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.

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