Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Men In Maroon & the Man In Black

Hey hey we're the Monk-ees

It was a maroon-robed exodus today as many monks piled onto the buses headed for Gaya, Mussoorie, Shimla, Mundgod and all other Buddhist outposts following the conclusion of the Dalai Lama's teachings. I sat in McLlo's window taking photos that had that magical afternoon glow, watching the monks tie their packages atop the rooftop luggage racks, shake hands through the windows and trade numbers on their cell phones. It felt like the last day of school. When a whole busload of monks waved goodbye like schoolkids on an expedition I waved from the restaurant window. They all waved back delightedly.

A few Hindu holy men walked around half naked with dreadlock beards and tridents, looking out of place like Shriners who'd missed the exit and ended up at the wrong convention. Varanasi is thattaway, Baba!

Monks are the quasi-celebrities of the town; everyone wants to take photos with them and they obligingly provide near-constant photo opportunities for tourists. Somehow having a monk in a photo automatically makes it cool. Refreshjngly unlike the Hindu holy men, they never ask for money in exchange for this public service.

Then I trotted down the rocky hillside trail beyond Om Hotel, stopping to play with Tashi, the resident Lhasa Apso, to see the Tse Chokling monastery. I had heard that even outsiders can rent rooms there. I like the monastic vibe but am too fond of late-night writing hours to make it in before the gates close.

Don't take your monks to town, son....
After all this holiness it was time for some pop culture entertainment. Walk the Line, the Johnny Cash biopic, was playing downstairs at the OOFCSS DVD Theatre (Out of Focus, Crappy Sound System). What do you want for thirty rupees? (less than $1.00).

My fervent devotion to The Man in Black is well known. Walk the Line was not at all earth-moving, but takes place primarily in Tennessee and of course, features some of the best songs ever written, unfortunately sung anew by the stars (bad idea, who could possibly step-to?) instead of lipsynched to the originals. I think I scared the New England blue-state Teva-sporting dharma babies by knowing all the words to "Jackson" and "Folsom Prison Blues."

Well you asked me if I'll forget my baby I guess I will, someday,
I don't like it
But I guess things happen that way

The only problem with this movie, in my situation, is that is makes me want to hear the original music loud and clear, and I'm nowhere near a place to buy or hear it. The scenes on the lake in Hendersonville made me homesick for a land where people don't pee on the street, and they actually put screens on the windows to keep out mosquitos. (Don't ask. For some reason, this is a new concept in India....or at least a rare one. Instead, there are open windows with bars to keep out intruders, but no glass and no screens. How is it that we have no malaria in the States, yet plenty ways to keep out mosquitos, and the reverse is true here?)

This movie is required viewing for Indian friends who don't understand why I don't understand the way they relate to their families. It features good old have-it-out, door-slammin', back-talkin,' plate-throwin', Southern Baptist families complete with disapproving stern father figure. Thank God Johnny didn't pay him no never-mind.

Well, I knew that snake was my own sweet dad From a worn-out picture that my mother'd had, And I knew that scar on his cheek and his evil eye. He was big and bent and gray and old, And I looked at him and my blood ran cold And I said: "My name is 'Sue!' how do you do!
Now you gonna die!"

If Mick Jagger had been Indian, he'd have stayed in the London School of Economics and become an accountant.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Spilled tea

Another Country
McLeod Ganj, Himachal Pradesh

I know it's not an original observation - I'm certainly not the first to make it - but I can never get over the contrast between the energy of the Tibetans and the majority of lowland Indians. (The locals seem to have a bit of that spritely hill energy, like the Nepalis.) For one thing, the "Tiptons" (as my Andhra friends pronounced it) seem to constantly smile at strangers as though they were truly happy to see you, although they are not trying to sell you anything and don't speak enough English to grill you with personal questions. And even when they do (speak English), they don't (grill you). You can often tell they've been in India a while when they stop smiling at strangers.

The Dalai Lama's annual Indian teachings are always crowded, so we sit on ledges and stairways tripping over one another constantly - mostly Tibetans, quite a few Westerners (in India, Japanese, Korean and Chinese are Westerners) and the occasional Indian.

The "Dalai Lama Temple" is a sort of overgrown government-issue generic blocky building made of reinforced concrete and painted a faded yellow. It was built long ago - looks like the 1960s - before the world took so much notice of Tibetan Buddhism, and followers have long since outgrown the grounds. Monks and jean-clad young assistants scurry at tea intervals, stepping over and through the devotees seated on the ground like a Buddhist picnic, pouring endless cups of the salty Tibetan brew.

Tao Tea-Chings
Today the family next to me kicked over a cup onto the concrete flooring and the hot liquid went everywhere. Surely this happens many times during such a crowded event. What amazed me, after so many years in Indian India, was that no one got upset, no one clucked their tongue or tsked or scolded anyone, they just kind of picked up their stuff and moved over. It just struck me as being so different from the recrimination I now expect from most Indians in such situations. Everything is drama, nothing is ever okay, or just what happens - when you make a mistake there has to be some kind of reprimand and shame. Above all, there has to be judgment. And someone must pay, for god's sake!

And there's no undoing damage - it is beneath them to fix things. The spilled tea is an unforgiveable sin and shows how sloppy, rude and selfish you are.

So you spilled some tea. It was clumsy. It can't be unspilled, but it's not the end of the world. The Tibetans, like the Nepalis, just kind of pick up and keep going. The Indians are more like the stereotype of the Arabs. Unforgiving, and unhappy until you're suitably miserable as well. God forbid you ever step even part of the way on an Indian foot - it's a grave offense, so I quickly internalized all the proper apologetic mimetic gestures. Now I do them reflexively, and the Tibetans look at me like, hey, what's the big deal? You just stepped on my foot. You're human. It's just a foot. I'll get over it. After all, there are a billion of us in this crazy country, so relax. Feet happen.

The Daily Lama
During teachings, it's too crowded to get a glimpse of His Holiness, so I waited on the concrete staircase for him to pass on his way out to the jeep. I had to stand on tiptoes on the slippery edge of the stairs and clutch the iron railing, pulling myself up to peer over like a little kid.

