Sunday, June 11, 2006

This will be my last post. Unfortunately - because I'm back in North America and my headspace is not conducive to a lengthy account of the past three weeks - it will not be up to par. In brief: I got trashed at the full-moon party on Koh Pangang , I spent an enjoyable couple days in Bangkok with my New Mexican friend Anand, I flew to the Philippines to visit my former colleague and friend David Da Silva who took wonderful care of me in Manila and finally a spent a great week on Thailand’s gorgeous Elephant Island or Koh Chang. The photos, as always, tell the story better anyways. Below I’ve included a brief passage I wrote comparing the Philippines to Thailand. Thanks for following me,

Jake

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Contrasting Countries

The contrasts between Ukraine and India were shocking. I went from + to - 30 degree whether in 6 hrs. From white skin to brown skin and from occidential to oriental. India's entreupreneurial enthusiasm for a future as an economic superpower was far from the disilussioned pessimism that the bad dream of an Orange Revolution had left many Ukrainians wallowing in as they battled omnipresent corruption. As a traveller, however, there were some similarities too: trains dominate domestic transportation in both countries, particularly the slow, overnight variety. Telecommunications have arrived with a bang as cellphones proliferate more quickly than TVs ever did and the past 10 years have brought startling changes in both nations.

Philippines and Thailand are surprisingly different as well. The variety, tastiness and affordability of food in Thailand is incredible. On any given corner in Bangkok one can find some delicious, fresh and cheap. In Manila, in contrast, the consensus on good affordable food leans towards the top three fastfood chains Jollybee, Chowking, and Greenwich on of which can also be found on most blocks. The national food tends to strike foreigners as greasy and unappetizing. Yet while most tourists have a hard time developing an ear for Thailand's music, with its original scales and tacky pop productions, the Philippines has perhaps the most vibrant independant music industry of any country its size. There are similarities, of course. Both countries have been overrun by 7-11s (its a joke in Bangkok when someone describes a location with "its accross from the 7-11 and yet everyone says it all the time) and most Thais and Philippines partake in the East asian obsession with saving face. Yet while in both countries foreigners are treated with deference, in Thailand it is deference to the economic power and benefits of tourism whereas in Philippines it is deference to the colonial/imperial other. Alot can be said for the influence of history on the different ways that I am treated in a busy market in Manila or Bangkok. While the only people to noticably pay attention to me in Thailand would be hawking something at a pharang price, Philippinos frequently stop and wave, yell out "hey joe" (short for G.I. Joe) and ask to take photos with me (or take them without asking on their cellhpones). On the one hand Thailand, the land of smiles, "Freeland," has never been ruled by a foreign power, on the other, the Philippines has spent much of the ast half-milenium under imperial or colonial rule. Politicians, with their swat teams, and hired crowds of supporters, are as often disdained in the Philippines as th king is wholeheartedly worshiped in Thailand with the entire country stopping to listen to his song twice every day. Both countries have visible Chinese minorities but the rest of their populations are easily distinguishable as Philippinos, with their malay-ethnic roots, are noticeably darker skinned and have rounder features. Outside of the big thai cities and off the tourist track, noone speaks English while every Philippino speaks a modicom and many speak American english nearly fluently following Western pop culture more closely than I. Both countries have a large and disgusting sex industry but while Thailands is fed by the World, the Philippines as changed, from once being domianted by American G.I.s to currently being supported by Japanese and Korean sex tourists who fly in and out on companion-tours. While a little out of place in a country that is largely Budhist, this is even more bizarre in the Philippines where Catholicism's grip is so strong that divorce remains illegal.

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Bankok

Enter Ken and Val. I actually met them at a cafe in Calcutta. It was early, I was sleep deprived and so I said hi half heartedly. They had just arrived from Darjeeling and had a rickshaw outside waiting to leave for the airport. They too were on my flight. We met again at the airport and since the German guy and I didn't so much in common I spent the hour or so before our flight chatting with Kenny.

The flight itself was passed pleasantly enough chatting with a couple Americans who had just spent the past week spending exactly $250 a day in Bhutan (its the all inclusive govt. rate to get in). I discovered that while disconcertingly Muslim (all the flight attendants were covered from head to toe), Drukair is otherwise a very nice airline with decent food and good-English speaking staff.

Upon landing we immediately were impressed by the differences between Thailand and India. Rice patties and a gold course alongside the airport heralded my first culture-shock. The airport was clean (including the bathrooms) and full of foreigners (pharang). It was also hyper modern: the ATMs functioned in tons of languages as did the automatic exchange machines which would change money from most countries.

The four of us split a cab to a guesthouse which had been recommended by friends of Kenny and Val called Asha. They thought it was near Khosan road, the ultimate tourist gheto (see below) but it was actually at the North end of the SkyTrain (the best but not cheapest way to get around town - again see below). On the way our driver, who appeared to be on some upper, occasional burst into loud singing about topics ranging from Bangkok's sex trade to the beaches of Southern thailand.

Asha Guest House was also drastically different from Indian accommodation. Clean rooms, a swimming pool and British staff greeted us. The German took off to Khosan in a cab cause the 300 baht was too steep for him to split with me (to each their own) and the three of us checked in before heading down to Khosan rd.

On the way the modernity of the 10 lane streets, let alone the constant flyovers for freeways and the SkyTrain continued the contrast with the past 3 months. We occasionally past a beautifully carved wat, sometimes glittering with gold leaf and other times glowing red, and everywhere there were Thai flags, culminating at one of the king's many palaces. We passed the Victory and Democracy memorials, almost soviet concrete and bronze sculptures as we sped down the nearly spotless streets of the capitol.

Khosan rd is yet another shock to our senses. Packed with tourists and neon signs, it is know throughout the city for catering to every desire a tourist could have and more. We're hungry and one of the first restaurants we come upon was in a gas station (tables have been laid in the space between the pumps, plants hung under the cantilevered roof and loud but good jazz was playing) so we sat down to take advantage of the oddity of the restaurant and proceeded to buy a bucket of alcohol, that most stereotypical of Bangkok drinks which screams I want to get drunk quick and don't care how much sugar is involved.

After a delicious meal (the first of many) we walked down the main drag, past endless stalls of sellers, amidst thousands of young, bronzed travellers, past McDonalds and Starbucks signs and hotel after hotel after hotel.
About a third of the way down the street as I begin to feel the effects of the alcohol but am still far from adjusted to the craziness of Thailand and particularly Khosan, I feel a hand on my shoulder spinning me around. There standing in front of me is Mitchell Frye, my neighbour and friend from Washington. I can't really believe it. I expected to run into other travellers from India as the backpacker routes are pretty established but I am blown away by this coincidence. Mitchell and I had exchanged emails a couple months earlier after he'd bumped into my mother and established that we'd both be in asia but we had concluded that our paths probably wouldn't cross. Mitch was similarly surprised if already acclimatised to Khosan's madness (he'd been in Bangkok for a few days). After walking around Khosan a bit we eventually decide to hit up a gay bar (Kenny is gay) and so the three of us (sans Val) make our way by air-conditioned taxi (a luxury that was unaffordable in India but ubiquitous in Bangkok) to Pat Pong, the Night Market and the gay district (all of which are in a 5 block radius).

Upon arriving in Pat Pong we are first struck by the number of lady-boys all around. At times they are indistinguishable from women, with plastic and other surgery from head to toe. As we turn down Soi Pat Pong and are told that it is closed by four taxi and tuck-tuck drivers that want to drive us to other sex shows. Ahead the Night Market is being torn down and hundreds of stalls are disappearing in a mass of metal grates and collapsible shop-fronts rapidly being spun into side-alleys by forklifts. Within half a block it becomes evident that the street itself isn't closed, just the Night Market (it closes at 2am). All of the doorways reveal semi-nude bodies dancing on identical-seeming stages. About a block down there is what looks to be a more mainstream hip-hop club. A couple more turns later and we wend up on the gay block which is looking pretty dead on this particular Monday. After a couple quick chats and after I extricate myself from a couple waiters playfully grabbing for my testicles (which, I have been self-consciously aware, are a little to visible in the fisherman pants that I am wearing commando because every other article of clothing I have is drying) we walk back to the main drag and sit trying to tell the men from the women while eating pad thai and thai soup. Walking back to the cabs we pass many couples consisting usually of drunken older men and young tie women (or lady-boys) and we hypothesize about how many know the sex of their partners.
The next day we head back to Khosan rd, again by taxi because we are late, which turns out to be a horrible idea as we hit mid-day traffic and basically sit still for an hour and half...

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Manila
Its been far far too unforgivably long since I've written which means I've already started to forget. The upside, of course, is that I will be marginally more succinct.
I'm writing from my bedroom in David Da Silva's apartment in the capitol of the Philippines. David is a former colleague of mine from Foreign Affairs Canada. More specifically, I used to fill in for him as "acting desk officer for Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam" when he took vacations. His apartment is on the 31st floor of Manila's newest condominium. Needless to say, with full-time help, 14 foot ceilings and a sort-of infinite pool (on the 14th floor cause Philippinos don't like sunlight), David, and therefore, I, do not have it all that bad. To speed things up and because I took a lot of photos in Bangkok I'm gonna fly through the rest of my first few days there by annotating my photographs with some obligatory tangents...

Bangkok
We ate lunch at Oh! Hungry just off Khosan because it was called Oh! Hungry. We then tried to find 4 of Kenny and Val's friends at a guest house called Sawasdee (hello in Thai). We slowly discovered that within about 5 blocks there are 7 guest houses with that name. Thai are no more original than Indian's with there names. After a bunch of shopping and eating we eventually found them and chilled out by the pool on the roof of Mitch's hotel the D&D which has a bar, a swimming pool, internet cafe and massage parlour (all on the roof). Needless to say the backpacker scene on khosan rd is pretty established. The rest of that day consisted of getting stoned and drunk and bar hoping around Khosan rd, with excursions to eat insects and pet elephants (its a really established tourist scene). By the end of the night the 7 of us were packed into a new Turkish friends room with a Sudanese man and a Moroccan. At this point I had to say goodbye to Mitch as he was leaving for Shanghai and then Woo-Hoo (that’s the name of the industrial town where he will be filming) China to finish his business trip.

The next day, sortof spur of the moment, Kenny, Val and I decide to find a ferry and take it to see some of Bangkok since there are canals that run throughout the city and are faster viaducts than any of its roads. We take the sky train to the bottom and then hop on one of the ferries heading north. Kenny and I begin snapping photos and don't let up for about four hours. The river itself is very photogenic not to mention the monks standing in their assigned area (there are even seats reserved for monks on these ferries). Because the boat only stops for a minute or so while many people frantically jump on or off of it and because we're so distracted taking photographs, we miss our stop and get off on the opposite side of the river so that we can retrace one stop.

At this point out plans change significantly, however, as Val finally manages to get a hold of her other friends. I omitted a major decision that Kenny and I had taken the night before to go climbing in southern Thailand together for the next week while the rest of his friends travel into Indochina. Val's phone call informs us that she has a ticket departing early the next morning and that she needs to check out of our hotel ASAP so we decide to tour around a bit where we inadvertently got off the ferry to save time.

As luck ahs it we find ourselves in a massive open-air market with endless blocks of food, knock-off clothing and chatchkees. The endless variety of food is astonishing and we have a great time sampling too many different dishes, trying on sun-glasses and taking pictures of cute kids before downing massive lattées that get us way too high on caffeine and taking the ferry back to the skytrian. The ferry ride back is gorgeous as the sun sets on the river.

That night we go out around Pat Pong again because Kenny and Val's friends want to meet up with a Canadian band whose name I recognised but have now forgotten and there sketchy father. The majority of the group insists on drinking at expensive Irish pubs and nearby dives so kenny and I walk around the market observing the various hedonistic sights and sounds and getting drunk of cheap 7-11 Chang beer and occasionally buying some of the items on sale at the night market. We eventually end up back on the gay block where neither of us is very successful at picking up. It begins to pour as we hail a tuck-tuck home...

The next day is spent aimlessly on Khosan trying to make travel arrangements, drinking, and shopping. Kenny meets up with a guy he got in touch with through craigslist and after socializing with far too many inane Swedish tourists on the roof of D&D (which we've begun to sneak into regularly) the three of us eventually find ourselves fairly drunk at one of Khosan's larger bar/ clubs. There I meet my New Mexican friend (see above) and Kenny and friend leave me for loftier surroundings at the Shangri-la.

Skip another day of basically the same and you get to our departure for Krabi in Southwestern Thailand. We meet at the travel agency where we and 10 others on our bus are walked through a maze of shops including a thai-kickboxing ring and what appears to be someone's house before finding the bus on a backstreet. The bus ride is comfy with two movies and lots of legroom and at 7am we switch to a minibus/ van which then takes us the remaining 5 hours to Krabi where we catch a boat to Railey beach. As soon as we get near Krabi the beauty of the region becomes mind-boggling. The rock formations are straight out of the movies and the greenery is incredibly lush. The water is turquoise to aquamarine and crystal clear and the sand is soft. What more could we ask for?

Saturday, May 13, 2006

Before I get back to India, a couple quick notes to show how crazy this country is. Within an hour or two last night on one of the most touristy roads in the world I was proposition 20-30 times, including by several women who were very much men but who have tricked many a drunken Western man; I shopped for 5 dollar knock-offs of $150+ items and found that there were knock-offs of the knock-offs galore, an entire culture, in fact, with a hierarchy and its own rules, of knock-off shopping, I ate insects and squid on a stick; hung out with a girl from New Mexico who'd been teaching English for a year in remote Thailand and had just gotten a massive, anatomically, correct, (she's into forensics) skull and cross bones tattooed on her back; met her Philipno friend, who was muscular as hell, played Ultimate Frisbee and knew all the top Canadian teams, had lived in Namibia for a long time and could speak English with at least 6 different impeccable accents (he now taught English in Thailand).

Calcutta

The train ride from Varanasi was defined by several long conversations with a Burmese monk whose bunk I accidentally took upon first boarding our Three-Tier AC class car. Swathed in traditional red robes, the East Asian man explained his loquaciousness with a long story about his long trip from Bangkok in the unreserved compartment with no one to talk to. A professor of languages, he had spent several years in Sri Lanka, India and elsewhere and broke down most of my stereotypes of the Burmese. At one point he pulled out a small bottle with a golden liquid in it, poured a couple drops o my hand and showed me how to rub my hands together and then breath out of them as if I were sucking out of a conch shell. The liquid was a balm of sorts (he also gave me a little pill-box filled with tiger balm) which opened um my sinuses and refreshed me almost instantaneously. Surprisingly I slept fairly well, even though I woke up about
4 times over the course of the night and arrived in Calcutta feeling refreshed, if a little disappointed that the crushing heat had followed me there.

After helping the Burmese monk carry his luggage and find his friends, I fended off a bunch of taxi drivers trying to rip me off and got a pre-paid cab to Sudder St, the Paharganj (tourist ghetto) of Calcutta. The teeming eight lane streets were immediate evidence of the city’s massive size (its second only to Mumbai in India and well over
14 million). We passed under the huge, industrial Howrah bridge crossing into the downtown from its sister city across the Ganges and eventually found our way to the short four blocks where dozens of Spaniards, Brits, Canadians and Australians stay in order to volunteer at Mother Theresas.

In this respect, Calcutta and Sudder St are very different from other Indian tourist destinations as the backpackers here are either east Asians (there were tons of Japanese) who use Calcutta as an eastern hub or foreigners who've come to volunteer. In the rest of India, in contrast, the majority of backpackers are stoners, hippies, yoga-freaks or explorers. Israelis make up the largest group (one estimate I heard was that there can be up to
60000 in India at any one point) then French, then Brits, then Canadians and Auzzies, etc.

Once on Sudder st, I was again reminded of the Main Bazaar because all of the accommodation was grungy and dirty and slightly overpriced. Nevertheless, the sixth guesthouse I found had a cooler room with a strong fan and my own, sort of clean bathroom. After settling in I began to make a few travel arrangements, attempting to confirm my flights and such, to no avail since it was Saturday and the airlines were closed (and would be till the day of my departure since Monday was May
1, or May Day, in this currently Communist state. Next I began exploring the town, which, I quickly found, is huge. Every intersection seemed busier than the last, despite the massive expanse of green nearby (the Maidan, where cricket rules supreme, various other sports are frequently played, and herds of goats roam freely). After searching out an internet cafe and some food and dropping into the Oberoi Grand to see just how grand it is (very, very grand) I picked up a map and sat at Barrista highlighting a list of tourist destinations for my next three days. That night I took the fairly old and dirty if still efficient subway to my first choice, the Khali Temple where thousands of Indians constantly make offerings to the Hindu God Khali. Darkly lit and packed full of people at 9pm, this area had quite the atmosphere as stall after stall sold Indians puja in various forms (flowers, food, idols, etc.). On my way out, after seeing a group of brits a few times I started up a conversation and we ended up going to dinner at a rather dirty dhaba serving quite spicy south Indian food. We then grabbed a public bus home, holding on tight as it hurtled through the sticky night.

I later meet the Brits and a four Irishmen for beers, a jay or two and some guitar playing on the roof of one of their hostels, the Shelton. One of the Irish is a wonderful singer and we all pleasantly sit back and listen as he sings us halfway to sleep.

Back in my room I spend a few hours watching bad movies of Indian HBO and MTV and eventually, with the help of a sleeping pill, fall asleep.

The next morning I wake up late so that after grabbing a bite and chatting with a dreaded Spanish girl working at Missionaries of Charity, I head out to the maiden in the heat of the day. Walking for a couple kilometers across this huge field to the Victoria Memorial, I have a hard time dealing with the powerful sun and heat but eventually I arrive at the grandiose British building. Since it costs foreigners
150 rps to see the museum but only the Indian 4 to see the grounds, I simply walk around the structure and then take the long way home. I chat with an Indian woman at length about my travels and impressions of India at middle-class West Bengalese food-franchise where I eat lunch and then play a game sort of like pool but place with little, pog like circles on a wooden board with holes in each corner (it was also frequently played by the Tibetans) before walking home and checking out the Indian Museum. This is a museum in the English style, of everything including modern and ancient art, anthropology, natural and scientific exhibitions, etc. most of which looked to be as old as the museum itself (the oldest in India at well over a century),

Later that day I track down Adam and Heidi, the Canadians I'd met in Varanasi and after throwing back a few more drinks with a group of Spaniards at one of the two massive backpacker hostels off Sudder (I, it turns out, had found a hotel catering largely to Indians) we go in search of a night club. We visit two, ending up at a smaller but fancier and more full club/ lounge called Roxy at the Park Hotel where we watch Indians dancing to American and Indian hip-hop and occasionally join in ourselves.

I again can't sleep and so get another late start on Monday but eventually Adam, Heidi and I make it to Mother Theresa's where we visit her tomb and chat with a few of the many nuns. Out of curiosity in part inspired by Halyna's work in Ukraine and David's in Bangalore I then drag us to a nearby orphanage run by her nuns where hundreds of kids sleep in clean beds and play and eat with many volunteers in relatively pleasant surroundings.

When we return, Heidi and Adam join two Korean tourists that they know from Delhi who invite them for dinner while I meet up with the Brits (and one Auzie) from two nights earlier to go to dinner and eventually have a beer with a couple Japanese packers I met in the hostel. Adam eventually joins us explaining that he is drunk and that Heidi has puked and passed out because for the second time the
40 year old Koreans took them to a bar instead of a restaurant on gave them beer after beer. I say goodnight and goodbye and head to bed as I have to be up by 8 for my flight out.

Nerves wake me around
6;30 so I finish packing, spend an hour calling friends and family through Skype and looking into the possibility of doing some journalism in Darfur, Sudan before meeting up with a German backpacker who I’d discovered was traveling on my flight.

Our cab ride is spent reminiscing about India as it hasn't really sunken in that I'm leaving yet. In the airport we are subjected to the usual Indian bureaucratic hassles, filling out meaningless forms and even waiting while the security has a chai break before having our bags scanned. As I sit with small group of backpackers from all the usual countries at our gate watching Bollywood movies, I feel it is a fitting end to my time in India.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Bangkok!

Its stunnigly different here. The nearly constant spinning of the past few days is only now slowly relenting. The pace of this is city is incredible , particularly after India. Coming from a traditional and unmistakably third world country it was much more of a shock to arrive in Thailand than traveling to India (even from Ukraine). As opposed to being dirty and even, in some ways, backwards, this city is modern, clean and fast. But I need to jump back to the heart of Hindustan and retrace my way to the Land of the Free (Thai - land).

Varanasi - of Bang Lassies and Burning Ghats

Perhaps the holiest city in India, and the dirtiest, this is a metropolis of the Ganges, the mother of all Indian rivers, and of Indian spirituality.

As always and as I've already mentioned, I had issues sleeping on the train to Varanasi for all the usual reasons - worrying about nothing, thinking about Halyna and mostly because of the combination of obnoxiously loud snoring while we were moving and obnoxiously loud talking when we stopped every two hours...

When I finally found the guesthouse (see below) I discovered a pleasant backpacker abode: trees and plants surrounded an inner courtyard with clothing for sale where a fountain should be and a few rabbits scampering under the tables. The three quarters of the rooms surrounding this quad had views of the Ganges as Ganpati house was directly above Mheer Ghat, two down from the Main Ghat (its real name is too long for me to remember how to spell). Upon first walking up to my room I was shocked by the view, a river a few hundred yards wide weaving out in either direction to the horizon with beautiful leaf-shaped boats and people bathing all along its shores and ancient buildings towering above the many steps that make up the two-dozen or so ghats. The temperature tempered the pleasantness of this view. With the heat and humidity both over a hundred (nearing 50 degrees celsius combined) I was having a hard time dealing with being drench in my own sweat. I tried to imagine how I would sleep in a room with only a slow moving fan in this heat. Little did I know that the power in Varansi would go out so frequently that even the fans and refrigerators were useless half the time, leaving the Ganges as the only escape from heat for the 60000 Indians that bath in it every day. Yet the Ganges is the amongst the dirtiest rivers on earth. It ahs no oxygen and its fecal count is thousands of times higher than would be acceptable in the West. My room wasn't clean either, which never helped with sleep and minutes after laying out my sleep-sheet it was covered with a dust and pebbles from the crumbling ceiling.

The stay in Varansi was thus very representative of my time in India. Fascinating and incredible but difficult and not always pleasant. I was meant to call Halyna that around mid-day so I went searching for an internet cafe with a headset and found, after walking for 20 minutes throught he back alleyways (the Ganpati's owners describe it as about three lefts and three rights to the main street) and then over an hour walking down the main drag which is lined for miles with shops selling tacky saris and nicer silk. The only cafes with a generator didn't have headsets so I eventually tried calling ISD (international calls from India) to no avail and finally found a place in the north of town where I was able to connect with Halyna (though we had to yell over the noise of the generator - she called me back using skype to a landline for which I only had to pay 2 rps a minute.)

