Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Greetings from: LAKHPAT

I try not to cause any international incidents, but despite my best intentions, things get out of hand. For instance, take Lakhpat, a ghost town on the northern border of India. You need government permission to visit. I always thought that the government simply didn’t want you to see some of the extreme poverty-stricken parts of the country -- like China. But that’s not the reason at all.

Lakhpat was once a thriving port city situated at the mouth of the Indus River. An earthquake in 1819 diverted the flow of the river, however, and without water access, the life drained out of Lakhpat. Nowadays, it has 200 residents and two small, spooky temples, one Sikh, one Muslim. As far as I can tell, their #1 industry is survival. The city is ringed by tall fort walls; despite some crumbling here and there, it’s possible to walk Lakhpat’s perimeter on the wall.

Just beyond the walls lies the Rann, and this time, it’s pure desert. I crept out through a hole in the wall. It’s a flat expanse with a handful of hills. The earth had cracked from where mud during the rainy season had dried; animals had left tracks. Cows, dogs, and a single gazelle sprang off into the distance, startled by my approach. Some ruined boats in the distance demanded a closer look. As I photographed them, I saw three figures in the distance -- shepherds, I figured. I was two-thirds correct.

The third figure was a soldier. When he saw me, he waved me over. Even though I had my permission slip to be in Lakhpat, I was no longer in Lakhpat; I had wandered into the borderland with Pakistan. That explains the big honking rifle he carried, then. A small piece of camouflage cloth was wrapped around the muzzle, and the magazine cartridge was transparent. Inside, the bullets were sharp-tipped and severe. BSF was stitched onto his dun-colored uniform’s shoulder -- Border Security Force, I imagine.

I had to wait with him while he summoned his superior officer. The soldier who had stopped me was friendly enough; I showed him the pictures I had taken (it was more of a command, really), and he asked how much a camera like that cost. He asked if I had a girl. His superior was much more gruff. He barked at me in Hindi, and I tried to look contrite, but I didn’t understand a word he was saying, he and soldier who had stopped me did his best to translate. Eventually, we managed with sign language: my arm was the city’s walls, and I was not to go beyond the walls.

I wasn’t worried. I know that if anything serious had happened -- taken into custody, for example -- that I could demand contact with the embassy. I wouldn’t have been ideal, stuck on a tiny military outpost for who-knows-how-long, but I never felt in any danger.

Still, it’s good to remember: going beyond the fort walls is a no-no.

Greetings from: DHAMADKA

If yesterday was the earthquake tour, then today was the textiles tour. As part of the rehabilitation effort, NGOs invested their resources into providing the Kutchi people a livelihood and not simply a hand-out. To this end, they made an effort to revive Kutchi handicrafts -- primarily in the textile industry. There’s a dizzying array of traditions at work in Gujarat; each tribe has its own specialty, its own designs. And I’ll be damned if I didn’t try my best to support them -- primarily by shopping.

The earthquake reconstruction period split communities in an odd way; some villages chose to rebuild where they were, while others simply picked up and moved a few meters down the way. In some cases, half the village would leave for a brand-new development, brand-new town, while the old village had its own, separate revitalization. And in both places, the villagers were able to restart their craft-making.

Ajrakhpur, for instance, split off from Dhamadka, but both towns continue their specialty: block-printing. The initial design is stamped onto a length of cloth and then stretched out in the sun, weighted with rocks, to dry. From there, the Muslim craftsmen (with firm and steady hands) continue to dye the cloth, expanding or filling in the colors of the first print. The natural dyes used in the process (derived from turmeric, pomegranate, iron) don’t appear too striking when first applied, but after a washing and boiling process, the vibrancy emerges.

Meanwhile, in Dhaneti, the women practice Ahir embroidery, an intricate and, frankly, stunning art. Traditionally, their finest work is reserved for their dowry, but the handiwork is unmistakable nonetheless -- tight stitching, bright silk thread, embedded mirrors. One craftswoman explained that the embroidery for a pillow cover would take about 10 days to complete. From their needles, animals emerge: horses, elephants, peacocks.

From what I’ve been told, in Bhujodi, every household has a loom for weaving -- and there are approximately 200 households there. From the shop, I could hear the clacking of the looms; each house can make one shawl a day, ranging in materials from a soft, imported Australian wool to a more rough, textured Kutchi wool. Shawls were stacked waist-high on the floor of the shop. As I stood deciding, he examined a recently-made one, a quick quality-control check.

It’s somewhat of a given that the highest-quality items are usually sold through high-end retail shops, like Shrujan or Qatab (both have, I might add, a strong development focus and conscience). The shops in the small villages themselves tend to have lower-quality items, but with the cheaper price tag.

You get what you pay for, and that counts for both fabrics and NGOs.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Greetings from: LODAI

According to Mr. Jethi, who organized my tour today, Lodai is the Gujarati word for earthquake -- a sudden jolt. My auto-rickshaw driver would take me around to some of the village east of Bhuj which were damaged by the earthquake, with Lodai being the nearest large village (relatively speaking) to the epicenter.

I had some sightseeing stops along the way. In Kotay, I hiked a small ways up the hill to a tiny temple to Shiva that squeaked with bat calls. It had suffered some damage as well, but it was still in excellent condition for a temple that used no mortar in its construction (if you ignore the wooden poles holding up the temple from the inside). 1700 years old, I was told. The exterior had sandstone apsaras -- some had eroded away into skeletal shapes, remanats of divinity. But those in corners had preserved well.

The epicenter itself is in the Rann of Kutch, a desert expanse of salt plain and brush. Very little grows there, and what does has sharp, snagging thorns. You can still see pockets of upheaval -- craters with sides of fine dust -- and an earthen rift that my guide said once stretched all the way to Ahmedabad. Seven years have passed for the rains to smooth over the rip, for the winds to even out the edges.

Several villages have been completely rebuilt with the help of different aid organizations and religious charities. The new houses, most of them built of bright pink concrete, stand against the landscape of dry hills. The reconstruction is heralded with proud arches, plaques, and roadside signs.

Looking at it now, you’d be hard-pressed to say that Lodai had sustained any damage at all. But a few steps from the tiny town center, and you come across a Hindu cemetery, the dead commemorated with white, rectangular pyramids marked with orange dots. As I approached, a woman waved at me. I assumed I was headed for sacred ground and was trespassing. She indicated I should sit next to this man whom I assumed to be a holy man -- he wore the long flowing clothes of one and had a wooden necklace that looked like a string of dried dates. Again, the language barrier: we could only gesture futilely to each other. Soon enough, his son, Hari, who had a passable grasp of English, arrived on a motorcycle with his own son. Hari’s seven year-old son had dark Hindi kohl smeared around his eyes and apparently was hooked on the WWF. Four generations of the same family sitting in the shade.

I explained I was from America. I was here to study the bukum. I made a shaking gesture with my hands when I said it. Hari said that played drums for wedding ceremonies. And would I like to stay for lunch?

We sat on the tile floor of the Hari’s porch, just past the cemetery. Hari’s wife, mother and sister-in-law also present. His older son shot a toy laser gun; his infant son stumbled around, cooed after by his grandmother, mother, aunts. This was a different thali from the Prince Hotel: still all-you-can-eat, still with food remorselessly slapped onto your stainless-steel plate, but a humbling experience. The chapattis were dense and tasted earthy; the vegetable was green beans in a thin, spicy tomato sauce. The mother poured me a glass of unpasteurized milk -- slightly sour, slightly rich. She broke open an onion with the edge of her hand and put it on my tray. A simple meal, served simply. I promised Hari that for my wedding, I’d fly him to America so that he could play for the guests. And I thought, This is something the earthquake could never destroy.

Greetings from: various restaurants around town

I’m not one to rhapsodize about food; it’s not my forte, and it’s a secondary consideration: I’ll go see some sights, then eat something. But since most of my day was spent either napping or eating, I’ll talk about food.

