Monday, October 30, 2006

Some Kind of Demon

I had my final confrontation with the travel agency today; I got a refund of 340$, in cash. That's not too bad, considering that one can live tolerably well here for 20 days on that much money. This still leaves them with a rather ridiculous profit, but I have the satisfaction of letting them know what I think of their tactics.

I'll be leaving Delhi tommorow morning for Srinagar, Kashmir, where I hear there are lakes, mountains, and relatively few people. I'm in good spirits, and at the same time exhausted from the tension of all this. So, I'm going to get reasonably drunk.

Rajasthan has a highly developed and amusing puppeteering tradition, and I have some videos which seem appropriate.

A horse and his ass...

Some kind of demon...

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Two-Part Chew

I took the train back to Delhi last night: it's a long story. The short version; I'm trying to get some of my money back from that scheming travel agency. The more people I talk to about how this racket works, the less willing I am to be a victim. So, today I had a round of shouting match phone calls with Tariq (the breast obsessed driver of my first day in town) from Incredible India Voyages.

I feel uncomfortable talking about money, and I dislike confrontation, so I was afraid to make the initial call. But I dislike being taken advantage of even more, and in the heat of argument I found myself enjoying it. It's nice to talk rather than listen. And it's liberating to drop your manners once in a while and try to out-yell and out-curse the person on the other end of the line. I'm going to store this knowledge for the next time I need it.

This matter should be resolved by 3pm tommorow, or I'll be heading for my embassy to complain.

And on an unrelated note; Troy, this two-part chew is for you.

Thursday, October 26, 2006


I've been meaning to post every day for at least five days now, but the time just slips through my fingers. There is so much to do and nothing to do at the same time. I have been in the small town of Khajuraho for several days enjoying the feeling of having escaped my travel agency. I cancelled and got a refund on all of my train tickets, so now all I have to do is decide where to go next. I have two ideas; west by train to Varanasi then Kolkota and then further west by boat to the Andaman Islands, or north by train and plain to Kashmere. I'll decide within the next few days.

At the moment I am enjoying the 22 surviving 10th century temples of Khajuraho, the filter coffee, and the thousands of green parrots who flock to the trees at sunset. The internet, on the other hand, is not so great. The upload speed is painfully slow, and they charge you a dollar per uploaded photo. So, no pictures for now, but there are plenty to come.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

31 Seconds

31 seconds in Udaipur.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Problem of Pain

I use some screwy, modern combination of my upbringing, haunted by the formidable ghost of John Calvin, and recent years of yogic study, to tolerate suffering. I take it two ways at the same time. The first way; not only do you deserve this, it's good for you. You're a sinner and whatever the problem is, it will only purify your pustulent soul. The second way; life is the game of games, so play it well. If you don't learn your lesson now, you'll just lose again and again, in the same way, until you do. Metaphysical end results aside, both yield the same practical application: keep your wits about you, because complaining doesn't help.

So when, a few hours after my vaccinations, all the energy in my body joined forces to create a throbbing in my arms, hepatitis on bass and typhoid playing the snares, I tried my best to ignore it and go to sleep, hoping for a brighter tomorrow. We had a long drive that day, about 6 hours, and didn't get out ot Delhi until around 5 pm. I sat for a few hours, and then slept for a few hours, but when the driver, Mr. Sharma, tired himself by 10 pm, pulled into a petrol station for a nap, mosquitoes immediately attacked my ankles, and I could no longer sleep. So I sat, and I waited, jerking my arms and legs spastically each time I felt a sting. When we finally reached my hotel, there was nobody to answer the gate. We rang the bell and waited, we honked and waited, and finally we went to another hotel on the other side of town and awoke the owner, who accompanied us back. It was a charming place, with a garden courtyard. But by the time I got there it was all I could do to get into bed.

The next morning I felt better, and I was physically, although not emotionally, sound, for a few days. But in Jaisalmer, on the third night of my trip, I accepted food against my better instincts, out of courtesy rather than hunger, even though I had accidentally seen the kitchen, a few burners on a dirt floor. By the middle of the next day, driving through the desert on a motor bike, I started to have stomach cramps. They were tolerable, and they came and went infrequently, leaving me feeling that I needed to empty my stomach, but actually unable to do so. I kept on enjoying myself, hoping it would pass. At 5 pm Damien and I were on our way back to Jaisalmer, and we stopped at the only restaurant between the abandoned village and the city.

