Thursday, January 31, 2008

Movies: Cloverfield

I had less than no intention of seeing this film, and I have a feeling that the reason it got so badly trashed by everyone who did see it has something to do with that. I see a good number of Hollywood movies, but I've never seen Armageddon, Independence Day, or I Am Legend. I have seen that comet movie (Deep Impact), but I was in high school and just went along with my friends to kill a Friday afternoon, so that can't be held against me. My point is, I don't go in for big-budget end-of-the-world blockbusters, and Cloverfield, with its dim poster depicting a headless Statue of Liberty, looked like precisely that. I never saw a trailer or anything else that might otherwise shade my impression (and, perhaps surprisingly, I'm not a big reader of reviews), and I recall thinking it odd that a studio would release a crappy version of I Am Legend so fast on its heels. Turns out that Cloverfield is as good as its advertising campaign was bad, and if anyone tells you otherwise, it's because they are members of an improperly targeted market. This is a movie for young-urban-indie-intellectuals, but none of us would have known it.

I was roped into going by a friend who had read a review, and promised me that it was, rather than a blockbuster end-of-the-world movie, a monster movie in the vein of The Host, a Korean monster movie in which we had delighted together a year ago. Reviewers allude to The Blair Witch Project, and it's undeniable that Cloverfield combines the crazy-giant-monster-eats-our-city aspect of The Host with the and-we-only-know-about-it-through-this-vestigial-"evidence"-caught-on-tape-by-civilians-turned-victims aspect of The Blair Witch Project, but where we were gullible enough as movie-goers in 1999 to believe, at least for awhile, that what we were seeing was an actual document, we are, nearly ten years later, a lot more savvy. So are our compatriots, a filmic depiction of The Decemberists' "Youth and beauty brigade." The first third of the movie, in fact, consists of nothing more benign than handheld digital footage of soigné twenty-somethings at a loft party, too wealthy to be hipsters, but too hip to be yuppies, and though they're pretty and paltry, we become immediately wrapped up in their petty problems (considering the wild success of television like The OC, this should be no surprise). We manage to do this despite the fact that the camera keeps moving in a sickness-inducing way, zooming in and out, turning upside-down, and being passed from one hand to another (it is, after all, just a home-movie).

This, in and of itself, was good enough for me. I sat in cinematographical ecstasy, floored that a meaningful narrative could be presented in such a way. I had completely forgotten I was watching a monster movie. I was lulled into the shallow, pleasant, yupster melodrama unfolding for my sensual pleasure, as an attractive young man shared his deep thoughts with some friends out on the fire escape in the dark of freshly-fallen night. And then the head of the Statue of Liberty landed in the middle of the street and shocked everyone—on camera and off. Everyone ran out into the streets screaming (thanks to the emotional affect of shaking handheld DV, we in the audience are running out there, too), and mayhem ensued.

The mayhem, of course, progresses along a dental-floss-like plot line (ever so thin, but strong enough to do the job) that takes our core group of yupsters (five, but then there are four, and some time passes, and then there are three—Mwa-ha-ha!) all the way uptown to the besieged towers of the Time Warner Building on Columbus Circle, where the devotion of one love-stricken yupster inspires him (and his few remaining friends) to climb sixty-something flights of stairs (the elevators, of course, aren't running, since the tower has actually toppled into it's twin (no allusions there!) and jump from one roof onto the other (providing an opportunity for gorgeous aerial views of the city being destroyed by the monster who, by the way, has hurled little monster spawn all over the place, which have attacked our by now rather motley band of heroes (one has even taken off her Manolos and is walking barefoot!), hence the "then there were three"—spawn bites lead to fatigue followed by the expulsion of blood through the tear ducts) to rescue his "true love" (with whom he had quarreled at the party), who had left him a voicemail at the beginning of the disaster saying that she couldn't breathe, and who has all this time been trapped in her luxe condo, impaled through the chest by a steel rod, and who is miraculously still alive and survives the de-impaling process with nothing worse than a shriek, and who is even more miraculously pumped with enough adrenaline to run away with the rest of the gang (and then there were four again).

I will concede that the film offers multiple moments that would have been brilliant ends, and instead tacks on a semi-sweet ending that I could have done without, but it's not so saccharine that it ruins the brilliant adventure we've just been through (oh, I didn't talk about that, much, did I. . . well, the Brooklyn Bridge collapses while we're on it, and then we walk through the subway tunnels in the dark, afraid of rats until we see something scarier—monster spawn—and then there's the whole Time Warner rooftop field trip, and all the while, the monster is swinging down with its giant wet maw wide open), and we don't find out for certain whether the lovebirds live or die (we make it to the rescue helicopter, but the helicopter doesn't make it after that), though the very presence of the tape implies that they met with an ugly end. Without saying anything (more than I already have) about 9/11 or youth or beauty or solipsism, I will simply say that this was a completely brill flick, and I'm sorry that a crappy ad campaign made certain that no one got to see it before it disappeared.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

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Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Books: The Satanic Verses, by Salman Rushdie

Wow, I have been procrastinating something fierce with regard to this particular blog entry. I finished this book almost a month ago, and I'm petrified of trying to write about it.

I was warned by a few friends who had read it that when I did, I would be disappointed; I would wonder why it was so very controversial, since it wouldn't seem anything other than tedious and silly.

I was, to a degree, disappointed—magical realism tends to take the edge off of anything potentially incendiary, and as much as I liked Midnight's Children, Rushdie doesn't write like his pal Chris Hitchens (whom the mullahs really ought to be going after.) But mostly, I was confused, and I suppose disappointed in myself for being so. This is one of those books that benefit from group reading and discussion, and without a class or a book club, I felt sort of lost fighting my way through its non-linear, fanciful, magic reality.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Movies: Cassandra's Dream

I've tried to come up with a witty way to say it, but ultimately, I think it's better to be straightforward: this movie is bad. Woody Allen, not only one of my favorite filmmakers of all time, but one of my top three people (in the odd company of Andy Warhol and Thom Yorke) has created so much brilliance (Stardust Memories, Crimes and Misdemeanors, Manhattan) that no matter how many cubic zirconia he adds to the top of his IMDB tennis bracelet (and no matter how many wives he overthrows for adoptive children), he will remain firmly entrenched within that top three. And yet, I wish he would knock it off with the shitty films.

The first problem here is the script. Right from the opening scene, in which brothers Ian (Ewan McGregor) and Terry (Colin Farrell) exchange campy See-Dick-Run grade banter about buying a sailboat, there is an intense staginess, reminiscent of a the stilted dialogue you might find in a high-schooler's first one-act written for a scene study class. The audience is tempted to pin their dread on Farrell, whose inability to act becomes more and more apparent as the film wears on (McGregor, working with the same stale bread, somehow manages to whip up some decent french toast). We start to wonder whether Woody really wrote this screenplay; what happened to the (hyper) self-conscious depth his characters used to have? I want to blame this on his weird new obsession with the British (whom he's aped in his last two movies—Scoop and Match Point—with equal unsuccess). In a scene set around the family table at mealtime (which he's done to brilliant effects so many times before), Ian and Terry sit with their mum and dad, who have an argument about wealthy Uncle Howard, and even though mum and dad speak with British accents, their attitudes are far from goyische—a strange dubbed version of Alvy Singer's Passover meal in the flashback from Annie Hall.

I won't criticize Woody for stacking up a tenuous plot in order to get across his philosophical communication; that's long been his m.o., and it worked just fine, from What's New, Pussycat? and Sleeper to Crimes and Misdemeanors and Deconstructing Harry ("Daddy's out of focus" is probably the most brilliant of the comedic literal metaphors that typify Woody Allen at his best.) What I will criticize him for is a) not being true to himself (dude, you're not British, so knock it off and go back to making movies about New York Jews), b) casting shitty actors (Colin Farrell needs to just go away and stay there), and c) being shallow (Colin Farrell's "guilt" gets about as deep as the cheapest inflatable pool at Wal-Mart). What I love so much about old Woody Allen is not, as one character says in Stardust Memories, "the old funny ones," but the very self-consciousness that led him to write that movie and have a character say that. And that has been completely lacking for quite some time. Woody, I like the old self-conscious ones.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Movies: Into the Wild

This was the last of the films that I had intended to see in the theater and hadn't found time to do so, but was able to catch instead on the seat-back screen during a trans-Atlantic flight. Since it had been playing at all of the "good" theaters, and for quite a long time, too, I thought it was going to be a really intense, beautiful, meaningful film. I certainly did not expect it to be the romantic Velveeta dreck that it was.

The film is based, in case you don't know, on the true story of Christopher McCandless, who, upon college graduation, gave away his life savings, abandoned his car, and went—you guessed it—into the wild of Alaska, alone, with a backpack, a rifle, and some very limited supplies, including some knowledge he'd gained while banging around the country for a year or so, doing odd jobs, learning basic survival skills, and "touching people's lives," all, of course, without telling his family where he was.

The spoiler (sorry) is that he dies of starvation in the end, and it's a real shame that star Emile Hirsch lost so much weight for such a shallow film (as opposed to the cast of Rescue Dawn). He actually does pretty well, considering the grating gooeyness of Sean Penn's cliche-ridden screenplay (featuring old-fashioned parents who "just don't understand," the spunky little sister left behind "to tell the story," the hippies on the road who become "the parents he wished he had," and the Liv Tyler-channeling "bright young thing" whose heart he breaks along the way).

Ultimately, McCandless, portrayed as a post-materialist truth-seeker, an unsullied wise-child, an adherent of the American ideals touted by the Transcendentalists, appeared to me little more than a proud, spoilt child who, like most of us suburban children of baby-boomers, considered himself hot shit and had something to prove. He paid no heed to the hearts he broke along the way (particularly those of his parents, but also those of the people on the road whose lives he crashed through as if they were unfeeling Alaskan landscapes—mountains and rivers no worse for the wear. If we are to buy into Penn's myth, McCandless shone a never-before-seen light into the dark lives of the people he met on his way to Alaska (like the old widower who spends his days working alone in his leather shop), but if we consider his actions more closely, McCandless only flashed that light long enough to show people what they were missing, and then snatch it away from them again (that old man cries when saying goodbye to McCandless (who's been living with him for months), who had tried to sneak away in the early hours of the morning without any farewell at all).

Worse, none of McCandless' adventures are presented in a remotely fresh way, except for the one moment of genuine humor when, illegally rafting down a river, he stops and has a hot dog with a topless Danish couple blasting M.C. Hammer's Can't Touch This from a cheap boom-box (all of which charm comes from the Danes). If you're going to go out and have an adventure, do like the Danes and bring hot dogs and a radio.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Movies: A Mighty Heart

Sorry, Angie, no Oscar for you. Not that you weren't as appealing as always; even crying and pregnant you're the hottest thing out there, and we all know I feel about pregnancy.

