Saturday, February 04, 2006

Poopipatti and Godgay

Sorry to burden you again with my ponderings, but as I sit here they are dripping water all over the floor and doing some sort of mopping exercise. That's impressive unto itself. A clean surface will result.

Clean surfaces are hard to come by. When they serve you a thali, they wet the table and squeegee the whole thing. Then they place a banana leaf in front of you. They bring a pitcher of water and pour it over your banana leaf, expecting you to smear it around with your hand to clean the surface. However, if you are a hypochondriacal American, you freak out when the water starts to be poured on your leaf, so Bethany reaches into her backpack and pulls out a bandana to dry the leaf. (She is the most prepared person on the subcontinent. What would I have done without her thermometer or Metamucil or Febreze?). Then they scoop a lump of white rice onto the banana leaf and walk around with a scruffy metal contraption to scoop dal and paneer and sambar onto your rice. You should have washed your right hand by now because that is your utensil to smash the curries into the rice and scoop the concoction into your mouth, keeping your fingers out of your mouth. Try it at home. It can be a challenge. When you want to be served no additional lumps of rice or puddles of curries, you fold your banana leaf and they bring you a small paper napkin.

The food has been tantalizing. While many of the restaurants look unhygienic to my bacteria-seeking American eyes, some of the best masalas have come from drab open air dining establishments. Actually, my last Indian Airlines flight served a tastly channa masala. The doughy samosa wasn't remarkable, but the airline-prepared gulab jamin were actually better than those at the wedding. After visiting the spice farm near Munnar, I bought a new supply of ground cardamom, cumin, pungent asofeotida, vanilla beans, soft brown tongue-numbing cloves, premixed garam masala, whole nutmeg and cinnamon bark. The Wolf range will be spitting out some ghee-drenched culinary delights soon.

I spent the last two days on a shopping and wandering pilgrimage in Chennai. With seven million residents, it's the largest Indian city I had the chance to experience. My oasis of a hotel had a high wall shielding it from the massive river behind the building. On my walk this morning I discovered why. The river is black. Pure stagnant putrid sewage. The banks of the river are stacked with rubbish: paper and plastic. Small aluminum and straw shanties are built atop the trash by those who dwell in the river.

Most of what I saw was surprisingly clean and orderly for an Indian city. Although one is hard-pressed to find a sidewalk along the busy six-lane Anna Salai Road in the heart of the city, Chennai has a number of traffic signals and generally drivers seem to respect them. I found some architectural gems that reflected the city's past but accidentally wandered into a ghetto. When the goats started following me, I realized it was time to retrace my steps back to the main street. I passed a couple of brand new buildings. Buildings less than one year old look brand new. Buildings that have stood for one year or more look just like the buildings that have been here for 20 or 40 or 80 years. Maintenance seems to be a challenge.

Chennai was a big change from Madurai and Turichipally. We hired a driver for the ride across the south and weaved, jerked and honked our way through some of the oddest sites I'd ever seen. We passed Godgay. We passed Poopipatti. I would hate to be a resident of Poopipatti. We passed a whole bunch of something-a-pattis and rice paddies and oxen and people bathing in rivers and colorful temples drawing pilgrims from across India. We went to some of those temples. Shoeless, I was blessed by the temple elephant in Madurai, who put his trunk on my head. We walked to the top of the Rock Fort temple in Tiruchipally. On the journey up, I decided to take advantage of the toilet at the halfway point. Only problem: I was barefoot. Using an Indian toilet is unpleasant enough. Walking barefoot across the urine of countless pilgrims who peed before me resulted in an evening foot scrubbing.

So now I sit in the Mumbai airport once again, ready to begin my final three flights. I just got off a 40-year old Indian Airlines A-300 with flight attendants wearing creamy saffron saris and am waiting to get back in that Austrian Airlines clown car, filled with those stern blond women wearing bright crimson suits. It's early in the day Saturday in the US; it's late at night here. But I'll be home tomorrow afternoon, which will require about 20 hours of flight time remaining plus some transfer time. Good thing for Ativan.

India is incredible. As chaotic and shabby as it is, everything is a miraculous photograph. My digital photos will not have done this trip justice. As pushy as people are in markets and stores, it's not a threatening place: people are kind and do the bobblehead thing a lot. And as overwhelming as the poverty and the begging is --particularly children and people with disabling conditions (leprosy, deformity) -- it makes for an amazing patchwork. It's a nice reminder of how fortunate I am to have the life I lead.

Okay. Enough reflective sentimental crap.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Holy cow

I just had a couple of shirts made for a few bucks each. It looks like you get what you pay for. I suppose if I wear them to Bakersfield, no one will know the difference. When I went to pick them up, a bit of a brawl erupted and one person told me to get the police and someone else just told me all of the tailors were drunk and boisterous and I should return tomorrow. So I got my new shirts, but my original is still locked up at the market. I walked back to the hotel, passing a parade of elephants and camels decked out in lights and dozens of people wheeling a sculpture of Menakshee through the urine-filled street. We are in Madurai, home of a remarkable temple which draws thousands of poor religious pilgrims each day, but is an otherwise chaotic and dirty Indian city with dead rats in the street and many people begging. Abigail became a little overwhelmed in the market, with langka-clad men shoving scarves in her face. She was ready to smash everyone to bits. I think she would prefer a Wal-Mart at this point, where they keep out of your business. Meanwhile I was hitting my stride, aggressively bargaining and finding it very enjoyable.

