"Our most ancient metaphor says life is a journey. Memoir is travel writing, then, notes taken along the way, telling how things looked and what thoughts occurred. . . .This is the traveler who goes on foot, living the journey, taking on mountains, enduring deserts, marveling at the lush green places...as a pilgrim, seeking, wondering." -Patricia Hampl

October 31, 2004

Time to Change: Coming Home

Warning: I'm not sure this blog has any continuity to it whatsoever. There are many things I'm trying to say, but am still jet-lagged, between worlds, unaware of the time. This one's more a rambling--a musing--on a few different kinds of transitions.

I spent my last night in the Subcontinent in a non-touristy area of Mumbai, close enough to the airport to catch my early morning flight with little hassle (or traffic). Not one to spend my evening in a hotel room, I ventured out for a roadside korma and to see what I could see. Typically, vegetable vendors with their enormous carts began emerging as the sun set; the traffic grew more frenzied and it became more difficult to side-step the other pedestrians, bicycles, potholes, puddles, etc.

I was amazed to discover that I was the only white person around. All night: not another tourist in sight. This meant, of course, that there were no tourist attractions, no shops to lure Western spenders, no English-speaking waiters to dole out blanded-down fare to suit the fair patrons.

I walked up and down the main, four-lane road for what must have been three hours. Stopping at a restaurant for some coffee, and to write in my journal, I drew the attention of anyone who cast a glance my way. What would a white girl possibly be doing in this part of town?

Sentiment (and heat) took hold of me, and made me yearn for some refreshing pista ice cream; I ordered some. And I did it in Hindi.

The dish of yum arrived, but engrossed in my journal-writing, I hadn't realized that I wasn't granted pista at all, but something not at all pistacio-tasting. Did I look that gullible? I sent it back with a hint of ire in my visage. No, mango creamsicle wasn't going to cut it. No, thank you, no I don't want vanilla. Just the coffee please. And the bill. The kitchen staff, perched behind water jugs on the half a wall separating us, went into a muted uproar. They'd been betting that I'd just eat the mango creamsicle and pay the bill. One of the kids collected money from his betting counterparts, grinning broadly to himself.

And so even in the heart of non-touristy Bombay, I understood that this is really what it is to be an American in India:

No matter where you go, you are walking dollar signs. You have money, and you are expected to be free with it. (One boy confessed that he'd always thought American women only carried dollar bills in their big American purses.)

Until you get here, you will take for granted: sidewalks--even sidewalks with streetlamps and small ramps between curb and street--that are less than a foot off the ground; sidewalks without gaping holes which beneath them lay the city sewer; garbage collection; paved roads; homeless shelters. You will take for granted that you have a job which you can leave if you wish to, and that you're free to choose which kind of job you'd like to have, or that you can change your entire profession and learn a new trade at a late age; you will take for granted that as a woman, you're entitled to marry late, decide to be a working mother, wear swimsuits to the beach and not get stared at as if you were wearing nothing at all.

You will take for granted how much your society revolves around preserving life, in the form of traffic and safety laws. That we are mandated to drive with our shoes on. That the double yellow line is not a suggestion. That children are, for the most part, told not to speak to strangers, picked up and dropped off from school by safety-inspected vehicles, and prohibited from taking public transportation by themselves.

I sat next to a lovely, young, and newly-married man from Delhi on the flight between Bombay and Newark tonight. We talked at length throughout the course of the 17-hour trip. Often the subject of how Indians, generally, view life surfaced. And so according to Satchin, it's like this (and I noted this in an earlier blog): life is fleeting. It comes and goes, and that's how it is. Accidents happen. You have no control over your fate, and karma--your transmogrification from one life into the next--is irreversible, so why (sic) wear a helmet?

It sounds like a simplification of the overall attitude, but it did resonate with the impression I'd gotten here. Paradoxically, I'd spent a month taking a daily dose of anti-malarial meds, being careful not to rinse my toothbrush under the faucet and drinking only from water bottles, reminding myself to take vitamin c once in a while. I took more care with my eating habits than I ever do in the U.S.; I even had one cause to call my doctor at home. If I karmically return in another life, I will probably come back as an airbag.

As much as I miss India, I must admit that it is a relief to be back in an environment that I can truly now consider "safe." All things being respective, that is.

I returned home to a strong chill in the air, leaves on the ground, the smell of chimney smoke in the air. It was All Hallows Eve. Mom and I took a sentimental last walk around our block; tomorrow, we move to a new home in Henrietta, NY. Seeing our old house nearly empty and our new house totally void of stuff at all, the culture shock finally set in. So much space, and there are only three of us--thirteen families might live in either of these houses in urban India.

I will always think of that. I will keep Mikki's and Mani's homes close at mind. How I wound up--whether I was transmogrified or not--to be born in a 20th century America is probably the most fortunate phenomenon to happen to a human being, and I'm thankful for it.

Looking forward to the next adventure: Peru--in two weeks. Until then, look for the less occassional blog, and please let me know your thoughts on the blogs: animox72@yahoo.com. Thanks for reading!

October 29, 2004

GO SOX!

Dear Mr. Damon,

Or should I just call you Johnny, as I have so many times from behind Pesky's Pole? I have been meaning to write you for ages, but I was preparing to go abroad. Please accept my wholehearted congratulations for the most beautiful and inspiring comeback I have ever, ever witnessed.

I'd also like to say here that your defeat of the Yanks in the playoffs was sweetened by your flagrant, unshaven and anti-establishment beard, which really becomes you. Please keep it for next season so that you can mock and remind those clean-cut suckers that hair growth has so little to do with being a bona-fide ballplayer.

You make a city proud--you've made children everywhere ecstatic. You're going to be partly responsible for the biggest revenue-turning Red Sox paraphernalia profit the Fenway Estate has ever seen.

While you're toting around Beantown on your Hog, I hope you know I'm sending you a most heartfelt THANKS for an exciting season, for bringing the pride back home, and for being an all-around great guy.

Please, please, please marry me.
Love,
Monica

October 28, 2004

Swimming with the Sadhu; or, a Conversation in Monosyllables

The greying, long-haired, long-limbed, loosely-fitted orange dhoti-diaper-toting sadhu leaned back in his beach chair to adjust the silver chain an intimidated jewelry seller had placed around his vodka-filled belly.

"How?" he demanded of her.
She held up three fingers to imply that the chain would cost him rupees 300.

"Ha! No! No!" he jerked. "No!"
Terrified, she unclasped the chain and placed it back over her forearm with the rest of her wares. As she stepped back into the hot sand from under our palmfrond and bamboo beach hut, he leaned into his wife, who wiped the sweat off of his upper lip. He turned towards me.

Innocently trying to immerse myself in a Parsi novel and tending to some minor heat rash, enjoying my last authentic banana lassi, I could feel his stare.

"Ah!?" he yelped at me. I looked towards him. His dhoti was way too loose, but this was the beach--Kalangole Beach, in Goa-- and immodesty, I suppose, was as common here as white folks looking for the Indian version of Margaritaville.

"Huh?" I asked.
"American!"
"Yeeeees?" (Not many have guessed my country of origin so readily here. Maybe he was a real sadhu after all?)
"Cigarette! Give!"
"Huh?" I squinted.
"American cigarette!"
"No, I don't have any American cigarettes. Sorry!" Back to my very depressing book.
"Want!"
"Um, no?"
"Ah! Okay."

His wife was glowing with affection for this bizarre piece of work. I couldn't help but wonder where the two had coughed up the money for this kind of vacation--rare for sadhus who usually have to beg for their meals. While sadhu bullied our server for "Vodka! Now!", I casually put my book away and started putting my sarong over my shoulders. I thought I'd take a walk, and wanted to shield the heat rash.

