Exploits of a travel writer on the run. Subject: India

Wednesday, December 29, 2004

It's a sad and beautiful world-- thankfully, no Tsunami news

Hey everyone,

Just wanted to let you know, I am back in Austin after miles and miles of miles and miles traveling and eating and sleeping and coughing and watching wonderful dvd after dvd. Thank you Uncle Gene for the Criterion "Down by Law" dvd. Jarmusch is king.

Have had to deal with only small health issues, mostly in my head, but got an all clear from Dr. Gupta here in Austin, have a sinis infection and maybe something intestinal happening. Who knows what else might be happening, but I'll keep you posted. Weight loss is hovering around 17 now, but no Japanese encephalitis or viral meningitis or any other brain-wasting malady other than my anti-malarial medication, sleep deprivation, and jet lag. Sleep is in order over the sleepless new year's weekend.

Have been passing out all the goodies for people, and never has a great holiday season been so cheap. I miss being there, but being back here is where I need to be. Insights about USA from my precious first days here (y'know, with the season). By no means a complete or erudite list:

  • America is blessed, and not as crooked as I thought when I left. I love America. This place really is great, and we need to contribute to make it greater and greater. Two party politics are not democratic-- India is a real democracy, with Communists, Socialists, Capitalists, Meists, Maoists, Youists, and a plethora of choices. America has been constipated for too long, but only because our generation has opted out of the process. We saw what happens when we sit on our collective ass. Start putting your money where you shit. Or sit.
  • Americans are fat, but at least they give each other room to breathe. Orderly lines were very helpful (but boring) during my travel odyssey.
  • Minneapolis Customs was a breeze, and their terminal like a mall. It chilled me to the bone, literally. No jacket from Mumbai to LA, and I didn't need it for the most part. Amsterdam had great cheese, and I bought some. Also a cappucino.
  • The on-flight slide-show info scared me in that there was info preparing us for fingerprinting and facial recognition software at customs. I'm sure I got a face zap, but didn't have to put my fingers anywhere but my pockets this time.
  • I was put on the "no-fly" list in LA to Tulsa, but they got me off in five minutes. One way ticket flagged me in the profiler. The Employee at the Southwest counter said that they had "added a bunch of names right after the election," and said that she had stopped about 50 people, none of which were detained. She didn't see the point, but that's not her job, after all.
  • I hope that Werner is alright. He had made plans to be on the southern coast for new years, I think, in Pondicherry, South of Chennai. Brother where art thou? Heard from him shortly before tsunamis, but not sure from where he posted.
  • I am fine, but like the rest of the world, flattened by news of devastation. Met people coming from Sri Lanka to Kerala, but nobody on their way down. Andaman Islands flattened too. Too close for comfort. Overpopulation is India's #1 problem, especially in these kind of crises. Would like to help? Check this out:

God Bless google, Everyone,

Timmy Tine

Monday, December 20, 2004

Real Time-- End of the Trip-- Hooray fer Bollywood!

Hey Everyone,

It's good to be back on the grid, I guess, and back in my home away from home-- Mumbai. It's weird, I think I could live in this massive city, where I can do anything at any time, find anything I want, utilize public transportation-- hell, I even got a job here! I could probably do this big city, I suppose. But I miss my peoples back in the states, and I'm really looking forward to getting back with all my goodicious gifts to shower upon them.

The job I'm referring to is voiceover work for a studio here that specializes in animated movies and other more industrial projects, as well as translating into Hindi most American television programs. Leela, the Director of the program, is a former Bollywood singer and recording artist, and keeps an impressive office and recording studio in a northern area of Mumbai called Andheri West, which is fairly close to Film City, where the Bollywood magic happens. I went in for a voice test on Saturday, and they wanted me to play the part of Monkey God Hanuman in a feature length picture about Vishnu; boy, that totally had my Planet of the Apes psyche psyched. Alas, it is probably not to be, simply because I'm leaving tonight. I'll probably end up doing something less glamorous, like some voiceover work for an online tutorial about Help Desks and Call Centers (holy outsourcing!) that will be used here. Apparently, having an American accent in India is a pretty hot commodity-- at the very least, my work will pay for room, board and all the food I eat in Mumbai this weekend. Needless to say, the trip has exceeded my expectations in every possible way.