I was having excruciating cramps by this point, and so as we entered the courtyard, I headed directly for the restroom, to no avail. When I came out Damien was at a table with the restaurant's owner, who sat like a lord in his wicker chair. I said hello, took a seat, leaned back, and then took another seat for my feet. Over the next 15 minutes I didn't join the conversation at all. I listened, when I could, as a distraction, but I spent most of the time wincing and waiting for a cramp to complete its path from my pelvis to my ribcage.

gas station fire precautions

When things reach their worst, they can only get better, and I, at that moment, had reached several lows. This was the most intense and continuous pain that I have ever experienced, as far as I can remember; and I was at the absolute end of my tolerance of Indian people. During my 6 days in India, I hadn't met a single Indian who was not aggressively, annoyingly, or sneakily, trying to sell me something. But the owner of this restaurant had been talking intelligently and enjoyably about Indian architecture and history for some time now, and when noticed me going white and breaking into goose-pimple sweats, he told me about isabgol. This is something that grows with anise, possibly the husk, that Indians take regularly for intestinal health. He told me to eat it with yogurt for diarrhea, milk for the opposite problem, and water for everyday maintenance. Then, the waiter offered me opium. At first I flatly refused, but the intelligent owner told me it is a common remedy for stomach problems; if you drink it, your cramps disappear for the entire day. I really considered it, and I asked the owner the price, but he told me that the opium in those parts is impure and advised against it.

When we left the restaurant, I wasn't sure I was going to be able to drive back. But, with a massive exertion of will, or maybe only an acquiescence to necessity, I held it together, or held it in. We returned our bikes, and as I walked through the gates of the fort, I knew that I had better find a toilet, now. I walked into the first restaurant I saw. I asked the waiter for the toilet, which turned out to be full. Walking somewhere else was not an option, so I positioned myself by the sink outside of the bathroom door. Of course, there were three waiters there to stare at me, and after standing for 5 seconds, feeling my skin tighten as if I had just stepped outside in winter, I turned to the sink, bent over, and vomited loudly, several times, mainly from pain. I hope you enjoyed that, watchy waiters.

take your time, lady

I went back to my room and asked someone at the hotel to bring me some isabgol, and then I laid down, rolling over each time a new cramp set in, and shivering under the mess of the woolen blanket that I didn't even have the wherewithal to spread. After three of thrashing around amongst the contents of my backpack, which I had emptied on my bed in the morning and couldn't even push out of the way by the time I returned in the evening, somebody finally showed up with my yogurt and fiber. I ate it, and the boiling in my stomach became a mild simmer. I finally slept, and I woke up at 1 am. I went to the rooftop to watch the dogs of the town on their nocturnal rounds. I went back to bed, and I was ok, although shaky, in the morning, although I didn't eat anything but yogurt and fiber for the next 2 days. When I read the box of isabgol, I realized that it is what we call psyllium, a homeopathic remedy that can run you 30$ a bottle in capsule form. Here, it cost me about a dollar.

You'd better like this picture, because I paid these kids a dollar for it!

During the last year, I realized that, due to a faith held together by spit and masticated bones, I am not afraid of death; what I am afraid of is pain. And I have soothed that fear by telling myself that physical pain is really not so bad, because once it is over I cannot recreate its feeling. You feel it, and then it's over, and life goes on. That is still true; I cannot recall the actual sensation, all I can think is, in a general way, "Man, that hurt!" Still, I may have been taking the reality of pain, and the blessing of health, a bit too lightly.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Up A Creek, Without A Paddle

In Singapore, during my second load-lightening, I abandoned my travel guides, India, Goa, and Sri Lanka, for two reasons; they were weighing on my back (about 7 pounds) and on my mind.
During my trip around Mongolia, I had my Lonely Planet, and ridiculously, everyone else in the truck, including our guide, did too. So, like a load of pilgrims with our holy books always at hand, we bounced through the countryside, faithfully checking facts and figures as we went. I've had guide books on most of my journeys, and they have often overwhelmed me; here is this book detailing every "point of interest," custom, accommodation, "off the beaten path" destination, food, and merchandise available for purchase, in the land, and suddenly the wide open possibility of travel is narrowed, and the planet is no longer lonely, because someone is in your head telling you what is interesting and what you will be missing if you take too much time to reflect on what you've just seen.

sheep and herder

A sense of busyness was to be avoided at all costs. So, I figured that through a combination of internet access and other travelers I would get any information that I needed, and I left the books on a shelf next to a couch in the common area of a Singapore hostel on my way out the door at 5:45 am.

