Interview on

Last week, I was contacted by the publisher of, “a collection of nerdy interviews asking people from all walks of life what they use to get the job done” published in Russian and English. My interview is now up.

Marketing with Myth

Classical mythology provides (or at least, when more of the general public was aware of it, once provided) a deep well of shared meaning from which marketers can draw. Think of NASA’s naming conventions for its space programs in the 60s: would the Apollo missions have sounded quite so noble without the moniker of the god of science and light? But as a former mythologist who now works in marketing and communications, I have a plea for my fellow marketeers: please, please, do your research first. It seems like every other week I encounter a product or service whose mythological name  might sound cool, but provides exactly the wrong message to anyone actually familiar with the story being referenced. Just three of the most egregious examples:

An Indian Vacation (Part III)

(continued from Part II)

We flew on a small jet out of Jaipur’s shiny new terminal to Mumbai, and then on to Goa, the smallest state in India, and in many ways the most unique. For one thing, it had been colonized by the Portugese rather than the British, like most of the rest of the subcontinent, and remained nominally a Portugese territory until 1961, more than ten years after India became an independent nation. The Portugese had forcibly converted large segments of the population to Catholicism, destroying many temples and mosques in the process. Given the large numbers of churches that still dot the state and the number of Goans who still have Portugese names, I had assumed the current Christian population to be in the neighborhood of 75%, but according to Wikipedia (caveat surftor) the 2001 census listed it at just over 25%. 
Largely as a result of its Catholic past, Goa has long had the reputation of a much more lax attitude towards the consumption of both alcohol and other foods that are highly frowned upon by Hindus and Muslims (we actually saw signs advertising both beef and pork, something that I don’t recall seeing anwywhere else in the country). The hippies discovered Goa in the 60s, and in the 90s it became a hotbed of psychedelic trance music and the attendant drug culture. While traces of those scenes remain, today the main draw for tourists (largely of the European variety, as far as I could tell) is the lush beaches and laid-back atmosphere.
We spent the first night in tiny Panjim, which we thought Lonely Planet rather oversold as “the most charming of Indian capitals.” It was fine, and our hotel overlooked a lovely city park, but it was not much to write home about. The highlight is probably the bizarre Nosferatuesque statue of AbbĂ© Faria, one of the founders of the scientific study of hypnotism. The next day we hired a car to take us to Old Goa, the capital under the Portugese. At one time, apparently, it had a larger population than Lisbon, but today it seems to be populated mainly with tourists who have come to see the many cathedrals, including the Cathedral of Bom Jesus (which houses the body of St. Francis Xavier and the goriest crucifix I have ever seen) and the off-the-beaten path Church of St. Cajetan, built on the original plan of St. Peter’s. 
From Old Goa we drove about two hours south to Agonda, a tiny beach town where we would spend the next couple of days. Budget accomodations in Goa, particularly in the less-developed south of the state, tend toward beach-huts without attached bathrooms, so we ponied up a few extra bucks a night for a room in a guest house with AC, private bathroom and an ocean-view (if you strained your neck on the balcony and ignored the semi-wild pigs snorting below you on the property next door).  The water was solar-heated, meaning that it was ice cold at any time you might actually want to take a shower.
The beach itself was quite pleasant, though we did have to dodge cows (and their paddies), wild dogs, and Europeans in speedos. It was lined with open-air restaurants of varying quality, catering to the tourist trade. Along with delicious Goan specialties like fish vindaloo and whole snapper pulled out of the surf just hours before, you could find muesli and amazing fresh juices for breakfast, as well as, interestingly, a wide selection of Nepali food. Most of the young men staffing these restaurants, it turns out, are Nepalese. When the tourism season winds down in Nepal during the winter months, they follow the euros and dollars down to Goa. We found a favorite spot that exuded a laid-back European cool (it was frequented mostly by the French, and featured absurdly handsome waiters) with excellent food where we could sit and watch the sun set over the Arabian Sea.
After spending a day decompressing and lazing on the beach, we shifted back into tourist mode and hired another car to take us up to the Savoi Spice Plantation. Such plantations are one of Goa’s main tourist attractions, and the larger ones even feature tame elephants doing tricks. Savoi is a bit more off the beaten path, and bills itself as an example of organic and sustainable agriculture. A guide took us around showing us how pepper, coffee, pineapples, ginger, cardamom, and other fruits and spices are grown and harvested, then we were served a lunch featuring many of the local crops. From there we went to see two of Goa’s largest Hindu temples, Mangesh (a form of Shiva) and Shanta Durga.

I had intended for us to take a sleeper train from Goa back to Mumbai, so that Kate would get one of the classic Indian experiences (and save us the cost of a night in a hotel), but it was the end of Carneval and every train from Goa to Mumbai was booked solid, so we wound up flying back to Mumbai. We stayed in a relatively upscale hotel in the Fort area of Mumbai (though, as we had come to expect, even there many of the amenities didn’t work properly). The evening we got in, we walked over to Marine Drive for a sunset stroll, but found that, alas, “Not Just Jazz By The Bay” (where I had seen the young Indian country-folk trio) was closed for renovations. The next day we took the ferry over to Elephanta Island to see the ruins of the 4th-5th century Shiva temples, and had a spectacular dinner at Indigo. Finally, on our last day, we strolled around a bit,  taking in the Victoria Terminus and doing some shopping before heading to the airport and home.

So what was different about being in India as a tourist, rather than as a student? In many ways it was more difficult. I no longer had a decent command of the language, and not having the infrastructure of the program or my host family to fall back on, I was, for the first time fully responsible for every decision I made. And being there for such a short time, by the time we left, we had just barely gotten out of  the culture shock stage and gotten comfortable with navigating  the everyday hustle and bustle. There is, I joked before we left, really no such thing as an Indian vacation. From haggling with a rickshawallah to avoiding wild animals in the street to figuring out whether you trust the drinking water you’ve just been served, even relaxing seems to require the expenditure of an incredible amount of energy. But that is also what makes it exciting about travel, especially in a place as unfamiliar as India — when you are required to always be aware of your surroundings, you can never take for granted  even the simplest of actions. Autopilot is not an option.

While there, Kate and I talked a bit about whether we would want to make another trip. I felt like I had gotten it out of my system for a while, and Kate, while glad to have had the experience, didn’t feel compelled to come back, and we both felt that our future vacation dollars might be better spent going somewhere we hadn’t been to before. Since we’ve been home, though, Kate has confessed to constantly thinking about going back, and I can feel the pull starting to happen again. The place just gets in your blood, I guess, and now that our friends who got married will be moving to Jaipur for a couple of years, we have an even better excuse to return. Stay tuned… 

An Indian Vacation (Part II)

(continued from Part I)
We arrived in Jaipur mid-evening on Saturday, and quickly checked into our hotel, a “heritage” place called Hotel Madhuban, west of the old city. India is dotted with beautiful old homes that belonged to princely or other aristocratic families, who were forced to find new ways of supporting themselves after India became an independent democracy. Madhuban is owned by the Patan family, who are apparently the former ruling family of one of many small kingdoms that used to exist in what is now Rajasthan. Madhuban had been recommended by Lonely Planet, but unlike some of our previous experiences, the amenities in the Royal Suite (we splurged and spent $81 a night, since we knew we would be there for five nights) did not disappoint. As elsewhere, though, the higher-ranking staff tended to be dour and unhelpful, and the man praised in Lonely Planet as “the convivial Dickey” mostly sat morosely by the pool. The room itself, however, was quite pleasant, with antique-looking furnishings, a large and comfortable fourposter bed, and the cleanest bathroom we encountered during our entire trip.

