Monthly Archives: June 2005

100% digital images

Lisa: Unencumbered by artefact, the digital images from Lisa’s camera are now online.

Eventually I will get around to making the page look nicer and also add a section for my film-bound images. . . .

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Reflections on development

Indian Money: I must confess that many of my thoughts about India are still rather inchoate and flexible, but after talking to friends and coworkers about India it’s time to get around to some of those questions I had before leaving.

A few weeks ago I anticipated thinking about developing nations. From the moment that we first weaved through the crowded Delhi streets I observed a world different in so many ways from the USA and yet surprisingly similar. I still can’t claim to be an expert on Indian society but certain things lead me to claim that India is a dynamic place that is eager to synthesize modernity (as understood in developed countries) and traditional Indian values. The result is more Indian than American and is much less schizophrenic than you might suppose.

When Americans talk to foreign visitors and immigrants, we tend to ask questions about the places they left. When Indians talked to us, they wanted to know only about India. What do you think of India? How do you like India? What do you think of Indian people? Perhaps Indians already think they know everything about us — after all they get “Friends” and “Fear Factor” and “Boston Public” and “General Hospital” — but I suspect that Indians are keenly interested in how people from so-called “developed” countries view India.

Indian nationalism is running strong. No doubt, this is partly a response to having having a nuclear rival next door in Pakistan, but India sees itself as a regional economic power and possibly a rival to the US, Europe, and China in the latter part of this century. Indians, I sensed, want respect at the same time that they acknowledge that they have an appreciable distance to go before having many of the things that are basic in the US.

When we first started planning our trip, Jay said that “India is a land of contrasts.” Extreme poverty and extreme wealth exist side by side. India is trying very hard to fix these problems, and I believe that their burgeoning wealth will allow them to do many things; but the will must be there, and I’m not sure it completely is. Perhaps it’s because of the caste system or because of colonialism or because of religion or because of lack of means — for whatever reason we found a sense that certain people were meant to be at the top and others were destined to have a harder life.

I’m not trying to minimize the impact of India’s massive population, nascent infrastructure, and lingering poverty. For sure, these limit them in achieving all of the things they want, such as full employment, clean water, universal housing, education, adequate healthcare, and reliable electricity. (And there was no question that Indians felt these were priorities. They aren’t a set of imported “Western” values.) With more than a billion people, India needs to add six million jobs a year to keep the same level of employment. The environment and public health can only suffer when the state of Uttar Pradesh has 177 million people in an area the size of Colorado.

Yet Indians are fairly optimistic and relentlessly capitalistic. They seem to want to solve problems in their own way, and I have no doubts they will. For example, India needs more energy resources to feed their growing economy and the desires of the world’s largest and fastest growing middle class, so they’re risking of the ire of the US to build a pipeline from Iran through Pakistan.

In this land of contrasts perhaps the hardest thing to reconcile is that poverty still exists when so many people are working (and working extremely hard). Unfortunately in India poverty seems to be something you are born into and can only escape with difficulty. We saw many children begging or picking through trash in the roadside dump for scrap metal or plastic instead of being in school. We met people who were working in retail but had never gone to a day of school. For these people help is going to have to come from above.

In the US, where poverty exists but not like this, we only succeeded in squelching it through government heavihandedness: forced education for all children (even if they were needed in the farm or factory) and lots of government spending on electricity, telephone, post, roads, housing, and make-work projects. I suspect that India’s state and federal governments will have to mandate social changes and pay for a lot of economic relief and infrastructure changes.

India is making a lot of money in taxes from its growing economy, but I think that in India as in the rest of the world, much of the money for development is going to have to come from donor nations. To me it seems unconscionable to expect the developing world to bootstrap or rely on private philanthropy because we want to save a few dollars each on taxes. The world “over there” looks a little different on TV than it does out the window of the train in Chandigarh as dirty children rummage through trash or beg for change. Development feels different when people talk about it at Brandeis’ Heller School for Social Policy and Managment than when beggars are looking at you and tugging on your clothes.

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Motherland

Taj Mahal: Important note about viruses: I have become aware that this site was infected by one of the computers we used in Delhi (via something called a “SQL injection”). I’m doing my best at getting rid of this infection, which only affects Internet Explorer users. If you can use Netscape, you will not notice any problems. Rest assured that I am prepared to rebuild the site if necessary, but hopefully it won’t come to that.

Lisa and I are both extremely happy to be home. We have gone on long trips before, but this one seemed longer than any other. My wanderlust continues unabated — Thursday I borrowed the Lonely Planet guide to Vietnam from the library — but I am beginning to understand the unique pleasures of being home.

Our flights back to JFK in New York were on-time and rather uncrowded, though on each leg the flight attendants made impassioned pleas for a doctor to make herself known. We left New Delhi at 7:00 AM Monday morning, and after 19 hours of transit we arrived at 4:00 PM the same afternoon. We enjoyed relaxing on the LimoLiner back to Boston, and sleeping in our own bed on Tuesday night was heavenly.