As promised, I had a Gujarati thali at the Prince Hotel. The restaurant was packed, and rightly so -- it’s an all-you-can-eat for only 100 Rs. Whereas most Indian buffets in America consist of last night’s tandoori chicken served in a different sauce, this came piping hot. It reminded me somewhat of dim sum, with each server carrying a different item (12 in all). But instead of picking and choosing what you want and paying separately for each, the servers here took the initiative and scooped the items into the stainless steel bowls ringing my tray. Maybe I just looked that hungry.

So along with the vegetable items (okra, potato, cabbage, bean), I received two soups (one dal-based, one yogurt-based), a vegetable pastry (much like a Jamaican patty), breads and a flat, sesamed noodle roll. Slightly overwhelming, and it wasn’t soon before I had to keep waving the servers away. The boy with the jalabi seemed disappointed, so I took more than I should have; their sweetness made my teeth ache. The saffron-flavored custard was more up my alley; I could have eaten it for days.

But, truth is, I only have 6 days. I told myself that I wouldn’t eat at the same restaurant twice, no matter how much I liked it. This hasn’t been the case, however. I stopped into Delhi’s Banana Leaf a second time for its pizza-sized uttapam and its fresh watermelon juice (when ordered, they pull a whole watermelon from the refrigerator and hack off pieces to feed into the juicer). In Darjeeling, I ate at Kunga -- a Tibetan restaurant -- thrice, a different configuration of momos each time.

Based on the suggestion of a commenter, I tried the bhel puri at Anandos, and if I hadn’t filled up on a bottle of Thums [sic] Up cola, I would have finished it. Puffed rice, onions, tomatoes and pomegranate seeds in a spicy tamarind sauce -- the combination of mouth textures (crisp, squishing, crackling, bursting) makes each bite unique.

If I were to become a vegetarian, I would do it in India, no doubt. The Indians’ knack for concocting meatless meals beats the American reliance on iceberg lettuce salads. Of course, that said, when I get back to America, I’m going to have a steak the size of a small child and deplete the ocean’s breeding stocks through sushi.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Greetings from: Aina Mahal

Bhuj is a small city, perhaps one square mile altogether, not counting the outlying colonies and relocations centers. So how I keep getting lost continually is beyond me. I suspect three culprits:

1) the city’s lack of street signs or notation (in English)
2) my lack of a comprehensive map
3) my general crappy sense of direction.

The Aina Mahal is another beautiful building damaged by the earthquake. But unlike the Sarad Bagh Palace, there’s reconstruction at the Aina Mahal. The workmen toil in the sun outside, the dust and bricks piled outside the entrance. The curator says that the government has given some money for the rebuilding effort -- it’s a slow process, and the money is nowhere near enough. But still.

Inside, there’s a blue tiled floor and an ornately carved ceiling. If you’re going to have a palace, might as well make it over the top, right? Though the interior of the palace is kept dark (better to enhance the feeling of escape, otherworldliness), along the back wall, stained glass lets in blue and green light. The main bedroom is lined with old mirrors; most of the silver backing of the mirrors has oxidized, so that they reflect nothing but black. The wall has an inlay of semi-precious stones in a sinuous floral design. The legs of the royal bed are made of solid gold. The opulence may now seem threadbare, but you get a sense of how the royalty spent their time. Namely, collecting porcelain dog figurines.

I’ve had tremendous luck in finding good food here in Bhuj. The number of proper restaurants seems limited, but so far, eating has been a pleasure. Even if one waiter misheard my request for a “kashcamber salad” (I imagined it to mean “cucumber salad”) for a kashmiri pulao, I much preferred the pulao, a sweet rice dish with dried fruit and cabbage (at least, as the Ash Restaurant served it). Tonight, I had a mixed sizzler at the Nilam Hotel -- imagine vegetables in a sweet and sour sauce served hot on a fajita plate. The manager dissuaded me from ordering more; the sizzler would be more than enough for me. He was correct. Next up on my culinary adventure will be a Gujarati thali, for which I’ve only heard rapturous praise. That is, if I don’t get lost on the way there.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Greetings from: Sarad Bagh Palace, Jubilee Hospital

Today, two new words: bukum, the Hindi word for earthquake. And wabi, the Japanese word for a beautiful image of destruction.

The gardens surrounding the Sarad Bagh Palace are shady and peaceful, with plenty of nooks where lovers can sneak in quick moments of intimacy. It’s a break from the sun and the strong wind blowing today, carrying sharp bits of dirt to bite into your skin. A one-floor summer house holds the Palace’s treasures: chandeliers, silver mail holders and pheasants, pictures of dignitaries, and a distressing number of dead animals. Two stuffed tigers, a stuffed leopard, long, graceful elephant tusks, and heads mounted in a taxidermy roar. This was the time of the Great White Hunter -- or in this case, the Great Brown Hunter.

I can only imagine what all that must have looked like in the Palace itself. The yellow building must have been beautiful once, embellished with ornate carvings and graceful arches; now, these had fallen in upon themselves, held together with good intentions and hope. Sealed up doors, shuttered windows; the crumbling top floor of the Palace houses nothing but pigeons.

I came across the Jubilee Hospital quite by accident in my wanderings; I’m not sure I could retrace my steps. And even if I could, as eerily beautiful as the hospital is, it is equally heartbreaking to think about what had happened here. Along the railing of the second floor, people tied mementos -- ribbons, prayers, memories. Like the outpouring of candles and teddy bears at any American disaster area. But how they got there, I don’t know; no staircase remains to the second floor, though the hint of where one had once attached to the wall remains. Contorted I-beams, a mound of concrete blocks, some wobbly bamboo poles: this is the only access to the second floor now.

The debris of everyday hospital workings -- a temperature chart, a water bottle, a rubber slipper -- still lie haphazard amongst the debris, as if the earthquake had simultaneously both destroyed the moment and frozen it in time. The painted “please no smoking” sign seems almost cheerful in its anachronism. I imagine a nurse in her crisp whites frowning at a visitor and tapping the sign with her pen. What’s the point now? The rooms are empty, the windows broken. The dead, the dying who were once trapped here are long gone, and now the building has been left to decay. One sky-blue metal door stands half-open, as if waiting to receive patients again. Just outside of the hospital was a temple. To honor the dead? I wonder. It was closed.

Sunday, May 18, 2008

Greetings from: BHUJ

Traveling in the well-known cities offers you a safety net. You can draw upon the experiences of former travelers; better yet, you can meet fellow travelers and caravan. Bhuj, however, offers no such luxuries. As I walked through the city, the heat staved off bravely by occasional breezes, I felt like the only foreigner for miles around. And I probably was, too.

But it’s made bearable because the people here are exceedingly friendly. I’m ashamed to admit it, but India has made me paranoid and suspicious. When someone approaches me, I try to figure out what they want from me, what his angle is. But here in Bhuj, people seem genuinely curious. They stare at me (not a problem, since I tend to stare right back), simply because I’m a novelty; I don’t think many tourists come this way. But people are generous with their smiles, with their good-natured humor.

The women’s clothing here is a riot of prints; from what I understand, the different patterns denote different tribes, ethnic clans. It’s beautiful -- the full-throated colors, the draped layers, the jewelry.

They sell a brand of bottled water here called Blister -- no kidding.

Greetings from: various points of transit towards AHMEDABAD

The Taj Mahal is off the agenda. It’s something that’s better done as a couple -- going there alone is like having a restaurant’s Valentine’s Day special solo. All the happy couples cluck their tongues and look at you pityingly.

I had my craziest auto-rickshaw driver yet. He spoke no English, and I spoke no Hindi, but we got on together swimmingly. Well, other than he didn’t know where he was supposed to be going, mistaking Asaf Ali Road for Ansari Road. But at the India Gate, we saw a woman smacking around a teenage boy with her slipper, and with hit, he cheered her on. H jerked the auro-rickshaw one way, made sudden stops -- the most close calls I’ve had thus far. When he scraped the end of a parked auto-rickshaw, he glanced at the damage, then moved on.

