julep2323's India photoset julep2323's India photoset

Exiting America

I'm in India and like to blog about it.

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A self-obsessed postdoc seeking social change, yet trapped in the infinite loop of drama resulting from her simultaneous love/hate relationship with academia.

Friday, September 26, 2008


You can find some pictures of India, at long last, at http://flickr.com/photos/julep2323/

Amsterdam pictures will come later.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

My Route Around India

I've had a few requests to show the route I took across India. For some perspective, I had a month on this trip and saw only a small part of the north of the country. On the other hand, I opted not to be the frenzied see-everything-checklist-style Lonely Planet traveler, and spent a whole week in two different places, outside Dharamsala (in McLeod Ganj and later Bhagsunag) and in Rishikesh.

This map is a little wonky, but at least it's possible to zoom in and out.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

oh WOW

I have had the most culture-shocking experience of my life in the last 24 hours.....

First, to respond to my comments. The Ghandi museum was amazing, bhel puri is a snack food made of fried vermicelli noodles, onions, tamarind sauce, cilantro, mangos, and puffed rice that is ubiquitous street food in Mumbai, and it's freaking delicious. Elephanta Island is like the Mines of Moria, but real, and Indian and not dwarfian. (Sorry for the obscure reference.) It's basically an island an hour off the coast of Mumbai filled with caves carved out of solid rock dating from somewhere between 450 and 750 AD. It's thoroughly stunning and filled with statues of Shiva and other gods and goddesses, and yes, statues of elephants including Ganesha.

And as for Marlowe, yes. Yes, yes.

As to the culture shock....departing India was very difficult. It was difficult psychologically and also in terms of my patience....the 34 kilometer drive from my hotel to the airport took....TWO HOURS. We drove through the second largest slum on the planet, one I've been reading about in a book called Shantaram, which is blowing my poor little brain away. My favorite part about the plane trip was the way Indian customs put women behind black sheets to inspect our bags and bodies. The woman inspecting my baggage took every single thing out of my purse and, of all things, was most interested in my tampons. "What are these?!!" "Um, tampons." "Well, what is this?" "Um, also a tampon." Really not a weapon of mass destruction. Even funnier was a small package of strange shape I had all wrapped up in about 5 layers of insulation to protect it. The inspector asked, "What is this?" "Um, baby Krishnas." (I had purchased these metallic Krishna dolls together with mix-and-match clothes, crowns, and flutes and had them wrapped up for safe keeping.) While for some reasons she thoroughly examined my tampons with suspicion, even going so far as unwrapping one and poking at it (ew), she didn't blink an eye at my lame explanation of my Krishna package and didn't even bother to unwrap it. I swear, it could have been anything in there! This again, proves my point that India is SO WEIRD!

Then, after only 9 hours on a plane and I landed in what I am coming to think of as India's doppleganger-city, but in a good way--Amsterdam. This city is one of the cleanest, quietest, most bicycled places in the world. It's also freaking expensive. I know this because I was so disgusted and grossed out by my baggy and totally unappealing clothes I have worn for the last month (used to disguse my female-ness and avoid what the Indian's call "eye-teasing"--the ever-present harassment and violation of women, especially pale-skinned ones) that I shopped all morning. I even bought a pair of heels and a tight sweater. (My excuse is that it's cold and also that I want to be culturally-appropriate.) I am hit by some kind of consumerist fever...I am tempted to go shop for makeup next. Ah, the freedom of an open European city and my ability to wear whatever I want!

Anyway, more from AMS in the next day or two. Tootles.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Imminent Departure

I can't believe it but my flight from Mumbai to Amsterdam leaves tonight. When this dawned on me at breakfast this morning, a small tear fell in my chai. Yesterday I was very world-weary and tired and took a needed day of relaxation, museum-going, and eating. But today I'm ready to go back to the India of insanity, the one I've grown to love (and sometimes hate), the one filled with millions of people and cows and goverened by laws I can't even pretend to understand.

One month ago when I arrived in this country I was able to tell you many facts about India and its peoples. I thought I knew more than the average bear. But today as I am leaving I realize that I know far less about India then I did a month ago. Sure I can tell you some stories about my adventures and the places I've seen but somewhere along the line I gave up trying to understand this country and accepted that understanding isn't possible as a tourist. Despite the sickness, crowding, bugs, cow shit, confusion, occasional loneliness, searing heat, destructive monsoon, and overall weirdness, I just wish I had more time.

A very large part of me--not the part that went to graduate school for a million years or the part that holds jobs and is usually reliable, or the part that cares about what other people think about or expect from me--wishes that I the type of person brave and crazy enough to have bought only a one-way ticket. But sadly, this is not the part of me that generally rules my actions and not the part that will rule me tonight when I board my plane to AMS.

As my parting with India, today I will see Elephanta Island, the Ghandi museum, and eat as much bhel puri as I possibly can.

