Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Planes, Trains, and Autorickshaws

It is fitting that I should be writing this post from the back of a bus. When I say back of the bus, I’m not evoking Rosa Park’s 1950’s Montgomery. I’m talking about being sent behind the mysterious red floral curtain to what I presume is the driver’s private enclave, complete with mattress, a few changes of clothes, and a towel, on my way between Johol Bahru (JB) and Mersing, Malaysia. When we tried to catch the bus from Singapore to Mersing, the driver told us the bus was full so we concocted plan B and opted to take a bus simply to JB, on the border with Malaysia, and then catch another bus to Mersing. Little did we know that the bus in JB would be the exact same full bus we were trying to catch in Singapore. No emptier than it was in Singapore but apparently more available, as he let us get on. Maybe what’s not allowed in Singapore, i.e. hiding tourists as if they were illegal immigrants, flies in Malaysia. Whatever the reason for his change of heart, it’s hard to get five people on a full bus. This isn’t India, seating capacity is respected here. People aren’t allowed to be strewn across the floor, or crammed three to a seat. This isn’t Nepal, you aren’t allowed to get on top of the bus and hang on to the luggage racks for dear life. The Malaysians have other ways to get around silly seating rules. So as an angry Chinese woman yelled at us for being in her family’s seats, the driver calmly herded two of us to his lair. I had a valid seat but jumped at the opportunity to go to the back, a section of the bus I didn’t know existed two minutes prior. In my new locale, I pulled the partition closed. This would be where I could update my blog for the next three hours: my new home office.

I’ve been wanting to write a post about transit for a while. Most people don’t like to consider transit as part of the travel. They want to get where they are going without actually participating in the going. A four hour bus ride seems tedious as it is nothing more than the wall that keeps them between two geographic locations and two moments in time. I, on the other hand, relish in the actual travel part of travel. 20 hr train ride? Sign me up for it gives me time to reflect. 14 hrs on a plane? Great time to catch up on sleep, especially since I can’t stay awake in a moving vehicle for more than five minutes (people who road trip with me find me useless company). And the best of all, you don’t know who you are going to meet along the way.

The train. India has the most extensive train network I’ve ever seen. While lacking in punctuality, it makes up for this in character. Oh man does it have character. My new friends in Jaisalmer, also Brits as they seem to run rampant in these here parts, refused to ride anything but A/C, which is 1st class travel. I tried to convince them of the beauty of traveling 2nd class sleeper (which would translate to about 5th class) but they weren’t having none of that. They were scarred for life after an incident whereby a little girl decided to drop trough on the seats right in front of them. As the mother embarrassedly tried to clean up the mess, which was worsened by the fact that girl clearly lacked fiber in her diet, the girl moved to another location and repeated her previous action. While the mother followed her daughter around like a New Yorker curbing her dog, my friends were making simultaneous mental notes: no more traveling with the plebeians. A/C all the way for now on.

I can’t fault them for their respect for hygiene but I did try to show them that second class sleeper has its merits. I made them sit with me on the way from Jaisalmer to Jodhpur after the ticket Nazi wouldn’t allow me to sit with them in fancy shmancy A/C. There facial expressions were marred with fear. Flashbacks of the “incident” was playing back, stuck on repeat. After a little coaxing, they were with me and the Brit, crammed between several people. The Brit was soon whisked away by a soldier who wanted to share his hidden stash of whiskey so only I was left to hold my friends’ hands as they made this giant step towards recovery. Luckily, we had an amazing experience. While no one in our section spoke much English, we were able to get them to teach us phrases in Hindi, draw us maps of India complete with all the states and home towns, tell life stories with no guarantee of comprehension, and laugh uncontrollably over cultural differences.

Another key to sleeper class is to carry with you a bit of food, and offer this food to any woman you see, because in return, she will pull out a picnic basket concealing a 10 course meal, and undoubtedly return the favor. There is nothing worse for an Indian mother than to think that you might not be stuffed beyond belief. However, Indian mothers are somewhat of a commodity and can be hard to find on some itineraries. As a female traveler, you have to be aware that at times you could be the only female on your coach. For some reason, my 20 hour ride from Delhi to Jaisalmer was void of all things female. I think even the cockroaches (and there are many of those, something you should probably learn to accept if you are going to travel extensively in India) were male on that leg of my journey. While A/C has some sense of order and anyone without the appropriate ticket is quickly escorted out, with sleeper, the collectors have a much more laissez-faire attitude, giving many general seating travelers license to sneak in. You shouldn’t be surprised to wake up in the middle of night and find a whole family sleeping on the floor between the bunks of your compartment (as was the case between Jodhpur and Delhi). Getting to the toilet can be quite dicey as you have to avoid stepping on body parts and luggage. One time, I finally made it through the gauntlet to find that one bathroom had been converted into some sort of office as about five men played cards and conducted all sorts of business from the comfort of the latrine. Meanwhile, the other bathroom was occupied, indefinitely, as some guy was smoking up. Herding a group of men out of the bathroom in another language is not the easiest of tasks and the 20 other people crammed in the hallways love to see how you handle the situation. As with most things, giving food as an offering usually suffices.

