Thursday, November 29, 2012

Desert Fortress of Jaisalmer

In the farthest ends of Rajasthan’s deserts, a plateau mounting fortress erupts from the otherwise flat and dusty sands.  Jaisalmer glows like honey under the sun, except for where tapestries of every color provide both shade and vibrancy.  With ancient streets even better preserved than Jaipur, and happily devoid of its modernities, Jaisalmer is a handsome old city with a charm that beckons you to get lost in its twisted golden streets.

I spent my nights in Jaisalmer on a rooftop, under the stars, between Bombay kids, French minstrels, tea, beer, and cocktails.  My good humored Rajasthani hosts ran a new guesthouse in this small city with the aim of creating an environment conductive to “chillaxing” and I think they had succeeded supremely.

(I misspelled “chillaxing” and Microsoft Word corrected it, making me both laugh aloud and feel suddenly anguished to see what level of legitimacy the word might have)

Many centuries ago, Jain refugees brought money enough to create layers of walls dimpled by hundreds of imposing bastions.  Large stone balls till sit above the city gate, waiting to be tossed upon the heads of would be conquerors.  A feature typical of these desert fortresses, there is but one way in and out, and it passes through a series of gates set between 90 degree turns.  These turns prevent war elephants to build enough momentum to fulfill their function as battering rams.  Three times Jaisalmer found itself outmatched under siege, prompting its defenders to enact the rite of Johur.  The city’s women would bathe, dress in their finest saris, doll themselves up with makeup, and then surrender their earthly bodies in a mass immolation.  Once all the women and children were burned to ashes, the men would open the gates and attempt to take as many lives as possible before their own were forfeit.

Today the city’s under a new kind of siege.  These distant invaders don themselves in many pocketed cargo pants.  They are adorned with sun block and SLR cameras, and they brandish mighty copies of this year’s Lonely Planet publication.  Some business owners in the walls of the fort say otherwise, but Indian conservationists warn that the city is slowly collapsing in on itself, unable to withstand the burden of modern water consumption with its archaic water management system.

Somewhere in the fortress I bumped into a London girl I recognized from the hostel and joining forces we explored the palace and admired the Jain temples and impressive haveli mansions, with ornate stone divans hanging high above the streets so as to escape the floating dust and noise of desert commerce.  A full quarter of the city’s people reside within the fort, and the fort’s walls and balconies offer inspiring views of the remaining 75%.

Another common feature of modern Indian cities is their ovular shapes.  Widened main roads loop around each city in the footprints of what were once the cities’ outer walls.  Only the gates remain, now serving as focal points of traffic circles and proud testaments of the cities’ histories.  Just outside Jaisalmer’s  wall-turned-roads, the Londoner and I rented paddle boats in the Gadi Sagar, a lovely ghat lined resoirvoir full of catfish, water buffalo, and absurdly ornate shrines.  We finished just in time to enjoy a traditional Rajasthani puppet show featuring tiny dancing camel riders and reincarnating hermaphrodites set to the impressive eastern wailings of a young boy and clacking castanet like blocks.

At night, more chillaxing.  Om, one of our hosts, entertains while cycling through his endearingly off French, English, and American accents.  I win a lot of points with the music snobs for knowing or playing Mulatu Astatke, Thomas Fersen, Los Saicos (thanks Sean Bernhoft), and David Axelrod (thanks Jenny Long).  (All of those artists are amazing – go listen to them)  The Bombay kids come back early from a desert music festival/dance party that apparently wasn’t any good.  There’s chess, pastries, and Indian rum.

Jaisalmer is a popular destination for week long camel treks, but being both shy on time and cash, but still wanting to taste the desert, I went shopping for a half day sunset camel ride.

To better escape the city, a jeep takes you maybe halfway to the Pakistan border and you meet your camels there.  Mine was named Alex.  I don't think you properly realize how much larger camels are than horses until you hop on one and hold on as it unfolds itself into upright position, lurching you forward and then back with violent shudders.

There was only one other westerner, a Nuremberg German named Hannes.  Single file we were led through the desert

Right from the beginning we disturbed an antelope, which took flight until it was indistinguishable from the desert's palette.  This sandy patch of Rajasthan was surprisingly abundant with wildlife.  Black desert beetles left unceasing trails of pin prick ribbons in the sand.  As we startled the air while passing these softly green and white bristled bushes, dozens of white butterflies set sail into the air as if the leaves of the bush had suddenly come to life.

