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Your Blog Has Too Many Words. I Just Look at the Pictures. . .

7 Apr

That’s OK, I don’t mind! This post’s for you –
SendMoneyPlease says, “You take pictures of lots of things I wouldn’t.”
Here’s some pix from each of the places I visited:

Ode to Thali

2 Apr

Mmmm. Thali & lassi. Mumbai.

Oh dear foodies, a poem, to help me relate,

The adventures that brought me the food that I ate.

Southern style thali. Aurangabad.

Across traffic, and mayhem, and down sidestreet allies,

Just to discover my favorite new thalis.

Fast food thali. Bhopal.

They’re hot in the north, and sweet in the south,

Guaranteed to satisfy foreigners’ mouths.

Vegetarian thali, Varanasi.

A neat row of shiny hot and cold dishes,

Presented to quench your comestible wishes.

The way thali should be done. Mmmmm. Udaipur.

Sauces and gravies presented with papad,

Chapati and rice and a fresh little salad.

Train station thali. Kolkata.

The chilis burn. The spices excite.

My appetite grows with every big bite.

Vegetarian thali. Varanasi.

Okra and peppers and spicy chickpeas.

The server arrives and I answer “more please!”

The coconut chutneys, the curd and the dhal,

The cloves and the pickles are incredible!

Fenugreek leaves and fill-you-up puri,

Gobi and channa and vegetable curry.

Potato and lentil and bright red masala.

How well you can eat for less than a dollar!

I slurp lassi up. Roti wipes my plate.

I now can’t believe how much food I just ate.

India, help! Export this delight?

Well, with some luck, I predict I just might.


This is What India Feels Like.

30 Mar

Check out this great promo for a contest The Times of India was hosting. Really, this is what India felt like for me, complete with elephant. Love it! (The tagline is “Celebrate a Circus Called India.”)

And here’s the actual contest site with the photo/video entries. Enjoy.

More Cowbell!

30 Mar

Rearview icon, Aurangabad.

When SendMoneyPlease asked me why in the world I wanted to spend 5 weeks in India, I replied (in addition to the food, bien entendu) “to see color and chaos,” a response with which he couldn’t argue. Now, while both “color” and “chaos” exist in India in innumerable forms, the population has elevated one artform to a superlative level: auto decoration.

“Blow Horn,” Bikanir.

I’ve long maintained that we’re very conservative when it comes to our choice of car colors, but this is one topic which I can assure you, no amount of written words or photos can do justice (partly because I usually spotted the best examples from our own careening vehicle). I simply cannot capture the vast variety and creativity with which professional (and not so professional) Indian drivers have decorated their modes of transport.

Bumper flower. Kochi.

Just about every vehicle that moves in India contains at least a small photo, postcard or sticker for luck or remembrance – of gods and prophets – prominently placed near the steering wheel or on the dashboard or tucked where a sun visor would be. Professional drivers have even more lucky charms – icons and bangles and tinsel and something uncannily resembling a ‘70s macramé plant holder hanging from the rearview mirror (some so long or numerous that you have to wonder if the luck simply counteracts the fact that they obstruct the view of the driver in the first place). There’s the truly baffling either real or synthetic “hair tassels” (yep, I had to ask what it was too) dragging from the front grill. And the decorative (or is it for safety, hmmm. . .) covering of any windshield cracks with bright red tape and flowery stickers.

Cute rickshaw kitty (?!). Beypore.

Now, so far, these items appear to be for luck or safety on the roads, something which after having ridden around Indian roads for several weeks I can thoroughly appreciate. And the wedding vehicle decorations are impressive as well – colorful ribbons taped in endless bumpy waves, flashy metallic tinsel and mylar flowers. Again, something that is in my visual vocabulary for celebrations and festivals and parades.


Tire fish! Beypore.

But then the auto and truck decoration enters the truly artistic realm. And like art, personal taste is individual and unlimited. There are countless photos of Indian and western film and pop stars (Oh, if Angelina Jolie only knew how many photos of her are pinned up in Indian rickshaws!). There were leather (not cow, mind you) dashboard covers for every make and model of car, truck or rickshaw – all with perfect cutouts in just the right places to open the dash compartment and allow the air vents to still function. We were rocked and popped by the most happening of sound systems fitted into tiny tuktuk trunks.

Bus baby. Calicut.

There are custom-installed cushions and slick vinyl covers in every color of fake tiger print and plastic roses. Entire (one square meter) interiors of rickshaws had been meticulously hand sewn with so much plastic and dangling tassels from the ceiling that any swinging bachelor pad would be put to shame. Austin Powers would be so proud! Metal flowers were soldered onto siderails and hubcaps. Multi-colored airbrushing abounds. There are the photos of cute animals and landscape scenes and (?!?) light-skinned babies. (No, not goddess-babies. Just regular babies. Clearly.)