The rest of the week has been something of a blur. Wednesday I plowed through more than 1,000 e-mails at work, while Lisa stayed home and ran some errands. India let me know Thursday that I should consider staying home, so I worked at home while Lisa caught up at Brown.

At my office, so many people are on their own international adventures that I’m going to get to retell the story of our trip to India probably a half dozen times. That’s not a problem; I like talking and have a lot to thoughts left to share about the trip . . . .

But I really want most to show some of the pictures from our trip. Yesterday I picked up five rolls of film from Newtonville Camera and have started the slow process of getting them scanned and ready for the web. The 250-or-so images from Lisa’s digital camera can be ready more quickly no doubt. We downloaded them last night and made a first pass at picking the images to scale to a web-friendly size. You should see them soon.

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I gotta get outta this place…

Tomorrow we have a 34 1/2 hour day, leaving at 6:45 AM and arriving around 4:00 PM after 18 hours in the air. I’m charging up the PDA so it will be juiced enough to last until at least Heathrow, hopefully giving us the chance to watch a movie of our choosing and listen to some music we brought with us. The capacity of a half-dollar sized memory card is truly staggering: three movies or 20+ hours of digital music.

I’ll have a lot of time to think on the trip, too. I decided shortly after we arrived here to hold off on deconstructing the trip while we were still on it, opting instead to just let the experience of India wash over me (for better or worse). So in the coming weeks, you’ll probably get some pithy (potentially tedious) punditry of the kind that preceded the trip.

But I can’t resist making a few small observations before going.

On Newspapers: India has a multitude of “national” newspapers and they’re almost all crap. Okay The Hindu is good, and to be fair I couldn’t get past the masthead of most of the non-English dailies. The Economic Times wanted to be good, but it was full of TLAs (Three Letter Acronyms), had one otherwise good story on the Indo-Pakistani-Iranian energy pipeline written in reverse chronological order, stopped short of analysis in its feature pieces, and used current events pictures next to unrelated stories simply to draw your attention (think, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt next to an article on electricity for farmers). The Hindustan Times has the most consistantly bad reportage and the most pictures of decadent westerners in skimpy clothes. While The Times of India reserved most of its space for subcontinental sex kittens and Bollywood beaus.

Television: I think we already mentioned TV. It’s maddeningly fascinating. There are more news channels on cable in Shimla than what we get with DirecTV, and the news seems more balanced. English language entertainment is heavily US-centric, but the Hindi markets seem much bigger. This is 180-degrees opposite of TV in Canada, which is just pathetic.

Cricket: Still a bit of a mystery. I can’t quite figure out how to tell if something good happened. Lisa disparages the game as inferior to baseball, but only watches one or two bowls at a time.

Controversy: India seems willing to embrace controversy in public discourse, whether it’s nationalism, the caste system, or religion in public and private life. Quite refreshing really.

Military Presence: It still shocks these American eyes to see guys with big guns walking along the street (without a moose or elk in tow). Machine guns at the airport? Common. Walking down the road in Shimla we passed a couple of sentries in rather effective camoflauge with their belt-fed machine gun pointed in our direction. At the airport in Jodhpur we passed fortified bunkers with fighter planes at the ready. Every train was shuttling soldiers somewhere or another.

The Supermarket: I went to “The Ranch Store” around the corner in Madras to buy some cold water at a reasonable price (8 rupees, about 20 cents, for a half liter instead of 100 rupees at the hotel). My feelings for India brightened significantly. It’s so nice to be able to think about what food I want, put it in a basket, change my mind, and pay for everything with a 500 rupee note without having a dozen pairs of impatient eyes boring into my back at the stall on the street. Plus, mini Twix candy bars and “imported” Diet Coke! For a moment I was at our corner grocery. Fear not, globe-trekking MathWorkers, I did buy some local stuff too, but hygenically packaged. Why did this have to wait until three days before we left? [See also shopping malls.]

Shopping Malls: Go around the corner from our hotel, past some sketchy-but-probably-safe food stalls, a few beggars and an Indian guy selling paraphernalia praising the Third Reich (Hello, irony!), and down the narrow dirt sidewalk fronting a busy street and you will arrive at Spencer Place shopping mall. This is where we bought our kurta and salwars — Yes, I will post pictures after we return — and it houses the small supermarket. It’s one part mall, two parts bazaar, and completely Indian with a healthy smattering of American brands for zest. It’s a maze of discount shops selling all manner of dry goods wit ha few department stores to anchor the atria in place. The food court — with its clean stalls, Pizza Hut, Subway sandwich shop, and local vegetarian restaurants displaying menus on the big board and serving on plastic trays — is the least “typically Indian” place we’ve visited. There’s also the Landmark store, which is a bizarre Borders Books / Wal-Mart hybrid.

Yes, I’ll be taking a different perspective back with me stateside, but I’m going to be really happy to be home from a purely mass-produced, branded, material culture perspective.

Thoughts on politics and “Global, Inc.” to follow.

By the way, we have about 1,000 rupees of talk time left on our phone. American relatives may get phone calls yesterday night / this morning.

