Monday, March 31, 2008
Wednesday, March 26, 2008
Aside from our daily life in the orphanage, we've got our fingers in a few other pies. Last weekend we spent the night drinking and laughing in Thamel, the backpacker ghetto of Kathmandu. In the space of 30 minutes we met a bunch of kids who came to Kathmandu for its party scene and its easy access to hash as well as a group of climbers who were planning on tackling Everest in the coming week. Back in our village, VSN is building a school, and we have been given the task of painting the classrooms. So far, we've painted the alphabet and number line in one classroom, and I think we'll be finished with the other three rooms by the time we leave.
Last night, we had a big going-away dinner for a couple from The Netherlands, who are responsible for raising the funds necessary to run the orphanage. Just to give you an idea of how little money it takes to properly run a caring, clean orphanage, this couple raised $50,000, and that allowed VSN to buy the property, build the orphanage, and operate it for the next 2 years! Lizzi has more to say about the dinner itself :)
Other than all that, it's life as usual. We watch Aladdin every day with the kids. But they get no more than an hour into it before they have to go to school or the power goes out. So we start over from the beginning each day. I'm looking forward to the 16-hour flight home just so I can watch a different movie. Maybe one that doesn't have animated genies and monkeys.
Oh, one more thing. The village we live in is called Pepsicola. Yeah, as in, Pepsi, Michael Jackson and the taste of a new generation. Recently, Pepsi built a bottling plant in the undeveloped suburbs of Kathmandu, and the town that grew around it became known as Pepsicola. It still cracks me up to hear the bus-wallahs yelling " Baneshwor, Pepsicola, ..." as they careen through the city streets.
Sunday, March 23, 2008
We've been in Nepal for an entire week and it's one of those weeks that feels like a lifetime and a moment, at the same time. I know that there are some of you out there who are just dying to know what it's like for us over here, and in the next few paragraphs, I'm going to do my best to give you a mental picture. Briefly though, you should know that of all of the places we've been, of all of the experiences we've had in the past 3.5 months, of all of the things we've seen and done, Nepal is the best and most amazing.
As Matt said, life in Nepal is a lot calmer than life in India. Which is to say that there are still honking cars, cows in the road, power cuts, touts, undrinkable water, trash in the fields, and tons of tourists, but there are just way fewer of all of those things. It doesn't hurt that Kathmandu is in a valley, surrounded by these beautiful mountains that everyone around here refers to as hills. They're mountains to me! We're hoping to catch a plane to check out some of those really famous peaks that are about 100 km from here this weekend. (And Andy, we'll be in a plane the whole time, so we shouldn't need the Diamox!)
We're slowly but surely getting used to the power cuts and the repitious meals. But seriously people, daal bhaat really IS good. And for the vegan that reads this website: I am learning how to make it because it is seriously the most nutritious complete meal I have ever eaten. While we're talking about food, I should take a moment to tell you about mo:mo. They're these little dumplings that look like something you get at a chinese restaurant, but they're just...BETTER. Also vegan-able. They are delicious with a glass or three of Everest Beer. Yes, people, Everest Beer.
The majority of our time, at least, the part of our day that takes the most energy, is spent with the seven little reasons that it's going to be so hard to leave this amazing place.
Ramesh is 8 and he is the newest addition to the orphanage. All of his living relatives died and kind neighbors brought him to VSN when they found him living on the street. He has never been to school. He eats like he might not get another meal. But at the end of every day, when he's tired and doesn't want to admit it, he likes to curl up in Matt's lap. And just yesterday, he read me an entire alphabet's full of words, in English!
Sangita is the leader of the group. She's 7-and-a-half and she's the kind where the half is really, really important. She reminds me of a woman I used to work with in Maine, because she's got this big belly laugh that just invites your own laughter, even when you have no idea what's funny. She loves, like absolutely LOVES, to sing and dance. The bedtime ritual includes a nightly performance by Sangita. I plan to take a video of it to share with you guys who want to have your heart smitten with love for this sweet little girl.
Sujan and Poonam are siblings. Sujan is 7 and he's just got so much energy that he occasionally needs to let it out by doing gymnastics off of his bunk bed and splitting his head open right before bedtime. True story. Remind me to tell you about that time I was in Nepal and this kid cracked his head open and needed 5 stitches and there was no anesthesia and a pair of rusty scissors. Sujan is the kind of kid whose affection you sort of have to win. But once you win it, every so often you'll look over at him and catch him looking at you and winking and smiling this shy little smile and you just want to scoop him up and kiss his devilish little cheeks. Poonam is absolutely the smiliest kid I've ever met. Except that she also seems to know the power of her tears and will cry when she's not getting her way. I totally identify with her, because I remember being 5 and feeling sad enough to wail about nothing at all. She also feels a really strong connection with Matt and will walk up to him about 5 or 6 times a day just to grin and run away.
Vijay is the most ticklish of the group. He's also 5 and is a very, very happy kid. He's so ticklish that you can stand about a foot away from him, wiggle your finger in his general direction, and watch him fall to the floor, laughing and gasping for air. Because he's quiet and very unassuming, I tend to forget that he's there. But then he'll run up to me with his notebook in his hand, grinning and saying my name (which sounds a lot like "Lijjy" over here) and screaming, "tickle, tickle, tickle!"
Vivek and Vikesh are also siblings. Vivek is 4 and Vikesh is 2 and they're both just so cute that I have to remind myself not to hold them all the time. vivek is the type of kid who would probably be considered ADD at home, but here he's just got a ton of energy, is surrounded by kids twice his age, and has already experienced a life that's harder than most of us will ever dare to have nightmares about. Even in the week that we've been here, he's calmed down more, which could partly be due to the fact that he and his brother were finally united last week. Vikesh is just a little smooshy thing, always wanting to be carried, trotting around behind the older kids just in case they remember him and want to play with him.