The streets in Varanasi are packed full of bicycle rickshaws and since I was late to meet my Australian friend from the train, I hoped on one and we flew back to the ghats narrowly avoiding crashing into various pedestrians, cows, autorickshaws and policemen. I meet Aime on the water as its easier to navigate back to the hotel via the ghats (she is staying at a fancier and quieter place on the outskirts of town) and the two of us walk a long ways down the ghats, taking pictures f the holy men that lie under massive umbrellas and brushing off the frequent boat-ride offers. The heat is incredible and slows our walking to the point where evntually we succumb and hope in a boat offerd by the owner of 20 or so water buffaloe. One of his workers rows us down past one of the two burning ghats where bodies are being cremated (this is the holiest place and way to die in India), past the boats overflowing with sandlewood and other species, each weighed and stacked carefully for specific cremations, each costing different amounts and bearing different spiritual values. We row past the ghats owned by the raj's of rajastan, kings whose dynasties stretch back for millenia, and past steps teaming with semi-nude bodies, boys and men wrapped in a simple cloth that is tied around their waiste and sortof resembles a speedo, women bathing in their full saris, fathers holding their children above the water as they frantically move their arms and legs learning to swim and are occasionally released to desperately attempt to reach the shore on their own. 4 or more hours in the mid-day sun exhausts us and yet, as we return tot he guesthouse in the late afternoon the heat shows no sign of relenting. At Ganpati I meet a couple techies from Seattle that Id' talked to outside a movie theatre in Dharmshalla and we learn a card game from a group of Canadians and a Frenchman playing in the quad. I teach Aime set and we are offered to smoke with the group of foreigners (it expands to include a couple Australian women and a German guy) later. They head off to dinner, leaving me the address and I eventually walk aime back to her rickshaw, picking up one of the Canadians who had been left behind on the way and suggesting that she join me in walking accross town to the restaurant. THis is a bit of an adventure as she is deaf and the walk is hectic in the dark but its stunning how well she manages to navigate india without speaking of being able to hear (she signs and reads lips) and after a 45 minute long walk and asking for directions about 15 times we make it there and join the crew. After exchanging stories we hike back and smoke a chillum (a cone-shaped piece of clay is packed with hash or weed and with a handkercheif wrapped around it) with one of the boys who works at Ganpati on the balcony looking over the ghats.

I eventually manage to fall asleep despite the heat but within a few hours the power goes out again and the fan stops and I wake a sweating mess, worried about insects. A coupleof the australians had mentioned udnertaking the ritual 5:30am boatride adn so after working on the Delhi blog a bit I go down and wander amidst the hudreds of indian and foreign tourists hiring boats at the main ghat before returning to Mheer ghat where a man associated with our guesthouse had offered a ride for under a dollar an hour.

I see the same sites on this ride but take even more photos and, as with the last ride, try rowing for a while (a task I find very difficult as I generally end up going in circles, the oar-locks are just peices of rope, the boats have no keel to keep them going straight and one has to balance cross legged without much leverage while rowing.)

We cross the river and grab some chai with the locals, row past the burning ghats again and return to Ganpati where I lounge around for much of the day, venturing out to grab a bite to eat and use the internet with a burly red-haired Canadian named Adam (friend of Heidi, with whom I'd walked to the restaurant - both from Vancouver).

That night I move down to the a room on the opposite side of the courtyard with no view but sheltered from the sun (it costs 100rps or about 2 dollars) so that it is much cooler. The power also stays on and I take a couple hour nap and sleep well for the first time in a few nights and wake up refreshed. I then go and try a bang lassie, an experience I've been waiting for for a couple months. These concoctions, which combine yogurt curd and marijuana are basically legal (their served at "govt sanctioned" establishments at major intersections for 14rps) and are renowned for their potency. Heidi, the frenchman, Cherie and I share two strong lassies (big green drinks that don't taste great) and then walk back along the ghats to the roof of ganpati. I feel nothing for about 40 minutes and the rapidly get very tired. By around midnight I'm beginning to get scared as the world is sort of spinning and a keep seeing, or more like feeling things. I feel Halyna behind me, a see movement where nothing is moving and I feel I have to lie down. Once I do, however, the world begins to spin, a phenomenon which is aggravated whenever I move my head. I go and wake up Cherie because I begin to worry and we have a garbled conversation as I am quite scared and not really making sense somewhere between english and french. Eventually I throw up and fall asleep, swearing never to try anything like that again. I wake up late, have a lazy day and arrange to meet up with the Canadians in Calcutta in a few days. I pack up and head to the train station...

Friday, April 28, 2006

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Goa

If there could be a state that is opposite my circumstances when I wrote my last blog entry this might be it. I sit facing a picture-perfect sunrise. A man carries a body-board over his head into the waves as two India kids jog by and two of the many beach dogs scuffle nearby. The temperature must be around 20 degrees and the humidity has subsided for the day. I'm on Palolem beach in southern Goa. I've been here for two days now and both have been idyllic. The water is warmer than the air now and is full of salt which makes for easy floating if not swimming. The sand is soft and the beach is supposedly the nicest in Peninsular India. Despite the many tarpaulin covered shacks that now crowd its shores, a ban on the building of more substantial buildings has left the shore looking picturesque.

We spent our first night in a set of huts called Tony's Cottages which were recommended by two Brits who were on the Jaipur-Mumbai train with us. Since I wrote my last blog from that train it makes for a decent place to begin the story of the past 5 days.

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Mumbai

We got into Mumbai around 6am. Halyna and I were both feeling lousy after sleepless nights and far-too experimental food from various train stations during the ride. Over the course of the 12 hr train ride we befriended our bunk mates who included a gemologist (who sells silverware to America companies), an architect designing smoking rooms for Indian malls (smoking is banned indoors here and cigarette advertising is impossible except in specific places like these rooms which will be sponsoured by the tobacco companies) and another finance-oriented businessman. I spent much of the ride talking to the gemologist who was planning a trip to the US this summer and was very knowledgeable and helpful about Bombay where his head office is. Before leaving the train we agreed to meet the gemologist to buy gifts at wholesale prices.

A brief return to scatological material: as we were traveling between the three Mumbai stops (totaling well over an hour of superfast transport) Halyna went to the doors to get some air and was treated to the site of countless Indian men squatting by the tracks and pooing. This practice, it would seem, is not unusual in India where pooing, like peeing is a public activity. Kushwant Singh wrote in the book Delhi which I'm reading now that, "The fields are littered with defecators; some face us with their penises dangling between their haunches; others display their buttocks - barely an inch above pyramids of shit. The Indian peasant is the world's champion shitter. Stacks of chappaties and mounds of mustard leaf-mash down the hatch twice a day; stacks of shit a.m. and p.m. " I, in contrast, am anything but a champion shitter. Sleep deprivation has combined with my nervous nature to make me frequently constipated (I liken my constipation to that described by Philip Roth in several of his books about Jewish boys and older men). With its holes for toilets and lack of toilet paper, India presents an obstacle course for irregular tourists such as myself. I surmounted the first impediment on our train ride between Delhi and Agra as I held on to the handle in front of the two foot marks for dear life and attempted to relax enough. An early morning run provided the occasion for my learning to deal with the lack of toilet paper. Running loosened my bowels plenty and mid-way I was forced to jog into the closest hotel where three Indians grudgingly allowed me to use their toilet. With no paper at hand I was forced to use water, a less disgusting than expected but still unpleasant experience particularly when it comes time to pull your pants up onto a wet and hopefully clean bottom. Most Indian bathrooms do not have towels or soap either making me question many fellow-travelers' argument that this is the cleaner alternative to toilet paper.

The same run also demonstrated the Indian aversion to maps. In some ways, this aversion is calculated and proves why one must always decide on a fixed rate with an auto-rickshaw driver before one steps in. The night before Halyna and I had gone clubbing at an outrageously expensive club in Jaipur's only five star (it was Saturday and the only club we could find and it 2was made more expensive because Dave came along and Stags (single men) are charged the same as couples (750rps). Getting home our rickshaw driver got completely lost despite clear directions and two maps. After asking several people he insisted out map was wrong until we eventually dir3ecetd him back to the hotel ourselves (at which point an argument over the already established price ensued which was only settled when the owner of our hotel came out to silence the rickshaw driver. Asking directions in India is difficult for completely different reasons than in Ukraine. Most seem to want to be helpful here and rickshaw and taxi drivers are constantly asking for directions but as often as not the advice they receive is wrong and if you hand them a map they (and everyone on the street for that matter) gets completely confused. Either way, 5 minutes into my run the next day I came upon the same hotel, less than a mile from our hostel and only three turns away (it had taken us over half an hour the night before).

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I was sidetracked in the midst of writing my last entry and its been 5 days since I've had a chance to write. Halyna and I are now undertaking the longest single leg journey of my life, a 49 hour ride from Kochin, Kerala to Delhi.

Mumbai

We negotiate a rate wit many cab drivers from Mumbai trains station who as usual get mad at each other (some have followed us from the train station and claim us as their own but being annoyed with their pestering I find a different cab and agree on 100rps which, it turns out, is probably higher than it need be because in Mumbai, unusually, taxis actually use their meters (though as in Delhi they can be rigged and sometimes covered) and because of a ban on rickshaws in downtown Mumbai to reduce congestion, a more expensive cab is the only option we have aside from the unbelievably packed commuter trains on which we would have to battle for the exit three stops before it in order to get out at the right stop if we even knew when this stop was coming

We find our hostel, The Lawrence in a back alley, up a disgusting set of stairs with betel-juice all over the walls. The hostel itself is fairly clean aside from the bathrooms and is run by a hunched young man with an ornery, elderly cat. We are sleeping three to a room for the first time with Mike and upon entering our room he immediately asks to shut the windows to keep out malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Luckily Halyna finds screens and after freshening up we set out on the town.

With our stomachs still slightly upset, Halyna and I had agreed not to eat all day (subsisting on juice as recommended by the gemologist) but within an hour we are sitting at the cafe Malabar in the heart of ever so touristy Colaba (the Lawrence is on the border between this, the southernmost and most touristy quarter of Mumbai and Churchgate one of its transportation and commercial hubs). Surrounded by movie theatres and hawkers selling to the many white visitors, this a stately part of town with broad streets. Nevertheless, the sidewalks are clogged with homeless beggars who use them as beds at night.

From breakfast we rush north to Churchgate Station where just before noon a thousand dabawallas converge every day. They make up the most efficient food delivery service in the world. Carrying colour-coded tiffen boxes full of food cooked at homes in the small villages surrounding Mumbai, each is destined for a different businessman and will be delivered precisely on time and always to the right person. The dabawallas are almost all from the town of Pune and most are related as we confirmed while taking their photos. Forbes awarded Mumbai's dabawallas a 6 sigma performance rating, the score reserved for companies who attain a 9.999999 percent of correctness (1 of 6 million goes a stray). As with many others in India, the dabawallas were more than happy to have their photos taken, preceded or followed by the obligatory "What is your good name?" and "Where are you from?"

We drop by the Indian Tourist Info Center where I try to pick up poster from its fantastic "Incredible India" campaign and then proceed through a slum in the middle of the financial district which surrounds a massive garbage heap. Halyna and I are constantly offered weed and are shocked to see a woman who is missing an eye. Its not that its patched or closed, there is simply a deep, massive gaping whole where her eye should be.

Our next destination is ironically called Fashion Street where hundreds of stalls full of fake Gucci and diesel belts, and knock-off clothes of all brands are sold by wallas whose prices can vary by 500% if you're a good enough bargainer.

From fashion street we head to the bazaar district and Crawford Market in particular where our gemologist-friend has his office above the ramshackle storefronts and milling masses of India's most densely populated area. Here an incredible number of people care an awesome variety of goods (from steel girders, to fruit, to bales of hay) making staying focused n your destination, let along moving towards it, a difficult task.

with the jeweler we sift through hundreds of types of silver jewelry with a large variety of semi-precious stones. The longer we look, the harder the process becomes as it all b begins to look the same but it prices 10 times cheaper than in North America, its hard for us not to buy something, so we did...

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Halyna here....this is where I would like to jump in to note a personal incident Jake could not truly understand at the moment, and therefore, would be unable to describe, not of his own fault, but simply for the reason of him being a boy....

Upon leaving the market, waiting to catch an auto rickshaw, a man rubbed his greasy fingers on my breast and grinned while passing by. I was a little bit shocked, I have to say. My initial reaction was to see where Jake and Mike were. They were a bit too far off so I, without really thinking about it, sprinted after the creep. He just stood there, a little shocked himself that I reacted, but really didn't seem very regretful of his inappropriate behavior at all. Just stood there looking at me with a smirk on his face. even more furious, only to find a very disappointing reaction on behalf o Jake. His reaction was almost identical to the man I had scolded, he smirked too. I guess it was a bit funny, but considering how upset it was, it was not yet time to laugh about the whole thing.

I realize now that Jake was in just as much shock as I was and just didn't know how to react.

It wasn't a big deal, I know that. I knew that then and now. But the principle of the matter is big, the utter lack of respect for women and our right to personal space. Later on that night I found out that I was not the only one who recognized the seriousness of such violations. Two girls that joined us for dinner that night, Rajvi and Deepa, were both members of an organization called "The Blank Noise Project", which deals with issues of street harassment otherwise known as "Eve-teasing." I'm glad such groups are around, to help prevent such silly, yet scarring incidences from taking place, and defend us against the offenders when they do.


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Jake again:
In a fitting if difficult twist of planning we were set to travel through Mumbai's red-light district next, which, as expected turned out to be another trying experience. We first took a cab up and then walked back down Falkland Rd, lined with Indian women, young and old, thin and more rotund, light and dark, all selling themselves. Halyna was mad at me but I insisted that she hold me hand, largely because I was embarrassed to be looking at these women, to be walking by them, and felt that my showing that I was with her, did not want to pay for them, somehow made it better.

The three of us met up with Deepa and Rajvi next. I had been introduced to Rajvi by email several months earlier after sending out a mass message to all my contacts requesting contacts in the areas to which I was traveling. Rajvi is a friend of Ilona with whom I worked at the Munk Centre in Toronto and is currently working in the Marketing section of a firm in Mumbai. We met her and her friend Deepa at a restaurant called The Noodle Bar coincidentally directly next to our hotel. This immaculate restaurant was styled somewhat like a sushi -joint with minimalist furniture and very attentive waiters serving Asian-fusion cuisine. The meal was pleasant and aside from the usual questions, Deepa and Rajvi gave us the lowdown on what we should do in Mumbai and then took us to Marine Drive. As we walked down this 5-star hotel lined boardwalk, looking out on Mumbai's skyline and lined with lights that make it look like a pearl necklace we were constantly nagged by homeless mothers and their children. Rajvi, Deepa and Mike went home and Halyna and I kept walking. She became quiet upset about a boy who kept following us a clearly had no parents or protectors. Waling along the boardwalk alone he was, as Halyna said, "going nowhere."

We had chosen Noodle Bar with Rajvi and Deepa because it sounded like it might offer food that would not upset Halyna and my already temperamental stomachs but, following a long day of spicy food, we both had distinctly piquant mains and at the end of our walk were both in need of a bathroom. As frequently happened we underestimated the length of the walk back and with only a few blocks to go realized that the emergency was desperate enough to hail a taxi. The driver, with our map in hand, proceeded to get completely lost at which point we got out without paying him and began to walk in the right direction. Halyna stopped at a restaurant to use the loo and with our far too regular movements we began to worry about how effective some of the many pills we were taking might be. We called home for advice and then made it back to the apartment. I, exhausted passed out while Halyna had a rough night with an upset stomach.

We spent the first part of the next day between the pharmacy and a doctor who prescribed antibiotics for Halyna which we got for next to nothing back at the pharmacy (once an get almost any drug over the counter for very little money in India, though one can't, for instance, get spray-on deet).

After a "safe" lunch at McDonalds we went to see an interesting multimedia exhibit on Gandhi (whose presence everywhere is substantial: every city has a street named after him and a statute of him) at the National Contemporary Art Gallery. We then walked down Collaba Causeway packed with stores and stalls catering to every tourists desire and bugging the rest. We unfortunately again went to a Rough Guide recommended restaurant called Leopold’s which was packed with tourists and served lousy, expensive food. Mike and I picked up a bottle of vodka which we never ended up drinking because by the time we went back to our apartment he and Halyna were too tired to go clubbing. I briefly check out the club Rajvi had recommended (again right next door) called Red Light which was very swank with an all black and red light decor and a door that, once shut, from the inside was impossible to find without help. Yet again I couldn't sleep so I went to an internet cafe and spent the night trying to upload pictures, chatting on MSN, replying to emails and calling home.

The next day during breakfast we experienced a tropical downpour and throughout the day scattered showers made for our first of experience of India in bad whether (we are still months away from the monsoon so the sky is cloudless most days). Halyna and I picked up the soundtrack to the movie we'd seen and then went to India Gate while Mike read and wrote in a coffee shop. On the way Halyna and I are stopped by a very young Indian mother with her two children begging for milk. Surprised that she's not asking for money we obligingly follow her to a store around the corner where the owner pulls out a container of powdered milk that he says costs 300rps and adds that she'd like a 250rps bag of rice as well. Shocked, we say now and he starts lowering the price. In the end, I handed her 20rps and we discussed the intricacy of Indian cons - she would give the milk and rice back to the man and he would give her a small share of his profits.

After watching the fishing trolleys and vacationing young men mill about India Gate we met up with a German athletics instructor/ model at our hostel who joined us as we perused several other contemporary art galleries and then met mike for dinner. After a delicious ice cream and molten fudge desert from Noodle Bar we boarded another overnight train to Goa.

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Goa

Surprisingly, I slept fairly soundly despite a rowdy Indian group of friends and family who added boisterous laughter and loud drumming to the usual snoring all night long. There are more white people on this ride than any other we've been on and each is avidly flipping through their own version of the Lonely Planet. Looking out on Goa the next day from the train, its beauty was immediately apparent from neon green rice patties to the ocean stretching out to the horizon. I tried calling Tony's Cottages from the train station and found out that despite a conversation with its manager the day before, no one had come to pick us up from Margao. Halyna, meanwhile found 5 other backpackers all heading to the same beach and we crowded into a minivan. During the forty-five minute long ride to Palolem we befriended two Brits in the cab with us and in the end spent much of the next 4 days with Paul and Olie.

Once on the beach we realize how gorgeous Palolem is and why they call the hostel's shacks. Our cottage consists of a bamboo hut on stilts stuck into the sand 15 meters from the water. Granted there are many, many, more huts just like it, all the way down the beach, but its still a hell of allot better than the cement blocks that make up Ukrainian or even many Indian hotels. The five of us (Mike, the Brits, Halyna and I) went to one of the many very similar restaurants lining the beach, order a couple kingfishers and some seafood and enjoy the view. We then take a long walk down the beach, observing the many nicer huts further away from Palolem's main drag and clamber up some cliffs at the far end. The two of us, read, dose and watch as the sun sets from the rocks at the very end of the beach with a cool, strong wind in our faces.

I'm going to skip a fair bit of our time in Goa because much of our time was similar. We were on the beach, playing volleyball or basking in the sun or throwing a Frisbee or shopping for clothes on the main drag. Our first night there is a party at a bar called X-Cross and after a few hours of drinking and pool we check it out. I spend my night running between Halyna and the boys, chasing her down the beach and playing with the many stray dogs. The next day Halyna and I swim the mile to the island at the opposite tip of the beech, burning our backs in the process and then clamber around the rocks burning our feet. We then get back into the water for a while before running back to our cottages, joining the boys (Mike ahs been hanging out with Paul and Olie allot since the three of them met a group of Norwegian girls) for dinner. The next day we rent a pair of scooters and Mike, Halyna and I check out some surrounding beaches and old forts. Agunda, the closest beech is if anything more spectacular than Palolem with a similar layout and almost no one around us (except for a couple that similarly rode over from Palolem). We hop in the water and then check out Casa de Rama, the Portuguese fort nearby and at the next beech with find a film crew shooting a German movie about hippies from the '70s.

Our last meal in Goa is perfect. The five of us sit on pillows at a beautiful cafe at the opposite end of the beach eating fantastic Indian and continental cuisine, with dogs at our feet. We talk about photography and the plans for our trips (they too are continuing on in S.E. Asia) and then try to find the cheapest clothes in town for Mike and the Brits as Holi is coming up. Mike, I should note, has decided to stay in Goa and enjoy its somewhat hedonistic nightlife and relaxing atmosphere while Halyna and I continue south.


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Kerala

Our train to Kerala is more than an hour late and as Halyna sleeps I teach half of the Norwegian group how to play Set.

Our time in Kerala was a little rushed as much of it was spent traveling under hectic conditions in order to see as much as possible of the Southern state before Halyna had to return to Delhi for her flight back to Ukraine. Our train ride was relatively painless, though at 16hrs it definitely wasn't short and we ended up getting off 2/3rds of the way to our original destination, Trivandrum, at the southern tip of the state in order to allow us more time on the backwaters.

Exiting the train in Allepey we found ourselves in the smallest town yet and after arranging a rickshaw to Johnson's: The Nest, the homestay recommended by our guide (as stated on its front gate) we were shuttled to its sister home, the brand-spanking new The Brown Residency. This home was a pleasant surprise in the decidedly traditional Allepey as its polished marble floors and spotless room felt as if they had never been lived in. After trying every ATM in town in addition to several Internet cafes we were told that the cities internet was down but would probably be back later that evening so we continued to the main drag along the water where hundreds of "travel agents" sold backwater trips. Ranging from three day long a/c houseboat journeys to 3 hour long motorboat journeys, these were all out of our price range and it was not until the 11th travel agent that our description (simple, small, cheap) finally hit home. We had a pleasant meal for under 2 dollars each and then spent a couple hours in the now functioning internet cafe which was cheaper and faster than any we had seen yet in India. The next morning we woke up early and began our tour which involved a half hour ferry ride to our guides village where we met his family and then hopped in his canoe for a three hour long trip around the backwaters. These small rivers were formed when Kerala's residents reclaimed its land resulting in a patchwork landscape of villages accessible only by boat. All along the water women beat the hell out of clothing and children ran along asking us for "one pen, one pen." We had a wonderful lunch at the local cafeteria of fish, rice and a vegetable masala served on a banana leaf. Halyna and I spent much of the day paddling in the heat of a south Indian summer and developed a bit of a headache by the time we took the ferry home. We then picked up our packs, I picked up my watch from the repairman (I had cracked its face on a bicycle rickshaw in Delhi) after paying him 30 rps (75c) and we got on another ferry to Kottoyam. This ride was again beautiful as we crisscrossed the many rivers for hours ferrying Kerela's villagers from home to work and back for 3 and a half hours as the sun set. Once in Kottayam, a substantial industrial town, we realized we didn't really want to stay, and despite a persistent headache Halyna persuaded me to catch the next bus to Kumily further inland. We followed an Italian priest and the five Indian students he had taken on a day trip tip Allepey to the bus station where we were placed by the driver at the very back of a crammed bus. A combination of the rickety old bus, our 9pm departure, the very windy and hilly route and an insane driver resulted in the most harrowing bus trip of Halyna and my lives. While I took a Gravol to avoid being sick and passed out within an hour on Halyna's lap (to be awoken every 10-15 minutes when my head slammed against the seat cause the bus had slowed or turned so quickly). For the first hour I tried to decrease my nauseousness by looking at points in the distance an activity made much more difficult by the road which turned every 200 meters and which climbed and descended Kerala's foothills for most of the journey.

When we finally arrived in Kumily, the base-town for Periyar, one of India's largest national parks it was past 1 in the morning and we quickly went to the cheapest hotel we could find. Woodlands was a massive cement block with only the most basic amenities and was a massive step down from our room in Allepey but for 100rps we could handle it for a short night.

