Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Closing Thoughts

16 & 17 September 2006

I half-slept through the nine hours on the Amristar-Delhi express bus. For the first half of the trip, this huge sikh wearing an orange turban kept shouting “Dilli dilli dilli dilli!” at people along the way, trying to pick up more passengers. When he found someone who wanted to hitch a ride, he’d come and shove me aside (I was half-asleep, slumped over against the seat in front of me) to make room for the new guy. Eventually this all calmed down, and it got to the point that I could stretch out on the whole seat. I was repeatedly awoken by sudden stops, which tossed me onto the floor. I really have no idea how much sleep I got, but I’m sure it wasn’t more than an hour.

At one of the pit stops, some friendly college students bought me some food. Cool guys. They were interested in what I was studying, and unsurprisingly they were all engineering students.

When I arrived in Delhi, I found a rickshaw and went back to the trusty old Anoop Hotel. It must have been 4:30 or 5 in the morning. They asked me when I was going to check out, and I said “in about 6 hours.” They were perplexed, but more than happy to take my money. I had some breakfast and took a shower, and then napped fitfully until about noon. I was too stressed to sleep, largely because of a text message my mother sent me saying that Delta had pushed up my flight to depart three hours earlier. My ticket back to Bombay wouldn’t get me there until four hours before I was supposed to be on the plane out of the city. Oh fuck.

Unable to get to sleep, I commenced a high-speed dash across Asia. I took one last autorickshaw, and of course the obligatory scam attempt happened. I made the mistake of telling him when my flight left as part of an explanation of how I was going to the airport to talk to Delta about my rebooking. Of course he had a friend who ran a nice little boutique at a mall nearby, and I could just look for five minutes. He was sure that I could. I tried my damnedest to explain how I had to be at the airport now, not in an hour, but he wouldn’t budge. Finally the fact that these guys don’t run the meter worked to my advantage. If he stopped before we reached the airport, I said, I would get out and refuse to pay him anything. I admit that I was in a bad mood, and it was sort of cruel, but there was something so satisfying about how quickly and completely he dropped his line of bullshit.

At the airport I bought a copy of The Economist. Inside, there was a story about India, with the obligatory map. And on that map, as I sure was the case for the equivalent map in every copy of the magazine in the country, was a stamp that said “THE EXTERNAL BORDERS OF INDIA AS DRAWN ARE NEITHER ACCURATE NOR VERIFIED.” Because God forbid people think that the boundaries of India are contested in a little place called Kashmir.

Quite amazingly, my SpiceJet flight to Bombay was early. As I was entering Bombay the sun went down on my trip to India, and it was a damned good one. Check out those clouds.

Because of the early flight I ended up with an extra 30 minutes to sprint to my apartment and pick up my stuff. I even got a chance to shower, and eat a Frankie. They’re like the rolls I had in Calcutta, only Bombay-style and not quite as good. Still, delicious. Plus I drank a Thums Up. Thums Up tastes just like Coke, and the story I heard is that the founder worked as the main bottler for Coca-Cola in India, then quit to start his own company and stole the formula.

So I made it to the airport, with over an hour to spare. After being redirected through several lines, I finally talked to a guy who said that wait, I didn’t need to immediately jump on a plane to Singappore and make a 15-minute connection from there to Seoul at all. I could go through France. And it didn’t leave for another two hours! Hurray! Frustrated and exhausted I was, but I was damned glad to have made my connection.

My trip home was long as hell, but I actually slept quite well on the first leg. In Paris, I invaded the kids zone and got to play Nintendo with some little French boy. He sucked. And I mean that in the sense that we were playing soccer on the same team, and I had to keep him from scoring own goals.