Well, like it says in the title, this is the real time end of the trip, but I will start adding posts when I get back in the states, in particular a Tim's Trip Index that reads like Harper's, and hopefully, with the help of Bri, I can include these and other writings along with an expanded photo gallery on the website I will be launching in 2005-- timlandia.net!

Well gosh, it's been a great one, and I'm glad I took you along for the ride. I hope you caught a little of the rush I was feeling-- at times, it felt great to just spew it out-- I even like the misspellings and run ons and messed up grammar-- it seems straight out of my consciousness to you at times, no filter-- and isn't that what blogs are about?

Thanks for my caregivers back in Austin, in more ways than one, Brian and Melissa, for making me feel like home was being looked after (uh, no mayo, please-- I think that was a momentary lapse of Pink Floyd, or something like that); Nina and Rajiv for good advice about Konkan and Eunuchs, Dad and Ann for being around almost every time I called, same for Laura; Werner for Kingfishers and "the flipping of the switch," Toyo for the brilliant insight connecting Thali and macrobiotic food; Kuma and Wolfgang for chillums, Jalendra and Pappu for the Palitana, Mr Jain for the excellent Thalis and dinner conversations, Amma for restoring my groove, Sebin Vaddakkan for breaking down the South Indian Thali in Ernakulum, Bhavesh for being a friend in Diu-- you have a great future I'm sure-- knock 'em dead in Pune; Josh Goodman for the excellent Argentine music info and Shiva Moon tip, Mr Balloo, for the mad dash to the cigarette stand during that stop in Tamil Nadu, Manoj Bhatt at the phone booth-sized Graffitty Cyber Cafe in the Fort area of Mumbai, for taking care of my thousand-plus photos and offering pretty kick-ass surfing speed consistently; and for all the people I didn't mention-- I'm sure you'll get into this offering at some point, as I plan to write in more detail about this epic journey.

I leave for Amsterdam tonight at 1:30-- wish me luck, and I see you soon!



Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Om Beach, This Side of Paradise

Well, just a bit of an update while before I get a boat to Paradise Beach. I took a grueling 26 hour bus trip from Ernakulum to Mangalore to Gokarna last night without any sleep and a very wasted constitution. I am now in the last state I will visit here, my days being in the single digit count now. The state name is Karnataka, by the way, and this is beach area outside the main town and beach named Gokarna -- the progressively less-commercialized Om, Half-Moon, and Paradise to the south, and the northward "secret" Honey beach, which is probably the place to be, but I'm already too far south to go back now. Besides, I've located an out-of-the-way place with less rave listenin', bong hittin', dour lookin' groups of Israelis and more friendly people in a place just past the jagged rocks of Half-Moon beach. Appropriately, it is called Paradise Beach. I plan on being here for a couple of days, and then making my final return to Mumbai for a shopping extravagrancy before I'm back in the U.S.S.A. If you want something in particular here, now's the time to tell me, people.

Until then, I'll be living outside the grid, thankfully. I will get back with all you sometime Saturday when I get back after another punishing bus experience from Mangalore to Mumbai for the final Hurrah and Closing of the Circle for my trip. A little caveat on the bus ride directed to Rajiv: I should have listened to your advice and planned my Konkan train ride a month ago-- the Goan visitor scene, which is ragin' for Christmas season and definitely worth avoiding, has caused every single train trip from Ernakulum to Mumbai to be booked -- bummer --with a waiting list of up to one hundred in some cases-- double bummer. Guess I won't be taking the train anymore. I'm gonna kinda miss that side-to-side swishing motion.

Well, if traveling by bus and train makes you a little more Indian each time you do it, I reckon I'm about 75% pure Indian now. But I would have liked to have earned that distinction in some other, less kinetic ways I'm sure.
I took a great trek this morning with a horrible choice of footwear (flip-flops, what was I thinking?) up the craggy terrain of the small jutting cliffs that overlook the ocean and ended up far away from the scene of overtoursity Om beach, and at last a place where only real effort or knowlege from the locals would get you there. Paradise even. I should really get out there and start doing nothing, so I'll talk to you soon.