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and He shall smite the wicked …

Hi all, Lisa again.

First, let me send assurances that I am feeling better … not 100% but better. The fever is gone completely and the hacking cough I’ve had since our first day in the desert (breathing sand is just not a good thing to do)seems to have almost run its course. I’m moving about more and, apparently, no longer mumbling in my sleep.

It upset me greatly that we missed the wedding which was, after all, kinda the whole point of the trip. But Jeff and Nirmala and Jay have been great and understanding and I’m told we’ll get a copy of the wedding on DVD when it’s done so we’ll at least get to see what we missed. The people at the engagement couldn’t have been nicer and kept giving me cold soft drinks. Of course, when one is used to diet, multiple servings of full-sugar, full-calorie Coke and Pepsi can really make you feel kinda sick, but I was feeling kinda sick anyway so whose to say.

So, I hope no one worries too much about me.

Jeff and I did notice something rather amusing about the whole thing. Those of you who know me know that I am not the most religious person in the world. The funny thing about this is that it’s not the first time I’ve passed out in a holy building (though, let me reiterate that I did not actually pass out on Thursday, I just felt light-headed and immediately sat down so I wouldn’t pass out … I’m getting smarter … well, except for allowing the conditions (extreme hunger and dehydration) that led to the diziness in the first place but let’s not quibble). The first time I fainted was in a Catholic church when I was a bridesmaid for my best friend. That time I did go out completely (it was very surreal, the priest dissapeared one little bit at a time) and if the best man had not caught me, I suspect I would have had a nasty headache when I hit the marble altar. This building was quite a bit older, but also made of stone, so it’s a good thing I didn’t go completely. I guess there are two possible lessons that could be taken from this. 1) I need to find some religion and get it quick or 2) I just need to stay out of churches and temples altogether.

I think that’s all for me. My feeling about this trip and this country are incredibly complicated and I can’t do them justice here so I’ll just have to share when I get back.

I’m very glad were coming home tomorrow, my birthday, the longest 30th birthday ever. I look forward to talking to all of you and sharing my pictures when we get back!

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The reception

Lisa tells me that she’s feeling a bit better — though obviously not 100%. We’ll see if she contradicts this story in the post that she’s writing a couple of computers over.

I did in fact join three other white folks at the reception on Friday evening (Brian, Alex, and Caroline — whose names I have assuredly misspelled and will fix later). The video of the morning’s ceremony was playing when we showed up, which helped to smooth over the lingering regret I had (though I would stay with a feverish Lisa again if given the choice).

The reception was pretty much everything I was told to expect. 100+ people I did not know, mixed in with the few that I did, sitting around listening to carnatic music while the bride and groom (by then wife and husband) stood on the stage in the hot lamps shaking everyone’s hands for the video as the photographer snapped everyone’s group photos. “I don’t know who most of those people were,” Nimmi confided afterward. But no matter, she looked pleasantly tired, very happy, and quite stunning in her third outfit of the day.

After the singing and sitar playing and handshaking was done, we Western folk went to the dining hall and promptly broke all of the food safety guidelines from the Lonely Planet books and from our travel doctor. Heaps of vegetarian food whose names I have forgotten were piled onto the wide banana leaf that served as my plate. Eating with one’s fingers isn’t nearly as awkward as it might seem when everyone else is doing it too, though much more adroitly than any of the rest of us four. It made no difference what we did or said; food kept being laddled from steaming galvanized buckets onto our leaves. The woman next to me folded her leaf! That seemed to work. No more chapatis or rice or lentils or sweet, yellow coconut stuff over corn-filled pastries. Only a small, very welcome cup of ice cream with a fried yummy in it.

Back upstairs in the mostly vacant reception hall, we sat on plastic lawn furniture under the ceiling fans completely stuffed and steaming. Two of us in kurtas, Caroline in her new sari that some relatives helped her into, and Alex in shiny leather shoes, a starched collar, and a muted pink tie. A kurta is actually quite cool when the air is moving, but Western business wear is not.

“Do you feel different yet? Do you feel married?” I asked. Nirmala laughed. “Not really. No.” I told her to wait until she realized that she was stuck with Jay. Actually I can barely imagine two more agreeable people.

As we sat, some folks announced they were going back to Bombay or Trichy or Delhi. One fellow unrolled a mat to sleep at the hall. Some of Jay’s cousins picked up their cricket bats and headed outside. It was nearly eleven, and most of us had been up since 5:00 AM, but a good part of our group seemed too hot to move. Eventually we took the hint and left, our driver shuttling us through the still busy streets. “I think I want a beer,” Alex said. (I actually want a burrito and a Diet Coke. Hold the beer.)

Coincidentally, Caroline and Alex just started working in Bangkok. When I told them it was my first trip out of the continent, Alex said, “Wow. India is hardcore. You should come to Thailand. It’s like India but hospitable to tourists.” Maybe after our trip to Europe in a couple years we will.

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The wedding

It’s official, Nirmala and Jayram are married. Last night (Thursday) about sixty people attended the formal, multi-hour, multi-venue engagement. This morning they had the actual marrage ceremony. I am told that there are more tradition-bound events to follow, but that they are legally and spiritually now man and wife.