The combination of cars “temporarily” parked in driving lanes and narrow streets leads to explosive situations. While two lanes and directions of traffic tried to squeeze past in one lane, one driver got out of his vehicle and pushed around a much older rickshaw driver. All the while, my driver was honking, trying to get things moving, directing traffic around his auto-rickshaw with only inches to spare. He remained good-humored throughout and kept speaking to me in Hindi -- we were somehow on the same wavelength.

On the way to the airport, my taxi driver, shut the side window on the hand of a female beggar who had come up to the car. He didn’t do it hard, because she continued begging even as he yelled at her. I felt somewhat bad (but not bad enough to give up a coin). Besides, it beats getting your foot run over by a car (which happened earlier this morning). My sneaker took the squooshing like a trooper, and my toes avoided harm.

At the airport, a stylish young man carried a square, leather man-purse studded with rhinestones along its edges. Thankfully, the limited American definition of “gay” has not yet come across the ocean. McDonald’s has, however, serving McVeggie and McChicken burgers (would you like chapatti with that?). There’s the Indian version of Starbucks, Café Coffee Day. There’s the Indian version of Panda Express, Yo! China. And there’s the Indian version of Coke, which is also called Coke and has the same color and carbonation, but tastes nothing like Coke.

In Ahmedabad, my luck ran out. Getting to the bus stand from the airport at 9:30 p.m. was no problem, but once there, the ticket taker, a hearty, middle-aged man, informed me -- through awkward, broken language -- that the bus to Bhuj was full. Others attempted to get on the bus, and he steadfastly refused them. He didn’t know when the next bus would be, and even so, the ticket office was closed. I wouldn’t be able to reserve myself a seat. By this time, I was carrying a unwieldly number of bags: my carry-on, a laptop bag, my day bag, two hanging suits, and an umbrella. I could either try to catch the 11:59 p.m. train, or I could find a hotel and arrange transport to Bhuj tomorrow. He pointed another bus that was going to Bhuj, and as it started moving, people swarmed onto it, one hand on the bar, the other on their luggage -- and I understood how people get trampled to death at Indian train stations.

Perhaps the driver took pity on this lost foreigner, looking pitiful and bewildered. But before the bus pulled out, he waved me on. The cost of the bus to Bhuj was less than the taxi ride from the airport to the bus stand. There wasn’t an official seat available, but I could sit behind the driver on a ledge, near the gear box. The ticket taker handed me a cushion. I think this was where he normally sat, but there was room for two -- barely. An elderly gentleman in the front row offered up his seat so that the ticket taker could relax. We sat together, this gentleman and I, as the cool Gujarati night came through the window. As the other passengers reclined their seats and let the breeze come to them, we two kept a vigil with the truck drivers flicking their high beams so that it looked like flash lightning; with the factories lit from within like a Christmas light stuck inside of an eggshell; with the passing cars and motorcycles, playing symphonies with their horns; and with the three-quarters full moon, reflecting the puddles of the salt marsh so that the ground glowed phosphorescent.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Greetings from: BAGDOGRA airport

While traveling, it’s easy to think that you’re both a part of and apart from the world. But some realities can’t be ignored. The bombings in Jaipur two days ago serves as a grim reminder that not all of India of politically stable, that not all of the tensions have yet been eased. Even though I had no plans to go to Jaipur, Gujarat, my next major destination, has its own history of riots and violence. This, of course, comes on the heels of tragedies worldwide: the earthquake in China, the cyclone in Burma. The world has never been a safe place. It threatens friend and foe alike.

The televisions in the terminal of Bagdogra Airport were tuned to a Hindi news channel, covering the latest revelations and discoveries about the bombing. An email sent just before the blasts that included footage of the bicycles believed to have been involved. The global 24-hour news cycle demands that no piece of information is too fresh to go unreported. For instance: two famous Bollywood stars plan to marry, and the news shows their pictures in clip art hearts, bouncing around to the theme from Chariots of Fire. Strangely enough, the TV in the waiting area was tuned to the cable information channel -- here’s how to get the most out of your Tata Sky.

When we pulled into Indira Gandhi airport -- this time on the domestic side -- I noticed that the airport buildings (flight control towers, hangars, refueling stations) were painted in a red and white checkerboard pattern.

It goes without saying that my plane was late.

Greetings from: the toy train, Channu Summer Falls

I missed my chance for a toy train ride in Shimla, and I wasn’t about to let the chance slip through my fingers here in Darjeeling. Besides, the Darjeeling train was supposed to be better. It’s pulled by an honest-to-goodness steam engine, with someone to shovel the black chunks of coal into a fire and everything. The whistle can blow out your eardrums. I had my window open, and each time the engine belched out a thick burst of steam, tiny pebbles of soot would fall into my hair.

The joyride is a condolence prize for those who can’t undertake the full 7½ trip to New Jalpaiguri. It heads to Ghoom, with a 10 minute stop at Batista Loop, a war memorial. But the memorial obelisk takes a back seat to the gardens and the vendors with bags full of ethnic Himalayan clothing -- for a small fee, you can dress your family in the bright outfits and pretend to pick tea. Still, this abbreviated journey offered stunning views of Darjeeling and the valley below -- towns built into the side of the hill, like outcroppings of rock.

There are two things you can be assured of every afternoon in Darjeeling: first, that there will be rain. When the train reached Ghoom, the grey clouds had descended from above and now manifested themselves as rain, a scattering of drops, enough to annoy. I walked back to the market stall where the Tibetan family two days before had helped Richard and me. They recognized me, and I thanked them again. Small kindnesses too often go unacknowledged.

The second thing you can be assured of: traffic. Ridiculous amounts of it. Cars line up for what seems like kilometers. Drivers turn off their engines; you can honk your horns until it fails, but no one budges. The road can only sustain so many cars, and motorcycles trundle by on the crumbling, rocky shoulders. The traffic police waving cars to and fro supposedly know what they’re doing, but it’s frustrating nonetheless.

Thus, when I finally reached the Channu Summer Falls (also known as the Rock Garden) that afternoon, it was a noiseless slice of calm. The falls themselves might not be all that impressive, but the sound of falling water soothes the nerves like nothing else (which explains, perhaps, the craze of electric-powered fountains in the US). I was the only Western tourist ascending the stairs, but that lent the moment an additional bit of serenity. The right-hand path follows the waterfalls; the left-hand path winds through flower gardens with some silly statues to break up the monotony of flowers. There’s also a small, slightly creepy cave dedicated to snakes; carvings slither inside towards cobra head fanning out above an altar. I did not leave an offering.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Greetings from: Happy Valley Tea Plantation

Let us sing the praises of tea! How it brings succor to the soul, warmth to the being, and peace to the mind. Its fragrance brings forth flowering gardens; a still lake by a pagoda; the smoke from a gypsy campfire. A small leaf, unfurling in hot water, bringing life to the liquid and to its imbiber. How can all these miraculous elixir emanate from a single bush, from a glossy green leaf with soft, serrated edges?

As it turns out, the guide at the Happy Valley Tea Plantation was happy to show David and me. He lead us into the room where the tea sits in long, flat bins, blown first by cool air, then hot air to remove moisture. Then, off to the machines! Monstrosities with gears and rotors and rollers; they seem as if they’re more likely to propel a steamship than to produce a delicate, almost effete, beverage. There’s a machine to roll the leaves, another to dry it, and yet another to sort the leaves according to size and grade. The leaves get a short respite before drying on a long, tiled fermentation table, but it’s the metal that coaxes them to give up their secrets.

Okay, perhaps the process isn’t so mysterious after all. But it is time-intensive, and reminds me of the long, laborious path of rice, from stalk to plate. Inside the final processing room, women sitting on the ground sifted the finished tea to clear it of dust. They tossed it in the air from wide, shallow baskets and caught it in a smooth, simple motion, over and over again. The entire room smelled of tea; you could steep the air and sip it.

