Tuesday, February 27, 2007

A Bird Is A Bird Is A Bird

Why does bad behaviour make for a better story than good? Is it worthy of narration because it’s unusual or defies expectation? If so, why do we assume people will behave well in the first place. Do most people go about minding their manners, making the ones who don't notable? As difficult as it is to make accurate generalizations about "most people," they probably do go about their business in a reasonably civil manner, but even if incivility is statistically unusual it's not necessarily uncommon in everyday experience; after all, there are 6.5 billion people out there, and even a tiny percentage of that number certainly constitutes enough individuals to yield frequent annoyance. Well, whatever makes violations of etiquette and decency interesting, I probably write about them too much, and I write about them as a stranger, not understanding what is considered polite behaviour by the people around me.

In fairness to India, most people don’t harass me on the street. The place is overflowing with people doing what they can in the best way they know how; and sometimes they even take time away from their business just to be kind and hospitable. Walking around Mysore one day, Talia and I came upon an imposing old mansion set back from the hustle in a barren expanse interrupted by a few well-groomed bushes and flanked by trees casting a shade that didn't manage to allay the overall impression of dessication. Upon closer approach, the exterior was neglected and peeling, too shabby for the space it commanded, but potted plants and climbing vines formed a narrow moat of fertility lending the house a cool appeal.

Hypnotized by a blend of curiosity and the promise of shade, we poked our heads over the threshold through the tall doors into the gloom of a high-ceilinged sitting room, its only illumination a few rays slicing in between heavy curtains. Unsure whether this was a public or private place, we ventured in and found a security guard sitting listlessly on a deep, velvet couch. He didn’t speak enough English to give us any information, but he didn’t stop us from going further either, so we headed for the far-off promise of the central atrium, surrounded by white, Roman pillars and filled with greenery, the brightest area of the whole hushed place. Out of a wood-panelled shadow, a short man with a fabulous, grey handlebar mustache, red powder running in a line the width of a fingerprint down his forehead, and a white uniform appeared.

Although he spoke even less of our language than the security gaurd, the man's whole face crinkled with a gleeful smile as he waved us toward his kitchen, the floor an expanse of clean slate, counters on either end stocked with fine, white china; he proudly turned over plates to display the fading British brand stamp. Next, we followed him up a balustraded staircase, through an attic, and out onto the roof, where we had a wide view of the mansion's once proud grounds and the city beyond. Last, he unlocked a grand wooden door with a brass plaque over top proclaiming "Governors Suite." It featured an anteroom with an intimate grouping of settees in white dust-covers, a large, new, Samsung high-resolution television, a bedroom with two single, four-posters set a modest distance apart and covered with frothy, white mosquito netting, and a bathroom with a claw-foot tub resting amid a glittering expanse of tile. Back in the driveway, saying goodbye as best we could, our proud host swept back a group of branches with his arm and revealed an inscription on the cornerstone from which we learned that we had visited the Mysore Government House, a lodge for state officials.

For every thing known to man, there are people who have it and want to keep it and people who don't have it and want to get it; while I was in Mysore, the camps were pitched over water. The Kaveri river runs through the state of Karnata, and from its dams, water is released to three other states: Tamil Nadu, Pondicherry, and Kerala. The river is the main source of drinking water for Mysore, and India's first hydroelectric plant was utilized its falls, making Bangalore, Karnataka's capital, the first fully electrified city in Asia in 1906. In the late 19th century, back when royalty rather than tourists appreciated the excesses of Mysore Palace, agreements were signed resulting in a larger share of the Kaveri's water going to Tamil Nadu, which is south of Karnataka, than to Karnataka; as a result, Tamil Nadu has a lot of cultivated land.

tea crops, outside Ooty

Although Karnatakans have historically seen the old water agreements as an injustice, the argument now runs, from the Tamil Nadu side, that to rectify the injustice at this late stage would disrupt the lives of many farmers and the economy of the entire state; an economy that, from the Karnataka side of the argument, flourishes because of the initial unjust water distribution. In 1990, the government of India set up a tribunal to settle the dispute, and they finally reached a water allotment plan on February 5 of this year; 419 thousand million cubic feet of water per year to Tamil Nadu, 270 tmc ft to Karnataka, 30 tmc ft to Kerala, and 7 tmc ft to Pondicherry.

Nobody was really happy with the decision, least of all Karnatakans, and Talia and I happened to be leaving Mysore for Udhagamandalam (referred to from here on as Ooty), a hill station in Tamil Nadu, the day after it was announced. State agencies were striking in protest, and that included buses, so we over payed a private company for transport into Tamil Nadu. At the border, we switched from a bus with Karnataka plates to a bus with Tamil Nadu plates, and soon enough vibrant rice paddies bordered by palms divided the landscape. As the bus left the planes and rose up narrow, curving roads, the unrestrained green of the paddies was replaced with the careful hues of tea farming, and by the time we reached Ooty, 2,200 meters up in the sky, the reds and yellows of Karnataka had been washed away by the greens and blues of the Nilgiri Hills.

In comparison to the constant sweatiness, dust, heat exhaustion and chaos of Bangalore and Mysore, Ooty is the Garden of Eden. The comparison extends not only to the weather, but also to the people; hawking and harassment were nearly non-existent, so during my three days there, I indulged in one of my favorite activities, walking. The main agricultural product of the area is tea (which will only grow on land with a particular slope), and the dwarfed plants, glossy green and flat-topped, blanket the hills in a patchwork without reference to symmetry. Contrasting with the curving paths where harvesters wend their ways, precisely spaced, straight rows of small, sturdy silver oaks provide just the right amount of light and shade for the crop.

