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

Tuesday, November 30, 2004

On the Road... Forever.

On trips before this one, and certainly on this one, I've come across a creature particular to this type of budget touring: The Professional Traveler. Whereas I will have traveled in India a total of two months, there are those who have been here six months, a year, two years, or have spent a significant portion of their lives for the last five or ten years circling the globe in search of Nirvana. While they all have their standard reasons for traveling, such as meeting new people, seeing new things, and challenging their boundaries as humans, there seems to be much more going on than this. It is something that I've thought about quite a bit during the last three days, and I don't mean to let this analysis be an indictment of who they are, or the choices they have made in life. After all, at least temporarily, I count myself among them.

The language we speak out here is a poetry of inexpensive hostels and excellent cappuccinos, harrowing bus rides, and if an unlucky female, too- close encounters with a harassing ogre of a hotel owner. It's an almost Contolled Homelessness that we court out here, seeking those conditions and prices just this side of staying at the Salvation Army Shelter. Hell, I've stayed in a Salvation Army dormitory here , and thought it was great. Well, great except for the bedbugs. But at least very different than my comfy bed back in Anytown, U.S.A.

Despite the contrived hardships, there are genuine obstacles out here that can really make difficult touring much worse. I've started a list of the monsters to avoid--the travelers who lessen your experiences, generate bad karma for all, and generally employ vampiric technology to draw the last vital signs out of your cold, dead trip.

Problem: Jack Baddass. There seems to always be one person in a group of travelers who has done the most, seen the best, bested the worst, and always seems to be in control of this life so fraught with chaos. They will hijack a campfire and spin yarns around anyone who will listen about fighting off Kasmiri guerilla warriors with only a bottle opener, or touring the subcontinent on an Enfield Machismo in only a loincloth, or beating a sherpa up Kilimanjaro, while calmly sipping a beer or smoking a rolled cigarette with a veteran's aplomb. Every story that you could offer will be one-upped by these Temple Trippers, and the effect that it has is to beat everyone into tacit approval, finally giving them their rightful place in the limelight. Eventually they paint a picture of their complete and total cultural mastery, while at the same time saving a little space to speak disparagingly of the illogical or superstitious ways of the locals.

The irony of this situation is that, as you could probably guess, when the chips are down, these Superdudes are the ones to weep first when the boat dies out on the sea or run screaming when someone's dynamite fishing in the river. In theory, I could feel sorry for these losers if they weren't grandstanding on my vacation time, but I've got too few precious days left in a vast country to suffer any fools. There's a great reason they are traveling alone-- no one can stand to be around them for more than three hours. Solution: Never invite them to your room, ever. Always have an escape route in mind. Study their behavior patterns and avoid chance meetings. And NEVER agree to a five day camel safari with them, for krishna's sake.

Problem: Civilized Savage. There are those who are mellow and congenial to you, the fellow western traveler, but who turn ugly firang to the forgetful waiter or obnoxious tout. Their once healthy sense of cultural relativity has been atrophied from many years of getting juked out of cash, screwed over in hotel reservations, beaten out of train seats, and generally treated with hostility by an uncaring world. Solution: though they can be great travel companions for a while, eventually it gets hard to empathize with the unfairness they perceive in their obviously privileged world. Subtley find out where they are headed, and choose another direction, or an alternate course.

Problem: Little Orphan Helpme. There are those solo traveling women, usually under the age of twenty-five, who seem to be magnets for bad fortune and creepy dudes; after a few stories it usually becomes crystal clear they have no clue as to how to avoid these bad people or situations, and worse yet, seem to get a charge from courting them. They seem to dig the easy-going older guys who remind them of their father. Solution: Don't offer, even out of pity, to travel with them, and certainly don't get drunk with them. I've seen this happen to fellow travelers, and although the hookup is definitely cool in theory, it usually ends up curtains for your good times.

Now these are just the (hopefully) comical character sketches for those who can throw a bummer into your summer. For every one of these temporary annoyances there are fifteen kind, evolved souls at each stop who give you restaurant tips, much needed language assistance, great conversations, and who, like you, are touring to...well, touring to... sheesh, what are we touring for?

What makes a person want to leave their lives and hit the road, anyway? Out here, it seems, is the allure of a world of little responsibility and shallow consequences. Everyone you meet is without a history or social context, so escaping who you really are and becoming that person you always wanted to be is a romantic ideal, but ultimately a misguided one. At home, if you piss someone off or break up with your girlfriend or boyfriend, you have to get up the next day and every morning after that and face their ghost time and time again. Here, if you screw up, you either pay more money than you wanted to, or at the very worst, head for the next town on the circuit and secure a fresh start on life. Or so you think. Escape from yourself is impossible, after all, so the key to easy traveling is being who you are now. That way, you can never go wrong.

Against all odds, there are those who do find the place for which they've been searching: that little place by the ocean they've seen in their dreams, that community that welcomes them with open arms, or even the place they have found themselves when they succumbed to the fever of the search. They settle down, marry a local, usually involve themselves in the traveling community in some way, and feed off the irresistible wunderlust of the wayward traveler.

I can't help that think that the answer is much more simple than all of this traveling has warranted- but who am I to suppose I know the meaning of life. Like Iris DeMent, I guess I'm just content to let the mystery be for now.

Monday, November 29, 2004

I'm Going Back Someday...

After such an overwhelming experience at Palitana, and a draining fortnight in Mumbai and part of Gujarat, my mind started turning away from the howling second-class buses in Rajasthan and towards a little paradise fishing village in the Arabian Sea. The place is known as Diu, and it exists as an anomaly in the state of Gujarat for more than one reason. First of all, it is one of several port towns along the west coast of India that was settled by the Portuguese, and because of this the city of Diu, on the island of the same name, retains the charm of colonial architecture and narrow, labyrinthine streets that I would normally associate with Europe. The town has an abundance of narrow enclaves and brightly colored verandas that give it a feeling of a world separate from India, which was what I was needing-- a sort of vacation within a vacation.

