Monday, February 23, 2009

Escape from India - Return to US

The day arrived and yours truly stood up for the task, and the customs check, arriving safely into the Newark Airport. I had exactly one Sacagawea dollar and one quarter in the top of my bag, just enough for the number 60 New Jersey bus to Newark Penn Station. I smiled at the attendant complaining that someone was asking for help in Spanish. I smiled at our excessively large highways with enormous signs and SUVs. I smiled at the NY hats (flat billed) that every single male boarding the bus was wearing. Hopping on the train to Manhattan, I felt out of place listening to my India soundtrack in my homecountry, but I smiled at NY moustache flirting with an overweight blonde tourist in the corner of my car.
I managed to bring together nine people from various parts of my life (Austin, Oberlin, Beijing, Farm & Wilderness, and Washington University) for a feast hosted by the every gracious Wills at his apartment. I saw uncles and cousins, and even caught a comfortable introspective train ride out to Long Island to see my lovely grandparents, who mistakenly offered me more food than a rice-diet-accustomed-stomach ought to pack in, leading to numerous food comas.

Long Island Train, originally uploaded by wanders.

Meals I was only too happy to digest: bagel with lox, fat greasy hamburger, NY-style pizza, and diner coffee that they just keep filling over and over again. I made it out to a New Yorker 'Speakeasy Event' on Valentine's day, sitting in a room full of couples with three good (male) friends. The show ended with a performance by Grizzly Bear, who played my once-and-always morning song 'While You Wait for the Others' as I snuggled up to Nick only to remember that he was stubbly and smelly.
Back in Austin now, reunited with parents and siblings, as my kind sister is visiting for the weekend, another friend is coming out next weekend, and I carry on to San Francisco, then Portland in March. Did Ghengis Khan ever settle down? Well this Indian bread will soon be done rolling for a while; further conquering is delayed until enough bravery and funding have been stored up for another adventure.

Thanks for tuning in.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Kerala Beach and Onwards

From the tea plantations and coastal mountains, I bused to another bus to another bus (?) and finally arrived at Varkala, the serene beach town full of hippies and yoga enthusiasts. I found a room, after lugging that trusty old backpack up and down the beach, and got some seafood on the beach, though the electricity goes out in the town between 7:30 and 8pm, so I ate by candle light til a flowing current returned, meeting a nice group of four British girls who I hung out with for my whole week in Varkala.

Varkala Walkway, originally uploaded by wanders.

My routine consisted of coffee mornings up on the cliffs, looking down on the delicious beach and reading a book or the terrible local newspaper that passing salesman would hock for four times its price. I spent mid morning on the beach, trying to find friends or new acquaintances who had sunscreen to share, then an afternoon nap after lunch and a sunset on the beach. I watched the 6pm yoga performances as the sun set, but never participated. I guess my British friends' lack of enthusiasm for yoga spread, thus I never jumped into a class.
I did run into my friend Martina, who I had met one summer in Siberia, thus completing my trip goal of running into someone I knew. She was studying ethnomusicology in Tamil Nadu and had some interesting stories about Auroville, the intentional community of foreigners and Indian built just south of Pondicherry. We had a fine time reminiscing and sharing travel stories and beers at a seafood restaurant on the cliff street lined with stores and foreigners. Varkala has really grown in the past five years, meaning restaurants get put up but not necessarily staffed, frustrating many travellers with some of the poorest service I've encountered in all of India. Not that anyone was in a hurry, so it was hard to get upset when fine young bodies and perfect weather combined with Keralans swimming in their pants and saris. My last night, the Brits and I ate at Funky Art Cafe, and my tuna steak sat heavily in my gut as I tried to join the over-exuberant locals on the dance floor. I traded shirts with one fellow (another trip goal), though ended up putting on a sweaty fake Liverpool football jersey.

Last Keralan Dinner, originally uploaded by wanders.

My last day was spent touring Kochi, the large city with an airport, which the girls and I roamed through, occasionally cramming five into a rickshaw. We saw a tea shop under construction, the fruit bazaar, and a nice tourist park with masala popcorn and all. After I rode a rickety ferris wheel and some guys on horses tried to chase us down so we would go for a ride, we saw another beach (hard to resist in Kerala) and then called it a night. The girls took a train back to Varkala after we said goodbyes, and I failed to sleep, not because I was excited, but rather due to the untiring mosquitos. Hopping my flight after finishing 'White Tiger' I faced a twelve hour layover in Mumbai. I met a San Franciscan and two girls from Boston, who offerred to share a taxi and off we went into the city. We all shared travel stories, laughing with our shared sense of humour, and after dropping some bags at the Salvation Army Guesthouse, went off wandering, shopping, and finally for a Leopolds, a famous spot in the ever entertaining novel Shantaram. I ran out of money, was treated to some chocolate cake to escape some begging children, and then napped during our hour taxi ride back to the airport during sunset. Passing the outside of the Taj Mahal Hotel and the nicer streets in Mumbai, I was impressed to see a pretty city and one that wore some history and culture on a clean sleeve. I sat in the airport until three am, then finally reached my cruising altitude of 50 thousand on my way back to the motherland. Arriving in New York, I tried to get into story telling mode with the police officer checking passports
PO: "You went to Pakistan?"
Me: "Yeah, there's actually some really great hiking. Nice place. I actually rolled my ankle while surrounded by seven thousand meter peaks..."
PO: "So you speak Urdu?"
Me: "What? No."

