Wednesday, February 13, 2008

I'm Sorry Is All That You Can't Say

Today the Prime Minister of Australia, on behalf of the Australian Government and the Australian People apologised to Australia's Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples for the stolen generations and the pain and suffering caused to these peoples by Australian Government policy in the past. I would like to add my voice to that of the Prime Minister's in saying sorry to the indigenous peoples of Australia - not because I had anything to do with those policies, but because as an Australian of European descent, it is my culture, my economic system and my system of government that was responsible for these atrocities. I live, work and eat food grown on land that's original inhabitants were forced off and murdered. I live a comfortable and privileged life based on an economic and governmental system that has exploited and demeaned these peoples for the past 200 years, and for that I am sorry.

Today's apology is only a symbolic gesture, but it is an important one. Now that the wrongs of the past have been acknowledged, I hope that my country can move more quickly towards true equality and respect for all Australians, and especially those that have been here the longest and have born the worst of what our history has offered.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Took The Midnight Train Going An-ny-where

As we waited on the platform at Bangalore's main railway station to catch our overnight train to Hampi, Dana explained the joys of sleeper trains to me excitedly. I was curious and excited myself at the thought of such a quintessentially Indian experience. Trains have always been my favourite form of transport and I love that India's rail network is so extensive. And while I wouldn't call it "easy," it certainly gets you where you're going. While we waited, a man approached us and struck up the usual "What country? Your name?" conversation with us, then asked if he could take a picture of Dana on his cell phone. He was a funny man, and kept on ordering Dana to laugh for the picture. I got a sneaky shot of him, too.

When the train arrived, we went through the usual fiasco of trying to find the right carriage - all of them are marked by at least 2 signs saying different things and you have to figure out which one is relevant and matches your ticket. Once on board, we found our seat/bed things and began negotiating for better positions. We were of course in the normal non A/C sleeper class - the same class most average Indians use for overnight journeys. There are "nicer" classes, but we aren't interested in that sort of thing. Each little section of the train has 8 beds - 6 on one side of the isle, and 2 on the other. The 6 beds are arranged in 2 triple bunk beds across from each other. The middle bed on each side flips down flat against the wall, so when it's not sleeping time, the 6 passengers can all sit on the bottom two beds like benches. Anyway, the top one is basically the best because it's less claustrophobic and you don't have to worry if other people are awake or not. Dana's bed was in the middle of one side, and mine was on the bottom of the other. She immediately put her feminine charms to work and got the dude who had the top bunk on her side to swap with her. I tried the same on my side, but my lack of feminine wiles caused a less favourable reaction. I ended up swapping with the old guy who had the middle bunk because it was a lot easier for him to get in and out of the bottom.

Despite my initial excitement, my night was pretty much Hell. In all I got about an hour or two of restless sleep as I was awoken repeatedly by mosquitoes (who swarmed every time the train stopped), the conductors flipping ALL the lights on to check the tickets of passengers who moved from seat to seat throughout the night, guys who turned the lights on and talked loudly while eating a snack at about 2am, the old guy below me getting up to pee, and finally, as I was in my deepest sleep early in the morning, a guy with no hands who woke me up to ask for money. He didn't speak any English, so he just waved his stumps at me. Not my favourite way to wake up.

Needless to say, by the time we got off the train at Hospet, a few kilometers from Hampi, I was not in a good mood. We aimed straight for the nearest snack bar, coming very close to body-checking the swarming rickshaw drivers out of the way and sat down with a warm, tasty, gloriously caffeinated and much deserved cup of chai. After a short rest, during which we were bothered by another driver, Dana left me with the bags to figure out options for getting to Hampi. While she was gone another driver struck up a conversation with me and seemed to understand that I didn't want to be hassled to hire him, so he politely talked about other things, not being pushy and letting me enjoy my chai and cigarette. When Dana got back with directions to the bus station, we hired the friendly driver to take us there - much to the offense of the pushier driver who though he should get the fare because he "asked first." This will not be the last time I talk about rickshaw politics.

Our friendly driver ended up cutting us a good deal, so we let him take us all the way to Hampi. He of course tried to take us to his "cousin's" guest house, which was much more expensive than we wanted, so we jumped out and started wandering around to find new digs for the next few days. We ended up at a tiny place with only two rooms for guests with a hut made out of palm fronds in front where the super friendly young landlord and his family lived. We dropped our bags and went to find breakfast and explore the town a little.

Hampi is an amazing place. The only reason any Indians live there full time is because of the tourists coming to see the ruins of an ancient Indian empire. Hampi surrounds the main temple of the empire and the ghats (steps) that lead down to the gorgeous river running past. The landscape is covered for miles around in piles of massive granite boulders. There are so many that it almost feels like you've been shrunk to microscopic size and every huge rock is a grain of sand. For miles surrounding the main temple, hundreds of other temples dot the landscape, some hiding in the shadow of massive rocks, some looking out across the countryside from high on the top of mountainous boulder piles, and others standing imposingly in the middle of flat areas, huge avenues of stone pillars leading to their gates. Each temple and pillar is made from massive blocks of granite hewn out of the solid rock. The detail in the decorations of the temples is amazing, too, and the sheer level of human effort it would have taken to build these places is astounding.

One of the interesting things about Hampi is that people live in and among some of the ancient buildings. While some of the biggest and most impressive temples are gated and guarded, you're just as likely to see a family living in one down the end of the town's main avenue, or a big load of colourful laundry drying on the steps of another. The other interesting thing about Hampi, and one of the main reasons I'm glad to have seen the place, is that way the tourist trade has effected the people who live there. Everyone is a salesman or tout of some description and everyone sees the tourists as income, not really as people. By the same token, the tourists see the Indians as servants and if they get pushy, they're an irritation. This is a huge departure from what I think is the natural spirit of the people of Karnataka, who in areas not overrun by tourists are sweet, gentle, engaging and genuine. The tourist trade, while an important source of income to many Indians, has had the unintended consequence of jading the people and removing what for me is the best thing about Karnataka - the generous and warm spirit of it's inhabitants. But more about that later.

On that first evening in Hampi, we climbed to a temple atop one of the huge piles of rocks at the other end of the avenue from the main temple. The view was spectacular, and from up there we got a sense of what the surrounding landscape had in store for us as we saw temple after temple and the river winding its way towards the horizon, flanked by banana plantations and rice paddies. As Dana stood and peacefully enjoyed the view, I left my sandals and watch on a ledge and bounded up the rocks to the very top to see what I could see and take some photos. When I came back down to rejoin Dana, she told me that the ten minutes I was gone had been anything but the quiet moments of solitary contemplation I had imagined. "Didn't you hear me yelling for you?!" she said.
"Nah, mate, I didn't hear a thing. You okay?"
"The monkeys attacked me!"
"Oh, shit. I'm sorry!"
"Then they stole your watch."