In the same landscape, non-indigenous Eucalyptus trees with gangly, bare trunks bearing energetic bursts of sharp, silvery leaves at their height stand cliquishly apart from soft-leaved, rounder, natives species which, in the bluish distances of the area, often reminded me of the trees, so ornate in their softness as to engender impossible desires, painted by Fragonard. The tender, new leaves shooting from the tops of the tea plants in the countryside surrounding Ooty have to be covered with bracken to prevent death by early morning frosts; they are harvested every twelve days. Most of the meticulous care and rotation necessary can be done by machine these days, but in the places I walked, it was done by residents of the countryside, where strange symbols and shrines mutely intimate the past, the indigenous tribes supplanted by the British.

Is this a shrine to the Easter Bunny, Poseidon, and the K-Mart home deco line, or what?

In the mid 19th century, Ooty developed as a cool retreat from the scorched plains. Today, many of the churches, homes, government offices, warehouses, and a botanical garden remain. The fact that most of them are not particularly well maintained adds to their charm; the churches still have congregations and people laze about or play games on the lawn of the botanical garden while school kids cut across on their way home.

shoe game at the garden

Since the place was developed by the British, I had expected Anglican churches; but I came upon a group of Catholic children being educated by hooded nuns, squirming impatiently while repeating obediently in front of the wooden, painted saints encased in glass next to the doors of their church, boys in their frayed but immaculate uniforms and girls in their skirts and braids. The next day, on a walk in the tea plantations, our guide told me his given name; it was (to my surprise) Thomas Sebastian, and it turned out that he was from a Catholic family. He informed me that yes, there are Anglicans in Ooty, but there are just as many Catholics, due to the efforts of European missionaries. In short, I saw a lot of old churches, and the Catholic ones housed some cheerfully painted statuary, but my favorite place, perhaps because of the way I came upon it, was the Nilgiris Library.

St. Joseph Pray For Us

After spending a few minutes in St. Stephens trying to decide which sect had built it, and finally deciding upon Anglican because of the preference for stained glass over wooden saints, an architectural seriousness that made the ceiling (supported by a center beam hauled 120 km from the palace of a sultan by elephant) feel close and pressing despite the height, and a plaque proclaiming the church's close association with local British administrators and dignitaries. In the end, I don't know why I care which version of Christianity the stones of old churches were lain to represent. Maybe its just something to hold on to, a toe-tagging system for the relics of bygone days.

St. Stephens

Leaving the church and walking down the first street I saw, enjoying the cool air and the wander more than anything else, a squat building hove into view. Its sign proclaimed "Higginbothams Pvt. Ltd.," and it was lined with glossy, dark-stained wooden shelves full of shiny new books. Even though I didn't intend to buy anything, I grazed for a while, and just as I was about to leave, I came across Pocket Guide to Birds Of the Indian Subcontinent. Now, if there was anything I was going to buy, it was a bird guide; the creatures fill the skies, forests, mountains, waterways, plains and streets of India, hunting, flitting, tweeting, foraging, swooping, diving, gliding, cawing, scavenging and flashing their hues, brilliant and dull, in a dizzying variety. It bothers me each time I see one and don't know its name. The question, "was that an eagle, a hawk, a kite or a falcon," has niggled me regularly for months, and although a bird often passes too quickly or too distantly for identification, I hoped that by studying a field guide I could at least enter the world each morning knowing the difference between a crow and a raven.


Is the desire to know the exact name of a bird the same as the desire to know the denomination of a church? In the case of churches, their representations or lack thereof are dictated by the beliefs of the sect. Their form is dictated by historical circumstances and philosophical underpinnings; in the case of birds, their forms are dictated by another law, and it is not for us to dream up the law, but to observe it, and mark out our observations with names. The language and logic of theology is far more familiar to me than that of ornithology, but I bet I would learn a lot from a field guide to churches, too. Whatever the reason for my conviction that I should know things by their given names, I stood there and considered the purchase of the bird identification guide carefully. First of all, it was 795 Rupees, or around 17 USD, slightly over my budget for an entire day, and second, if I bought it, I'd have to carry it, and it's not actually pocket sized. I justified the cost by telling myself two things; it's a reference book, so I'll keep it forever, and it has thousands of glossy illustrations, which explains the price. The extra weight in my bag was justified by the value of the book's contents.

Just as I settled the debate, the need for a bathroom came upon me; although I didn't see one in the shop, I reasoned, "surely, he'll let me use the private one, since I'll be spending a princely sum." When I began my browse, the only clerk in the store, a round, mustachioed, bespectacled, Hindu, followed me closely, picking titles from the shelves and holding them in front of my eyes. After a while, by means of complete unresponsiveness, I managed to get rid of him. Now, I placed my selection on the small wooden desk, covered with bills and receipts, newspapers and leaflets, which he stood behind as he ponderously wrote out the bill, complete with title, author, publisher, price, and date of sale. I asked if I could use the toilet. He said no, and I pointed out that I needed to go now, before any further transaction could take place. Then he claimed that the store didn't even have a bathroom. I absolutely did not believe him, so I asked, "well, where do you go to the bathroom?" His head wove from side to side evasively, "I'm sorry madame. What can I do." My need getting more urgent by the argument, I said, "so, when you use the toilet you lock up the whole store and go somewhere? Where do you go?" Several customers stood watching and giggling, and I expected my latest thrust to win admittance to a hole somewhere in the back of the building, or even outside. Instead, the shopkeeper said something about the police station and gestured widely, indicating any of several possible directions. I'm sure Abel Joshua Higginbothams, who founded the chain in 1844, would have been appalled at this treatment; at any rate, I was, and I turned away from the book, the clerk, and the shop, in a flurry of irritation.