In a heartbreaking turn of events, Lisa and I weren’t at this morning’s ceremony. Once again, India (combined with our Western-ness) has kicked us when we most wanted to enjoy ourselves.

Yesterday, Lisa awoke not feeling 100% well and then slid into the spiral of feeling worse, eating less, and feeling worse. She was okay when we went out to shop for wedding garb with Nimmi’s brother-in-law, but by the time we left the wedding hall to walk around the nearby thirteenth-century temple and seek the gods’ blessings, she was looking a little pasty. After the first couple of Ganesh and Siva statues, the third application of holy ash, and the first streak of red above the bridge of the nose on our second, expanding clockwise loop around the temple, Lisa was swooning. “I need to sit down,” and we found her an out-of-the-way spot to slump. Moments later, our new Auntie-ji (Jay’s stepmother) who was acting as our Virgil through the stiffling procession, grabbed her arm and led her back to the A/C of the car, bought her a cold Pepsi, and was sympathetically lumping us into the category of “non-Indians from temperate lands” — though any number of Indians were also sweating buckets and wiping their faces with the edges of their saris.

As for the ceremony, we got the gist of it, if not the words. As is the case with most things in India, having a guide helped. Jay got dressed for the ceremony in an outfit given to him by Nimmi’s family and then sought their permission to marry her. Actually, there was a fair bit of symbolic gift-giving representing hopitality on the part of the bride’s family along with enticements to Jay to marry that preceded his request. The five-piece percussion and brass ensemble played a lot of music loudly, alternating with quiet when the five-or-so priests needed to be heard and to mark the various “acts.” There was dancing, which I suspect embarrassed Nimmi a bit. More gift-giving and symbolic offerings — each with a tradition-bound meaning — as part of the families accepting each others’ new members. The culmination was rather quiet: the priests and Jay’s (?) family members publicly reading the wedding announcement in call-and-response Tamil.

If I’m hazy on the details, it’s because I was shuttling up and down stairs to be with Lisa, who was sitting by a window for the breeze. Other times I was beckoned to the stage with the family, priests, photographers, and other friends. I did manage to get a few nice pictures with Lisa’s digital camera, and we will post them when we get back. The exact order of events is also fuzzy since many family members were giving us slightly different details as to what was happening at different times in the ceremony.

I was worried about Lisa and felt slightly guilty because I was actually having a good time getting rubbed on the forehead with holy ash and being embraced joyfully by family members. I enjoyed hearing the Hindu myths from people who may or may not believe them but still walked the temple on these happy days. And I saw Nimmi happier, more beautiful, and more womanly than I have ever seen this ebulient and cheerful friend.

So around 5:00 this morning, when it became very clear that Lisa (who was feverish and mumbling in her sleep) was in no shape to go to the wedding hall again in a couple hours time, I made the choice to stay and take care of her. Prior to leaving on our trip, we made a pact to do everything together on the trip, so that neither of us was out in the wilds of India alone.

I was doing okay until about 10:00, when I figured the ceremony was over. Lisa’s fever had diminished, but I was growing inconsolable. We hadn’t come to India just for the morning of this second day of the wedding, but I realized after missing it just how much I had really wanted to see the ceremonial tying of the rope that would bind these two wonderful people together.

I am bouyed by the fact that there is another event tonight that Lisa has ordered me to go to the reception. I will finally get to wear my snazzy kurta, but I don’t think Lisa will be joining me.

This morning’s melancholy has mostly washed over me, but it’s bound to temper everything else that I write for a little bit. So perhaps it’s best to just take a break, drink something cold, watch something on TV (most likely with the ever-present Amitabh Bachchan) for a while, and then get dressed for the evening.

We’ll be returning stateside on Monday. Enjoy your weekends. We might risk another temple tomorrow. “Mad dogs and Englishmen,” my friends. We are among them.

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Lake Palace Hotel

From the 13th to the 15th we were in Udaipur in Rajasthan, staying at another palace — the Lake Palace, where the Maharana of Udaipur used to entertain guests.

In pictures, the water comes just a couple of feet below the windows and the hotel appears to float upon this idyllic lake, the magnificent City Palace shining a short quarter mile away on the shore. The reality is that goats, sheep, and cattle now graze on the bottom of the dried up Lake Pichola. Locals tell us that the view is spectacular, but that there hasn’t been water in the lake for a few months and it hasn’t been full since it last rained fifteen months ago.

That seems to be about normal for our trip to India. Irony aside, we really enjoyed Rajasthan. We saw some incredible, historic buildings; eaten some tasty food (on occasion); talked to some very friendly Indians; and bought some nice things for ourselves and others.

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Rajasthan

First of all, thanks everyone for your comments. I seem to have to manually approve all of them, so sorry it takes a while for them to show up.