You have a record of making terrible choices; how many dreadful films have I sat through for you? (The delightfully dreadful Gia, Gone in Sixty Seconds, and Girl Interrupted superseded by the penance-paying dreadful Beyond Borders, the forgetably-dreadful Alexander, and the simply plain-old dreadful Beowulf). I can tell that you tried to do better with this movie—and don't get me wrong, you did—it's just that it's not too hard to do better than Grendel's mom, particularly when you're back in the flesh and your breasts are allowed to move, and when I'm trapped on a trans-Atlantic flight, watching you enact contemporary-intellectual-wife-hood on the back of the seat in front of me.

It's actually pretty amazing that A Mighty Heart, dreadful title notwithstanding, is even watchable; after all, we all know the story and it's hideous, heart-rending ending. I never saw the movie in the theater, even though you were gracing the screen with a frizz-wig and attending sexy accent, because I really don't need to pay eleven dollars to have my heart torn to pieces and my head choked with a three-day migraine from crying. Suspense aside (because we know there isn't really any hope for poor Daniel), you are the only thing that makes this movie remotely watchable. No one else (okay, maybe Cate Blanchett, but she's too pale) could inspire me to watch a group of people sitting around a table cluttered with papers, laptops, and whiteboard markers for two hours, and worry (okay, maybe my boss).

So what I mean to say is nice work; you've finally chosen a movie that wasn't completely embarrassing, even if no one wanted to watch it, and no one wants to give you an award for it. I wish it weren't a true story.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Movies: Talk To Me

I had intended to see this movie in the theater and never quite got around to it, so I was pretty thrilled to find it listed as one of the gazillion (okay, 3o or 40) films offered on my Virgin Atlantic flight to Delhi (along with all the free liquor you want; there's really no reason to fly any other airline). As you know, that flight was a while ago, and since I was too busy traveling and writing about traveling to take a few and write about this movie, my memory is a little fuzzy. What I do remember is that it was great, the soundtrack was great, Don Cheadle was great, and I laughed and then I cried. I can't say that it was perfect, because it collapsed in the end, as so many biopics do, at the point that Petey couldn't cope with the pressure of a degree of fame he hadn't ever wanted. Here's a cliche that I wish filmmakers wouldn't so often rely upon to bring their plots to climax, although a true story is a true story, I suppose, and one can only work within the confines of what actually happened.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

India: Day Eleven (Agra)

This morning, we got out of bed at 3:30 AM, in the pitch dark. I had slept three hours, and my mom five. We quickly packed our things and shuffled in a dream to the lobby, where Jasvir was waiting for us, having, we later found out, spent the night sleeping in the car with a blanket loaned from the hotel. He was, nevertheless, bright-eyed and smiling, as always, and as we crawled into the backseat, fussing for comfort and trying to determine who would lie in whose lap, he started us off on the eleven hour drive back to Agra. Even at this hour, the road was busy with trucks, and we had the usual difficulties sleeping in the car, since honking horns shook our ears and the unpaved sections of road shook our bodies. I did manage to semi-doze for a few hours because, when I woke up at seven, I had a brutal crink in my neck, and Jasvir was pulling into another A-1 for breakfast, where I drank tea and had "omelet over bread slice," which turned out to be a very circumferous, crepe-thin sheet of egg marked with red and green vegetables, with two tenaciously attached slices of white toast underneath. I decided that the best way to eat it would be to fold all of the egg up onto the bread, then flip one slice of bread up onto the other, making a toasty egg sandwich, and it turned out to be rather tasty (although mom had the same and loathed it).

Back on the road, the trip was without interest. Mom dozed, wearing the elastic banded eye cover she got on the airplane, and I read The Satanic Verses and looked out the window at villagers starting their mornings: huddling around small fires on the ground, sweeping, cooking breakfast. At lunchtime, we stopped, much to mom's chagrin, at A-1 again, the same one we'd had lunch two days prior. The same eager-to-please waitstaff served us, I drank the same espresso-strong tea, but we ordered different food, since the thali plate we'd had before had been so dreadful. Mom asked the waiter for a recommendation, and he suggested the malai kofta, although he couldn't describe it as much more than "sweet" and "good." When it came, it was sweet and bad—something fried and soggy (cheese? a vegetable cutlet? couldn't tell. . .) swimming in a puddle of muck the color and consistency of Gerber carrots. I had hedged our bets by ordering the always-safe palak paneer (same as saag paneer, I'd thought), but that came out tasting rather odd too, tinny and somehow unidentifiably off. I asked for rice to help diffuse the flavors, but it came to the table cold and somehow wet, and I didn't eat much of it either. The garlic naan, though, was perfectly delicious, and we had seconds of that. After the meal, the waiter brought me another survey, remarking that last time, we had indicated on the survey that we hadn't liked the food, and he was wondering whether it was better this time; we had to disappoint him.

Mom had begun again to ask Jasvir repeatedly how much longer the trip would be, but we actually made pretty good time after lunch, entering Agra around three-thirty, and getting to the Taj Mahal around four. First, we saw it in the distance, a marshmallow dream, and then, stuck in the traffic of cars waiting to enter the parking lot, it was back out of sight. Jasvir told us, parking the car, that we would have to take a rickshaw (the lot being about 1.5 km from the monument), and gave us into the hands of an old man with orangey-gray hair, whose clothes hung off of his skeletal body. We had to leave all of our things in the car's trunk, since bags aren't allowed into the Taj—just wallets, cameras, mobile phones, and water bottles (odd, no?). We instructed Jasvir to guard everything carefully, and packed our pockets with wallets and cameras. Five hawkers had circled around us at once, one adolescent boy trying to sell us a book of glossy photos of the Taj, one smaller boy trying to sell us Taj snow globe key chains, one man trying to convince us to take a camel ride instead of the rickshaw, and two men posing as government-approved tour guides, showing us their "official" badges, and telling us that there was a three hour queue to get in, but that they could bring us in without waiting. As always, mom hesitated a bit longer than I did, and I led her into the rickshaw, impotently waiving my hand in dismissal, as they continued to follow us, even as the rickshaw began moving. The book salesman, after lowering his price, as my mom tried to explain to him that she didn't want the book, she didn't like it, told us okay-maybe-later, remember me my name is Raj (and sure enough, when we returned to our car, he was there again, remember-me?, and we still couldn't get it through his head that we didn't want the darned book). None of the salesmen would stop running alongside us until our driver turned around and yelled at them in Hindi, waving them away the way one waves off a fly, and they disappeared.

He seemed to be having a bit of trouble, though, pulling our weight, and was cycling very slowly, standing up off the seat. He turned and explained to us in terrible, but somehow completely comprehensible English, that when we got to the Taj, we should ignore everyone and proceed to the ticket window. When we had arrived at the initial gate (the Taj still invisible behind trees and a 1/4 mile walk), our rickshaw driver parked and helped us out. He wouldn't take any money, insisting that he wait for us outside, and we take him back out to the car. This seemed rather unorthodox to me—in all this mayhem, what was to guarantee that we would find him—but he insisted, which, since he alone knew where Jasvir was parked, was probably a good thing. We agreed to meet in one hour, at five o'clock, and walked into the gates. Here, a gazillion Indians were milling about (very few white tourists, to my surprise, although I admit it would be rather dumb to go to the Grand Canyon, for example, and express shock that all the tourists there were American), and the end of an interminably long queue revealed itself. Mom gravitated toward the line, but something about it seemed wrong to me, so I took her in arm and suggested that we just keep walking. As I looked at the cue, I tried to determine, subconsciously perhaps, why it was so monochromatic—gray and blue and brown—until I realized that it was comprised completely of men. As we walked, a number of "certified" tour guides approached us, but I waved them all away. We arrived at the ticket counter, and paid our INR 750 each (nearly $20; there is a different, lower charge for Indian nationals, believe it or not) and were given tickets, small water bottles, and paper socks to put on over our shoes once at the building. Here, another smooth-talking tour guide approached us. He waved his hand toward the queue, telling us that we would have to wait three hours, but that he could get us in immediately. I pointed out to him that the three-hour queue was for men only, and that there was only a five-minute tops wait for women, indicated the ten or so brilliant saris lined up adjacent to the endless line of monochromatic men. "Oh, yes," he conceded immediately, "you are absolutely right," and he disappeared. Mom hadn't noticed the two queues for separate sexes, and found this discovery of mine rather brilliant. And so, we waited a few minutes before being searched by the female attendants (that's the reason, by the way, that so many queues in India are separated by gender; the airport security lines are the same) and let onto the grounds of the Taj.

From a distance, it does look rather like a dream in spun sugar, and the light was bright and crisp despite the falling hour, making my one picture all the more postcard perfect. Up close and inside, though, I had to ask my mom whether I was a spoiled brat, since I wasn't at all impressed. I felt, simply, that I had seen much more glorious things, both the day before in Varanasi, at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, Stonehenge and other ring stones across the British countryside, and at a variety of spots in Italy (the Tivoli Gardens, Hadrian's Villa, even tiny churches in Florence and Venice whose names I never knew); this building was somehow pristine but cold, distant, hollow, devoid of any. . . presence one feels at all these other spots I've listed. Inside, there's nothing to see, just swaths of smooth, white marble, with inscriptions in Arabic—no paintings, no statues, no chandeliers or furniture or baubles, no peeling paint or crumbling cement—I felt the opposite of inspiration. Mom agreed; we're equally spoiled, I suppose.

And so, we left, and our rickshaw driver found us, and waved away the second round of hawkers that encircled us, even though my mom had made the mistake of engaging with a boy selling jingling anklets, who ran after our rickshaw, lowering his price from $10 for one to $2 for four, culminating in my mom whinging at me because I refused to give her any rupees, as usual. We got back to the car without any other incident, and had Jasvir drive us straight to our hotel, the Taj View (with no view at all, other than the pool, which we did not use). Here, we made ample use of the spa, having excellent Indian-style deep tissue massages and detoxing in the piping-hot steam room, and then separated so that I could blog while mom used the gym and later had a drink at the bar. Tomorrow would be another early day, waking at 5:00 AM to leave the hotel by 6:00 for the drive back to the Delhi airport, where we thought we should be by 11:00 AM in order to make our 2:00 PM flight (better safe than sorry, particularly in India). I slept, as usual, like a dead person.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

India: Day Ten (Varanasi)

The way, according to our guide book, to properly see Varanasi, is by boat during sunrise. This city, for which we had spent 19 hours the previous day cramped into the backseat of a compact car in dusty traffic, is the holiest of Hindu sites, a city on the Ganges where it is believed, if you die and are cremated on its shores, your soul is completely purified and you need not come back in any further incarnations. The history of Varanasi reaches into the period Before Christ, but the town, as it is, is comprised of structures 500-200 years old (they look, though, much older, as everything here in India seems to). Although the Lonely Planet, and every person we had asked, said that the sunrise boat ride was a must, we decided that this would be the first day we did not wake before sunrise, since we were so haggard from the journey there. We slept in until 7, had breakfast (more as-you-like omelets, apparently a breakfast staple, hash browns, toast, plus Indian breakfast foods including deep fried vegetable cutlets, deep fried lentil cakes with a curried broth for dipping, and fresh lassi. And so, I ate two breakfasts, took some bananas for the road, and we went to meet Jasvir and our guide, whose name was Sambhu.

