Sunday, March 23, 2008

Oh yeah, one more thing

Could this be any more patronizing? New in MSN Headlines this week: Old School Bullshit Plagues New Generation.

It basically talks about how teen girl online diarists are the hot new bloggers (untrue), and how women are, like, totally getting into tech finally so we can, you know, share our feelings and stuff. Totally makes up for the abysmal showing of women in tech jobs. Because we don't want the jobs or the pay or whatever, we just want to express our selves, you know, socially. According to our natures.

And, of course, the article ends with a girl realizing that, now that she's gone to university and made real friends, she can close up the blog, which was just a surrogate for other people.

Luckily it was on MSN, so no one read it.

Well, look who's back on the intraweb

Mood is a fickle thing, and it looks like I'm going to be blogging Udaipur after all.

You may actually recognize Udaipur; it's the city where the Bond movie "Octopussy" was filmed (as about a million signs and restaurants remind us daily). It's got the white palace floating on the lake, etc. Beautiful, but we're definitely getting a little too used to Rajasthan and the northern architecture; we've been here for three days, and only spent one morning doing anything especially proper-touristy (the City Palace). The rest we've just been enjoying the town, which is a little pricy but very laid-back and comfortable for us Western types because it's absolutely overrun by tourists. That's unfortunate - a town this nice should belong to its people - but it is nice to be able to sit on the rooftop in a tank top for a change.

Mostly, what we did here was Holi. I'm going to write a bit more about it in Mumbai (tomorrow) or Aurangabad (the following day), because some very interesting things happened that have got me thinking, and I know I'll need more than a half hour or so to get it out properly. But, in the meantime, a bit about Holi. (Skip the part of that wikipedia article on the health hazards. We did.)

It starts with a huge serious of bonfires in the streets just after sundown on the night before. Stacks of wood, tented together, reach 12 or 14-feet high in small squares (about the size of 3 driveways), and 6-7 feet in the smaller streets. Firecrackers and cherry bombs are thrown into the blaze or launched into the sky. The noise, in a town the size of Udaipur, was tremendous - as was the fireworks display. (Fireworks are legal here and easy to buy year-round because they're used in weddings and on other auspicious days.) Then, a good chunk of the population starts drinking; for most of the residents of a town like Udaipur, Holi is the only day of the entire year that they won't have to work. The enthusiasm is contagious, and there's no argument about it - they deserve it.

Revelry in the streets is over before midnight, but starts again early the next morning. By 9am, the streets are full of people moving in big groups, swarming through each other. Everyone you pass, you say "Happy Holi" to each other and throw a handful of coloured powder (or water) over each other - sometimes you put it directly on each other's faces. Sometimes hugging follows. The result is an incredibly congenial, hilarious atmosphere in which you can't stop laughing and end up with colour in your mouth as well as everywhere else. People are almost unrecognizeable - after about 20 minutes I could only pick out the other people in our party by height and stature, as even our clothes were so covered in bright colours running together that you couldn't tell what they originally looked like. My skin is still stained in a lot of places (all visible, unfortunately), and my clothes are absolutely ruined.

All of which is fine, because it was so much fun. S. and I went out with a couple we met from Toronto named Aaron and Marion, who are maybe 10-12 years older than us but very fun. (Bonus: he's a criminal lawyer who loves his job, and loved law school, and wasn't a jerk in the least. There's hope!) We'll post photos once we get them from Aaron, who was the only one brave enough to bring a camera into that mess.

There were some tourists who were not loving it - which was maybe the most hilarious part of all. Every once in a while you'd see some sour-looking European in khakis and a white golf shirt lurking around with an expensive camera giving death stares to anyone who approaches them with powder. Imagine coming down from your hotel into that chaos - just a huge mob of people greeting, throwing colours and paint everywhere, hugging, laughing - and expecting to be left to yourself on the sidelines. It doesn't work like that. Like I said, there is no solitude in India - and definitely not on Holi. Did I mention there were people walking around with drums, stopping when they met other drummers to play together, and people came running from the sidestreets to dance in big groups wherever they were?

All of which has reminded me that joy can get you through a lot. Again, I'll save some of the details for a longer, later post, but the last few days have been extremely instructive.

