March 30, 2011

Bihar is the epicenter of this Age of Kali. Its politicians are literally convicted criminals and gangsters, a trend started in the early 1990s when Lalu Prasad Yadav came to power. It is also the heart of some of the worst caste violence in all of India, with entire villages being slaughtered in one night and random killings in every caste. Kidnappings, murders, and robberies are all common occurrences throughout the state. The roads are unsafe during the day, and straight-up dangerous at night. My trusty guidebook consoled me by writing:

“both states [Bihar and Jarkhand] remain seriously troubled by poverty, a lack of infrastructure, inter-caste violence, corruption, and general lawlessness… Buddhist pilgrims and tourists have on occasion been robbed, and few travelers spend much time here”

I had to see if it was as bad as the stories, my friends, and my guidebook made it out to be. Plus, Buddhism’s largest and most famous pilgrimage site, Bodhgaya, is in Bihar, and the cheapest flight to the area was to Patna (not sure why…), AND many of our staff and now my friends at Lebanese Point are from Bihar, and I wanted to see their homeland.

So I said “screw it” and went, not without a fair amount of apprehension. And actually, it was quite nice. Sure the infrastructure is in shambles, and there were certainly more bike taxis, but it wasn’t much different than much of South India. There wasn’t much to do, and I didn’t stay too long (only a full day and night in Patna and Gaya, en route to Bodhgaya), but I did have a great conversation with some college kids who timidly thought that I might be from there (a fair [explaining the whiteness] Muslim [explaining the out-of-place-ness] was their explanation).  They said they had never talked to a foreigner, and went on to ask some pretty intelligent cultural questions, mostly regarding marriage and girls. Only one of them spoke decent English, and he had apparently learned it from watching American movies (Tom Cruise is his favorite actor).

Once I got to Bodhgaya, I was really in Bihar in name only. I was safely surrounded by countless Sri Lankan and South-East Asian tourists in a fully-fledged religious town. Bodhgaya is the location of the spot where Buddha gained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree, and a descendant of the original tree, as well as a group of temples and shrines dot the surrounding area. I made some friends, Sudhir and Om, who took me out to the cave where Buddha spent six years fasting and engaged in deep meditation before coming down and gaining enlightenment, and also to a movie in Gaya (Golimar). I ended up staying a few nights there in a monastery, and truly enjoyed the spiritual peace and quiet.

The Age of Kali: Part 1

March 29, 2011

My posts up to now have been colorful and positive of the place I have called home these past four months. But always in the back of my mind I knew I was leaving quite a bit out, and that my photos and notes were always a bit one-sided. That other side of India is, frankly, a disaster. The minute you leave Bombay, you are overwhelmed with the scale of the problem.

India can be draining and taxing. You always have to be  aware, and nearly everyone who approaches you in seemingly good faith has an ulterior motive, usually based on taking advantage of you for all that they can. I can’t tell you the number of times that I thought I had just made a friend, but right at the end, I was asked for money and ruthlessly insulted when I declined, or when after paying and tipping a friendly guide for a few hours of his time, getting a look of disgust and a “mother choate.” But it is hard to blame them for it, it is not their fault.

I daily see streets littered with trash and shit with barely room to place your feet, once magnificent buildings now soot-covered and crumbling, the UNESCO sign out front doing little to hide the trash and filth. I have seen tied up mother cows pawing nervously and crying out over the body of her dead calf lying in front of her, not fully comprehending the situation.

I have never been in a city (or passed a river) that didn’t reek of raw sewage, and your walks through it are spent sleeping over countless homeless people sleeping on the streets, dodging cars and motorcycles that know no road rules, and breathing in an endless amount of dust and pollution that makes your snot black and leaves you coughing up phlegm every morning.

On a larger scale, power outages are constant. Drinking water is scarce. There is no healthcare. There is barely an education system. Villagers live as they always had, only now with trash littering their dirt lawns and their fields at the mercy of global warming. It is sixty years after Independence, and there are still hold ups on the roads, and there are 950 women for every 1000 men. The country’s infrastructure is rotting, and the politicians are too busy looting the coffers to have time to do anything about it.