To my delight, as soon as Sambhu had directed Jasvir into the center of town, he had him park the car, and we got out to walk; this was a double boon, since it meant not only would I be able to stretch my aching limbs, but also that I would be able to take pictures. We walked through a short make-shift alley, a vegetable market where all of the stunningly bright carrots and greens and chilies where laid out on the floor, around the old Indians, who squat amidst their wares all day long (I’ve been wondering whether what we consider “meditation” in the West is simply an internalized way of life in India, where people just sit, for hours, in the most absurd position, without moving at all). I took a gazillion pictures and we hadn’t even walked 20 feet. At the end of the alley, the tarp coverings gave way to a gorgeous view: a wide expanse of sand-pink cement steps leading down to the banks of the Ganga (as the Indians call it). The sun, already a bit high in the sky, although there was still a morning chill, lit the view like a dream, painted boats gently knocking against the shore, toothless beggars wrapped in white cloths sitting in the sun, people of all ages and body types standing in the water up to the waist, and dipping up handfuls of it to pour on their heads. I was taking pictures non-stop, portraits mostly, while my mom purchased some cups lined with marigolds and with tiny candles inside, which were to be floated on the river as offerings. Sambhu took us down the stairs and into a boat, and as we pushed off, told us what I’ve just told you about how the Hindu people feel about the Ganga, which they also call their mother.

The staircase we had walked down is called a ghat, and the town of Varanasi has nearly 90 ghats (basically, the entire shore is lined with stairs, all in different colors, and all for different occasions). Many of the ghats, like the one we had just descended, are bathing ghats, but some are washing ghats (for laundry), and others are cremation ghats, where dead bodies, wrapped in a shroud (red for women, marigold for holy men, white for youths) are dipped in the Ganga and then set on a pyre made from banyan wood (sandalwood is preferable, but costly, so often banyan wood is used instead, and sandalwood incense is scattered across the body) and burned. Ashes and the remnants of the hip bone are dropped into the Ganga. If a child dies before the age of ten, or a pregnant woman dies, or a cripple dies, the body is dropped into the Ganga without being burned (hardly sanitary, though the fact that the city’s three major sewers empty into the Ganga is probably much worse). Our boatman paddled us up the shore, where we lit our candles and made our offerings (“Make a wish,” Sambhu said, and my mom said, “Do you mean a prayer?” to which Sambhu replied, “As you like.”) The water was peaceful and quiet, and the light on the city rising up from the shore was pink. Our boatman paddles us down the shore, where we could see fires just being lit on the cremation ghat, and then our boatman paddled us down a bit more, pulled up to the shore, and helped us out. Sambhu led us up the steps, all the while explaining the details of the cremation process. People (and the smell of feces, and a million flies) were all around me, and I didn’t stop taking pictures. A barber was shaving a man’s head, a goat was meandering up the road, men were carrying logs on their heads, the air was filled with smoke, children were dragging sacks of something, women were shopping, and we were gaping. We were asked not to take any photos of the actual cremation, although the image of a foot sticking out of a burning pile of logs is set on my mind’s eye, probably forever.

Varanasi looks the way I expected India to look. Not until we arrived here did I see the marvelous colors I had expected, the legions of holy men with tangled beards and wild eyes, the narrow streets with tiny hidden temples every five or six paces (I do not exaggerate). The city is some combination of a medieval Italian city, like Sienna, or better still, Venice (since the streets are too narrow for cars, and everyone walks or rides a scooter or motorbike), a boardwalk (with the attendant beggars, shamans, peanut salesmen, white hippies, and local druggies (chewing beetle is the thing here, and I saw many squirts of red on the ground that I thought were bloodstains until I saw that all the young men had red spotted teeth, and put it all together)), and a church, where families have come to part with the dead, and where the local people baptize themselves daily on the river’s shores (often with soap). And so, I took a gazillion pictures.

We walked for hours, just following Sambhu, who was born and raised in Varanasi and knows all of its tiny, twisting streets. I took photos of people and the colors painted on the walls, and my mom peeked into all of the tiny temples dedicated to different gods (although Shiva is the major god celebrated in Varanasi). When we came to the Golden Temple, the biggest one in Varanasi, into which one isn’t allowed to bring a bag, a camera, a mobile phone, or anything other than a wallet I decided to remain outside with all of our collected items, and let my mom have her spiritual experience on her own; I had peeked into enough Indian temples to know that they are not really to my aesthetic taste, and since a spiritual experience is the last thing I expect to find in a temple (and probably the last thing I wanted at the moment anyway), I had no qualms about passing it up in order to stay outside where I could take pictures of people. I was doing this when a guard shouted at me “No cameras!” and I half-heartedly whimpered, “but I’m not in the temple,” before slunking into a corner where I wouldn’t be noticed. I watched the cows and motorcycles pushing through the crowds of people trying to get into the temple (the road here, and in most of “old” Varanasi, is about as wide as the hallway in an average American home). A man a foot away from me was dressing an altar with flowers and incense (the altar was no more than a three-inch deep recess in the wall) and chanting in Sanskrit. Eventually (it took a long time), my mom emerged with a glowing smile on her face, a glowing red spot and a gold mark on her forehead, and a long chain of yellow and red marigolds around her neck. She had paid INR 20 and done a pooja, which I imagine is some sort of blessing.

Next, Sambhu took us to a silk factory (remember that no guide shows a tourist anything in India without taking that tourist to a place to spend money), where he works weaving silks in monsoon season, when there are no tourists. We were led to a white mattress to sit amongst walls of fabrics, and were brought chai. Since we had already spent so much money on this trip, my mom had made me promise not to let her buy anything in Varanasi, and since she doesn’t get excited about fabric the way she does about jewelry, I didn’t imagine this would be a problem. However, the proprietor, a nice, fat man with a big smile, had 101 silks rolled out, and dressed my mom up in a sari, and had me take pictures. Just as she was falling in love with it, he revealed the price to be something around $500 American, and so she quickly snapped out of it (if she had even been snapped into it in the first place, which I doubt). I do think, though, that she felt obligated to buy something, even as did I, and so she asked again and again for cheaper things—maybe just a scarf, maybe just a chiffon one instead of heavy silk. Meanwhile, I played bad cop to her good (a natural pattern we fall into that works fairly well when bargaining—it wasn’t an act at first, but now, at least for me, it is) and told her that she couldn’t spend anything more than the INR 500 (barely over ten dollars) I had given her that morning, when we had fought over money (she wanted some for something or another. . . pooja, or a beggar, and I wouldn’t give it her, since I had no small bills; Sambhu had paid the INR 20 for her pooja at the Golden Temple). The proprietor laughed that 500 would buy her nothing, and that the filmy gold and purple scarf she was currently fingering would cost her INR 2500. I mock-yielded, and told her that she had 500 already, and that I would give her another 500, but that was it. Miraculously, after much time passed in conversation, tea-drinking, and scarf-trying-on, the proprietor yielded as well, and told her to take the darned thing for INR 1,000 (still about $25, and more than she would pay for a scarf at home, which I told her, in front of the proprietor, as part of the bargaining). He tried still to get her to buy more, but she told him (for once, with some relief, I think), that she couldn’t, because I had all the money, and was clearly not giving it up.

After this, Sambhu asked what we wanted to do, and my mom reminded him that he had promised to take us to see an astrologer (he had mentioned it on the boat ride, and I had naysayed, clearly to no avail). We walked through more twisting alleyways, whose broken cobblestones were stained with the shit, both freshly steaming and dry and dusty, of the thousands of bulls, cows, goats, sheep, and dogs that roam freely. We came to a small dead-end street, took off our shoes, and climbed three stairs into Guruji’s little lair, where he sat, a fat man with a beard to rival his belly and a white-painted forehead, on a white mattress on the floor. He invited us to join him. I think that I made it clear from the beginning that I wasn’t interested in his services, as clear as my mom made it that she was (announcing, as the case was, that it was her birthday), but I took the proffered chai nonetheless, and it was the best one I’ve had in India. Guruji spoke and spoke and spoke and I only half listened, in a way that doesn’t necessarily behoove recollection. He was introducing himself (in excellent English), and showed us his book in which all of his previous clients had written notes in myriad languages next to the astrological chart he had filled out. I bowed out rather quickly, after he said that what he would tell each of us was private, not to be told to anyone, not even each other, saying that it was only for her, that I wasn’t interested, thank you, and that I would step outside and wait there, even though he promised to tell me things about my life that no one knew, and about my past lives, and about the future, since he had known, since he was six, that he could see things, that god spoke to him, and that he had therefore chosen that path of Sadhu (or holy man), not marrying, and only working for charity (hmm. . .) In the boat that morning, my mom had asked Sambhu how much the astrologer would charge, and our guide had said it was by donation. I asked my mom how much money she wanted on my way out, and gave her the requested rupees (a semi-paltry sum).

Outside, I sat on a ledge in the sun; Sambhu had gone for a walk, so I took out the Lonely Planet and began to read the section on India’s history. Soon, I noticed a few baby monkeys running along the rooftops, and I watched them for awhile. A mama monkey appeared, and kept grabbing at one baby, who was insistently climbing up the window of an adjacent building. After the baby’s third or fourth attempt, she grabbed him by the tail, yanked him down, and pulled him into her arms, where she held him close to her and he began to breastfeed. I took out my camera, but as I was zooming in for the picture, she turned away, hiding her baby from me, as if she knew my intentions. All this time, I could hear the voices of mom and Guruji, but not what they were saying. Sambhu returned and asked whether I wanted to go for a walk, but I declined, needing the rest. When my mom finally came out (and requested extra rupees, which I gave her silently, while she shiningly handed them to Guruji), I expressed my hunger, and Sambhu took us to a hole-in-the-wall vegetarian restaurant, where Jasvir joined us for lunch. The food was amazing, and when I saw a mouse on the floor, I kept mum (just as I hadn’t told mom about the roach I had seen at Le Meridien’s Club Lounge, where we breakfasted every morning, which, when I pointed it out to a waiter, had been swept up into a dustbin rather than smashed the way it would have been in New York). After the meal, when we were all drinking chai (except mom, who hates it, and was having hot water with fresh lemons), Sambhu pointed at the floor and said, “look, a mouse,” but it didn’t worry her at all. I tried to remember what Woody Allen movie refers to “tandoori mouse,” but could not.