Dana then recounted her epic battle with the monkeys who had almost swarmed her. She bravely fought off the first wave by shaking her water bottle at them, then they had made off with my watch. That's when she started calling for me, but when I didn't respond or return, she thought "fuck it" and ran screaming at the monkey in possession of my timepiece, who freaked out, dropped it, and ran away. Let me take this opportunity to thank Dana heartily for going above and beyond the call of duty to rescue my watch from the thieveing (but very cute) primates atop that rocky hill. I have also named a new Kung-Fu technique after Dana and her water bottle tactics: In this corner, from San Diego, California, the unflappable Dana Maria and her amazing "Shaking Water" technique! Clearly superior to the more common but far less devastating "Monkey Style."

As we sat and enjoyed the sun setting over the banana fields and rocky outcrops, the monkeys proceed to involve themselves in activities that even I, hardened journalist that I am, refuse to detail here. Suffice to say that even the internet would be hard pressed to provide anything so graphic. Ahhh, India.

The next day we lazily wandered the ruins close to our guest house, ate some food, did some window shopping and pretty much chilled out. Having had a relaxing day, we weren't as tired as usual and decided to go for a wander after dark. It turned into a bizarre night. As we rounded a corner near the main temple, we heard the loud cries of a young girl and saw an Indian woman trying to pry her daughter away from two white tourists. We approached the strange and disturbing scene and after a while got the story. Apparently, the tourists (a young couple claiming to be Italian but looking and speaking to each other in a language that sounded Eastern-European) had allowed this little homeless girl to follow them around all day. They had bought her food and clothes and promised her that she could stay with them at their guest house so she didn't have to sleep on the street with her family. But the owner of the guest house had told them she could not stay, so they were bringing her back to the family, camped out on the street where we found them. As I said, the girl was freaking out. The couple was prolonging the trauma but trying to comfort her instead of just leaving her with her mother who was obviously embarrassed and generally distressed. I asked the couple how long they were in town for and they told me they were in Hampi for two days before moving on to the next town on the tourist route.

I was torn. Of course I understood the urge they had to help this little girl, but I couldn't help thinking it was naive and harmful of them to cause this family so much emotional stress for what really amounted to making themselves feel better. I can totally understand wanting to clothe and feed a young homeless child, but an offer of a bed away from you family when you know she'll have to return to the street the next day? Not helpful. Even giving kids like this clothes and food is questionable, as it perpetuates the business of begging in tourist areas - something the Indian government is adamant people not support. Countless Indian children are forced to beg for their families or beggar barons who take the profits for themselves. Many children are even deliberately mutilated to create more sympathy, and many people also mutilate themselves, as was likley the case with the handless man who woke me up on the train. It may seem callous to ignore these kids, and I'm happy to hand out bananas and rice to those who are genuinely hungry (most beggars will look at you like and idiot for trying to give them food), but in the end India has a billion people, many of whom live in abject poverty, it's government spends far less on education, health care and housing than it does on nuclear weapons, and that poverty is generally the result of a history of colonial exploitation perpetuated by the world economic system that makes us rich and them poor. My point is just that if you want to actually help people, donate to charities doing real work on the ground, support democratic movements in countries like India, and vote for politicians at home who aren't going to perpetuate the economic exploitation of the third world.

Socio-economic rants aside, after we left the bizarre and traumatic scene on the street, we went down to the ghats for a quiet cig by the river. As we sat and tried to comprehend what we had just seen, a man acting very suspiciously approached us. He did not greet us or tell us who he was, but simply demanded to know who we were and where we were staying. While he talked, he was constantly looking around like he was checking that we were alone, and never made eye-contact with us. He also had one hand in his pocket and it looked like he was holding something. Now, I've been mugged before, and this is exactly what it felt like. As Dana calmly answered his questions, I began to run through escape scenarios in my head. When he called to a companion who jumped off a motorbike down the road a bit and started coming down the steps towards us, I really got scared. I stood up from where I had been sitting and put my feet in an open stance, trying my best to be ready for whatever. "I think these guys are dangerous." I whispered to Dana in Spanish. "It's all good." she replied. "Just finish your cigarette and we'll go." So I did, quickly, and we walked past them as calmly as we could, back up the steps and into the lit street as they warned us against being out on the street after dark. As we walked away I heard the guy talking on a two-way radio.

"They were cops." said Dana.
"Yeah, I figured. They were the sketchiest cops I've ever met. I still though they might mug us." "You never know."
"Thanks for staying calm, anyway. I was freaking out."
"Sure. Let's get off the street. I need to sit."

We went into the first restaurant we saw was still open, ordered a chai and tried to bring the heart rate down (at least I did - Dana still looked calm and collected). As we began to relax, we ended up striking up a conversation with our waiter, Suni, a really sweet young guy from Dharamsala in the North of India. We found out that like many young men, Suni splits his year between the North and the South of India, following the tourist seasons and working in restaurants and guest houses. Despite his embarrassment, he spoke English very naturally because he had learned though conversation and not formal education. We liked Suni so much that we ended up chatting for the better part of an hour and agreeing to come back for a Hindi/English language exchange. The restaurant where he worked, although overpriced and obviously a tourist trap, became our regular hang-out because of Suni's wonderful company and for providing us much needed refuge from the strange and difficult streets of Hampi that night.

I was especially glad to meet Suni because of the obvious difference in the way locals interacted with tourists here. The incidents with the cops, the rickshaw drivers, the homeless family and countless other interactions we both witnessed and experienced between waiters, tourguides, guest house owners and salesmen of all shapes and sizes in Hampi pointed to an markedly antagonistic relationship between locals and tourists. The locals see the tourists as ignorant, rude and wealthy beyond imagination while the tourists see the locals as annoying and predatory. Neither group is doing much to make things better and we saw many acts of inhumanity on both sides, but the thing that really bothers me is the tousirst who see the Indians as a hinderance to their enjoyment here, not taking the time to get to know these people and appreciate who they are. After all, it's their country. As I've said before, India without Indians is just a piece of land, and if you put the effort in to try and get to know people and show them respect you end up meeting really cool people like Suni (who has invited us to stay with him in Dharamsala whenever we want) and making real connections. These are the best memories for me by far.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

By the Light of the Night, When it All Seems Alright

We only spent a brief two days in Bangalore hanging out with The Family, but it was an important piece of the puzzle to see. We had seen how wealthy, westernized Indians live, and also how some Westerners approach social service in India, and it felt to me like the social and economic context of India and how it relates to the Western world was becoming clearer.