First the dour Meninkhaki - that is, Indian police, heavily armed and in dun-coloured sweaters and berets, trudged down the stairs with rifles and one machine gun. They looked resentful, as though they'd been assigned the crappiest duty imaginable rather than their actual job, bodyguards to a living Buddha. To be fair, their bushy moustaches make them look extra foreboding and lend a downward turn to their faces. Also, to be fair, His Holiness receives his share of death threats, and these guys are not there to soak up the shakti but must be vigilant. I wish I had photos for you, but I had to check my camera with the female security at the foot of the stairs in order to come into this area.

Senior monks then followed, one in a splendid yellow hat that made him resemble an exotic tropical bird. An elderly rinpoche was getting into one of the jeep fleet and caught my excited eye. We shared secret smiles, like kids spying on Santa on Christmas eve.

Then, with no fanfare at all, His Holiness came, only about 10 feet away and above me on the stairs. His gait was slow and deliberate, as always holding his robes over his left arm like a bride's train, with his ever-present bemused and loving patient half-smile. Everyone silently pranamed (holding hands in prayer position) as he got into the car. There was no pushing to speak of - again, these devotees compared very favourably to those I'm accustomed to at umpteen local melas, pujas and temple festivals.

As his benign gaze swept the heads of those waiting, I realized the pain in my jaws was an involuntary ear-splitting grin. Then I burst into tears of happiness.

The glow stayed with me as a flurry of monks and laypersons hotfooted it down the slick stairs, past the now-redundant metal detectors and out into the street to get a glimpse of the passing Holy Jeep. The narrow street was a river of maroon robes as we crowded the blue-tarped tea stalls trying to get out of the sprinkling rain, but still receive the holy darshan.

Although every one of us wanted the same thing - to be as close as possible to His Holiness - and there was no way we would all get it, the feeling was so markedly non-frenetic. No one pushed. No one yelled. No one elbowed. Elderly Tibetans, longhaired rock n roll Tib Teens, dreadlocked hippies, middle aged Germans all had beaming smiles on their faces as we huddled together waiting for the jeeps to pass.

They did, silently, and no one tried to touch or grab them. They just stood reverentially with heads semi-bowed and hands in Anjali mudra. After the Sacred SUVs were well up the hill, on their way to HH's residence some 7 kms away in Siddhbari, we turned our attention to steaming spinach momos and butter tea from the sidewalk stalls. These are people who've lost everything, their country, their sacred relics, their political and cultural autonomy, and yet they don't feel the need to push or compete for one of the only things left to them. Maybe all kinds of stupid competition and pettiness goes on behind the scenes, but there's none of the public grabbiness I've become accustomed to.

My friend The Wizard described the Tibetan monks as "a military outfit from outer space." So disciplined, so well organized, so one-pointed - as though they had come down from their home planet, the Planet Dharma, to promote peace on earth and the welfare of all sentient beings. The more I look at the Amaravati, Boudha and Sanchi stupas, the more they resemble spaceships. The mandalas are maps of their galaxy.

They had to come to India - it's the birthplace of the Dharma. They came to bring it back.

When they go, will they take me with them? I want to go where they're going.

The rain turns to a hailstorm as old Tibetan ladies and monks scurry for high ground, grinning all the way as though getting caught in heavy precipitation is a fun game. Ice pellets drum on the blue tarps overhead.

The salty buttered tea blends well with the taste of my tears.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Phayul's interview with the Dalai Lama

from Phayul Tibetan News, October 2005.

Question: What are your thoughts on the Iraq War?

The Dalai Lama: When September 11 happened, the next day I wrote a letter to President Bush as a friend—because I know him personally. I wrote this letter and expressed, besides my condolences and sadness, a countermeasure to this tragedy: a nonviolent response because that would have been more effective. So this is my stance. And then just before the Iraq crisis started, millions of people from countries like Australia and America expressed their opposition to violence. I really admired and appreciated this.

When the war started, some people immediately asked me if it was justified or not, whether it was right or wrong. In principle, any resort to violence is wrong.

read the full interview here.

Paint it black

Holiday in Karbala
New Delhi

During my recent luxrious entrapment in the suburbs of Delhi, I did manage one afternoon of urban freedom in order to see Jantar Mantar, the 17th century open-air observatory, which made for some very cool photos. On the way I saw some real live naked Jain saints marching down MG Road. There are 2 main schools of Jainism, the Swetambar (white-clad) and Digambar (sky-clad) and this procession featured both. I was disappointed that the only Digambar seem to be wrinkly old men carrying peacock feather fans. (Where are all the young, good-looking naked Jain saints?) All the ladies were swathed in white. They continued on their non-violent way toward a Jain temple in Green Park neighborhood.

Coming out of Jantar Mantar at around 6.30 I got the opposite end of the spectrum of religious observance. There was a noisy procession down Janpath, with marchers, banners and truckbeds full of participants. I asked the policeman, and it turned out to be a parade of Shi'a Muslims. It was the final day of Moharram (commemoration of a Shia martyr, Hossain, in Karbala, Iraq some 1500 years ago) and they were all headed for the Dargah in order to whip themselves bloody with knives. How could I possibly resist? So I jumped into the back of a truck, making sure it was one carrying women and children, and rode with them to the Dargah.

How to describe the difference between Hindu and Muslim India? first of all, you realize, something is missing. The colour. Everyone is wearing black. It's like a black and white movie of Hindu India, or like The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy is still in Kansas. Everything is kind of a pale reflection. The flowers in the place of worship are dried up, the tableaux are drab colours, and even the prasad is dry and flavourless, like they can't allow themselves to enjoy anything. There seems to be little rejoicing (all their holidays are about celebrating someone's martyrdom - they even re-enact the funerals, carry in the coffin and so on).