Secondly, it is a universe away from the crowed, dusty street in Ahmedabad: like many seaside towns, it is imbued with a mellow, lighter side of life feeling. Even the music was more forgiving and softer. The autorickshaws weren't honking, the goats weren't bleating, the snuffling pigs weren't eating everything in site. All was harmonious: everyone had a smile for me that came from their heart.

The third, and possible one of the most notable differences to a road-weary and parched traveler, is that it is a oasis in a sense in that it offers beer and liquor in a state that is otherwise dry. Throw in a tariff-free beer market that makes Kingfisher at least half the price of a brew anywhere else in India, and you've got a recipe for beach bum paradise.

I rolled up after a deafening, butt-numbing bus odyssey from Palitana to Bhavnagar, and then from Bhavnagar down the coast to the island; I'd heard by the traveler's grapevine that the motel known as Georgie's by the locals, known by the name Hotel Sao Tome Retiro in Lonely Planet, was the cheapest, best bet for the budget traveler. My autorickshaw driver, who in thirty seconds of conversation had let me know that he liked the US because, "They pay you there," dropped me off at the base of a large hill looking up to a huge, monolithic cathedral called St Thomas. Formerly a working Catholic Church, it was now the site of the Diu Museum, and looking up there, he pointed and said "Georgie's." Having been the subject of autorickshaw driver-cum-tout trickery, I conveyed some obvious disbelief towards the fact that I would actually be staying in an old cathedral. He read my mind and commanded, "Come," all but leading me by the hand up the steps to the hostel.

This was indeed the place. I got there and saw him, George D'Souza, the eternally cheerful cherubic patron saint of mellow hostel hosts, wearing a dhoti with a black Bob Marley t-shirt. We looked at each other with momentary recognition, but before verbal contact could commence, I was attacked by a mad mob of Indian vacationers emerging from the Museum. The cameras flashed, the handshakes were administered, I kissed the button-eyed baby; I'm sure I had won their vote. After all, I had gotten pretty good at it, being on the campaign trail at this point a little more than three weeks.

One teenage girl lagged behind them. My experience had taught me that the reluctant, shy ones were usually waiting to get a chance to actually converse with me in English. I'm usually a good sport about this, because, jeez, I should be speaking Hindi or Gujarati with them.

It usually starts with a typical, "Your name?" moves on to "Your place?" and moves on into further levels of banality, but this conversation was special. First of all, I noticed that she was wearing the western bluejeans and t-shirt combo, which broke from the tradition of the sari which her mother wore, and at the same time, she spoke pretty advanced English for a native. Her parents were standing behind her as she spoke to me, swelling with familial pride as she formed her first words . She looked up at me through modern, "hi-fi" western oval glasses.

"Could you answer a question for me?" she asked.
"I can try," I answered haltingly. She led me into the Museum, which had about fifty wooden statues representing a fraction of the universe of Catholic Saints. We paused in front of a small visage of Saint Sebastian, eyes ogling the sky, arrows removed from his body by vandals years before.

Then she laid it on me. "Are these all Gods?"

I guess she thought as the Westerner, I could make sense of this strange, rather death-obsessed religion filled with people who suffered, the most revered being the King of Sufferers, that skinny longhair who looked like he was in need of serious transfusion.

All of a sudden I was through the looking glass, seeing Christianity from a Hindu's perspective. everything shattered out of context for me. I had to giggle a little, not because she's asked a silly question, but because she had inadvertently stumbled across a question that would challenge my reality. Let's face it, if these were gods, wouldn't they be a sorry excuse? I mean, in Hinduism, you got Ganesh, a bigger than life happy go lucky elephant god who gets all the babes; Kali, who, like Shaft, is the ultimate bad muthaf***er who will lay your ass to waste, and Vishnu, the blue dude salvation of the world who has a thousand names, and all the conquering firangs can come up with are these pasty, three foot-tall gnomes who look slightly constipated? Man, in a contest, there would be no contest.

I had to come up with my best answer quick, despite my swimming brain.
"Uh, no, their not Gods. Their like, uh, gurus --teachers."
She nodded in appreciation. No more questions, your honor. I was sweating a little. The last thing I needed was to engage in a theological defense of a religion I knew little about with a precocious thirteen year-old. I mean, I still have a smidgen of pride left in here somewhere.

It was time to get with George, the man, and get the accommodations hookup. As I passed into the yard east of the Cathedral, I saw Georgie fiddling with coals in a massive fire pit. I felt I was in the presence of culinary greatness. I had heard about his famous cookouts, and knew that I wouldn't be partaking in his Goan style seafood, but I just had to watch the master in action. I'd also heard him talking to a traveler earlier about their lack of accommodations. I figured if I buttered him up with idle chatter about his culinary prowess, perhaps some magic could happen. Because in India, I've noticed, magic awaits those with patience.

We talked about spicing, oils, and different types of whitefish, and shark, and I showed special appreciation for the potatoes and mixed vegetable he had cooking up in the kitchen. We talked herbs, spices, and chewed fat on the story of the genesis of this special little hostel by the sea he had going. It is a fascinating little story, but I won't go into it here. After all, this is my blog-- let Georgie do his own.