I got in to the country and even negotiated my way to my uncle's place with no problems.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Beaches Preponed

After a bout in Nainital, I returned to Delhi for my seventh time, for once disappointed at how early our train arrived (early overnighter means less sleep) and dropped my stuff at the first place willing to accept two dirty foreigners at 5 am without asking for two nights rent. I met my friends Sean and John (to be referred to by a rapper/fashion stylist's title) at their fancy hotel for breakfast and ate up, even spotting real life bacon on Sean's plate. Well, not so alive anymore, but impressive to encounter nonetheless. We did the some site seeing, heading to the Red Fort, though it was closed due to the upcoming Republic Day and security concerns. We saw the nearest mosque instead, meeting a few Portland-ites on the way out who recommended an alternative energy firm out in Oregon to help work on Wind Farms. Networking CAN happen in India, you just have to go to popular spots. We also saw the Parliament building and India Gate, though we barely stopped our cab before security waved us on. Thanks to the impending Republic Day, we glimpsed our sites from the car before relaxing the rest of the afternoon. While Sean John ate some fancy (and expensive) meal, my Australian friend and I ate Pizza Hut for dinner. Yeah, it was caving to western culture, but Pizza Hut is actually a fancy restaurant and we paid nearly four dollars for our meal. That night we tried to find a bar to meet up at, but instead went to some "global cuisine" restaurant for alcohol.
Sean John and I continued travelling as a trio the next day, but on our way to a Sikh temple, we got pulled into a cricket game in what used to be a shopping complex. We lost, but returning from the temple, after sitting and eating a free meal with the seated lines of Sikhs, we ran into an older set of kids playing cricket. We joined in, losing twice, but glimpsing a bit of Indian character I hadn't seen before. With only one serious sport to their name, the people of this country definitely love the game. We aimed to hit the ball between two trees - you were out if you got it in the road - and shouted when our Delhiite teammates dropped a catch. Leaving the game, after sharing a Pepsi with the winner, I felt a little more connected to the culture, which was the proper time to proceed to a Hindu Temple, where I tried to explain what I could about the religion to Sean John, but mostly just got a red dot on my forehead. We trucked it (well tuk-tukked it) to Hauz Khaz for a fancy South Indian meal, but no beer?!? Walking for a while, we finally found the Asian Games complex where we could find a drink, though our choice was Long Island Iced Teas and our night dragged on until closing time; midnight. John stole some guy's bike and rode it in circles until he crashed in a heap. Returning to our budget hotel, our 'energy' woke up a German coinhabitant, and we slept like logs, ignoring dirty sheets. The next day we decided that Republic Day was not our friend, so we skipped the parade and caught the first train to Agra, arriving just in time for a 4 pm lun-inner and an outside view of the Taj Mahal at sunset. A little kid, Jamal?, took all the cheesy photos of us holding the top of the palace and so on, but stopped short of stripping our car since we rode up in a rickshaw. We gave him ten rupees despite his pleas for dollars.
I typed emails while Sean John saw the wonder of the world, and we caught up at the Agra Fort while John confessed to meeting the girl he was going to marry. Our train to Jaipur left at 5pm, arriving too late for dinner, but Cafe Coffee Day remained open with the 'most delicious strawberry shake of my life' for John and I. In Jaipur we saw a bazaar, got tired of haggling and surviving in India, and then chose the Golf Course to relax at. After viewing the Polo Fields, we strolled over to the Rambagh Hotel, owned by the same people as the Taj Hotel in Mumbai (means fancy) and after some stunning gardens entered the even more ornate reception room. As we entered a woman walked out, and I looked up just in time to recognize her as the mother in every Bollywood film, from 'Singh is King' to 'Dostana'. Big deal. Seriously. We got cocktails outside of their illustrious restaurant and even got a tour of the rooms - the hotel attendant told us that the palace used to be a hunting lodge for the British. Surely he was joking...

