Friday, May 9, 2008


I wrote this entry several days after I returned to the US, but never got around to posting it. So here is one of my last stories from India.

I arrived home in the US early on Tuesday morning (May 6th). Going through customs was smooth and efficient. The man at the counter asked for my passport and smiling said, "April 25? My birthday is April 26th." I said, "One day a part... Happy Birthday." Then he wished me a happy birthday, stamped my passport, and looked me in the eye and said, "Welcome home." It was a friendly interaction for 5am and I definitely felt welcome in my home country.

Leaving India was filled with plenty of mixed emotion and adventure up until
the very end. I finished packing my bags and walked down to the travel agent's office with my friend Caroline. I had booked a pre-paid taxi to the airport with them earlier that day. Of course, it wouldn't be right if everything went as planned. I was supposed to have a private taxi to the airport and paid the amount for a private car so I could be sure to get there safely and on time. Well, my taxi driver started to lead me down the street. We got to a corner and he said,
"wait here." I was thinking maybe he was going to bring the car around for me. After several minutes he emerged with two other men and more luggage than I have ever seen. Among many of their bags were several duffel bags larger than me. Hmm, bodies? No, probably scarves from Kashmir. I started to process what was happening and just shook my head. Of course. They shoved the luggage into the car and the other men climbed in. Fortunately, I was given the front seat and a not smashed between two other very large men and their massive luggage. My bags were crushed, however, which gave me concern for my video camera and other belongings. The two men then slipped the driver 100 rs. Then he demanded that I give him my prepaid receipt. I showed it to him, but would not turn it over. He demanded to have it and then pointing to another man that had appeared said, "this man will be your driver." I began to protest, "No, this is not how this works. I will give this receipt to you when I arrive at my destination, otherwise I have no guarantee that I will get there. I literally have no more money to pay." I was serious too. I had given my extra rupees away to my friend before leaving and if they dumped me off somewhere other than the airport, I had no Indian currency to pay for another ride. I was starting to feel a bit angry. He pointed to the man that had appeared next to him and said, "He is your driver. She has already paid. See. He will take you." They wouldn't leave until I had turned over my receipt, so I had to give in. In hind sight, what I wished I would have done was raised my camera, snapped a picture of his face and my receipt, and winked at him and said, "just in case."

For the first time in all of my travels I actually felt like getting angry. It was awkward to ride in a car with three men, one who was a dishonest taxi driver and two other men that had paid him off in order to get a discounted rate on the service that I was paying for. I was also watching carefully out the window for signs or landmarks to make sure I was being taken to the airport. I think my frustration came not from the fact that I was being scammed, because this is not an infrequent practice. The money wasn't the issue. It was the stress of not knowing whether any other arrangements had been made. Instead of looking out the window and quietly saying goodbye to India and reflecting on my travels, I was crammed into the front seat, critically looking out the window watching every sign that passed, keeping an eye on my driver. I was taking note of all of the objects in the car and how they could be used to my advantage should I need to use my ninja skills at any point along the way. I figured if the taxi driver demanded more money, I had a verbal statement prepared for him at the end of which I would chuck
his miniature statues and incense out the window, providing a distraction so I could get my bags and run into the airport. However, nothing like this happened so really the scam came to an uneventful close when we were all dropped off safely at the airport and I managed to easily
make it through security to my gate, which gave me time to diffuse and let go of all of my defensive energy.

One last hitch. My flight changed gates during the couple of hours that I had to wait at the airport. None of the reader boards or signs reflected the change. No announcements. I had been looking around to see if something like this had happened but didn't see any notice. But near boarding time, a woman came up to me and asked if I was on the continental flight to Newark. I said yes. She said they were now boarding at gate #4. Alright. One good thing about being profiled as a white tourist is people in the airport can see you sticking out where you don't belong and direct you to the right place. So that is how I made my flight and arrived safely in the US.

Now after being home in the US for a couple of days, I am finding everything around me to feel 100% hygienic. I think I was the only person in NYC who thought the train tracks looked clean, probably because I didn't see anyone defecating on the tracks at 6am while taking the train into the city. I also felt like the city was so quiet. I remember the city being much more populated 10 years ago. But I guess an orderly flow of traffic will give that feeling, compared to the chaos of streets in India with vegetable carts, rickshaws, autos, bicycles, ox carts, motorcycles, to name only a few.

I have also noticed an intense appetite since I came back home. I am adding all kinds of things back into my diet, including meat. For breakfast this morning I had eggs, toast, ham, and orange juice. Still feeling hungry I had some trail mix and more toast with butter and jam. Then I decided it was a good idea to have an ice cream sandwich, after which I had a bowl of cereal. I really love Indian food, but there is something so good about a bowl of cereal.

So in relaying these stories of scams and contrast of efficiency, I have to say that I miss India. Even though it is a great luxury to dry myself off after a hot shower and actually use a towel as opposed to my bandanna, I would return to India in a heart beat. When I evaluate all of the bad along with the good, somehow the good comes out way on top. Plus, who can argue about sharing a Thalis (combination platter) for two and paying the equivalent of $1.25. I bought a sandwich in New York that cost $13.00. Should I feel guilty about this??