India, from the second I stepped off the plane, has been more of a shock than I ever imagined anything could be. I had heard about the staring, but there it was, in the flesh, making me want to disappear, forced by the pressure to keep my head down and eyes averted, making it even harder to find my way around. I had heard about the cows, but there they were, in reality, serenely munching on trash, drinking from puddles, and pissing and shitting in the street as people and cars jostled and honked around them. There I was, in reality, in Delhi, a city of over 15 million souls, without a map, without a friend, and without any idea how to get out of there.

as common as a cockroach

That's how I got syphoned into the elaborate system of connections and graft that is the tourism industry in India. I was told by "Mickey," the agent at the "tourist information" office, that these offices had been set up a few years ago after an Australian woman was raped and killed outside the Delhi International airport.

This, according to him, had been the last in a series of incidents that prompted the government to set up a better system for tourists. At the moment, that sounded plausible, but now after the string of lies and exaggerations included in his pitch that have been uncovered along the road, I'm not even really sure that was a government office. He pushed Rajasthan, where I am now, hard, as the place to see and buy all things traditionally Indian; it is, for him, the place you must see if you are to say you have seen India. It is an incredible place, but I'm sure his appreciation of it has to do more with the greater possibility of graft due to extended contacts in the area.

the rat temple of Bikaner

For 1,200 USD I have a car and driver for 17 days, 26 nights accommodation, and 3 train tickets. As I realize how much things really cost here, I wonder exactly where all that money is going. I got it out of my driver that he is paid 2000 Rupees a month from the company. This breaks down to 66 R a day, or $1.45, and my accommodations are usually listed between $9 and $20 per night.

There are also hidden expenses, like everyone who would like to be tipped. When I asked my driver, shocked by his salary, how he can possibly live on 66 Rupees a day, he said that he depends on tips and commissions. He explained that there are two kinds of shops he can take me to, commission (only for tourists), and government. If he takes me to commission shop he will get 100 Rupees, whether or not I buy anything. If I do purchase something he gets 5%. At government shops the prices are fixed at a fair value (he tells me) and there is no bargaining. From those he takes a 2% commission on my purchases. If he actually told me this, there must be more layers that he didn't expose. In any case, his prospects for this trip are low; I haven't been in a single shop so far, and shortly after he gave me this information he proceeded to first offer, and then beg to bestow, his sexual services. That's a story for another chapter, but the incident has completely doused my generousity.

After hours in the tourist office experiencing what I guess were mild symptoms of typhoid, I agreed to a 17 day circuit of Rajasthan, a land of fortresses, deserts, camels, and castles, 1 night in Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, 2 nights in Khujoraho, home of the famous Kama Sutra temples, and then 8 nights in Varanasi, a holy spot on the river Ganges. After that, I travel by train to Mumbai, and then again by train to Goa. At Goa, I will have used my last train ticket and will be, once again, sans plan.

backside of a temple

Money has not been my main problem with the package I bought; the problem is predictability. I wanted to travel without any pressure of moving on and without any limitations on what could happen or where I might end up. This trip was intended to be a practice of reacting to things as they present themselves, rather than attempting to exert control over the future, so I spent the first few days of my trip feeling pissed off with myself (on top of everything else I was pissed off about) for caving in to Mickey's tactics. What I should have done was buy one train ticket out of Delhi and make onward plans as I went. I was so preoccupied with the subversion of my goals for the trip that I'm sure I missed a lot. But, something finally penetrated my mood.

On our second night, and second stop, in Bikaner, I checked into a tolerably comfortable room. At dinner, in the courtyard, I was told by the greasy waiter, who stood there and talked to me for the duration of my meal, that there was a Heritage Hotel very nearby. Heritage Hotels are fantastic places: fairytale forts and palaces that have been meticulously preserved, restored and retrofitted with all the modern conveniences. I've been checking them out along the way, and they're affordable. I've decided that if I have a honeymoon, me and my king will travel by the "palace on wheels" train, resplendent in polished teak and brass, and sleep like royalty every night in Heritage Hotels.

carven screens through carven screen

My waiter insisted on accompanying me to the nearby palace, but I managed to escape him. I entered the marble corridors and looked around: portraits of Maharajas and Maharanis, a pool in the atrium, a deep-cushioned bar with ancient weapons on the wall. Somehow, I was interested only in a clinical, detached sort of way. Finally, I went to the center of the enormous, darkened central courtyard and sat on a marble bench surrounded by palms. I stopped my notation of objects and their connections to my own store of information and I listened to the night birds singing, and saw the palace spires silhouetted against the stars. Then the feeling enveloped me: I have never seen, I have never understood, I have never even really imagined, anything like this before.

I have read Rudyard Kipling and plenty of other British colonial literature, and I'm sure I've seen many images of this kind of place; I must have internalized so many pictures and stories that I believed these magnificent structures were familiar, but I was suddenly, fortunately, bursting with wonder at the opulence, the delicacy that has endured for ages, the collective genius, the work of thousands of hands.