But now it was decision time - where to go next? The dream of the Andaman Islands was quickly fading, due mostly to my financial woes. I had turned up in Germany without bothering to check the exchange rate from USD to Euros, and had subsequently been screwed by the tanking American dollar. Now I was in India with maybe $200 to my name. My attempts to contact my dad for a bail-out had been unsuccessful and the ticket to the Andamans would have basically cleared me out. Not only this, but my limited time in India meant that I would be able to spend about a week on the Islands, and that would pretty much use up the rest of my time. So, after some impressively friendly, calm and understanding discussion between me and my stalwart companion, we decided instead to go to Hampi - a town built basically to accommodate the tourist visitors to the ruins of an ancient Indian empire. We knew nothing much about the place, except that it was a common stop on the tourist circuit and that there was some impressive ancient architecture. We had seen some pretty amazing photos and heard some rave reviews from other travelers, so good enough - we go. We grabbed our tickets and spent the rest of the evening walking around the neighborhood close to the railway station.

The area of Bangalore close to the station, despite quite a few guest houses and lodges, is almost completely devoid of Western visitors or blatant Western influence. Perfect! Instead, it is made up of small shops and stalls, temples, bakeries, restaurants and other authentic Indian street life. The street in front of a large Muslim temple - painted bright green and white and lit up all night - was lined with street vendors selling flowers, prayer mats, Islamic literature, trinkets and food. Dana bought herself an Allah pendant. God comes in many forms, it's all the same thing, though. Our multi-religious experience continued as we wandered past a Jain temple and were encouraged to enter by the sweet old man sitting on the front step. As we walked in and took our shoes off (an absolute requirement in all holy places, as well as most homes and quite a few businesses), a boy of about 12 became my self-appointed tour guide. He lead me through all 3 or 4 levels of the temple, explaining the various murals, carvings and statues, each more stunningly beautiful than the last. On the roof of the temple was an alcove containing statues of Jain gods, and the centre of the roof was taken up by a 12-foot pyramid of stone cow heads. We had the privilege of seeing people perform rituals to their gods - burning incense, chanting mantras, or waving a sort of brush thing with a silver handle - obviously just regular folks saying a quick hello to their spiritual guides before heading home for the night.

Windows from another part of the temple overlooked the rooftop area, and these had quickly filled with young girls, all staring and pointing at the wierdo with the lip-ring. I smiled and waved to them, and they all collapsed in squeals and giggles. The way back down to the entrance of the temple was a less reverent affair, as I had acquired quite an entourage of curious youngsters. Dana and I had made our way through the temple separately, and now the kids delighted in their duty of guiding us back together. In the end, I felt a bit bad for disturbing the peacefulness of the place by causing such a stir among the young Jains, but apart from a young devotee who shushed the kids careening down the stairs ahead of me, everyone else seemed more than happy to have us. I am continually impressed by the willingness of Indians of all religions to share their faith and places of worship with such obviously clueless outsiders.

As we continued to wander, our differing senses of intuition were put to the test. Something I've been trying to learn from Dana is her almost unfailingly good intuition. She just seems to know where to go, where to eat, who to talk to. I have a pretty decent sense of intuition myself, but Dana's far longer experience in India, as well as that whole girl thing, make hers clearly superior. It seems at times that she is frustrated with me for being unwilling to make clear decisions, but I really don't care what we do, and if she's got better sense than me, what's the point in trying? This is the danger of two very easy-going people traveling together; no one ever actually comes out and says we have to do something in particular.

Anyway, on this evening of wandering, Dana Maria got into one of her excitable moods and decided that she needed a drink. Women don't drink in India, except in the wealthy and very westernized areas, which this neighborhood was not. Even men aren't really supposed to drink, as it is generally contrary to the teachings of both major religions (Hinduism and Islam). But late at night, in neighborhoods like this, there are small bars serving bad locally produced whiskey and rum. For some reason they are all called 'wine shops' although not a single one of them serves wine. Dana's intuition guided us to a bright and friendly (relatively speaking as these places go) little bar, and after some hesitation at the door, I ordered us two rums. The patrons were of course astounded at our presence, and there were some moments of serious mutual discomfort. We live for this stuff. I knocked back my sugary rum no problems, while Dana took hers with water. After some hesitant smiles and bewildered looks from our drinking companions, we moved on.

This time is was my turn to chose the venue. Dana was doing her best to let me lead the way without too much guidance, so when I approached a slightly more seedy looking place on what I realized later was a much more seedy stretch of road, all she said was , "Really?...okay." One of Dana's rules for hanging out in the more traditional areas in India is to check and see if there are any other women in the place. As we entered the bar, I saw the flash of gold-trimmed sari and jewelry from the back room. "See?" I said, "there are other women here!" The other patrons quickly noticed my camera and ushered me into the back room to take some shots. When I got back there, I soon realized that the "woman" I had seen was in fact a transvestite and almost certainly a prostitute. While my intuition had obviously failed me, I couldn't resist a few quick snaps before turning to find Dana. "We're leaving." she said. "Oh, hell yes we are." I replied, and lead her out by the arm.

As we began to wander back in the direction of the railway station to catch our overnight train to Hampi, Dana pointed out the clues on the street that guide her decisions. As a guy, I can afford to be a bit more clueless than my intuitive companion, but these lessons are good to learn. On the other hand, the whole point is to get into trouble, right?


P.S. Thanks so much to Dana's grandma Judie for her kind words. I'm glad my writing is entertaining you. Dana has told me a lot about you, and you sound like such a cool person, I would absolutely love to come and see you if I'm ever on the West Coast.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Nothing But A Child

Before I get into the next bit of story-telling, I'd like to say hi to everyone reading and invite you all to leave comments, even just to say who you are and why you're reading. I have this blog hooked up to Google Analytics, which tells me how many people are looking at this page and where in the world they are. I imagine all of you tuning in from California are friends and family of my dear traveling buddy Dana Maria. Florida - is that you Simo? Colorado - my auntie and uncle? PNG - I know you, you cheeky thing. But I have no idea who the people from Virginia, the Netherlands and a few other random places might be. So, even if you've stumbled across this page because you did a google search for Van Morrison lyrics, feel free to say hi - I'm super curious about who you are and why you're here.

So, back to the adventures, eh?

After an amazing week, we were finally able to drag ourselves away from Mysore. Our original intention had been to go to Chennai (Madras) on the East coast and get boat tickets to the Andaman Islands, but Dana suddenly remembered the American guy she met at the airport in Bangalore while she was waiting to pick me up. Tim, from Washington, DC, is a member of an organization called "The Family," and while it sounds like a mafia thing, it is in fact a Christian volunteer group doing social work in India and around the world. We decided that the opportunity to see what these guys were up to was too good of a learning experience to miss, so we canceled the tickets to Chennai and replaced them with a ride back to Bangalore.