Sunday, December 12, 2004

Mother Hugger

Ok, a flash forward to the present- from my northern travels I had taken off on a massive 37 hour marathon trip starting from Mumbai that would take me through the Western Ghats, Andral Pradesh (the heartland of India, which reminded me of Kansas, with thousand upon thousands of sunflowers in brilliant golden bloom), near Chennai (Madras), through Tamil Nadu, and eventually drop me off in the town of Ernakulum-Kochi, which is in slightly southern Kerala. I had a great time, befriending several people (let’s face it, we had plenty of time to get to know each other), and learning what to do on the train stops—when to get off for a short while, which stops had delicious stalls, and how to keep some sunlight in your life while being held in the cooled-incubator atmosphere of the berths. One old banker, who called himself Baloo, remarked towards the end of the trip, “Tim, you have become a little more Indian.” It was music to my ears, as you could probably imagine.

We touched down in Ernakulum, and I took an autorickshaw over to Fort Cochin, across the harbor from the mainland. The town was quaint, but I had been in a poopy mood, as evidenced by earlier entries, and India tends to reflect your state of mind, so I found it draining and remarkably perfunctory tourist experience. I decided to go as quickly as possible to the place I had been dreaming about since I had started reading about India- the backwaters. These backwaters, stretching along the coast of Kerala for 100 kms or so, were a endless maze of fresh and salt water canals which had maintained a pristine ancient fishing culture that was one of the crown jewels of the Indian Tourist experience. It attracted visitors from India and around the globe, and rightly so, because the relatively unspoiled area would make any photographer salivate: miles of shoreside villages, ashrams, and cathedrals, fishing enclaves untouched by time, pinafores of cocoanut groves spinning ad infinitim.

I had picked up a local bus, with the typical pushing old ladies and shoving hapless children to secure my sacred space, at 6am in Ernakulum and in three hours I was rolling into Kollam with a slightly upset stomach and a serious jones for a breakfast dhosa. After tanking up and getting water for the trip, I boarded the tourist-laden Ferry boat tour sponsored by the state. This was not a particular disappointment, because my trusty Lonely Planet had warned me thusly; the plan was to check it out, and if it seemed a worthy endeavor, I would hire a smaller rice boat to do more indepth adventuring from the town of Allapy, about 80km away.

Well, like most of my plans, this was not to be. The first part of the cruise was gorgeous and pleasant, offering everything I had expected it to be—the mood was mellow, and even the most persnickety travelers ( man, imagine a control freak in this country!) were happy for the moment. Then the moment of Destiny hit me—perhaps one that changed my life forever.

Our tour guide, who was very informative and English friendly, did a great job of explaining all of the points of interest along the way. But it was one that jumped out at me and made my synapses fire with the possibilities. We were closing on what would turn out to be a delicious Southern Thali lunch, he said it: “After lunch, we will be passing the ashram of Mata Amrunthanandamayi, and it just so happens that she is at the ashram currently.” I lit up and asked him, “Is this the hugging saint?” He nodded, and said that she was not usually here, but traveled to other countries eight months out of the year. I was instantly drawn to it, to see the ashram, to experience. I had a little head/heart tug-of-war, but just after lunch I let him know that I wanted to be dropped of there. The bonus was that the ferries always dropped by there, and that I could pick one up at any later date for no extra cost. My fate was sealed, and I jumped off the boat, walking with purpose towards the massive complex.

Saint Mata Amrunthanandamayi, also known as Amma, or simply mother, is a highly esteemed being in India and a towering world-known humanitarian. She is revered because of her unrelenting love and compassion for everyone with whom she came into contact. She has been around the world several times, hugging and consoling an estimated 21 million people over the last thirty years. In India, she is thought to be an incarnation of God on earth, a person with equal billing with Jesus, Gotama, and Mohammed. Some would say that she is what sent those Bodhisattvas to us in the first place.