I couldn’t sleep on the second leg, which was an epic, 13-hour flight directly from Paris to San Francisco. Airplanes don’t fly in straight lines as represented on maps, and in fact don’t even fly in what looks like a straight line on a globe. They take the geodesic, which is a curved path that takes the least amount of time. That means that we more or less went over the North Pole. I got to see Greenland for the first time:

Cool stuff. I was sitting next to a French guy named Guillam, who was flying for the very first time. He was going into an English language program in San Francisco. Not even home yet, I already got a chance to make use of what I’d learned in India. Everyone in India, with the exception of those seeking a direct profit from me, was an incredibly gracious host, and I did my best to help Guillam out. He was very nervous about his English, but I kept up a conversation with him at an appropriate level, and even taught him a few words. I also helped prepare him for what he’d be exposed to in the city, and gave him my contact information so that he could reach me if he needed help. For his part, he told a few raunchy jokes that somehow survived translation, and transferred a bunch of rock music in French onto my USB key.

On arriving back in the US, I had a double cheeseburger at In N Out, drank a huge glass of milk, and crashed at my cousin Peter’s house, where I slept like the dead for fifteen hours.

So this is it. The 64th and final entry in my online journal for this summer. I’d like to thank anybody who read this thing for taking the time, and I encourage you to post comments here about anything you read – they’ll get emailed to me automatically. Special thanks go to Peter and Mary (yes, the same Peter) for suggesting I do this. It’s been an invaluable exercise for me just to practice writing. Moreover, it was a great way for me to process and think about everything that I saw and learned and did and had done to me.

I’m going to do a little more of that right now. “Reality Speaks” was the bookend to my stay in Bombay and my internship. These, on the other hand, are my conclusions about the entire summer and India as a whole.

First, the things I left out. Too many to count, but here’s a highlight reel:

- The amazing signs on the way up to Darjeeling. Tragically, my camera ran out of batteries on the way up, and then on the way down we took a different road and I didn’t see them again. Some were to the point: “Make today an accident-free day”, but one was a true classic: “Donate blood at the hospital, not on the road.” I will regret not taking a picture of that one until the day I die.

- Speaking of Darjeeling, there was this total Ron Jeremy lookalike who somehow ended up everywhere we went, including the flight up and back, the mountaineering institute, and even Tiger Hill. He actually spoke to me then, pointing out the wrong mountain and telling me that some local guy said that was Kamchenjenga. I’m glad I saw the real thing, because the one he was pointing at was the most disappointing imaginable candidate for the World’s Third-Tallest Mountain. For starters, it was visibly shorter than surrounding peaks.

- The kids I played soccer with, and their beautiful school. One of the first times I played soccer, it was with these kids from the local park. The boldest one talked to me at great length, only I knew about three words in Hindi, and he knew just as many in English: “my”, “beautiful”, and “school”. He kept pointing south and saying “My school,” meanwhile calling it, my soccer ball, the ocean, India, and America “beautiful”. They were all cool kids. We went swimming together after the game.

- My last day in Bombay, I finally beat the cab drivers at their own game. For weeks I had been biding my time, waiting for a mistake. They would always offer some (high) fare for a trip to a given destination, in the hopes of not using the meter. Then this guy offered 50 rupees to take me to Chowpatty, and I knew I had won. After we were a quarter of the way there, he tried to renege, since he realized that he was the one losing out. “Hell no”, I informed him, “50 rupees to Chowpatty – you said it, not me.” In the end, the traffic was lighter than usual and 50 was probably about what the meter would have said, but it’s the moral victory that counts here.

- The elephants and Deepika. All summer, she and I had a running joke about my dream of riding an elephant. Although I succeeded, it was a pyrrhic victory – I didn’t get to go to a wildlife park. Sorry, Deepika. I failed.

There are so many more, but those are the best ones. This was a strangely appropriate trip at a strangely appropriate time. I think what I said in “Reality Speaks” holds doubly for my whole trip: being here has caused me to see the world in a different way that accentuates the coincidences. However, the coincidences are real, and have real causes. It was no chance event that the first-ever SIG fellowship in India was this year. This trip coincided with a flurry of stories in the media about India, and a generally greater focus on India’s potential, relationship with America, and strength as a rising democracy. In the broadest possible sense, India is rising. The stories in the media, the exceptional growth rate (projected at a sustainable 10%), the initiation of the fellowship I was on, and the nuclear deal with America are all reflections of this same phenomenon. India is also rising in a unique way: it is transitioning straight into a service-based information economy.