The train ride was another lesson in cross-cultural relations. We sat with a really sweet family consisting of two boys, 11 and 13, their parents, and another guy who might have been a relation or friend of the family and was basically a grumpy bastard. The boys had a great time practicing English with us and playing with my camera, and as always we were happy for the genuinely warm company. I was sitting across from Dana with my back to the door of the train car, around which many people were standing for lack of seats. I hadn't quite realized that we, and Dana especially, had become the in-train entertainment until I moved across to sit next to Dana and looked up to see a wall of Indian faces, all eyes fixed firmly on us. We do make quite a pair. Dana has one of those faces that could be from almost anywhere - Latin America, the Middle East, Nothern India - and here, wearing her Indian-style clothes, she is almost always mistaken for Indian. And then there's me - lily white skin, a lip ring, a rock haircut and beard and t-shirts in loud colors. Basically, I stick out like a ballerina at a biker bar. When people look at us together, you can see the thoughts ticking over in their heads, the intensity in their eyes as they try to figure out what this nice North Indian girl is doing with this Western freak, and then their faces go blank as the internal circuitry overloads, they accept their complete lack of understanding and just stare.

At one point when Dana was sitting with her legs daintily crossed, as any polite Western girl in a skirt would, the grumpy bastard became visibly upset and started making undecipherable hand gestures in the direction of Dana's legs. With the help of the friendly ladies sitting nearby, we eventually figured out that he was somehow offended by Dana's legs being crossed. Sometimes it's just better to accept these things and move on, so she obliged and sat less comfortably with her legs uncrossed for the rest of the trip, but we had a good laugh because she kept on forgetting and going to cross her legs again, and every time I would pretend to get very upset with her and demand that she uncross them again using aggressive gestures. How did I end up with such a badly behaved Indian wife? It's really disgraceful sometimes. We asked around for a couple of days, and after talking to many people, Indian and Western, who had no clue what might have upset the man about Dana's legs being crossed, a member of The Family told us that it's considered very rude to point one's feet at another person, and when one's legs are crossed, one foot points at whoever is sitting across from you. Well and good, cultural lesson learned, except that for a large part of the trip, the man who had complained about Dana's feet also had his legs crossed, and one of his feet was pointing directly at me the whole train ride. Good thing I didn't know at the time - he might have found my size 1o Teva shoved up his nose.

Once we were off the train and settled in Bangalore, Dana got in touch with Tim, and we took the city bus to his place for dinner with The Family. It ride the local bus and see how most Indians get around. In India you pretty much have to get used to close physical contact with everyone around you. This is more of a problem for women because much of that contact is unwanted, but for everyone it's just a reality. As I am taller than most Indians, I often find myself with someone else's hair in my mouth, eyes or nose. I guess that's karmic retribution for the fact their faces usually end up in my armpits. After getting off the bus only half a stop too late, Tim came to meet us and took us to his place. We walked in the front gate and were amazed at the huge mansion that stood before us, looking like a reproduction of the sort of Greek revival style you might see in Savannah, Georgia. Tim explained that the house had been donated to The Family for a number of years by a wealthy Indian businessman currently living in the US and leaving his house vacant. As it turned out, everything inside the house was also donated, from the stylish matching furniture to the huge plasma TV. Inside, we were greeted with hugs by about 20 people, all living together in this huge house and volunteering full time on various social service projects. We soon sat down to a fantastic dinner, including a beautiful salad - the first time we had seen fresh green veggies since I arrived in India. We both had two bowls. During dinner we started to wrap our heads around the idea of The Family and the people who make it up. The organization was started by hippies in California in the 60s and incorporates a highly spiritual (read Christian), but non-religious approach to life into the idea of serving those in need. The people around the table were mostly young and some were there with spouses and young children. There were also a few teenagers there with their parents. Most of them have grown up moving from place to place around the world but speak with American accents and are generally culturally American despite widely varied backgrounds. We found it interesting and somewhat confusing that while some had been born in India and lived there their whole lives and others had been there for years, almost no one spoke any Hindi and I don't think anyone at all spoke Kanada, the local language. While they spend their lives in service to Indians in need, it seemed like these very caring and dedicated folks choose to live in a sort of bubble of Americanism and Christianity in the middle of India. Personally, if I were going to live in India and do this sort of work, I would want to be a part of the community I was serving. Maybe I'm judging way too quickly, but it seemed an odd way to live in the middle of India.

After dinner, we went upstairs to the rooftop patio for a couple of beers and some entertainment. Guitars were brought out and songs about Jesus and loving everyone were sung to us with much enthusiasm. After that, we played various games like "I have never" but without the drinking, and one where we threw water balloons and tried to catch them in a blanket. I was the first one out in "I have never" because it turned into a gender war with the boys and girls trying to get each other out by saying things like "I have never worn lipstick." I did theater in high school and have thus worn every kind of make-up, have been known to rock Iron Maiden nail-polish from time to time, and have no shame about wearing a dress if the moment's right, so I was caught squarely in the crossfire of the gender wars, but was glad for the chance to sit out for a few minutes and finish my beer. The whole thing reminded me a lot of Christian youth group from high school, but this time with grown-ups. Afterwards there were more songs and then more games, and as people started to retire, we were told "I love you" over and over again, and Dana was asked by an older gentleman if he could help her accept Jesus into her heart. We eventually said goodbye among many more hugs and "I love you"s and were given some Christian pamphlets to guide us to Jesus. Tim kindly drove us the considerable distance back to our room at the railway station where we were eager to decompress after an entirely surreal evening - both comforting and unsettling at the same time.

We had arranged to come along on one of The Family's programs, so the next day we got up early and took a rickshaw to the home of a wealthy Indian woman who was not a member of The Family, but who would be participating in the program and had agreed to give us a ride. After a quick chai on the corner, we walked down the road to a large complex of condos surrounded by a large iron fence and with security guards at the entrance. We signed in and were allowed through to meet our new friend. The inside of her apartment looked exactly like that of any upper-middle class Westerner. Apart from the traditionally-dressed Indian housekeeper and a large portrait of Sai Babba on the wall, there were no clues to the fact that we were in South Asia and not the Upper West Side (come to think of it, I wouldn't be surprised to find Indian housekeepers and pictures of Sai Babba on the Upper West Side). We were seated and offered juice and made the usual small talk until our host's niece showed up, a young married woman wearing a sweatshirt, jeans and sneakers so she could "run around with the kids". The young woman and her aunt began to discuss marriage and children and what they would be doing for the day. It was fascinating to listen to these wealthy people - so removed from the lives of the billion average Indians who enable the lifestyle of these rich few, and us rich few in the West, through their constant labor. After a while we were joined by another wealthy young Indian woman and we headed off in cars with full-time private drivers to the school for underprivileged children where we would be working for the day. On the way, the second young woman, who's husband obviously makes enough that she is in no way obligated to earn money, talked a lot about doing "the Lord's work," and we found out that the niece was the wife of a jockey. Cool.