We left J. and V. to enjoy the wonders of a hot shower in our room (they had been taking nothing but traditional Indian “bucket baths” in their accomodations with one of S.’s brothers) and high-tailed it to the shops to pick up wedding-appropriate clothing for myself, Kate, and M. As we were starving after our long bus ride, but needed to get to the shops before they closed, we stopped at a KFC that had apparently opened not that long ago on M.I. Road. I am, if you haven’t been able to tell already, rather fascinated by the ways in which American fast food is translated into other cultures, and KFC’s “School of Lickonomics” campaign did not disappoint — unlike, I’m afraid, the Veggie Snacker that I had to eat.
The area we went to go shopping was Raja Park, a relatively new neighborhood southeast of the old city, and the area I would walk through each day on my way between my host family’s home and the Institute. It was difficult to orient myself, not having my normal landmarks to navigate by, not to mention that it was dark, so it felt both familiar and strange; I found this to be the case for much of my time in Jaipur, where streets that I had once known very well now seemed transformed. Such is the march of progress, I suppose, but I’m not really sure that Jaipur has any need for a hotel tower with a revolving restaurant.
We immediately set to work finding outfits for the ladies at some of the shops that S.’s family frequented. The retail experience in an Indian shop can be overwhelming for someone used to browsing unmolested through an American department store. In most, especially clothing shops, the customer sits in one place while what seems like every item in the shop is pulled out for inspection, even ones that are exactly the opposite of what the customer has requested. Even in shops set up on a Western model, you are usually trailed by an absurdly attentive salesman who will point out with great enthusiasm the most obvious of qualities of the object your eyes happen to land on (“This… this is green.”). And of course, most transactions in India are preceded by elaborate rituals of haggling over the price to be paid, featuring many expressions of incredulity that the shopkeeper could charge such ridiculous prices and assertions that the customer is driving the poor merchant into poverty. I had developed a modicum of haggling skills during my summer in Jaipur, but to watch our friend S. engage so fluently in this wheeling and dealing was a thing of beauty — he clearly loved the process, and, as far as I could tell, managed to save us a good deal of money over the course of the trip.
With the ladies’ outfits procured, we retired for the evening. The next day Kate and I were laid up for much of the day (a result, we suspected, of us both having eaten the questionable “fruit pancakes” at the sketchy rooftop restaurant in Agra), but we had recovered sufficiently by evening to go and pick up a kurta pajama for me. The following day Kate, M., and I spent the early part of the day wandering the old city, then headed to S.’s brother’s home, where J. and V. were staying so that the ladies could have their hands painted with elaborate designs in henna by a frighteningly talented teenager. As the bride, J.’s designs were incredibly complex and took hours to complete. 
That evening we all went to S.’s parents’ house for some pre-wedding festivities. The house was filled with life and noise, as there were literally dozens of relatives crashing there, many of them from the small village that S.’s family originally hailed from. Many of them sang as the family went through a haldi ceremony, in which S.’s close female relatives rubbed a mixture of sandalwood, rosewater, and turmeric on his his hand, feet, and forehead and fed him sweets. In a departure from tradition, J. also attended the ceremony, and without much warning, wound up becoming a recipient of the haldi herself. After dinner, there was a sangeet, basically a song-and-dance talent show put on by the family, on the roof. S.’s eldest brother owns a dance studio, and J. and V. had been taking lessons to perform a traditional-style dance, along with numbers by many of the other close family members (the showstopper was S.’s twin nephews doing a hilarious dance to the pop hit “Desi Boys”). A guitar (a “Givson”) had also been dug up a few hours before, and I was shanghaied into playing a tune towards the end. 
The next day we spent some more time in the old city, mostly at the Hawa Mahal (“The Palace of the Winds,” a structure that had been built to allow the ladies of the Raja’s court to observe the bustle of the city without being seen), then headed back to the hotel to get ready for the wedding. We joined much of S.’s family at a hotel about a half-mile from the grounds of the wedding hall, and that’s where we got our first taste of what an Indian wedding is like. 
A procession formed across the busy street from the hotel, at the center of which was the horse that S., in resplendent finery, would ride up to the gates of the wedding hall. On either side were bearers carrying what I can only describe as handheld chandeliers, powered through connections to a truck that brought up the rear of the procession, and would honk if you lingered too long. In between were at least a hundred of S.’s relatives and friends and a very loud standard-issue Indian wedding marching band. The whole lot of us processed slowly down the side of the road, stopping every few minutes so some of the revelers could dance their hearts out in front of the groom on his horse. 
It took half an hour to travel that half-mile, but we eventually approached the wedding hall, the entryway lit by arches of bright white electric lights. S. rode the horse up to the very door of the building, horns blaring the announcement of his arrival. His immediate family attached strings of flowers to a veil over his face and he was led into the room, toward a stage where J. sat concealed by a blue and white canopy (she had earlier been brought in on a palanquin). Unlike a Western wedding, where the procession towards the altar is treated as a solemn affair, this was a cacophonous one, as guests danced and jostled for prime snapshot position while the band played on. Already overwhelmed by so many stimuli, we had no idea that we were also about to become part of the ceremony.
S. was led up to the stage, where the maulvi (priest) was seated, and joined by a number of his relatives, while one of his sisters sat with J. under the canopy. The others had  just hauled Kate, M., and V., who had joined us in the crowd up onto the stage to sit by J. as well (though outside the canopy), when one of S.’s brothers-in-law, T., tapped me on the shoulder and yelled in my ear, “Come! You will be the witness!”
Pausing only to kick off my fancy pointy shoes, I suddenly found myself huddled with the groom, his family, and a number of bearded and skullcapped Muslim clerics on the stage. Though I had attended a Hindu wedding before, I really had no idea what to expect in terms of the ceremony (or nikaah) at a Muslim wedding. Luckily, T., whose English was impeccable, hovered behind me, giving a play-by-play. There was very little ritual involved, as far as I could tell — a few verses read from the Quran, a lot of signing documents written in Urdu, the giving of consent by the bride, and the acceptance by V., on behalf of their father, of a token sum of money as a show of good faith that they would care well for his daughter. The whole thing was over in about fifteen minutes; confetti poppers were set off, J. emerged from beneath the canopy, and the party began in earnest.
Only a fraction of the 1600 (!) people who would attend the wedding would have been able to fit in the small building where the nikaah was held, so most of them were already outside on the grounds. It was not unlike a music festival or a county fair: a dozen or so food stalls were set up around the perimeter, cooking vast amounts of celebratory victuals for the guests. In a pavilion, hundreds of chairs had been set up in front of another stage, where S. and J. sat and greeted their guests (one of whom was rumored to be the Prime Minister of Rajasthan), for hours at a time. After the bride and groom, we were definitely the star attraction of the evening, especially among the children, who couldn’t get enough of shyly staning in front of us until we took their picture. Poor M., who had already been the object of much unwelcome attention in the form of crowds of people wanting to take photographs with her in Agra, had just about had it at this point and had to spend some time hiding under her dupatta. Exhausted, we left as the celebration was winding down, around midnight, and just as the bride and groom were finally able to sit down to eat. 