Economic theorists have been predicting this sort of event for decades, where a developing country skips the industrialization process in part or entirely. Many doubters of India’s prospects rest their case on the fact that there aren’t enough factories being built here, but they are misguided. Bombay drives the entire country’s economy, and no longer has any industry to speak of. In short, India is booming and I was there for the tipping point, when its potential converted into an unstoppable cascade. Your children will work for an Indian company. Get used to it.

On a smaller scale this summer was highly appropriate as well. Here’s a list of the major events that I was present for, often in close proximity to the action:

- Flooding panic during the first week of the monsoon. In 2005, hundreds drowned during heavy rains, and this year mild floods kept people at home include my coworkers.

- Religious/Marathi nationalist riots.

- June 11, 2006 Bombay Train Bombings – the second-deadliest terrorist attack in Indian history.

- The London plane plot, which, as many Americans are probably unaware, was organized in part by Britons of South Asian descent. This was big news in India, as was the following spate of racial profiling against anyone South Asian looking. A large group of Muslims from Bombay was detained and interrogated in Holland for acting suspicious, shortly after the plot was exposed.

- Globalization on trial, Indian style. The Indian equivalent of American IT workers complaining about job loss due to outsourcing. Massive protests by bank workers about the outsourcing of their job functions, which will cause job loss because Indian banks are ridiculously inefficient. Also, a huge upswelling of anger and protest toward American soda companies, which totally dominate the Indian market, for allegedly selling tainted sodas. Just as there’s no evidence that globalization is anything but good for everyone, there’s no evidence that the levels of pesticides in the sodas, which are lower than in Indian drinking water, could cause any harm.

- This last week, there was another terrorist attack, this time at a Muslim shrine. Many suspect that SIMI, the same Muslim terrorist group responsible for the Bombay attacks, was behind this one as well. I guess the idea is to stir up religious hatred.

I learned a lot this summer, and I went a good distance toward developing some sort of actual career path. One of my conclusions has already been stated: India is growing, in stature and in power, far faster than you can imagine, faster than people believe.

Here’s my last lesson from this summer. In the US right now, we are bogged down in two wars and slogging through an endless political fistfight over Islamist (as opposed to Islamic) terrorism. The underlying problem is the failure of secularism in the Muslim world, which in turn leads to radical leaders, failed states, the alienation of youth, social unrest, war and catastrophic terrorism. We as a society have decided that the solution to this problem lies in the Middle East, because that’s where people have always gone looking for it.

There is some validity to this approach. The base of Muslim power and the center of the Muslim religion are both located in that region. However, what we want, and what the world needs, is a secularization process throughout the world, for all Muslims. I would have you recall that the secularization of Christendom did not start in Christianity’s power base in Rome, nor in its birthplace in Jerusalem. Martin Luther came from a small kingdom in a region of the Holy Roman Empire known as “Germany”, which wasn’t even a country at that point. There was nothing central about Germany, and a priori one would not expect a Reformation to start there and spread across the globe. But it did. It doesn’t really matter where a liberalizing ideology starts, because such ideas are infectious and powerful in their own right. The idea that all men, rich or poor, should be equal before God (and later the State) just sounds right. The idea that kings should be free to choose their own state’s religious affiliation (and later that people should do the same for themselves) has an undeniable appeal.

But Martin Luther had to have a protector, and he got one in the Elector of Saxony. Dozens of failed attempts at secularization across Europe had been quelled by the power of the Church, because no one would stand up for good ideas.

Islam has the seeds of its secularization, growing right now in fertile soil. Surprisingly, this revolution is not happening in the wildly rich and yet dogmatic kingdom of Dubai, nor among the educated and still shockingly fundamentalist Muslim elite of Western Europe. It is certainly not happening in Iraq or Palestine. The revolution is beginning, right now, in India. It is starting in parts of Pakistan, and throughout South Asia. Despite all the terrorism and angst and fear and inequality, secularism works in India. There are more Muslims in India than in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Afghanistan combined. There are in fact more Muslims in India than in any other country besides Indonesia, and given the stunning growth rate of India’s Muslims, that may change in my lifetime.