Back window. Jaipur.

And the horns! The constant horns! No boring “beep-beeps” here. The horns each have characters of their own – tiny cartoon sirens, undulating mechanical whistles, huge overpowering airhorns, vaguely musical melodies that trail off on their own until pressed again (and again, and again, and again).

“Goods Carrier,” Kochi.

The professional truck drivers have a style all their own. Every inch of a semi is brightly colored: hand-painted with gods and landscapes, symbols and the declaration of their united profession “Goods Carrier” emblazoned across the front. Carefully painted written warnings read “Blow Horn,” and “Use Dippers at Night.” Multi-colored tassels and tinsel flash and dangle in the truck’s constantly changing motion. I’ve never seen so much colored electrical tape – wrapped around every corner in garish patterns and stripes.

Truck undercarriage. Kochi.

I’m not entirely sure what motivates the collective drivers of India to fill their lives and streets with such color and fancy displays. It’s an intangible over-the-top quality that makes a ride in India unforgettable and difficult to describe. I keep thinking back to that old Volvo in town that you’d spot every now and then (every town had one) – with the artificial flowers hot-glued all over it? Maybe they had the right idea all along. May we all be as festive with our transport!

I Now Know Why Celebrities Crack

23 Mar

University students, Aurangabad.

One of my first jobs was to be a costumed cartoon character at fairs and tradeshows. I’d come ready for a long, athletic day – walk behind a curtain or into a back room, and emerge a full, fuzzy, loveable cartoon: plush suit, fuzzy shoes, big mask with huge ears and googly eyes.

Checking out their photo, Varanasi.

I had a repertoire of characters, but the most striking memory for me was the instant celebrity status that the costumes brought. The moment I put that oversized smiling mask on, I could go anywhere, get free anything – all eyes were on me. Sometimes it was good: adorable small children wanting to be held and hugged and hold hands and high-five. Sometimes it was terrible: teenaged boys wanting to hit me on the head and pull my tail, sticky cotton candy stuck in my fake fur. Cameras clicked, crowds waved, doors opened.

However, as soon as I once again dipped behind those closed doors and removed that magical mask, the difference was startling – I could walk completely unnoticed anywhere. The anonymity was so calm, so relaxing, so quiet.

Charming Punjabi ladies, Varanasi. Betcha can’t spot me. . .

I always likened the experience to what it must feel like to be an A-list celebrity: that constant spotlight, that constant scrutiny of being recognizable. I had the luxury of being able to transform back into my unremarkable self – that is, until I came to India.

Even more so than in Africa, I can’t escape my foreign-ness here (at least I’m not blonde!). What is it exactly that’s so head-turning? I’m not entirely sure. I mean, there’s plenty of western media. I guess it’s curiousity. It’s the unknown. It’s the exotic. (Imagine that! In a sea of multi-colored saris and sparkling forehead bindis, my wrinkled jeans are exotic?) Maybe it’s the years of indoor fluorescent lighting that have left my arms and legs a delicate shade of nuclear-winter-white. It’s the novelty of seeing several western women – gasp – drinking beer outside.

University students, Shimla.

It’s been an assault of attention on this trip. Oh sure, the usual vendors and taxi drivers and snake charmers trying to convince you to choose their guides and services, an onslaught of men wanting to “practice their English” or beg or offer prayers of good fortune or lack of bad fortune by giving them rupees or offering casting in Bollywood films.

But I also encountered a fair amount of harmless attention I wasn’t expecting: school children and university students, newlyweds, army recruits, random people hanging out of windows snapping photos on their cell phones, men unabashedly staring from 3 feet away, security guards, and just plain average Indian tourists stopping to say hello and ask our names and where we were from and if they could take a photo with us.

Seriously? This is going in your honeymoon album? Shimla.

Now, why any newlywed couple would want a photo of my disheveled, travel-weary self in their honeymoon album is completely beyond me – but I guess I’m happy to oblige. And fortunately, unlike a real A-list celebrity, my notoriety is short-lived: I can remove my celebrity status at the end of the trip.

In the 500 Yards Between India and Pakistan, I’m a VIP

15 Mar

Outside Amritsar.

This is the road to Pakistan.

Lahore: 23km.