Long story short-- It was the last weekend of what seemed an eternal Diwali season, Diu was a favorite tourist destination and all the other rooms in town were full or cost $20 a night (which for India was mighty steep considering my accommodations were clocking in around $1.50 a night). And it was also true that he was full up, but he said he would make a exception for me, like he had done a few others earlier: we could sleep on the roof of the cathedral, bedding and sheets provided, for 50 rupees a night, which would making it a whopping cost of $1.10 per! True, this was a masterpiece of understatement, with no sink, privacy, a communal bathroom for fifteen, and a night under only a roof of stars, but the accommodations were taken care of. My good travel karma continued on. Rock.

The weekend was all I was hoping it would be-- with a rented moped, I puttered solo along the nine kilometers of unspoiled southern coast, eventually finding empty beaches (Gomptimata for all you wayward travelers) that could allow me to body surf in total isolation-elated glee; drinking the bottles of Kingfisher with the locals and their kids, eating fantastic Gujarati thalis, and avoiding the doodoo dreadlocked, dope-smokin' hippy vermin to the best of my ability. Coming out of it, I was fully charged and ready to take on the wilds of Rajasthan. And I have you, dear Georgie, to thank for it. Namaste, my brother.

Thursday, November 25, 2004

Reach for the Sky, Pilgrim

Having successfully landed in a convenient if slightly filthy Hotel Sumeru in the town of Palitana, where Pilgrims on their way to Shatrunjaya overnight, I had packed everything the night before in anticipation of my trip to the temple. I was supposed to meet the families at Rajendra Bhavan, a kind of nerve center for pilgrims, at 5 a.m. Having already noted that the group was a always a little slower than the time set (what's referred to as Indian Stretchable Time) I thought that getting there on time would assure me in not being left behind.

Sure enough, I got to the center at close to five, I think: it was hard to know the exact time, because I had been instructed not to wear a watch. Other requirements of taking the trip as a pilgrim: dress well, as in wearing slacks and a collared shirt; I could not bring any tobacco; I could not drink any water or eat any food along the journey, and in fact they asked that I fast until the pilgrimage was over; I could only bring 200 Rupees on the trip, and finally, my shoes and any leather products would have to be left behind before entering the Temple complex at the top. Most of these things were obvious aspect of the Jain belief system: to be humble in appearance, to endure physical test in order to have karma erased, and to show complete respect for all things on earth. The Jains are vegetarian, in fact, because as Jitendra explained while we were eating a Thali the day before, "Food is God," and therefore should not be wasted (clean up that plate, Tim) and no suffering should come from anything in order to make your meal. This extends to not eating onions and garlic-- for they are unearthed in order to be eaten, and do not just offer themselves to be eaten.

Jainism, by the way is a contemporary religion to Buddhism, having arisen around the same time, and incorporating some of the same tenants, including reincarnation, karma, and spiritual embetterment through meditation. The are also highly ethical people of a strict moral code, including always telling the truth, and never conceiving of or committing violence on any living thing. In society, they are known as clever, money-conscious merchants who have amassed large fortunes and use their earnings to create magnificent temples that will much assure their passage into Heaven. At least this is what I understand at this point. I honestly had the experience before I had the knowledge, so I'm still catching up on this one.

Since the family had not yet arrived when I got there, I had time to gather my thoughts and try to fully take in what was happening. There was a highly invigorating raga jam being played within the Rajendra Bhavan, and since I knew I was unable to enter the Center without another Jain, I stood near the entrance to listen. A guard, who had been watching me closely, now kindly offered a folding chair that I could use while I waited. The raga was fervent and sensuous, with a clarinet- sounding instrument playing a lyrical line over the complex polyrhythms. I also saw scores of pilgrims heading towards the mountain in the darkened streets, and music seemed to be urging them on. All of them were barefoot, and many of them carried large walking sticks for the ascent.

In no time, my party arrived. After gathering everyone at various hotels in the near vicinity, there we were, ten of us walking along a dirt road towards the first temple to initiate the path that was over three thousand steps in length.

They were:

Mahendra and Vimla Salecha, Pappu's mother and father,
Rahul Salecha, a.k.a "Pappu,"
Dinash Jain
Mahaveer, Rahul, and Akash Jain, sons of Rakesh Jain
Paras Mal Jain, I believe Rakesh's brother, also called "BidiMan" by the young ones because of his dependency on Bidi cigarettes,
and Jintendra Katariya


Like the Hindus, the Jains have their holiest temples situated on top of a tall hill or a mountain: the metaphor being that attaining God in your life is no easy process- therefore, the metaphorical journey should be likewise difficult.

I approached the first Temple with trepidation, because I was certainly the only westerner there, and I knew that I needed to stay close to the family to avoid reflecting badly on them. After all, it took some guts for them to bring me along in the first place; I certainly wasn't about to bring them dishonor. Pappu grabbed me by the hand and took me close to the deity-- after staring at the formless mass ringed with roses and other flowers for about fifteen seconds, I was told I should not be there, and had to exit immediately. Pappu, who was a bit of a trickser anyway, said that he would be happy to take any pictures of the deities for many enemies. I did not condone this behavior, since ultimately the photos would be in the possession of a non-believer, but then again, I didn't erase them from my memory card either!

After the first temple, we all stopped on the initial step of the journey and said a quick prayer, which I don't yet have a written record of (hopefully at some point.) While we were doing this, I noticed a scale on the first landing that would be my introduction into possible most intense wallah-job ever: The dholi-wallahs would actually carry fat and rich pilgrims in a sling-seat up either the entire or a significant portion of the hill! The scale was to determine the weight of the sometime hefty pilgrims and assess whether they needed two or four dholi-wallahs to lug 'em up to see god. I snickered a little while thinking about the small amount of humiliation that must be endured to actually weight yourself before you go up-- probably a thought process that irrecovably damaged my karma score card.