The next day we met up with J. and S. for a late lunch, then headed off to see some more of Jaipur’s tourist sites, including the City Palace (built by Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh II, the founder of Jaipur, in the early 18th century, and former home to several generations of Jaipur’s rulers) and the Jantar Mantar, Jai Singh’s observatory. In the evening we met up with S. and J. again for dinner and for some more shopping in Jaipur’s bazaars (given Rajasthan’s desert climate, evening tends to be when most people are out and about). Then it was time to bid our friends farewell and head south to the “beach vacation” section of the trip in Goa.
(to be continued…)

An Indian Vacation (Part I)

Walking through the gleaming new international terminal at New Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International airport, the first big difference I noticed from my first trip to India was that, well, I was walking through a gleaming new international terminal. Upon arrival in June of 2004, nearly eight years before, my fellow passengers and I had unloaded on the tarmac and been herded in stifling heat onto an exhaust-belching bus, which dropped us for customs processing at a low-slung building with significantly less charm than the Cleveland bus station. Now, I found myself embarking from a jetway down what seemed like miles of quiet, carpet-padded hallway that could just as easily have been in Minneapolis or Munich.

The other big difference, of course, was that this time I was accompanied by my wife, Kate, whom I had been dating for just under two years upon my previous arrival; we were engaged just two months after I returned to the states, in no small part because of our experience being apart for that summer. Kate was making her maiden voyage to this place that she had heard so much about from me; most of her knowledge of the place, I would venture to guess, came through the cipher of my perceptions, with much of the remainder from the Bollywood movies that I occasionally convince her to watch with me. I was both thrilled and nervous about making this trip together, as not only was this the first truly international travel of our nearly 10 years together, but she had also ceded most of the planning to me. I figured there were three possible options: 1) she’d have a great time, 2) she’d be miserable for two weeks, or 3) like most first-time travelers to India, she’d be utterly bewildered by a mix of both.

We had arranged for our hotel to pick us up at the airport when we arrived on Wednesday evening, and I was quickly reminded of what, on my first trip, my friends and I had decided was Rule Number One for traveling in India: “never ask ‘why.'” Why did it take 20 minutes for the guy who was standing with my name on a piece of paper to produce the guy who would actually be driving us to the hotel? Why did that guy not stop for gas before picking us up, and instead make us wait in a sketchy-looking gas station for another 20 minutes while he filled up? Asking yourself these kinds of questions will only make you nuts, so it’s best to just go with the flow.

Our hotel, “Cottage Yes Please,” was in Pahar Ganj, an area of Delhi I had not been in before, and which Lonely Planet (rather charitably, I think) describes as “seedy.” Rule number 2 of Indian travel: if you are over 30, you are probably too old to go by Lonely Planet’s hotel recommendations. Things that were at least acceptable to me in my mid-20s — lack of hot water, sketchy or unpleasant staff, general grimyness — start to feel like major inconveniences in my mid-30s. Cottage Yes Please was no great shakes — our first room reeked of cigarettes, and the one we switched to was on the street side of the building, meaning that it was filled with the sound of wedding bands and car horns until midnight, and of fighting stray dogs after that. Still, it was cheap (about $19 USD a night) and close to the train station, and we would be leaving early in the morning on Friday to head to Agra.

First though, we had to meet up with our friend M., who had arrived on a separate flight early Thursday morning. We spent much of Thursday waiting for a call from her, and then searching all over Pahar Ganj for her hotel to make sure she hadn’t been abducted between the airport and there. She had just fallen asleep with her phone off, of course; luckily, by the time we tracked her down, we still had a couple of hours of daylight left and headed south to see Humayun’s Tomb.

Humayun was the second Mughal emperor, a bit of a screw up who wound up losing much of the land his father Babur had conquered and then had to reconquer it; shortly thereafter he died falling down the stairs in his palace. Really, Humayun’s greatest accomplishment was fathering the next (and probably the greatest) Mughal emperor, Akbar; regardless, his tomb is quite spectacular. I fully intend on being reborn as a Mughal emperor in my next life.

We rose very early the next morning to catch a train to Agra, but it’s never too early for an adventure in India and I had the opportunity for an Indian “first” — my first time falling for an Indian scam (well, at least that I know of). As we stumbled bleary-eyed and jet-lagged into the Delhi train station, an official looking man with impeccable English managed to convince us that our train — which for some reason was not listed on the departures board — had been canceled that morning and that we needed to get to another train station in the south of town as quickly as possible to board another one. Despite the alarm bells that had begun to sound in my cobweb-filled brain, we allowed ourselves to be hurried out to a taxi to take us to the other train station, while I frantically tried to check the veracity of this story on my phone. When we pulled up to the “main office” where we were supposed to get our original tickets exchanged for new ones, which turned out to be a travel agency, I knew immediately that we had been duped by a well-greased commission machine. I managed to bust out some of best angry Hindi to compel the driver to get us back to the original train station, and a heroic sprinting porter managed to get us and our bags onto the train with about five minutes to spare, only about eight dollars poorer than we had arrived the first time.

It was about a two-hour train ride to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal, the tomb built by Akbar’s grandson Shah Jahan for his beloved third wife. The Taj is closed to tourists on Fridays, the day we arrived, so Kate and M. and I hired a driver to take us around to the various other sights in town, including Mehtab Bagh, a reconstructed Mughal garden across the Yamuna River from the Taj, the so-called “Baby Taj,” the tomb of Jahangir’s prime minister, and the fort where Shah Jahan’s son, Aurangzeb, placed him under house arrest for the final years of his life, able to see his beloved’s tomb off in the distance. Our driver was a nice enough fellow, though I was constantly fending off his attempts to gain a commission by taking us someplace we did not want to go. While his English and my Hindi were both far from exceptional, we were able to carry on reasonably intelligible conversation throughout the day.

That night, our friends S. and J., the couple whose impending wedding had provided the impetus for our trip, and J.’s sister V. (the only member of her family who had made the journey to India) arrived via bus from Jaipur. Their arrival was greatly delayed by the fact that marriage season was in full swing in Agra, and once it hit the city limits, their bus basically came to standstill in a Sargasso Sea of wedding processions. We went for dinner to Pizza Hut at the insistence of S., the only Indian among us, who had a nostalgic jones for the South Asian variant of this international cuisine (tandoori chicken and paneer, for example). Our lodging for the night was three rooms that made up an entire floor of a homestay run by a lovely and very welcoming family, a total one-eighty from the surly staff at Cottage Yes Please.

The next morning we tried to get to the Taj for sunrise, but arrived a little later after a long walk in the morning cold (northern India happened to be experiencing one of its coldest winters in years). S. hired a guide, and after a long wait for bag searches and pat-downs, we found ourselves face-to-face with one of the wonders of the world. I had skipped the Taj on my last trip to India, wanting to avoid the usual touristy stuff and figuring that I’d be back again one day. Now that the day had arrived, I couldn’t believe I had almost missed my chance. It is a truly awe-inspiring feat of aesthetics and engineering, full of incredibly intricate and detailed inlaid stonework and an almost uncanny display of symmetry. Plus, the thing is enormous. In most pictures, you don’t get a sense of just how huge of an edifice it actually is, but in person it is nearly overwhelming.

