Published: April 29th 2010February 13th 2010
Coolest wall painting ever
We really liked the open air art galleries in Mumbai, painted wall sections scattered throughout the city similar to the Berlin Wall.
“India is not an underdeveloped country, but rather, in the context of its history and cultural heritage, a highly developed one in an advanced state of decay” Shashi Tharoor in his ‘The Great Indian Novel'
The sun is warm, the sea is swaying and I'm enjoying the passing of yet another day. Despite this outward sense of calm, it is still out there—waiting for us. We can't hide here forever. This was meant to be a brief respite from the rigors and chaos of the outside world, but now we were just dithering. We have been in Varkala for 9 days now and having decided to stick it out in India, it was past time that we got on with it.
Maybe this is a metaphor for our trip as a whole. We came to clear our heads but the business of life is looming large ahead of us. We couldn't put off the real world forever—it was beckoning. And of course when I say the world, I mean my parents. Guess you can't run away and join the circus forever—there were careers to start, houses to buy and babies to be had! Alice leaves Wonderland, Peter
Pan grows up, Dorthy clicks her ruby slippers. The time had come to move on—well...in India at least.
“Where should we go?” I asked causally. Kevin sits up to give the matter his full attention. “I don't know. What are the options?” he defers. “Well, it is 27 hours to Mumbai so we should break it up,” I explain. Without saying a word, Kevin's head wobbles side to side. Not a nod and not quite a shake, it was like if your neck muscles went suddenly limp during of a small earthquake. Alright... I continue, “We could break the trip up by going to Goa.” He paused to consider this and then another wobble. I rub my my eyes, certainly I must be imagining this! I press on, “I also hear the Cochin is nice, we could stop there,” I offer. This time his head waggles like a basketball hitting the rim before going through the net. That was a bobble, that was a definite bobble! “Did you just head-bobble me?” I exclaim. Knowingly, Kevin gasps. “Oh, no!” It was beginning, we were in the early stages of "Indification." Partly a result of immersion and partly a defense mechanism
I like the colors on this guy
Too bad the focus is out of wack
in order to survive, we had allowed India to seep into our subconscious. Now it was beginning to manifest itself outwardly—not unlike lead poisoning.
Bobbling Their Way Into Your Heart
Ah, the head bobble. Though somewhat endearing and at the same time utterly maddening, the head-bobble is the ultimate in universal India communication. The meaning ranges from 'yes', 'no', 'I'll think about it', 'I am tired of humoring you', 'Boy, is this bus ride bumpy!', to 'You can shake me all you want, I still won't answer you!'. If you have never witnessed this phenomenon first hand, it looks like the human interpretation of a candle-flame guttering in a faint breeze. It reminds me of a old joke, “How do you give an Italian a speech impediment?” Tie his hands behind his back! “How do you give an Indian a speech impediment?” Make him wear a neck brace!
This inscrutable head motion has been a primary source and confusion and frustration for many new arrivals to India. Consider the following scene: Bus pulls up and the door opens. Backpacker gets on. Backpacker:
“Hello, is this the bus to the train station?' Bus Driver:
“Is that a yes?” Bus Driver:
“Is that a no?” Bus Driver:
Backpacker turns to another passenger. Backpacker:
“Do YOU know if this bus goes to the train station?” Passenger:
HEAD-BOBBLE Suddenly everyone on the bus starts pointing and gesticulating wildly. Train station appears through the window. Backpacker:
“Oh..wow! Great! Thanks!” Bus Driver and entire bus full of Indian passengers respond with:
HEAD-BOBBLE. Bus sways slightly as a result of the collective HEAD-BOBBLE.
If you break this scene down you notice a few things. The head-bobble can really mean anything but mostly it just is an acknowledgment that the speaker was heard. Also the passenger the backpacker asked replied with a head-bobble because once one Indian has replied with a bobble another is unlikely to contradict the first by giving a verbal response. In addition, the rare but attainable head-bobble with shy sideways smile combo is possible, if the speaker thanks with enough enthusiasm and persists in smiling boldly. It is the equivalent of “Ahh, shucks. It was nothin'. You're welcome.” Receiving this kind of bobble is well worth the effort it takes to
obtain it as it is—like many experiences in India—the shining moment that make certain discomforts, difficulties and frustrations recede into the background. That is until the next obstacle crops up!