Before we came here and spent this time with these kids, I knew that kids could be amazing and inspiring. I knew that they could make you sit back and take stock of your life and wonder what on earth you were doing before they came along. I knew that someday, when the time is right, I would want to come to a country a lot like Nepal and adopt a kid a lot like any of the kids at this orphanage. Here's what I didn't know: I didn't know that you could fall in love with a kid in an instant. I didn't know that loving a child is probably one of the easiest things to do, even when that child isn't yours, and can only say "Hello, how are you I am fine thank you" in your language. I didn't know that an orphanage could be a happy place, filled with laughter and songs and kids who are healthy and sweet and amazing. I also didn't know that despite the happiness of the New Life Children's Home, that once a day a kid like Sangita walks over to the corner, and looks out at the room with an expression on her face that spells the sadness of a thousand lost experiences. I didn't know that a kid like Ramesh would walk up and tell me that he didn't have a mother and he didn't have a father, but that he would really like both, please. I knew that being here would plant a teeny tiny seed of change in me, in the way I think about the world and the hungry and lonely children who live in it. I just didn't expect it to happen so quickly.
We've got just under a week left in this amazing little corner of the world. That's 13 meals of daal bhaat, at least three plates of mo:mo, heaps of Everest Beer, and as many hugs and kisses and tickles as I can fit into the next 6 days.
Sunday, March 16, 2008
We realized the other day that we haven't told most of you out there who are reading this blog (hello to the three people who read this blog!) that for the next two weeks, we will be volunteering in Nepal. We're not really sure what we'll be doing, but we're pretty sure we'll be somewhere near Kathmandu and that we'll be connected to an orphanage. We might even get to see those famous mountains. We'll be working with this organization, and from my limited communication with them, they seem pretty cool. So wish us luck! And in the meantime, don't believe everything you read in the paper about Nepal. Our biggest concern is that we're going to freeze our butts off! Think warm thoughts.
In one scene in the movie Blood Diamond, Leonardo DiCaprio's character says in response to an American journalist grilling him on the brutality and constant power struggles fueled by the contraband diamond trade, "T.I.A." The journalist clarified, "This is Africa." In those three letters, DiCaprio's character sums up hundreds, if not thousands, of years of iniquity, tribalism, poverty, and war. India lacks the violent tribal warfare and a brutal history of tyrants, dictators, and oppressors, but over the course of the past month, Lizzi and I have looked at each other more than a few times and said, "T.I.I." This Is India.
In Kerala, T.I.I. came to mean everything moves at its own pace. There's no rushing it or slowing it down. However, in the North, T.I.I. has taken on an entirely new meaning. This new meaning is like one of those words in the dictionary that has five or six possible definitions. Kind of like something in yiddish.
Our day started where we left off yesterday (the first time we were in Delhi). We'd hired a rickshaw around 4:00PM to take us to see Huyamen's Tomb. We got a little way down the road before the driver pulled over and said that we could see a few other tombs and monuments. They were all things we wanted to see, but it was late, and most sights here close at sunset. He assured us that we could see it all; they were all on the way. So we agreed on a price, and off we went. Of course, he took us to the sight furthest away (the one he suggested), almost an hour. We sprinted through ruins, snapping pictures, thoroughly enjoying ourselves. We hopped back into the rickshaw and we headed to the next place (again, one that he wanted us to see). It was closed. So was the next one, and the next one. In fact, we didn't get to see the one place we wanted to. Then he took us to a "government" tourist office, so we could book a trip to Rajasthan (which we want to do). Of course, all day he'd been telling us that he would take us to the government tourism office, and we pressed him that we wanted the government tourism office. Nope, he took us to a private tour operator, who quoted us an astronomical price. We turned it down. We got back in the rickshaw, and by this time everything was closed. This is India.
Of course, we still needed to get around the next day to see what we hadn't seen. We negotiated the three sights we wanted to see for the same price as we had just paid. He picked us up at the appointed time. No issues there. We got to the mosque. We made it to the Red Fort. We made it to Huyamen's Tomb. We loved the Tomb and spent 2.5 hours there taking pictures and walking around the amazingly well-kept grounds. When we got back to our rickshaw, it was 4:30 and our rickshaw driver scolded us for taking so long to see something that he believed to look exactly like the Taj Mahal (incidentally, he's totally and completely wrong). We had him take us back to our hotel so we could catch a train to Agra, and when we gave him the agreed fee, plus a 100 rupee tip, he balked at us, asking for more money. "But it was the price we agreed upon!" we argued. But he clarified that he'd agreed to take us around for half of the day, and as it was 4:45, we should pay him more. In fact, he wanted to take us to seven different sites, all day, at our agreed-upon price. Knowing that we tend to take longer at the dorky historical sites than most, we told him we'd pay him the same price, but that we only wanted to see three things. Same price. We walked away. This is India.