"Ah!" he started again. "AH!"
Sheesh! "What?" I asked. I gave his wife a look that I'd hoped would intimate that my patience was wearing thin.
"Go!"
"Ah?"
"Go! GO! GO GO GO!" He pointed towards the water.
"Goa! Yes! I like it here very much!"
He sucked his teeth at me. Then he pointed again to the water.
"Yes, I've already been for a swim today. Twice. Thank you. No."
"Go! Come!" He held out his hand.
"No!"
"Come!" He slapped his stomach.
"No!"
"Please! Good!"

Sanjuro started looking really amused, laughing so that his shoulders shook. Dammit. We had an audience now, for the French, Dutch, and vaguely British folks sharing our palmy shelter were all looking to see what would happen next.

"Please! Come!"
Ah, shit.
The sadhu slapped his stomach, pointed again to the sea, and pointed to me.

I got out my waterproof SPF as a mild attempt at skin preservation. The sadhu held out his hand: "Ah!" He demanded. So I gave him a healthy dollop of Banana Boat #8. He washed it into his hair, forehead, and eyes, rubbing vigorously until the hairy rim of his scalp stood on end. Now the madman had a mane.

"No," I tried to explain. "It's going to go right into your eyes and burn them!"
"HA!" said the scary sadhu.
"That's gonna hurt," said Sanjuro, laughing to himself.

"Come!" the sadhu shouted again.
"Life's a beach," I murmured to Sanjuro. I took off my sarong and headed down to the shore. The sadhu followed.

With one hand on my glasses and my other in his grip, we walked into the Arabian Sea. Now there were no words. An imminent, large, and threatening wave loomed before us. It gathered its form as we walked towards it.

"Come!" he said.
"Okay!"
"Now!"
As the wave crashed into us, our hands broke apart. I was glad for it, and that my glasses had miraculously survived the tumult was a bonus. Refreshed and hoping the sadhu was sated, I made for my restful spot on the beach. He left me to it.

I sipped my banana lassi in peace. He'd only wanted to help me cool off, I suppose. I closed my eyes for a spell, long enough to reminisce about my month in India. Images of things I've never written down floated through my imagination. I was breathy from combating the waves, walking through heavy, hot sand. The gypsy woman with green eyes and silver that dangled from her temples in Pushkar. (I breathed in and out.) The tiny wooden fishing boat off the coast of Kochi, its navigator gracefully casting his net into the water, his craft only lit by a tiny oil lamp. (Another deep breath.) The smell of ayurvedic oil in my scalp. (Another breath.) Papaya on my breakfast plate. Mustard seeds. The taste of raw cardamom. The lean-to, aluminium homes that line the roads of Mumbai, where the women wash themselves in the sewer. A waterfall at sunset in Munnar, and a carefully-prepared ball of piquant, tiny flowers handed to me by my rickshaw driver. The luminously bright shades of pink of tropical flowers in Kerala. (A breath.) A late-night discussion about happiness and love with a Russian-Israeli man in Kumily. The screech of an eagle. The way goats eat from garbage. How to brace yourself in a rickshaw in a torrential downpour. (Breath.) The pink glow of the air in Rajasthan. Camels enshrouded in colorful harnesses and bells, who seem to make desert music when they walk. The startled eyes of children who laugh when I smile at them.

When I awoke, the sadhu, and all traces of him, had vanished.

October 25, 2004

Danyavardh, Nahnni: A Wedding in Munnar

Take any public or private bus in India, and you're in for a wild ride. Witness: the nail marks in my palms from hanging on tightly, with sweaty palms and white knuckles, to the metallic hand rails; the thick layer of dirt on my face and arms, from the diesel that builds its residue while you wind through city traffic; the smile on my face from the sick thrill of swinging back and forth in my seat while the bus heads, like a bullet, down a steep mountain, hugging the sides of cliffs, in the slick rain, its axles clear off the pavement for moments at a time.

The bus ride to Munnar, while thrilling, was preparation for the climate changes we were about to encounter. Having left the more warm (nay, hot) environs of Cochin and Kumily, the temperature fell as our bus climbed into the picturesque and breathtaking cloud-covered mountains of the countryside. Arriving in Munnar was a respite from sweating--but we were also too happy to be out of Kumily and in this tiny town surrounded by marvellous scenery. Munnar is infamous for its being the home of Tata Tea, the dominant tea manufacturer in South India: we knew our caffeine appetites would be sated here.

Munnar is the closest to rural India I may come on this trip: like Kumily, there's virtually nothing going on past 8:30 p.m.--which means not much light to walk by after dark--and the traffic is far less intimidating than the cities we've stayed in. Still, we are in the state of Kerala, which operates under a communist government. It's common to hear (long before you see) a slowly-moving truck with loudspeakers booming announcements throughout the town about the next meeting, or red flags with the hammer & sickle, or folk depictions of Che Guevara painted on to the back walls of a kiosk. Alcohol is illegal, but is sold, illicitly, under the guise of "Special Tea." What is most interesting about Munnar, though, is that upon being dumped out into the central bus stop, you're surrounded by mountains: at one glance, you'll see an enormous church; turn a quarter, and you'll find a Hindu temple; another slight spin, and you find a mosque.

We had the pleasure of quickly befriending a rickshaw driver named Mani; in very broken English, he explained that the name Munnar derives from aru (river) and munnu (three)--and we thought Three Rivers was just a stadium in Pittsburgh (silly, uninformed tourists!). Mani took us all over the place: after helping us to find a place to stay, he carted us off to the mountains, where we saw nilgiri tarr--a vanishing breed of mountain goats--feed and frolick amidst the beauty of miles upon miles upon miles of visible tea plantations and blue mountains. He made certain that we stop to see the waterfalls on the way, via a somewhat secretive footpath. And just when we thought he couldn't get any nicer, Mani asked us to visit his home for some tea.

normal_171%20Mani%20family%20and%20Monica

As his rickshaw neared the row of blue-painted huts, children seemed to come out of every nook and cranny to wave, laugh, and squeal at us. "Hallo! How are you?" seemed to be the dominant English phrases--but they couldn't really answer my asking how they were, so we enjoyed conversations consisting mainly of "Hallo!" and "Hi!" and much hand-shaking.

Entering Mani's two-room home was another lesson in humility. As they had when I visited Mikki's home in Delhi, the wedding albums came out while Mani's wife prepared the tea. We sat in the very room--which accomodated two beds for a number of people (I couldn't quite count, but I think about six, and two babies)--where the prenuptial celebrations were held. What had they done with the beds, I wondered, but couldn't ask. While we drank tea and talked, it occurred to me that I still hadn't witnessed an Indian wedding--which I'd badly wanted to do--and so I asked Mani if he knew of any wedding taking place while we were to be in Munnar.

Once he understood what I was asking, he and his wife fished out what looked like dozens of old invitations. One after the other, he checked, until he located--aha!!--an invitation for a wedding that would be occurring the next day. What luck! He told us that he'd pick us up at our guesthouse in the morning, and that we'd not only be able to attend the wedding with him, but that we could get some more sightseeing in to boot. Perfect.

Neither Sanjuro nor I had a clue how to act or what to do. After leaving our shoes behind in the rickshaw, we were shooed this way and that. "Come here," Mani said, and lead us around each idol in the temple. We watched while he prayed to each one. Soon, Mani pointed me towards a small house-type building next to the temple. I looked hesitant. "No," he protested. "Go! Now!" In I went.

A crowd of women in the most splendid, gorgeous, and colorful array of saris had descended upon the terrified bride. While she stood, hands folded, women adjusted her turquoise and gold-threaded sari, put jasmine garlands in her hair, placed the ceremonial garlands around her neck and on her head, fixed her makeup, and wiped her tears. She looked absolutely terrified, and a little shocked that a white girl was standing in the middle of it. I felt horribly uncomfortable--after all, this was a huge day in this girl's life, and there was a tourist standing right in the damn middle of it. I took a few steps back.