The next day we had a less than satisfactory meal at another Rough Guide recommended homestay and took a rickshaw to the park where we were charged the as usual outrageous tourist rate (300 rps as compared to the Indian 20). Inside we found three other foreigners who wanted to hike around rather than ride the boat (the usual method of viewing the parks sites, though this tour around the large man-made lake at its center rarely afforded views of anything aside from the occasional distant elephant) and set off. To begin our trek the 6 of us (we had to be accompanied by a guide, costing the group 500rps) were ferried across a small river on a raft which was pulled across on a rope by the guide. Within minutes of entering the forest Halyna and I began to notice that its floor was covered with what looked like small worms and a few moments later as our companions noticed the same we were shocked to find that these worms were sticking to our skin and shoes. The leaches, we were informed by our guide, had come out as a result of the rain the day before and would be less common in sunny areas which he encouraged us to continue to as we desperately tried to get them off our skin. Halyna was in by far the worst situation as she was wearing sandals and when we finally got back to the lake's shore both of her feet were quite bloody. The rest of the three hour hike was less eventful though we did manage to see a giant squirrel (two feet long) many species of birds (from Kingfishers to hornbills) and monkeys, water buffaloes, deer, wild boars and a monotor lizard. Perhaps the most entertaining part for me was our guide who dramatically pointed out elephant and deer footprints, broke apart the bones of deer killed by wild dogs (no sign of the parks few remaining tigers) and helped us across muddy streams with logs. At the end of the trek we invited one of our British companions to join us for dinner and the three of us had a pleasant meal at a "homestay" cum hostel packed full of backpackers. Kumily is also renowned for its spices so Halyna picked up several packages for friends and then we made out way to the bus station. By this point it had begun to pour and by the time we neared the station the towns sewer system was overflowing. As peopled tried to avoid the sewage filled streets the terribly unsanitary nature of India was reinforced by a group of men picking branches full of bananas from the water at their feet. Finding the right bus was another hassle as we didn't know that the fastest route to Kochi was again through Kottoyam and so it was 8:30 before we finally began another frightening ride packed full of nauseating hairpin turns to Kottayam. There, at midnight we caught a train to Kochi but because we were buying the ticket at the last minute all the a/c classes were full and so we sat on our bags in the doorway of a car full to the brim with sleeping Indians (some even slept in the halls between the bathrooms) for the 2 hour journey.

When we arrived in Ernakulum the commercial mainland east of Kochi, we begin immediately to haggle with the autorickshawallas over the price of the long journey to Fort Kochi (ferries, the more affordable and pleasant means of transportation to the island, only run during the day). As usual, we cause a bit of a raucous by securing a price 50% cheaper than the massive cue of rickshaws has agreed for us by hiring a young boy (who looks under 16) for the 40min long journey. As we pass through Ernakulum and then across the bridges to Wellingdon Island (artificially dredged up by the Brits to allow the large boats to now fill Kochi's harbour) and then to Fort Kochi with its ancient Christian churches (the first in India, built at the time of Vasco de Gama's landing) and synagogues and numerous homestays. The first 4 homestays suggested by our Rough Guide are full when we arrive and wake up their proprietors at 2am but the last manager recommends a sister-home down the rode called the Taj Mahal and its owner, a new father, settles us into his pleasant house (decorated with Hindu, Christian and Muslim icons and images).

The next morning we drop by a great, artsy cafe packed full of foreigners eating the quiche or omelet that is serving with iced coffee and Halyna and I negotiate our plan for the day, prioritizing our activities to maximize or 24 hours in Kochi.

First we walk the short distance to the Chinese fishing nets which stretch out into the harbour. The fishermen sit idly chatting next to the garbage covered shore waiting for the water to calm enough to fish and Halyna and I decide to compete over who can take the best picture.

We end up getting distracted by the many kittens before trekking to the synagogue on the far side of the island. On the way we pass many mosques with huge loudspeakers blaring speeches and prayers in Arabic (some sound more political, others more religious). As the mosques are emptied the streets fill with Muslims and young boys tag along behind us. I crowd of women sees me taking a picture of a mosque and asks me to take one of them. As 8 or nine women crowd around the gate at an end of their alley, clutching their children and then eventually showing them off proudly and giggling when I show them the LCD display of the pics. Similarly a group of boys later sees my camera (despite my having tried to rap it in a scrap of cloth I picked up in Goa) and asks me to take a picture of them and send it to them. I ask them about the mosque and the synagogue and they say the latter is beautiful making me wonder at the contrast of this coexistence and the situation in Palestine. Passing a number of fragrance shops Halyna and I finally stop at one to buy some more gifts. When we come up short on rps the shop owners son lends us his scooter to go to an ATM but worrying about past scams we scrounge up the change and return before we can be stopped by cops for not having an intl license (the bribe to avoid the fine might be split with the owner of the rickshaw). When we eventually find he synagogue we discover that it is closed on Fridays and Saturdays (I had thought it would only be closed for Sabbath) but a helpful guard tells us its story (basically the only remnant of a Jewish community in India that dates back almost 2000 years, this synagogue was built b the Jews who were allowed to prosper by the Raj of Kochi while the Portuguese were persecuting Jews as part of the inquisition in the rest of India. When I explain that I am a Jew and would like to attend services, the guard suggests I ask on of the few Jews that remain for permission - all live along the street and eventually one Samuel Aluego shouts down to his housekeeper that we should be at the synagogue at 8am the next morning. As we leave "Jew Town" we stop at one of the many Kashmiri owned stores on Jew Street to look at some more jewelry as possible gifts and are persuaded by a Himalayan man who looks bizarrely similar to me to buy a few more items.

Next we take a ferry back to the mainland which offers at first fairly ugly views of the industrial side of Kochi's harbour but eventually drops us in the heart of Ernakulum. We wander its main drag, MGandhi Rd picking up earplugs for the train ride (which thankfully I haven't needed as of yet), stopping for a Keralan specialty, a Sharja shake (bananas, milk, boost and sugar) and some chai from a pleasant street-side stall, and finally making one last ditch attempt to find a cheap air ticket back to Delhi to avoid spending two days on the train.

Next we rush back tot he ferry back to Kochi to make a Kathakali Dance show. This 300 year old Keralan dance form involves incredibly intricate makeup and, as demonstrated for an hour before the performance begins, an extensive language of facial expressions, hand signs and body movements all in sync with established music which combine to tell hundreds of the major Hindu myths split into short skits. After the interesting show (attended exclusively by tourists, unfortunately) I spend too long in an internet cafe trying to sort out our/ my lodgings in Delhi and some lingering requests from IOM Kiev before meeting a distraught Halyna at our apartment. It being past 10pm once we shower and change, we are hard-pressed to find a restaurant with a view of the water and I somewhat stupidly end up choosing a 5-star (the only such place I could see) where we have fantastic fish and prawns meals in a beautiful atmosphere. Unfortunately, we are given aprons which sort of ruins the high class ambience and are quickly surrounded by mosquitoes (the waiters bring us pots of frankincense when we ask for mosquito coils which do little to keep us from being devoured.) The outrageous bill doesn't help matters but by the end of a walk with the local stray dogs and a bit of packing Halyna and I have made up. Nevertheless, I again have a hard time sleeping and spend much of the night reading. I go for an early morning run along the coast with all of the Indians who walk quickly for exercise (running her, as in Ukraine is bizarre and attracts many surprised looks). At the end of the boardwalk there is a small cove which is full of Indian men in their underwear not really bathing or swimming but instead simply standing in the dirty and warm water. Halyna and I eat breakfast at a locals joint on the water where south Indian food is served on newspaper and our host bombards us with questions about Canada (finishing with the usual requests for s job or visa). From the great view from the empty second floor of this restaurant we watch dolphins swim by in the harbour before heading off to the Jain temple in the middle of Fort Kochin. There we feed hundreds of pigeons as part of their midday ritual before taking a rickshaw back to our hostel, picking up our packs and trekking back to eh ferry to Ernakulum.

The train ride has been fairly easy: at night its been quieter and aside from some motion sickness induced by the flickering afternoon lighting Halyna and I have passed the time by reading, dosing and standing in the doorway watching India fly by. We meet a group of new trainees from the IT arm of India's largest company, TATA (they work for TCS, TATA Consulting Services though I know the company more from it being the name on many Indian trucks and buses.) They are enthusiastic about beginning their careers and spending their own money for the first time. Their first month's training is impressive, with German language and various other cultural orientations. We grill each other on everything from marriage and caste customs to work, travel, illegal migration, population growth, food and India’s workforce's potential.
Delhi

The sun is setting behind the palm trees that ring the embassy tennis courts. Still plagued by insomnia, I've spent the afternoon lounging in the sun, reading Rudyard Kipling’s "Kim" (set in and around some of the cities I have just visited) and swimming in the crystal clear embassy pool. Granted the 70s cement-block building reminiscent of Chandigarh and the boring embassy crowd detract from the otherwise idyllic setting in the middle of Delhi, but I really can't complain about my afternoon.

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Shimla

Picking up where I left off, Pinni and I spent much of our time in Shimla walking streets, observing how wealthy Indians interact while on vacation. For instance, the stereotype of fat-Punjabis is only a slight exaggeration. Relative to the otherwise extraordinarily thin population, the tend to be chunky and are sometimes obese. This could the result of their delicious food which Pinni and I would enjoy for diner for the next four days, but is more likely a product of their relative wealth.

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Tangent alert: I was once told a funny story about Punjabi women visiting the alora (sp?) caves. To access some of these caves one must climb many steps and for the exceedingly lazy, old or fat there are sherpas who carry you up the steps on a seat hoisted between two of their shoulders. While this procedure usually goes off without a hitch and results in the porters-cum-elevators making a decent living, the last category tends to cause problems. The story teller described how twice while they were climbing or descending the steps while carrying a particularly fat women, the porters would scream down for help and 2 to 4 more would run up to assist in carrying their particularly burdensome load.

Another tangent, or rather a rant, about Indian cops. I have experienced only the most superficial degree of India's corruption. Upon arriving from Ukraine, I was pleasantly surprised by the entrepreneurial spirit and hope omnipresent here. This enthusiasm unfortunately does not extend to government where bureaucracy (see Chandigarh below) tends to stifle any good intentions but even India's unparalleled bureaucratic hassles don't temper its populations general euphoria about life. The police are another matter. Their organized corruption, the fact that they take advantage of the most vulnerable and their connections to power have lead most people I interact with to despise and fear them. Some examples:

In Goa two friends buy a blunt, and like many others on the beach, go back to their hut to smoke it. Within minutes five police with ak-47s are knocking on the door and then searching through all their belongings and demanding a thousand rupees.

Two thirty in the morning in Paharganj, New Delhi: Several times during my long discussion with our hotel manager, he stops me from leaving to go for a walk explaining that cops are around and foreigners shouldn't be walking the streets.

In Manali we all agree not to talk to the cops after our hotel room is broken into nor do any of the other victims (4 apartments in all were broken into that night) because we know the cops are in cohoots with most of the drug dealers in the area and will only bring more trouble.

Our bus to Casol is stopped and boarded by two police who walk straight to Pinni and I, the only tourists aboard, and search our bags. We have no contraband so nothing comes of it aside from a scary few minutes.

All in all cops suck here and the worst ones are the most organized. The Delhi police force, for example, has a reputation for being horribly corrupt and Mumbai's police have been making front page news throughout my stay due to their prote3ction of their own in a couple cases where police are suspected of abuse and even murder.

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The day we arrived in Shimla was a state holiday and so the political capitol of Himachal became its holiday capitol and its masses came out to party. The next day, Pinni and I wake early and climb to the monkey temple which has disappointingly few monkeys considering the many signs warning against their thieving hands, but is nevertheless high enough to make breathing difficult and give Pinni a headache.

As we were unable to reserve tickets on the Shimla-Kalka narrow gauge train the day before due to the holiday (all full) we are forced to board the 2pm train unreserved. Arriving an hour and a half in advance, we are advised by the ticket seller to split up, one of us looking for a seat while the others buys the tickets. When we go to find a seat we discover this is sound advice as an hour before departure every seat is taken and the Indians aren't being obliging. After some lengthily negotiations and after Pinni goes to get the station manager we finally get a seat but when three French travelers that we met at the YMCA where we stayed arrive 20 minutes before departure the cars are already packed to the brim (in fact people are hanging out of the miniature cars). I spend the ride taking in t he views, taking pictures, exchanging mp3 players with the Indians and eventually chatting with the French trio in the car behind us. They work at the embassy in different capacities and are pretty fresh in the country. Their car is packed full of young Indian men who incessantly bombard them with questions and do the same to me when I arrive, reading my hand and predicting my future life story. When we arrive in kalka they become helpful as we don't know where to catch the bus to Chandigarh and, because our train ran out of gar about 300 meters before the trains station (we eventually got out and walked the rest of the way) we were an hour late. We end up sharing a taxi with 9 Indians which shortens the hour long journey by a half...

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Its 4:30 am. I'm sitting on the balcony of my hostel, which hangs out over the Ganges. In addition to Varanasi's near constant-power outages, there is a scheduled lack of electricity between midnight and 5am every day. As a result the fan in my room isn't working. As a result the temperature in my room remains well above 40 degrees and lying in bed I was sweating bullets. Its much better out here.

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Chandigarh

We arrive in Chandigarh at 9:30pm and begin hiking around the 22nd sector with our packs on looking for a hotel.

Designed by French architect Le Corbusier, this city is hyper-organized into 30 uniform, cement-block filled sectors, each of which was supposed to be self-contained (with its own market, parking, etc.) separated by broad roadways and with scattered green areas. The result is a blend of what Le Corbusier intended and what India has produced. As the richest city in India, Chandigarh's streets are uncluttered and as the guides point out, there are more cell phones than beggars. Yet the cement blocks are now pock-marked with air-conditioning units precariously balanced on windowsills and garish advertising abounds. The cement blocks become ovens during Chandigarh's hot summers and do not offer the flexibility required by Indian's hodgepodge style of development. Nevertheless, as in many Indian cities, Chandigarh's population is intensely proud.

After finding 5 hotels full we decided to stop for dinner while we still can. The night before we had had fantastic Punjabi food in Shimla (Tandoori chicken and palak paneer) and so we did the same in the joint-capitol of Punjab and Haryana. The food is again delicious but we quickly finish up and resume our search for lodgings. Almost every place in town is full, it would seem and the few that aren't want at least 2000 rps (we're used to around 250). Three hotels have asked us for C-forms which tourists supposedly require to stay in the otherwise Indian-only guesthouses and which we hadn't heard before. Eventually, around midnight we find a dirty, tiny room for 500 rps and crash, though I don't sleep more than a couple hours due to mosquitoes, the heat and the all-in-all unpleasant circumstances.

The next morning Pinni and I store our bags in the cloakroom at the bus station, and go to get a map of the city and passes to allow us into the capitol complex made up of Le Corbusier's most interesting buildings in town. After asking us any number of irrelevant questions about our respective countries and having us fill out several forms, the secretary at the Chandigarh Tourist Corporation gives us three copies of the same form allowing us entry into the executive, legislative and supreme court buildings. When we arrive at the first we are told we need a different pass to get in. After again showing our passports we are then escorting by machine-gun toting guard into the center of the massive cement box that holds the majority of Haryana and Punjab's government. Inside we are taken to a small room where three guards sit. Emergency numbers and plans are posted all over the walls and one of the guards glasses are bent to the point of being comical. The two older guards are ordering the third around and he scurries in and out of the office with water and file folders every minute or two. After a 20-minute wait and more unnecessary questions about our countries we are escorted to a different office. This one is classic: 10 or so desks sit facing a bigger one at the front of the room and each is cover in stacks of what look to be decaying file folders overflowing with papers and tied with string. Behind each sits an man writing furiously. Every so often on of these men ums up and runs the file he's working on up to the front where another more senior bureaucrat sit facing the rest. He signs the file and hands it to a gofer. We sit in front of him for another 15 minutes watching this process before he signs another form which he hands to us explaining we can walk to the roof and take photos there and then must leave. All in all, this bureaucratic labyrinth took us well over an hour to see very little of the building though the rood offered an interesting if stark, view.

We decided to skip the same process at the legislature, instead walking by and taking pictures of the outside on our way to the supreme court. There I am asked to hand over my camera until we get the appropriate forms filled out. After walking between two offices at where bureaucrats keep sending us back to the other, we give up, decide that Pinni's pictures of this, Le Corbusiers finest building and in many ways a masterpiece, will have to suffice, and begin walking around as if we have the necessary permissions. After a quick tour of the building we end up in a courtroom, watching as the supreme court of Haryana and Punjab justices criticize a government advocate for his department’s neglect regarding the health of the other party. The proceedings are interesting and on the way out we grab a dal tali and some salt and lemon covered cucumber slices at the dhaba that services the poorer employees of the court.

Next we go to Chandgarh's most famous site, its "Rock Garden," supposedly the second most visited site in India (though, like Chandigarh, it is frequented largely by wealth Indian tourists.) This many acre "garden" is actually one massive piece of artwork created out of the stone and trash that its designer collected during his career with the Public Works Department. The maze takes well over an hour to wind through and includes everything from swings to tons of animals, all made out of scraps and stone. I was pretty exhausted throughout but Pinni was full of energy and both of us were snapping pictures frequently, as always. Next we took a long bicycle rickshaw ride back to the bus station and from their to the train station where I was yet again astonished by the size and number of Indian families sitting on the platforms. The mothers looked as young as 14 or 15 and many families had 6 or more kids, playing with, and taking care of, each other.

On the train ride back we met another AIDS worker (we had met two others in Shimla and I had met several in Delhi) and chatted at length with him about politics, etc.

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Delhi

Arriving in Delhi I took the long auto rickshaw ride back to Nadia's where the guard woke Tengzen, her Tibetan housemaid who gave me the key to the door and I passed out in the air-conditioned safety of B 1/3 Vasant Vihar.

My first two days were spent doing chores with Pinni who was taking off south to Rajastan before heading back to Israel via Mumbai (he was jumpseating on his last free flight with El Al). I ordered a sort of sleeping bag made of sheets so I wouldn't have to lug around my overly warm one and Pinni ordered some bedrunners and pillow-covers. He confirmed his flight back with El Al and I stopped by the Drukair office because supposedly Bhutan's airline had the cheapest tickets to Calcutta. We hung out with some Israeli friends of Pinni that he'd encountered earlier on his trip, ate at various dhabas and had dinner at the very popular Pizza Hut in Connaught Place where there si a bell over the door for Hindus to ring to the Gods and birthday greetings are sung in a blend of Hindi and English. On the walk back from Connaught Place to Paharganj we saw a man who was encouraged a bull to but him with its head over and over again, as he took pleasure in being thrown forward, all the way down the streets as Indians laughed.

In Paharganj the noise and hawkers annoyed and exhausted me as I wandered picking up items from the drugstore and charging my cell phone’s SIM card but each I was able to return to Nadia's where I spent too much time on the net, Skyping friends and family and Halyna back home.

Nadia returned late the next night but was busy as ever planning a birthday party with three friends (all of their birthdays occurred within a month of that weekend and Nadia's was on Sunday) and organizing and attending functions as part of her position as head of public affairs at the embassy. Our mutual friend and Ultimate frisbee team mate Jeff Sinden few into town on Thursday, working for World Heath Organization so we met up with him for dinner on that evening. On the UN's per diem he was staying at the Meridien an ultra-modern hotel downtown. We shared a couple Kingfishers (Indian lager) there and then moved to the Indian Coffee House, a classy restaurant in Connaught Place. The evening constantly reinforced the different ways people travel as Jeff's hotel cost 50 times as much as mine and there was a massive flat-screen television in his room. Similarly we spent about four times as much on beer that night as I would usually spend on accommodation. Needless to say it was a pleasant evening spent reminiscing about Ultimate in Ottawa and catching up on what our teammates were up to including how Jeff and his wife Allison were doing in Geneva.

Late that evening I met up with the three French expats from the Shimla-Kalka train ride at a swank bar/ lounge in South Delhi where we were joined by a couple others from the French Economic mission. We stayed until we were kicked out just before one and then shared a rickshaw back home (the driver sang loudly to himself the entire way).

The next day I payed a auto rickshaw driver 170 rps to drive me around town for a few hours. First stop was the ticketing agent for Bhutan Airlines whose "office" was on the opposite side of south Delhi in the fourth floor of an apartmet building at the back of a residential complex filled with children and animals. When I finally found the room I was offered chai as he wrote out a receipt for the $150 I gave him in cash with a promise that the ticket would be delivered to Nadia's that night. I did a little clothing shopping at Sarujini market, picked up some blanks CDs and looking into shipping at Gafar Market and then went to the embassy. The day before Nadia had gotten my a "Family" pass so that I could enter the compound without being searched or accompanied. I spend the afternoon snoozing in the sun by the pool and writing this blog as a recuperate from a sleepless night caused by mosquitoes and try to get over a cold I picked up from too many hard days travel with too little sleep.

That night I spend a few hours helping Nadia and friends Nagar, Suzanne and Kriscella get ready for their party, moving furniture around and pumping Kriscella's computer full of mp3s from the CD collection. Then I head over to FLorence's (one of the French expats) house where she and re roommate are hosting about 30 young expats for a crepe party.

Saturday is also spent preparing for the party, though for an hour and a half at midday we play Ultimate Frisbee in Nehru Park. I invite Mary Randall whom I met at the woods three weeks earlier and who I am surprised to learn is an experienced ultimate player from Vancouver and are joined on the field by some American diplomats who are also very good. While the game is slowed down by the unbelievable heat, pollution and explanations to an Muslim cashmere who joined us but never really got the gist of the game, it is great to get back on the field and get some exercise.

The party that night is attended by tons of Canadians and American friends of the four girls who range from 20 to 60 years old. Some are getting wasted on the virtually unlimited supply of very strong drinks being mixed by two gay (but in the closet) Indian women who work for Nagar while others are dancing to everything from Michael Jackson to Indian hip hop. Around midnight the champagne and cakes come out and people don't leave till after 4pm.

The next day, after we finished cleaning up, I head to the Meridien for a workout with Jeff who is nursing a hangover after getting plastered the night before (he couldn't find the party after driving back to Delhi from Agra and had spent 45 min wandering around Vasant Vihar, eventually calling Allison in Geneva for the address). The three dals sitting out front seemed to do the trick though and he is well enough to join my in the weight room. Next I meet up with Mary Randal and two colleagues from the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative at a lounge in Greater Kailash 1 (the last one had been in Defense Colony). On my second last day in Delhi I return to Paharganj to do more chores after walking through the sprawling clothing market next to Nadia's where I grabbed some chicken and dal from a Dhaba. That evening I meet up with Jeff again and show him the true delhi beginning at the railway station and winding through Old Delhi as we pass the Jama Masjid (the cities biggest mosque and site of its most recent bombings two weeks earlier) and visit a Jain temple and Sikh Gurdwara before hitting up another nice restaurant/ club called DV8 for dinner and beers. The next day I spend 60 dollars and a couple hours sending 10 of the 26kgs I've been carrying around back home. I go to pick up the business cards I'm having made to find that they are just being finished, by hand. As I am close to being late for the train, the owner has me ride on the back of his motorcycle (we speed incredibly quickly through the back alleys and around the many pedestrians making me think the chase scenes in movies a little more believable) to have the cards cut and then catch the train to Varanasi. As usual I can't sleep on the train though I spend a pleasant couples hours chatting with the Australian girl (Aime) and Catalonian couple in my car (they always put the tourists together.)

