October 19, 2008

A few weeks ago I drove down to Germantown, a northern suburb of Philadelphia, with my friend Fedah to canvass for Obama. The makeshift Obama headquarters was housed in a derelict building along with an addiction treatment center for the homeless and drug addled who sidling along zombie-like asking for handouts. I was surprised at the deplorable conditions of a political field office, but appreciated the DIY ethos of the place with volunteers bringing everything from coffee to sugar to toilet paper.

The neighborhood we canvassed was poor, African American, and appreciative of our efforts. I was heartened to see that almost everyone we talked to was not only registered, but had followed the debates attentively and seemed eager to discuss meaningful issues or complain about the current administration. In fact, after six hours of canvassing, we only managed to register nine people (apparently, a decent number for this kind of work). Many looked at us as if we were out of our minds after asking if they were voting for Obama and even inspired some sarcastic responses and sardonic looks: "Hell no, I'm voting Republican". A couple of our registrees, although over 18, were illiterate and we had to fill out their voter registration for them. Others had relatives in jail or recently released who didn't realize they still had the right to vote despite their incarceration.

I was surprised at a number of women wearing nothing but long shirts over underwear standing unabashedly at the door passionately endorsing Obama. One woman told us of a dream she had where she attacked one of Hillary's advisors and the ensuring stress of trying to negotiate her way out of prison time. In another moment, I stopped two women on the street to ask if they were registered to vote. Both answering in the affirmative, one of the women asked me if I could spare 15 cents. I reached into my pocket for a quarter.

"I'll do you one better," I said handing her the quarter. She looked at me surprised and smiled.

"Can I give you a hug?"

"Sure," I smiled. She reached up and put her arms around my shoulders tenderly kissing me on my neck.

It was a beautiful moment that transcended racial and economic differences. We may soon have an African American for president. And a lot of needed social change.

3DP Vol 3: What I Did Last Summer podcast

September 12, 2008

Three Dumb Punks discuss some of the life altering events that transpired this summer. This edition includes colonics, why Americans love Sarah Palin, shutting your mouth and meditating, and how to embrace rejection.

Click the title to listen or subscribe in iTunes under by clicking "Advanced" and then "Subscribe to podcast..." and type http://feeds.feedburner.com/AmantesSuntAmentes.

The Smell of Google

September 6, 2008

You wouldn't know it by going to the Google search page, pressing your nose against the monitor, and inhaling deeply, but Google has a particular smell. As I enter the fourth floor office in New York every day, the scent wafts over me signaling my arrival. It's reminiscent of when my mother used to bake a fresh batch of banana bread. Simultaneously sweet and a little stale or overripe, like fresh paint or warm clean blankets that have been sitting in a musty trunk over the summer. It's an enveloping, exciting smell laden with energy and promise -- deep espresso notes and a hint of molded plastic.

It's a smell that, should I come across in a distant unrelated context, will always invoke that first year, walking through the Google office marveling at the creativity playing itself out in Lego sculptures and engineers happily zipping by on foot scooters. It has become, in effect, part of that larger complex aroma of New York City that ranges from stinky Chinatown streets to moldering park leaves in the fall to bleached subway cars to the smell of Italian food wafting from sidewalk cafes. Smells that will constantly be my passport back to this very particular moment and what it meant to me at the time.

3DP Vol 2: Special Olympics Edition podcast

August 14, 2008

Three Dumb Punks present their second podcast, featuring guest Dr. Mike O'Connor to talk about some of the contradictions between democracy and capitalism. This edition includes rich white men that don't pay their taxes, why you should vote Green Party, things that suck, and DJ's with lisps.

Click the title to listen or subscribe in iTunes under by clicking "Advanced" and then "Subscribe to podcast..." and type http://feeds.feedburner.com/AmantesSuntAmentes.

L Train (take 3)

August 7, 2008

The most recently revised version of a short screenplay about how the New York subway connects people in random, yet meaningful, ways.

Le Pétomane

July 3, 2008

In Blazing Saddles, Mel Brooks plays cross-eyed governor William J. LaPetomane who is more concerned with banging his secretary than saving the prairie town of Rock Ridge from a scheming railroad company. My sister discovered that Governor LaPetomane is actually based on Le Pétomane, a French stage performer from the 1890s with a talent for controlling is abdominal muscles allowing him to fart at will. The name Le Pétomane combines the French verb péter (or fart) with mane (maniac) thus granting him the prestigious title of "the farting maniac".

Le Pétomane first discovered his erstwhile talent as a child while swimming in the ocean. He noticed that he was unable to control water penetrating his anus and that he could even suck up water from his rectum and project it several yards. Although a baker by trade, Le Pétomane regularly entertained customers by imitating musical instruments behind the counter (which I can't imagine whetted peoples' appetites for his, um... buns). At any rate, Le Pétomane soon took his talent to the stage eventually playing the Moulin Rouge in 1892. Some of his highlights included playing a flute through a rubber tube inserted in his ass, emulating cannon fire and thunderstorms, and blowing out candles from several yards away. Among Le Pétomane's audience were Edward, Prince of Wales, Belgian King Leopold II, and Sigmund Freud (who no doubt had plenty to say on the subject). In later years, Le Pétomane joined the vogue of recreating natural disasters for public entertainment by farting his impression of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake.

3DP Vol 1: The Naked Podcast

June 26, 2008

Three Dumb Punks present their first podcast featuring gay weathermen, Hassidic party boys, streetwalkers, and horny Turks. Click the title to listen or subscribe in iTunes under by clicking "Advanced" and then "Subscribe to podcast..." and type http://feeds.feedburner.com/AmantesSuntAmentes.

I Just Read It for the Articles

June 15, 2008

Sarah's sister gave me a February 2007 Playboy featuring Battlestar Galactica's Tricia Helfer. Amongst the ads for Crown Royale, fragrances from the band KISS, and Skoal Bandits, was an article on male sexuality (imagine). In addition to such fine lines as "Faced with annihilation the Y (gene) learned to fuck itself," the article discussed some of the differences between male and female DNA.

One of the most obvious differences is that Y (male) chromosomes only have 76 genes, compared to the X (female) which has 1,098. But the Y chromosome wasn't always so meager. In fact, since the Y mutated from the X gene about 300 million years ago it has been steadily losing genetic material. This has caused some geneticists like Bryan Sykes to speculate that the male gene and therefore the gender may be completely depleted in 125,000 years. Other geneticists refute this finding responding that the Y chromosome has actually stabilized in humans over the last 6 million years compared to other primates. But regardless, the Y chromosome has undoubtedly experienced extreme declines of genetic material.