At my stop in Jodhpur, the train cleared, only to repack itself with military personnel. For this leg, I was sandwiched in between soldiers, rifles, and all sorts of military paraphernalia. As always when I’m the lone female among a group of guys in India, I get my “don’t even think about talking to me” face. I scrunch my eyes in the shifty-eye position, jut my lips out slightly in a menacing fashion, and cross my arms. However, holding this stance for hours on end is tiring. They seem to know it’s a war of attrition and that you will eventually weaken. As soon as the moment occurs when your face sets itself into neutral, it begins: “where are you from”, “are you married?” “where is your husband/boyfriend?” “why are you traveling alone?” in that exact order. However, after exchanging pleasantries this time, the soldiers wanted to know what I was listening to. This led into hours of comparing music and trying to get our bluetooths (blueteeth?) to synch in order to share. It turned out to be an enjoyable ride hanging out with the boys and watching the desert panorama pass me by.

Planes. Since I had such little time in India, I had to grab a couple flights to cut down on the length of travel time. However, there are none of the usually amusing Indian travel experiences when traveling by planes. In fact, they are comfier and cozier than any of the American or European flights I’ve been on. Kudos, India, kudos.

Autorickshaws. I thought hitting a buffalo head on in a motorcycle and flying in the air was scary. But nothing, I repeat, nothing is scarier than autorickshaws in India…if you are not used to them. Fortunately for me, I am now used to them.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Holi Moley

Pink. Why did this year’s color have to be pink? What a pathetic color. I mean, is it really necessary? Perhaps my feelings for this pointless color are remnants of my days as a tomboy when I abhorred anything girlie. However, I have to admit: there is something quite satisfying about shooting young and old, human and bovine alike, with pink dye. Holi this year was on March 11th although we began to see preparations in Delhi two days prior. I was wondering why so many people were walking around with faces covered in pink powder or shirts stained pink. My friend Nishant explained to me that this was in celebration of Holi. The origins of Holi remains a mystery to me as I’ve heard as many versions of the festival’s conception as the number of times I’ve asked. All versions seem to agree that there was a character named Holika. I’m deferring to Wikipedia until there can be some consensus. Explaining the ritual of Holi Eve, Wiki writes, “The bonfires are lit in memory of the miraculous escape that young Prahlad had when Demoness Holika, sister of Hiranyakashipu, carried him into the fire. Holika was burnt but Prahlad, a staunch devotee of Lord Vishnu, escaped without any injuries due to his unshakable devotion.”

The Brit (yes, he reemerges in the story as we wound up meeting thousands of kilometers from our first encounter, in Jaisalmer, a city surrounded by the Thar Desert on the border with Pakistan) and I had spent Holi Eve searching for munitions. We needed water guns, dye (both powder and liquid), clothes that could be worn once and thrown away, and spray bottles (for maximum carnage). The townspeople gave us pointers on the best places to go. Actually, they gave the Brit pointers. They told me I would be better off staying far far away from all the action. I would find out the next day that this was in order to avoid the opportunistic gropes of prepubescent (and sometimes very pubescent) boys. In fact, the only girls I saw out and about that morning were Westerners, most of them looking confused at what they had gotten themselves into. After a 5 minute battle with the young neighborhood kids by our guesthouse, we ventured into the fort for rowdy and somewhat violent dyeing. I had an added layer of protection (which, in retrospect, I wish were a taser): my goggles.

There are certain things I always travel with and can hardly live without. Number one on the list would be earplugs. After living a block away from Times Square for a year, I became addicted to earplugs and haven’t slept without them since. I have my primary pair as well as several spares for emergency situations. After that is, of course, my passport. Perhaps passport should be number one. Next comes my computer. I don’t always travel with it but am quite attached. How else am I going to relate my experiences to you guys in a timely fashion? Somewhere on the list are my goggles. Swimming is one of the greatest pleasures in my life. You never know where you will have the chance so I carry them around just in case. My preparedness came in handy on Wednesday as goggles were the only protection from potential hazardous materials. All the newspapers were cautioning holi-players of bad dyes, explaining how most of them were coming in through China and had been shown to be not very health friendly. That might explain the burning . Anyway, after an hour, covered from head to toe in pink and sometimes red, green, and yellow dye, I was exhausted and ready to return to the hotel where a large bucket-worth of dye, thrown from the top floor, was awaiting me. No one was spared. No one. It took me 45 minutes to shower and I was still a dark pink for the following few days. Good times.