Somehow, when our Indian friend asked which of us might be interested in visiting the India-Pakistan border, I was the only one to speak up. I mean, Pakistan? When am I ever going to have that opportunity again? Now – cold sweat in check, I’m curious, but I’m not crazy. Knowing this is a somewhat delicate political territory, I’d looked this one up in the guidebook, and I had a small idea of what we were about to see. But even I was surprised.

The welcome sign at the India-Pakistan border.

We rented a car for the hour or so ride to Wagah, site of the only open border crossing between India and Pakistan. With a somewhat hesitant mood, we piled in and went for a drive. The cars and motorbikes heading in the same direction seemed to thin out the farther we drove, their turban-clad drivers seemed increasingly somber. We passed army base after army base for several miles. I pictured barbed wire, and lookout towers, and the typical “no-photography under penalty of imprisonment” signs you find at immigration and military zones the world over. Images of utilitarian government waiting rooms and holding rooms and stacks of official forms filled my imagination.

You can buy border souvenirs! And Coca-Cola!

We were warned before stopping the car that any bags would be confiscated and that we needed to leave anything valuable behind. We drove past a roadblock protest and stepped out into a sea of people. We walked along border fences, lookout posts, glass booths, and were pushed into a fast moving crowd, then quickly ordered by a horse-mounted official with a whistle to separate men from women, not something we wanted to do. We continued along – through a security pat-down, past confiscated bags and bottles of water, into. . .a festival arena grandstand.

Pakistan is just on the other side of this gate.

Now, hold on a moment. Those were bags of confiscated popcorn at the gate. Popcorn? Of course, from the lines of snack vendors just outside the gate. Snack vendors? Yes, fruit and tea and nuts and candy – and families with small children and school field trips and teenage girls in bright-colored, sequined scarves. We weren’t headed to impending doom. . .we were headed to a full-out, stand up to the blaring pop music, wave your mini-Indian flag, and cheer along with the track-suit clad emcee political rally-come-dance party that is the nightly India-Pakistan border closing.

Fancy border guards!

Not at all what we expected. We were pulled out of the crowd by a guard and directed to a different gate – the VIP gate. Special reserved seating for visiting officials and foreign tourists (Guess we didn’t look very Indian. No surprise there.) That’s right, somewhere on this soil between the India-Pakistan border, I got picked out of the crowd as a VIP.

The patriotic crowd runs flags back and forth.

The event was really a non-event. I mean, they close this gate every night. The ceremony itself was full of pomp – (very, very tall) Indian border guards dressed in their fanciest official uniforms doing unintelligible prolonged chants and fancy high-kick synchronized marches. Pakistan had its respective grandstand and music and fancy-uniformed guards. They opened the gate. They brought down Indian and Pakistani flags. They closed the gate. You know – border closing.

The India crowd at Wagah.

But the surrounding interest and festive atmosphere was really surprising. A crowd of thousands of enthusiastic Indians had made this hour-long drive to witness this nightly event, cheer along with their countrymen, and shout positive nationalistic chants over a megaphone, a shout that carried far on the wind and echoed off the less-filled stands on the other side of the gate.

These “Temple Socks” Aren’t Coming Home

11 Mar

Karni Mata Temple, Deshnok.

In an earlier post from India, I started writing about “suspending my general (Western) perceptions” of how this world works. I was back on the Ganges, trying to wrap my brain around the idea of a holy-deity-river being the site of simultaneous bathing, prayer, laundry and cremation.  Welcome back folks, here’s another example of how my Western perception has been expanded.

Happy rats! Deshnok.

Prepare yourselves, this one’s not for the squeamish. In today’s “you’ll only find this in India” installment, I visited Deshnok’s Karni Mata Temple – a.k.a “The Rat Temple.”

(I also tried pistachio camel milk ice cream, but that’s another story. It was a full day. . .back to the rats.)

Beautiful silver door. Deshnok.

The subject of several television documentary stories, my travel friend and I decided we had to see this one for ourselves. A good 45-minute drive outside of the up-and-coming desert city of Bikaner, you’ll find a unique Hindu temple. As the story goes, Bikaner’s patron deity was asked to perform a resurrection and spoke with the gods, only to find out that all of her male descendants would come back as rats…in her temple…in Deshnok. Or, something like that. In short, it’s a beautiful out-of-the-way temple in a tiny town with thousands of holy rats running freely alongside the (human) worshippers.

Big line of penitent followers. Deshnok.

Now we knew what we’d signed up for, but as we stepped up to the door, our Indian friend turned to me and asked “Are you OK with this?” Well, we were about to find out.

Before you get all freaked out, let me say – these are without a doubt the happiest rats in the world. They’re tiny, not un-cute, and pretty well-behaved. They lounge around with a thousand of their closest friends and relatives sipping milk, nibbling on holy sweets and nuts, and in an interesting turn of the tables, having the humans worry about not stepping on them all day.

