Wednesday, April 29, 2009

All Quiet on the Western Front

Marisa has, by and large, been writing summaries of our sightseeing, while I stick to obnoxious stories.  However, she claims she's gotten tired of blogging, so if you want to hear more about what we've been up to, perhaps you can send her a private note encouraging her to continue.  (That's why I wrote our summary of Turkey.)

Monday, April 27, 2009

turkish baths

Marisa wanted us to go to a Turkish bath.  She'd been to one when she was in Istanbul before and thought it was a good experience.  I'd never been, but we'd previously gone to Japanese baths   In Japanese baths you get completely naked (sexes are separated), and in the one we went to there was a pool that had an electric current in it that would cause your muscles to twitch if you weren't completely relaxed.  Marisa assured me that there's no nudity allowed in Turkish baths, and they'd have no crazy electrical pools, so it didn't seem like the Turkish baths would be too challenging.

I thought it was an interesting experience, but I wouldn't do it regularly.  One of the features is that you can get a massage, which we paid for.  The inner sanctum of the bath is incredibly hot, very humid, and results in me becoming uncomfortably sweaty.  After about 10 minutes of waiting for the masseur I wanted to leave because I felt sick from the heat.  (Maybe I was dehydrated.)  I kept going to the cold water faucet and dumping pans of it over myself, which cooled me down a little.

Eventually the masseur did come and proceeded to beat the crap out of me.  We were both wearing nothing but towels, so it was a sweaty-fisted shared experience.  He was very considerate in that whenever I had to move, he'd arrange my towel prior to movement so no inappropriate portions of my body would be shared with the rest of the room.  At one point I was lying on my stomach, and he told me (in pidgin English) to turn over.  Unfortunately for him, I don't roll to my right.  I naturally rolled over to my left away from the enclosing towel, exposing my genitals to his startled, blanching face.  He quickly fixed the towel and no one seemed to notice, so it was no big deal.

The massage was OK, albeit a little brutal for my taste.  (Maybe that's why I don't get massages very frequently.)  The unique feature of the Turkish bath massage, which I didn't know beforehand, is the scraping off of all your outer skin with sandpaper and something that looked to me like steel wool.  I insisted he use only the sandpaper.  Surprisingly, this process did not hurt all that much, but I was not too satisfied with it because I got sunburnt in India and was already peeling.  I have this theory that if you don't touch sunburnt skin and try to prevent peeling it will serve as a protective layer against further sunburns.  Ungrounded in any scientific knowledge as this theory is, I was nevertheless very annoyed and completely unable to communicate to my nearly naked and sweaty friend that I didn't want all my sunburnt skin ripped off.

The skin came off in small rolls of flesh that looked a little like rolled up cigarette paper.  It was a dark grey color, so evidently I am a very dirty boy.

Through this last stage of my massage my mustachioed masseur kept asking me "ok?  ok?", to which I would politely reply "yes, ok."  He invariably followed this exchange confirming his customer satisfaction by saying, "after, you tip.  i come outside.  I am Ahmet (pointing finger to his chest)"

With his limited English and my limited Turkish, and given that I remained in his sweaty, strong, and fairly hairy embrace while still being scraped by sandpaper, I did not think it wise to try to explain to him that we had specifically selected this bathhouse because the tip was included in the already paid price of the massage.  I was annoyed he kept trying to tell me to tip but just said, "ok" in response.

After the massage I showered, dressed, and went out to the main lobby where I reunited with Marisa.  I was hoping I'd be able to slip out without encountering my new friend, Ahmet, but he emerged through the thick wooden doors of the bath area, still clad in only his towel, at exactly the right moment.  Marisa tried to talk to me about the bath, but I said quickly, "I'll meet you outside."  I caught his look out of the corner of my eye as I scurried out the front door, and he didn't look too happy.  I would say he actually looked a little hurt.  I figured he wouldn't follow me outside in just his towel, though, and I was right.


I'm posting this pretty late because, as mentioned in the last post, there are no tubes for the internets in italia.

By coincidence, after leaving India we were scheduled to go to the two capitals of the Roman Empire: Istanbul (Constantinople) and Rome.

We went to Istanbul first from India.  We had a 3 day stopover there before continuing to Rome.

Entering Istanbul from India felt like entering Europe, despite what the French might have to say about it.  Our last day in India had been fairly chaotic, hot, and surrounded by lots of people.  We had a marathon journey -- we left Varanasi by plane at noon, arrived in Delhi, and then had to catch a 4am flight to Istanbul, so we didn't bother getting a hotel room.  We spent our last few hours in India in a packed airport waiting area that was dusty from current construction.  We tried to sleep on top of a luggage cart piled with our bags and were tired enough that it sorta worked.

We arrived in Istanbul the next morning.  In contrast to India, it was very quiet, cold, clean, and there were well trimmed gardens and flowers everywhere.  (Apparently the sultans loved tulips, so Istanbul is full of beautiful tulips that are meticulously tended to.)  It felt refreshing almost instantly, as I think we were looking forward to some order after the relative chaos of India.

Of course there are many ways that Istanbul did not feel European -- the muslim call to prayer is played on loudspeakers from all the mosques, which is not something you normally hear in Europe.  While many people dress very fashionably (definitely more fashion-conscious than Americans), there are a significant number of women with full hijabs, and even more with headscarfs and modest clothing.