And the caste system provides the rich with an excuse and the poor with a justification for the state of the country and the atrocities that happen every day.

I have read parts from book about India called “The Age of Kali,” written by William Dalrymple in the nineties, and while the book is good, the name is better. “The Age of Kali” is derived from a concept in Hindu Cosmology that time is divided by four great ages, or yugs, which go from best to worst in succession. The Age of Kali Yug is the last age, an age of strife, corruption, darkness, and disintegration.  In the Age of Kali, Vishnu and Shiva are asleep, and do not hear the prayers of their people. A seventh-century Vishnu Purana wrote of the Age of Kali:

“The kings of the Kali Yug will be addicted to corruption and will seize the property of their subjects, but will, for the most part, be of limited power, rising and falling rapidly. Then property and wealth alone will confer rank; falsehood will be the only means of success in litigation. Corruption will be the universal means of subsistence. At the end, unable to support their avaricious kings, The people of the Kali Age will take refuge in the chasms between mountains, they will wear ragged garments, and they will have too many children. Thus in the Kali Age shall strife and decay constantly proceed, until the human race approaches annihilation.”

I am simply a traveler. I am not a high-caste Indian who has the means and connections to either escape to a different country or shelter themselves away. I am not a low-caste Indian who has to live in slums that often make me turn away in shame as I pass. I am simply a traveler who has to watch, along with its people, a beautiful country’s potential being squandered.

Bombay: in March

March 14, 2011

In India, I have been just letting fate have its way with me, as they say, and jumping at whatever comes my way. But if you told me a few months ago that I would be waiting tables and helping run a restaurant, I probably would have laughed. Combine working 12pm-12am with partying from 12am-5am, and you have pretty much summed up the past few weeks here in Bombay. Sunny and I, with the help of all of our friends, got the new Bandra branch of Lebanese Point opened up on the 5th of this month. What started with hours of cleaning and making sure things were happening before the opening has now turned into hours of waiting tables and handing out fliers. I am not sure how Sunny does it, but I have been running almost exclusively staff food, “B-Natural Mixed Fruit Juice,” and Sonali’s cupcakes for the past few weeks. And somehow (with the exception of the night we had street food) I have been going strong.

Tomorrow I am off to Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan for a few weeks where I will hopefully not get kidnapped, visit three of Buddhism’s most famous pilgrimage sites, and see the one and only Taj Mahal.

Driving in India

March 14, 2011

Here is a collection of notes made over time as part of a continuous description of being on the road in India, whether by bus, taxi, auto, or with Sunny:

-Driving in India is an exercise in controlled chaos.

-The constant deafening sound of two stroke engines is drowned out only by the shrill yell of car horns.

-Just when you think your cab could not get any closer to the car to your right while going thirty, he suddenly finds two more feet he can move forward, just barely missing the kid to the left and the dog running on the right. Passing and being passed, jockying for position.

-Mini truck 50 years past retirement, with a two stroke bellowing out thick black exhaust smoke that always results in coughing before you can get the window up.

-Asking directions while going 40 down the highway to a passing motorcycle with a family of five somehow clinging on, the father waving and shouting his reply with one hand and driving with the other, his eyes shared between you and the road.

-The inside of this cab is a rattling, shaking, bucket of parts, with a screaming gearbox, dents and rusting chrome outlining a bad upholstery job of Turkish carpet-inspired seat covers, the driver hawking and spitting paan ever few minutes, with only a little Ganesh on the dash keeping you alive.

-Horns are used for the exact opposite reason as in the states; at home we use them when someone cuts us off, here we use them when the person in front of us does not cut someone off.

Gujarat and Udaipur

March 11, 2011

After a brief stint in Bombay, post-returning from down south, I repacked my bags, washed a few shirts, and headed up to meet my best friend Nirav’s parents at their home in Anand, Gujarat. The train ride up was around seven hours, and I made a few new friends along the way; Will and Mika, a couple traveling around India for a while, and Vaidehi, Namrata, Tanaz, and Vineet, who were heading from Surat to attend a conference on something that sounded complicated.

