"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

Monday, February 28, 2005

Airtel would like to welcome you back to Bangladesh

To all of you who have been enduring winter weather for the months that I have been absent from the great midwest, take comfort in the fact that I am no longer basking in the hot sun of Varkala Beach. Five hundred km above Kolkata, nesetled between Nepal, Bhutan, and Bangladesh, 7001 ft up the Himalayas: I am pleased to report that I am offically cold. Two sweaters, a knitted headband, and a pair of wool socks later, I keep forgetting that I'm in India. Luckily for me, the cellphone has been sending a text message, every hour on the hour, welcoming me back to Bangladesh. I wasn't aware that I had crossed that International Border, but Airtel Cellular seems to be much wiser than I. In addition to it catching on to my diabolical running back and forth to Bangladesh plan, every now and again when making a call a disembodied British voices waxes philosophical by informing me that the number you are calling does not exist. This is my punishment for buying the cell phone that came with a picture of Shah Rukh Khan on the package.

Shah Rukh Khan explaining "cellular technology"
Not only is it cold in Darjeeling, it is also unbelievably beautiful. The twenty-four hours we have spent here so far have been literally clouded with fog and, well, clouds. The manager of the guest house we are staying at said that they weather had just turned gloomy, and then pointed out into the white nothingness and said "the mountains are in that corner". It's a little strange to be in the Himalayas without being able to see the width of the mountain range, but hopefully the sun will come back soon. Still, it's exciting to be here. Today we went to the highest altitude zoo in the world. We saw two Siberian tigers, snow leopards, and my new favorite animal: the red panda.

The extremely cute red panada

Connected to the zoo is the Himalayan Mountaineering Institute, formerly persided over by Sherpa Tenzig Norgay, one of the first people to climb Mount Everest. The Mount Everest museum included the shoes, mittens, and hat Tenzig wore on the historical climb, in addition to a dead eagle they found at the top. This is not a joke.

Tenzig is very popular in Darjeeling.

And in case you were wondering: yes, Darjeeling tea tastes better in Darjeeling. So fragrant! So good! I'm going to drink some now, equally for the taste and because my fingers are frozen.

Monday, February 21, 2005

monday morning: chennai train station

The bus pulled into Chennai exactly when they told us it would - 6am, and the autorickshaws are zipping around the city before the morning traffic starts. We have a few hours to waste in between the overnight bus we just took from Kodaikanal until our train to Kolkata departs. The sun has only been up for an hour and I've already bought bananas (note: I eat bananas now - really!), eaten masala dosai, and lost one of my blue Roos (sad!)

farewell blue roo

I'm beginning to get used to living like this: constantly moving, sleeping on buses, roaming around totally foreign places I had never even heard of until recently, telling cab drivers I don't want to go anywhere, and no, I don't need a room, even if it is 'cheap price!'. While walking to our new friend's (Sir James of Skipper and Ellen) rented cottage in Vatakanal on Saturday night, to eat dinner in their 'dining room', I had the feeling that I really had no idea where I was: I knew which direction I was walking in, I knew how to find their cottage, but in essence, I was on a mountain path in a remote area of south India, with a Nick and a flashlight, which we were eagerly using to scan for monkeys. This is a little different than spending my Saturday night deciding if I should take my bike or get a ride to the bar. Dinner was fantastic, dal and eggplant curry prepared by the woman who rents the cottage to them. Although we were still hanging out with Westerners (the British), it felt like we were peeling away at least one level of the tourist scene.

And here we go, in one hour we will board the two day train to the north, traveling up the eastern coast. I really don't know what to expect from Kolkata - probably everything that a big city usually has (pollution, crowds, slums, traffic). Kolkata is described as the 'intellectual capital' of India, and I am looking forward to its many bookstores. We'll walk around, eat north Indian food (farewell abundance of 'Pure Veg' restaurants), pick up some major city supplies, and book a ticket to Darjeeling, where we will tackle the Himalayas.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

jesus, etc. (with apologies to Wilco)

When I'm in America, I am very interested in Hindu gods. When I am India, I can't stop taking pictures of various Jesus. Go figure.

