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.

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