Thursday, February 25, 2010

No Sleep for the Drenched in Delhi 7/2/10-9/2/10

From the Gandhi Museum, Delhi

Where Gandhi spent his last days...

Gandhi's last steps

We’d started our stay down an alleyway street in the Delhi ghetto. Buildings were dripping with unidentified liquid. We interrupted the hotel manager with some traveler chick I later coined “Rainbow Butterfly” while he was either hooking up or getting high. The entryway felt like the living room of an opium dealer. He’d given away our reservation and shuffled us off to a hotel where oil stains and black hairs greeted me on the bed sheets. The walls were smudged with handprints and the toilet had some reddish brown crusty-thing on it. Sashwa demanded at the very least we get clean sheets.  The man shook his head shyly and said “No ma’am,” when I asked if I could get clean pillow cases with those new sheets.  By night the ghetto was eerie, by day it was a bustling den of hustlers grabbing our arms and sickly looking beggars. A desolate man tried to convince me to give him my hiking boots.
I’d arrived stomach-sick to Delhi and swiftly picked up a sore throat and sinus infection. Delhi will make any environmentalist give up hope for saving the trees and take a seat next to the fires made of plastic kindling burning all over the streets. The streets of Delhi are consistent with taking an outhouse and dumping it on the sidewalk; add in landfills without any garbage can in sight, and ten times the LA smog – this is Delhi. I was literally choking in the streets.
Sounds like a bad place, but I don’t hate Delhi; the ruckus makes it a fascinating city too. And it is progressive. Women aren’t frowned upon for wearing jeans, and some of them are getting college degrees and driving cars. India boasts the richest men in all of the Asia’s, Delhi has a plan to build up the downtown area with skyscrapers; but the poverty was some of the most extreme we’d seen yet.
A woman came asking for rupees as we sat at a stoplight in the back of a rickshaw. Her face was sad and dirty, she had a wild look in her eye that I’d seen elsewhere our first night in Delhi – the look of desperation that is harder here than in the villages. Her hair was short and knotted. We sat feeling horrible and helpless; in India it is impossible to give money to all the people you want to. When her begging didn’t work, her son (maybe 4 years old) held up his finger to show me that it was bleeding. Then her infant also held out his hand. The infant didn’t have any pants on and his penis was infected and cracked, maybe from the dirty streets I’m guessing.
Delhi speaks do or die, hustle or starve. It also speaks boutique shops and Gandhi museums – too many people who need help…and a weirdly nice place. If I hadn’t felt like I was losing precious years off of my life by just breathing the air, I would have stayed a while to wrap my head around what had the makings of being the wiliest city I’d ever been in (and we lived in Oakland).  
We were in Delhi to meet Suzette and Jay, Sashwa’s parents who will be joining us until mid March. We were excited to explore India with them, and Suzette and I were eager to shop! A friend of a friend of Suzette’s met us at an emporium, showed us around, bought us lunch, and invited us to come visit her home and meet her daughters next time we were in Delhi. Her name is Kamal and I liked her immediately. She is a classy and kind woman. We had a wonderful day with her, then that night a heavy rain hit Delhi and I ended up in tears.
We were having dinner after a long and wonderful day with Suzette and Jay, and we’d lost track of time. We weren’t in the part of town where rickshaws and taxis are at every corner. Suzette lent me her poncho and well wishes as we headed out into the rain for our hotel.
The problem was that I was wearing flip-flops.
When the rains hit in Delhi, there is no place for the water to go but into murky little puddles. Burning Man’s toilet was lapping at my ankles and caking between my toes. We found a taxi stand but the two guys sleeping didn’t wake no matter how much Sashwa screamed and banged on the door.
I wasn’t always like this – a mild germ phobic. I can rough it in the wilderness for days without a shower or a toilet. It’s the human nastiness that I get scared of, and people in India piss and shit all over the streets. I was horrified as we waded home to a hot shower and a half hours worth of soap and sterilization for my feet and flops, and for Sashwa’s shoe laces that had untied midway. Sashwa had the ability to laugh it off, but soaking my feet in Delhi was enough to make me weep as hard as the rain. I thought of the begging woman and her two small children and wondered if she was under a tarp in a tent city somewhere (homes made out of bricks and a blue tarp-roof, seen everywhere on the sides of main roads), or herself walking barefoot through the same streets. A feeling of guilt washed over me as I washed my feet.
The next morning we boarded a plane to Varanasi and I met a woman on the plane. She lives in Italy and coincidentally enough she also lived in Northern California and happens to know people that we know in Ohi and Sebastopol. It is a small world.
“This must be a good omen,” I said to her, heart-warmed by the sense of familiarity and feeling, ready for Varanasi.
“Varanasi to me is hell on earth,” she said. She was on her way to Varanasi for the second time.
I grew suspicious. I’d heard from many that Varanasi was one of the most awesome places in India full of chaos, ritual, spirit and splendor. We were committed to staying in Varanasi for a week.
Varanasi is also the “city of death” in that it is a major pilgrimage site for Hindus; because being burned on the banks of the Ganges helps them transition into their next incarnation. People come to Varanasi to die. In Varanasi you see around 200 bodies being burned a day within 24 hours. When the woman on the plane was in Varanasi last she was going through menopause. She said she related the death inside of her to the death she was seeing everywhere. She was even seeing dead puppies. Then she got a phone call from home that her own dog had just died.
“The outside experience is a reflection of the inside experience,” she said.  “I felt like something was dying inside me, and so I was seeing death everywhere.”
I thought about this statement – my outside experience is a reflection of my inside experience. Did that mean my insides were filled with rain and Delhi shit? I was sure that my insides were at least confused. I loved India, but I wasn’t in love with India yet, and I also hated it here too.  In one moment I would have the most beautiful interaction, and in the next a woman would hiss at me when I smiled at her in the streets. Was I watching myself? Because here men stare Western women down without any shame no matter how many scarves we wrap ourselves in. Or were my insides as shallow as pashmina shawls, glass bangles and silk sellers? I knew I felt drenched by the things I still could not fully understand in India. The dynamics of class and religion, the dynamics of men to women, the rules of society, the code of dress, why no one was cleaning up the streets, and why there wasn’t help for that poor woman and her bleeding and infected kids.
As the plane landed I sent up a silent prayer to the gods that I’m sure float through the night skies of one of the most pulsing places on earth, burning Varanasi – I told them that I wanted to understand my outward experience in India, and my inside one too. I was ready to mesh things together and for deep understanding to take over. I wanted this to happen now.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Hampi, India