Sunday, May 4, 2008

If I were male...

Yesterday I arrived back in Delhi as my final destination in India. I am down to the final days of my journey and I leave India tomorrow night. It doesn't even feel like I could possibly be leaving yet, and at the same time there is part of me that is thrilled with the idea of taking a bath and sleeping in clean sheets.

My final moments in Delhi have been spent doing a little bit of shopping and I also have run into a couple of friends I made during my time in Varanasi. One is sharing a hotel room with me. When you are travelling alone, you are really never travelling alone. But this morning, while travelling to the LDS church in New Delhi, I had a moment of, "I wish I were a guy." As a female traveller, there are just certain boundaries I have to maintain that the male traveller doesn't even have to think about. For example, this morning as I was negotiating my auto rickshaw, a vegetable truck pulled up and a couple of guys in the front seat smiled and motioned to me to come and sit in the truck with them. They were offering me a ride. It looked pretty fun to go on an adventure in the vegetable truck, and it seemed like a genuine offer, but there is a chance the situation could turn bad and being all alone I knew it was best to decline the offer. I was, however, highly entertained as we pulled away in the rickshaw they drove up parralel to us on the road and there was a relay exchange of tomotoes while driving through the traffic. My driver aquired a couple of free vegetables for the day that way.

The other incident where I was wishing I was a male was only moments later when my auto rickshaw driver offered me the chance to drive the rickshaw. The traffic wasn't so bad and I really was tempted to do it. But that meant moving to the front seat sitting right next to the driver. Miraculously, during my entire travelling in India I have avoided being groped in any way like so many of the female travellers (probably due to my strict adherence to an India dress code) but I wasn't willing to risk it in my final hours in Delhi. Sadly, I had to turn down the opportunity to become a rickshaw driver and keep a more appropriate distance from my driver.

One final "I wish I were male" moment was when I was in Varanasi and I saw urinals on the side of the street with a giant sign that said "Public Convenience." I think if I were a guy I could have gotten away with taking a photograph of that sign. However, as I female, I felt a bit awkward. Mostly, I wanted it as proof that a couple of men in India actually use urinals an not just buildings or trains or whatever is close by. Plus, I am highly amused that it is not called a toilet or urinal, but rather "public convenience" because that really is what it is. There is nothing more private about it other than an open structure built conveniently for the purpose of peeing.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Budget travel.

I thought I would say a few words about budget travel. Relative to prices in America, it is pretty inexpensive to travel in India. But then again you get used to paying certain prices for things and when you get ripped off, it can sting for a bit. But it is interesting how prices don't seem to make sense.

For example, a prepaid taxi from the airport in Delhi to a hotel might cost between 200-250 rs, which is about $5.00. However, during this season, a decent hotel room for one night might cost about 200-300 rs. Some intense budget travellers stay in places for 70 rs a night. So a ride in an auto might cost more than your lodging.

So when I had to change rooms at the Shanti Guest House in order to have A/C, I was a bit annoyed with the price. Relative to everything, 500 rs is a lot to pay for a room, so I was expecting a bit better quality with my upgrade. It was only after I moved into the room that I found out that the shower didn't work. I only have water for part of the day. The sink leaks all of its contents out onto the bathroom floor, so when I brush me teeth I spit it in the toilet rather than in the sink because I don't want it to land all over my feet. The A/C that I am paying for actually only works during the evening and morning, which is the coolest time of day. During the hottest time of the day there is no electricity due to power outages all over the city. I also asked for a new sheet to put on my bed and the one I was handed had giant holes in it. Thankfully, I have my trusty sleep sack.

So, this is not to complain about my hotel because it has actually been quite nice. But relative to other hotels, I have paid a lot less and had nicer rooms. But when it is 41 degrees celcius by 11:00am, there is really no point in trying to find a new hotel. It is too much work to lug a backpack around the city and I like the location of my hotel, right next to the burning ghat. But I guess that is why the hotel offers a few bonuses, such a free pick-up from the train station and free boat rides every morning and evening. Don't mind the boy on the boat who will offer you a candle and flowers to float in the water an then ask for 20 rs. This service is optional, but he might make it seem like it is a necessity.

Varanasi silk.

What is with Varanasi and Goldie Hawn? As soon as I respond to someone that I am from America they say, 'Ah, you know Goldie Hawn? You come to my shop, I met her.' I think maybe she met some guru here and now all of the shop owners think they can lure you in by mentioning Goldie Hawn. But she's not really my type.

Varanasi is known for several things, which I have become well acquainted with all of them. The burning ghats, which I already mentioned. It is also known for its maze of winding narrow streets, and for silk. I have never seen so much silk and about every minute I am asked if I would like a boat ride or if I would like to buy some silk. Well, now I have done both.

