Sunday, April 19, 2009

Reading as Travel Therapy

During six months of backpacing across India, reading provided me with hours of escape from circumstances that were far less than desirable. Kiran Desai and I fled Gurkha soldiers encroaching upon properties of the former British Raj in the Inheritance of Loss. I rode a local bus insouthern India with R. K. Narayan and met quirky conversationalists along the way in Man-Eater of Malgudi. Salman Rushdie and I lost our way through the mystic Bengal jungles of the Sunderbans in Midnight’s Children. Amitav Ghosh gave me a tour of East India Company’s opium industry from Bihar to West Bengal to Mauritius in Sea of Poppies. I lived in a flat in Bombay with a Farsi widow, a student from the hills of Kashmir, two tailors of chammar caste (i.e. low caste of leather-makers), and Rohinton Mistry in A Fine Balance. I thank these writers for their trap doors.
Thank you to Paul Coelho for introducing me to his guru, The Alchemist, and to his muse, the shepherd boy, who, like myself, left all the world’s securities in pursuit of destiny. During my return to Delhi from Assam, the Rajdhani Express (train) stopped for several minutes at a station in the northeast. I hopped off the train car for some fresh air. A mobile bookstall parked spot in front of me on the platform. The Alchemist, positioned front and centre, was beckoning to me, at the cost of 195 Rupees (or was the salesman beckoning for 195 Rupees under the guise of The Alchemist?). Just as omens guided the shepherd boy to his destiny opposite the Pyramids of Egypt, so has The Alchemist, as an omen for me, confirmed that I am still on path towards my destiny.

My India 2009

City State Country
For six months, I explored a handful of destinations in India, including, but not limited to, New Delhi, Amritsar, Bombay, Goa, Lucknow, Benares/Varanasi, Assam (Guwahati, Kaziranga, Manas, Majuli, Pathsala), and I explored them thoroughly. I was lucky to have had contacts in all of the geographies I visited. I encountered and experienced lifestyles (e.g. urban, rural, jungle, bachelorhood with and without parents, happy and unhappy non-marriage, no happy marriages, monogamists and polygamists and Brahmacharyas, students and young corporates, retired and purposeless etc.), considered worldviews (e.g. leftist socialist Congress, rightist Hindu nationalist, pro-corruption, anti-Muslim versus anti-Islam, anti-Pakistan versus anti-Pakistani, anti-Bangladeshi-migration, anti-Anglophone, separatist, conservationist, extremist etc.), and conversed in several tongues (e.g. English, Hindi, Punjabi, Assamese, Marathi, Sindhi, and Urdu).

India’s reputation of unprecedented reception and accommodation, of overwhelming hospitality and interest-free warmth, has fled town. In big cities, like New Delhi and Bombay, capitalism, consumerism, and competition pollute traditions of generosity. Indian urbanites honk you off roads and are quick to shuffle away overnight guests promptly after breakfast. You will be made to feel like a burden with messaging all so ambiguous: “The maid complains that her back aches from having to wash an extra set of clothing. Maids find every excuse to skip work” , “You must be missing home. When is your return flight? Stay for longer, though, no?”