another strange shrine

My need subsided as my indignance surged, but I headed in a direction I guessed might yield a public bathroom. Soon, I came across a small painted sign near a white, brick wall bordering a ramshackle lawn encircled by a driveway leading to a red, brick, two storey building; the plaque read "Nilgiris Library." A library is an even greater pleasure than a bookstore, and this one had a charming decrepitude about it. Also, libraries usually have the necessary public facilities. So, I entered the gate and rounded the drive, and at the entrance presided a stooped and wizened little man, looking fixedly at the ground. I sat down on a bench beside the drive in order to look at the building and the man. After a few minutes, he looked up, looked around, and shuffled inside.

Nilgiris Library

Above the doors on either side of the dim entrance hall hang handsome sets of antlers mounted on wood and velvet, and underneath, on a delicate old table, tall and narrow legged as a crane, sits a large, greying register. It turns out that the Nilgiris Library is membership only; through a series of gestures and words the old man excavated from his mind with a great amount of effort, doubt, and hesitation, I was informed that the woman who collects fees and enrolls members was absent that day. Having seen past him to the point where sun shone out from arched windows set in long doors, I was determined to have a look around, membership or no; after moments of tense uncertainty on both sides, I simply walked around him and towards the bright, vaulted reading room.

It must have been the sanctuary of a church, and now where the altar must have stood, sits a long table of "new arrivals," covered with a locked wire cage. On the wall, where I imagine there was once a tablet, shaped like the ones Moses got at his meeting with god, for listing texts to be read and hymns to be sung, hangs a portrait of Gandhi, and along the length of the room, solid tables covered with periodicals are ranged about like pews. I took in the titles on the tables with a certain hurried unease because the old man stayed loyally at my shoulder. I wanted to sit with a 10 year old National Geographic on one of the worn, leather chairs next to the table; but I knew I wouldn't be able to enjoy the silence of the place with my guard standing at my shoulder, out of duty and curiosity, on his rickety old knees, perhaps pondering some other day, when another white lady had visited the reading room.

I developed the idea that this man was ruining my experience of the library to such an extent that it became reality; then with an uncharacteristic ease, I accepted him as a part of the place, a necessary furnishing. Giving him a smile, I finished my counter-clockwise perambulation of the reading room, and when I reached my point of entrance, he opened the door with courtly style. Having resigned myself to this limited entry into the building, I turned toward the bright outside, but the old man beckoned, insisting I see something else. I followed his rounded back, covered in a suit jacket, and his cracked feet, brushed by the bottom of the white, cotton fabric wrapped in a skirt around his lower body, up a flight of creaking stairs to a landing, where we turned up another narrow flight and slowly ascended into a narrow hall overlooking the sanctuary. Proudly, the man made a sweeping gesture and insisted I take a photo from this vantage. The end of the dusty corridor is separated by a fence of the same wire used to guard the new arrivals. Behind it several shelves beside a leather chair are filled with ancient books, and the whole area is coated in a thick tissue of dust. After my visit, I read that the library has a rare books collection; I hope that wasn't it.

the reading room

Caught up in the surprise of the place, I forgot all about the need that had led me there, but when my guide showed me to the exit and offered me a warm, if tooth-deficient, smile, I remembered. In India, the word that is most readily understood (in terms of facilities) is toilet. So I asked, "Is there a toilet?" When this was met with incomprehension I switched vocabulary. "Is there a ladies room?" This time, he understood; he walked me all the way back through the reading room, pointed me down a hall, at the end of which waited a clean bathroom complete with a ladies lounge featuring benches and a mirror, and went away. Mission accomplished at last, I was severely tempted to dart off up a set of stairs and see what occupied the rest of the old church, but the picture of the old man, alarmed and straining himself to find me, led me back down the hall, past the periodicals and chairs, and once again to the foyer.

The old man offered me the register; but just in time to prevent my signature, I suppose recalling that I wasn't a member, he withdrew it. Out on the drive, in the crisp Nilgiri air once again, he put together the words to ask me where I'm from, and for once, I answered gladly, without the suspicion that the question was a prelude to attempted fleecing or stalking. Then, I asked him for the name of a certain tree growing alongside the drive. He answered, "eucalyptus." I bade him farewell, walked back to Higginbothams, and purchased that book.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

It Takes A Village

communal carrot washing near Ooty, Tamil Nadu

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Stupid Contemplates India

Mysore is one of the three or four locations I had heard about before coming to India, so when I got there and found it to be not much more than a large, navigable town with maybe three official "sights" within city limits, I was perplexed. There are, I hear, some ashrams, some Ayurveda teachers, and some yoga schools in the vicinity, which may be what has people talking about the place. Whether or not that's it, within hours of my arrival it became clear that the lingo and tools of "spiritual" and "holistic" practices are a signigicant part of the city's commercial sphere.

sidewalk fortune tellers

Talia is a feisty young lady with her fingers in numerous pies, one of which is international real-estate. While in Bangalore, she got wind of some prospective investors for the area, and she wanted to check out some property. I was ready to get out of town, so I took the bus to Mysore in the afternoon, and she took another bus early in the evening; on parting, we agreed that I'd call her mobile phone after finding a hotel. In India, public phones are not coin operated. They are usually attached to a small shop, and after a customer places a call, the shopkeeper prints out a receipt with a price based on duration and location. Public land lines are labeled ISD or STD, and even though I learned that the abbreviations stand for International Subscribers Dialing and Subscribers Trunk Dialing, the 13 year old in me will never stop being amused by walking into a shop and saying, "do you have an STD?"