We wished we had more time to spend in Turkey.  We didn't venture outside the city at all.  Inside the city we saw the popular sights like the Hagia Sophia, the Blue Mosque, and some amazing old Byzantine Christian frescoes and mosaics. 

One of the coolest places we saw was an underground cistern built by the Romans that was only recently discovered.  It's right underneath one of the main squares of historical Constantinople, and it's enormous, e.g. the size of a football field, and 4 stories deep.  It's hard to believe no one knew it was there.  There's currently a few feet of water in the bottom of it, in which fish fish swim around in the eery mood lighting.  We wondered what the fish feed on.  (perhaps errant tourists)

We also had some fantastic Turkish food, including doener kebabs, and lamb at almost every meal.  The lamb was perfectly spiced every time - or perhaps lamb just tastes that good on it's own?  Despite the following picture, we did eat at more places than McDonald's.  The McDonald's in Turkey had a very interesting menu, though.  Besides India, it's one of the places we've been with the most different menu from in the US.  They had a lot of lamb burgers.

I wanted to make like odysseus, so we considered spending more time in turkey and traveling towards italy via boat through the greek islands.  We could see Athens along the way.  This plan fell through, though, because it's low season and we read that many of the ferries were only operating twice a week, and we didn't want to get stuck in the islands for weeks.  Instead we kept our flight and went straight to rome.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

internet in italy is hard, and TIM sucks.

We haven't posted in awhile because we have no internet.  It's surprising, because Italy seems like the worst country we've been in so far for finding internet.  China was the best, as there was free wifi almost everywhere.  You could walk around and hop on wifi networks.  That was one of the reasons we didn't even bother to get phone service there.  There seems to be a lot of wifi in Italy, but it's all password protected.  In India there was less free wifi, but after 6 hours of futzing around with settings, we got my android phone to work with IDea unlimited internet through their mobile phone network.  It was pretty cheap -- only about $0.40 a day.

We tried to sign up for a mobile phone number and unlimited internet in Italy.  We had a very (over-)confident guy at a mobile phone store in Napoli who sold us a TIM sim card for 30 Euro ($40) with an unlimited internet plan.  Unfortunately he either misconfigured the phone or it didn't work right, because I was getting charged by the amount of data I downloaded, and my prepaid phone kept running down to 0 or even a negative balance.  I didn't even know that was possible, but apparently I had a negative $40 balance on the "prepaid" phone.  I went back to his store to complain to him, and he visibly lost all his confidence under pressure and seemed to want to get me out of the store.  He managed to convince me he had fixed it, so we left.  (We were in a hurry anyway.)

I was able to use the internet for awhile, but it's now been shut off again because my balance is below 0.  Marisa claims that me getting my TIM internet to work is like my white whale (the white whale is Moby Dick, and I'm the crazy skipper), because I've been talking about it for about a week now.  It's been a boon for my Italian understanding, though.  Neither of us spoke Italian before, although we do speak a little Spanish.  Italian and Spanish seem pretty similar so long as you don't conjugate words, don't use verbs, and in general talk like a grade-A moron.  While searching for my white whale I've navigated through a phone tree in Italian, had two conversations in a mix of Italian and English, and had one conversation entirely in Italian.  I wasn't that successful in the last one, as the internet still isn't working.  The woman did open *another* help center case for me, though.

Example snippet of phone conversation in pidgin english-italiano:

"I called 5 hours earlier and spoke to someone and wanted to know what the status is."

"Yes, you resharged [recharged] your sim 5 euro?  You have below zayro [zero] balance"   (I had indeed recharged it with 5 euro.  That 5 was an unfortunate coincidence with the number 5 in my "5 hours ago")

"no, no.  Let me try to explain.  I called oggi [today] at chinque ore [5 hour] and spoke to a persone [person].  Capisco?  [understand?]"

"yes.  you have open case from then."

"si si! [yes yes]"

"it is still open.  someone from TIM client assistance will call you tomorrow."

"Do you know what my problema [problem| is?"

"no.  you must wait.  someone will call you tomorrow."  (argh)

"ok...  grazie [thanks]"

"I am sorry for my bad english."

"No no!  Your english is Perfeto! [perfect]"  (I hoped a little charm would advance my cause.)

(blushing over the phone) "Thank You!"

"Prego [you're welcome]"

"Good Bye"


Meanwhile, no one called me the next day.  (or the next)

Friday, April 17, 2009

another new skill

The same day as the rickshaw driver invited me to drive the rickshaw, we took a one hour rowboat tour of the ganges.  We took it at night because we'd read that it was the one of the best ways to view the aarati ganga, which is a type of dusk prayer/ceremony at one of the principal bathing ghats on the ganges.

It was really beautiful and it cost us about $4.  (Initially they asked us $10, but we balked until they accepted $4.)

We went out on a small boat that was rowed by one skinny Indian guy.  He had limited English but was very friendly. 

Perhaps encouraged by my prior rickshaw driving, during the trip I asked if I could row.  The guy grinned and offered to show me.  I was somewhat startled because he told me to sit in between his legs.  He wrapped his arms around mine to show me how to row the oars.  This felt uncomfortably homoerotic to me, kind of like the 'tennis pro' seducing the young unsuspecting student.  However, it's nothing unusual in India.  We had heard about this before, but it might be interesting to you:  Indian men are very comfortable with touching each other.  They walk down the street holding hands or with arms around each other.  (Marisa and I already knew about this, because we've heard stories from Indian coworkers, who told us about how when they first arrived in America and would get funny looks as they walked around holding hands.  Once they were told what that connoted in the US, they stopped holding hands with other Indian men.)

