Mimi in India

She will travel throughout India this summer (2007) and volunteer for Unite for Sight in the region.

I found a Brazilian!

Finally! I found a Brazilian! If there are any Brazilians in a 2 mile radius from me, I will find them. This phenomenon is much like that of the Pacific Salmon, which somehow find their way back to the fresh water stream where they were born after spending years swimming in the ocean. Anyway, I saw the bronzed, chiseled guy from a distance and decided he looked like he would be capable of correctly applying sunscreen on my back. After he saw my Havaianas (Brazilian flip-flops) and we established that he was Brazilian and I lived there for 8 months, I gushed for about 30 minutes over all things Brazilian. I told him I had to meet my Aussie friends on the next beach over, but he should DEFINITELY meet up with us later!!!!! Maybe we could get a game of futevolei (Brazilian soccer-volleyball) going? Legal? Tudo bem? Tudo beleza, indeed.

What a way to spend a day–soaking up the sun, knocking back a few beers, shootin’ the breeze–with a Brazilian, a Kiwi and a couple of Aussies, and taking intermittent body surfing breaks (from our beach soccer games) in the Arabian Sea. It doesn’t get much better than this, my friends.

By the way, the Brazilian didn’t think I was too weird/enthusiastic about his country. Sometimes my zeal can be overbearing–even downright abrasive at times. Did I mention that I love Brazil?

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Wicker chair, toes in sand, palm tree

I’m sitting in a wicker chair with my toes in the sand under the shade of a palm tree watching the locals pull in the day’s catch with a huge fishing net. This is a group effort, and the crabs, fish and prawns are distributed so everyone gets their fair share. If you have seen ”Endless Summer”, it’s exactly like the scene in Ghana (or is it Senegal?)–only the villagers in this case are Indian–some with Portuguese ancestry.

Already knowing I’m in India, there is only one place I could be–Palolem, Goa. It’s technically India, but the 450-year Portuguese rule ended in 1961. It’s nice to see signs and names in Portuguese, and there are even some soccer fans here, though cricket is still the overwhelmingly favorite past time (even on the beach).

Northern Goa, known for its party scene, is popular with fresh out of the army 22 y/o Israeli hippies looking for a kickin’ rave party and some e to go with it. I chose Palolem in the south to avoid the aforementioned headache, and it is decidedly much more laid back with a perfect mix of locals, foreign backpackers and Indians tourists. Brits and Aussies flock here in droves during peak season (December-March), but this is the very last week for tourists before everything closes in preparation for the monsoon. At the moment, I am the only American in Palolem.

Interesting observation:
Even though it isn’t inappropriate for foreigners to wear bikinis in Goa, I did not see a single Indian woman on the beach donning anything less than a salwar kameez.

Random fact:
More people in India die each year from falling coconuts than snake bites.

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She taught me the most important stuff

Today is my last full day in Aranmula, and I could easily stay for another two weeks at VKV, or “hippie camp” as I fondly think of it. I’ll miss going to market with Sreelatha, my cooking teacher, and eating all of the coconut/sugar/rice balls we make daily (it’s evident from the pics I hope to post soon that I’ve done a lot of “taste testing”–so much for my plans to effortlessly drop 20 pounds here). I’ll also miss Nisha, my Hindi teacher. Even though she has a wooden leg, she is the feistiest Indian woman I have ever met. Right away, she taught me the most important stuff, such as, “leave me alone”, “go far away”, and “too much”.

Besides my teachers, I’ve made friends with some locals here, too. My next door neighbor, Karthikaunni, is one sharp four year old. After some serious thinking, I have come to the conclusion that she has somehow planted a GPS tracking device somewhere on my body, because every time–day or night without fail–I leave or return home, she either is waiting for me on the wall that separates our houses or races out of her house to stalk me down for a photo shoot or music session. One time, she was rifling through my bag as usual and pulled out a tampon and said, “This what is?”. I looked at her mother, Parvathi, for a signal as to how I should handle the situation, but she was just as curious as Karthikaunni. I eventually replied, “Um, it’s a special kind of pen”, and quickly snatched it back and changed the subject. Karthi is adorable, and we have spent a lot of time together, but sometimes I feel like that blonde girl with glasses from “The Goonies”. Read: “This is ridiculous. I feel like I’m babysitting and not getting paid”. But in all fairness, Parvathi invites me over for guava and chai from time to time.