So, after settling into a large, cheap hotel room with plaster peeling off the walls, a support column in the center, and years of film on the bathroom mirror, I located an STD, called Talia, and went into the shop to pay. Worn out by the morning in Bangalore and afternoon on the bus, and expecting paying to be a long process since the shop also had computers and a travel agency, I sat down at the shop owner's desk and waited for the bill. At that moment a skinny little man with brown teeth rotting down to stumps entered carrying four small glasses of chai in a basket with circles of wire to hold the cups in place. He offered me a glass, and I accepted. I payed the phone bill and while I was finishing my drink the skinny man (of course) asked me that sickeningly familiar question. When I said America he replied, with a conspiratorial smile and a bit of a melody, "oh, born in the USA." During the next few minutes, he worked several song lyrics into the conversation. For example, I told him I'm from San Francisco. OK, I lied, but I was born near San Francisco, so I certainly didn't deserve to hear him say tunefully, "Welcome to the hotel California." It was difficult to fake a smile instead of rolling my eyes, but for the sake of civility, I did. It was around 7:30, and my patience has usually been exhausted by that time of day; I wanted to eat, shower, do laundry, and most of all, enjoy some privacy, so I headed for the door.

Mysore suburb

During my first few hours in Mysore, I was told by at least three different idle young men that there was a special, once-yearly event going on at the Saturday market, an incense rolling competition and essential oil extraction demonstration. At another time, I might have given all that a look, but like I said, I was tired. The skinny guy with the chai, aka Bruce Springsteen, also told me about the market, and I nodded my head in a polite show of interest. As I walked out, he followed me, spouting streams of other information that I wasn't in a state to absorb. The phone shop was on the second floor, and he cornered me even before I made it across the balcony to the stairs. He was going on about an ashram somewhere out of town, then a yogi, then a high-speed internet cafe, all the sights of Mysore, and a general layout of the place. I managed to break away and get halfway down the stairs. He was still following me, so I turned around and politely said, "OK, thank you. I'm very tired and I'm going to my hotel now." He continued to talk, and I tried to exit politely again. His posture stiffened, his lips tightened and he said something to the effect of, "I'm not a tout. I'm not selling anything or taking you anywhere." I felt a little guilty, on the off chance that he might just be proud of his town, and replied, "I know you're just being friendly, but I don't feel like talking right now." That having no effect, he told me about an "Amsterdam cafe," and that marijuana, charis, and hash are legal in Mysore. This time I said, abruptly, "I'm leaving. Good night," and walked the rest of the way down the stairs while he kept talking. He followed me into the street saying loudly, "You have too big ego. That's your problem. Someone give you respect and you have ego. I don't like ego." I was still walking, but his assumption that I owed him attention offended me; I turned my head, and said, "I don't care. Leave me alone." He began walking quickly, complaining about my ego while overtaking and then passing me. Now that I was completely ignoring him, he stomped off talking to himself in a local language punctuated with the words "ego" and "America." He soon disappeared around a corner, but I was offered an escort to the market three more times, marijuana products twice, and an ayurvedic hot-oil massage by a man in the hallway outside my room, in the four minutes it took me to reach privacy.

In Bangalore there were men with books ranged out along the sidewalk, and one night, while I scanned for something that would strike me as relevant, Talia recommended a title, Rich Dad Poor Dad , by Robert T. Kiyosaki, a Japanese-American from Hawaii. She warned that the book is abominably written, but she also said it teaches sound financial prinicipals. Well, I thought, "Money, that's on my mind in a few different ways." So, I bought it, read it (although it was painful), and pronounced Talia correct on both counts. Kiyosaki structures the book around the lessons he learned from his two "fathers." Poor Dad, his biological father, was highly educated, but he had to work his whole life because he didn't understand money, and Rich Dad, a friend's father who taught Kiyosaki about money, was academically unsophisticated but clever with finance. Poor Dad told the author to study hard and find a secure job, while Rich Dad told him to "make money work" for him. Robert went with Rich Dad's advice in the end, and now he's a multimillionaire who writes books, has patented a board game, and gives seminars, about how to make money, manage money, and have the money you've made and manage make more money. I have to admit, his principles are sensible (if mostly obvious), but the fact that he could have made his point in ten concise sentences rather than 100 gratingly repetitive pages, made me think he should have paid a bit more attention to Poor Dad, at least in terms of education.

oxen don't like backing up

Sidewalk books in India are usually pirated; they have smudged print, and unevenly cut, repeated or omitted pages. I had assumed that the pirating process involved photocopying from the original, but the grammatical errors, strange constructions, and typos in Rich Dad Poor Dad had me wondering whether this book hadn't been retyped by an incompetent or distracted forger. OK, enough criticism; I got some useful ideas about personal finance by skimming the avalanche of illustrations for the point, and Kiyosaki prefaced his ideas with a thought provoking statement about the condition of the world. He wrote that our education system is outdated because it doesn't teach kids about finance, or how to invest, instead it trains them to get a safe job which they will be dependent on for life. I'm not sure about the logic here, but he thinks this system is bringing about the fall of modern civilization by causing an increase in the gap between the haves and have-nots.