After a good long taste of Bangalore's traffic nightmare, we finally arrived at the school to find a construction crew at work out the front. It was interesting to see how these things get done in India. The crew was about even on men and women, working with nothing but small hand tools, all small but wiry from years of hard labor, their babies sitting in the dirt nearby as they worked. No one acknowledged them or said hi as we walked through their work, and when I made eye-contact they just stared blankly. I'm just guessing, really, but I think this was a good indication of the class divisions that still exist in India. These people are not to be talked to, not to be thought about - they're just there to work.

The school was a much happier scene as kids ran through the halls, all big smiles and energy. A group of girls greeted me with "Welcome, Uncle!" as I walked through the front doors, and every kid we passed gave us big smiles and cheerful greetings. The whole place was clean and bright, and the kids all looked well-fed, clean and happy. We went right to the staff room where lunch was going on, and were served a spicy thali while we got the run-down of what was going on for the day. Leading the charge was full-time member of The Family, a delightful woman called Jacinta, who explained that they had recruited a crew of beauticians and hair stylists from some of Bangalore's fancy salons to come and give the kids proper hair-cuts. It was interesting to see that nearly all of the stylists were East-Asian. Not sure why Bangalore's salons would be thus dominated - globalization's a trip, que no? We also learned a bit of the history of the school from the head-mistress. Apparently, the entire thing was privately funded, having been founded by a German woman who had visited India and decided to help out by building the school. The kids all come from underprivileged families, and would almost certainly be working if not attending this school. The students all still lived with their families, but most were fed and also bathed at the school.

After the debrief, the unskilled volunteer labor (us) was sent upstairs to help a large group of girls make bead jewelry while they waited for their turn to get a haircut. The girls all spoke English very well and welcomed us by singing a couple of songs in English. It was very Julie Andrews. Once we were organized, our host from the morning and her niece began cutting fingernails for a group of younger children while Dana and the other young woman cut strings and handed out beads to the girls. The girls were all so sweet and well-mannered and obviously happy to be doing something fun and frivolous. I'm sure there were more 'important' things we could have done with our time and resources than help kids make bead bracelets, but in a way it was really nice just to do something fun and silly with these gorgeous children who's lives are pretty hard. I, of course, didn't actually help at all because my camera was glued to my face the whole day. Thankfully, my photographic skills were in demand for more than just personal memories as the usual photo suspects that hang out with The Family were absent. I was given an armful of small cameras to shoot with on top of my own rig, and also recorded some short videos for The Family's files. Once I was done with Family photo duty, I was free to walk around and shoot what I liked. I went right downstairs to where the hair-cutting was taking place in two separate rooms, one for boys and one for girls. I was first greeted by a young boy who had just finished his cut, and when he grinned up at me with his perfect little rock-star haircut I knew the entire program was totally worth while. In the boys' room, the kids waiting their turn chatted and teased those currently under the knife, who looked embarrassed and nervous but super excited to be getting a for real style job. Invariably, when one of them got finished, the others would hoot and holler, giving slaps on the back and cat calls to their newly sexy-fied brother. As one boy got his cut, a little girl stood as close as possible, watching the every move of the stylist intently, her brow furrowed in concentration like a resident watching a master surgeon, soaking in every swipe of the comb, every snip of the scissors.

The girls' room was a more subdued scene- each girl stoically taking her treatment, trying not to betray the obvious nervousness at having her beautiful, long, dark hair sheared away. Here, unlike the boys who returned my photographer's disarming grin with sheepish smiles, the girls were too intense to respond. But every once in a while I would catch the eye of a stylist who would return my grin with a wry smile, betraying their joy and satisfaction in their work. Unlike the boys, the girls not currently in the hot seat were not content to sit around and tease. Instead they were quietly supportive of their nervous friends and were often gathered in small clusters around the stylists, watching them work or helping out by combing, pinning or holding locks of hair out of the way. Outside in the hallway, the newly styled girls huddled to quietly analyze and admire each others' new styles, and reassure those about to enter.

Heading upstairs again, I found Dana sitting on the floor with some older girls, making what would turn out to be a red, white and blue bracelet they had forcefully encouraged her to make for me. She apologized for the overly patriotic colors, and I told her not to worry because I'm proud to be Aussie ;) Standing nearby with a wondering look on her face was one of the cutest little girls in the word. These kids, I swear, I want to bring every one of them home. This girl had that look of complete bewilderment and wonder - big watery eyes, mouth slightly open - only capable by the totally innocent. We finally left after chai and group photos and as we walked out amid a chorus of loud goodbyes and waves I was grinning so hard my face hurt. Walking past the construction crew again, now huddled in the sparse shade provided by a low brick wall, their faces frozen in hard stares, I wished that there was something we could do to make them smile like the kids behind us, and hoped that those same kids never lose the joy on their faces they had that day. I think in the end that no amount of lobbying or fund raising has the power of a simple act of kindness that can brighten a dark life and make someone feel special.

Monday, December 3, 2007

Please Please Me

After a couple of day's in Mysore, we'd pretty much figured stuff out. We had a nice, cheap guest house in a chill neighborhood, we knew how much the rickshaws were supposed to cost, we'd found a place where internet access was 10 rupees an hour instead of 30, we found a really nice little place with flowering vines growing from an overhead lattice to have breakfast, and half the town knew us by sight, including the really sweet guy selling ghee (clarified butter) from a big metal bowl near our guest house. So we had the luxury of taking our time with stuff and finding the interesting things to do and see. Our attempts at the touristy stuff were not so brilliant. After walking around, past and up to the palace on numerous occasions, we finally decided to go in one afternoon. But upon arriving, we find that the price for foreigners is 100 rupees, which Dana did not want pay, and that there was no photography allowed inside, which sort of defeated the purpose of me going in by myself. So we sat on the ground outside and chatted for a while instead. It was a great conversation, and well worth the effort of walking to the palace. I also got some pretty nice shots of the outside and of the interesting people milling around, including an adorable group of school kids who went running by on their way in. Dana also got a chance to employ a new tactic for getting rid of unwanted postcard salesmen. When one wouldn't go away, she just started talking and talking and talking about pretty much nothing, using her best California girl air-head impression. He left quite quickly.

The other touristy thing that everyone who comes to Mysore does is visit the sandalwood oil factory. This factory was built by the government of Karnataka to help the local economy and exports sandalwood oil all over the world. The place was pretty much deserted when we showed up and no one seemed to be doing any work. We were told that they were waiting for a new shipment of sandalwood. The store there sells pure sandalwood oil at far cheaper than you could get it in the US or Australia, but still out of our range. The only really memorable thing about the place at all was our rather gruff tour guide who insisted that we pay attention - "Madam, please!" - and that we should only tip him when no one else was looking. This was one of a long line of direct commands we, especially Dana, have been given in situations and by people one would not expect...

