to discover that I recognize most of the prayers, even though this synagogue is Sephardic, coming from the older Near Eastern stream of Judaism rather than the European Ashkenazic tradition with which I’m more familiar.
It turns out I’m the tenth man, so my arrival leads to a fair bit of shuffling about by the old men who are the remnant of Cochin’s Jewish community. (Most of the Cochin Jews have now moved to Israel.) Two old men peer closely at the hand-scrawled Jewish calendar on the wall, while another — the only man in shoes — strides purposefully toward the bimah, then veers left and stands next to it. I notice that these men don’t look Indian at all. Unlike many of the Israelis in their tattered lungis and kurtas, the Cochin Jews wear slacks and short-sleeved shirts with collars. But it’s more than that. The Jews I’ve known look like the people among whom their recent ancestors lived: they look Polish, Russian, Gypsy, Turkish, German. But these Jews look only Jewish, with skin a bit dark for Middle Europe but several shades paler than anyone else’s in India, and their noses are Hebraically prominent but not hooked like the noses of Central Asia. There are no beards.
The prayers begin without preamble, and they go fast. Despite my father’s exhortation, I’m lost almost immediately, and whenever I find my place again, it’s usually three pages past where I thought we were. There’s very little singing. L’chah Dodi, the beautiful prayer for which the Ashkenazim have so many wonderful melodies, flies past in a mumbled blur. I am suddenly struck by just how unorthodox is my own brand of so-called Orthodox Judaism, an American reinterpretation of a Chassidic sect that arose in Russia in the 17th century as a reform movement among the Ashkenazim, who themselves are mere upstarts of the last thousand years or so. While never exactly isolated from the main body of Jews, the Cochin community simply never experienced the vicissitudes of European Jewish reform and counter-reform. I feel like a Baptist among Coptics.
Part way through there’s a power cut, and for a few moments we pray in the light of the oil lamps, but then the non-Jewish caretaker finds the switch for the backup power, and fluorescent tubes flicker to life. After the prayers, there’s a quick kiddush (sanctification of wine), and plastic cups are handed around. I assume they get their kosher wine from Israel these days, and certainly it tastes like the classic syrupy rot-gut of Jewish ritual the world over. And then it’s done. Having begun at 6:40, we’re finished with the whole thing by ten after seven. There’s a little bit of socializing afterward, but it’s all in Hebrew, so I wander alone out into the unlit streets.
Despite the lack of light, I decide to walk back to the hotel via the road that curves along the edge of the narrow Cochin peninsula. The sultry night air smells of cardamom and tea. Here and there shops are lit with candles or kerosene lamps or backup generators, and passing rickshaws and motorcycles cast their light as well. I walk past Mattancherry Palace, a red-tiled Portuguese construction that was later renovated by the Dutch — hence its alternate name, the Dutch Palace — and is most famous for a spectacular series of erotic Hindu murals. Soon after I pass a church, then a mosque, then a Catholic shrine as crowded and chaotic as any Hindu temple. Eventually I reach the great cantilevered Chinese fishing nets, gifts from Kublai Khan, and opposite them I see Shana’s Chinese Shopee (sic). When I come to the theater where Kerala’s traditional Kathakali dance is performed each night, I turn off the main road, walk past the basilica, and at last reach our hotel.
Next time, Cochin in daylight.
“Avoid irritation more than exposure to the sun … In the tropics one must before everything keep calm.” – Joseph Conrad, “Heart of Darkness”
Subject: Cochin, pt. II
Date: Wed Mar 12, 2003
Cochin is one of those places where the whole world seems to have converged. The same can be said of some of the world’s biggest cities — New York, London, Shanghai — but Cochin is a cultural melange on a smaller scale, like New Orleans or San Francisco. Like those cities, it came to prominence as an outpost of Catholic Europe — in this case the Portuguese, who arrived in 1510. Vasco da Gama’s tomb can still be seen in the St. Francis Church, which went from Portuguese Catholic to “the Calvinist Cult,” as the church’s literature puts it, then became Church of England and is now Church of South India.