Of course this is a far cry from our surroundings last week. We left Goa with a massage at the Taj Fort Aguada Resort. It was a wonderful deep tissue Indian massage. My masseuse focused a lot of attention on my butt and inner thighs... more than the usual massage. It was followed by a very awkward shower. The yellow-toothed old man who gave me this massage told me that he would apply soap to me in the shower. So I took a shower and he applied soap -- everywhere -- twice. Interesting. I thought at first I got special treatment, but prodded Bethany's stepfather Stan into confessing that his massage was almost as thorough. I guess I now really understand what a deep tissue Indian massage is.

Forests of coconut palms, zillions of people, rice paddies, banana trees, dogs and cows were the scenery along our drive to the Margao train station. From there we set off on an all-night train ride in third class AC sleeper. If you had seen my face when I boarded the train, I suspect I looked worried. I don't think most of you would have liked it much either. After fighting off begging children and fleabag dogs on the platform, a crusty hand painted train pulled up an hour late. People hanging out of the doors and dim lights inside made me wonder what I was in for, but it was passable. Kind of like army barracks stacked three high with no privacy, shifting around on tracks for 14 hours. I slept on a top bunk, but mostly enjoyed my time hanging out of the side of the train in the regular open air sleeper cars where I chatted with some interesting local passengers and snapped some great photos. Bethany and Abigail did a better job of sleeping. In the morning the people who worked on the train were spending a lot of time folding sheets near where we were sitting and smelled so horrible! This country needs some serious Febreze action.

The train took us to Ernarkulam and from there we took a rickshaw to Willingdon Island where we stayed. The entire Island is like the Port of Oakland -- not exactly prime real estate. After arguing with some sleazy rickshaw drivers who convinced us the ferry to Fort Cochin wasn't operating due to the National Holiday, we overpaid for a trip to town. Giant Chinese fishing nets, freshly grilled fish, old fort walls and blowing leaves provided a nice setting for our afternoon. We suffered through a boring Kathakali show with a bunch of white people in the audience, escaping a bit early for a perfect dinner. Jew Town is where we wandered the next day. Lots of town. Not so many Jews. The mix of swastikas and stars of David make for a surreal picture. The spice trading shops line narrow streets where the smells of ginger and cardamom mingle with freshly dropped cow dung.

Then it became family travel time. But I wasn't traveling with my family. No. It was Bethany's mom and cousin and stepfather and aunt and uncle and cousin's friend. "It is a called a Rubber Tree," said the driver. Edy: "What?" Linda: "It's a rubber tree?" Norma:"It's a rubber tree." Eleanor: "Norma said it's a rubber tree." Eric: "What kind of tree is is?" Stan: "Rubber" Joey: "It's a rubber tree, dammit and they've said it a zillion times so just listen carefully to the guy with the thick Indian accent the first time!!!" Okay, I didn't actually say that, but I thought it. Perhaps if it had been my own relatives, I would have said it. But I tried to be on good behavior for Bethany's relatives.

We spent the next three days together. One of the days dropping by a mattress factory, which I personally thought was pretty weird. The relatives wanted to see the local coconut shell products but I think they finagled us into the wrong factory, where we saw a giant machine froth coconut shell twine into spongy stuff that was sprayed with latex. Hooray!

One of the days was cruising the backwaters on a houseboat, looking at people as if they were animals in a zoo. It was remarkable trip, but odd to watch people wash their clothes, brush their teeth, bathe and gather drinking water from the canals into which our boat was spewing gasoline. Sleeping was unpleasant because the room was 90 degrees (Bethany's mom, Norma, insisted hers was 110 degrees). It is also unpleasant being surrounded by a mosquito net with two naked sweating women lying in their own mosquito net bed next to you in that temperature. But that's another story.

And one of the days was spent seeing a spice plantation and arriving at the Periyar Tiger Sanctuary. We stayed in a maharajah's palace there and ditched the relatives the next day. We saw no tigers. We desperately wanted to see elephants and took three boring lake cruises seeking elephants, finally seeing elephants from our rickshaw on the way to our nighttime trek. That was a three hour walk in the dark with a man with a rifle, seeing deer and a porcupine. Whatever. We saw otters and boars and bison and lots of monkeys from the boat. And cows.

I still find the cows puzzling. They behave just like the dogs. The dogs lie in the middle of the street and so do the cows. Some cows look normal, but others are terribly misshapen due to car accidents and disease. Apparently many of them eat plastic bags and bottles, leading to a slow and painful demise. Some cows seem very comfortable standing the middle of traffic, but others seem to try to blend in with their surroundings. I saw a cow standing in the middle of dozens of motor scooters, trying to look like a Suzuki rather than a big brown bovine.

I have avoided being kidnapped and castrated by hijeras. We saw a group of these sari-wearing transgendereds and eunuchs who were waving and smiling at me. I think they wanted me but my sturdy lesbian travel mates protected me.

So now I'm tired and going to bed in our ever-so-lovely hotel, complete with aluminum foil wrapped around the extra bed. This hotel has toilet paper, however, and that's a good thing because it means the floor will stay dry, finally.

Sorry to bore you with all of this chatter. To be honest, I think I'm getting a travel bug and will not really be ready to head home. At least I haven't gotten any other bugs yet. Knocking wood.
About Me | Contact Me | 2007 Joey Goldman