coke, tree, and god at the Mysore Zoo

On our first full day in town, Talia and I wandered over to Mysore Palace. The plot of land that the city radiates from has hosted three different palaces since the 14th century; the first was damaged by lightening and then demolished, the second was burned to the ground in a fire ignited during the wedding ceremony of a princess, and its replacement was commissioned of British architect Henry Irwin by the Queen-Regent of Mysore in 1897. Completed in 1912, the Mysore Palace that I visited is described in its brochure as a synthesis of Hindu and Islamic architecture. More thorough sources say it's "Indo-Saracenic" architecture, or a combination of Hindu, Muslim, Rajput, and Gothic styles. Although I found the myriad objects and architectural features pleasing when considered individually, the riot of curving archways, crowding columns, marble staircases, stained-glass, ivory inlay, chandeliers, cast-iron cherub lamps, carven balconies, and pointed domes looked garish, imbalanced, and laughably Victorian (because of the scholarly emphasis on eastern styles) to my non-expert eye. When I passed out of the marriage hall, its light filtered through stained glass peacocks prancing in glass gardens above its massive pillars, and into the royal portrait gallery, lined with serious, well-groomed, opulently dressed nobles of yore, I wondered if the gap between the rich and the poor has really changed much; and if so, how.

Eyesore palace

I'm not sure whether Kiyosaki intended to say that the number of poor people is increasing, or that the distance between the conditions of wealth and poverty is getting larger, but it isn't obvious to me that either of those statements are accurate. Although I don't have any statistics, or even a clear definition of "rich," and "poor," I'd bet that the number of poor people and rich people has increased right along with the world's population. I'd be curious to see how the ratio has changed, and I wonder if it wouldn't reflect that there are more well-appointed people in terms of total population than there used to be. This is, of course, difficult to measure, although I'm sure people on both sides of the question have tried and come up with answers appropriate to the way the initial question was framed. All I can do at the moment is conclude something on the basis of the tiny corner of existence that is my own experience, or what I've seen; and I'd say that the kind of opulence embodied in Mysore Palace is probably available to about the same amount of people (proportionally) as it used to be, while a more modest form of luxury and stability (read Mc Mansions and health care) is available to a greater segment of the total population.

Mysore home

It's frightening to make such a general assertion in public, but if Robert T. Kiyosaki can do it, then so can I. I have to admit that I can't even comprehend numbers like 50 million, especially when they're applied to people, so I dropped the topic, and went to the Mysore Zoo the next day. Established by the inhabitants of Mysore Palace in 1892, it's one of the oldest zoos in the world, housing over 100 species, most of which have ample, unfenced amounts of space allotted for their habitats; my favorite were the impossibly lanky, hilariously constructed, miraculously gracefull giraffes.

Why didn't anybody tell me giraffes have tongues like this?

The world is such a weird and improbable place; the conclusions you arrive at are dependent on where you start, and the starting points are infinite. Mysore Zoo hosts gorillas, baboons, and chimpanzees; and while they all have separate habitats and signs, indigenous monkeys scamper across sidewalks and raid trash cans all over the zoo. To me, all tree-swinging, man-handed creatures are exotic, so I wondered what the captives thought of their free cousins. I guess it's all a matter of context; the trash-raiding monkeys would be on display in an American zoo.

free zoo monkey

On my last day in town, I was walking quickly to meet up with Talia, and a young man greeted me as I passed him loitering on the street. If my huge ego makes me rude because it demands to do what it wants when it wants, it also makes me polite when I'd rather not be. For instance, when a total stranger greets me from somewhere in my peripheral vision, I really don't want to answer, but I also don't want to be disliked, and I don't want to think of myself as someone who thinks she's too good to say hello, so I usually reply. On this particular afternoon, I took the bait, and although I didn't even turn my head towards him, he was suddenly speed-walking right along with me, asking questions, and trying to hold a conversation that I obviously didn't want to participate in. I didn't see it coming, but I hit my limit; I stopped walking, turned to face him, and said in a markedly unfriendly tone, "Can I help you?" Apparently, tourists don't often use the direct approach, because he looked shocked for a second and then shouted, "You are not a god. You cannot help me!" As I walked away he called after me, "You are stupid! Stupid! Stupid!"

I was less disturbed about being called stupid than I was about being told I have a big ego, maybe because I have a big enough ego to feel sure I'm not stupid, but I was surprised at the violence of the young man's reaction and at the presumption implied by his behaviour. It's a marvel to me that he thought I owed him my attention. I'm confronted with and perplexed by instances of this attitude innumerable times each day I spend in India. When he approached me, it was my 1st world guilt that caused me to respond to him past the initial greeting, and every day it's the same; I get involved in tiresome conversations with people because I don't want to assume that they're trying to sell me something, and because I feel guilty for leaping to judgements. The problem is, those judgements are usually right.