What else is missing? The women. Sure, traditional Hindu women don't exactly live a liberated lifestyle but their exuberant beauty is there, peeping out at you from beneath heavy jewellry or little peeks between the sari folds and blouses; shy smiles, long luxurious braids and tinkling bangles. And they can express themselves with colour, and flowers in their hair. Muslim women do have a certain elegant dignity in their black burquas. But...something is missing. Like, their hair, their bodies and their faces. (I know that in Malaysia the Muslim women wear colourful burqas.)

I visited the Purdah house along with my new friend Fatima, a physics lecturer at Jamiah Millaid University here in Delhi. Fatima brought along her 2 children, Maryam and 6 month old infant Ibrahim, and their elderly maid who was looking after Ibrahim. Fatima's husband Abbas is a merchant of hiking and sporting gear; he sells things like parasails for adventure sports. Upon finding that I was from the US, Abbas assured me that Shias, unlike Sunnis, do not believe in Jihad, or as he put it, Jihad is only with the tongue and the pen, not with the sword. I would like to know more about this particular aspect. They were surprised that I had heard of Sunni and Shi'as and the 2 different caliphs. I told them that not only had I learned of it in Asian history class, but it's all in the news now.

Purdah house is where all the women go to hang out with each other and the kids, and get away from the men. Strangely there were a couple men in the purdah house and I wondered why they were the exception. (they didnj't look like eunuchs!) There was a big padded mat on the floor where everyone just rolled around with their kids chatting. One of the only English expressions I understood was "short skirt!" with definite disapproval. I asked if they were discussing their kids' school uniforms. No, they said, they were just disapproving of the general clothes girls wore these days in public.

It turned out Fatima's girl Maryam goes to Jesus and Mary Convent school along with some of the other Muslim kids. "Convent educated" has long been a synonym for well-educated here in India, but I wondered how this worked as Muslims. The Muslim and other non Christian kids are not required to do Bible studies or prayer there; when it's scripture study time instead they get a general "moral training" class.

Also missing are the lively visuals. Most of India (not just Hindu but Christian, Buddhist, Sikh etc) is just dripping with iconography, flowers, and all manner of doo dads. All this was missing from the cars, rooms, and places of worship I saw. but it didn't feel austere and elegant in a minimalist sense, but like...something is missing. It's missing the usual feeling of celebration, festivity and general life-enhancing energy that Asian festivals normally have.

There were at least 100,000 people there, every single one (with 2 or 3 very visible exceptions) dressed fully in black. People were gathered in the courtyard as a preacher screamed a sermon through a loudspeaker (and I mean, he was yelling himself hoarse constantly, for at least an hour). A big banner hung outside reading, in English,"We know that US forces are behind destruction of the Iraqi shrine." I was genuinely curious about this because I don't put it past my govt. to do such things. Another banner read "live like Hossain, die like Ali." I realized this was what the little kids in the truck had been yelling to passersby in Arabic (or maybe in Urdu). it seemed like a weird thing for little girls and boys to enjoy yelling. They were yelling it the same way we would yell "Hixson, Hixson!" on the way to our high school football games.

Whip It Good
When the screaming preacher finally stopped (maybe from laryngitis) the funeral of Hossain was reenacted, with men carrying a mock coffin draped in black with gold decor into the Dargah itself where it was lain in state just like a normal funeral. Then the chest-beating began. At first I thought it was drumming, the beating was so loud and consistent. It was the men beating their left chest with their right fists in unison. Once they set up a rhythm they began chanting to it. The chanting was not necessarily mournful sounding, but more military.

Then the women began ritual weeping for the martyr's death (they also performed a modified chest beating). I felt kind of guilty just being there to observe them, sort of like going to a funeral for someone you don't know and ogling everyone's grief, so I covered my head with my dupatta and tried to look depressed and sorrowful.

One lady seated next to me on the crowded marble steps explained a few things to me in English. Then the younger men came out of the inner dargah and into the courtyard (because blood can't be shed in the building itself), took off their shirts and started whipping themselves with the knives on chains. I got some video of this and at one point my hands and camera were coverd in blood splatters - it was that bloody. Blood was flying! The woman explained to me, "because we were not there, we now are sharing in his bloodshed. Because his blood was shed now we share in the suffering." Of course this is not unique to Islam, some Christians and Hindus do self-mortification too. The Hindus seem to have a lot more fun with it and I have never seen the Kavadi shed blood (not even when they pierce their tongue with the vel, or ritual spear). Don't know about the Christians....I know they do crucifixion re-enactments in the Philippines, for instance. Maybe one difference is the martyrdom aspect: in the Hindu instances there is no martyrdom to re-enact, they are just offering their energy and effort toward accumulating merit. But what would a crucifixion (or other martyrdom) be without actual bloodshed?

The floor of the white marble courtyard was red with the blood. Some of them whipped their left shoulders while holding the knives with their right hands; others had a more advanced 2-fisted technique whereby they lashed from left to right shoulder. These were no ordinary knives, it was obviously an apparatus made just for this purpose (imagine the thought process, "let's see, we need a good strong handle, and chains just long enough to reach over our shoulders..."). The handle is a sort of wooden grip with four or five chains extending several feet to the curved knives dangling from the other end.

Some of the guys had backsfull of raised scars from years of doing this. Several people explained to me the 'miracle' - that no one ever gets infected and they use no medication or disinfectant the following day. They did rinse it off with water, a guy came around with a hose pipe and another with a water bottle.

I was then invited to go into the dargah and see the coffin. I had to take off my shoes and really, really did not want to walk barefoot through all the fresh blood so I found the one foot-wide pathway that led beyond the blood and tiptoed in.

Inside the dimly lit hall my mind struggled to find comparisons. I realized it was like nothing so much as a funeral parlour - which, basically, it is. Low lighting, weird smell of dead flowers, grimy offerings, people in black weeping and a coffin people touched lovingly at one end. Some women had hymnbooks and began chanting in small groups toward the door. Really, I was almost surprised they didn't completely re-enact the martyrdom and choose one lucky fellow to be the new Hossain, be slain and have the honour of lying in the coffin.