Anyway, intellectually observing and knowing about how comfortable Indian men are with each other is quite a different thing from viscerally having myself wrapped in the arms and legs of an Indian rowboatman, close enough to feel his breath on my neck as he talked.  Still, I quickly learned to row pretty well.  Once he saw I wasn't going to lose the oars and crash the boat, he went around to the front of me, only giving tips when I screwed something up.

Here are some pictures of me rowing, although they're pretty hard to see because it was in the dark.

a new skill

I felt sorry for the bicycle rickshaw driver.  He was older than normal, looked very thin, and had missing teeth.  The few that remained were stained red from chewing addictive betel nut.  We usually ignore the pedicab drivers who shout offers of transport to us, so as not to encourage them.  Even if we need a bicycle rickshaw, we'lll go to one of the non-yellers.  It doesn't really work because we still get harassed every 30 seconds when walking anywhere in India.  

But in this case, I wanted to help the gentleman, so we took him up on his offer to squire us 2.5mi in 90 degree heat back to our hotel in Varanasi.  For us it was a steal - he only asked for 50 rupees ($1).

Unfortunately, sympathy for the downtrodden-looking is exactly the wrong selection criterion for a bicycle rickshaw driver.  He bicycled slower than we could have walked.  We were passed by several bicycle rickshaws with fitter drivers along the way. Much smarter would have been to pick a strong rickshaw driver.

He turned to us and smiled, missing teeth and red-stained gums flashing, "Is Hard Work!"

Were we supposed to respond?  We weren't sure.

He repeated, "Is Hard Work!"

It seemed he was going to continue saying this until we said something.  Seeing no harm in appreciating his efforts, I replied "Yes, we can see it is very hard work!  It is hot!".  Marisa nodded in affirmative agreement.

He was too short to properly sit on the seat, probably about 5 feet tall.  He was quite skinny, and not very strong.  We watched with concern as he stood on the pedals, pushing up and down.  He continued to pedal in this standing fashion at a painfully slow 3 miles per hour, his entire body slowly moving up and down.   

Hs head turned around again, "Are you married?"


"Do you have children?"

This question comes up a lot in India.   We find it strange because we are obviously travelling without children.  Perhaps many couples flee to India leaving their children at home, but to us it seems strange.  "No, no children!"

"I have three children.  I work hard at rickshaw for them for food!  This is Hard Work!"

After riding another five minutes interspersed with nearly continuous declarations of, "Is Hard Work!", the driver turned his head again, "Is Hard Work!  You try!?!?!"

I took a look at Marisa.  I wasn't sure if he was serious.  "No, that's ok!"

One minute passed.  He turned again, repeated: "Is Hard Work!  You try?!?!?!"

Apparently the rickshaw driver really wanted me to drive.  I looked at Marisa and whispered,  "Should I try it?  He seems to want me to since he's asked twice." 

"Why not?", she whispered back.  Marisa told me later she knew why the driver had asked me to drive, but she encouraged me anyway.  Our guide book told us that Indian vendors are very happy to teach tourists their craft, and she wanted me to have a real India experience.

"OK, I'll drive!" I yelled forward to the driver.

The driver stopped.  The bicycle rickshaw has a small bicycle seat in front with normal bicycle handles.  In the back on two large wheels is mounted a bench seat for two people with a tattered cotton canopy.  It is effectively a giant tricycle.  I took up a perch on the bicycle seat, and the driver moved to the back with Marisa.

We took off.  The driver showed me how to brake and how to use the bell.  I rang the bell greedily at the nearest approach of anyone.  If there's one thing I've learned in India, it's that using the horn is a requirement for turning, stopping, passing, or simply moving.

At first I was uncertain.  I had never pedaled a giant tricycle with two people on the back before, especially on a crowded Indian street filled with pedestrians, bicycles, cows, motorcycles, and the occasional honking, frustrated car.

However, I got the hang of it in less than a minute.  The first thing I noticed was that I was pedaling the rickshaw at three times the speed of the professional driver.

He yelled at me, now from behind rather than in front, "Is Hard Work, right!"

I didn't realize at this point that the driver was trying to drum up sympathy for himself.  My first thought was, "No, this is quite easy."   Marisa and I have rented bikes many times on our trip.  Because of her knee, she can't pedal, so we often rent a single bike where she sits on the back above the wheel, or we rent a tandem and Marisa doesn't pedal.  I even carted Marisa around on the back of a single bike at 9000 feet elevation near Tibet in China, which was not easy.  Even with the additional weight of the driver, this rickshaw was much easier to drive than a normal bike where I had to balance with Marisa's weight.  

In any case, to be polite to the driver, I translated from English to Courteous, "Yes!  Hard Work!  You work hard all day!"

I began to pass other rickshaw drivers.  Rickshaw in front, 5s away.  I flit my eyes to the right, hit the bell, swerve around, check left, swerve back in.  I avoid a cow, big eyes and horns pointed my way.