After eating, Sambhu again asked us what we wanted to do. Guruji had, apparently, promised my mom some kind of deeper reading, or greater blessing, or something, if she gave more money; she was trying to decided whether she wanted to get this “talisman” as she called it (though he kept telling her not to call it that)—there were actually two that she could get—the smaller power (for—you got it—a smaller sum) and the larger power—for more than three times the already egregious (in my opinion) price, so she was still turning the idea of returning to him around in her head. He suggested maybe returning to our hotel for a rest, since at 6:30 (it was nearing 3:00 then), the holy ceremony for the sunset would take place on the ghats. We decided though, that since the hotel was a long drive through traffic, that we would rather not return there (particularly since it wasn’t anywhere near as nice as we had expected it would be), and instead drove to the university, where a number of the conference attendees had attended or were teaching (it’s a holy-kind of university, I suppose). Here, we went to a big temple (shoes off, no photos allowed inside) with marble floors and columns, and ceilings painted in the Rajasthani style. I was surprised at how Occidental the architecture was—rectangular atria, columns, and airy ceilings with three-foot deep moldings. The walls were all marble, inlaid with Sanskrit quotations from the Upanishads, as well as primitive renderings of some gods. Everywhere you turned was another little nook with a statue of a god inside—Hanuman the monkey, Ganesh the elephant, etc.—with a tray for donation. The greater gods, like Shiva, had attendants at their nooks, who took money in exchange for making a mark in red, gold, or white paint on the pilgrim’s forehead (it suddenly hit me, seeing all of these marked heads, that this was rather like the Roman Catholic’s Ash Wednesday, when everyone who went to church goes about proclaiming that fact on their face). After a while, we went back to the car and drove back to the old city to take a walk before the ceremony. Somewhere along the way, mom decided that she wanted to go back to Guruji for the small talisman.

And so, we went back. I was invited in again, and was offered another chai, but declined to demonstrate my distaste for what was taking place. Guruji launched immediately into a kind of lecture about the curtain over my heart, that he knows me, even though he didn’t know my birth date, because he knows about me because he knows about my mother. He told me that I needed to make a change, so that I could be happy. He told me that it would cost X for a ten minute conversation, a sum exorbitant, and almost ten times the charge he had given to my mother for her initial forty minute talk (as if that would better convince me?!) I tried to keep the conversation on her, and asked about her two options, and their costs. He explained that the “small power” meant that at the temple, someone (him?) would make pooja for her for 21 days, and for the “large power,” pooja would be made for 60 days. I pointed out that it made more sense to buy three small powers, for 63 days of pooja, and at a lower cost than the 60-day power. He tried to distract me by giving me sums—adding the numbers of my mother’s birthday in a way to come to two one-digit numbers that—somehow—inspired his choice (or not-choice, as I suppose he was attempting to prove) of cost, although this exercise proved nothing except that I can do simple sums in my head. He warned me that it is not good to be too clever. I handed my mom a stack of rupees (there was again a skirmish over the cost—he offered her two new prices for the smaller power, and I waited for her to choose one; she chose the lower) and made my way outside. I said to Sambhu immediately, “That man is very proud,” and he replied, “he has studied for many years,” either misunderstanding my reproach, or choosing to ignore it. He and I then went for a long walk in comfortable silence; he bought peanuts, and I took pictures. I saw more white people here, surprisingly, than I had seen anywhere else in India; they were all young hippy-types, growing beards and wearing orange clothes with sandals, and chatting philosophically with wizened Indians. Because the city is beautiful, and manages to retain a sense of peace despite all of the questionable activities happening within it, I was able to easily fight my disdain, although here, writing about it all, that is harder. In any case, I felt as though we had been gone for a long time, so we went back to fetch my mom, who was still talking with Guruji. I sat back on my perch, and an attendant brought me chai. Soon, the two emerged, chatting happily. Guruji asked me if I would like my turn and I told him “No, I don’t like to pay for my inspiration.” He ceased to address me then, and if anything, I was grateful that he wasn’t like the salesmen of the street, who lower and lower their prices to a revolting pittance rather than let you get away. I took a picture of him with my mom, he told me to try to come back to see him within the next three years (calling me daughter), and we left.

The ceremony wasn’t ready to start because the sky was still twinkling twilight, so we took another stroll to the cremation ghats, and came back to the ghat were the ceremony would be. I was bloody tired and wanted to go back to the hotel and catch up on the blog, but my mom, who was having the most blessed of birthdays she had ever had, wanted to see the ceremony, and so I exercised patience, fought my yawns, and waiting, listening to the chanting and harmonium being played over the loudspeaker; it was like a festival, but the ceremony isn’t particularly special—it takes place every night. “A lot of work,” I said to Sambhu, gesturing to the seven tables with seven matching sets of peacock fans, incense pots, white feathers, rings of flowers, candles, etc., all set up like dinner time, and Sambhu pointed out that I go to work every day—the Brahmin similarly perform this ritual daily; it is their work, and they are paid to do it. Soon, the group of seven holy men, dressed in rich saris of burgundy and egg-white silk, gathered at a central microphone and chanted for a while. Then, they each went to their own place, picked up a stack of burning incense sticks, and slowly, with great ceremony, circled the sticks around and around, twenty or thirty times, facing the water, then facing each other direction. Then, the sticks were placed in pots, and they each picked up big two-tiered metal pots of burning incense (the smoke was immense, and blowing into our faces), and slowly, with great ceremony, circled the pots around and around, twenty or thirty times, in each direction. This was repeated with each of the items on the altars, while bells were rung unceasingly by the members of the audience/congregation lucky enough to have been handed a cord (Sambhu was one of them, and my mom, sitting next to him, rang them for awhile as well). After forty minutes or so, I’d had enough, and my mom yielded to my exhaustion and agreed that we could go back to the hotel; the ceremony wasn’t over, but Sambhu promised it only consisted of more of the same—the slow, ceremonious circles with the flowers, then the feathers, and so on. Back home, she fell asleep immediately, quite contented with her birthday, and I stayed up to write, dreading the fact that I would have to wake up the next morning at 3:30 for the lengthy drive back to Agra, where we would spend our last day in India seeing the Taj Mahal.

See pictures of Varanasi here.

India: Day Nine (From Rajasthan to and through Uttar Pradesh)

The reason I allowed myself to fall asleep the night of day eight is because I knew there was a lengthy drive ahead of us, and I thought I might use my laptop’s mediocre battery life to write my blog entry for the day prior on my knees in the car’s backseat. Of course, that’s not the way things worked out; I had to wake up at 5:15 in order to pack and be out the door by 6:00, and so was half asleep for the first third of the long car ride. We stopped around eight at a crappy roadside hotel to eat breakfast in the empty, enormous dining hall, where the ceiling fans were pushing cold air down onto me, shaking in the gray dawn, and I had to ask five or six times to have them shut off before it was done. I ordered an omelet and two samosas, feeling famished, but only could fight through the eggs and one of the two fried pyramids of dough, stuffed with curried potatoes and peas, so had the second packed up for a later snack. The hotel restaurant had an adjacent gift shop, with case after case filled with silver jewelry, but I remembered my promise to my mom not to let her make any more purchases, and refused to let her do any shopping. I actually had to physically drag her, by the sleeve, out of the shop, into which she had sneakily wandered on our way out to the parking lot. We piled back into the car, drove again, and after a some time came to an incredibly congested city. We had been driving about five hours. My mom asked Jasvir what town we were in, and he said Agra. We imagined that was the halfway point, and started thinking we’d reach Varanasi by 4:00, praising Jasvir to the heavens for being such an excellent driver.

We drove on, then stopped for lunch at A-1, the Indian equivalent of 7Eleven-cum-Denny’s, with a small variety of pre-prepared curries (the food was only luke-warm) served by waiters to tables in an open-air breezeway. Finally, Jasvir sat at the table with us. My mom asked the waiter what we should order, and he suggested the combination, which included a number of small portions of not-that-great stuff—a curried mixed vegetable dish (the best of the worst) a watery dahl (vaguely reminiscent of refried beans), paneer (that cheese) in a tomato “gravy” as they call it here, a raita (a cold yogurt and veggie dish that we can’t eat safely, according to Lonely Planet, since it hasn’t been boiled), plain rice, and a (totally revolting) rice dessert, along with a poppadom and two greasy rotis. It was pretty dreadful, particularly considering that everything was served on tin dishes. Mom and I both ordered hot tea, but the tea was brewed from loose leaves in a big vat, and it was too strong for her (it was to tea as espresso is to coffee—absolutely brilliant as far as I’m concerned), and she asked to be brought boiling water. It came in a tin cup (too hot to pick up), but no matter how much she watered down the tea, it remained murky and black, and she drank not one drop. The wait staff, as usual eager to please, brought a questionnaire at the end of the meal, along with a fresh cup of tea for mom. Since it was equally black as the first, I drank it down myself; we paid (it was absurdly cheap—a few dollars for all three of us) and we hit the road. Before leaving, my mom asked Jasvir “How much more time?” He smiled his usual ineffable grin and said, “nine hours, ma’am.” We were shocked, and horrified. My right leg was already killing me, and I was by now wide awake and had no idea how I was supposed to entertain myself for nine hours in the backseat of a car, since looking out the window at ten million cows and shanty villages had ceased to be interesting long ago.