What drew the Portuguese, and everyone after them, was the fantastic harbor. A colossal flood in 1340 carved out a deep, long bay that merges into a series of backwaters — narrow channels and tiny islands that line the coast for miles. The Portuguese quickly built a fort on the Cochin peninsula and established a powerful trading post. In those days it served as a way station on the route from southern Africa to Java and the Spice Islands further east. It was a place to provision the ships, and also to pick up Indian cotton fabrics to trade with the Indonesians.
As the fortunes of various European powers rose and fell, Cochin changed hands, but it remained throughout an important trading center. Eventually spices were planted in the backwaters and in the Western Ghats — the mountain range that runs parallel to the coast — as were rubber, tea and coffee trees. Cochin never became a commercial hub on a par with Bombay (born Bon Bahia, or “Good Bay” in Portuguese), Calcutta or Madras, but the spice trade kept it wealthy, and it became a cosmopolitan cultural center, which it remains to this day.
Today, Cochin consists of a few well-heeled neighborhoods on the old peninsula, while the bulk of shipping lands at man-made Willingdon Island, and the real urban center is Ernakulam just across the bay on the mainland. This arrangement has been very good for Cochin, which has managed to retain and even enhance its charm. Portuguese and Dutch buildings with red-tiled roofs mingle with whimsical modern houses, and everything is painted in bright colors that fade marvelously into mottled pastels in the tropical heat and humidity. Tucked here and there are spacious grass fields that fill up each Sunday with casual cricket players; overhanging them are giant trees whose canopies spread as wide as 200 feet across.
We stayed at Hotel Kapithan, a family guest-house that faced one of these spacious fields. Our hosts were a Christian brother and sister — the brother tended to wear a lungi, a gold cross, and very little else, and he proudly told us that he *loves* beef. When we arrived the sky was clouding over, and by late afternoon the rumbling thunder fulfilled its promise and the rain came pouring down onto the coconut palms and the broad leaves of the banana trees.
For days we lingered in Cochin, charmed by its sleepy beauty and its thriving cultural life. We started our days at Kashi, an art cafe run by a woman from Michigan and her Indian husband. There we would eat whatever they were serving for breakfast that day — French toast with honey and fruit, cheese-tomato omelettes — and wash it all down with excellent cold coffee. Here, after all, was a place where you could trust the ice! We would usually be back for lunch, too, to linger and listen to the blues or the Edith Piaf or the Indian fusion on the stereo. Other than that, well, we just sort of hung around and read and did work on the Internet, mostly. We were coming towards the end of our trip, and it was nice to give up on the slogging for a while.
We did make it down to Mattancherry a couple of times, the neighborhood with the synagogue and the spice warehouses and the amazing antique shops. Throughout India, “antique” and “craft” shops have achieved an astonishing uniformity: the bronze Shiva dancing in his ring of fire, the Kashmiri carpets and embroidered jackets and pashmina shawls and papier mache, the boring cotton hippie-wear, the wooden Buddha, the camel-bone boxes, the block-print tapestries. Sometimes the absurdity of it strikes home, as when we were in Mamallapuram and I had to go to the Indian shops to get a lungi in the local style; the shops on the tourist strip sold only the sort of sarongs you find from Pokhara to Goa to Cape Comorin.
Cochin has its share of these standard-issue tourist traps, and they charge probably the highest prices anywhere in India. But it also boasts a collection of genuine antique shops that are simply bursting with the fascinating flotsam of 500 years of history. For the right price you can get Hindu tribal masks taller than you; old 78-rpm record players and the Telugu classics to spin on them; holy Catholic vestments and other Catholic toys like chalices and censers; cornices, archways, lintels and other architectural details in fabulously carved wood; boxes, boxes, boxes; roll-top writer’s desks; bottles from long-vanished brands of unguents and potions that utterly failed to keep the Europeans alive in the malarial heat; sexy St. Sebastian, scantily clad and bound to his tree; stacks of photographs of Keralans frowning earnestly at the camera for their Very Serious Portraits. Here you might find a Tibetan mask, there an Indonesian box, around the corner a shelf full of Chinese Buddhas. You might want to purchase that old ship’s wheel to steer your way through the mazey backwaters of the larger shops. For you are sailing through history, possibly even your own history.