Rambagh Hotel Fountain, originally uploaded by wanders.

That night we got nostalgic for the werstern world, and had Pizza Hut again - with pepperoni! After a relaxing day where Sean John played golf and I bought a replacement pair of pants after my eight month old quick drying all purpose khakis ripped in the bum. Last day included a tour of a fort surrounded by elephants, though rather than to protect, they were there to carry visitors to the elevated entrance, and then a stroll along the 'street of fancy stores' (unofficial name) in Jaipur to see the end of winter sales. Our train to Delhi was a sitter, with almost two full meals of food, and when we arrived and found a room, I was exhausted purely from the work my digestion was doing. Sean John's last day in India included a disappointing attempt at finding art, Route 66 Diner for lunch (more American food?) and a stroll through Khan Market in the afternoon, where I looked at the cover of nearly two hundred books and didn't buy a single one. We met John's friends from Beijing for dinner, and after getting a bit rowdy over the last round, parted ways for the airport and our respective late night flights. Sean John returned to Beijing at 3 am, meanwhile I slept in the airport until my 4:30 flight. I was aware that my flight was early because I had gotten a text message saying "your flight has been PREPONED" which both surprised, confused, and then reassured me.
In Kerala, arriving quite grumpy at 9 am, I spent the night in Kochi, where after a nap, I boated over to Fort Kochi for a wander and gander at fishing nets, Catholic influenced architecture, and a parade ground full of kids playing Sunday afternoon cricket. That night I finally watched 'Slumdog Millionare' without dubbing or subtitles (I asked my neighbor for a few Hindi clarifications) and decided that you haven't really lived until you've gone dump diving. A bus the next morning carried me to Munnar, a town among tea plantations in the Western Ghat hills, where I strolled around all of this morning, wearing my feet out, and leaving me with no energy for th Tea Factory tour. Maybe next time.

Tea near Munnar Tea Plantation, originally uploaded by wanders.

Future plans, though no one asked: I'm off next to the beach of Varkala for my last six days, departing Feb 10th from Trivandrum to New York for a stint before returning to Austin, TX, home to prize-winning cowboys armed with guitars, pecan trees full of kites and squirrels, and wanderers chasing armadillos.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Friday, January 23, 2009

Snow Curry

After my mom headed off to return to the US via Finland and London, I met up with a fellow from the continent of Oceana and we caught the first train we could out of Delhi, sleeping on an empty car til we got up into the mountains. Due to a late arrival, it took us a day and a half to actually arrive at the snowy ski town of Joshimath, where due to the weather, most things were closed, but the skiing wasn't exactly open. We were unable to stay up on the slopes at the unheated government housing we had counted on and the 'ropeway' gondola ride up there only ran twice a day, but we did manage two days up on the snow peppered mountain. The first day they were reportedly out of skis, but we walked up and caught a show by the military personnel training, most likely for positions out in Kashmir. I jumped off a rock into the snow, but of course, and we trekked back down to the ropeway station for some terrible fried noodles and a long wait to return. That night I tried to cook up the chocolate cake mix my sister had given me for the holidays, and ended up with some warm chocolate pudding via a small titanium stove and pot. Better than nothing, we watched 'Dostana' (terrible Bollywood) on Rob's laptop (decked out!) and then went up to the mountain again the next day. We found skis, carried them to the top of a hill, and slip-slided down a 15 degree slope, nice for Rob, on his first skiing outing, but quite boring for myself. I was courageous enough to hike fifteen minutes up to the top, rewarded with a difficult but slow three minute descent, as the snow was hard and my boots didnt actually fit in my skis...
Returning to more popular tourist destinations, we visited Rishikesh, where the Beatles wrote part of the White Album and every western male sports a huge beard. We didnt quite fit in. But we did follow Lonely Planet's suggestion to hike out to some waterfalls, paying a fee to tire ourselves on a steep but unrewarding climb to see some cascading H2O. Almost in shape, we hopped on yet another bus, out to Ramnagar for a chance to see tigers at the Corbett National Park. Supposedly here, despite having less tigers, the animals are quite used to people, increasing your chances of seeing such an elegant beast. We were not so lucky, so with ten dollars less in our pockets, we continued bruising our butts on hard local buses to arrive at Nainital, a British hill station.
We discovered decent beer (ie Kingfisher, not 'Super 20000'), another ropeway to a 'snowview', video games, and a pretty little lake, dotted with boats, including the magical dragon paddle boat that Rob barely talked me out of renting. Armed with hard to find train tickets back to Delhi, we wandered town, mingling with the Indian tourists on winter break, eating ice cream, losing at Tekken to 12 yr olds, and watching a game of cricket - I almost understand the rules now. Next stop - Delhi and some friends from US and Beijing to show around.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Camelling Jaisalmer

