Art of India


“Yes that’s me,” I replied.

“You were supposed to arrive 5 hours ago,” he says almost in a rebuking tone.  I’ll later find out that Arvind, the guesthouse owner, is a retired Lieutenant Colonel from the Indian Army.  His specialty: transport.

“Sorry I got on a late bus over.”

“It’s alright, I thought you had been kidnapped by one of these autorickshaw drivers or something.”

“No no, I’ve learned how to get around and deal with that since I’ve been here.”

“Yes, there is definitely an art to it.  Please, come in.”

There is indeed an art to getting around in India, and in fact, there is an art to everything in India.

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In the Desert

Osian is about a two hour bus ride north from Jodhpur.  It is an oasis in the Thar desert, and if you travel about 100 miles west, will take you to the border of Pakistan.  All I knew at the time was that I had to get off at the stop right after Osian and meet a man, who would take me by Jeep (which was really a Mahindra) to the base camp where I would be spending the next two days exploring the desert by camel.

Now, being in a more rural area of India than the previous cities I’d visited, almost no one spoke English.  On the ride to the camp our conversation was a struggle, and answering “Yes” to many of my questions left me even more confused about what was going to happen in the next couple days.  Like a logic puzzle, I had to ask simple and mutually exclusive questions to determine whether or not he understood what I was asking and if he understood what he himself was telling me.

Things became a bit clearer once we arrived at the base camp.  The camp was quite impressive given the fact that it was in the middle of the desert off a dirt road.  The front was structure made of bricks that looked like a miniature castle gate, with small flags flying atop the walls.  The main entrance opened up to a wide area enclosed on the right side by a low brick wall extending about 50 meters into the desert and on the left side by a line of large tents, all secured into the ground by a lattice work of ropes and stakes.

I was led into a small dining room attached to the brick entrance where I met the owner of the camp, who spoke very good english.  For the next couple days, I’d be staying at the camp while taking excursions into the desert and returning for meals.  As their only guest, I basically had free reign over the entire camp and their staff of 4.

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The Pendulum

A beautiful Audi R8 weaves its way through New Delhi traffic, costing more than all the vehicles ahead and behind for miles.  A well dressed young man in designer sunglasses and shiny shoes walks along the side of the road, trying not to step in the shit and rubbish all around him.  Girls dressed in bright beautiful sarees pat down cow dung to be dries in the sun.  An older woman squats down to pee in a bush, while the Taj Mahal stands majestically behind her.

India seems to me a country of disparity and contradictions, and I too am caught deciding at times whether I love or hate this country.  I’ve been feeling sick from the food for about three days now, and am only just starting to feel better.  It’s times like this that my mind dwells on the familiar things I’d rather have at home than be among the unfamiliar half a world away.  I’d give anything now for a nice juicy Pittsburgh rare steak, with a loaded potato on the side.  Instead I’m faced with the street food that got me sick in the first place, or go off to more expensive restaurants that seem tailor made to take willing tourists for all their money.

I hate all the trash and cow poop in the streets and get upset when I witness people just throw things out their window without a second thought.  I tire of all the autorickshaw drivers who try to take me somewhere I don’t want to go for an inflated price I don’t want to pay.  The novelty is fun at first, but quickly becomes an annoyance.  I get wary of anyone trying to befriend me because of all the shop owners who have tried to take me back to their shops in the past; it makes it difficult to really let down your defenses for a genuine interaction.  The pendulum swings toward hate.

Today I decided to leave Jaipur a day early for Jodhpur and I’m thankful that I did so.  In my first daylight train ride, I finally got to see the Indian countryside.  As we steamed westward, the scenery changed from dirty city slowly to farmland, and then finally desert.  Watching the sunset from behind the window bars of our sleeper train will be one of the more memorable images I take home from India.  As night blanketed the desert, I could begin to see small campfires lighting up across the horizon.  The views of small huts surrounded by fences made of bushes reminded me of documentaries I’d seen of African tribes.

After a quick trip through the city, I arrive at the guesthouse.  Finally able to sit down an have a late dinner, I’m glad to be in a quiet city again since Varanasi.  Once again on a rooftop, I can look down and see the subdued hues of the blue city below, but it is the view above that is most striking.  Looking up the mountain, I can see the mighty fort of Mehrangarh as a dark outline in the sky, towering above the city like a dark demon, backlit by the light of the full moon.  It’s like something out of a fairy tale, and the fort is the lair of the evil king.