You could see those hard-workin' dhobis crashed out at the top of the hill, panting heavily and drinking water by the handful. A couple of days doing that , and it might be looking like any of them might see god sooner that any of us!

The guide book says the ascent should take about an hour and a half to complete at a leisurely pace. Because we wanted to catch the sunrise from the temples, we made it up in 45 minutes, practically running most of the way. Even though we did not quite reach our goal, we still had a stunning initiation of our day from a smaller temple not ten minutes from the main complex. It was there that I took a wonderful shot of all them, serene and exhausted, with the hilltop temple as a backdrop. It's a moment I'll remember always.

As soon as we reached the top, and passed through the victory arches ( this was called "Place of Victory," after all), I was barked at rather sternly by some officials. "Take off your shoes," Wash your feet and hands," "Get a camera permit," (non-jains were allowed in the complex, just not normally that early in the morning), and finally, in a softer tone, "Rest yourself for ten minutes before going into the main temple."

This was not a problem-- I was drained, my shirt soaked through with perspiration. I could finally take water, and duly pulled a liter out of my day bag-- before I could take one single sip, a pilgrim in a humble green Sari who I did not know approached and stood in front of me silently, longingly eying my bottle. I offered a drink to her, and she smiled warmly. She took a big drink and handed the bottle back. Pappu came to see me, and asked if I knew her, acting incredulously towards my conduct. "You don't even know her!" But who knows? Why should I deny her a drink because I don't know her-- might she be a incarnation of God sent to test me? After all, it was strange, straightforward behavior atypical for a woman in India. After that point, she regarded me warmly as we saw each other in the complex. She was always alone, never with family, another odd detail. It still makes me think. I just hope I passed the test.

Next came the ritual aspects of the trip-- circumambulation around three temples, including the main temple, Shri Adishwara; recitation of sacred verses, which everyone was supposed to recite, including me (which I failed miserably in doing by the way, but they seemed forgiving, and it in fact seemed to inject a bit of humor during an otherwise very somber ritual); prostrating ourselves in front of the different Gods and evoking the memory of tirthankars, who were the original 24 teachers of the faith.

Our group had big singers-- they initiated songs at each temple, and often others would join in. The songs were lilting, and heartfelt-- I'm always surprised by the emotional intensity of religious fervor. I'd been rightly placed with a musical group!

We also drew blessed rice from a sacred bag and applied our handful to a cross-shaped arrangement of piles-- in this, it seems like we were combining our powers and strengthening our bond as a family. The piles were later combined and a swastika was formed from the pile, thus creating a good-luck ritual as the gods looked down approvingly.

The whole process took about an hour and a half, and I have to admit at times I sat there lost in the ritual. But the thankfulness I felt, and the spectacle of being there amongst the thousand of pilgrims and the monks, and the Gods, was something that will never leave me, I'm certain.

After taking my obligatory photo opps in the seemingly infinite variations of beautiful angles of the scores of temples on the hill, we finally began the long journey back home. We arrived back at the foot of the mountain at 11am, and went as a family to eat at a local restaurant-- a mixture of grains, roasted peanuts, and pomengranates, called Bhel, was served, as was Sugar Cane juice and water. Refreshed, I returned to my motel room, took a shower, and slept solidly for four hours.

It was the last I saw of the pilgrims in Palitana, but we have agreed to see each other again in Mumbai during one of my two visits back there before I go. What can I say? I felt after this one, I could go home happily, having seen inside a world not normally encountered by outsiders. To experience this type of spiritual and cultural insight is the holy grail for the traveling set, but I don't just consider it a feather in my traveler's hat-- it was and is a life changing dance with the infinite.



Monday, November 22, 2004

Hard Travelin', Kind Strangers

I have to admit I'm feeling a little tired, and hungry, so I'm just editing straight from the journal on this one-- sorry, no snappy People magazine zingers this time. Just the straight poop:

" I have to say again that the last week or so has been such a wonderful, larger-than-life experience foor me, it is hard to come to even write this entry and relate them into words. I don't think I can ever do it justice, the swirl of sights, sounds, and emotions, but I'll try.

It started Tuesday morning at 5am, , walking through the darkened, early morning streets of Ahmedabad. The stray curs were staring me down like a porkchop. I had been going so hard on so little, it's no wonder that they looked at me like an easy target. Yet there I was, walking with purpose from the Hotel Roopalee to the nearest autorickshaw driver down the street. I had been thwarted in getting out of town the day before, and it was my first experience of being tied up and let down by Indian mass transit. Luckily, a British woman of Indian descent saw me in distress at the ticket counter and spoke Hindi with the Ticket-wallah, and figured out a workaround so that I could get out of town early the next day. That was the good news. The bad news was that it was a second class coach, and it was a through train from Mumbai. That meant I could look forward to standing up for the 5 1/2 hour trip to Bhavnagar, something I had steeled myself to endure. I had done second class in Mexico-- I could take this one on. In fact, I thought it would be a really great opportunity to talk with folks, and learn about their lives. The people in the business class air-con units could be so, well, businesslike. I would probably have more fun, and it was a morning trip, so the hot tin roof effect wouldn't be so acute. And the people I would turn out to meet were extraordinary.

Walking onto the train platform, I was brainworking the plan: the only thing I needed to do when I get in, as far as I was concerned, was to keep my bag in sight. I have it bugsnug tight with combo locks, attempting to keep all the honest folks honest-- as long as I stayed within grabbing distance of any miscreants, nobody could run off with it. At 6am, I mixed with a motley crue of second class ticketholders , and jockeyed for position as the train creaked to a stop. The atmosphere in an Indian "line" is sadly Darwinian. Woman and Child? No way sister. Little old lady in a Burgundy sari trying to edge her way in? I don't think so. Nobody was gonna take my god-given seat away from me. Nobody. The granny wasn't listening to my inner voice, however.

