Thursday, May 14, 2009

IIIIIIIncredible India

The massive photo album follows the story, in the order of our travels

“Thank you Jaipur! What? Yeah, I mean Agra. Thank you Agra. We love you!”

That’s what my month in India with Rustic Pathways felt like- a rock band on tour. At one point my luggage was split between four different cities. Most of the time I couldn’t remember what day of the week or date of the month it was, and I couldn’t come up with any date to help me figure it out. 95% of my meals, including strangely for me, breakfast and meals aboard trains and planes, were Indian food, varying only slightly by region.

Rustic Pathways planned practically every hour of the trip in advance, which meant there was little left for me to do besides show up and take pictures. On the one hand it was nice to have a break from the months of planning, stressing and Lonely Planet binging. But on the other hand, it left me feeling a little bit dazed, confused as to where I was and why I was there. So I finished the month with tons of good memories, a little bit more knowledge about India, and hundreds of pictures of temples, churches and the like that mean little to me.

One of the cool parts of my month in India with Rustic Pathways was that it was the first time over the course of my gap year that I was only with other gappers on the same exact schedule as me. There was Michael from Sarasota, Florida headed off to Vanderbilt next year. Sophia from Boston wasn’t sure yet where she was going. Mo from Miami is going to Fordham, and Felicia from Providence, Rhode Island is going to the New School in NY. Our American guide was a 28 year-old Georgetown grad named Jessemin, and we had a handful of local guides throughout the month.

We started off in Delhi. On our first full day we whetted our religious appetite with a Hindu temple, a Sikh temple and the biggest mosque in all of India. We also walked around Old Delhi, a chaotic, bustling place stuck in some sort of time warp. We traveled by tour bus, auto and cycle rickshaw along the city, getting our first taste of India.

The streets of Delhi are something else. It’s as if they put down the lane markings and traffic lights as a formality, to fulfill some rudimentary requirement of being called a world city in the 21st century. But then once you zoom in and get up close, it more resembles the chaos and pandemonium of a schoolyard lunchroom on pizza day with all the kids rushing the table trying to grab the last slice of pepperoni.

But instead of the geeky kid with the glasses, the chubby one with too many freckles and the beanstalk who hit puberty about three years too early, there’s the three-wheeled auto rickshaws (aka tuk tuks), cycle rickshaws, cows and oxen, men pushing carts, motorcycles and smaller cars. They weave and cut in front of each other not even noticing the lane dividers, many even chancing a suicide dash through the oncoming traffic to make it to the front of the line. And any and every maneuver is excused by the symphony of horns that sound every few seconds. I could be entertained by the streets of Delhi all day.

You come to expect bumper-to-bumper during rush hour on the 405. You expect others to follow the right-of-way rules. And there’s a comforting order in that every time you get behind the wheel. In Delhi, where I see only chaos, an Indian driver must also find his sense of order in it. But it all so completely alien, foreign, terrifying and comical that had you thrown cars, lanes and lights on a (semi) paved road and told me to do it any way I wanted, I wouldn’t have been able to dream this up.

After a couple days in Delhi we took a 12 hour bus ride up north to McLeod Ganj. We spent over a week there, as I detailed in my Seven Days Near Tibet post. We left from McLeod Ganj early one morning for our 6 day, 5 night 31 mile hike in the (foothills of the) Himalayas. I had no clue what to expect, so I imagined trekking through knee-deep snow in an Arctic chill, (and packed accordingly), but it was nothing like that. We hiked through Indian farmland and camped luxury style. We only had to carry our daypacks on our back, while mules carried the rest of our luggage and our tents. We stopped frequently to have a bag of Lays, sip some lychee juice or just catch our breath.

Our lunch break lasted for over an hour, and after having the soup of the day with cheese sandwich and the main course of various Indian vegetables and chicken, we’d relax and nap or read. By the time we got to camp in the late afternoon, our tents were already set up for us. We also had two toilet tents, which consisted of a toilet seat on a little kickstand with a large hole dug underneath it. We had a dinner tent as well that was randomly, inexplicably decorated with Mardi Gras decorations. And we were woken up every morning with a mug of tea or Cadbury’s hot drinking chocolate.

After setting up camp for us, our guides would play their daily game of cricket. They’d yell, laugh, and trash talk in Hindi for a few hours before cooking our dinner. Not that I’ll be signing up any time soon, but considering their job has them working in some of the most picturesque campsites in India, and they got to mess around like little kids, it seemed like quite the charmed life. It struck me that we were the Americans, the wealthiest, most developed nation on earth, but these Indian trek guides probably wouldn’t trade their lives for mine. And although I only I got to see a small part of their day-to-day lives, I can understand why.