I was very glad to have experienced this phenomenon but somewhat glad when it was over. Again, unlike any other religious celebration I've been to (and you knoooowwww I've damn-near seen it all, from Southern Baptist dunkings to the Tamil Nadu Hindus piercing their skin with hooks) - the vibe was not welcoming, though no one was rude to me at all. Next time I would wear a burqa, because no one would be able to differentiate me then till I open my mouth.

After three years in Asia, you somehow develop a radar for isolating English speakers.My radar led me to Ali, a tall young man in mod clothes with the Nordic features and hazel eyes of a Kashmiri. Bingo - he turned out to be a Kashimiri student here learning engineering. Ali spoke English well and guided me to the nearest payphone so I could call my worried Indian chaperones (note: there is no other sort of Indian chaperone. They come in 2 speeds - worried and hysterically melodramatic), but we were delayed by Ali's stopping to flirt with one young lady in a black and white bandhani print headscarf (after a very discreet chat, which was mostly nuanced eye contact, he slipped her his phone number). I had to admit that despite the headscarf you could see this young lady was a real looker - tall and slim with razorsharp cheekbones. In fact the headscarf gave her a bit of mystique. So behind all the ritualized mourning, everyone is socializing and flirting as at any community function.

The Martaam (self flagellation) continued outside the mosque with groups of men proceeding down the street lashing themselves in a frenzy, then stopping for a breather after a minute or 2. Then they'd move on and start up again.

Good Grief
In a way, Moharram was just another version of the classic Indian guilt trip. I (and a number of foreign fellow travellers) am still wondering what is derived from this game, which awaited me upon return from my field work ("where were you?" or better yet, "I was waiting for you," which has become a humourous refrain in the foreign community). Multicultural certainly, but nothing we can't get from any Jewish mother worth her matzohs. I did get the feeling my host would have felt justified in lashing me (or my lashing myself) with knives and chains in retaltiation for the unforgiveable sin of not planning my every move a day in advance. I got away with 48 hours of the silent treatment, which, by that time, was fine with me.

The most fun was really drinking rum with Uncle Jeet and watching the news every night. Uncle Jeet is a 65-year-old retired Indian Air Force navigator. Recently widowed, he says "time hangs on" him unless he keeps busy by driving his baby-blue 1960 Austin Minor to the golf course ever day for a few rounds with his ex-military buddies. Then he comes home and naps till it's time for the news. From 7pm till 11pm (dinner time) we drank Ballantine's XXX Rum cocktails and made cynical comments about BBC, CNN-IBN, NDTV and Travel & Lifestyle channel. I loved it.

Saturday, March 25, 2006

Hello Little Egypt!

Welcome to my first Egyptian viewer. I don't even know how they found me. But according to the SiteMeter, they read for 30 minutes and even went into archives. Sorry, all those childhood years of National Geographic magazine (back before we had cable TV like you whippersnappers) made a definite impression on me.

Egypt, cooool!!!

Friday, March 24, 2006

Clouds in McLeod

Delhi to Dalai
McLeod Ganj, Himachal Pradesh

Prior to departure from Delhi (modern big city civilization; "swimmin' pools, movie stars") to McLeod Ganj (herbal tea hippy hill station) I went in for The Best Pedicure in the World. For 100Rs (about $2.50 US), Vinay restores my feet to their original colour, that of uncooked chapatti dough. It was weird having a guy work on my feet, and I have never seen an Indian man with dyed pink hair, but I had to admit he put a lot of upper body strength into scrubbing off about a year's worth of dead skin.

A tummy full of Coconut Rava Dosa, fresh lime soda (sweet), chocolate burfi and Madras style coffee from the dakshina (South Indian) joint next door completed my temporary farewell to the lowlands. I'm headed for the Himachal hills where it's roti, not dosa; chai in tiny glasses, not coffee in stainless steel tumblers; and wool shawls, not breezy cotton blouses.

Finding the HPTDC (Himachal Pradesh Tourist Development Corporation) bus on Connaught Place wasn't easy. They say that it leaves from the Chandralok Building on Janpath, but if you pull into the building lot with all your luggage, the bus is actually in a lane behind the building, and there is no through road. You will have to cart your luggage down to the bus itself. Good luck getting your auto driver to get back in the auto and find the correct back entrance - it's not gonna happen.

Why a bus to see the Dalai Lama, you ask? Why not the train or plane? McLeod Ganj, like a lot of Himachal, is too mountainous for train access. I think there's a helipad a few miles away for emergencies and Richard Gere.

A very important factor is getting a booking early enough to get in the front of the bus. They always tell the seat number over the phone; high numbers (up to 35) indicate a back seat. You do NOT want to be in the bumpy back seat going over these mountainous roads. It's not like the highways. Plus, there are spine-jolting speed bump sequences (ridges in a row) designed to slow vehicles down and you really feel each and every one in the back.

At the literal opposite end of the undesirable bus seats we have the Cabin. Sounds nice, right? The Cabin is the seat they only give you when all the other conceivable, actual seats are taken. It means you sit up in the front driving compartment with the driver, his co-horts and so on. If you get the far corner it could be okay, but in January I was crammed up behind the driver's reclining seat and kept my knees in my chest for the whole way.

In order to stay awake, the driver usually puffs beedis (cheap smelly cigarettes) and blares Hindi film music. Your options are to keep the window open and let the smoke out, but then catch pneumonia and a sore throat in the constant rush of cool mountain night air. Or, you could keep the window closed and choke on beedi smoke. Last January I opted for a combination - cracking the window, and covering my head with my shawl to block out smoke and the noise of the film music.

It's 400Rs for the 12-hour ride, but don't expect to hit the road at 5.30 boarding time. Like everything in India there is more than meets the eye. Sure, boarding time is 5.30 pm. But you won't really be getting anywhere till about 8pm.