Along with the dangerously extinct tiger and elephant, old India of unconditional warmth is secluded to rural areas. While in the state of Uttar Pradesh, during a visit to our driver’s village, we spotted a gorgeous zucchini plant hanging off the edge of a clay home. We asked our driver to stop the car so we could admire the beautiful vegetable. Fourteen people, trailing behind an elderly woman, exited from inside the humble clay home. The woman noticed I was gazing at her family's lovely zucchini. She reached towards the plant, tore the fruit from its stem with the clang of her four gold bangles, and gifted it to us. I refused to accept! Her family could starve with any slight shortage in crop. Once our driver translated to the grandmother my concern, the woman offered to gift me her family’s cow because the honour that would be bestowed upon them would fill their bellies far more than any meal. I was made speechless.
Rural Assam is where I was spoiled with unmatched affection. All members of all families in the villages of my friends were eager to inquire about my country, entertain me in their homes with introductory chai, and invite me to return later that evening for dinner. Following supper, when parents retired to their quarters, laughter and rice beer was exchanged between youth sans strings. Whenever I communicated my interest in reaching an Assamese locale, my friends would secretly arrange for an entire group of us to visit together. Motorobikes and engine oil, deep fried flat bread and boiled water, and a scenic route would all be charted. My interest in reaching any tourist destination catalyzed for all others a much needed group outing. I remember rural India most romantically.
Transport Me Hitherto
  • Indira Gandhi Airport, though significantly refurbished since my last arrival four years ago, still stank like the armpit of a drainpipe.
  • Bombay’s domestic airport, in comparison, was fit for a vintage Hollywood film, with white parachute canopies tenting the receiving area.
  • Transportation between Bombay and Goa aboard a non-air-conditioned and non-insulated coach bus was hardly enviable.
  • Biking along the sandy coast of the Arabian Sea for eight hours to the southern tip of the state of Goa was well rewarded with crispy pakoras (i.e. deep-fried potatoe fritters) and a milkshake flavoured with freshly grated coconut on Benaulim Beach.
  • India’s railway trains are comfortable. Booking railway tickets, though, is frustrating!
  • Driving through the state of Uttar Pradesh during the night, from Benares/Varanasi back to Lucknow, was terrifying. Roads present drivers with countless stop points, where rail trains pass, and your vehicle is forced to huddle alongside numerous politicians and their armed guards who are constantly alert for possible assassins hiding in the surrounding jungle.
  • The three-hour ferry ride between Majuli, the world’s largest river island, and mainland Assam was surprisingly serene and relaxing. The ferry lacked a barrier wall and, with any slight push from the rowdy men gambling behind me, I would have been sunk straight to the bottom of the Brahmaputra River.
  • Sleezy autorickshaw drivers in Delhi, always keen to overcharge, were counterbalanced by honest autorickshaws throughout Bombay where rates are fixed and honoured.
  • The metro in Delhi is incredibly modern, punctual, safe, clean, and affordable. But, patrons have much to learn in etiquette. Seats labeled, in English and Hindi, “Reserved for Elderly”, “Reserved for Women”, and “Reserved for Children”, are not intended to serve able-bodied business men.
  • Reach Assam to ride atop the hood of a public bus, in the open air, with hands clutched to an iron railing, opposite the conflict-ridden tribal territory of Bodoland along the border of Bhutan, abode to wild elephants, tigers, and monkeys!
33 Beds
Constant travel required I become intimate with all too many beds. I slept in 33 beds, which averaged to a new bed every week for six months. Indians sleep atop foam mattresses or down-filled blankets, layered with more blankets and bed sheets. Mattresses and box-springs (unlike myself) remain foreign! All bedding was stiff and most of my sleep was unsatisfying. Preferring to travel light, I improvised a weightless and portable pillow: an empty pillow case stuffed with clothing I would later wear.
  • The best bedside view was offered from the window beside my bed in the sleeper class cart aboard a train. The landscape was decorated with patches of neon green mustard fields and, later, an orange sunset that illuminated silhouettes of palm trees.