Following a wonderful new years on the beaches of Goa, an Indian paradise, I said goodbye to the fireworks in the sand and hopped on a plane back to Delhi to meet my mom, falling asleep for the first time all year as the morning flight took off toward a more chill atmosphere and climate. Navigating Delhi proved more difficult than I'd thought, and when I finally broke down to call our hotel from a store with a phone, I returned to my rickshaw, cursing India herself, only to look up just as an elephant passed us on the road. This country never ceases to amaze me.
Finally reunited with kin, my mom delivered my ukulele, holiday cheer, and some swiss chocolate to brighten my evening. We saw a few sights in Delhi after being coralled into hiring a driver, and on our third day started out despite thick fog, toward Agra and the notorious Taj Mahal (both for its beauty and its crowds). We stopped once or twice along the way at places I can't be bothered to remember. Rolling through the countryside, our driver told story after story of corruption and depressing the hell out of us, meanwhile I purchased the soundtrack to Ghajini, the new Bollywood hit, and we rocked out as poor kids banged on our windows begging for change.
The Taj Mahal had further challenges in store, with the worst guide of our lives, courtesy of the car company, and a mighty crowd. Our guide repeated his five bits of information as we wandered the palace, especially impressed with the garb of Indian tourists - the highlight was when he pointed out that all the trees on the site were numbered. Yeah, great bit of info right there. Very insightful, fellow. We parted with him and a two dollar tip and headed to our Agra hotel where I resumed playing
the ukulele and singing "Umbrella" just as I had been doing back in the summer of 2008 when we were separated by an ocean.
Our next stop was the Ranthambore National Park, where we stayed at a resort with a pool, which felt surreal in India, and froze during a morning safari. We were promised a 30% chance of seeing a tiger, but all we caught sight of were spotted deer and a few footprints. Another bus saw one of the impressive creatures, and one man's response to our questions as we passed eachother, "very clearly, very clearly," were burned into wrinkles of jealousy in my mind. I let it go and spent an afternoon reading out in the desert sun of Rajasthan. We pressed on the next day, driving to Jaipur, and said goodbye to our driver and hello to the "pink city" with its bazaars and old Mughal architecture. We saw "Ghajini" that night, an Indian adaptation of Memento, which proved too violent and non-musical for our taste. The famous Aamir Khan let us down, but did sport many tattoos and what Indian GQ has labeled "the new six-pack look."
From there we headed to Tilonia, to visit the Barefoot College, an amazing NGO in rural Rajasthan, which spearheaded the solar electrification of Indian villages, starting in the late 70's and even helping found Avani, where I did my volunteering tenure. People were too busy to show us around, but my social entrepreneur professor mom interviewed one guy and then all of a sudden 350 students arrived to see what was going on. Evidently, a group of Indian students had all boarded a train two weeks earlier, for a country tour of social entrepreneurship that took them to see 15 different organizations and leaders in social work. It sounded like a pretty amazing trip and the train had even been rigged up to allow for one full car of showers (plastic and buckets in between seats) and two "social cars" with a huge flatscreen and occasional speakers. We hung out with some of the intriguing students, but they soon headed off to some other stop to hear someone else speak.
From Tilonia, we paused in Jodphur, getting the speedy tour of the City Palace and the fort and then off to another cinema for a more successful Bollywood adventure, though we had to leave in the middle to catch our overnight train. I still haven't found a waiter or anyone who's seen the whole film to tell us how it ends.
Does Shah Rukh Khan win his wife's heart and the dance competition? ("Rab de Bana di Jodi")

Jaisalmer Camel Guide, originally uploaded by wanders.

In Jaisalmer, our final destination, we got in at sunrise and stood in awe, staring up from our balcony at the historical fort in town. We went on a camel safari one afternoon, through sand dunes, viewing two foxes and four antelopes, then had chai with the Spanish couple on our trip as the sun set and slowly the full moon rose. It was a surreal experience to be riding back in a jeep afterwards, across the empty desert with a blaring orange moon overhead, as our driver shined his brights at every passing car and they responded in kind. My final understanding was that it was some kind of pissing contest and whoever lowered there brights was then the loser who had to pull partially off the road to let the light shining winner pass. I ignored it mostly, and accepted the cosmic blessing from the moon. This afternoon we head on a 19 hour train to Delhi for one day before my mom flies back to the US and her awaiting classroom, and I plan to hit the Himalayan ski slopes with my new Australian friend.

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Hampi Boulders

Chaco heel hook, originally uploaded by wanders.

rock climbing til the new year!