Next Time on X-Files: Indiophilia--Explained
Back to the subject of Indification. So as we explained in the last blog, many of the travelers' reports of India had been negative but the few that did have something positive to say do so with a strange look on their face. It can best be described as a half smile combined with a far away look conveying both whimsy and a vague sense of relief—like a baby with gas. In India itself, we encountered a few more people that simply loved India and would return again and again sometimes, 5, 8, 12 times. We would just shake our heads in disbelief, “What were these people doing that we weren't?” Every time I heard someone say, “Well some people just love India!” I want to retort with, “Yeah well, some people like to stick metal hooks through their skin and hang from the ceiling but I don't like that either.”
Seriously though, we had to know, what is the secret? Finally,
one day when a guy was regaling us with tales of his 20 year-long love affair with India and his numerous journeys here we decided to interrupt him and ask, “WHY!?!?” “It's strange,” he said. “The first time I hated it. The grime, the poverty, the chaos and frustration. But about 5 years after my first trip, I just couldn't stop thinking about it. I wasn't obsessed necessarily but I had this deep sense of longing I couldn't explain. This place gets in your head and under your skin. I still can't fully explain it. No, it has NEVER gotten any easier and yes, I can understand why most people hate it. But despite the difficulties, I just feel more alive here. In the West everything is so easy by comparison and life has no extreme highs and lows for most people—or for me at least. India is just the opposite, there is never any middle ground but here the lows make you appreciate the highs that much more.”
Yup, Indification and Indiophilia sneak up on you. Most days in India are like having PMS. You're angry, tired, hungry, bloated and a little bit nauseous. There is a better
than average chance that the next person that stares at you, spits on your shoes, tells you something is impossible or offers you a taxi, will die with your hands clasped around their neck. You cry, yell, lock yourself in your hotel room and pull the covers over your head. Yet if there is one beautiful sight, one good thing that happens, one thing that goes right, one thing that touches your heart in a positive way or one person who does the smallest of kind deeds—it all disappears. Like smoke in a strong breeze, all the other stuff falls away and that one shining thing stands alone. India may abuse you all day long but in that one shining moment you let go of your anger and relent. “Oh, India, I forgive you, let's never fight again.” Of course, until the next time and as we all know there is always a next time.
So it turns out that Indiophiles are just the battered housewives of the travel world. Returning again and again to a land they know full well will abuse them but drawn by a love that proves irresistible. We are starting to see how it
This is my work sari
These women are better dressed digging in the dirt than I am well...ever.
can happen—or I should say, I do—India has no lasting appeal whatsoever for Kevin. We had seen so much, done so much, on our trip that we were starting to reach a saturation level. We had learned the art of travel so well that few things shocked or challenged us anymore. India was the giant pothole in the road that got us out of that rut. Yes, nothing here was ever easy and yes some of the things we saw there I could have done just as well without but it was certainly never boring.
Moreover, like the guy who explained his love of India said, it is the contrast, the stark relief of high and lows that can be at times exhilarating. One time—maybe in a moment of weakness or perhaps a fit of madness—I turned to Kevin and said, “Baby, what if one day I suddenly turn to you and say, 'Let's go back to India!” He scoffed, “Are you serious?!?!” “I don't know, maybe?” I said uncertainly. “In the case of that HIGHLY unlikely event, I will take you to a garbage dump, make an obstacle course of trash, shit and dead animals and pay dirty
little children to chase you through it honking horns and begging for change,” he said. “Thanks babe, that ought to do it,” I nodded or bobbled as the case may be. Apparently Indiophilia, like hemophilia or pedophilia, can't be cured but with proper management but these people can go on to live normal, productive lives.