Consider this: Elihu Yale, I just discovered, was not only the founder of the vaunted university, he was also president of Madras in the 1690s. And here, more or less, is how the trade worked in those days: The Spanish brought over silver from Mexico; the English and the Dutch (and Portuguese, but less and less) traded for that silver with spices, molasses, cottons, silks, indigo, saltpetre and other treasures from the East; loaded with bullion, the English and Dutch (and Portuguese) ships headed south, restored themselves at Table Bay in South Africa, then headed to India and Indonesia to buy spices, Bengal for fabrics, Gujarat for Saltpetre; and perhaps they stopped somewhere in Arabia on the way back, or simply swung back and forth across the Arabian Sea for a while to engage in what was known as “the country trade.” You might be waylaid by a pirate from Carolina on the way, or killed by savages in Madagascar, or die of pretty much any disease then available; one early English settler at Bombay suggested that the lifespan of a man there was three years, but he was contradicted by another who claimed it to be two monsoons. But if you didn’t die, you could make a fortune. (Bizarrely enough, the legends about pirates are more or less accurate, right down to the striped shirts and gold earrings and bandannas.) With all that backing and forthing, Cochin received visitors who had been just about everywhere there was to be.
Today, of course, Cochin is about as swashbuckling as Connecticut. But as in New Orleans and San Francisco, the legacy of all that cultural mixing remains in the form of tolerant attitudes, cultural sophistication and very good food. Cochin boasts some of the finest boutique hotels and the best restaurants in India. At the five-star Brunton Boatyard, the chef at the History Restaurant has created a kind of culinary archive. The menu contains a lengthy history of the city, and the actual dishes are a mix of traditional Keralan, Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Portuguese and British recipes — pork in pineapple wine sauce, chilli potatoes, jaggery-sweetened custard — along with numerous contemporary fusions. As we ate we were serenaded by a couple of violinists playing Carnatic classical music, and the spiced ginger wine with honey was on the house.
“Avoid irritation more than exposure to the sun … In the tropics one must before everything keep calm.” – Joseph Conrad, “Heart of Darkness”
Subject: Goan Desperados and the Pleasures of Home
Date: Tue Mar 25, 2003
Like fruit, travelers in India have their season. They first arrive in September, green and unripe; by October, the tourist enclaves in Delhi and Bombay are full of fresh-faced foreigners on their way to Goa, Rajasthan, Dharamsala, or any of a dozen famous ashrams scattered around the country. By midwinter the tourists are ripening — there are great crowds of them now, and those who arrived early are already adjusting to the complexities of Indian tourist life. And now, as the season grows late, the remaining tourists are overripe, perhaps a bit rotten and mealy. Now that it’s late March, the crowd in Delhi’s Paharganj district is decidedly free of fresh-faced tourists; those who are left look like they’ve been here a while. It’s all dreads, tattoos, nose pierces, bright cotton hippie pants, tattered rucksacks, haggard faces. We overhear in people’s conversations words like “home,” “finish up,” “a few more days.”
We too are on our last stretch. We’ve taken our last train, and in a few days we’ll at last leave India, the Subcontinent, and all of Asia behind us. We are going home.
Our trip has been winding up for a while now. After a bit of adventuring around Kerala, we took off for Goa, India’s famous beach enclave, for a week or so of lolling about under palm trees and staring at the breakers.
I’m a bit leery of tourists’ protestations that this or that place in India is “not really India,” especially as such claims are usually made for locations that tourists find unusually pleasant: the Himalayan region of Himachal Pradesh, Pushkar, Darjeeling. It seems unfair to rob India of its most pleasant territories simply because so much of the rest is dusty, noisy, polluted, hot and horrible. But in terms of places in India that are “not really India,” Goa has a pretty good claim. For one thing, it really wasn’t India until 1962, when the Indian army arrived and politely asked the Portuguese to leave a territory they’d held since the early 16th century. Culturally as well as politically, Goa has been a place apart from the surrounding territories of Karnataka and from India more generally. The Portuguese, after all, came as traders, and though they built forts to protect their interests, they were never perceived as conquerors. Portuguese merchants settled and married, and their beliefs in Catholic Christianity, siesta and alcoholism have blended into Goan culture.
