"You sound to me as though you don't believe in free will," said Billy Pilgrim. "If I hadn't spent so much time studying Earthlings," said the Tralfamadorian, "I wouldn't have any idea what was meant by free will. I've visited 31 inhabited planets in the universe...Only on Earth is there any talk of free will." -- K. Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

Friday, January 28, 2005

you had to be there?

I have a tendency to laugh a lot. Not just often, but in very long spurts. Sometimes (and I dare say recently up to three times weekly), I am so tired that in addition to finding something funny, I will laugh uncontrollably for far longer than is normal. I would say that this laughter can be infectious, as Sheela and Nick have witnessed most recently. Two nights ago Nick was subjected to me laughing so hard in the middle of the night that I pulled something in my leg. I'm not even kidding - I didn't know it was possible, either. What was I laughing about, you may ask? I provide for you the highlight reel.

The Underwear Guy on the Train to Madurai
Sheela, Ben, Dad and I are all on the train to Madurai, a temple town in Tamil Nadu. We have a very comfortable 2-tier sleeper train compartment all to ourselves. Sheela and I take the bottom bunks, Dad and Ben climb up top, and everyone dozes off. At some point the light in the hall goes off, and the train falls into relative silence, save for the sound of the tracks. However, at various times I hear my dad shouting something in Tamil to someone who keeps walking into out compartment and switching on the light. Due to total confusion and trust that everything is fine, I ignore the situtation. At another point, a rather portly Indian fellow comes into our compartment,places his vesti (a long piece of cotton fabric worn around the waist by Indian men - like primitive pants) on the shelf inbetween the bunks, and leaves. No one really sees him do this since we are all sleeping. As the night goes on, the man turning on the lights keeps returning. My dad explains that he's the conductor, and he's lost his shoes. He sits on the bunk outside in the hall, staring longingly into our compartment, saying that they were new shoes. As this confusion continues, and we are getting nearer to the station, we start wondering why someone's vesti is in our compartment. My dad sort of offers this up to the conductor who lost his shoes, and some other random guy comes in, grabs the vesti, and walks out, leaving a GIANT pair of underwear in his wake, fallen out of the vesti, just laying in the middle of our floor. Moments later, the portly fellow returns, looking for the vesti. We pleaded ignorance, my dad said something to effect of "he shouldn't have left his vesti in here anyway!" and I am staring at the glaring pair of underwear on the floor. Ben sort of points at them, indicating to the man that his underwear is on the floor, but that man doesn't hear him. This elicits my dad to say "I think I've handled that guys dirty underwear enough!"

This was enough to keep me laughing for at least a week. Constantly.

Ben Gets Violently Ill
I realize this shouldn't be funny, but he did it with such grace. The sickness started in the Mumbai airport, as we waited for a flight to Hyderabad. He had been feeling okay, but he ate a candy bar and drank a coke, and for some reason, he soon became possessed by the demon from The Exorcist. By the end of the flight he was looking pretty green. The first sign of sickness came in the airplane bathroom - the second and third waves while GETTING INTO the cab at the airport. By the time we got to the hotel, it was all over. Let's just say Sheela claims his head was almost spinning with the force of the vomiting. The sink was full, the bathtub was full, the toilet was totally full. He threw up on the TV. He threw up in bushes, on the floor. Really, Ben greeted Hyderabad with a stomachful of bile. He claims that it felt like his guts had been liquefied. Sheela does an excellent impression of the noise he made while vomiting. Luckily, Sheela also took a picture of the sink, but it is not for the faint. Ask her if you want to see it.

The Bom Jesus

Once you are faced with the many varied bathrooms of India, many with questionable quality, you start to get used to a word we use called compromise. Nick and I spent a night in Panaji, the capital city of Goa. We pulled into the bus station, and were immediately charmed by the Portuguese architecture and quaint, winding streets. After consulting the trusty Lonely Planet, we headed on over to 31st January Road, where the recommended hotels were located. We passed an AMAZING restaurant (that we later ate at - absolutely beautiful) and saw the recommended hotel. As often the case with LP recommended hotels, there were no available rooms. So, we walk another 100 meters and stop at a doorway with a sign reading Hotel Elite. We go in, they have a room, we sign in, go in, drop off our bags. Now, on first inspection, the room seemed great. A little dingy, but a nice view from the window, a lot of sunlight, and private bathroom. However, it didn't take long for Nick to emerge from the bathroom and proclaim it as "not smelling right". Soon, the smell of the bathroom overtook the entire room. We went on with our day, trying to ignore the smell, deciding what to see in Panaji. Nick notes that a nearby Church features the original "Bom Jesus". "It's not everyday you stay somewhere where you can go see the Bom Jesus and some dead saints" proclaims Nick. This is immediately funny. It only become funnier when I look over at the bathroom and say "Dude, I'm pretty sure the Bom Jesus is in our bathroom. Those pipes are clogged with dead saints." I officially spent the night with a sweatshirt I heavily sprayed with perfume over my head, laughing. Because it was funny or because I had inhaled too much perfume? It's unclear.