“Stop looking at it,” I say. “I'm trying,” Kevin whimpers. “Well, try harder!” I reply. “I can't!” Kevin asserts. We are eating breakfast in a little street-side cafe in Cochin (Fort Kochi, whatever you call it). Kevin can't take his eyes off a crow in a tree next to our table who is eating a dead rat. Kevin grimaces again. “Geez, switch me seats then,” I demand. We both go back to eating our breakfast until I make the mistake of glancing up for a second. Oh no, it has me in its tractor beam—can't look away! “Stop looking at it,” Kevin taunts me. “I can't, I can't!” I confess. Being in India is like this a lot, there is something happening—right in front of you—that is mildly disturbing and yet strangely fascinating. And you stare—mesmerized—you just can't look away,
even if sometimes you really wish you could. Everyday it is as if you've been trapped in a documentary with the harsh realities of life all too real and in your face. It is distressing, gruesomely fascinating and poignant in turns but it is certainly never boring!
So we ended up going to both Cochin and Panaji, Goa. Both are former colonial towns—Goa was Portuguese and Cochin was first Portuguese then Dutch—and have a European flair to them though they are clearly a little worse for wear. We notice as we travel through India that former colonial buildings (with the exception of churches) are sometimes left to moulder, which we find a bit sad. Regardless of how you feel about the colonial legacy in India, it still seems a shame to let beautiful architecture and historical sites just waste away from neglect.
Unsexed in the City
By the time we reached Mumbai we were ready for some big city action. Yet as usual, we get more than we bargained for. Weary from an overnight bus trip from hell, (Kevin and I were sleeping literally on top of each other, which would usually be fun minus the bumpy
bus part) we were unceremoniously dropped in front of was must be the largest taxi stand in Asia. Like flies on a particularly fragrant pile of dung the taxi drivers swarm us. Nothing like people fighting over the chance to screw you. Pass! We wade through the throng as they pick off the weaker tourists from the herd. But tired as we were we finally caved, we have no idea where we were and everywhere we looked a room for the night cost almost our entire daily budget.
We end up staying near Chowpatty beach (which we fondly refer to as Cow Patty beach) which despite its name and being a popular hang out for locals, is not really a 'beach' in the traditional sense as the sand is filthy and the water is “toxic”. Otherwise, our chosen neighborhood is not too bad. It is relatively quiet and definitely not touristy, the number of livestock—goats, sheep, chickens—far outnumber the number of tourists—us.
We hit up a local restaurant to get some lunch. As we enter a local eatery, every head in the place turns and every eye is glued to us—or should I say every MALE head. Not
India spice box
Ok kids, gather close. Here is the secret to India cooking: This is a spice box that contains the most frequently used spices in Indian home cooking and they all go into almost every recipe. So if you want to give a dish an Indian flavor add: anise, salt, gram masala, coriander, cumin, red chile, turmeric. Try it on peanuts or Chex-mix.
a single woman in the place, NOT ONE and from the looks of it there may have never been a woman within these hallowed walls—that is if the looks we get from the other patrons is any indication. Apparently we are staying in a predominately Muslim part of town and I'm the only piece of female flesh that isn't covered from head to toe or wearing a burqa. and I feel like a pork chop that fell into a lions' cage.
The issue of women in this country is a strange one. In Kolkata, the video they play at the Victoria Memorial talked about the equality that women enjoy in India. We figure that women in India must be so equal that they are invisible—we notice that as a general rule the number of men on the streets outnumber the women at least 50:1 and commonly 100:1. Maybe they are too busy being captains of industry and running board meetings to be walking the streets in the middle of the day but somehow I doubt that. Despite worldwide controversy and feminist outcry against the wearing of head scarves by Muslim women, I find the situation for Hindu women to
Kevin and Ammi after a particularly tiring day
Sometimes being in India feels like being behind bars
be much more dire.
