Archive for April, 2013

a reunion and a homecoming

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i was more than excited to see a familiar face when i stepped onto the platform at the Bangalore City Train Station.  i used to work with Srihari years ago in Seattle.  when he left to move back to Bangalore i promised him i would come to visit.  now, here i am 4 years later keeping my promise.  for the next 5 days i stayed with Srihari, his wife Durga and their children Sidanth and Shradha in their home on Rainbow Drive and endured some of the kindest hospitality i’d ever experienced.  i quickly went from feeling like their honored guest to a part of the family.

Durga is an amazing cook.  each evening she prepared a new authentic Indian dish that seemed to put all other Indian food i’ve ever had to shame.  she also runs a bakery business out of her kitchen so i got to sample a multitude of delicious desserts.  Sidanth and Shradha are on summer break and have taken up the recent task of caring for a stray cat who had just had a litter.  they proudly named each one and pushed all their potted plants together on the top balcony to give them a place to play and be covert kittens.  Srihari and Durga are philanthropists at heart and share a passion for giving back to their community.  all this made for an inspiring 5 days to say the least.

i arrived on a weekend when Srihari was off work.  this was a great opportunity for he and i to relax, catch up and reminisce about the office war stories of way back when.  i also joined the family for a game of ‘street cricket’ (cricket with appropriately modified rules) to which i learned that i can’t throw a ball straight to save my life.

P1020731during the work week, a family friend named Vinod toured me around the city on the back of his motorbike.  Bangalore is a massive sprawl of a place.  home to over 8 million people, it’s easily the Indian Los Angeles.  one could get very lost very easily here and i felt lucky to be in such good hands.  we toured some gardens, a giant mall, an interactive science museum and the palace of Sultan Tipu who had both a morbid creative streak and a deep seeded hatred for the British.  he also took me to his house to meet his family and friends.  he politely excused himself to milk the town cow while his parents and i caught the last 20 tear jerking minutes of the Titanic.

Vinod is a shy and thoughtful man who speaks little english, but that didn’t stop us from establishing a solid friendship.  each morning he would show up with a smile on his face that said “can Roark come out and play?”… and of course i could, especially after a hearty home-cooked breakfast.

P1020721one day he took me to a local temple festival 20 kilometers outside of town.  we took part in a special ritual that involved the breaking of coconuts into a troth and then cramming ourselves into a small temple with a hundred others to take turns getting blessed.  when we finally reached the other end we were fed sweet bread balls.  not too far away we met up with Vinod’s entourage who were making preparations to feed an army.  each year they come to this festival and stay awake for several days straight to feed anyone with an appetite amounting to a couple thousand people in all.  the men cooked giant pots of sticky millet paste while the woman rolled them into balls and served them on leaf sewn plates with rice and vegetables in sauce.  i immediately felt the need to contribute to this process and then proceeded to convince them to allow me to do so.  a very nice young woman named Soumia gave me a crash course lesson in shaping the paste which involved dipping your hand in water then spinning the paste with a fast side-by-side jerking motion.  as soon as my hand came in contact with the stuff it scolded me causing me to retract my arm and wince from the pain.  they all started laughing at me.  after which i made several more attempts until it became clear that i was just no match for these woman and the years of experience they had on me.  after that i was kindly asked to leave the kitchen.  i just couldn’t take the heat i guess.

after that i wandered over to a drum circle off in the distance despite the simultaneous ‘use your better judgement’ looks that Soumia and Vinod gave me.  soon after arriving the drumming halted and the circle opened and forced me into it.  the next few seconds seamed like an eternity as i came to realize the seemingly blood-thirsty looks on the faces in every direction i turned.  “dance!” screamed a voice.  then the drumming started again.  then the P1020726blood-thirsty faces all turned into screaming blood-thirsty faces.  i simply had no choice in the matter.  a switch went off in my brain and i became a dance machine.  after demonstrating my best moves i beckoned them all to join me.  dancing turned into moshing and moshing turned into climbing on top of me and riding me like a bull.  as soon as there was a break in the drumming i clawed my way out of the circle when almost every man there insisted on shaking my hand and having their picture taken with me in front of a heavily decorated tractor with a framed photograph of a man mounted on the front.  Vinod and i eventually made our escape then walked around the outskirts of the festival for a cool down.  we watched as tractors pulling large water tanks would fill up troths for people to bathe in.  this is as close to Burningman as it gets here in India.