It was no small affair indeed. Before I knew it, I was in the Central Courtyard in a sea of thousands of devotees, both Indian families and what I would consider the typical Western New Age goofballs, with more of the aforementioned doodoo dreadlocks and prayer beads. Most people had on pristine white dhotis, saris, and shirts. Some stuck with the typical Indian Sunday clothes, which would be the dress shirt and slacks. I decided to go with that, because I was getting the strong weird cult vibe from the westerners, and that’s just not my style. Besides, if Amma were the Real Thing, what I was wearing wouldn’t matter anyway. She would accept me as I was.

After doing all the necessary registration, retrieval of bedding, and getting my pack up to the thirteenth floor of the largest central highrise, I chilled out for a second; the energy there was palpable, and I had a hard time adjusting to all of the thousands of people milling about in the small city of an ashram. I learned later that it was indeed her home ashram—in fact, her parents still lived at the family home on the grounds, and her first temple, which had been converted thirty years before from the stable house. Over the years, adjoining buildings and canteens had been built in a seeming haphazard fashion to accommodate virtually any need of a devotee: library, laundry, general store, hospital, juice bar, Internet Café, bookstore, Aruyvedic massage, and other emenity. All from it’s simple genesis of several small huts along the ocean. There seemed to be something about it, no doubt.

After I took a little nap, I started wandering around the grounds. When I was checking in, the American with kind eyes told me that Amma would be giving darshan, or blessings, to the public all day. He told me that if I wanted to check it out, that going to the entry point was in the back of the temple. Intrigued, I set out towards the temple and witness what was happening. I was clueless as to the ways of the ashram, other than some general rules, so I started up a spiral staircase at the back side, not noticing any other entrances. I topped the spiral staircase, my flipflops left behind in respect for the sacredness of the temple, and found myself on the female side of it ( Hindu for Dummies—temples are divided between men and woman so there are less distractions from your spiritual striving) with a couple of white clad nuns staring at me—I quickly passed over to the men’s side using a back corridor, and came in on the main room in which Amma was giving darshan to thousands of people. I realized only later that I had completely bumrushed the show by doing this, although it was unintentional. In hindsight, I think it was for a reason. A monitor approached me kindly. I said “What do I do?” I had no idea. He said, “Wait here just a second,” And left me to watch her. I stood transfixed by the throng of followers and devotees crowed around her at her pedestal. She sat in the middle of it all, happy, smiling, and laughing, administering hug after hug to men and women coming from their respective lines. Some people got hugs and kisses, some, a stern talking to, some, a gentle whisper. Others received blessed apples and oranges, called Prasad, or garlands of flowers. Every person seemed to be treated differently. She obviously commanded great respect and love from everyone there, and I became enchanted by the whole experience. The monitor came back to me. “Well, Westerners receive darshan after all the Indians here get it. Since we don’t know how long that will take, I have a hard time telling you when and if you’ll receive it. But you are welcome to sit here for as long as you like.” It was three thirty in the afternoon, and I would be going for orientation at five in another part of the temple. I thought I would stay around until it was time to go there.

I felt a little disheartened to find that I might not get to meet her at that day, or ever, since my stay was a brief one, but at that point a strange peace came over me. I immediately decided that if I was meant to meet her, I would. If not, at least I would see what was going on. I sat on the floor and watched with more and more interest. There was live music being played, and the crowd would clap and sing when the tempo would quicken and intensify. After an unmeasured amount of time, I felt my neck getting sore. I looked at my watch. Four forty-five. God, had I been watching her unmoving for an hour and fifteen minutes? It seemed like five minutes had passed. I was weirded out by the spell that had come over me. Why was I feeling this way? Dazed, I decided to check out and go to orientation.

