Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Jaisalmer and the Thar Desert

A post a week. Seven or eight weeks, I think. If I can do this (and barring what will hopefully pan out to be a week-long trip to New Delhi, I ought to), I should be able to acceptably summarize my remaining experiences, to my standards.

It sure is a strange feeling to be so close to the end, and it's different than it was when I left in the first place. I was very sad to leave the States, and especially to cut off what felt like my symbolic last summer (though I have since realized that it will be anything but). At the same time, I was absurdly excited for my exchange.

This time, I am again absurdly excited to get to my destination - the allure of a steady carnivorous diet, being able to drive myself again, and seeing my friends and family again is mighty enticing. They told us at the beginning that we would most certainly have a greater appreciation of our home when we left. I have definitely noticed a much greater sense of American and Minnesotan pride in myself than I used to have. The United States may have a lot of work to do, but what country doesn't? I love my country, my home and almost all of the people in it, and I miss the hell out of it.

I have much more complicated feelings about the place, or rather, the experience, that I am leaving behind. To be perfectly clear about India, I adore it and most of the people in it. I know that I gave it a lot of crap over the early posts, and while my critiques hold somewhat true, having seen more of India and the vibrant culture, I have an unadulterated love of the place. Part of the problem was that there were just a couple things about Surat that did not sit well with the type of person that I personally am. Mainly, the high population density. Surat is not nearly the biggest city in India, but it is definitely one of the most crowded. This is partly a geographic issue - it's pushed up against the sea, and the way that it's been organized, it's not really in a position to expand in any direction but into the ocean. So it's packed. I have always had difficulty with the constant crowds and traffic. Most of India is loud, but Surat can be particularly piercing. I value my own time and peace - it's why I go for runs in the dead of night in the U.S. There's really no escape from the lights and crowds in Surat. I've gotten used to this in Surat, but I haven't liked it.

To go along with this city life, this means that there aren't very many nice outdoor places. This is not an India problem or a Surat problem. This means that I am not a city person. I love a big city for like two or three weeks. But I operate best in a place like Northfield, where you have everything you need and plenty of people, but that is full of natural beauty. I'm sure that this is just a product of me being where I'm from - everybody is - but quiet streets, open parks, and woods and fields are more important to me than high-rise buildings. A lot of big cities can offer a nice balance - actually Minneapolis, what with all of those lakes, is a great example. Surat doesn't happen to. These little things kind of eat away at me on a daily basis.

These daily irritations spilled over and put me in an early bad mood, but having gotten around and seen more and more of India, I've realized just how special it is. The North Tour was the kicker. It is an absolute must for everyone to see India in their lifetime. You can really find everything here. There are spectacular, cultural cities, and a wide variety of them. There is nearly every single kind of natural habitat and climate imaginable - in the space of two weeks, I rode a camel into a vast, windswept desert, and climbed to the top of one of the baby Himalayas in a blizzard. There is incredible food, and a huge variety of food. There are amazing festivals. There are great, hospitable people folks, who are nearly always friendly despite the incredibly vast differences in thinking between India and the West. The chai is delicious. You have to see this place. I'm called back to my mood of over a year ago, when I was first applying for the exchange and I was deliriously intoxicated with the idea of India. All this time later, having experienced more of the country, with all of its wretched flaws and all of it's untouchable glory, I am again spellbound, but in a much richer, more honest way. I cannot wait to come back here.

Having said that, I have gotten to the point in my life in India where there is a limit to what I can do. I want to travel and see every inch of it, I want to take power-life hardcore ashram courses. This isn't easy to do right now. We don't have an awful lot of independence, and besides, it's summer. I think it is difficult for you guys to contemplate just how much activity ceases in India in the summer. It's not like anything specifically stops, other than school, but things just don't happen. I don't know how to describe it. I'm just not doing very much right now, and I'm restless. The most immediate option for release is to return to the US and work and go to college. There's a strong chance that, for reasons out of my control, I will accomplish much less than I have been in the next seven or eight weeks. I know that when the time comes to leave, I'll be sad to go, but I'll be itching to go home as well. It's hard to say what the next two months are going to be like, other than hot.

On that indecisive note, let's go to Rajastan.