Architectural appreciation aside, it wasn't until Jaisalmer, in the Thar desert, the last stop on the Indian railway, and the closest city to the border with Pakistan, when I had reached a peak of frustration and irritation, that the current began to change.

Jaisalmer fort from the ramparts

We reached Jaisalmer on the evening of the third day out of Dehli, and I stayed my first night in Sona Hotel, a slovenly place with a distant view of the fortress which is the city's principal attraction. That night I was harassed (I'm sure he would say regaled) by the hotel owner, and both the company and the meal caused an illness that dawned mentally the next morning, and physically that evening. That morning, putting on my hat and sunglasses like a shield, I began to cry. When I left my room, I could barely even speak to my driver.

Jaisalmer fort dates back to 1156 A.D., and I am told that it is the only structure of its kind in the world that still has people living out their lives within it. As charmed as I was by the place, the only word that I could muster for the hawkers was, "no!" It's a remarkably effective word when conveyed in the right tone. I spent the morning wishing I could stay the night in one of the many hotels within the walls. Unfortunately, I was scheduled to take a camel ride into the desert that night. Around 11 am, an hour before my scheduled rendezvous with my driver, I stopped for refreshment in a hotel with a shaded, quiet, rooftop restaurant.

life within the walls

more signs of life

In that restaurant I met Damien, a poet from Dublin who has been working on an epic for 6 years; he plans to finish the work during his next 5 weeks in India. We talked for a while, and he helped me to see that I could indeed change my itinerary, and I did just that. After the requisite pain in my ass involved in changing a travel plan that I was told had "total flexibility," when I bought it, I met my driver, two hours late, and told him I'd be staying in the fort. Then, Damien and I rented motorbikes and drove to an abandoned village in the desert.

village temple

As I sailed along the hot, open road, I thought about the scooter accident I had this Spring; I remember so clearly hearing a thunk, and then flying through the air, in one of those moments that seem as long as your whole life, thinking, "Wow, neato!" That was the thought I had before I hit the ground, and is the opposite of the rattled feeling that followed the impact and stayed with me for a week. Half the reason I was rattled (the other quarter being my aching bones and the last quarter being my damaged scooter and broken phone) was that I couldn't comprehend that inital thought. I was injured; why would I find that thrilling. Isn't that a dangerous, even stupid, attitude? I like life; why would I enjoy having it threatened? Then, unsuccessfully pickpocketed in Mongolia, I had the same reaction, and the same questions arose.

empty temple

Finally free of my ever-waiting driver, and in control of the wheel again, I realized that those moments were so lucid because they were completely unexpected. That car hit me from my left while I was looking right; that bandit stepped into a path that I thought was clear. As long as I can remember, I've been running mental laps about something or another. You might not know it to look at me, but I've always had at least the next minute of my life under control. When I was a teenager I drove myself nearly mad planning routes around our house. For some reason, maybe laziness, I was concerned with space; I always wanted to take the fewest possible steps to accomplish the list of tasks I had in my mind. God forbid I should have to go upstairs twice or forget my jacket in the kitchen and have to go back for it. After my father died, in my early twenties,the obsession, unnoticed by me then, became time. I spent years being so concerned that everything was a waste of time that I couldn't concentrate on anything at all, absurdly wasting a lot of time.

strange god

Happily, I have finally broken the loop, but I still spend a lot of energy trying to exert control over whatever is around me. I take note of what's at the next corner and know which way I'll turn long before I arrive. When I enter a restaurant I choose a seat based on the possible consequences of the restaurant's layout and the situation of other patrons. When I wake up in the morning I make a mental plan of my day, and it costs me considerable energy deciding in which order to do errands. What I mean is, every day is full of expectations, assumptions, and preoccupations. This way of being takes the immediacy out of living; nothing can be just as it is.

Jain temple in the fort

Taking refuge from the sun in the village's abandoned temple, I was reminded of an art history class, during my undergraduate days, when my teacher showed some slides of Pompeii; I'd always had vague dreams about travel, stemming from discontent, but that was the first time I saw something that I knew I had to see during my lifetime. One year later I left North America for the first time, and on a trip around Europe, I went to Pompeii. I was dissapointed. There were tourists everywhere, and all the people drained the place of the mystery it had in those empty photos. Still, I dutifully looked around, and after about 2 hours, it started to rain, at first in drops, then in torrents. Everyone left, except for me. I was wet through and through as I walked the sunken streets that had become canals, but the sudden rain returned to me that empty ruin in my imagination. Still, I couldn't quite hear the place, because I couldn't stop listening to the spinning of my own mind.