The orientation was the typical video and speech about the Ashram, Amma’s history, and her many accomplishments. I won’t go into details now, but you can check it out on her link at the end of this entry. We had to go out of the Temple because the guide was having a hard time speaking over the music. She spoke to our group of five for several minutes, and showed us some of the major sites on the premises. Then she turned to all of us and said, “Have you met Amma before?” Everyone else was clamoring that they hadn’t and wanted to, but I decided to stay silent. She finally asked me directly, and I said no. She said, “Well, I will get you into see her, because I think it is really important that you all meet her if you haven’t. Man, people were really freaked out and uptight about doing it, and at that point I realized that many people waited and waited but weren’t able to, and Amma’s presence at that particular ashram was short-lived, possibly for only a few days more. It was a valued experience, but I refused to be caught up in it. I knew that if I was destined to be there, it would happen.

The guide took us through the gated entrance on the men’s side of the temple (which I had earlier circumnavigated out of ignorance), and into the central room once again. She instructed one of the monitors to let us in when the Westerners started coming through. I was with two other men, one being an American who kept wanting me to respond to his pithy, somewhat cynical comments. He wanted to receive darshan, he wanted to receive darshan, but he didn’t trust the monitor. Did I trust the monitor? I nodded yes, and ignored him. e got up and headed down to find a place in line. I sat crosslegged on the floor and stared at Amma. Many followers would crowd around her and jockey for places evercloser to her pedestal, just to be near her. Two attendants took gifts she had received, read questions posed on paper, and adjusted her veil when it came off of her after a particularly passionate hug. It was a really amazing scene, to say the least. Unlike anything I had experienced.

I started thinking while there on the floor, about Mom. For those who don’t know, she died five years ago at a relatively early age from a brain tumor. It is surely something that I’m dealing with, and being in the presence of this Divine Mother made me think about my own Ma. I became emotional thinking about her, and thoughts of our relationship and what I missed about not having her love any more permeated my thoughts. I was lost in this when a hand gently touched my shoulder. It was another monitor.
“Are you one of those people in the orientation group who wanted to receive darshan for the first time?” I nodded and he motioned for me to get up. I did, and he asked if there were any others from the group in my vicinity. I didn’t see any, and told him that I thought they had gone to stand in line. He said, “Well, just step in line here. I looked at a group of Westerners, who looked a little miffed that I was cutting in—they were unwelcoming of me. I looked back at the monitor, and he realized he needed to be more specific. He approached the line and said, “Step in here.” And the line parted and I was inserted. The whole time, I knew that it was meant to be.

I was now twenty feet from her, and I became nervous. I started studying what everyone was doing so that I would keep the line flowing and not embarrass myself. As I approached the pedestal, one of the assistants took my glasses and instructed me to get on my knees and asked my language preference. As I scooted forward, and was three people away from her, he asked, “American?” and smiled. I think he was trying to assure me that everything was cool. Another assistant took my hand and placed it on the arm of her seat. She was round and seemingly enormous, and was administering darshan to the female opposite of me.

Then she grabbed me and took me to her right shoulder. I noticed the gray smear on her robe where thousands of people had been placed before me. She grabbed me tight and whispered to me in a soothing tone. “My son, son-na-na-na-na-na-na and rocked me back and forth in her arms. I felt consoled and loved by her, and it was a feeling that I hadn’t felt since my own Mom had done it for me. It felt like my Mom, but it was Amma—it was a very powerful feeling that didn’t leave me for days, as it turns out.

I stumbled away from the pedestal, reeling from the experience- I tried to walk away from the room, when the monitor stopped me to give me back my glasses! I went back into the room and sat for awhile and watched. It was amazing: she had totally tapped into what I had been thinking, and gave we what I had needed most—the reassurance that everything was going to be fine from mom. I realize now that this was the most important thing missing from my life, and somehow Amma had given it to me. It was a precious gift that I can’t stop thinking about.

The last day at the ashram, I knew it was time to go. The social cliques of all the spiritualists was definitely not my scene, and I knew I had gotten all I needed to from the trip. An experience like that is not something I need to be any place for. It stays with me wherever I go, and that’s not spiritual mumbo-jumbo either.

You may think I’ve really lost it, but I’m certainly the same me, just with a new spark. It sounds a little like a dream to me as I look back on it, but it really happened to me. I’m so glad it did.