Ascending the staircase into the compartment, everyone pushed harder and harder, without regard to your sacred anatomical features I might add, and the door became a giant metal sieve, drawing the chaotic throng from outside and popping us out the other end one by one. I grabbed a handrail to use as a leverage device/ defensive blocker for those wedging in from the outside. It was brutal, but I tried to keep a strategic detachment to stay above it somehow. I had carried my backpack with my left hand beside me when the crowd crushed in , and of course the sieve effect had squeezed it slightly behind my body, out of my field of vision. I tried to heave it in behind me, but somehow it felt heavier. There seemed to be some sort of catch somewhere. Not being able to look back, knowing that the crowd would stop for nothing, I summoned all my Hulk power, "TIM MAD!!" and lifted it up with a great burst of power. To my great surprise, the little Burgundy Sari Grammy had somehow gotten between me and the pack, and the extra mass I had felt was actually her body sitting on the pack. With an agility that belied her years, she gracefully faulted off the pack and squarely in front of me. I could only stare in disbelief. I had to admire the tenacious geriatric. She had won the game and gotten a seat.

Now, my luck has been pretty tremendous with this particular game, and this ride was no exception. After sinking as low as I could go (even the little urchins who sat in between cars on large bags containing their entire gypsy lives had gotten better seats than I), I settled down in a forlorn crouching position, preparing for my morning in hell. While looking at my grimy shoes on the floor through my slightly parted knees, a pair of shiny black patent leather shoes appeared next to me. I looked up irritatedly. "What now, is the cop going to tell me to stand up? Get on top of the train? Better yet, get under the train?" Turns out, his voice was music to my ears.

He said, "Come."

There in the next berth was a smallish, 2x2 foot cleared area on the bench for me. It wasn't much, and I would not be able to use the back of the chair until I had insinuated myself into it with a glacial seat stealing technique I'd learned from a Guatemalan farmer years ago. You don't just bust out and steal the seat, that would cause a conflict. You take it cheek by cheek, with a gentle rocking motion, slow like. If you don't mind a little body contact, it works brilliantly. I felt in no time, I'd be sittin' pretty, no pun intended.

Still insinuating myself into a legitimate seating situation three hours later, the train stopped for an unexpected break at an unknown cow town. Wait, every town is a cow town in India, I should say a farming town. Anyway, when we came back from the break, I had lost the ground I'd been making on bench space, but I made fifty question-asking new friends to take it's place. I can't remember who open the flood gates, but I remember getting sopping wet. Oh, it was the requisite stuff, name, age, nationality (it's Canada, people) but the reactions were totally hilarious. Every reply from me would elicit cascading whispers of what I'd just said all around the train car. Unfortunately, I made the mistake of answering their question of my name with a full sentence.

"What yoor nem?"

"My name's Tim"

"Schtem."

"No, my name is Tim."

"Namis Tem?"

"No. It's Tim."

"Schtem!"

Some eventually got it. Others just quit saying my name. But most people ended up calling me Schtem most of the rest of the journey in second class.

It aorund that time I had my historic first meeting with Pappu, otherwise known as Rahul Salecha, a fourteen year-old with one of those exuberant and engaging personalities that is at once as fascinating as it is irritating. He became my capricious muse for the next two days, because it was he who, without asking his father or mother for permission, invited me to go on an journey of a lifetime: a Pilgrimage with several Jain families to a complex of temples called Shatrunjaya, near the town of Palitana, Gujarat. This place is The Big Enchilada for the Jain People, the Holiest of holy temples in all of India, and an architectural marvel to behold -- 863 carved marble temples, some of them 600 years old, in an compound that had been a thousand years in the making. Located on a hill where a path 2km long elevates 600 meters and overlooks a gorgeous valley with the Shatrunjaya River silently flowing through, it was vigorous spiritual journey that could wipe a Jain's karmic slate clean. And they were going to show me how they do it.

But first we had to share laughs, compare watches and snack down on things called Hawaban Marda, Papad's Churi, and my favorite, Chaa Pat. They also taught me a bit of Hindi pop poetry, the origin of which I'm not clear. It goes:

Chandu Ki
Chachi Ne
Chandu Ke Chacha Ko
Chandni Raat Main
Chandi Ki
Chamach Se
Chatni Chatai

Pappu and the others, namely his friend from Mumbai, Jitendra Katariya, tried to translate it for me, but that quickly fell apart. I told them the next time I saw them I would have it memorized. I plan on seeing them before I leave for the states. I better start now. Time seems to be flying by.

So it was this group of fifteen people, ages between 65 to 7, who took me in and showed me the workings of the epic journey to what they call "The Place of Victory."

Sure, tourists went to Shantrunjaya because it is architecturally ABSOLUTELY UNBELIEVABLE, but I had gotten the backstage pass from the band, and was going to become a member of their group and pass through the rituals with them. It's true, I had a chance of a lifetime on my hands, so I checked with Pappu's father, Mehendra, just to see if he had heard about my great news. He said that he would like for me to come, but we'd have to find accommodations for me when we got into Palitana. The Hotel in which they were staying were for Jain families only. I said I'd be happy to do whatever was appropriate, and that included not going. To my relief, he insisted that I travel with them to Palitana. I was elated but I couldn't wallow in it for long-- the train stop at Songadh was coming up in two minutes, and I needed to pull my bag from the train to begin my ascent to the holy mountain!"

Part II: Reach for the Sky, Pilgrim

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Ahmedabad, Bath, and Beyond

Well, there's been a slight lag here. Let's just say I've been in transit, and collecting fantastic experiences along the way. I've written about fifty pages in my own journal, trying to recollect everything in the most vivid details possible.