It is perhaps this easygoing tolerance — and particularly toleration of people who bring money — that drew the first wave of hippies in the early 1970s. They came, they saw, they colonized, and the Goans, who were used to that sort of thing, didn’t kick up much of a fuss. Gradually Goa grew into an international party spot, like Ibiza or Mazatlan, and by the early 90s it had become famous for its drug-fueled all-night raves on the beach. Eventually the Goans decided they needed a good night’s rest and banned loud music past 10 pm, and they even got their police to enforce the law, thereby ending the psychedelic paradise for foreigners. They’re now doing what they can to turn Goa into a strip of chic resort beaches, much to the chagrin of the old-timers who came here to smoke pot and get laid and stare into space back in 1973 and have never quite left, at least mentally.
We headed straight for Vagator Beach when we arrived. From what we’d read in the Lonely Planet, it sounded like an in-between beach — too far north to be covered in resorts yet, but too far south to be one of the beaches where people go to get away from it all. Unfortunately, we discovered that it’s also the party beach of the moment, with all the attendant pathos one finds among people who’ve arrived at a very good party twelve years too late. We spent our first evening out on Little Vagator Beach, watching scrawny German women strip down to their bikini bottoms, then sitting in a beach shack with the sort of people who sport mullet hairdos and tattoos of pot leaves. It was a grim and desperate scene. No one on the beach had a book. They seemed to be there for the sex and the drugs, and neither looked to be of particularly good quality. Goa attracts a certain sort of person who imagines that it’s a place with no prior cultural rules — a place where he or she can be gloriously free of society’s inhibitions. Of course, Goa does have a lengthy history and a culture of its own, but these people have chosen to ignore all that. They also tend to be remarkably narrow in their tolerance: they’re all for sex and drugs as long as that means straight people using drugs everyone’s heard of. For me, at least, perhaps because I grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, there’s something unnerving about a vast beach colony that isn’t the least bit gay.
In Goa we got around by “scooty,” which is what the locals call motor-scooters. We rented a Honda Kinetic, a vehicle which is propelled by a motor slightly less powerful than that of a good Braun blender. No, I’d never driven anything like it before, nor am I quite licensed to drive in India, and it’s not worth asking whether there were helmets available. But it was the only way to get around, and I don’t think I ever took the thing up past 30 kph; we were risking limb, perhaps, but not life. The whole rental process was almost distressingly casual: I wasn’t asked my name, I never showed my passport, I just paid a single day’s deposit of 150 rupees ($1.60) and drove off.
With the Power of Scooty we were able to explore beyond grim Little Vagator, and we discovered that the desperation gave way to a much mellower and cheerier scene just one beach to the south, at Anjuna 4 kilometers down. We first went for the famous Wednesday flea market, a huge, bustling outdoor market where merchants sell every imaginable sort of Indian and Tibetan tchotchke, plus certain Goan innovations like crocheted cotton-yarn bikini tops (Jenny bought a couple and looks fabulous in them).
In the afternoon we slipped out of the market and into a beach shack, where we watched hippies parading topless on the beach — one older man stripped down to nothing but a hat and swam out to one of the small boats that ferry tourists down to Calangute and Baga beaches. They were a glaring contrast to the beggar children who played in the waves. One of them had no forearms — I don’t know, but I guessed he’d been mutilated by his own family to make him a better beggar, still a common enough practice in India. But it would be unfair to reduce this boy to a pair of limbs he doesn’t have; he was swimming with the other kids, laughing, eating a samosa. Sometimes even the miserable people have fun, a fact we tend to forget almost as easily as we overlook the miserable people in the first place.
Back in the bustle of commerce, we were startled by a Carnatic tribal woman standing so still in her mirrored clothes and gold hair clips and nose rings that at first we thought she was a mannequin. Like the extreme poor, the tribal people of India are very difficult for me to relate to. I just don’t know what their experiences are, what goes on in their minds, and I haven’t worked out any way to open communication. I gather, in fact, that communication isn’t particularly wanted. It occurs to me that one purpose of the tribal dress and behavior that looks so exotic to us is precisely to keep us at arms’ length. I found it impossible in these moments to traverse the gulf created by the exoticism; the tribal women just felt alien to me, almost as if they were a different species. Of course I’ve been trained quite extensively to know and understand that humans are humans regardless of race, creed, dress, nationality. But the experience gives me a visceral sense of how disastrous such an encounter could be had I not been so educated.