If you are looking at the photos, you might be wondering why we were wearing camel balls in some of the photos. Ask the Brit.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

International Women's Day (meant to be posted Mar 8)

I’m sitting on my flight from Mumbai to Delhi and was just instructed to buckle my seatbelt. Soon after I was wished a Happy Woman’s day. March 8, known first and foremost as my mom’s birthday (Happy Birthday Mom), and secondly, as International Women’s Day, has become increasingly more urgent each year as my awareness of the plight of women all over the world grows. A couple years ago I had flown to NY to kick off my Art for Darfur fundraiser. I was speaking at a conference for young girls about the trials of the women of Darfur. After imparting on them the irreprehensible crimes against women who have been raped, murdered, and tortured in the genocide that still ravishes Southern Sudan, I conducted an art workshop with mainly underprivileged girls who expressed their impressions of the situation through painting. Their work was then shown at the main event and auctioned off as part of my fundraiser. Art for Darfur was the first time I had really reflected on what it means to be a woman in this world. Before leaving the US, I had very little understanding of the gender differences that exist. I was a tomboy growing up, playing football, collecting baseball cards, having only guy friends until 7th grade. Once I reached middle school, I finally managed to get girlfriends and in class, my gender never came up, always being afforded the same opportunities as my male classmates. Any sense of injustice was always connected to race, not gender, and even my doctoral research is linked more to race and ethnicity issues than to gender issues. My family might have something to do with my squewed view of the world. The family is probably as matriarchal as it gets. While Dad is much respected, Mom is in charge, which is I guess why having her birthday occur on Women’s Day is fitting. There were never any obstacles to what I could do as both my parents let me follow whatever whims or dreams I have.

Being in India for the past month has made me question what it means to be a woman. There are so many contradictions. While India has already had a female prime minister, women are sorely lacking in government and legislative bodies. While education to women is quite accessible, at least in the large cities, and the higher a woman’s degree, the more respected she is, once married and with a family, she is expected to be a wife and mother, first and foremost. Recent attacks on pub-going women in Mangalore remind us that women who don’t fit a certain mold are going to be ostracized and punished. While more women than men tend to be born in most of the world, in India, there are 93 female births per 100 male births. The business of finding out the sex of fetuses and aborting the females is a grave problem while female infanticide is even more problematic. While dowries have been outlawed, in many places especially in the countryside, women are costly because the families need to come up with a suitable dowry. In addition, since parents go to live with their sons, having only female children leave parents with a feeling of uncertainty in their old age. Many fear they will be discarded, forced into nursing homes, one of the biggest qualms that Indians have about Americans and their views on family.

It is in India that I first learned the word “eve-teasing”. It includes improper comments, touching, or other verbal/physical harassment by men. It is a punishable offense yet most women don’t know their rights or are too afraid to speak up. Marches all over India will take place on March 8. Some focusing on recent events like the Mangalore attacks, some calling attention to everyday occurrences like eves-teasing. Blank Noise, an organization in Bangalore, seeks to create an open dialogue today and everyday while SITA Sena in Mumbai, hoping to spark a trend, have armed women with whistles and instructed them to blow each time a man acts inappropriately to them. Women are not the only ones targeted in this campaign for empowerment. Men Against Violence and Abuse sensitizes men to women’s struggles. These are a few of the many demonstrations occurring today to remind India and the world that things have improved but we have a long way to go.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Linguistic Insanity