I breathed in the stillness, the quiet calm I haven't sensed since leaving home, or even well before that.  An almost startling contrast to the everyday chaos of Indian city life, I could really understand why the desert calls people.

The shrubbery became increasingly sparse until there were none left to compete with the undulating hills of sand: the dunes we had ultimately been aiming for.  The score of Laurence of Arabia dimmed to silence as we parked our camels.

The German was to stay the night, so we were urged to explore on foot and then collect firewood while our guide took his camels to water.

Given the brevity of our trek, the ground we covered was likely the ground most covered, and there was plenty of evidence of other visitors: ashen fire pits, occasional 650 ml bottles of Kingfisher beer, and a scarcity of beautifully untouched waves of sand.  And occasionally, on the horizon, we could make out the silhouettes of other camel riders.  They never got close enough to be made out and I let my mind fill in the blanks with the faces of spice merchants and young princes making dusky escapes to the distant mansions of secret lovers.

The shadows between ridges of sand grew deeper as the sun nestled into Pakistan, and reluctantly, I left Jaisalmer.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Diwali in Jaipur

And now I’m scribbling into my notebook in a smoky hotel bar by the railway station at the end of the day in Jaipur, the “pink city” and the capital of Rajasthan.  Delhi Belly has finally done its wretched dance in my stomach and I’ve been taking the day with simple steps and simple food.  Peanuts and bananas.  Cuisine much to the liking of any of the thousands of monkeys overlooking their glowing city from their hill cresting Galta Temple.

Oh Jaipur.  The colors of your barren landscape remind me so oddly of those in Southern California, with your salty palette of almond, olive, and cashew… but it’s what sets you apart, your famously pink and well preserved Rajasthani charm, that I’m so in love with.  Whereas some of the temples and palaces of the India I’ve seen so far seem as if mummified fragments of cities past, now shoddily paved over, Jaipur is old and yet still very much alive.  The architecture of the markets, full of pashmina, bangles, and mobile phone stalls, blend seamlessly with the city’s monumental minarets and kaleidoscope palaces.

Jaipur’s past masters must have loved showing off, and thanks to their ostentatious sensibilities we have places like Jantar Mantar, Maharaja Jai Singh’s love letter to the cosmos.  It is a sculpture garden of beguiling angles and proportions and each gargantuan disc, orb, and step ladder is a functional astronomical instrument, measuring the movements of celestial bodies and ourselves in the always moving universe, all with a baffling precision that still holds up today.

Or take Jal Mahal, the impossible palace floating in the middle of a lake, so the royalty might enjoy the company of their mistresses with greater privacy (the same was said of the Hawa Mahal and Nahargarh Fort – the Maharajas sure had a lot of love to give).

Overwhelming is a word I’m perhaps using too abundantly, but too often it’s been the right word.  Such as the moment after my rickshaw curved around a mountain bend, right past elephants and their riders, and the sweeping fortifications of Amber Fortress slap you right in the face.  Birds fill the sky, and on the ground – the very ground you’re walking on – villagers are kneading and hawking some kind of doughy confectionary I abstained from trying.  Squat toilets used by kings still remain (and somehow the odor does as well), as well as engineering marvels like the massive system of wheels and cylinders that helped pull water from the roadside to the fortress’s reservoirs.

My timing in Jaipur was very deliberate and the result of my googling, “best city India Diwali.”  Every year, Jaipur’s many bazaars compete to boast the most spectacular Diwali light displays.  Think Christmas meets 4th of July, but flavored with curry.  By day the roadsides are full of sugarcane, marigold, and candy gift boxes, and when the sun – Jaipur’s ruby red good luck tika – gets washed away by the night, each street erupts in bulbous streams of every color set to the revelry of firecrackers and noisemakers.