Monday, April 17, 2006

Manali

...My luck didn't stop with my hotel but it did run out soon enough. Waking up feeling somewhat alone as I couldn't find my friend and former roommate Pinni with whom I'd been staying in Dharmsalla, I walked the 25 min from Old Manali to downtown where I tried to scope out my usual necessities: an internet cafe with a decent set of headphones and a broadband line, a bookstore cause I'd just finished Quicksilver and some food and company. The town was eerily quiet for what was supposed to by Himachal Pradesh's most popular tourist destination. Turns out it was a Hindu festival and the entire town was either sitting in rows in front of the bus station or pushing to get into the makeshift arena where hundreds were being fed Puja, food blessed and offered to the gods. Not knowing whether or not I'm welcome or what the protocol is I avoid the festival and wander around till I find an open internet cafe. Doubling back towards the guesthouse I run into an Israeli with whom shared my hellish journey from Dharmsala. He suggests we try and get into the festival and so, after 35 minutes of being crushed by the crowd we squeeze into the arena. We are fed serving after serving of rice with every known Indian dhal from paneer (cheese) to the usual lentil. I leave stuffed and we walk to a nearby temple and from there back towards my place. On the way the luck kicks in and I walk past a cafe where Pinni is sitting talking to a new Israeli/ architect friend (Pinni is also an architect). I move back with them to Vashist, another small town across a couple rivers and past town...

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Am now sitting at a coffee shop in Kasol, a town that has very rightfully earned the moniker, Little Israel. We ate falafel here upon arriving yesterday and the ingredients were all straight from Israel and prepared by a 55yr old Israeli. He is exceptional, however, as the town is dominated by 20-something Israelis, almost continuously stoned who live, dance and eat as if they were at home. But I should return to my varying luck in Dharmsala as that story is both more interesting and unfinished.

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Pinni and I decide in Vashist to move back in together but almost immediately a bit of a dispute arises with the owners of our guest house who want to increase the agreed price to account for my presence. By the next day the dispute had become a full-fledged argument between Pinni and the owner who had asked for payment in order to confirm a price higher even than that which we had confirmed with his employee the day before. Acting in part because I did not want to move again, I played the role of the peacemaker and persuaded Pinni to stay at the higher rate but within day and a half I would regret my decision.

Vashist is an interesting town for two reasons. It is at the head of an arrow shaped valley and so has stunning 30 degree panoramas and it is the site of a natural and holy hot spring. Upon arriving in the town and after getting settled Pinni, Michael and his son Nimrod and I go down to the hot springs and join the Indians in absorbing their sulpheric healing power. While not exactly clean (the Indians bath and clean their clothes in the same hot springs), the experience is as authentic and atmospheric as they get and feels wonderful.

For unknown reasons insomnia kicks in that night and I spend fair bit of time writing the last entry of this blog and reading. The bed is lumpy, the room is chilly and all in all I am not particularly comfortable. The next day I go for a hike with Pinni, we catch a ride back on a tractor and head to the Bet Habad, a house set up by Hassidic family on a mission to spread Judaism to Jews around the world (more than 3000 such houses exist around the world with the worthy mission of sustaining Judaism in an unfortunately fundamentalist form.

There we eat the midday Sabbath meal tshundt and listen to the Rabbi tell stories which Pinni translates (there are 8 other Jewish backpackers there, all of whom are Israeli and converse exclusively in Hebrew). Interestingly, the Rabbi, Barruch, is a Russian who only became orthodox/ Hassidic at the age of 29 while his wife was born and raised a Hassidim in Toronto but has lost much of her English.

From the Bet Habad we go to town where Nimrod and I play snooker (he is a pro, plays for money and has been supporting himself in Dharmsala on his winnings and teaches me to play). I take a brief break from the tables to go to a bookstore where I meet an Argentinean girl named Pilar who I invite to join us for dinner and a movie at one of Vashist's nicer hotels.

That evening, the five of us (Pinni, Michael, Nimrod. Pillar and I) hike up to the hotel. While we eat I spend an hour or so trying to get the hodgepodge of DVD and TV machinery to work before giving up and allowing one of the many stoned Israelis lounging around to put friends on. After passing around a jay filled with charas, the local hashish which seems to have very little effect on me but is described as shanti-shanti by everyone else around here, we all hit the sack.

The next day we wake up to find it pouring outside and the mountains entirely hidden in mist. Pinni and I take an early morning bath in the hot springs and the he, Michael and son and an Indo-Australian corporate speech writer we meet at breakfast debate world politics and particularly the war on Islam for 3-4 hours. I head into town for my internet/ uploading fix, grab a bite to eat at one of the many fairly high class overweight-Punjabi-filled dhabas in town and pick up some overpriced rum to make mohitoes for our crew back in Vashist....

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Am currently in Barista, one of India's modern starbucks knock-offs in Shimla, a town that epitomizes hill-station, but more about Shimla later....

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I return to Vashist past 9:30 and hang out with Pilar and her Israeli roommate for an hour before going to get Pinni, Nimrod and Michael. Pinni and Michael are asleep and when I wake them Pinni asks that I lock him into the room so I won't have to wake him when I return (if he needs to get out Michael and Nimrod are next door and he has a spare key) and Nimrod is out partying with fellow Israelis.

Pilar and I join a group of Israeli's celebrating a birthday in the Rainbow cafe nearby.

On a tangent Indians tend to be very unoriginal with their establishment names. Their are hundreds of Mountainview and Hilltop hotels and tons of intentionally? misspelled Western knock-offs (Hilltone, Sheltone, etc.). In addition, almost every bakery in tourist towns are German Bakeries, and any liquor store is inevitably called an English Wine Shop. Similarly, I have yet to be to a Himachal town that does not have a Rainbow Cafe.

There I mix a nimbu (lime) pani (water) with mint leaves and our not-quite-white rum to make mohitoes for us and the birthday boy and we all chat for a couple hours. When I return to our room I notice the lock isn't on the door. Shining my flashlight on our clothes line to confirm its the right room I hear Pinni say "Jake" loudly. I open the door and he quickly closes it locking it from the inside explaining that someone has broken the lock off and tried to break in twice now. Around half an hour earlier Pinni was woken by a bang as if someone has broken the lock with a hammer. As the intruder entered Pinni yelled my name and he took off but a quarter hour later he returned. With the lock on the outside of the door we think the intruder imagined the voice coming from the room next door and thought to try again but was again scared off by Pinni who was no scared for me. Imagining that I had been accosted and someone had gotten a hold of my key, Pinni spent the next half hour worried. After going over the possibilities we found it unlikely that Pinni's argument with the hotel owner and the break-in were unrelated and decided to move out the next morning. Similarly, because we didn't know if Nimrod had made it back alright and because their room next door had a bathroom that opened onto the corridor and which couldn't be locked we decided to wake them and explain the situation. I spent a sleepless night freaked out at the thought of a pissed off hotel owner willing to break into his own guests' rooms.

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The next morning all five of us moved into three rooms back in my original hotel in Old Manali. It was another rainy day and after coffee and a couple games of chess (I'd picked up a travel board at one of the shops in town) and set we went to a sushi place next door. Set in one of the traditional Himalayan farmers' homes, this cave-like restaurant was owned by a Korean man who'd given up his dream of starting a chicken farm in Israel and then India and resigned himself to catering to fellow Koreans and the occasional other foreigner that visited his establishment. Again I didn't sleep well but woke up and went for a run figuring I needed the exercise. I didn't make it anywhere near my intended destination, however, as the altitude made exercise very difficult and my running exacerbated my already unhappy bowels forcing me to make an emergency pit stop at a hotel on the way. I eventually hiked up to Vashist and enjoyed the hot springs again, meeting a Punjabi textile salesman based in Bangkok who offered to show me around Chandigarh and gave me a shoe-shine boy we had befriended earlier a ride back to Old Manali.

Pilar, a couple of our Nepali hosts (Himachal Pradesh's tourism industry employees tons of Nepalese in addition to many immigrants from Darjeeling and the Northeast) and I then had a picnic in their unbelievably picturesque apple orchards.

The only other major event was Passover. Held at Bet Habad, this meal was attended by 150 of the areas' resident or visiting Israelis (250 attended a similar meal in nearby Kasol). Pinni spent the entire day preparing the meal and I helped for an hour. He, 4 Nepalese women, the Hassidim’s servant (an Indian deadest on converting to Judaism and planning on following the family back to Israel at the end of the season) and several other Israeli's cooked the entire meal while the Hassidim watched and chased after their terribly behaved children. They started a fire outside the house (set on the third floor of a still-under-construction-hotel) to fry the fish which they cleaned and marinated and made salads, home-made matza and wine and soup for 150. The event itself was pleasant-if-packed and a little orthodox for my taste. There were no English Hagadah so Pinni translated for Pilar (who, having spent the past few weeks with Israelis, was checking out their religious customs) and I. Two of his friends that he'd worked with as an attendant for El Al and that we'd run into in Dharmsala met up with us during the meal in Manali and we spent much of the dinner conversing / arguing like good Jews about the meaning of various symbols and rituals.

The rest next couple of days are spent between the internet cafes and dhabas of New Manali and the gorgeous traditional beauty of old Manali.

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Kasol

On the 13th Pinni and I board a public bus and begin our journey south to Delhi. Pinni has persuaded my to make our first stop as opposed to going straight to Shimla where we can catch the closest train connection (which makes for a much longer trip but avoids local buses which tend to both make me sick and terribly scared - the number of deaths-per-year tend to be in the tens of thousands). Kasol is at the other end of the Parvati Valley which follows a tributary of the river which carved out the Kullu Valley which at one end of which sits Manali. By securing a front seat and taking of the my Indian miracle-pills I managed to avoid motion-sickness if not fear and the views on the 6 hour ride (connecting in Buntaur) were incredible. Many cables spanned the massive valleys we drove through which were used by the locals to transport goods across the ravines in small baskets. Along the way we passed many herds of mules, sheep and cows in addition to truckloads to Sikhs on their way to Manikaran where natural holy hot strings literally boil out of the ground. After arriving late in Kasol and spending a couple hours searching for a decent place to stay we begin to understand that the town is packed full of high Israelis, its food is overpriced and we aren't particularly keen on staying long. After weighing the possibility of spending the next to days on a beautiful but frigid hike into the mountains we decide to continue on to Shimla after a detour to the hot baths in Manikaran. There, the locals boil their rice in the hot water that abounds while Sikhs and Hindus bath in it.

At around noon yesterday we walked the few kilometers back to Kasol and began an 8 hour bus ride through Mandi to Bilaspur where we decide to spend the night after realizing we won't make it to Shimla till 3am. This is a dirty, industrial town with overpriced lodgings and while we're completely exhausted by the journey we still spend a few hours trying to find a decent reasonably priced place (we are still talking 4 rather than 8 dollars, of course.)

Shimla

Getting up early the next morning we board yet another bus for our final ride to Shimla where I currently sit. This is a modern town, packed full of wealthy Indian tourists which still very much has the feel of the British hill station that it was a half-century ago. For much of its Raj Shimla was the British govts' official. summer retreat, accessibly by the narrow gauge railway which we will hopefully ride to Chandigarh tomorrow. Aside from being full of poorly dressed Indians (Indians sense of style seems to get worse as they get richer - their clothing and building becoming substantially more tacky)....

Saturday, April 08, 2006

Dharmsala

When people asked why I was going to travel for 5 months I always half-jokingly answered that I planned to "find myself" amongst India's masses. With Halyna having left, and after my very-brief scare in Amritsar I feel I have truly begun this process in Daramsalla. I should add that I am now technically speaking in the town of Macleod Ganj which is just above the town of Daramsalla and which, in fact, has very few indian residents. Home to the Tibetan Govt in exile, it is populated largely by tourists and the tibetans and few indians that cater to them. The town does this well, replete with 4 mini-movie theatres, restaurants serving international cuisinge ranging from French croissants to Italian lasagna and Japanese sushi and internet cafes galore. My first few days here continued the rough ride that Amritsar had begun filled with encounters with new forms of spirituality and striking cultural presentations and les than perfect physical and mental health. Immediately upon arriving after a 3hr long train ride leaving from Amritsar at 11:30pm and a 4 hour busride elaving Pathankot at 4:00am, I quickly went to the house in Daramsalla (while the entire area is generally refered to by this name, the lower town, largely populated by Indians, is what the name technically refers to) that was recommended by my generous hosts/ rescuers in Amritsar. The house is owned by the mother of one Naginder Raina, brother of Ashok Raina who is a good friend of Shuresh Gupta, the pharmacist who rescued me. Naginder, originally a cashmere, is a big man in town - a manager at the State Bank of India, he was known by any local to whom I mentioned where I was staying. While his house had a beautiful view it was not decadent aned in fact wsa quite run-down. Run by his mother, its single shared bathroom required that one turn oin the water heater half an hour before using it and the massive pile of blankets in my room was a testament to the lack of insulation or heating. Nevertheless it was a quite cosy place to stay. Naginder's mother, a tiny, wrinkled hunched, proud old women proud of her house and family and set in her ways, ran a tight ship but allowed e a surprising amount of freedom. When I mentioned that I might be coming back late she told me which lights to leave on and where to lock my own padlock so I could let myself in without disturbing the household. Within a few days, however, staying at this house became too much of a hassle for my less-than-settled stomach. I've currrently come to the conclusiont hat I ahve some sort of bug (which, I've discovered almost every long-term tourist in India learns to live with) that combined with my usual motionsickness and began to make the 45 min long journey up the unbelievably windy road to Macleod Ganj, where all the actin is, arduous to say the least.

After arriving at this house around 8am on the 29th, I quickly dropped my stuff off and found the bus up to Macleod Ganj. While pushing my way to the front to lessen my motion sickness I fell into a conversation with an american who mentioned he was heading to the dalai lama's teachings as well (this was the last day, and in fact, I would later learn, the last hour which is why I'd taken two overnight trains/ bus rides to get to Dharmsala. )

The American, named Rob is a part-time photojournalist who had been hired by 4 local tibetan nunneries. They had given him directions to the tibetan temple on the edge of macleod ganjw here the dalai was speaking and a munk on the bus showed us the back entrance. We sat with thousands of other tourists and tibetans watching the end of the dalai's teachings (the last ceremony was entirely in tibetan with no translation) on a television set before his holiness exited the building and waded through the masses (or at least his gaurds cleared a path for him and hy continuosuly nodded his head acknoledging their prayers). After checking out the town for an internet cafe rob and I then send 40 minutes hiking down to dharmsala where I passed out. Later that evening, between internet cafe sessions, I got drunk with two indians who tried to pursuade me to smuggle jewelry into Canada. One passed out and the other walked me on a wild-goose chase to find a friend I knew was staying in another nearby village called Bahgsu before continuing to drink with other indians while I tired to find the path to dharmsala on my own int he dark and eventually got frustrated and payed a rickshaw to find the route for me.

I spent much of the next day making and meeting up with friends, including two Canadians Rob had introduced me to that had had a rough time as of yet in India (all of their stuff was stolen, they had run into riots, etc.) and an Austian-American couple I encountered on a roughtop restaurant. In yet another attmept to avoid motion0sickness I was lead down the hill to Dharmasalla by a cashmere taxi driver who chatted with me about his desire to live in an organized, orderly country, his difficult life supporting his sister through school despite her non-existent prospects after an inevitable marriage and life in India more generally.

The next morning I woke up bright and early to go to a Tibetan opera which I found resemble native american dancing and singing. THe opera was packed in part because it was being opened by the dalai aand so we got their a couple hours early (because of the distance from my house I had to be up at 5.)

Over the next few days I spent much time in internet cafes and watching movies include Samsara (tibetan, holywoody but nice), Kundun (about the dalai's life, scorsese), brokeback mountain (moving) and The Constant Gardner (which, yet again, made me want to pack up a fly to sudan to do something, particularly now that the world is recognising that the UN is necessary.)

I also spent a fair bit more time looking into tibetan society and culture including a visit to their Government in Exile's department of Information and Intl Rels where I recieved a 2 hr 1 on 1 briefing on the government and tibetan society, a visit to Nurblinka, a cultural centre where numerous tibetans crafts aer produced replete with a beatiful temple; a blessng ceremony by the Karmapa , 3 in the tibetan hierarchy, a 20yr old who walked over from tibet two years ago; a walk, clockwise, around the the local tibetan temple with three israeli friends and a visit to the Tibetan Childrens Village where several thousands children are housed and taught.

After a few nights I moved up into Macleod Ganj and moved in with an Isreali friend named Pinchas or Pinni who I'd met through Shayan (American) and Bernhard (Austrian - both acupucture therapists) at the TIPA tibetan opera.

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A couple notes on Delhi that I forgot - went to Rajgat where Ghandi is buried (the rest of huis dynasty lie nearby) and interesting and serene memorial wherzue thousands of indians pay they respects to the countries most impressive man. This was written on one wall (other statements of his were written on other walls in many other languages:

Seven Social Sins

Politics without principles

Wealth without work

Pleasure withot conscience

Knowledge without character

Commerce without morality

Science without humanity

Worship without sacrifice

Mahatma Gandhi 1925


After seeing several other sights and having slept vezury little the night befire I recloned on one of the grassy slopes around the memorial where guardw were unsuccesfully trying to enforce any of the sites rukes (including do not sit or recline on the grass, don't engage in sporting or recreational activities, etic.) when an entire school of children surrounded me, asked the usual questions and then asked that I pose in picutres with them (even the principle wanted one).

I also went to a dance performance with Carolyne and all of her neigbours servants children after which we went and had ice cream (note the many pictures of the children)


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Another sleepless night though thankfully this one isn't moving. My last few days threw me back on a rollercoaster after breifly establishing a pleasant rhythm in Dharmsala that made me sad to see it go (crazy how one can develop small amounts of attachment to various places after only a few days time and time again). Pini left for Manali a day before I was ready to leave and the same day that Bernhard, Shayan's sorta-husband, left for Delhi so Shayan replaced Pini as my roommate. She had been feeling aweful for a few days and so began a batch of antibiotics which seemed at first to have eased her delhi-belly but the day and night we spent hanging out together both of us were suffering. My stomach had been acting up off and on throughout the trip but never seriously but this time the pain was sharper and for a few hours I was almost writhing as cramp after cramp tied up my stomach. Thus, I spent much of my second last day in Dharmsala in bed reading or watching a movie.

Besides liking our hotel better, Shayan was given a shocking reason to move in when she and Bernhard disvoered a dead body outside their hotel three nights ago. The man, supposedly a south-Indian with a drug-habit, had be seruously mauled with a stone and I just glimpsed what was left of his face as the police attempted to cover it and the rest of his nearly naked body lying in an oozing gutter with a large crowed of onlookers around it. Needless to say it gave cr3edence to the idea that certain areas can have bad karma and left all of us thinking about death more than we would otherwise have liked.

My last night in Dharmsalla was fairly uneventful and after visiting the Children's village the next day I climbed on top of the public bus I wsa taking to Manali so I coudl arrange my and the other tourists packs on its rough. This was he 5pm begining of yet another hellish busride through the mountains at night. At points the bus was so packed that people ere hanging out the doors and for much of the trip and was crushed between indian bodies. At one point the winding turns,rapid acceleration and decelaration and constant climbing and decending of the mountiains, led the boy sitting in front of my to puke for half an hour out the window. I took a gravol which eased my carsickness and put me to sleep hut I was nonethless awoken frequently as my head slammed into the mettle bar at the top of the chair infront of me after a greater than usual pothole. At one particularly surreal point 2,5 hours from Manali in a city called Mandi, our bus driver stopped the bus next to another state-run bus and asked us to switch buses. This involved getting ont he roof and throwing all of our packs onto the new bus before we all boarded it and continued on our way.Upon arriving at 4am it would seem I continue to have a horseshoe up my ass however, as skepticallty decided to join two fellow busriders who'd been pursuaded by a street hawker to go to his friends hotel. The hotel, it turns out, wsa clean, cheap & had a stunning view and the next morning I awoke looking out at a perfect himalyan mountainscape framed by blosoming almond trees