  • The most uncomfortable bed was in Manas, Assam, where I was put to sleep void of a mosquito net and suffered scratchy (and, subsequently, bloody) wrath of extremity.
  • The most memorable bed was at the Hilltop Lodge in Guwahati, Assam. Deers' heads were mounted on the walls and the shaggy skin of a tiger was sprawled on the floor with its mouth kept open.
  • My most anxious night of non-sleep was in Delhi’s neighbouring satellite city, Gurgaon, where, the following morning, I was due to write my Graduate Record Examination for application to a PhD program.
  • The most luxurious bed was in the posh colony of Lodhi Estate, New Delhi, where I stayed at a grand and marble home fitted with Persian rugs. Portraits of Chinese Emperors on the wall opposite my sleigh-bed seemed to have been surveying me.
  • My most awkward night of sleep was in Santa Cruz, Bombay, when I was forced to sleep at the home of (who was at that time) a complete stranger in order to help my friend sober up from a glamorous evening of 130-Rupee-Rum.
  • The most charming night of rest was spent in Amritsar where, five of us, including my giggly mother, laughed ourselves to complete exhaustion atop a single queen-size bed.
Moments in Memory: Good Bad Ugly
  • In Amritsar, my headstrong uncle proved to me his fortitude by pushing through a crowd of teen-aged testosterone to sneak us into a beauty pageant.
  • I watched my favourite Bollywood film, Dilwale Dilhunia Le Jayenge (1995), at the Mathura Mandir Theatre in Bombay, which has been playing the flick daily at 11:30 a.m. for over 13 years now.
  • I was (temporarily) homeless in Goa.
  • Hindu extremists can be found at the Waga Border of India, opposite Pakistan, yelling ‘Jai Hind! Hindustan zindabad! Long live India!’. Pakistani nationalists, on the Pakistani side of Waga Border, fervently exclaim in response 'Pakistan zindabad! Long live Pakistan!
  • I ran into friends from the cities of Toronto and London on the same night and at the same nightclub/disco in New Delhi!
  • During Holi, the relatively secular Hindu festival of colour, I witnessed a drunk teenager torment a mentally ill beggar. When provoked, the destitute woman ran into the street, mindlessly. The woman's blouse tore off, baring her exhausted breasts to the burning sun, and the drunk teenager laughed without relent.
  • I suffered violent vomiting after eating Chinese food in Delhi. Diagnosis? Chinese cuisine in India is flavoured with Ajinomoto (a.k.a. MSG!).
  • I was befriended by eight different people during my journeys between mainland Assam and Majuli. Majuli is an island situated in the middle of the Brahmaputra River. The day I departed Majuli to return to mainland Assam, the captain of the sole ferry that operates between the ports of Assam and Majuli, the kindest of all friendly strangers, volunteered to drive me back to my home in Assam and effectually rescued me from six hours of bumpy roads and body odour aboard public transportation.
  • In Bombay, we paid an exorbitant 120 Rupees to an autorickshaw driver to take us to Juhu Beach for a midnight sip of ghola (i.e. a fruity sugary syrupy concoction poured over packed shavings of ice).
Missing My Favourite Things
I miss the feeling of security. I want to seek respite on a bed that is situated in a room and in a house that belongs to me and that no one can drive me away from. I want to return to a space where, if people are being a disturbance, I have complete impunity when I request that they ‘please, shut up’.
I miss continuity. Every time I establish myself in a new geography, I have to navigate which languages I need to converse in between English Hindi Punjabi, introduce myself and develop friendly rapport with curious family and friends, and participate in that first week of superfluous hospitality between host and guest coloured by excess smiles pleases thank yous. I learn quickly my way around the home, including which bedrooms I will remain uninvited from entering for reasons undisclosed. Weeks pass and I carve out for myself a niche in the domestic politic of my new home. Host and guest create a common language consisting of two or more tongues plus hand signals. I frequent the kitchen tables of curious neighbours who cheer my name and though, at first, I feel damned because I cannot remember any of their titles, my memory eventually licks up their names. Similarly, after having given my digestive system opportunity to adjust to new foods and local water, my feces settles on a single family of shades.