Gordon, a British man we met in Pachmari who has been coming to India for 15 years, said over and over again that India is the great teacher about humanity, and that whenever you start to get it wrong, India will correct you. That's certainly what's happened here. Just when I've had all I can take of touts and aggressive salespeople and everyone trying to squeeze every penny they can from you, staring at you, talking about you, and giving you wrong information, you meet a young shop worker who stops you with a glance and all but closes up his shop to sit and talk with you - and then refuses to sell you anything. That's what happened the day before yesterday, to E. and I., when we were out in the market. A man named Surya (appropriately, he's named after the sun) started the conversation the way most touts do - "From which country?" - but ended up being so sweet and so interesting that we spent a few hours with him drinking chai and talking Big Ideas. He grew up in an ashram in Kerala, but when he was in his teens his guru told him he needed to see the world before he would understand anything. So she gave him Rs. 2000 (about $50) and sent him on his way. Ever since then (about 10-15 years ago) he's been moving from place to place every few years, working two jobs for 11 months of the year and then using his 12th to travel around India. He had a really interesting perspective on the world. Although astrology is Not My Thing, he was talking to both E. and I about our signs and whether we match with them (it seems like everyone here takes astrology very seriously), and suddenly got very intense about needing to read my palm. He told me a pretty good story. A lot of it was familiar. With these things, it's not so much about the accuracy or inaccuracy of what people can tell about you; it's about paying attention to how you react to the news. Your own response can be highly, highly instructive. Mine was.

(Actually, this is the second time a relative stranger has singled me out to read my fortune for free. The first time was years ago, and it was helpful too.)

A wave of goodwill can carry you for a long time. I'm hoping mine carries me through Mumbai, but I'm dumping it there, because I have things to do and some serious business to write about. As always, the last few days weren't all rainbows, and I think there's some big shit brewing here. Holi, joy, and the British travel warning released last week about Goa - and, for good measure, how all these remote things on the other side of the world help shape how we perceive our communities at home.

Be good, all.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Just a quick note

Everything's fine, we're in Udaipur. We're leaving tomorrow for Maharashtra. Today was Holi. It was amazing, really really fun and amazing. I laughed all day. But now I'm hungry and out of internet time, because I was catching up with the news (Bill Richardson endored Obama! Holy shit! After going to the superbowl with the Clintons...), so I'll blog it fully later.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Was the last thing I posted on the Taj?

If so, you're all way behind. And whose fault is that, really?

After Agra, which by consensus is one of the worst places in India to be a tourist (after Varanasi, central Rajasthan, Delhi, and all the other cities along the Ganges), we headed into Orccha, which as far as we can tell is one of the best. We're now three cities deeper into Madhya Pradesh, and noticing how the quality of everything improves the further we get from the main tourist trail, especially the "Golden Triangle" (Agra-Delhi-Jaipur) and its two tourist tentacles, tourist Rajasthan and the Varanasi route. People are nicer to us here, the scams and touts have all but vanished, and we're even being offered reasonable rates on rickshaws without having to negotiate. Additionally - and I found this very interesting - the extremes of poverty seem to be less here. Of course, the vast majority of people we see from day to day are still doing more or less subsitence-level work - which, in Canada at least, constitutes living below the poverty line - but next to no one is begging, and even the rural parts we've driven through seem to be, to varying derees, okay. Nothing like Uttar Pradesh, which has clearly, for one reason or another, been absolutely ravished by economics. Bizarrely, we even get stared at less (creepy bus passengers excepted).

But I'm jumping ahead.

Orccha. Strictly speaking, Orccha is a tiny town, basically just two intersecting streets. What you're there to see flanks the towns on all sides and spreads for miles around it: an elaborate and humongous series of medieval ruins. On one side of the town is a set of huge former palaces, and the other is temples. From a high vantage point on either, you can look out and see more buildings, most (like the palaces and temples) crumbling, scattered across the landscape as far as you can see. In the post-monsoon season (meaning Sept-Oct), the area is matted with jungle, and only the tops of the buildings are visible. Before the monsoon, the area (like most of central India) is arid and most leafy trees drop their leaves to conserve water, so the landscape we saw was more like badlands and rough brush, punctuated by the occasional still-leafy or still-flowering tree, a hysterical green against the dust. It was amazing. We spent a day or two scrambling through the palaces and temples, exploring the ruins of the old town (you can still see at least the foundation of the old buildings, where the roads were, and two pleasure gardens have even been maintained).