Our trek finished at a place called Triund, at an elevation of about 10,000 feet. Going the short way, Triund was only a day hike away from McLeod Ganj, so after a few days of near solitude we passed lots of hikers. We also picked up a pack of dogs from McLeod who hung out with us for the entire time. My favorite was an orange-ish dog who McLeod locals called Charlie. By the time we got up to Triund, Mo, Michael, Felicia and Sophia had all gotten sick. I was the only one well enough to enjoy it. So Charlie and I sprinted the last few minutes up to the peak. And it was absolutely stunning.

We were face to face with these daunting, massive snowcapped Himalayan peaks. And we got to camp out there two nights. While the others tried to sleep off their respective illnesses, I hiked down with Charlie to where the locals were chopping up the night’s firewood. They let me use the axe for a little and carry one load of wood up back to camp. I relaxed after that and clambered up one of the big boulders next to our tents and just sat with a book and my iPod in front of the mountains.

The next day everybody was still feeling sick, so I went alone with our guide Sanjay and my trusty companion Charlie to the end of the hike, Snow Line. There was a fair amount of snow and a little log shack where we stopped for some spiced masala milk tea. (Masala chai was everywhere in India. I was woken up with it in McLeod Ganj, and had a cup of it with most meals throughout the country. By the end of the month it was practically coursing through my veins).

After one final night up at Triund, we hiked back to McLeod Ganj, took a nice hot shower and got ready for some more traveling.

We next toured for a couple of days in Jaipur, in the state of Rajasthan. Rajasthan was ruled for many years by its own royalty, called the maharaja. It took a couple years after India became independent in 1947 for Rajasthan to give up its sovereignty and join the new country. We met up there with another local guide named Sudarshan. We went to a fort outside Jaipur where we rode painted elephants.

One of my favorite temples in all of India was located in Jaipur; the temple of the Sun god. On the way up to the temple we passed through a cool looking community devoted to following exclusively one of the Hindu gods. All throughout the community were vicious monkeys. We bought newspaper bags of peanuts to feed them with and they ripped them out of our hands. At the top of the temple there was a view of all of Jaipur. The woman working at the temple gave us all red and yellow bracelets, and I bought a painted, wooden Ganesh (the god of luck and second chances, with an elephant head and human body) statue from her.

We then went to the southern state of Kerala for a few days. We spent a couple nights in the city of Kochi in a mosquito-ridden, hot and humid “hotel” with the showers strangely located on raised tile in the corner of the room. When we weren’t sweating buckets in the room, we explored the city.

Kerala is nicknamed “God’s Country” because even though, like the rest of India, the majority of the population is Hindu, Kerala has sizable Christian and Muslim minorities. We saw some beautifully painted churches, a Dutch graveyard and the first resting place of the Portuguese explorer Vasco de Gama, before his remains were shipped back to Europe. My favorite part of Kochi was definitely the small tourist quarter centered around the Pardesi synagogue, fittingly named Jew Town, even though there’s only nine Jews left.

I spent one afternoon there while the others shopped, sitting and talking with a young Kashmiri who lured me into his uncle’s store by asking me about American music. I kept expecting him at any moment to launch into a sales speech, but he was just genuinely interested in talking to an American peer, and he asked me to come back the next day to talk some more. I may have ended up with less souvenirs, but it was a nice break from constantly being yelled at “to come into my shop, no buy, only look,” and the old routine of haggling. I couldn’t come back however, because we were on the move again.

We spent one day cruising on a houseboat, which literally looked like a big house dumped on a boat. We jumped off and went for a swim in the warm river, and wasted away the day solving riddles we found on Mo’s Blackberry. We spent another day on a safari in search of tigers, only ending up with elephants. Our last days in Kerala were spent at our priciest accommodation, a resort directly across from the beach. We hung out there, tossed around a Frisbee and swam in the Indian Ocean.

We wrapped up our month in India with a trip to one of the new seven wonders of the world, the Taj Mahal. We came fully decked out in different traditional Indian clothing we had accumulated. I wore a simple white shirt, burnt orange Aladdin/ MC Hammer parachute pants, black and gold blister-inducing maharaja shoes, and a tie-dye turban I had bought for under five bucks. We took all the obligatory touristy pictures, but then we had a little something extra planned. Earlier in the month Michael had download the dance music video to “Jai Ho,” the song that plays at the end of Slumdog Millionaire. We choreographed our own abridged version and performed and filmed with the Taj as our backdrop. We were ran off by guards once or twice, but I think we were able to get one good cut. And then it was back to a real, more independent world, where I was responsible again for knowing the day and date and planning my own trips. But luckily for me, I got one last meal of Indian food on my flight to Shanghai.