I stayed with Stefani, a Chicago native working for an NGO, generously dedicating her time to rebuilding part of the state’s grade school curriculum.  Near her home, I had to be under the careful guise of her cousin, as her landlord is very suspicious about the goings on of a young single woman and imposes a strict curfew.  On Diwali’s most important night, the third night of five, we joined a terribly sweet local family’s celebration.  Prayers were said over marigolds and the purifying smoke of incense before the indulgence of a homemade Indian feast and fireworks.  I had a rather good Indian whiskey and too many cashew pastries coated with some kind of edible silver material.  There were four children running around with sparklers, bombs, and toy guns, and a wave of memories from my own childhood poured into my present.  I could see fragments of the past, mental pictures that haven’t been pulled out in years, the wooden fences and cement patios of long forgotten backyards.  I drank koolaid and ran away from spinners and my parents were so much bigger then.  The night was another mix of the familiar and the exotic.  I couldn’t thank the family enough for sharing their holiday with a stranger.

Before leaving the states, I had decided to put off getting Typhoid shots and anti-malaria pills.  My timing in India was such that those diseases are taking a break, but somewhere in my near future, Myanmar waits for me, and I do want to be better armed against the country’s particularly resistant strains of malaria.  In New York, I likely would have had to pay about $300 for typhoid immunizations and the related consultation.  Anti-Malarials would probably be another hundred or so on top.  In India, after maybe an hour long visit to a very clean and friendly hospital in Jaipur, I got my Typhoid immunization and Anti-Malarials for roughly 12 USD.

The trip to the hospital went much smoother than I had been expecting, but with one important exception.  I had to use the toilet, but I had left my day bag at my host’s apartment.  That means I didn’t have toilet paper.  I don’t know if you know this, but Asian natives don’t use toilet paper.  An Asian latrine typically consists of a hole in the ground, a low lying faucet, and a plastic bucket.  And no instruction manual.  So my visit to the hospital was both an economically laudable decision and a unique cultural experience.

Monday, November 19, 2012


Narinderjit Singh comes from a family of business men and horse breeders -- one of the wealthier families in Amritsar, the comely capitol of Punjab.  His horses are the color of powdered sugar.  The breed is called Nukra, the kind of horse grooms ride to meet their brides.  A proper Sikh, Mr. Singh wears a turban over his uncut hair and takes good care of his family.  He spent many years abroad in the United Kingdom, the United States, and the Middle East, but eventually his ancestral home beckoned him with a voice too yearning to ignore, and he's returned to Amritsar for good to spend his days in a tiny palace he inherited from his grandfather under the condition he was to never sell it.  He leases part of the estate as a cantina and rents the grounds for events.  Birthdays and weddings.  All Summer long people come by the hundreds to pay 100 rupees and swim in one of his three pools.  He breeds his horses and makes enough to live more than comfortably.  He has rooms enough to run a successful hotel, but instead, he offers his room for free to travelers to Punjab.  He is commissioned by the state as a cultural ambassador to foreigners, and he uses Couch Surfing as a means to reach these travelers   That's how I came to enjoy the company and care of the good Narinderjit Singh.

Amritsar is the holiest place for the men and women of the Sikh faith, as it's the home of their holiest and oldest texts, the original hymns of Guru Nanak.  The enscriptions are enshrined by day under a shroud in the famous Golden Temple, a place of worship in the center of a tremdnous pool of water.  Known as the pool of nectar, pilgrims travel for days to was away their sins.  The pool is also where Amristar derives its name.  Guests wash their feet in shallow canals before passing the entrance to a lovely color palate: the white of the complex between the blue of the sky and water, the piercing gold floating in the midst of it all, and bright sprinkles cupcake sprinkles of the many colored fabrics of the pilgrims.  Ethereal hymnals spill out of the loudspeakers, the sung verses of Nanak's prose.

Guru Nanak preached equality and inclusivity, and these sentiments are manifest in the temple complex itself. Open 24/7 and free of entry charge, the temple welcomes all.  Sikhs reject the caste system, and people of all walks sit on mats as equals in the temple's cafeteria.  In my case, naan, dahl, and rice pudding were served to everyone else, gratis.  A polite donation box is placed outside the exit.

The complex is large and meets the needs of its thousands of worhippers with surpsing efficiency -- congestion only becomes dense as you join the throng on the bridge to enter the temple. If the bridge is full, the wait can be an hour long, but it's well worth the time. The gold leafing, the fabrics, and decor alld emand a closer look, and what a lovely surprise: the hymansl on the loudspeaker aren't recordings, but here in th Golden Temple are old bearded Sikhs, singing and playing into the microphones with no notation and without pause.