Mr. Krishna (the guy from Thanksgiving) - "Drink up your tea quickly."
Bangle salesman, when asked if we could see the yellow ones - "No. You look at this one." (produces garishly coloured ones with glitter flaking off them)
Guy on the train (with hand motions, no English) - "Don't cross your legs."
Shoe salesman, when asked if we could see the red ones. "No. You take this one." (produces aquamarine slippers with pink flowers on them)
Mr. Krishna - "You eat this now."
Guys at parades that we get dragged into - "Please take your wife and go."
Mr. Krishna - "You will send birthday money to my children."
Guy taking photos of Dana at the train station - "Madam, laugh."
Children everywhere - "Photo! Photo! Photo!"

Shopping in Mysore was definately an experience. When we were clothes shopping in the fancy part of town, the sales-people would pull out pile after pile of stuff and spread it across the counter despite our insistance that we didn't want to see it. It's hard not to get frustrated after this hapens for the 40th time, but we managed to stay far, far more polite that the Indian shoppers who are generally extremely rude and dismissive to the people working in the stores. You are also asked to sit in every store you go into, so there's no popping in to see what's there and then just leaving. I always end up feeling bad, because I'm not going to buy anything until right before I leave, but I still want to see what there is. One night the California girl came out a bit in Dana and we ended up doing some shoe shopping. She was only sort of interested in buying shoes, but the experience of meeting the shoe salesmen was too good to miss. They were all so polite, but at the same time so pushy about what shoes she should try, we had a hard time not laughing out loud. At the last place we tried, the guy turned out to be a friend of Sami's and recognized us by his description. If we had've stayed in Mysore much longer, we would've known the whole town.

The last episode I can reacall from Mysore is visiting the Sikh temple on Guru Nanak's birthday. Because of the special occasion, there were young men chanting from the Sikh holy book all day and listening to their voices was very soothing. They also fed us special sweets - can't remember what they were called, but they were nutty and buttery and delicious. I have no experience at all with Sikh religion, so I was nervous going into the temple, not knowing what to do and not wanting to offend anyone. But they were extremely friendly and welcoming and made me feel like they have the right approach to religion: that the beauty of the world and the way they worship God is there to be shared. Soon after coming in an old man came up behind me and wrapped a piece of cloth around my head. I didn't know that in Sikh religion, you're always supposed to have your head covered. I felt bad for a second, but then he leaned over my shoulder and said with the sweetest smile I've ever seen, "When you are here, you are already Sikh." I hope I never forget his face.

Sunday, December 2, 2007

It's A Wonderful Night For A Moondance

Everything smells. You walk down the street and it just hits you; shit, jasmine, diesel fumes, curry, rotting veggies, sandalwood, piss, everything. The sights are the same. The women are so beautiful and are wearing the most amazing clothes and jewelry, and the kids are gorgeous and there's all this amazing architecture and stalls full of beautiful food, and then you see little kids playing in piles of garbage and guys pissing in the street and dogs missing legs and it's all just totally crazy. Zen is important, but the Indian way of doing things kinda suits me. Things that you would think were normal and obvious turn into epic and confusing trials, while stuff that sounds totally outlandish and dangerous falls into place without a hitch. It reminds me of my life.

Mysore is very chill by Indian standards, according to Dana, which is crazy because it's very intense by my standards. Dodging traffic is a big part of my day. Avoiding stepping in shit or nasty water is also a big pastime. But there's a serious energy that comes from a place where a billion people are all living deliberately spiritual lives. Despite all the danger, it seems like there's a logic and form to the chaos that, if you just let go and sort of feel your way along, generally keeps you out of serious trouble. Maybe I'm just having too much fun, and India will kick my ass good and proper before I leave, but I think that if I stay open to the the things it has to teach me and stay flexible, I'll be okay.

Man, the food is so good. It's flavours that I've had before, but everything is so fresh and so intense it makes the stuff I've had just seem boring. People here in the south eat a lot of rice-based stuff and almost everyone is vegetarian. Dosa is a common breakfast. This is sort of a thin, crispy pancake made with lentil flour and usually served with a coconut chutney. Masala dosa is dosa with spiced onions and potatoes inside. Another common food is idly, which is little balls of fermented rice served with various sauces. Thaly is also really common, especially as lunch, and is just a big pile of rice with a lot of different sauces and curd, and you dump it all together and eat it in big clumps with your RIGHT hand (left one is for your bum, so is not for eating). Street food is a big adventure, too. One of the best things I've tried is sugar cane juice, which is pressed to order and mixed with fresh ginger and lime. You can get cucumbers with chili sauce, salt and lime juice, eggs or green chilies fried in chick-pea batter and my favourite - veda, which are fried lentil paddies, a bit like falafel. Chat is green peas and chick-peas mixed with shaved onions and carrots and cilantro. I'm not a huge fan, and it tends to be one of the riskier choices as far as street food goes. You can also get many kinds of nuts and fruit on the street and all of it is too cheap to even be bothered thinking about. Yum, India is tasty.

Making dosa at a street stall:
A guy selling papaya (pawpaw) from a cart:

Young boys help an older relative selling eggs and chillies deep fried in chick-pea batter. Spices!
Indian Sweets:
This is a shop selling rice. Each one of these dishes has a sample of a different sort of rice. We got a good lecture on the various characteristics of each type. This kid was making coconut milk in these big spinning vat things. Looked dangerous.
So what else happened while we were in Mysore? Too much to mention. Every day was full of new experiences and new people. Oh right. As if our Thanksgiving wasn't full enough, I left out a whole episode. As I mentioned, after escaping from our Indian in-laws, we needed a drink. Our search for a place to get one, in a country where drinking is against most if not all of the major religions, took us back to the seedy section of town where we ran into a young man named Sami who was well versed in the ways of Western travelers and a real pleasure to hang around with.
He first showed us Mysore's 300 year old marketplace and then took us to his uncle's oil and incense shop (I'm not repeating myself - there are a lot of guys in Mysore who's uncles have oil shops). We didn't really want to see any oils, but we were lured by Sami's charming ways and the fact that his uncle was the Indian bodybuilding champion of 1982. How cool is that?

The marketplace at night :
Sami's uncle with a picture of himself as a bodybuilding champ:
Sami and his family are also Muslim, and one of the great things about the places we've been is seeing so many Hindus and Muslims (and Sikhs, and Jains, and Christians, etc) living together in peace, especially in a country that has been subject to a lot of religious violence. If anyone ever tells you that people of different religions can't live together in peace, this is a dirty lie designed to divide us and keep the unjust economic power structures of the world in tact. We are all pieces of the same truth. Sorry, I'll get off my soap-box now.

Anyway, before leading us to the rooftop bar where we met our businessman friend, Sami gave us his mobile number and told us to ring him in the morning so he could show us around a bit more. So the next day, the day of the full moon, we went back and wandered around the old market for a bit before calling Sami (my first experience with an Indian payphone) who came to meet us at his uncle's shop. All the old guys sitting around outside were very pleased to see us again. Most tourists come, stay in the centre of town, see the sights, shop, and leave. Most of the guide books say 2 or 3 days in Mysore is plenty. But the great thing about spending a bit of time in a place and making the effort to actually talk to the locals instead of being a sight-seer is that people get to know you very quickly. After 2 days in Mysore we had whole neighborhoods of friends who knew our names, were always happy to see us, help us out and just be good company. After all, what would India be without the Indians? Just another bit of land.

