Archive for the ‘India’ Category

North, South and Away

Thursday, December 31st, 2009

Kandy, Sri Lanka’s second-largest city, presents itself with a large lake surrounded by hills. AKB and I walked the periphery of the lake every day, leaving our guest-house’s perch and strolling down the hill into town. With just enough bustle to make it seem busy, Kandy held just enough attractions for us to stay a few days, enjoy good food and beer, and see some sights. Actually, there was one fairly awful meal at a near-empty restaurant recommended by Lonely Planet. Ugh. Those guide books suck the more I use them. I won’t go into details here — we will post a video once State-side.

The main attraction in town is Temple of the Tooth, an active temple that purportedly houses one of Buddha’s teeth. I call bullshit — one cannot actually see the relic, nor are there any pictures. May as well be Schrödinger’s dentures. Still, the grand temple was worth a visit. And, I suppose, so were the various Hindu and Buddhist temples in the area. Still, AKB and I were, well… underwhelmed. There. I’ve said it. Maybe it was just that point in a traveler’s journey when he gets homesick, or fed up, or just plain saturated. I think some combination of those was at play. As was the torrential rain. But when it comes down to it, Sri Lanka has little to offer in terms of nightlife and hors-museum activity. Rather, AKB and I entertained ourselves with crummy HBO movies and lakeside wildlife (seriously — we saw hundreds of giant bats and a six foot long lizard on that lake.) Maybe we were missing something, but all of a sudden Mr. and Mrs. independent traveler here were craving some semblance of nighttime activity beyond a half-empty shopping center.

We moved on to visit the towns of Sigiriya, Polonnaruwa and Anuradhapura. Each had spectacular ruins — Sigiriya’s attraction is an ancient fort atop a huge rock, and pretty incredible. But again, beyond the archaeological stuff there was little for us to do but complain. We’re in a bit of a rut, see, and both are never satisfied.

Let me be clear that I was not entirely disappointed in our Sri Lankan adventure: the food is incredible, the dagobas and Buddha statues are stellar, and the vibe is pleasantly laid-back. But let me acknowledge some unmet expectations. Perhaps more entertainment of some kind, maybe easier travel, buses with ventilation, less humidity, cheaper accommodations… More importantly, I think I expected better adaptability on our part. See, rewarding travel always has its costs, and AKB and I paid a lot forward with patience — an intolerable bus journey becomes worth it when the destination shines, no? But by the end of our stay here we felt let down. We had no reserves left to adapt to the situation, and were quickly over it.

It’s a romantic notion to think of oneself as an explorer of distant lands, etc. But we’re not treading new ground here — we’re following a guide book, after all, and fall prey to the expectations set therein. As much as I like to think of myself as an minor-league adventurer, I am coming to grips with the fact that I have an established set of Western standards, that I like something to write home about, clean bathrooms and a good cup of coffee. I guess I’m realizing that I’m in my thirties now.

We left Sri Lanka yesterday and landed in Varkala, on the India’s southwestern coast. It is tourist-central here, and I am fighting off my prejudices (having seen very few white people over the last few weeks, we are suddenly surrounded by blonde-dreaded twenty-somethings and yoga tourists.) I am fighting my natural urges to be different. I am embracing the open-air restaurants. I’m secretly sneaking glances at the “ethnic” wares on offer along the strip. I am sunbathing and swimming. I am enjoying my sea-side cappuccino. It ain’t so bad after all.

Cough, sneeze. Repeat.

Saturday, December 5th, 2009

Mumbai was an interesting place to end up after a long flight. Forced acclimation — to the weather, the crowds, traffic and incessant honking. Akb and I took our time and wandered the streets and beaches, taking turns feeling exhausted and cranky. We saw (some) sights, enjoyed good food and settled into a travel rhythm. What a sprawling, packed city. Its past splendors are all black with pollution, yet it retains a certain charm. Well, charming isn’t exactly the adjective that comes to mind when you think you’re about to get run over for the eighth time, but it’s easy to imagine the city’s former splendor. Once, long ago, probably.

Akb and I realized the hard way that it’s easy to get cocky. Time and again, we were forced to eat crow as soon as we thought we’d had things figured out (most likely, due to taking off the good-luck red/yellow string bracelets we were given in front of a temple.) The worst example of this was missing our 6:10am onward train. Sigh. Lesson learned — always double check the information you are given, no matter the uniform of the giver (in this case, something like a white doctor’s robe, worn by train station employees.) Eventually, we said some hasty goodbyes to Mumbai, a city I may one day visit again, but not any time soon.

***

We eventually got on another train, and I quickly discovered the delicious world of Indian train food. At every station hawkers sell fresh chaat, chai and coffee, and every station has its delicacies. One station was in Indian wine country and grapes were sold by the bunch, but I passed on the fresh fruit in favor of Wada Pav, my new favorite snack. Deep-fried potato thing + hot chili pepper all wrapped up in bread. Yum. And every station is slightly different — my favorite slightly roasted(?) the pepper and coated it in salt, and wrapped the whole thing in a focaccia-like bread. drool……

[Needless to say, the food here is, by and large, pretty fucking delicious. Akb and I are starting to write down our favorite items so far. Maybe we’ll write up a food post later.]