Curious Monkey Checking Out His Reflection in Sashwa's Camera Lens
Ahhh Hampi. It deserves that big sigh of relief!

We’d been craving small villages, landscapes of endless boulders, sunrises filled with “epicness”, banana trees and the sound of bugs at night; a chilled out sort of place, and interesting backpackers to chatter with. We got all of this here in Hampi, a town full of ruins and mini temples tucked into unexpected places. We arrived to a bathing party in a glistening river. A small boat was waiting to take us to a series of bungalows overlooking rice paddies and the grandest boulder fields I’ve ever seen.

“Yep we’ll stay five days,” Sash and I said, both eager for a decent hammock.  

View From Hampi "Home"
We acquainted ourselves with two new friends from England who became our exploring partners all week. Durian is about to go to school for writing, and Heather is a free spirit traveling by herself and containing awesome stories about encounters with sharks – of course I liked them both immediately!

Hampi is a natural splendor. We caught both sunset and sunrise with our friends Durian and Heather. Every sandstone colored rock screamed “Climb me!”  

Sunset Pleasure
Goats and water buffalo were taking midday soaks. We walked for miles to a reservoir and through village after village being chased down by young kids. People are so friendly in the country; as curious about us as we are about them.

Hampi will make you feel famous. I was a bona fide Angelina Jolie just about everywhere I went. The kids here eagerly surround tourists in herds of 20+ wanting to be in a photo, and they are about as sweet and adorable as children come. With the exception of one teenage boy, who went in for a boob-grab while having his friend take a picture of us. I shrunk away in horror; my first lesson in fame – let the boys take a picture with me, but don’t let them put their arm around me! 

The little girls are my favorite - bright eyes and smiles. Ready to tell you how beautiful they think you are when it’s really them who are so stunning. The idea of beauty here is as twisted as it is in the States. It is the grass is always greener sort of mindset. The way we idealize too thin in the US, it seems, is the way women in India strive for light skin. Fairness Cream is a hot seller in the beauty shops. I’ve read that being “too dark” can inhibit a girl's chances for a decent arranged marriage. Yet it is the darkness of these girls skin and the beauty of their black eyes, the softness of their face without make-up that really makes them beautiful to me.  

And then there was Babaji.

Sometimes you meet sadhus trading pictures for rupees, and sometimes you meet the real thing. They say that in India you are supposed to look for guru’s in everyone, that they will surprise you and sometimes be the man sweeping the floors beneath your feet, or any number of gurus in unrecognizable or recognizable clothing. We found Babaji on the side of the road under the shade of a tree. Of course I asked him for his picture. Usually people here want to see themselves when you take their picture, but Babaji waved off my attempt like it was only a hassle. This made me curious, and when he caught up with us walking I took full opportunity of picking my new friend Babaji’s mind.

When he found out we were from America, he said, “I would like to go to the bottom of the Grand Canyon someday and dip in the river, because it is the deepest river on earth.”

We like the idea of running into Babaji at the base of the Grand Canyon someday.

As we walked Babaji spoke about the monkey god Hanuman. He described his next pilgrimage to Haridwar for the Kumba Mela, and talked about the full moon in March. Then a few stacked motorcycles road by (they let tourists rent motorcycles here – very scary), and one of the boys on the back gave an eager wave to Babaji and a thumbs up.

“Funny people come here,” he said with a laugh and a shake of his head.

Temple Ruins in Hampi 

Saturday, February 6, 2010



We headed to Mysore as it is the self-proclaimed "Ashtanga Capitol of the World." To our surprise yoga was not for sale on every tree post like it is in the rest of South India. Confused by this we just let it go and spent the time chasing another love of mine - the smell of sandelwood, of which there was plenty in incense and oil shops across the city. Turns out Ashtanga yoga is thriving in some suberb on the outskirts of Mysore. Another lesson in India, if you ask one person and they give you the answer you aren't looking for, ask another and another until they tell you what it is and where to find it. Regardless, I now am incensed with sandalwood on my wrists every day.

Woman Rolling Incesne - they say her daily record is something over 6,000


Our Oil Man - he was once Mr. India

Bidi Making Men in Mysore