Saturday, December 30, 2006

Now we're talking!

My travel agent is going to email me my itinerary for Delhi, so I managed to find an internet station in Ooty. Maisnon and I split up in Mysore, so I'm officially on my own traveling now. It was good to sort of ween myself of depending on others, though my driver still takes care of a lot of talking (Chai's dad made sure I had a guy who speaks all three languages of the three states I'm driving through, and English).

Speaking of driving, it's all you imagine and more. In Bangalore it was like a giant bumper car arena with cars moving every which way. The lanes are merely suggestions, typically ignored (despite awesome signs like the one of ants walking in a row that said, "If insects can do laning, why can't we the humans?"), the horn is your turn signal, danger warning, move-it-i'm-coming-through signal, and occasionally an I-just-feel-like-it signal. Even more horrifically are the many many motorcycles and scooters, where babies ride with no protection other than their mother's arms. I've gotta say though, driving in Bangalore was nothing compared to the drive of blind, hairpin turns to Ooty today. The road is a swiss cheese of asphalt with potholes that D.C. couldn't dream of rivaling (Martin, should I get a photo of those, too, along with the buses?). I can't imagine doing that with a bad back; I'm sore as it is. The best part is the passing, or "overtaking," because no one can handle driving behind someone else, so we're constantly driving into oncoming traffic. I'm dead serious. We'll swing over out from behind a large tour bus, only to stare dead into the headlights of another tour bus, realize we better hit mach speed in order not to get crushed between them, then swing back into our lane as the bus just misses swiping our front bumper. Good times.

Oh - I saw jungle animals today! We actually drove through the jungle I'll be staying at in a few days, and warmed up with a herd of spotted deer munching grass next to the road, who politely allowed our car to stop so I could take a photo out the window, until another guy decided to step out of his car and scare them all away. Then we ran into the monkey colonies. I got a few semi-blurry shots, but I did engage a staring contest with a red faced guy sitting three feet from the car as I stuck my head out the window as we passed. We're both curiosities it seems.

Then, THEN! Elephants! Between wearing a sari to a Hindu wedding and seeing a herd of elephants six feet from the car, I think my trip to India might already be complete. I even have a two second movie of them, only because I had my camera on the wrong setting at first. I should see more in a few days and I do believe I'll get to ride one, as well.

I saw some nice sights in Ooty today, Doddabetta Hill (the highest hill in south India, I think the sign said) which had a lovely view of the plantations around Ooty and the brightly colored houses lining the mountainside, and then the state garden, which was both a garden and a giant park for Indians to stroll through on the weekend and have picnics. I was asked twice to pose for pictures with strangers. The second guy is going to be sad to note that I'm blinking in that photo with his young, and probably future American doctor, daughter.

While at the hill I got my first enjoyment of alone time since I've been here. I bought a chocolate ice cream (ready-made!) and sat on the steps facing the view below. I have to admit, as much as the Indians think I'm such a curiosity (while I was eating a man came up and asked, "How are you? Is your camera digital? Where are you from?" and then his wife and entire family shook my hand while grinning at me), they're also very much a curiosity to me. So much more so than the other countries I've visited, the cultural differences are very noticeable and sometimes inexplicable. I'm forever amused by the no smiling in photos rule, even though they seem to love posing for them (seriously, everywhere I go I can't avoid getting in the way of a family taking a shot of each other). Maisnon and I were at some gardens last night and since it was more of a gaudy fountain park than a garden, I started taking photos of women in pretty saris. So, I can't be all, "why do they pay so much attention to me?" without really getting it myself.

I suppose that's a long enough update. One thing about traveling here is that it's pretty unsafe for me to do things at night, so I start early in the day, but around 6-8pm my day's over, so I have all the time in the world to read, blog, and write in my journal. Guess I'll go hit up dinner next.

Friday, December 29, 2006

Quick Update

Don't have too much time to talk, as I'm leaving for Ooty and my driver is waiting patiently outside.  Mysore has been interesting.  Luckily there's not as much to do as I thought, because Maisnon and I have spent half the time with travel agents booking the rest of our trip.  After a few very stressful hours trying to work out travel arrangements and my budget, I think I've got it all figured out.  From here I leave to Ooty for two days, then Bandipur National Park for two days in a jungle lodge, then down to the state of Kerala to Calicut, Alleppey, Thekkady, and Munnar (possibly).  Those are misspelled but my map's in my bag.  In Kerala I'll be hitting up mostly beaches and jungles and backwater boat rides. 
 