As I’ve promised my friend Dave from school (not the Brit) that I would contribute to his linguistic blog, I’ve decided to reflect on what communication in India has been like in my month here. I got a kick out of impressing my Indian friends the first few days I was here, by seemingly understanding the conversations that emanate from the code-switching grab-bag that is the centerpiece of most communication in India. They would speak to each other in a mix of Tamil, which is the state language of Tamil Nadu where they are all working on their Masters; Hindi, which can vaguely be considered a National language but which loses all currency in the southern states; English which is often preferred to Hindi and is a sign of education especially when riding the trains; Telugu, which is spoken by many people in the state north of Tamil Nadu, Andra Pradesh. Then you have Malayalam, spoken by my friend Maria from Kerala, and a personal favorite of mine just by virtue of being a palindrome; and Kanata, spoken by my friend Deepa from Karnataka. I’ve only scratched the surface of the 2 official national languages, 14 or so official state languages (Tamil Nadu for instance recognizes Tamil as its official language but not Hindi or English) and around 152 recognized languages in India (don’t quote me on those figures as that is what I’ve gotten through asking people but have not had the opportunity to verify). Through a mix of watching facial features, body language, picking up the occasional English word, and recognizing context clues, I was able to understand a portion of what they were saying and would chime in occasionally and strategically, eliciting disbelief. However, they shouldn’t be too impressed as the linguistic gymnastics they perform everyday is unlike anything seen in the Western world and makes my fluency in five related languages quite unimpressive.

I had spent the last 6 months preparing for the largest exam of my life, my PhD qualifying exams in Romance Linguistics, before coming to India. A large portion of the exam was looking at language standardization in Spanish and French speaking countries. While most of Europe has been moving towards a one nation one language model that has been slowly snuffing out regional languages and silencing any protests from migrant languages, places in Africa and Asia have a long tradition of the coexistence of several languages. Interlocutors are expected to participate in this push and pull, give and take model of communication. When we went to Andra Pradesh for the wedding, I hadn’t realized at first that most of my friends did not speak the same language as the autorickshaw drivers or other people we communicated with on the streets. They were relying on common words, gestures, and brief forays into the supposed national languages to get their points across. This is the first country in 35 where I’ve been at a loss of words. The first thing I try to do when visiting any country is learn a few words in the dominant language, both as a sign of respect to the people I want to engage and as a survival method. Assuming that the rest of the world speaks English when traveling in the ways I prefer to, away from the beaten path, far from urban centers, is suicide as English is often not an option. However, in India, especially in the South, learning Hindi is not going to give you much leverage and learning enough of the state languages to be vaguely effective takes time. Having started my India travels in Tamil Nadu also heavily influenced my conception of what it means to speak a language in India. Tamil Nadu was the only state not to ratify Hindi as a national language that would be taught in schools. English is learned before Hindi and in the small enclave of Pondicherry, that is surrounded by Tamil Nadu and was once a French colony, French is taught in schools before Hindi. I’m sure my take on Hindi will change once I travel around the North, but for now, Hindi has been absent from my travels.

The other language that is relevant to my personal research is Portuguese, which is still spoken in parts of Goa. I was amazed at the Portuguese flavor that I breathed in when visiting Panjim (aka Panaji) and Old Goa. The churches, the streets, everything reminded me slightly of Lisbon. In fact, Old Goa had been bigger than Lisbon in its heyday. I was fortunate to stay in the guesthouse of a very sweet family that still spoke Portuguese. When I told them about my PhD work in Romance Languages, they were very excited to talk about the situation in Goa. Portuguese occupies a precarious position in Goa. You won’t hear it at all when visiting the beaches but it will subtly make its way into your consciousness in the small towns and especially in the capital city of Panjim. I met the grandmother of my guesthouse who mainly spoke Portuguese and had a nice conversation with her. The owner and his wife also spoke Portuguese, and the children were learning it in school. Oddly enough, until recently, most children learned French as a foreign language in schools although there was no history of French presence in the Western part of India. Portuguese has been making a comeback as a heritage language since it had begun to fall on death ears for the younger generations. Who knows what will come of Portuguese as it is just one more language in a melting pot of regional languages. Much will depend on the linguistic policies instated by Goa and the pride that one feels when speaking Portuguese.

The other fascinating thing I find about India is how English is used. In any place where language contact exists, you will have innovative ways of expressing a language. Most Indians are conscious of the way they speak English and feel that their version is not adequate because is diverges from the standards set forth by nations like the US and England. This is seen most notably in the English courses that profess the ability to rid a speaker of his Indian accent or eliminate Indian English colloquialisms. As consumers in the US and elsewhere complain about outsourcing and insist on speaking to someone local, many businesses have given their employees western sounding names and reward them with incentives the more Western they sound. Questions of where Indian English fits on the native speaker hierarchy that deems certain forms of English acceptable while others are seen as deviant are complicated by the fact that many Indians are native speakers of English, speak English in the home, see English as their native tongue, even if they speak other languages just as fluently. Places like the US and England follow monolingual norms and extol the virtues of monolingualism, but this is far from the reality in India, and should not be the model imposed on them or on the large number of plurilingual countries in the world.