Ahh, the smell of Catholicism.

Thursday, January 27, 2005

the motto to woe tourists

One of the first sites that Sheela and I witnessed upon arrival in India was a shuttle bus with Incredible India! The Motto To Woe Tourists painted boldly across the side. Like any enterprising country, extremely proud of their traditions and heritage, and interested in the tourist dollar, India actively promotes tourism. However, much like the slogan, it is often awkward and slightly rude. I have seen some of the most amazing landscapes -- while walking on the rocks in Goa, looking at tide pools full of tiny fish and lizards and following beaches littered with star fish, I kept thinking "I've only seen these things at the Omni Theater". But, of course, as soon as we climbed off the rocks we were immediately followed by people selling cheap silver rings, coconuts, massages, ear cleaning services. I've been oscillating between not wanting to be rude to them and just screaming "No!" and running away. These aren't poor little kids with flies on them begging for more lentils, they're fully grown men trying to forcefully stick something in your ear, clean it out, and have you give him 20 rupees for his service. Umm, what?

Combined with the basic fact that everyone, I mean EVERYONE, stares at me constantly, I am starting to appreciate the general sense of space and personal respect in the States. It's not the running into people, and the crowded streets, or even necessarily the persistent waft of urine in the air, that makes me tired. It's the STARING. I've tried several methods to make it stop: stare back, shake my head, widen my eyes and make a vomiting noise. Nothing works. This has got me thinking about why this doesn't happen in the States (well,at least mainly in the cities): and I realized that being surrounded by millions of people who are ALL Indians is so completely different than anything at home. Minnesota may be pretty white-bred, but there is diversity, and I find myself missing it more and more. It really does make a difference to grow up in an environment where you interact with different types of people. As more tourists come into India, I am sure that they will become much more used to the diversity. Unfortunately, there is a level that the tourists and Indians aren't interacting on, and it's got everyone stuck in a gridlock.

Wednesday, January 26, 2005

catching up

My current ability to post pictures is due to my location in Bangalore, the hi-tech center of India. This means several things: broadband internet, Pizza Hut (yes, Pizza Hut), and English language movies. As a break from the weeks of beaches and countryside, I'm sitting in an air-conditioned Internet store, using the fast internets surrounded by 14 year-old Indian boys gaming around me. There's an escalator right outside the window, which is approached every few minutes by apprehensive Indian families daring each other to get on it. I just heard Wham's Last Christmas for the fourth time since Christmas actually happened. Explain that.

And now, to catch up. Excuse me while I photoblog.

Hyderabad, Cows, a Church in Goa

Tuesday, January 25, 2005

Hanuman Temple

Monday, January 24, 2005

An Open Letter

Last night while once again experiencing the utter joy of the very uneven Indian roads on an overnight bus to Bangalore, I spent all the hours that one should spend sleeping watching people's heads bouncing against their seats and beginning to compose two open letters: one to India, the other to Greyhound. First, to India:

Dear India,

Sometimes you are very beautiful and your inhabitants are extremely wise and helpful. Sometimes I climb mountains and there are monkeys watching me ( are your monkeys for or against me? I am not sure.) Sometimes, India, you smell like the Como Zoo. I love your varied and beautiful oceans, and your weird moon hills and ancient temples. However, India, your transportation sometimes keeps me awake at night (that, and the packs of feral dogs fighting, but you can't help nature, can you?) Three cheers for your two and three tier sleeper trains - those trains are the only way to go. But India, how do you withstand the driving you demand? Sometimes riding your buses makes me fear for the lives of all Indians. But I know you are watching out for me. India.

Masala! Jecca Namakkal

and an overdue ode to the Greyhound:

Dear Greyhound:

Although you many be the number one travel choice for all those Americans who haven't figured out how to rent a car or buy a plane ticket, I will never doubt your smooth road sailing again, even when the meth addict next to me wants to talk about Nietzsche. Let's be friends for life.

Regards, JNamakkal

Thursday, January 20, 2005

monolithic monoliths

What is the correct way to engage a monument or historical site? Do you

A)take a picture of it
B)climb it
C)touch it
D)hug it
E)or all of the above?