First, we have to go all the way to Tibet Colony (half hour in the wrong direction) to pick up the majority of our passengers, Tibetans and Western Tibet freaks, then wait for them to load up the luggage. That adds about an hour. Then we double back and go north to the highway. Getting out of Delhi is an ordeal, the most frustrating part - sitting in trafffic, lurching forward then stopping again and so on....through all the sprawl and ugly highway stuff till we get to the freeway. On the freeway it's smooth sailing most of the way. Just as things seem to be getting under way - at about 8pm - it's time for the dinner stop.

Did I sayTibet Colony was "first"? Sorry, that's not first. First, we have to have a rigorous checking of tickets to ensure each seat is occupied by the person specified on the ticket. International airports should have such thorough security checks, it would solve a lot of problems.

At about 2 in the morning, we get to a really horrible part in the ride (it's too dark to see much) on twisty, hairpin up and down roads. Again, this is a lot more fun if you are not in the back. Sometimes it seems like constant up and down. there was a point at which I was sure I was going to puke (in fact a kid a few seats in front did puke, or it sounded like it). Fortunately at this point we made a tea stop and I got some breath mints to calm my stomach.

The high points of the bus trip were the fat Tibetan nun who was harbouring a tiny Lhasa Apso in her Lhap and the delicious paneer naan at the bhajan-blaring dhaba. Literal high points came about every 10 minutes or so when we'd hit a bump and I was jolted into the air (everyone else seemed to weigh a lot more so they remained earthbound, but waif that I am I got picked up and slammed down each time).

Prior to takeoff, a large Spanish contingent had a saucy skirmish with the TD (Ticket Deity) as they had decided to play musical seats and spunkily refused to sit in their originally assigned places. "Mira! Mira!" (look, look!) "Uno dos tres quatros cinquos." TD: "You listen to me." Spaniel: "No, you listen to ME." The TD had obviously mistaken the spirited Spaniards for demure Dutch or guilty postcolonial Brits and thought he could order them around. (Obviously never heard of the Spanish Inquisition.) The Latins won the day and remained unmoved. Badges? we don't need no stinkin badges.

What confuses the international visitor is that things in India absolutely must go the way they are written on paper, with all kinds of dire threats otherwise - heads will roll if you don't sit in the original seat! - unless of course that would be to the visitor's advantage, in which case new rules are made up on a whim out of thin air, never explained and the written version suddenly becomes "not possible." There is never any notice I've been able to detect regarding when the rules apply and when they are chucked out the window. The rules seem to apply all the time, 24 hours a day, until they suddenly don't. Or vice versa (they never apply until they do, at which point they emerge ironclad from nowhere). The nice Spanish family with their kids get harassed for unorthodox seatery; how come the TD didn't get upset about the drunk guy passed out under my feet in the back row?

The Magic Bus pulled into McLlo Square at 7 am. I am just now emerging from my sleepy cocoon. Paljor Gakhyil guesthouse is next-door neighbors with Kailwood; up the same long staircase, clean, quiet, bucket hot water, mouldy pillow smell, 135Rs. ("Bucket hot water"means there is no running hot water; you have to ask the "boy" to boil water in the kitchen and deliver the bucket to your door. Cost: 10 Rs, or about 25 cents.)

At 7am there are no chai stands open, just one Himachali girl and her elderly mother, sitting on a milk crate by the roadside with a butane stove, crusty aluminum pan and a few glasses. The girl's dark almond eyes, smooth ebony hair pulled away from her face, and golden nose ornament reminded me so much of their Nepali cousins.

McLeod is overcast, breezy and cool, with dark blue rainclouds looming. I've been here 24 hours and still haven't seen His Holiness - I'm still in recovery mode.

Astrological forecast: The Mercury Retrograde, with its 3 weeks of communication breakdowns and misunderstandings, ends tomorrow (26 March).

Monday, March 20, 2006

All aboard the Rajdhani Express

Delhi Diary

The Rajdhani Express arrived in Nizamuddin station, Delhi on Saturday afternoon with yrs truly aboard. The thirty-hour journey from Madras was the express version (it's normally 2 nights and 2 days). I wondered why my compartment-mates were so morose till I realized the CTI (chief ticket inspector, AKA "the man with the tie") had probably instructed them - "see this white lady? One wrong move and you're all in trouble." Later the CTI came by to ensure "there is no problem? All are gents, yes?" I assured him they were indeed.

Eventually the ice broke and I met some lovely people including a young Tamil man who serenaded us with classical Western guitar, and turned out to be doing a master's in cell biology in Delhi. He laments that he can't get into a music school in India because he is too old (31). They don't accept people over a certain age at colleges here. I told him to come to the US, being 31 there is like being 21 here.

Another "gent" turned out to be a senior investigator for the CB I (central bureau of investigation, Indian version of FBI) in Delhi, just returning from Maharashtra where he had handled an investigation of tiger-skin poaching and antelope-horn smuggling. This is a big problem, as India's tiger population is disappearing quickly. It's the fox guarding the henhouse -t he people they put in charge of protecting the tigers end up taking payoffs from the poachers with the result that in at least one major tiger 'reserve,' the population turned out to be 2 tigers rather than the officially reported 50 or so. I was invited to come by the CBI office any time and interview him about ongoing investigations (including heroin and hashish smuggling). It's good to have friends in high places.

An exciting moment in the landscape came while passing through the historic town of Gwalior, where we could see the famous ancient fort - perched on a sheer escarpment of rock in the middle of an otherwise near-desert - from the train. Also thrilling were glimpses of some of the minarets of Moghul buildings while passing through Agra (though not the Taj Mahal itself). All in all it was a nice ride with only one screaming baby on board.

The drive from Nizamuddin station takes you past all kinds of historic monuments, moghul tombs and ruins that are just casually chucked in as part of the scenery. One onion-domed tomb that I found quite impressive ("woww!" I exclaimed) was dismissed by my host as "not a very fancy one." They are now all surrounded by multi-lane highways and modern shopping complexes.

