Udaipur

Udaipur

“Be bewitched by this fairy-tale city,” the guidebook says, “where ocre-shaded hills encircle the whimsical, snow-whit lake palace.”

“Marvel at beautiful Udaipur, then wander beyond into the Aravalli hills.”

“Watermarked by whimsy and splendour, the Venice of the East holds stage as one of India’s truly seductive cities.”

Uncanny.

UdaipurII

To escape the touts I dash between two pillars of rock engraved with cartoonish elephants. I am followed by four children who throw stones at a pack of street dogs, and emerge finally onto a ghat bordering a luscious green lake. Only ten days before the lake was nothing more than a crater in the earth, now there is a tide upon the river that blows with the wind, as green as a field of long grass.

The stairs into the water are wide and the stone planks shift when I burden them with my weight. At the edge of the lake, women in orange dress smack large black paddles against wet clothes. A man bathes in his black boxer-briefs, his hands creamy with soap. Stalkes of long grass stick out from the thick green water and a group of young boys play in the lake, tumbling over a black inner-tube. I talk with a gang of young boys, we joke together until an old woman comes and yells at them in Hindi.

UdaipurIV

“Very funny sir, I see you, very funny sir” a teenage Indian boy says, he looks like an older version of the children, his blue-plaid shirt and whitening pants are nearly identical to the other Indians. He introduces himself as Bari, and the boy has a kind face, but even after the innocuous introductions I still find it difficult to shake off that presumption of suspicion that so encases the traveler into a mind-bubble, equainimous to whatever the locals recommend or suggest.

You go to school? I ask, intending to ask more questions than answer.

Yes, first year sir.

You live in this city?

No, my home, he stuttered it out, East.

We find his village together on a map, of Kashmir, he points to a dot where the railroad intersects. Near there, sir, he says.

Electricity?

Yes.

A moment passes where no expectations seemed to reappear, we comfortably listen to the laughter of the other teenagers struggling for the inner-tube. Bari tells me that everything coming from Bollywood now is vulgar, not Hindu culture.

“You mean language? Language vulgar?”

“No sir, girl. Girl vulgar.” This is true, there has been kissing in two recent Hindi films.

The man bathing had already dried himself off, another group of women have come to gossip near the water. A child swims on the ghat with his black trousers still on. Another boy in white underwear makes an angel in the green water, his back floating upon a Styrofoam case, perhaps found in the garbage disposal just beside the water, where rabid hounds and cows came to feast.

A boat ride to the sacred temples on the lake runs somewhere around sixty USD. If you want to eat dinner or get coffee, you’re looking at least $120. The man running my three dollar motel room is, in his spare time, a factory worker for Versace.

Udaipur

Auspiciously, I come across three young British Indian girls, North London posh, just as I am about to march up a three mile hill ridden with mosquitos and wild monkeys. I find their circumstances so different from mine, so unapologeticly disengaged. Their fathers have organized their entire trips for them; they have hired a driver for four days to whisk them from monument to monument in a fully air-conditioned van, while their tour guide, Bobby, delivers them to each “sacred sight,” taking care of any other amenity for them, from feeding the beggers to where to shit.

“We have been looking so hard for other young people to meet.”

I find this hard to believe, as I am burdened constantly by the amount of white young tourists, the herd that I have come to think alike.

“For instance, at our hotel there is only old people.”

I was going to add rich.

I agree to spend the day with them, perhaps providing some entertainment and American color between their cell phone calls, text messages and replays of Rahman songs from Slumdog Millionaire.
JaipurIV

As we visit the Gujurati heavy temples devoted to Hare Krishna, then the five hundred year-old cone-shaped temples devoted to the Brahman[s Lord Shiva, the girls seem genuinely troubled by the street children. As they are approached by gangs of bedraggled urchins, they quickly tell me that they have just come from an expeditious volunteer project with an English-education NGO, and about how good it felt to do volunteer work.

In much of Thailand, temples, welfare offices and generous families are constantly providing food and indecent housing for no cost to the individual, so giving away cash always seems like providing an unearned surplus. How wrong was I to assume that things are the same in Thailand as they are  in India, which is supposedly a socialist, non-aligned country. Bobby attempts to put it in perspective.

“What happens to the street children?” the girls ask with glimmers of hope in their eyes.

“Nothing, they just survive or die.”

“The government?”

“Takes their money and hopes they die.”

“The NGOs?” I ask

“NGOs!” Bobby slams his fist on the radiator with such sudden passion that the girls jump out of their seats, and for once, put away their incessant text-messaging. “Corrupt! Corrupt!” Bobby spits out, as if he has repeated it so many times before the words have gained some chant-worthy, sacrosanct magic. “You must not believe they care.” he says.

Shocked, that glimmer lost, one of the girls says at last “Well, our NGO helps them.” As urchins knock on the tinted car window, the young girls holding infants withered from marasmus.