Overlooked by even the “Lonely Planet”

Yesterday I ventured out to another even smaller town. Konni is so small that even the expert “Lonely Planet” writers missed it, but it was beautiful. It was in Konni where I met Meena. After she gave me a piggyback ride, even she wanted to shake my hand like so many people did at the Taj Mahal. Only she used her trunk and was probably searching for peanuts. PS–Meena is an elephant.

After meeting Meena, I did some serious window shopping at Alukkas, a legitimate 22 carat gold store. I took my sweet time in the clean, airconditioned shop as attractive salesmen made a huge fuss about me while I tried on gold bangles, rings and wedding necklaces worth thousands of dollars over a span of three hours. After awhile, a girl gets tired of “bazaar shopping” (or shopping anywhere without fixed prices for that matter), which entails bargaining with non-English-speakers who inevitably try to charge you at least double and often triple the price an Indian would pay.

Tomorrow, I’m off to Kochin and then Goa on Saturday, where I’ll be able to wear a skirt and a tank top!

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first full week in the south

Today marks my first full week in the south, and the Kiwis were right–it is sooooo much better than Delhi. I’m staying at a French-run cultural center, Vijnana Kalavedi (VKV), in a tiny lush village (Aranmula, Kerala) free of touts and con men. During the day, I take Keralan cooking and Hindi classes, as well as yoga and Kalarippayat, an ancient tradition of martial training and discipline. On a side note, little did I know that noone speaks Hindi here; rather, Malayalam (India has 18 official languages, and over 1600 minor languages and dialects were listed in the latest census) is the main language of the region.

When I signed up for this, I thought three vegetarian meals/day sounded like a healthy way to go (meat is forbidden in the houses where the students stay); however, after two days I felt tired and weak. Some of the other students who have been here awhile shared some (confidential) tips. A French woman, Anita, confessed she buys eggs and boils them in a little pot which heats up when plugged in. A Swiss guy, Stefan, showed me a place in the next town over where which we refer to as “the store” where they sell canned tuna fish, canned chicken, etc. The eggs are not refrigerated here and I am sans “plug in pot”, so I opted for the tuna fish, although it is “made in Thailand” and there is no “dolphin-free” seal on it, so who knows what I’m really getting.

I’ve compiled a “Top 5 cultural differences” list*, in no particular order:

1. The toilet is literally a hole in the ground. There is no toilet paper. You are supposed to wipe with your left hand.

2. It is “inconceivable” that women would show their legs/shoulders in public. My below the knee-length skirts are inappropriate, as are athletic shorts. I went running earlier in the week in WNBA-style athletic shorts, and it was the talk of the town for days.

3. Instead of nodding one’s head up and down to indicate agreement, Indians wobble their head from side to side. This motion, however, can mean “yes”, “no” or “I don’t know”. Along that line, be specific when asking questions. If you ask someone a yes or no question and they don’t know the answer, they will still say “yes” (along with an ambiguous head wobble).

4. There is no silverware. You eat with your right hand (a very important rule–remember #1 on the list).

5. Aranmula has no bar, but in Chengannur (the next town over), women are not allowed in a bar without the accompaniment of a man. Luckily, Alex from Scotland who is also a student at VKV, is usually up for a Kingfisher beer from time to time.

* Note that this list is for rural India and small villages like Aranmula. Larger cities and more populous regions tend to be more “westernized”.