I will write more on some of the more humorous aspect of ashram living in later entries, but I gotta catch a bus taking me to Mangalore. From there, the beach paradise of Gokarna for my last week in the Magic Land. Also, not much editing for this one since it took so long to write. Will catch typos and misspellings later. See you soon.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

Comfort Food for the Soul

Promises Promises-- I will resume the chronological narrative tomorrow-- today, I'm feeling a little sorry for myself, so please indulge me in this week's edition of Tim's Travel Corner. You can all collect your five cents when you see me next-- just remind me to pay you.

The thing that I have become most attuned to while traveling India is what it takes to make me feel normal and happy in a paradigm-shifted reality. When India's brutal realities finally permeate that aforementioned protective shell I have constructed, I have to take a break from it somehow, and there's not always a beach or remote town in which to retreat. It ends up being small things that make the difference between sanity and less-than-sanity: sometimes it means watching an English-speaking movie, (uh, any English speaking movie. I actually shed a tear after watching the joyful happy ending of "Around the World in Eighty Days" with Jackie Chan. Perhaps it was because they had made it back home, or something. Anyway, I obviously needed to have my buttons pushed) sometimes it means camping out at the Internet Cafe for two or three hours (I do this every chance I get), sometimes finding a good cup of Cappucino at Coffee Day or Barista (yep, evil chain stores), sometimes anything with air-conditioning will do. Some times, a twelve-hour sleep with make the world a crisper, happier place. Most of the time, a western meal will do me right. And it's usually junk food.

When I got here, I had a hard time eating well because everything happened a little later than I was used to-- breakfast gets started around 10, lunch at 1 or 2, dinner at 8 or 9; breakfasts were rather light if at all, and I was skipping meals left and right-- I still haven't gotten used to eating a massive masala dhosa for breakfast, as much as I'd like to. Throw in blistering heat and humidity, and walking at least 10 km a day, and it equals a ten pound weight loss in my first ten days. And,despite the schooling I have gotten in spicy cuisines and their equally important digestive aids, sometime the intensity of the food still rocks my system. So you gotta go with what you know in those times of need, and for me, I needs mayonnaise.

It's not easy to come by around here, and I know that some of you find it disgusting, but for me, that little condiment is a tangible taste of creamy heaven. Glorious Mayo in all it's forms-- in an egg-salad sandwich (be still my fluttering heart), or better yet, a potato salad sandwich; even Mr M by his lonesome on a spoon (ok, that's just comedy) totally replenishes my constitution on a cellular level, and brings harmony to the plasma bag known as Tim. Good ol' Mayo, I hope you forgive me-- I slap you on without a second thought in the states, perhaps I even eschew you altogether, but here, you are as revered as the Holy Cow to me.

Ok, maybe I have gone insane. But I have to admit mayonnaise helps. When I haven't had access to fresh leafy greens in what seems forever, I just have to turn to my animal nature. Just for a prison fantasy scenario, I'll let you in on fantasy first meal upon arrive to the US: A big-ass bowl of spinach and romaine lettuce with fresh tomatoes, avocados, grated carrots and (oh yes!) alfalfa sprouts. With some oil and vinegar type of dressing. Maybe some fresh baked bread. Gosh, I'm getting hungry. I should probably end this soon and go wolf down a Thali somewhere here in Ernakulum.

I have to add that it raises my spirits when I log in to this blog and read encouraging comments from my friends or get an email or two telling me to keep it up. It turns out that this very activity has been a lifeline to home, and I think that accounts for my intense output since I've been here. Writing for myself is one thing, but writing for you, my loved ones and intentional family members, has been a total joy. Bwahhh!

Monday, December 06, 2004

Shaken, Not Stirred

Well, the gig was up in Ahmedabad, and it was time to turn my sights towards Rajasthan. I was running out of time for my allotted time up north, so I was looking to turn it into a break-neck adventure, shuttling around the major tourist centers for a couple of days each. I planned to hit Udaipur, Jaipur, Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, and Mt. Abu. As it turns out, that plan was ultimately scuttled and I settled for a truncated version of that, having been kind of weakened by the touristy experience in Mumbai. I ended up visiting Udaipur, the Jain Temple Complex at Ranakpur, the mammoth Fort in Kumbhalgarh, and then over for three heavenly days in Mount Abu, the only Hill Station in Rajasthan.