A quick check at the hotel desk and the travel desk revealed that although both advertised that they would book train tickets for guests, neither was going to help us procure train tickets to Agra. So a trip to the train station was required. We checked out of our room, hauled our bags over to a sketchy luggage storage place, and I headed off to the train station to get train tickets while Lizzi stayed behind to do some Internet work. On the way to the train station, I was fighting off touts left and right, rivaling Luke Skywalker in my skillz. At the entrance to the train station, the rickshaw drivers saw me before I could steady my light saber, and they immediately tried to direct me to a special stand for foreigners. They pointed to a giant blue sign that said "GOVT INDIA" in a building across the street with blacked-out windows. But the sign on the train station clearly read, "International Travelers, Please Book Here" so I ignored the rickshaw drivers and walked in. Or, tried to walk in. Before I could, a man grabbed me by the arm and asked me if I had a ticket. When I explained that I needed to book a ticket (duh, I'm at the train station), he told me that the sign was ineffective, as of 2007. He led me to a booking queue, grabbed a reservation form, told me to fill it out and take it across the street to GOVT INDIA. I thanked him, turned around, and went back to my initial destination. Or, tried to. Touttwo comes up and does the exact same thing. Different guy, same story. But instead of letting me walk back, he physically led me over to GOVT INDIA. So I walk up the stairs, remembering what the guy in the private tour office had told me about being up front about being a private office, and am immediately aware that I am not where I want to be. Nevertheless, I sit down in the chair and express my unending wish to get to Agra. My not-so-helpful new friend kindly informs me that the trains are full. Before he can sell me a $260 cab ride to Agra, I walk out. I walk back to our hotel, find Lizzi at the Internet cafe, explain the situation and tell her that we'll be staying in Delhi for another night, taking a $100 cab ride to Agra the next day, booked through our hotel's tour desk, who was now only too happy to help us. This. This is India, too.
It took four hours to get to Agra instead of the one-hour trip we were assured. T.I.I. But we checked into our hotel, grabbed our cameras, and made our way to the Taj Mahal, determined not to let the stress of the previous three days stop us from getting to our destination. The touts tried to make us pay them to get to the front of the line, but we held strong. T.I.I. We stood in interminably long lines (T.I.I.), said nothing when people cut in front of us (T.I.I) and walked through the turned-off metal detectors (T.I.I.). Once inside, we took a deep breath, walked through the south gate and got our very first glimpse of the Taj. There, in all of its glory, we looked at each other and thought the exact same thing: T.I.I.
Posted from Delhi, India
Last night, after spending the day walking around the city palace, but before we went to see Octopussy, Matt and I took a cooking class. Together. I mean, Matt and I cook together all the time. But this was totally different, given that usually when we cook together, I take on the role of the Alpha cook, screaming at him to get me that spoon, no THAT spoon!, and generally being bossy in my domain. Over the years that we've lived together, I've gotten progessively better at sharing the kitchen, but I am a LOOONG way from winning the "Cooperative Cook of the Year" award. So I thought that taking a cooking class together would be interesting, especially as my previous forays into the realm of Indian cooking have turned out surprisingly poor results. It's not surprising because I consider myself such a good cook, but surprising because I want, SO badly, to be able to make Indian food. I am happy to be the first to report that no Weyants were harmed in the process of making the delicious Indian meal we ate last night!
This post is named, not for a B-minus porn flick, but for the cooking class we took. It is also the name of the ubiquitous metal box found in every Indian kitchen. It's a magic box because it contains all of the spices necessary to make a basic curry. And last night, for the first time since I lived with Tejal all those years ago and watched her pull delicious meals out of about 3 ingredients, I finally understood its importance.
Generally speaking, most Indian dishes have very few ingredients. And the spices seem to be the most important part of any meal. As we learned last night, the contents of a spice box include brown cumin, fennel seeds, brown mustard seeds, turmeric powder, coriander seed powder, red chili powder, and fenugreek seeds. Those spices, together with the ever-present garam masala; salt; pepper; black cardamom; and a paste made of onion, garlic, and ginger, form the backbone of almost every single Indian dish you have come to know and love. And here was where I had my Halleluyah! moment. Whenever I have tried to make an Indian dish, my hopes were always dashed at the first taste. I've added enough red chili powder and plenty of cumin. I even went out and bought the expensive garam masala. But I never knew why, if I followed the recipe to a T, my daal never tasted like Tejal's daal, my curries always lacked...SOMETHING. Last night I found the answer in just five words: BROWN mustard seeds and BLACK cardamom! NO WAY! Way. Over here in India, mustard seeds are not pukey yellow. They are brown. And cardamom is both green and black. When I tell you that yes, there certainly IS a difference in flavor, it's like trying emphasize the difference between, say, an 18-year-old Single Malt Scotch and that stuff on the bottom shelf of your liquor store that says, "Whisky" on the label. It's THAT different.
We started off the meal with a glass of chai. Chai is ubiquitous in India, synonymous with a handshake in the US. When someone offers you chai, you drink it. And you drink it every day. Twice a day. THREE times a day. It is sweet and milky and has a nice lingering little spice. It's a warming beverage, but even in the heat of India, it can cool you down. It's amazing stuff. And here I will give a shoutout to Matt, who donned his apron as directed by our (slightly intimidating) teacher and was the first student in the hotseat, making this most-important beverage for our entire class. It was delicious.
After the chai, we made Khadai Paneer, which is basically paneer (an unfermented cheese), green peppers, and onions in a tomato-based curry. Next came Malai Kofta, which are these fried potato balls in a cream sauce, which, even though they sound heavy, are ridiculously light and delicious. The base of the kofta formed the foundation ingredients for our vegetable cutlets (a potato-vegetable snack that, dare I say it, rival latkes in their yumminess). Then came another cup of tea (of the kashmiri saffron variety) and biryani, which is a rice dish made with a bunch of spices and that ever-delicious basmati rice. Finally, we learned how to make chapati, which is the bread that's actually most often eaten in Indian households (sorry Jules, I too wish that everyone ate Naan all the time), and we each got to take a turn at rolling out and cooking this simple bread.
