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?

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