One of the main reasons for this change of plans besides my flagging interest in doing what it seemed everyone was doing on the circuit was that I met a great travel guest on the train from A-town to Udaipur by the name of Werner Pasadeg. Hailing from a small but progressive town south of Munich by the name of Weilheim, he made for the perfect short-term travel partner: intelligent news-junky, philosophic-waxer, left-leaning politico and fun-loving beer enthusiast, as well as an avid trekker. With Werner pushing my lazy bones and less than optimal shoes (thanks Hush Puppies) to the limits, we managed to walk quite reasonable distances every day of the week we were touring, many of them in beautiful rural settings. Draping behind us was the stark semi-arid landscapes of the Aravalli Mountain Range and the friendly folks outside of the cities, we found places that were off the map, and enjoyed those moments of trusting for the right thing to happen, even when you're not sure it will.

I walked into my air-conditioned berth at the station in Ahmedabad, not sure who my roommate would be. I saw from the posted list on the outside of the train car that it was a westerner, but I could not place the surname Pasadeg -- perhaps it was Russian? I arrived first, and after getting my pack safely stowed away, I found myself fretting a little while waiting to see who I would be spending the night with in the cramped, if comfortable, quarters. I had just had some somewhat unsavory experiences with group-think behavior Germans in Diu, so I had the once-bitten complex about meeting another Kraut. Or any westerner, for that matter.

All the same, he arrived, and we hit it off almost immediately. It probably didn't hurt that he had brought a bottle of imported whisky, called Bagpiper (just an aside, it has a hilarious mascot on the label-- he has the body of Scot, with the Tartan Kilt, bagpipes, and silly kneesocks, but his head is clearly a Indian Raj with turban-- y'know, curly mustache and all) , and we started to sip on it just as the train started moving. I was nursing a cold, and had just taken an antihistimine to rule out allergies, so I knew I was going to be heavily medicated for the evening. Which wasn't a bad thing, because at that point I hadn't gotten entirely acclimated to sleeping horizontally while moving in a train-- it's a sort of rocking from head to toe motion perpendicular to the direction of the train that I wasn't used to, and it took me a long ride a couple of weeks later to finally get accustomed to my organs slipping and sliding in those directions-- so a little dope up was a good idea so that I would be at least half-fresh the next day.

To Werner's credit, our conversations was so rife with revelations about our similarities and affinities that I was up and down in bed half a dozen times before finally succumbing to sleep. When we woke up four hours later just fifteen minutes before our stop in Udaipur, we agreed to hang out and split costs at least through Udaipur. This ended up being a godsend for my finances-- after a costly week in Mumbai, I needed to make up some ground on my $20 per day budget. That particular week clocked in at $13 per day, and I was almost where I needed to be at the end of it.

Udaipur is where the James Bond "classic" Octopussy was filmed, although I must admit it had been so long that I neither remember nor wanted to see the film at one of the half dozen restaurant that was playing it in town for a sort of dinner and a movie package deal. Didn't seem to matter since I was in the presence of the real thing, a fantastic amalgamation of Western, Hindu and Islamic- styled architecture called Indo-Saracenic. But I admit that it was exactly like living a Bond film there, except for the fact that I wasn't wearing a tux, didn't pack heat, didn't get any space-aged gizmos from headquarters, and certainly didn't get laid. Not to say that Werner and I didn't frequent the Dream Haven Restaurant every morning, where it seemed an international ensemble of Bond-worthy backpackers had breakfast around 10.

Tomorrow: more Wernerisms.