Moments before I walked down the aisle on my wedding day, fear gripped my heart and Maura, my beautiful Maura, gripped my wrist. Smiling into my face, her red-blonde curls making her look angelic, as always, she whispered something to me, earnestly. And then before I could even think, before I knew what was happening, the doors opened, my nearest and dearest sat, turned in their seats, staring at me. Halfway down that aisle, arm-in-arm with my dad, I realized what Maura had said to me. "Live the day!" she said. Live the day. And in that moment, at that very moment, I knew exactly what she meant. I knew that this day was only going to come once, and that unless I lived every single moment of it, I would let it slip through my fingers virtually unnoticed. At that moment of clear and uninterupted understanding, I cried and I grinned and I thought wonderful things about all of the people in that room who were watching me watch Matt. Those first moments of walking down the aisle are blurry, unclear, but from that one moment on, the rest of the day is like looking into a movie of my life, and if it had a color, it would be clear, clear beautiful crystal blue.
I am not the type of person who remembers what people say to me. Which is to say that I remember stories, I remember backgrounds and cousins and ex-boyfriends and piles of details about people's lives. I can't forget the stories and the details, even when I wish I could. But I rarely remember those precious pearls of wisdom that people have handed out to me over the years. It's frustrating that I don't remember them, especially because I'm certain that with the pearls I could have collected from my mother and grandmother alone, I would have quite a gorgeous strand by now. Instead, I am generally left with fragments, shards of wisdom, and whatever it is that I feel in my bones just by being who I am, genetically. Most of the time, my genetic wisdom serves me well. But every so often, someone whispers words to me, and they plant themselves in my brain in a way that's utterly different than what's in my DNA. Maura's words became a mantra for me. It is something I say to every bride before she walks down the aisle, particularly if I am lucky enough to be standing with her in those precious moments before a marriage is revealed. It is something I say to myself when I am practicing meditation or yoga. And sometimes it is something I say to myself when I need to pull myself back, reign myself in, when I need to be reminded to actually EXPERIENCE what it is that I'm experiencing. These are strong and precious words, which makes sense, because Maura is a strong and precious person.
Just a day before we left on our trip, I talked to Heather for the first time in months and months and months. Matt and I had a million errands to run that day, all of which we were running with my dad, and in his excitement and urgency to help us, he was impatient with the time I was spending on the phone. "This conversation is important," I told him, and "I wouldn't be talking on the phone right now if I didn't need to be talking on the phone right now." But in the end, his restlessness was contageous, and I told Heather that I needed to go and get on with that last day. "Remember the colors," she said as we were hanging up, "SEE all the colors." I promised her I would, and rushed off to buy those ever-important last minute items without which we surely wouldn't have been allowed on the plane.
And here I am now, with just 18 days left in this trip, and I feel saturated with color, full to the brim with colors I didn't know existed. Especially in the bizarre places where some of the colors exist, places like doorways, back alleys, cars, and dump trucks. There are the usual colors to be seen on clothes and jewelry and fruit. But it's the shock of the color, the color that catches me by surprise, that is the color I rush to soak in, to take in, to really SEE, just like Heather urged me to do. I think that she would be proud of me, that her inner artist is beaming with pride at her student, working so diligently to SEE everything that there is to see.
I am writing this post today because Maura has an upcoming birthday and because sometimes, on your birthday, it's nice to know that others take your words to heart so well that the words live inside their heart, just like you do. Before Maura whispered those words to me, I would have said that I do, actually, think of myself as a live-er of life, that I really DO live the day. But now I know that I wasn't quite right, that it was Maura who opened my eyes to HOW to live a day, an day, even a most extraordinary day. So on her birthday, I wanted her to know that because of her words, I was able to live Heather's words, and because of both of them, I get to experience India in particular but this whole trip in general, as though I just, for the first time, opened my eyes to the world, and my, what a lovely hue it has.
That's the question I've been asking myself for the past 3 months. In a world that grows smaller everyday, it's amazing how difficult it can be to find decent internet access. For starters, most of Asia seems to have at least DSL or point-to-point ISDN connections to the internet; however, these are incredibly slow (around 128 kbps, which is 20 times slower than your cable modem connection in the States, or twice as fast as dial-up, if you can remember what that was like). Still, they aren't as slow as the few dial-up internet cafes we've wandered into, and there have been a few of those. Don't even think about WiFi! We found WiFi all over Vietnam, but that was an anomaly; we hadn't found WiFi until then and haven't since.
Of course, even when we find a decent internet cafe, the computers inside are nearly ancient and running pirated copies of Windows 98. Or so many other travellers are also there that we might as well send email via carrier pigeon! Unfortunately, most web sites based in the U.S. assume that you are using have American broadband access, so when CNN tries to load three video ads, a Flash-based map of Democratic delegates, and over 200 tiny images for things like menus, it's easy to bring the entire cafe to a standstill. Needless to say, this makes it all the more difficult to publish pictures and keep up with the blog. There have been more than a few times when Lizzi and I will walk out of internet cafe, steaming with frustration because we can't even do something simple like check our email.
Part of this trip for me was to untangle myself from the daily addiction to email, the web, and everything it entails. But when it's been a week and I haven't checked my email, I get a little edgy. I know that's a sure sign of withdrawl and, hence, addiction, but I'm ok with it. At least I can step awat for little bits at a time. I will say that I am looking forward to ubiquitous WiFi and blazingly fast internet connections when we get home. In fact, I might need just a little quality time to get reacquainted with my internet.
PS: I will personally buy a gift from Nepal or Hong Kong for the first person who can correctly name the movie and character the title of this email comes from. Leave your answer in the comments, and using IMDB is cheating. Trust me, I will know :)
From the very beginning, we knew that getting a refreshing, frosty, adult beverage was unlikely in India. Between Hinduism and Islam, drinking isn't entirely smiled upon. In fact, whole cities are dry. But it's possible to find alcohol here and there. The local beer is Kingfisher, and it can be found just about everywhere. But that's the rub -- it's everywhere. If you want a beer, it's going to be a Kingfisher (if you look around really hard, you can find Cobra and Foster's too, but they really aren't any better). Kingfisher is an ok beer. It's a lager; the brewers evidently took the best recipe Old Milwaukee had, but made little headway in improving it. If the beer is ice cold, it can be very refreshing on a hot day, but after two months, I need something else.