The second biggest tourist attracgtion in Amritsar is called Matthew Linzmeier.  Many of the pilgrims came from parts of India well away from the tourist circuit, and so the color of my skin and cut of m y clothes were anotlty to them.  Indians here often beg for photos and it's hard to tell if they want to take a photo of you, with you, or if they want you to take of a photo of them.  In all cases, I am happy to oblige, but it did once get to the point where pilgrims were getting in a line to have their photo taken with me.

Near the Gold Temple is Jallianwala Bagh, a clearing where an English officer infamously ordered his men to unload thousands of rounds into unprovoking peaceful demonstrators.  Fleeing Punjabis leapt into a well, risking a great fall to avoid bullets.

My frantically tossed up new itinerary only permitted me a single day in Amritsar, but Mr. Singh insisted I stay another day.  He was right in saying I haven't enjoyed enough Punjabi food and company, but where he really won me over: "...and I am hosting a wedding here tomorrow.  You should really stay and enjoy."  Door closed.  Window opened.  How could I say no?

With an attendance between 200 and 250, this was actually a very small event for an Indian wedding. Guests were welcomed with sweetbreads and soda -- Thumbs Up Cola and Limka Lemon-Lime -- and Mr. Singh's  five and a half Punjabi dancers.

The groom arrived with fanfare upon a white stallion, both rider and steed bedecked with bright ceremonial garb. The groom bore a saber was ornamented with 100 rupee notes.  With scissors he approached the entrance to the estate where all the young single ladies created a barrier with a long strip of red fabric which he bravely cut before passing through.  I leave the symbolism of the act to you.

Then... the bride and groom left!  Mr. Singh explained to the surfers present that the couple went to temple for the actually ceremony, and that most of the guests remain behind to socialize.  Not wanting to miss the ceremony, I had him tie me a turban (heads must be covered in the temple) and I hustled over to where the ceremony was taking place.  It was mostly just hymnals followed by communion, the shared eating of some kind of sweet dough.

Things really got bumping after the bridal party returned.  A dance stage had erupted by the pool, and feigning reluctance, I let myself get dragged up to join the very manly fray (women didn't seem permitted to dance).  I can't think of a time I've been so swept away by the beat of a song; the energy of these dancers was infectious.  The Punjab dance standards had beats that tapped into the tribal urges of a man, but had melodies and composition that maintained the elegance of their heritage.  I tried to rip off moves from Tunak Tunak Tun and I let my style evolve as I watched the laughing and cheering dancers around me.

A stern Sikh with dark aviators and a neat turban that made him look like an oil tycoon approached me on stage with a look like he was going to berate me for making light of their culture.  And then he took out a stack of rupees and with a booming laugh he started to make it rain on the stage.  Children rushed onto the stage to collect the dropping Gandhi faced bills.

I danced until my chest hurt and my shirt was soaked.  After killing five glasses of water and pulling together a beautiful plate of channa masala, dahl, saag, something with cauliflower, and I don't know what else, I sat to eat, but couldn't get a bite in for all the people wanting to speak to me and learn about my feelings of Punjab and India.

After much delightful food and conversation, the party was wrapped.  The guests I met were so gracious and very sentimental about having to say goodbye.  Some families tried to convince me to come home with them.

Just before the bride and groom were to take off in a rose covered SUV, I learned that their marriage was indeed arranged.  They might not have even met before that afternoon.  Tearfully, the bride shared partings with her likewise tearful family and friends.  She may have spent her whole life in a single place, and now she is to be married to a man in another village I don't know how far away with an entirely different family.  There were a few moments throughout the day I stole eye contact with the bride and I wished I could have read her face better.  Was there a greater share of joy or sadness under her fragile veil of composure?  She was so lovely.  I don't know if a woman can be lovelier than when in an Indian bridal gown.

Though if she can, I certainly want to see it.