After a couple of hours wandering the grounds, we repaired to a rooftop cafe with a fantastic view and terrible food (India protip: any place that says they have pancakes means British pancakes, flavorless crepes not worth the time it takes to prepare them), then readied ourselves for the six-hour bus trip to Jaipur.

(to be continued…)

Bright Lights, Pink City (Part VIII)

Last year, a young family friend left for India for the first time. In talking with him prior to his departure, I was inspired to dig up the emails I sent to friends and family while studying Hindi in India back in the summer of 2004. Blogging had just started to catch on at the time and it didn’t occur to me to start one then, but I thought it might be entertaining to post these now. Excerpts are mostly unedited, except to remove boring pleasantries and preserve the privacy of those involved; also, links to relevant sites have been inserted for your enjoyment/edification/distraction. 

This is the final post from 2004. I will add new posts summing up my recently-completed trip back to India soon.

(Continued from Part VII)

Date: September 23, 2004
Subject: Final Thoughts

Hey everyone,

As most of you are already aware, I’m back home in Chicago these days. I’ve been busy for the last couple weeks readjusting to life in a world with hot showers, olive oil, multiple kinds of cheese, and a distinct dearth of wild monkeys; however I haven’t forgotten that I promised (threatened?) to provide one more installment in my little travelogue for y’all.

When last we left our hero — over a month ago — I was waxing snide about the monsoon’s relatively insignificant presence in Jaipur. Of course, approximately 24 hours later, I found myself stranded for three hours in my usual internet cafe (unfortunately, they had to turn off the power, since it is in a basement that floods during every rain — smart one, guys) during the most intense storm I have ever witnessed. As any of you who have ever seen a Hindi movie can attest, rain storms in India are normally accompanied by the singing and dancing of nubile young maidens in tightly clinging saris. But this was more like something out of the Book of Genesis than a Shah Rukh Khan movie. I saw people riding motorcycles in water up to their shins. I saw cows stuck on sidewalks because the water running down the street was too deep for them to cross. I saw cockroaches —  nuclear-holocaust-proof little beasties that they are — running for cover.  When it was all over, I had to wade home through the streets of Raja Park. Literally.

Anyway, before we knew it, we presented our final projects and the program finished up… and we all got the hell out of Jaipur, scattering like, well cockroaches avoiding the monsoon. Like most everyone, I headed up to Delhi, and spent two nights and a day there, hanging with some of the other folks from the program. With S. and E. (my companions from the Bombay trip), I rented a car and a driver, figuring that with all the places we wanted to go, it would be way cheaper to do this than pay for rickshaws. Our driver was an old man with impressive amounts of hair coming out of his ears and disturbingly thick eyeglasses. Due to an error on the Lonely Planet map, it took us a long time to find our first destination (our driver, who was a nice enough fellow but among the more annoying people I met, insisted on continually reminding us that if we had listened to him, we would have had no problems), which was the Sulabh International Museum of Toilets.

Now, you might be thinking, why on earth would I and my friends spend all this time and money trying to find a toilet museum? But really, the question is how could we not see something that weird? The museum itself is pretty small (and unfortunately, they don’t sell T-shirts), but the organization that runs it is really interesting. They are committed to building public toilets throughout India, a utility that is sorely lacking there. For example, at a pilgrimage site called Shirdi, they built a huge toilet complex that not only serves 30,000 people a day, but converts their waste into gas that it uses to provide electricity to the site. Pretty cool, actually. After that, the Nehru museum was a little anticlimactic. Then we had a nice late lunch of Subway sandwiches (I had a Paneer Tikka sub) in Lodhi Park.

The next day, S. and I (along with a fellow student from the Institute, J.) headed off to Mathura and Vrndavan, about two hours train-ride south of Delhi, and the birthplace and youthful stomping grounds of the god Krishna. We stayed in Vrndavan at a really nice guest house run by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness, better known as the Hare Krishnas. It’s a pretty interesting situation there, because ISKCON was founded in New York in the 60s, and has since bought up tons of land in the area and essentially exported itself “back” to India. They apparently get a lot of Western ISKCON pilgrims there — everyone naturally assumed we were some — but it being the off-season, 99 per cent of the people we saw in the ISKCON temple and complex were Indian. Despite their (probably well-deserved) image in the West as a bunch of New Age wackos, ISKCON seems to have been pretty readily absorbed into the religious fabric and economy of the town as simply another means of expressing traditional devotion.

So we wandered around Vrndavan, visiting a bunch of temples as well as an NGO that S. was interested in that is attempting to slow and reverse Vrndavan’s vast environmental damage, the result of several hundred years as a pilgrimage site. In the evening we sat on the guest house balcony and watched large, condor-size birds circling around over the town. Oh, sorry — did I say “birds”? I meant “bats.” HUGE. FREAKING. BATS. I don’t even wanna know what those things eat…

The next day we went to Mathura, to the temple that marks Krishna’s birthplace. The most notable feature of this temple, to my mind, is a long, two story corridor featuring small, foot-tall animatronic figures “acting out” (their range of movement is even less than those of Santa’s elves at your local mall) stories from Hindu mythology. We also got running commentary in Hindi from the groups of people surrounding us as we walked through.

Then we went for a long walk down to the river bank, and got caught in another big rain storm. We took shelter in a small carved-out nook on the ghat  and watched as all of the water in the city rushed down the street we had just walked down, and into the river. At the height of the storm, there were several feet of water rushing at roughly 40 mph down this street. We saw, among other things, the body of a dead dog and a full-size cycle rickshaw go surfing into the river. Even after the rain stopped, the street continued to be awash in water, so we took a nice little boat ride out on the Yamuna to kill some time.

That night we took an overnight train to Banaras or Varanasi (9 hours east of Mathura), probably the holiest city in India to Hindus, situated on the banks of the Ganga (Ganges), the holiest river in India. The Ganga is believed to flow directly from heaven, and bathing in it washes away all of your sins, and some people come down to the ghats and bathe themselves every day, despite the fact that the river is so polluted that it is actually septic, meaning that nothing — no fish, no plants, nothing — can live in it. One day we went for a boat ride on the Ganga and wound up using the umbrellas we had brought to ward off the blazing mid-day sun instead to try in vain to protect ourselves from the spray of sacred water that was blessing us with every stroke of the oars.

We stayed at a beautiful, elegant hotel on Assi Ghat in the south of the city, and took full advantage of the fact that Banaras is a big tourist destination — we ate Middle Eastern food nearby, and there was a cafe right next door that served real, honest-to-god apple pie a la mode, which we ate at, oh, EVERY meal.

The first day we walked around the southern end of the city, visited the Tulsi Manas temple (built in 1964, not long after Disneyland, and in full-on “Small World” mode features a big spread of animatronic figures as soon as you walk in) and checked out a fair (complete with Ferris wheel) that was going on behind the temple. The next day we made our way over to the old city and its labyrinthine network of alleys… we got completely lost a number of times (maybe we should have left a trail of parathas or something, though the monkeys and cows would have made quick work of them I suppose) but eventually found our way down to one of the “burning ghats,” where they perform cremations. Banaras is considered such a sacred place that simply to die there releases one from the cycle of death and rebirth (the goal of every pious Hindu), meaning that lots of people come there just to die and/or be cremated there, and then have their remains scattered in the Ganga. I have no idea how many cremations are done daily there, but the stacks of firewood are several stories high.