And would I like to buy some tea? Maybe.

Back in town, the salesman at Nathmull’s, the renowned tea shop, demonstrated the different varieties of the local Darjeeling; he took a handful of tea, gently crushed it in his fist, blew into his hand, and invited me to smell the aroma, from the generic black tea scent of the lower grades to the floral and earthier scents of the higher grades. Each tea represented a certain estate, a certain season, a certain flavor.

So let us sing the praises of the tea picker! Women wrapped in swathes of color who roam the rows of tea bushes. They carry bamboo baskets on their backs, and their fingers skim over the tops of the plants, knowing exactly which leaves to pick and which to leave behind. They separate bud from stalk, and the baskets slowly fill with green. To protect themselves from the sun, they open umbrellas -- dots of color among the green hills. They smile at strangers and boldly ask for tips for photographs. And when a stranger gives them a shiny 2 rupee coin, they laugh, standing straight up for a moment, a quick, breathy break before returning to a hunch, the leaves awaiting their nimble fingers.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Greetings from: GHOOM

Today was to be my day of exercise. A Welsh lad -- Richard – and I met up at 8:30 a.m. to take a taxi to the top of Tiger Hill, then wind our way back down to Darjeeling, a hike of about 10 km. At the top of Tiger Hill, we had the sun at our backs, although the view of the mountains was still obscured by fog. (Those pictures of the mountain range, glowing with light? A fluke, a myth, a Photoshop creation.) A pleasant day, nonetheless. Instead of taking the paved road back, we opted to venture onto a dirt path, which led a slightly different direction, but as long as we were going downhill, we figured it would be fine. Besides, a Frenchwomen had taken the lead ahead of us, and they seemed to know where they were going. We took a well-trod trail through the Tiger Hill, across terraced fields and stone gullies alike. Richard swore he heard thunder, but I assured him that it was the toy train rumbling along its track. On either side of us, dense groves of bamboo (and, sadly, the occasional empty bag of potato chips). The path wasn’t treacherous, but in a few places, you had to be nimble on your feet, hopping from one small foothold to the next, until you reached solid ground again. There was no way to avoid the mud splatters on the cuffs of your trousers.

Then it was my turn to hear thunder.

The rain started lightly, as it always does, just a few drops on the hair, a momentary wet spot on your neck. But we could hear the vehicle traffic from Ghoom nearby, people chattering. We passed a school, where the children seemed delighted to see us. We asked them directions, but they seemed to be pointed us further into the school -- the child’s delight of tricking the clueless foreigners. One boy kept grabbing his crotch and yelling out a word, but by that time, we had found our way down into Ghoom proper. We had started following the track of the toy train, breathing in black diesel exhaust when a water truck passed by, when the rain really began to pick up. The drops crashed into the muddy pothole pools, and it looked like little black needle-nosed fish rising up out of the water. With only one umbrella between us, we ducked into a stall that sold egg noodles (both flat "spaghetti-style") in cellophane bags to wait out the rain.

It must have been lunchtime, because the family who owned the stall was frying up something that smelled garlicky and delicious. An older man, who had carried a bottle of unidentifiable liquor in his pocket, pelted Richard with questions, and the whole family seemed to be having a laugh. Not necessarily at us, but more at him. He wandered off eventually (after telling me, “No laugh. He is my big brother,” and pointed at the man behind me), and the woman who ran the stall said, “Drunkard.” The rain didn’t let up, but the family was able to hail us a share jeep, and we finally returned to Darjeeling. Appropriately enough, then the sun came out.

That evening, Richard and I and a fellow traveler from Washington, D.C., David, had drinks in the pub at the bottom of Glenary’s. The cover band played any number of rock songs, from Megadeth to The Doors. What do guys talk about when they get together? Beer (which I couldn’t relate to), heavy metal (ditto), strip clubs (which I could relate to, but in a different way), and prostitutes (ditto). Heterosexual masculine energy has its own feel, its own demands, which, perhaps to outsiders, look chauvinist -- after all, Richard drank an 8%, West Bengal-only beer called He-Man 9000. But it also confers an intimacy and camaraderie -- the oft-maligned “male bonding.” I took a small sip of the He-Man 9000, and I felt butch, even if it was only for one swallow.

Greetings from: Tiger Hill

I woke up at an ungodly hour -- 4 a.m. -- in order to catch the sunrise at Tiger Hill, a must-do experience, apparently. All the taxi drivers thought so; that was the first things out of their mouths when they saw Pete and me: Tiger Hill? Tiger Hill? Generally, I resist “must do” things when traveling -- but I usually succumb anyway. (Hear that, Taj Mahal? I’m coming for you.) The problem with “must do” activities is, well, everyone does them. This held true for Tiger Hill.

Even before we had reached the summit of Tiger Hill, the mass of people present became evident; the tourist jeeps and taxis crammed the edge of the road, parked perpendicular to the slope. The jeeps have different names stickered to the top of their windshields: “Ma”haraja, Darjeeling Boy, Shree Ganesh -- mantras and means of identification both. We had arrived slightly late; the world had begun to get light. But the thick bank of clouds that hangs eternally over Darjeeling had resisted the sun’s emergence.

Women with metal Thermoses walked around the crowd of mainly Indians, selling Dixie cups of coffee. No tea? Disappointing. The crowd clumped up against the rail, seven people deep. For a few extra rupees, I could have gone up to the pavilion, but I doubt that they jostling for position would have been less fierce. I elbowed myself into a good spot, ignoring the glares of the people around me, and used my bony little arms to angle my camera for a better shot.

And then -- it happened: the sun peeked out. It had already risen from beneath a bedcover of clouds, but now it stretched its arms and looked out upon us. So even if we couldn’t see the mountain range, we at least got a glimpse of inspiration. Everyone’s hands went up over their heads, holding cameras and videorecorders -- a puja courtesy of Kodak.

The early morning must have made me delirious; at the Hanuman temple just down the hill, I made a small offering, and a priest applying a light dab of red -- a bindi -- to my forehead. At the Ghoom Buddhist monastery, I made a slightly larger offering, but no bindi. I’ve steadfastly avoided eating street food and giving to beggars, but I killed two birds with one stone: I bought three spicy potato samosas wrapped in newspaper from a young boy, ate two and gave the third to a woman begging on the steps of the monastery. Surely this is good for something in my near future.

Later in the afternoon, there was a protest march through the streets of Darjeeling. A steady fall of rain did nothing to stop them; they were almost all women, holding banners and flags, and sheltered beneath umbrellas. The organizers, spaced about every 10 meters, read chants from limp pieces of paper, and the others would repeat the last two words. I recognized one word only: “Gorkhaland.” The march stretched far down the street, and it seemed like a river of brightly colored umbrellas -- a dazzling array of stripes, plaids, polka dots, lamé -- flowing uphill.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Greetings from: DARJEELING

Our train pulled into New Jalpaiguri at 9:15, which meant that Pete missed the 9:00 toy train to Darjeeling. No problem. We hired a taxi to drive us to Darjeeling, a 3½ hour ride as opposed to a 7-hour train journey. The roads to Darjeeling were surprisingly in better shape than the roads to Shimla -- they had concrete barriers to serve as a bump before you tumble to your doom -- even if they were a little narrower. At point, our taxi had to pull aside (or in one case, back up to a wider part of the road) in order to let lorries pass by.

But it was worth it, no doubt. As much as I loved Shimla, Darjeeling is in a class of its own. First, Shimla’s proximity to Delhi and Chandighar means that it was more developed; so instead of hills of solid green, you had the hills speckled with houses and resorts. Sure, there are some of those in Darjeeling too, but not as densely packed as Shimla. The numerous tea plantations also add to the amount of green space. The ascent up the hills itself, however, meant passing through a cloud barrier. With the windows rolled down, I felt cold -- at noon! In India! The clouds became a mist, a veil obscuring the tops of trees and darkening the sky. Rain spattered down, and instead of touts on the side of the road handing out flyers to their hotel, Bengali and Tibetan families, looking at our taxi with curious bemusement. I can see why the Buddhists chose to build there monasteries here; the altitude and atmosphere creates an inimitable tranquility. There’s plenty of political graffiti painted on the walls: “We condemn 6th schedule. We want Gorkhaland.” It scrolled along as we rode, a text feed from CNN West Bengal.