Friday, November 16, 2012


The poverty in the city seems bad, and then you take a train with a window seat.  First, as the car lurches out of the station, you see meager tents of canvas, wooden branches, and string -- their tenants scrounging about the drifting waste tossed out by train commuters.  Then there are the squatters that build temporary little hovels on now defunct railway platforms.  The trash is endless, and as the train picks up velocity the world outside the frame becomes a flickering film strip of human squalor and civilization springs up from the living landfills.  Right out of plastic bottle cesspools, cubic brick habitats spring up from the filth like giant soiled lego blocks, one built upon the other.  Okay, you think, it's awful, but it's sadly comprehensible  that there might be a ring of squalor around such an enormous city, its poor subsisting off of the incrementally wealthier's refuse.  But then it keeps going.  You count the minutes passing, praying that each naked child playing with garbage and each polio ridden cripple is the last you'll see here.  I can't properly convey the enormity of it, the poverty.  The homeless of New York seem like royal dukes by comparison.

It takes too long, but eventually the hovels diminish in size and consistency, and are slowly replaced with wild honey colored grasses.  Maybe a field or two of marigolds.  And trees.  Trees bent, brown, and hobbled like beggars' knees, but they're trees.

It all makes my heart ache and I don't know what to do but feel ashamed for my abundance of good fortune.  That's all I can say about it right now.

Patrolling Jhansee Fortress

My Thursday morning was one of commuting: an early morning bus and then a train back to New Delhi to transfer to a train to Amritsar the day after.

The first stop, after the five hour bus ride from Khajuraho, was in a city called Jhansi.  I had a few hours to kill, so I let my driver to the railway station talk me into visiting the city's famous hilltop fortress, and I'm glad he did (though I really need to step up my game when it comes to my haggling skills).

The fort was a popular destination for young lovers.  They tucked themselves away in arch peaked doorways and ancient balconies overlooking the now modern city.  Were I a local, it would certainly be a favorite haunt of my own (it costs a local a 10 Rupees entrance to my own 100).  Moments after entering, I was beset upon all sides by "hello sir, rupees?"  The beggar children were charming but very persistent.  I let them follow me through courtyards and single file down narrow passageways.  They followed me to the first steps of a stairwell falling into perfect darkness, and that's where they stayed.  I used my hands to explore the belly of the fortress, and that's when my game began.

Inching along in the dark, I was a foreign spy with primitive explosives concealed under my pashmina cloak.  Creeping slowly along, the ground becomes softer.  A stale pungency climbs up my nostrils.  What's that chirping?  Look up.  Bats!

On the ramparts overlooking the inner sanctum, I was a pike wielding sentry, scanning the merchants in the bazaar... hmm... that squirrel looks suspicious.  By the drawbridge, I was an archer, taking careful aim upon a great siege of bicycles, rickshaws, and donkeys carrying bags of rice. And in the gardens I was a prince, welcoming dignitaries from distant lands.

These were my first steps off of the main tourist circuit and I was regarded with greater respect and curiosity from the locals.  A trio of young men asked, "Please, will you take picture?" but when I reached for their camera, I realized they wanted to take a picture with me.  Two tiny sisters in blue saris squeaked timidly, "Hello uncle! Kyaa aap ko Hindi aatee hai?" to which I had to offer a reluctant no.  The girls were so very cute; I wished I knew all the Hindi.

Another train ride and I'm back in my favorite place, Paharganj.  Something's different about it though.  Is it cleaner?  Are the touts missing?  The drivers, are they quieter?   More polite, perhaps?  As I strode confidently across the main avenue before the railway station, it occurred to me that the culture shock had worn off.  This is the same New Delhi, but I was no longer bewildered by it or suffering from jet lag.  And somehow, for the third time in a row, my hostel had overbooked their dorms and upgraded me to a private lodging -- each time in a room and bed larger than my own in Brooklyn.  I had just enough time to doze, shower, shave, and edit some photos before my train to Amritsar, home of the Sikhs.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Jama Masjid in Old Delhi & Erotic Temples in Khajuraho

There's something peculiarly enchanting I didn't expect about being barefoot in temples, each requiring guests to leave their shoes at the steps.  The tactile sensation of bare feet on millennia old sandstone makes one feel more connected with the place and all the millions who have past in the same way before you.

