Friday, 3 February 2012

Crapping with Communists

The other day, Vadim asked me which single adjective best describes India. Without hesitation, I replied, “inexplicable.” After the lassitude and uneventfulness of the last month, I was dreading writing another apathetic post about lost wonder. India sensed my disenchantment and decided to make my final days especially inexplicable. 

Theme of this trip/general life lesson: every time I assert something with a confidence derived from my ego, I am indubitably knocked off my pedestal. Superiority does not suit me. 

Okay, before I get to the juicy bits, and they are juicy—as well as bloody and poopy and vomity and (!?) Maoist--I need to provide some context and commentary. We made it to Hampi, where we climbed and yoga-ed and biked as planned. Hampi was so similar to Rishikesh in terms of amenities and tourists: pure vegetarian, booze free yet rife with offers of marijuana and opium, blocks of rooftop restaurants sharing near-identical “international” menus and inflated (by Indian standards) prices, and hordes of stoned white people trying to find themselves via inane conversations with other stoned white people. Don't get me wrong. I loved Rishikesh and what I learned and experienced there, and I liked Hampi too, but both towns appeal to the Western mentality that anything can be had for a price, including enlightenment, hence the clothing stores providing the standard when-in-India uniform, cute yoga mat bags, OM necklaces, and spiritual charlatans. These towns have found a wealthy niche market and are exploiting it accordingly. Good for India. 

While in Hampi, our Steripen broke. We mourned it and declaimed our return to bottled water. It was at about this time that I started pooping. Remember when I so blithely bragged about my indomitable bowels? I announced that with egoistic certitude, which of course meant that the assertion would be quashed. And was it ever. Over the course of several days, my belly grew and my bathroom visits increased. Other than a diminished appetite and some embarrassing yoga moments, I felt okay and decided to ignore the discomfort because I, of course, have guts of steel, immune to all the filth India throws at them. Bad idea. By the time we started our two day train journey to Raipur, real diarrhea set in. Precariously balanced on two metal footrests, I spent at least a cumulative three hours squatting and writhing, as my intestines ejected more liquid and viscera than I imagined possible. I contain multitudes. We had an early morning layover between trains and I was able to find a 24-hour chemist who sold me a mild medication. I still didn't recognize the severity of the problem.

We arrived in Raipur after midnight. My night was filled with fervent internet research punctuated by increasingly frequent trips to the loo. And then I started pooping blood. Except it wasn't really pooping at this point. It was just red liquid falling out of me accompanied by agonizing cramping that dimmed any previous menstrual suffering. I know my family is cringing reading this, wondering why I wasn't in a hospital at this point, but there was relative intestinal calm between the violent bouts and I still had confidence that my body just needed to finish purging. Vadim got up early to find me a fresh roll of toilet paper and the extra-strong miracle medication we'd researched. 

A bit about Donald. He's the guy we met in Delhi way back in December. He's 36 and Indian, though raised partially in the States, the son of a medical doctors. We bonded with him over our shared disdain for Delhi and a brief yoga lesson. Vadim and I made plans to meet him in Raipur, but with only a tentative intention of following through. We've met so many people who invite us to their hometowns, India being the most hospitable place ever, but time is limited and sometimes Indians' friendliness and instant familiarity are overbearing. It felt different with Donald. He's one of only a handful of men, including my teachers in Rishikesh as well as Bilal and Vikas in Shimla, with whom I've felt comfortable here. We're able to communicate with him on a level that is inaccessible in most of our interactions, due to language and cultural barriers. We looked forward to him providing insight into all of the nuances and peculiarities that we're incapable of sussing out on our own. That's why we opted to spend the last week of our trip traveling with him.

He arranged the entire trip, securing a private car and a beautiful room from which we can see and hear a waterfall. In our pre-trip jitters, Vadim and I wondered if he was a tout, scamming us by overcharging for rooms and expecting some sort of payment from us, but our fears were alleviated as he was very forward about expenses and all costs were split evenly three-ways. He was also very concerned about my ailment, and kept me hydrated with electrolyte drinks and buttermilk seasoned with cumin and salt. I talked to his mom and she gave me a list of some supplementary medications to treat what she diagnosed via phone as a very bad infection. 

Safely deposited back in Raipur, we said our goodbyes. The next morning Vadim and I boarded a 30 hour train ride back to Delhi. I left two days later and am now home, cuddling my dog. 

India, I hardly knew you.

Vadim's adjective, by the way, was “stinky.” 
Women's urinals

A mango tree. It took the entire trip to figure out what they look like. I've seen these trees everywhere. I guess I was just expecting something more tropical.

Donald and Vadim starting a garbage fire. Donald was outraged to see a mound of trash in the jungle. 

Counter Terrorism and Jungle Warfare facilities. 

A delicious dhaba, though my stomach could only handle a few bites

India: the land of single speed bicycles

The best things in Bastar

No, seriously.

Did I mention that I really liked these guys?

Honk honk

I've seen dozens of interesting lizards. This is one of the few who paused long enough for a portrait.

Typical market scene

A bored woman hawking her wares

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Winding Down

Many of the pictures in this post were taken by our friends Felix, Noga, and Michelle. I'll label any of their photos fnm.

The charm of posing for photos with the locals has clearly worn off for Vadim and me. fnm

While I'm still enjoying India immensely, I've become accustomed to its idiosyncrasies and so my initial awe has faded from hourly “WTFs” to a blase “ohhh India.” Consequently, I haven't felt there's as much to share or write about. The trip feels self-indulgent at this point, not to imply this venture was ever anything but. Our weeks look like this: we choose a destination, figure out how to get there, travel for a day or two, arrive, find accommodations, wander, eat, exercise, sleep. And then we do it again a few days later. Thus, the sense of empty hedonism. There's not a lot of purpose driving the trip anymore. As much as I'm enjoying myself and am still wholly grateful for this opportunity, I'm nonetheless a bit whiny and all too ready to return home. That said, I'm happy to be returning to Arizona with some sense of fulfillment, not craving a more complete Indian experience.