Of course, there was a lot more to see and do in Banaras, but it is so crowded and exhausting (the sheer number and persistence of people trying to sell you stuff is way more than anywhere else I visited) that in truth we spent a lot of time on the rooftop terrace of our hotel, looking out at the river and watching people go about their lives. At this point in the trip, that was about all we could handle.

In Banaras, I parted ways with S. and J. — they headed back to Delhi and I went on to Lucknow, the former capital of the princely state of Awadh and site of the fiercest fighting of the 1857 rebellion against the British (known as the Mutiny or the First War of Independence, depending which side you’re on, and which provided the impetus for the British to formally annex Awadh). I met up with another friend from Jaipur who had studied in Lucknow the summer before and who showed me around. There’s a lot of amazing architecture in Lucknow, but its main claim to fame, the Bara Imambara (a Shia shrine that, earlier in the summer in protest over the fighting in Najaf, had reportedly forced any American, Israeli, or British tourists to walk over their own flag in order to get in, but had settled down to simply charging foreign tourists exorbitant prices by the time I got there) is definitely overrated. I also visited the British Residency, where less than a third of 3000 Brits survived a several month siege by Indian forces in 1857, before the rebellion was put down.

After Lucknow, I headed back to Delhi myself for a couple of days before my flight home. I did some of the more traditional tourist stuff: the Red Fort, which had been the palace of the Mughal emperors (those guys knew how to live, man), and the Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India, which can supposedly hold over 250,000 people. I went to see the National Gallery of Modern Art, and I found a great shop that sells old Hindi movie posters. The guy who ran the shop went through them one by one, telling me his memories of these old movies and singing the songs from them. I also did some pirate-DVD shopping in Baalika Bazaar, this weird underground mall that manages to be extraordinarily seedy while at the same time kinda high-class. And, on J.’s insistence (she was still there) we went to the restaurant voted the best Mexican food in Delhi, where all the rich, hip young Delhiites hang out: TGI Friday’s. While I dug into an enormous pile of crappy nachos that cost more than a laborer’s daily wage, hungry street children watched us longingly through the window. Boy, nothing makes you feel as good as that, let me tell you. At least it was happy hour, so the margaritas were two for the price of one.

But, before I knew it, it was time for the long flight back home. As I boarded the plane, I reflected on the many things I had learned on this trip. For example: pigs wag their tails when they eat; also, a pig in shit does indeed look quite happy. And: pigs will eat dead monkeys. What more of an education could I have asked for?

Seriously, though, all in all it was a pretty great experience. I’ve had a couple of people tell me that after reading all of these dispatches, they lost any desire they might once have had to go to India. I hope that’s not true; despite my occasional over-emphasis of the negative aspects for comic effect, India is really an amazing place.  I think everyone should go there at least once — I guarantee that you will not look at the world — or your own life — the same way afterwards. And, yes, I AM looking forward to going back… after a few more hot showers.

Signing off,

Bright Lights, Pink CIty (Part VII)

Last year, a young family friend left for India for the first time. In talking with him prior to his departure, I was inspired to dig up the emails I sent to friends and family while studying Hindi in India back in the summer of 2004. Blogging had just started to catch on at the time and it didn’t occur to me to start one then, but I thought it might be entertaining to post these now. Excerpts are mostly unedited, except to remove boring pleasantries and preserve the privacy of those involved; also, links to relevant sites have been inserted for your enjoyment/edification/distraction. 

I will add a new post summing up my recently-completed trip back to India after posting all of these older pieces.

(Continued from Part VI)

Date: August 9, 2004
Subject: Monsoon Shedding

Dear all,

Unfortunately I have no good excuse for my less than enthusiastic reporting over the last couple weeks, except that not too much has been happening. Big news is the long-awaited arrival of the monsoon. While parts of Assam in the east and Gujarat to the south have been paralyzed by heavy flooding (which has killed several hundred), since Jaipur is in the desert we seldom get more than a half-hour of heavy rain in a day. So our biggest inconvenience is that the city smells vaguely like a marina for a while. Oh, and in the paper today there was a report that one guy got killed yesterday after being hit by lightning “while bathing in the rain on his terrace.”

No field trips, unless going bowling at the fancy-schmancy mall south of town counts — you’ll be glad to know that the music at bowling alleys all over the world sucks equally. “I Wanna Have Sex On The Beach” is not really a lyric I would expect to hear in a family establishment in one of the more conservative states of India, but whaddya gonna do? There was also a big sign saying that bowling shoes and socks must be worn, so those who didn’t have socks went and bought some — only to find out that, in fact, the bowling alley owns no bowling shoes, so we bowled barefoot.

Also, one of our students also somehow managed to convince the teachers that cancelling less Friday’s test and instead sending us on a Hindi scavenger hunt would be a good idea — according to her, our experience up to now insufficiently resembled summer camp, a situation she was determined to  rectify. Some sample items: information from movie-goers about their favorite heroes and heroines, a recording of a snake-charmer’s song, have a frilly shirt made at the tailor, etc. Double points if you can get a photo of the person wearing the frilly shirt on a camel or elephant.

Need I remind you that these are your tax dollars at work?

Anyway things have been rather low-key, recently as people are supposedly working on their final projects (the 19th is the last day of class) — mine is to write some Hindi film songs, one of which will appear in “Mira!“, a film that two fellow students are making. I also feature as the traveling background music (a la “Something About Mary”) and — somewhat reprising my role as a dancing pimp in a German play in Ireland — as the dancing hero of the film within the film (it’s, like, so po-mo… as Moe the bartender says, “You know, ‘postmodern’… OK, weird for the sake of being weird.” 

Did I already mention these are your tax dollars at work?

I realized the other day that even after all this time, I haven’t told you too much about the family I’m living with. Uncle and Auntie (the respectfully affectionate term for anyone of your parents age) have been married for almost thirty years (their marriage was arranged when Auntie was 19) and seem to have a good relationship. He owns a number of factories and she has a handicraft-exporting business that she runs for fun, and used to be on television serial back in the bad old days when there was only one state-run channel. She talks — a lot — and he is very reserved, though he has a penchant for asking me questions at the dinner table for which my Hindi is utterly inadequate, and refusing to accept any flip-flopping or waffling sort of answer. Some examples:

“Which are more beautiful, American or Indian girls?”
“How will you know who to marry?”
“What is happiness?”

and, easiest of all:

“What is love?”

Their kids, as I think I mentioned, are around my age. R. is a nice enough guy — pretty much your typical well-off Indian youth, with a thing for American girls and a penchant for working out, presumably to impress American girls. He studied engineering at Bombay University, but did poorly and after graduation came back to work in Uncle’s factory. P. is more interesting — she studied animation, also in Bombay, and worked for a while after graduation at a production house there. Last year, she came back to Jaipur and now works in marketing at a daily paper.