Eventually, we made it to Aurangabad – a sprawling township several hours east of Mumbai. Its claims to fame are a cotton/silk blend fabric and some tourist sites, some better than others. Bibi Ka Maqbara, a 16th-century “mini Taj Mahal” was neat (though I still feel like I should visit the real thing), and the large Daulatabad Fort was worth a visit (“one of the best forts in the world”, if one of the touts there was to be believed), but our main draw to this part of the country was the ancient caves at Ellora. These were built over several centuries by Buddhists, Hindus and Jains, each with different styles and representations. Wishing I’d taken more interest in archaeology in college (beyond a 9am class first-semester) freshman year, I snapped a few magic hour photos to content myself.

But beyond the rock carvings, the fun that day was being approached by dozens of Indian kids who wanted to have their photos taken. They were happy to just have us take pictures of them, but ecstatic to have us pose with them. In a book I recently read the protagonist repeatedly talks of Indians being entrepreneurial. Well, here we saw it first hand, as on-site photographers seized the opportunity to have us pose with gaggles of school kids and print out the pictures for them on the spot, using portable printers. I guess it’s only fair, what with my taking pictures of strangers all the time and all…

***

That night we took a train (a second-class sleeper, for which i was badly underdressed, froze on, catching a cold) to Hyderabad, in the state of Andhra Pradesh.

Oh Hyderabad – ye of sprawling size and awful pollution. Your exhaust hath shaved at least five years off my life expectancy. Thank you.

The city’s massive bazaar and Islamic architecture were impressive to see, and Akb and I enjoyed a few delicious meals here. However, we simply could not get used to the pollution — dark clouds of diesel exhaust and unrelenting congestion nearly made us pass out on a couple of occasions, and we finally caved in and hit up a posh multiplex for an opening-day screening of Paa, for which we had been seeing advertisements all week (good acting despite some slow parts, and easy-to-understand story made knowledge of Hindi largely unnecessary.)

We were quick to leave Hyderabad, but before I do so here, let me just note that for a “high-tech city” dubbed Cyberabad, it’s remarkably difficult to find an internet cafe (and don’t get me started on the draconian rules making me give passport information just to check my email…) If these blog updates are lacking in frequency, let’s blame it partly on this.

***

This morning we flew from Hyderabad to Chennai (which we are skipping), and quickly found a bus to Pondichery. I’ve been looking forward to spending my birthday here, and so far it’s been a very pleasant experience. Our french-flavored guest house is lovely, Tamil Nadu is pleasant, and this manageable town is a welcome respite from the last few days. It’s going to be a good birthday 😉

***

More updates soon, I hope. We go to Sri Lanka on the 8th, then back to India for New Year’s. In the meantime, I’m going to tuck into some required reading, including a tome I just picked up that may shed some light on mysterious modern Bombay. Bye.

Jetlag is a bitch

Monday, November 30th, 2009

There’s nothing quite like hitting a several walls throughout the day to make you feel useless.

After a 30+ hour journey, I was all-too-pleased to devour a delicious take-away meal from Kailash Parbat, what is apparently a Mumbai legend – and akb and my new favorite Indian restaurant (so good we returned for breakfast.) As auspicious as this midnight snack seemed, however, the next couple of days dealt with the delirious reality of jet lag.

It’s amazing how easily I fall into patterns of self-criticism, especially around the need to feel productive. While traveling, this manifests itself in needing to explore as much as possible; to check items off the travel book list; to spend each precious second seeing, tasting, experiencing new things.

Nobody needs to tell me that this is a fallacy. My other strong, and contradictory, personality trait is that of the flâneur — after all, i am happiest when wandering around without a rigid agenda. Still, the self-critic manifests itself whenever he senses weakness, and jet lag is a time when judgment falters and senses play tricks.

I know this to be true. And, i pledge to ease up, give myself (and my partner) a break. I don’t need to maximize my time on the mountain all the time, much less when i’m not on the mountain. Acclimation, rest, taking it easy. Om shanti, yadda yadda, om.

Lastly, allow me to acknowledge that jet lag is also a malady of privilege. I have so little to complain about in my life (though i do), and nowhere is this more evident than here in India. I have steeled myself in preparation for what I would see here. Namely, the terrible contrasts and discrepancies in the realities of life here. To see it all so easily, as a white, wealthy, healthy Westerner. To visit the Taj Hotel of $500/night rooms and manicured lawns and swimming pool, then to see the conditions that so many live in right past the city center… It’s a trite observation that hardly needs my voice, and i’ve just blogged it. This is privilege.

Let me not forget it.