And, predictably, most sourly, the onset of further time ushers in how genuinely accommodating my hosts necessarily are. I am made increasingly aware that the party is over and, soon enough, I shift geographies. I arrive in my new land and endure this process (language, personalities, shit, facilities, formalities) all over again.
I miss a sense of belonging and of fitting in. Every time I make friendly with new people, I am educated on the different personalities habits histories of the characters in my new circle. With each new circle, I am (understandably) demanded to declare my personal professional ethnic identities to help others decide how much of me they are able and interested in engaging with. Their old jokes are new to me and my old jokes are wasted on them. The most frustrating situation is when the people around me exchange words in a language I do not understand and they translate their conversation for me only when they conclude I am fit to be informed. While they have the ability to converse in a language common to us all, including one or more of English Hindi Punjabi, they remain committed to one of India's one-thousand other tongues. I cannot even participate passively in conversation, by just listening, because I have no access to the language. I imagine a glass barrier that excludes me and only I seem to be aware of this invisible barricade. Interestingly, though, I overcame language barriers by (unconsciously) developing a sixth sense for reading body language and tone of voice.

Lucknow, Bombay/Mumbai, Goa

I headed out to Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, India. I spent a fantastic week with my uncle, who is of nearly 80 years. He shared with me incredible stories from his time as an ambassador for India in Kabul, Afghanistan. I learned that pre-Soviet-invasion, Kabul was a marvelous and modern capital. I flipped through the pages of his yearbooks from the former American institute in Kabul which enrolled students from every corner of the planet (the US, Japan, Egypt, India, South Africa etc). I perused through countless pages of my uncle's charmingly disorganized photographs which documented his road trip across the US, all the way to Berkeley, California, in a 19** (year forgotten) Lincoln. Aside from my grandiloquent uncle, Lucknow offered fragrant and buttery kebabs, the most select collection of literature at the Ram Advani bookshop, and opulent palaces. What else might one expect from a capital of Mughal past?

While in Uttar Pradesh, I reached Benares (a.k.a. Varanasi), about six hours away from Lucknow, to take a dip in the holy waters of the River Ganges. The river was serene and the dip was invigorating. In the days previous to my arrival in Benares, Mumbai was under terrorist attack, and India's capital cities, including sights of religious significance such as Benares, have since been under tight watch. Benares was heavily armed with officers in all visible corners of the city. Upon attempting to enter a popular temple, I was halted and interrogated by 12 or more six-foot, fully-armed, and intimidating officers. To gain entry, I was demanded to somehow prove my blood was Hindu (with a litmus test?) and was eventually denied entry to half of the shrines. My mother was distraught. I was entertained (and, without question, shitting in my pants).

Ironically, then, following Lucknow, I flew south to Mumbai (against the wishes of all my relatives, given the recent terrorist attacks). Mumbai is awesome. Mumbai is amazing. Mumbai is cosmopolitan and international and young and fresh and happening and tropical and laid back and glamourous and delicious and always awake and I just could not get enough of all the amazing caf├ęs and strolls along the Arabian Sea and anti-climatic celebrity sightings (Raveena Tandon, Rishi Kapoor, Sanjay Dutt etc) and all ingredients that make for an amazing vacation. Mumbai is frenzy is sexy is a lifestyle is all things a vacation orders. Shopping is prime in this town. Peoples from every corner of the world visit and reside in Mumbai, making it truly cosmopolitan. The entire city has a very tropical-Londonesque feel with cobblestone streets and palm trees. My ultimate neighbourhood of choice is Bandra where I would consider spending a good portion of my life. I watched my all-time favourite Bollywood romance, Dilwale Dilhunia Le Jayenge (1993), at the infamous Maratha Mandir Theatre, which has been playing the flick everyday at 11:15am for over 13 years now!! And will you believe me when I tell you that the cinema hall was sold out?! At the then age of 18, this movie inspired me to backpack Europe. Muah to Mumbai.
Finally, for eight glorious and sunny days, a friend and I reached Goa with to celebrate the new years 2009. Cocunut was the order of all meals. We greeted Goan sunrises with papaya and watermelon topped with freshly grated coconut, daubs of curd, and warm honey and we savoured Goan sunsets with spicy cocunut curries and crispy rotis from the tandoor oven. The sun sand sea were most therapeutic. We rented a bicycles and trekked along the shoreline of the Arabian Sea until we reached the most southern edges of the Goan coast line. We spotted a quaint church nestled in the hills of a village across the river. We paid a grouchy fisherman 20 rupees to row us to the other side. We docked on the opposite side of the river and the fisherman gave us 30 short minutes to visit Jesus in the hills before he was prepared to pull anchor. On the bike-ride back home, 100s of baby crabs rose frantically from the surface of the sandy shore to catch a glimpse of my bright yellow shorts.

*images have been captured by myself

Critters of Assam, India

1. (unknown)
2. lady bug
3. cotton plant red ant
4. common fly

*images have been captured by myself

New Dehli - Nation Reincarnated

My last two weeks in India are being spent in the capital. Many of you might recall that my last reflections on New Delhi, entitled 'New Delhi - Reincarnation Nation', were less than positive. The chaos of traffic and of my pestering family amounted to a reincarnation nation that erected withered destroyed re-erected fatigued emaciated razed annihilated me (i.e. constant reincarnation).