Friday, December 03, 2004

Mr. Jain at Golden Star Thali Restaurant Posted by Hello

Gandhi's Ashram in Ahmedabad Posted by Hello

Saint Sebastian in Diu Posted by Hello

Diwali Pyrotechnics Posted by Hello

Kilometers of Saris in Colaba, Mumbai Posted by Hello

Cabbie-wallah in Mumbai  Posted by Hello

Sunrise in Diu from the top of the Cathedral Posted by Hello

Jain families at Shatrunyaya minus shy females Posted by Hello

Colaba area of Mumbai at Night Posted by Hello

Swami Narayan Temple
 Posted by Hello

Ahmedabad/ Ahmedagood

The last time we chatted, I was down in Diu living the good life. Well, as they say, all good things must come to an end, and mine ended with a nasty respiratory flu that took hold during a "sleeper" (notice quotations) bus trip up to A-town, and held on like Tuff Hedeman for a couple of weeks-- the combination of weather switchups, tailpipe sucking, and dust storms of Biblical proportions conspired to give me the seven-decades-of-smoking cough for about a week, until Lalit at the Shri Ganesh guesthouse in Mt Abu gave me a tip on the Ayurvedic home remedy for dry hack: raw ginger root chopped up and sweetened with honey before bedtime. I'm here to tell you it really works.

But I'm getting ahead of the storyline here and focusing on all the worst aspects of my health, which for anyone who knows me is the typical state of affairs for Tim Brown. But enough about my body, my self...

All my travels in the north had radiated from Ahmedabad, making it a fact o' life to spend a little time there on three separate occasions. I developed a curious love/hate relationship with this city for both reasons germane to the city itself and for entirely coincidental bad luck.

Fact: The first two days I was there the city was all but shut down: the first time, the national Diwali holiday, the second, the government asked all merchants to shut down to protest an indictment of a "seer" who later confessed to being an accessory to a murder he was being charged for! Sounds pretty wacky? I thought so to, but I don't pretend to know the nuances of the Indian political landscape. All I know is that I hadn't eaten in two days and had a hell of a time getting anything to eat. It caused an existential breakdown of sorts that caused me to yell into the void, "WHAT ABOUT ME? WHAT ABOUT MY NEEDS?" I thought traveling had cured me of this little annoying habit, but I thought wrong.

Counter Fact: The same day, I met Garaung, aka Gary, at the Kathiawadi food stand. He sat down next to me after it seemed nobody wanted to (I had actually made a little boy cry moments earlier) and told me he had moved to Pittsburgh from Ahmedabad to become a regional manager for Walmart. He asked, "Do you want to see my Ahmedabad?" and took me whizzing around on the back of his motorbike all afternoon, taking me for Ice Cream ("Ahmedabad is the Ice Cream Capitol of India," he told me with a straight face), touring the University of Gujarat Campus, worshiping at his Temple, the Swami Narayan Temple in Central A-town (a person told me before afternoon prayer "God is waking up!"), a lesson in eating paan (more later), and finally a drop off at the Internet Cafe. In other words, a perfect tour guide for a lost afternoon.

Fact: I have been hit on by more gay men in my 72 hours in Ahmedabad than I have in my entire life, and much more graphically. "Do you like homo-sex?" was my overture as I was stumbling off an overnight train at 5 a.m., and "What's your size?" was the romantic cadence I heard in the park from a horny mustache later that same day. Easy-going acceptance of a person's sexual orientation translates to tacit approval for the Gay Indian, it seems. Gals, I feel your pain.

Counter Fact: Like I explained earlier, I have never, nor do I ever, expect to receive money from total strangers ever, ever again. Anywhere. Period.

Fact: A miscreant hit me on the back with a rock my first morning there, then flew me the bird when I turned around to see what had happened. The little turd was all of six years old.

Counter Fact: I had a most pleasant bus ride from Mt. Abu back to Ahmedabad with Sumta, a Londoner going to visit family in rural Gujarat. We did some girly gift shopping at the Night Market in which she was most helpful, and ended the evening with a top five Gujarati Thali at the Gopi Dining Hall. All told, a relaxing and final five hours there.

With such a mixed bag of emotions and experiences, how could I not write about it? After all, the bad experiences make for better post-travel stories, but the good ones are what you actually travel for. Rarely has a town given me so much of both.