It's also where I ran into serious technical difficulties. My camera is messed up; it just keeps saying "Lens error" and refusing to turn on, so I have to find an authorized Casio dealer in Delhi and see if I can get it fixed. You know how I feel about Delhi. Also, I realized I forgot the cable I need to recharge my iPod, which is almost out of battery after saving the lives of several Indian bureaucrats in the Visa office when I was there last week. I have another two days of line-standing ahead of me starting Monday, so I'll be needing it again. More work in Delhi. Joy.

Anyway. After Orccha we took a brutal bus to Khajuraho, which is by far the most inaccessible top-10 tourist attraction in India. The temples, as I think I mentioned, are famous for the quality of their sculpture, some of which happens to be erotic in nature. I think it's from the 17th century again. That was apparently a good century in India if you're the type who likes architecture and art, and if you happen not to be stuck in the massive-stone-brick-hauling profession. The temples were very memorable. I think the photos will speak for themselves.

Did I mention that it's gotten hot? In the shade it's somewhat reasonable, but the sun here is so powerful. In Khajuraho we gave up on afternoons and shifted to a schedule that gets us out of our hotel by 8 or 9 am and back into it with a cold drink in our hands by 1pm at the latest. Life resumes at 4pm. As you'll note, it's only March. I'm here until mid-June. Let that simmer for a bit; this is going to get insane.

So, exhausted by the heat, we did what most middle-class Indians do to get out of the proverbial kitchen; we boarded a nauseatingly cramped bus for a hill station, where, oh, let's see: 1 degree C cooler for every 100m in altitude, and Pachmari is over 1000m above sea level, so that gives us a break of about... 8-9C. Which makes all the difference. The trade-off, we're learning, is that higher altitude also means more powerful sun. I've gotten a little pink despite being pretty careful with the 45 SPF sunscreen. I just can't do any better than that. Which is too bad, because until now I haven't burnt, and attained a colour E. charitably describes as "positive golden... for you."

Pachmari, however, is lovely. It's almost smack dab in the center of India, in southern Madhya Pradesh, and is a huge pain in the ass to get to. From Pachmari, we had to take a 3-hr bus, then a 9-hr overnight train, then a 6-hr bus, then a 1-hr shared jeep ride. Both of those buses sucked. Buses here suck. We got stuck with a real creep on one of them, but nevermind that. We arrived in Pachmari, where we've been settled for about 5 days. We sorely needed a break from the road.

Pachmari is small, on a plateau in a hill range, and friendly. We have had food that seriously makes me wonder why we bother with food at all in North America. You can't buy postcards anywhere, which is too bad, because the area is beautiful. Maybe the nicest change, though, has been the shift in what we're doing; there have been a lot of buildings and cultural-type-stuff lately, and Pachmari has been all about the outdoors.

Our first hike, the day before yesterday, began with the worst rental bikes you've ever seen (no gears, loose breaks, solid metal frame, off-blanace), and later took us through parkland, past a 300-m waterfall (plunding down into a worn-away fissure in the rock), down to a tiny, secluded pool fed by a smaller waterfall (which we semi-swam in), and along a really beautiful natural escarpment. At S.'s insistence, we also did some... less-traditional woods-walking. All of this is why we were already a little tired when it came to... yesteray.

Yesterday was phenomenal, but might be the most exhausting thing I've ever done in my life. We did a 24-km, full-day hike out of town and across the hills, and up to an ancient Shiva temple at the top of Chaurgarh, the next-to-highest peak in the range (Pachmari's hill is much lower). Again, I'll have to show you in photos where we actually went, but I think it gives a sense of the walk to mention that almost none of it (I would guess around 5%) was across flat land, and probably at least a third of it wasn't even on a path. Although, again, a lot of trees had dropped their leaves for the sake of moisture (which left a thick and omnipresent layer of yellow leaves across the forest floot), the area we walked through yesterday was truly Kipling country, complete with panther dens and little ferny creeks through the valleys. In all, we figure we probably ascended about 1000m over the course of the day, given all the times we dipped down steep slopes and had to re-ascend. In the valleys, we stopped and put our feet in the streams, splashed the water over our heads and faces. Little fish, frogs, water-beetles. We picked up walking-sticks at our guide's suggestion; I finally understand what those are for. Some of the steepest parts, both up and down, were directly through the brush, with our guide trying to swat apart and stamp down the net of branches we were cutting through. Usually, though, they all still swung past one person and swiped the next across the arms, shins, face. It was pretty intense, and long - we left before 9am, and hailed a jeep on the other side at about 4.30.