It was hot and I had nothing to do so I took a walk to a bakery and I was going to scout prices at a fixed price shop first before checking the bazaar for silk items but it was closed. I think I must have been profiled because some young guy asked me to tour the silk workshops where they have plenty of people working the hand looms. It was an interesting way to spend part of my afternoon. Then he lead me to his father's silk shop in their home where they started pulling out hundreds of beautiful pieces of fabric. Their favorite line is 'looking is free.' This is what I was afraid of and I think all of the salesmen in Varanasi know that once you look, you have to buy.

I knew that everything was a little too easy at this point so something was bound to happen. In the evening when I returned for my top, it didn't fit, so we had to wait a long time and try and re-try the top taking it to the tailor. I think they were getting annoyed with me because I wasn't willing to walk away with something that didn't fit. While waiting, they pulled out hundreds of scarves for us to look at in the most amazing colors. My friend Caroline who accompanied me ended up buying a couple of scarves. It was only after we left the shop and saw the same ones in the market for half the price.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Holy Ganga.

If anyone has any aversions to seeing dead bodies, I don't recommend reading this post.

Varanasi is so gritty and in your face. I am fascinated by this city and everything is so natural and cyclical. When I first arrived, I walked out of my hotel and down to the ghats. I am staying right next to a burning ghat where bodies are burned 24 hours a day. I can smell the smoke from my hotel room. One of the first things I saw in this city was a body wrapped in some cloth being tossed onto a fire. It seems like that should have phased me, but it didn't. There are hospices near the burning ghat where people come and stay, waiting to die.

Last evening I took a boat ride down the river at dusk and we stopped on the other side and got out to walk around. There lying in the sand was a human skull. Right next to that, men bathing, and a group of boys were running around in the sand flying kites. They even let me take the string for a minute and I tried to fly the kite, not so successfully.

This morning on my boat ride, I looked into the water and floating next to our boat was a body. Maybe this is insensitive for me to photograph these things, but I am fascinated by everything taking place next to each other.

Bodies are burned, bodies are washed. People are cleaning their clothes and setting them out to dry, people are relieving themselves in the river. They are selling food, lighting candles, throwing flowers, offering puja. Little boys swim up to our boat to say hello. All of these things are happening on top of each other.

A couple of guys were trolling around in a boat this morning watching television. I don't even know how that is possible. We have power outages constantly in our hotel and yet they are watching television in the river.

My country is way too sterile... and at the same time, there is no way I am going to even dip a foot in the ganga. I was laughing last night as a bit of water splashed up from the boat and hit a foreign girl in the face. She unloaded most of her water bottle on her skin and mouth trying to wash off the toxic river. (Apparently, not a believer in the holy water.) But with the latest newspaper report of fecal content in the ganges, I don't blame her.


Arriving in Varanasi after being in the cool mountains was like a slap in the face. It is scorching hot and by 10am it is too hot to wander around. So I have been getting started around 5am when it is a bit cooler.

My not so luxurious hotel does have a couple of luxuries. One is a free boat road on the ganga every morning at 5:30am and every evening at 5pm. So far, this has been the highlight and a good way to see a bit of the city without too much physical exertion on my part. The other luxury was the free pick-up from the train station so after my night journey it was great to have someone approach me with my name on a sheet of paper and escort me to an auto rickshaw. No hassles or stress.

The not so great thing about my hotel room was the first room I had was somewhat of a cell block. In fact, other travellers had written things on the walls and drawn pictures and that was written above the door. At about 11pm last night, I changed rooms. So now I am paying for two double beds, but I have A/C. My first room was only equipped with a ceiling fan, which more or less just stirred the heat around a bit. At night, it becomes not only hot, but very humid because of the river and the pollution.

Goodbye monks and McLeod Ganj.

On Sunday I said goodbye to my monk friends, the cool air of the mountains, and my amazing view of the himalayas from my hotel room. Joseph and I took a sleeper bus from McLeod Ganj to Delhi, which is a 12 hour journey. The word "sleeper" for me meant no sleep. I thought having a bed on the bus would be useful for night travel, but it turns out it is a bit hazardous. I also didn't realize that they book 2 people per bed. Umm, let's get cozy. So Joseph and I crammed into our compartment and did our best not to roll out of the bunk or have any more spouts of vomiting on our way down the mountain. I am not sure if Joseph posted his epic tale of vomiting on the airplane to Amritsar on his blog, but if you like that sort of thing, you can follow his blog.

Oh yes, and to be clear, I didn't end up swimming with the monks. I only watched, which was for the best. Later I saw a foreign girl swimming in the proper attire, shirt and pants, and the entire crowd of men at the pool stopped to watch her. After scoping out the situation, I figured less attention for me would be best. But we did have a lovely afternoon walking to a waterfall.

Another side note, and moment of amazing coincidence, I was in Delhi for just a few hours after taking the night bus. I had purchased a ticket for a night train and was walking down the bazaar in Paharganj to gather my things and I saw Frieda walking in the street. She had come to Delhi to pick up her daughter from the airport and meet with the publisher. It was amazing to see her even though for just a few moments. Who would have thought that was possible?