Cruising the backwaters
This weekend I took a little break from such rigidity and rented a houseboat with Kate from South Africa. Cruising the backwaters is a “must-do” in Kerala. From Alleppey to Kollam we crossed palm-fringed lakes studded with Chinese fishing nets and perused shady canals where coir (coconut fiber), copra (dried coconut meat) and cashews are loaded onto boats. A one bedroom boat with AC, three delicious (non-vegetarian) meals, tea, coffee, fresh coconut, pineapple, and banana and most importantly COLD beer only set us back $50 USD each. We also got to wear our bikinis (on the top deck of the boat) and get some sun.

We returned to Aranmula to catch the end of an 8 day religious festival, Thrissur Pooram, celebrated by a festive Carnaval-esque parde with a grande finale elephant procession. The best part about the festival is that it is now over. Since I got here last Sunday, there has been literally nonstop prayer/song/mantra chanting at full blast on several loudspeakers throughout the town (at 2am, 3am, 4am, etc). Even with the volume turned up all the way on my iPOD, I could not drown out the sound. So either way–by Shakira or Hari Krishna, I am sure I’ve done some permanent damage to my ears.

Speaking of ears, I neglected to mention earlier that I did in fact go swimming in the backwaters, which was probably a mistake (I think there is still water in my ears, and compounded with the residual music headache, they are feeling kinda funky).

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Kerala express

Today I caught the Kerala express to Agra after another night of only three hours of sleep. The train looked like a concentration camp on tracks, but it wasn’t as bad as the countless children we passed picking through huge garbage piles–the same exact images you see on TV on those “Children’s Christian Network” commercials. There was also a distinct smell of raw sewage the whole way to Agra.

Upon arrival, I opted for a pre-paid rickshaw, and ended up with a Nepalese man named Shabbu. He was undoubtedly paid a commission from the restaurant where I had lunch (which ultimately means the customer pays more), but the food was still inexpensive and delicious. He took me around the city for the entire day for an equivalent of $5 USD, and he even let me drive the rickshaw! At the exquisite Taj Majal, a “teardrop on the face of eternity”, people came up to me and wanted to shake my hand, take my picture, or be in a picture with me just because I am white.

So I buy him a bag of cookies
I had an overall good day, but when I was waiting for the return train to Delhi, I decided to buy a bag of chips. Out of the shadows, an emaciated, tiny child tugs on my pant leg, looks at me with his cute brown eyes and motions that he is hungry, so I buy him a bag of cookies. Then I am bombarded by no less than 15 other equally hungry-looking kids and buy some more food for them. In no time at all, I am out of money, and there are still children coming up to me. An older child with a whip seemed to be in charge of the rest and threatened the other children.

As cynical as the past two days have made me, I think it could have been for show for the tourists so we feel sorry for the kids; regardless, they were clearly starving. I get this huge knot in my throat, and apparently these three Kiwis (people from New Zealand–love them!) have been watching me and one offers me his seat and asks, “are you okay?” When I open my mouth to speak, I just start balling–like convulsive, hyperventilating crying. Actually, it was pretty funny because I think they were so completely shocked that I couldn’t handle a few street urchins and had no idea how to react to me. “It’s my second day here. I guess I’m not calloused to it yet,” I barely sputter out between sobs.

Poverty like I’ve never seen before
I have traveled through some extremely poor places in Central and South America, but nothing compares to India–nor is any other place so “in your face” and aggressive. The Kiwis were so nice and assured me that Delhi and Agra were the worst two places in India, and I’d have a completely different and much better experience in the south, where I am going tomorrow. I am glad to leave Delhi/Agra and move on to the next place!

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Ignoring the red flags

After a long journey and a few hours of ambient-induced sleep, I set out to begin my first and only day in Delhi. Even though my hostel was only 1 km from the train station, I ended up taking a major detour en route.

Ignoring the red flags
The original plan was to walk to the station and buy a ticket for Agra for Saturday–round trip should cost about $8 USD. Sounds a simple enough task for someone as well-traveled as me. So, I’m walking down a dirty Delhi street in a seedy part of town (Paharganj), dodging sleeping/dead bodies, pools of urine mixed with piles of feces, loose cows and other riff raff in 110 degree heat, when about the twentieth man in five minutes drives up next to me in his rickshaw and says, “Hello Madam! Hi! I know you!” I’m thinking no you don’t as I ignore him, avoid eye contact and keep walking. But then he says, “Yes, I saw you at the hotel this morning. My brother works there. Where are you going?” I respond, “Oh, hi! I’m Sorry I didn’t recognize you–I’m going to the train station to buy a ticket for Agra.”