It is not only government secularism that works in India, it is the idea of secularism, the widespread friendship between people of different religious groups. And it is part of a cosmopolitan culture that is spreading beyond its borders. The most popular actor in Pakistan is Shah Rukh Khan, an Indian, who happens to be a Muslim, yet is nevertheless married to a Hindu and plays a Hindu in many movies. This is the greatest hope for India, and the one in which it needs the most help: it can bring peace between Muslims and the modern world. Its Muslims can secularize, and even speak out in the press about secular values.

We are fighting in the wrong place. The clash of civilizations, if you want to call it that, will be won or lost in India.

Monday, October 02, 2006

Nationalist Fervor

15 September 2006

Indians have a lot to be proud of. The things I’ve seen on this trip constitute just a few examples – their society created the world’s most beautiful building, they are the leading example of a country achieving independence through nonviolent revolution, and their homeland gave birth to three of the world’s largest religions. Their country is also incredibly diverse, in fascinating ways. In the US we’re proud to be a very diverse and accepting nation (well, at least some of us are), but India totally puts us to shame in this category. They speak over 800 languages and worshp allegedly as many as 300 million gods. The intensity of this diversity is amplified by the size of the place – you don’t have to go very far here for everything to change drastically.

Take Amritsar, for example. On the train up here, I noticed that about half the people were Sikhs. Once I arrived, that number jumped to around 95%. Also, the city is full of soft-serve ice cream.

I hadn’t seen a place selling soft-serve in the whole country. Frankly, I only know of one place where you can get it in America. I was quite pleased.

Soft-serve, the first and most important meal of the day.

After getting my soft-serve fix (sadly, no chocolate), I went back to check out the Golden Temple, a.k.a. the Harimandir Sahib, by daylight.

I think it loses a little something – the way it shines at night is pretty stunning. Still, this is one of the most amazing buildings

The tank it sits on is huge. There’s probably a whole ecosystem living inside it - I didn’t see anybody feeding the fish, and they've got to eat something.

Like I mentioned, you need to cover your head to enter the immediate surrounds of the temple. I found out that they sell these snazzy orange bandanas that say Golden Temple on them, so I threw down the fifteen rupees.

I made a friend while walking along the edge of the pool, and he took my picture. I actually got to talk with a bunch of curious people, and one kid went on at length about how much he likes wrestling. “Do you watch wrestling? WWF? WCW?” he asked. I admitted that I was somewhat fond of The Rock. Apparently, wrestling is huge in India, and they’re really into American stuff. This is doubly interesting because I’m sure this kid didn’t care one bit about American movies – they just don’t sell here.

Yeah, that dude is carrying a spear. The Sikhs are pretty militant, and they all practice martial arts and carry weapons. For whatever reason, they’ve had to spend their whole five-century history fighting against extermination. I can’t find anything to dislike about the religion, but everybody from the Moguls to the British had a problem with it. I learned all about the violent history of Sikhism in the small Museum of Martyrs they have at the temple. They didn’t allow pictures, but you wouldn’t want to see them anyway. Most of it is paintings of brutal murders by and deaths of various Sikhs throughout myriad wars and uprisings. As recently as 1984, the Indian government attacked the temple to root out Sikh extremists there.

I decided not to go into the actual temple itself after doing some mental math and figuring it was an hour’s wait in the hot sun. I had to run to the train station, anyway, to buy a ticket home. Unfortunately, they were sold out, but I did see this sign that made it all worthwhile.

Use Dipper at Night: It’s not just a good idea, it’s the law. In case you were wondering, Wikipedia lists no definition of “dipper” for which this sign makes any sense whatsoever. It does, however, say that dipper is a slur for Punjabis in some parts of the world. And yes – Amritsar is in the state of Punjab.