Again, the driver from the back says, "Is Hard Work!", but amends,  "You do good!"

I reply, "We ride a lot of bicycles at home!"  I didn't add because it'd be too hard to explain, but I was also very used to running in Indian cities, which requires the same fast reflexes and attention to surroundings as driving the rickshaw.

I had started to enjoy driving and was looking like I knew what I was doing and having fun.  The driver seemed to be disappointed.  This was puzzling at first, but later it became clear why. 

He indicated he wanted to drive again, so we switched spots, and he pedaled very slooowly for 20 minutes back to our hotel.  He went so slowly I thought about getting out and walking beside the rickshaw, to ease the load.  Marisa and I discussed it and decided I shouldn't do that because it might embarass him.

When we arrived at the hotel I handed the driver 100 rupees and said, "Can you give me 30 rupees back?"  We had agreed on 50 rupees, so this was a 40% tip.  We debated over the tip.  We felt bad for him but we also didn't want to encourage future disengenous behavior.

"I have no change", he replied, with the scamming-gleam in his eye I've learned to identify in rickshaw drivers.

"What, you have no change?"

"I just started work!  I have no change."  I looked skeptical, as this is a common tactic for Indian rickshaw drivers.  They hope that even though you've agreed on less, their claimed lack of change will cause you to just give them the higher amount out of frustration.  He then paused and seeing my skepticisim continued with the justification, "I have 3 children and a family that needs to eat!"

I don't see how that was supposed to be reassuring.  If he'd simply asked for a bigger tip, that'd be one thing, but it seemed like he was trying to justify his 'no change' by saying he needed the extra money!  I suspected he had rupees in his pocket that he didn't want to show me.

Unfortunately for him, we were well aware of the rickshaw 'no change' scam.  By the end of our trip we had 50 ten rupee notes in a giant wad in our backpack.  We had plenty of change.  I pulled 60 rupees out (10 rupees less than I would have given him if he'd given us change) and handed it to him.  He complained again, "I have a family!  You don't want to give 100 rupees?"

"We agreed on 50 rupees, so that's a 10 rupee tip."  We walked off before we had to argue with him more.

Part of us feels bad we didn't give him more money if he indeed needed it.  It's very unsettling to be pulled around by someone else using his muscles.  It goes against our egalitarian anti-classist beliefs (which may be a peculiarity of Americans?).  (In India, where there's such a huge divide between the rich and the poor, many people seem comfortable with having servants.)

On the other hand, he was a horrible rickshaw driver, he was not upfront about how much payment he expected, and he spent the entire ride trying to guilt us into giving him more than his original quote.

Rickshaw drivers, tour guides, bell captains, etc. often ask foreigners for large tips or demand double/triple the standard rate for their services, because they know it's cheap to Americans.  You know you're getting screwed, and generally human instinct tells us to try to not get screwed.  On the other hand they have much less to their name than you do, and you can easily afford to pay them more.  We grappled constantly trying to reconcile these 2 things while we were in India.

I think if we went back to India, I'd offer the rickshaw drivers double the fare if they let me drive the rickshaw.  You pay $15 to rent a bicycle in San Francisco, so it'd still be a steal.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Varanasi, and Good-bye India

We spent our last 2.5 days in India in Varanasi, the holiest city. Pilgrims come here to bathe in the Ganges River water and cleanse their sins. Elderly people come to Varanasi to die - dying here liberates them from the cycle of rebirth.

The action is centered around the bathing ghats lining the Ganges river. You can walk or boat by the ghats and observe Hindus washing themselves, their clothing, and even their buffalo. A thorough pilgrim may spend several minutes scrubbing each individual finger. The women bathe in their saris for modesty. Kids play in the water. Some people meditate or pray. Hinduism is not a congregational religion, but at Varanasi you can see many Hindus simultaneously worshipping, each in their own way. It has a very spiritual vibe.
People bathing. From 20090411_Varanasi_Starred

Tending to a shrine. From 20090411_Varanasi_Starred

Crowds watching an evening religious ceremony from boats and land. From 20090411_Varanasi_Starred

You can also walk by ghats where bodies are cremated in plain view. All Hindus are cremated, with a few exceptions such as babies or sadhus (holy men). Their ashes are spread in the Ganges river (I'm not sure if this part is a requirement, but it's definitely ideal). Piles of wood are setup, the body (wrapped in cloth) is laid on top and covered with more wood. The eldest son, with a freshly shaven head, assists in the ceremony of lighting the fire. Other family is present, however we did not see anyone crying. It takes about 3 hours and the ashes are given to the family to spread in the Ganges. We saw several cremations. A proper cremation with the right kind of wood and at the right ghat is important, but the fire wood is expensive. Some families must buy a cheaper type of wood, or can only afford enough to partially cremate the body. Alternatively they can cremate the body inside a furnace so it turns to ash faster. The remains are spread in the Ganges as is, even if the body is not fully cremated, and it is possible to see floating body parts from unfinished corpses. I'm not sure whether this is common or rare - we did not see any body parts.

Now that we are about to leave India I wish we could stay a little longer. It took us a few weeks to learn how to judge a local. Is this someone we can trust? Or is this a tourist hawker? There are so many hawkers here. In certain places chances are extremely low that a friendly Indian that greets you is a well-intentioned local. But in other places a lot of friendly Indians approach you with advice because they like to be helpful. If you avoid everyone, you miss out on getting to know people. Another challenge was learning how to ignore the hawkers that follow you for 2 minutes in spite of your repeated attempts to shoe them away. They are very persistent. Ignoring them is also something we got better at towards the end.