Monday, September 15, 2008


I want to start off this post with my hopes that everyone in Texas is doing ok in the aftermath of Hurricane Ike. I talked to Arlen this morning and he had a good laugh at my expense at my most recent phone message which went something to the effect of, "Sorry I haven't been in touch lately. But I am boarding a 30+ hour train ride in a few minutes and just wanted to let you know that I am ok and that you won't hear from me for a while. I'm sure you heard about the bombings in Delhi and while I am in a 'yellow terror zone' here in Varanasi, everything is okay and please tell everyone not to worry."

What I considered to be big news here probably didn't even hit the news there. And the biggest news, of a massive hurricane hitting the Gulf Coast, barely registered here. As far as I know everyone is okay.

So, how to summarize the last few days? I left Rishikesh for Varanasi on a very long train ride of about 11 hours or something (or so I thought at the time). I arrived in Varanasi, used the phone to call the guest house of my choice since it's in the middle of the Old City, inaccessible by any kind of rickshaw, the city is rife with touts, and it's nearly impossible to find. I was told to wait 20 minutes and someone would come get me for 60 ruppees. (Expensive but I kew it was worth it!) In 10 minutes someone came with my name and country on a piece of paper (as instructed) and walked me to a auto rickshaw with another driver. Then the driver asks me where to go. Huh. Then 5 guys around me try to give me business cards of different guest houses. They don't seem to want to take me to my lodge. I know for a fact that the place I chose, Yogi Lodge, doesn't take commissions, one of only 3 places in town that doesn't. I decide to leave them thinking I'll get a pre-paid auto rickshaw. They tell me it'll be 50 ruppees (still too much) and don't seem to be in a rush. So I decide I'd be better off going out to the main road to find another rickshaw. I find one and negotiate a price of 40 ruppees but unfortunately a hassler who had been following me around jumped in the rickshaw also and I can't get rid of him. I know this is trouble but there's nothing I can do. So we set off for Yogi Lodge. After some time on the insane streets, we arrive at Yogi Lodge but I refuse to pay my driver. I check it out. It takes a few minutes of demanding to see the rooms and the business card when I realize it's a fake "Yogi Lodge" masquerading as the real place. I demand to be taken to the right lodge. The driver and hassler act surprised, "Oh, the Lodge by the Ganga. You should have said so." But after another long drive in the heat, it's the same story, again, when we arrive at a fake "Yogi Lodge." At this point the driver and the hassler can't believe what a raving bitch I am and can't wait to get rid of me. They know they won't get any commission at the place I am heading. They demand extra money because they took me to 2 different places. In the end, I short them on ruppees after yelling at them (they are simultaneously disgusted with me and the fact they couldn't cheat me and also maybe shocked by my Hindi curse words) and set off on foot, in the incredibly searing sun and humid air. After about 20 minutes of wandering through narrow alleys crammed with women, men, children, soldiers, motorcycles, cows, cow shit, piles of garbage, and open sewers, and with the help of some hopeful Indian boys of about 16, I find the lodge.

Turns out that the man who came and got me was listening in to me on the phone, knew to write down my name and country, and pretended to be from the Lodge. The actual man from the Lodge came and looked for me at the station for 30 minutes to no avail. They were very impressed that I had managed to actually find the place.

Varanasi is the type of place that is nearly impossible to describe. For those of you who don't know, it's probably the most holy city in India, situated on the Ganga (Ganges). People come from everywhere to die here as those that do go directly to heaven, bypassing all the endless troubles of reincarnation. It has over 100 ghats, which are steps leading to the river. Most of these are used for bathing. In the morning (5 a.m!) I went with 3 other tourists at my lodge for an early boat ride along the ghats. Men, women, and children bathing, cremations happening, bodies being ferried to and fro. It's a hectic place but with some strange sense of peace overriding everything. Later in the day I checked out the cremation area. There were multiple fires going on, all lit by a sacred source of fire that has been burning continuously for thousands of years. I was able to walk right up to the cremations and watch them happening, and the heat and ashes and strangeness of the fires together with the humidity and sun was overwhelming. Every day at the cremation ghats hundreds of bodies are burned, for 24 hours a day, with all the work done by the Untouchables. Everywhere you look bodies are being wrapped in white cotton (young people) or festooned in silver (old women) or gold (old men) foils (like something similar to Christmas tree decorations). In addition to the regular chaos in the streets you have to be on the lookout for parades of men carrying dead bodies around. Not all people who die are cremated. Sadhus, pregnant women, those with smallpox or leprosy, and children under a certain age, are already considered holy, and are tied to rocks and dropped in the river. Those who die unnatural deaths, from poison, accidents, murder, or suicide must be bured at another cremation site, which is considered less holy.