As those of you who know anything about Indian culture will realize, the social pressure to marry is incredible. Weddings are what people here pretty much live for, and as one of my professors once said “Every transaction in India is a potential shaadi (wedding) until proven otherwise.” P. seemed kind of
depressed when I first met her, and I thought maybe it was because her parents had rented out her room while she was working in Jodhpur and she had to sleep in the living room when she got back, but it turns out that it has more to do with all of the marriage pressure. Auntie had told me that there was a boy in Bombay that P. wanted to marry, but she and Uncle didn’t particularly approve (though they wouldn’t stand in the way of the wedding) since the guy doesn’t have much money, and drinks and smokes too much, etc. So she had also contemplated continuing her studies in Australia or America, just to get out of the pressure cooker, but it’s just too expensive, not to mention the difficulty of getting a visa.

So last weekend, a “friend” of P’s from Bombay came to visit with his mother. I suspected that this might be, and indeed it was, a reconnaissance trip to scope out her family — whom, the potential mother-in-law concluded, lived in much higher of a style than she and her son, and that therefore P. would have unrealistic expectations about what he could provide for her.  So P. is pretty much screwed either way — either she marries this guy and has her life be made miserable by a mother-in-law who clearly hates her, or forgets her love and marries someone else. Or she stays unmarried until 30 and becomes effectively a spinster. It’s the stuff that Bollywood films are made of.

Oh, I almost forgot the newest member of the family: a little puppy named either Cherry or Jerry (I can’t tell which) that the servant nabbed from a street dog who had given birth in the garden about a week before. I hope they get the puppy fixed before they can start arranging its marriage.

Anyway, that’s about enough for a post that started out about how little I had to talk about.

be well,

(to be continued…)

Bright Lights, Pink City (Part VI)

Last year, a young family friend left for India for the first time. In talking with him prior to his departure, I was inspired to dig up the emails I sent to friends and family while studying Hindi in India back in the summer of 2004. Blogging had just started to catch on at the time and it didn’t occur to me to start one then, but I thought it might be entertaining to post these now. Excerpts are mostly unedited, except to remove boring pleasantries and preserve the privacy of those involved; also, links to relevant sites have been inserted for your enjoyment/edification/distraction. 

I will add a new post summing up my recently-completed trip back to India after posting all of these older pieces.

(Continued from Part V)

Date: July 27, 2004
Subject: Pilgrim’s Profits

Namaste once again,

I would have sent this out yesterday, but the monsoon so far seems to have stood Jaipur up at the prom, and the accompanying surge in electric usage (keeping all those bottles of Coca-Colonization cold is a mighty task) and the lack of hydroelectric output means that Jaipur has instituted rolling power outages for two hours a day — though without telling anyone which part of the city will be affected when. So this is what it’s like to live in California!

Anyway, this past weekend the counselors here at Hindi Camp took us on another field trip, this time an overnight trip to the Hindu holy town of Pushkar and the neighboring city of Ajmer. It’s about a three-and-a-half hour drive via bus — though it seemed a lot longer in our A/C-deficient bus — but it was an interesting look at Indian highway culture. There’s no fast food yet, just lots of tea stalls, roadside restaurants (which are apparently notorious for prostitution — the spread of HIV in India can be traced by looking at trucking routes), and random clusters of stores selling new and used auto parts in various states of decay. Highlight of the bus trip was definitely hearing (Euro-pop junkies and Mets fans, prepare yourselves) “The Venga Bus” being blasted at a Rajasthani truck stop while our drivers changed a flat tire. Oh, that and surviving several near-death experiences involving very large trucks driving very quickly straight at us.

Pushkar itself is a very small town, but supposedly has over 400 temples and is considered one of the top three or four holy places in India. Because of this, it’s also full of a) “spiritual” tourists, man, who, like, totally dig all that mysticism and stuff – and b) people trying to rip them off. Apparently Pushkar is especially popular with Israelis who have just gotten out of the army and feel the need to unwind by not showering and drinking a few bhang lassis (made with an, ahem, herb that is sacred both to Shiva and Snoop Dogg — some of my friends were offered them, but apparently I don’t look enough like a hippy anymore). This results in some interesting contrasts, such as a store selling T-shirts with pictures of aliens smoking from a bong next to a temple of the medieval poet-saint Mirabai.

The town is built around a sacred lake which is said to have sprung from the ground when the god Brahma dropped a lotus from heaven. Some friends and I went down to the ghats (bathing steps) and found (or rather were found by) some questionable Brahman priests (one of whom was wearing pink sunglasses) who could perform pujas for us — these consisted mainly of the Brahmans having us repeat  some decidedly half-ass Sanskrit, then offering the gods a coconut, flowers, and colored powder by tossing them into the lake in order to gain their blessing. Naturally, the Brahmans do not do this for free — you are expected to provide an offering to them for this service and they are not above haggling for more if your offer is not suitable.

Pushkar has what might be the only temple to Brahma in India. Despite his seeming prominence in the “Hindu trinity” of Brahma the creator, Vishnu the preserver, and Shiva the destroyer (I’ll spare you the lecture about the Orientalist oversimplifications inherent in this oft-repeated chestnut), Brahma has almost no devotional following. The story goes that he wanted to perform a sacrifice that required the presence of his wife, Saraswati (the goddess of music and learning). She couldn’t be found, so, practical guy that he was, the Big B found a local cow herder girl and married her. Saraswati, understandably annoyed, cursed him that he would be forgotten by the people of the earth. But the other gods intervened and got her to at least allow him this one temple in Pushkar.

We went to the Brahma temple, among others, to take darshan (the central act of Hindu worship, the act of seeing and being seen by the image of the deity — in Brahma’s case, a four-headed statue with a mirror hanging behind it so that you can see the head facing backwards; they eyes are painted a striking silver, and seem to pull your gaze straight towards them) and see the evening arati (a ritual in which the temple priest performs some special actions — ringing bells, sprinkling the image with water, circling incense and fire in front of it — in order to focus the deity’s attention on the crowd before him).

It was at this temple that I had my first real Indian crowd experience. As you may know concepts of personal space are somewhat different in India, and the crush of people towards the altar to get prasad (food, usually some sort of sweet — lots of rock candy in this one — that has been offered to the god and that therefore retains some of the god’s blessings) was like fighting against a rough surf, with an undertow of small children rushing past your legs. It was wild, but the crowd at the Dargah in Ajmer the next day made the Brahma Mandir seem like solitary confinement. The Dargah is the tomb of a Sufi saint, and is one of the most revered Muslim pilgrimage places in India. After haggling yet again with a holy man over the proper donation, we were literally pushed inside by a throng of people that was swirling around the tomb like a whirlpool. While being smacked on the head repeatedly by what looked like a giant feather-duster, I grabbed on to the side long enough to be blessed by a priest who placed a green cloth over my head and recited a prayer of some sort (I couldn’t really hear if it was Hindi or Arabic, there was so much noise), before I was torn away and spit out the other side… the only thing I can think to compare it to is rush hour in the New York subway, maybe with a little Altamont or Woodstock ’99 (choose your concert disaster based on your age) thrown in.