on my final day in Bangalore i repaid my thanks to Vinod by treating him to see the hit action movie “Oblivion” staring Tom Cruise.  he didn’t understand any of it but i sure did.  it was a sad goodbye when i left Rainbow Drive.  it was the first time i’d truly felt at home since my actual home.  i had even started to refer to Srihari and Durga as my Indian parents.  i mounted Vinod’s bike one last time with my pack on my back and Escapo sandwiched between us.  he drove me back to the train station and patiently waited with me until my train departed.

Hampi, here i come!

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India in a minor key

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my first solo train ride of significant length was pure success.  all aboard for the Mysore Express! – an overnighter leaving Madurai at 7:30 pm and arriving in Mysore at 10:30 am.  being an Indian train virgin, i decided not to rough it too much too fast so i booked the best class they had for a whopping 1100 rupees ($22).  my class was called “AC2″.  that means bunks stacked 2 high with air conditioning.  the next class down is “AC3″ which is bunks stacked 3 high with air conditioning.  “sleeper” is the next which is bunks stacked 3 high without air conditioning. much like Dante’s Inferno, it gets progressively worse the further down you go.  by the time you reach the very last train car, you’re stacked 10 high and sleeping on your choice of either spikes or hot coals.

P1020675Mysore is a nice enough place.  it’s got the right amount of Indian busy.  it has that beautiful palace in its center.  it’s got its fair share of traps, trims and flim-flams, but that’s not why i came here.  i came here to just… be.  i came here to recycle myself in a manor of speaking.  i’m long overdue and it has to happen somewhere.  since i arrived early in the day i had the luxury of choosing my accommodations carefully.  i must have gone to six places before finally deciding on the perfect one.  i tested the acoustics in the bathrooms and the noise factor the ceiling fans make when you crank them to full blast.  i sauntered slowly and mindfully from place to place with my 50 liter pack, my trusty satchel, my guitar and my eyes wide open.

first things first. lock myself in the bathroom with my guitar “Escapo” and my compact battery powered stereo condenser microphone. push record and let the music flow onto the backdrop of honking, yelling and spitting from the street below.  follow this with a regiment of push-ups and a stroll through the city.  it’s beautiful and of course it is.

ok, so “beautiful” may not be the right word to use here.  it’s actually quite polluted, the streets and buildings are heavily neglected and dozens of cows covered in flies feed on the street garbage, but it all seems to work for them here in this little ecosystem of hectic filth. it’s beautiful in my eyes.

“hello, what country?”… that’s how it always starts, to which i always reply “USA”.  there seems to be a thin line between ‘i want to be your best friend for the next 10 minutes’ and ‘just kidding, i actually want some money’ and i still can’t seem to sense the up front difference, especially because they always start off the conversation by stating ad nauseum that their not interested in my money.  the first guy was a nice strapping young lad.  i asked him to direct me to the WIFI knowing he probably couldn’t because WIFI barely exists in the south.  they walk so proud when they have you in their grasp.  they wave at everyone they pass by as if saying “look what i got, what the hell do you got?”.  after being lead to 4 different internet cafes i finally settled on one with regular internet.  i asked the next guy for a good restaurant.  he lead me to an upscale hotel.  these are not the places to eat in India but i chose to eat there anyway because i was fatigued and famished.  he sat with me in a mutual silent stare as i choked down a Kingfisher and some mediocre veg korma.  after regaining my strength and part of my mind i went outside and focused intently on a deep sink hole in the side of the street.  dude immediately follows me outside and demands 20 rupees (40 cents) for his time.  i forwardly and elegantly reminded him that the expectations of our relationship which he himself prior set did not add up to the demands of his current agenda.  he walks.  i feel both good and evil.

i accomplished several comforting tasks during my 4 day stint here:  i found new strings for Escapo who was in dire need of re-stringing, made several recordings, repaired my travel-damaged belongings, slept a lot and watched movies.  i took frequent chai breaks at a favorite tea stall i found in an alleyway near my hotel.  i’d sit with the Indian men lined up along the curb smoking their beedis, or i’d sit alone until i felt comfortable in my own skin.