My experiences since returning to Delhi have been delightfully dissimilar. This city has certainly been a merciless labyrinth, what, with winding roads made uncertain by makeshift construction projects and winding sessions of interrogation by the relatives. But, once I quit fighting the elements and accepted the Delhi I detested, I was no longer as bothered by opportunistic vendors and nosy neighbours. Commensurately, my body language transformed from being chronically tense and frustrated to appearing nonchalant. Autorickshaw drivers lost confidence that they could take advantage of me, and the rest of the cast of New Delhi followed suit. My Delhi was reincarnated!

Last weekend I walked along Old Delhi’s paper trail. Every Sunday, in the borough of Daryaganj, hundreds of street vendors spread sheets of plastic tarp on grimy pavement to sell new used pirated books at deeply discounted prices. One-hundred rupees can purchase for you up to five books. I stumbled upon several gems, including Sons and Lovers and Farenheit 451 and incredible works by local writers. Much of the selection, though, was plain bizarre. Take, for example, a directory of North America’s most cherished bed & breakfasts (i.e. family-owned hotels). Smog, massive and pushy crowds, and the honk screech vroooom decibels of traffic ensure that what you save in cash money you pay for with every ounce of stamina and with sweat of the most prickly-heat kind. Endure the entire stretch and reward yourself with a cold shower to wash away the dusts of shoving balancing dragging haggling.

I then visited the Asia’s largest mosque, the marvelous Jama Masjid; Mughlai archways of red stone and landscape views of the Red Fort, complete with crows gliding through warm winds. With the heat of Delhi’s sun weighing me down, I lumbered through the pandemonium that is Chandni Chowk (market). I slipped away from the market’s main road into a side-tunnel of vendors selling cottons and silks. Delhi’s clamor receive respite in these burrows of billowy textile. All sounds that enter this maze of materials are quickly absorbed by fabric, leaving a sort of dead stink of noise hanging in the air. I bought some threads of this and several yards of that. I exited the cloth market, negotiating for myself space among the crowds on the main strip, and a crescendo of clatter streamed back into my ears. A chorus of hullabaloo, snuggled within the threads of the fabric I purchased, fluttered back into the Delhite air, before I stuffed the cloth into my knapsack. I look forward to revisiting the voices of Delhi months and years from today, by holding my ear up against this cloth, like the echo of oceans in a conch seashell.

Later in the week, I visited Roshan Di Kulfi (restaurant) in Karol Bagh (market) for an infamous platter of chole/chane (i.e. chick peas in a spicy gravy) with bhatura (i.e. fry bread). I resisted devouring this decadent dish for six months (for the sake of keeping my figure of a Greek god...haha). And no visit to Roshan Di Kulfi (restaurant) would be complete without Roshan’s kulfi (i.e. Indian ice cream): pistachio, saffron, sugar, cream, vermicelli noodles, yum yum. I worked off my sinful lunch with a stroll through the deer park in Hauz Khas. Peacocks possibly outnumber deer while roses definitely outnumber peacocks.

My last sunny afternoons in Delhi are punctuated with tall glasses of sweetened lassi (i.e. a beverage of sour yoghourt blended with cold water and crushed ice and flavoured with salt or sugar). I cannot seem to get enough of it! I love lassi best when it is served in a steel glass. Droplets of condensation take form on the outer rim, drip downwards, and create a shallow concentrated pool of the city’s heat. And it is so ironic and well-timed that, similar to my relationship with Delhi, I have never been a fan of lassi --until now.

*images have been captured by myself

Favourite Indian Lands

For my last month in India, I designed several possible itineraries: tour the backwaters of Kerala, motorcycle through mountains of Kashmir, backpack the former French colonies of Pondicherry in Tamil Nadu (etc.). I reflected on my travels in India, thus far, and felt that the past five months had been as exhausting as they had been exhilarating; both because of navigating the streets customs language of several cities and states. For my last thirty days in the motherland, I decided to revisit my favourite spots, rather than discover new terrain.