I spent the last day in the capitol exploring Old Delhi, where I explored my first mosque, the largest in Delhi, Jama Masjid.  After leaving my sandals with the shoe minder, I entered the encompassing main courtyard and was struck jaw agape and speechless.  My eyes locked onto the central pool where Muslims were cleaning themselves, then drifted up the central surface of the mosque, and lastly into the air, following flocks of birds flying from minaret to minaret.  For a small fee, you're permitted to climb to the top of the south-west minaret and take in a grander sweep of the old Delhi slams and markets.  I'm sure you could see for miles if it weren't for the all-choking smog.

A little bit east from there is a public sanctuary where the great Gandhi's body was cremated.  Already tender from paying my respects, I turned my gaze in stifled agony towards the sky and was completely overwhelmed by what I saw: in a perfect circle directly above me, the color blue.  I hadn't seen the sky in the better part of a week, and here was an aperture letting in the sun, as if the ashen blanket of smog was keeping a reverent distance for India's kind hero.

I was glad to hop on a train leaving Delhi, but frustrated with what little efficacy I had with my time there.  I did and saw so little in my three days that I'm sure in could have been squeezed into a well planned single day.  There was still more I wanted to do there, but for the life of me I needed a change of scenery.  My train was an overnight to Khajuraho.  This city was already on my radar before I received an invitation to a wedding there by a fellow Couch Surfer, but when I finally reached the village, I learned he had suffered a severe case of food poisoning in Mumbai, and was unable to take the train as he planned.  Heartbroken, but determined to have a good time, I rented a bicycle and headed for Khajuraho's famous erotic temples.

The western group of temples is a series of delicately carve Hindu temples at least a thousand years old and etched with delightfully lewd depictions of bathing women, kama sutra positions  and the sexual misadventures of gods and princes from the ancient epics.  From a temple guard, "You see here, he is trying to make the kiss.  And now they are married, and he is trying to make the sex.  Big boobies, yes?"

I was led to a temple dedicated to Shiva, where I received my first tika, one of the many names for the little Hindu forehead dot which bears good fortune.  I was taken to the centerpiece in the inner sanctum, a large stone cylinder snug and erect in a large stone basin, representing Shiva's love making to his wife and their respective genitalia.

I followed barefoot through the steps of worship.  Climbing the stairs, you pause to touch a step and step and then your heart.  You ring a bell to announce your presence.  I was instructed to place my hands on the centerpiece, Shiva's stone phallus, and I was led through a series of chants.  It started with Ohms and then a series of other I couldn't put now into words.  The chanting is rhythmic and builds in tempo and intensity; the eroticism of the act is impossible to miss.  A strange euphoria begins to take hold as you get lost in the chanting, somehow exhilarating and calming at the same time.  I felt serotonin and endorphins rush through my arms and legs: the orgasm-like rush I assume people might call a religious experience.

I wonder if the thrill of chanting was enhanced or diminished by being a westerner who knows naught of Hinduism.  More, because of its exoticism, or less, for my being without the tradition of it and its associated lore.

I was later joined by two young local boys, and the three of us took to the old village by bicycle.

Still locally governed by the caste system, the village was physically divided into five sections -- one for each caste.  The village doesn't trust Indian police, fearing their corruption, so they prefer to settle matters of the law internally.  They trust a panel of five judges -- again one from each caste, from the Brahmin right down to the untouchables.

The women of the village were up on ladders, painting their houses in anticipation of Diwali.  The children were running up and down the alleyways with empty tires and inflatable balls, pausing occasionally to beg, "hello sir, Rupees?" or "Namaste, pen please?"  The boys guiding me urged me not to give, not wanting the children to find reliable gains from begging.  Instead, they took me to the volunteer run school by Belgians, I think, where I could make a more meaningful contribution to their community if I wanted.

The boys lived in the old village so I tipped them for their time and head to the east temple complex, dodging holy cows all along the way.

The eastern temples were maintained by Jains, a sect I've been curious about  as they too are vegans, even if their reasons are different than my own.  They permit no leather or tobacco on their holy grounds, and explained their religion as a Hinduism/Bhuddism cross breed.  The main difference between their central figure and the Buddha is merely a matter of where their holy mark resides: Bhudda, on his forehead, and for the Jains, centered on his chest.