My hotel was hotter than hell, small, very very cheap but clean (relatively speaking). I met some great friends while there and we had a lot of fun. At one point we were wandering around and got caught up in the worst traffic jam I've ever seen. We were in an alleyway about 4 feet wide and a man carrying about 15 large bags of ride balanced on a bicycle nearly lost his load in the open sewer. With a 20 square foot area we must have had ...let's see about 50 people, 3 bicycles, the load of rice, several large metal bowls filled with curd (yogurt) balanced on peoples heads and 2 motorbikes. My fried Rachel said, "All we need now is a cow!" And guess what.... sure enough a large grumpy cow comes barrelling through when no one was able to move before somehow everyone magically gets out of the way. Sadly, I am right next to her and very nearly get trampled when even she decides there's no way to get through the mess and manages to turn herself around....fortuantely everyone was looking out for me and I was saved.

Varanasi is a very very filthy place and I tried to be extra cautious about food. Many places near the ghats wash their dishes in the Ganga. I watched many people just drinking the water straight from the river. Whoa. While there I also saw a woman administering oral polio vaccine to little infants in the alleyways. What a relief.

My lodge was very close to the Golden Temple and also a very important mosque. There were armed soldiers everywhere protecting this area. They liked to watch me walk back and forth in the alleys, hot, sticky, and often lost. Turns out that about a month previously, a live bomb was planted near the temple. The bomb squad was unavailable and something needed to be done quickly. A regular army soldier volunteered to take the bomb apart. Everyone who knew him was surprised because he was not considered a very brave or capable soldier. Turns out he had drank so much bhang lassi (a very potent drink consisting of yogurt and marijuana) that day that he was so wasted he had no sense of danger at all. Good news is that it worked.

Well I'm in Mumbai now after a 32 hour train ride. It was ridiculous. Only a few more days until my India adventure is over.

Thursday, September 11, 2008


So another day in Agra. I am doubting why I decided to stay here 2 nights instead of just one.

While enjoying the sights of Itmad-ud-Daulah, a tomb dating from the 1600s, I strolled along the Yamuna riverbank. I took out my camera and my snazzy telephoto lens to take pictures of the water buffalo lounging in the water and noticed a group of dogs far out in the river on a sandbar. Turns out they were tearing up a dead human body. Nobody else seemed to notice or care. Couples were cuddling along the fence lining the monument and several tourists walked by without even noticing.

I went next to Chini-ka-Rauza, another tomb from approx. 1635. It was crumbling and decaying and was rather depressing. This was once place I wished would charge an entrance fee as the grounds and monument clearly need to be repaired. While strolling the grounds in a far corner of the park I had a nice surprise. First, I saw dozens of parakeets or parrots or some crazy green tropical birds swooping back and forth from a pile of ruins to a large tree. I was about to take out my camera to catch a snap when I gained a traveler. A large white and black pigeon, the kind used for racing, landed on my umbrella. He didn't seem inclined to leave so I walked the rest of the garden with him as my passenger above my head. I felt like one of those cows that lives with a bird on its shoulders. I would have loved a picture of this but my hands were full.

Later I braved the Johri Bazaar and went to see the Jami Masjid. The "caretaker" immediately started showing me around the mosque and giving me interesting information. But before too long he demanded 500 ruppees from me. Not as in asked for a donation, but demanded the money.

I have spent most of the rest of the day brushing off people trying to sell me something or looking for a handout. My rickshaw driver took me to an expensive restaurant which was good but they performed a strange puppet and music show for me and clearly wanted me to leave a large tip. I feel like a piece of meat. Everywhere I go someone wants my money. I am ready to leave Agra and only have like 5 hours until my train.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

How Many Pictures Do I Really Need?

First off, let me say that Himalayan hospital worked a miracle....my rash is healed!

My last few days in Rishikesh were un-freaking-believable. I visited temple after temple and puja after puja. New arrivals came to the guesthouse and I heard stories I could hardly believe...involving the Beatles, leopards, and the ingestion of cobra venom (apparently to amazing results). One night I walked along a road that is closed each night to prevent traffic accidents with the wild elephants. Sadly, I didn't see any. A German man came to stay at the guesthouse with his 3 daughters. Turns out that his twin daughters were born 19 years ago....there in the Hanuman (monkey God) room. He delivered his babies by himself and was priding himself on his good work after cutting his daughter's umbilical cord when his wife said she felt some other movement......to everyone's surprise.....in a few minutes.....they had twins! A Swiss man who has lived in India for 26 years also came to visit. He is totally assimilated. They call him "SwamiG" and he wears a HUGE red turban and is covered in prayer beeds. In Switzerland he is considered um, insane (or something) so he is given a "crazy pension" which he lives off of quite nicely in Rishikesh with his wife and two daughters. He supplements his pension in various ways.

Now that the rash is over (hoorah!), I am now plagued by another problem. It is this:
Just how many pictures do I really need of the Taj Mahal?

I am in Agra now and visited the Red Fort and Taj today. I saw the Taj at sunset and I couldn't stop taking pictures of it as the light changed....it was simply incredible, beyond anything that you see in a picture.

Tomorrow more Agra and then to Varanassi on a night train....this time not general class. ;) Then a long long train to Mumbai for my flight to Amsterdam on the 18th.