Now, clearly, I’m jet lagged, sweaty and confused, but it is still extremely embarrassing that I actually believed him. So I get into the rickshaw, and he says, “no charge–friends over money.” Red flag, which I ignore (IDIOT!). If you are a solo white girl, never trust any rickshaw/taxi driver in Delhi (or, for that matter, anyone trying to sell you something). Anyway, he does this loop around the train station and before I know it, I am not at the train station, but in a grungy albeit air-conditioned office where I am turned over to another shameless tout.

Hypnotized by the glossy laminated maps
As I let my guard down earlier due to my sweaty state of confusion, I was further hypnotized by the glossy laminated maps and pictures all over the office. “Oh, this must be a legitimate tourist office, and I’m sure I can buy my ticket here,” I naively think. So this man warmly greets me, and says, “Welcome to India, Madam.” He was trying to be charming but was really just sleazy, and the more he spoke, the more annoyed and skeptical I became. So, I cut to the chase, “I need a round trip ticket for Agra for tomorrow.” The grease ball types some things into his computer, eyes narrow, types some more and makes this “tuck-tuck-tuck” sound with his tongue. “I am sorry, Madam, all trains are booked until the 9th.” I say, “well, that’s in five days, and I HAVE to go tomorrow, so what else have you got?” I am determined to get to Agra, and my patience is weaning. So he offers me a bus option–no good because it’s five hours one way (a train is only two hours). Then he offers a private car for $100 roundtrip. “Two English girls are going already,” he assures me.

At this point, I am extremely frustrated and starting to lose my cool. I have this gut feeling that transportation to and from Agra–even on an airplane–should not cost $100, and I argue with the man for another 30 minutes before I finally walk out of there with all of my money and no ticket. The driver is waiting and I say, “take me to the train station–that was too expensive.” He tries to take me to ANOTHER such fake tourist office, and so I just hopped off the rickshaw and started walking.

Unsuspecting tourists
Later, I found out that taxi and rickshaw drivers–as well as ANY Indian, get a hefty commission for bringing unsuspecting tourists into the jaws of these relentless scam artists. I finally made it to the train station after several hours and bought my ticket–of which of course there were plenty–for $8 USD, like I thought.

I spent the afternoon shopping in various bazaars in Delhi and made some excellent purchases; however, despite my conservative dress (long, loose- fitting linen pants and long sleeve, loose shirt, no makeup/jewelry), I was stared at, harassed and when the third man touched my butt and said, “Do you have boyfriend? Will you have sex with me?” I swear I almost kicked him in the face. I went to bed that night sick of India. A few cheap bangles and earrings hardly seem worth all the headache I went through today.

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just arrived

The thought of India conjures up images of squalor and splendor — starving children picking through putrid heaps of garbage and beautiful women with almond eyes wearing colorful sarees; desolate slums smelling of raw sewage and immaculate jewel-studded palaces and golden temples. Mother Theresa, the Taj Majal, Kama Sutra and chilled monkey brains for dessert (thank you Harrison Ford in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” for that last image) all come to mind as well.

For many westerners who have never been (like myself), India is a mysterious land with endless opportunities for adventure. So, to me, a self-proclaimed adventure junkie, a solo trip to India seemed quite logical a few months ago when I bought my ticket. I’m not really sure what to expect because nearly everyone who has been says nothing can prepare you for it, but it is definitely an experience you will never forget.

I plan to set out for six weeks through various parts of the country while backpacking, studying and volunteering. While being alone in a foreign land isn’t new to me, India is not the first place one travels to for a reason. Despite the frustrations and headaches that are inevitable when budget traveling, I am optimistic I’ll have an amazing adventure.

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