Back in the car, I decided to finally do some reading, and pulled The Satanic Verses out of my suitcase. Mom read the Lonely Planet and alternated that with catnaps. I had read about 70 pages before feeling like a catnap myself, and closed my eyes, stuffing the book between the car seat and door. I woke up when the motion of the car had stopped; we had parked at some kind of toll/tax collection booth (we had also had to pay when exiting the state of Rajasthan and entering Uttar Pradesh). As is standard in India for any spot where tourists might stop, a flock of children salesmen assaulted our windows with necklaces and other throw-away mementos that we did not want. Then, an older man with a monkey on a string came up to the window, and the animal leapt up onto the vehicle and pressed his face into the glass. Mom and I sat staring, mesmerized, but then the man said (we could hear his voice clearly through the closed car door) “he can dance.” He told the monkey to dance and the poor dirty creature began to jump up and down. I don’t know why, but I started to shake a bit. Then, accompanied by the old man’s yelps, the monkey began to jump in the air and do back flips. I turned my face away, because my breath was coming fast, and I was trembling all over. My mom reached her hand to touch my arm and asked if I was okay. I burst into tears and cried the hardest I have yet since we’d begun this trip. “It’s okay, it’s okay,” she told me. “I hate people. I hate people so much,” I told her, and she tried to comfort me, saying that “monkeys like to jump,” and so it was okay. But I told her no, it wasn’t okay, that they did not like to jump while hung on a string by their necks, and I continued crying hard and shaking with rage, hating all of humanity passionately, wanting to do violence to the old man (who had since disappeared, seeing that money was the last thing we were going to give him), and simultaneously feeling the urge to forgive him, since most likely it was only his poverty that drove him to do such a thing. I cried and cried and asked my mom to leave me alone, and wondered aloud, “Jasvir must think I’m nuts,” since he was getting back in the car and could probably see me sobbing once again in his backseat. My mom began to talk to him (I think she’s taken it upon herself to teach him English during this little jaunt, since she has him sit with us at meals, and talks to him and draws him pictures to help him understand) and told him there was a monkey. He smiled his beneficent “yeah, yeah” smile, and then my mom said, pointing at me, “She does not like. She cry.” And then I looked at her, saltwater still in my eyes, and said, “that’s really not necessary.” We started driving again and I went back to my book, and then back to sleep, I think.

I might have actually slept a bit before waking up from the constant honking of horns and bouncing around of the vehicle. Our guide in Jaipur had said that, to drive in India, one needs four things: good eyes, a good horn, good brakes, and good luck, and he had been completely right. Jasvir, for all of his linguistic shortcomings (what am I saying? He speaks and reads both Hindi and Punjabi, and I only know one language fluently), is an excellent driver. He proved his mettle after the streets became dark; I had picked my book up again, read another thirty pages, and put it down; stopped for the bathroom once or twice, and had my mom nap in my lap. We had dinner at another A-1 (the food this time was better—it was actually hot, and, having experienced the menu already, I ordered the curried mixed vegetables, with some rice and deep-fried paneer snacks, and it was all completely edible; by now, my mom had stopped ordering tea, and instead asked for boiling water with lemon), and continued to driving. At dinner, the air pitch black around us, my mom asked Jasvir how much longer. Smiling indulgently, he said, “Ma’am, five more hours,” upon which statement we both writhed with yielding distress and got in the car. We both tried to sleep, somehow exhausted even though we hadn’t done a thing but sit all day, but between the horn honking (which is incessant in India—every truck, painted in bright colors in a way Americans can only dream of, says “Horn Please” on the back in big colorful block letters (as well as “Use Dipper At Night,” which I had thought was some inexplicable advertisement, until we were actually on the road with truckers at night, and Jasvir flashed his high-beams incessantly instead of honking as much as he would during the day), which means honk your horn long and often whenever you drive past a truck, which, basically, is all the time; Jasvir, being a big-city driver, honks all the time anyway, truck or bicycle or rickshaw or auto-rickshaw or cow or motor-scooter or bus or whatever it is that he’s driving alongside), and the bumps in the road (to pass long, unmoving lines of truckers, Jasvir often does a bit of “off-roading” in our compact, rental-grade Tata Indigo (think Dodge Neon)), snatched bits of sleep were few and far between. Mom entertained me by telling stories, both real and made up, and I entertained her by listening and providing suggestions.

We drove and drove and drove. We stopped for the bathroom, and Jasvir asked our permission to “eat a tea,” which we granted. It was now half-past ten, when, based on Jasvir’s “five hours” prediction, we should have been rolling into town at any moment. And yet, somehow, thanks to traffic (what in God’s name are all of these trucks even carrying? Why do they need to drive at night?), we didn’t even reach the outskirts of Varanasi until after midnight, and our hotel until 1:00 AM. We had been on the road 19 hours. That beats the hell out of the time that I drove ten hours in Iceland and had a nervous breakdown by nearly twice, but Jasvir was still smiling, his warm eyes glimmering in the dim light of the hotel’s entrance. We had originally planned to take a boat ride on the Ganges during sunrise, as the Lonely Planet recommends, but we were bloody exhausted, so told Jasvir to pick us up at 8:00, rather than 6:30 as our guidebook suggested. At a certain point, you’re so tired that you say, “screw the ghats,” and you go to sleep. We had been expecting the poshest of the posh from our hotel, the Taj Ganges, which had extensive elegant grounds in the dark, and had been recommended as the five-star choice by both the Lonely Planet and a number of people, but the hotel turned out to be quite tired, and even a bit moldering and stinky, like New York’s Waldorf-Astoria on a smaller scale. And yet, we were too tired to argue, and accepted our second-floor, pool-view room, and crawled under the covers. I hadn’t used my laptop or camera all day.

India: Day Eight (Jaipur)

I have been terribly remiss, due to inconquerable exhaustion, in writing, and have set for myself the impossible task of writing about the past three days all tonight (the end of day ten); luckily, not much happened yesterday, but the day before, and today, were completely packed with exhausting sights, since we finally got out of Delhi, and had knowledgeable, English-speaking guides both days. So, I will do my best to remember it all, using my photos as a guide.

On the eighth morning, we rose again, in fulfillment of the scriptures. Wait, sorry, wrong story. The eighth morning, I woke up at six and walked in the dark and chilly morning to the ashram near our hotel to practice yoga. Mom had intended to come with me, but since we had gone to bed so late the night before, and had felt ill, she decided to sleep instead. An ashram is simply an abode for the holy (similar to a cloister, for example, without all of the Christian attachments). This ashram (I’ve never been inside any other), like so many of the buildings I’ve seen in India, was a large concrete block from the outside, showing some wear, and a hollow concrete block from the inside, but with what, as a once upon a time real estate person, I would call pre-war details, showing even more wear (but with the silent, peaceful beauty of all abandoned buildings everywhere). I walked through a dark hallway, following the sound of voices, and came into a small room with the floor covered in blankets, where four fat Indian matrons in saris and four thin white girls in t-shirts were laughing and raising one arm up and down while breathing through alternate nostrils, their hands on their noses. Two men were outside the room, in the hallway, giving instruction through the doorway. Everyone made room for me (I had been told by our hotel that class began at six-thirty, but apparently it had begun at six, and I had missed almost all of the pranayama (breathing) practice), and we continued a mixture of asana and pranayama, in a somewhat ad-hoc manner, the instructor speaking sometimes Hindi, sometimes Sanskrit, and sometimes English. At one point, during kabalabati breathing, it was demanded by one of the Indian women that I tell the white women what to do (in English, I imagine), so I said, “Um, I guess we’re doing kabalabati breating,” which everyone already knew. Throughout the class, there was a lot of laughter, and all of the matrons kept burping and farting, and laughing. One of the white girls, who was facing her friend, kept pulling the funniest of faces during the breathing exercises, and we all laughed hysterically. Before the class ended, the instructor said, “Now we do laughing exercise,” and actually led us in an exercise in which we practiced laughing, first clapping our hands quickly and chanting “mum mum mum mum mum mum mum” and then raising our arms up and out and laughing “ah ha ha ha ha,” which very quickly turned into genuine laughter, created by a shared moment in the room. It was absolutely brilliant, and I went back to our room in extraordinary spirits.

I woke up mom and we went to breakfast, where we sat with the face-making girl and her friend; I had chatted with them a bit on the walk back to the hotel, and they were from LA. Breakfast was a delightful assortment of omelets, potatoes, toast, bananas, lassi, and chai, and I overate as usual, since we sat for over an hour sharing stories and laughing hysterically with these two women, Shawna and Natalie, who turned out to be a lesbian couple who both teach public grade school. They recommended the ayurvedic massage arranged through the hotel (they had done it the night before), and asked us questions about our driver, since they were planning to spend almost two weeks in Rajasthan, and hadn’t yet decided to do it by train and bus or car. We promised to meet them again, either that night for dinner, or the next morning for yoga and breakfast, although neither ended up happening and I never had a chance to exchange email addresses or say goodbye.

We were already late to meet our driver, who was waiting outside with an English-speaking tour guide, arranged out of guilt at no cost to us by Matkhan. He wore western designer jeans and a sweater, was young, clean shaven, and had glasses. Born and raised in Jaipur, his name was Mukesh, and he was full of pride and historical information about his city, which, I finally found out, is less than three hundred years old (architecturally, that is). It was built by the great Maharaja Jai Singh (“pur” means town, so Jaipur is, then, Jai’s town), the same Mughal emperor who had previously built the neighboring Amber Fort and Amber Palace. The town wasn’t painted pink, though, until 150 years later, when Maharaja Ram Singh decided to honor the visiting Prince Edward with the color of hospitality. The English, apparently, had a great cultural impact on the Maharajas, who took up polo playing with aplomb.

Our guide first took us to the Hawa Mahal, or Palace of the Winds(a rather small, very strange-looking thing, with rows and rows of windows, though which the Maharani, who wasn’t allowed out of doors, could peek into the streets—this palace was built just for her. We then drove out to the Amber City, which is much older, and golden in hue rather than pink. It looked, with its steep and twisting roads hewn from the cliff sides, and crumbling homes jutting up out of the stone, quite like the medieval Sienna in Italy. At the top of the mountain (most tourists travel up by elephant, though we took the car, opting to be less touristy) is the Amber Palace (all the city is walled in, and the wall makes it the Amber Fort). The main courtyard of the palace was filled with beautiful women in traditional dress, carrying baskets on their heads, and repeating the only English word they know: “money money money” with their hands out. I did hand out a few rupees, I’ll admit, for the privilege of taking pictures, but after I ran out of small bills, I continued making photos without giving anyone anything. I certainly don’t mean to be crude, because I know that the people of India are, in general, quite poor, but these people seemed to be doing quite well as “models”—hundreds of tourists (the first I had really seen) were milling through the courtyard, and handing out rupees for photos with elephants (my mom did one; I didn’t—again, opting not to be too touristy) and the like. The elephants, though, were worth photographing; their faces are painted with day-glo colors.

