Thursday, January 11, 2007

Also, there are none in Paris.

So I upgraded from a Texan ex-con for dinner, to a hot Parisian backpacker for breakfast. He was sitting next to me at the coffee shop this morning and asked me if I knew anything good to do in Bangalore (I don't, except shopping and going to weddings). But we hit it off and had quite the interesting conversation about our respective experiences in India, where to go and not to go, and how long is a good time to stay (we both lamented that those stupid "jobs" keep us from staying longer than a month). He was on his way to the airport to go home, unfortunately, but we had a nice breakfast together, and I guess I'll just have to keep a look out for the next man!

There's a movie theater next to my hotel, so I think I might catch the evening showing of Dhoom-2, the latest Bollywood flick that's raging the box offices here. There won't be English subtitles, but I think I'll get the drift...or just enjoy the cheesy dancing. Maybe I'll meet a 6'3" Austrailian in Bangalore on a model shoot.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

There are no vanilla pansies in India

So, I have a date tonight. Naturally, I have to fly halfway across the world to find one. And naturally, only a Houston-bred Indian deported to his homeland after twenty months in the pen for pot possession would ask me out.

I'm in Bangalore again, in the shopping district and some dump of a hotel (unsurprisingly, my rupees don't go as far here in the big city). I spent the afternoon strolling the shops and buying some jewelry, and stopped in a second hand bookstore to find something for my grandpa. If you're the kind of person who gets annoyed when salespeople approach you the instant you walk in a store, you would hate India. Immediately four people walk towards me, but when one of them says, "Hey what can I help you find?" with a subtle Southern twang, I'm like, hey, you're American. He helped me find some books and talked on quite hilariously the whole time, asking if I was enjoying all the men here staring at me "like you were a piece of meat," and loudly making fun of his cousins, who were standing around listening to us, in English, which they didn't understand.

He found out I'm a lawyer and told me his fool proof corporate laundering scam, complete with dominatrixes, right out of some craigslist post. I really can't tell if he's joking, because he's got that tone where you just laugh at everything he says, to which he replies, "No really, I'm serious, come on board and I'll prove it to you. I've got the contracts ready." Anyway, he asked me to have dinner with him and I said only if we have it on this block (busy street where my hotel is). He's already joked about being a big flirt and I'm certainly not interested in anything besides what I'm sure will be some amusing conversation, so I said okay.

At any rate, today was a highly refreshing day to put all that Calicut madness behind me. As I left Mysore this morning I decided to stop and see the Ranagatthitu Bird Sanctuary, which Maisnon and I ended up skipping on the way down. I'm so glad I went! It's totally beautiful, with these gorgeous spoonbills and painted herons, real big water birds, just hanging out in the trees. Oh, and bats! Hundreds of bats just sleeping up there. So to see them up-close you have to take this leisurely boat ride around the lake, but - and this is one of the perils of traveling alone - the guard argued with me, saying I'd have to pay some ridiculous amount. Instead, I asked the family of five adults ahead of me if I could go with them. Not only were they more than happy to have me, but when they'd chatter about the birds, the man next to me would translate, and when I offered to pay my share for the boat, they absolutely refused. So, so nice. Also, I have some sweet up-close crocodile pics.

Then while I was walking down the street in Bangalore, an old man matches my pace and asks me where I'm from (see, it happens all the time), then, he's a little hard to understand, but goes on for ten minutes about 9/11 and how many people died and...I'm not sure what his point was, but it wasn't hostile, then when he asked and discovered I'm a lawyer, said "Lawyers have no fear. They are fearless!" And how when people were in trouble we come to fix it all, or something. He could have been saying "liars" and not "lawyers," which would change a lot. Anyway, it was totally random, but somehow kind of sweet. I just love how strangers here are so willing to come up and talk to you about absolutely anything.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

The International Reaction

I've been meaning to write about the reaction over here to Saddam's execution, and today seemed like a good day to do it.

Maisnon and I were in Mysore watching CNN the morning he was hanged, and if you were watching, you probably remember Anderson "Call me AC" Cooper, first thing after the announcement, broke to Detroit where a bunch of Iraqi Americans were dancing on the streets. Okay. That's one reaction, and surely great for War on Terror PR. That's not so much what happened here.

The newspapers were literally cover to cover stories on every aspect of the execution. "Pakistan, one of the United States' number one allies in the war on terror, denounces the execution." "President Bush decided to go to sleep early on the night of the execution." The Regional section, the Business section. Omg the Editorial section.

However reliable the Letters to the Editor section of any paper may be, the ones here (I've gotten a few different newspapers at my hotels down here) are largely filled with anger. Most say that yes, Saddam was a brutal dictator and should have been punished for his crimes, but believe that Bush, too, should pay for the "blood on his hands." Many, many call for him to be hanged, as well. One Op-Ed calls him in passing "The First Lord in the War on Terror." There is strong sentiment here that Bush (yes, that Bush did this, through puppet judges) executed Saddam specifically - specifically - to escalate tensions in the middle east.