P1020658i also put my tourist hat on and visited the palace, the market and some small factories where they make incense and tobacco products.  the market was a sectioned off grid of narrow walkways lined with piles and overflowing baskets of fruits, vegetables, incense and spices.  the palace was a marvelous one.  the inside had giant detailed wall paintings depicting the crowds of people that used to hang out there way back when it was functional.  each face was completely unique.  just outside the palace, elephant and camel rides were offered.  entire families would mount the elephants from a special staircase and away they would go.  i wandered into a section of the palace grounds void of people and saw one of the more disturbing sights so far on my trip.  some asshole had tied up a camel to a tree in such a way that it couldn’t sit down.  the rope was tightly wound around its neck, head and through its septum.  i must have stared at it for 30 minutes.  it kept picking up its feet one by one to relieve the pressure of standing.  this poor animal had an expression on its face that resembled both urgent discomfort and extreme stupidity.  i’m no camel whisperer but i know a cry for help when i see one.  i seriously considered cutting him loose and if i had something sharp with me i just might have.  i then wandered a little further and had a close encounter with 3 angry mangy dogs only to be saved by a wild group of children.  they swooped in and threw rocks at them until they yelped and limped away.  that’s enough sightseeing for one day.

these past few days of decompression has done me some good.  i could easily stay a few more, and would if it weren’t for that all too familiar itchy feeling returning to my feet telling me it’s time to move.  i close my eyes, take a very deep breath and pack my bag for the 20th time, then make way to the train station and board a train bound for Bangalore to see an old friend.

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P1020630please enjoy this one ditty spawned from the Mysore bathroom recording sessions:

In India

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tea anyone?

P1020497because this place literally has mountains of it. a few hours train ride to Fort Kochi followed by a five hour jerky bus ride brings us to Munnar – a small mountain town surrounded by tea plantations. up here the air is cool and fresh and there are no mosquitoes. cows roam the streets. fire flies come out during the night as well as the occasional pulse lightning storm. each morning a song bird wakes us with its complex tune. we stayed in “old town” – a quiet intersection comprised of one restaurant, 2 dhabas and 4 hotels. one kilometer away is “new town” – a noisy, dirty yet picturesque, functional town stacked up along a stream. from there we rented a motorbike (“Parvati’s chariot”) and explored the near by tea plantations and villages. each time we drove by a drying house the smell of chai was near intoxicating. we drove 36 kilometers up a winding road to “Top Station” which overlooked the entire region.

P1020481along the way we met a French Canadian named Nicolas who thought it a good idea to walk the entire distance from Top Station to Munnar in flip flops. his arm and hand had been badly scraped from a motorbike accident five days prior. when operating a motorbike in India it’s very important to follow these three rules: (1) be very very very alert, (2) honk at absolutely everything, and (3) if you’re riding tandem with a girl who weighs a lot less than you and who has no prior motorbike driving experience, don’t let her take the helm no matter how badly she may want it. it turned out Nicolas was staying in the room next to mine. i later learned that he had just quit his job to travel Asia for a year (sound familiar?).

on my fourth day in Munnar my travel impulses beckoned me to Thekkady (aka Kumily) to see Periyar – the second largest wild-life preserve in India. within 20 minutes i had a short but emotional parting with Dani (the remaining member of the multi-culture crew who was actively on her way to France) and was waiting at the bus stand with Nicolas and two travelers from Austria he knew from before. our actual bus didn’t seem to want to materialize but as soon as two additional travelers did we decided to splurge on our very own private jeep-taxi for 2000 rupees split 6 ways (that’s $6.66 per person;). three pretty fucking scary hours later we arrived in Kumily in one piece. “sometimes you just gotta close your eyes and trust the Indian behind the wheel”… ok, there’s a phrase i just coined.