Once I reached Anand, I was immediately met on the platform with the enthusiastic wave and beaming smile of Mr. Patel. And, of course, after arriving at the house and getting a hug from Mrs. Patel, not a minute had passed before I was offered food. I was home.

We spent one day in Anand, relaxing around the house with the grandparents and taking a tour of Mr. and Mrs. Patel’s alma mater, Sardar Patel University, and then spent the following two days on a trip up to Udaipur, Rajasthan.  Udaipur, like much of Rajasthan, is a place rooted in history and culture. There are spectacular palaces, ancient markets, traditional arts, and local cuisines, each which take days to explore. As we toured around all three of the royal palaces – The Monsoon, The Lake, and The City Palaces, I had to continuously keep shutting my jaw, which had a habit of falling open every time we turned a corner.

After returning home and saying goodbye to the Patels, I took a bus two hours north the Gujarat’s capitol, Ahmedabad. For the average tourist, there is not much to see, but for the architectural enthusiast, this place is a gold mine – Corbusier, Correa, and Kahn all had some fun here in the 50s and 60s. Corb’s Mill Owners Association (no photography allowed, but I still managed to take 107 photos) and Shodan House, Kahn’s IIM-A, and Correa’s Gandhi Ashram all call Ahmedabad home, as well as CEPT University, one of the leading architecture schools in the country, and countless mosques, markets, and gems scattered throughout the city. I was in heaven for those two days.

Check facebook for more photos.


March 7, 2011

Things are cheap in India. There is no question. Unless you are rubbing shoulders with the movie stars, you are often paying half of what you would pay in the States, and a third of the cost in Europe.

There are three main things that I can see which inform the cost of something here – labor, location, and class. The first, labor, is relevant because anything that utilizes local labor is cheaper. That is to say, buying a book published and printed in China is not going to be that much cheaper than in the States, but getting a puncture fixed on your scooter is going to be unbelievably cheaper (80rs=$2), because most of the cost is in the labor (in this case, twenty minutes of work), not the materials themselves ( the patch and glue).

The second, location, is pretty straightforwards. In Bombay, things are more expensive than in a village in Tamil Nadu. Its not a massive difference, perhaps only %125-150 more, but it is still a factor.

And the third, and perhaps most important, is class. In India, if I may generalize for a moment, there is a pretty broad spectrum of wealths between the lower, middle, and upper class citizens, and usually they are all living together in one place. The largest number is by far the lower class, and then the growing middle class comes somewhere behind that in size, and then the upper class is a small but very wealthy minority. So what does this mean for the costs of things? It means that you can walk into, lets say, a South Indian restaurant and order a full thali for 30rs (75 cents), and then go next door to the place with a nice sign and tablecloths and order a nearly identical thali for 150rs ($3), and then go to the snazzy rooftop restaurant and order a third thali for 500rs ($10). In the States, this lower class option is just not present, partly because of the high cost of labor, and partly because there isn’t a strong lower class to demand it. Think about how much a sandwich costs at the local deli, at a nice lunch spot, and at a classy restaurant. I would guess it would be somewhere around $5, $10, and $15 (in the northeast).

And, to give a comparative idea of prices, here is a list I have been making as I go:

a new BMW 5-series (530d): 7,000,000rs ($155,000)
a new, small car (Chevy Spark): 500,000rs ($11,000)
a new 350cc Royal Enfield: 90,000rs ($2,000)
a used 350cc Royal Enfield: 30,000rs ($650)
a one hour plane ride: 3500rs ($75)
a cocktail at a classy bar: 400rs ($9)
a beer at a normal bar: 75rs ($1.50)
a custom-made kurta: 500rs ($11)
a kurta off the street (literally): 150rs ($3.25)
a DVD of a new movie: 250rs ($5.50)
a bootleg DVD of a new movie/autoCAD 2011: 75rs ($1.60)
a 5-star hotel room (think: resort): 10,000rs ($225)
a 3-star hotel room (think: small but clean): 700rs ($15.50)
a 1-star hotel room (think: dingy and questionable): 200rs ($4.50)
an A/C sleeper train ticket (15 hr): 1,200rs ($26.50)
a 3rd class, unreserved train ticket (15 hr): 175rs ($3.90)
a taxi ride (30 minutes): 175rs ($4.00)
a rickshaw ride (30 minutes): 100rs ($2.25)
a rickshaw ride while being ripped off (30 minutes): 300rs ($6.50)
a bus ticket (4 hour): 33rs ($0.75)
a bus ticket (1 hour): 7rs ($0.15)
a kilo of rice (at a middle class grocery store): 30rs/kg ($0.30/lb)
a kilo of onions (at a middle class grocery store): 13rs/kg ($0.13/lb)
a pack of 15 “Dark Fantasy” cookies (oreos): 45rs ($1.00)
a pack of 30 butter cookies: 20rs ($0.50)
a full meal (thali): 30rs ($0.65)
a chai off the street: 5rs ($0.10)