When making sperm cells in a fertilized egg, the Y exchanges DNA with the X during meiosis exchanging DNA through 23 pairs of chromosomes before being violently torn apart from one another. But these genes can only swap genetic information at their tips (otherwise, humans would all be male), resulting in genes easily being dropped. Y genes attempt to correct this by replacing damaged genes in single sections with healthy ones without having to involve the X. The Y can't always fix these problems however, which can result in a number of male-specific disorders such as infertility, color blindness, hemophilia, Duchenne musular dystrophy and fragile-X retardation.

Despite the disparity of genes between X and Y chromosomes, geneticists used to think that the genetic variations between men and women were minor, as most of our genetic coding tends to come over from the X with only small bits of code that make us male brought over from the Y. All fetuses begin as female until the Y kicks in chromosomes to tell it otherwise. But in 2005, two scientists studying the once-thought "dormant" female X discovered up to 300 active genes. Combined with more Y genes than scientists anticipated, this actually means that men and women differ genetically more than humans from chimps. In fact, men and women are further apart than any two races genetically. As Playboy puts it, black and white men are closer in makeup than a man to his wife. What are often thought of as socialized differences between men and women may actually be more fundamentally coded into our bodies making it no surprise that there often exists such a gulf of understanding between the sexes, Playboy perhaps being the quintessential example.

Welcome Home

January 21, 2008

After almost three weeks of traveling through India and 35 hours of transit getting back, I was ready to come home. Surprisingly, I found myself missing very little of my treasured New York lifestyle. Though not necessarily in this order, I missed long hot showers (of course), my family and friends, Sarah, potable water, playing chess, fast and available Internet, my guitar, and good wine. But other than that, I missed almost none of the other American accoutrements.

It was the most patriotic I've ever felt walking through customs and hearing the burly customs officer say in his thick Brooklyn accent, "welcome home." Never before have I felt the value of U.S. citizenship, what that means to the rest of the world, and the extensive resources that my country has as its disposal should it ever need to find me in some compromising situation abroad. Although I have always been down on the spirit of capitalism that pervades this country, going to India very much reminded me that it was business that shaped modern life and the comfortable middle class in which I was raised. My biggest complaint about capitalism is that it seems largely devoid of altruism or certainly mechanisms which inspire successful corporations to be altruistic . Our system is balanced by competition that we engender, rather than any sense of obligation to social parity. But it has made me think that becoming financially successful is the best way to help other people and make some sort of marked impact on the world. Whether I have the tenacity or taste to do that, is another blog post.

For the first time, New York seems quiet. And clean. The car lanes are luxuriously wide and cab drivers amble over the highways gently in blissful reverie. The sidewalks seem devoid of people and the peace and quiet facilitates my post-travel introspection. I am still haunted by those small faces that looked up at me with such devastatingly beautiful eyes pleading for a little help. I don't know what to do with that. Except to maybe understand my small place in the vast world a little more clearly and what makes life essentially valuable.

Go Go Goa

After my first foray into Anjuna Beach, I really couldn't understand all the hype. After walking through rows and rows of shop stalls that twisted mazelike at the edge of cliffs overlooking the ocean, I couldn't see a way down and wondered if Anjuna Beach even had swimmable beaches. Upon further investigation, it turns out that an unobtrusive, narrow path past the vendors stalls twisted down to the beach over red soil and black lava rocks leaving the impression of a long lost Martian ocean.

I walked down the row of beaches during sunset where bars had set up tables and chairs facing the ocean. Couples and groups of friends were drinking beers casually watching the sun gently sink behind the water. I set myself up in a bar almost at the end of Anjuna watching the beautiful colors succumb to the overarching darkness when I noticed a couple of younger guys next to me fashioning what looked like hash and tobacco into a rather large spliff. I leaned over inquiring about the legality of smoking this monster in such plain view


White Like Chicken

Goa is the Indian Riviera. A series of beautiful beaches along the west coast each distinct from one another, it was settled by the Portuguese in the 15th century and remained one of the longest held colonial territories in the world only to be given back to India in 1961. Because of Portuguese influence, there is an abnormally high percentage of Indian Christians in the region with accompanying iconography around the city (although Hinduism seems to be making a comeback in recent years). In addition to iron ore, cashews, and seafood, Goa is known mostly for its tourism and for that reason I expected it to be easier than my other travels and the perfect spot to decompress before heading home.

I stayed in Panjim, the capital of the city, which is south of the hedonistic nightlife and full moon trance parties that has made Goa famous. Panjim, itself, is a fairly small town where the Mandovi river meets the Indian ocean with many small unpaved roads that wind through whitewashed shops and houses. It tends to attract older, quieter tourists and I stayed in a charming hundred year old Portuguese manor called Panjim Inn that had been converted into guest rooms. I walked to the closest beach Miramar my first day out which consisted almost solely of Indian locals. Teenagers walked along the beaches in groups looking at me curiously and asking to take my picture while young girls waded into the water waist-high in their saris. After all the attention, I felt like a famous actor on a remote coast unsuccessfully fleeing fan-crazed mobs .

The next few days I wandered through different beaches trying to find one where I felt most comfortable. I started at Calangute and Baga beaches working my way up, but ran into a detestable amount of British, German, and Australian tourists, all very much older with fat ruddy stomachs hanging over their waists and the occasional nipple ring or pirate scarf. I had imagined the beaches were within walking distance to one another, but in fact I had to spend a significant amount of money on taxi fares just to get from beach to beach. Apparently, most people rent scooters or motorcycles and let houses near beaches they like. After exploring the more touristy beaches, I settled on Vagator which was intimate with nice sand, few white tourists, and a lot of so-called "hippies."

I was surprised that even on the beach I was being solicited on an average of every two minutes by various young girls selling clothing and jewelry, men offering massages, older women slicing coconuts and mangoes with machetes, and others selling assortments of books, ice cream, and other luxuries. The young girls were amazingly tenacious and I found that this was the first sanctioned space that I had been able to talk to a young Indian girl that was even remotely my age. In a hard sell that reminded me of strip clubs I had attended, often these girls would plant themselves on the sand next to me talking for an hour or so in the hopes that I would finally look at their wares. One girl even had the self-possession enough to walk around advertising "Rubbish, get ya rubbish ere!" in a perfect (and perfectly ironic) Australian accent. And they were wonderful little scam artists many of whom assumed I was British and commented on my pale skin. We laughed and flirted, them trying to beat me down and me holding my ground until finally caving in charmed by their shystiness.