The old Marketplace:
Sami first took us to a bidi factory. Anyone who's been to India knows exactly what I'm talking about. These are the little cigarettes made of tobacco rolled in a eucalyptus leaf and tied off with a bit of thread. They don't stay lit very well and the eucalyptus is a bit harsh for me, but it's an Indian experience none the less. I also got to chew some betel nut. Again, not really my thing. The guys at the factory were just sitting on the floor making these things at a ridiculous pace - I'd say one every 3 or 4 seconds:
Next he took us to a place on the outskirts of town where they supposedly manufactured oils, and again we got the run down of all the oils and what they did, but didn't get to see anything being made because it was a holiday. "Every day holiday in India!" was Dana's response. Still, it wasn't a complete waste. We met a nice Israeli girl - stunningly gorgeous as Israeli girls tend to be - and I also picked up a Christmas present.

The Outskirts of Mysore:

After saying goodbye to Sami, we headed back to the centre of town to the main bus stand by the palace to catch a bus up to the temple on Chamundi Hill overlooking the city (the bus ride a steal at 6.50 rupees each - cheaper by about 50 times than a rickshaw). The temple is beautiful, but overrun by tourists, both Indian and foreign, and as such also overrun by people selling mostly useless crap pretty aggressively. Hardly the sort of thing to put you in a spiritual mood, but there were rituals involving both fire and water and I appreciate that symbology so I got into it as best I could. After leaving the temple, we sat on a stone wall overlooking the city and watched the sunset as a group of boys played cricket in a dusty yard below us. It was an incredible sight. Dana and I had a good old fashioned deep and meaningful conversation, which was interrupted when I noticed the full moon rising massively above the temple behind us. Having both the setting sun and the rising full moon shine on us at the same time was an amazing sight and reinforced the fire and water symbols from inside the temple.

Dana always stops to say hi to the moo-cows. Jackie, you'd love this place. SO many cows.
Dodging traffic while crossing the main road outside the Mysore bus stand:
Dana says the full moon has always been pretty special to her, and it certainly seemed to put her in a different state of mind. In contrast to the quiet and thoughtful conversation during the sunset, by the time we got back down into the city she was practically giddy and looking for trouble. We found it. As we approached our little guest house, we saw lights and heard music from down the street where we first met the chai-wallah. We went to investigate and found a stage set up in the middle of the street with a band and singers performing. In front of the stage there were seats with people watching quietly, and behind those people were standing to watch, but in the back there was a group of about 15 teenage boys all dancing and laughing. Before I had a chance to notice the disapproving looks of some of the other spectators, I got pulled into the dance circle and was forced (okay, so I wasn't really forced, but they were pretty insistent) to pitch my Western moves against their Indian ones. They loved it. Dana, despite her itchy dancing feet, tactfully declined to take part. In this traditional area, it would have been highly scandalous for a young woman to be dancing with the local ruffians, so she busied herself taking photos and videos of the scene and chatting to the crowd who were so happy to have us join their party. One of the images from India that I will never forget is hearing a loud cheer and looking up from my dance circle to see an entire apartment block - every balcony covered in young men - shouting and waving to us in response to Dana's greeting from the street below. It was like being a rock star for 10 minutes.

At some point, a few of the older men who seemed to be community leaders of some sort decided that our presence was causing too much of a scene and asked us to leave. I was happy to comply as I had already spent the last few minutes trying to prevent one of them from beating the young men around the head for dancing with me too boisterously. Young men here dance together in a way that would seem overtly sexual in the West because it's not cool for young women to dance with them, but they're really good at it and once the initial shock of seeing two guys practically grinding on each other (or trying to grind on me) wears off, it's a blast to watch. Anyway, we made a not-so-stealthy retreat from the group of dancing boys (the entire neighborhood was watching us) and stopped for a bit to watch the band, who all had huge smiles for us, before wandering through quieter streets back to the guest house.

Enough for one day? Not in India, buddy. After making back to our little room in the guest house and some much needed decompression, we discovered for the first time a staircase up to the rooftop. It was already late, so after gathering camera gear, stuff to sit on, and a bidi that Dana had cleverly saved from the factory, we snuck up there and watched the stars and the full moon for a bit. Dana showed me how to use Orion to find North and South (full of cool tricks, this one) and we took photos of the moon and Mysore at night. From where we were, the lit-up palace looked like something from a Disney movie.

Dana said strange things always happen to her on the full moon. Whether this has anything to do with the moon itself or just the power of her expectation, or just the fact that we're in India looking for trouble, I'll not hazard a guess. At the end of the night, it matters little with memories like this to take home.

Friday, November 23, 2007

No Such Thing As Tomorrow

India. Wow. Since leaving Atlanta about 6 weeks ago my life has been non-stop madness. New York, Connecticut, Germany, and now here. I have many photos which will probably not be possible to post until I'm back in a more connected world, but I'm gonna start telling stories anyway, just to get them out while they're fresh in my head. I'm gonna do India first, then backtrack to Germany later. Trying to make this blog chronological just means that I never post, so that's going out the window as of now. Life is not linear anyway...

I arrived in India early in the morning of Nov. 20 and experienced my first bit of Indian Chaos at the baggage claim as hundreds of people pushed and shoved for their bags at an insanely small luggage belt. Our bags came out a few at a time over the course of about an hour and half, and I was dazed and completely exhausted by the time I walked out into the throngs of taxi drivers waiting outside Bangalore airport. It was hot and humid and after Germany I was glad to smell the hot air and feel the sweat start to come up on my skin. Then I heard a voice call "Fred!" and there was Dana, mi amiga mejor, my ally from Washington, DC whom I had not seen in 2 years but was always close to. This crazy girl is the reason I am in India and it has been amazing to see her again and get to experience India with her as my guide. She is the perfect partner in crime for me. All of the things about me that most people think are crazy, Dana Maria understands. She does not like sight-seeing, she does not like schedules, she does not like being comfortable, she does not want to hang out with other Westerners. She drinks the dodgey water, eats the dodgey food, stays in the dodgey guest houses, and talks to everyone. Our intuition has been our only guide-book so far and we have met some amazing and strange characters and I think more genuine people in a few days than most travelers would meet in weeks on the tourist route.

After a few hours in Bangalore, overtired and overwhelmed, we hopped on a train to Mysore, a small city about 3 hours away. The train ride was a great thing to do my first day here because it's such an Indian experience. There were guys walking up and down the cars the whole time selling soup, tea, nuts, fruit and all sorts of fried stuff that smelled great. Some of the landscapes we went by were stunning - rice paddies stretching out across the plains and solitary mountains rising out of the flatness. The train wasn't full at all, and the ride only about 3 hours, so this was a very shanthi (Hindi for 'relaxed' or 'clam') introduction the Indian rail system.