Tamil Nadu: Part 2

March 2, 2011

This is part two of my Tamil Nadu post, so read part one first (at least the intro) if you haven’t already!

From Thanjavur, I took a beautiful train ride up to Pondicherry, where I took a few days off from the day to day traveling. Pondicherry is a former French colony, and like Goa, it still retains its “Frenchness” (Portugueseness in Goa’s case)  in its architecture, language, food, and street signs. It is also the setting of the beginning of the book, “The Life of Pi,” which I happily finished there. I made a new friend and drinking buddy, Imran, who is a drum-selling street-vendor from UP. We rented a scooter one day and headed up to Auroville, which is a big commune that looks like its straight out of the States, complete with a massive building, the Matri Mandir, at its center that looks a bit like a gold version of Boullee’s Cenotaph for Isaac Newton.

-Pondicherry’s mornings mostly consist of dads bringing their kids to school on scooters.

-My first Indian accident happened on the bus to Pondy. The driver tried to overtake another stopped bus and cut back in too soon, resulting in some loud noises, everyone turning around worriedly, some pretty intense cosmetic damage, and some emotional shouting between drivers.

-Cows cross the road just like people do, inching their way forward and praying they don’t die.

Mahabalipuram was probably one of my favorite towns in South India. It has temples, ruins, beaches, and a strong expat scene (which means a super laid back atmosphere and all kinds of food). Its not too overwhelming; you can walk across town in ten minutes. The ruins here are all in one nice grassy park, with goats happily grazing next to families having picnics in the shade. The area is historically famous for stone carving, and as you explore the ruins, you stumble across stunning bas-reliefs, caves, rathas, and temples, all carved straight into the rock. During the day, I met a fellow traveler and guitarist, Nils, from BC, and then spent the evening with him and a didgeridoo-playing friend jamming out in open-D♯ on the street to a crowd of locals and tourists.

-A real highway between Mahabalipuram to Chennai! No potholes, clean, wide, its like being back in America!

-The decrepit buildings flying by outside the window, once gloriously designed and freshly painted, they are now crumbling, crowded, soot covered remnants of what they once were. But their age gives them inherent value, strengthened by the juxtaposition of life seen in the potted plants and colorful clothes hanging to dry outside.

-And oh, the smells. You have no choice but to love it. Burning trash, low tide, high tide, bus smoke, auto smoke, people smoke, sewage filled rivers, slums… That subtle mix of exhaust and burning trash, with a hint of occasional sewage is defining of India. And not in a bad way; I mean, it is bad, but somehow I love it. It is a constant reminder of where I am.

And finally Chennai, which everyone told me to skip, but I was determined to see, mostly because I was curious to see what a massive Indian city besides Mumbai was like. And, perhaps because I was there on a Sunday, or perhaps because I met some great people there, I rather enjoyed it. Sure, it was crowded, dirty, dusty, smelly, loud, pushy, sticky, hot, and overwhelming, but where isn’t? I stayed in a great old Muslim neighborhood, with old narrow streets and plenty of neighborhood spirit, and spent a half day with another taxi-tour guide friend, Raja, who charged me 50rs ($1) an hour to see everything, as long as I went and visited some souvenir stores he got commission from. Deal! I got to sneak into and photograph a truly stunning building, the empty-on-Sundays High Court of Madras, and I took advantage of Raja’s store visits by learning all about Pashmina scarves, wood carvings, and semi-precious stones, and worked on my bartering technique… although I never ended up buying anything.