Luckily, one of these conversations paid off. As I was walking down the street I was solicited by a woman who wanted me to see her store and held me with the firmness of her grip and insistence in her eyes. Asking about me, I told her my dilemma of looking for a place to stay up north and she promptly hooked me up with a local guest house within walking distance of Calangute. Although spartan, it was clean aside from some ants and mosquitoes, had hot water, and only cost $28 USD. I was grateful and made a small purchase from her store in gratitude.

The next couple days I laid on Vagator Beach among wandering cows and goats soaking up sun, drinking beer, and eating delicious seafood. Goan cuisine fused Indian spices and seafood in unexpected ways offering variations on tandoori prawns, fish and shrimp curries, and fish stew byrianis. I had red snapper encrusted in Indian spices and grilled whole, pamfret stuffed with minced prawns and spices, masala calamari, classic shrimp curries, and thinly cut potato skins about the thickness of tortilla chips cooked in butter and garlic (admittedly one of the more Western dishes, but delicious nonetheless). I also sampled a local liquor called feni which is made from cashews and mixed with a sweet lime soft drink courtesy of the Coca Cola bottling company.

It was a strange feeling after the weight of India's poor to be laying on the beach so lavishly buying meals for under five dollars and beers for under one. But I tried to enjoy it as much as possible talking with various locals, many of whom had come as far as Nepal to work for the season. I also went to Old Goa one morning to tour the old Portuguese churches and surrounding tropical jungle. Goa is a fairly cheap place to vacation and other than the constant solicitations which occurred with maddening regularity, I would recommend it to anyone. I still had yet to sample the infamous nightlife, however, so I made up my mind to head to Anjuna Beach one evening, legendary for its all-night parties and accessibility to various drugs.

Midnight's Children

Despite the somewhat awkward motto, "Fly the Good Times," Kingfisher Airlines was extremely comfortable with decent food and televisions in the back of every seat. During the three hour flight to Goa I watched a talk show called (tellingly enough) "We The People" that hosted public debates in English about social problems in India. This particular episode dealt with the exploitation of child labor, a practice banned by law for children under 14.

The debate brought up many fascinating issues such as whether it was morally responsible or reprehensible to bring in a child off the street for use as a servant. On the one hand it kept children off the streets, paid them a living wage, and insulated them from more pernicious forms of exploitation, while on the other hand forced them into a kind of indentured servitude subject to the whims and cruelty of their employers. The show also addressed funding for schools (or lack thereof) especially in the rural countryside where teachers often don't show up for work and the schools themselves lack chairs, desks, or writing instruments. The debate raged between government officials, social workers, audience members who believed household employment had to be in children's better interest, and ex-street urchins brought in to discuss (in Hindi) their own experiences of living and surviving on the street.

Having been besieged by so many children in various states of dress, hygiene, and sickness shouting "Hallo Hallo" and "Excuse me, sir," their hands motioning wearily to their mouths, it was heart warming to hear people debating these issues so passionately. I found tears streaming down my cheeks as social workers stated the universally obvious sentiments that these children shouldn't be out begging for food, sold into prostitution, or working in the mines. They should be out playing happily in the sunshine, reading from books, and studying the world around them.

A significant point in the conversation occurred when a middle-class Indian woman in attendance with her daughter stated proudly that she had taken in a little girl off the streets that had become like her own daughter. The girls played together, performed chores together, and received education sponsored by the family. There was some debate over this woman's ingenuousness until someone boldly asked whether the two little girls used the same toilet. The proud woman paused looking stunned and then abashedly argued that it was unreasonable to expect a girl off the street to use the same toilet as her own daughter. And herein lies the stigma of the destitute and untouchable. Indian society is trying desperately to accommodate these wretches into homes and schools and businesses, but only as far as the bathroom.

I choked back tears watching this debate thinking that one of the most beautiful sites I'd seen in all of India were her children. Wearing schoolgirl uniforms crammed in the back of auto-rickshaws giggling and posing candidly for me, dancing joyfully to uptempo Hindi music, asking for American coins to contribute to their "coin collections," doing back flips outside my car, astride the backs of mothers rooting through gutter garbage alongside swine and cows, staring at me shyly across restaurants as if they had just run into their favorite Bollywood movie star. I couldn't help but think that these children are the key to India's future -- to its success, its beauty, its modernity. Those wide unassuming eyes and shining smiles somehow transcended their unbelievable social conditions while simultaneously highlighting them.

At the top of our hotel in Jaipur, I remember looking at the construction site next door to find that whole families were camped in front of the skeletal building bathing their infant children. After the mothers cleaned the crying children from a bucket in the crisp morning air, they handing the children to the next oldest daughters to look after while the mothers themselves went to work with their husbands. I couldn't imagine this life just as they could never imagine mine, filled with long minutes soaked in ridiculously hot showers trying to sooth my aching sedentary muscles. I know that these perspectives are all relative and that I may very well lose this compassion I feel day to day in the laughable complexities of my modern life, but I will try desperately to hold on to what made these children so special. One could do worse than trying to spend a life in service trying to better these children's lives.

My India

Jean left the next morning to fly back to Singapore leaving me on my own for the first time in India. I was grateful to have had Jean along to share what we had seen and process the experiences, but I was also ready to wander aimlessly for a while off the tourist track and let the city consume me.

My first solo errand involved going to the general post office to unload the weight of some white beans, black lentils, curry leaves, and Himalayan pickled gooseberries for my sister. I had no idea where to buy boxes or twine to package this gift, nor any idea if it was even legal to send it abroad, but I found the post office surprisingly efficient (in some ways more so than in the U.S.). At the entrance stood two men, one of whom cut cardboard and expertly hand-stitched a cloth covering for my package, and the other who processed the necessary paperwork and administered an official wax stamp. The post office had computers that looked vaguely less outdated than their American counterparts and throngs of people crowding the counter eagerly.