I made a quick stop at this temple, known as Durgiana. The basic idea was about the same as the Golden Temple. In fact, the design was a total ripoff. However, the temple attendant actually invited me to take pictures of the idols here. Usually this is forbidden, or costs money, or both.

This is me and Durga, as photographed by the attendant. I had an interesting talk with him about his dream of one day visiting America. I’ve never been to most of the places he wants to go to. I need to make my way over to Yellowstone at some point.

The other attraction within Amritsar is the Jalianwallah Bagh, site of the Amritsar Massacre, which is just one more reason to hate the British. It’s become something of a huge national symbol these days.

Jalianwallah Bagh is a square bracketed on all sides by buildings, and accessible only through this alley.

On April 13th, 1919, people were having a protest here and the local British leader, General Dyer, was sent to break it up. He massed his troops in front of the exit and then, allegedly interpreting a movement by the crowd as an imminent attack, told them to open fire. They kept shooting until they ran out of bullets. It was one of the worst massacres of civilians in the history of the world.

I found the place quite moving, especially the way the city had reclaimed the space. Somehow, despite the dark history and the monuments, it’s become a park where you can enjoy yourself with friends.

Dozens of people leapt into this well to escape the gunfire, dying on impact or drowning inside it.

There was a painting that depicted the massacre in a gallery showing first-hand accounts and portraits. That’s General Dyer’s face. Someone scratched it out, and I have a feeling that whoever’s in charge of this place decided to leave it that way permanently. Dyer was initially lauded as a hero of law and order, and the British government never formally reprimanded him. To this day, they have not apologized for what happened.

Bullet holes.

After visiting the massacre memorial, I realized I hadn’t eaten all day. So I hit up the free food back at the Golden Temple. They have guys that cook lentils and chapattis, all day and all night, year-round. You grab a plate and then take a seat in this huge room, sitting in a line with all the other people who are eating, and a dude comes by and dumps food on your plate. It’s awesome. The founder of the faith believed in the equality of all people, and sitting on the ground next to the richest and poorest folks in the temple is a pretty good equalizer. Plus, free food is free food – everybody can agree on it.

You need to wash your feet to enter the Golden Temple, and having a tap for that would take way too long – imagine the lines! Witness the brilliant engineering solution:

Quite soothing on the feet, as well.

At about 4 PM I hopped in a jeep and made for Pakistan. Amritsar is the closest city to Wagah, which is the only open border crossing between the rival nations. Wagah is also the location of the most fantastic, chilling display of national fervor and chest-beating you’ll ever see. Every day a huge crowd lines up to get a seat with a decent view of the closing of the border at sundown.

Check out the Roman Legionary hat on that guy. Lots of the soldiers were wearing those, and they all had lifts in their shoes. They’re dead serious about this stuff, too.

That's the Pakistani side. Note the gender segregation and ethnic purity.

I took a few videos of the border closing performance, highlighting the chants, flag-waving and songs, and also getting some shots of the Pakistani side. Here are the links to them:

Border Movie #1

Border Movie #2

Border Movie #3

Border Movie #4

Border Movie #5

Notice how the Indian and Pakistani flags come down at exactly the same time. No coincidence, I assure you.

The flag makes the trip back into the guard shack. Once again, notice the hats. On the way back to town, I was silently contemplating how dangerous this sort of macho posturing was, and one of the Indians in my jeep noticed the crumpled Indian flag I had bought for roughly 20 cents. He instantly got all indignant about my treatment of the flag (which I hadn’t intended to crumple, mind you) and I realized how powerful the nationalist fervor really was here. These people watching the border closing didn’t just love their country, they hated those who didn’t love it enough, especially Pakistanis. In a way I’m glad I unthinkingly shoved the flag in my pocket and that guy noticed; there’s no way I would have known how seriously he took this crap otherwise.

After getting back from Wagah, I had to haul ass for the bus station. This is the free room I was staying in, right before I left it.