They’re arguably cute. Deshnok.

It’s an easy imaginative jump to, say, “The Rats of Nimh,” or “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” (Splinter was a rat, right?)

A huge (real) silver door leads a line of patient, penitent hundreds along a marble floor to catch a quick glimpse of a fiery (yes fiery!) icon set deep within the temple. The scene is complete with offerings and chanting and blessed food and lots of rats running around.

I mean really Indiana Jones type stuff here. For being basically in the middle of nowhere in the desert, we were surprised just how popular the temple was. Easily a thousand or so people returning from a nearby festival decided to stop in by the tourbus-full to pay their respects to the deity.

Adjacent snack stalls sold souvenir pictures and keychains of the icon – and the rats – along with sodas and gum and CD’s of Hindi pop music. It was downright festive.

All socks and wet wipes. Deshnok.

Though decidedly foreign,  the experience wasn’t quite as terrifying as those tv shows would have you believe…except maybe for one thing: I don’t think I’ve mentioned yet that to enter Hindu temples you have to take off your shoes. Yep. That’s right. Picture yourself, tiptoe-ing barefoot or in your little knit socks across a cold marble floor, sticky holy sweets and grains stuck to the bottom, weaving your way around thousands of holy rats.

Needless to say, that pair of socks is not coming home. It didn’t even make it back to the car. Plus, the pair of clean socks I put on after them may not come home either.

In my comic-relief moment of the afternoon, I spotted only the second public trash bin of my entire India trip – right next to the temple shoe stand – chock full of socks and wet wipes.

Sari Charlie!

3 Mar

Park your camel. Park your motorcycle. Johdpur.

While the far-traveled sendmoneyplease was traipsing the globe a year or so ago, he picked up a gift for me: a sari. Now, for a guy who’s backpacking for months at a time, I am fully appreciative of the effort that went into this gift on his part – it included spending the better part of a (no doubt) excruciating afternoon in a woman’s world – sitting on the floor of a fabric shop, having a crayon-box full of colors and materials and sequins and sparkles thrust in front of his eyes for consideration, all the while, I’m sure, trying to describe the fickle female whims of an absent westerner, her height and measurements converted into imperial standards. It’s overwhelming for me – and I’m a clothes shopper with the best of them!

The garment district, Johdpur.

He did fantastically, choosing a simple lavender-grey silk, and I love it. I really couldn’t have done better myself. But even then, after being barraged with an impossible selection, and negotiating a price, only then came the most difficult part – he had to carry this precious cargo with him for the remainder of the trip, another couple months, taking up valuable space and weight in an already stuffed backpack that had made it around more than half of the earth’s longitudinal lines, but still had half the world to go.

Old town of Jodhpur.

However, the fabric, beautiful as it is, remains unfinished. It’s a several meter long scarf at the moment – but to be worn as a sari, it’ll take several more components. And so I set off to complete the outfit.

Glass bangles, bazaar, Jodhpur.

India is every costume designer’s dream. In a country where even the camels and the rickshaws all have shimmering metallic tassels, flower-shaped ornaments, framed photos and mylar streamers, the ladies’ “everyday wear” does not disappoint – bedecked with sequins and borders and colors and patterns. You can have anything sewn to your exact size and specifications in record time.

Old meets (somewhat) newer technology.

So we set off to find a tailor. We walk through a tangle of Jodhpur’s old city streets and alleyways, past cows and dogs and goats and shops lined with aluminum cookware, fresh vegetables and fried dough – to find a one-room tailor shop with an older gentleman, balancing a pair of spectacles and a tape measure around his neck.

Old town, Johdpur.

Now, this is really just the beginning of the process – because though he has the patterns, and a young lady who helps him sew, and his sewing machine (an historic foot-pedal model rigged up to a makeshift electric motor on the table), he doesn’t have any fabric – for that you have to visit another specialist.

The blue city of Jodhpur.

Handwritten address in hand, we weave deeper into this maze of backroad vendors – to find the wholesale sari/fabric/trim neighborhood – the garment district of Jodhpur. With the help of the shop’s owner and some very curious ladies in the shop (“Why do you want to wear a sari when you’re so comfortable in your own pants?”), I finally decide upon two textiles: a beautiful crinkled lavender which was everyone’s favorite, and a plain silver that I have a feeling will be the better match. Also included in the purchase (and the educational lesson) was the readymade cotton petticoat underskirt and, later on, some lovely silver trim I’m hoping to add.