Sunday, February 13, 2005


There's no more delaying it. We've made the purchase: the era of the beach will end. Realizing that the entirety of February has so far been spent on the beach, we bought train tickets to Kolkata (Calcutta). We leave from Chennai in a week, readying ourselves for the 32 hour journey with jars of imported peanut butter and banana chips. In the mean time, we're hoping to stop off at a hill station called Kodaikannal in Tamil Nadu, home of my people. Although I am excited to be moving (traveling again), the thought of packing up my backpack doesn't seem so inviting. This means turning my back on the beach - to blue waves, hot sun, multi-colored sand, 5 ruppee samosas and 25 rupee masala dosai, made fresh in front of me. No more floating out in the warm Arabian sea and watching the sky turn pink as the sun heads towards Africa and on the North America to wake all of you up to a day I've already witnessed.

But, for some reason, Calcutta really appeals to me. We've learned by now that it's best to keep major cities to two or three days - the pollution, crowds and noise become completely overwhelming, otherwise. From there, it's off to Darjeeling and the Himalayas, and then to meet Dina in Delhi.

Friday, February 11, 2005

leaving the ashram

A hazard (to some) of the traveler scene in India is the excessive amount of people on yoga vacations (sorry Nellie), spiritual journeys, nag champa missions, and general hippie nonsense usually reserved for communes in the Pacific Northwest or certain liberal arts college campuses on Grand Avenue. While sitting myself down to another delicious breakfast of museli and fruit, I overheard a woman behind me talking to another (woman? it's hard to say) over breakfast about how it feels to leave the ashram. I present, for you, the conversation:

Normal-ish woman (NW): Why don't you drink your tea? Are you in a hurry?
Strangely androgynous woman (SAW): Why? I have many things on my plate. I have many things.
NW: But you see, you should just relax. Take your time.
SAW: Yes, yes, I will drink this tea now, but I cannot slow down. You see, I have many things. I want to make a film. I want to meet Barbara Streisand. I would like to Free Tibet. How can you ask me if I am in a hurry? So many things.
NW: [sighs]

The entire time, all I could think was "What would Barbara Streisand do if confronted with this woman?"

Note how stealth I am as Nick photographs "the SAW"

The Progression of My Tan

December/Mumbai January/Hampi February/Varkala

Monday, February 07, 2005

the beach

We've done it now. We've officially found the beach that is going to make it very hard to ever live through a winter again. Next year when I am freezing in whatever part of the grad school map I have plotted out for myself, this is all going to seem like dream material. Last Monday we were on a houseboat in the Keralan backwaters, splurging on a cruise to celebrate Nick's birthday. We were outnumbered by the staff: 3 boatmen to 2 American kids (that would be us). We were fed fresh Keralan food, taken to a small island full of goats, birds, and coconuts, and somewhat disappointedly docked at shore before the sun went down. Nonetheless, there were Kingfishers all around and we got to hang out with Mr. Madhu, the Captain of the Boat.

The Boat

The next morning, luxury was abruptly stopped when we were dropped off at shore and left right back in the middle of budget traveler land. As everyone tried to sell us a backwaters tour ("we just took one, thank you very much"), we made our way to the bus station in Allepy, to head towards a beach we heard about from Wilson, our new Guest House owner friend in Fort Kochin. "Go to Varkala, it is very beautiful" he insisted. We walked around the bus station, I deflected the matrimonial eye from several young Indian men, we sweated in the humidity like we have never sweated before. Finally a bus is boarded and we're on our way.

Maybe it was because we were so hot, maybe it was the doubt at the promise of a great beach that comes with a lot of traveling, but this is actually it. The water is an amazing blue, the sunbaked Arabian sea providing the prefect wave, forceful yet not too pulling. The beach is backed by red cliffs and endless palm trees. We immediately found a room at a place on the beach; we are certainly benefiting from the lack of tourism brought on by the tsunami scare. Babu, our new proprietor, told us that business has been slow because people are afraid of the water. Bad for him, good for us, he said.

It's been a week now. At night the fishing nets floating out in the sea are little pinpricks of light against inky black water. All the restaurants display their fresh fish for you to choose before consuming (which I'm sure is very nice for people who like to eat fish - for me? Total nightmare. A lot of darting around tables of cut up fish staring at me, as the restaurant man tries to lure us in by yelling: Romantic fish!)

Really, it's so comfortable here, I don't know how we're going to leave. Fresh somosas on the beach for 10 rupees, diving into the blue water anytime I start to overheat (often), ending the day with a new release movie and fresh vegetables at any number of restaurants on the cliff.

Now, if everyone can come meet us, everything would be perfect. Perfect setting + fantastic people = paradise.