One of the reasons the makes India special, especially for a linguist like me, is that the English spoken here differs to that which I grew up with or that which I’ve heard in the UK. Some differences are semantic in form. Words have slightly changed meaning to be used in different contexts. No one says, “Are you there yet?” “When will you get there/when will you arrive”. The proper form is “have you reached”, explained to me as a borrowing from Hindi. This was very similar to how in Senegal when the standard way of saying, when do you get off work is “A quelle heure descends-tu du travail?” which literally means “What time do you descend/get down from work?” taken directly from Wolof. Some innovations from standard western English are syntactic. Words like “pain” retain its status as a noun but is preferably a verb. When I got my nose pierced, my entourage (as everyone insisted on being there for my Indianfication, as some of them liked to call it) kept asking me, “does it pain you?” and later “is it still paining you?”. Some differences are lexical. The denominations are baffling to me. Everyone counts in laks. 1 lak=100,000. 1 crore is 100,000 laks. At least I think that’s how it works although I’m quite possibly just making that conversion up because I can’t remember. Too confusing for me. I like to stick with millions and billions. But obviously, this society felt a need for these other measurements. The list goes on and on prompting me to want to scour the country, collecting English phrases that differ from my norm. However, this could just be another ploy for me to stay in the country longer and perhaps one day receive grant money for my many linguistic inquisitions.

Flying Solo Part II

Laura was the second person, and unrelatedly the second Brit, I’ve befriended while seemingly alone in India. The first encounter was in the hippie Mecca of Hampi. Hampi, however, unlike Goa, is quite magical and a place I would be happy to visit again. I took the night train from Bangalore (stay tuned for my section on why I love train travel in India, even with its occasional hiccups) and while I was squished between two old Indian men, this guy, the Brit, asked if I wanted to sit by him for a bit in the section next to mine as there were a couple empty seats. I refused at first, figuring I would be going to bed soon, but was somehow propelled to go over there after all. I plopped myself down amidst three Australian women around my age and him, a 25 year old Brit, that had a tinge of a hippie flair but had not yet reached unacceptable levels of hippiedom. We all chatted for a bit until the other people in that section started making the beds ready to sleep. The way 2nd class sleeper cars work is that when the person on the middle or lower bunk wants to sleep, pretty much everyone has to as converting the seats to beds leaves no seats. I went back to my section figuring that perhaps I would chat with the others tomorrow, perhaps not.

The next morning the Brit (who I should probably give a name, why not his given name, Dave) was fast asleep, but I had a nice continuation of our conversation with the Aussies. When we arrived to Hospet, the girls needed to buy return train tickets so Dave and I set off to find accommodation. (On second thought, I like calling him The Brit. Going back to that). Little did I know that he had possession of the magic card, a business card given to him by his good friend Luis, a photographer from Spain who had befriended the whole family of the guest house we were now searching for. This guesthouse was off the beaten path, always a plus, but easily walkable at about a mile away from where the boat dropped us off. However, I wasn’t counting on the Brit’s Tibetan singing bowls to hinder our movement. As we, or he, trudged along, we were summoned by many guys on motorbikes offering their guesthouses and transport to them. But the Brit had faith in his friend Luis, and was keen on upholding his promise to make it to Lovely Garden Guest House, the promised land of guest houses. Just as the Brit was wrestling with the singing bowls’ own personal suitcase, which had been bought cheaply in India and had already started to come apart (the suitcase, not the singing bowls), the umpteenth guy on motorbike flagged us down and offered his guest house. Per usual, we told him we already had a place and he asked for the name of our destination. When we told him he perked up. That was his guest house. Do you have a card, he wanted to know. It was a bit strange that someone who was just about to convince us to come to his guest house would ask to see the card, as if it were some secret society. The Brit rummaged through his things talking about how his friend Luis had told him about the place. Just then, he yelled, you know Luis?!? Come, come, any friend of Luis is a friend of mine. Man, this Luis guy had some currency.