The other night I was enjoying my fresh grilled fish dinner on the beach in Cochin, and talking a bit with the host, who had sweetalked me into having dinner at his cafe. He turned out to be quite the interesting young man, just about to graduate with a degree in commerce and off soon to get his MBA, then hopefully off to the US or UK. After dinner he joined me while I finished my beer...

[Okay, quick sidebar: There is apparently some regulation about beer on the beach, I assume because of the glass. The only beer they seem to sell in India comes in large 600ml bottles, so I ordered some Golden Tiger or some such, and soon a teapot appeared on my table. A white Victorian style teapot. My host arrived with my beer and proceeded to fill the teapot with the ale and then, THEN, he comes back with a coffee mug. A COFFEE MUG WITH HAPPY CARTOON COWS ON IT. Out of which I drank my alcohol on the beach. A little boy came by to hawk his wares to me, pointed to the teapot, grinned and said, "Special tea??"]

So anyway. Eventually we turned to politics, or specifically, the US invasion of Iraq, because what else is there to talk about in the world anyway (god, except Somalia, are we really going to do this - again??). We were of the same mind, that yes, yes, Saddam was a brutal dictator, but Bush has totally and utterly fucked up that region for a long time. And of course I mentioned my own hatred and how I didn't vote for him either time. He said, "It's good you weren't here last week. After the execution there were riots here, and locals were following the tourists, asking where they were from, and if they said the US they'd heckle and follow them to their hotels." Later I passed a sign erected in the road (that I took a photo of) that had a picture of Saddam claiming he was a martyr and that Bush will pay. Though, in many more, and many more nasty, words.

And everyone asks you where you're from. The shopkeepers use it to get you talking, random people on the street, the children, everyone. I've already lied twice when I wasn't sold on the person's character, except this one shady guy asked me if I was from the UK, I said yes, and then he started following me and quickly uttering words in a different language until I turned around and said, "Enough!" and he laughed and walked away. Nice.

So, then I get to Calicut yesterday. I'd read beforehand that there was a big Arab Muslim population in Calicut, but I really didn't think much of it. People also told me there was shit to do in Calicut, that it was just a "beach town." But I was hitting it up at the end of my whirlwind tour of Kerala, so a couple of days on the beach doing nothing but reading sounded perfect. No such luck. Aside from any politics, the city just has this vibe to it you feel as soon as you drive in the city lines, I'm not sure why. Then I realized that 85% of the women are covered head to toe, and it's fucking sweltering outside. And it's not a beach town, it's an ugly urban center that happens to be on the seashore. After I checked in the concierge was like, "you should go to the beach now, it's sunset, and there's a carnival down the road."

We pull up and it looks fun, there's a ferris wheel and some other rides, and lots of popcorn vendors and such. Every inch of the beach, of course, is completely covered in trash. As soon as I step out of the car I get stares. This is not unusual, except...it is. I'm used to the stares by now, they've largely been ones of curiosity, or, you know, the occasional man with his tongue wagging and staring obviously at my chest, but the fact that most men are pigs is a cultural universal. These stares are hostile. They're "who's the outsider" looks. The muslim women are still covered head to toe on the beach, and I'm dying because I threw my hot pashmina around my sleeveless top. In fact, there are very few women at all, and they're all with men, which leaves 90% of the beach large groups of men, and the place is absolutely packed. I get hostile, intense stares all the way down to the shore. I am totally and utterly uncomfortable; I feel down right vulnerable, with my driver way back up in the parking lot and not a can of mace on me. I'll be honest and say that my imagination could have eventually gotten the better of me, but I don't think I'm really one to see anti-Americanism where there is none, especially after almost three weeks of being stared at in every town I pass through. I was sitting on the packed sand, with people within 4-5 feet on all sides of me, all just staring unsmiling; no one talked to me, the children didn't smile or wave. It was actually kind of terrifying, and I got right the fuck off that beach.

While we were waiting in a traffic jam in the parking lot, a young girl about the age of eight decided to stand outside my car and stare at me. Children everywhere here will stare, then if they're timid, shyly wave or smile. She didn't. She glared at me from under her headscarf, while she held this plastic bucket with a lid under her arm. I don't know where this girl's parents were because she clearly wasn't homeless and wasn't trying to sell anyone anything. So yeah, I started to wonder what the hell was in that damn bucket. Ten minutes is an immensely long time for someone to stand within arm's reach outside your car door and glare at you with her hand on the lid of that bucket. I'm not sure how I can describe how unnerving it is to be in a situation like that, where you want to assume the best from people - and surely that's what I've been met with this entire trip - but to have prejudices creep in because fuck, that's what the world is like these days.

So, thank you very much, Mr. Bush, for making my international travel easier. I was going to stay in Calicut two days, but after the beach and then another terrifying trip to the internet cafe (where I was going to write this post but was kind of shaken up and wanted to clear my head first), I checked out early the next morning.