Old pictures! Australia, New Zealand and the French Island


New Zealand

French Island

The Legend of Fido and David and the brown bunny rabbit

The Legend of Fido

A few weeks back I was invited by my coworkers at Metrozine for one of their Saturday basketball games, and decided to bring Jaime along. The game itself went like it was supposed to. Jaime was on fire, throwing up and hitting absolutely ridiculous jumpers and I was doing what I do best; rebounding, setting unnecessary screens and trying my hardest not to have to shoot. And Jaime’s and my team won most of our games.

After the game ended Jaime and I decided to play a few games of pool before heading back to our flat. All the participants of the game walked past us, said their goodbyes and headed off. One tall lanky guy who was pretty good at basketball but seemed to be afraid to shoot (with less cause than me) stopped by our pool table to watch. After about 15 minutes of him sitting there watching us, we struck up a conversation with him. He turned out to be a really nice 23 year old guy native to Shanghai with great English skills. He told us his English name was Lucas Cohen, but his friends called him Fido because of his resemblance to the cartoon character of the same name from the 7 UP commercials.

After Fido joined in our pool game and we talked some more, Jaime asked him where the best place to grab a bite in Shanghai was. Fido immediately responded with “home-cooking.” He waited a beat before inviting us over to his family’s apartment for dinner that night. Jaime and I looked at each other, each thinking “why not?” and told Fido yes.

Once in the cab heading to his apartment, Fido explained it was his grandfather’s 85th birthday that night and his whole family would be over to celebrate. Only then did we realize that we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into.

After telling his Mom something in Chinese that must’ve been something like, “Hey Mom, I know it’s grandpa’s birthday tonight, but I met these two random Americans playing basketball today and I know they’re still sweaty and they smell terrible, but I invited them over for dinner,” we were welcomed in to the apartment.

We headed to Fido’s room so the amateur DJ could show us some of his music. I sat on his bed poring over a Chinese book on the history of hip-hop, while Jaime took notes on his recommendations. Fido also enlightened us on how he picked his English name, Lucas Cohen. Lucas came from a character on One Tree Hill, and even though he knew it was a Jewish name, Fido picked Cohen from The O.C.

(That method of choosing takes a close second place in the best way a Chinese person came up with their English name. First prize goes to Eacar, pronounced ee-car. Eacar was the translator for my dad’s business meeting on his last day in Beijing. Over dinner she explained that her first English name, Summer, felt too childish. So she decided to combine her two favorite English words, easy, as in “don’t stress so much Eacar, take it easy” and courage to form an entirely new and non-sensical made-up name. How grown-up and courageous of you Eacar).

One of us commented on all the cool clothes Fido seemed to have. He then took out the dozens of basketball jerseys he had, some of them looking relatively authentic. Jaime complimented him on one particular one and Fido nearly insisted that Jaime have it. We then caught sight of a completely over the top faux fur coat and asked if he ever wore it out. Fido replied that he only wore it once or twice because it got dirty too easily.

He then excitedly explained that he had a couple other ones and that we should try them on. Then for added effect he took out a couple doo rags and New Era hats and suggested we put them on too. He snapped a few pictures of us, and then when we suggested he get in one as well, he called his mom in and had her take pictures of her son, and the two still-unwashed Americans modeling full-length fur coats, doo rags and New Era hats. To her credit, she didn’t even flinch and I now have a new favorite for most ridiculous Facebook picture.

Pretty soon after our photo shoot it was time for dinner. On the traditional menu for the birthday dinner was the usual bok choy dish, some whole shrimps, slices of ham and…. duck tongue. Dark red with little antenna-like appendages coming off the main meat, the duck tongue was just as unappealing as it sounds. I was able to swallow one whole grimacing as it scratched its way down. Since I keep relatively kosher, Jaime discreetly ate the slices of ham off my plate even though he doesn’t care for them either. Then like some twisted Chinese version of the old Starburst commercial where they unwrap a piece of candy with their tongues, Fido demonstrated how to de-shell a piece of shrimp in your mouth.