Then the grandmothers and old aunties got a hold of me. They spoke excitedly at me, grabbing my shoulders and arms, and led me right back to the foreground of the beautifying scene. At last, a lovely woman explained: "They want you to take pictures! So take! And send back!" Well, alright! Of the twelve rolls of film I brought to India, one and a half were taken in a matter of hours.
normal_188%20ceremony%20begins
The actual ceremony in the temple was marvellous: the bride and groom sat on the floor while we threw saffron and rice at them. They were showered with prayers, and then rose to make puja to the gods around the temple. I was whisked away to help them tow a cart, which housed figurines of gods, around the temple itself. Then I was whisked by two young English-speaking boys to their mothers, who chatted me up for some time. We exchanged addresses, and I learned that the woman who'd translated for me earlier is--thank goodness--a teacher. We had what to talk about.

But soon, Mani insisted we leave the wedding for a while and head up to the dams in the mountains, and eventually, we landed at what they call "Top Station"--one of the highest scenic viewing points in Munnar. It was phenomenal, and all we could do was stand there. My pictures will never capture the stillness of that beauty: mountain ranges and lush forestry for miles, the shadows of clouds sweeping across as if the hand of God were passing over it all.

By 2 p.m., we were back in time for the wedding feast. Under a tent, tables were laid out to accomodate the feeding of the guests--men rolled paper over the tables, dished out food onto tin trays off of which the guests ate, and upon their finishing, collected the soiled paper to make way for the next group to sit down. A true feeding frenzy! This was to be my true acculturation test: when we were asked if we wanted spoons, I declined. "You can eat with your hand?" one man asked, astonished. I nodded, but was hesitant--and really, I think I prefer chappatis so much because I don't make as much an ass of myself trying to pick up my curry with these, as opposed to rice, which was our meal. Chicken Biryani. Oh, boy.

Luckily, I managed to carry on an actual conversation while I pressed and packed my rice together with my fingertips and placed them in my mouth. I sat next to Soly, a woman who is also a teacher, and married to a minister (remember that Christianity is big in Kerala); she wrote the Hindi and Malyalam vowel sounds for me in my journal while I dutifully repeated each sound, hoping to memorize them by the meal's end. I don't think I impressed the folks we sat with too much by my vowel repetition, but I did manage to clear my plate with only a few rice grains in my lap.

Language is an amazing tool, and when it isn't shared, makes for some pretty amusing and some profound moments. While Soly taught me the one word I'd repeated all day in English--thank you--in Hindi and Malayalam, Sanjuro asked one of the men around us what the egg on our plates symbolized. The conversation went something like this:

"Excuse me? Does the egg on the plate symbolize something? Like fertility or..." Juro's voice trailed off to leave room for an answer.
"Yes!" the man replied. "Eggs can be poached or scrambled or fried!"
"No, that's not what I mean. Does the egg...mean something? Why are we eating it?"
"Yes, eggs. They are very easy to prepare many of."

After the feast, we said long goodbyes to people who'd been more generous than we ever could have hoped. I truly felt that we were leaving friends; I promised to send them the wedding pictures, and some new pens for their schools, and some American coins for the kids. We saw the (still sad-looking) bride and bridegroom off, and it was time to return to our sightseeing.

Mani took us down the valley, this time to an immense waterfall. We were in time for sunset, and as the moon came up and dusk descended, we couldn't help but ponder how lucky we'd been this day to experience the true beauty of the landscape--but moreso, the people--of Munnar. For all of this, I couldn't help but repeat, in my head, the words I learned earlier that afternoon: danyavardh, in Hindi, and in Malayalam, nahn'ni. Thank you, thank you.

Other highlights in Munnar (of course, they're cuisine-related) include my finally eating off of a banana leaf (yes, with one hand) and enjoying a ginger tea at a tea-shack in the mountains. We also took our dinner--for two consecutive nights--at an outdoor restaurant, where we sort of befriended the old man with paan-masala (some red, some missing) teeth, who flipped sizzling-hot parothas on the oily griddle, while we watched, ate, watched. His only two words in English seemed to be "American!" and "Dollar!", but he acknowledged our faithful patronage by sporting a button-down shirt with American flags on it the second night we dined there. Soon, we were snapping photos together and I even helped him turn over some of the parothas with my own hands--damn, that's a hot job. Greasy yumminess: by the by, while we ate, I saw a man re-light his griddle-burner with a flame on a piece of newspaper that also lit his cigarette, which hung from his lips while he issued out idli from a press onto a steamer. He also hocked some nasty loogies behind him while he cooked. Now that's some hardcore, downhome cooking. (Nick Tahoes, step aside!)

We're back in Cochin now, enjoying the air-conditioned WebWorld, where we're killing time before hopping our 16-hour train ride to Goa, the last official stop on my tour of India. I am looking forward to spending some much-needed beach time, and possibly reuniting with B.C., who I met earlier in Jaipur. Until the next--perhaps last?--India blog, I am keeping you in my thoughts and am hoping to hear from you!

October 24, 2004

Stuck Inside of Kumily with the Munnar Blues Again: read this one first

Dear friends, family, and faithful blog readers,
I am so sorry for the long silence. I am fine. Thank you for your inquisitive emails asking me where the hell I've been, but moreso, for the RED SOX UPDATES!!! (up two games in the Series?!)

When last I posted, I was in Cochin--where I am again now. Since then, Sanjuro and I have ventured to Allepey, where we spent almost 24 hrs. normal_060%20our%20houseboat1on a cozy houseboat through the backwaters of Kerala, and then to Kumily, where our intention was to spend no more than two nights, and visiting the Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary.
normal_103%20scenic%20periyar4

Within the park, we took an 8-hour hike (three hours of which we paddled a bamboo raft through Periyar lake): we saw wild boar; we hiked through insane jungle grasses taller than any of us; we discovered a herd of elephant feasting; we sampled funky leaves and smelled cinnamon bark; we saw a wild dog nearly attack a sambar deer in the middle of a river while an eagle screeched overhead; we got very telling sunburns and had a great time. normal_104%20trekking%20companionsBut our trekking over with, I was ready to move on. Sanjuro wanted to stay an extra night to parktake in the night hike, so I moved from our digs in the park to a very funky guest house, where I took up residency in a tree house.

Yes, a tree house. Maybe seeing all those monkeys made me a little jealous--after all, up in the trees, you can see paradisical flora and fauna until the jungle gets thick with darkness. I told the proprietor of the inn that I'd be happy living in that treehouse for a long time. It was resplendent with bamboo, flanked by coffee trees, had a mosquito net over the bed, plenty of room for my pack, and two candles to read by. At night, crickets serenaded me to sleep. Broadcasted languid singing from the local Mosque woke me at dawn. Midday, dragonflies twittered above and sometimes landed near my cup of coffee as if to remark on how good it smelled. I could watch water buffalo grazing from my back windows. I was--quite literally--in heaven.

But I couldn't sleep, nor could I barely gulp down my gulab jamun that next day. Game 7 was either about to wrap up or had already--we had no idea--and off we went to seek out an internet cafe.

There are two working internet "cafes" in the town of Kumily. There might be a third, but it doesn't operate before or after 2 p.m. And the remaining services are all dial-up: no DSL in sight. This isn't surprising in a town where there are no sidewalks, no streetlamps, and no stoplight, but we'd hoped to get our information a lot sooner.

It took about five minutes, between sitting in front of our computers and the news popping up on screen, to find out that our beloved Sox had clinched the pennant. We whooped, yelped, and got a little choked up. (I'm sure the man running the cafe thought we were suffering a reaction to spicy food.) It was surreal: not only to find out that my BoSox Boys had beat the antagonizing Yanks, but that the only other person who could totally appreciate the moment in the immediate vicinity was sitting right next to me.

I also found out that I am to be a regular columnist for an online and print magazine out of NYC (it has no title yet, but they're getting back to me on this). And after an extremely long wait for the email to surface, learned that I'll be teaching a playwriting workshop at a rather respectable writing center in my hometown. The Sox's big win, being in print, and landing a job all at once--well, all within an hour of download attempts? My nerves were blown.