Let's see: overnight train to Ahmedabad, Gujarat, the western state that makes up the kind of protuberance on the west coast of India. Got into the dusty, bustling city early on a day that marked a nexus of two religious occurrences: The national holiday for Diwali, and the end of Ramadan, which they call Ramzan. After checking my backpack at the train station holding room, I asked the autorickshaw driver to take me to the Sidi Shayaid Mosque in the middle of town, thinking that would be a great central location from which to explore the city. Little did I know that I was being dropped off at the largest Mosque in the city, and that it was the end of the last morning prayer before Ramzan was over.

Ahmedabad is a city with REALLY friendly folk-- you might even say emotions run high for firang among it's inhabitants. It was usually very positive. Never had I been so grabbed, patted, and been asked to shake hands and say my to so many people at one time. I felt positively presidential. It was there that I got a glimpse of possibilities for a friendly firang in a city not used to foreigners. "Do you want to see movie with us?" "Come eat at restaurant with my family," and my personal fave, "Would you stand to take picture with my son?" The photo ops were flying down in A-town. Man, the requests kept coming, many of them simply offerings of good will.

The mosque scene offered a heightened version of this atmosphere. Compounded with the already too-good-to-true goodwill the citizens offered, the month of Ramadan, which of course is a time of self-betterment, reflection, generosity and aligning ones self with godly pursuits for Muslims , this was a bunch of men who were positively coming after me in groups, queuing up (I've only seen queuing in an orderly fashion twice on this trip-- most of the time it is elbows akimbo) to shake my hand. I dropped the love bomb on them, taught to me by my friend Karim.

"Sala'amu alaikum," I announced, which means "Peace be upon you." I said to one startled young man. He immediately replied, "Walaikum as sala'am." (and to you, peace as well). I was in the club.

This started the gift giving whoopee machine. The adults started whipping out the five rupee notes and laid them on me, one after another. Apparently it's a Ramzan celebration ritual, since I saw them doing the same thing with small children later on in the day. I must have made fifty rupees in fifteen minutes, a king's ransom in their pay scale. After all my bitching about the bloodsuckers out on the streets, here I was eating my words and accepting their gracious offerings.

Of course the supplicants, what seems to be the religious loophole for begging, were right there to skim off of my profits. I eventually gave it all back to the hangers- on as I entered and exited the mosque. So much for my get rich quick schemes.

A quiet man named Fahid stayed with me the whole time. He wasn't looking for anything; he just wanted to hang and make me feel welcome. For me, it took a little getting used to --if you read my last entry, you would certainly understand my trepidation. He bid me farewell at a certain point, and I was left alone again, or a strange version of celebrity aloneness.

I walked through the winding narrow streets of the old city, observing the meat markets and sweets stands in the Muslim section of town. This Ramadan shindig was going to be a major throwdown, judging by the amount of chickens and goats they had ready for slaughter. Got blessed at a Hindu Temple that had a really weird likeness of a deity that looked like a pile of goldleaf mashed potatoes, and went to check out the brightly painted technically elephant in the middle of town, using the shade of it's massive form.

Tiring of the visual feast, I set out to find internet access over on the modern side of town. I crossed the dusty Nehru bridge, and made my way up Ashram Road towards the Tourist Center. But wait, Tim, it's a national holiday-- you're SOL on the WWW. I realized that my clever stopover plan was going to be a bust -- no clothing market, no cuppa joe, no blogging, no nothin'. I thought to myself, "Well, what could possibly be open on a Hindu National Holiday besides movie theaters? " Well, my clever readers, you've probably already figured it out-- ashrams! And there I was on Ashram Road, thinking of one in particular that I had to see-- one completely and utterly a part of the state and national identity. I'm speaking, of course, of Sabarmati ashram, otherwise known as Ghandi's ashram.

Mahatma Gandhi was born in Gujarat, in the western coastal town of Porbandar, and after sojourns that had taken him to England and South Africa, he returned to India in 1897. Around 1919, he was elected the leader of the Indian National Congress party and he used this ashram as his political center during a fifteen year period, and never stopped returning there from time to time until his assassination. It was a place where significant ideas of his came to fruition, such as the guiding principles of his life, called Satyagraha, the most well-known of these tenants being non-violent protest. Needless to say, it is a revered place for both Indians and the world-wide peace community.

I walked into the welcoming courtyard (free admittance on the holiday, natch) after taking a noisy, dusty, hot autorickshaw ride, and found waiting for me a hushed oasis in the middle of the cacophonous city. There were people sitting in the lush gardens with their family, some people were napping in the shade provided by the palm fronds hanging overhead, others were sitting quietly and staring at the bronze statue of Gandhi sitting in the lotus position, a fresh garland of flowers ringing his expression of eternal meditation. The extensive pictorial history of his life was provided in the open-air museum, including his letter to Hitler in the research centre. The highlight had to be his room in the ashram preserved as he kept it, which was the apotheosis of his austerity and grace.

I reluctantly made my way back through the mazes of city street in the back of the autorickshaw. My evening train plans got sacked by a cancellation (more on travel plan snafus later), and based on a glowing recommendation by an Aussie who had just been there and my personal research on it, I instead changed my plans to head further south to the tiny coastal Shangri-La of Diu, a former Portuguese Port Town. I made my way down to the Hotel Roopalee down in the old town, had a hot water in a bucket bath, and crashed on my grimy little bed, needing to be up at 4:30 the next morning to take my second class coach down the coast.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

I Was a Walking Rupee!

I don't mean to sound paranoid, but people are out to get me. They are out to waste my time, steal my smile, and relieve me of my cash. And they wait for me at every tourist hangout, coffeeshop, ATM machine, and newsstand around. Hell, some of them don't even wait. They'd just as soon find me before I saunter in their direction. They are the touts and beggars.