I had high tea at the Windamere Hotel, where Pete was staying. In the drawing room, atop the piano, they had stacked leather-bound photo albums, the pages separated with crinkled tissue paper. The pictures were from parties past at the Windamere: Xmas 1980, New Year’s 1993. The Tibetan staff setting up the Christmas tree, and old white folks raising their glasses in celebration. It makes sense: the Windamere dates back to the British Raj, as do other “heritage” hotels in the area -- so why not continue the tradition. Why let the real world interfere with the Victorian charm? We were joined by others for tea: a British couple, the wife originally from Gujarat; a family from Calcutta. This was the real reason to enjoy tea (300 Rs. if you’re not actually staying at the Windamere; be forewarned): to sit near the glowing coals with tomato sandwiches and lemon cake and cups of tea, sharing stories and travel tips.

After searching the market for an umbrella and a sweater, I settled in for dinner at Glenary’s, a Darjeeling institution. Separated into three levels, Glenary’s caters to all groups: upstairs, the fine dining area; ground floor, the bakery and Internet café; basement, the pub with a live band and haze of cigarette smoke. Perhaps I’d arrived on an off-day for them: I found a mosquito in my hot and sour soup (the hot or sour being enough to kill the malaria, I hope), my chicken kabob was dry as a mouthful of ash, and they were out of fish. But, they have WiFi available, so I’m sure I’ll be visiting them again.

Greetings from: the North East Express

I took an auto-rickshaw to Mughal Sarai train station, a far outpost of travel in Varanasi. To reach it, we had to cross a bridge. Not the nice modern Raj Bridge -- going that far north would have taken us too far out of the way, I think -- but a wooden bridge, lifted above the water on pontoons. Sadly, this is a major transit route. They laid overlapping metal plates across the bridge in order to keep wear and tear off the wood, but come on! Not to mention, before and after the bridge were more brick roads and roads of compressed dust. The trip most likely misaligned my spine.

At Mughal Sarai, I encountered my first honest-to-goodness crazy person. A woman, maybe late-30s, wearing a green #23 David Beckham jersey. My train was late (not an uncommon occurrence, as I’m discovering), and I sat on my suitcase on the platform. She came up to me and started babbling in Hindi. I, flabbergasted, nodded mutely, smiled, and shook my hands in the international gesture of don’t know, please go away now. Yet she persisted, her voice rising to catch my attention. She spoke rapid-fire; even if I had understood Hindi, I probably wouldn’t have had an idea of what she was saying. I didn’t feel singled out, however; she went from person to person, perhaps saying the same thing, perhaps jumping from one subject to the next. A young B.H.U. student, who looked like Kal Penn with a rounder face (for Americans, I’m afraid there aren’t many more points of reference for South Asians similarities), explained: mental disorder. She seemed happy enough.

This 2AC car was completely different from the Shiv Ganga. Namely, it was smaller: there were berths on both sides of the train, and no doors to seal out the outside world. Just a dual curtain that could be fastened together with some failing Velcro. Instead of upholstery, plain vinyl and foam mattresses, compressed now to a comfort thickness of toast. I shared my berth with Pete, a sweet but naïve architect from Hong Kong, who, in his first day in Delhi, fell for two of the scams they warn against in the Lonely Planet. I shouldn’t talk, however, as I’ve most likely fallen for a few myself. Anwar, a native now working in a hotel in Dubai, had the lower berth across from us. He took it upon himself to watch over us foreigners, calling in porters as needed, ordering food, and generally being of good cheer. Pete mentioned how all the Indians he had met were so friendly. That’s true to an extent, I think; it’s a matter of sorting out who is genuinely being friendly and who wants to squeeze every last rupee out of you. That’s why I hesitate when someone asks, “Is this your first time in India?” Does he really want to know or does he just want to gauge how much to gouge me? I don’t want to be suspicious and distrustful of people in India. But there’s nothing wrong with being on your guard.

On the lower bunk, you feel much more of the vibrations of the train, the way it shakes and rumbles over the tracks. Some of that is dampened on the upper bunk so that you get the sway, but not the roar. The window to the outside is utterly dark -- you are traveling nowhere towards an even more unfamiliar nowhere.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Greetings from: Varanasi Junction Train Station

I spent more time here than I actually meant to -- a result of forgetfulness and vacillation. My original plan was to pop in, grab my ticket to Delhi, and wait out the rest of the hot, hot afternoon. However: India: Live with it. The evening’s train was all booked and I didn’t want to tote my luggage all the way back, just to be denied a spot from the waiting list. I would have gotten my ticket yesterday, but I forgot to bring my passport. While there at the station, I ran into a British couple I had befriended earlier, Hannah and Jack. They were to have left at 10 in the morning, but it was now 1 in the afternoon, and their train had been delayed further. Not an auspicious sign. I secured my ticket for tomorrow (May 9) and made my way back to the hotel to book another night.

But as I sat in my auto-rickshaw (a half-hour of my joints getting loosened from their sockets), I thought, Geez, I’d love to go to someplace with cool weather. I’d already hit Shimla, and I needed a respite before I tackled Gujarat, a.k.a the salt furnace. And in spite of Wes Anderson’s film, I decided: Darjeeling. If I love the tea, why wouldn’t I love the actual location?

So there you have it. I schlepped myself back to the train station, where Jack and Hannah were still waiting (new estimated time of embarking, 4:30), returned my ticket to Delhi (with a whopping 200 Rs. cancellation fee), and bought a ticket for New Jalpaiguri (the way station to Darjeeling). This is the first leg of the trip which was completely unplanned, and thus I have no hotel accommodation when I arrive. Let’s hear it for spontaneity.

Greetings from: morning and evening walks along the ghats

We use identity strategically. Travelers from the US and UK claim to be Australian, because Australians are seen as having less money. If I want to ignore the boat touts and flower wallahs that swarm along the ghats, I can pretend not to understand them, even as they call out, “Hello Japan! Konichiwa!” If they press further -- “You from Korea? China?” -- I can say that I’m from Vietnam and that flusters many of them. How many tourists from Vietnam do you see on a daily basis? Sometimes, I can play the inscrutable Asian too well, however; when I passed a Western tourist, I nodded to my fellow traveler, and he said, “Konichiwa.”

But the touts can be persistent. One followed me for what seemed like twenty minutes, trying to convince me to go to a silk shop, to follow him. This, even after I had claimed to be from Vietnam and feigned ignorance of English. He pursued me to the Harishchandra Ghat, the lesser burning ghat, where he said that I should give him a donation to help pay for the wood. “It costs 4000 Rs. to burn a body. Understand.” He kept repeating this: understand. It wasn’t a question -- do you understand me? -- but a command given in desperation -- you must understand me.

Old women swept the steps with straw brooms, fighting against the tide of dirt and goat droppings. People laid out their laundry on the steps; the ghats became blocks of color from bed sheets, saris, school uniforms. The Indians are particularly hard on their laundry: they twisted their washing, raising it over their heads, and slammed it down onto stones set up on the edge of the river. It seemed as if they were clubbing their clothes into cleanliness. The air echoed the smacks of their exertion.

I sat in the shade of the towers of the Man Mandir Ghat, in full view of a cow which let forth a torrent of piss. One man carried his elderly mother in his arms up the stairs; I imagine she had just finished her morning bath. The very picture of filial devotion.

And it was here that a man offered me a shave, and, failing to convince me of that, proceeded to give me a massage. “Good for the circulation,” he said. It wasn’t bad, by any means, but I suppose pestering me for money at the end was inevitable. “Indians pay me 100 Rs.,” he said, but I doubt that he goes up to random Indians and turns a handshake into a hand massage. In the end, he had to be happy with 65 Rs., which I suspect was already overly generous.