It was cause for celebration: we went to dinner, and had an intense korma followed by my new favorite dessert, pistacio ice cream with rosewater flavor.

But here ends the joyous part of the Kumily trip. For the next morning, we awoke to find out that there was a political assassination that mandated a bus strike. Out of things to do and stranded in a small, dial-up town, we became fixtures of the funky courtyard at the inn, reading, writing, and talking to other stranded folks. Soon enough, we were bored out of our skulls. I was totally happy to keep sleeping in my treehouse, and Sanjuro was happy to keep ogling the cute Swedish gals.

The bus strike continued the next day--or rather, it was unclear what was really going on. Needless to say, we were stranded for another day. At the internet cafe, I was unable to get a blog--or even a letter--out, for the power cutting out now and then, the connection getting lost, and the computer being incredibly slow. In an attempt to post a quick, explanatory blog, I wrote this:

I am sitting in a small lounge here in Kumily: it is an internet “cafĂ©”—though apart from their five computers, there’s not much more service. The power has gone out, and we’re operating on a generator.

I have been trying to write you all back for over an hour. But there is no such thing as DSL or high-speed here, and when I press “compose” or “reply,” the connection falters and my blood pressure goes up a notch.

Briefly: Juro and I are stuck in Kumily. There was a politically-motivated assassination of a labor organizer the other night; since then, we’ve been having trouble getting out of here. What we thought was at first only a bus strike turned out to be a full-fledged labor shut-down, between 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., yesterday. Not only were shops forced into closing, but any private bus seen operating, we were told, would have probably encountered some form of mob violence, in the form of stone-throwing.

We have decided to stay put.

Today, it wasn’t quite clear that government buses were running until this afternoon, but our inn’s proprietor tells us that “normal people” take early morning buses out of Kumily—that way, the bus driver can see more clearly the serpentine cliffs around which he weaves his rocket of a vehicle. Fine by me.

I wanted to say a quick thanks to any of you who’ve written—I’ve been able to see that you’ve written, but not the emails themselves. It is the apex of frustration, and I look forward to hearing from you when I arrive—hopefully, soon—in Munnar.


With the end of the labor strike, we were destined for Munnar--where we've just spent a really lovely couple of days. Please see the next blog to read all about it!

October 17, 2004

Soul Food, Where the Shtetl Meets Kerala

One of the most ubiquitous signs that you’re in a Jewish home—no matter where you are in the world—is the presence of a table, laden with hot, yummy, traditional dishes, the woman of the house pinching your shoulder until you’ve sampled from all of them. “Eat, eat!” insist the women from the (Eastern European) Old Country. In the Northeast corridor of the United States, the modern phrasing goes something like this: “Take more—what are you, ashamed to eat?”

So it was no culture shock that upon arriving at the modest home of Yosef (who runs the last remaining Jewish synagogue in Fort Cochin, India, for its 14 remaining congregants and curious tourists like me) and his wife, Yosefa, I was greeted with kisses on the cheek, and an invitation to share their Shabbat dinner. “What are you waiting for?” bellowed Yosef. “You don’t have to take a number to sit! Sit!” There, in Yosef’s and Yosefa’s dimly-lit, makeshift office-dining room, 7300 miles from my own Sabbath table, I felt completely at home, accompanied by a Kiwi couple and an older, Australian woman I hadn’t met but two hours previous.

While Yosef said the common blessings—in Hebrew, with an Indian and Sephardic accent—over the Sabbath candles, wine, and bread, Yosefa was noisily preparing our dinner in the kitchen, punctuating her husbands’ ah’meyn!s by clanging her stirring spoon on a simmering pot every so often.

I couldn’t concentrate on the prayers at all. For one, it was about 90 degrees—outside, at sunset. Inside, Yosef refused to open a single window as a preventative measure against allowing mosquitoes to share the meal (and eat us alive). I don’t know how hot it actually was, but without the Ernakulam, seaside breezes and sitting closely enough to a working stove, I was sweltering. (The Kiwis, the Aussie, and my hosts all seemed to have regulated their temperatures perfectly.) When I asked Yosef for a glass of water, he replied that his mother-in-law had forgotten to boil any, and I should just have some whiskey instead. While the traveler’s mandate “always stay hydrated” floated into my head, the mother-in-law shrugged at me apologetically.

Yosef interrogated me and the Aussie about being single, female, and Jewish (and therefore, available), as would most accommodating hosts with single, available strangers at their tables, as Yosefa proudly set before us dish after dish. I was trying to assert, modestly, that I was having a grand time traveling as a single woman, when the old Jewish standards—chicken, liver and onions, kamput (a fruit stew)—arrived at the table: my grandmother might have made the same feast.

Somewhere between convincing Yosef that a single woman can be happy and his trying to convince me that I wasn’t truly happy yet, Yosefa laid on the table succulent-looking, aromatic plates of. . .things I couldn’t quite identify. Whew! An opportunity to switch topics finally presented itself.

Yosefa explained what each dish was as she heaped spoonful after spoonful onto our plates. Soya palak. Spinach with red chilis and mustard seed. Cucumber salad with tomatoes and fennel. Rice with currants and cardamom. And something she called “spicy fish.” Forget the old standards, I thought. I was ready for my first experience with Southern Indian Soul Food. My adventurous appetite was piqued.

Keralan food is notoriously spicier than Northern Indian cuisine: but when a Southern, Indian, and Jewish woman calls her fish spicy, she’s not fooling around. With a forkful of fish in my mouth, my tongue swelled and my cheeks became flushed. “How’s the taste, Monica?” Yosefa asked, sweetly.

I couldn’t taste the fish, though—all I could taste was burning. A tear floated out of my right eye while I tried to swallow.

“Deelishhh-oush!” I eeked out, trying to regain my composure. Instinctively, I reached for my glass, which Yosef had surreptitiously already filled (filled!) with whiskey. And with the first sip, I could have sworn that the edges of my tongue had turned to a burnt black.

I took two deep, thoughtful breaths before embarking on this culinary exploit: with the first, I prayed that I could get through this meal without passing out. With the second breath, I prayed that packed my antacids towards the top of my rugsack. (It was the Sabbath, after all, and I knew that I was in for a spiritual food experience.)

Baring in mind my 11th grade chemistry class, I tried to pair the more spicy-looking things on my plate with the less daunting dishes. Aha! Rice with currants will cancel out the fish! I earnestly hoped. But with each bite, my pores released a little more sweat. Yosefa watched proudly as I ate, hovering at my side and offering the bowl of fish every couple of minutes. But two minutes in, I ceased talking. My tongue was broken; my gums ached. My throat was useless. All I could do was shrug, smile, nod, sniffle, and continue to wipe the sweat off of my forehead.

By the time I’d miraculously finished the fish and rice, I’d soiled five large napkins and downed two glasses of whiskey (the relief of which was only in becoming more inebriated and thus more immune to the burning).

The airy, cotton salwar-kameez I’d proudly worn to dinner was now soaked through and clinging to my skin, fastening me to my plastic chair. My hair was entirely wet. Yosef and Yosefa, and the mother-in law, watched me mostly in silence, awe, and fear. Yosef tried to fill my glass again, when I put a hand over its top to signal that I’d had enough. Dejectedly, Yosef offered some bread. Bread! This’ll soak up some pain! I nonverbally accepted, holding my plate out for salvation.

Yosefa intervened. “But you haven’t tried tahini yet! You put it on the bread.” Before I could wave my free hand or vigorously shake my head no!, Yosefa had managed to smother my little slice of comfort with her deceptive, sweetly-aromatic black-sesame and green-chili paste. Now that the whiskey had gotten to my reflexes, those were useless too.

While Yosef, Yosefa, and their guests resumed talking politics, geography, and fashion, I took small bites and had visions: purple dots floated before my eyes, and when my vision blurred over completely, the throbbing in my ears most audible, I leaned back and triumphantly pushed the plate away. I had just won my first-ever Iron-Stomach contest (against my own better judgment, digestive system, and major glands)! But I knew that if I were to peek down my salwaar, I’d have seen a heat rash across my heaving chest.