After a long soak in the heart-shaped tub (it takes a year of bucket baths in India to really appreciate a hot bathtub soak), Saturday night was spent being introduced, at the behest of my local host, to the cream of the Delhi expat volunteer crowd, bright enthusiastic young people from Ireland, Scotland, Germany, Australia and Philippines who are working for various NGOs, many working with street children and autistic or handicapped kids. Our age differences became a bit pronounced when they all wanted to go out to a loud techno nightclub till 4 in the morning. I begged out early at 1.30 am and my clothes and hair still reeked of cigarette smoke.

This is the first chance I've had to catch up on email since Thursday evening. I'm now staying with friends in Gurgaon, a suburb of Delhi and receiving some well-deserved pampering (live-in cook, an actual bathtub you can sit and soak in, and tea on command) before heading up to McLeod for the Dalai Lama and more rugged living conditions.

Monday, March 13, 2006

Nancy Drew in: the Case of the Missing Buddha

Buddha Boy Baffler
Nijgadh, Bara District, Nepal

Hey Shaggy, rev up the Mystery Machine and hit the road - the Buddha Boy's gone walkabout! Maybe he just got tired of his legs falling asleep all day...or his brother/manager wasn't giving him a big enough cut.

See my friends at United We Blog-Nepal for on-the-spot coverage.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Five Uneasy Pieces

The Good, the Bad, and the Idlis

This morning unseasonal rain fell upon Mylapore. As it pitter-pattered on the rooftop outside, I spent one hour trying to get four teas and one plate of idly delivered to the room. After two phone calls and three trips downstairs, I ended up getting - no kidding - fourteen idly - and no tea. ("Four teas and idly" = fourteen idly. Sure, everyone orders idly in groups of precisely fourteen.)

The desk clerk is so freaked out at having to wait on 1-a foreigner, 2-a single woman and 3-an English speaker that he can't even look me in the eye - not even in the general vicinity. I had to say, as he resolutely stared into space (in the opposite direction), "Sir, I am asking you a question. Look at me.
Yes, in the eyes" (pointing with 2 pronged peace-sign mudra to my own eyes). "Thank you. Now, may I have my breakfast, please?"

I think I need a vacation in Thailand, and about a month of margaritas on the beach. I am turning into the Jack Nicholson character in Five Easy Pieces.

This desk clerk, with his perfectly round eyes and puffy froglike cheeks, is the same young man who, the first 3 times I asked for room service, said nothing when first questioned, then said "no room service!" and finally retorted angrily, "Vegetarian Only!" To which I smiled calmly and said glad to hear it, because I am a vegetarian myself. Now may I please order? if it's okay with you? Mylapore is pretty trad Hindu, which ironically is one reason I wanted to stay here. They see few stayover foreigners, and they seem to assume that non-Indians are all meat-eating barbarians. They really just don't like having a single foreign woman staying in their hotel, it freaks them out. (Before you accuse me of insensitivity to the proletariat, this guy has a pretty peachy "job" - all he has to do is sit at this AC desk, with a beautiful view of the Mylapore teertha, and watch cricket on the cable TV all day).

Fortunately, there is an older Brahmin gentleman there who appears to be from the elder generation, when they taught them prep school English (before the later 1960s nationalist generation, when it became taboo to learn English. Now it's changed again and the teenagers and 20-somethings learn English, but there's a whole generation stuck in between thanks to nationalism). Anyway, fortunately the old guy in the dhoti is not too threatened to speak to me civilly (even looking in my general direction and smiling, of all things). All the younger one will do when I ask him a question is jerk his chin in an upward motion and stare straight ahead.

Now I know why the backpackers stay in Triplicane despite its depressing, sordid nature - at least there are people they can relate to and vice versa. The desk clerks at the shoddy dumps there speak some English - or at the very least, don't resent being asked to (and why should they resent it? it's one of the 2 National Languages of the country) - and are accustomed to foreign faces. All this alienation and sudden feeling of "otherness" - after three years in the country - is just too much. But when I step out onto the Mylapore streets the smells, sights and sounds are still enchanting as ever.

Highway Robbery
English travel writer and SirenSupporter Tim Makins wrote this woefully complete (!) account of the Indian Autorickshaw Experience, with my own commentary below.
Coming Attractions for India newcomers!

At the start, you say exactly where you want to go. You negotiate waiting time. You agree on a price, then set off.

You are friendly during the day, and when you want a drink or a snack, you buy him one too.* But as the day goes on, you can just feel his mind working away, trying to work out how much money he can get off you. Near the end, he gets suspiciously friendlier and tries to be even more helpful. You think he's done a good job, and that you'll pay an extra 50rs tip (translation: about $1.25 US, the daily wage of some labourers like street sweepers).

You get back to your hotel, give him the money and the tip, and he's disappointed. He starts complaining about waiting time, the stops, anything he can think of to get more money. Your tip now feels dirty. His friendliness, sharing drinks now feels a sham. This has happened time and time again in India - in fact, for me, its the worst aspect of visiting this wonderful country. Sometimes he then hangs around outside the hotel for ages, waiting for me to come out again. A couple of times, he's worked himself into such an anger of greed and dashed expectations that he throws the money on the floor, and refuses to pick it up.

*(SirenNote: this is usually a mistake - Indian clients never do this. I used to think they were being stingy, and now I know why. It is not seen by the driver as noblesse oblige generosity, but as a sign of your weakness and stupidity).

Truer words were rarely spoken, Tim. Especially the complaints about the waiting time (like he could have been making a fortune out there, if only you hadn't held him up for an extra 20 minutes). Thanks for writing in detail about this very demoralizing, very common India experience. The amazing thing to me is - it is invariably when I am feeling the most generous - like, hey, this is a really nice guy, he's doing a good job, maybe I will give him a better than usual tip - it is unfailingly at these times that the driver himself (or worker, or teacher, or whoever) seems to decide "aha! I can get even more out of this person." Amazingly, though I utter not a word, they can sense my turn of heart and are ready to exploit it.

Most foreigners who bother to come to India - let's face it, it's quite off the beaten path for an American or European's holiday destination - are social liberals, who really want to be generous with "the people" and leave feeling sorely burned after such encounters.