Naga, who introduced himself as we had now been inducted into the secret society, motioned for me to get on his bike, promising to return for the Brit and his singing bowls. After we all had made it up the hill, past the stone bridge, to the Lovely Garden, he gave us two adorable rooms, complete with hammocks, and left us to get settled. Just then, a shy but inquisitive Trisha, Naga’s wife, came over and started pointing to my hair. I’ve never gotten so much attention for my hair before coming to India. I must be a bizarre sight to see. Preferring to don kurtas and other traditional garb, when I cover my hair, I often blend in, especially with my newly pierced nose and my bangles that have melded with my arms and have become a part of me since that day 10 yrs ago I put on my first ones and decided to never take them off. When I travel alone, I always cover my hair, chameleoning myself amid the bright and imposing colors that are the very fabric of India. But as soon as the headscarf comes off, it is as if I have decloaked, making myself an easy target for both wanted and unwanted attention usually decided by the gender of the person passing the attention to me. The number of old ladies who have come up to me and have shook my hand is quite shocking, but cute. The number of old men (Viejos Verdes as they were called in Spain) and their penetrating stares are usually not as endearing. Anyway, with many of the ladies, I have had full conversations in languages I can’t even name about how my hair works. Is it real? Do I wash it? How do I wash it? Can I brush it? How long have they been like this? The concept of dreadlocks is completely foreign to the older generations. Only a couple of people have flat out told me they don’t like it. A smaller number have said they love it but would never let their daughters wear them. No matter what people’s opinions are, my dreads are the perfect icebreaker and almost always a VIP pass into gaining local trust. The best is when they ask me if they can take a picture with me. I still haven’t figured out why they want to be in a photo with a complete stranger with no star power but I usually concede, amused. Anyway, as is often the case, I began to talk with Trisha, who then brought over her sisters and cousins, and pretty soon I was shuffled into the family’s house, offered tea, dotted with a bindi (to adorn my forehead) and asked to tell about my homeland.

Ahh, my homeland, another reason to make me smile. After 8 years of telling everyone I was Brazilian in attempts to avoid having to apologize yet again for my president, I can now say with a sense of relief that I’m American. My friends’ here have gotten a kick out of telling everyone we see that I am Obama’s cousin. In fact, if they keep this up, I might have some explaining to do to the US Secret Service. But I will leave reflections on nationality and identity for a later time.

The afternoon was spent exploring Hampi. The Brit and I decided to rent a motorbike and explore the surrounding areas. I think we ventured to a part of Hampi that no Westerner has gotten to. We went the opposite direction of the touristy places and happened upon several villages. Everywhere we went, little children would ask for American coins. My bag of coins for just that purpose was stashed away in Bangalore, and I was kicking myself for not bringing the quarters I had saved up for one last clothes washing in California and that I never got around to, as always. Void of coins, I was then asked for pens. Pens are very easy to come by but if a child can say they have an American pen or a European pen, or a South America pen, that pen appreciates in value.

We ended the afternoon with a brilliant but unassuming sunset before finding a Nepalese restaurant to wind down the day. The Brit had spent quite a lot of time in Nepal and when the waiters learned that he had picked up some Nepalese, we became star clients. Two and a half hours later we lazily returned to our little haven at the top of the hill and traded music until late in the night.

The next day began with yet more affirmation that I’m dead inside. Anthony would appreciate this as he has been telling me for years that I am dead inside. Not as bad as it sounds, it just means that I have a cold cold heart, that while capable of loving friends, family, and not your run of the mill animals like iguanas, squirrels and goat-sheep, it is impervious to things like falling in love. Anthony has the tendency to exaggerate but perhaps he has a point. While I ignore most things Anthony says about me , could both the Tibetan singing bowls and Anthony be wrong? Curious by the Brit’s cargo, I told him he could practice on me. Lying down on the porch with a small audience, he placed a bowl at my head, another at my feet, and the third at various points on my torso. My abdomen and solar flexes were normal with the bowls singing clearly and water splashing out at acceptable intervals, but when he put the bowl on my heart, it was as if the earth stood still. No movement. No singing. In the time he was learning to work the bowls, he nor his teacher had seen anything like this. The teacher had mentioned that occasionally old bitter people would see no movement for the heart, but never someone my age and with my generally positive experiences and grateful approach to life. Could it be? Could Anthony be on to something. Actually, the Brit’s take on this was that because I spend too much time loving others, that I don’t spend enough time loving myself. I’m supposed to work on this for the next time he brings the singing bowls out, possibly in Rajasthan, if our paths cross again. Does this mean daily affirmations √† la Stuart Smiley: I’m good enough, I’m smart enough and gosh darn it, people like me?

The rest of the day consisted of the buffalo incident mixed in with several temples, both Hindu and Jain. The soundtrack of the day was Nina Simone’s greatest hits, kicked off by the herder’s repetitious “Go Slow.” With Nina’s “Mississippi Goddamn” triggered by that one line, we sang all the other Nina songs we could think of, piecing together the lyrics in a joint effort and humming the rest of the tunes. You can take Nina anywhere, even to Hampi, and Nina has a calming effect, good for overcoming close brushes with death by buffalo. However, we ignored the go slow warning when I learned that the last ferry across the river was 6 pm. If I were to catch my train, I needed to make it from the guest house to the ferry a couple kilometers away on unpaved road in 7 minutes. This is India in a nutshell: relaxed one moment, running like no tomorrow the next.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Flying Solo

No one ever understands why I prefer to travel solo. And when you tell them you are planning to travel solo in India, they think you are as mad as a cow (the non-holy kind, obviously, as I guess holy cows are impervious to such diseases). But this trip has reaffirmed my belief in solo traveling. The experiences you open yourself up to are unthinkable when you have a partner in crime.