Jain temple in the fort

Likewise, the palace in Bikaner couldn't impress me because I brought too much me to it. Palaces are already a part of my fiction, something I have noted and filed away. And how many other things do I fail to fathom in a day, because I am not listening while I automatically overlay them with what I think I already know. When something hits you out of the dark night, whether it's a car or a birdsong, you, being taken completely unaware, have no choice but to know, if only for a moment, that there is a world outside of your mind. When someone, at high noon, steps into a path you thought you had already plotted, your body is suddenly seperated from your mind, thrown into a world you did not create, and you know, briefly, brightly, that you are existing in it, that you are alive.

Thank god I wasn't on that camel safari, because by the time I returned the rented scooter and entered the fort, I was having intense stomach cramps and cold sweats. I suffered through the night and left Jaisalmer the following afternoon, after one last stroll around the fort. I have come to terms with, and even appreciate some aspects of, the absurd luxury of having a car and driver. And I've met several travelers along the way who, having studied the Lonely Planet extensively before their arrival in India, are on the same kind of tour at the same kind of price, so I don't feel like such a sucker. I'm sure that there is plenty of inconvenient travel in store for me, so for now, I am content being whisked around this legendary land in my magic car(pet).

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Shouldn't You Be Paying Me?

I arrived at Delhi International Airport late in the evening on October 4. As soon as I cleared immigration (surprisingly quickly considering the surging"line," at no spot thinner than four abreast) and collected my bag, I walked outside for my customary post-flight decompression, situation-evaluation cigarette. I like to steal a few moments, after being jammed in a container full of screaming babies and anonymous intestinal problems, by myself, before making any decisions; nobody bothers me because I am clearly occupied, smoking. A person just standing, looking around, attracts attention. People ask if they can help, or they look at you as if you were crazy, or they ask if they can sell you something; but if you are smoking, it's clear that you are doing something and not in need of assistance.

No such luck in India. I wandered around for about 5 minutes, picking my way through the cotton shrouded men laying on the ground, lounging on rails, and squatting on curbs. I eventually settled for a curb myself, but was not allowed the usual privacy and lack of curiosity afforded to the smoker. Instead, the three turbaned men next to me visibly leaned forward and craned their necks to stare, not to steal a glance, but to stare. Turning my head to avoid their eyes, I noticed that every other lounger was staring too. I scrapped the cigarette plan and lined up for a cab.

There is an official taxi system at Delhi International, meant to spare tourists and yokels from getting ripped of. You line up at a window, name your destination, pay the price, and get a ticket. Having done this, I was shown my driver, and he showed me to his cab. So far so good; and then not 30 meters from the ticket window, my driver stopped and hollered in Hindi into a crowd of men lounging on a median. Somebody emerged and got into the cab. I wasn't feeling menaced, I was exhausted, there was a neon snow globe featuring Ganesha on the dash, I didn't have any other option at the moment, and I thought maybe he was along as a translator, so I didn't protest.

Indeed, the second Indian's English was much better than the first's; it was so good that halfway to the hotel he was offering to secure some "special cigarettes" (wink, wink, slimy smile) for me. Thanks, but no thanks. They didn't know exactly where my hotel was, so we stopped at the tourist information office in the area. There, the agent called my hotel only to find that it was full. I was rerouted to another one, and the agent told me to come back the next day for information. He said there was free transport from all hotels to the tourist info office.

Finally at the hotel, my driver and his friend waited while I approved my room, and then waited while I carried my bag up, and then crowded me and peered over my shoulder as I filled out the forms, and then lingered around waiting for who knows what: maybe a tip, maybe a drug transaction?

a bill; whoever deciphers this correctly first gets a postcard

They got neither, and this was the first time I had a thought which has become thematic: "What do these people want from me?" India has a population of over one billion and a lot of this population seems to be standing around waiting to sell something or provide a service. Since everyone (male) is standing around, there aren't many people to use their services. This leaves a lot of time for staring and lurking; and I have come down with agoraphobia. In each hotel I've stayed there has been someone following me immediately, or a few seconds after, I manage to lock my room. If I'm carrying my bag, that person insists on taking it, and sometimes sulks around waiting for a tip for their unsolicited service. I walk past reception, where there are likely three men leaning on the desk, all eyes. I step into the street where there are tuk-tuks, hawkers, gawkers, cars, cows, and a merciless sun. "Madame, Madame, excuse me Madame, excuse me. Just you come look, no buy look only. Madame, excuse me. Where you from? Excuse me. Honk, honk, honk, honk. Excuse me, excuse me." And on and on it goes. I enter a restaurant; again, there are at least four unoccupied people ready to watch me eat.