We've been in Hampi for several days now, due to the massive amounts of ruins that are waiting to be explored (and the very comfortable guest house/hut with mosquito netting we found). Our location is amazing - right on the edge of rice paddy fields - blue sky and green stalks. There are groves of palm trees everywhere. Yesterday we walked from the guest house to the river, took a coracle (basically a very large bamboo bowl with tar on the bottom, steered by a man with an oar) across the river to Hampi Bazaar and headed for one of many temples. In the next hour or two, we saw a temple elephant being fed, some monkeys playing in the ruins of ancient temples, and many signs leading us to the Monolithic Bull. I took pictures of everything as I went, but immediately knew that the pictures weren't going to convey the feeling of standing in the middle of it.

Today was the day that we got smart and rented bikes to cycle around the ruins. Mine was pink, had hearts for decals, and was named the "Monica". Nick's was blue, called the Atlas, and had a badass anarchy symbol on the front. The first monument we stumbled on was the Monolithic Ganesh, which beat the pants off of the Monolithic Bull. Only a few of the ruins have admission fees or much security - the rest are outfitted with an informational sign from the Archaeological Society of India, and one security guard lounging out front. This means we get to climb ancient shrines, look for monkeys in dark rooms of old temples (haven't found one yet - man, would that be scary) and experience the monument at our leisure. This seems to me to be an excellent way to interact with history. Today I ran my hands over 6th c. reliefs of temple elephants and dancing monkey gods - I climbed some old steps, laid down on the top, and watched the rest of the tourists down below. All the pictures in a 128MB memory card couldn't convey that. I kept thinking about how when we went to Mount Rushmore there were people and barriers everywhere - it wasn't like we were hanging from Abe Lincoln's nose. Granted Mount Rushmore is pretty stupid anyway.

The other best part about ancient ruins? Nick J. pretending to be Zelda and making the Nintendo noise while soldiering down the ye olde stairs. Not to be missed - highly recommended.

Tuesday, January 18, 2005

everyone looks like someone else

Which is the opposite, I suppose, of everyone looking the same. We've taken a giant leap into the tourist community, and I am starting to relate everyone I meet to someone else I know. I met a older German woman yesterday who looks like my godmother, an Israeli hippie type who looks like Wes Atkinson (Wes, where are you?) with a beard. Every other Bristish man looks like Don Mabley-Allen. This may be the method I use in order to make myself feel comfortable in strange surroundings. Which brings me to a very important point, which is that list of things I need has become much more practical. Instead of lofty airline tickets and self-knowledge, I'm finding myself needing:

a hot shower
clean clothes
the sand out of my towel
a copy of the train schedule
some new books

We got to Hampi this morning after taking a sleeper coach overnight. The first fifteen minutes of the ride were nice - I stretched out, opened my window, looked at the stars and listened to Elliot Smith. Unfortunatly, the comfort did not last long. I had to suspend all sense of fear and love of life for the next 10 hours of speed bumps, slightly tilting bus weight, and screeching halts. We pulled up into the middle of a village at 6am, and spent the next four hours talking to some Israelis (plus a Norweigan and a Turk), watching them smoke cigarettes, and eating toast - waiting for check-out time at the Shanthi Guest House. Luckily, it was well worth the wait, and we were given a clean room with our OWN BATHROOM. I treated myself to another in a series of cold showers and now I'm off to explore the ruins of Hampi.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

What are you doing to the dollar, GW?

There seem to be a limited number of Americans touring India right now - it's pretty far for Americans to travel here, in addition to the expensive tickets and multiple vaccinations. There is, however, no shortage of Israelis, Brits, and other various Europeans. Yesterday, after soundly defeating Nick in a late night game of Rummy 500, we encountered our first North American accent so far whilst carousing at the Laughing Buddha. This Canadian, a native of Toronto, immediately informed us that he hated Americans. He stated the most obvious reasons: arrogance, irresponsible tourism, support for George Bush and the Iraq war. We talked to him for awhile, trying to convince him that politically, the USA is quite divided and that Minnesota is (or at least used to be) a very liberal community. He then proceeded to drink, smoke, and hook up with twenty-year-old Swedish girls. He's been living in Goa since September - he'll be here until March. He spends his days swimming, looking for cheese sandwiches, riding his motorcycle around Goa, and getting giant tattoos on his back of Hindu gods he doesn't understand. And somehow, we're the bad tourists? I'm finding it difficult to reconcile the issues fellow travelers have with Americans when they themselves have come to India, a country I have roots in, because their currency is worth a lot and they can drink and smoke freely in the tropical weather - something that is not inherent in Indian culture. They come straight to Goa, bypassing the Indian parts of India, stay in hotels with fellow Westerners, eat at pubs started by British people (which I readily admit was a great guilty pleasure yesterday), and generally ignore all the Indian people around them hawking t-shirts with Om symbols and cheap silver jewelry. Of course, this is how the tourist industry thrives, but seriously, blaming Americans for arrogance at that point is utterly ridiculous.