Oh, so we got bumped hotels in Mysore, because after stopping at three booked lodgings, we found a hotel that only had one night open.  Thankfully their travel agent found us an open hotel for the second night and it was even Rs. 100 cheaper (that's about $2.50, woo!).  Oh my god you guys...I'm so totally spoiled now.  It was better than most US hotels I've stated at.  It was brand new (and I assume not in any of the guide books, thus the low prices and empty rooms), and shiny and clean.  Even a flat screen tv.  Ridiculous.  Except this totally says India: the tub looked about 10 years old and the tiling had mildew already, haha.  Like they got the top notch quality materials for everything else and then headed to the Mysore Used Tub Emporium. 
 
Oh, and Paul, I can't reply in the comments because the word verification won't appear, but omg, the head bobbing.  Don't even get me started.
 
I've gotta run, but I probably won't have the internet again until I'm in Calicut on the 3rd, so unless I find a computer in the jungle, I hope you all have a happy new year!  I'll say hello to the tea plantations for you all.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

You know you're in India when...

It's pretty easy to start assembling lists like this it seems:  You know you're in India
 
...when you get lost in an auto-rickshaw with wet henna on your hands so you can't actually touch anything, including your maps.
...when you spend the morning in your beautiful sari (that took three people to put on you) in the bathroom throwing up because you forgot to take your malaria pill with enough water.
...when you're late for everything and as your explanation start telling people, "I'm on India time."
...when, after eating here for a week, you're singled out at a formal dinner - after you've been eating for 15 minutes and are nearly done with the food on your plate - and asked "Do you need a spoon?"  And you're actually kind of offended.  (I can eat with my hands like everyone else, thank you.)
 
Blogger doesn't seem to be loading so I'm emailing it in, so sorry if the formatting is whack again.  Maisnon and I have made it to Mysore in one piece.  We were actually pretty sad to be leaving Bangalore, not that we actually saw any of the city.  We both considered that part of the trip to be "the wedding" as opposed to actually "visiting India," which is just fine because the wedding and living at the house was an experience in itself.  I did in fact wear the sari yesterday, because we managed to find a ready-made blouse that matched it.  (Chai's mom has generously offered to have my formal blouse made for me with their tailor in Banglore, to send to me later just so I have the full outfit.) 
 
One of the most interesting parts for me - not of the wedding itself - has been the curious attention I get here.  Except for one of Chai's husband's law school friends, I literally haven't seen another white person until today at our hotel in Mysore.  It's no wonder I get stared at so much.  Lucky for me, Chai's family have completely welcomed me and enjoy that I'm trying so hard to fit into the culture.  The aunties all tell me how "beautiful" I looked in the lenga (the skirt/midrift outfit) and especially the sari (one even oddly said to me, "We all wear the saris but for some reason when someone like you wears them they seem so nice."  Hmm...what do you say to that?)  I've actually never been so conscious of my hair and skin color in my life, not that anyone means it offensively, it's just always the topic of conversation, way more than I thought it would be.  My little fan club likes to tell me at random intervals how I have "nice hair," and other random comments.  Often I'll be part of a 5-6 person conversation and one will say something about "white people" and follow with a pause and "...no offense of course."  I was thinking, most of my friends are of so many different backgrounds that we're pretty comfortable talking about race and all that, so it doesn't really bother me, but I guess I've never been somewhere where, like I said, I'm not just in the minority, I'm literally the only one for miles and miles. 
 
Nevertheless, I'm starting to adapt pretty well, thanks only to the frequent, welcome, and happily-given hand-holding of Chai's family members.  At dinner on the second day of the wedding, I sat next to Acrati (fan club founder), where we had banana leaves set out at each place.  Acrati asks me if I've eaten off one before, and when I said no she enthusiastically showed me how to pour water from my cup onto the leaf and rub it down so it was clean, before they served the food.  I've gotten detailed descriptions of the food, advice on where and how to travel, and so much more.  I'm asked ten times a day if I like the food here and "is it spicy?" ("Yes, but I like it.") 
 
So yes, we drove to Mysore today and stopped to check out the palace of Tipu Sultan along the way, which was pretty neat but not super glamorous.  It's kind of depressing because the Brits have stripped everything here, so there were mostly a lot of posters saying, "We had these great coins and clothes, here's a picture, you can find them at this museum in London."  I added a few more fan club members, a group of 5 brothers and sisters who were wandering the palace near me.  The older brother (maybe 10-11) asked me where I was from, then my name, and continued to ask me questions - even my ethnicity (he thought I was French) - for about 15 minutes.  The youngest little girl who didn't seem to speak much English yet (but was wearing one of those frat boy visors) just gave me the 1000 watt smile and "Hello!" every few minutes.  He actually asked me something like, "It's easy for you to spend here, right?"  And then asked if I had "currency."  Alarm bells went off, as they do, but I think he was less of a pickpocket and more of a coveter of a possible American dollar or quarter he could have.  I told him I changed it all, cause I pretty much go by the same rule I go by at home - that is, I don't get my wallet out for anyone unless I'm actually purchasing something. 
 