Remember how I couldn’t get a train ticket? Well, as a result I got to take a nine-hour, overnight bus back to Delhi. It was awesome. The door was open the entire time.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Finding Inspiration

14 September 2006

India is a rising destination for Europeans, especially the Germans that form a sort of permanent adolescent class that goes to school and travels until its mid-thirties. They’ve literally swarmed the country – the only reason I didn’t encounter more of them was that with the exception of this last week I stayed out of tourist areas. Many of these kids come to India to have spiritual awakenings and realizations. I’m not into that kind of stuff, because I think it’s illusory, but I do believe in inspiration and this country has given me plenty. Today I got a chance to see a whole host of inspiring things firsthand, including stuff that I had been interested in since middle school.

Like I said, I’m not religious, but I did stop at the Baha’i temple. Kendall and Anita had told me not to bother going inside, because it’s pretty boring and you have to remain silent. It looks kind of like the Sydney Opera House, and it’s a pretty impressive green area. I also appreciated the inscriptions at the gate, which praised the unity of religions and mutual religious tolerance. Good stuff, that.

The India Gate. Like the Gateway of India, only smaller and not as good. It was built in honor of the Indian soldiers who died in order to keep Afghanistan part of the British Empire, and also the ones who died in World War I. I find it amazing that people would do such a thing for a country that despises and treads upon them. It sort of reminds me of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team.

Upon leaving the India Gate, I noticed that my camera’s batteries had run out again, so we had to make a pit stop to buy some. The rickshaw driver took me to a shop outside the site where Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi was murdered. I hadn’t planned on going here at all, but once we arrived I felt compelled to take a look around.

Gandhi’s last steps.

Seeing the spot where he died was too much for me, and I broke into tears. Mahatma Gandhi had spent the last days of his life on a hunger strike, vowing not to eat until partition violence between Hindus and Muslims stopped. So great was his moral authority that he reduced the death toll on the Bengali border by one hundred times when compared with the border to the west, despite the fact that Bengal was far more densely populated. Yet the violence did not stop entirely, and some Muslims fled to Delhi. Fearing for their lives, they hid inside the Jama Masjid. Hindus made preparations to raid the complex and slaughter its inhabitants, and Gandhi again went on a fast. He swore that he would not eat unto his own death if the Muslims of Delhi were harmed. They were spared.

For his efforts to save lives, he was shot in the chest by Nathuram Godse, a Hindu who blamed him for weakening India. Despite the moral illegitimacy of the ideas of this murderer, and Gandhi’s clear-cut record of saving lives, the belief that without Gandhi India would have been stronger or not have lost Pakistan lives on, and many despise him. For the life of me, I cannot see why.

I tried to get myself back together before this picture. I think the other people in the courtyard were really worried about me, so I did my best to regain control.

After recovering from that experience, I took a trip to the seat of Parliament, which is no longer open to the public. A couple of years ago (in 2003, I think) terrorists attacked Parliament in broad daylight, so now you can only look at it through this fence. It was here that I met Rený, a German who was doing the standard “visit India to find your soul” trip. He was a nice enough guy, and we ended up going together to see the Ashoka Pillar at the Feroze Shah Kotla.

Ashoka was a Hindu king who spent the first half of his reign whooping ass up and down the subcontinent. Then he went on a tour of the regions he had conquered and realized how horrible war is. He converted to Buddhism (or re-embraced its teachings, depending on who you ask) and dedicated the rest of his life to spreading justice and promoting non-violence. He put up these pillars in order to teach people to follow the middle path and not to kill each other. I learned about this guy in the 7th grade and I’ve wanted to see one of these things ever since.

It was pretty cool – it’s just missing the top, which looks like this. The circular thing below the lions is known as an Ashokan Wheel, and now appears in the middle of the Indian flag.

Rený and I stopped off at this bathing tank in the same complex, where the kids were totally pumped to do jumps on film, and made every effort to toss us in as well. I wish I could have joined in, but I didn’t have a change of clothes.

At about 4 I made my way to the train station to head north, toward Amritsar. This train left from New Delhi station, and I was fully capable of purchasing a ticket from the tourist desk there.