A young Muslim outside the grounds asked if I cared to take a motorcycle ride with him up the mountain to watch the sunset and smoke biri cigarettes over conversation.  My experience in New Delhi urged me to trust no one, but I was eager for plain conversation and he assured me he didn't want compensation, so the two of us plus his friend hopped on a bike -- that's "Indian style" -- and hit the mountain for nice conversation and biri cigarettes.  Not gunpoint robbery and left for dead in the mountains.

Expanding on "Indian style," specifically the missing concept of personal space: India is so densely populated, placing value on maintaining space between yourself and other things would be a terrible inconvenience.  The three of us on the motor bike isn't a particular impressive feat.  I've seen 12 men in a single SUV and ten passengers in a three wheeled rickshaw!  There are regularly up to six vehicles wide in the two lanes of traffic, and I've been so tightly packed in lines of people that anywhere else it would have been a kinky thing.

There is also a great deal of platonic intimacy between men. You will see more dudes holding hands than at the gay parade in Chelsea.

Anyways, I finished the day at a restaurant where I befriended a kind Tibetan-Swiss man on his fifth visit to India.  He sung of New Delhi as being up there with London and Paris, and as one of the world's greenest capitals!  I told him of my experience there and wondered if we could possibly be talking about the same New Delhi.  He'd convinced me to give it another shot, and since it's such a central location, I very well may.

Friday, November 9, 2012

New York -> New Delhi

Touching down in New Delhi International, I couldn’t believe it: we landed right in the middle of a sandstorm.  Planes only two terminals away were almost entirely lost in the softly glowing sand colored haze.

Stepping into it, however, I was horrified to realize that New Delhi wasn't suddenly stricken by a sand storm or anything like that – the sandy haze was rather part of the city’s permanent condition.  The dust and the smog are so omnipresent I found I could stare at the midday sun without penalty.  A sun that looks far away, like it’s too timid to come any closer.

I’d read heaps in preparation for my visit, and I’m glad I did.  From a mile away, anyone could tell me as a westerner, and as such, I found myself almost universally bombarded as a skinny beardless Santa Claus with a bag full of rupees.  If I didn't already know ahead of time how to navigate and avoid the myriad scams rampant in New Delhi, I surely would have been eaten alive by touts and con artists.

Nothing, however, can prepare you for the experience of being here.  New Delhi traffic makes getting around in Manhattan look like baby town frolic.  Pedicabs, trucks, and rickshaws whirl about in a flying frenzy, leaving mere centimeters of clearance as they dodge pedestrians, cows, and goats, and each other, even at high speeds, and up to six vehicles across in two lanes of traffic.

My time so far has been excruciatingly bogged down by logistical issues.  My hostel was hidden smack dab in the middle of Paharganj, which has to be one of the most congested places in the world (though I feel like I'm probably going to have to eat those words later).  Every space is occupied by people, motor vehicles, and animals.  Every alley way is packed with guest lodgings next to footwear vendors next to samosa stands next to five guys peeing against a wall.  The air is a pungent cocktail of turmeric, carbon monoxide, and feces, garnished with the whistle of firecrackers and a thousand klaxons.

An aside: as I’m scribbling this down on a rooftop restaurant in Paharganj, my server brings me my beer in a teapot, as they don’t have a liquor license just yet.  Dinner was a Mumbai specialty, the sizzler: a sizable veggie patty atop carrots, cauliflower, and baked cabbage, all of it drowned with gravy.  My favorite dish so far (the place somehow offered enchiladas as well, but I thought it best to eat local in this case).

The morning of my second day was nearly entirely consumed at the New Delhi train station.  Despite the urgency with which New Delhians drive, they are remarkably patient in other affairs; for instance: the pedicab driver who stopped for a cigarette break or the one lady at the information desk, who was serving the hundreds there, taking personal calls.  I spent at least two hours in queues, and learned that none of the trains in my first week and a half of itinerary had any availability and that the office was not taking credit cards at the moment.  I had to walk nearly a kilometer to find an ATM that actually had cash in it, rebuild in a moment an itinerary I had worked on for months, and make two trips back to have them correct mistakes they made in processing my tickets.