I pretended to drop my sixth, soggy napkin so that I could crouch underneath the table, where I touched my tongue to make sure it was still there. Certain that I’d satisfied my hosts’ gracious meal offerings, I held the cold glass of whisky to my cheek, grateful to have partaken in—and survived--my first Indian Shabbat.

October 16, 2004

No Shoes in Shul


cochin synagogue
Originally uploaded by animox72.
Power outages are pretty common occurrences in India. But in Cochin, where we've been for a few days, they're frequent, unexpected, and accepted as part of normal life here. They also make for some really interesting moments.

Sanjuro and I had been sitting in the (very Western-style) art-cafe, writing and talking away, when the heavy rains and tropical storm ensued. When the power shut off, carrying with it the dreamy Joan Baez tune that had been booming through the place, the hush of the rain and the faint, oil-fed candle near the cash register was all we could sense. We watched the lightning illuminate the visible sky and palm trees outside while thunder shook the thatched roof of the cafe. We sat in silence, taking it in.

Soon, it was time to ready ourselves for the imminent drenching: we ran to the Kathkali Dance Center, enjoyed another delish dinner, and found our seats for that evening's sithar/tabla (drum) concert near the stage. Soon, we were asked to remove ourselves for an environment more conducive to a performance without the benefit of microphones or electric light: the dressing room.

There, in the tiny, cozy space that houses all the intricate and magnificent Kathkali costumes, oil lamps and incense were lit, and we seven patrons sat on the straw mats on the floor while our performers enchanted and entranced us with their ragas. I closed my eyes to enjoy the auspicious intimacy of the moment. (Strangely, the power came back on as the performance ended and the players were wiping their brows.)

The power had been off for an hour yesterday--which was entirely sunny, and, typical of this Keralan season, sluggishly muggy-hot--when the proprietress of our guest house was in the middle of teaching us how to make a South Indian-style dal (lentil dish). With the revival of the whirl of her washing machine, she quickly gathered together the coconut, green chillies, ginger, and garlic she'd set out beforehand and force-fed them to her blender: "Quickly! Before the power cuts out on us again!"

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We also learned how to make thoren, a Keralan dish, veggie stew, and--my favorite thing to ever have happened to wheat flour--chappati.

Last night I ventured back to the Cochin Synagogue for Friday night Shabbat service. When in operation, the service is an orthodox one, so men and women sit separately (please see "The Search for Dish on Rosh Hashana" blog for more on this). I removed my shoes in front of the temple, and took my place next to a gorgeous woman, Yosefa, whose husband--aptly named Yosef--runs the shul.

In a blink, just as we were reciting the Shema, the power most unexpectedly, and briefly, cut out. The small flames of the antique, multicoloured, glass lanterns, fed by (what else?) coconut oil, illuminated the sanctuary. It occurred to me that this is exactly what the place must have looked like five hundred years earlier, when the Portuguese Jews who'd erected it were singing the very same song I was now. It was magical--and fleeting.

Thankfully, the power remained on after the service, when I was asked to enjoy Shabbat dinner at Yosef's and Yosefa's. I shared a rickshaw with a Kiwi couple and an Australian woman, who were also at services, to the first Jewish home I've seen yet in India. (They put their cricket rivalries away long enough to squish together through the bumpy ride to the Ernakulam suburb.)

What Yosefa prepared for us was an enormous and delicious meal. It was also the spiciest food I have ever, ever, ever eaten. While we talked to, at, and over each other about politics, social problems, geography, and fashion, I sweated out about five gallons of water. Sure, the tried-and-true old favourites like chicken and liver-and-onions graced my plate; so did soya palak, spicy fish, rice with currants and cardamom, a tahini made out of black sesame seeds, and a homemade bread I hadn't seen before. While my lips and tongue ached with burn, I used about four or five napkins to wipe the sweat away from my eyes so that I could see what I was continuing to eat with gusto. (So this is what they mean by painful pleasure?) Yosef insisted that I wash my dinner down with a healthy dose of his fine whiskey. Now that's old-school Jewish culture for you. I hoped I hadn't left a small pool on the floor below my seat when I left--I was actually sticking to my salwaar kameez when it was time to go.

We're ready to leave Cochin. It's so damn hot, and we think we've exhausted the novelty of it. I also, unfortunately, had a very unnerving experience with ayurvedic massage that turned out to be a faux operation. I'm totally fine and have spoken with the proprietress of our guest house to ensure that it doesn't happen to another traveler, but it was enough to color my memory of this city, and I look forward to the backwater cruise we're about to embark upon tomorrow in Allepey.

Hoping all of you are well. Please do write or post comments to the blogs to let me hear your thoughts. Missing my friends and still believing in our BoSox. With love, M.

October 14, 2004

Tasting Kerala

If India is, as they say, an overwhelming of the senses, it's in Kerala--in the South-- where your taste buds are delightfully assaulted. I had a (fresh) fish korma today for lunch at a crazy restaurant, where the small kitchen and waitstaff was manned by about 14 people in a dining space like a hallway: there were huge pieces of ginger in the curry, and the fish, though I don't know what kind it was, was unbelievable. There are hints of pistacio, cardamom, ginger, and something like a sweet, spicy pepper, in almost everything I've tried. Local flavors also include red chili, cinnamon, nutmeg, mace, clove, fenugreek, fennel (anise), mustard seed, coriander, and turmeric. Banana is a common addition to baked goods here (because there are just so darn many of them). Coconuts, coconut oil, coconut milk are also fundamentals in Keralan cooking. Yum.

In one of my favorite gustatory adventures so far, I drank straight out of a coconut, while a man we've come to know as the singer in a local Kathkali (see below) performance told me all about the ayurvedic (see below) properties of the coconut. I'm not keen on raw coconut, but as I sipped away, the slight tummy ache I'd had since that morning turned right over. Amazing. Now, the coconut is my friend.

Right now, I'm sipping a cold thandai, a flavor that has only been described to me as "Indian flavor." It's delicious and sweet, and orangey and frothy-- perfect remedy for the Kerala heat that has made me sluggish and slow. Kerala is lush and tropical: the pastel colors of the buildings, the smell of fresh and stale fish, the magnificent, old, enormous trees, the palm trees, the birds--it's all a little remniscient of coastal cultures elsewhere, though here, the buildings are in terrible disrepair (for the sheer mugginess that peels the paint off of them), there's still quite a lot of garbage, goats--not cows-- are everywhere, and contrary to the cities north of Cochin, not many people can understand us when we speak English. We'll transcend the language barrier tonight by taking in a classical sithar performance (if you're not sure what this sounds like, think Ravi Shankar).

For the heat (and not fashion, I imagine), the men here mostly sport lungi, long, sheet-like sarongs that they pull up around their legs to resemble, for lack of a better description, big skirt-diapers. I wish I could wear one. (I've been in pants and long-sleeved shirts for the majority of this trip, because this tends to ward off more staring than I can stand--though here, the leering is starting to get to me.)

Sanjuro and I have decided to stay in Fort Cochin, a short boat ride away from Ernakulam on the mainland of Cochin--which is as congested and dizzying to me as Delhi was. Fort Cochin, however, is a true getaway from all that: it's quieter, it's more culturally interesting, and there's plenty more to do. The area was settled by both the Dutch and Portugese in the 16th and 17th centuries; there are Christian/Catholic, Muslim, and Jewish communities here. (The Jewish community is tiny, though--only 14 remain, and I'll be meeting them all tomorrow when I attend Shabbat services at the only synagogue in town.) We've spotted the St. Mary's pharmacy as well as the Shalom grocery store, both sights of which, when one's in India, seem almost too impossible.