I'm not saying that every Indian wants something from me, but the ones that make an aggressive effort to get to know me in the middle of the street under a hot sun amid honking and hustling usually do. Worse yet, it seems that the clever young men of Mysore may recognize this particular form of hypocritical politeness and exploit it, especially if there is a large pool of earnest yoga practitioners around seeking enlightenment in India; ego is a dirty word in yoga circles. Another possibility is that they haven't considered the implications and strategic benefits of their behaviour, mine, or anyone else's; these predators could be reacting instinctively, trying to get enough bread for the day out of whatever comes in front of them, and if I am stupid, it's for even attempting to make some sense out of the whole situation.

Thursday, February 01, 2007


Some travelers say Goa is not really India, and in a way it's true; that's why it's a haven for weary, long-termers. In my case, now that I'm back in the midst of "the real India" it looks very different. More often than not, the nature and process of inexplicable actions and delays is amusing or downright mystifying rather than irritating, and the ambiguous sideways head bobble that's the usual response to direct questions requiring yes or no answers, obscuring the clarity of even the least ambiguous replies, now seems friendly rather than evasive. Even though Bangalore was difficult to navigate, and so polluted that I ended each day covered in grime and one evening had a spontaneous nose-bleed, the merry, tolerant mood that I arrived in held.

We stayed four nights, and most of my days were spent either drinking the delicious Americanos served at Barista or typing and uploading at the fastest internet cafe in town, which took 24 hours to locate. Talia and I checked into a hotel in a market area named Mystic. It is near the central train station, and the manifold liquids, solids and clumps of trash covering the street are churned from 9 am to 11 pm by a constant stream of tires and feet. After a sleepless 8 hours on an overnight bus, we weren't so concerned about aesthetics, and when we had the chance to be horizontal at 8 am, we both took if for quite a while. That afternoon, showered and refreshed, I began the hunt, up and down the street, for a computer that would load my page, while Talia began the long process of activating her mobile phone. I didn't find a computer made after 1992, and I ended the day frustrated. When I saw a man on the street with a typewriter perched on an old lectern selling his services, carbon paper and all, I began to have serious doubts about Bangalore's billing as "The Silicon Valley" of India.

A center of power in southern India during British rule, it's now the capital of the state of Karnataka and the IT capital of India. As such, it's a charming city, in certain spots, its center sporting well cared for colonial architecture set apart by spacious (though mostly dust and dead grass) lawns, and clean modern buildings selling all the luxuries new money can buy. Unfortunately, I didn't know all that on my first day. Talia and I sat down for dinner around 8 pm just across the street from our hotel. That's the magic hour when all women disappear into their houses, so we were the only females in a restaurant with at least 15 tables. As a duo, we managed to ignore most stares and advances, but when Talia went to the bathroom, a short, big-bellied, man, well-dressed in a cotton button-down shirt, with terribly rotting teeth and friendly eyes behind gold rimmed glasses planted himself directly in front of me. Taking a gulp of his beer and looking directly at me he said, "From ver have you come?" I said, "the USA," and he answered excitedly, as if he'd just discovered that we have a relative in common, "Oh, I work for AOL!" I wasn't sure my being an American and his working for AOL formed a bond between us, but I thought, "If anybody knows where I can find the tech in this city, it's this guy," so I asked him. He confided snobbishly that he never "goes surfing" in Mystic; he uses the computers on MG Road.

Mystic movie billboards

Mahatma Gandhi Road is between 15 and 30 minutes away from Mystic by rickshaw, depending on traffic, and we went there the very next morning. On one side of the long road was the ritzy section of town, with cafes, foreign chain restaurants, bars, internet cafe's and imported clothing; on the other side lay a spacious but parched park leading, a 20 minute walk away, to several government offices housed in colonial buildings. It was a twice daily battle to get a fair price for the ride, and coming back in the evening, when most of the roads of Bangalore mysteriously become one-way, causing traffic quagmires, or maybe averting even worse jams, black smoke from the unfiltered exhausts of rickshaws hovered in the headlights, engulfing everything. After some coffee and exploration, I found an internet cafe that suited my needs just fine, technology wise, that is; the problem was the lack of privacy, the flux of people, and the noise of online gaming. I knew I wasn't going to do any better, so I settled down to work things up in a distracting atmosphere.

On my last visit to the Reliance internet shop, around 3 pm, a band of khaki uniformed middle school boys poured in and, after standing around talking enthusiastically in English for a while, took seats at available computers around the shop. Judging by the comments they called to each other, "Come on ladies!," or "Help, need backup!," the boys were all playing the same game on different computers, and between levels they'd stop for a break, challenging and boasting next to one computer or another. Eventually, their break coincided with that of a grown man playing a game on his computer, and they began to talk shop. The man wore a black and white pinstriped suit, obviously of a very high quality; he was meticulously groomed and good-looking with gleaming white teeth and oiled black hair. I couldn't stop watching the sudden, easy friendship between the rich man and the boys. Even while he gave the boys animated instructions on how to "defeat a hydra," he radiated wealth and status.

Hundreds of local languages have been identified in India, and there are 23 official languages. This may be why (although it's more common in the south than the north) people often speak English in public. Whatever the reason for using English as the medium of exchange, it makes things interesting for me; I get the chance to hear what people are talking about. In Bangalore, I made a trip to the post office to send a package home. It was an amazingly circuitous process, a practical lesson in patience and good humor that took over an hour by the end of it all. The central post office is an old, stone building with a columned facade looming behind a fountain surrounded by roses. Natural light seeps into the interior through a central skylight and evenly spaced, wire covered, dusty windows, but the ubiquitous fluorescent bulbs give the place a sickly overtone. Clerk's windows form a half-moon, dividing the cavernous interior into public and official space, and supervisory officials' tables are strewn about behind the narrow domain of languid clerks.