UdaipurI

Jaipur

Sixteen hours to Jaipur, sleeper class, I lie on the upper berth of a crowded train, my arm suspended at head level like a crane. I easily grasp onto passing soft drinks, samosas, or the heads of children with sticky fingers. Outside the train, the sunset is straddling the horizon. I see rice fields and farms, a line of trees, electrical towers that look like steel angels in the dark.

AMERICAN HOT AND FRESHSWEET

GOOD TIMES PARTNER

ESCAPE TO ITALY

FINGER LICKING GOOD

Feelin' the love

Feelin' the love

Spotted on the Amalfi Coast: Jackie & Aristotle Onassis, Sophia Loren, Clark Gable, Vladimir Lenin, Bridgette Bardot, Elizabeth Taylor, Graham Greene, Humphrey Bogart, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Richard Wagner, Fred Astaire, Frank Sinatra… …and delicious hazelnut flavors.

The first night in Jaipur, the capital of Rajastan, a fuse blows at my five dollar hotel. We move to another room and that fuse blows out. The next day we relocate to another hotel for three dollars a night. It is ridden with ants, spiders, pleas, mosquitos, cockroaches. The mattress is a cot on wooden planks. It reminds me of living in Las Vegas. We wake up with new places to scratch. This is called Budget Travel.

JaipurXIX

On the street, past midnight, I feed a cow rotis. A man in a white turban and thick mustache takes my hand, says: “Good luck feed cow.”

“Good luck?”

“Yes, because cow is God.”

“Oh, of course.”

“You no feed street children. No good luck. Only feed cow. Cow is God. Not feed children. Feed cow.”

“Because cow—”

“It is God.”

“God.”

I feed God another Roti.

Jaipur

I read Arundhati Roy, writing about India in 2001: “More than 400 million of our people are illiterate and live in absolute poverty, over 600 million lack even basic sanitation and over 200 million have no drinking water.” She tells me there]s no such thing as an authentic Indian. She tells me that every Indian is a minority. She tells me that if you look hard enough, you can find Coca Cola in the Vedas. She seems to greatly dislike Indira Ghandi.

I am very grateful to be traveling around India with a woman, without her many idiosyncrasies would be lost. Everywhere, men follow her, with their eyes, their steps, their hands, and occasionally, with their lips, though none have been reciprocated for their desire. In the Guide it warns that “Indians are known for harassing women in Western style clothing”. This begs the question of what the guide means when it says “harassing.”

It means men asking you for kisses, asking how many people you fuck and whether you use condoms or not. It means obscene stares from the young men around you and being followed by gangs of them while walking home at night. It means always being served last at restaurants. It means that when you order beer the waiter assumes you are only doing it for the men in the room. It means constant whistles, taunts, and arms and hands “accidentally” falling upon different parts of your skin. It means men standing near you with such propinquity as to peak down any portion of your body where the distance between the fabric and your skin might reveal the curve of a breast or thigh.

It also means getting to stand in separate, shorter, faster lines.

My fork is too small...

My fork is too small...

A Tuk Tuk driver drives drunk. The other drivers hate him; they attempt to run us off the road. He swears at them in English, in Hindi, in Spanish, calls them charlatans. His name is John Travolta. We visit a temple full of monkeys. The Hindu priests call it the Sun Temple, the touts call it the Monkey Temple. On the way are cobras, goats, cattle, monkeys. Again, they attack me:

What they saw

What they saw

What I saw

What I saw

Jaipur is a destination with a great observatory, humongous forts, the largest canon in the world, the greatest collection of silver objects, rare and precious stones, a rich cultural history of Kings, epic battles and reformist laws, an old city completely bathed in pink paint, and a gaudy theater house.

At a bar a man named Christopher delivers a jeremiad against Indian employment. He is a well off businessman, frustrated with the “chai culture” of Indian entrepreneurs. “What takes a day in the U.S. takes a week in Mexico, takes a month in Vietnam, takes a year in India.” Apparently he owns manufacturing companies throughout the third world. He tells me the venal labor laws in India disallow him from firing his workers when they do not show up for work, or when they harass his female workers, or when they deliver shipments incredibly late.

Rich, he buys all our drinks.

India is still consistently India. And Jaipur is a city full of Gods, Kings, monkeys, and street children. They work in groups, perhaps. I give rupees whenever I see Mani, a fifteen year old with a baby covered in flies. I like her because she always takes my money and never asks for more. She takes food when I buy it for her. The street children just take the food I buy for them and then toss obscene gestures at me that say in so many words: “fuck you, cheap America!”. Mani gets it, so I always give her money. This is called selfish giving.

All hail the priest of the Micee D's

All hail the priest of the Micee D's

I spend a five days in Jaipur, revising India with clarity and conscience, July 30th – August 2nd.