I have actually learned to regard such internal surges of generosity with suspicion (when I get that warm, fuzzy feeling of brotherhood...that's when I'm about to be ripped off).

You can almost see the cogs in their petty minds ticking away...they are already fantasizing how they're going to spend all the money they ganked out of the stupid, rich foreigner, who just by dint of being foreign, inherently deserves to be ganked. It is their own foregone fantasy that angers them so when in fact their scheme doesn't work out. Wait a minute, what do you mean I can't get an extra 100Rs, I've already decided how I'm going to spend it!

I very calmly but firmly repeat, "At that time, you are agreeing this price. You take this money, or you get nothing." When they refuse to take my money, I leave the originally agreed-upon amount with them - they are free to throw it on the ground in contempt if they like - walk away and threaten to call the police (holding up my all-powerful cell phone). What they're doing is no different from any other kind of extortion or highway robbery and I treat it that way - as a crime, which it is.

"Foreigners" are here to stay in India - in fact, we've been coming for about 300 years - and if we indulge these criminals or allow them to intimidate us ("oh, just give them the money, it's not worth it") it will just encourage more of the same, on a bigger scale.

Friday, March 10, 2006

"'Five Easy Pieces' (1970) is a moody, thoughtful character study of an alienated, misfit drifter and drop-out."

Just another day in paradise....

Dupea: I'd like a plain omelette, no potatoes, tomatoes instead, a cup of coffee, and wheat toast.

Waitress: (She points to the menu) No substitutions.

Dupea: What do you mean? You don't have any tomatoes?

Waitress: Only what's on the menu. You can have a number two - a plain omelette. It comes with cottage fries and rolls.

Dupea: Yeah, I know what it comes with. But it's not what I want.

Waitress: Well, I'll come back when you make up your mind.

Dupea: Wait a minute. I have made up my mind. I'd like a plain omelette, no potatoes on the plate, a cup of coffee, and a side order of wheat toast.

Waitress: I'm sorry, we don't have any side orders of English muffin or a coffee roll.

Dupea: What do you mean you don't make side orders of toast? You make sandwiches, don't you?

Waitress: Would you like to talk to the manager?

Dupea: ...You've got bread and a toaster of some kind?

Waitress: I don't make the rules.

Dupea: OK, I'll make it as easy for you as I can. I'd like an omelette, plain, and a chicken salad sandwich on wheat toast, no mayonnaise, no butter, no lettuce. And a cup of coffee.

Waitress: A number two, chicken sal san, hold the butter, the lettuce and the mayonnaise. And a cup of coffee. Anything else?

Dupea: Yeah. Now all you have to do is hold the chicken, bring me the toast, give me a check for the chicken salad sandwich, and you haven't broken any rules.

Waitress (spitefully): You want me to hold the chicken, huh?

Dupea: I want you to hold it between your knees.

Waitress (turning and telling him to look at the sign that says, "No Substitutions") Do you see that sign, sir? Yes, you'll all have to leave. I'm not taking any more of your smartness and sarcasm.

Dupea: You see this sign? (He sweeps all the water glasses and menus off the table.)

Smells Like Teertha Spirit

City of Peacocks
Mylapore, Madras

I moved from Triplicane to Mylapore and felt a big weight lifted off my shoulders. Now instead of beggars, rickshaw bandits, screaming babies and Israeli backpackers, I'm surrounded by temples, fruit and flower vendors and old Brahmin men in traditional dhoti, their foreheads plastered with vibhuti ash and kumkum dots. The Leo Coffee Co. downstairs roasts and sells the traditional, famous Madras south indian coffee and the aroma drifts up the stairs tantalizingly. Triplicane has too much negativity and desperation surrounding it and am too sensitive to deal with it.When I have to visit VP or the kids I will just go in a rickshaw. Mylapore is the heart of old Madras ("Mayilapur" means city of the peacocks), and in turn, the heart of Mylapore is the famous Sri Kapaleeshwar Temple, a big 800 year old Shiva Temple. The temple tank (a sort of sunken pond, with stone steps leading down to the water, behind the temple) is full for the first time in 18 years, because there had been a drought for so long till last fall's rains in Madras. Now the evening breeze blows tantalizingly across the water and through the palm and banana trees. A "teertha" is any meeting place of divine space and the earthly plane, but most commonly it is a place of sacred water, where devotees can bathe and thus come into direct contact with the gods. Now the empty, green scummy tank - when last seen it hosted just a few crusty water lily pads - is a teertha once again.

Today is Ekadashi (the eleventh day of every Hindu lunar month), an especially auspicious time - and this particular Ekadashi is special because it falls on a Friday (sacred to the goddess). Devotees crack coconuts and toss them into the tank, as per custom. Sanskrit mantras pour from shopfronts, no longer chanted by priests but looped on the electronic Mantrambox machines. All the shops and restaurants have That Madras Smell - a deliciously clean old-school Brahmin smell of camphor, sambrani incense, and jasmine flowers.

Refusing to employee the Triplicane Rickshaw Mafia (a de facto union of drivers who monopolize the corner of Vallabha Agraharam and Triplicane High Road, very literally preventing other drivers from stopping), I found an unaffiliated rick along the Beach Road and persuaded him to go to "Star Talkies Corner." He turned out to be one of these drivers who not only did not know his own city, but believed I could not possibly, either - asking directions from all and sundry even as I pointed the way and explained the direction to him ("left cut, age! age!"). The idea that I could know where my new hotel was seemed incomprehensible to him and he slowed at nearly every corner to enquire from others, so maddeningly that I almost hit him with my newspaper like an unruly puppy.