Once in Mysore, we checked into a fancy hotel because it was easy, and went walking around the town. Mysore is a pretty wealthy place and has its fair share of tourists, but most only spend a couple of days and don't really get to know the town at all. We wandered around in the less touristy areas and spent enough time to make a lot of friends and get pretty well known:
On that first night, we found a great working class neighborhood near a temple to Ganesh and made friends with the guys at a little chai stall on the street:
They were shocked and fascinated to meet us and told us we were in the bad neighborhood, but were super friendly and we eventually got them to tell us of a guest house in the area. We wandered around some more and were stopped at various points by groups of young men who all wanted to shake hands and practice their English with us. "Which country? Your name is?"

Some of Mysore's young men seem to spend their time wandering around the streets looking for tourists to bring to their family's businesses, so one guy struck up a conversation and convinced us to follow him to his uncle's oil and incense shop. The uncle was a very smooth talking Ayuvedic doctor, and after we watched his son making incense by hand at remarkable speed, the Dr. sat us down, served us chai (brought by one of his adorable little daughters) and proceded to expound on the virtues of his various oils. Each one smelled amazing and had its own medicinal properties - cures for everything from cramps to heart problems. We even got a small taste of Ayuvedic massage, and left smelling wonderful if not a bit greasy.

The next day we checked out of the fancy place and into a cheap and very shanthi place the chai wallah told us about in the cool neighborhood. This is the street right across from the guest house: We found breakfast at a bakery that I had to try out of sheer curiosity (my motivation for doing many things while I'm here) because it smelled exactly like neighborhood bakeries in Australia. My bun with icing and coconut was simple, but did taste remarkably like the Aussie ones. Lots of stuff here reminds me of Australia. Must be that British influence. Being Aussie helps with making conversation. Everyone here knows Rickie Ponting! We spent the rest of the day just wandering around Mysore and getting a feel for the place, seeing the different neighborhoods and doing a bit of window shopping.

Cow. Respect to the sacred bovine, y'all!

This is the India concept of a family car. Stick that in your SUV.

A pagoda with a statue of the last Maharajah of Mysore in the middle of one of the big downtown circles:
Anyone need a hair dress?
A bit after dark, we ended up at the impressive and ornate palace, which was just about to close, so we didn't go in, but I got a couple of shots from the outside. This would turn out to be one of many times when we almost went to the palace, but we never actually did make it inside.

The next day was Thanksgiving and it was epic and strange in a Thanksgiving on lots of acid sort of way. Dana decided that she needed to eat some green vegetables - an oddly rare commodity in a place where everyone is vegetarian - so we asked around and found the local veggie market.
We filled a big bag with beautiful beans and eggplant and spinach for 20 rupees (about 5 US cents) but had no place to cook it. So in the hottest part of the day, we spent about 2 hours wandering around asking restaurants to cook our veggies for us. The places that understood what we were asking at all laughed at us every time. But Dana's a determined sort of person so we finally found a guy on the street who spoke very good English and told him our conundrum. He looked at us like we had six heads each, but Mysore is a friendly place, so he knocked on the nearest door, had a quick chat in Kanada - the official language of Karnataka - and in a few minutes we were standing in the living room of a random Indian family as the elderly grandmother prepared our veggies for us.

We washed and cut the veggies ourselves but the Grandmother, who spoke no English, seemed to believe that we could have no idea how to cook, so she took over with grunts of disapproval. Apart from that, she only communicated with us once, to ask if we had a baby. We generally pose as married when we're hanging out with Indians - just makes things a lot easier. When we told her 'no' she lost interest and went back to watching the Bollywood dance number on TV. Her youngest son, the only other one home, is a TV journalist in Bangalore who was home in Mysore for a week of holiday. While our meal cooked, he entertained us in a very thick Indian accent with the history of Mysore and it's great king who lived to be 106. Dana couldn't get a word of it, but I understood him enough to ask a couple of questions and say "wow" in the right places and keep the conversation going.
Finally, our veggies, which Grandma had put in a pressure cooker and removed all colour and nutrients from, were ready. Now this was a big ass bag of stuff, and we had given them all of it, so because anything less would have been rude, we ate about a kilo of food each in true Thanksgiving style.

As we were struggling through our massive plate of boiled veggie mush, the woman of the house (the journo's sister) came home with her 4 adorable kids. They were all so, so sweet and smiley and not at all fazed by the random white people in their house. Photos were taken and we were able to have simple conversations with them all, so when we finally left it was among many shouts and waves and handshakes from the whole street, who had of course been spying through the open door the whole time we were there. We went back the next day with prints of some of my photos as a thank you gift and we were indeed thankful to have such a cool adopted family for our Thanksgiving so far from home.

But our day was far from over. As we were walking around laughing at our good fortune and the randomness of it all, we were stopped on the street by a well-educated man and his family. He was very excited to meet us and insisted that we have chai with him, which we were happy to do. After telling us not to talk so much and drink our tea quickly, he packed all 6 of us into an autorickshaw and took us to the local exhibition - basically a state fair, but mostly full of stalls selling crappy stuff and no rides. Despite our insistence that we were totally stuffed, he insisted that we eat some of the not very tasty fair food and spent much time going on about how generous a person he is and how many Western friends he has. Meanwhile, his wife and 2 kids, all very quiet, seemed much more clued-in and were a pleasure to talk to. After maybe 2 or 3 hours of this, we finally escaped this very sweet and well-intentioned, although pushy and sensitive man by claiming that Dana was sick and needed to go home. He seemed heart-broken and offended, but his family seemed to get the picture and said good bye with understanding and sweetness. What Thanksgiving would be complete without strange and somewhat annoying relatives?

Still, our day wasn't done. After both of our somewhat draining but fun family experiences, we decided we needed a drink and found a rooftop restaurant catering to westerners and serving beer and liquor. We got into the whiskey and were thoroughly enjoying each other's company and talking about our crazy day when an Indian business man asked us to join him at his table. We continued to talk alone for a while, but went over and sat with him for last call. He bought us drinks and began talking about how happy and nice we seemed and how he felt his life was unfulfilling (he is quite successful and works for a pharmaceutical company. He referred to himself as a 'drug-pusher'). We ended up hanging out and driving around for a couple of hours with this sweet, awkward and lonely man, and he was super thankful for our company and for the fact that we didn't think we was weird or dangerous. He finally dropped us back at our very simple guest house at around 1am, wiped out and somewhat drunk.

So that was Thanksgiving Indian style, complete with families, both sweet and strange, too much food, and of course, drinking 'til late after the folks have gone to bed (Miss you Grace and Besh!). We have much to be thankful for, no?