Monthly Archives: November 2009

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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In country

November 22, 2009 – 03:44 Delhi, India

You know traffic is going to be interesting when on the bus ride from the plane to the terminal, the drivers are honking at each other to get across the tarmac.  Among the throngs of cardboard signs I was able to find my name and driver without too much trouble as I exited customs.  As we sped through Delhi in the dead of night, we passed trucks between their tires and the dividing wall with just enough space for the little Suzuki to pass through.  I guess it’s common practice to just flash your lights and “Blow asian horn” as one truck had painted on its rear bumper.

We only stopped briefly as a group of cows crossed the street.  As we passed, one of them got a bit frisky and proceed to mount another one in the middle of the street.

My accommodations are nothing special.    It’s basically a 10×10 box with a closet for a bathroom.  It’s spartan, but good enough for a couple nights.

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16:00 – Beijing Capital International Airport, Beijing, China

This place is dirty.  Flying in on final approach, I could barely see the ground through all the smog.  I had thought that it would clear up as we passed below a certain altitude, but even now as I look out over the tarmac, the hangars and planes become gradually browner across the airport.  My seatmate for the 12 hour flight, a lady from Texas who now lives in Beijing with her husband, informed me that they government makes it rain to clear up the skies every so often, but it quickly hazes over again within a week.

It’s eerily quiet here, waiting at the airport.  Coming off the airplane, I was one of only a handful of passengers who continued to walk toward the “International Transfers” gate.  We proceeded in silence as fatigue mixed with the relief of being released from the confines of the cabin.

If I believed in purgatory, this would be about what I imagine it to be.  Walking through this silent airport, tired, yet unable to sleep.  Rest, an unknown number of hours away.  I’m stuck here for the next five hours.  I don’t even know which terminal to wait at since it’s so early.  Cheesy chinese music plays over the intercom.  Wafts of food and cigarette smoke that has seeped out of the smoking areas fill the air, making me hungry and sick at the same time.  I should relax a bit, stretch my legs.  I still have another long flight to catch before this day(s?) is done.

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Itinerary Almost done

Sitting down and preparing an itinerary for a trip is something that I love and hate at the same time.  I love it because it allows me to start researching and planning the things I’m going to do and see, and while doing this, I get excited for the upcoming trip.  I hate it, though, because it inevitably starts locking me into trying to do the things I’ve planned out and I know that I’ll be missing things, even if I leave room to explore.

Ideally, I’d like to have the money and time to travel to a place with no plan, and just make it all up as I go.  Unfortunately, the reality of life makes this the luxury of the rich and the vagabonds.

I have 17 days reserved for India, including a couple days lost across the international date line, and another day of travel at the end, which leaves about 14 days of real exploring time.  So here’s the tentative plan:

Day 1: Take off from SFO
Day 2: Lost over the Pacific
Day 3: Arrive in Delhi in the wee morning hours and sleep. Wake up, relax, enjoy India Day 1.
Day 4: Delhi
Day 5: Morning train to Agra. Taj Mahal etc.
Day 6: Agra, evening train overnight to Varanasi
Day 7: Arrive in Varanasi
Day 8: Varanasi
Day 9: Varanasi, evening train overnight to Agra
Day 10: Arrive in Agra, take a bus to Jaipur
Day 11: Jaipur
Day 12: Jaipur, evening train overnight to Jaisalmer
Day 13: Arrive in Jaisalmer
Day 14: Jaisalmer, evening train overnight to Delhi
Day 15: Arrive in Delhi, relax
Day 16: Last day in India, plane leaves in the early morning hours
Day 17: Flying home

I’ll send this out to a few friends of mine to look over and get their input, then go ahead and book hostels and train tickets.

T – 16 Days Until India

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