I've already talked too much in this post, so I'll talk about Rajastan and Rajastani culture a little more in the next post. Our first destination, after a train ride and a lengthy bus trip, was Jaisalmer, also known as the "Golden City". One can see why.

Jaisalmer is not as populated as I thought it would be - only about 75,000 people live there. It's not common to find developed places this small in India - I suppose it's mostly tourist places. It is certainly a very tourist-oriented city, but as I've mentioned before, you often find the most traditional lifestyles in the tourist places. We had an interesting encounter with a new bride in one of the twisty, winding roads of the city. She was dressed in a full traditional saree with many piercings. She spoke excellent English, which indicates a good education, but she was nonetheless given the very strange job of sitting outside all day and greeting people for the 30 days after her marriage. I'd never heard of this before. You learn something new every day in India.

Even just walking around the narrow alleys of Jaisalmer is entertaining, but there's also this gigantic, sandstone fort that overlooks the whole city. It's pretty awesome, kind of a mini-community in it's own right. It's stuffed with quirky little shops, interesting architecture, tasty restaurants, and awesome panoramic views of the city and the surrounding desert. In a trip that was laden with old military forts, this was easily the most memorable of them all.

After visiting the sights in Jaisalmer, we had a chance to really get into the desert. There are these resorts in the desert where they put you up in tents that are all around a common, built-up camp, but are really all out in the sand. We also took a camal ride out into the sand dunes and were able to see a beautiful desert sunset. Also, we got to wear badass turbans. As you can see, they are extremely stylish. Apologies to Lukas for picking a picture that has him not looking at the camera.

The desert safari was too short - only a couple hours - but the sunset over the dunes was unfathomably gorgeous. Also, riding camels is an experience in itself. The night was fun too - we played cards well into the night, and back at the camp we were served up a delicious dinner and treated to a traditional dance show by a couple of very entertaining cross-dressing dancers. There seems to be an occasional penchant in traditional Indian culture for having dudes dress up as exotic women. I'm not sure exactly what is behind it. This reminds me of the way that in Shakespearean times, female parts were performed by men, but that certainly seems outdated for these days.

I will close with some facial hair and a nice group photo. This curious man, who we encountered in Jaisalmer, has the sort of moustache that most men with facial hair can only dream of.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Heat and the Cricket World Cup

Before I move on to giving you far too much detail about my travels in the northern part of India, I'm going to talk about a couple things that impact my life a little bit more directly as of right now.

The Weather
The nice thing about Indian weather is that it's predictable. I was a little surprised that the news never features the weather and that the paper simply includes a miniscule box listing the temperature, at least when I first got here. But for some reason in this tropical climate, they know almost exactly what's going to happen. From July to September/October it's going to rain 2 or 3 times a day, from October to February there will be no clouds or precipitation, and the temperature should hover around a pleasant 70 degrees during the day, and from March to June it will again be dry and cloudless, but the temperature will hover from a decidedly less pleasant 95 to 115 degrees.

The first two seasons were very comfortable for me. When it wasn't raining during monsoon season, it was very hot, but it was raining like 80% of the time, so that wasn't a problem. And of course, there's nothing wrong with clear skies and 70 degree temperatures every day. Perfect for playing soccer or just wandering outside. This season is awful, and I don't think anybody who has ever lived in India, including the completely acclimated actual Indians, would argue with this. None of my friends like this any more than I do, but the difference between me and them is that they are at least mentally and physically prepared for the heat. I don't do all that well in the heat. I always go back and forth on whether I hate extreme cold or extreme heat more, and having experienced both within three days of each other (I climbed a mountain in a blizzard on the North Tour, so that's where I got my cold fix), I can unmistakably say that I hate heat more. See when you're cold, there's a lot you can do to warm yourself up - hot food, warm clothes, a cup of tea. When you're hot, there's a limit.

I've had a really nice run of it ever since I came back from America in November, and actually just since I've gotten back from the North Tour I've begun to appreciate India as a whole more than I ever have before. But I have two months left, and I am pretty sure that they are going to handily be the worst of my exchange. The thing is, it's just too hot to go out. In India, I'm mostly an afternoon socializer. That's just the way things are done here - the culture is very family-based, and the evening is really the only time in the day where you can see your family. This is true in the US too, but there's less importance placed on it. The problem is that you really can't go out in the afternoons all that much anymore. The streets have become noticeably quieter throughout the whole day because people just don't venture out anymore.