Then, in the evening, clouds. It seemed improbable, with the relentlessness of the sun at any other time. This time, I got a front-row seat to the ganga aarti ceremony, close enough so that I got chastised for having my shoes on and splashed from behind with Ganga water from a woman performing a puja. There seemed to be a political VIP this evening; he sat on a raised platform, ringed with flowers. A group of men raised their hands and cheered when he spoke, their voices competing with the boat touts. I was made to step aside as he came down the steps and onto a special two-tiered boat to watch the ceremony. I saw the preparations, which had escaped me from the boat ride before: devotees lit the line of small candles in terra cotta bowls lining the ghat. The orange-robed priests performed the ceremony dutifully, turning to face each of the cardinal directions, while behind them, some bored-looking girls in bright saris waved brushes, mirroring the priests‘ gestures. And the noise: on my side, a man with a drum; on the other, a man with a hand gong. Fire, sound, and movement -- and yet it didn’t make more sense to me this time than it had before. People came off the boats, carrying water bottles and jugs that they had filled with Ganga water. Sediment had settled in the nooks and crannies of the bottles. For a moment, I envied their connection to the divine. Was this what all the Western hippies -- and there were quite a few of them on the ghats -- had come in search of? Or is this a particular cultural experience, knowing when to raise your hands, knowing when to clap, knowing the words to the ritual? Or is it personal? -- one woman seemed on the verge of tears as she lay out prostrate on the ground. Perhaps it was all of these, and more. It was also commercial: a collection plate was passed around, and a man selling DVDs of the ceremony made his way through the crowd.

Greetings from: SARNATH

Whose idea was it to pave with brick in Varanasi? As if the roads weren’t narrow and treacherous enough, there’s a small stretch from Varanasi to Sarnath that has a bone-rattling cobblestone section. What seems quaint in Boston or Philadelphia looks downright foolish in India. Infrastructure, people, infrastructure.

I should have had a closer spiritual connection to Sarnath than I did. After all, Sarnath is where Buddha gave his first teachings in a deer park. From there, a Buddhist temple arose and was subsequently decimated by Hindus and Muslims alike. If anything brings disparate religions together, it’s decimating other religions. Nothing remains but some excavated ruins now, and a huge brick stupa with historic carvings. You can access the park for a fee and walk along the ruins, but a Buddhist monk led me around the perimeter for free. Well, not exactly for free -- I made a donation to the Buddhist temple through him -- so if he pockets the money, it’s on his own head.

Inside the temple itself, a mural by a Japanese artist depicts the life of Buddha. I particularly liked the one with him battling numerous demons. Symbolic, perhaps. It reminded me of a commercial I saw on Hindi TV for a children’s cartoon; the Hindu gods were superheroes -- the Justice League of India. It brings in the younger generation, sure, but it also sort of cheapens the religious experience. This, of course, comes from a devout atheist, so Krishna laser power away! A replanted sapling from the original bodhi tree (now grown into its own) frames a quiet meditation spot. Black granite slabs inscribed with Buddha’s first sermon in several different languages surround life-size statues of him with his five disciples. All the time, I kept thinking that my parents would have loved to see this. They had a Vietnamese translation of the sermon. I would have read the English one, but it was in the sun, and it was nearing noon.

The nearby archaeological museum had much more interest for me, however. And that’s not just because it cost 2 Rs. to get in. Rather, seeing the retrieved statuary gave me, finally, a sense of history of the area. There was a huge stone umbrella with a diameter of at least 10 feet; images of Buddha in his various teaching poses (which I tried to emulate, of course); and an Ashokan column top with four lion heads roaring into each direction. And did I mention that the museum had A/C?

Greetings from: Benares Hindu University

It’s difficult enough keeping students awake during nice weather in Delaware, but in 100+ degree temperatures in India? I’m surprised any learning goes on at all. The large campus of B.H.U. doesn’t have the classical architecture of American universities, meant to impress parents and potential donors alike. Instead, its buildings are more functional, the color of the earth itself. It’s a minor oasis, a part of the city and yet someone separate from it. The roads are lined with trees and walkways, and if it weren’t for the scavengers picking through the garbage, you could almost be lulled into thinking that you had reached a sanctuary from the constant push-push-push of Varanasi.

At the western edge of the university is the New Vishwanath Temple, which (like many of the other calm, peaceful sights in Delhi) was somewhat of a park for the locals. After wandering about the temple and its grounds (barefoot and hopping on the hot concrete), I settled into a quiet gazebo, which had a ceiling fan. In it, three young male students sprawled out on the ground and read. Nearby, a family relaxed, although the children seemed particularly energetic. They kept stealing glances at me. Eventually, though, all three of the male students succumbed to sleep; one tried his best to focus on the newspaper he had taken from a file folder, but his eyelids drooped, and his grip on the paper loosened. I can’t say I would have done different in his place.

The small museum also on the B.H.U. campus provides some solace in Varanasi, but the staff has an ingenious way of saving energy: they turn on lights and fans only when visitors step in to a certain exhibit -- maybe a good thing, considering how the frequent blackouts slows fan blades to a stop and allows the insidious heat to return. A few of the exhibit halls were closed, but the collection of illuminated manuscripts -- from the whole of the country and covering time periods beyond the Mughal -- made the trip worth it. Interestingly enough, three entire exhibits were dedicated to benefactors to the museum: the founder of B.H.U., artist and sculptor Alice Boner, and a German man who collected antique manuscripts and maps. The library in his honor seemed to have a surprising number of 1980s-era books about India -- books your eyes skip over when you’re browsing at Goodwill. The museum feels haphazard; it has little bits and pieces that people think should be on display -- from antique coins to statuary to modern Indian art -- but no one has an overarching vision of how to put all those pieces into context. It’s a rich cultural heritage stuck together with bubblegum.

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Greetings from: a morning boat down the Ganges

We all have our morning rituals; mine is to sleep through it. But even before the first bits of light start to brighten up the Ganges, it has already come to life. If the evening ceremony was about fire and noise, then the morning ceremony is about water and silence. Men stood chest-deep in water, filling and emptying silver and bronze chalices. Bathers once again came, but instead of raucous laughter, a more reverential tone. The fires at the burning ghats were still alive: ash and cinder and flame because I could not stop for death. A man in white -- a new widower -- walked around the pyre clockwise (the direction in which the universe turns?) before lighting it with a long stick, the end fanned out into a broom of tinder. The stick caught fast, and he had to drop it and jump back, lest he be burned himself. But the pyre didn’t quite catch, and some attendants stoked the fire. Apparently, the better your karma, the quicker your body burns. 2-3 hours minimum, though.

The other, desolate bank of the Ganges also sparked into a life of its own. There’s a small enclave -- less than a village, more than a hut -- and they were waking to their own needs. The sun rose mellow, as if it were still gathering strength, and brief flashes of heat skimmed off the water into the boat itself. The peacefulness seemed almost alien, an escape from Varanasi, rather than an escape to Varanasi. A row of schoolchildren, dressed in white, gave their offerings to the morning, and I laid back on the stern of the boat and waited for day to break.

Greetings from: VARANASI, an evening boat down the Ganges

The Lonely Planet warns of Varanasi as a city of hassles and organized crime centered around the tourist trade. I managed to escape the craziness of the train station by having my hotel send someone to pick me up, a seemingly mild-mannered auto-rickshaw driver named Monish. He’d lived all his life in Varanasi, but he struck me as the Indian equivalent of a older frat boy, with an interest in cricket, rather than football. This isn’t to say that Monish had no designs on me, but at least he didn’t pester me. Too much.