And don't think for a minute that you can find a decent mixed drink to fill the gap left by Kingfisher's mediocrity. Just like their tea, Indians like their liquor syrupy sweet. We were in Cochin when we decided that we NEEDED a drink. I ordered a Cuba Libre, one of my stand-bys at home, and when it arrived, I was so shocked by its sweetness that I looked like Popeye. Even though there was technically liquor somewhere in that glass, I wasn't about to swim through the sea of sugar to get to it.
What's worse is that most of the liquor is local. Why import millions of bottles of quality liquor when you have a labor force of 1 billion that can turn out an average bottle of liquor in less time? If you look down a bar menu, it's a guarantee that you've never heard of most of the brands of liquor: VAT69, Black & White, Bagpiper, and so on. Even buying just a shot and a mixer separately leaves you smacking your lips, wondering if you really did order rum or maple syrup in a highball.
The point of all this is that I need a drink. A good, stiff drink. It's been months since I've had a decent martini, and I'll wait as long as I have to to get one. But I really need a beer, a hand-crafted, microbrew that's NOT a lager. So if anyone is looking to buy me a drink when I get home, I like my martini slightly dirty, extra dry, up with extra olives and I desperately need an ice-cold Dogfish Head 90-minute IPA. If you even consider sending a Miller Light my way, prepare to get wet. That is all.
Tuesday, March 11, 2008
Posted from Jodhpur, Rajasthan, India
I understand your confusion over the fact that I have been married for nearly five years and yet do not have any children. I respect that you believe that something is woefully, seriously wrong with us. I promise to continue to lower my eyes and smile when you lean low and whisper to me that we should try, that very night, to make babies, that the moon is full and the stars are bright and that it is a most auspicious time. I promise that I take your concern seriously. I do. I really do. But Asia, time and time again I have walked through your streets and wanted to hand you a condom. I have wanted to explain to your mothers of 13 and 14 children that birth control IS an option, and that over in the western world we're allowed to exercise it. So, Asia, until such time as you understand that conceiving a child is low on the list of experiences I want to have while we're here, even while it's high on the list of experiences I very much want to have in my lifetime, I respectfully request that you stop offering a tea with a special blend of herbs and spices in order to fix my husband.
Over the course of the couple of months that we've been traveling, we have both had occastion to notice that we're bigger news junkies than we thought we were. It shouldn't be entirely surprising, as we have started many a dinnertime conversation with "oh, I read this article today..." But somehow, it HAS been surprising and although we both religiously check our preferred news venues every time we check our email or log on to post something here, we find that it doesn't quite fill the void. So when we're traveling from point A to point B, we usually take the opportunity that public transportation provides and buy ourselves a newspaper or magazine.
What we've found is the news over here contains all of the same information that news at home contains. Plus a little more flavor and color. We've collected some of our favorite stories from our more recent purchases and want to share them with you here, so you're as amused as we have been.
In an article about the rising cost of food prices (The Week, March 2, 2008):Former chief election commissioner M.S. Gill believes that instead of a consumer price index, "[India] should have a new index, a housewife index or a kitchen index published daily. I am sure it will be watched or read more than cricket."
In an article about the changing culture inside your average bookstore (The Week, March 2, 2008):"In an environment where ice cream is sold not for the taste, but for its low-fat content promising an attractive figure, few are bothered about serious reading. Reading is a pleasure that has a limited market these days, but brands hardly let that dip their sales. A bookstore today is less about reading and more about grabbing a bite between pages, collecting points for supposed freebies, sitting at a glittering book launch and pampering authors with awards."
In a review of Michael Clayton (The Week, March 2, 2008):"[S]ometimes the shifts in narrative are difficult to follow. Also, why does the sharp thinking Clayton take a long time to see through Karen's manouevres? No explanations there."
The 11-year-old recent winner of Amrita TV's Super Dancer Junior contest was interviewed for the City Express (Kochi, February 26, 2008). In response to a question about what she planned to do with her winnings, she says, "I'm too small to handle such a big amount! My parents know best what to do with it. So no worries on that!"
A really great quote from an article about the joys of being a grandparent (The Indian Express, February 26, 2008):"[Grandparents] enjoy teaching [their grandchildren] the nursery rhymes which they have mastered over in the past 50 to 60 years, a few lines still evading their failing memory, due to palsy."
The Best of the Horoscopes (The Week, March 2, 2008):
Pisces: Your enthusiastic mind will bring you power and prestige in the coming week. Look out for chances to invest in the export sector. Get married this week, and you will get a partner who is prudent and faithful. Those working in the transport and educational sectors will have a fruitful time, and enterprises selling milk and dairy products will fetch good money.
Cancer: The romantic Cancerian will have a lovey-dovey week. Those working in the public and charitable institutions will be applauded for their work. You will be surprised by a new-found interest in the occult. Your diplomatic self will see you through litigations in court. There will be an increase in income and wealth, but do be cautious about the way you spend. Sportspersons will earn laurels this week.
Leo: Keep a tight hold on your purse strings, as you might be an extravagent spender this week. Some of you may gain through investments in estates, coal, lead and refrigerators. Farmers will have a great week. Make sure you are in good terms with all your friends, as they will bring you social and financial gains. A piece of land in a plum location or a vehicle is on the cards.