We’re in the final stretch of our pre-wedding travel, and we’re still having a good time. Now it’s mid-morning in the deserts of Rajasthan. Yesterday, when we got into Jodhpur, there was a raging duststorm and we choked most of the rickshaw ride to the hotel from the rail station. This morning the skies have cleared, and it’s not yet hot. Though this little “cyber cafe” (more of a warren really) is bound to get toasty soon.

Rajasthan is nice. Hot, but nice. It’s a hot, flat desert with friendly people and not much to do (according to the locals). Sounds a bit like Wyoming in the summer, but without the cool mountains.

We started our desert adventure on the 9th after a flight to Jodhpur from Delhi that was delayed for four hours. Another Indian Airlines traveler said, “That’s it! From now on I’m flying Jet Airways.” Our flying bus was full of pushing people, but 40 minutes later we were pushing our way off the plane. That night we stayed in a castle, literally.

The next morning we wished we had known the train was going to be three hours delayed. We might have slept in a bit and explored the castle. As it happens, we waited around the rail station, getting five different sets of directions as to where to wait for our train. Young people wanted to shine Lisa’s shoes, and one beggar whose schtick involved dragging a cardboard box around was pretty insistent that we give him 10 rupees.

[There was a brief intermission just now as the cafe proprietor took over our computer to print some documents for someone else. How amusing!]

After leaving Jodhpur, the further west we went, the sandier the landscape became. When the wind came up, visibility was down to less than a few hundred feet. Just before a small town mid way on the trip, a man sat down across from us. Sunil, we later discovered, was a soldier from Pokaran, the small town. He made small talk with me. (No one ever makes small talk with Lisa, as she is a woman.) After he asked me if I like soldiers — “Yes, why not?” — and he said that I should join him at Pokaran as a friend, I was a little nervous that the two guys who sat down later with him were going to help him press me into some paramilitary group on the border with Pakistan, only 40 or so miles away. But no, it was just idle, international banter. I figure Lisa would protect me if needed, and I’m sure the French/Belgian hiker 20-somethings across from us could help, too. Actually I was never really nervous, it was just an odd turn of events. Plus, I’m pretty sure that would void my U.S. citizenship.

In Jaisalmer, our destination, we stayed in a mostly empty resort on the edge of town. Because of the summer heat (only about 112 when we arrived) we were the only guests there. Everyone knew everything about us. It felt like a cross between the “Bates Motel” and the world’s largest bed and breakfast.

On the 11th we went into Jaisalmer town to visit the fort. Visiting Rajasthan in the hot season may not be the most sensible thing to do, but it’s pretty laid back now. Sure, some small children did implore us to buy trinkets — as did a couple of brightly dressed Rajasthani women at the entrance to the fort, but we were largely unhassled. Perhaps having a guide helped. His English was pretty good, and his knowledge of the town, it’s people and cows was pretty admirable. So we walked leisurely around the 15th century fort rising unexpectedly out of the desert on a big sandstone mound. The “dry” construction of expertly cut sandstone blocks and finely interlocking stone screens was quite interesting and extremely impressive. The fort was able to survive a four month siege by the Mughals and is the only fort in Asia that is still inhabitted (by completely Brahmin-caste families). The Maharaja doesn’t live there anymore, though. He and his family’s money live out in the new part of town.

The “new” part, with its 18th and 19th century “havelis” — named after the openings for the windows — which are covered by fine screens so the women could see the events of the day without being seen by the men — is still very nice for an Indian city. It mixes a living city with commerce and tourism. With the exception of the open sewers, it felt a bit like Boston’s North End and resembled pictures I’ve seen of Venice and Sienna.

We went inside of the haveli, which is still owned by the sixth-great-grandson of the former prime minister, who is selling off the family heirlooms to pay for the tax bills and upkeep — this, incidentally, is why the palaces in Jodhpur and Udaipur became hotels. One of the havelis became a cooperative shop for textile manufacturers from the frontier region. Nonlocal access to these places is greatly limited because of border hostilities, so all of the goods come to the town, where they’re sold by imported villagers, too. We ended up buying a lovely wall hanging made by Rajastani women (who are among India’s least well-off, I have read) from the gold and silver brocade at the edge of their saris and blouses. They’re intricate, unique, and extremely beautiful.

After meeting back up with our driver, we headed to the hills outside of town and Bada Bagh cenotaphs. The memorials to the Maharajas were interesting, but the trip was enriched by a local student home from university in Delhi. He’s studying commerce, loves America, was full of helpful knowledge about the cenotaphs, and (I gather) is ready to leave the small, small village neighboring the memorials. He talked about how the rulers’ wives used to throw themselves on the funeral pyre in acts of devotion (and obligation) when their husband died — sometimes as many as ten women did this at a time. In the fort, we saw the location where the satis self-immolated.

You get the sense that women’s lives in Rajasthan aren’t highly valued, but in Jaisalmer poeple started talking to Lisa more, including her in conversation. This is atypical. Usually it’s “Please, sir,” “This way, sir,” “Thank you, sir.” If Lisa’s noticed at all, it’s in the context of me. I’ve had whole conversations with Lisa beside me where the men haven’t bothered talking in her direction or just ignore the fact that she is there. I feel rotten about it, but working her into the conversation goes nowhere. However, sensible shopkeepers do include her as she has a huge role in deciding what we buy. There is also some concern that we’re childless . . .

