Saturday, March 27, 2010

Kathmandu: First Impressions

Turbulent Flight
Bridget, as we may have mentioned here before, cannot handle turbulence. Whenever the airplane ride gets bumpy, and especially if sudden it features 10-foot drops, Bridget gets a look on her face like she's already dead. The flight into Kathmandu was scary because a bunch of it was spent inside clouds, and it was very easy to imagine a Himalayan cliff face looming miscalculatedly out of the mist and turning us into gory atomized debris. So we did our in-seat dance to mask the exterior motion (which still worked, but if you're jitterbugging for 5 straight minutes you get a little self-conscious about whether the other passengers think you're a pair of chorea sufferers) and we repeat mental mantras ("safer than being in a car, safer than being in a car") or try to think how rarely you hear about giant airliners on well-traveled routes accidentally veering into the earth.

But we were considering going to Lukla at some point to start a trek. That would mean flying into Lukla airport. Here are two pictures of the runway:
 Picture #1

Picture #2
The numbers I put after the pictures refer to the excretory function you would involuntarily experience while viewing the subjects of those images from within a moving plane.

As she treasures her continence, Bridget does not want to go to Lukla if that is the only way to get there.

Hazy; Crazy
The clouds never really went away. Kathmandu is covered with a fine, aromatic layer of smoggy pollution. A disconcertingly large number of people wear face masks, which makes me reflexively clutch my cheap Indian handkerchief over my breathing parts.

Also, this neighborhood (Thamel) is really crowded with tourists and the shops that try to sell them stuff. Of course, we are above all that. WE are not tourists. WE are different somehow. Stop trying to sell us shit, merchants! Can't you see we're different?

White Dreds and Hammer Pants
In Goa, Mysore, and now especially in Kathmandu, we are seeing a lot more of these visual abominations. We will attempt to collect some visual images, but it's harder to sneak a good pic of terrible fashion choices than of temples. Check this space.

 Not the best image. Keep Checking.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Sit Down and Shut Up

We are at the Bodhi Zendo in Tamil Nadu. It is an amazing place -- serene, lovely Zen gardens surrounded by steep blue mountains. The sun is warm and the air is fresh and cool. We do meditation every morning, then work in the garden where most of the food we eat is grown, then meditate and rest and read. It’s great, it’s exactly what I had hoped for, and now I’m going to talk about all the ways it’s driving me crazy.

The food is delicious, vegetarian, lots of greens and what Ben calls “al dente legumes” that produce a tremendous amount of gas during digestion, so that while we sit in zazen my bowels make ominous bubbling noises like an air horn being fired up the ass of an elephant. I’m terrified to let out a fart, not only because it would be embarrassing to rip one in a room of 40 absolutely silent people, most of whom seem to have had humor-ectomies, but because the ones I actually let out smell bad enough that even I don’t want to meditate in a cloud of my own creation.

Lots of the day is silent. While in theory I like this, it’s almost worse to be doing made up sign language to try to indicate you want someone to pass the salt. It seems like even worse than just saying it. And it makes the simplest things — a bit of food on your face, stepping on someone’s foot by accident — like a Mr. Bean sketch. Sometimes I start laughing and can’t stop, like in church. The many Europeans here, on the other hand, seem to have no trouble at all keeping stone-faced, which makes me feel more awkward. Whatever happened to the laughing Buddha?

There is a really crazy thing about the way the white people here dress in Indian clothing. Granted, when I had a sari made for me I thought that was pretty cool, and then I wore it around and felt sort of weird, like dressing like a gangster and going down to hang out in the projects. It was just totally obvious that’s not my normal clothing. The people here are wearing more toned down, hippified versions mostly, like those ankle-length linen pants in turquoise or something. What really irks me, though, is the dudes-in-shawls thing. I just can’t dig on a guy in a pashmina, any more than a man with a low-slung pony tail — or worse, hair half-up, half-down. Yikes. Sorry, guys, but the fashion road is just a lot narrower for you.