Touts are trying to sell you a service. A tour, a place to stay, a scheme. The beggars are selling intangibles- sympathy, spirituality, guilt. They both must a sixth sense, some kind of Firang-dar if you will, telling them that I was the dude straight off the plane. I wonder what it is -- the unpurposeful walk, the looks into the sky through bleary jet-lagged eyes, the constant hand check of the bag to see if my belongings are still there. Or maybe it's just that nanosecond of eye contact I make with them to let them know I'm their mark. Maybe it's because they recognize me as the kind of man just dying to own their crappy bongos, stupid squash-shaped balloons, useless plastic products, and hilariously large hanging maps of India.

Yes, some are selling sympathy. Some are selling spirituality. Some are selling guilt. But I'm not buying it. Whatever it is, I've developed a hard outer shell that must be more discernible now than I realize. I've been here a little more than a week, and they all but leave me alone now.

It wasn't always this way. My first day in town, I decided to take a walk to one of the biggest tourist destinations in town-- The Gateway to India. Big Mistake. Although it is not one of the foreign tourist-only destinations, like Leopold's Cafe on Colaba Causeway, and it does attract Indian tourists on the merit that it is a bonifide National Monument and symbol of their Independence from the British, the touts and beggars are not hassling them. They are looking for The Great White Firang, the biggest catch in the Ocean. And I'm there with a smile on my face.

The first thing I get is tug on my hand, I look down to see a filthy little urchin, no more than five years old, in a sullied sari, trying to place a bracelet of tiny blossoms on my wrist. I instinctive pull away. She starts the spiel.

"I don't want money. Won't you buy me some Rice and Milk," she pleads in a cute little British accent.

Here, as in many parts of the world, cute sells. And I've just made the big mistake. I looked her in the eyes.

"Um, no thank you." I keep walking and resume staring up into the sky.

"Please Sir, I don't want anything more than Rice and Milk, just a little. I'm so hungry, and it would mean nothing to you for you to buy it for me. Please Sir."

Oh man, I'm walking faster. I'm heading fast around the towering monument. Feet don't fail me now. She is running to keep up with me. I noticed a even smaller, dirtier little boy trailing behind her.

"If you will not buy me anything, will you buy something for my little brother? He is very hungry too, and if you will not buy me a little rice and milk, then you could buy it for him."

I wonder to myself if these are the only words of English she knows, taught to her by her scamster father who owns the rice and milk stand nearby. Her little Oliver Twist voice recedes into the distance.

Next up, the holy man comes at me with a disarming smile on his face. His style is direct, and I don't have the good sense to keep walking. Who knows, maybe he sees into my soul and knows that I'm lost and need some guidance.

"I'm Holy Man. Take my blessing. No money."

I think "No money. Work of God. Good." Brain shuts off.

Before I know it, this guy has put a tikka on my forehead, has given me a customized travelers blessing (I know this because he's asked me my name), convinced me to eat some kind of candy prasad (blessed food) and has tied me up with a special good luck bracelet in three seconds. He's Cowboy Baba at the Firang Rodeo, and he's just hogtied a big steer. Yeehaaw!

"I only ask you for a donation to my cause."

Sure, says I, I can give this guy a little something. He's just so happy. I reach into my pockets and jangle some rupees to give to him.

Then the stunner. "Only paper money, please."

The spell is broken. This is ridiculous. Get me out of here. Get me back to my room.

I didn't return there for a week.

Needless to say, times are better now. But they keep getting under the radar. The techniques just become more and more nuanced.

I just hope there aren't any real mind readers out there.



Saturday, November 13, 2004

Technicolor Explosions in the Sky, Blackened Boogers in my Nose

Well, the fiery display was incredibly amazing, with literally tons of sparklers, whistling chasers, ladyfingers and huge boomers that resemble small velvet pillows being set off everywhere. The downside to this was that the air quality in the city became just slightly better than living in a tailpipe. Walking away from the diplay at the end of the evening was like a breath of fresh air, which is saying something for a city that the Lonely Planet guide claims has air so poor that under normal conditions breathing it is the equivalent of smoking a pack a day. I need to buy another two-ply hanky, or just get the hell out of here.

I didn't contribute to the madness by buying anything, but I was certainly closer to some of the explosions than if I had actually lit them myself. The swirling masses and severe pyrotechnics were not nearly as intense as the State Department had warned (hmmm, a consistent overreation for the gov?), but it did amount to the largest single personal fireworks display I have ever seen. There is a strip of denuded land, save a long row of palm trees, between the Arabian Sea and Marine Dr which is fifty feet wide and 4 miles long. Families squeezed their vehicles illegally along the Drive and set up their personal pyrotechnics camps on this strip. Walking along the length of this strip can put you at risk-- you never know who has set what off where, and I have small burns on my neck and forearm and some singed hair on my head to prove it.

The comedy of the evening was provided by a father who was showing off to his family, and accidentally set off a large packet of lady fingers at about waste level. You remember how in cartoons when a character's face has been blackened because of an exploding cigar? Well, that's what this guy's crotch resembled after the smoke cleared. He was laughing at his foolishness while batting at the smoldering embers in his khakis. The family laughed. I laughed. I think we were mostly relieved that he hadn't lost any appendages.

Lest we all be consumed by the huge pile of fireworks packaging that was being produced, there was a pickup firecracker paper wallah who would run around like an insane dog and put ephemera into a huge plastic bag. I wished I could of gotten a image of one of these guys running in traffic down Marine Drive with one of these plastic bags balanced on their heads. Amazing.