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Another ride, this time from Delhi to Amritsar.
The past few days have been a rollercoaster. For the first time in 9 weeks and really in my whole life I was completely on my own.
The first night was particularly rough. Paharganj, what is often called the main bazaar and is actually Delhi's backpackers' den epitomized the best and worst of my recent adventures. Walking down the street one is faced with a combination of horrible kitch and the best pickings of India, all lined up in stalls geared towards the thousands of backpackers who end up in paharganj. The neighborhood’s nexus is a long street with is origin at the main New Delhi train station. Entering the street from this end, any visible foreigner faces an onslaught of touts selling everything imaginable. While dodging cows, rickshaws and motorcycles one must constantly ignore young men screaming "Hello Sir!" "Where you from sir?!" "From England Sir?" What's your name sir?" with terrible, piercing fake English accents, all trying to get you into their hotels. These, the cheapest establishments for foreigners in Delhi, can be found in the hundreds down every alley and up every staircase off of the main bazaar. I should have spent my first night alone on the third floor of one such "hotel." I checked out 8 of them and ended up staying at the Raj International and middle-off the road establishment (around 250rps or 6 dollars a night) which had cable and an attached bathroom. Unfortunately it, like every other place I saw, also had blood stained sheets and was decidedly not clean. Combine this with my usual insomnia and being alone for the first time and I had the perfect recipe for a sleepless night. In addition, 24hr internet cafe's abound in paharganj compounding my problem. At the beginning of the evening I avoided my bed, sending emails, looking into NGOs to work for etc. Then I went to Ajay, a hostel packed full of Israelis who tend to stay up late and, after reading a bit, joined a table with 2 Israelis and a Portuguese person chatting. One Israel was here on business and was escaping his real hotel to meet up with his tz2emporary girlfriend, the Portuguese girl Marta (they met on the plane 2 days earlier). The other Israeli girl, Noam had been in India for 6 months. After a 40 min long conversation about where we were from and where we were going in India everyone calls it a night. After reading and then tossing and turning in bed for a couple hours I get up and chat with the night manager of the Raj. At 4am he is supervising 5 young Indian men who are turning a very long pipe sticking out of a very deep hole directly in front of the main entrance to the hotel. He explains that he has two wells which supply the hotel with water because the city doesn't pay for commercial supplies. One is working and the other is pumping out the orangy-brown murk that is all over the first step of his hotel. I wander back to the internet cafe where Noam has just gotten off the phone with her boyfriend, an Israeli she met in Goa who also just went home. We say a few words and then she heads up to her room. I hate not sleeping and not sleeping completely alone in a scary neighborhood is the worst. This requires one last explanation about paharganj. Indian Dilliwallahs (people from Delhi) rightly consider paharganj the worst area in Delhi. Its two redeeming factors for me combine to make it so: it attracts all the young tourists and it supplies them with everything they need. India on the whole is much safer than north America and there is very little crime on Delhi’s streets in general but the combination of drug dealers and thieves that all these tourists have attracted/ contributed to, makes Paharganj a forbotten ghetto for the rest of the cities residents. On the other hand, in looking for fellow travelers, its my best bet.
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Let me jump back a day and get my chronology straight. Halyna and I got into Delhi in the early evening. We eat a meal on the rooftop of one of paharganj's taller hotels (these are another redeeming factor), I check out a couple possible places to spend the next night and then we spend a little more than an hour looking for last minute gifts for Halyna's officemates (everyone shops just before leaving India). Then we take the long rickshaw ride back to Nadia's (I keep Halyna warm, as usual, while ducking as low as possible to watch Delhi go by). There we meet up with Nadia and her German boyfriend Thomas, a very nice film director. The next day will be their last night together which is why I must leave but Nadia has allowed us to stay over for Halyna’s last night. The four of us recap out trips (they also went to Kerala for a week) and then Halyna and I pack her up, split up our belongings, and sleep for an hour or so before taking a cab to the airport. The cab, as usual rips us off but I ask him to wait for me anyway...
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To note form am bored and tired:
Can't get in or out of airport, three hours ahead of time and nowhere to call the cab from
bit of the next day with Thomas before checking into the raj and then meeting mike for coffee at the oxford bookstore
Accompany him to Sati's for dinner where we are joined by another civil servant in the ministry of the environment and forests. Mobbed by mosquitoes in his beautiful backyard, dinner talk centers on politics and then mike's off to the airport and I to paharganj
Get a haircut the next morning for 40rps on the street (he shoes me the new razor blade), then to majnu ka tila, the Tibetan colony in the north of Delhi where, amongst the many Tibetan monks, I find a large, clean hotel for the same price as the raj. On the way meet German PhD researching the root causes of violence who has learned to play the sitar and is trying to get away from his very rigid planned life . Take a nap, find hot water only (so bizarre) and then to John Woods for a pleasant meal with their friend Mary Randall who works at the Commonwealth Human Rights Initiative
Rickshaw to paharganj, internet cafe for a bit and then bicycle rickshaw all the way to majnu ka tila. The driver astonishingly speaks decent English and talks the entire way. He also surprisingly lets me take over for 15 min. I sleep ok, though wake up surrounded by mosquitoes once and lather up with repellent.
Meet Marta at noon after some street food and a ride on Delhi’s beautiful new metro and we go to Purana Qila, the old fort which is old, and somewhat beautiful and reminds me of the stories of Delhi I am reading in Kushwant Sing's book. Then we go to the Craft Museum, after a long walk and more street food, where the store is unfortunately closed but the craftsmen outside are great, there are rajastani musicians and the craft museum contains some wonderful pieces.
Dinner at the woods after a run with the dogs and then a failed late-night attempt at finding an internet cafe in khan market near Golf Links (where the wood's live off Lodi rd)....
Meet Rinki, Parul's college friend who works at an NGO called Prathan that does grassroots education all over the country. She briefly introduces me to one of her colleagues and suggests I perhaps do some reporting on some Dutch-funded projects that are wrapping up. I then head to Gafar Mkt, supposedly the largest tech mrket in Asia but more realistically simply the largest in Delhi. There is tons of used hardware and pirated software but most of the new stuff is going for standard North American prices so after several hours of checking prices and bargaining I walk out wanting an IPod Nano or a PSP and having but a 70rps headset for those occasions when an internet cafe has skype but no way to use it. Next I rickshaw to the Lotus temple which is closed but I get the idea from outside the gate and then to the Wood's for another nice dinner before heading to paharganj. Leaving the wood's at night involves a bizarre procedure of locking them in with chains at their door and gate because they usually use the chains to lock them from the inside...Needless to say I felt bad negotiating this process and it made my first late night a little awkward.
In paharganj I met u with Noam, the Israeli and we go for a long walk to nowhere around paharganj, avoid stray dogs and rickshaw drivers and spooky men offer us hash.
On Saturday I went to Khan Market and after finding Neal Stephnson's latest at last, my favorite semi-pulp author, I settle into a coffee shop called The Big Chill. There I run into a group of Canadian tourists or more specifically a Canadian tour guide and her mother and aunt. A veteran guide of 8 years she had just lead her last tour for 12 members of her family. We have a nice chat and Katia and I meet up the next day just before I leave.
From Kahn Mkt I head to a Francophonie event being hosted by the Alliance Francais. A very large event this consists of booths for every country in the francophonie (including Lebanon and Romania and Canada where Nadia is). I watch an hour's worth f advertisements from the past few decades in French which are usually hilarious, eat some food and watch Congolese singing and dancing in front of an uproarious crowd (the Indians have dipped a little too deep into the Belgium beer and kingfisher and dance wildly) followed by an even more outrageous performance by a Moroccan belly dancer. This is followed by a more formal concert by a very good French/ North-African group at which I meet two of Nadia's friends and a contact from CIDA who I later meet for info on NGOs to work with around India. That night after some Mexican food we head to a party hosted by one of Nadia' friends. The third person I see is the colleague at Prathan who I don't recognize but who recognizes me. Within minutes I realize that everyone there is attached to one NGO or another and between the networking and the alcohol and the dancing the night ends well.

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Talk about a weird place to write a blog. I sit next to an ancient electroencephalograph machine in a dirty room, on a dirty bed, with colour coded electrodes hanging from the nail which holds up a gaudy calendar showing two versions of Krishna, listing the major Hindu holidays and with "With the Compliments of, Khana Associates, deals in X-Ray films, & Chemicals..." on the bottom. I stopped writing last night when I thought I'd be able to fall asleep. Such are the self-doubting hopes of an insomniac. An hour later I took a sleeping pill. Two hours later I awoke when the family of three sleeping across from me disembarked somewhere in the middle of Punjab. I couldn't fall back asleep. I should also note that just before falling asleep I remembered I hadn't taken my Larium (malaria) pill. I took it very late, with lots of water and no food. Getting of the train at 6am, the Punjabi inseam manufacturer sleeping above and beside me gives me his name in case I need anything (we'd chatted a bit). I check my pack at the train station and take a bicycle rickshaw to the golden temple. Its cold and I'm glad I'm wearing my jacket, scarf and gloves. Amritsar supposedly has some of the most extreme temperatures in India. It could be 25 at this time of year or, as it was this morning closer to 5 degrees c. On the way to the temple we pass hundreds of newspaper boys leaving a large courtyard where they pick up their goods and I pick a copy of the Hindustan Times up. I then buy a head covering from the guy he makes change for me so I can pay the rickshaw driver.
Mimicking the hundreds of Sikhs in front of me I check my backpack and shoes, wash my feet in the pools at the entrance of the mosque and enter the high, ornately decorated white walls that surround the golden temple, the holiest site for seiks. Inside I instantly reach for my camera. A gold building rises from the middle of a large square pool surrounded by white walls. On the thin path to the building, hundreds of Sikhs wait there turn and all around there are Sikhs of every kind, most of the men carrying knives or swords, some in classic saffron and blue military garb. They buy offerings, the bath in the artificial pool, and all over they pray. After circling the pool and taking many pictures, including of a stunning blue-eyed Sikh who starts chatting with me, I get in line to walk to the golden temple. After about 25 minutes of waiting I am about halfway there (they let us in groups) when I begin to feel distinctly light headed. A few seconds later I feel dizzy and nauseous and try to move through the crowd to the side rails to steady myself. I don't make it all the way there. A few minutes later I wake up surrounded by Sikhs. It takes me a few seconds to figure out where I am. I had been dreaming but I can't remember what. The Sikhs are trying to make room for me, trying to lift me up. A woman keeps saying breath, sit up, open your eyes, hold the rail, in a garbled mix of English and Punjabi. I stand and fall and stand and sit. A few minutes later I try to stand again to no avail. A man asks me if I want him to clear the way for me. I say no and but eventually am persuaded. As he clear a path through the masses ahead of us I stumble along the guardrail. Once we reach the temple itself I sink back to the ground and try to breath. When I orient myself the man is nowhere to be seen. I circumnavigate the temple, avoiding the crowds inside and head back to the entrance. As I pass the crowd waiting to bet let in, nearly every face turns and watches me. I sit down looking at the pool and then muster the strength to get to the entrance. By the time I get my shoes on I am feeling much better. As I get into the rickshaw my energy fades again and a wave of nausea washes over me. Thinking a doctor would be better than a hospital waiting room I get the bicycle rickshaw driver to take me to the hotel my guide recommends where I hope they can refer me to an English speaking doctor. Instead they tell me to go to the hospital. I follow the book's instructions and go to the Kakar hospital. When I get there I don't believe the autorickshaw driver. The signs say a different name., Then he points way up and at the bottom a sign says formerly known as the Kakar hospital. Within ten minutes a doctor has examined me and found nothing wrong. He prescribes an anti-vertigo drug, an antacid drug and an anti-motion sickness drug and, after asking me the usual Indian questions, (name, country, job) sends me to the pharmacy in the next room. There an older gentlemen explains the pills. The anti-vertigo pills, he says, cost 350 each. Rps I ask? Yes, he replies, they're quite cheap, they cost 3 rps and fifty pesas. As usual, I choose exactly how many pills I want and he breaks of that number of aluminum-wrapped packets and gives them to me with instructions. I then ask whether he recommends somewhere to rest during the day, explaining that I arrived this morning and plan on leaving this evening. At first he doesn't understand. I say I need to spend a few minutes at an internet cafe and then simply need somewhere to sleep during the day. He writes something on a page and hands it to me. He says go to this x-ray clinic after you go to the internet cafes. Get them to call me. You can rest there. And so, an hour and a half later, after calling home and breaking down in public, largely because am a little lost, very alone and I am very grateful for my parents and everything they always do for me, I end up in this bizarre "Modern XRay Clinic"...
I'm now at the bus stand in Pathankot on the border between Punjab, Uttaranchal and Pakistan. Its 4:30 am and while I'm bored I also feel much more rested after having slept for a solid 2 hrs on the train. I will soon board a bus to Darramshalla. My day improved substantially as I arranged transport here, contacted Halyna and my parents about my health and then went to the border where I was witness to a bizarre daily ceremony that proves how ridiculous today’s nuclear politics really are. Hundreds if not thousands of Indians and Pakistani's go to the Waga Border Crossing to watch their Border Forces, dressed in ridiculous outfits doing a quickmarch as they close the border. Then they all run to the fence on the border, wave at each other and take "snaps." After the hour long ride to and from Waga I pick up a small gift for the owner of the pharmacy and head to his house where I meet his entire family and get their brief life stories. Much of their extended family is in North America and they proceed to give me all their contact info (so I give them our numbers in DC and MTL) and then I have my first homecooked, if a little rushed meal before heading to the train station.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Goa

If there could be a state that is opposite my circumstances when I wrote my last blog entry this might be it. I sit facing a picture-perfect sunrise. A man carries a body-board over his head into the waves as two India kids jog by and two of the many beach dogs scuffle nearby. The temperature must be around 20 degrees and the humidity has subsided for the day. I'm on Palolem beach in southern Goa. I've been here for two days now and both have been idyllic. The water is warmer than the air now and is full of salt which makes for easy floating if not swimming. The sand is soft and the beach is supposedly the nicest in Peninsular India. Despite the many tarpaulin covered shacks that now crowd its shores, a ban on the building of more substantial buildings has left the shore looking picturesque.

We spent our first night in a set of huts called Tony's Cottages which were recommended by two Brits who were on the Jaipur-Mumbai train with us. Since I wrote my last blog from that train it makes for a decent place to begin the story of the past 5 days.

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Mumbai

We got into Mumbai around 6am. Halyna and I were both feeling lousy after sleepless nights and far-too experimental food from various train stations during the ride. Over the course of the 12 hr train ride we befriended our bunk mates who included a gemologist (who sells silverware to America companies), an architect designing smoking rooms for Indian malls (smoking is banned indoors here and cigarette advertising is impossible except in specific places like these rooms which will be sponsoured by the tobacco companies) and another finance-oriented businessman. I spent much of the ride talking to the gemologist who was planning a trip to the US this summer and was very knowledgeable and helpful about Bombay where his head office is. Before leaving the train we agreed to meet the gemologist to buy gifts at wholesale prices.

A brief return to scatological material: as we were traveling between the three Mumbai stops (totaling well over an hour of superfast transport) Halyna went to the doors to get some air and was treated to the site of countless Indian men squatting by the tracks and pooing. This practice, it would seem, is not unusual in India where pooing, like peeing is a public activity. Kushwant Singh wrote in the book Delhi which I'm reading now that, "The fields are littered with defecators; some face us with their penises dangling between their haunches; others display their buttocks - barely an inch above pyramids of shit. The Indian peasant is the world's champion shitter. Stacks of chappaties and mounds of mustard leaf-mash down the hatch twice a day; stacks of shit a.m. and p.m. " I, in contrast, am anything but a champion shitter. Sleep deprivation has combined with my nervous nature to make me frequently constipated (I liken my constipation to that described by Philip Roth in several of his books about Jewish boys and older men). With its holes for toilets and lack of toilet paper, India presents an obstacle course for irregular tourists such as myself. I surmounted the first impediment on our train ride between Delhi and Agra as I held on to the handle in front of the two foot marks for dear life and attempted to relax enough. An early morning run provided the occasion for my learning to deal with the lack of toilet paper. Running loosened my bowels plenty and mid-way I was forced to jog into the closest hotel where three Indians grudgingly allowed me to use their toilet. With no paper at hand I was forced to use water, a less disgusting than expected but still unpleasant experience particularly when it comes time to pull your pants up onto a wet and hopefully clean bottom. Most Indian bathrooms do not have towels or soap either making me question many fellow-travelers' argument that this is the cleaner alternative to toilet paper.

The same run also demonstrated the Indian aversion to maps. In some ways, this aversion is calculated and proves why one must always decide on a fixed rate with an auto-rickshaw driver before one steps in. The night before Halyna and I had gone clubbing at an outrageously expensive club in Jaipur's only five star (it was Saturday and the only club we could find and it 2was made more expensive because Dave came along and Stags (single men) are charged the same as couples (750rps). Getting home our rickshaw driver got completely lost despite clear directions and two maps. After asking several people he insisted out map was wrong until we eventually dir3ecetd him back to the hotel ourselves (at which point an argument over the already established price ensued which was only settled when the owner of our hotel came out to silence the rickshaw driver. Asking directions in India is difficult for completely different reasons than in Ukraine. Most seem to want to be helpful here and rickshaw and taxi drivers are constantly asking for directions but as often as not the advice they receive is wrong and if you hand them a map they (and everyone on the street for that matter) gets completely confused. Either way, 5 minutes into my run the next day I came upon the same hotel, less than a mile from our hostel and only three turns away (it had taken us over half an hour the night before).

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I was sidetracked in the midst of writing my last entry and its been 5 days since I've had a chance to write. Halyna and I are now undertaking the longest single leg journey of my life, a 49 hour ride from Kochin, Kerala to Delhi.

Mumbai

We negotiate a rate wit many cab drivers from Mumbai trains station who as usual get mad at each other (some have followed us from the train station and claim us as their own but being annoyed with their pestering I find a different cab and agree on 100rps which, it turns out, is probably higher than it need be because in Mumbai, unusually, taxis actually use their meters (though as in Delhi they can be rigged and sometimes covered) and because of a ban on rickshaws in downtown Mumbai to reduce congestion, a more expensive cab is the only option we have aside from the unbelievably packed commuter trains on which we would have to battle for the exit three stops before it in order to get out at the right stop if we even knew when this stop was coming

We find our hostel, The Lawrence in a back alley, up a disgusting set of stairs with betel-juice all over the walls. The hostel itself is fairly clean aside from the bathrooms and is run by a hunched young man with an ornery, elderly cat. We are sleeping three to a room for the first time with Mike and upon entering our room he immediately asks to shut the windows to keep out malaria-carrying mosquitoes. Luckily Halyna finds screens and after freshening up we set out on the town.

With our stomachs still slightly upset, Halyna and I had agreed not to eat all day (subsisting on juice as recommended by the gemologist) but within an hour we are sitting at the cafe Malabar in the heart of ever so touristy Colaba (the Lawrence is on the border between this, the southernmost and most touristy quarter of Mumbai and Churchgate one of its transportation and commercial hubs). Surrounded by movie theatres and hawkers selling to the many white visitors, this a stately part of town with broad streets. Nevertheless, the sidewalks are clogged with homeless beggars who use them as beds at night.

From breakfast we rush north to Churchgate Station where just before noon a thousand dabawallas converge every day. They make up the most efficient food delivery service in the world. Carrying colour-coded tiffen boxes full of food cooked at homes in the small villages surrounding Mumbai, each is destined for a different businessman and will be delivered precisely on time and always to the right person. The dabawallas are almost all from the town of Pune and most are related as we confirmed while taking their photos. Forbes awarded Mumbai's dabawallas a 6 sigma performance rating, the score reserved for companies who attain a 9.999999 percent of correctness (1 of 6 million goes a stray). As with many others in India, the dabawallas were more than happy to have their photos taken, preceded or followed by the obligatory "What is your good name?" and "Where are you from?"

We drop by the Indian Tourist Info Center where I try to pick up poster from its fantastic "Incredible India" campaign and then proceed through a slum in the middle of the financial district which surrounds a massive garbage heap. Halyna and I are constantly offered weed and are shocked to see a woman who is missing an eye. Its not that its patched or closed, there is simply a deep, massive gaping whole where her eye should be.

Our next destination is ironically called Fashion Street where hundreds of stalls full of fake Gucci and diesel belts, and knock-off clothes of all brands are sold by wallas whose prices can vary by 500% if you're a good enough bargainer.

From fashion street we head to the bazaar district and Crawford Market in particular where our gemologist-friend has his office above the ramshackle storefronts and milling masses of India's most densely populated area. Here an incredible number of people care an awesome variety of goods (from steel girders, to fruit, to bales of hay) making staying focused n your destination, let along moving towards it, a difficult task.

with the jeweler we sift through hundreds of types of silver jewelry with a large variety of semi-precious stones. The longer we look, the harder the process becomes as it all b begins to look the same but it prices 10 times cheaper than in North America, its hard for us not to buy something, so we did...

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Halyna here....this is where I would like to jump in to note a personal incident Jake could not truly understand at the moment, and therefore, would be unable to describe, not of his own fault, but simply for the reason of him being a boy....

Upon leaving the market, waiting to catch an auto rickshaw, a man rubbed his greasy fingers on my breast and grinned while passing by. I was a little bit shocked, I have to say. My initial reaction was to see where Jake and Mike were. They were a bit too far off so I, without really thinking about it, sprinted after the creep. He just stood there, a little shocked himself that I reacted, but really didn't seem very regretful of his inappropriate behavior at all. Just stood there looking at me with a smirk on his face. even more furious, only to find a very disappointing reaction on behalf o Jake. His reaction was almost identical to the man I had scolded, he smirked too. I guess it was a bit funny, but considering how upset it was, it was not yet time to laugh about the whole thing.

I realize now that Jake was in just as much shock as I was and just didn't know how to react.

It wasn't a big deal, I know that. I knew that then and now. But the principle of the matter is big, the utter lack of respect for women and our right to personal space. Later on that night I found out that I was not the only one who recognized the seriousness of such violations. Two girls that joined us for dinner that night, Rajvi and Deepa, were both members of an organization called "The Blank Noise Project", which deals with issues of street harassment otherwise known as "Eve-teasing." I'm glad such groups are around, to help prevent such silly, yet scarring incidences from taking place, and defend us against the offenders when they do.


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Jake again:
In a fitting if difficult twist of planning we were set to travel through Mumbai's red-light district next, which, as expected turned out to be another trying experience. We first took a cab up and then walked back down Falkland Rd, lined with Indian women, young and old, thin and more rotund, light and dark, all selling themselves. Halyna was mad at me but I insisted that she hold me hand, largely because I was embarrassed to be looking at these women, to be walking by them, and felt that my showing that I was with her, did not want to pay for them, somehow made it better.

The three of us met up with Deepa and Rajvi next. I had been introduced to Rajvi by email several months earlier after sending out a mass message to all my contacts requesting contacts in the areas to which I was traveling. Rajvi is a friend of Ilona with whom I worked at the Munk Centre in Toronto and is currently working in the Marketing section of a firm in Mumbai. We met her and her friend Deepa at a restaurant called The Noodle Bar coincidentally directly next to our hotel. This immaculate restaurant was styled somewhat like a sushi -joint with minimalist furniture and very attentive waiters serving Asian-fusion cuisine. The meal was pleasant and aside from the usual questions, Deepa and Rajvi gave us the lowdown on what we should do in Mumbai and then took us to Marine Drive. As we walked down this 5-star hotel lined boardwalk, looking out on Mumbai's skyline and lined with lights that make it look like a pearl necklace we were constantly nagged by homeless mothers and their children. Rajvi, Deepa and Mike went home and Halyna and I kept walking. She became quiet upset about a boy who kept following us a clearly had no parents or protectors. Waling along the boardwalk alone he was, as Halyna said, "going nowhere."

We had chosen Noodle Bar with Rajvi and Deepa because it sounded like it might offer food that would not upset Halyna and my already temperamental stomachs but, following a long day of spicy food, we both had distinctly piquant mains and at the end of our walk were both in need of a bathroom. As frequently happened we underestimated the length of the walk back and with only a few blocks to go realized that the emergency was desperate enough to hail a taxi. The driver, with our map in hand, proceeded to get completely lost at which point we got out without paying him and began to walk in the right direction. Halyna stopped at a restaurant to use the loo and with our far too regular movements we began to worry about how effective some of the many pills we were taking might be. We called home for advice and then made it back to the apartment. I, exhausted passed out while Halyna had a rough night with an upset stomach.

We spent the first part of the next day between the pharmacy and a doctor who prescribed antibiotics for Halyna which we got for next to nothing back at the pharmacy (once an get almost any drug over the counter for very little money in India, though one can't, for instance, get spray-on deet).

After a "safe" lunch at McDonalds we went to see an interesting multimedia exhibit on Gandhi (whose presence everywhere is substantial: every city has a street named after him and a statute of him) at the National Contemporary Art Gallery. We then walked down Collaba Causeway packed with stores and stalls catering to every tourists desire and bugging the rest. We unfortunately again went to a Rough Guide recommended restaurant called Leopold’s which was packed with tourists and served lousy, expensive food. Mike and I picked up a bottle of vodka which we never ended up drinking because by the time we went back to our apartment he and Halyna were too tired to go clubbing. I briefly check out the club Rajvi had recommended (again right next door) called Red Light which was very swank with an all black and red light decor and a door that, once shut, from the inside was impossible to find without help. Yet again I couldn't sleep so I went to an internet cafe and spent the night trying to upload pictures, chatting on MSN, replying to emails and calling home.

The next day during breakfast we experienced a tropical downpour and throughout the day scattered showers made for our first of experience of India in bad whether (we are still months away from the monsoon so the sky is cloudless most days). Halyna and I picked up the soundtrack to the movie we'd seen and then went to India Gate while Mike read and wrote in a coffee shop. On the way Halyna and I are stopped by a very young Indian mother with her two children begging for milk. Surprised that she's not asking for money we obligingly follow her to a store around the corner where the owner pulls out a container of powdered milk that he says costs 300rps and adds that she'd like a 250rps bag of rice as well. Shocked, we say now and he starts lowering the price. In the end, I handed her 20rps and we discussed the intricacy of Indian cons - she would give the milk and rice back to the man and he would give her a small share of his profits.

After watching the fishing trolleys and vacationing young men mill about India Gate we met up with a German athletics instructor/ model at our hostel who joined us as we perused several other contemporary art galleries and then met mike for dinner. After a delicious ice cream and molten fudge desert from Noodle Bar we boarded another overnight train to Goa.