In particular, the practice of dowries I find rather disturbing. It's not the dowry concept specifically but all the problems that go with it. A dowry is a huge gift—often in the form of regular payments—made by the bride's family to the groom and his family when a girl gets married. This system of dowries is a gigantic burden on poor families, so much so that many poorer families choose to abort female fetuses instead of being faced with a enormous bill down the road. At one time this practice was so wide spread that ultrasound clinics used to have billboards encouraging this by saying, “A 5000 Rupee ultrasound now can save you 500,000 Rupees down the road.” Now I'm as liberal as it gets when it come to a woman's right to choose but having an abortion just because you don't like the gender of a child strikes me as wrong.
The second problem dowries create is known as “bride burning” and this is really unsettling. Most marriages in India are still arranged by the parents which many Indian people point to as better because of the lower divorce rate in India as
compared to the Western world. The thing is that this is deceiving because divorce is still so frowned upon in Indian culture and difficult to get by India law that even if people are as miserable, if not more so, but without an acceptable escape hatch. This leads the other problem—also related to dowries—where if the bride's family gets behind on their dowry payments or the bride fails to produce a male child, the bride is cornered into the family kitchen, doused with kerosene and lit on fire and burned to death. Wow, I'm really hoping I'm never reincarnated as a woman in India—it would be safer being a cow!
I'm Going to Holly...umm...Bollywood
Ok, so I had many dreams for this trip. I wanted to see a penguin...check. I wanted to climb a glacier...check. I wanted to take a boat across the Amazon River...check, check (we actually took 2 boats across the Amazon). I wanted to be on a Japanese game show...yeah, I'm still working on that one. I wanted to star in a Bollywood movie—well maybe not STAR but be nearby when they were filming one at least. Well, even in India some dreams can come
true though quite unexpectedly.
We step off the long, harrowing train ride from Cow Patty...I mean Chowpatty Beach to downtown town Mumbai—man for a HUGE city Mumbai public transport blows. We end up having to walk a couple of kilometers to get to Colaba, the main tourist center in Mumbai. We are on our way to the Gateway of India (where the British made their last farewell to a newly independent India) when we see a guy heading straight for us. “Oh, no. He is locked in on us. This can't be good. Get ready for it...” Kevin warned. The guy stops us in the middle of the street—never a smart idea by the way—smiles brightly and asks “Would you guys like to be in movie?” HONK! HONK! Yeah, we're moving. “Really?!? You mean it? What's the catch?” I shoot the guy a incredulous sidelong glance. “Sure, we will pay you 500 Rupees, feed you lunch and even pay for the taxi ride here in the morning,” he offered. “Yeah, yeah...what's the catch?” I ask—clearly unconvinced. I have really got to start learning to trust people! “No catch, it's a 1970's gangster film. If you want to did it
just be here at 8 am...oh, we will be filming until 10 pm,” he quickly adds. Ok, so not MUCH of a catch. “SURE! Ok, where do we sign up?” we ask. “Just be here at 8 am tomorrow and don't stand me up because I don't want to be short two people,” he said. “Sure, no problem. We'll be here!” we nodded.
That night we made the mistake of looking up some other travelers' Bollywood experiences online. This is always a mistake in India. Once you have committed to do something in India, just do it without asking too many questions. Often other travelers' experiences are not positive and they are not shy about telling you (us included!) and usually it is just better not to know. From what we looked up online, extras in Bollywood are treated like workers in a sweatshop only with longer hours, less food and more sweat. What's worse is that the studios are usually a few hours outside of Mumbai so there were stories of people being held virtually hostage until the wee hours of the morning with no way to get back to town except with the transport provided by the
studio. Upon reading this Kevin said, “Let's bail. We didn't sign up for that kind of abuse.” “But baby I really want to do this!” I plead. “Ok, but if it is awful just remember I told you so.” So on the very long ride to the studio Kevin was not pleased. Even once we arrived, he was less than thrilled. I told him to stand in front of one of the elaborate outdoor sets so I could take a picture. “Smile, baby!” I beg. He grimaces. “Come on baby, it will be ok!” I say. “We'll see,” he grumbles.