In India, if you want to send a package, it must first be sewn up in white fabric, so when I entered the post office and saw a man at a table sewing something up with needle and thread, I asked him how much he'd charge to close up my bundle. He replied that he wasn't in the sewing business; he was making his own package, but he pointed me over to a counter not far away. Slightly embarrassed, I thanked him and went to a glass counter, its shelves full of stamps and cards, manned by a wrinkled little woman in a bright sari. I handed her my bundle of clothes and collapsible paper lampshades and asked her to sew it up. She took them, and then, as if trying to recall a message someone had given her to pass on to me several years ago, she informed me that I needed to have the contents approved. Handing my bundle back to me, she motioned all the way to the other side of the building with a large, vague, half-circular hand gesture. Walking to the other end of the clerk's counters, I eventually found a door that looked like it was probably meant to keep the public out, but having no other idea of where to go, I entered. I offered my bundle to a man at a table, but he pointed me to another door, and I went through it. There I found several more desks, and again I offered my bundle. This man, instead of giving me a yes, a no, or directions, asked me where I'm from. I said America, and he enthusiastically reported that Hillary Clinton is going to run for president and is definitely going to win. He was very excited by the prospect of the first "presidential couple," and said it would be "a great honor" for America and for Hillary. Amused and touched as I was by his excitement, I really did want to get my package mailed that day, and he finally pointed me onward to the desk of his supervisor, a long table located smack-dab (but a little bit askew) in the center of the high-ceilinged space behind the postal clerks' barricade.

As I approached the magnificently rotund woman seated behind the table, her eyes looking placidly out of skin as baggy as an elephant's, someone else was walking away, and when I sat down across from her and held out my bundle, she signaled me, with a languid, bangle bedecked wrist, to wait. She was swathed in a conservative sari, its light beige foundation sprinkled with floral details in maroon and forest green and bordered in gold thread. Three gold rings set with gems twinkled on her fingers as she leafed through the pages of a worn, leather bound, rectangular log. I like to remember her as the postmistress general, and as I sat across from her, it seemed that all the ramshackle tables and desks, covered with papers and packages, as well as the clerks at their counters typing away on dusty machines, and then the rose garden, the parched parks, the mad, honking rickshaws and changing signals mixing with the squalid splendor of the streets of Bangalore, were organized in some infinitely complex pattern around that point where the weak light filtering through the dusty skylight shone on the calm, slow moving woman. As I waited, a married couple sat down with several parcels.

roadside motorcyle maintenency guy's toolbox

Eventually, the postmistress looked up at me and reached out for my little bundle, but after she ran her hand over it, she just asked me about the contents, and I told her. She gave me two forms to fill out, and as I was doing so, she turned her attention to the couple. They were sending some perishable items, four tidy rows of neat, round, golden treats laid out in a brightly wrapped box, and the old postmistress suspected that the sweets had been baked with ghee. She wasn't sure if ghee items were permissible, and they discussed it for a while. Finally, she warned them that the items could be stopped by an unspecified authority, but to go ahead and try it. When I finished my forms, I went back to square two, the packaging lady at the stamp stand, where a young man was asking to see various collector stamps. Of course, I couldn't get my package sewn up until he was done, so I joined in the browsing. The most interesting was a collection of "3D" stamps from Butan featuring Gandhi, J.F.K., and Churchill. Eventually, my parcel was sewn up, and the last step was the postal clerk's window. After 10 minutes of jockeying for position in a line that only existed in my mind, my package was finally taken off my hands and launched into the great stream of objects moving around the world.

"3D" stamps

On my last day in Bangalore, I finally got in touch with the travel agency in Korea where I bought my plane tickets. It was indeed possible to delay my departure further, so I postponed it until the beginning of April. The moment I got confirmation, I had dual sensations, strong on both counts; I was happy to prolong this experiment in anchorlessness, and at the same time longed for the people, animals, and objects that anchor me.

Well, I only bought myself five more weeks, which isn't much when I think about how time goes: Bangalore, five days later, already seems a lifetime away. So, I'll see you guys in about ten lifetimes.

Rock And Ruin

A few hours before Talia and I planned to take a rickshaw from Agonda to the bus stop in Palolem, I ran into Daniel, who I hadn't had the chance to bid farewell, so I asked him, and the guy who happened to be standing next to him, to have dinner with us. After a day at the beach, Talia and I needed to shower and pack, so we met up with them an hour later. Both Daniel and the new guy in town, Vincent from Holland, had motorcycles, so we decided to drive down the street to a restaurant at the other end of the village, Talia behind Vincent and I behind Daniel. Halfway there, some rickshaw drivers stepped into the road (which isn't that unusual) and as Daniel stopped, I saw a hand go to his tank. His Royal Enfield sputtered off, and when he looked down, the key was gone. After 15 minutes of searching, Daniel found his key in the possession of a restaurant owner. When we were finally eating dinner, the theory that this was part of a feud between Daniel and the town rickshaw drivers evolved; earlier that day, when a driver tried to grossly overcharge an unseasoned tourist for a ride within earshot of Daniel, he had jumped into the conversation and revealed the correct price. Now he was engaged, and as revenge upon the drivers, he wanted to be seen driving Talia and I out of town, depriving them of their fares. That was more than OK by us, and 25 minutes later, Daniel and Vincent left us at the bus stand.