Indians approach the concept of the waiting line much differently than Americans. On more than one occasion, I found that if I left any space whatsoever in line, someone would invariably step in front of me effectively "cutting". Indignant over this offense, I usually reasserted my place in line firmly to the surprise of the offender who I'm certain had no intention of being disrespectful. For that's the cultural queue after all -- every person trying to get somewhere faster than the next resulting in a morass of people crushed together competitively at counter spaces. New York feels positively like a police state in comparison.

After mailing my newly sewn package, I wondered through the streets of Jaipur buying the occasional samosa when hungry and drifting between shops and markets. As the only white person in a sea of brown, I was conscious of eyes moving over me as I wandered through the streets. If I stopped for even a few seconds, someone would approach asking where I was from and, impressed by the response, try to direct me to a friends' shop or get to know me better. I was invited home to family dinners, offered drugs, and occasionally even followed until I could shake my new found pursuer in the tide pools of traffic.

I had not booked a hotel for this last night in Jaipur and all of the single rooms at the Udain Bhawan were booked up... except for the large freestanding Bedouin tent on the roof. Having never stayed in a large freestanding Bedouin tent before, I heartily accepted and was not disappointed. On top of the fifth floor sat two large tents with amateurishly wired electricity, a double bed, television, space heater, and enclosed bathroom. Rather than locks, the tent had a complex series of knots to secure the slitted opening which seemed like it would prove problematic after several large Kingfishers. But the dusky view over the city was absolutely gorgeous and I found the romance of staying in a colorful desert tent in the middle of Jaipur very appealing.

That night in search of dinner I went to the five star Jai Mahal palace hotel which resides on 18 acres of beautiful Moghul gardens dating back to 1745. The palace was breathtaking in its grandeur, but the snobbery of the staff and overt opulance repelled me and after paying far too much for beer and bar snacks, I proudly walked back outside the sterile grounds into the clouds of diesel exhaust and traffic and took an autorickshaw to the three or four star Hotel Country Inn and Suites. I walked to the dining area greeted by an extensive buffet of Western food being rabidly consumed by fat white European tourists. Disappointed, I strolled into the well designed Indian restaurant Spice next door to find it practically empty and an entire staff of servers trying to cater to my every whim. They proceeded to deliver an extensive feast that resulted in one of the best meals I had in India.

We started with kachey papitey ka kachumber which was a raw papaya and peanut salad. Then dhoodhiya pander or creamy cottage cheese kabob cooked with tandoori spices. After, I had the jaldhari seekh or lotus steak cooked tandoori style and the barra kabob or mutton stuffed with local kachri fruit. For the main entrees, they brought out kabuli murg tikka which was chicken tandoori kabob flavored with roasted black gram and gosht pudina shorba which was a mutton broth with mint flavor, unique because I had never had a lamb-based broth before. They also brought , lagaan ka murg -- chicken cooked in a creamy garlic sauce, and achari gosht -- a traditional mutton curry in pickle flavor. On the side they provided khade masale ka saag or whole spices chopped in spinich with garlic and fresh, steaming hot butter nan. For desert I had an exquisite ice cream made of condensed milk with nuts and saffron. Filled also with several Kingfishers and a Singapore Sling nightcap, I caught an auto-rickshaw back to the hotel trying to communicate genially with the driver by drunkenly yelling the name of our hotel back and forth. I clumsily untied the knots to my tent, pleasantly heated against the cool desert air, and fell into a light slumber in preparation for my flight to Goa the next day.


January 19, 2008

Walking through the gates of Chowki Dhani at night, we plunged into a sparkling fantasy world of Indian culture -- a manufactured theme park devoted to Rajasthani life. Spreading out over a few acres were women performing traditional Rajasthani dances, elephant rides, palm readers, puppet shows, magicians, jewelry and textile shops, acrobatic feats, fire pits, and mud huts serving food. It was filled with Indian families, many of whom were presumably tourists, walking around with broad smiles while children played happily. Jean and I looked at each other darkly realizing that yet again our guide had failed us.

What was the attraction of Chowki Dhani? Why was it filled with so many fat Indians looking amused and contented? By Western standards this simulation was the exact opposite of the gritty, real, spiritual India we had sought out. So why did every Indian we talk to rave about Chowki Dhani as if it were the happiest place on earth? And then it occurred to me that for them maybe it was.

After traveling through the exposed poverty and burgeoning industrialization of this country, we had reached the Indian utopia. A place where people were not allowed to beg for money or hawk their wares aggressively. A respite from the outside world of beggars, poverty, and starvation. A sanctuary where tradition is honored, all-you-can-eat food is in abundance, and people are encouraged to be joyful in the fresh open air of the countryside. Two hundred rupees (about five dollars) bought shelter from all the ills of Indian life. It was no wonder that Rajasthanis had such high regard for this carefully manufactured foreign society that so closely mimicked their own.

Sitting on the floor eating off of banana leaves, I was slightly sickened by the sheer abundance of food. The waiters kept dishing more food on to my leaves despite my protests and I couldn't help, but think of every starveling I had seen as my belly grew full and uncomfortable. My guilt increased as the food piled up on my plate soon to be thrown out into the garbage. We left soon after having nothing more to gain from Chowki Dhani. My nephews would love the clean, playful spectacle of this world. A privilege that most Indians will never know.

Pink My Ass

January 15, 2008

Jaipur was founded in 1727 by the astronomer king Sawai Jai Singh. Much of the city is constructed of pink stucco meant to look like the classic Mughal red sandstone although, in reality, it more closely resembles a light peach with ornate brown trimmings. It's said that the city was repainted pink during Prince Albert's 1876 visit to reduce the glare of the desert and that the prince was so pleased, the city continued to do so, thus earning its famous sobriquet: "The Pink City".

The Pink City has a completely different look and feel than Delhi in the north. Being in the state of Rajasthan which is largely desert, the climate is drier with cool winds that blow through the city at night. There is a more pronounced Mughal feel to the architecture and the colors of the city are the light pastels of the desert. Brightly painted elephants and camels roam through the city pulling wooden carts or transporting passengers decorated with elaborate jewelry and noserings. At night over the city, Rajasthani drums drift across the breeze accompanied with joyful singing and puppet shows.