Kerala boasts a 99% literacy rate, and appears to have roots in communist government: there are hammer/sickle flags everywhere, and a few crude paintings of Che Guevara are tucked here and there. It's also home to Kathkali Dance training, so Sanjuro and I took in a Kathkali--literally, 'dance-play'--last night. We watched the performers apply their makeup an hour and half before the performance began, and this very ritual was so nuanced and special that it deserves its own blog (perhaps another time). Kerala is also home to Ayurveda, so there are all sorts of ayurvedic (naturopathic) massage parlours and centers for study--I hope to get a massage tomorrow. Apparently, coconut oil is involved. (Of course it is.) And, in order to taste Kerala and bring it home to you, I'll be taking a cooking class here, making copious note of all the spices our demonstrator uses.

And while I've been learning how to savor Kerala, I've also been mastering how to use only my right hand to eat: rice, curry, paratha, you name it. Sanjuro and I went into a great local restaurant last night, frequented by Muslims (so you know it has to be halal, baby--though I was the only woman there)--and the patrons watched in something like awe/horror/amusement while Sanjuro coached me along at the art of using your right hand as a utensil (the thumb as "shover" helps). By lunch this afternoon, I think I've become an old pro. I snickered at the fork and knife our waiter put on our table for us. Ha! Things of the past.

Stay tuned for more adventures in cuisine; next, I'll be sampling something from an actual street vendor (yes, only the safe, fried food--probably a samosa or pakora or something). With any luck, I'll wind up somewhere for Shabbos lunch. We'll see about that. Signing off, with the Tums mindfully at close hand, M.

October 11, 2004

Where the Streets Have No Name

If you spend enough time in a car with a person, chances are you'll get to know a whole lot more about them than you ever bargained for: how frequent their bathroom breaks, their achy joints, their penchant for stopping the car to take silly tourist pics. Fortunately, Mikki, the driver I'd mentioned in an earlier blog, didn't mind any of this. Nor did he mind my demanding to listen to the Dhoom soundtrack about a thrillion times during the eighteen hours we'd driven between Delhi and Pushkar via Jaipur.

Mikki is the first middle-to-lower class resident of India I've come to know well. He is 25 and wears some deep scars from street fights, escaping from school over a cast iron fence, and jumping from high places for lack of anything better to do. He left school at 14 and has been a professional driver--of freight trucks and hired cars--ever since. He's hotheaded with bad drivers and people trying to take advantage of tourists, and was sincerely protective.

We spent a lot of time in that tiny car talking about family and fate. So it was fated that I visit his family here, I suppose. Since his home is literally across the way from my hostel, he asked me to see where and how he lives.

Walking through Main Bazaar (where my hostel is) in daylight is difficult enough: I can't look four or five feet past my shoes for fear I'll steep my sandals in cow/dog/bullshit, walk into a puddle of something nasty, step on a child--but then have to occassionally look up so that I'm not a direct hit for a rickshaw or bicycle or motorbike. Nighttime, naturally, is worse: the dogs start yelping for hunger and growling at white people, cows are harder to see, cowshit is harder to see, and sometimes the rickshaws don't turn on their headlights. Mikki's sidestreet is off of Main Bazaar, and gave me a new appreciation for streetlights-- for anything florescent at all.

Through a narrow alleyway he meandered, in the dark, his voice my only guide for direction. When he rounded a corner to an even more narrow alley, I knew that I was in for the shock of my life. Were I to have attempted to find this place on my own, I'd have been seriously lost. Most telling about the inaccessibility of this street was that I was the only Westerner on it.

Mikki, his parents, his two brothers (and one sister-in-law), his sister and her 1-year old, his one nephew and two nieces, uncle, aunt, and two cousins, all share a three-room flat. And only two of the rooms are connected; the other is across the alleyway. All three rooms are no more than 10 x 12, and all three have an electric stove, a television, a fan, and one double bed, which are each shared. No one gets his/her own bed, especially Mikki, who insists on sleeping on the floor now that his younger brother has started to kick him in his sleep.

In his room, he pulled out two enormous photo albums of his brother's and sister's weddings (since my wish of attending a "real Indian wedding" hadn't yet been fulfilled), and the entire family shyly came by to see me. Only a few of the younger generation speak any English, so there was a whole lot of head nodding and smiling. The babies were handed to me carefully, and apparently I am now known as "Auntie."

Mikki's family makes firecrackers to sell at Diwali, and they store the gunpowder over the narrow staircase that joins his room to the street. The smell of it carries throughout the flat. Diwali is once a year, in November.

There is one, tiny bathroom for everyone in the house. That's 14 people, excluding the babies.

"It's small, I know," said Mikki. "But do you like? I think I will get my own house someday." I asked him what that would look like.

"A small apartment building," he answered. "Where my whole family can live--each couple separately have their own room. And a garden on the roof, and maybe some grass in the front. That would be... that would be perfect."

The biggest problem of living with his family at the moment, it seems, is that his younger brother has turned into a hoodlum and his sister-in-law prepares unsavory food. When I suggested that Mikki do the cooking himself, he looked at me as if I were totally nuts. Since his father has "decided not to work," his mother, who is closing in on 60, works as a maid for a wealthier family in town; his sister makes shirts (by hand) and attends a tailoring school, and his uncle is a guard. That's about it for income.

I gave Mikki a bunch of things I was planning on giving to a friend's kids in Nepal before I'd scrapped the trip--some girly lip glosses, a t-shirt from Cambridge, fun pencils with cool erasers, magnetic notepads--for the kids in his family. When I asked the thirteen-year-old niece what she thought of the lip gloss, she smiled and ran away. I'll take that as a good sign. I later asked Mikki what all he'd like me to send him from America (aside from his former request for Bob Marley c.d.'s), and where to send them. "It's a house number," he said. "Just off Main Bazaar. I'll write it for you later."

On the road back from Rajasthan today, we witnessed the aftermath of a horrible accident: an elderly woman who'd been riding on the back of a motorbike was hit by a truck. She lay under the truck, her bloodied yellow sari covering her face, while police tried to divert traffic. Life is fleeting anywhere in the world, but it seems that here in chaotic Delhi, those things that help to preserve and protect us--the seatbelt, the helmet, the streetlight, a sidewalk--are casual suggestions in a very delicate existence. I'll never again take for granted that I can sleep in a separate room from my parents and use a separate bathroom with room enough to turn around, that I can choose to live anywhere, provided I have the means, and that those means are a hell of a lot easier to come by than they are here.

Taking off for South India tomorrow, where I hear the sun is shining and the food is spicy. Ready to lay on a beach, relax a little, and pack Delhi away for the next time I hear myself complaining about discomforts in my cozy life far away from here.


October 10, 2004

I Wanna Pooja With You

Hello again, friends and family, from the imposing hills of the Rajasthan desert. Thanks so so very much for all of your birthday wishes and Red Sox updates, both of which, I must admit, brought happy tears to my dusty eyes!

I am in Pushkar--home of the world's largest camel fair-- now, about three hours northwest of Jaipur, to which I returned having given up on Nepal. The Jaipur revisit was a howl--the proprietors of the guest house welcomed me back with excited handshakes and enormous smiles. I am ecstatic to say that I passed my 32nd birthday in Rajasthani fashion: as is my traditional activity, I climbed--this year, up to Amber Palace, where the Rajput moghuls lived in sheer glory...sometime ago (16th century, I believe). I managed to stave off the desire for an expensive elephant ride up the steepish climb, because it was so dang hot (but who wants to be riding on a sweaty smelly elley in such sun? not I). At the top, I was met by a bunch of hawkers, through whom I squeezed to pay my entrance fare. In line, I met a man from Goa who was in town visiting family, by the name of B.C.--he asked me to join him for a tea later in the afternoon, and because I was short on time (my driver was coming to fetch me in only three hours), and I wanted to climb up to Tiger Fort, I declined. "Very well," he said. "Perhaps we'll meet again some other time."

I mention B.C. here because after an hour and half of my delightful, breathtaking, self-guided tour through the palace, which sits so high on the mountain that you can see nearly all of the Pink City of Jaipur from it, we did meet again...ten yards from the very spot upon which we'd met before. He wasn't interested in seeing Tiger Fort (which boasts the world's largest cannon, and the entirety of which is still in tact), but he offered me a ride on his motorbike up the steep climb.