The temple at the top of Chaurgarh was small, but really remarkable. Surrounding the grounds is a barrier of tridents carried up by pilgrims (Shiva is usually pictured with a trident, and often with snakes, which were also everywhere around the temple). They were, without exception, a heavy iron that I cannot imagine lugging up that route. (We realized on the way down that there's a new, more common, pilgrimage route, that skips all the bush stuff - you take a jeep to its entrance and then just climb a bunch of stairs up maybe 150 feet, no more. Cheaters.) The Shivratri Mela, which celebrates the wedding of Shiva and Parvati (as far as I've been told), wa just a few weeks ago, and so before the temples was a huge pile of erect tridents of all sizes, materials, and decorations, which (again) were carried up by devotees of Shiva. The view of the area is really sublime, but I was more interested in the tridents. One especially big one had a scrap-metal cobra wrapped around it; so resourceful. Some were painted, a few carved. None of the painting seemed to have been done professionally. One in particular I thought was really touching: it had a clearly amateur (and pretty rough) painting of Shiva kissing Parvati on the cheek. Someone put a lot of time and effort into painting that, as well as they could, by hand, before lugging it all the way up that mountain. Something about the humility of that, as a devotional gesture, set against the absolutely awe-inspiring power of the surrounding mountains, I thought was really beautiful. Again, as I said of the Taj, really human.

Tomorrow we leave Pachmari, making our way back to Delhi so I can finish this Visa crap off once and for all. We're headed there altogether, arriving Monday morning, and then splitting up for a few days. E. and S. are going to Jodhpur - S. hasn't seen it, and we think he should - and I'm staying two nights in Delhi to get my Visa business finished, then we're all reconvening in Udaipur (also in Rajasthan) at a pre-selected and pre-booked hotel. I'm not concerned about it. I actually feel quite comfortable with Delhi - I know the geography, I know how things work and how much they should cost - and I've booked a higher-class train for myself to Udaipur. E. and S. will be together, so they will be fine too. Hopefully E. will get back on here to let you know how that goes. I've been having a really great time with both of them - E. and I are becoming truly Patty-and-Selma-esque - but the idea of a few days alone is sitting well with me. In addition to my bureaucracy, camera, and iPod cable tasks, I'm going to find a nice bookstore to browse (I'm out of reading material, having also blasted through Lisa Moore's Open for the second time and Salman Rushdie's Haroun and the Sea of Stories, which I picked up second-hand in Khajuraho), pick myself up something nice and maybe sell one or two of the ones I've been carrying with me, and then find a nice magazine stand with some American publications - I'm hurting for a Harper's or New Yorker or something.

Also, I might become a journalist instead of (or in addition to) a lawyer. Surprise!

Last call: send me your address if you want some mail.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Catch-up reading: Crime and Punishment edition

The New Yorker on families of illegal immigrants in a private-run prison in Texas, featuring a family who tried to claim asylum in Canada.

Unspeakable alleged abuses of power from the Albany police.

Even more reasons to be afraid of McCain.

The writers of The Wire, the smartest show in the history of television, on what's wrong with the War on Drugs.

And respect to Pandagon for being so awesome the last few weeks.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

International Women's Day, my Dad's birthday, and Khajuraho

Kind of hard to bring those all together, so I won't.

Happy International Women's Day, in which, among other things, I pause and offer respect to the long line of smart, brave, and righteous babes, including our mothers and grandmothers, who've given us everything in the world. I'm grateful to inherit what they worked for, and to be part of the next generation (along with almost all of my friends) to use the F-word with pride. Check out what us smart young bitches is up to.