Having been subject to the whims of our young guide, Jean and I were resolved to have a better idea of what we wanted to see our second day in Jaipur. We drove past Albert Hall in the rather wilted and disappointing Ram Niwas gardens and, fending off further suggestions, continued to the City Palace. A relatively recent collection of courtyards, gardens, and buildings, the palace also had several good museums showing a history of Rajasthani dress, textiles, and weaponry. One building of note, the Hawa Mahal or Palace of Winds, includes harem chambers where special screens built into the facade allowed royal women to view the marketplace in the street below without being seen. I found it chilling to see these spaces where women were herded together and confined by such powerful rulers unable to interact with the world around them.

We left our guide to walk around the bazaars and shop for a while walking up and down the streets constantly bombarded by offers and requests to just look around without (of course) any pressure to buy. It was here that I first noticed that I couldn't stand still for even thirty seconds without someone approaching me to talk. The conversations usually started the same way. People standing in storefronts would look me up and down gauging how lost I looked and then ask me where I was from followed with questions about America. Then they would try to be of service hoping to pick up a tourist commission or a few easy rupees. I couldn't be rude to anyone, but slowly my sense of privacy and personal space began to erode.

After a dinner of Dal Peshwari -- yellow lentils cooked Punjabi style garnished with clarified butter -- our guides suggested taking us to Chowki Dhani, a recreated Rajasthani village on the outskirts of the city that I had read about. Questioning the authenticity of the place, I had my doubts, but our guide insisted that he had been there "thousands of times" and that it was one of the best places to go in Jaipur. Considering that local nightlife consists almost solely of going to the cinema to watch Hindi movies, we were hardly in a position to decline.

Monkeys and Camels and Elephants... Oh My!!!

January 12, 2008

By the time our train pulled into Jaipur, the official taxi stand was closed, so we had to select a driver from the myriad of offers that quickly besieged us outside the station. We settled on an unusually tall Indian youth around 18 with long greasy hair, a budding moustache, and a smirk of youthful arrogance. He was a good looking kid charging us very little to take us to our hotel in the hopes that we would utilize his services over the next couple days. Although a completely different character from Afsar, we agreed.

We stayed at the hotel Udain Bhawan which was a cute Rajasthani-styled hotel designed to look like an Indian palace. We were a little nervous at the quality of the hotel (having been fairly lucky thus far) and our hopes sank further after having to step over a swathed body sleeping on the floor of the dark lobby in order to check in. The night manager was in a fight with one of the staff and both were yelling at each other and slamming doors huffily as we waited patiently for our room. They didn't have our reserved room, so they upgraded us to a suite which turned out to be lovely including marble tiled floors, a four poster wooden bed, and a bathtub big enough for five. We were ecstatic and enjoyed a night of luxurious sleep before being downgraded to a regular room, which was still nicer than expected. The hotel also had a lovely open air breakfast on top of the hotel with delicious masala tea and fresh juices.

The next day we met our swarthy young driver with a vague idea of what we wanted to do in the city. He seemed more than willing to make suggestions and decided we would go see a temple nearby called Moti Dungri (meaning Hill of Pearls) of which we were unfamiliar, but happy to see. We drove through the city listening to bad Western techno mixed with Bollywood singing and rounded a busy intersection only to promptly get pulled over by the police. They asked our driver to step out of the car and talk to them as we looked out the back window nervously. More officers arrived to confront our driver gesturing toward us occasionally. After about 15 minutes he came to the car meekly asking for money to help bribe the cops. The whole incident seemed fishy to me -- was this kid too young to drive? didn't have a driver's license? wasn't supposed to be taking tourists around the city? Jean gave him some cash and he chalked the incident up to a corrupt police force, but I had my suspicions.

We arrived at Moti Dungri, a white marble temple, named so because it looks like a little drop of pearl in the middle of the city. It's a small temple dedicated to Lord Ganesh overlooked on a hill by a Scottish-styled castle that belonged to the son of Maharaja Madho Singh and still occupied by the descendants of the royal family. After, we drove to the banks of a lake past painted elephants and camels to look at the Jai Mahal, an abandoned palace cooled in the summer naturally by the lake water underneath.

Jean wanted to look at some jewelry so we went to a nearby shop that our driver recommended. As Agra is famous for its marble, Jaipur is known for the quality of its jewelry and textiles. We spent a couple hours looking at lovely rings, bracelets, and necklaces that ranged anywhere from $15 to $15,000 dollars. I bought a few pairs of earrings and Jean bought a ring. After, the jeweler read our auras. Mine is apparently a light blue color and both my throat and heart chokras were blocked spelling doom for my relationships. Unfortunately, no amount of yoga could unblock these chokras, my only recourse being to wear a ruby amulet that, coincidentally, the jewelry shop could provide me at a good price.

After, we drove outside of the city to the Amber Fort which is one of the most spectacular forts in all of India. Originally built by the Meenas, the fort and palaces within were conceived by the commander in chief of Akbar's army in 1592 and modified by successive rulers over the next 150 years. The Amber fort was initially a palace within the Jaigarh Fort situated on a hillside above and connected through fortified passages. Jaigarh is built of red sandstone and white marble and provides amazing views of Maotha Lake and Jaipur.

The Amber Fort, itself, is a sprawling structure in which we got lost several times. It has dark, narrow passageways smelling of urine and dizzying towers providing overhead views of the fort's courtyards. Inside is a hall that strategically placed thousands of tiny mirrors throughout so that when royalty walked into the hall at night with a single candle it would illuminate the entire hall. Monkeys played on the outskirts of the walls sunning themselves and eating local vegetation.

Our guide dropped us off at Niro's, a popular tourist restaurant, where we had Alu Piaz (potatoes with anise cooked Rajasthani style) and Panir Korma (cottage cheese cooked in a cream-based gravy) while we prepared to see the old city in Jaipur the next day.

Nice Tatas

Driving in India is a singularly exhilarating experience. The roads are crushed with cars, auto-rickshaws, motorbikes, and scooters that simply observe no traffic laws whatsoever. They weave through the streets navigating past stray dogs, elephants, cows, and crowds of pedestrians all trying to cut in front of each other as quickly as possible using up any space present. Drivers use horns not so much to vent frustration, but as aural signals to inform neighboring drivers. They act as a kind of bat-like sonar system which, while effective, creates a cacophony of constant honking through the streets. The best way I've found to come to terms with this vehicular anarchy is to simply give in and trust that the driver will deliver me safely. And if you must drive in India, gods help you.