So yeah. It's too hot, and that was really all that I was trying to say.

The ICC Cricket World Cup
Ever since I got here, I've harbored resentment towards cricket for three reasons, all silly. 1) I didn't understand it. 2) It takes forever. 3) In the world of hitting balls with bats, it stands in direct opposition to baseball, the greatest sport on the planet.

But I like sports a lot, and I sure do miss the March Madness right now, and I've been craving something to get emotionally involved in and to provide excitement. So I turned to the Cricket World Cup, under the obsessive guidance of my new host father. The Cricket World Cup, like the FIFA World Cup, happens every 4 years, and this year it is hosted by India. Not only that, India is probably the leading favorite to win. So it's a terrific year to be a cricket fan in India.

Cricket isn't bad at all. You just have to take the time to understand it. It is, undoubtedly, extremely long - the games in the World Cup are a bit shorter than usual, and they usually last about 8 hours. But if you're entertained by it, this is 8 hours of entertainment. This is the argument I've been making for years to people who complain that baseball is too long. Cricket is a game of long, grand strategy. It's much more complicated than I gave it credit for earlier. The captain of the teams, who takes on the equivalent role to a baseball manager, must be a very clever strategist. It can also be very exciting - it's kind of a slow burn, but if you get a tight match at the end, all of the time that you've spent watching before pays off. Imagine - bottom of the ninth, two outs, bases loaded, 3-2 count, down by 3 runs. Sometimes the anticipation in cricket can be that exciting.

The basic problem with cricket remains that it is constructed in what can be a numbingly simple way. One teams bats for three and a half hours. Then the other team bats for three and a half hours. I much prefer the back and forth possessions of pretty much every other sport. But cricket has proved to be one of the most diverting pieces of entertainment that India has to offer. The knockout stages of the tournament will be very helpful in keeping me occupied through these difficult summer months.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A bit about Uttarayan

Uttarayan is the kite festival that is apparently featured in the book The Kite Runner, which I haven't read, but some of you may have. It involves spending the entire day flying kites. It was awesome. All of the Indian festivals that I have experienced have been major highlights, and Uttarayan was no exception.

It takes place in January, which gives you an idea of how absurdly behind I am. Also, I don't have any pictures, which is only kind of my fault. I took lots of pictures, but then I made the foolish decision of loaning my kite-photos-laden memory card to a friend, and when I got it back all of the kites pictures were gone. Lesson to be learned - your memory card is YOUR memory card.

For this I went back to my first host family - my second one was taking a trip at this time. This is good, because my first host family lives in a packed, kind of old-school part of town - perfect for festivals. Also it was good to see them again. Uttarayan is on a Friday, but the kite flying had already started on Thursday, albeit not in full swing yet.

Here's what the main objective is on Uttarayan. Kill the other kites. Seriously. It becomes an awesomely fun competitive sport. This is hardcore kite flying. Let's just start with the string. They make a special kind of string with small bits of glass intertwined with the actual string, the better to slice off someone else's string. It's savage. This is how I spent the better part of two straight days - up on the roof, flying kites, trying to destroy as many other kites as I could. Now the thing about kite flying is that it is an activity that I seldom, no, never engage in when I'm in the U.S. So I pretty much sucked at all of this, which I have no problem with. It takes the Indians some years to learn the trade too, and this was my first one. I still managed to take down a handful over the course of my career. And it was super fun anyways, the atmosphere is infectious. The dads get into it too, and it's hilarious to watch grown men drop everything and try to slay each other's kites. The houses are all packed together, so we're all up on the roof shouting across the roads at each other. Very fun.

A fact that is of sad interest is that 70,000 birds were killed by garroting themselves on the deadly wires during the festival. Worse, a woman was driving her motorcycle and a downed string caught her across the throat and killed her. These are sad blemishes on a wonderful day.