I will not be seeing the fort tomorrow, or the day after, however.  I’ve instead taken the rest of my budget and arranged a two day camel safari.  So tomorrow, into the desert and onto the final upswing.

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Hostile Airspace over the Ganga

He’s losing and he knows it.  The look of fear and frustration can be seen on the operator’s face as he wrestles for position.  Left, then right, rolling and weaving in a deadly dance for an edge over his adversary.  He can feel his controls becoming sluggish and unresponsive.  Soon it’ll be over, but he continues until the very end.

Snap! That’s the last bit.  He pulls his controls furiously but to no avail.  Helpless, he watches on as his view turns from blue sky to brown earth.  A few final rolls make it seem as though there’s still some fight left in the old girl, but it soon ends with a splash into the Ganga.

A black craft flies over head, circling and watching his victim plunge into the water.  Then silently, it turns back towards the sky, gaining altitude as it waits for its next opponent.  It’s pilot laughing maniacally with satisfaction.

Rikesh has been flying since he was a young boy, which isn’t that long considering he’s only 16, going on 17.  You wouldn’t know it by the way he carries himself working in our guesthouse, but Rikesh is an ace kite pilot.

All along the Ganga river, these diamond shaped kites can be seen flying and twisting in the sky over the water.  At first they seem quite unstable, but that’s exactly what makes them perfect for fighting.  At about 1 or 2 rupees each, these kites battle each other by trying to cut the cable of their opponent’s kite with their own.  In Varanasi, there are few computers and fewer arcades, so instead of World of Warcraft, the kids spend their time challenging each other from the shore to matches of aerial skill.

Sanjay, another boy, shows me the difference between his ‘battle line’ to my fishing line.  He crosses them in his hands and then pulls.  Immediately, my line is cut.  I feel his thread and find that it feels more like sandpaper than a kite line.

“I’ve got another one!” cries Rikesh.  He’s on fire today.

Meanwhile, Gaell, a traveler from Paris, and I are struggling trying to just get our kites to fly.

“Fuck!” he says as his kite accelerates directly towards the ground.  We’re standing on the roof of our guesthouse, which should be a great place to fly, except that we’re having a very hard time.

Between us, we’ve already broken 5 kites.  These fragile craft are nothing more than tissue paper and thin strips of balsa wood.  They can only take so many crashes into the side of the building or brutish pulls of the string before they give up and tear.

We’ve been at this for about 20 minutes now but finally I catch a decent gust.  I take what I’ve learned in the last few minutes and pull and release like a madman, desperate to escape the unstable winds near the buildings and get to the sweet winds over the Ganga.  In a few minutes I’ve made it, and it’s smooth flying from here on.

“Sir, don’t fly too high or someone might think you want to fight,” warns Rikesh.

I thought that was the idea, I think to myself.  “Let them come.”

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Beggar’s Canyon, or the Road to Sarnath

When fish swim in schools or when birds fly in flocks, they call upon a special ability to judge speed and spacial relationships in a fraction of a second to adjust their own path of travel in order to avoid collision. That’s why you never see birds crash into each other. I have to wonder if Indian tuk-tuk drivers are an offshoot of humanity that has also evolved this special ability.

While traveling to the holy city of Sarnath,  I had a flashback to the scene in Return of the Jedi, when Lando Calrissian and the Catfish man are piloting the Millenium Falcon towards the Imperial Fleet to engage them at point blank range.  They fly through a swarm of TIE fighters head on while green streaks of lasers fill the space around them.  Well, that’s what we were doing, except times 10.  After about 20 seconds of wondering why I felt a bit more stressed than usual, I realized that we were on a de factor one-way street and we were the only ones who had chosen suicidal option number 2, and we were only armed with a horn.  Good thing they weren’t shooting at us.  Wait, did that kid just try to hit us with a rock?  Good flying Gold Leader, Catfish man ain’t got nothin’ on you.