I know, I know--I heard all of your voices, combined, in the back of my head--the "be careful!" and "don't talk to anyone!" and so on, and after B.C. verified his identity by showing me his business card (yes, it's in Goa) and his initials, tattooed on his forearm (apparently this is common in India), and because it was my birthday, and I was really stinkin' hot, and because I was short on time...I hopped on.

It was the most exhilarating few minutes, that windey, windy, putt-putt-putt up the mountain, with the red clay of the fort trying its damndest to intimidate all ye who encounter it against an azure blue sky. Monkeys hung out on trees, watching us pass the other--few--pedestrians stupid enough to brave the mountain in the heat of the day (but then again, I think some of them were locals for the baskets of stuff they carried up on their heads; I was the only one with a camera). At the top, he dropped me off, we exchanged emails and spoke of the possibility of our meeting in Goa in a few weeks, and said goodbye.

Later that afternoon, Moan, the proprietor of the guest house, surprised me with a small, chocolate cake--ordered by Mikki, who surreptitiously found out that I like chocolate over vanilla earlier that day--which he and some of his family members brought to my room. In red and yellow letters, it read: "Happy Birthday Monica", which Mikki stuck to birthday candles in, and which I cut into sixteen pieces--two for Mikki (my driver) and me, and the rest for his family. The next morning, I donned my new salwaar kameez (a birthday present from Mikki to me) for the ride to Pushkar, and the whole gang came out to adore it. "Like real Indian movie star!" said one guy. "Monica! It's Indian name!" said another. "You look like white girl--in salwaar!!" said the child. He laughed himself silly.

Pushkar has been called a magical place, and only today at sunset do I see why. As the sun descended on the ghats (Pushkar Lake), an Israeli drum circle ensued, people came out in droves to bathe and pray, and loads of us tourists sat on the steps to take it all in. There is simultaneous music being broadcast from across the lake--a traditional raga-- and then someone is playing a tune on a flute, and sadhus are walking around with walking-friendly sithar which they play while their wives beg for money, singing to you.

Today I made my first puja (prayer) with a priest who didn't scam me--Lonely Planet would be proud. By 10 a.m. this morning I'd already made two climbs to two temples; but the big one here is Brahma Temple, the only temple dedicated to Brahma in N. India. It's stunning, and because it's such a tourist haven--and center-of-the-world for people seeking spiritual enlightenment/catharsis--there are loads and loads of pushy and fake priests around who want to give you a flower and then corner you for money. But I happened upon the right flower vendor (an old woman on the street), took my shoes off, and was given a newspaper -wrapped handful of marigolds and small pink roses. A fair, light-eyed priest led me to the B.T., let me ring the sacred bell, and I gave my flowers to his guru, who gave them back with crystallized sugar cubes in the mix. After a tour of the temple, the priest led me down the street to the lake. We talked politics. He mentioned Clinton had recently been here with Chelsea, and I remarked that many of us believed he was a good president. Then, in the most bizarre cross-cultural exchange-moment I've had yet, we both--the priest and me--remarked how handsome we thought Clinton is. We laughed so hard that we had to stop walking.

Then the priest high-fived me.

We walked a little more to the lake, where I was introduced to Max--another priest who was to complete my puja with me. Someone was definitely making a commission here, but I didn't care.

Max gave me a large plate of more flowers, rice, red and yellow powder, and more sugar: each to signify a blessing for healthy family, long life, marriage, good children, sweet life. He had me recite after him, word by difficult word, the prayers, asked the names of my family members, and then had me place the contents of the dish in the water: enormous carp mouths immediately surfaced to eat the powder--I was so surprised that I nearly fell in. Then, Max tied a red string around my wrist (this is known as the "Pushkar Passport" among tourists), and placed a red dot of powder and holy water on my forehead, between my eyes, for luck. The rupees 100 was worth the experience.

Off to a dinner of my new favorite dish, paneer korma (with nutmeg and clove). I will turn into a chapati, because I love them too. And I love the cows and roosters in the street, and the women who smile back at me from behind their bright-colored saris. I love chai over coffee, I think. I love the peacocks in the morning, the camels on the street, the clang-clang of the bells they wear on their necks, and the lizard who lives in my room, who I've named K.C. And the chanting from the mountainside ashrams, and the red hills of Rajasthan. Signing off for another few days, with love in my heart for you, too. M.

October 06, 2004

Bollywood Scores Another Devotee

Mikki, my hired driver for the next three days, picked me up promptly at 6:30 a.m. on Tuesday to begin our drive to Agra. It was the dustiest, pot-holey-est, diesel-fumiest, most weavingly intense four hours I hope to ever spend in a car that's about the size of this computer.

But seeing the Taj Mahal in its glorious actuality was well worth it. It is as awesome as the postcards promise. But more on that later. It was only one of the highlights of my day.

I learned how to write my name in Hindi.

And then I went to Bollywood.

Mikki insisted (though I was more than willing) that we go to the 9:30 showing of India's latest sensation, "Dhoom" {insert echo effect here}. Everyone's cell phones here are ringing to the smash-hit tune of the flick, so I couldn't wait to see it for myself. As he shooed me into the women's line (!) for tickets (because it was shorter), a shy but curious girl in a brilliant orange sari tapped me on the shoulder and said, 'But do you speak Hindi?' to which I replied that I didn't, but I'd figure it out. She and her posse giggled and stared at me, and continued to do so until I paid for "Diamond box seating" (which gets you a prime seat--far away from the screaming babies in front).

Let's begin with this theater: if all the theaters in America were as nice as this one, people would rent them out for parties. In the lobby, grand, sweeping, round staircases, marble interior (maybe faux, but who cares), and "rest seating" areas with flower arrangements on the tables made for a relaxing prelude to our experience. And then we entered the theater.

Seeing a movie in Jaipur is kind of like seeing a movie in Harlem. Everyone's already seen the movie, they're seeing it now, and they'll see it again, and start singing and saying all their favorite parts while the advertisements roll. Cell phones go off (remember, they're ringing "Dhoom," so people sing along) and are answered, conversations ensue and no one bothers to shut them off. At one point, a cell phone/conversation began behind me, and I was ready to whip around and lay on some "Dhoom" of my own, when I remembered that I really couldn't understand what any of the characters were saying anyway.

One advert in Hindi looked especially interesting, so I asked Mikki what it meant. It was an ad for posthumus eye donors. He added, "When I go to heaven, I will only donate one eye, yes?, so that I can see heaven around me!" "But you're Hindu," I said. "Can't you just donate your third eye?"
He didn't laugh.

Then there's all the things you won't see in American movies. This is a good-guy vs. bad-guy flick, with your prototypical funny guy sidekick and some shtick thrown in for good measure, but nevertheless is an homage to Bond flicks, "Ocean's Eleven", Jackie Chan, and "Rebel Without a Cause" (but on Yamaha motorcycles)--with a nod to Natalie Wood at her finest--and a dash of Stooges to boot. Having said that, "Dhoom" begins with an intense action sequence that even had me cheering along with my Hindustani moviegoers--and then segues right into a sexy musical number, one of three that feature *male* (joined by their female) leads dancing and singing their hearts out ala the Michael "Who's Bad" and Janet "no my name ain't baby" Jackson backup dancer phenom while wearing some of the goofiest, and nay, the most daring fashions a hero can flaunt and still have his masculinity in tact. And oh baby, even with that pink-flowered shirt on, thumbs out and shakin' it Bhangra-style, that cop sure is hot.

In "Dhoom," people walk away from being punched, shot, set ablaze (my favorite slo-mo shot is of the cop, who is on fire from head-to-toe, being handed his weapon of choice by none other than... an extra), and falling out of a truck totally unscathed. Even the little blood one character sports somehow dematerializes in 30 seconds. During dance numbers, costumes change in blink to mimick the seductive key-change of the tunes. And the film boasts enough boob-and-butt shots--in still frame close-up!-- to shame the Superbowl Halftime show.