I first reached Amritsar for four short days. I spent an entire afternoon basking in the warmth of sun rays bouncing off the Golden Temple. Instead of entering through the front entrance, as I had done most times in the past, I steered through a maze of markets that bury the back end of the compound and slipped into an inconspicuous entrance. I encountered the Golden Temple from a new angle and the sight was breathtaking. I worked my way through the crowds, seated myself on an empty patch of marble alongside the perimeter of the central pool, and, after some time, began noticing all of the otherwise invisible patrons performing seva (i.e. service); a young woman was wiping floors, an elderly man was wading in the pool to brush bacteria off of metal gratings. I decided against eating langhar (i.e. food from the community kitchen). My last serving of langhar left me with an upset stomach from all the red chilies. But, I eagerly devoured a buttery mound of warm halwa (i.e. a granular sweet dish similar to porridge). The following afternoon, I hunted for and brought home a pair of traditional Punjabi jhooti (i.e. leather shoes) with ornate gold embroidery and toes that curl up to the sky. Amritsari evenings were full of chai, laughter, and farewells to family.

My next destination, after Amristar, could be none other than Assam. Durng my first trip to the northeast of India, I spotted rhinos in Kaziranga National Park and reached the villages of my new Assamese friends. This time around, I headed first to the tiny town of Pathsala to celebrate Holi, the festival of colour! Fuchsia parrot green cherry red cobalt blue flooded homes shops streets. A convoy of us eight young men strolled through town. A group of young girls, fashioned with a bamboo branch, threatened to harm us if we refused to submit ourselves to their ‘well wishes’. We played by their rules as they giggled and smeared our cheeks foreheads noses necks with bright powder. For a single day, all Indians were the same multi-colours, void of caste, often marked by complexion, which is still omnipresent in rural India.

Last week we motorcycled along the dusty gridlines of farm plots and paddy fields. We passed green rivers, crippling wooden bridges, cranes nibbling on bugs nestled in the hairs of cows, goats sneaking bites from cabbage patches, a Kali Ma temple that performs animal sacrifices upon bisons, handloom collectives that promote women’s empowerment, the mighty Brahmaputra River, wood mills carving illegally forested timber, bamboo thatched-homes constructed of mud, and plantations of tall and slender betel nut palm trees. Darkness soon swallows whole the sweaty and tropical landscape and new characters became visible: slithery eels shining under the swinging light of bulbs at the fish market, a million blinking fireflies floating like a string of Christmas lights, and grimy chai stands bustling with the clangs of glass cups slamming on wood tables, of steel spoons slicing through sweetmeats, and of men, old and young, sharing anxieties about the delay in rainfall this season leaves their fields extraordinarily thirsty.

And finally, I arrived at Manas National Park. Manas straddles the border between India and Bhutan and is truly a non-human land where the wild is master. Manas is at the bullseye of a biodiversity hotspot. A three-kilometer hike transports you from palm India to deciduous Canada to fern Brazil. I am intoxicated by perfumes and colours of saturated sweet fauna and musky reddish bark. We will be lucky should be spot footprints of an elephant or tiger, let alone stumble upon either of these nearly extinct species. Shaggy and golden langur monkeys leap with fierce elegance and I finally develop an appreciation for the value of biodiversity.

Manas is also home to extremist political warfare which has plagued this rarely visited region since 1991. Timber is cut, illegally, and transported across the South Asian sub-continent. Proceeds are used to finance intra-tribal conflict. I am befriended by members of a non-governmental organization (NGO) who enthusiastically share with me their mandate to protect Manas' jungle habitat. The NGO monitors on their own progress and self-reports to their generous American donor. We spot numerous loggers in the jungle, armed with heavy axes. "Avoid eye contact and scurry by unnoticed", I am instructed. Some days later, and behind closed doors, I converse with animal poachers who teach me about their operation and introduce me to officials from the forestry department who allow illegal timber felling in exchange for bribes. According to both animal poachers and forestry officials, NGOs are becoming as corrupt as the rest of the lot by reporting false progress reports to their American donors.

I am further documenting this volatile hub of political ecology.

*images have been captured by myself