So it probably sounds like everything’s been terrible so far, and well, things have been pretty terrible so far.  But it’s amazing what a shower and a good night’s rest can do.  Last night before I went to bed, a man in an alley paused while getting a straight razor shave to tell me, “you have an Indian face,” while gesturing towards my mustache, “a nice Indian face.”  Those were the first words I heard all day without the hope of profit lurking behind them.  I decided to let that be a turning point.  New Delhi was just one of the many faces India has to offer.  I finally have my affairs in order, I’ve acclimated (or at least I have a bit), and I’m finally optimistic again.  And it only took one day of “Oh God, what have I done!?!” to get this way.  More: my next stop is Khajuraho, where I’ve been invited as a guest to a wedding.  An Indian wedding.  Yes please.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Milano and Me

My fifteen hour layover in Milano was a bonus I never planned for, but eagerly pounced upon when I saw the option.  Plus I quite prefer overnight transit whenever it’s an option.  It’s awfully nice to wake up and be at your destination (works better when you can actually score some sleep, though).  Since I had been nothing but smitten by any of the other Italian cities I’ve been to, I had high expectations for my time in Milano.  Maybe it was the monkey’s fist in my stomach, still clenching tight, but the whole day left me disappointed.

If you took Manhattan’s fifth avenue and turned it into a city, but quainter and – well – more Italian, that’s Milano.  Price tags kept the city’s cultural accessibility at a look but don’t touch distance for a shoestring budget traveler like myself.  Even the McDonald’s was outrageously priced – not that I would have eaten at a McDonalds otherwise…

Strike that.  I take back my Manhattan comparison; Milano is obviously more like a tiny Italian Paris.  Each lovely building shoulders the next at a strictly uniformed height and they’re all dressed in their finest architectural accoutrements.  This comparison is a lot more flattering, but still the city’s painterly allure wasn’t enough to satisfy me.  The people there didn’t have that famous Italian heat, and the city wasn’t very welcoming to backpack style travelers.

I did, however, eat Milano’s centerpiece right up.  The Duomo Cathedral is absolutely wonderful and inimitable in its loveliness.  Winding through the flamboyantly flying buttresses on the roof while the sounds of a Napoleon era brass marching band drifted up from the square gave me a taste of the magic I had come to expect from Italy.

Peculiarly, I’m finding that the farther I come along in editing my photos, my memory of my day in Milano loses its ashy bitterness and instead beings to glow with a warm rosiness to it.  Perhaps I in fact hate traveling, but only think I enjoy it as time passes and the fallacies of nostalgia do their handiwork on my memory.  If that’s the case, then… I’ve made a huge mistake.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Escape from New York

"We can't send you a cab: there is just no gas!" The cab operator went on to explain that drivers were waiting five or six hours in line to pay six dollars a gallon for strictly rationed gasoline. Sandy already blew away one of my flights out of the states, and she was threatening to do it to another.
Two nights prior, I crossed the Williamsburg Bridge into drowned out Manhattan; all the power below 40th street was cut. All the lights were out. Hauntingly, the lamps lighting the bridge were cut off at its very apex. Approaching the middle from the Brooklyn side showed nothing but blackness, as if the bridge was unfinished halfway.

New York was a ghost town. Each skyscraper had maybe one or two glowing squares on the sum of its surfaces – tiny candles reflecting really how few of those living in Manhattan chose to remain. With the exception of the now candle lit bars, the streets were for the most part barren. The homeless – no doubt used to living without – also remained. They had torn open barrels and set their contents ablaze to keep warm and thus put the finishing touches on the post-apocalyptic zombie film mis-en-scene.

I, like many, didn't take the hurricane very seriously. Although my neighborhood was spared the worst of it, I think I'll take better care to make sure my apartment has an adequate stock of clean water, flashlights, and beans.  Lots of beans.

Just Before the hurricane's peak

We did end up finding a cab – we were taken to JFK International by a Bangladeshi who worked for a private Brooklyn based cab service and whom I was pretty sure was only Bangladeshi to taunt me for having to cut Bangladesh out of my itinerary – and I say “we” because my sweetheart is a romantic and made sure we were flying out of the same time and place.  When the time came I picked what I thought was the most cinematic of parting spots: right in the very center of the check-in lobby in a patch of even sunlight.  We exchanged first tear soaked goodbye letters and then tear soaked goodbye kisses.  I left with my stomach tied up in a big monkey’s fist of a knot.  I swallowed melatonin and prayed for sleep that would never come.