Did anyone else know that the James Bond movie Octopussy was filmed in Udaipur? I had no idea. But it was. And they still talk about it, like it's the biggest thing that's happened in Udaipur. Ever! Most of the budget restaurants even screen the movie each night just to attract a few customers. Like us.
C'mon, like we WEREN'T going to see it. You know me, and I know me, and we all knew that as soon as I found out that a James Bond was filmed in Udaipur and I had the opportunity to watch it, I was going to. We found a divey little place and cozied up with a few lemon sodas and watched Bond do his thing. It was a nice way to waste a couple of hours. Lizzi had never seen the flick, and I haven't watched it in almost ten years. Nevertheless, it was mindless, good fun. Throughout the movie, we were picking out places that we recognized, like the intersection just outside the restaurant. And we laughed out loud at the rickshaw chase scene because I've been telling Lizzi since Bangkok that I want to film a high-speed tuk-tuk chase. Well, it looks like James Bond has already done it.
What's most strange to me is that we keep following in Bond's footsteps. First, in Thailand. And now, here in India. Dude, that guy got around. I know that at least one Bond movie was made in Hong Kong, so in three weeks, I'll let you know all about that one.
Friday, March 7, 2008
Posted from Udaipur, Rajasthan, India
After spending five days in Goa trying to understand the bizarre mix of culture and beach that we encountered there, we were ready to go to Kerala. We were excited for the opportunity to actually SEE things in India, rather than walking along the shoreline watching other people watch things. Just like in Bangkok and Sri Lanka, we were lucky enough to have a friend offer his suggestions on what to do in his home state. Nitin, if you are reading this, we want you to know that you absolutely MADE our trip to Kerala. We followed Nitin's itinerary to the letter, doing everything he suggested doing, even staying in the places he suggested we stay. We had an amazing time there, and I feel sad that there's a chance that I'll never be in the place that calls itself "God's Own Country" ever again. It is indeed a holy place and I'm here to tell you why.
Nitin's itinerary was a whirlwind 5-day tour of Kerala that Matt and I elected to stretch into two whole weeks. We didn't rent a car in Kerala (because we are not that crazy) so we had to rely on public busses and tuk-tuks to get us from place to place. Public transportation adds loads of time into any itinerary, and this is particularly true in India. But even though we added an additional 9 days into Nitin's plan, it almost felt too short, because there is just that much to see.
We started out in Fort Cochin, which is basically a city-within-a-city just outside of Kerala's second-largest city. It's an old place, and when you're there, you keenly feel the history all around you. There is a beautiful Catholic Church and old Portuguese mansions. There are canals and chinese fishing nets. Fort Cochin is also home to the oldest synagogue in a British Commonwealth, a fact that Matt and I found particularly interesting as we walked around the section of the city known as Jew Town, filling our noses with the scent of ginger, cardamom, and cinnamon. Walking around Fort Cochin gives you the sense that you've kind of stepped back in time, to a place where the pace in Kerala slows, and where the religious influences of a lifetime ago still hold strong. Being there was oddly surreal.
After Fort Cochin we boarded our very first vomit comet in the direction of Munnar. After the heat of Fort Cochin, the cool mountain air of Munnar was so unbelievably welcome. We changed into pants and long-sleeved shirts and headed out in the late afternoon to eat our first truly Keralan meal -- dinner on a banana leaf. Literally. They take a banana leaf, throw some rice in the middle, and then surround the rice with all kinds of daals (which are thick lentils stews, basically), and curd (yogurt), pickle (which isn't like a pickle at all, but more of a spicy/sour/salty condiment that you have to develop a taste for), and curries. Everything is vegetarian and everything is eaten with your hands (sorry dad, I know that makes you shudder). In our case, everything was unbelievably delicious. Unfortunately, we were so hungry that we forgot to tae a picture, so you're just going to have to imagine it.
Munnar is where tea is grown. And when I say that I mean that on every available hilly surface, there is a tea plant. You cannot imagine how green it is. I'm not exaggerating at all. It's just the greenest green of greeness that you can possibly imagine, as far as you can see. And it's so stunningly beautiful that even after spending a day soaking it up in its entirety, you just want to stand in awe at the beautiful green all around you. We met the most fantastic rickshaw driver ever, Manish, and for about $30, he spent the day with us, showing us all the beauty that Munnar has to offer. We could have spent a week there, relaxing in the mountain town, hiking amidst the tea plantations. If only we'd had more time!
After Munnar we got back on the REAL vomit comet and went to Periyar, where we were promised a chance to see wild elephants. Well, the elephants weren't interested in being seen, but we did have a chance to drive beautiful jungles and score a look at the largest squirrels in the world. Seriously. They're called Giant Squirrels for a reason. My general philosophy on viewing animals is that when you're in their home, you play when they want to play. And if they don't want to play, you soak up every bit of their home that you can, because a home can say a lot about a creature. The jungle was no exception and Periyar, with its cardomom plantations, enormous coconut palms, and beautiful lakes, was a wonderful place to have a cup of tea. Or seven.
Our guesthouse owner in Perriyar recommended a place for us to stay in Allepey, and although we were skeptical of his enthusiasm, we had no choice but to take his advice when Jose of Katakayam Guesthouse met us at the bus station in Allepey. And thank goodness he did, because the busride to Allepey was one of the hottest and busiest of all of our bus rides and we were really grateful that someone was there waiting for us with a rickshaw and a friendly face. By the end of that evening in Jose's house, we were even more grateful. We spent that night in the company of Jose's three beautifully intelligent boys, all three of whom were in love with Matt from the instant that they met him. And if that doesn't warm a girl's heart, nothing does.