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Goa

Surprisingly, I slept fairly soundly despite a rowdy Indian group of friends and family who added boisterous laughter and loud drumming to the usual snoring all night long. There are more white people on this ride than any other we've been on and each is avidly flipping through their own version of the Lonely Planet. Looking out on Goa the next day from the train, its beauty was immediately apparent from neon green rice patties to the ocean stretching out to the horizon. I tried calling Tony's Cottages from the train station and found out that despite a conversation with its manager the day before, no one had come to pick us up from Margao. Halyna, meanwhile found 5 other backpackers all heading to the same beach and we crowded into a minivan. During the forty-five minute long ride to Palolem we befriended two Brits in the cab with us and in the end spent much of the next 4 days with Paul and Olie.

Once on the beach we realize how gorgeous Palolem is and why they call the hostel's shacks. Our cottage consists of a bamboo hut on stilts stuck into the sand 15 meters from the water. Granted there are many, many, more huts just like it, all the way down the beach, but its still a hell of allot better than the cement blocks that make up Ukrainian or even many Indian hotels. The five of us (Mike, the Brits, Halyna and I) went to one of the many very similar restaurants lining the beach, order a couple kingfishers and some seafood and enjoy the view. We then take a long walk down the beach, observing the many nicer huts further away from Palolem's main drag and clamber up some cliffs at the far end. The two of us, read, dose and watch as the sun sets from the rocks at the very end of the beach with a cool, strong wind in our faces.

I'm going to skip a fair bit of our time in Goa because much of our time was similar. We were on the beach, playing volleyball or basking in the sun or throwing a Frisbee or shopping for clothes on the main drag. Our first night there is a party at a bar called X-Cross and after a few hours of drinking and pool we check it out. Halyna quickly tires of the club and is mad at me for not paying enough attention to her while with the boys and I spend my night running between her and them, chasing her down the beach and playing with the many stray dogs as I try and drunkenly console her. In the end, she spends some of the night in a hammock outside of our hut. The next day Halyna and I swim the mile to the island at the opposite tip of the beech, burning our backs in the process and then clamber around the rocks burning our feet. We then get back into the water for a while before running back to our cottages, joining the boys (Mike ahs been hanging out with Paul and Olie allot since the three of them met a group of Norwegian girls) for dinner. The next day we rent a pair of scooters and Mike, Halyna and I check out some surrounding beaches and old forts. Agunda, the closest beech is if anything more spectacular than Palolem with a similar layout and almost no one around us (except for a couple that similarly rode over from Palolem). We hop in the water and then check out Casa de Rama, the Portuguese fort nearby and at the next beech with find a film crew shooting a German movie about hippies from the '70s.

Our last meal in Goa is perfect. The five of us sit on pillows at a beautiful cafe at the opposite end of the beach eating fantastic Indian and continental cuisine, with dogs at our feet. We talk about photography and the plans for our trips (they too are continuing on in S.E. Asia) and then try to find the cheapest clothes in town for Mike and the Brits as Holi is coming up. Mike, I should note, has decided to stay in Goa and enjoy its somewhat hedonistic nightlife and relaxing atmosphere while Halyna and I continue south.


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Kerala

Our train to Kerala is more than an hour late and as Halyna sleeps I teach half of the Norwegian group how to play Set.

Our time in Kerala was a little rushed as much of it was spent traveling under hectic conditions in order to see as much as possible of the Southern state before Halyna had to return to Delhi for her flight back to Ukraine. Our train ride was relatively painless, though at 16hrs it definitely wasn't short and we ended up getting off 2/3rds of the way to our original destination, Trivandrum, at the southern tip of the state in order to allow us more time on the backwaters.

Exiting the train in Allepey we found ourselves in the smallest town yet and after arranging a rickshaw to Johnson's: The Nest, the homestay recommended by our guide (as stated on its front gate) we were shuttled to its sister home, the brand-spanking new The Brown Residency. This home was a pleasant surprise in the decidedly traditional Allepey as its polished marble floors and spotless room felt as if they had never been lived in. After trying every ATM in town in addition to several Internet cafes we were told that the cities internet was down but would probably be back later that evening so we continued to the main drag along the water where hundreds of "travel agents" sold backwater trips. Ranging from three day long a/c houseboat journeys to 3 hour long motorboat journeys, these were all out of our price range and it was not until the 11th travel agent that our description (simple, small, cheap) finally hit home. We had a pleasant meal for under 2 dollars each and then spent a couple hours in the now functioning internet cafe which was cheaper and faster than any we had seen yet in India. The next morning we woke up early and began our tour which involved a half hour ferry ride to our guides village where we met his family and then hopped in his canoe for a three hour long trip around the backwaters. These small rivers were formed when Kerala's residents reclaimed its land resulting in a patchwork landscape of villages accessible only by boat. All along the water women beat the hell out of clothing and children ran along asking us for "one pen, one pen." We had a wonderful lunch at the local cafeteria of fish, rice and a vegetable masala served on a banana leaf. I spent much of the day paddling (though Halyna helped for a 45 minutes or so) in the heat of a south Indian summer and developed a bit of a headache by the time we took the ferry home. We then picked up our packs, I picked up my watch from the repairman (I had cracked its face on a bicycle rickshaw in Delhi) after paying him 30 rps (75c) and we got on another ferry to Kottoyam. This ride was again beautiful as we crisscrossed the many rivers for hours ferrying Kerela's villagers from home to work and back for 3 and a half hours as the sun set. Once in Kottayam, a substantial industrial town, we realized we didn't really want to stay, and despite a persistent headache Halyna persuaded me to catch the next bus to Kumily further inland. We followed an Italian priest and the five Indian students he had taken on a day trip tip Allepey to the bus station where we were placed by the driver at the very back of a crammed bus. A combination of the rickety old bus, our 9pm departure, the very windy and hilly route and an insane driver resulted in the most harrowing bus trip of Halyna and my lives. While I took a Gravol to avoid being sick and passed out within an hour (to be awoken every 10-15 minutes when Halyna couldn't prevent my head from slamming against the seat cause the bus ad slowed or turned so quickly). For the first hour I tried to decrease my nauseousness by looking at points in the distance an activity made much more difficult by the road which turned every 200 meters and which climbed and descended Kerala's foothills for most of the journey.

When we finally arrived in Kumily, the base-town for Periyar, one of India's largest national parks it was past 1 in the morning and we quickly went to the cheapest hotel we could find. Woodlands was a massive cement block with only the most basic amenities and was a massive step down from our room in Allepey but for 100rps we could handle it for a short night.

The next day we had a less than satisfactory meal at another Rough Guide recommended homestay and took a rickshaw to the park where we were charged the as usual outrageous tourist rate (300 rps as compared to the Indian 20). Inside we found three other foreigners who wanted to hike around rather than ride the boat (the usual method of viewing the parks sites, though this tour around the large man-made lake at its center rarely afforded views of anything aside from the occasional distant elephant) and set off. To begin our trek the 6 of us (we had to be accompanied by a guide, costing the group 500rps) were ferried across a small river on a raft which was pulled across on a rope by the guide. Within minutes of entering the forest Halyna and I began to notice that its floor was covered with what looked like small worms and a few moments later as our companions noticed the same we were shocked to find that these worms were sticking to our skin and shoes. The leaches, we were informed by our guide, had come out as a result of the rain the day before and would be less common in sunny areas which he encouraged us to continue to as we desperately tried to get them off our skin. Halyna was in by far the worst situation as she was wearing sandals and when we finally got back to the lake's shore both of her feet were quite bloody. The rest of the three hour hike was less eventful though we did manage to see a giant squirrel (two feet long) many species of birds (from Kingfishers to hornbills) and monkeys, water buffaloes, deer, wild boars and a monotor lizard. Perhaps the most entertaining part for me was our guide who dramatically pointed out elephant and deer footprints, broke apart the bones of deer killed by wild dogs (no sign of the parks few remaining tigers) and helped us across muddy streams with logs. At the end of the trek we invited one of our British companions to join us for dinner and the three of us had a pleasant meal at a "homestay" cum hostel packed full of backpackers. Kumily is also renowned for its spices so Halyna picked up several packages for friends and then we made out way to the bus station. By this point it had begun to pour and by the time we neared the station the towns sewer system was overflowing. As peopled tried to avoid the sewage filled streets the terribly unsanitary nature of India was reinforced by a group of men picking branches full of bananas from the water at their feet. Finding the right bus was another hassle as we didn't know that the fastest route to Kochi was again through Kottoyam and so it was 8:30 before we finally began another frightening ride packed full of nauseating hairpin turns to Kottayam. There, at midnight we caught a train to Kochi but because we were buying the ticket at the last minute all the a/c classes were full and so we sat on our bags in the doorway of a car full to the brim with sleeping Indians (some even slept in the halls between the bathrooms) for the 2 hour journey.

When we arrived in Ernakulum the commercial mainland east of Kochi, we begin immediately to haggle with the autorickshawallas over the price of the long journey to Fort Kochi (ferries, the more affordable and pleasant means of transportation to the island, only run during the day). As usual, we cause a bit of a raucous by securing a price 50% cheaper than the massive cue of rickshaws has agreed for us by hiring a young boy (who looks under 16) for the 40min long journey. As we pass through Ernakulum and then across the bridges to Wellingdon Island (artificially dredged up by the Brits to allow the large boats to now fill Kochi's harbour) and then to Fort Kochi with its ancient Christian churches (the first in India, built at the time of Vasco de Gama's landing) and synagogues and numerous homestays. The first 4 homestays suggested by our Rough Guide are full when we arrive and wake up their proprietors at 2am but the last manager recommends a sister-home down the rode called the Taj Mahal and its owner, a new father, settles us into his pleasant house (decorated with Hindu, Christian and Muslim icons and images).

The next morning we drop by a great, artsy cafe packed full of foreigners eating the quiche or omelet that is serving with iced coffee and Halyna and I negotiate our plan for the day, prioritizing our activities to maximize or 24 hours in Kochi.

First we walk the short distance to the Chinese fishing nets which stretch out into the harbour. The fishermen sit idly chatting next to the garbage covered shore waiting for the water to calm enough to fish and Halyna and I decide to compete over who can take the best picture.

We end up getting distracted by the many kittens before trekking to the synagogue on the far side of the island. On the way we pass many mosques with huge loudspeakers blaring speeches and prayers in Arabic (some sound more political, others more religious). As the mosques are emptied the streets fill with Muslims and young boys tag along behind us. I crowd of women sees me taking a picture of a mosque and asks me to take one of them. As 8 or nine women crowd around the gate at an end of their alley, clutching their children and then eventually showing them off proudly and giggling when I show them the LCD display of the pics. Similarly a group of boys later sees my camera (despite my having tried to rap it in a scrap of cloth I picked up in Goa) and asks me to take a picture of them and send it to them. I ask them about the mosque and the synagogue and they say the latter is beautiful making me wonder at the contrast of this coexistence and the situation in Palestine. Passing a number of fragrance shops Halyna and I finally stop at one to buy some more gifts. When we come up short on rps the shop owners son lends us his scooter to go to an ATM but worrying about past scams we scrounge up the change and return before we can be stopped by cops for not having an intl license (the bribe to avoid the fine might be split with the owner of the rickshaw). When we eventually find he synagogue we discover that it is closed on Fridays and Saturdays (I had thought it would only be closed for Sabbath) but a helpful guard tells us its story (basically the only remnant of a Jewish community in India that dates back almost 2000 years, this synagogue was built b the Jews who were allowed to prosper by the Raj of Kochi while the Portuguese were persecuting Jews as part of the inquisition in the rest of India. When I explain that I am a Jew and would like to attend services, the guard suggests I ask on of the few Jews that remain for permission - all live along the street and eventually one Samuel Aluego shouts down to his housekeeper that we should be at the synagogue at 8am the next morning. As we leave "Jew Town" we stop at one of the many Kashmiri owned stores on Jew Street to look at some more jewelry as possible gifts and are persuaded by a Himalayan man who looks bizarrely similar to me to buy a few more items.

Next we take a ferry back to the mainland which offers at first fairly ugly views of the industrial side of Kochi's harbour but eventually drops us in the heart of Ernakulum. We wander its main drag, MGandhi Rd picking up earplugs for the train ride (which thankfully I haven't needed as of yet), stopping for a Keralan specialty, a Sharja shake (bananas, milk, boost and sugar) and some chai from a pleasant street-side stall, and finally making one last ditch attempt to find a cheap air ticket back to Delhi to avoid spending two days on the train.

Next we rush back tot he ferry back to Kochi to make a Kathakali Dance show. This 300 year old Keralan dance form involves incredibly intricate makeup and, as demonstrated for an hour before the performance begins, an extensive language of facial expressions, hand signs and body movements all in sync with established music which combine to tell hundreds of the major Hindu myths split into short skits. After the interesting show (attended exclusively by tourists, unfortunately) I spend too long in an internet cafe trying to sort out our/ my lodgings in Delhi and some lingering requests from IOM Kiev before meeting a distraught Halyna at our apartment. It being past 10pm once we shower and change, we are hard-pressed to find a restaurant with a view of the water and I somewhat stupidly end up choosing a 5-star (the only such place I could see) where we have fantastic fish and prawns meals in a beautiful atmosphere. Unfortunately, we are given aprons which sort of ruins the high class ambience and are quickly surrounded by mosquitoes (the waiters bring us pots of frankincense when we ask for mosquito coils which do little to keep us from being devoured.) The outrageous bill doesn't help matters but by the end of a walk with the local stray dogs and a bit of packing Halyna and I have made up (the evening wasn't what she had hoped for out last full night together as I hadn't planned anything romantic and had left everything to the last minute). Nevertheless, I again have a hard time sleeping and spend much of the night reading. I go for an early morning run along the coast with all of the Indians who walk quickly for exercise (running her, as in Ukraine is bizarre and attracts many surprised looks). At the end of the boardwalk there is a small cove which is full of Indian men in their underwear not really bathing or swimming but instead simply standing in the dirty and warm water. Halyna and I eat breakfast at a locals joint on the water where south Indian food is served on newspaper and our host bombards us with questions about Canada (finishing with the usual requests for s job or visa). From the great view from the empty second floor of this restaurant we watch dolphins swim by in the harbour before heading off to the Jain temple in the middle of Fort Kochin. There we feed hundreds of pigeons as part of their midday ritual before taking a rickshaw back to our hostel, picking up our packs and trekking back to eh ferry to Ernakulum.

The train ride has been fairly easy: at night its been quieter and aside from some motion sickness induced by the flickering afternoon lighting Halyna and I have passed the time by reading, dosing and standing in the doorway watching India fly by. We meet a group of new trainees from the IT arm of India's largest company, TATA (they work for TCS, TATA Consulting Services though I know the company more from it being the name on many Indian trucks and buses.) They are enthusiastic about beginning their careers and spending their own money for the first time. Their first month's training is impressive, with German language and various other cultural orientations. We grill each other on everything from marriage and caste customs to work, travel, illegal migration, population growth, food and India’s workforce's potential.
Halyna's TravelBlog

It's difficult to compete with Jake's Blog, so I'll make my modest addition short and "spicy"...My decision to come to India was very last minute. Jake likes to believe that it was his skill in persuasion that did the trick. I'll let him believe that, but share with you, that there were actually a number of reasons why I decided to leave my work in Ukraine and join Jake on the first leg of his journey. I won't bore you by listing them all, simply suffice it to say, the "stars were lined up," and there was no good reason not too...."Here come's the sun"India has been wonderful. Though my visit has been short, our experiences have been many and varied. From scaling a mountain side to an abandoned watchtower overlooking a lake with bathing elephants, to lying on the most perfect beach I could imagine. Sure, we got burnt, bitten, sick and moody, but that's all part of the adventure. We met many great people, fellow travelers and Indians alike, and managed to sweep down the entire West coast in a matter of three and a half weeks. A lot of moving, that's for sure: trains, buses, jeeps, ferries, canoes, horse drawn carriages, bicycles, bicycle rickshaws, auto rickshaws, taxis....were all part of the race to see India.Jake I'm sure will slow down, but I'm happy with the pace we managed to maintain. More bang for the rupee, that went a very long way...In short, no regrets (which is rare for me). Many memories to take back, share and hold on to. I look forward to returning to India with my sister and watch this amazing, vibrant country impact her in the same startling fashion that it did us. "An assault on the senses" is how India is commonly and accurately described. It's true.Wishing Jake all the best in his travels and look forward to hearing about the many adventures that still await him.Thank-you to the family and friends that have been concerned for our well-being while we've been here. Our thoughts have been with you, and it means a lot to us how much you care. Don't worry though, we're fine, we will be fine and see you all soon.

Cheers,H.

Thursday, March 09, 2006

I write this blog entry hunched over on the middle of three bunks in our 3ac car on the train between Jaipur and Mumbai. Yet again, I can't sleep although my upset stomach and the chorus - nay symphony - of snoring around me, provide better excuses than my usual A.D.D. mind for my insomnia.
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Delhi
Nadia's beautiful house (nicer than ours when we lived in the same neighborhood, Vasant Vihar, 15 years ago) is a peaceful escape from the chaos of India (except for the guard who sings along with the Indian female leads at 3am in a falsetto that is surprisingly good).

I visit my old house, now the property of the Kenyan defense attache. The guards understandably don't let me in so I try explaining my situation to their supervisors who sit in a hut accross then street and then finally to the Kenyan who returns from lunch to find me on his doorstep asking to see is house. The place looks much smaller than I remember it and its small size is accentuated by the Kenyan's furnishings.

I meet Dave - a friend from UofT who has been in India for 8 months volunteering with Mother Terresa's organization - for lunch. The I head to the American Embassy School (AES) which is way larger than it used to be. The new buildings tower over my old complex but the campus is still beautiful. I revisit the old art facilities where my mother used to teach and I used to observe, in awe, after school.

Then to my former art teacher, Mira Sarkar's house, in Kaus Haus, by rickshaw past all the medical stores near the medical institutes (pics). Mira has a very hyper dog, Mira with Parkinson's-like tremor, very kind and old, still teaching for the love of the children, nice house with beautiful designs/ posters on the wall - her talkative husband is a graphic designer, who, once the delicious meal, which he prepares while Mira and I reminisce about school, is served, dominates conversation with non-stop opinions. Interesting graphic design work for German festival and watch Bush decend from his plane. Then to pahar ganj, the tourist haven next to the train station packed full of hostels and hawkers selling everything a tourist wants and doesn't want until 2-3am.
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Agra
Early morning train to Agra, meet Ashley (Cali) and Hunter (Taiwan, yoga) who join us as we escort Mike to his pampered hotel set up by Satinder and then continue to our hostel directly next to the Taj which is quaint if buggy and has a beautiful patio area.
Once we get settled and sort everyone out we go and rent very rickety bicycles which we ride to the mini-taj, about a 40 min ride. Beautiful and quiet (no hawkers allowed) it is a nice place to chill for an our with naked kids begging from the water below, halyna wanting more attention
Another crazy ride back to lunch, with insane traffic, a long bridge ride and constant hawking and waving children who, as usual are laughing with and at us.
Many more men than women out on the streets so many more boys laughing at us and smiling at Halyna
After much misdirection and a fairly long ride for the twisted heaving bikes that we're on we make it to the Only restaurant (its a misnomer) overpriced and clearly catering to tourists the veg food is fine (though my tandoori chicken is lousy) and the power goes out for a few minutes twice, Hunter, the Taiwanese member of our crew pours an alcohol cleanser on his face thinking it is sunscreen yelps as it burns before running off to the sink as we all try to stifle our laughter.
We get back on our bikes, curling up the greasy bike chain that we use as a lock but which is basically useless since we have to pay someone to look over the bikes anyways and any given person could pick it
We get to the taj and begin to deal with the hassle of getting in. For 750rps (compared to 20 for Indians) one thankfully leaves this hassle behind as one passes through security which relieves you of all food, garbage, knives, flashlights etc. Then through the massive gate and a deserved wonder of the world appears. We spend the afternoon there, taking too many photos and watching the light around the magnificence marble palace change. A German med student attaches herself to our group to avoid pestering and walk amidst the masses al in some way entranced by the taj's beauty
I spend a hectic hour after the taj, racing at a snails pace by bicycle rickshaw to Mike's hotel where he's "lost" his money purse and then rejoin Dave and Halyna at our hotel for a pleasant meal as we book our rooms in Jaipur. Dave and I wash our clothes by hand till around midnight and then h goes to sleep. A now frequent bout of insomnia keeps me up till 3 or 4 am reading about the lost city of fatepoorsiqui while the Indian hotel attendant attends to his books and his workers sleep on mats next to him
Wake up late and catch the bus to fahtepoorisiqi. Meet two girls working for the publisher in Chenai and the Indians techies and businessmen vacationing in Agra on the bus. Get off, leave our bags at a hostel and then wade through the many hawkers and the massive garbage heaps to the beautiful mosque and old palace complex. Its difficult avoiding the young boys who claim to be students but are really hawkers and want money or to sell you their friends goods. Clamber around the old fort with halyna and then we catch a jeep to baratpur. At the station Dave starts a game of tick tack toe with he street kids and a large crowd gathers to watch as halyna pins a Canadian flag to their shirts and then to a cripple's ear (replacing his earring).
-----
Jaipur
On the train, Mike befriends a young well-off Indian and I befriend an air force technician. While my friend points out good places to visit in the south, Mike's begins to arrange our trip and once we arrive he secures us a rickshaw to the hostel.
A very nice place built around a family mansion next to a marriage hall and a school, our hostel is run by a Mrs. Singh and seems empty at night (read peaceful for halyna, Dave and I and lonely for Mike)
We wake up after a bit of a fitful night as a result of bugs and new surroundings and meet up with Mike's friend Avindar from the train and friend of his. After a quick chat they drop us at a market in the oink city where we shop and bargain for cloths for a few hours before heading to the main drag. The clothing is bright and heavily patterned with rajastan's love for colours permeating the market and making our search for more subtle clothes challenging.
We split up with mike at this point, as he wants to return to the hotel and we to check out more of the town, we see a very political movie with a white star and criticisms of the current government, commentary on rebels during the time of independence and many extended musical interludes
Meet back up with mike in front of the theatre. Halyna ahs bought a bunch of jewelry for friends back in Ukraine. Each gave her up to $100 for the purchases. Without bargaining hard enough she still gets them for 1/10th of their price (instead of 1/20th, we later find out).
We have delicious freshly squeezed drinks, thinking that squeezing the juice from the fruit somehow makes it more sanitary and needing a healthier break from the greasy samosas and pakoras we've been eating on the street. Then to an IWay internet cafe for a while before heading to bed (and for me another sleepless night).
Frustrated with my lack of sleep I read and draw and play set with myself as the sweeper lets the dogs out and serves me chai.
Eventually, once everyone wakes up, Halyna and I decide on a plan to visit the pink city and then ride an elephant to Amer Fort outside the city. After haggling over clothing a little more in the city and examining some of its as usual beautiful and ancient architecture we bargain two elephant owners down to 800rps for the hour long ride to the fort. When we return from one last sight-seeing and water buying expedition the elephants have dissapear3ed so we hire a horse drawn carriage instead. On the way our beautiful white horse passes the two elephants and the owners cry out trying to get us to ride them, recognizing their lost profits since they had to make the journey to the elephants homes, near the fort anyways.
The fort itself and the views on the way (pf a palace seemingly floating on a lake for instance) are beautiful. With elephants being washed it eh valley below it, Amer fort is an awesome site. With massive lines of tourists queuing to climb its ramparts, however, Dave smartly suggests we climb the opposite side of the ravine down which an ancient crumbling staircase descends from a watchtower amidst a wall that stretches along the mountainside opposite Amer fort. I take off my flip flops and we all strip off a layer about half way up the steep, rocky climb but the views at the top are well worth the risk and effort. A boy from the town of Amer appears after 20min or so at the top and begins a long discussion, pointing out his house, telling stories of tigers, etc. On the way down he helps a tired a sick Halyna all the way and then, of course, is unhappy when she refuses to give him a kiss or more than 10rps. Though we are both completely exhausted the horse ride back is great as half of Jaipur waves and smiles and gives us the perfect sign as they watch us return in the back of the carriage. With a fair number of white tourists we can't figure out whether its our mode of transportation or simply their humour/ good nature that makes so many young people laugh with/at us.
Back at Devi Niwas Halyna and I pass out. She develops and a fever so that when I wake up several hours later we seek assistance from the hostel owners and find it instead in the form of a couple from Belgium who are luckily both healthcare professionals. Christine, who was a tropical medicine specialist, offers her thermomenter and some medicine which seems to do the trick as halyna is feeling better when I return later in the evening. In the mean time Mike, Dave and I had been rejoined by the Avinav's crew and the 6 of us had headed back to the main drag for some dinner(takeout from vegetarian nataraj and all-Indian McDonalds), a shot of vodka for Mike and the Indians.
We wake up late the next day, pack up and say goodbye to the hostel staff and Dave (at least for now, he is heading back to Delhi to try to arrange his return t Canada). I stupidly stop at an internet caf頦orcing a race to catch the train but we make it on time. Our company in the 3ac coach speaks English well and we quickly befriend a gemologist from mumbai with whom we exchange travel tips o his hometown and NYC and DC (which he will visit with his family at the end of the summer.) This more or less brings me to the loud and sleepless morning as we barrel towards mumbai central.
------

notes

Ant with bread on back symbolizes bicycle rickshaws and men pulling carts three to twenty times there size and weight.