A few things have changed since my last visit to Mylapore. At least one of the old, nondescript concrete buildings on North Mada has been "renovated" into a hideous, flashy mirror-paned structure completely at odds with the historic surroundings. At least it isn't taller than the nearby temple gopuram (the distinctive, stepped, profusely carved temple tower native to Tamil Nadu, which recalls Mayan pyramids in its shape...or, do the Mayan pyramids recall the Tamil?). There seems to be just a bit more "money" in the area - but that's true all over Indian cities. Shanti's Dance shoppe used to be just a tiny hole in the wall north of the Temple, near all the silversmiths' shoppes. Now they have a big AC showroom with marble stairs. I think the new shoppe used to be a high-end jewellery store. Speaking of which, my favorite silversmiths, Nalla (spelling?), now appears to be closed for renovation. I used to buy all my wedding presents for friends there. They had everything from giant pure silver oil lamps to tiny paduka (symbolic feet of Lord Vishnu) - something for every budget. Every shoppe, no matter how big or small, sports the Evil Eye talismans - usually strung lemons, or a combination of ritually prepared coconuts and conch shells hung in the doorway.

The Sri Ramakrishna Mission, a beautiful cathedral-like temple modeled on Calcutta's Belur Math, is round the corner. Mylapore feels like home. I used to close my eyes during my travels and see the stretch of RK Math street that runs east of the temple, for no particular reason. Now I wonder why I stayed away so long.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Surf's Up?

Homeland Security
Triplicane, Madras

All the cyber cafes here now have this sign, or something like it, at the front desk:

Conditions For Surfing
You Must Give:
Name & Address,
Email ID,
ID Proof (for foreigners this means Passport Number)
- By order of Commissioner of Police, Chennai

Why do we now have to not only sign in and give name (one of my many pseudonyms is Princess Sunshine - and they've never figured out that it's not a real name), email address (don't I get enough spam already without Spy Spam? so I give an old one I never use) and passport number (I just make up nine digits).
The good part is, they never cross-check (to see if any info given is fake). But what's the idea behind this? I think they're just getting us used to it. If they make us sign in everywhere, then pretty soon we won't bat an eye at having to sign in at the pharmacy, grocery or cinema. Then there will be a complete record of our movements.
Don't know if this is an India-wide law or just Tamil Nadu. But I predict the desk boys will lose interest in its enforcement and start slacking off soon. In the meantime I continue to sign in under all kinds of creative nommes des guerres such as Scarlett Hibiscus, Princess Sunshine and the Sanskrit name my guru gave me.

Last week, my NYC friend Christopher sent this, I guess from some online fireworks catalogue. I especially like the label's caution:

"Warning: Shoots Flaming Balls and Reports."

Saturday, March 04, 2006

A Computer Named "Tawanda"

More expensive, but more fun than, A Fish Called Wanda
Triplicane, Madras

Blessed Event:
I am now the proud parent of a laptop computer -- a Compaq Presario 1822 with memory bumped up to a total 712. Whoo hooooo!! All thanks to the beneficence of a travelling English philanthropist who describes himself as "an agent of Shiva." The Compaq store guy in Spencer Plaza, Mr Singh (Punjab), says that it writes both CD and DVD, which means I can store lots of my pictures as well as watch Valley of the Wolves - Iraq when it comes out on DVD. (Just kidding,George!)

Now I need to connect my computer (named "Tawanda" in honour of Fried Green Tomatoes) to the Internet. As a special deal, Compaq (HP) is giving away a completely free Reliance R-Connect Data Card which is a digital telephone-on-a-card. The demo guy showed me the card - it looks like a credit card thing with a tiny antenna sticking up like a tail. You insert this in a special drive on theleft side of the unit. Never seen anything like it. In Pune, my friend Sohan had the mobile phone for the wireless connection, but the card thing is new to me.

This wireless setup will not be connected for 4 weeks at least. It has to go through Delhi Reliance, so in the meantime I will still be hitting the sweaty cyber shops at all hours. For the Reliance card, I had to get a 500Rs DD made and send itregistered mail only to Delhi. Then it must get delivered to a reliable address - probably my friend in Delhi since I plan to be up there around 2ndweek of March for the Dalai Lama again. ( I miss the Dalai Lama.)

The advantage of the phone-on-a-card is not speed - it is slower than broadband, yet faster than dialup (then again most bullock carts are faster than dialup). It's that I can connect to the net anytime, anywhere there is Reliance coverage (all over India, even most small towns) and I don't have to leave my house or hotel room, go and plug into anything at an unwieldy, porn-filled crowded net shop at 12 midnight. When I saw it demonstrated in the shop, I was impressed. The other option is to find a WiFi network. Unfortunately, most cybercafes do not have wireless. Reliance Webworld is the biggest net chain in India and they don't have it. "Tawanda" has wireless is built-in. But all the private wireless places, like the Taj and Barista, require that you"subscribe" to their in-house wireless. If you don't mind paying $200 a night at the Taj, you can use their wireless for free.

Truth in Advertising, Indian Style
In Kathmandu, I know 2 places that have free wireless for any customer, no signup involved. But that is Nepal. Everything is easier in Nepal! Everything except actually getting into the country; actually moving about the country, and having a real government. The Shiviite Philanthropist and I were all excited when we heard that all Barista coffee houses (Indian version of Starbucks) had wireless. Barista advertises itself quite proudly as "complete wireless hotspot." So we took a rickshaw specially to Barista, only to be told that you had to buy a special card to use wireless. Okay, fair enough, set us up with 2 cards please! Oh, one problem meddem, all Chennai Baristas have been out of their subscription materials for 2 weeks now.

So then take down your freakin' sign saying "We are a wireless hotspot" then. The only thing to be counted upon in India is frustration.

A mouse, as well as supplementary speakers, are the next step for"Tawanda." Her built-in speakers are merely perfunctory (read: sound like an old AM radio). The mouse is necessary, maybe even a wireless mouse. With a laptop, it is easy to wear out a touchpad... not to mention my fingers. Tawanda also needs a sort of "tea cozy" slipcover (a laptop cozy?) to cushion her in transit. Unlike more ungainly (less gainly?) older models, Tawanda is a sylphlike, willowy and delicate model which cannot withstand any blows, knocks or drops.

Now that I can type 24 hours a day, my only limitations are what my carpal-tunneled wrists can withstand.