With a population of about 16.5 million, New Delhi now adds 650 vehicles to its roads every day. There are 5.4 million vehicles total in the city and the police estimate five times that much in the next 20 years. The Indian driver's license test is fairly straightforward. First you must turn on the ignition. Then you must drive in a wide circle. Congratulations! You may now drive a car in India. New Delhi issued 300,000 driver's licenses last year and many of these can be obtained simply by paying five times the usual fee (about $40) to an independent broker who will deliver your license to you in about half an hour.

Most of the traffic on the roads consists of scooters and motorbikes which outnumber cars two to one. You can see whole families on scooters careening through the streets -- first a small child, then the father, then another child, then the mother. Women usually ride on the backs of scooters sidesaddle, discretely keeping their legs together and saris intact, but I saw women of all ages navigating their own scooters through the city streets. There's a middle class service industry some of which I noticed getting off work and getting on scooters to head home in large crowds like bikers wearing ties.

Crossing the busy streets in Delhi requires quite a bit of patience and good fortune. Sometimes I had to wait five or 10 minutes just to cross two or three lanes of heavily congested traffic and even that required a dexterous sprint across the road and pleading gestures. It should come as no surprise that half of all fatal road accident victims are pedestrians. Occasionally, vehicles will run over a person sleeping on the streets which I imagine goes unreported more often than not.

Our guide Afsar told us that there were three things one needed to drive in India: a good horn, good brakes, and... "Can you guess what the third one is?... good luck!". It's true. While our car had good brakes and horn, we finally ran out of luck when a scooter hit the side of our car throwing its back passenger on to the sidewalk. Afsar and his driver stopped the car and got out (more to inspect the damage to the car than the well being of the perpetrators). After assessing the damage (which was minor), they brusquely accused the boys of driving too fast as one of the boys limped back painfully to the bike grimacing. In Jaipur we saw a side mirror casually torn off of a scooter by an overbearing auto-rickshaw bouncing along the ground like so many other abandoned mirrors. Such is driving in India.

This week Tata Motors unveiled the Nano, the world's cheapest car which retails for $2,500. This will have the unfortunate effect of increasing the amount of drivers on the roads which obviously bodes ill for Delhi traffic and the overall environment. I couldn't help but think that someone should make a short of an American taking a driver's education class to be a rickshaw driver in India. I imagined an obnoxious sign on the auto-rickshaw labelled "Student Driver" and the driver going hopelessly slow unable to make any turns because the traffic was so convoluted. And of course, the older, patient driving instructor would be crammed into the front seat dispensing sagacious advice such as, "Always keep at least one rickshaw's length between you and the next auto-rickshaw," and "Cows always have the right of way."

Tourist in Training

January 9, 2008

The next morning, Afsar drove us over to Fatehpur Sikr, a city built by the Mughal conqueror Akbar the Great in 1571 (son of Humayun). Intended to be the seat of his new government, Akbar only inhabited the city for 8 years before abandoning it due to lack of water. But the entire city is remarkable in its urban planning and well thought out design and architecture. Afsar quickly found us a trustworthy guide and sent us on our way to tour the city and learn its history.

Afsar is a perfect example of a type of Indian that tries desperately hard to please his customers. Polite to a fault, he refused to name any price for his services, instead giving us the very Indian "as you like." "As you like" is actually extremely clever price structuring, as Westerners have generally very little idea of how much personally chauffeured tour services should cost and inevitably overpay whether out of a sense of guilt or aversion to seeming cheap, especially in the face of such squalor. (Plus, if you try to low-ball an Indian, they will shyly let you know that you're way out of their price range.) Afsar's mantra was, "If you are not happy, I am not happy" and insisted if we were dissatisfied, we could pay nothing. And honestly, I believe he lived by this creed. Every time I got in the car, Afsar made sure to open the door for me.

"Thanks," I would say.

"It is my pleasure." And it really was. It was his pleasure every single time he opened that damned door for me which, despite his best efforts, slowly ate at me. He would have done whatever it took to make us happy, which was maddening in its own way, but all on the assumption that we'll pay more if we trust and like our guide. And, of course, he's completely correct. A refreshing change from the street beggars of Delhi, you had to admire Afsar, working his way through graduate school (supposedly) and we completely wanted to make him happy.

Akbar was what they call a polymath--an amazing human being with a variety of skills and talents. He collected literature and art from around the world and invented the first prefabricated homes and movable structures (essentially invented the trailer park). He was also one of the first leaders to tolerate other religions and refrained from destroying Hindu temples during his reign, as well as hosting religious debates. Fatehpur Sikr completely reflects Akbar's tolerant attitude and inventive genius including early forms of plumbing and air conditioning in the middle of the desert.

Akbar had three wives: one Hindu, one Muslim, and one Christian. And he built separate places for all three within the city, the largest built for his favorite wife -- the Hindu. Akbar had this idea of uniting his people under one rule through religion, so he tried to create a fourth religion that combined elements of Hinduism, Islam, and Christianity with him as a sort of demigod figurehead called the Din-i-Ilahi or "Faith of the Divine". It didn't exactly catch on (any Akbarians in the house?), but you have to admire the guy for trying to unite factions that continued to bloody Indian soil over the next couple hundred years. Carved columns and other elements throughout the city have subtle nods to each religion weaving their symbols in connection with one another.

A couple other details worth noting: After five hundred years or so, you could still see flowers painted clearly on the walls -- sort of an early wallpaper. They looked charming, the kind of print one might have seen in the 1950s. Akbar also combined life-sized Parcheesi with music and dancing girls out in one of the entertainment squares. You can still see place designators carved into the marble floor. Akbar was also a fan of elephant fighting and has a tomb dedicated to one of his favorite elephants.

A main part of the city is a mosque called (as in Old Delhi) Jama Masjid. Despite three wives and many more concubines, Akbar had trouble conceiving. After a blessing by a Sufi Saint Salim Chisti, a wife bore him a male child, the later Emperor Jahangir. This saint has a beautiful tomb in the mosque where you're asked to "donate" some money to clothes for women and children by buying some cloth and red thread. In the mosque, you drape the cloth over the tomb and make up to three wishes tying each red thread on one of the tomb's window carvings. If you don't tell anyone, the spirit of Salim Chisti is said to make your wishes come true.

After an unmemorable lunch (many Indian guides seem to base their lunch and tour choices on other tourists' tastes unfortunately as we learned), Afsar insisted we go on a textiles tour, not coincidentally at his good friend's shop. Ah, here was the rub. I knew Afsar couldn't be completely clean; this was a common "scam" I had read about. We almost got sidetracked with a similar proposition in Delhi, but held our ground. Afsar being so nice, however, we relented.