In any case, after the Brahma temple, we had dinner at a restaurant (the one good thing about touristy places: the existence of spinach and mushroom enchiladas) near our hotel. The hotel was great — even with the windows wide open, the rooms were for some reason 20 degrees hotter than the outside, but the swimming pool more than made up for a lousy night’s sleep. Maybe I could have done without all the dead ants floating in the pool and the bats that divebomb the water around you at night to pick out these delicacies, but hey, beggars can’t be choosers, right? And the garden of the hotel was perched on the southern side of the lake, where we could sit on the wall and watch the moon disappear behind the temple spires while devotional songs floated across the lake on the cool night breeze… so maybe I’m not completely cynical, and I did feel a few moments of peace in this holy tourist trap.

take care,

(to be continued…)

Bright Lights, Pink City (Part V)

Last year, a young family friend left for India for the first time. In talking with him prior to his departure, I was inspired to dig up the emails I sent to friends and family while studying Hindi in India back in the summer of 2004. Blogging had just started to catch on at the time and it didn’t occur to me to start one then, but I thought it might be entertaining to post these now. Excerpts are mostly unedited, except to remove boring pleasantries and preserve the privacy of those involved; also, links to relevant sites have been inserted for your enjoyment/edification/distraction.

(Continued from Part IV)

Date: July 19, 2004
Subject: “Videshi Aaron’s Indian Story Hour”

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time once again to gather around the wireless for Videshi Aaron’s Indian Story Hour, sponsored by ‘Mango Nut Crunch’: (please note: the following is a verbatim transcription of an actual Indian cereal box; any similarity to actual food is purely coincidental)

Most Delicious and World Popular Mingle clustered with Raisins, Almonds, Mango and various other entergetic fruits and foods.

Mango Nut Crunch

It’s origin has been from Switzerland and other western countries, which proved magnificent results on mind, mood, physique, stamina, tummy, digestive system, tolerance, longitivity and general health. Hence the Mango Nut Crunch has much been appreciated and motivated the liking and love of maximum personalities of various spheres of live in the world.


Mango Nut Crunch avoids dowdy or slacking and keeps one alert, smart, attractive, young, impressive, dominating and longitivity. Being a most be-fitting low-fat-diet keeps a persons ever-ready to take up any task successfully any time of day or night and provide outstanding results.

Taste and Consumption

Mango Nut Crunch goes up as soon as it is started for its delicious taste, health-giving ingredients, life-long benefits and facilitates fast food.

Fibre Edible grains

Regular use of Mango Nut Crunch boosts appetite an orderly healthy routine, maintain smart physique, stamina and sexual urge.

Let me know how many boxes to put you all down for…

Unfortunately, Mango Nut Crunch is pretty much the most exciting thing that’s happened to me all week, though I did go with several friends on Friday night to a “Battle of the DJs” at Steam, the nightclub in the Rambagh Palace Hotel (formerly the Maharaja of Jaipur’s palace, now a five-star hotel — you can stay for a year for just $2 million!). Having been abandoned for the weekend by many of our compatriots in favor of the relative cosmopolitanaeity (is that a word? if not, it should be) of Delhi, we decided that we would show them a thing or two and go out and paint the town red — or at least give it some sort of pinkish tinge. Unfortunately the Brits beat us to it by about a hundred years, but koi bat nahin…

Anyway, there’s nothing quite like driving up to a palace in a rickshaw past people sprawled out sleeping on the sidewalk, and paying more money for a cover charge (400 rupees — about 8 bucks — for a couple) then they spend on food in a week to make you feel like a bourgeois neo-colonialist capitalist running dog. Luckily, the 400 rupees was reimbursable in drink once we got inside, which allowed us to dull our consciences nicely. A Corona cost about the same as it would in the States, but since I hadn’t had a real beer since I got here, I allowed myself the luxury and then moved on to the 75 rupee pints of Golden Peacock — at least they’re honest about what it tastes like.

The most remarkable thing about this club was that it was completely unremarkable. It was the kind of club you’d find in any provincial capitol (say, Albany?) where the city’s best and not-very-brightest go to drink, smoke, look cool, and pretend that they’re in a real city, while dancing spasmodically to such international dance hits as a remix of Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69” (no, that’s not a joke). It was fun though, and it was a nice reminder that Jaipur is not as completely conservative and tradition-bound as it sometimes seems.

Saturday the Institute took us on a little trip to a small town just outside of Jaipur named Sanganeer, which is apparently world-renowned for the production of screen-printed and block-printed cloth and a special kind of pottery. It sounds like an elementary school outing, but I’m actually really glad I went. We saw a dyeing operation run by a huge extended family, in which family members waded around with yards and yards of cloth in giant pools of dye. The cloth is then hung from huge scaffoldings to dry, and when you walk into this forest of billowing reds and blues and oranges and yellows, this deep silence descends upon you and all of the noise of the second-most populous nation in the world simply disappears… And we watched the laborious process of screen-printing these long pieces of cloth (a succession of metal screens with designs punched in them is placed over the cloth, then dye is swooshed over it with a different screen used for each color) and the even more laborious process of using carved blocks to create these amazingly intricate designs. I really had no idea how much work went into creating these things.

Well, that’s about it from this side of the pond. I hope you all are well, and you may now commence taking shots.

– A

(to be continued…)

Bright Lights, Pink City (Part IV)

Earlier this year, a young family friend left for India for the first time. In talking with him prior to his departure, I was inspired to dig up the emails I sent to friends and family while studying Hindi in India back in the summer of 2004. Blogging had just started to catch on at the time and it didn’t occur to me to start one then, but I thought it might be entertaining to post these now. Excerpts are mostly unedited, except to remove boring pleasantries and preserve the privacy of those involved; also, links to relevant sites have been inserted for your enjoyment/edification/distraction.

(Continued from Part III)

Date: July 12, 2004
Subject: “the corner of Bollywood and Grime”

Last time I promised details of the previous week’s trip to Bombay (or Mumbai as it is now officially known). I hope you have some time, ’cause this is gonna be a long one…

First of all, I learned an important lesson: some things are worth paying extra for, such as air conditioning on an 18-hour train through the Rajasthani desert in June. Unfortunately, we could not get three seats in the 3rd class A/C on the way there. I was traveling with my friends S. and E., both of whom assured me that 3rd class non A/C sleeper was the way to get the true Indian train experience (in reality of course, the most authentic way to go is to sit in the baggage car. No, really, you can do
this). Naturally, the engine broke down several hours from Bombay and we sat in the sweltering heat for four hours before they could get it repaired, and we rolled into Bombay a full 23 hours after we left Jaipur. My favorite part of the trip was the graffiti spray-painted in the Bombay railyards by some anti-
globalization/naxalite/anarchist/what-have-you group called the Bombay Revolution or something like that that said “No Pepsi / No Coke / We Want Lassi”… written, of course, in English.

Anyway, the wretched train journey was absolutely worth it, because Bombay is a great city. Once we peeled ourselves off of our sweat soaked berths (another traveler in our compartment, an Israeli, described our state rather accurately as “smelling like a yeti’s ass”), we headed down to our hotel in Colaba to wash off the filth, and then out to see some sights. S. lived in Bombay for 6 months a few years back, working in one of the much-maligned call centers which are getting so much attention these days, so she knows the city quite well and was able to show us around. Colaba is the tourist center of Bombay, so it’s rather unpleasant — touts and scam artists everywhere, and those are just the tourists — but once we got out of there, it was amazing. Suddenly, for the first time in a month, no one gave a damn that we existed. You have to understand, that in Jaipur, we are constantly a spectacle. In the old city, where all the tourists go, we are marks, dollar signs with legs (and even more so now that there are hardly any tourists here); out in the burbs, where we live and go to school, we are just bizarre. People stop and stare at us, little kids follow us around, men driving large vehicles nearly snap their own necks turning to gawk, crowds gather while we haggle with shopkeepers — I half expect to see someone walk through a plate glass window like in a Buster Keaton movie before I leave. But in Bombay — blissful anonymity. I’ve never been so happy to be ignored.