The stare of the Indian man is like nothing I've ever experienced. They look directly at you, at once devouring you and behaving as if you, that is the human, rather than animal you, did not exist at all.

"Anantas Play School;" Do these children look like they're having fun?

My first morning in Dehli, the hotel clerk called someone, and someone else picked me up and whisked me to the Amazing India office. There, I hired a driver for the day. On my agenda; a hospital, and a few sights. Tariq, the driver, and I went to the hospital first. That being complicated and crowded, he took me to his doctor. His doctor being unavailable, we made an appointment for 10 am the next day and went to see Qutub Minar, a complex centered around the world's tallest brick minaret. Finished in 1368, it took 175 years to complete, and from the complexity of the carvings, I can imagine why.

detail from the complex

the minaret

For 13$ a day, in a city unbelievably crowded, chaotic, and complex, when you have to negotiate a hospital, it's nice to have a driver, but when I pay someone to do something, I expect them to respect the service-provider/ service receiver-relationship. What I mean is, I'm in a car with you because I need to go somewhere, not because we're friends. We may become friends, but don't assume the liberties of that relationship. I know, it sounds colonial, but I've recently lost the warm, fuzzy, let's share our culture sensibilities I once had.

Delhi suburb

My forecast about the driver, a man with an India father and an Iranian mother, named Tariq was, tolerable with a chance of interesting. When we met, I saw his eyes go instinctively to my breasts, but he ripped them away with an obvious effort of will. As the day went on, we talked about his life, lived in Germany for a few years, Iran for a while, and finally India, where he came to care for his grandfather who died 3 years ago at 125. I, in turn, told him something about my family, my life, and my way of thinking about it all.

Delhi suburb

Our initial conversation was interesting, but when we got to Qutub Minar, he did not leave my side. Next, we went to a garden, where he also followed me, now more closely than before. Apparently I'd hired a walker, talker, and driver. I began to think, "What does this person want from me?" To make things worse, his staring restraint had worn off, and I constantly felt his avaricious eyes on me. I was dressed very modestly, and I began to wonder if this was making the situation worse; maybe if he could get a better idea of what was there, his curiousity would be sated. But I doubt it.

We went for dinner around 8 pm, and while I was eating some deliciously tender lamb, he stared at me. To make it worse, his fingers and mouth were now smeared with meat juices, and I began to be physically repulsed by this little demon, eating lamb flesh with his mouth, and mine with his eyes. I tried several tactics. I tried looking away, which only meant he let his gaze have even more free rein. I tried staring at him; this, only caused deep eye gazing, which by that point made me naseous.

By the time he dropped me off at my hotel I was boiling mad, and the next morning, I was even angrier, but Tariq was my ride to the doctor, and I was planning to leave Dehli later that day. I was so ready to get out of Dehli. So I got in his car, again, and soon after we began, he asked me if I was upset about something. I said no and continued to look out the window, and he continued to press it. This is where I felt the greatest violation of the economic relationship; "I am paying you to drive. I do not want to talk to you, so drop it and drive." But I didn't actually say this, I just side stepped the issue. We went to the doctor, and I got a typhoid and an hepatitus A vaccination for about 50$.

Next, we went to the tourist office, where I spent hours arranging my onward journey. Much of that time was spent waiting and napping, as I was feeling tired and befuddled from the shots. When I finally signed my documents and paid my bill, Tariq and the agent hovered over me. I finally snapped and shouted, "Why are you both staring at me? You're making me very uncomfortable!" That seemed to work, but then I left moments after, so who knows if it would have held.

Another driver picked me up and I am currently with him on a 20 day circuit of Rajasthan, the land of kings. When they took me to meet my driver, I was ready to demand another one on the basis of the tone of the first glance he gave me, but this driver is, blessedly, a non-starer. Nonetheless, things got worse, or better, depending on your cosmology.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

May I Enjoy Myself, Please!

Singapore is a remarkably clean, well organized city, and the people are generally polite, even friendly. The instinctive reaction, upon making eye contact here, is to smile, and people say, "sorry," for almost bumping into you, or blocking your way. This is refreshing after Korea, where public manners fall on the opposite end of the scale.

the new backpack, poor kids

school's out

The public transportation system is efficient, clean, and easy to use, and the lush tropical foliage runs riot amidst a well-balanced combination or modern and colonial architecture. Malls and shops offer an endless array of international brands at fair prices, and a diverse population, both racially and religiously, co-exist peacefully. A part of me admires the order and harmony of Singapore, and another part finds it a little bit sterile.

wrought iron fountain and war memorial

building and jungle in battle

lit up for Ramadan

When I arrived, I bought a pack of cigarettes. After paying 90 cents a pack in Mongolia, and 2$ in Korea, the 8$ price tag was a shock. What was worse, I spent hard-earned money to look at a picture of a bloody baby.