The palace was really shockingly beautiful, especially considering the views of the crumbling ancient architecture on the neighboring bluffs, and the extreme craft that went into carving the marble for the columns and moldings, all lotus flowers, elephants, and butterflies. The palace is divided into sections—the summer palace (with a natural air-conditioning system built in by wind and water channels), the winter palace (with a natural heating system built in by thousands of tiny mirrors that would reflect the little bit of sunlight coming in, and a small fire burning, and amplify the heat, the open passages walled off with blankets, and twelve separate chambers for the Maharaja’s twelve different wives, which all face onto a courtyard where they could spend their days sitting together, chatting, taking in puppet shows or other entertainment. I took about a gazillion photos, and then we went off to the Jal Mahal, the “floating” palace surrounded by water, which the Maharaja built for himself to enjoy with his many concubines, so that the Maharini could not access him. The Jal Mahal looks better in photos than real life, since all the towers are currently under scaffold, and just stepping out of the car to photograph it for a few minutes, I was beset by more beggars than I was emotionally prepared for, and I fled to the car. From that point, Mukesh ceased to be the awesome guide he had been that morning (in my opinion, which probably differs from my mom’s), and he took us to a jewelry shop. I think we must have spent two hours here, because the jeweler, Ajay, had the best pieces we had (and have) seen in India, but his prices were extremely high. I immediately gravitated toward an enormous clanging necklace, an antique piece, made of beautifully-aging silver, but the price quoted, in dollars, was five hundred and some-odd, so I quickly decided to detach myself from the idea of buying anything. My mom, though, a complete jewelry junkie (which you know if you’ve been reading) looked at piece after piece and so, to entertain myself while waiting, I too looked at piece after piece, until I had collected three necklaces that I absolutely had to have (never mind that I haven’t worn one piece of jewelry since I started practicing yoga regularly, a few years ago); the first one, a second, which was a simple slender cuff for the neck, half of gold, half of silver, with a beautiful and intricate clasp, and a third, which was a boat-shaped piece of antique worked silver (which unscrewed on one side to reveal a secret chamber for poison) strung on a cord made of colored thread, the likes of which I’d never seen anything before (the first necklace, however dramatic, looked like other jewelry sold in the Afghani and Pakistani shops in New York’s West Village). Mom had meanwhile picked out a necklace, two pairs of earrings, and, I think some other things that I can’t remember in any detail now. In any case, the haggling began in earnest; as always, tea was brought (I took none, a symbolic act of defiance for the by now tiresome bargaining process). Let me save you the hassle I had to go through, and just tell you that I ended up with necklaces numbers one and three, at $150 and $90 each (still more than I would have preferred to spend on jewelry (that number being zero dollars), though the first was a gift from mom), a mere fraction of the originally quoted prices, and mom got a number of pieces as well. Mukesh, I’m certain, got a slice of the pie, and probably one from the terribly overpriced restaurant where we had lunch (absolutely delicious—garlic naan (fluffly and crispy and burnt perfectly), vegetable biriyani, saag paneer, and dal maharani; we are terribly boring eaters) and from the painting shop we visited next.

Mukesh, having found out that my mother is an artist, had promised to take her to see “his guru” (later, he took us to a music shop, also to visit his guru. . . the man must do an awful lot of studying), who paints miniatures, and would give her a lesson. Rather than getting a lesson, we watched our names being painted on grains of rice (I didn’t want it done, but they insisted) by the artist (also called Mukesh) and then pored over stack after stack of paintings he had made. We had already spent more than our budget on art in Delhi, but were suckers for the gorgeous colors, all made from natural stones and vegetables (saffron for yellow, lapus for blue, chilies for red, etc.) and the antique paper (dating about 100 years back, with official stamps at the top) on which elephants and maharajas had been painting. We pulled aside about twenty that we loved, narrowed it down to five, and, horrified by the steep prices and the amount of money we had just spent at the jewelry shop, further down to three, all elephant pictures. Price was again discussed for an hour, and chai had been brought (of which I partook this time, since I adore the chai here, which makes Starbucks look sick). My mom also wanted to buy the paints, and since she had been speaking to the shop keeper (not Mukesh) and the artist (Mukesh) as an artist (which is why they gave us “such a good price” eventually on the three pictures), they promised to sell her pigments as well. When the bill was tallied, they requested cash rather than charge, so I was sent off with Jasvir and Mukesh-the-guide to find an ATM. I came back with a fat stack of rupees, and since Mukesh-the-painter didn’t have enough paints (most of his colors were at home), we agreed that he would bring them to our hotel that night, at half-past nine, when we were back from our massages, and that she would choose then what else to buy.

We got back into the car and drove to the Jantar Mantar (an astrological observatory built by Jai Singh), one of the great sights of Jaipur, which we chose not to see, since it was visually unappealing and required an entrance fee. Somewhat at a loss, Mukesh took us the musical instrument shop to visit his guru (mom had made me promise not to let her spend any more money, then immediately wanted to buy a funny little one-string instrument that made a Radiohead-esque, unearthly-twangy sound; I refused to hand over the rupees and she was, for awhile, mock-mad at me, but got over it rather quickly). After the shopkeeper had played on the tabla for us a bit (the hollow Indian drums that accompany sitar music), I dragged my mom out of the shop, apologizing to the salesman for not making any purchases. By this time, evening was approaching; we drove up to a blue pottery store, but didn’t get out of the car; we’d spent too much money and were not going to do any more shopping. And so, we tipped Mukesh and went back to our hotel to relax a bit before our massages, which we had scheduled for seven. In the room, I edited and uploaded pictures, and wrote out all the remaining postcards I had to send back home. Mom did yoga and I played some Bob Marley from the tinny speakers on my laptop (half of Bob Marley’s music sounds like it was recorded in a tin can anyway, so it wasn’t a problem). Then it was seven, and a driver from the ayurvedic spa had come to fetch us.

He drove us to a very homely, low-slug concrete building about five minutes from our hotel (both in “new” Jaipur—that is, not pink, and outside of the walled “old” city. Here, we took off our shoes at the entrance and were greeted by a professor-looking man, who then, sitting behind a large desk while we sat in chairs facing him, as if he were a doctor or car salesman, asked us what treatments we wanted and asked for payment, in cash, in advance. This caused a bit of a scuffle as I was running low on rupees (despite my early jaunt to the cash machine), and I knew we had a long journey (the twelve hour drive to Varanasi, though ATM-less farmland) ahead of us. I shelled out the rupees, though, when we had no other choice. Both mom and I chose the 90 minute treatment during which hot oil is ceaselessly poured on your body, while you are simultaneously massaged, as well as an herbal steam session afterward. I threw in a facial treatment, because I forgot my cleanser in London, and my skin is looking even more dreadful than usual. We were handed over to a lady in a sari, who took us into a room with two wooden tables (imagine a cross between a massage table and a trough, tilted at a slight degree downward) separated and screened by curtains. We were told to strip, each in our separate partition, and handed paper panties to put on (which I thought I’d done backwards, until I turned them around and realized they were just too small). The session was hardly private, since I could not only hear my mom’s voice the whole time, just as she could hear mine, but also since the curtain shielding me from the women walking back and forth to the shower was never drawn closed. The massage was probably the worst massage I’ve ever had; the strokes were intermittent, shallow, and unfocused on the areas where my body hurt (basically everywhere, thanks to the many hours of seated travel we’ve been putting in). And yet, it was one of the most interesting experiences I’ve ever had, so I do not regret that I did it. I was attended, firstly, at all times by two women rather than one. It is a very odd sensation to be massaged by four hands at once. Secondly, I’ve never had copious amounts of hot oil poured on my for more than an hour. At first it felt absurdly luxurious, but soon, I was so well-basted that I kept sliding down the tilted table like an unwieldy turkey on the rack. I had visions of being cooked, and thought about the time I generally spend in the terribly hot baths at Harbin Hot Springs (which hot bath is so hot you cannot withstand it for more than three minutes; your body becomes numb and beet red just upon entering). I then decided that I would rather be boiled to death than deep fried. After all of the oil was done, I was asked whether I would prefer to be sponged, or to shower. My mom had chosen to shower, so I decided to sponge, for the variety of experience. The two women (who turned out, actually, to be my age, though married) then scraped the oil off of my body with rags held taught, and then told me to lie back down, as a domed wooden lattice was brought and set down over me. They covered the lattice with a heavy blanket, and then but a steaming pot near my feet. Slowly, the space around me filled with steam, such that my feet were burning before my shoulders were even warm, and I felt like a head of broccoli; now I know what it’s like to be prepared for dinner by three different ways. Before being steamed (I forgot), my face was washed and massaged and covered with a gritty mask, which was kept on during the steam session. Since I was still somewhat oily, I was still sliding down toward the source of heat, and was somewhat afraid of having my toes burnt off. Additionally, the plastic bag protecting my hair from all the oil had fallen off, and so that was another source of stress. Finally, my back was aching terribly from the angle of the wooden table, so I had to ask to be allowed to turn onto my stomach. When the steam became unbearably hot at last, I told my attendants, and they switched it off, removed the blanket and lattice, and gave me a frumpy flowered sack to put on for safe travel to the shower, which turned out to be a tap with a bucket and a dipping cup. This didn’t suit me, particularly since the water wasn’t even hot, just warm, but I hadn’t a choice (or any soap), so I rinsed and rinsed and that was that. After that; I was basically done; one attendant massaged my shoulders a bit more while I sat on a tiny bench in my hideous frock, and I was then instructed to dress and leave. My mom had already left (she finished before me since she hadn’t had the facial) and gone back to the hotel to meet Mukesh-the-artist with his paints. The attendant showed me my sandals and drove me home, where my mom was already sitting in our room with Mukesh, the coffee table covered with bottles of paints and stacks of paintings; he had brought similar works to those we had wanted at the shop, but couldn’t afford. His prices, of course, outside of the store, where the shopkeeper and tour guide take a hefty cut, were disturbingly low, but we had already bought more than ten paintings, both in Jaipur and Delhi. I sat down to look a bit, though I was tired and also somewhat preoccupied with my laptop’s poor internet connection (the uploading of photographs still hadn’t finished). I thought, though I couldn’t be certain without further examination, that the pictures we had bought in Delhi were of higher quality than the ones Mukesh had painted. In the end, my mom chose a number of paints and brushes, all at a good price, as well as a few sheets of antique paper, and a group of paintings. The cost of everything, though, even though we were being offered prices at 1/3 of what the shopkeeper had finally been bartered down to (and how could that make me feel, having overpaid for three pieces at the store?), was steep, and, like I’ve said, we hardly needed more paintings. I counted our rupees and saw that we were in a fairly bad way. I told my mom that she could only have INR 2,500, and since her paints came up to about $50, that left only another $25 for wiggle room. I actually could have afforded her another INR 500, and Mukesh, at that point sadly admitting that he would take anything—dollars, pounds, a watch—did earn my sympathy, but we had simply spent much too much that day and the past few, and had way too many paintings in our luggage. Furthermore, I was struggling with the internet, while also taking tiny catnaps in between those struggles, so I decided not to engage in further haggling and handed over the INR 25,000, after shamelessly flossing my teeth right in front of Mukesh. We finally sent him packing on his way, having acquired his business card and email address for future purchases, and went to sweet sleep, knowing we would have to wake up in less than six hours for the long drive to Varanasi.