P1020540we stayed in a courtyard of huts with Periyar in our backyard and monkeys that swung from the canopies above. Nicolas and i booked a “boarder hiking” tour for the following day – a guided 9 hour/24 kilometer wildlife hike up a mountain range and across the state line into Tamil Nadu with food and water provided. when we showed up early the next morning we were handed an assortment of bread and one liter of water. luckily i had brought another liter with me. i tried not to let the reality of 2 liters vs. 9 hours hiking in the sweltering heat sink in enough to get in the way of my excitement for seeing real wild tigers and elephants. our tour was lead by a very informative man with a gun. he picked leaves and fruits along the way for us to smell and eat. all the spices one would need to cook a proper Indian meal were growing naturally around us. when we summited the view was nothing short of stunning. unfortunately there were no wild tigers and elephants to be found. being the hot season, most of the animals become nocturnal. however, they sure did leave a lot of scat behind and our guide was not shy about pointing out all the different scats and going into detail about why it appeared the way it did. ie. “this is two-week old scat from a tiger ingesting a deer. their stomachs are unable to fully digest the hide so that’s why it’s furry”… you get the idea. not too long after lunch time (bread time!) is when the effects of dehydration started to become an issue. after that, every time our guide would stop to point at more scat i wanted to kick his face, but i refrained… he was holding the gun after all. somehow we managed to make our remaining half liter last until we reached Indian civilization once again.

that night a celebration was in order. partly because we survived the hike and partly because we actually managed to find a real liquor store. we hosted it in our monkey infested courtyard for 7 travelers. we stayed up late, we played music, we shared our life stories and drank the right amount of Kingfishers.

P1020587the next stop on my journey was the city of Madurai (aka. “the soul of Tamil Nadu”) and it didn’t take any effort to convince Nicolas to join me. i fell in love with this place the moment i stepped off the bus. the streets are narrow and packed to the brim with Indian busy, the food is amazing, and a giant beautiful temple sits in its center. this is a proper Indian city. we roamed her streets for hours, toured the temple grounds, and had drinks with a nice British couple at a random spaceship themed bar we found. i managed to negotiate my way through the train station bureaucracy to book my next passage. i also decided to get a straight razor shave for 30 rupees (60 cents) which was a very enjoyable experience up until the guy decided to pound cologne into my skull and charge me 20 rupees extra. this marks the first time i’ve shaved since i left Seattle. now when people ask me how long i have been traveling i can no longer reply by stroking my beard and saying “this long”.

this is also my first taste of the “real India” i have heard so much about and it has hardened me a bit. this is my first exposure to the poverty and the touts. …and it’s not about the 7 rupees you’re arguing over, it’s about the principal of not getting taken advantage of because your a stupid foreigner. …and when you get your laundry returned to you 6 hours late soaking wet, wrapped in newspaper with a dead cockroach in it, it’s really up to you to wake the right people up and get to the bottom of the matter.

the food in India is something else entirely. each time i look at a menu it makes just a little more sense and every time i order a dish i think i know, it looks and tastes completely different than the last. there are so many flavors here and each time i discover a new one i can’t help but get a little emotional. i have been a vegetarian for over a week now because eating meat here just isn’t worth the hassle. i still have yet to suffer from the infamous “Delhi belly” but it’s obvious my system is undergoing a transition of sorts. “liquid in, liquid out”… hey look, there’s another phrase i just coined.

today Nicolas and i will part ways. he and i think a lot alike which has made traveling with him a true treat. i have a feeling that we haven’t seen the last of him.

tonight will be my first train ride of significant length as well as my first time being alone in India and i am looking forward to both.

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baby steps in India

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on April fools day i flew from Bangkok to Trivandrum (the capital city of Karela). this included an all night layover in the Mumbai airport. Then a 45 minute drive north brought me to Varkala – a long strip of guest houses and restaurants along a cliff overlooking the beach. time seems to stand still here and if i’m not careful the days could turn into weeks.

i booked a simple room with limited power at a guest house slightly set back from the cliff with a private bathroom, mosquito net covered bed and porch hammock. this would be my home for the next week and in my weary state i was excited to not be on the constant move for the first time in almost a month.

after a long rest i managed to find a bar (not an easy thing to do in Karela) near the main beach road tucked behind a wall out of site. i ordered a Kingfisher “Extra Strong” and looked around the place to survey exactly how sore of a thumb i was. i was the only white guy in a room of 30 Indian men all getting very drunk. the ones that weren’t talking loudly were staring at me and smiling in a most gentile way. before i had the chance to feel awkward i was invited to sit.