Everyone is happy and welcoming on Diwali. I heard many "Welcome to Mumbai"s, and went to visit my friend at my favorite Sweets store in Colaba (a separate entry for this incredible place later), and rocked out on a righteous Punjabi Thali before heading down to the big show.

My time in Mumbai is limited for this part of the trip. But I'll be back, but the reason is a secret. My next step will be the capitol of Gujarat, Ahmedabad, and then on to Rajasthan. I've tried to get my digital camera photos burned on to a cd, but Diwali keeps all the stores closed for three full days this weekend. Hopefully I'll track down a place to do this for me in Ahmedabad on Monday. I've got some great ones to show you.

Finally, a link on the festival and it's many meanings.

http://www.rumela.com/events/festival_diwali.htm

Aerial photo of Marine Drive

://www.mumbai-central.com/album/display.pl?pic=95



Thursday, November 11, 2004

Full Service Culture

Oh man, people work in India. Oh the work they do. Every kind of work imaginable. Every kind of work unimaginable. The list is staggering, the duties daunting. Wallah, which by itself means man, is a guy who is your personal customer representative and service provider for anything under the sun. In the morning around 11, my dhobi-wallah, or laundry guy, comes and picks up my laundry from my hotel room. And takes it down to the laundry facilities in the basement, you think? Oh no-- far from it. This man takes my sweaty togs and lugs it with other countless kilos of clothes to a designated area called a dhobi ghat (ghat in this case is a series of steps by a river) and POUNDS THE DIRT OUT OF CLOTHES until they are spotlessly clean. He brings them back to me at the end of the long day, sometimes as late as 11pm, and delivers them to me with a smile, all neatly folded and fresh smelling. The cost for each article of clothes is 20 cents. I give him a twenty cent tip and he smiles warmly. I figure he doesn't get a tip most of the time. He's in the middle of his deliveries, but he'll back tomorrow at the same time with a smile on his face.

In the afternoon, my Chai-wallah comes by. He is an elderly man who everybody calls boy. That's just what you do with chai-wallahs, no matter what their age. He carries his portable chai brewing and dispensing machine. That's what he does all day. Days in Mumbai are hot as hell even now, in the cool season. We are about 10 feet above sea level, so you can imagine the enveloping humidity. I'm prostrate on the bed from near heat stroke at 3pm, , and what is this seventy year-old doing? Serving delicious tea to the masses, like a blessing. The cost? Ten cents. I usually give him five cents more, and he thanks me profusely.

Now, not to give you a wrong impression of all people here. There are the doctors, playwrights, movies stars, Bollywood producers, high tech entrepreneurs, heads of state, and the nouveau rich. They all have plenty of money and I'm just a scruffy big dude with a great exchange rate.

But the Firang in India sees many people doing hard things, some people doing ugly things, even more people not able to do anything. Part of me would like to do something.

I'll figure out how to help in some way while I'm here. In the meantime, I'm gonna write the ultimate country- western ode to the workin' wallah when I get home.

shucks.



Tuesday, November 09, 2004

Diwali in Bomb- bay

Well, here it is, such as it is. Firang, you're asking? Simply the word for foreigner. It could refer to the Indian people's fear of foreigners; it could refer to me fearing other foreigners. Or myself. Or Foreigner. I guess it will depend on the day. Right now it is 11:13am in Mumbai, which is 11.5 hours ahead of CST in the U.S. Don't let the encoding fool you. I'll try not to let my body clock fool me.

India is just too big for just one posting, of course, so I'll just take little drops from the ocean and give them to you a day at a time, web access permitting. When I fill up my digital camera card this weekend, I'll begin to post some photos of my first week here. Week? Make that five days. Five crammed-packed-please-let-me-see-a-John-Hughes-film-on-tv-so-I-can-feel-normal-again-days. I'm just starting to inhale, and it's only Wednesday.

It is also the 10th, the first day of the three day holiday known in India as Diwali-- it's a one-stop shopping sort of national event, with the family togetherness and gift giving of Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanza, the party down atmosphere of New Years (which it is, based on the Hindi lunar calendar), and the intense pyromania of July 4th-- give or take some damn near dynamite stick-sized firecrackers that make M-80s look like ladyfingers. I was walking down one of the winding streets of the Fort District yesterday and one of these things went off nearby-- a notice in the paper warned that anyone using a contraband firecracker (having a blast volume of more than 125 dBs, how considerate of them) WILL be prosecuted. Well, 90% of the law is enforcement, and the delighted look on these kids' faces as I staggered away from ground zero let me know that there wasn't even a remote possibility that this was going to be a holiday with a volume level below a typical Who concert. Did I tell you I brought earplugs?

The whole holiday culminates on Friday the 12th this year with multiple rickety towers being built along Marine Dr, the seaside thoroughfare that overlooks the Arabian Sea. The US State Department's website for travelers has a preciously paranoid bit that warns foreigners about this event: pyrotechnics and loud music, dehydration concerns, becoming disoriented in the swirling masses of people. Damn, I thought I already did Austin City Limits Festival this year.

The research for the article on Thali cuisine has been going so well that I might actually make it out of Indian heavier than I came, which might be some sort of benchmark for all of the people I've known who have traveled here. I had a serendipitous introduction on the flight from Amsterdam to a man I think of as the symbol of retired urbane Bombay bachelorhood. He is a retired mechanical engineer named Mr. Jain, who, because of his world travels to other countries for business, and the help he received from others when he was in my position, has decided to line me up with what he and his friends consider the best pure veg restaurants in Mumbai. If you aren't familiar with pure veg and Thali, we'll get to that a little later. As for me, I need to balance eating all these amazin' vittles and I watching my girlish figure -- I have a hot connection to Bollywood extradom!

Here's the first, won't be the last.

namaste.