And, as if it couldn’t get any better, on the plane’s radio on the way back to Bombay, “Low Rider” came on right as we touched down. Perfect.

Tamil Nadu: Part 1

March 1, 2011

My trek across Tamil Nadu was a whirlwind tour of temples and the cities that grew around them. My mind was thrown all over the place as I immersed myself in trying to learn a bit about Hinduism, while at the same time, getting into the rhythm of long-term travelling. Beginning in Kanyakumari, which is the southernmost tip of India, I headed north to Madurai, then through Trichy and Thanjavur, and then up to Pondicherry, Mahabalipuram, and finally Chennai. Each one of these cities deserves and entire blog post, decked out with photos and notes, but in an effort to keep some of the mystery alive for those would-be travelers out there (and to keep you awake), I will try to keep it short.

The post is in two parts, with some notes (in italic) I took while on the road interspersed in between. You can read about whichever city you like, or just skip it and look at the pictures.

Kanyakumari is the southernmost tip of India and the is location where the Bay of Bengal, the Indian Ocean, and the Arabian Sea meet. Although devastated by the 2004 tsunami, the town is now back to (what I imagine is) its former bustling self. It is an intensely religious place for Hindus, and bathing in the ocean is considered to be especially auspicious. I cannot describe what it is like to put your feet into the ocean; it is truly a powerful experience knowing the importance of the place, both geographically, historically, and spiritually. Bathing there was one of the highlights of my time here.

-On trains, I often wish I could speak Hindi just to know what all of the Indian mothers get so worked up about all the time.

Madurai is one of the oldest cities in South Asia, and it certainly felt that way. The city is a maze of narrow streets packed with every means of transportation imaginable traveling on roads covered in potholes, dust, and dirt. I got lost in about thirty seconds from leaving the door of my hotel, and at some point just gave up trying to figure out where I was. Luckily I was saved by my new friend and tour guide for the day, Sekar, who somehow convinced me to spend some time putting around the city on his rickety old bike-taxi. He took me everywhere, from the temple markets, to Gandhi’ s blood-stained dhoti he was wearing when assassinated, to crazy markets in the suburbs, to a place where people dry cow patties to burn in their stoves at night. I ended up spending the whole day with him and then woke up at dawn the next morning to spend a few hours enjoying the famous Sri Meenakshi-Sundareshwarar Temple complex at sunrise, which is both Madurai’s physical center and spiritual soul.

-You have to be open in India; you close up, you miss out.

-I often find myself using the patented Mike Sanders method of communication; a small collection of choice words in Hindi coupled with intense hand motions and facial expressions.

-Lots of Mahindra 475 d1 tractors in the fields. I feel like I am missing out at home.

I then bussed it up to the chaotic city of Trichy, where I got a stunning view of the whole city from the Rock Fort and visited the massive temple complex at Srirangam. Temples in South India are quite different in their layout but often very similar in the execution. So while seeing the temple at Srirangam was certainly interesting, but it still felt a lot like I was back in Madurai, because the temples are of the same style and scale.

-Most cities seem to open up around 9am, which is odd considering that 6am-9am is the coolest part of the day.

-Indian fashion is a funny thing. The 70s are still raging here in the subcontinent, with tall, skinny kids trying to be Indian gangsters, decked out in bell bottoms and tucked in shirts with massive collars, buttoned only halfway up. In the south specifically, almost without exception, younger women wear kurtas, older women wear saris; younger men wear western clothes, older men wear lungis.

However when I arrived in Thanjavur the next day, I was pleasantly surprised to find a peaceful, quiet temple complex that actually looked old, surrounded by that chaotic Indian city that I am learning to love. The temple was unpainted unlike most of the other boldly colorful temples around India, so it felt more like an ancient ruin than a fully-functioning temple. Thanjavur is also famous for its Chola bronzes, so I made sure to spend some time at the Thanjavur Art Gallery getting to know exactly what a Chola bronze was.