Happy birthday, Dad, and congrats on all the new directions the new year is bringing.

And I'm in Khajuraho, having a beer and a bhang lassi for all the girls back home, and for my Mom. You guys are amazing. Please be in Canada when I get home.

Mom, this is for you. Dolly never lies.

Real post in a few days.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Things I liked more and less about Agra

One minor train problem later, we're in Agra. This city is gaudy, at least all the areas we've seen, and I kind of like its total lack of tact. Congratulations to the touts at Fatehpur Sikri for being, by a wide margin, the most persistent we've seen so far. I seriously thought S. was going to smack this one kid, and was trying to figure out how to say "You are putting yourself in physical danger" in Hindi when the tourist police came and shooed him away. (Yes, there are special tourist police in India. They're the ones dressed like police, but not carrying AK-47-style guns.)

The Hindi is coming along, slowly. I can construct simple sentences and understand some of what I'm hearing if the speaker isn't talking a million miles a minute. They all speak directly to S., right away, barely acknowledging E. and I sometimes. I know it's probably mostly because he's Indian, but I get the sense that his being a he has something to do with it as well. The good thing is that it lets me sit back and listen to them trying to speak so that he can understand them. The bad thing is that it gives me few opportunities to speak it myself. I'm getting used to the pacing, the bubbling, front-of-the-mouth sound streams, catching the beats and the intonation. But it still feels like double dutch, and even though I've got the rhythm of the ropes clicking on the pavement, I'm stuck rocking back and forth and waiting for one opening big enough to jump in. Still, it's coming along.

I got really serious about it a few days ago in response to a straw-that-breaks type incident on our "7k hike" (truth: grim, shadeless death march at a 30-degree incline which we gave up on halfway) in which the three of us ended up surrounded by men who were transparently talking about us. I could understand some basic parts ("Two girls, one boy," "Where do you think they're from?") but couldn't follow it when the tones changed, got quieter and bolder, and into what S. assures us was very, very crude - not that we didn't know what was going on anyway. It drives me insane that people always think that speaking in another language means that no one can tell that they're being discussed; it's not true, you always can. Always always. Anyway, it really burns me that people can openly show us disrespect and we can't do anything about it, so I've gotten serious about learning the language. My goal is to be able to shock and humiliate one person before I leave who says something exceptionally disrespectful to us. (Of course, if no one else talks rudely about us, I won't get the chance - and no one would be happier than me if that were the case - but in the meantime I think I'll try to be prepared.)

Anyway. Agra.

We spent yesterday at Fatehpur Sikri, which was ultimately not that enjoyable. It's not that the buildings weren't great - they were - but between the heat (yeah, uh oh), the touts (as I said, in a class of their own) and the bugs.... good god, the bugs.... I was too distracted and uncomfortable to really absorb the scenery. I speak for myself here, but I think it probably applies to all of us. The entire place was like a solid, dense cloud of these tiny, fruit-fly type bugs. Because we were perspiring and wearing sunscreen (okay, only E. and I), walking through a cloud of them meant getting them stuck to your face, your neck, your arms, and all over your clothes. I have never seen so many insects in one place. The clouds were so dense they were a permanent haze across the complex. I made the mistake of wearing yellow, which apparently they were attracted to, so I ended up absolutely covered. It's taken two washes to get all the bugs out of my shirt.

But, nothing a cold shower didn't fix. Every shower here feels like the Best Shower Ever. People in Canada don't really need to shower, ever. They don't get dirty. Not actually dirty. You don't really know how dirty works until you come somewhere like India. You don't really need to wash your clothes, either. We do.

Had a mediocre dinner last night and a beer that the restaurant had to send a boy on a bike to go buy, and made us keep under our table when we weren't refilling our glasses. You can get beer everywhere here, but no one has a liquor license. I can understand that (cf: my previous post on Indian bureaucracy). It was hilarious, we felt bad. Kingfisher is the only widely available brand here, which - like most of what Indians drink - is sugary as hell. It also comes in 650ml bottles, so I suggest that any blossoming alcoholics steer clear. Came back to the hotel and stayed up late watching old American cartoons dubbed in Hindi - Johnny Bravo, even, and Tom and Jerry.