Not that it is truly possible to travel solo in India. While most people think that would be the worst place to start your solo career, I would argue that there is no better place to catch your bearings in the new and foreign world of solo travel. Once you make one Indian friend, meet their family, have your face stuffed with homemade delectables, you are open to a network of endless possibilities. Family is the most important thing in India, and these families are extensive. If you meet someone studying in Chennai, they probably have parents or siblings living in Andra Pradesh, Kerala, Karnatika etc. But the lines are blurred between immediate family and extended family as everyone practically has the same value in the familial hierarchy. So now your contacts in all these states have cousins, uncles, aunts, gurus throughout the rest of India. You call up your original friend, tell them where you are going, and they will pretty much arrange all your lodging and often train station pickup for you. It is impossible to feel alone, even if you want to. Out of the 35 or so countries I’ve visited or lived in, I’ve never found a more hospitable climate, which is refreshing because if you try to visit India without actually wanting to meet and befriend Indians, your experience can often be a difficult one.

While most places have been covered by my new and growing friend network, there are still a few dead zones that need to be filled in. These areas are prone to high populations of hippies or equally obnoxious, non-hippie Westerners, and thus, mainly avoided by Indians. Goa, particularly, is overrun with sunburnt, half naked (or if German, oft very naked), packaged-vacation going Westerners who have no interest in learning about the different cultures of India and would rather spend their holidays avoiding Indians altogether. As I’m sitting here writing this and realizing that things haven’t been as amazing as the other three weeks of my trip, I wonder--why am I here? But then I see my new friend sitting next to me in my peripheral and remember that I’m always in the place I’m supposed to be.

I met Laura on the bus from Mapusa to Anjuna. As is almost always the case when meeting potential travel partners, you start talking, giving a quick synopsis of where you have been until this point, and then a casual ticking off of places you intend to see before you leave. Add the amount of time spent and time left to spend, and you have the typical first five minutes of any traveler conversation. She was wielding the Bible of travelers all over, Lonely Planet. I tend to avoid Lonely Planet, just because travelers treat it like a Bible, and as always, I’m suspicious of organized religion. I do admit, however, that there is often practical information in there and had snuck a peak at the Czech couple’s copy the night before to get a sense of where I should go in Goa. (The Czechs were my companions for the previous 18 hrs. If you are keeping track, you will see that in almost a month of travel, I have not been alone one single night). Anyway, we both got off at the beach and having the same list of places to check out, decided to tackle the quest together.

Always presenting negatives and positives to any situation, I would be remiss to not mention some of the benefits of traveling with someone. #1 Single rooms are hard to come by. You can stay in a room by yourself but you are almost always going to pay the double price, no matter how good your bargaining skills are. This does not mean that I’m advocating always traveling with someone, it just means that you should be open to chance encounters and new friends. Anyway, we realized we had similar travel plans for the next few days and neither of us annoyed the other to the point that we would’ve preferred remaining solo, so we took a room together. The most important thing when rooming with a stranger, other than checking for tell-tale signs of insanity, is to try and glean whether you have similar travel styles. I could tell that Laura was a savvy traveler, laid back, not whiny, had a good smile, had her head on straight, was as frugal as I am, and was looking for the same things in her Indian experience (these are qualities I hope I have or at least try to have) and we got along from the start. We both realized that Goa was not really our scene but were happy to deal with March heat on the beach. Besides, we both had come for the renowned Wednesday market.