I guess that's enough for now.  Maisnon and I finally have some time to relax, so it's nice just to sit here for awhile and check my email.  A travel guy at the hotel booked the jungle resort for me on Jan 1 and 2, so I'm headed to Ooty on the 31-1, where I guess I'll be spending new year's eve among the tata tea plantations.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

My Young India Girls Fan Club, Bangalore Chapter

That's what we've taken to calling Chai's little cousins and the other little girls who seem to be enthralled with my mere presence. Who could blame them! Actually it's both strange and hilarious. One little cousin, Sanjaney, stared at me for hours when I first met her, then finally got up the nerve to talk to me, and eventually became my bff and self-appointed personal counselor while I got my henna done yesterday ("you must have patience.") This has led to many curious exchanges like the following:

"You're from America right?"
"Yup"
"You like to make yourself darker."
"What?"
"Like on the beaches, you want dark skin."
"Oh, I guess some people do, yeah."
"We all want light skin like yours."

Or:

During Chai's mendhi party yesterday (lots of pictures of Indian dancing and me in a fire engine red salwar kameez to come), Sanjaney and the other cousin and founder of my fan club, Acratey, made friends with the mendi (henna) artists daughter, another little 9 year old who stared at me for an hour before starting to wave energetically when I'd look over, then eventually came over to talk to me while I was taking pictures ("Are you taking cameras?"), and she and Sanjaney ran over to me at one point. Looking at the daughter, S says, "She's not young."

Me: "Eh, what?"
S: "You're not young like us."
Me, laughing: "Oookay."
S: "She wants you to play with us, but I said you're not young like us."
Me: "No, I'm old."
S, to the girl, very loudly, "See, she's old!"
And they run away.

So much to talk about, but I'm running between our shopping trip downtown and the wedding party this evening. In between I have to meet with Chai's dad's private driver, who I may use to travel around the South for awhile. All I know for sure is that I'll be going to Mysore with Maisnon for a few days with the driver, who is trying to procure jungle reservations for me, as well as an itinerary around the South, likely including Kerala, which is new on my list. Gotta run, More later!

Sunday, December 24, 2006

That's the India Way

That's what Chai's aunt said to me today after a somewhat hilarious attempt by half her family to put sugar in my coffee. Her family is great, and generous, and hilarious, and a bit overwhelming on occassion, only because of their sheer numbers and my finally abating jet lag.

We had some productivity finally today. Managed to get a ready-made sari blouse for me (the overnight tailor didn't work out, but I just care that I get to wear a sari on Wednesday). Also bought a fancy salwar kameez for the mindi (spelled wrong, I'm sure) ceremony tomorrow, where Chai get's henna-ed for four hours while we dance around and feed her, I think. Maisnon (who made it in this morning) and I will get our henna tomorrow, just before we head off to the travel agent to plan the rest of my trip. I'm starting to get a little nervous about that. Everyone in the world has an opinion about where I should go and what I should avoid and how I WILL DIE TRAVELING INDIA ALONE, but you know, "I'm not trying to scare you or anything." Anyway, I'll know more tomorrow.

I've been learning some interesting history and perspective on Bangalore and its recent changes from Chai's family, many of whom have lived here their whole lives. The city is growing by leaps and bounds, due mostly to corporate investments, but government um, "incentives" to these business often use eminent domain to wipe out the slums and put in, say, a brand new airport. So where do the poor folks go? Out to government housing they don't want to live in. Many of Chai's family seem to be unhappy with the development in general, saying how even in the past 3-4 years it's changed radically. Bangalore used to be the "Garden City," but now it's growing at what her mom says is a rate of 20 people per hour. That's kind of insane. Even the physical borders of the city get pushed back to accomidate this growth.

So I've been initiated into many of the India experiences. The auto-rickshaw, the shopping (including the "watch your bags going in here"), the eating all the time (so awful!), and oh yeah, I've been drinking aquafilter water and brushing my teeth with the tap since the day I arrived, because I wasn't even thinking when I arrived at 4am and just went to the sink. After three days Chai says: Your stomach isn't bothering you at all yet?? I'm thrilled to say, no!

Okay, hurried ending cause we've gotta jet back to base it seems. Sorry for the misspellings and typos, these keyboards are a bitch.

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