Find photos from Jaipur here.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

India: Day Seven (Jaipur)

Argh, I feel like I barely did a thing today, and I’m exhausted nonetheless. Some of you out there have remarked on my wordiness, so perhaps today will be the day that the post is more brief. I woke up, as you may have just read, at six this morning, in order to write yesterday’s entry. This took about two hours, and afterward I scarfed breakfast so as to wake up my mum in time for us to pack and meet the driver at nine. Perhaps all that writing this morning drained me as well.

Of course, we ran terribly late trying to get all of our things together, and didn’t leave our hotel until 9:30. We then had to go to a Citibank, so that I could withdraw a substantial amount of cash. Matkhan had arranged for one of his friends to drive us on the rest of our trip: to Jaipur, where we are now, to Varanasi (far, far East, in the state of Uttar Pradesh (we are in Rajasthan now), then to Agra, seat of the Taj Mahal, and then back to the airport in Delhi. This is a total of five days of driving. Last night, when I was sick and exhausted, Matkhan began to negotiate the price for this journey with us. I had expected to pay between INR 5,000 and 10,000, since Matkhan’s day rate in Delhi is just under INR 1,000 per day. Instead, he told us INR 18,000 for a compact car, and INR 23,000 for a bigger car (mind you, the drive to Varanasi is 10-15 hours, depending on road conditions). This was a bit of a shock, particularly since we wouldn’t even be with Matkhan, the driver we’ve come to know and trust, but after a bit of an attempt to haggle, during which he tried to make us feel guilty by saying, “You are my mother; you are my sister; I give you best price,” we agreed to INR 18,000 for the small car. All the way home, he kept trying to convince us to take the larger car, saying “Drive to Varanasi very long—very long—you need be comfortable—big car like an airplane!” and we kept saying, no, we can’t afford it. He kept on and on, to the point that I was not liking him anymore (I’d already gotten a tiny bit tired of him and his “No problem; as you like,” every time I demanded that he not take us to anymore touristy shopping joints (at which he would earn a commission on any of our purchases), whilst continuing to take us to those places. My mom, though, had become quite fond of him, and even bought him a wooden elephant for his son, and brought him a bottle of wine from our hotel room for him and his wife. I, far less generous, tipped him only INR 50 here and there.

And so this morning, when Matkhan picked us up from our hotel, we needed to go to Citibank so that I could withdraw the INR 18,000 in cash. Actually, we had agreed to pay half up front, to cover fuel expenses and such, and then half at the end of the trip, in order to guarantee our safe delivery. On the way to the bank, though, he began asking us again, more and more insistently all the while, whether we would take the big car. I kept telling him no, and he kept pushing. I was so over him that, when we arrived at Citibank and he wanted to take a picture with me in front (oh, the metaphor), I refused, saying I didn’t like to have my picture taken (which is true; there are no pictures of me from this trip yet). I took one of him with my mom, got some cash at the most glorified ATM I’ve ever seen (imagine a branch bank, but miniaturize it, and put nothing inside but one ATM and a gigantic mirror), and got back in the car, so that Matkhan could take us to pick up the new driver and the vehicle in we would be traveling. He was still pushing about the big car, and told us that in the small car, our luggage would have to go on the roof of the car (we only have two small suitcases). He then offered us a medium car, for only INR 2,000 more. This my mom started to bite at (the prospect of a 15 hour ride with luggage under her feet—because no way in hell was it going on the roof—was not very pleasant), and began haggling with him, while I kept saying “No!” as I seem to have taken to doing. I demanded the medium car for INR 18,000, because the trip was already too expensive; she demanded it for 19,000, and Matkhan settled for 19,500. Mind you, the difference between INR 18,000 and 19,500 is about $35, but I was arguing on principle, not cash (as usual). Once that was agreed upon, Matkhan turned into an alley, pulled over, and turned off the car. He turned around and said “you pay now, half, and a little more, for diesel.” I told him “No more. We agreed already. Half now, half at the end. Ten thousand now, nine thousand five hundred at the end.” I was starting to feel very uncomfortable about the entire thing, and gave my mom INR 10,000 to give to him, because I felt unsafe, and didn’t want to be responsible for the action of handing over the money.

When we arrived at the car lot, a portion of my fears were realized. Matkhan introduced us to his friend, who would be our driver, and showed us the medium-sized car. My mom asked the driver what his name was, and he looked at us, smiling, and didn’t say a word. Then she looked at me, looked at Matkhan, and looked back at the driver, and said “Do you speak English?” to him; still, he smiled silently. “Matkhan, does he speak English?” she asked him. “Yes, very good driver, very good; knows Jaipur, Varanasi, very good.” “Yes, that’s good,” she told him, “but he has to speak English. Does he speak English? You told us driver speaks very good English.” All this time, our new driver (whose name, by the way, turns out to be Jasvir Singh, no relation) is grinning and saying nothing. I am still tweaked out over the morning’s incidents, and I can see the entire rest of the trip crashing down right in front of me, while my mom is trying to find out whether Jasvir can understand a word she’s saying (and my mother, in the case that you don’t know, is very good at speaking broken English, which drives me crazy, but helps with non-native speakers). Matkhan was getting a bit jittery, as he does, as my mom ever-so-gently accused him of telling an untruth (she had not yet pulled out the powerful phrase “you lied to us,” but it was coming). Matkhan went to get another man (a third Sikh, pudgy with a blue turban (Jasvir’s was red and Matkhan’s pink)) who clearly was the boss. Matkhan told us that he spoke very good English, but only could drive the big car (which was a huge old SUV/van thing that we wouldn’t have wanted anyway, even for the same price). The three of them spoke amongst each other in Punjabi for a long time, and I listened carefully, but could only make out the names of the towns we were visiting, but in the wrong order, and with other towns—touristy ones—we were not planning to visit thrown in. This made me all the more anxious, and I demanded to know what they were saying, in English. Matkhan repeated our itinerary to me, as we had scheduled it, and said that that’s what they had been saying, but I knew that this wasn’t true. My mom and I kept looking at each other with the “what do you think we should do” eyes, that only come out in the most dire of situations, usually when traveling and stranded in the middle of nowhere with luggage, about to get fleeced, just as now. Neither of us liked the looks of the blue turbaned man; my mom said that she could tell Jasvir was a good man, like Matkhan, but that she was worried about the English. I suggested that Matkhan come with us instead (he didn’t want to, because he has a family here, and didn’t want to leave them for five whole days). My mom said, “Matkhan, you come with us; Jasvir takes your boy to school.” I said, “Matkhan, you come with us; Jasvir takes care of your family.” Matkhan said, “Nighttime is a problem,” and all four of us (the blue turban had since disappeared) had a hearty laugh together. The laughter healed things up a bit, to the point that we were willing to get out of Matkhan’s car and into Jasvir’s, with all the luggage. Then Matkhan asked for another INR 2,000 up front for diesel, and I told him, more firmly than ever, no way. Meanwhile, my mother had pulled out the big guns, and told Matkhan that he had lied to us, and that it wasn’t nice. I sat in the backseat of the new car and told myself not to cry, even as I felt the tears rising, in a combination of frustration, anxiety, and homesickness. What I needed at the moment was a healthy, ten minute sob, but I couldn’t in front of all these people, so I contained myself and quietly let the tears trickle. When my mom got in the car, I told her I was upset, and she saw that I was crying. She told Matkhan, “look at her, she’s very unhappy; she’s crying,” and he came to my side of the car, clearly perturbed. He told me, as he always had, “It’s my responsibility,” but I told him it wasn’t, because he wasn’t coming. He told me that if anything went wrong, I should call his mobile phone from Jasvir’s mobile phone, and he would come. I made him shake my hand and give me his word, and my mom invoked God to him as he did this, knowing that he is a God-fearing man. Then we drove off, and I started to cry harder. My mom tried to comfort me, but when I cry, any interaction from her always makes me cry harder, not because she isn’t comforting, but because the gesture reinstates me as a child, and makes me feel all the more helpless and out of control. I asked her to just give me some time and look out the other window, that I was just frustrated, and she did. About fifteen minutes later, I had stopped, and we were chatting half-comfortably again, when Jasvir’s phone rang. “For you, ma’am,” he said, “Matkhan.” My mom spoke to Matkhan and confirmed that yes, so far everything was okay. From her side of the conversation, he clearly asked about me, because she said that I had been crying. Then he asked to speak with me, and I told her no, I didn’t want to talk to him. Then I started to cry again, and she told him that no, I didn’t want to talk to him; I was crying again. From her side of the conversation, he was clearly upset by this. When she hung up the phone, she said that he was very upset that I was crying. “Good,” I said; “he should be. I’m glad that his conscience is working retroactively.”

But that was the end of that; we were on the road to our next adventure, and soon enough I stopped crying and started paying attention to the view. Jasvir was very politely quiet, and mom and I chatted. We were on the first major highway I’ve seen, exiting Delhi, and were surrounded by telecom high-rises, most of them still being constructed (we are definitely here amidst major changes in this country). Soon enough, we were back onto a flat, four-lane highway, and after maybe an hour of driving, stopped for gas. Here, all the other vehicles filling up were truckers, and they were all playing loud, lively music. We used the restroom (a single stall, attended full-time by an older woman in a sari, who splashed water on the floor before I went in (to make it clean?!), and then gestured that she would take care of everything when I had finished, since there was no apparent flushing apparatus. For this, I felt dreadful, but could not argue with her, this being my first non-first-class/five-star toilet experience in India (it turned out to be the best of its kind, since it had both toilet paper and soap). Back in the car, I asked Jasvir if he had any music (and repeated the question a few times before he understood), and he said “Punjabi music only.” I asked him to play some, and it lifted my spirits immediately. We drove along the highway, which was terribly jammed with traffic, listening to the cheery Punjabi music and looking out the windows. At one point, half the road was closed for construction, and we were in non-moving traffic for half an hour. I saw a man on a bicycle, whose picture my mom had taken twenty minutes ago, pass us. We also kept seeing the same man, in a military suit, a filthy white turban, a dirty little cigarette, a beard, and carrying a nylon purse, again and again; first standing on the median, then on a bus alongside us, then standing in the middle of the road, then on the bus again, then back in the road. Finally, traffic got moving again and we saw him no more. We drove on, noticing that, as they’ve done in most other places, all the Indians were smiling and waving and staring and gaping at us, as if we were Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Aniston, with Brad Pitt driving the car (our driver even got a few thumbs ups). It’s strange to me that white women would be so foreign and unusual, because there must be plenty of tourists, but we really don’t see all that many white people, especially not women (except old and dowdy ones, traveling with their old and dowdy husbands, and generally from the UK or Australia, which aren’t as popular here as the US. This is one country, at least, where they don’t hate us (yet?)). We drove through some pretty dismal, ramshackle, shanty-towns, where the dirt was multi-colored (because it was made up of tiny bits of garbage), and where cows grazed in that multi-colored dirt (what could they possibly find to eat?), and where babies wearing shirts and no pants walked around in all of the filth. We passed a number of questionable-looking eateries, and decided to begin our fast that moment.