This guy is a Hindu priest, or sadhu, I believe. Looks like they take the luxury train, just like tourists such as myself.

The train ride was nice. I bought a translation of the works of Kafka for reading material, and I can now attest that the story Metamorphosis is far more disturbing than I could possibly have imagined. Kafka is one hell of a good writer, too.

Bathrooms on Indian trains are amazing. Basically, everything just goes out the bottom of the train onto the tracks. Observe:

Amritsar is a pretty awesome city. It’s totally dominated by the Golden Temple, the holiest site in the Sikh religion. The temple is open 24/7, and you can eat or sleep there free of charge. As a result, there are essentially no beggars in the city.

Here’s my first view of the Golden Temple. It’s pretty stunning to look at.

You have to cover your head to go inside, and if you can’t afford the headscarves they sell for 10 rupees apiece, you can use one of the ridiculous and disgusting ones from the public use bin.

The guards gave me the thumbs up on this little number.

I found the temple to be an amazing oasis of tranquility and peace, which is amazing considering what I came to learn about its history. I stayed in the free rooms for tourists in the place, sleeping on one of a dozen beds shoved together. My bedfellows were two Germans on a spiritual quest, who had heard that you could achieve a total mental realization by swimming in the waters of this temple. Or something. The woman was probably one and a half times the size of the guy, and they both sorta creeped me out. Also, the bed was as hard as a rock, and they don’t give you pillows. No blankets I was prepared for – none of the places I stayed at had anything in the way of blankets, whether they were free or cost upwards of $10/night. But a lack of pillows was surprising, in not inexplicable. I’m not sure how often they get to wash things at this place, but I’d imagine it’s a rare occurrence.

My life-long dream

13 September 2006

My day started with an amazing act of customer service. Back in Agra, I had spent two hours writing an application to be a coordinator for SIC, the NGO I went to Tanzania as a teacher for. I did a pretty decent job, but I managed to not attach the file to the email I sent, thus making the time I spent a total waste. I called the Sakura Hotel, where I had been using the computer, in the vain hope that they would be able to send me the file. Not only did they help me, but the owner got his computer tech to spend about an hour finding and forwarding me what I needed. All this without any hope of getting money out of the transaction. I got the file, and I guess it was pretty good – I’ll be considered as an applicant with the pool of volunteers that finish their stint in late November.

That emotional high note was countered by the tragic loss of Captain Kendall Madden, who had accompanied me for several days. It was under her guidance that I saw most of Jaipur – yesterday I decided that I had been making too many of the decisions, and gave her the reigns. I’d say that was probably the best day of my whole trip. Today was a close second, though.

After dropping her off at the bus station, I went on a quest to realize my life-long dream of getting naked in a tower. Here’s the convenient ramp up to the top, designed to accommodate disabled people in unicycle wheelchairs or something. Who knows. Whatever the intent was, it made slipping backwards a definite possibility.

Up at the top I came to appreciate just how ridiculously hot it was that day. I had been wearing long pants and a polo shirt as part of my third attempt to get an audience with the Maharaja, and something had to give.

Although complete nudity was not achieved, I did get substantially undressed. I also left in completely different clothes than I went up in, which I thought the guards would have noticed.

The view from on top. On the left is the City Palace’s living quarters, on the right is the museum area of the palace.

Tiger Fort. The place with the bitchin’ views of Jaipur.

Jaipur’s main drag. On the left side is the walled Pink City, on the right is new stuff. Unless it’s not. You can also make out that huge observatory on the left.

After I left the tower at about noon, I realized that if I wanted to leave town by three, I would have to haul serious ass around town to see stuff. I talked to the rickshaw driver who had taken me to the tower, and he said we could do everything in three hours, and he even gave me a pretty reasonable rate – 300 rupees for a journey that zigzagged across the city four times. We immediately hauled ass for Jaigarh fort.

On the way up, we stopped to look at the view. Well, actually we stopped because the hill was too steep and the guy needed to pour bottled water into the rickshaw’s radiator. But the view was also cool. This is the Floating Palace I was talking about.