“Take another picture. Wait, wait, wait, let me get the cigar,” Kevin directs. Kevin has certainly gotten into character. He is decked out in his 'Saturday Night Fever' best, complete with wide lapels, bell-bottom pants and fake sideburns applied not too gently by the Bollywood makeup team. I didn't even recognize him at first. Now I'm not a big disco fan but I have to say that Kevin looks pretty damn good in his bell-bottoms. Oh behave! What's more he knows it, taking shot after shot of himself with a prop drink and cigar.
I, however, am not
View from our bus window
Can this be considered an example of camouflage?
so lucky in my costume selection. Unfortunately for me, being buxom is uncommon in Asia and the only thing the studio had that would fit me is a big flowery moo-moo. It gets worse. Obviously the hairstylist—unimpressed with my be-moo-moo self—decided to give me the strangest possible hairdo to match. The result is that I end up looking like the bride of Frankenstein minus the white streak in my hair and the bolts in the side of my head. During shooting, I'm always strategically placed so that there is NEVER any possibility I will appear in the shot. “Why don't you stand behind this pillar,” the crew member directs. Yeah sure, thanks. I could hide under the tablecloth if that would be better? Perfect! Regardless, the whole experience was pretty positive and we were really glad we did it. If you want to see the movie it's called “Once Upon a Time in Mumbai' and mine in the stunning performance remarkable for the two feet sticking out from under a table with a great deal of sincerity. Oscar committee take notice, this really is some of my best work. I almost can hear it now—And the “Best Performance from Under
Does this look safe to you?
Decaying splendor in Panaji, Goa.
a Piece of Furniture in a Bollywood Movie” goes to...
This is it...
Sitting on a train platform, watching the world go by. This is the moment. THE moment. We are wearing red bindis on our foreheads and flower leis around our necks—gifts from Mewar Inn, where we were staying—and yet despite the novelty of our attire I feel completely natural, at home, at peace even. The attendant at the information booth where I ask for directions tells me, “You look lovely—very smart.” Wow...thanks! For once I do not felt like an alien from another planet and maybe for the first time in India people are actually looking at me with something other than thinly-veiled contempt.
In Udaipur itself, we had good days and bad days. We met some wonderful people, we got sick (again), we took a cooking lesson and a music lesson, we were nearly run over about a million times, we found a terrific hookah lounge, Kevin stepped in a big steaming pile of cow shit—so over all a mixed bag but overall it was still good. And yet, in that moment sitting on the train platform watching the mass of humanity go
"Ok, we are ready to start our own band."
We can play the harmonica and pan-pipes too remember? Yeah, we are ready for the big time! Next time we travel it will be with roadies and groupies.
by, we are in a strange zen-like state. Sure we may—what's this MAY stuff, WILL—have to do battle when we arrive in Jaipur tomorrow morning but for now we are content and all is right with the world. “Oh India, let's never fight again!” Until the next time...and we all know there is always a next time.
***TIPS FOR TRAVELERS*** So as we mentioned in our last blog we are spreading our tips over the 3 planned India blogs. In the last blog we covered A LOT of ground so in this one we are mostly revealing the little hints we found along the way. Give me a break
—Traveling in India can be overwhelming to say the least. If the walking the streets is getting you down and you need to escape for a little while, may we recommend finding a coffee shop or tea house, bookstore or movie theater and getting away from it all. Travel in India is a full-contact sport and there is no shame in taking a breather. Can I get a copy of that?