Absent from the movie, to my disappointment, are the livestock. The film takes place in Mumbai, where I don't think I ever traversed or traveled a street without a cow, water buffalo, mangy dog, or donkey in the middle of it. But for all the dizzying high-speed chases, not a cow in sight! (Didn't the sly cop know enough to plant a herd of heifer in the middle of the highway? --though that would have made this 3-hr. epic finish too soon.)

I was the only person in the entire theater to laugh out loud when a character, under duress, offers "Austin Powers" as his pseudonym.

I'll have to save some of the truly hilarious moments for you to discover on your own, but suffice it to say that some of the one-liners--even in Hindi--were uproarious. I can't wait to get my hands on this soundtrack, and hope to have a Dhoom movie night in Rochester with anyone interested in seeing this Bollywood gem.

Tonight, having got from the hills of Rajasthan--the closest I may ever come to Pakistan--where I visited Jaipur, the "Pink City," the power went out in New Delhi. I was in the street down aways from my hostel, amongst the rickshaws, bikes, motorbikes, pedestrians (both locals and tourists), cows, kittens, children, dogs etc., when the lights went out. This made sidestepping all of the aforementioned pretty hard--and then came roaring an enormous truck, which sucked up most of the room in the street, deliberately spewing a venomous toxin that made all of us choke; women pulled their saris over their heads. It was like being in a cloud of chaos. When I found my Anoop Hotel again, my eyes were red, and I was told that "they spray like this for malaria." Yikes.

I am not going to Nepal--which I'm both sorry and relieved to say. Apparently, things have gotten so tense that the Nepalese government is putting Westerners on buses, in droves, and sending them to the airport to leave. I'll be getting a full refund on my plane ticket. I may head back to Rajasthan or down to Pune, to see how Sanjuro's living situation is panning out, meet his family, and do some sightseeing mid-country. I'll keep you posted.

Meanwhile, thanks for the e-letters! and keep 'em coming! Shanti. (peace.)

October 04, 2004

Three Days in Bombay

Namaste from New Delhi! Since I only have about a half an hour on this computer, I thought I'd begin by telling you, in brief, that all's well: I have not at all suffered any jet lag, nor "Delhi Belly" (though Sanjuro says "just wait..."), nor gotten any crazy dreams from the anti-malarial drugs, and all the things I hoped were true about India so far are true, and all the things I feared about India, so far, are also true.

It's true that it's very, very, very hot. Sweltering: you wake up and begin sweating. A/C here and there, and open windows in taxis, trains, buses, and rickshaws provide respite.

It's true that cows walk around in the streets. There's a calf outside my hostel door right now.

It's true that sometimes the stench can be stifling. Then, a woman walks by with jasmine in her hair or on her wrists, and it's wonderful. Sandalwood is also a common smell in unsuspecting places.

It is a sensational sensory overload. Brilliant saris and people, people, people, crowds and crowds of them, and vendors with loads of things, and loads of stuff going on, and whirlwind traffic's constant honking, and everybody's talking to someone, either on a cell or to another person, or to me, trying to get me to buy a paper fan with a lightstick attached to it (or a jasmine garland. or a makeshift lightsaber. or a gigantic balloon. or a set of postcards. or they just want money.). Food smells are the best, and I haven't been hungry once since I arrived.

Everything I've eaten, in fact, is delectable. My favorite so far was a homemade dish by Sanjuro's cousin, Achala, with whom I just stayed for a few nights. Achala lives, by Indian standards, a charmed life: she has a three-room flat on the Sea in Mumbai, replete with ceiling fans, two bathrooms, and lovely furniture. A most accomodating and gracious hostess, Achala is a lovely woman who takes pride in her home and in her work: she is both the President of an Orphanage (which we visited today), and runs a winery.

During my first day, Achala took Sanjuro (who has visited before) and me around the southern part of Mumbai along the coastline: Malabar Hill, Nehru Park, the Queen's Necklace and the like. We stopped for dosas (thin, fried round cakes dipped in yogurt and sauces)and homemade ice cream, of which Achala is very fond. We shared nougat and pistacio and orange/apricot ice cream, and bonded over our love for ice cream, cooking, and traveling. Achala also took us to an art gallery, attached to which was a "see-and-be-seen" Cafe Samovar, where we sampled some chicken biryani and my new favorite soft drink, Limca (like 7-up, but limey-er). On our way back home, Achala wanted to stop at the market--the name of which escapes me--for some olive oil. This was one of the best parts of the day: imagine a maze of vendors all smushed together under a series of tarps with loads of people, dogs, and kittens all trucking their way through it, waving some appendage so as not be stepped on. Achala knew her way exactly to the olive oil vendor--who, your Pittsburghians will be pleased to know, sold Heinz ketchup in palm-sized packets and big-as-your-head glass jars.

Yesterday, S. and I ventured to the Elephanta caves, by boat (the caves are on Elephanta Island). Upon arriving, S. told me to take off my earrings--and I couldn't figure out why I'd have to do that in a touristy place. Then he explained.

"Monkeys."

The caves were breathtaking--you'll see the pictures, if you want to--enormous carvings of Siva (Shiva to you and me), the destroyer, in his three forms. And yes: monkeys abounded, and they are rascals. And in a very Animal Planet moment, just as I'd been thinking about the monkeys on our way back to Mumbai, Sanjuro tapped me on the shoulder and pointed out over the water. Huge, leggy birds were passing our boat in migration formation, making a pinkish cloud.

"Flamingos."

Yesterday was also my introduction to the survival of the fittest of Mumbai streets. Aside from nearly getting my toes trampled by rickshaws (who never really hit anyone but get dangerously close), I was hounded by children begging me for rupees. On the street, one small girl persisted by laying jasmine garlands on my wrists--when I refused them, she'd get herself underfoot (literally), tripping me almost, tugging on my sleeve, my shirt, my pants. She only left us when we got in a taxi. Later, on a train, an even smaller girl stood in front of me and put her head in my lap; then, when she saw that it wasn't working, touched her hands to her forehead, then to my hands, exclaiming something in Marathi. Then, a small boy, tapping my knee (some of you know that this sends me through the roof, but I maintained composure). I may have remained composed on the outside, but--and pardon the cliche, but I literally felt my gut wrench throughout this episode. It was worse when his mother, who joined him, began tapping on my shoulder. She was holding a naked baby.

Someone once said that if you can't stand the poverty you're seeing in India, you can come home and do something about it. Giving a child a rupee isn't going to help much; but making a donation to an organization can. I have planned to do this. I'm still not over that train experience.

Today we saw a very affirming institution for orphans: Achala's ashram, located on the cusp of the largest slum not only in India, but in Asia. There, Sanj and I were given a tour of the facility by its director, Kamal, who herself was raised there. The place has twice been graced by visits from two presidents of India, and it is truly a remarkable place for the children who are fortunate to wind up there. Infants to late teenagers are both housed and fed, and given activities and lessons there. One of my favorite moments of this trip so far was watching the faces of some toddlers on the floor when they saw us walk past their room. "Namaste!!" They shouted in unison--and then made us touch their toys. Older girls were learning math on slates, on the floor, when they noticed us, jumped up, and came out to the hallway to say hello! and what's your name?! and what country? what country? and then touched my arms and hands, laughing and laughing. I called them my new friends, and they followed us down the hallway, squealing.

Achala insisted, of course, that we get some homemade ice cream after the orphanage and before my leaving for Delhi. This time it was saffron and pistacio, and it was delicious.

My time is nearly up, but just in case anyone's wondering, I did see an two Indian men--not tourists--riding an elephant through the streets of Delhi today.

Tomorrow I'm off to Agra (Taj Mahal), and the next day to Jaipur. If you've emailed, I'll get back to you as soon as I can! Lots of love from the Subcontinent, M.