As for the meditation, sitting in zazen is intensely physically uncomfortable. Most of the time I am thinking about my hips, or my knees, or lower back, and how it seems like a tendon is about to tear off my kneecap any second, and what would I do, blah, blah. When I’m not thinking about that, I get to see what’s going on in my mind, which appears on closer inspection to be kind of like a dusty garage full of TVs with broken screens playing the audio of commercials from approximately 1988-1998. Like, just a loop of “I believe in Crystal Light… cause I believe in me!” Or “Get in the zooooone -- The Auto Zone!” When I’m really reaching for the next spiritual plateau, I decorate rooms in my fantasy house, which is looking really awesome these days. I feel like everyone else in the room, sitting totally still with beautiful posture, is probably steadily inching their way towards Enlightenment, while I bend and squirm and itch and hear a line of Bon Jovi swirl around and around the drain of my consciousness. Each session is 25 minutes with a 5 minute walking break (the lady announces “kinhin” or “freakin’ hin” which I think is actually “free kinhin” when it’s time to walk around), and I spend at least half of every session praying fiercely for it to be over (and resenting the shit out of the woman who rings the start and end bell, wondering if she forgot to look at the clock, or if she’s drawing this session out to punish me, or what) or making plans for the future -- like, future bed linens, or porch furniture, or (winning first prize for irony) how I’m going to meditate a lot in the future.

Once I took some students on a trip to New York; one student kept asking me all the time “what are we doing later? What are we going to have for lunch? What are we doing tomorrow?” So I said, “look, maybe there won’t be a later. Maybe when we walk out of this museum you’ll get hit by a bus and die. So, let’s just enjoy what’s happening now.” I have come all the way to India to find that very child is the loudest voice in my head. Talk about irony.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

More About India

Goa is overrun by the laziest, happiest, itchiest dogs we have ever seen. It's wonderful to see confirmed everything that Cesar Millan has said about what makes dogs happy. The dogs form a large community, and none of the dogs is the slightest bit misbehaved -- the pack has a standard of acceptable behavior that is expertly enforced from within. Only a tiny black puppy near the Rocket Cafe gets out of control sometimes, and when that happens, older dogs come along and gently shut him down. No dog has growled at me, tried to bite me, or run from me in abject terror. They all approach calmly, if they approach at all. Every once in a while all the dogs along the entire 2-mile stretch of beach start howling at the same time. It's awesome, and I hope to get a recording for you soon.

It makes American dog ownership -- especially any kind that does not happen on a farm -- seem really cruel and weird. I don't want one weird neurotic dog in my house. I want a pack of happy, balanced dogs in my yard, playing with the goats and cows and so on.

A day after we got to Kochi, Ben asked us two questions in a text message: "are you frustrated with India yet? Are you peeing out of your butt yet?" The answer to the latter is still, thankfully, no -- for me and Bridget. But to the former, we say yes:

This hasn't happened to me much, but apparently Indians are weirdly squeamish or superstitious about their paper money. One newsstand vendor tried to reject a 100-Rupee bill because there was a small, 5mm tear on its corner. I directed his attention to the portion of the bill where its value is guaranteed by the Governor: "I promise to bay the bearer the sum of one hundred Rupees" and pointed out that nowhere does it stipulate "... as long as the bill is in mint condition."

Ben says that people also don't want to accept "old bills" -- and not old in terms of worn-out, or dirty -- old as in they were printed five years ago (or something), no matter what their condition. Indians will only grudgingly accept torn or old bills, because only banks (and foreigners, I suppose) will accept them. Dear India: this is stupid. If everyone just stopped being stupid in this way, everything would be a whole lot easier for everyone.

Text Messages and Advertising Calls
Our new Indian SIM card in our phone (which you may recall we had to show our passport and provide a new photograph in order to buy) lets us make calls all over the world, which is great. It was also pretty cheap, which is nice since we'll only be using it for 30 days. But we get around 5 automated calls and 10 text messages a day from the carrier, AirTel, telling us about all sorts of great features and products that could be mine. Each call or text costs me, the recipient, 1 Rupee (about
US $0.02) but it is just really really annoying. Luckily, there is an Indian Do Not Call Registry!

So I followed the instructions for registering our phone number, and this is what I got in return from the helpful registry:
Thank you for registering your phone with the NDNC. All promotional communications to your AirTel mobile should stop within 45 days from now.
Ha ha ha. You win this round, India.