20130403_143159meet Hasah and Vipin. Hasah is a lifeguard on Varkala Beach. he explained to me that the strong current takes the lives of several travelers each year and in the 7 years he has worked this beach he has saved over 80 lives. Vipin is a soldier in the army and owns a bit of beach front real estate. he is also on the prowl for a wife. it didn’t take long for Hasah to insist on bringing me back to his home to meet his family and be properly fed. with nothing but yes in my heart i soon found myself enjoying my first Indian meal in a real Indian home. mother prepared fresh fish (sardines?) on rice while me, Hasah, Vipin, Hasah’s father, brother, sister-in-law, niece and nephew watched an Indian action flick. we ate with our hands. Hasah’s brother was both newly married and suffering from polio. he, his Italian wife and his two children live in Rome and were visiting to have their wedding on Indian soil.

20130403_174044the next day i headed to the town temple to check out this “Elephant Festival” i’ve been hearing so much about. this was not your typical fourth of July froo-froo. this parade consisted of 20 marching elephants with chained feet and gold plated head dresses accompanied by men with sharp sticks which they used to ‘coax’ the elephants into praying to Krishna when they passed by the temple. this was followed by floats with animatronic Indian gods in various killing positions. one depicted a man getting his belly eaten by a lion while blasting the sounds of pure insanity at an ear-piercing decibel. in between each link in the procession were groups of men beating tribal drums and chanting. hoards of locals gathered around to spectate, pray, dance… and whatever else it took. in addition to all this mayhem i had the pleasure of witnessing one elephant fully relieve himself right there on the street (with 20 elephants it’s bound to happen). i was dumbfounded by mother nature’s mechanics when a basic procedure such as this gets applied to elephant-sized proportions. the dirt road where i stood quickly became a muddy river. after witnessing this multi-minute process start to finish i was once again reminded that mother nature has an elegant plan for all the things. none of my senses were spared at this festival. i was giddy because i was overwhelmed by 100 new stimulations all at once and pushed to extreme discomfort because i was overwhelmed by 100 new stimulations all at once. it took me about 12 hours to feel normal again.

P1020441oh… and i made some friends! meet the multi-culture crew: Dani from France, Irantzu from Spain and Luna from Chile. three very unique and genuine individuals. over the next several days we were almost inseparable as we swam, ate, shopped, relaxed, drank chai, and rode trains and tuktuks together until we nailed ‘our’ Varkala down to a routine we could execute with our eyes closed. our conversations were a constant dance that covered a wide variety of subjects both emotional and spiritual. they all spoke several more languages than i which left me feeling generally inadequate, but i was able to impart a few English gems of knowledge onto them which redeemed me a bit. we also decided to assign each other animal-likenesses (because why wouldn’t we?). Luna was a mouse (a moon mouse), Irantzu a squirrel (specifically the one from the movie Ice Age), Dani was a praying mantis, and i turned out to be a dolphin… yeah, it took me a while to warm up to that one. anyway, here is a snippet of the conversation verbatim:

Dani: i think your animal is a dolphin
me: no… i’m pretty sure it’s a sloth
Dani: oh no, it’s a dolphin, i’m quite sure of it
me: really?!… but… dolphins are kinda gay
Dani: are you a little bit crazy?
me: yeah

P1020452on my second to last day in Varkala i took a day trip to Trivandrum and purchased this guitar. his name is “Escapo” and with the proper MacGyver modifications i think he could prove a most useful companion. this of course ups my sore thumb factor by 10 and now i can’t take a train ride without entertaining some of its passengers. my calluses are returning and my musical intuitions are becoming familiar once again.

it’s extremely hot and humid here this time of year. water is paramount and sleep is very nice to come by.

it’s now time to head for the hills…

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