Bazaar, Jodhpur.

A mere 24 hours later, I’ve got my two sari-tops in hand – and I can’t wait to finally put all the pieces together for the first time.


[An important note: I take no credit for this title – that honor goes to the very witty sendmoneyplease(thank you honey!). Also, it strangely doesn’t translate at all into Australian English, to which my travel companions will attest.]

My hotel courtyard, Jodhpur.

“Do You Need a Guide Madam? You Will Have the Best Time! You Will See the Bodies Burn!”

27 Feb

First light on the Ganges, Varanasi.

India has overwhelmed every one of my five (or maybe six?) senses. Color and chaos, spice and fruit and chili explosions on my tongue and in my nostrils, views of unequaled exotic beauty juxtaposed in the same 12 inches with trash and animal waste and children wearing no shoes. An array of horns and engines and screams and animals and calls to prayer has assaulted my ears and entered my dreams in the middle of the night.

On the Ganges, Varanasi.

Sunrises are a time of day I don’t see very often – those few fragile moments when the monochrome grey of night awakens into color and life. A paint-by-numbers – just add the delicate morning light.

At the Dashashwamedh Ghat, Varanasi.

Sunrise anywhere is an optical transformation – and in India, where my senses are experiencing unparalleled intensity, they are magic. We’ve been fortunate to capture this moment several times so far on this trip – some by effort, and some by the serendipity of an early train or bus, our unintentionally sleepy grumpiness dissolving into jaw-dropping astonishment.

Near the Dashashwamedh Ghat, Varanasi.

I cannot possibly begin to understand the functioning structure of this society in any way – how the population and the religions and the occupations mesh together to form order in this frenetic daily pace. But I’ve been advised to suspend my general practical perceptions a little, and so, to observe: to be present and to smell and to taste and to witness.



On the Ganges, Varanasi.

For millions, one river holds a special place geographically, spiritually and metaphysically – the Ganges, a sacred waterway for activities my western mind would never categorize together: bathing and laundry, prayer and commerce and livestock, ice cream and cremation and snacks and paying tribute to the dead.



Sunrise, Varanasi.


And so it was that sometime while the sun was still tossing and turning in its bedsheets, we hailed a rickshaw and made that pilgrimage to the waters’ edge, through wooden stalls, over dirt roads, past locked storefronts, along with a somnambulic stream of those going to sell and those going to worship and those swinging cameras around their necks – to haggle a price for us all to board a painted wooden rowboat and bear witness to this inconceivable jumble of saris drying in the sun and monkeys jumping on rooftops and smoke rising from burning funeral pyres and the first apparition of a bright, red, Indian sun.

Herding Traffic With Sticks

25 Feb

Blow horn. And do they ever. Kolkata.

Apparently, you can herd cars like farm animals. That is, by hitting them with a stick.

Crossing the road in Varanasi.

I had to see this one in order to believe it. The traffic in our first two stops – Kolkata and Varanasi – has to be experienced. No attempt to describe the sheer chaos will in any way give you a snapshot of the reality. One of my traveling companions has already resorted to earplugs just in order to venture outside, and we’ve all decided to don a scarf over our faces if any sort of vehicle travel is involved.

Hold on tight! Auto-rickshaw, Varanasi.

Picture the midway at the state fair – vendors and children, meandering pedestrians in open-toed shoes, hawkers of every sort selling sandals and cigarettes and cut cantalopes, the bright multi-colored lights and shiny painted kiosks, blaring pop music, revving truck engines –



then add more vehicles than can possibly fit: mercedes cars, tour buses, local buses, military trucks, bicycles, mopeds, taxis, motorcycles, bicycle rickshaws, 3-wheeled auto-rickshaws, tractors, carts piled high with shoes and steel rebar and entire families balanced on the frame of a bicycle.

That’s Johnny Walker SHOES under the McAloo Tikka. Clearly. Varanasi.

And to this flow of color and movement, add livestock: donkeys, goats, herds of buffalo, dogs lounging listlessly in the dirt, chickens, tiny scraggly cats, monkeys hanging from above, and then clearly – a holy cow – parting the sea of traffic in any which direction it chooses, nibbling mounds of trash and discarded vegetable scraps off the side of the road.

Directly centered in this crowd is a meter-high turret holding a uniformed traffic officer – armed with a long, reed-like stick – slapping the flank of any type of transport that lingers in one place for more than a few seconds.


Colorful and chaotic, carnival-esque – and terrifying. I’m thinking of starting a non-profit with the goal of making helmets standard issue for anyone with the insurmountable desire to cross the street.

Cycle rickshaw. Kolkata.