Jaigarh fort has basically one thing in it: the world’s biggest cannon. Technically, there are bigger ones on boats now, but that’s stretching the definition of “cannon”. This is the biggest cannon on wheels, period.

A gracious tourist offered to take my picture in front of it. She then waited until the blinding sun forced me to shut my eyes. Notice the swastikas all over the end of the barrel.

You could see a hell of a lot from up there. In the background is one of the hilltop forts, and closer to the foreground you can see the elephant pool below Amber Fort.

And here’s Amber Fort itself. Pretty kickass, if you ask me.

On the way back, we stopped for gas and I saw the Floating Palace again.

I also touched this elephant. They’re incredibly smart and well-trained.

My other major objective was the Monkey Temple, actually many temples featuring an even greater number of monkeys. At the gateway to the temple, I saw this. Not only was this a snake charmer, but he even draped a snake on me and then demanded ten dollars! Holy tourist-trap awesomeness, Batman! At first I was afraid the thing would bite me, but then I reasoned that it had no hood, and therefore was a female and didn’t bite. Or something.

You can clearly see that its hood popped out once it was hanging from my neck. The guy reassured me, however – “No problem! Poison is out! Yes friend, poison is out!” I assume this means he took the thing to some sort of third-world snake doctor and had an operation performed. I found the guy less impressive than I had expected, actually. I had heard that there was some sort of technique of tapping one’s foot that causes the snakes to dance, but really all they did was come out of the basket once he took the lid off. However, the guy did seem very confident in handling the snakes, as well as in his fees.

The Monkey Temple is in a valley, and you have to walk up and then down a hill covered with monkeys to get there. I had no problem with that, since monkeys are inherently awesome. There was a guy selling monkey food at the entrance of the hill, and I decided to buy some. That food should probably come with instructions. I saw some monkeys I wanted to feed, so I took the plastic bag out and started to open it. One huge monkey saw what I was doing and decided it wasn’t in his interest to wait. He got within two feet of me and I decided to err on the side of not getting into a fistfight with a primate. I tossed him my bag of nuts and he took a seat and dug in.

There were hundreds, if not thousands of these monkeys on the hill. This is a pretty good shot of one of the babies.

The temple proper. The complex is made up of all sorts of Hindu temples, mostly to Hanuman, the god of monkeys. Or, at least, the monkey god. I don’t know what he’s in charge of. All the temples center around this pool:

The priests at the temple showed me around in Hindi. I have no idea what I saw, really. This guy’s picture was in a bunch of places.

I took some pictures of one of the idols, too, but they didn’t come out. I think maybe Hanuman was unhappy over my brief hesitation during the bag of nuts incident.

I didn’t get to go to the other temple on my list because of time constraints – I wanted to make the 3 PM bus, so that I could get on the 10:45 train from Delhi to the Corbett National Park. I did, however, have five minutes in which to shop at the stores immediately surrounding the bus station. I picked up a Rajasthan T-Shirt and the cheapest, shittiest pair of sunglasses I’ve ever owned.

Surprisingly, the bus back to Delhi was actually air-conditioned. I tried to sleep on it and failed miserably. I got to talk to this incredibly friendly guy in front of me, and discovered this whole new world of Indian networking. The people you sit next to on public transportation are suddenly your friends and colleagues. The guy even bought me lunch. Gautam Ostwal was his name. CEO of Elegant Drugs. I have his business card.

My sprint back to Delhi to make the train was useless, however, because it turned out that the train I wanted left from the Old Delhi train station. Even though I was traveling in the middle of the night, the streets of Old Delhi were filled with random dudes hauling their whole business somewhere on carts. The train station itself had almost no English speakers in it, and literally two signs with English writing, so there wasn’t any way for me to figure out how to buy a ticket. Despite making it to the station with twenty minutes to spare, I couldn’t buy a ticket or even figure out which platform the train left from.

I resigned myself to visiting Amritsar, instead, which turned out to be a great call.