It's frustrating you have to make snap judgements about strangers at all. One local who followed us a few minutes said to me when he left, "Madam doesn't trust Indians." It made me cringe. I'm still not sure whether he was a hawker or not, sometimes it's not obvious. It feels wrong to judge and dismiss friendly strangers. Your snap judgement maybe incorrect.

One of the lasting impressions India will leave on me was how in certain situations there is absolutely nothing to be gained by being neurotic. If I'm paying someone for a camel tour or to tailor me a sari, I like to ask detailed questions about how they will provide the service, so that I can be sure I will be happy with the product. Up until now I have always been able to get my questions answered. Even if the provider is slightly annoyed with the questions, he/she will indulge me. In India there are people who simply refuse to answer my questions. They respond to my detailed questions with something like "Madam, you will like the sari very much, trust me," or "We will visit all the places you want to see, I am 15 years in this business and all of my customers are very happy." I'm not sure if people completely ignore my questions because a) there is a language barrier and they don't understand me, b) they want me to relax and not worry, c) they are insulted by my lack of trust in their grand plans for me, or d) they are unaccustomed to answered detailed questions and don't understand why the crazy white girl is making things so complicated. At first this was just irritating. But after awhile I also found it a little bit liberating. If I wanted a sari or a camel tour, I had no choice other than to put myself in the hands of someone I didn't totally trust. It was disconcerting, but it forced me to wrestle with the idea that the consequences of paying a little bit of money for a slightly imperfect sari, tour, etc. are not that bad. And it's nice to let someone else worry about the details every once in awhile.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Feeding the Cows

Cows can be found on many crowded streets in India. Many of them are not owned by anyone, especially the ones that don't provide milk anymore. They feed on trash or piles of grass. Unfortunately they also shit all over the streets. There are also many pigs, dogs and donkeys. The cows enjoy a privileged status since they are holy in Hinduism.

In Jodhpur there is a large field in the middle of the city where cows go when they stop giving milk and their owners have abandoned them. People pay for cattle feed and go inside and feed the cows. I guess this is like feeding the pigeons in a square, except holier.

On our last night in Varanasi we were really stuffed and didn't want to finish dinner. But we have seen beggars everywhere in India and we didn't want to waste the food. We thought about giving it away to a hungry person, and I asked for the food to-go. I knew the waiter might not understand - in most countries we've been it's unorthodox to package up your food to go. The friendly, cheerful waiter gave us a strange, confused look. Uh oh, we thought. He's going to think we are uncultured Americans. He thought about it for a second, and then said "Oh! You want for to feed the cows!" He then cheerfully fulfilled our request.

Saturday, April 11, 2009


We're finally relaxing in Kerala, India. Kerala is a tropical state in the south with ocean, backwater canals, rice fields and dense, green vegetation. It's laid back and tourists are treated with respect.

We spent the first 3 days in Varkala sitting on the beach, recovering from the eventful start to our journey in India. The most interesting thing about Varkala was watching Indians on the beach. The beach was totally divided into an Indian section and a Western section. While the westerners pranced around in bikinis and played in the water, the Indians mostly stood on the beach with their family and friends and looked out at the ocean. A few Indian men got in, and zero women. I don't know how Indians can resist the temptation to rush into the water in the oppressive heat and humidity of Kerala, but they do. I also don't know how they can wear pants and long sleeved shirts while Steve and I are sweating like dogs, but they do.
A fishing village near Varkala. From 20090407_KeralaStarred

Fishing huts near Varkala. From 20090407_KeralaStarred

After Varkala we took a houseboat tour through the backwaters, something Kerala is famous for. The backwaters run through rice fields lined with palm trees and fishing villages. Most of the islands do not have stores or roads. Villagers go everywhere by canoe and ferry. They bathe, brush their teeth, wash their clothes and wash their dishes in the canals. At around 5pm many villages are out front fishing for dinner. During the day many work in the rice fields in the center of the islands. Kerala is often called the rice bowl of India, as well as the land of rice and fish.
Morning commute. From 20090407_KeralaStarred

Fishing for dinner. From 20090407_KeralaStarred

Bath time. From 20090407_KeralaStarred

Loading rice onto a rice barge. From 20090407_KeralaStarred

Then we did a homestay in one of the village islands. We stayed with Thomas, Laurie, and their young daughters Ann and Nina. We ate meals with the family and learned about rice farming, how Indians deal with the heat, etc.
Thomas, Laurie, Ann, Nina, Steve and myself. From 20090407_KeralaStarred

It was very relaxing. Thomas told us sane people don't do anything between noon and 4pm. We were guests in his house, we didn't want to disappoint him, and we wanted to emulate the locals, so we dutifully lounged and read when it got hot. In the cooler hours we walked around the village or went canoeing. Most villagers were extremely friendly when we walked by, flashing us big smiles (big smiles are a Kerala staple). The kids all greeted us, practicing their English phrases ("what is your name?", "what is your country?", "where are you going?" ). Several children gave me flowers, 1 chubby boy even swam up to our canoe to deliver the gift. It was adorable! We felt very welcome and comfortable.
From 20090407_KeralaStarred