--So as a foreign tourist traveling in India the guesthouse where you are staying is required
List of fines
Fine for littering: 200 Rps. Fine for defecating on the street: 100 Rps? (You figure out why dropping a candy bar wrapper costs more than taking a dump in the middle of the street because I can't!) Well if any of these fines were actually enforced, India would have the richest government in the world!
by law to register you with the local police department. Often times they will ask you for a copy of your passport and visa. Now while getting copies is cheap it is rarely ever easy. That being said either stock up on copies before you arrive or when you do find a place to get copies have them do several at once. This will saved frustration later. You make me sick
—We cannot stress enough how often travelers get sick in India. The great thing is that pharmacies in India are cheap, plentiful and usually staffed with English-speaking staff. Don't wait until you get sick! Stock up on a few necessities on arrival, namely pain-relievers, fever reducers, electrolyte solution, antibiotics, etc. This is especially important if you are traveling alone and become to sick to go out for supplies. I'm going to Bollywood
—So if you want to try your luck as a Bollywood extra, the best place to get noticed—so to speak—is in Colaba either on one of the streets radiating from the Gateway of India or on the main drag of Colaba, Shahid Bhagat Singh Marg. Iron out the details in event but as always in India, expect
No cell phone?
Just hack into the local switchboard and talk all you want
the unexpected! TAXI!
--Taking a taxi in India can be an intimidating experience, in MOST cases the rule is to bargain ruthlessly. That being said there are some things you can do to make things easier. First, at most transportation centers—train stations, bus stations, airports—there are pre-paid taxi stands or metered taxi stands. THESE ARE ALWAYS CHEAPER THAN NEGOTITATING A FARE. Trust me on this, you have no idea what a taxi ride will cost and if you negotiate a price on your own you will ALWAYS lose.
Those taxi drivers that are willing to negotiate a price around these places are targeting foreigners specifically because they know we don't know what the ride should cost and are likely willing to pay more to avoid standing in line at the taxi stand. If you happen to know what the price should be and offer to pay it most likely they will refuse and move on to someone they can convince to pay twice as much. The choice is yours but know the facts going into it. We have seen gullible tourists conned into paying 10 time the going rate.
That being said make sure you take a taxi from the
official taxi stand and if the taxi is pre-paid refuse to take the ride if the driver demands any extra 'tip' upfront. Likewise, if you are in line for a metered taxi make sure that the taxi does indeed have a meter and that it is switched on! This will prevent unpleasant surprises later.
The exception we found to the bargaining rule is in Mumbai. Mumbai taxis are fairly strictly regulated and generally amenable to using a meter—except in touristy areas like Colaba and for short trips where they try to negotiate in order to get a higher fare. Be aware that meters work a little differently in India. Meters are generally old and expensive to replace (be warned—taxis with new digital meters generally cost more) so in order to keep up with rising prices there is a government issued conversion table that all taxis are REQUIRED to carry. Don't trust a driver if he pretends not to know what you are talking about or refuses to let you see it. You have a right to see the card and can even get your own if you are staying a while, ask at tourist information to see where you can
Now who has the right of way? Cars, livestock, or humans?
get one. The official conversion is something like 13.5 times the fare displayed on the meter. For ease, the general practice is to multiply the number on the meter by 15 and round up to the nearest whole number (add 20% if traveling after 10 pm—there is a late night surcharge, in this case it is best to read it off the card, it is the number in RED). This usually does the trick, if not, start writing down the taxis identifying information and offer to take the matter to the authorities. If the driver is trying to scam you this will generally resolve the issue. GOOD LUCK! Be strong. Nice digs
-Accommodation is pretty much a mixed bag and most places we can in good consciousness recommend but there are a couple exceptions that are really standout that can make your stay in a place especially memorable—in a good way.
Sherin Cottage (Varkala, Kerala)--this is a cool, simple, laid back kind of place. No it's not on the cliff but that can be a good thing, it's quieter and more peaceful but still only a short walk to the beach. Keep in mind this is a backpacker haunt
Prettiest Church in Goa
Looks like a wedding cake doesn't it?
not a 5-star kind of place. Also it is near a temple so being awoken be the sounds of bells and chanting is common, though many people like that sort of thing. Sherin Cottage
Mewar Inn (Udaipur, Rajasthan)--sure it is a little far from the center of town but it is worth the daily trek to the center. It was one of the nicest places we stayed in India—if not the nicest—and definitely the cheapest. The rooftop restaurant is a great place to meet other travelers and the staff makes you feel like part of the family. Say hi to Kenny for us! Mewar Inn
There are more photos below