Monday, February 27, 2006

The first blog entry from India - I’ve been anticipating this entry for some time now and it will inevitably be disappointing if only because I am not willing to spend enough time in front of the computer to relate the wonderful if at times a little frustrating events of the past few days. In addition, I’ve added more tidbits to the half finished entry below that should make up my last piece on Ukraine. As expected, it is hard to write about the last country amidst the smells and sounds of the next and in spite of several nights spent planning the more journalistic entry it will have to remain in point form for now (though I have updated it – see below).

First for the plan as of yet. We arrived in Delhi on Sunday morning on a red-eye. Despite warnings against visiting the Taj from my cousin Boaz, and my own personal disinclination to do the tourist thing, we'll begin with the Golden Triangle (Delhi, Agra, Jaipur), then to Jodphur to soak in some more of the Rajastani desert’s colours and forts. South to Mumbai of Bollywood and metropolis fame, to Goa that Portuguese colony of beautiful beaches and many crunchy tourists and then to Kerala if Halyna and Mike have time. They leave me on-or-around the 20th at which point I'll probably begin to zigzag up the East from there.


An outline of the past three days:

Halyna and I both lucked-out and complicated our trip to India by discovering on Friday that IOM was aiding a Assisted Voluntary Return, an individual who was detained for being an irregular migrant and decided to go home, on his way back to India and that he would be taking the same flight as us. The guy showed up an hour late to the airport, scaring the two operations guys who’d accompanied us to the airport to give him his ticket and documents, and then proceeded to try to talk to everyone he could find who looked India. He was from rural Punjab and was either very social, very nervous, had not been able to talk to anyone for a while or some combination of the above because he continued this pattern on the plane and for much of the flight. After getting him through ticketing and immigration and after a couple scares during which one of us worried that we’d lost some important document, we finally bordered the plane which is full of Indians and Hare Krishna Ukies (bizarre seeing Ukrainians in Hare Krishna garb and hair-dos).

Speak to Indo-American pharmaceuticals business man from NYC in the airport and on the plane about politics and economics in India, Eastern Europe and school in the U.S. where his kids are as well as a Sikh from Calgary now in Birmingham who’s cousin is an MP from Suri, B.C. and is tight with Martin within the Liberal Party.

Woman behind us passing vegetarian food around the plane as very few had ordered it in advance including our migrant friend who unashamedly asks for me and asks us to pass him chapaties over the heads of the people between us. First signs of Indian friendliness in stark contrast to the Ukies (Halyna at first thinks they’re all weird but then admits that she simply isn’t used to friendly people anymore). The guy from Calgary fills out all the older Indian women’s forms (the Ukie attendants speak poor English and always give all those who look Indian resident forms when in fact they are foreign nationals so he exchanges them and then fills them out).

While the Indians eat their vegetarian masala dishes the Ukies pull out perishke’s (potatoes stuffed pastries) to replace the reasonable food on the plane while I eat everyone who doesn’t want their chicken’s portions.

No English for the movies on the plain, two channels of poorly dubbed Russian with no helpfulness from any of the attendants, the last in a long line of difficult experiences with Ukie movies.

Decending into Delhi one realizes that all cities look the same from the air at night as the light stretch out into the horizon. We get off the plane and are warm at last (its a perfect 20 degrees when we disembark.)

We are ripped off by the cabbies despite pre-paying at the “official” counter and very explicit directions from Mike and our hosts. Mike, by the way, is a friend from DC who joins Halyna and I on Monday when we finally manage to meet up at a little bookstore in Connaught place called Bookworm.

The cab lets us off in Vasant Vihar (my hold neighborhood from ’89-92) where my friend from Foreign Affairs Canada and an old ultimate Frisbee team, Nadia Scipio del Campo lives (she works at the embassy here). As we get out Halyna squeals and runs across the street to an elephant that parked there and tied to a tree which he is consuming. Halyna gawks in awe and asks whether this is normal (its not uncommon). The smells of India get passed my stuffed up nose and remind me of my childhood.

We wake up late on Sunday after reading late into the morning about India (jet lag: we’re now on Indian stretchable time (IST) which is half and hour off the rest of the world but the same for the whole country.) We wander Rajpath between India Gate and the Presidents Palace. Harassed by hawkers, we get ripped off on snacks and henna for Halyna’s hand and are asked to take pictures of and with Indian tourists. We pass Americans surrounded by a crowd of Indians questioning them on the bias of their media (the Indians criticize CNN’s bias and the Americans respond that they must be talking about Fox). We get literally taken for a ride by a rickshaw driver (New Delhi driving will have to be saved for another entry – its insane) who drags us to two emporiums and his friends cell phone shop (where I pick up a SIM card) before letting us off at Lodi Gardens (the trip was free but a pain in the ass). The gardens are beautiful and sunset, when we arrive, is the perfect time of day to see them. Replete with ancient tombs, mosques, fast-walking Indians (they don’t jog) and many embracing couples the gardens make for pleasant afternoon escape from the craziness of Delhi. We then go to Nehru park and squeeze into a spot at an outdoor concert by two classical musicians. The music is beautiful and entrancing (many around rock on the ground as if hypnotized) and the c crowd is an interesting mix of the cultured masses of New Delhi. Finally we have dinner at Mike’s host Satinder Singh’s house. He is a wonderful host, currently employed as Jamu and Cashmere’s liason with the federal govt, and feeds us well while filling us in on politics and offering suggestions for our travels.

-Today was a bit of a frustrating day at the train station with no confirmed tickets as of yet. It was also a good insite into India’s bureaucracy as we waited in life after line to find out we didn’t have the right documentation or information. More great food today: two South Indian meals at the Ashok Hotel and the Banana Leaf (Connaught Place). Went to the embassy for an evening swim: it hasn't changed at all if my memory serves correct, aside from a new gaurd-rail around the pool.

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Monday, February 27, 2006

On the John

It was noted that I keep writing, “flush out” instead of the correct idiom “to flesh out.” My mistake gives me the opportunity to spout a bit on the many toilets I’ve seen over the past month and a half. My topic is also inspired by Halyna’s constant chatter about Indian excretion habits: not only can Indian men be seen peeing everywhere and anywhere at all times of day (for instance, in the middle of the lawns between the Presidential Palace and India Gate, Mike pointed out) but the public facilities in Delhi have very much “open-concept.” Many urinals, for instances consist of six foot high walls about a yard from the sidewalk and then waist high walls flush with the sidewalk. Men stand with their backs to the waist-high walls and pee, in a row, against the higher barriers. The result, as Halyna so delicately put it, is “a bunch of penises all lined up for everyone to see.”

Elsewhere toilets have in many ways typified my locals (the same is not true of India). In Austria for instance, all of the toilets I saw on my high-end visit were designer: beautiful porcelain was complimented by beautiful fixtures, often with an LCD around to keep one’s attention occupied. Most toilets had two buttons to save water when less is needed which mirrored the escalators leading to Vienna’s subways which run very slowly until someone steps on them at which point they speed-up considerably. Poland also had many such toilets though they were mixed in with single-button panels to push above urinals and little knobs to pull up to flush sitting-toilets. Ukraine almost exclusively had the pull models in homes and businesses and these generally had fittings made of a very flimsy and often broken off white plastic. In public there was rarely toilet paper in Ukraine and many toilets were designed in the “Eastern” style with a hole with grooves on either side for ones feet.

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Last Notes on Ukie Land

Bowling next to a club (a sport which, because it was identified as being America, is only for the rich, viewed as exotic like sushi it tends to be very expensive and everyone dresses up to partake).

Going to the ballet, rife with indecision and attempts to pass the tickets to others and followed by a very late night at IOM, the dancing was OK, the sets and costumes very bright and I would say a little tacky and the music (as usual) and opera house were beautiful.

Fireworks are constantly being lit around Ukraine. Who knows why, but on any given night, even those few when we can think of no Saint’s Day or other holiday, we can look out our window between 10pm and midnight and see fireworks above the city.

Lunch with Leonic, environmentalist who knows Swedish, is very cultured.

Another lunch with the Turkman who can’t return to the country because he was with the FM and the Minister is now in jail, all associated with him are being prosecuted/ persecuted. Yuri, the new guy in our office, a former border guard was also at lunch and the discussion moved from talk about the politics of the ‘stans to why Ukrainians continue to believe the pipe dreams they are promised in order to keep them (for instance, the border gaurds), in line.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Jake Hirsch-Allen lived in Kiev, Ukraine for four weeks between January 16th and February 25th, 2006.

Of Vereneky, Putin and I don’t know

About three blocks from the apartment I’m staying in, I stop a twenty-something girl in three-inch heels and a fur coat replete with luxurious hood. I say the name of the street address of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe and turn my hands to the sky to indicate a question. Without stopping to think, she responds: “I don’t know” and clicks quickly away. I walk to the corner, examine the sixteen and eighteen Cyrillic letters squeezed onto the small sign on each respective side of the corner of the Micter Snek (spelled …., phonetically) fast-food joint to confirm that I am in the general vicinity of the street. I quickly pull out my map, trying to keep my jacket open for as little time as possible to avoid letting the sub-minus-twenty-five wind under it, and manage to find one of the streets. I walk over to a man getting into his car and say the name of the street again. He again says, “I don’t know.” Thinking it might be my pronunciation I start unfolding the map. Before I have time to open the second fold the man has slammed his door shut. Next I stop a young couple and this time jump straight to the map but before I have time to point they say “I don’t know” and walk past.

Needless to say, I eventually found the OSCE building where I met my girlfriend’s twin sister who showed me the way to the gym I was trying so hard to find. Incidentally, it was two blocks away, directly across from Micter Snek. While among my first frustrating encounters with Ukrainians, the above examples were by no means exceptional. Any foreigner will soon discover that “I don’t know” should be the country’s national phrase. It’s not that Ukrainians are inherently unhelpful or even that they don’t like tourists. Its simply that they can’t be bothered. The average Ukrainians justification would be something like: “My day, week and life will be difficult enough without having to stop and explain to someone whose language I don’t understand how to get to a place I don’t care about.” If she does manage to begin a conversation with your average Ukrainian, the same foreigner will be rewarded for her perseverance with the more complete understanding that rather than simply being unfriendly, big-city Ukrainians simply have some of the thickest skins around. Most young urban Ukrainians now speak enough English to give a foreigner directions or at least point out their current location on a map (the method I found most convenient for finding my way around). Yet they won’t volunteer this information unless they have already established some sort of connection to you. Such a connection could be anything from trying to sell you a potato stuffed pastry or soviet-era souvenir to overhearing that you’ve bought a train ticket passing through their hometown. Without this connection, however, you’re often left feeling like you’re in the most inhospitable and loneliest country on earth.

Riding the subway in Kiev provides an thorough introduction to modern Ukrainian culture. My first morning in Ukraine afforded me just such an education. After traveling for sixteen hours by train from Krakow, Poland to Kiev, my girlfriend Halyna and I strapped on the seventy-five liter traveling packs that branded us unmistakably as Westerners and made our way out of the massive Bokzan (the Ukranian word for train station). Unlike the beautiful trademark marble and stone station in Lviv, Kiev’s train Station epitomizes the bizarre architecture that has resulted from the rapid transformation to all-out capitalism of a country that spent much of a bitter century under communism. Its older, soviet-era half resembles a massive communist cathedral while its new half is shiny and tacky. While the older side of the building is subdued with a dark red and muted glass exterior, the post-independence half is coated in aluminum and, due to the complete absence of hard lines or square corners, looks like an attempt to recreate a jetsons-era spacestation gone horribly wrong.

Halyna and my bones were instantly pierced by the blistering cold as we exited the station. We walked past the bundled babushkas holding homestay signs and selling mottled vegetables, passed the large out-of-place looking MacDonalds and into the midst of a massive crowd trying to squeeze its way through the four doors of the metro station…..

Sking and Syrian food, drinks and hookah at our place, salsa dancing and clubbing, libitska market, IOM in general, the gym, visit to the Indian embassy, justice and foreign ministry lunch places,….

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I realise you probably missed the news, but today is that most hallowed of holidays, defenders of the fatherland day (formerly "Red Army Day"). It is used as yet another excuse to drink oneself into the ground and set off dangerous fireworks all over Ukraine and is the male equivalent of International Women's Solidarity Day (March 8th)

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Tuesday, February 07, 2006

I haven't had time to flush out the following circular and random update. It might be my last for a little while as I'm back in Kiev and will be beginning full-time work on a website for the Intl Organization for Migration for the next two weeks till I leave for India. Either way, if you care to read my scribbled notes, treat them as just that.


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Writing from Warsaw Kiev train
began witha bang (rush from theatre, froced to see Dick and Jance at the Palace of Science and Culture, in the ten minutes before our train departed Halyna and I managed to printout her McGill statement and buy a DVD for the laptop we brought with us.

Get into our car and shortly thereafter a weeping woman enters our cabin. Her brother had recently died in a fight and her father had died the previous evening: made for a somber beginning to the trip.

As usual both women exited when we changed.


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Vienna:
Wonderful with family
picked up by Leon at Bratislava airport, tiny but very nice, clearly recently redone.

Quick drive, crazy fast, recap family history

See Judith, both look the same, very stylish, beautiful house

Jasca is thin and still boyish despite nearing graduation. Great hanging with him, partying, looking through pictures, etc. Got into trouble with parents re: staying out late, working last minute. He has same problems with motivating himself to get to work as Marci, Denis or myself...

As I visit the Albertini, on my way struck by contrast with Poland and even more Ukraine - truly imperial city: all the buildings, size of the empire

Schielle and his stunning colours and lines, obsessed with self-image and sexuality, topics that hit home for me. Focused on young nude boys and girls (little more shocking - not so close to home) beautiful gallery

Leopold packed with people in the very cool and tourist-friedndly (the entire town is, if not cheap, a more advanced form of the Old City in Warsaw, Bratislava or Krakow) Museum Quarter but not as nicely designed as Albertini: odd mish mash of art with some from the quai d'orsee and others from mediocre austrian artists.

Party with Jews at friend of Denis and Benji's. Make fun of those going to the Jager Ball's after party for being so conservative, drunk Jacov, etc.

waking up late, clearning lady Draga (common name) for many years, food, MAK all afternoon, some interesting some boring craft from old to new, curators and artists designing exhibitions, cool silhouette chairs and travelling austrian exhibition and shop

tasty dinner (viener schnitzel

visiting with Benji and Denis and Jonah,

Much talk of schools, lousy sneak preview with Jascha, out drinking again late with andrew at Leon's friends bar, late dinner with Jashca. DOing homework at 1am and then passing out

Go to the gym with Judith
Bagel with Jasha and then dinner for birthday, granduant there again, sweet and aware as ever, another too generous gift (sweater from Judith as well)

drunking madnes begins at Waxy Murphy's and the at Passage Night Club, class, packed, photographers...

back at 5am, tons of shots, fun night, wake up late, she the MOMAK, very cool building , work of art in itself, black accross from white Leopold, lots of history of contemporary art with great pieces from the masters (giacometti, klee, picasso, etc. futurists, new realists, pop artists, etc.

Delicious dinner again, good cooking runs in the family

swak Bo and Co accross from Stephens Cathedral with scafolding ads and desert and drinks, all women serving, bathrooms

Lots of help getting ready for Bratislava with shuttles, hostels and trying to find cheap flights to India (from Leon, judith)

Judith gives me a ride (as she did so many times) and train is easy to bratislava) find hostel


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Bratislava:
Hotel Backpackers (Panenska 31 @ Lycejna)
Meet brits and traipse from pub to pub with them stoping at holes in the wallwith cool metal sculptures made of utensils, crazy Slovak drink (borochnika) decent Slovak beers, Drunk by 5 at the Dubliner, fries (Chips) on bread, talk of England and Canada and accents

end up back in hostel as they each pass out and say goodbye

manage to get out of hostel and go to crazy underground night club Mali Frantiskani (Namestie SNP 24) . Dance for a couple hours and then on my way to another meet the owner, mentions tarantino movie, Hostel and then invites me to Club Charlie with him, buys drinks, tells stories, dancing till flight (hard to stay awake, painful morning)

-----

wonderful surprise to meet halyna at airport. Sleep away the mornigna t her hotel, afternoon around Warsaw again, see Zacheta museum and the cool young artists work nearby, walk through the old town and eat Vietnamese and hot chocolates at chocolate companies fancy store and now we’re back to the movie…




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some notes on Ukraine

Everyone I ask on the street for any information's tendency to simply say I don't know - unhelpful in every instance untill they get to know you

beer for breakfast, lunch and dinner: on the subway, in the freezing cold, its pop for them

half of the grocery stores consist of alcohol and chocolate. You can buy alcohol anywhere, on the street, in the coffee shops and bookstores, etc.


No electricity a couple times, often in the building but not the apartment (building's owned by govt) sometimes transport food to IOM to keep it from going bad

lock mysteriously broke while we were going (the "family" that the landlord sent to "fix" it and the very leaky bathtub said it simply got old. Either way they strip off the bell to use its electricity for the saw, find it doesn't supply enough and plug and then plug it into the neighbour below's socket. They then proceed to cut through the 5 bolts that make up the lock, spraying sparks and toxic fumes everywhere). They then return the next day and put a new lock in (after an extended stay for tea and a meandering conversation in remarkably good English-the "family" named Basil, is, as usual, a jack of all trades, musician, taxi driver, electronics guru, mr fix-it, etc.).

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Monday, January 30, 2006

Kiev-Vienna by train

An experience that many would probably decribe as a nightmare, this train ride encapsulated many of my impressions of Ukraine.

At first all seemed well and in fact better than expected. Instead of being placed in a open compartment we ended up in a room with four bunks, one of which was empty. Our other bunkmate was a sullen Polish man with a patch over one eye, who, while not too friendly, nevertheless seemed harmless (probably a misguided impression since he had wounds all over his knuckles). We settled down to reading and playing set, snacking frequently on the crackers, cheese, bread and oranges that we'd picked up at the train station.

After a couple hours, our Polish friend, who had managed to down 6 bottles of beer, asked whether we'd mind if a few Ukrainian friends joined us in our compartment. We said no and about forty-five minutes later a group of 5 large Ukrainian men who looked about our age squeezed onto the two lower bunks of our compartment (made to fit 4, just barely). On the tiny foldout table between the bunks (everything in these compartments is made of industrial gauge steel and folds - the lower bunks to reveal compartments for luggage, the upper to offer more space, folding ladders to climb up and even little folding ledges above the bunks for reading- glasses and other small bed-side articles) the Ukrainians plunked a half-eaten chicken(which they explained had to be eaten with our hands), three bags full of vereneki (perogies) oozing with grease, a bag with several loafs of sliced bread, three bottles of vodka, 8 undercooked hard-boiled eggs, three shot glasses (one shattered as they set the bag down) and a sack full of salo. This latter is solidifed fat, a Ukrainian specialty thought to be better than sex (if you eat meat). A bag containing 8 beer bottles clunked onto the bunks next to the largest of the Ukrainians whom Halyna and I had appropriately (we would later learn) big hands for obvious reasons.

We responded by squeezing our bag of food on the table (though it remained untouched) and, over the next hour, I frequently tried to get up to get beer (they kept shoving me back down onto the bunks), eventually managing to purchase the last three bottles on the train from a surprisingly helpful attendant one car away (ours was, as usual, surly and unhelpful).

Amid large amounts of miscommunications, the Ukrainians explained that they were from a town just before the Polish border, that they were construction workers in Kiev going home to visit their families and that one of them had family in Sacramento (the closest they had to the usual relative in Canada). Halyna explained where the two of us were from, what we were doing and where we were going while brushing off increasingly persistent attempts by big hands to pet her ankle (his hand covered her foot and akle). After a little while, I began smacking his arm (from accross the compartment) every time he want back to feel her leg. Big hands was also doing alot of closetalking and all-in-all making Halyna feel uncomfortable.

Jumping ahead a few hours and many shots, at some point Halyna went to the bathroom and, unbeknownst to me big hands followed. A very unhappy Halyna later explained that he tried to kiss her and ended up sticking a very large finger in her mouth before she managed to shove him away and return to the car. I spent much time trying to console her while simultaneously trying to ignore a strong and increasing feeling of nausea. More importantly, I had to prevent several of her attempts at running back and punching him, Halyna's usual response to such abuse.

The truly amazing part of the ride, however, was the smuggling. Taken to all new heights, this trains smugglers managed to keep use awake for most of the ride. Hours before hitting the border the entire car was dismantled. From the heating duts to the curtains, the pillows and bunks to the toilets and floors, every free sqaure inch was filled with cigarette cartons and boxes. Overweight men with their shirts off supported middle-aged women wearing skimpy tops and long-johns as they held acrobatic poses in attempts to shove the contraband into difficult to reach places. Unscrewing layers upon layers of faux-wood panelling to beneath the lights and above the doors, the smugglers used the conducters keys and screwdrivers to access every willing co-rider's compartment.

Meanwhile the conducter asked which country we were from in preparation for reaching the border and then Ukrainian border security, again probably slipped either cash or cigarettes, checked our passports and ignored the smugglers (who continued to work in their presence). This gaurds boarded just before our train entered a warehouse like facility with massive hydrolic fork-lifts. I instantly recognised a contraption which had been described to me before. Wishing I was slightly less sick to my stomach, I looked out the windows of our now, thoroughlz overheated and smelly car as we were jolted first one way and then the other in order to disconnect out car from the rest of the train. Then, with all of us shifting back and forth, the car was lifted off the ground as the wheels were changed. Ukrainian trains run on tracks that are a different gauge than the rest of the worlds and so need to have their wheels replaced at anz border crossing.