These girls gave me flowers. From 20090407_KeralaStarred

We ate with Thomas and his girls. His wife eats after everyone is done, but she hangs around at meal time and we got to talk to her a little bit too. The meals were at very specific times: 8:15am, 1:15 and 8:15pm. There was also tea at 4:30pm. The fixed meal times may help the family to coordinate meals at home, since Thomas works in the field and the girls have to go to school. The lunch was the biggest meal and included 3 different kinds of veggie dishes, 1 curry, and a few tiny fishes (they may have been anchovies). I was in heaven with all the veggies, and everything had coconut in it (yay!). The mango curry was made with mangoes directly from their yard. Their milk comes by delivery every day from a local family with 2 cows - as I mentioned, there are no stores on their island.
Drying coconut in the sun. From 20090407_KeralaStarred

As you may have guessed by their names, Thomas's family is Christian. There are a lot of Christian churches in Kerala. There are also a lot of Muslims, for instance most of the fisherman are Muslim. Of course there are also a lot of Hindus. When we stayed in Varkala there was an all-day-all-night festival going on at a nearby Hindu temple that lasted at least 3 days and featured more lights than an amusement park, elephants, torches, drums and singing. Oddly there weren't that many people at the temple while all of this was going on. Anyway, the music from the proceedings was broadcast on loudspeakers throughout the neighborhood, and in fact we have passed through several neighborhoods where music (what we think is Hindu temple music) is constantly blasted all day. (Some of it may also be political as there is a parliamentary election coming up -- there are even guys driving around with small vans and ridiculously disproportionately big loudspeakers mounted to the top, blasting candidate information and slogans). Another thing we observed is the number of folks who have marks on their forehead which I think only come from visiting a temple - I would say at least 20% of men in Kerala have this on any given day. Religion and daily religious worship seems to be a big part of life here, whether it be Hinduism, Catholicism or Islam (in spite of it being a Communist state, although the only thing that ever made me feel like we were in a Communist state was the fact that every single hotel we stayed in had the exact same soap, whether it was a nice hotel, a midrange hotel or a houseboat).
A mosque at the fishing beach near Varkala. From 20090407_KeralaStarred

A church in the Alleppey backwaters. From 20090407_KeralaStarred

Thursday, April 9, 2009


I like to think we have good seafood in California.  Marisa and I are fans of seafood.  We've been in lots of places with impressive seafood: mexico yucatan and baja, the eastern us seaboard, japan, singapore.  We also eat a lot of shrimp, or as some people call them, "prawns".  I thought I was familiar with the extent of nature's prawns.

During our houseboat trip in the Keralan backwaters our captain stopped at the side of the river at a random shack.  At first I didn't know what it was for, but then I realized it was a fishmonger/seafood shack.  The captain was provisioning for our lunch and dinner.  I walked up to the fishmonger, and he reached behind him to a white plastic container filled with water.  Like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat, he pulled an ENORMOUS shrimp out of the water.  As you can see in the picture, the thing was as big as my arm.  It weighed 1 lb!  It looked exactly like the baby monsters in the movie Alien that attach themselves to people's heads.  Luckily for us, it was dead.  We bought it for $7 for our dinner.  It seemed pretty steep, but well worth it for eating the biggest prawn we've ever laid eyes on.  (The guy tried to sell us a second one, which would have been the biggest prawn we'd ever seen if we hadn't seen the first one, but 1lb of shrimp meat is enough for the both of us.)

Marisa has been making fun of me because I keep talking about the size of the shrimp.  I told some German tourists we met at the homestay about it and pantomimed it eating my face off like a head crab in Alien; they at least seemed amused.

As for the Keralan seafood cuisine, in the end I think we were satisfied, although the only extremely impressive aspect was the size of the prawn.  We had some great seafood curries.  We also had tasty fish fillets grilled with a masala spice rub (we bought some spices to duplicate this at home).  Since all we would eat was the fish, you could tell that it was really fresh and tender.  (Most restaurants claimed that the fisherman brought the fish in at 1am the previous morning.)

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Taj in Varkala

From the beginning of our trip we'd been planning to go to either Goa or Kerala in India.  They're both known as relaxing places on the beach, and we'd gotten recommendations for both of them.  We thought about going to the beach directly after our 18 day tour of China, but at the end we felt ok enough to instead travel through North India straight off.  Our 10 day tour of Rajasthan ended on March 31, which meant we'd been traveling for 4.5 weeks, spending on average about 2 nights in each hotel room.  It seemed like as good a time as any to head to the beach to relax for at least a few days.  We ended up picking Kerala because it sounded less touristey than Goa, and we really wanted to feel like we were getting some peace and quiet.

So, speaking of peace and quiet...  You may remember that when our cab driver wouldn't take us to our hotel, we yelled at him to stop at the Taj Palace hotel.  We've never stayed in a Taj hotel, but somehow we had known it was a very nice hotel that could be trusted.  We also felt that going into the hotel was like going into the green zone.  This was partially because we felt so afraid from our taxi ride, and the hotel was a sanctuary, but it was also due to the layout of the hotel entrance:  There were concrete blast barriers that required an incoming vehicle to weave back and forth (so it couldn't charge the hotel at high speed).  There were guards with big guns lining not only the entrance but the outside wall surrounding the property, they had large wrought iron gates, and the hotel was only enterable via a side road.  