Contemplating this over breakfast, I headed into the water to float in tranquility and try to think about how Americans are supposed to represent themselves abroad. There is nothing like leaving the USA to start feeling vaguely patriotic. As I was floating, an Indian man swam up to me and asked the standard "Which place are you from?" We had a short conversation, two heads bobbing in the Arabian Sea, about Americans coming to India. He asked if I had been scared off by the tsunami - he said most Indians were scared to come near the beach. He started to talk to Nick, also, and told him that it was very lucky for him to be traveling because "Indians, they do not get vacation, they just work all the time." Now, I know this is not true. I know there are millions of Indians who have the means to vacation and travel, just as there are millions of Americans who find this possible. Are we lucky? Of course we are. But there are just as many Americans who will work their whole lives without getting on a plane as there are with that privalege. It seems that people everywhere are confusing class with nationality. Yes, there have been times and there still are places from which people do not find it possible to travel, but that is rapidly changing.

Of course this Indian man from Karnatka is greatly referring to all the Euro-travelers in Goa. They really do over-run the beaches, covering the seaside with man-thongs and topless sunbathing. Do Indians behave like this? Not that I've seen. I'm sure the tourist scene in other parts of Asia is similar. It's starting to become very clear to me how American culture infects the rest of the world, and what that means for Americans. It makes me more defensive than I'd like - yes, George Bush is an extremist. Yes, America thinks it runs the United Nations. Yes, many Americans know nothing of international politics. But I am not the embodiment of that. I am not Justin Timberlake and George Bush and McDonalds and New York and Disneyland rolled into one.

And everywhere we go, someone says to someone else "Oh, the euro's doing great! It's the dollar that keeps going down..."

The ship may be sinking.

Tuesday, January 11, 2005


songs with paradise in the title:

'Almost Paradise'
'Two Tickets to Paradise'
that Phil Colins song that goes :"Just another day for you and me in paradise" (thanks to Nick who mentioned it at breakfast and infiltrated my brain with it - awful song)

What do you do in paradise? Wake up, eat museli and yogurt, sit on the beach, swim, walk, swim, sit and read, watch the sun set, eat dinner, watch hippies smoking, sleep. Today involved walking for four hours to find another beach. No one else was out walking - just me, Nick, and the cows. We said 'hello' to many children, nick got a 50 Rupee haircut, and I am much tanner than I have been in years. I might actually start looking like an Indian pretty soon (doubtful).

Saturday, January 08, 2005

love in the time of mefloquine

Between the malaria medicine, various antibiotics, the hot hot beach, poor women with wet babies, Kingfishers, lentils and overnight trains, I am generally sort of confused. Goa is beautiful, even though we seem to have washed up in the part known as a have-been rave community. This involves endless Asian and European teenagers with (no joke) alien fanny packs, tacky tattoos, and plenty of belly button piercings. This beach would be idyllic without the shady drug dealers and Indian men trying to clean your ears. Still, I have never seen a beach so warm and pretty, with weird lizards and hundreds of little crabs and tiny fish darting between rocks. Last night I sat outside the guesthouse, on our "front porch" and read The Namesake - the weather and air was perfect, and I pretty much ignored the noises from the pack of feral dogs roaming the dark dirt paths.

Inida: always approaching paradise, but never quite reaching it. Like the Myth of Sisyphus.

Tommorrow: South Goa, and look into self actualization.

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

dirty hippies

Dang dang. The dirty hippies are everywhere. Especially in Mumbai train stations under the ticket window with the giant sign that says FOREIGN TOURISTS . One dirty hippie sat underneath the ticket window in his tie-dyed pants and meditated. Good to know people like that are still flocking to India. This is why we need to phase in a new India travel subculture. Guest appearances by those sick of winter and the real world as more than welcome to join this new travel scheme.

I just spent a week in Hyderabad, which looks a lot like Sunset Boulevard. It has the same awful traffic and spread out feel of Los Angeles, but with more Indians and less burritos. To this end, I have figured out what LA needs: auto rickshaws. Serious.

On another note, I like that I can make plans that consist of "Nick, I'll meet you in India" and it works.