Instead, we agreed to meet later in the evening so that I could arrange a boat trip. I tried to hone my haggling skills with a boatman, but to no avail: I still overpaid by a ridiculous amount. This guilt was compounded when I met my rower, a young boy, Rahul, who couldn’t have been more than fifteen. Child labor laws be damned; this is a concern for the developed world. He rowed me first to the other side of the Ganges to watch the sunset. It’s strange: for all the life and activity on the eastern bank, the western bank is flat and empty, all sand and scrub. I walked briefly along it and came across a human skull. Should I have recommitted this washed-up part of someone’s corpse back into the river? Or will the monsoon season reclaim it? Boys sailed kites in the sky, small scraps of nylon and paper. I got the feeling that Rahul would have rather been doing the same. As we made our way north, he dutifully announced the names of the ghats as we passed them -- not that I couldn‘t have read the signs clearly painted in block letters on the walls. Groups of male bathers splashed around and swam about halfway into the river before returning to their friends. The water itself is murky, the color of army fatigues. It was warm as well, from the tentative finger that I dipped in the water. A finger, I hope, that had no open cuts or sores.

My main goal for the trip was to see the evening time ganga aarti ceremony at Dasaswamedh Ghat. And indeed, spectators had gathered for the ceremony, sitting on the steps of the ghat as if they were bleachers. Five priests stood at their respective altars and performed their movements in unison. They rang bells and made circles in the air with various implements set ablaze: a censor, a tree of fire, a pan with metal cobra heads rising to form a protective fan. As the chants started, Rahul sang along , but he grew restless. His chants gave way to Hindi songs, and he called out to his friends, who were themselves rowing boats. We tourists held up our cameras and our video recorders, bobbing on the water, hoping for a clear shot, while all the boatmen along the river waited patiently for the night to end.

Greetings from: the Shiv Ganga Express

Indian trains offer you two ways of seeing the world. You can see it as gray; one window offers a clear view to the outside, and by the time the train boards (6:30 in the evening), dusk has settled over the city. The platform itself is gray, and battered metal boxes wait on the concrete.

I think I misunderstood what the 2-sleeper car meant; instead of me and another person, it’s me and a family of three. The father, before going to sleep, spread a cream over his face. He kept playing Bollywood hit songs on his cell phone, taking advantage, perhaps, of the fact that I had headphones for my laptop. Those multi-use phones are a menace. He spoke into his phone as if what he had to say was so important that he wanted to hear its echo.

I wonder why the Indians chose red as the dominant color scheme for the interior. The seats had a geometric Najavo pattern, something you’d see on a 70s polyester shirt, while the thin privacy curtain had crescents and swirls. I thought of cranes, for some reason. Birds in flight. Even the emergency stop cord was an appealing red velvet -- Pull me. You know you want to.

Despite the black sliding door, the interruptions were endless: a man selling water from a metal bucket, a man bringing blankets, a man to put the sheets on the bed. They brought chai on a brown plastic tray with a brown and yellow Padmini-brand Thermos. It was so sweet that it made my back teeth ache. As the train started to pull out, men ran along the platform, thinking they make a running jump onto the train, as if it were a Delhi bus. And then -- the backside of Delhi. A burned out building, black with soot, and people walking along the rails, amongst a landscape colored by heaps of rubbish. Buildings seemed only half-constructed, missing two of four walls. Jagged concrete and rusted rebars jutted out from abandoned projects. I remembered John in Shimla, describing how India wanted to jump from Third World to First World without making the crucial intermediary step of investing in the infrastructure. This was the unfinished city.

Greetings from: DELHI, in seven fragments

A cloudy afternoon. The sun behind the haze makes the city glow orange.

At a stop light on the way to South Extension, my auto-rickshaw driver asked directions of the driver to his left who, in turn, asked the driver to his left.

In front of the public notary on Asaf Ali Road, every afternoon, a cadre of manual typewriters appear, manned by proud and patient typists.

Indians also have a thing for Chinese food. Chili and honey makes an amazingly good combination.

At dinner, an older, well-heeled German lady sat across from a young Indian man. Her guide? Friend? They leaned towards each other as they spoke. Does the global sex trade extend to both genders? Or is it merely a need for companionship? Traveling alone requires a certain fortitude.

I’ve got two mysterious insect bites, one on the webbing between my left thumb and index finger, the other on my right shoulder. I don’t have any anti-malarials.

The heat has gone from unbearable to atrocious. I’ve read that several people in Gujarat have already died from it. Soon, it'll be my turn.

Greetings from: the road to recovery

I guess I’d been pretty lucky up to this point -- no major food- or water-related illnesses. That all changed with an unlucky thali lunch in Shimla. I believe it was most likely food poisoning, rather than a microscopic bug. Whichever, it left me nauseous for most of the previous evening -- but it wasn’t anything three vigorous session of vomiting couldn’t cure. It’s a horrific sensation: your mouth filling up so quickly that liquid starts leaking out of your nose. I’m not sure what part of the thali did it, but I’m going to guess the raita. Sadly, the urge to vomit punctuated my last evening with Andrew, Heather, and Kim. The continuous vertical motion of the taxi ride back to the hotel didn’t help either.

I slept in for most of the morning and finally rose at 10 to have a bland breakfast of toast and tea. I’d pretty much recovered by then. I met a Brooklynite named John, also a writer. What is it with India and foreign tourist writers? I gave him my copy of Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, as he writes freelance about film.

I slept for a short while on the road down, fighting off mild queasiness. Smoke from a forest fire rose in a ribbon from the hills. For some reason, some farmers favor slash-and-burn field management -- not a very efficient method, if I recall correctly. Whole plots of ground were alight, charred. At a stop light, right outside of Delhi, a man sold little IV bags of water. Squeeze into your mouth, discard, and hope it burns as easily as everything else. This is a country of smoke and plastic.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

Greetings from: SHIMLA

Nestled in the hills of Himachal Pradesh, Shimla was once a resort town for the British. Indeed, the Viceregal Lodge (the now Indian Institute of Advanced Study) looks like an estate straight out of a Merchant-Ivory Production: gray bricks, arches, turrets and spiral staircases. After the British left, there was no reason to let such a nice retreat go to waste; there’s a considerable military and government presence in Shimla, judging from the roads blocked off by serious looking soldiers and the number of government vehicles that traverse the hill. The temperature seems eternally moderate; at night, I even got cold and had to wrap myself in a comforter. In this way, it reminds me of my hometown of Dalat, also a summertime getaway. Shimla has capitalized on this. Every few steps, you find a hotel, guesthouse, or eat-and-sleep establishment. Here’s a town that thrives on tourism, both foreign and domestic.

I met a young Canadian duo, Heather and Andrew, staying next door to me at my hotel (the charming Spars Lodge). We agreed to join forces for the day. Heather, a pre-med student, has been living in Delhi with her aunt for the past five months, working at a hospital. Andrew is studying to be poet in Winnipeg. We set out towards the Mall, a pedestrian only strip of commerce, a good 2 km. walk from our hotel. Shimla is terraced; paths diverge and head uphill or downhill with no promise of ever meeting up again. To explore Shimla is to zigzag continually, orienting via prominent landmarks: the canary-yellow Christchurch, the statue of Indira Gandhi, the roller skating rink. I heard a mother chastise her unhappy child in English, “The Mall is what Shimla is known for. You should enjoy it.” What was most enjoyable: the cleanliness. Shimla has actual public rubbish bins. Automobiles aren’t allowed on the Mall. Spitting and littering is punishable by a 500 Rs. fine. The white houses and hotels nestled against the green hills make this area feel like the escape that it is.