I didn't talk about food yet. Next time, maybe. Also: scooters, snakes, Israelis, and chilly peppers.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Malarial Risks

Here's what the malaria risk looked like in Kenya:

In case you can't read the key, pink indicates minimal risk, with anti-malarials not usually advised, red indicates holy shit you'd better take them drugs! So since we were always in the red zone, we took our Lariam religiously.

Now we are in India, where we will mostly be in the light pink zones (except for this week in Goa, a darker pink but not red zone):

...And then we go to Nepal, where we are firmly in the green zone:

So we are pretty sure that we're going to take a break from the Lariam until we head out of Nepal for Cambodia and Laos:
...which are like the twin nations of malarial death. 


Friday, March 5, 2010


At some point we will have to write our Kenya summary post, but it's hard, here on the beach, to muster the energy to think about the past. I think when we get to the apartment in Mysore for four days of air-conditioned, high-speed-internet livin', we'll find the time to supply you with our reflections of our five months in Africa. But for now, a few updates and observations about India.

India is hotter than Kenya. Okay, we knew this would be the case, I guess. Bridget's mom liked to tell a story about how when she got off the plane on a visit to India, she got blasted with the powerful heat of the jet's engines, only to realize that, no, that was just the local weather. When Sue told this story in my earshot, I would always catch Bridget making wild shushing ixnay gestures -- because I don't like being hot, and Bridget was afraid I might get wise to what was in store and divert our trip to Norway or something.

But seriously, it is hot. Four showers a day hot. Upper-thigh-chafing after a twenty-minute walk hot. Giant tongue-shaped sweatstains making my t-shirt translucent hot. Hot. But you can cool off a little with the omnipresent fresh lime soda under the omnipresent ceiling fans. Here is a picture of me after enjoying same in the Jew Town Cafe in Mattancherry:

As you can see, I look refreshed. What? What's that you ask? "Jew Town Cafe?" Well, there is a community of about 16 Jews in Kochi, and there is a synagogue, and lots of shops trying to capitalize on the exotic angle of Indian Jews. The "town" is really a tourist trap made of stores filled with overpriced, if nice, crap. The synagogue wanted us to put on all sorts of long-sleeved or -panted clothes before entering, and we thought it was not worth it. Because really, If we were already as sweaty as we were (whcih was very, very sweaty) then the chances are that the modesty clothes they offered to us, unlike your typical fancy-restaurant loaner necktie or blazer, would be absolutely rank. No thanks!

Weird Requirements. To get a SIM card for your phone, you must provide a copy of your passport, your Indian Visa, and a passport-sized photo. That's weird.

Kerala Backwaters. This is a picture of a dude poling us down the rivers and canals of the famous Kerala backwaters.

He's wearing a garment called a lungi, which looks reaaaaaly smart after an afternoon walking around in breezeless western-style shorts and underpants.

India is just unspeakably exotic, in a way that kind of loses its meaning after a very short while. Everything is lush and weird and colorful and there are temples strewn around with the frequency, if not the uniformity, of Starbucks in America. This picture above does as good a job as any at conveying this concept, even though we have 50 others that could expand on it.

12-Hour Train Ride. Being on an airplane for 12 hours sucks a lot. Without ever having been on a flight that long, I know this to be true, because I have been on seven-hour flights, and they sucked pretty hard. However! Taking a 12-hour train ride across India in an old-fashioned sleeper car? Not all that bad! One of my least favorite sensations is wanting to sleep but not being able to lie down. Another is being hot and sweaty without recourse to a shower, or fan-blown nudity. How about an air-conditioned sleeper car? Don't mind if I do!

Look at all that room! Pull that curatin closed, and you could flail your arms about wildly and no one would even see you, much less get injured by your flaily shenanigans! Go ahead and flail in cool, horizontal comfort!

Goa. Okay, I'll need to take some more pictures. Goa is a crowded, touristy beach town, full of goddman WHITE people. There must be a name for the syndrome in which I think of myself as an an open-minded and intrepid world-traveler while viewing other white tourists as unspeakably vulgar intruders and polluters. It's a challenge to live with this hypocritical mindset. But not as challenging as trying to imagine life without toilet paper and standard dining utensils!

Later: dogs, food, and pushy vendors.