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.