Hampi kids

temple elephant

In India, they have this thing called a "sleeper bus." It's a great idea, beds in the bus, and we had booked 2 berths. Unfortunately, our beds were in the back, and although we had an enclosed platform to lay on, we were above the wheels and the exhaust system, so rather than sleep, we bounced, tossed, turned, and inhaled fumes all night long. We finally reached Hospet around 7:30 am, January 24, and from there we took a rickshaw to Hampi, then a boat across the river that divides the town, and then found the guest house where Elad and family had checked in a few days earlier.

Hampi roadside shrine

monkey temple

stairs to monkey temple

Hampi is a village of rocks and rice paddies situated within the ruins of an ancient empire; more intriguing than the ruins themselves is the baffling landscape, enormous piles of huge boulders, strewn here and there, perched upon each other at impossible angles, a ruin of another kind. A few days after we arrived, Talia developed mysterious symptoms like headaches, dizziness, general exhaustion, and stomach pain. It may have been a consequence of taking typhoid and malaria vaccines at the same time, and it took her nearly 5 days to fully recover. In the meantime, I took some walks, saw some temples, swam in a lake and a river, climbed some rocks, had some great food, and hung around in my hammock.




There seems to be a higher than usual concentration of hippies in Hampi, and our guest house featured spontaneous singing, guitar playing, and drumming every night. Luckily, we moved after a few nights to a quieter place. You meet so many people travelling in India who are looking for some form of enlightenment, and it's not too hard to understand why; it's such a crazy place that it doesn't matter what you do, and it's cheap enough to do it. What I don't quite get is the concentration of hippies and new-agers. Are they the only people who want the space to "be themselves?" Surely there are a lot of other kinds of people who'd like to have the time to wander around and see what happens.

washing water buffaloes

Well, Hampi was nice, and at another time in my journey I could have spent weeks there. Elad and family left midway through our stay, and when Talia began to mend, we were both in the mood to move. Hampi had the worst internet connections I've seen in India; after a few times waiting 15 minutes for my email to load, getting frustrated, and realizing that I was ruining my day, I gave up. We decided to make a stop in Bangalore, India's "City of Technology," to get caught up on our connections with the rest of the world, and that's where I am now.


On Christmas Eve day, I met Lisa, one of the 4 Americans I've encountered during my stay in India. She spoke fluent Hindi, because she spent her childhood in Kashmir, and now she's teaching at a university in Los Angles. She had a group of students with her, and she invited me to have dinner with them. Unfortunately, by the time 7 pm rolled around, I'd forgotten what restaurant they were eating in. I checked a few places, but didn't find them, so I settled down for dinner alone at a table near the waves. Shortly, an Indian-looking man sat down at the table next to me, but he ordered in German accented English, so I asked him where he was from. He turned out to be a software engineer from Kerala who has been living in Berlin for 5 years. He was on short holiday, and was paying his first visit to Goa. He was disappointed with the development of Palolem, and he spent a large part of the conversation regretting that he hadn't gone to Gokarna instead. He spent the other part of the conversation trying to convince me to drink whiskey shots.

sleeping shopkeeper, Gokarna

Gokarna is a town of quiet lanes housing head-priest offices, temples, indecipherable Hindu shrines, and a busy marketplace. There are four distinct, uncrowded beaches nearby. It's about an hour south of Goa by train, and when Elad and family decided to make a 2 day visit there, I kept my room in Agonda, packed a small bag, and went with them. For 4 people, the train ticket was 73 Rupees, that's a bit less than 2 dollars.


Gokarna is a charming little place, and 3 of the beaches are accessible only by boat-taxi or a long trek. The accommodations available are very basic. Our first night, on Kudle Beach, we couldn't even find rooms with an attached bathroom (which Irit was none too happy about), and my hut had a sand floor. The next day we moved to Om Beach, so named because it's imagined to be shaped like the symbol for Om.

Gokarna cat

I wish I would have spent some of the time I spent in Palolem in Gokarna instead, but then things wouldn't be what they are now, either. I would have liked to stay longer, but Talia was arriving in Goa, and the family was ready to go. We left Gokarna at 10 am, 2 days after we had arrived; back in Agonda, I rented a bike and made the 1 hour 30 minute drive to the airport (stopping for a few sights and a chai along the way) where Talia's plane was 3 hours late.

holy parade float?

Five years ago, in a northern Thailand town called Pai, Talia and I met on a dark road and decided to share a room. We stayed for a week, getting along exceptionally well, and then I went back to Korea. We kept in touch, and 2 years ago, I stayed at her place in New York for a week. Again, we got along well, which was a relief because you never really know how it's going to be with people when the context changes, and a pleasant surprise because it's always good to find a friend.

Gokarna wall

A few months ago, Talia emailed me, saying she was between jobs and thinking of going to Bali. I replied, "How about southern India?" She wrote, "Anything that's warm and doesn't involve cubicles sounds good to me," and so, there she was, at the airport in Goa. By this time, the room next to mine was empty, and so she took it. She's working for a non-profit affiliated with the excellent NPR show Science Friday. She's keeping a blog about India related science issues while travelling, so we have similar interneting needs, convenient.

Gokarna kids

A few days later, being at the beginning of her travels, she was ready to go; I being at the end of a solid 6 week travel break, was ready to go too, and so one night we put our bags on our backs, caught a ride to the bus stop on the backs of 2 motorcycles, and boarded the overnight bus to Hampi, 10 hours inland.