Anyway, we walked over to the Gateway of India (being repaired after a terrorist bomb attack last year), went to the oldest British building in the city (a church with lots of colonial memorials saying things like “loved by all, especially by the natives whom he forever sought to uplift” etc.) and then over to Marine Drive (Bombay’s answer to Lake Shore Drive) and up to Chowpatty Beach for some kulfi (a kind of ice cream made with condensed milk – much better than it sounds), then pizza for dinner (we took full advantage of the fact that non-Indian food was readily available).

Amazingly, Bombay has actual taxis, with actual meters, that actually work… in Jaipur we have the option of cycle rickshaws or auto rickshaws (basically three-wheelers), both of which require haggling down to a price that only narrowly evades definition as extortion. But in Bombay we could take real taxis for LESS money than a comparable drive in a rickshaw would have cost in Jaipur.

Anyway, on Thursday (day 2) we decided to head to the ancient Shiva-temple complex on Elephanta Island. Unfortunately for E. and S.’s stomachs, this required an hour-long boat ride on choppy surf… and apparently five or six of these boats go under every year. I’m glad I didn’t know this until after we had made it back through the giant storm that overtook us fifteen minutes after leaving the island. That evening we went to a place called Tea Center for a light dinner; this place had some of the weirdest tea drinks I have ever heard of. I wrote some of ’em down in case you’d like to try them at home:

  • The Lady Marmalade: Tea liqour, orange marmalade, brown sugar, lemon juice, orange juice (presumably you can also spread it on toast)
  • Hot Buttered Apple Tea: Tea liquor, brown sugar, lemon rind, apple juice, honey, nutmeg (sounds pretty good so far, right?)… and a pat of BUTTER.
  • The Fire N Tea: Darjeeling Tea Liquor, orange lemon and pineapple juice, ginger juice, green chiles and (gulp) Worcestershire sauce

That night we hit a club called “Not Just Jazz By The Bay” on Marine Drive to hear some live music… instead what we got was a “band” called Ringo Star Romantic, which consisted of three rather hip looking young Bombayites essentially doing karaoke over keyboard beats to the likes of Wille Nelson and John Denver (“West Virginia country roads take me home,” indeed). It was weird. But I see a niche here — Indian country music. If you want to get in on the ground floor of what is sure to be a growth industry — an Indian country-singer named Bobby Cash is already on the Australian charts — just let me know…

On Friday we went up to Malabar Hill (now that’s a name that needs to be in a country song). We couldn’t see the Towers of Silence (where Bombay’s large Parsi Zoroastrian community leaves its dead to be eaten by vultures, in order to avoid polluting the earth or fire) but we went to the so-called hanging garden, which features topiaries in the shapes of animals (my favorite was the one of Hanuman the monkey-god) and, even, more bizarrely, dozens of trashcans SHAPED LIKE GIANT PENGUINS. Now, I don’t know where they got these things (zoo clearance sale?) but when I think “Bombay,” penguins are not the first animal that comes to mind… E. described it as similar to having trashcans shaped like grizzly bears at Sea World. But really, the truly weird part was the sheer number of trashcans. You can go days, weeks, in a major city in India without seeing a trashcan, and in this park there was one every ten feet. Literally. It was like some kind of Elysian Field of trash disposal opportunities. If only I’d had some garbage to feed the penguins…

Anyway, after that we walked down the hill to a place called Banganga tank, which is kind of a holy swimming pool surrounded by temples (this is supposedly where Ram stopped to build a lingam of sand to worship Shiva on his way to Lanka to rescue Sita), where people bathe and wash their clothes in water that probably could give the East River a run for its money. But it was very peaceful, and hard to believe we were still in a major metropolis. We were accompanied to the tank by a nice old man whom I have come to think of as the Indian Obi-Wan — when crossing busy intersections, he would simply give a wave of the hand, as if to say “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for,” and the  normally bat-out-of-hell Indian drivers would stop (or at least slow down) and allow us to pass. I’ve tried this Jedi mind trick myself, but as of yet to no avail.

That evening we took a local train out to Juhu Beach, one of the more glamourous suburbs. We took in a play, and made a special trip to see Shah Rukh Khan (the biggest star in Bollywood at the moment)’s house. Unfortunately, I was unable to work any Bollywood magic and finagle a tour of Film City studios (the PR director, whose number I got from a fellow student, told me I needed a letter from my embassy). We were approached on the street in Colaba and asked if we wanted to be extras in some sort of production (not an uncommon occurrence, as we fair-skinned folk are always in demand as extras for commercials, tv serials, etc.) but we were leaving the next day, so our dreams of Bollywood stardom were destroyed… while by herself at one point, S. also got asked to provide “entertainment” — “just eat, drink, mingle” — at a “very rich Indian man’s party.” She declined, though I can’t imagine why…

Finally, after having to fight off the advances of not one but three ear cleaners on the street (they use these giant sharp metal rods to dig all the wax — and, I’m guessing, some gray matter — out of your ears) it was time to leave. The trip home was far more pleasant than the one there; in the a/c section they actually give you sheets, pillows, and blankets! And naturally, this trip went off without a hitch.

Arriving in Jaipur, it was back to business as normal — a pack of rickshaw-wallas descended upon us like a pack of starving dingoes the moment we stepped out of the station. One of them asked me in barely-accented English, “You are from the States?” When I replied affirmatively, he smiled grimly and said, “Welcome to the Hotel California.” This song, by the way, has been following me everywhere. I swear that they put it on specifically for me every time I walk into one of the coffee shops here. So apparently I can check out, but I guess I can never leave.

Anyway, lets’ see, what else has been going on… apparently last week was a festival called Samppujana, which means “cobra worship.” And in fact, they brought two snake-charmers to the institute along with two not-very-happy cobras, to perform for us and explain the point of the festival, which as far as I can tell is to scare the crap out of pansy foreigners. So yes, they really do have snake-charmers in India — if only there had been scantily-clad nautch girls and an effeminate yet rapacious maharaja, all of our Orientalist dreams could have been fulfilled in one fell swoop.

On a completely different subject, yesterday, after a field trip to a local temple complex called Galta (which is home to, oh, I don’t know, seven million monkeys), I made my first pilgrimage to that great American Temple of the Golden Arch. Except for the fries and the milkshakes, you wouldn’t recognize much of the menu. There are about seven or eight vegetarian things on the menu, and the rest is chicken or Filet-a-Fish (I’m not sure whether or not most Indians realize that McDonalds makes the vast bulk of its money from the slaughter of their favorite animal). I had the Pizza McPuff, which S. recommended… it was like a samosa made from McDonalds apple pie crust filled with peas and carrots, and tomato sauce that was essentially ketchup. Next up will be the McAloo Tikka, which I think is basically a potato-burger. Ah, the joys of exotic cuisine…

Anyway, sorry for being “a sophisticated rhetorician intoxicated by my own verbosity,” and I will let you go back to your bustling American productivity.

(to be continued…)