Our co-op salesman paid her sufficient respect. He, we learned, has a wife and children, is thirty-two, never attended school, and has been in his job for eighteen years. Lisa would rather be included in conversation, but she’s also fine not getting loads of attention. Several men stare at her, often quite boldly. She tries not to let it bother her, but I think it makes her nervous.

But that’s typical of our trip. In so many ways it’s a wonderful adventure full of interesting places and friendly people who want to talk with us and get to know us, just as we want to know more about where we are and who lives here. And yet there are so many things it’s quite difficult to adjust to. Shimla and Jaisalmer were reinvigorating, but the larger towns (and especially the travel between them) bring me back down. We’re getting better at mixing in the local scene, heading out into town more and chatting with the locals. But we’ve had our first run-ins with illness — Lisa is feeling the effects of the dust and dryness, and I’m thanking the inventors of Immodium. So we’re still having fun, but it’s tempered by where we are.

Next we’re off to our last stop in Rajasthan: Udaipur, a town everyone says is the most romantic in India. Lisa says, “Of course, they said that about the Taj Mahal, too.” Indeed. Nothing more romantic than death.

A few days from now we’ll be in Madras for the raison d’être of our trip. Our first Hindu wedding. How exciting!

Thanks for the comments. See you all soon.

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Taj

I shouldn’t have watched Lisa write the entry, because now I’m having trouble thinking what to write.

Since our last installment, we spent a bit more time in Shimla up in the Himalayan foothills. We had intended to post some news on Sunday, but the whole town’s commerce shuts down (just like the good ole days in Iowa when I was a youngster). Since then we’ve gone for a couple of hikes in the mountains. Once to Kamna Devi Mandir, a temple to Durga (a form of the goddess who is the appearance of nature and the mother of the universe). It was a nice walk to the base of the “hill” that has the temple at the top, then a wicked uphill to the top. We took off our shoes, stepped inside, tried to chat with a worshipper, and left with the name “Durga” and some prashad, which tasted a bit like peanut butter. (Hopefully the karma that we sullied by not eating the too sweet delicacy was made up for by the alms we earlier gave to some begger-children in the little town of Boileauganj on the way. The sad thing is that they were begging outside of a school that was in session…)

The next day we took another early morning walk down the mountainside to a place called Annandale. The good thing about jet lag is that when you wake up with the Violent Femmes running through your head at 4:30, you can be out walking by 8:00. The road that we walked along seemed almost impossible to drive because of the 30% grade, so we had it to ourselves. A steep walk, it ended at a golf course-cum-helipad (as they say around here) that was a military reserve. So no photography allowed, which was too bad, because it was the most absurd thing I’ve seen recently.

Monday we took the train back down the mountain. Lisa and I enjoyed it much better than the hot trip up, and we had some nice company. The man in the safari suit was a spy, or so we decided after he also had the seats in front of us on the other train to Delhi. He and his wife are professors at Delhi University, and when I got them talking about Hindi, there was a lot of merriment in the seats around us.(Lisa note – merriment resulted when the woman asked Jeff what he could say in Hindi. When he replied “Main hindustani nahi hoon” (I’m not Indian), she got this look like that was the most absurd thing for him to learn as it was quite obvious to everyone that we weren’t Indian).

Yesterday we went to Agra and the Taj Mahal. We had the same Sikh driver for the trip down the highway (that Lisa described) as ferried us about when we first came to Delhi. On the way he again took us to another shop where we could buy various crafty and touristy items, including a beautiful marble Taj Mahal for only 4 lakh rupees (about $9,000).

The highway on the map runs straightish from Delhi through slums, past the ‘burbs — or what passes for them here — and out into the country. As with so many things about India, my expectations were totally off. The reality is that we drove for an hour covering about 5 miles and then about 3-3 1/2 hours more before getting to Agra. Our driver hit a detour and promptly got lost, so we saw all of Agra, fine parts and low. Lisa mentioned a bit about the highway, but she left out the part about the people hanging on the backs of jeeps, riding in wagon carts, and almost tumbling out of rickshaws. Plus women ride side-saddle with kids in tow, amazing!

The Taj was beatiful. It’s made out of marble and changes color with the light. Semiprecious stones are inlaid in its surface. I could go on and on, but I can’t do it justice. Our government approved complimentary guide gave us a nice tour, and — though he didn’t always get our jokes — was a pretty friendly fellow. “Bill Clinton! Good man. Like him very much!” We agreed. “George W. Bush has not come to Taj Mahal.” It’s a pity, we agreed. (Lisa again – many of you may know that the Taj Mahal is this great monument to love as the Shah built it as the tomb of his Persian wife who bore him 14 children. What isn’t as frequently advertised is that he had two other wives, both Indian, and both of whom bore him no children. They got little tiny tombs outside the Taj Mahal grounds. Moral of the story, if you want a humongous mausoleum built, it helps to be Persian and fertile).