Amritsar

Recumbent pilgrims lie scattered on the white marble of the Golden Temple. They look identical: long dark beards, white turbans, aged soles of their feet. Here we are far from the anomic lifestyle of Seattle, the bathetic pathos of Seoul, here people must have touch, must express total equality even in their style of eating, must cover their heads in humbleness not only to an imaginary God, but to each other. In a state of quiescent repose, we face each other as beings of the same universe.

Golden Temple

Golden Temple

The gold surface of the temple is grandiose. One wonders who built it, in what conditions, etc. Ostentatious displays of wealth certainly arouse suspicions in any puritanical American. Even the deserts in Amritsar are marked with filigree; delicate real silver tops off my rice pudding and looks like tin foil.

I encroach upon the sacredness of yet another religion, as I turn my back on the temple, deliver a wad of flem backed up in my nasal passages by the pollution of the city. Apparently you’re not supposed to do that.

Free food at the Temple

Free food at the Temple

I rid myself of the tourist monuments like passing difficult excrement. To find myself in a new city, one must survey the perimeter, as a canine around his new home, before he cane take in the pleasure of the streets. As soon as I am released from the injunction to see the tourist sites, I walk in random directions, towards whatever seems exigent or within my proximity—a broken down building, a gathering of Indians around a well-lit street, a strange figure in the dark. Very often I simply float within the crowd, unthinking and unassuming flaneur, imbibing in the aura of the city and its people, retreating from certainty, trusting the void wherever it leads.

We chase the beaucratic fairy around the train station from one ticket counter to another, filling out forms, getting things stamped, carrying our luggage on our backs with the body-heat of the Indians in our nostrils. The bearucratic and taxonomic obsession with getting things right, perhaps instituted by the British, has been popularized among travelers of India by V.S. Naipaul, where, in one short story, his wife faints from exhaustion after running from one passport office to another. The denouement of our confusion and utter exhaustion is only to discover that there is no train left for Jaipur.

Chandigarh

The plains of Punjab

The plains of Punjab

On a train from India’s most dangerous city to its least dangerous, from one of the most slum-ridden cities to the richest city in all of India, I spot the sun embellish the countryside through a cloud’s sharp contours. My feet hang from the side of the train, the gravel in strokes of grey paint below my broken sandals. The train feels like a rollercoaster.

 Chandigarh is a city of bigness, with its large streets, double-decked buses and parks, its grandiose shopping centers. Planned by western architects, primarily Le Corbusier, the city feels modernist, bureaucratic, the blocks are renamed sectors; the streets are in a grid.

 

Rose Garden

Rose Garden

Primarily Sikh, Chandigarh is the disputed capital of Punjab and Haryana, but the Sikh name Singh predominates every restaurant sign and motel. As a burly Indian Sikh told me, after realizing that I was already familiar with much of Sikhism, modern Sikhs imbibe in three main pursuits: chicken, beer and gloating. By gloating, he tells me, he means fashion. This explains not only the inescapable shopping centers, but also the underground bars, where, surely enough, everyone is eating chicken.

 

Chicken, beer and style!

Chicken, beer and style!

An elderly Sikh invites me to his home, feeds me Tandoori chicken, egg curry and scrambled eggs and tomatoes. He doesn’t speak a word of English, but we drink whisky and speak in our mother tongues and it feels that we understand each other. We watch the wrestler Triple H take down Mysterio. WWF is huge everywhere I go.

Two high school boys meet with me; their questions are typically high school. You have girlfriend? You kiss her? You fuck her? How many girls you do this with? Very common in America? They are obsessed with white women. Very naughty, very sexy they say. I ask them about Indian women. Very naughty, very sexy, they say. The first boy tells me he has proudly slept with seven to eight Indian girls, all of them his friends, though the second boy tells me they are all prostitutes. The second boy has a meeker sex life however, at two to three women. What’s with these ambivalent numbers?

 

In India, the Indians, are silly.

In India, the Indians, are silly.

A drunk Aussie tipping his barstool, as if meaning to appear helplessly inebriated, tells me he “hit the jackpot” in Goa. “I had to ask her guardian” he says. “I told her guardian I was going to sleep with her and maybe stay with her. After the guardian said it was ok, it was so easy!” “Then?” I say. “And then I left.”

 He was a fat, white, old fuck.

Nek Chand's Rock Garden

Nek Chand's Rock Garden

 What do you do for fun in Chandigarh? I ask the many within Sector 17.

 Shopping, they say.

Delhi

Everyone is Indian. The very cause for surprise is itself a shameful shock. The first Indian I contact, handing him my visa, spends ten minutes reading through my books and pointing to the pictures. No one in the long line of passengers behind me thinks to complain, we wait for him.

I buy a prepaid taxi and a fat tout takes the receipt, walks me to the airport parking lot, asking: This your first time in India? Where you from? How you like India?