Plus, monkeys. They’re everywhere: you hear them rustling in the branches above you or scrambling across a corrugated tin roofs; you see them sitting on the sides of the road, alone or with their family, picking leaves and eating them. Not surprisingly, the Jakhu Temple, dedicated to the monkey god, Hanuman, is located high atop a hill here. A sign at the base of the path to the temple asks you to test your fitness: if you can make it up in 30 min., you’re very fit. 45 min., just fit. If you’re over 70 and make it up at all, you’re fit. This was not a good sign. The vertical ascent seemed endless. Although the path is paved -- on one side is a set of uneven stairs with a railing -- the trek proved quite a workout. The cooler weather was no respite from the sun. Andrew, lanky and full of energy, bounded upwards without betraying any signs of fatigue; Heather lagged behind. I kept somewhere in the middle, occasionally resting in the shade, sitting on the railing, thinking, These monkeys had better be worth it. Well, they were and they weren’t. At the top, right before the final ascent to the temple, it was great fun to see them gamboling about. What was less fun, however, was having one jump on my back. It happened before I could react; I felt a sudden weight on my back, something brush by my ear, and the next thing I knew, my glasses sat slightly askew on my face, the left arm bent and the earpiece broken off. As I stood, examining the damage, another monkey -- or perhaps the same one, who could tell? -- snatched the glasses out of my hand and make off with them. A young boy chased it down for me and retrieved them. Only then did I notice the sign advising Please keep glasses, packets and cameras firmly in hand.

I was attacked by monkeys. I had become that guy.

Andrew and Heather wisely rented some monkey sticks and we made our way to the temple itself, joined by an Australian, Kimberly. The locals warned her about my recent simian encounter, and she put her glasses in her bag. At the temple, we removed our shoes and put them into a guarded -- albeit stinky -- shoe hut. The marble was cool on my feet, and the four of us were instructed to walk counter-clockwise around the temple, rather than clockwise. Near the temple is a metal swing, where Indian families (and some enterprising Westerners) took a moment to revel in childhood. I wish I could say more about the temple itself, but without my glasses, it’s a fuzzy memory.

Greetings from: the roads through Uttar Pradesh & Himachal Pradesh

Even when I plan ahead, things go awry. I had my wake-up call for 4:30 in the morning in order to catch the 5:55 train to Kolka and Shimla from there. I had packed and was fresh, ready to seize the day. The silence that infuses the early morning Delhi air seems to be from another place entirely, and you wish it could be like this always. Men in sweatsuits go jogging. The street people start to stir. Traffic has all but disappeared, just a few cars here and there. I made my way to Nizammudin station, as advised by Lonely Planet. But one shouldn’t put too much faith in a book. As it turns out, that was the wrong station for me -- from Nizammudin, the Himalayan Queen leaves at 5:25 in the morning, and it then comes to the New Delhi station at 5:55. That being the case, I figured I’d go back to bed and do more touristy things around Delhi.

No. The hotel manager berated me. I see you going out every day without asking for help, he said. I thought, That’s kind of the way I like it, but in this case, perhaps he had a point. I could take a taxi to Shimla, an 8-hour ride. Taxi? Yes, he said, I can get you a good price. Only 6200 Rs. And you come back the 30th. Okay, I said, let’s do it. The tour operator (who was keen on selling me a 5-day drive to Varanasi; no thanks, a private car to Shimla is indulgent enough) set me up with a personal driver, and we started off, Delhi traffic back to its normal congestion. I had saved a whole 1000 Rs. by not going for the A/C car, but I hoped that the day wouldn’t turn hot so quickly. No such luck. The sun burned a hole right into the city.

As we got further away from Delhi, the landscape grew more desolate. Delhi is a city of dust, and if it should ever run out, just beyond the city limits, more dust is ready to enter. But even in these, there was a strange schizophrenia: plots of seeming unarable land abut new industrial parks, the developments touted by metal banners overhead. Futuristic planned communities appeared with surprising regularity. We’d pass for-rent gardens with carefully groomed trees and green lawns, part of India’s ridiculously huge marriage industry. And, in a more comforting touch, dhabas, roadside restaurants for travelers and passers-by, so that no matter how bad traffic gets, you can always get a bite to eat.

Driving in India: a game of chicken that never ends. The road to Shimla quickly became a two-lane highway, shared by trucks, bicycles, auto-rickshaws, pedestrians, and goat herds alike. The trucks have BLOW HORN painted on their back -- as if anyone needed reminding. But once the road wound up into the hill country, it became more of a white knuckle experience. The road never stopped twisting for its entire length; the curves were blind, and the drop-off promised an unpleasant death. God help those without power steering. My driver -- even if he was unsure of which direction to go -- seemed fearless, passing cars even when the signs clearly read NO OVERTAKING. But as soon as we began our ascent into hill country, you could feel the difference in the atmosphere. Pine trees filled the landscape, and the hills, one after another, were spotted with houses, little outposts of life. The dhabas continued upwards; even where there were none, there seemed to be construction underway. Along the road, I saw the railroad tracks for the toy train, my original intention that morning. It had tiny tunnels into which it could hide, each one numbered with a small circle. There’d be no white-knuckle moments on the train, I figured. No diesel fumes blowing in your face, no slow-crawl tour buses, windows colored by saris. And no rhesus monkeys running across the road, their young clinging, upside-down, to their bellies. Did these make the trip by car better or worse? Perhaps the question is useless -- no matter what the approach, the beauty of the hills comes in waves of green and tan, the farther layers increasingly blurred and indistinct, shapes in the mist. But on the road, you get to hold your breath for what might be coming around the next bend.

Greetings from: South Extension, Humayun’s Tomb

Ordinarily I’m woken by:

morning call to prayer
clattering dishes
goats braying
strange dreams
people talking loudly in the hallway.

Today, none of those stirred me. I slept until almost noon. My plan for today: Humayun’s Tomb, then the South Extension for more shopping. So, to avoid any confusion, I wrote down my destinations on a piece of paper. I was warned by my pal Matt Gross, however, that even though many Indians will nod and act as if they know where they’re going, oftentimes, they don’t. So even after showing my semi-neatly written instructions, my auto-rickshaw driver nonetheless had to pull over to ask someone else for help. To make matters worse, this third person still had no idea where I was going. It dawned on me: writing those names on atop the other, my driver believed Humayun’s Tomb to be a proper name, somewhere in the South Extension. Okay, then. South Extension first.

I don’t see shopping as a competitive sport. I see something I like; I buy it. No hassles, no fuss. I know deep down that I should comparison shop, but it seems like an awful lot of trouble. First, I was lured into a Louis Phillipe shop by a blue linen suit with green pinstripes. The staff fell over itself helping me out. Try the jacket. If you have the jacket, you must try the trousers. Here’s a shirt to complement everything. But I’m a difficult fit in the United States, and it holds true in India. Luckily, there are tailors can make custom suits for you -- in dark beige linen, for example, with widely-spaced blue pinstripes. Or they can make sportscoats -- dark brown tweed, say. This is all theoretical, of course.

I made it to Humayun’s Tomb later in the afternoon, near sunset. The Tomb seems to have a higher percentage of Western tourists than the Red Fort, but this may have been a result of being the weekend. Indians have a tradition of memorializing death. That doesn’t mean just Humayun’s Tomb and the Taj Mahal -- people buy ad space in newspapers to commemorate death anniversaries. The newspapers have the ad rates right there. It seems like a touching gesture, but it also strikes me as slightly tacky; the American equivalent of putting an IN MEMORY OF decal on the tinted back window of an SUV. It’s one thing to remember someone’s passing, but to make a show of it? Is one more proof of love than the other?

On Sundays, Asif Ali Road becomes a street-wide book fair. Books of all types are laid out on the sidewalk: trashy paperbacks, children’s books, and regrettable hardcovers, smoldering in the sun. This is where old textbooks went to die. Although I would have loved to browse, the mass disorganization proved too much for me. I like books sorted into their proper categories, their discrete sections.

Finally, in Delhi -- the city of sleeping dogs -- I finally saw my first kitten. I heard it first, mewing with all its strength, behind the potted plants in front of the hotel. It was bony and skittish, hiding as it made its way to a sewer grate. My first reaction was to try to find it some milk. There was a milk stall maybe two long blocks away. I wondered what I could feed it. But then it hit me: I was a bad Westerner. I was willing to help a kitten, but unwilling to give a beggar one measly rupee. You’re screwed in this life, but hopefully you’ll be born cute and furry in the next one.