Indian rug and jewelry dealers have selling down to a fine art. It's a cliche to say that Indian or Middle Easterners are the shrewdest bargainers in the world, but I was off the chart impressed. First they did give us a short tour of workers weaving thread through a loom chanting softly to each other so that they know where each other are in the process and to create a subtle working rhythm. The actually human labor that goes into a hand woven rug is so immense, we couldn't help but be impressed. Then our host took us back to the "dealership" where he had rugs that ranged from high end Mercedes to junky Hyundai. They had rugs of silk so soft you could drape them around your shoulders like a cape. And he was relentless. Telling us the prices weren't negotiable, he set to work and before we knew it Jean had a bought a lovely rug that they were shipping to Singapore. In hindsight we thought we may have been suckered a little too readily, but the reality is that these rugs cost a quarter of what they cost in New York. So even if Jean paid too much, she's still getting a great deal and a beautiful rug. Already having nice factory-made synthetic rugs, I declined over and over and over until the size of the carpet offered was no bigger than a doormat. But I held firm. We had fallen to the first of many Indian selling tactics.

Jean expressed some interest in seeing a similar marble shop, so we took a short tour on how craftsmen carve marble, but escaped with our wallets intact. We last went to Agra Fort, where Akbar moved after Fatehpur Sikri dried up. Agra Fort is an enormous structure built of red sandstone started by Akbar and finished by his grandson Shah Jihan, who built the Taj Mahal. Shah Jihan is said to have been imprisoned by his son in one of the towers for eight years where he looked out the window at the Taj Mahal, the tomb of his beloved.

We boarded our next train in the evening that would take us four hours west to the desert city of Jaipur in the state of Rajasthan.

"Happy New Year Eve's"

January 5, 2008

I spent New Year's Eve at the Clark Shiraz hotel in Agra. Our guide described the Shiraz as a "five-star" hotel, but only by Indian standards I suspect. Actually, it felt more like a wedding reception than traditional New Year's. The hotel hosted the event in a giant tent with tables for the guests interspersed with heat lamps. There were waiters serving appetizers and drinks, and sprawling buffet tables with Indian, Western, and Chinese food. But the entertainment was strictly Bollywood. A light, lovely professional-looking Indian woman kicked off the event smartly dressed in a sari and dancing to pop music to get the crowd enervated.

"Are you ready to get naaaaw-ty?" she yelled in her crisp English accent. And then, of course, backtracked, explaining through some convoluted logic that although this was a family affair, we could all still be really edgy and crazy for the New Year. The crowd looked bored and unresponsive, but undeterred she continued to implore them flirtatiously as waiters eagerly served Tandoori cooked cheese curd and kabob.

Indian sexual politics is complicated, resembling something like that of a shy, horny teenager. In so much Bollywood there is overt flirtatiousness and slinky dancing, but only up to the point of suggestiveness in which case it gets sort of shy and apologetic. It is strictly PG-13 at best and the idea that women behave demurely seems to pervade all aspects of society. I couldn't imagine a situation, for instance, in which it would have been okay for me to just begin talking to a young Indian woman, nor her to me. Short of some kind of business transaction, any correspondence with a stranger, much less a foreigner seems improper. Women ride demurely sidesaddle on the backs of motor scooters and keep to themselves unless in some kind of sanctioned social space. I have heard there are dance clubs in Delhi now appealing to the middle class, but imagine they are populated largely with men, possibly women in groups which would be fairly progressive.

I saw no condoms being sold anywhere which, in light of the need for population control, seems to be an issue that Indian sexual mores needs to come to terms with. Bertrand Russell writing in the 1930s in Marriage and Morals advocated a complete outing of sex including a sound sexual education that he thought would go a long way toward creating equality between the sexes. While we have largely seen this happen over the last 50 years in America, we have also seen the commercialization of sex resulting in an explosion of pornography, exploitation, and increasing normalization of deviancy that, as long as the market persists, sees no legitimate end. Even more extreme, we find a kind of cultural hegemony in which young women are actually turned on by their own subserviency. So I don't know the answer to the Indian sexual dilemma, except that some kind of population control is direly lacking.

New Year's was pretty surreal. It included a number of dance numbers where men in tight leather jumpsuits and long shaggy hair would dance suggestively around b-list Bollywood singers crooning lovely Hindi songs. Laser light shows and smoke machines added to the 1980s look and feel, but it really got the Indians out on the floor. By the end of the night the floor was crowded with fathers putting their little girls on their shoulders to see the show. In between dance numbers the hotel would raffle off vacation stays at hotels in other Indian cities. There were exactly two Western songs performed -- ABBA and The Carpenters -- but the crowd was really grooving to the Hindi music.

Jean went to bed early leaving me amongst the Bollywood revellers. It was the first New Year's I can ever remember in which I utterly knew no one, but not bad as New Year's go. My expectations for them are fairly low anyway and I had a pretty amazing scene playing itself out in front of me, as well as all of the crappiest Indian gin I could hold down. I also had a waiter that seemed delighted that I was downing his crappy gin so fast and kept them coming accordingly. i tipped him well in what I hope is an auspicious beginning to the New Year.

If You've Seen One Taj, You've Seen 'Em Mahal

Before leaving Delhi we saw one more monument, Safdarjung's Tomb, a marbled Mughal structure built in 1754 set in a garden. Safdarjung was the prime minister for Muhammad Shah who, while not himself incredibly noteworthy, does have a pretty kick ass tomb with water canals and elaborate plaster carvings. But I must admit that I was beginning to tire of so many tombs, despite their loveliness.

We made our way to the train station and found our train car which seemed like a third class rail from the 1960s. In fact, we had booked the best tickets on this train, second-class AC, which is what middle-class Indians generally travel, but the train is by no means clean or modern. Jean and I staked out our area across from a Japanese man who had been living and working in Delhi and, like us, was going to see the Taj Mahal and spend New Year's in Agra. Once I had put the hygienic issues behind me, the train itself was fairly comfortable with seats that pull down into sleepable bedding. I took the top bunk and read for a while on the 3 and a half hour train trip past rural villages filled with grass huts. I mistakenly used the Indian, rather than the Western toilet, which was simply a hole in the bottom of the train instructing passengers to please not do their business while the train was at the station (for obvious reasons).