There is very little to do in Goa. Wherever else you meet tourists in India, they’re invariably mentally engaged in *something*, even if it’s hopelessly inane. If you’re in Pushkar, then you’re in Rajasthan, and that means you’re bothering to go out and look at some forts and palaces. If you’re in Dharamsala, then you’re either looking at the mountains or studying Tibetan Buddhism; likewise Nepal. Only in Goa did we meet the sort of tourist who just wants to turn off his brain completely. For us, it got a bit tedious, but we did enjoy staring out at the sea from cliffside restaurants shaded by coconut palms. Still, a week of nothing was quite enough.
Soon the heat will come and wither away all but the hardiest of the tourists; those few who crawl up into the hill stations will have the country more or less to themselves, give or take a billion Indians. In Panjim, Goa’s capital, the hyperactive Assamese waiter at our hotel told us that now the foreign tourist season was ending and the Indian season beginning. This made him sad, because foreign tourists, he claimed, are always happy, while Indian tourists complain about everything.
From Goa we passed briefly through Bombay, then came again to Delhi. After the mellow pace of the south, it’s culture shock all over again to be in the overwhelming hurly-burly of the north. There are beggars everywhere in India, and certainly plenty in Bombay, but there they just beg. Yesterday I saw a man whipping himself with a makeshift bullwhip while a young woman played drums. This is extreme busking, although I checked the man’s back and saw no whip marks. Later in the day, in Connaught Place, I heard a man shouting, “Shit! Shit on shoe! Shit on shoe!” Sure enough, I looked down to discover a great heap of it sitting on the toe of my new shoes. “I clean!” shouted the man, a shoe-shiner. It’s an ugly ploy used by the shoe-shiners, whose partners fling feces at the feet of tourists — and really, how else was I going to end up with it on *top* of my foot? Needless to say I wasn’t going to hire the perpetrator’s services; I found a piece of newspaper and wiped it off myself.
Not all of India is like that, or all of Delhi, though at times it does feel as if the whole country is collectively flinging shit at you and then trying to cadge money out of you to clean it off. Delhi is one last blast of full-on India to remind us why we came, why we’re leaving, and why we’ll probably be back. There was the shit on shoe, but there was also the good shopping in Paharganj, where we were able to buy beautiful stone boxes and textiles and other goodies for just a few dollars. And there were the decent shopkeepers who were genuinely helpful and quoted us reasonable prices. It happens.
Still, I’m ready to go. It’s not that I haven’t enjoyed my travels; I have, and I’m incredibly grateful and glad to have had these experiences, even the difficult ones. But after 18 months abroad in Korea, Nepal and India, I’m looking forward to how spectacularly clean and organized the Los Angeles suburb of Covina will feel. Lawns will be lawns, houses houses, shops shops. The shops will not speak to me as I walk by; I will either be in them or out of them, with no in-between state of hawking. No one will sidle up to me on the street with a litany of mysterious products I don’t want — “hellotaxitravelinformationjewelryIhavemanycomemyshop.” I will not have to check my dishes for trace droplets of water that could be carrying dangerous bacteria. I will be able to rinse my toothbrush in the tap water instead of using a bottle of mineral water. No rickshaw-wallahs will assault me, even if I’m carrying my backpack. All the TV stations will be in English. I will be able to purchase such exotic items as root beer and Mexican food. There will be sidewalks. People will drive according to a shared set of laws, and the lines painted on the pavement will serve as legitimate indicators of traffic flow. The electricity will stay on (well, probably — this *is* California). I will not have to convert currency in my head.
And most important of all, I will cease to be foreign. For a year and a half I’ve been an object of curiosity, an outsider, a freak of some kind. After all this time, it will be a pleasure almost beyond imagining just to blend in.
Almost an ex-expat,
“San Francisco is a mad city — inhabited for the most part by perfectly insane people whose women are of a remarkable beauty.” – Rudyard Kipling, “American Notes” (1891)