Around two, Jasvir said, “Lunch?” and we said, “No, no, we don’t want to eat. You eat, OK. We wait.” Jasvir kept driving, but pulled up to a decent-looking eatery about half an hour later. While my mom used the facilities (attended again, this time by a tiny girl in a flaming red sari, who told me “I have baby,” and asked “That’s your mama?” and to whom I gave a twenty rupee note for providing tp, and for being sweet. Then, a tiny girl, no older than three (she barely spoke Hindi, much less English), dressed in a rich but filthy local costume, came over to me, played a ten second ditty on her pipe, and held her hands together at her heart and said “Namaste,” to me. I returned the gesture, and said “Namaste” to her too, but that wasn’t good enough. She made a sullen face, and held out her hand. Her eyes had been darkened with kohl, and she had, dare I say, the flashing malice of a woman scorned within them. I gave her four rupees (her hand, I swear, was hardly bigger than the two two-rupee coins), which amounts, mind you, to about five cents, and she gave me another filthy look, and then trotted away.

We sat down to eat, and mom asked where Jasvir was. The waiter went to fetch him, and he appeared at our table, but since no one spoke English, no one could make clear what was happening. Because I know my mom, though, and because I know the culture of servitude that pervades India, I immediately knew what was happening, and explained it to her, dismissing the waiter and Jasvir. She wanted to know why he wasn’t sitting down to eat with us, and didn’t understand why that would be in any way improper, and why the drivers had their own seating area on the other side of the building. This is a poor explanation to a person who believes in equality, but it was the only explanation, and so the two of us sat alone, until we were joined by a young Swede who asked whether he might sit with us, since he was traveling alone. His name was Daniel, and he had just had a dreadful experience in Delhi, and so we shared our woes about drivers (his crisis had also involved a driver and tour) and wondered, all together, why we had decided to come to India. I ordered my staples: dal, vegetable biryiani, saag paneer, and nan, with two hot teas, for mom and I to share (she was feeling sick and so I did most of the eating, as usual, although the food wasn’t as good as it had been at the Habitat Center and the Gymkhana Club), and Daniel, not yet familiar with the Indian menus, ordered saag paneer as well, after I told him that it was spinach with cheese, and oh-so-good. It turned out that Daniel was going to some of the same places we were, but he was traveling for six weeks, and so his timing was not the same as ours. Still, we exchanged email addresses and decided to try and meet again for a meal if our itineraries coincided. Meanwhile, he had given us the willies, talking about Malaria and it’s uglier cousin, Dengue Fever, while flies swarmed around the food, and my mom kept slapping them off of her body. We said goodbye and sought refuge in the car, just as the tiny girl came back, this time with her older brother, who played a ten-second ditty on the pipe while she danced in a surprisingly lascivious manner, tossing her hips to the diners with her arms in the air (think belly dancing, but with more clothes). Mom hadn’t seen her yet, so took a few pictures, but didn’t give rupees when I warned that I already had, though not very many.

Ugh. I thought I promised to keep this short! Well, I will cut out the rest of the drive, since nothing happened; mom managed to sneak in a nap in my lap while I looked out the window. When she woke up, and as we approached Jaipur, we started to see more animals—cows, goats and sheep (who, oddly enough, are kept out of the road, unlike all the other animals), camels with tattoos, elephants with painted faces. Once we got to Jaipur, we saw monkeys running along the tops of the crumbling three- and four-tiered buildings, jumping back and forth from the trees, and where people walked as well. My mom noticed that the monkeys looked tired and dirty, rather than fluffy and happy as she had expected. Everyone in Jaipur, in fact, looked tired and dirty; rather than being the majestic pink city it is so often portrayed as, it looked like the crumbling bazaar that it is—not pink, but orange-ish, thanks to fading red paint from the 1800s. I need to do a bit of research in the guidebook (which I’ve not really read), and find out when the buildings were built; they hardly look strong enough to have lasted 600 years (mom recalled something about the Mughal Empire), but they certainly look dilapidated enough. All of the filth and insanity—roads with no lights, no lanes, and no right of way, filled with cars, bicycles, motor-scooters, cows, rickshaws, camel-drawn carts, pedestrians, parked vehicles (in the middle of intersections!), buses, a boar (I’ve only seen one), children, and probably some other things I’ve forgotten—must be seen; you can imagine it, but you cannot feel the adrenaline until you are in it. Every street (and Jaipur, while much smaller than Delhi, is quite a big city) is a row of 25 crowded bazaars, and above those stalls are homes and schools and businesses, and all the buildings are crumbling. The people have open fires burning for cooking, and a few of the buildings look like they suffered after a kind of fire-accident. It’s complete madness—a genuine hulaballoo.

Before we had gotten to all of this, though, I’m forgetting the very odd palatial resort we had stopped in along the way, to use the toilets. This hotel, called the Shiv Vilas, was the most grand thing that I’ve ever seen—grander than the Grand Hotel in Rome, which, until now, had been the grandest thing I’d ever seen—and looked like it had been plunked, with its piles of shining white turrets, it’s glorious spouting fountains, and it’s lusciously irrigated lawns, in the middle of the empty, brown road, on the side of the highway. I couldn’t imagine building anything like this where there wasn’t a beach behind, but there is no ocean here, and guests will have to make do with the stunning outdoor pool (which makes that lovely one of William Randolph Hearst’s look so plain). The lobby, though, was inlaid with patterned marble floors of many colors (marble, I’ve now learned, is indigenous to Rajasthan), hung with colored glass chandeliers from Belgium, painted by artists imported from Italy, draped in rich silk draperies, decorated by life-size marble statues of dancing ladies, painted in gold and adored by actual diamonds, emeralds, and rubies, and looked down into from three stories of Juliet balconies, where the ladies, according to the hyper-attendant staff, used to wait for their gentleman callers (I was unable to discern whether that meant that this hotel was a renovated brother, or an actual classy place)—I say renovated because, by the way, everything was brand-spanking new. I saw about thirty staff on the premises, about five talking to us, ten cleaning windows that were already sparkling, and another fifteen running about like White Rabbits. I saw not one guest. We used the bathroom (which was, of course, stunning, and, strangely, hung with a painting of two nude women, supine, embracing), gave our thanks, and left, promising to perhaps return the next day for dinner or a drink.

We then had our aforementioned entrance into Jaipur, waited patiently while Jasvir stopped again and again to ask directions to our hotel (it’s a smaller guesthouse, a few minutes outside of the city’s center), and finally arrived at the lovely Hotel Madhubahn, which for the INR 2,700 we’re paying per night, is lovely, almost a Shiv Vilas in miniature (without the gold and diamonds and Italians, of course)—in the traditional Rajasthani style (which reminisces, a bit, of the Italian Renaissance style, though a bit more colorful). We tidied up a bit and ventured with Jasvir back into the streets of Jaipur—the bazaar—because I wanted pictures, but it was fast falling dark. The drive, which we had estimated at two and a half hours, had taken more than six, and we had had a late start already. Jasvir pulled the car up to the curb, and it took us a long time to explain to him that he was to leave the car parked there, and walk with us through the bazaar. Finally, I told him “turn car off,” pointed to the steering wheel, and made a throat-cutting gesture with my hand. Then I told him, “get out of car,” and practically had to open his door for him, and finally he understood. We walked up into the bazaar. My camera wouldn’t work in the dark, though I tried to force it to do so. We had parked, at random, in the spice market, and the smells were gorgeous. The ground was terribly uneven, with big, empty troughs at the end of each block between the “sidewalk” and the road, through which water flowed, and into which one probably would not want to step, considering that everyone, cows and men, could be seen peeing in the street, without cover. We crossed the street (a five minute long, life-threatening undertaking, I swear) to look at the fabric markets, but no one would sell my mother a scarf (it seemed only saris were available, although every woman in a sari wears a scarf as well, of a different fabric). We found a shop where a family carved stunning statues of Hindu gods and goddesses in local marble, and my mom bought a small statuette of one of the goddesses whose name I don’t know (she has three faces) for the low low price of INR 5,000 (although the shopkeeper refused to bargain—to my delight; I see no reason to haggle when the price is good). By now, it was full-on dark, and fires were leaping up, and scooters were screaming through the streets, and I decided it would be better to come back in the daytime. We slowly picked our way back to the car, stopping at a loose tea stall on the way, where I bought sacks of Assam, Masala, and Darjeeling tea for absurdly low prices (INR 14, 20, and 40 respectively); this delighted me more than anything else today.

Although we were tired and it was dark, it was only seven o’clock, so my mom asked Jasvir to drive us back to the Shiv Vilas so that we could have a drink. The resort is about half an hour outside of Jaipur, and on a highway with no streetlights, but he took it in cheerful stride and drove us there, though he stopped at three wrong palaces on the way. The staff were delighted to see us again, and I ordered my India regular, a G+T, no ice, with lime, and for the first time was brought a tiny glass of fresh lime juice to add to my drink as I pleased. Mom had vodka tonic, and we sat in the completely empty, echoing Crystal Bar, which opens into the lobby on one side, and the pool on the other, writing out our postcards we had bought at the Hotel Madhubahn concierge, while the staff scurried around us. It’s been an interesting experience that, in so many businesses here, the ratio of server to served is the inverse of that in the States. I cannot wrap my head around it, except for knowing that India has quite a surplus of people. In any case, we drank our drinks, thanked the staff, were asked to fill out a questionnaire about our experience (?!), did so, and then had Jasvir take us back to Madhuban, where mom fell asleep immediately, while I sat down to write out this tome. It’s past midnight now, and I am turning into a pumpkin.