Fido’s aunt and late-arriving government official uncle soon joined his parents and grandparents at the table completing the birthday party. It was an intimate dinner, and it felt very much like we were intruding on their night with the amount of hospitable attention they showered on us. After practicing with Fido a few times, Jaime and I wished his grandpa a happy birthday in Mandarin, and tried to find a cue to leave.

Before we could go though, Fido said he wanted to “show us some magic.” After a couple weeks of bad English slang, the most common example being “this is really suck,” I assumed Fido meant he wanted to show us something cool. Wrong. Instead he put on a video of a French Japanese magician doing the most random magic tricks. Jaime and I sat there trying to muster up the appropriate amount of shock and awe.

We left soon after that, laughing the whole cab ride back to our flat about our overall most random Chinese experience.


David and the brown bunny rabbit

The most dramatic moment of my time in China happened outside an amusement park one quiet Sunday afternoon. Having never really had a pet before, I had been joking with Jaime that I was going to buy one of the animals they sold on the streets of Shanghai and keep it in our flat. A large group of us from Projects-Abroad was leaving one of the lamer theme parks I’ve ever been to when we spotted one of the streetside vendors hawking the usual mixture of baby chicks, turtles, birds and rabbits in cages that are so small they probably stunt the animals’ growth. Vicky, the German flatmate, spotted a brown rabbit that she found cute. I sensed an opportunity and asked the seller how much he wanted for it. He asked for 65 yuan, a little less than $10. I countered with 20 yuan, he asked for 45, I held at 20 and very quickly he gave in. Suddenly he was holding out the cage to me and asking for his money.

Everybody started shouting. Half of our group was yelling at me to take the rabbit. The other half was trying to reason with me, shouting about how I needed a cage, how I didn’t know what to feed it, how it was probably diseased. The latter, and angrier half, yelled at me to think about what would happen to it when I left. I argued my case back. I’d figure out all the essentials. I wanted my first pet. When I left, I’d pass it on to another flat. It’d become the Projects-Abroad rabbit, and it’d build camaraderie.

It felt like a cartoon with the angel and devil on either shoulder trying to one-up each other.

The first group kept yelling, “Take it!”
“Do it! C’mon!!!”

The second group, louder:
“What are you thinking?”
“Don’t be stupid.”

Meanwhile the seller was still holding out the cage to me, asking for his money.

And finally Jaime yelled at me that buying the rabbit would be murder, and if I did we wouldn’t be friends anymore.

That was enough for me. I turned to the seller, told him “bu yao” (I don’t want) and walked away.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Chowing down in Chengdu

My internship at Metrozine wrapped up last week and I was pretty relieved. It wasn't Metrozine's fault, I just wasn't all that motivated and used my time there more for free internet. I did write a few articles, a restaurant review and another on India, (along with a review of the new Britney Spears cd that I didn't get to listen to). Oh well, they do it different in China.

Jaime left last Friday for LA so he could attend all the family events he has in May. :(. I stayed in the flat for a few more days and left yesterday for Chengdu in the Sichuan province, site of the massive earthquake that killed almost 70,000 people almost exactly a year ago. I'm not really sure why I headed to Sichuan. I asked people for tips on what to do during my free two weeks in China and a lot of them recommended Sichuan for its spicy cuisine and natural beauty. So I booked a round-trip Chengdu-Shanghai flight and two nights in a hostel and decided to see what would happen.

Yesterday was the first day of my ten day trip, and I met a Dutch guy who was trying to put together a trip to Tibet. I was interested in going to Tibet after having heard so much about it when I was in McLeod Ganj, India, but it turned out it wouldn't work because of visa restrictions. He next suggested trekking to Mount Emei, something I was pretty interested in so I signed on, but reluctantly because he seemed overly pushy and I wasn't exactly looking forward to spending three days with him on a mountain.

So I kept my ears and options open and met two other Dutch girls today closer to my age and I think I'll be heading off with them tomorrow to Leshan, home to the world's largest Buddha. It's only worth a day's visit, so from there we'll probably head to Chongqing, the biggest city in Sichuan, and start a cruise down the Yangtze River. That will probably all take a few days. They'll be heading to Beijing to catch a flight back to Holland, and so I'll split up and see who else I meet and what other plans I join in on.

I can't believe the gap year is coming to a close. I'll be back in the City of Angels in 12 days. I have lots more pictures, stories and a conclusion to write for this blog before then, so hopefully I get it all done. I'll have one last weekend in Shanghai to hang out with all my friends there before I head back Stateside.Hope everybody's well!