Fortunately, the last month has been mostly good. Uneventful. I got some nice color on my pasty legs after weeks spent basking on the Arabian Sea. We've also made friends with whom we spent New Year's Eve and the following weeks. We rode in a houseboat and have eaten too much cheap, fantastic curried fish.

Around Christmas, we finally succumbed to an Indian bug. While traveling from Pondicherry to Kodaikanal, we stopped over for a night in dumpy Dindugal where we were assaulted by mosquitoes in our fanless sauna of a room. We looked like we had small pox, but felt okay for a few days; the sickness was incubating. After a sleepless night some days later, we woke completely depleted of energy, aching and barely able to walk. Convinced we'd contracted malaria, we groggily shuffled to the hospital, where we were prodded and tested and injected. We left with a bag full of prescriptions and no diagnosis. The entire visit cost $6. The drugs were effective and we felt like new after a day of feverish sleep, induced by the tranquilizers injected into our rears.

We'd recovered in time for New Year's Eve, which was all sorts of fun. We picnicked with the friends we'd made at the hostel in Kodaikanal snacking on real cheese (!), and the Australian couple we befriended in Pondicherry in early December came to join us. In our crowd of ten, we had eight different countries of birth represented, along with plenty of Indians meandering in to join the festivities.

After about a week in Kodaikanal, we headed to Munnar, famous for its tea estates, with six of our new friends. The trip involved a militarized border crossing from Tamil Nadu to Kerala, two states fighting over water rights. The first night we stayed in a dormitory that consisted of 4 beds pushed together into one gigantic, elongated bed. It was a bit too cozy, but $1.60 per head was hard to pass up.

From Munnar we moved on to Alleppey, a beach town. Alleppey was the first town where it felt more like a traditional, relaxing vacation, the firework-happy communists, creepy groping, and guava-stealing rats excepted. Otherwise, it was a very laid-back and easy town. All of our friends returned home or moved on, so it's back to just Vadim and me, traveling up the coast.

But OH the hardship. How we suffer! En route to Hampi (rock climbing and other sweet activities, or so we hear), we decided to stop off in Kozhikode, a town recommended by our tour guide in the Himalayas. We trusted him but he totally pwned us. Each of the dozen hotels we visited—at midnight (do you not empathize with my plight?)--told us they were fully booked. We were travel weary and more than willing to extend our budget for the night but no one wanted to go through the hassle of photocopying our passports and filling out the requisite tedious paperwork that's required to check into any hotel in India. Thus, grumpy and disheartened, we headed back to the train station where we went through the rigamorale of booking another ticket. We were issued a ticket to the next town despite the train being fully booked. Our ride involved clinging fiercely to the luggage racks as we were crowded by vomiting children, passed out drunks, and the standard unrelenting crowd that characterizes India. We arrived to our current location, Kannur, at 3 a.m. and again searched for a room. We finally found a place, our most expensive accommodation yet, at $12 a night.

Excuse me. I'm pausing to watch an animal video to assuage my discontent:

Okay, much better. On to the good: Kerala has terrific fruit and juice bars are numerous. I've been drinking lots of papaya juice and eating faloodas, a parfait layered with ice cream, nuts, fruit, and cornflakes. South Indian food is, on the whole, tastier than in the north. It's fresher and the spice medleys are more varied. Tamarind is used liberally, adding a nice tanginess to many of the dishes. We've eaten plenty of tamarind pods, sneakily scavenged by Vadim. Eating and drinking are perhaps the highlights of this trip. I will miss the cheap food more than anything.

The remainder of our trip will be spent in Hampi, Karnataka and Raipur, Chhatisgarh. We'll be climbing and biking in Hampi for four days and then traveling by train for a couple of days to Chhatisgarh, where we'll reconnect with Donald, the friend we met in Delhi. Then it's back to Delhi to buy gifts and fly home! It's gone by quickly while also feeling interminable. I can't wait to see everyone. Tell me if there are any specific gifts you'd like!

Housebout in Alleppey. fnm
Night sky from our balcony in Kodaikanal. fnm

Wandering through a tea estate on an illicit self-guided tour. fnm

Playing with sticks. fnm


View from the ferry from Cochin to Fort Kochi. fnm


Vadim, the Russian. vbfnm

Pete, the Australian. fnm

View from our houseboat. fnm

Michelle and Noga, the Israelis. fnm

Vanessa, the girl Australian. fnm

Felix, the German. fnm

Laughter class New Year's Eve fnm

Hiding from the authorities in a tea bush. fnm

Pete wearing our picnic. After meeting Vadim, he too started sporting a moustache. It's the Indian way. fnm

Felix and Vadim climbing in Munnar. fnm


Mud war! fnm

Vadim lost. fnm



Nice men tailoring. fnm

Tea leaves. Only the top leaves are worthy of brewing. fnm

Interspecies love. fnm



We harass every puppy we meet. fnm

These kids ran all over to catch the pink chick for me.

Vadim's moustache which garners untold attention.

Garbage peacock.
Garbage cow.

Kodaikanal Lake.

First-year college students in Kodaikanal with whom we rode bikes and posed for approximately 1000 pictures.

The Tamil word for flower is poo.

Christmas dinner.

Fairy Falls in Kodaikanal

All vehicles are decorated.

Crazy communists.

Sitting on our eight person bed in Munnar New Year's day.


More tea!

Another waterfall.