The reason we went to Allepey was to experience Kerala's backwaters, which we did on our final two days in the State. We booked a houseboat tour which enabled us to spend 24 hours cruising the narrow lakes and waterways, getting an up-close glimpse of the people who live there. A houseboat looks like something out of Waterworld, but trust me when I tell you that the scenery is much better. You float by coconut and mango trees and kids call out to you, waving hello and asking for a school pen. And if you're lucky, like we were, your hosts are incredible cooks and they help you pick out fresh prawns when a guy on a boat comes by selling fresh prawns. We DID take a picture of that meal.
Our time on the housboat ended way too quickly and before we knew it, we were back on a bus to Cochin, where we spent our last day in Kerala walking around the city of Ernakulam, checking out the incredible shops selling expensive 22K gold jewelry, and satisfying our cravings of home with Pizza Hut.
All in all, our time in Kerala was exactly what we hoped it would be. We saw everything we wanted to see (except for the elephants, but I already talked about that) and I felt like I really got the chance to experience the State. We knew that Northern India exists at a different pace than Southern India, and we were really grateful for the chance to have a laid-back couple of weeks in the subcontinent. And of course, we couldn't have had that experience without Nitin, because he made our guidebook virtually useless, he was THAT helpful. Thank you Nitin! Your home is a lovely, wonderful place, filled with people who love it like you do, scenery that makes you rub your eyes its so amazing, and food that makes you stuff yourself until you think you'll explode!
One of the hardest parts of traveling through India with Lizzi is the fact that I can't touch her. I can't touch her in public, that is. In fact, any public display of affection can be considered offensive. I mean, I remember back in high school when they cracked down on PDA. But they were targeting the couples who had their tongues down each others' between English and chemistry classes. A couple simply holding hands while walking to class was still ok. But not so here.
Except that it can be ok. The younger generations are ok with it. We noticed the honeymooning couples in Munnar were all cuddly and dreamy-eyed. But as we worked our way back towards the coast and then north, couples drifted farther and farther apart. By the time we arrived in Delhi, most couples walked with several paces of distance between them. Except for the younger couples in the more affluent sections of the city.
Constantly there has been a struggle for me to appreciate and respect the culture we have the privilege to enjoy and maintain some sense of contact with Lizzi. What surprised me most is how much intimacy is generated and sustained simply by holding hands with the one you love. And that intimacy is even more noticeable when the source of that intimacy is suddenly disconnected. Not only are we hot and tired and edgy and guarded and alert and overwhelmed, but we are also missing one tiny piece of what connects us without words. Making any given day just a little harder.
Tuesday, March 4, 2008
Ok, so I don't know what you yell when your cricket team scores, but it's got to be something along the lines of "GOAL!!", right? Cricket is big here. So big. In every home we've stayed in, when we ask the kids what they want to be when they grow up, it's some type of cricket player. Of course, the actual position or team or whatever they are talking about is completely Greek to me, but it's cute to see their enthusiasm. Right now, we're sitting in an internet cafe, and through its dingy windows, we can see into the room next door, which has a TV. Evidently, there is a cricket match on the tube, and about 50 Indian men are crammed into the room, eyes intently staring at the tiny 13" TV screen. Then all of a sudden, they yell and scream, and my mind flashes to one of those VISA commercials with the Italian family watching the World Cup; the father is praying; the son is cheering so emphatically, he tears his t-shirt off and rides it like a cowboy around the room, screaming "GOAL!!" Yeah, so I know nothing about cricket, but that's kinda what it's like to watch Indians watch cricket on TV.
Last night we took the train from Agra to Jaipur. Luckily, it was uneventful and we arrived weary but otherwise ok. Our time in Agra was wonderful. But really, how can it not be with the Taj Mahal right there. What a sight! My pics are on my laptop, which we left at the guesthouse, but I'm sure you'll forgive me as soon as you see them. I can't believe that we saw the Taj Mahal. I want to keep saying that over and over again, because it seems so incredible, but we were there. We saw it. WE SAW IT!
When we were in Kerala, someone we met on a jeep safari said that she was underwhelmed by the Taj when she first saw it. It took her a good 30 minutes to warm up to it. But as Lizzi and I walked through the gate and the Taj came into view, their was not waiting period, we didn't have to pre-heat our excitement ovens. It was the Taj Ma-freakin'-hal, and it was right in front of us, larger than life.
We got to the Taj in the late afternoon, well after the heat of the day subsided. But the lines were still long, and people were pushing and shoving to get in. "Tour guides" were offering people the opportunity to cut to the front of the line for 500 rupees. We watched one poor white guy fall victim to it. He shelled out his cash, the "guide" escorted him to the front of the line, where the security officer told him to go to the back. The "guide" shrugged and melted into the crowd, only to appear next to us a few moments later. We laughed in his face when we offered us his "service".
One other note about queues in India is that personal space is a relative matter. In that, there was enough zipper-to-crack contact from the guy behind me that I think we might be married, at least in Vermont and New Jersey. Seriously, people, I could feel the bulge. I kept my eyes focused straight ahead and went to my happy place.
We are now in Jaipur, taking a day off to rest up and catch up on the world outside of India, which, when you're in India, seems very far away. Our trip is entering its home stretch. We have officially passed the "one-month left" milestone, meaning we have less than 2 weeks remaining in India before heading to Nepal, Hong Kong and then home. Already, we are starting to feel bittersweet about the inevitable flight back to New York, and, yes, we understand that a month is still a long time. But when two-and-a-half months have flown by the way these have, it's easy to start feeling a little sad so soon. But we stil have a month, and that's the most inportant part. The adventure ain't over yet.