Around this point (the process of changing the wheels and having our passports checked took close to two hours) I returned to the obliging attendant in search of water (voda ne-gazovina). While she had two small bottles, she had no change and so, with me in tow (not being able to speaking English she had firmly grabbed my arm and dragged me) she went from compartment to compartment waking up the inhabitants to ask for change. Incidentally I had handed her twenty hriven which she had immediatly and unintentionally ripped in half and then replaced before beginning our disruptive expedition.

As I was typing this into my Palm I noticed the carpet in the hallway being lifted and, sticking mz head out of the car, found three women holding onto a fourth as she leaning into a hatch leading to the freight comparment and pulled out mail bags so that she could squeeze cigarettes under them.

At some point later in the evening, growing tired of the near constant noise, I shut the door to our compartment. After three or for tries I realized that the hundred pound door was being stopped by the Polish guy's foot which, like half of his passed-out body, was hanging off of his bunk. While moving it out of the way I saw that our Ukrainian smugglers were now cleaning themselves up, wiping away sweat and changing into different clothes.

As we crossed the border the train stopped again and 5 cleanly dressed chubby Polish border gaurds boarded with three female gaurds following a little later. They proceeded to use crowbars and screw drivers to rip apart the car for a second time. Spending over an hour undoing the work of the previous three hours, the Poles filled garbage bag after garbage bag with cigarette cartons, sweating away as they knocked and pryed everywhere trying to find more.

The few cigarette cartons that did get through were transported by people like the balsy elderly woman who had gotten on just before the border and filled the remaining bunk in our compartment. Upon entering the car she began pulling cartons out of the many plastic bags she had brought with her and shoving them under her clothes (everywhere, from under her braw to down her pants). With too little room there she then began begging us to take a carton each. We of course refused and eventually she resorted to shoving cartons under her sheets and around the pillow. While the gaurds pulled apart the car they left the inside of the compartments largely untouched so that the Ukrainians who had ripped apart their seets, shoving them full of cartons and then stappling them back together, managed to retain some of their booty. In the end, however, the much shorter period of unpacking the cigarettes before the first stop on the Polish soide of the border (at which point our car emptied out) was indicative of the amount of money the Ukrainians must have lost.

TO BE FLUSHED OUT LATER

Buying vereneki from desperate women outside of the car at a random station in the middle of nowhere

Such a dirty train, in Halyna's words (and this is saying alot considering how many trains she'd ridden), it was the dirties ride of her life.

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Warsaw 3 star Gromada Hotel with a 4 star entrance and 2 star rooms.

palace of science and culture, blanketed in fog, most things closed on sunday

private art gallery, nice and completely empty, hanging pieces on translucent cloth

easy flight on low-cost carier for 30 bucks (so much better than flying in North America) to Bratislava where uncle Leon picks me up and then the hour long drive back to Vienna

Monday, January 23, 2006

Krakow

As is often the case I slept poorly our last night in Krakow and was up at the crack of dawn. I didn’t mind much, however, as I wanted to take some photos of Krakow before we left later on the day and hadn’t yet been awake while the sun was up long enough to do so.

As I was layering up (boxers, long-johns, jeans, long-sleeved shirt, cotton sweatshirt, fleece, vest….) a tall ungainly Icelandic man loudly banged into our hostel room and plunked down on his bed. After watching me get ready he followed me out of the room and began a conversation while I pulled my pack from our locker and took out my camera. As is usually the case at hostels we went over where we were from and how we got to Krakow. He was a pizza chef who’d spent his life savings over the past 7 months traveling Eastern Europe. I broke off the conversation to take some photos but found him dozing in our room when I returned an hour later at which point, without skipping a beat, he resumed the conversation.

His original purpose, he explained, had been to meet up with a Ukrainian he had met through DateLine (an online dating service). This is by far and away the most common reason I’ve heard for travelers to hit up Ukraine. Whether in conversations at bars and restaurants or on trains and in guides, one of the first things one hears about Ukraine relates to its women. This man, like another of the hostel’s visitors, immediately warned me that Ukrainian women tend to take advantage of foreigners. He continued with numerous other stereotypes of Ukrainian women – they’re beautiful, easy, etc. before being interrupted by Halyna. Having spent much of the past few years focused on the trafficking of women, she’s heard these descriptions a million times. Moreover, she’s been fighting the opposite reality – of foreigners taking advantage and even enslaving Ukranian women for much of this time. My side of the conversation quickly dissolved as I tried to distance myself from their dispute. He claimed his relationship with the DateLine contact had been platonic and that only later had he had “romantic” relations with a girl from Southern Ukraine while Halyna, often with biting sarcasm, questioned his stories. I eventually dragged Halyna away (the Icelandic guy was persistent in his self-defenses and made this difficult) and we made our way to the train station.

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My first Ukrainian train-ride –

After waiting for twenty minutes while three Italians tried to secure tickets to who-knows-where Halyna and I discovered that the direct train between Krakow and Lviv was full. We had spent the close to an hour the previous day at bus and trains stations and travel agencies trying to work out how she and I would spend the next two days of travel. Halyna had to visit a detention center for irregular migrants in southwest Ukraine while I originally had wanted to travel to the West of Poland to visit Dziedzievniev (spelled phonetically not correctly) where my mother had been born. We discovered that Halyna would have to spend 36 out of the next 48 hours on a train and that my trip was impossible without about a week of train/ bus travel. Luckily, another train connecting in the Polish town Proshemesh would get us to Lviv faster and within 40 minutes we we had left on our second polish train ride. This was fast and clean, if notably less fancy than our first ride (on the trip between Warsaw and Krakow we had inadvertently sat in first class despite our third class tickets, and after a lengthy conversation lacking meaning with the Polish-only attendant on the train, we had remained surrounded by well-dress businessmen on cell phones.)

The circumstances on our second ride were a perfect introduction to Ukraine and show the stark contrast between Poland and Ukraine. We waited for two hours in Proshemesh. The only incident of note was a homeless person asking in Ukrainian for money for alcohol (there were many in the station). He wasn’t pleased when we gave him an apple but looked like he enjoyed it as he bragged to his colleagues. We left ourselves twenty minutes to stand in the cold by the train but discovered quite late that there was a Ukrainian passport check. The military men began yelling at us upon being informed of how soon our train was leaving and then bruskly let us go by with a couple taps into the wireless PDAs they had swiped our passports through (Canadians don’t need VISAs after election help and Yuschenkos reforms to Ukraine VISA regime.)

The train itself looked like it was meant to carry soviet troops fighting the Nazis. Inside it was all heavy metal with wooden windows hung with out-of-place lace curtains. Being some the last travelers to enter our car, we were stuck with the last two bunks, right next to the toilet. Halyna and I attempted to get comfy on our steel benches and I locked my pack to the floor. Three men entered the bathroom after looking over their shoulders at us, slammed its 100+ pound door behind them (it never closed properly despite many attempts over the course of the ride) and began smoking. When they returned to their bunks all of the smoke poured back out into our sleeping area. Over the next 20 minutes the same men walked into the bathroom 3 more times, once to looking around, once to smoke and once, it would seem, to use the trip as an excuse to look at us. Next we heard the loud crackling of packing tape. I eventually stood up to see what was going on and saw the men taping large packages. Minutes later one they quickly re-entered the bathroom packages in hand and then returned without them. On their second trip one stopped and placed two packages on the bunks above Halyna and I. He noticed our inquiring stares, however, and thought better of his decision, following the others with the package into the bathroom. About a third of the way through our 12 hour overnight ride (most train rides in Ukraine take the whole night, irrespective of how far they are going) we hit the border and customs guards came on board. After swiping our passports again and having us fill out two copies of the same form (one of which I was supposed to keep in my passport to I leave but have lost during one of the many requests to see my passport since) they asked us about our belongings (insisting that we couldn’t leave them on the floor) and then began searching our cabin and the bathroom. They unscrewed light fixtures, opened hatches and even looked around the toilet (they hadn’t even tried to shut the door) but found nothing. Later, we discovered that the woman in charge or our car was in cahoots with the smugglers as she reprimanded them in a motherly manner for being rude and smoking so near to us.

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TO BE FLUSHED OUT LATER

Lviv - bit frantic as Halyna arranges her trips to Mukachevo and I settle into The George – overpriced as with all accommodation in Ukraine, this hotel is a throwback to the late 18th century + television. First impressions at the station are of how Russian it all seems. Everyone is wearing fur coats and hats and formal wear. All the writing is in Cyrillic. The station is grandiose and old. Touring with the Edmontoners: castle hill, the citadel, beautiful women in ridiculous heals, more brusque and keen to yell than Polish but one can usually find someone who will be helpful in the end. Cheap good Ukrainian beers, dinner at the most bizarre place from music to décor to the old man and young woman at the table next door.

Kiev Another overnight train with Halyna who I met at the station this time in 2nd class (instead of third) which is much nicer sleeping car. Bit cramped but warm and comfy, I sleep away much of the night and we arrive in bustling Kiev. Metropolis, unlike Lviv which was quaint and old and in many ways very similar to Krakow, Kiev is huge and soviet. Everything is done on a massive scale, the escalators to the subway are twice as long as those in DC and mobbed with people. Everything feels a bit like a factory and the hard set looks on everyone’s faces amplify this grey and dark atmosphere. Trek through the impressive independence square, setting for the orange revolution, to Halyna’s apartment nearby where I meet her sister, Xandra and her boyfriend who I spend the day with checking out kitchy chatchkas (trinkets including tons of cold war memorabilia, nesting babushkas and tacky artwork) for him to take home as gifts. Eventually I take the meshutka, small van retrofit as buses which are the main mode of public transportation aside from the metro to the end of the line with Halyna to spend the night at her cousin Natalka’s apartment. It is in a crumbling block on the edge of town (nearly an hour away). With horrible Egyptian-print wall-paper, doors made for prisons and a blow-up mattress for a bed, it is grim and bare but she is welcoming and gratious and, after a meal of eggs I sleep well.

laundry - lunch at foreign ministry - fulbright

Celebrated 2nd christmas with natalka, boyfriend...language barriers and conversations, lighting meat, shopping - huge cab driver

english language place, teaching, canadians everywhere (there, at bank, everyone related to somewhen in the Canadian diaspora), time at IOM

-24, -36 with windchill, affects everything

gym - drinks with Daryl and Will, watching movie at OSCE

frigid again breakfast with Darius and Mariah, tin-tits and the monastary caves, labarynth passages, eople kissing and praying, religion everywhere, selling things everywhere, incredible spires all over the skyline - miniture museum, kosher cafeteria

Been cooking (I know its unbelievable) in the smallest kitchen ever: it basically consists of this one-unit sink, stove, fridge, cupboard, dryng rack that would all fit inside our washing machine at home while Halyna is at work. All in all it makes me miss the madness of your dining room more than ever.
Its been a couple days and a lot has transpired since I've had a chance to access a computer (quite a shock to my system after spending at least 10 hours a day glued to my powerbook for the past 8 months.) In short, after visiting Auschwitz, I spent one more day in Krakow and a day in Lviv, Ukraine before arriving here in Kyiv.

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Auschwitz

My first visit to a concentration camp was a bit disappointing perhaps because of the height of my emotional expectations built up over many years. Almost all of the members of my mothers’ extended family from my grandparents’ generation were victims of the holocaust and all experienced the genocide first hand (both grandparents lost their previous spouses, children and many siblings to Nazi labour camps and gas chambers). The result for me has been a feeling of connection to this horrific blight of history and a need to somehow reconcile my easy, lucky life with my grandparents’ emotional devastation and their lifetimes of hard work.

It took almost two hours to reach Auschwitz from Krakow by bus, the fastest means of getting there. The dirt roads were rough and the countryside bleak and snowcovered. Though I knew I shouldn’t be, I was often surprised that the people getting off the bus, in what seemed like the middle of nowhere could live or work here. Most lived or worked near the Polish town Oswiecim whose conveniently inconspicuous location at the convergence of several major Polish rivers and Nazi rail routes explained their location of their greatest killing machine here.

The ride was made easier by my travel companions who I’d met the night before at the hostel as I wrote the last section of this blog. The five of them were spending the weekend in Krakow on vacation from a semester abroad at the Bauhaus School in Weimar. Two were Spaniards, two Flemish Belgians and one a Catalonian. We basically been brought together by our frugalness as the Spaniards and I had been unwilling to spend the thirty some dollars for a driver and tour, as opposed to the seven that we ended up spending on publish transportation and tagging along on others’ tours. Being in such a group reassured me throughout the visit and emphasized the museum-like nature of the trip to Auschwitz. Like the throngs of Europeans present at the camp, they viewed the experience from a distance, like any other museum, depicting a past to which they had little-to-no connection. In some ways, the expedition reminded me a little of the clichéd movie, “L’Hauberge Espagonol” as we and everyone spent as much time involved in comparative cultural analysis, i.e. chatting about each other and our respective experiences of the camp, as we did focusing on the camp itself.

As I rode the bus between Auschwitz I and Birkenau (Auschwitz II), the Catalonian, Aleshe (sp?) asked me what I thought of the camp we had already established my family’s historical connection to the Holocaust). After explaining my reservations about Holocaust museums in general, the feeling their being a bit like boutiques, venues for the projection of collective shame or cathartic tears, I noted that I thought their benefits outweighed their downsides and that the need for such testaments to the tragedy were essential. With regard the Auschwitz itself, I noted the out-datedness of the exhibitions (galleries had been constructed within the barns that had housed the Nazi’s victims, describing the camps and the war (largely from the Polish perspective)). These expositions looked like they had been created at least a quarter century earlier. Their emphasis on the camps’ prisoners and not those who died and their extensive descriptions of Polish suffering and resistance (supposedly the camp’s administration had changed its focus quite drastically after the Cold war, focusing on the great majority of Jews instead of only the Poles, who died at Auschwitz) were off-putting. Aleshe, in response, commented that Auschwitz reminded him of his relatives who had fought in the Spanish Civil War, a bizarre response, I thought since they had been soldiers and hadn’t died.

In all, as I tried to take artistic photographs of the camp, over the shoulders of slick Italian tourists, I was struck more by the contradictions of my experience than sadness or fear. For me, Auschwitz was a thing of my grandparents’ past, and visiting the camp was less provocative than visiting the Holocaust museum in Washington or seeing cinematic depictions of the Holocaust.

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Krakow

After returning from Auschwitz I sprinted through Krakow’s beautiful ancient streets past the massive stone towers and walls into the old city and its renaissance-era central square where Halyna was waiting with an uncle and aunt with whom she had spent the day. We switched trekked back to our hostel where I had left my pack and then hiked from the south of the city, by Kazimierz, the Jewish District, to a different hostel in the north of the Old Town, where we spent our last fitful night sleeping in a room with 8 others. This evening Halyna and I dropped by a cute Ukrainian New Years celebration that her family had recommended. Populated by seniors in their formal wear over-eager for us to attend, it felt sort of like eighth grade prom without English.

Starved of the Asian food she loves so much while living in Kiev’s monoculture, Halyna and I satisfied her craving for Vietnamese before checking out a party recommended by my European friends who had heard about it at the hostel (it was far too packed with tourists). We then poked our heads into 5 or 6 bars before settling on a modern Polish lounge where we sought recommendations for a tourist-free club. After dancing a bit, and observing a bit more, we stumbled back to the hostel (Kabobs in hand).
And so it begins... Both flights (DC-Milan, Milan-Warsaw) were easy. Was sitting next to a mail-order bride for the long-haul - she had just married a marine currently in Iraq - quite a story. Watched movies and did a little reading/ organizing. Second flight was a little exhausting but Halyna met me at the airport - a moment I had been awaiting for months - and we napped away the afternoon. Her diplomatic cousin's place is beautiful and, though I haven't met him, the rest of the family is very nice (they were in India at the same time as us ('89-92) and adopted their kids there). ---- Yesterday night Halyna and I met up with my friend Jonah (a one-time acquaintance from the DC coffeeshop Tryst) and his girlfriend for a vegetarian dinner at a tiny quaint, if not particularly tasty, restaurant. The four of us then went to a couple interesting bars for drinks around the old town (which is beautiful, artificial, historic and populated exclusively by tourists or those catering to them). The first bar had a nice decor but was empty and way overpriced due to its location right off the main square of the old town but the four of us were friezing and ready for our first drink. We each had a warm rasberry beer. Complete with cinnamon; these were delicious. The next bar was way cooler. Situated off a side street behind a door that looked as if it hadn’t been opened for a decade, everybody in the place was dressed mod or retro and the clientelle included a somehow un-tacky tarrow-card reader, a class of bar-tending students learning their trade and about 20 fifty year olds in the midst of an intense discussion. Jonah's Polish girlfriend Anya (he met her in New Jersey where she was working as part of the massive program of Eastern Europeans who spend a summer working in the U.S.) explained that this place was the unofficial headquarters of Poland's Green Party. ---- Outside of the downtown core which is modern and happening, Warsaw still looks very soviet. The house where we're staying is at the end of the bus line in a wealthy area by Wilanov Palace (one of many in town). While the houses here are fairly nice and Western looking, most of the city, excepting the Old Town as well, looks as if its architects took cementblocks as their ideal, Platonic form. Am still getting readjusted to European cars (small, fast-moving and all different from ours). They are made to fit the smallest sidewalk (and block many - it would seem that here, as in Vienna and probably much of Europe, sidewalk parking is the norm) and would make Halyna look huge. ---- Instead of sleeping on my second flight yesterday, I ended up chatting with a Polish guy who was flying from Boston. Turns out he is the head of PR for the Polish opposition party, Civic Platform. We spent much of the flight comparing tabs on the U.S. and Polish political scenes and he invited me for a tour of parliament. Halyna and I took him up on the invite and, after a quick visit to the U.S. embassy (Halyna's cousin, whose family we are staying with, works there) we walked over to the parliament buildings. Lucasz showed us the floor of parliament, his party's offices and introduced us to a variety of friends. He was incredibly kind (in contrast with Halyna's at first somewhat brusk cousin) and generous with his time. The environment was extremely informal, with media, parliamentarians and lackeys mingling all over. For instance, the president (one of the two twins who were set to win both the Presidency and the Prime Ministership for their party, Law and Justice) walked by as Lucasz was introducing us to a bunch of MPs. Halyna later pointed out (and I completely agree) that almost all of the MPs were young and gorgeous. Dressed to the nines, they made "fat cat" seem like an overly complimentary term for North American politicians. We happened to arrive at a particularly exciting time in Polish politics as the opposition parties were trying to force a new election that evening over the budget. The activity made for a somewhat awkward if amazing visit as one of Lucasj's colleagues had to run down and get us security passes (a language barrier and Halyna's lack of any ID had made this process more difficult) and, as a result of the latter problem, an MP had to come down and OK our entry into the main building. In addition, throughout our brief tour, Lucasj - who had been vacationing/hiding in Boston with his wife for the past two months after his parties crushing election and coalition defeat - was hugging and kissing nearly every individual that passed us, from the many beautiful reporters to MPs high and low. Lucasz's connections (which he didn't hesitate to tout) were extensive and impressive. For instance, a good friend recently crossed the floor and replaced the country's finance minister as part of Law and Justice's bid to push its left-leaning budget (which ran counter to election promises that had been part of a discarded Civic Platform-Law and Justice coalition arrangement) through. All in all, it was quite an experience. ----- A quick note on the weather: Its been bitter cold here. A couple days were sunny and a couple were grey but the warmest its gotten is -8 c. I brought just enough layers and was pursuaged, at length, by Halyna to buy a hat on my second day but it still makes being outside for prolongued periods, a little unpleasant. On sleep habits: mine have been, as usual, unorthodox. A combination of jet lag and my usual insomnia have resulted in this post (its 05:15 my time) and 2 twelve hour nights interspersed with sleepless ones. Not the end of the world but it has also made sightseeing more difficult as I slept through much of my first and last days in Warsaw and much of today. The result, I've seen the cities by night (which isn't unusual for me) and taken fewer scenic pictures. ----- Have been in Krakow for a day and two nights now and it meets everyones descriptions of its beauty and culture. It is very bohemian, if a little tourist-oriented, and very young and alive. There are more bars and restaurants in this tiny city than I've ever seen in such a small place and every one of the former is decorated in a different, appealing and interesting manner (Halyna and I have been in three restaurants a bar and a club as of yet and have checked out dozens more). We arrived late and, after exploring 5 different hostels (they are all over the city and included various dorm/ double room, price and breakfast options) we settled on a place in the South of the city by the Jewish District, Kazimierz innappropriatly called Atlantis which, for 50 zloties per person/night offered a brand new, clean double with few, if very nice, facilities. Next we searched at length for food (through the Jewish district and then up to the main square) eventually settling on Kebabs (nothing else was open at 11pm) and then found a happening if tourist packed club again right off the main square. Halyna proceeded to get the two of us intoxicated and we watched and danced surrounded primarily by Polish, but also many Italian, partiers. Of note were the remarkable height of the clubs guests (I was short for a guy and Halyna could barely be scene), the (by my standards) terrible music which was usually at least ten years old including remixes of Informer with different lyrics and a dance remix of a Lion King classic. ---- Halyna and I woke up at 15:00 the yesterday after trying to get out of bed on and off for about 5 hours and, with a breakfast of cold pizza and calzone from the night before, set out to see what we could in the remaining day light ours. Halyna was keen on finding a store in the Jewish District where she had purchased a scarf on a previous trip to Krakow so we headed south 8 blocks (nothing is more than 15 away). We toured a synagogue which, while it had an interesting story and somewhat interesting pre-WWII architectural remains, currently housed a terribly organized collection of photographes without no explanation or narrative. We walked around the Jewish District for another hour, looking at, but not entering, many synagogues and cafes (all of the former were closed and we weren't hungry yet). Of note, this district was not destroyed by the Nazi's (unlike Warsaw, which is why even its Old Town, is a reconstruction dating back to the late '40s and the earliest) because it was to be their Museum for Extinct Races. This reminds me that, after reading several guidebooks discriptions of this area and Auschwitz, I'm unhappy with how they've handled the subjects. While they explain the attrocities that took place in these locations, they don't instruct visitors to act any differently than they would in Disneyland so they recommendations about how much to pay and which quaint museums are intermixed with deathtolls of the buildings' former inhabitants. The Jewish District, like most of Krakow that I've seen, is a mix of old and new with more of the former. Its beautiful and interesting, if a little like Havanah in terms of the crumbling state of many of its most beautiful buildings. Its a little depressing, in that there are supposedly only around 100 of the 17,000 Jews that the area used to house, but, as with Poland's treatement of the Jews and my ancestry more generally, I find this hard to concentrate on for long. Instead, I keep such subjects, and more recent descriptions of Eastern European anti-semitism, in the back of my mind, seeing no recent actions to reinforce them. I doubt I'll feel the same way when I visit Auschwitz later today. The rest of yesterday was spent first looking around downtown for a decent theatrical or musical performance for the evening, then eating and listening to live Klesmer at a nice tourist-trap of a restaurant named Alef back in the Jewish District and finally having a drink at a beautifully decorated cafe nearby.