It took a week, but eventually we figured out why we knew the taj was a nice hotel:  The Taj Palace in Mumbai was one of the targets of the violent 26/11 siege by (alleged) pakistani muslim militants.  Since it had been in the news recently, we must have internalized the name of the hotel and knew it was a nice chain.  (Note that the Taj we went into was in delhi; the attacked one was in mumbai.)  In retrospect, that was probably also the reason why it felt like going into the Green Zone.  The hotel in Delhi was extremely fortified to prevent a mumbai-style attack.

There are still constant reports of Pakistani incursions in the Indian news.  We did our camel safari in the Rajasthani desert about 100km from the Pakistan border.  The day before our camel safari, our driver told us that several hundred Pakistani "Taliban" were rounded up by the Indian Army (and got into firefights?) crossing the desert border into India, presumably in order to carry out terrorist attacks within India.  When we were on our safari, I kept joking with the lead camel guy and our driver about how maybe we'll catch some terrorists lost in the desert.  They laughed, but I wonder if they were just being polite and it wasn't something I should have joked about.  

In any case, I mention all this to give some background into the security feeling in India.  I don't think people are paranoid, but definitely many hotels have lots of extra security.  People are aware of the potential threat after 26/11, but for the most part it feels safe.

Bearing that in mind, before going to Kerala we arranged 2 nights at a Taj hotel, the "Gateway Garden" in Varkala.  It had decent reviews on tripadvisor, and we wanted to stay somewhere we knew would be nice so we could relax and not worry about anything.

On April 1, we went to the Delhi airport and prepared to board our Kingfisher flight to Trivandrum Kerala.  Marisa started reading the newspaper, and the frontpage story was...  an email originating from Pakistan  had been sent to the Taj hotel in Chennai threatening it.  There were very few details in the story, but apparently the Taj hotel in Mumbai was also threatened, and all Taj hotels were put on extra security alert.  So much for our relaxing stay at the taj in kerala.

We considered just canceling our stay and losing our nonrefundable reservation, so we spent some time talking about it.  It seemed like the threat (which wasn't even to this hotel) was pretty ambiguous; we decided that we would go to the hotel to check it out and see what we thought about how risky it was.

We also read quite a bit about the earlier attack in Mumbai.  The details were horrific.  There were attacks in two hotels.  At the Taj the militants rounded people up from all the rooms and specifically took Americans and British citizens hostage.  (Although the vast majority of innocent people killed were Indian.)  For more than a day, the terrorists were under siege by special Indian counterterrorist forces who engaged in a firefight with the terrorists in the corridors of the hotel until eventually all of them were killed or surrendered.

Our first decision was that if terrorists showed up at our hotel, we would hide our American passports and do our best big lebowski german accent:  "Ve are Jerman, not Amerikan!  Ja!  Ve are von Dusseldorf!"

We had arranged for a driver from the hotel, so he picked us up and dropped us off right at the lobby.  The first good sign was that upon arrival we realized our hotel was not even labeled as a Taj hotel.  All the signs outside said "The Gateway Hotel".  It apparently is owned by the Taj group, but is not fancy enough to merit the "Taj Palace" label.  Normally that'd be a disappointment but in this case it seemed to give it a lower profile.  We also noticed that there was practically no one else in the hotel, which was a good thing.  The terrorists had picked the hotel in Mumbai because it was packed to the gills with rich businessmen, famous politicians, and westerners.  We also asked the guy at checkin if he'd heard anything about the terrorist threats on the Taj.  He looked a little taken aback (afraid?).  He got really quiet and said that he hadn't heard anything about it.  (We weren't sure if that meant he was clueless, or if people thought our hotel wouldn't be under threat.  We felt a little bad for scaring him.)

We determined that it seemed alright to stay at the hotel.  We only had reservations for 2 nights, so we decided we'd move as soon as that was up.  As a precaution, we made an effort to always be together when on the hotel property in case something happened, and we also tried to stay off the property as much as possible during the day.

That actually probably had a far more dangerous impact, because in order to stay off the hotel property, our first full day in Kerala we went to the beach and rented a beach umbrella.  We stayed there all day under the umbrella reading, and occasionally leaving to swim in the ocean.  Apparently the umbrella didn't really filter the sun, because Steve got a moderate sunburn, which is probably higher risk than a terrorist attack anyway.

We've since moved to a much smaller hotel with only 4 rooms, which is not a part of a high profile chain.  It's quite nice, is half the price of the Taj, and directly overlooks the ocean.

On a final note, if Steve was a terrorist, he wouldn't attack the taj but would instead invade the north end of the varkala beach, because that's where all the pale brits are.  You can't kick a seagull without hitting red sunburnt skin there.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

People We've Met In India

Our driver in Rajasthan, Singh, is most likely the person we will get to know best on this trip. Now that we've finished our Rajasthan tour I thought I'd write a little bit about the people we've met thus far.

Singh is from a village near Delhi and his family has a farm. He went to school for 5 years and then left because it was too expensive (nowadays he wouldn't have been able to leave school this young, but Singh was born around 1973). At age 13 he moved to Delhi with his cousin and got a job cleaning taxis. His family fell on hard times and he had to get married at 14. He didn't want to get married and he has never lived with his wife. He learned all of his English (which is excellent) and French by driving tourists.