After arriving in Agra, we made our way to the cab stand where we picked up (or were picked up depending how you look at it) a couple of nice Indian fellows that took us to our hotel and offered to be our guides in Agra. This is fairly standard procedure we learned, especially in the more touristy towns, and can be hit or miss, depending on the quality and integrity of the guide. We got lucky in that Afsar (meaning "officer" in Hindi apparently) was a really nice young man of 21 going to graduate school for political science / economics. He was born and raised in Agra and had a lot of local pride that showed through his guidance of the city as well as his historical knowledge of the sites. Like many Indians, he was very inquisitive about us and we go to know him fairly well.

After dropping us at our hotel, he drove us to the vicinity of the Taj Mahal and expertly orchestrated a rickshaw to drive us there. Afsar picked our driver well and Hero cycled over deftly asking us about ourselves and instructing us the best way to navigate the crowds. When approaching the Taj Mahal, you must go through a large gate obscuring the view, but once through the gate the site of that beautiful marbled structure glowing in the light confirms all of the tourism, legend, hype, hours spent along the journey to get there. It is breathtaking in its majesty, looking like something conceived in a dream or scripture. The experience is dampened somewhat by the vast swarms of tourists and guides racing every which way to take their perfect photographs in which, of course, you yourself must participate. The opposite reflections of the Taj floating in pools of water are nearly as beautiful as the Taj herself. After seeing that, I knew I would never see a more majestic tomb again.

The Mughal Emporer Shah Jihan, of course, built the Taj over 22 years for his favorite wife Mumtaz who died delivering his 14th child. According to Afsar, and I have yet to confirm this, Shah Jihan cut off the thumbs of the 22,000 workers who carved the mausoleum so that another could not ever be built, nor could the skill be passed to their sons. I couldn't help but wonder what he did with all the thumbs. Finger food?

Almost Famous

As an American in India, I now know how famous people must feel. Everywhere I go I'm besieged by people wanting to talk to me. If I stand in one place for more than a couple seconds, people ask me where I'm from. Finding I'm from America, they are incredibly impressed and tell me what a wonderful place I'm from as if congratulating me on my last movie. I can go no where without drawing stares and most people want to take pictures with me to show their friends. I retreat to the remote beaches (like so many stars) wanting to get away from it all and even here I have people asking to take my picture, shaking hands or putting my arms around them as if we are long lost friends. If the conversation lingers, the fans might even broach the nirvanic invite to a family dinner or out to a club, as if we might really become good friends and then... who knows? The possibilities then are limitless.

It's no different here I realize. People crave that same kind of association with fame and the upper crust. We too have our autograph seekers; people so proud to have posed in photographs with famous people they mount them on their walls as if showing off good friends. We too have that secret fantasy that maybe if we impressed George Clooney just a little in a chance meeting, he'll want to come home with us to dinner or out to a club where we'll drink and smoke together and then... who knows? The possibilities then are limitless.

I Heart India (part 2)

January 2, 2008

Walking through the street market of Chandi Chowk was an otherworldly experience. The variety of people in various states of being is hard to process. The sheer density alone is hard to process. Everyone looks different. Everyone has a different story. Everyone is trying to sell something or ask for spare rupees. The sensory barrage is completely encompassing. They sell almost everything possible in an old world market -- vegetables, fried food, clothing, ladies' undergarments, children's toys, Hindu statues, good luck charms. Occasionally I would spot incredibly familiar, and therefore disconcerting, goods out of the corner of my eye. A knit sweater hanging on a wall with the burnt orange letters spelling out Texas where I went to graduate school, for instance.

Disappointingly, the spice market appeared to be closed on Sunday, but we bravely wandered back through the dark labyrinthine streets where people lived to see life behind the doors of Old Delhi, so to speak. We saw people doing a variety of odd jobs -- heaping enormous mounds of dried chili in preparation for the market, dirty barefoot children shucking mounds of betel nuts in dark cement corners, men shaving each other with straight razors, vendors selling various snacks and spices in large aluminum containers, others wheeling fruits and vegetables for sale in the narrow stone corridors. Old laundry snaked across the buildings amidst hives of electrical wiring tenuously stretched through the quarters. We came across small Hindu offerings to gods and goddesses with paints, flowers, and lit candles in unassuming corners.

Brave Inga found a seller wheeling cooked sweet potatoes over warm coals through the streets and decided to treat us. The man cut the potato into sections, dousing it with plenty of lemon juice and applying red chili pepper. I usually don't like the taste of sweet potato, but the lemon and chili undercut the taste offering a pleasant flavor. We talked in broken English to the man for a while telling him about ourselves and asking him questions. I took a picture of the man and he began talking quickly and pointing at me. Inga, who is trying to learn Hindi, said, "He wants you to give him money for taking his picture." I obliged pulling out five rupees handing it to the man, who refused it shaking his head in frustration that I didn't understand him better.

It was the first time I had seen someone in India refuse money and it was very stirring. Really, everyone is after tourist money because they know tourists can afford it and because so many here have so little. But I've perceived that Indians have a certain pride that completely eclipses the need for money. This man, I believe, would have taken any money we had given him at first, but because we were genuinely interested in talking to him, at that point the money largely became irrelevant. I went on to have similar experiences with other sellers and services. Though people may try to overcharge offering "tourist prices," no one I have met would try to steal outright from me. People have pointed out any time I've dropped money picking it up for me, and when accidentally overpaying, I'm always refunded the difference. This is one of the many seeming paradoxes of India that I find immensely attractive.

We strolled through more crowded streets of crumbling black brick and brightly pastel colored doors before calling our car. The sun was setting over Delhi, the dust saturating the city in beautiful pinks and peaches. We drove to the Gandhi memorial in a beautifully manicured green park to pay our barefoot respects and make a modest offering to the poor. We felt pretty drained, but in a good mood having met Inga, her badly needed energy and inquisitiveness invigorating us. Wincing at the overpowering smell of feet accompanying such memorials and mosques, I looked down to notice white Hello Kitty socks peeking out at me from the base of Inga's jeans. I smiled in appreciation. We went and had a banana lasi and some Indian snacks at Hotel Broadway before exchanging our e-mails and cell phone numbers and saying goodbye. Tomorrow we would take the train to Agra to visit the Taj Mahal, leaving the sanctity of Lutyen's for the promise of the open rail.