After our tour, yet another opportunity for us to part with our money. The things are nice and not exactly expensive, just overpriced and essentially the same. Overpriced and forced upon us.

That’s pretty much a big part of this trip: we’re in a place that is — in all senses of the word — “foreign” to us and seems in many ways disingenuous. We want to go and see things but everyone pulls on us to buy things and go places we don’t want. We could conceivably tell people to just leave us the hell alone, but that would be perpetuating the “ugly American” stereotype. There’s no way to blend in; our whiteness projects. Plus there’s no way to escape our differentness. C’est la vie.

Tomorrow we’re off to Rajasthan. A monsoon blew in as we came down the mountain on Monday, dropping the temperature from 115 degrees to 85 or 90 in Delhi, but I expect it will still be hot in the desert.

We’ll keep you posted.

Posted in India, Travel | 3 Comments

Random musings

Hi all, Lisa here today.

As we’ve travelled through the many scenic byways of India by train and by car, I’ve had some time to think about what we’ve experienced so far. Lots of time to think … it’s a big country, you know. So, here are some random thoughts and observations about the trip, in no particular order.

Shock the Monkey: I had been pondering the native wildlife of India, not knowing much about the indigenous species, when all of a sudden, there was a monkey. Three in fact, a mother and two of her offspring. This was while we were in Shimla. My actual thought was “why do those people have stuffed monkeys on their steps?” followed quickly by “oh my god, they’re alive.” We could have gone to Hanuman’s temple, which has a large monkey population, but the guide book said we should be aware that the monkeys would pick our pockets and try to steal our glasses. I had visions of a monkey landing on me, me flailing about wildly while screaming “get it off, get it off, get it off,” the monkey freaking out and biting me, resulting in a series of rabies shots. So, we decided not to go to that temple. The monkeys were kinda cute, but not that cute. The “oh my god, it’s alive” comment was repeated again this morning when I discovered a lizard near the curtains in our room in Agra. It was tiny but, again, unexpected.

Chaos theory: There are some of you reading this from my office and I know that I have mentioned to some of you how bad I think the drivers in Rhode Island are. Well, you’ve got nothing on the Indian drivers. Despite the helpful signs reminding us that “Lane driving is safe driving,” the lane markings on any road are really more like guidelines and a waste of paint. Stop lights just slow things down and interfere with the Darwinian surivalist driving that seems to actually work astonishingly well. Forget cricket, honking is the national pasttime, and drivers do it to let other drivers know where they are, to tell other drivers to get out of the way, and generally just to establish their presence among the half billion other people enjoying the motorways. In addition to the assortment of lorries, cars, rickshaws, autorickshaws, motorbikes, and bicycles, add the occasional cow, stray dog, stray monkey, stray pig, working cow, working camel, working horse, goat, or elephant (I kid you not)and it makes for exciting times for the uninitiated. Driving (or riding) in India is not for the timid or those with heart problems. The trucks are quite helpful, though, as each of them kindly instruct other motorists to use their horn. They also all say “Use dipper at night” but I haven’t yet figured out what the heck that means.

Star Sightings – TV here and especially advertising also provide some interesting moments. The sheer number of bollywood films that are on tv at any given time is staggering. The hodgepodge of American TV (Friends, Charmed, Boston Public) they get makes me wonder what sort of image we are projecting to the world. But the best part is the advertising, even though we basically see ads for only about six different products. As you may recal, we watched the movie Swades on our plane trip over here. Turns out that the male star, Shahrukh Khan, is a superbigstar here. He’s in several commercials, including cars and Pepsi (a terribly funny commercial with a guitar and a sandwich telling the pepsi bottle that “I want to be your man” and the catch phrase “Oye bubbly, oy oy bubbly”). They’ve got products for Indian women to use to make their skin lighter (and remove dark spots) and to straighten and shiny-fy their hair.

I guess that’s all for me for now. Jeff is going to post again about our actual doin’s for the past few days so I’ll leave the chronology to him. Hope you are all well.

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Delhi and Shimla

These dispatches have finally caught up with real time. Lisa and I are in a crowded internet cafe in Shimla reconstructing the last few days of India.

India is a remarkable place. It’s not clear to me whether it’s what Lisa expected, but it seems like a real shock to me. [I have to watch what I write; the little girl next to me seems to be reading....]

Delhi: We arrived in Delhi late on the 31st after two fabulous experiences wiht Air India, whose motto is “you might not like us, but we don’t care.” This seems really strange, because India seems full of wonderfully friendly, polite people. It’s a little unnerving, but I’ve come to really enjoy it.

It seemed to take forever to get our luggage after a quick trip through immigration. This is where we had our first “authentically Indian” experience. An Indian man was shouting: “I’m going to take my papers and leave! A bribe! Is that what you want! . . .”