The one good thing about all this is that when it comes time for an interplanetary war with an invading hostile alien race, we’ll have plenty of pilots to call upon.  Basically, they’re human targeting computers that can track multiple target trajectories simultaneously.  All that needs to be done is to modify whatever spacefighters we have with tuk-tuk handlebars and wire the horn button to the weapons.  Let’s just hope that they don’t get in each other’s way, or else they’d start blowing each other out of the sky.

The only other explanation I have to each time we plow through an intersection at full speed with cross traffic and come out the other side unscathed, is that it’s a small miracle, over and over and over again.


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The Ganga

Traveling alone is never really traveling alone if you don’t want it to be. Today I shared a taxi from the train station with a funny Japanese fellow and then wandered the ghats and back alleys of Varanasi with some French travelers. So why is it that it’s so easy to know a stranger thousands of miles from home, yet so hard to know neighbors  who live mere feet away?

They say that if you die in Varanasi, you achieve moksha, or freedom from the cycle of death and reincarnation. Varanasi is the end of ends.  It’s like the anti-Matrix; if you die here, you die in the spiritual world as well.  This is why many older Indians come here to spend the rest of their days, waiting to die.

When that day comes, their bodies are wrapped in ceremonial clothes and carried down to the Ganga for cleansing.  Once purified, their body is burnt upon a carefully weighed out pile of sandalwood if their family can afford it, otherwise cheaper wood is used.  To witness all this firsthand is a sight that can only exist in memory as there is no photography permitted anywhere near the burning ghat.

I think one of the French travelers said it best about the river, “The Ganga is pure, but it is not clean.”  When you see dead goats floating down the river as well as dead bodies being cleansed in its purifying waters, you get an idea of how inviting the Ganges must be.  Yet, thousands of people come to its shores each day to wash themselves and their clothes.

Of all the places that I visit on this trip, I will be spending the most time here.  Here, there are no great feats of architecture or grand museums to visit, just a holy river and the people who believe in its purity.  I don’t know if I believe in its cleansing power or what sins can be washed by its waters, but I think just being here is good for the soul.

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19:00 – Club India, Rooftop Terrace, Paharganj, India

I love how the Indians make their coffee.  It’s strong and deep, but still milky and a little sweet.  If it wasn’t so hot, I’d be tempted to down it in one swig.  Shame on me for choosing to drink coffee over tea for a second time today in a country known for its tea, such as Chai and Darjeeling.

Here, above the madness three stories below, I’m able to finally have a quiet moment, though not literally quiet.  The sound of two-stroke tuk-tuk engines, the high pitched honking from scooters and motorbikes, and drums from some sort of procession reach up from the street like tentacles trying to swallow me back into its frenzy.

Behind me a cricket match is playing on TV.  Twisted around the walls and railings like overgrown vines are multi-colored christmas lights.  On the table beside me I spot a couple copies of the Lonely Planet: India guide, which makes it no surprise to me that almost everyone up here is European or Australian.  My a la carte knowledge of languages is able to pick out some Dutch and German.

I’m staying in an area called Paharganj, which is basically an area west of the New Delhi train station.  The main strip is called Main Bazaar, where vendors tout their wares from bags to silks to toy guns.  It isn’t so different from the night markets of Taiwan, save for the cows standing in random groups in the street.  I have yet to spot any street signs around here and the only way to find my hostel is by committing to memory the random signs that surround the seedy alley that leads down to my little pocket of Delhi.

My first full day in Delhi was a fast paced whirlwind tour of the city.  I had decided to take a car-for-hire tour offered by the hostel, thinking that it would save much hassle getting from site to site.  It was actually nice to have a chauffeur for the day, and we got a long fairly well.  Sanjay, my driver, was the same age as me, though he was already married and had one child.  My only peeve was when he dropped me off at a fairly nice restaurant for lunch.  As I peeked in before sitting down, all I saw were foreigners.  By that time, though, I was too hungry to turn around and go somewhere else, so I sat down and paid about $12 for the meal.  Despite the price, the food was very good, and definitely could have fed two people if I hadn’t scarfed it down so fast.

New Delhi is hectic and tiring.  I don’t know if it’s the jet lag, the traffic, or the constant barrage of really nice people offering to rip me off that drains me most.  There’s a phrase in the travel book that says something like “If you have patience going to India, you’ll lose it.  If you don’t have patience, you’ll learn it.”  I’m doing both.

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