I don't know if that baby is dead outside of the womb, photographed inside the womb, or maybe just a sci-fi movie leftover. I wish it wasn't presented for me to consider, but if it's really a miscarried baby, what almost mother was guilted into volunteering for the photo? And if it's a sci-fi extra, isn't that a bit deceitful?

Anyways, I started down the street with that pack, and I couldn't even stand to take it out of my bag to get one. I would shut my eyes tight, reach in, and fish around, hoping to be spared a glance at the thing. I'm living proof that people can get used to anything, because by the end of the pack, the guilt inducing photo was right out there on the table as I had my coffee and wrote in my notebook, as if it were the most usual thing.

I stumbled upon the Singapore biennial that day, held at the old City Hall. It was all new media work, some of it more, and some of it less interesting.

glad I missed that


In Malaysia, thankfully, lecture free cigarettes are the norm. I meant to stock up while I was there, but I forgot. So, this morning I rolled the dice, and out of an array including foot pustulence and neck cancer, I got the mouth-rot pack, a whole new horror to get used to. Can I at least enjoy killing myself, please!

and who volunteered for this photo?

After I got off the bus from Malaysia, found my room, and dumped my bag, I proceeded to treat myself as if I were and eight year old on her birthday, with coffee and cigarettes standing in for cake and ice cream. First, I went to Pizza Hut and had a Veggie Lover's plus pepperoni. By the way, when did pineapple become a vegetable? Then, I went next door to Starbuck's and had a giant coffee. And then, as an ultimate birthday extravaganza, I took a ride on the world's largest tethered balloon.

The DHL balloon's top altitude is 150 meters, or about 40 stories. The ascent took 2 minutes, we stayed and swayed in the wind above the city for 4, and the descent took 4 minutes. It was dusk, so I didn't get any pictures of the city, but they wouldn't capture the sensation anyways. Once again, dear readers, you will have to try this for yourself.

I leave this internet cafe to pick up my bag, then board the subway to the airport, then board a plane to Delhi, India, in about 30 minutes. Amazingly, I have offloaded and repacked my bag twice, once in Seoul, and once here, and it is still full. I can't understand it; I have only the most minimal necessities:

2 pairs pants
1 skirt
9 underwear items
3 t-shirts
1 turtleneck
1 pashmina
4 pairs socks
1 pair hiking boots
1 pair sandals
1 diving mask
1 snorkel
1 swimming suit
1 travel Scrabble board
1 Collected R.W. Emerson
1 Light on Yoga
2 thin notebooks
1 small bags assorted electronics doodads
1 sleeping bag
3 pencils
2 pens
1 hand towel
1 bag assorted toiletries (no makeup)
1 first aid kit
1 wind breaker
1 warm (but light and small) jacket
2 New Yorker magazines
2 pairs glasses (1 sun, 1 regular)

And that's all. Why in hell is my bag still full? Maybe my idea of necessity will change.

I arrive in Dehli at 11 pm, where I already have a reservation. Tommorow I have to find a hospital and get some vaccinations, one part of being an unplanner that's not so great.

Wish me luck.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006


For all your putrification needs!

Thanks, Malaysia

I arrived in Singapore around 2 am and took a taxi directly to the Summer Tavern hostel, where I collapsed, after making the necessary friendly with the manager. By the way, that is the most disorganized accommodation I've ever had, and although the people are friendly, I loudly don't recommend this place, unless you want to chase people down in order to pay your bill.

I shopped like mad the next day, and I made my boat and bus reservations to Tioman Island, of the southeastern coast of Malaysia. My bus departed at 6 am the next morning, so the exhaustion from Seoul continued.

"coffee," to go

It didn't begin to lift until I heaved my bag onto my bed in a bungalow by the beach at Ayer Batang. My bag has grown a foot since my shopping spree, and I'll be making a visit to the post office tomorrow before my flight.

little trees

Malaysia has a large Muslim population, and the monsoon season is beginning, so the island was quiet. It's Ramadan at the moment, so most restaurants were closed. Luckily, all I wanted was my own room, some peace and quiet, some water, and some sun; I got them all.