Last night, I realized the reason why we both were supposed to have a break from one of our best travels ever to hang out in the Purgatory that is Goa beach life. Around 10 pm, after watching Pulp Fiction in the open air over Tandoori chicken, by far the highlight of my Goa experience, Laura received a call from her father’s cell. She looked unnerved as her father never calls from his cell. (Laura is from the UK by the way). He had called to inform her of her grandmother’s passing. What are you supposed to do when a person you’ve known for barely 24 hrs receives a life-changing or at least reflection-inducing phone call? We had been headed to the beach for a drink and I asked if she would prefer to go home. She thought continuing with the original plan would be better than holed up in the guest house room crying into her pillow. I agreed, and we continued. We ended up having a nice evening, all things considered, and the appreciation I saw on her face when I refused to let her pay for her drink as it was a feel better drink, and people should never have to buy their own feel better drink, was enough to make me feel that I had given her the best thing I could in the position I was in. As I was dowsing off to sleep later, she whispered that she was glad I was here with her. Hearing that made me tear up, having already endured a very emotional evening. It got me thinking: I always hold a special place for the people that touch my life. I enjoy memories of friends I’ve known for years, family I’m known for ever, and random people that I’ve known for mere minutes but who affect me in some way. I always give thanks for the people who come and go in my life, an ebb and flow tide of human interaction; but I never wonder if I have that effect on someone else. Losing a person you love and feeling guilty that you can’t be there with them as they leave this world, is one of the worst things a person can go through. Imagine being alone in a foreign land thousands of miles away when hearing such news and couple that with the knowledge that there is no one to grieve with or simply to talk things through. That’s always the risk you run when traveling alone. Just by meeting her on that bus and sharing a room with her, she was given a little more peace and I was reminded just how fragile but how beautiful the human experience is.

And we don’t have just the sadness of her grandma’s passing to remember; India is riddled with amusing anecdotes, even within the short time we’ve known each other. We will never forget our dirt cheap (ok, dirt cheap for goa, normal priced for India) guest house with the dead bugs that kept dropping in the sink. Only after looking up and seeing a giant spider’s nest (ok ok, spiders don’t have nests, but ‘web’ doesn’t seem to capture the glimmering mass that was hovering from the rafters) did we figure out where the hollow bug shells were coming from. Then there were the three giant cockroaches that paraded around the room to the silent screams of Laura. After corralling them into the bathroom, I was able to squish them to Laura’s satisfaction. Sweeping them to a corner, they remained there for at least another day. Who knows where their final resting place will be. Then there were the dogs, vicious sounding but most likely little pussy cats in reality. They came running after us after we tried to get into the guest house the first night. I came armed the second night with the standard dog-annoying rocks that were so useful during my 3 months in Mexico. In fact, I have numerous other musings but they all involve some sort of animal and are probably not adding much to the general image I’m trying to convey.

Holy Cow

I’ve always liked cows even though they were once a source of embarrassment for me. I recall my dad, raised a farm boy, would always get the biggest kick out of honking at cows as we passed them while driving. Growing up in Texas, there were plenty of cows. I would always cringe each time I saw a cow because I knew what was coming. I would sink in my seat, trying to avoid the stares of other drivers thinking that they were being honked at. How were they to know that a cow was simply being revered? Growing up in Texas also meant that I was raised, practically, a carnivore. Perhaps only Argentina can top Texas in terms of steak obsession and insanity. Imagine the culture shock when a horn-hating steak-loving Texan arrives in India. Even my years amid California vegans couldn’t snuff my enjoyment of steak. But here, the cow is holy. It is to remain untouched in every way. A cow in the middle of the road can remain in the middle of the road as long as it wants. A cow on the beach can come up to you and steal your watermelon. There is nothing you are going to do about it. And if you think this is all conjecture, I’m only touching on points I’ve actually seen with my own eyes. Who would’ve thought that cows liked watermelon so much. And when, after 3 weeks straight of rice, sambar, idly, and dosa, I become weak and crave a cheeseburger, I should’ve known what was in store. Yes, in the back of my head, I knew that the burger couldn’t have possibly been made of cow, but I somehow convinced myself that this was Goa. Goa, overrun by European tourists, would’ve had to succumb somewhat to European tastes. I mean, the beaches are lined with plenty of negative aspects of European vacationing, couldn’t they have at least imported the burger? So, when my cheeseburger arrived, and I realized the patty was none other than fried cheese, all I could do is laugh. Touch√©, India. Yes, a cheeseburger should be made of cheese. Laughing is really the only thing you can ever do when you travel and have a craving for something that you know you will never get.

But while the cow is highly revered, I’ve been trying to figure out where buffalo sit in this hierarchy. When my friend and I hit one while riding our motorbike, the herder didn’t trying to lynch us for striking a sacred animal. I always imagined that would happen if you hit a cow. All he kept repeating was go slow, go slow. We were going slow. The buffalo had been on the side of the road. Why did he wait until we got there to run in front of us? Does he enjoy seeing tourists fly over handlebars and skid on pavement? Did he get a kick out of watching the bike landing on me and pinning me to the ground? Perhaps he simply had a death wish and underestimated his own strength and resiliency. Most likely, he was just stupid, but I will not assert that forcefully, just in case buffalo are considered holy as well.