Saturday, March 1, 2008
We wake up with a start at 5:30 in the morning. There is music in the air, singing in a foreign language, and honking, but that's not what woke us up. No, it's the sound of laundy being done downstairs, the loud slapping of a wet sheet against a stone, and the sound of the people doing the laundry, chatting and talking to each other. Their voices carry up the open-air stairwell to our room. We put earplugs in and fall back to sleep. But an hour later we wake again to the sound of construction. It is constant and ever-present, this changing and morphing and betterment of Delhi. This morning it is the sandstone polisher, working the floors to a gleaming, marble-like white. We make ourselves get out of bed by 8:30 because there is a lot to see and do and we want to pack it all in. We run the hot and cold taps into our bucket and begin our "shower" but then the power goes out and it's a cold bucket shower but it doesn't really matter anyway because within the hour we're cruising down the street in a rickshaw and when we look into the sunlight, we can see the dust particles in the air. In fact, the smog is so thick that it hangs low enough to obscure our vision just a few feet in front of us. By the time the smog burns off, it is early afternoon and hot. We buy a bottle of water but end up throwing it out because after we do the squeeze test, we notice water leaking out of our allegedly sealed bottle. We settle on some Cokes instead, consoling ourselves that we'll be loyal to our dentists and our gym memberships when we get back home.
The millions of school kids on their field trips stare at us as we walk by them. "Hi! Hello! Candy?" they shout at us as we walk by. When I smile at the girls, they giggle behind their hands and wave at me. When Matt smiles at them, they bump into each other, awkwardly laughing and blushing, their midnight-black braids swinging on either side of their face. The boys poke each other in the back, the language of a dare the same, even if I don't understand the words. "Hi!" a bold one finally says, his round cheeks so sweet that I want to take him into show-and-tell as my new little brother. "Hello," I reply, and he puts his hands over his heart, grinning at me.
I raise my camera to take a picture of the shy little girl sitting by herself and staring at whatever monument we've come to visit. She reminds me of my favorite girls, the ones I know who were likely to sit by themselves on a field trip, either in quiet contemplation, or uncertainty about how to join the big group. No sooner have I raised my camera than we are surrounded by a mob of shouting and excited kids, all eager to be her new best friend now that she's made friends with the white lady and her camera. I snap the pictures as quickly as I can, trying to capture their eager faces, their fingers making a peace sign or giving me a thumbs up. Through the wonders of digital photography I show them the picture and when I do, they shout and laugh, a cacophany of children's noises. "Bye! Bye America!" they say as we walk away.
In the few paces it takes for us to approach the rickshaw driver we have hired for the day, we are approached by five other rickshaw drivers and six people selling postcards, miniature chess boards, water, and jewelry. We keep our heads low, trying not to make eye contact with any of them, a constant stream of "no, thank you" coming out of our mouths.
Back in the rickshaw, our driver asks us if we could please do him the favor of stopping at his friend's store. "No buy," he says. "You see something, you like it, you buy it. They give me coupon for petrol. Good for you, good for me. Friends." And we sigh, having lost this battle a million times before, "okay," we say, "but only ten minutes." Our driver is happy, pointing out new buildings and areas of the city as we're on our way to his friend's store. Once inside, we carefully walk through every room, making sure not to spend a minute more or a minute less than we have to. We finger carpets and sandstone boxes and pashminas, knowing that we won't buy anything, feeling vaguely guilty for the shop-keeper who follows our every move. "You like scarf madam? Beautiful scarf. Cheap for you."
We head back to our hotel to check our email and reconnect with those people on the other side of the world who we miss so much. The connection is too slow, we can't get to gmail, we're pretty sure the guys next to us are cooking up a spam scam. Missing home more than when we walked in, we head back out to find some dinner, using the "if it's full of women and children, we can eat there too" test when we're in doubt. We order too much food because we want to try everything, and we talk and talk and talk about our day, about Boston, about our friends. We order two more bottles of water and we check them both before we leave the restaurant.
Walking back to our hotel, children, young, beautiful, dirty children pass us. Touching my arm so that I can't help but look at them, they hold out their hand, palm outstretched, and then bring their fingers back to their mouth. "I am hungry," they are telling me. And though my instincts are to scoop them up and walk right back into the restaurant, I adapt the same stance as I did earlier in the day when offered a miniature chess board, hang my head and say, "no, sorry. I'm sorry." I'm even sorrier when a young, beautiful, dirty child walks up to me with an even younger, beautiful, dirtier infant that is clearly hers, and the baby, only just old enough to hold her head up, holds out her hand to me. I give her 5 ruppees and walk away, feeling ashamed of my full belly, my full camera card, my full wallet.
And then it's time to relax and look at pictures, to sort through the remnants of our day, to wash the dirt off of our faces and to marvel at what our lungs must look like, given the state of the tissue we just blew our noses in. We open our sleep sacks so we don't have to touch the bed and we set our alarm clocks, making sure the our earplugs are nearby so we can put them in at 5:30am again.
This life that we're living over here is nothing like our real lives, our lives with things like the T and our cute SUV. It's nothing like the life where I covet designer jeans and Matt dreams about the Dodge Charger he wants someday. It's basically the opposite of being on vacation because for us, at least, vacation is a place where you can put your feet up, where someone brings you drinks when you ask for them, where sleeping on the sheets isn't something you give much thought to. No, this is more like a hiatus, a time warp, an experience in an alter universe. To say that it's occasionally hard and exhausting is an understatement. But I wouldn't trade it in for anything. I'd do it again in a heartbeat. All of it. The beautiful buildings and sights to see, right there alongside the hungry children. The amazing tastes and the 5:30am wake up. Yes, I know that I'd do it all over again without even thinking twice about it. There is time enough for vacation; now is the time for travel. And for the next month and four days, travel we will do.