The first day I made a "snorkel-trek." By this I mean that I had to do some serious boulder hopping before getting to the place I wanted to snorkel. It probably would have been easier to swim all the way, but when I finally got in the water, it was well worth the slimy, barnacled rock climbing. The whole island is a marine park, and in certain spots the coral and fish are profuse; most common were clown fish, parrot fish, brain coral, and branch corals.

The next day, I made a two hour hike to the other side of the island through the tropical hills. I have my own mask and snorkel, but I rented some fins there. It was a windy, so the waves were high, which made snorkeling a bit stressful. When I got out of the water it was beginning to rain, so I caught a ride back to the other side of the island.

dreaming of ships, 20 feet from the shore

You can measure the health of a people by the health of their domestic animals. I saw a lot of happy, friendly, relaxed cats.

I saw a lot of roosters.

And, a scary looking snake-lizard thing.

I also saw plants, and buildings, and plants taking over buildings.

The trip was blessedly uneventful. I had a bungalow all to myself right on the beach, so I spread my stuff out all over the place, smoked in bed, and slept and woke to the sound of the waves.

view from my room

Two years ago, I had a layover in Kuala Lumpur airport, on my way to Australia. I changed 50$ so I could get something to eat. I had a lot of Ringit (Malaysian currency) left over, so I kept it, and I brought it with me on this trip. Aside from that money, I only changed 20$ (more justification for the Singapore spree).

I put on my damn bag again this morning and made the trip back to Singapore. I found my accommodation around 6 pm, another dorm room (groan, as penance for shopping), put down my damn bag, and left immediately.

Goodbye, Seoul

Seoul was my home for four and a half years. I arrived in the freezing February of 2002, and I packed up my things during a typically sweltering August, 2006. I was 27 when I arrived. I'm now nearly 32. I wasn't a picture taker then, and by the time I became one, Seoul had long since become familiar. I have no pictures, because that is what we do when we're at home, take it for granted.

During my last days in Seoul, a stopover between Mongolia and India at the end of September, I was busy finishing unfinished business. The most unfinished business of all, I was surprised to realize, was saying goodbye to the places, and more importantly, the people, that have been witness to the last few years of my life.

As soon as I arrived at Kevin and Mary's apartment, welcomed by a full day of discussing the past month, and the coming months, with Mary and my dog and the best coffee Seoul has to offer, I knew I was back home, even if not in my own apartment, and I wanted to stay a little longer. I had initially booked the layover for two and a half days, and I wanted to extend it to five. Because it was Chuseok, a major Korean holiday, I could only get one extra day, and then I would have nearly six days in Singapore until a flight was open to Delhi. It was worth it, so I took it.

I've spent some time since I left thinking about where those four and a half years went. What does one, in the end, have to show for one's time? The amount of time that results in memory is only a small fraction of the time that passes, so what's does all the rest amount to?

Searching myself, I can come up with only two things. The first, I have myself to show for it; I learned a lot during that time, and I'm fuller person now. I underwent the most fundemental transformations I've seen since the end of childhood there, and those took time, years. The second is friendship; friendship, past initial attraction, also requires time, and I've seen it grow in rare and lovely forms.

The two dovetail neatly with one another: I can take a measure of myself by the quality of my friends, and my friends are people who I trust and admire.

I will miss some things about Seoul, like the gaudily painted steel and concrete bridges over the Han River, riding my scooter as if there were no such thing as traffic laws, long walks in Namsan Park, and the view from my balcony, but myself I'll have with me. And my friends; like all true companions, who share something more than the goings on of the day, when we meet again, we'll pick up where we left off, as if no time had passed at all.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Air, Water

I didn't write much about the Gobi. It was at the end of my visit to Mongolia, and I was busy between there and Korea and getting to Singapore. More importantly, I didn't, and still don't, know what to say. The sand dunes were the most awe striking thing I saw there, or have ever seen anywhere, for that matter.

Khongryn Ells

The desert, and the sand dunes particularly, are so like the ocean. In, large quantities, sand behaves like water.

the dune I climbed

As I climbed to the peak of a dune, up an eighty degree face, I saw the sand loosened by my feet roll down with the same speed and shape as honey from a spoon.

my shadow

I loosed enough sand, and a singing vibration arose from the dune. A harmonic wave beneath me, it was frightening at first, and then after the earth did not dissapear beneath me, amazing. I stood still and listened until the sound moved across the dune and away, and then died out. It was awakened again with my next move.

the other side

The view from the top was worth the long crawl up the side.

I'm on Tioman Island in Malaysia at the moment. I just returned from snorkeling, where the pattern made by water on the sand of the ocean bottom is the same as the pattern made by air on the surface of hot, dry dunes.