Singh had a few favorite subjects, but the most obvious one was the conflict with Pakistan. The closer we got to the Pakistan border, the more it came up. The army occupies the last hundred kilometers before Jaiselmar, and there are jeeps, towers, soldiers, etc. everywhere. After Jaiselmar is a buffer zone the Indian army is not allowed to occupy. Singh didn't really have any strong opinions on the conflict, he just worried about it and wanted peace.

He got a huge kick out of the things people do on the roads in India, e.g. a family of 5 on a motorcycle (4 people on a motorcycle doesn't get much of a response, it's too commonplace), people driving around with a small cow in their car, 12 year old motorcycle drivers, etc.

Singh loved Steve's phone, which has a data plan. He would use it whenever he had the chance, but he had no idea how to use it - imagine how difficult a touch screen phone would be to use if you had never really seen one before. He would spend minutes and minutes figuring out how to navigate to his personal webpage, and I found it frustrating to even watch, but he loved every minute of it. He was a man of incredible patience.
Singh, swapping in his car for a camel. From 20090327_RoopangarhFortJaiselmar_Starred

Another person I can't forget was our tour guide in Jaiselmar, I think his name was Saurab. He seemed like a reasonably friendly guy, and he was a so-so tour guide. While he took us around town he told us about the caste system. Twice he stopped 5 feet away from a fellow Jaiselmar resident and said "See, this person is an untouchable," in such a loud, clear voice it was obvious he was heard by all. I have no idea what was going on through the "untouchable" person's head. I am certain that they heard and understood what Saurab was saying. We read an op-ed that says it is no longer acceptable in middle class India to openly discriminate based on caste, but obviously this isn't 100% true. As a point of reference, the op-ed said India has had a member of the Dalit (untouchable) Defense Minister.

Finally, I got to know the breakfast host at our Delhi hotel a little bit. We bonded over the breakfast food - they had a great variety, including Indian specialties. I asked a lot of questions. The strength of our relationship waxed and waned according to my attire. The first day I wore a knee length skirt. It covered most of my knees and some of my calves, and was not horribly indecent, but I quickly realized after one day of wearing it around that it called for undesired attention. The second day I wore a long, Indian print skirt. The host complemented my skirt warmly, and I was happy. The third day I felt settled into our hotel and wore my soccer shorts. Big mistake. The host was noticeably distant and glanced down at my legs twice (not so much in a perverted way, but in an embarassed way). Sigh.

Kids in India

We had some free time in the town of Jaisalmer after we returned from our camel trek in the desert, so we decided to take a walk through town.  We were tired of tourist sites so we walked through parts of the town we hadn't been through before.  Most of the residential streets in the town were dirt or sand and were spackled with poop and rubbish.  As we walked we caught a glimpse down a beautiful side street made with pinkish sandstone and similarly colored houses lining it.  It appeared immaculately clean, so we decided to walk down it.

It was about 4pm and apparently school was out, because there were gaggles of children on every doorstep.  As we'd walk by they'd all gleefully smile and yell, "Hello!  Hello!  What is your name!" in high pitched voices.  In fact many Indian children shout this when they see us, and it must be one of the first things they learn in English in school.  Another common one is "Do you have a school pen?" which seems to be the preferred gift. If you ever plan to go to India, bring lots of pens!

At one doorstep a pair of slightly older girls were painting each other's hands and forearms with henna.  They smiled and said hello, and the younger one asked if we would take their picture.  Marisa snapped a few.  Then they asked Marisa if she wanted henna on her hands.  That's the second time she's been made that offer, and has also been offered to be dressed with liptstick, tikkas, etc. - they want to make Marisa pretty Indian style.

At this point a small crowd (10?) of smaller children had gathered around us, as they'd followed us coming down the street.  They all started crying, "photo!  photo!"  Marisa said, "Do you all want to be in the photo too?"  They cried, "Yes!"  Marisa began trying to corral them all into the photo.   This was difficult because some of the younger ones didn't understand that they wouldn't be in the picture if they stood behind someone else.  As to the ones that wanted to be in front, they thought the closer they stood to Marisa the better, and then everyone rushed towards Marisa, which also made it hard to fit everyone in the frame.

We snapped a couple pictures and turned the camera to show them on the display.  With Marisa moderating, they passed it around, some of the little ones happily astonished at seeing themselves in the display.  With wonder, one of them pointed with a chubby little hand at himself in the image.

One of the bigger boys introduced himself as Praveen and asked if we could send the pictures to them.  We said we'd try, so he took our pen and paper and wrote down their address.  Praveen was about the size of a first grader though he looked like he was maybe in third grade.  His English was excellent, and he was not shy.  He seemed related to one of the girls who was doing the henna.  When Marisa asked her direct questions, she shly looked away and Praveen spoke for her, even though she was at least 6 years older than Praveen.

As we walked away another gaggle of children asked to have their picture taken.  Uh oh.  We could see more kids down the road.  We took a few more pictures, and turned the corner. 

When we arrived at the next street, a new type of invitation greeted us - a mixed age group of boys playing cricket wanted to knew if we wanted to join in.  It was fantastic to feel this welcome after spending all day in the touristy areas where the only people that want to talk to you are people that want your money.