Got up at 5.30 this morning to be at the gates of the Taj at 6am when it opened. (Okay, 6.15.) May I recommend the Taj Mahal at dawn? It's hard to imagine a time that wouldn't be worth rising to see the building described by Nobel winner Rabindranath Tagore as "a tear on the face of eternity"* shift from muted pink-blue-greys in the predawn twilight through the autumnal colours of sunrise and into the blaring, pearly light of the daytime sun. The play of light, which in Moghul (Islamic) architecture is used to signify the presence of God, who is never directly represented, is one of the most interesting features of the Taj. It seems flat without the sun, all grey. From what we saw, I think it's at its best when the first bits of direct morning light hit it, giving it a third dimension and illuminating the Koranic script around the main arches. It's definitely the most subtle, and makes the brassy major chords of the full sun** feel a bit garish. Of course, that's only until you actually enter the buildling - when you come back out and look again, it's so white and so fine that you can't imagine it in any other lighting. I know I'll forget all of this, and the photos won't help at all.

In the inside of the mausoleum, you can't take photos, and that is a damn shame. You've seen a hundred photos of the Taj and you haven't seen the most beautiful part. Inside is a replica of the tombs of Shah Jahan, who built the thing, and his favourite wife, whose death inspired it. They're surrounded by a wall of carved marble that's cut so thin it's translucent, with incredibly detailed inlays of precious and semiprecious stones in long floral motifs that echo the ones on the front gate. There are also panels in this wall that are carved right through, and through which you can see the tomb-replicas - for such a hard material, the marble here managed to look incredibly soft, even malleable. The walls of the interior, which sit back about 15 feet from the wall around the tombs (which is only 5 feet high or so) are all, again, inlaid marble and Koranic text, rising right up to the full-height dome ceiling at the top of the structure. Beneath the replicas, the real tombs lie in the same positions, in undecorated wood coffins, in a permanently sealed and inaccessible room that, my guide says, smells of incense and roses.

The thing you can't capture, in photos or words, is how much soul is in the building. The expressiveness of the work is completely unlike any other building I've ever been in, and it's hard to explain exactly what that means. The thin alley of water in front of the Taj (in which you can see a reflection of the building, in a lot of famous photos) is actually just the North stream of four, which extend in four directions from a raised platform, and represent the four streams in the Muslim paradise. Apart from the restrained elegance of the detailing, which itself speaks volumes about beauty and loss, the interior layout of the mausoleum follows an old Islamic text about the layout of paradise - the sum of all of these details is that Jahan and his wife's tombs lie at the seat of God, but for one detail: they are slightly off-center, and in an obsessively symmetrical structure, we had all wondered why. I have a guess, on further thought: to lie beside, rather than in place of, the throne of God.

To say the least, I was moved by the interior. A little choked up, actually. There's just so much feeling coming together in such a small space: of love, of faith, of loss, of joy. All I could pull together in my mind at the time were random strands of poetry from god knows where... well, some I know. "where leap the wild, bereft deer" is from one of Phyllis Webb's Water and Light ghazals, for example. But I think the truth of the building reveals itself like that, like those strange flashes of recognition that happen in poetry, where something far too big to ever be articulated is channeled into a narrow phrase, a shorthand for the human, or even the sacred. My experience of the Taj had a lot in common with my experiences of poetry, at its best.

Well, this entry has gotten really out of control now, so I'll cut it off there, except to say that I've also finished Anil's Ghost and strongly suggest that if you haven't read it, you should, and that if you have read it, a second reading is definitely needed. I'm considering a third.

We leave tomorrow for Orccha, in Madhya Pradesh to the South, after which we'll be headed to Kajuraho and Pachmari, then hopefully back to Varanassi, if the trains work. We've had a really hard time working the trains to Varanassi, and the buses are just unsafe there. It's also a theft-heavy city, and E. and S. want to skip it entirely. I'm torn. Getting there really will be a nightmare. We'll see what happens.

Take care, all.

*Thank you, Rough Guide.
** Thank you, P.K. Page.

Dear Indian bureaucracy (language warning)

(The content of this post has been removed because it has been deemed inappropriate for children, Christians, the elderly, and everyone else. Sorry if you read it before I got to it. For real, though, they deserved it.)