Then we made our first mistake that we’d been warned against. We skipped past the “radio taxi” line, headed outside, and were in what seemed to be a private cab. A porter appeared out of nowhere, took our rolling bag, and asked for a tip a few 100 feet later. Then we were hurtling down the Delhi highways at a fast rate, weaving in and out of traffic, and crossing over the center dividing line past trucks 15 feet high pack to the brim with God knows what. Everyone else was doing it, too, while dodging each other, motorbikes, bicycles, pedestrians, and wild dogs (okay only three dogs, but still).

Our hotel was nice: ultra fancy, we almost needed a guidebook to turn off the lights at night. The next day we made our second mistake. We went out for a walk. The concierge showed us a few ATM sites on the map as well as a place to get some clothes and a SIM card for our phone. (Our new number is 9899098612. Call us if you want. I’m not sure the country code for India. Perhaps one of you nice readers can leave a comment.)

The next thing we knew were being pressed between the two hot plates that is Delhi’s 100-degree heat. “Hey, where are you going? Do you want a ride? I can show you all of the sites and take you to places for shopping. Hey, you’re going the wrong way. I’ll take you wherever you want for 10 rupees [about 20 cents].” The voice persisted on and off despite our appeals for peace for about 10 minutes before we relented, hopped into the autorickshaw, and took a somewhat terrifying ride to a place in the midst of Connaught Circus in the heart of Delhi.

It sold neither SIM cards nor reasonable clothes, and there was no ATM. But we were having tea with a Kashmiri carpet trader. He had quickly decided that Lisa wanted a carpet and was showing us everything that we could take back with us on the plane. 20 minutes later he relented, and we were looking at silk paintings. We actually bought a nice souvenir, and then were wisked away to menswear, womenswear, silks, pashminas, etc. We were growing increasingly more insistent and eventually escaped, a few rupees lighter and an hour older.

Surprise, surprise. The same autorickshaw driver was there to take us somewhere else. We hopped in again, seeing nothing else about and somewhat farther away from our hotel than we wanted to walk under the Delhi sun. “No more stores!” we finally said after stopping (unexpectedly) at another bazaar. “Accha!” and we were back.

After lunch, we hired a driver for an hour to do the same errands. Our Sikh driver drove us around to the lower level of the hotel, where we got money from an ATM. Then three blocks later in a different direction than the concierge suggested, we bought a card for our phone that gave us an Indian phone number and incredibly cheap rates. (Call us, we want to talk to you!) We had about 45 minutes left with our driver, so we had him show us some of the main attractions downtown from the comfort and safety of an air conditioned car.

Trains: Yesterday was a day of contrasts. We were up. We were down. We were on the train.

“Kalka.” It all started around 5:00 AM when we got a ride over to the New Delhi station, which is India in a microcosm. Teeming, smelly, chaotic. But also helpful and full of promise. It was all castes and classes (except perhaps the ultra-rich.) It was also full of hucksters, entrepreneurs, and people lying about or sitting on their haunches waiting for their trains. It was perhaps the saddest and most intriguing place I’ve ever been. But there the Indian hospitality shone through as random people offered to tell us what platform we needed and later showed us their tickets with the same destination printed on it.

“Biscuits-Chocolates-Bottwater-Chips.” At first we thought people justted hopped on the train to sell almost every kind of Indian food and some western snacks, too. But after seeing the same people hawking the same goods, we realized they simply walked the length of the train. We later bought some chips — Indian-spiced Lays, yummy — but didn’t contemplate the foil-wrapped fare. Leslie overheard some of this as we called to wish her a happy birthday.

“Main hindustani nahi hoon.” The 30-person coach from Kalka to Shimla — another 5 1/2 hours after the initial 5 hour ride from Delhi — was much more intimate than the trip to Kalka in the air conditioned car. The second trip was hot and winding and devoid of on-board vendors. It also was our first introduction to non-Western plumbing, which Lisa described as absolutely vile. We were hot, we were hungry and thirsty, but we were celebrities. The people who sat at our end of the car spoke English well, but a couple seats away was a big vacation party with minimal English (and I gather less than perfect Hindi, too). The latter group treated us — or at least me — as a celebrity. Where are you from? “USA” Oh! Wow! How do you like India? “It’s interesting.” Hindi? “No, I’m not a Hindi person” was my response (in Hindi). It’s about all I was able to successfully pick up of conversation, but it was a huge hit. It sealed my fate. At the first stop, we were mobbed by the teenagers who wanted their photos shaking my hand. It took a little explanation: “Ap! Ap! [You!]”

The trip was long and hot. Five plus hours riding through essentially the same terrain with Hindi all around and quiet whispers between the upper cast family (presumably) about the lower caste contingent. We ran out of cold water and were too thirsty to eat, so we tried to snooze but failed. I was not thinking charitable thoughts after the first hour of the trip.

But after eating well, washing, and sleeping in a very comfortable and very British style room, we’re really enjoying the place a lot more. Our celebrity status is unchanged by our location and demeanor, too. Today as we toured the interesting and picturesque Viceregal Lodge, more people wanted to know where we’re from. “USA” . . . “America.” Oh, America! Photos all around.

Now we’ve walked about town, napped a bit, planned out our adventure tomorrow, and it’s time to wrap up.

Posted in India, Travel | 9 Comments