There is a certain amount of moral ambiguity, environmentally speaking, to a lot of these festivals. Diwali, which I regarded with unadulterated adoration, cannot be good for the air pollution, what with millions of fireworks being shot off. And as a bit of an environmental enthusiast, it's hard for me to rationalize this. But it's their culture, and an extremely fun one at that, and since there's nothing I can do about it, especially as an outsider, I chose to just have as much fun as I could. Good decision, I think.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Allepey, Goa

Today marks the day when your laziest blogger (relative to his covering-of-everything ambitions) finishes writing about the South Tour, which, incidentally has been done for almost three months. Why am I so bullishly insistent on covering everything in this detail? I've discovered that I really like this travel writing. And what with the onslaught of 95-110 degree heat, I'm going to become a bit more of a shut-in than I have before, so I will hopefully catch myself up with reasonable speed.
Alleppey is Kerala exactly as I imagined it from Arundhati Roy's wonderful book The God of Small Things. We arrived at our hotel after a hellishly long bus ride in which we made a misguided stop at low-quality Subway that made everyone sick except me and got lost multiple times. It's a horrific tragedy that this particular Subway establishment is giving a bad name to what is, generally speaking, a top-notch chain that provides a plethora of sandwiches both delicious and nutricious.
We spent less than 24 hours at this place - we woke up fairly early and took a morning cruise around the backwater canals of the area. Canals is what they claimed to be, but they really seemed more like decisive rivers. If a great picture can speak a thousand words, mine can probably only account for a few hundred, but that would still save me from writing lengthy descriptive paragraphs about the climate and ecosystem of the area. Frankly, there's not all that much to say.
Goa is among the most popular tourist destinations in the whole of Asia. It is India's smallest state, and among the smallest in population. I've never been much of a sun-and-sand traveling, but Goa is home to some eye-poppingly appealing beaches. The one below isn't one of the most swimmable ( I photographed it from a cliff that was nowhere near the more touristy beach zone), but it's no less beautiful.

We were staying at a resort that extended down on to the beach, and this was a terrific beach. Packed with people, but not too many people. The sand was beautiful, the water from the Arabian Sea was amazing. There were a bevy of activities to take part in beyond the tanning and swimming - we went on jet-ski rides through the rough waves, we got cheap but awesome two-week tattoos, and we went parasailing, which I loved. Beachside restaurants are all over the place, and sometimes they send waiters out to wherever you are sitting so you don't have to get up. Our first day was pretty much a beach day, and a nice one at that.

Day 2 was spent sightseeing. Most of the day was spent driving, frankly, but we did get to see the very beautiful Basilica of Bom Jesus, which is an extremely beautiful basilica in it's own right, but is most famous for housing the remains of Saint Francis Xavier, famous for his pioneering missionary work in Asia. Xavier's remains are, apparently, exceedingly well-preserved for some reason (cited as holy influence, I think), and every 10 years his body is taken out for public viewing. The next one is 2014. It's supposed to be an extremely big deal.

Day three was spent with the morning at the beach and the afternoon at the biggest flea market you've ever seen. It stretched for over a kilometer, just a gigantic, sprawling mess of shops selling things that were generally more traditional Indian than the things I usually find at home. The shopkeepers, based on their dress and behavior, did not seem to be all that prosperous. They weren't trying to sell any electronics or anything very modern, the pace was lightning-fast and the haggling was extreme.

I made an observation here that somewhat helped me to progress in my understanding India. I thought to myself "these are very desi Indians (desi means kind of proper, traditional Indian), but why are they like this in a tourist place and less so in my own city, which is not a tourist place?" The thing is, this kind of wild, zany India is fading. Modern India, the one I live in, is an India that, dichotomously, can still be backwards, poor, and undeveloped, and can also be hurtling headlong into new technologies and ideas of the globalizing world. THIS is the real India today. The other kind of traditional India is fading. People don't really live like that anymore. It's a show for the tourists, as part of their economy. And I have to admit, I loved it. It was a total blast. I kind of feel like this kind of India is either fading, or was a foreigner's myth to begin with.

Well, then we went home. Then there was Christmas, which I discussed several posts ago. In January, there was another festival, and it was extremely awesome. That's what I'll talk about next.

I'd just like to conclude with this goofy little sign at the Basilica. India is perhaps the only country in the world where it is deemed necessary to inform people that there are certain places where you shouldn't explode things.