And I: I come here once a year. I am from London, Manchester. India is great but has some problems.

He sees a policeman in the parking lot then gives up his game, leads me instead to the long line of taxi-cabs spewing black exhaust.

shanty

In the old city the street urchins fill the streets, their skin is far darker than most other Indians, their hair clumped up, their bodies covered in dirt so thick that when they move a cloud of dust follows. All over the streets are dogs and cows, desiccated with humongous sagging udders. The streets are as dynamic as a Wagner opera; I try to balance every new sight, sound, smell and the scorch off the sun into some comprehendible narrative. A street girl has her hand in my right pocket, loquacious women walk by with their bellies and stretch-marks exposed to the sun, I step over an undulating stream of piss coming from a small boy facing a brick wall, smashed cow pies surrounded by swarms of flies on the sidewalk, the tusk of a bull nearly guts the neck of a man dressed for club hopping, riding a motorbike.

hills

An old woman holding a lifeless infant in her arms slaps my wrist and begs for money. A red jewel in her nose, she speaks in Hindi gesturing for food. I stand awkwardly, as if I had come to a best friend]s birthday party but forgot to buy a present. The eyes of the street urchins burn my back, wondering perhaps Where does he keep his money? How cheap is the American? Her begging has drawn too much of a crowd, I say ceallo and keep walking.

Tai ho, meaning, praise, victory, but according to the Indians, its connotate is closer to “it is written”. In the Philippines, the way to accept one’s fate, no matter how miserable, is bahala na, happen what may. It is written. Sleeping on the sidewalk, Tai ho, bahala na, radical acceptance, it is written, it is written.

children

New Delhi is no better. Thousands of people living in the slums are displaced and bulldozed in preparation for the 2010 Commonwealth games, the place looks as fake and its people as displaced and desperate as the poor in Beijing a year before the 2008 Olympics. Squatters in boxed houses are at every intersection, new shantytowns spring up overnight to get turned out in the morning. The slums are terrible labyrinthine eyesores to man and God, the people there live in tremendously difficult conditions—but the slums are a community, they have schools, doctors, and some reasonable sanitation. To bulldoze these eyesores for a sporting event is to ferret out the population, to separate the squatters from a way of life they at least find bearable, to cast them under bridges, to divide and conquer.

Renewed, I take to the streets. Dogs, piss, cows, shit, camels, geckos, touts, urchins, legless beggars, singing street children, dancing street children, cockroaches, fleas, dirt, exhaust, heat, the sun, heat, heat so unbearable, heat so inescapable.

I find refuge in a coffee shop at Connaught place. The air conditioning makes my breathing easier. This is what civilization means—air conditioning!

I meet many Indians, most of them named Raj. Raj I invites me for a drink, just before leaving for Moscow to marry his mail-order bride. Raj II is retired but has traveled the world, asks me about massages in Thailand, but I realize he really means sex massage.

Raj III is in the India Gate Park in the middle of the night playing Cricket alongside hundreds of other players and watchers. He tells me that the nightlife in Delhi only exists in parks; it is a city on the verge of change. He tells me the government is getting rid of the cows, gentrifying everything for the Commonwealth games. There is still no where to go when the sun sets.

Even in the backpacker’s district, no stores are open at night and the disposition of the young men sitting about does not seem pleasant. There are very few bars but there are coffee-shops, where I overhear conversations: “Don’t go to study in the United States, all the professors there are Marxist, they only want to take away political rights” comfortably, sipping a mocha latte, breathing easily from the high air conditioning, as far away from the detriment of the slums as one can get in body and mind.

Buying $6 hotel rooms, sleeping to the sounds of bulls mooing, touts shouting and horns honking, waking up covered in sticky sweat, I navigate the traveler’s district of Pahar Ganj. Touts follow me the moment I step out of the hotel room, offering marijuana, claiming they are trying to practice their English, selling marijuana. To them, a traveler who comes to India without hoping to get as high as possible is an anomaly.

The kids here have no idea how to properly jip a foreigner of their money, even the drivers don’t know where the popular places are, and the kids selling drugs lack any tact. Perhaps there is just too many of them. “Sir, sir! Wear your backpack on your front!” is always a dealer. We learn to ignore them, their bedraggled faces become as tolerable as the hum of a refrigerator.

TajII

I eat samosas from street stalls wherever possible, I make friends easily; we travel around the Taj Mahal talking politics and romance. We pull pranks on the touts. We sweat profusely, in the rain, marching in the sun, waiting in lines, on the trains. At night urchins are asleep everywhere, on the gravel, on ladders, on rooftops, on the walls that follow the street. We tread very softly, walking among scattered eggshells, stepping on faces in the dark.

I spend a week in Delhi, with resignation and acceptance. July 16 – 24.