For what it's worth, I have some of the papers from after the execution in my suitcase, if anyone is interested in reading them when I get back.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Thanks for ruining it for me, Jeremy Pivan

Whew, had to get out of the Cochin heat for awhile, though I hear it's pretty steamy in D.C., too. Let's cross our fingers that keeps up til I get back, because I didn't bring any winter jackets for the post-airport run to my house. I've finally taken a day off to stroll around the shops and pick up some things. I've decided to totally revamp my jewelry collection, because you can find great bracelets and earrings for about $1. Also, I bought a carpet. Ah! It was actually the one thing I was looking for that I was willing to spend a bit, and I found this gorgeous silk handwoven carpet at this shop, and threatened to walk out three times before he gave it to me for about a third the price, shipping included. I think it'll have to go in the living room, so you all can rub your feet on my soft shiny new floor decoration.

So, Jeremy Pivan. Oy. I was sort of jokingly excited to watch "Journey of a Lifetime" last night, because goodness knows I have nothing better to do at 8pm on a Saturday these days. I'll try not to waste too much time blogging about freaking Jeremy Pivan, but it really got a reaction out of me. Not that I should be surprised, but so much of it was annoying, insincere drivel, and every viewer should have been clued in at the beginning when he said, "I'm a student of the culture, you know, yoga, meditation...all that stuff." Jeez. And I don't really understand how someone can be obsessed with Indian culture and then supposedly SHOCKED (shocked!) by absolutely everything. I'm sure hamming was involved. However, he did say a couple interesting things, like "The India of my imagination slammed into the reality," which is something I've been thinking since I got here. Also, he went to this orphanage in Bombay, and of course it was set-up for the show, but, if you've been reading the blog, you know I've been totally suckered in by the children here. (On the way here a little 3-4 year old girl holding hands with her mom, grinned madly and held out her hand for me to shake as I passed her.) Mr. Pivan noted that sponsoring a child for one year cost Rs. 10000, or about $200 (btw, I hope you left a fat check there, actor boy), so since I have two full days in Bangalore, I might try to do the same. I'm going to turn into freaking Angelina Jolie here...

The other thing that annoyed me is that he pretty much did my trip. If you watched it, you know that houseboat cruise he did? Well, that's what I'd just gotten back from when I watched the show. And Cochin? That's where I am now. It's a little weird, like he was following me around with a camera or something. But those houseboats he was on? Those suckers cost a fortune, and while swanky and probably something I'd like to do with a few more people on another trip, are actually not the best way to see the canals.

I, on the other hand, rented this boat that was a little larger than your average canoe, with a bamboo canopy in the middle and a mattress with pillows underneath. So you can sit and take photos or lay down and watch the coconut trees pass by, while one man paddles slowly in the back. Man, talk about the life. For four hours I drifted along the water, through the lilypads, and into the tiny sized canals (where those large houseboats can't go). Like I wrote in my journal at the time, if I didn't come out of there with some phenomenal pictures, then I'm a photographer beyond help. Oh, and the children! The motorboats and houseboats fly by too quickly, but we would drift right up to the edges where the houses were, where the women were beating clothing on the rocks or washing rice for dinner. Some of the children were out swimming, but all of them would smile and wave, ask me my name or for an 'English coin.' Which reminds me, I need to buy some pens. A long time ago I read that you should keep a pack of Bics to give to children and I thought, wow, that sounds incredibly stupid. Well, not so much. I get asked for pens almost everyday.

I encountered two young boys with toy guns, of course. The universal toy. Ah, I wish I should really share with you all the encounters I have with these kids. Like the little girl who jumped and jumped on the dock to show off for me. Or the one who hid shyly behind her father's pants until he happily dragged her out and posed for a picture for me. Or the one who yelled "Happy New Year!" So adorable!

My boat man was pretty awesome, too. We stopped after an hour to get tea, just pulled right up to a cafe like we were in Venice, debarked and relaxed for a few minutes with a cup of masala. Then after another hour and a half, we stopped near what I think was his house, because he knew everyone and I met lots of folks. We walked and walked, but he didn't speak much English so I had no idea where he was taking me. Finally we emerged out the back side of the houses to the expansive rice paddies. There was a raised pathway we walked down, through the middle of the fields, the water reflecting the setting sun through the rice grass. After trekking down quite a way, past the cows munching in the fields, I saw a couple of men in the distance and this sound....it sounded like an enormous bee hive, just this incessant buzzing. But as we got closer, I realized they were ducks! It was a duck farm! Apparently after the rice field workers go home for the day, they let these ducks out of their pen to graze, and three men using canes, sticks, and even an umbrella corral them to keep them together. You have never seen anything like duck herding. It's both hilarious and adorable. They squawk and eat and then suddenly stampede when one of the herders gets near. We watched as they herded them in groups back to the pen. I took a video because you guys just have to see this. Effing duck herding in the rice paddies.

There's so much to write about, if I wait more than I day to email or blog I feel overwhelmed with thoughts to share. I write in my journal but even that's not really enough; it's really the only downside to traveling alone, the downtime before you can talk to anyone about what's happened. Especially on a trip like this, where you can't barely pass a sign without thinking, "omg, i have to tell someone about that." For the sake of space and your kind reading eyes, I'll stop for today. In Cochin, which is on the sea, they have many shacks by the beach about a block away where you can pick out a fish caught today and they'll grill it in front of you, so I think I'll go have some dinner.

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