Monday, February 25, 2008

Jodha Akbar & Jodhpur

After a typical Monday in Bombay, during which time you span one of the world's largest cities, dine at a fantastic restaurant called Khyber, encounter sadness beyond belief, challenge your originality in the banal ex-pat scene that is modern-day Leopold Cafe, and go out on Marine Drive, I flew home to Delhi at 4am. We had spent an afternoon walking Juhu Beach and stumbling upon a Bollywood model shoot. He had half invaded at the bequest of a mumbling beach-side man who half forced us to the bouncers because of our lighter than tan complexions. Don't worry, Shah Rukh wanted none of us.

Mid-week we spent ambling through Delhi and the various acronyms that make its scene cooler than it probably should be. Don't get me wrong, Delhi is fun, just not as fun as GK-1 would make it sound. That's a pretty damn cool name, and with rats running in South-Ex II, it's hard to argue that the place is as snazzy as the name. Speaking of rats, they're enormous... ENORMOUS. I giggled in nervousness as each one would dart into and out of street holes toward my feet. Good thing they can cook and they just won an Oscar for their artistry in animation. Hmm...

Friday's four hour stint at Bollywood blockbuster Jodha Akbar, written in Hindi and Arabic to accentuate the "Great" coming together of the Mughals and Rajputs, left us craving more Rajasthan, more Aishwarya, and well, more Jodhpur... so we boarded an Indian Air flight Saturday morning.

Jodhpur is the "blue city" due to its ubiquitous indigo paint and ancient 1459 Meherengarh Fort that stands 500m above the town on a massive rampart of rock. Descending from the fantastic palace, as we shuffled to the edge of a rock overlook, I was inclined, and did, burst into song. A whole new world had emerged, and we didn't buy the whole "riff-raff, street rat" gig. Though perhaps the most chaotic city center in India, Jodhpur is alive. It's narrow, it's grimy, it's friendly and intense. It's hundreds of cows, thick black rickshaw puffs, tiny lanes where bodies, animals, bikes, rickshaws, currents of street-side sewage, piles of gravel that tilt your vehicle degrees beyond sanity toward oncoming traffic, abandoned wagons and overturned machinery intwine in perilous moments of intersection where timing tempts the fate of futures and dreams. It is chaos incarnate inside the city walls, but after a few hours you learn the predictability that keeps you safe. You walk decisively. You move with pace and reason. You do not hesitate or you tempt judgement of those whose action may influence your own. Everyone does what they have to, and somehow, in the sheer disaster of it all, it works.

Cross-Country to Kerala

After a 24 hour journey across India from Hyderabad to Delhi to rendezvous with Aaron, in from his Amman flight, we made the impossibly inevitable decision to mix a night in GK1 Delhi with one hour of sleep and another cross-country flight, a mix as potent as any cocktail.

While our delayed flight got us into Kerala after we'd expected, a frenetic drive landed us at our houseboat dock in time for four hours of afternoon cruising on the placid backwaters of Kerala. Armed with fresh fish, good company, Kingfishers (both bird and bottle), and a boat staff of three, we set off down the flat reflection of the sky, where the coconut palms reached toward us in reverse order, crawling with their fawns over the ripples toward our hull. With some light Arabic tunes from Madinat in Dubai, the mood was pretty unbeatable, and we crashed under the stars.

When we awoke at dawn, our houseboat staff was preparing for a dip at the water's edge. Although my post-swim sickness doesn't corroborate my claim that the water looked clean, I lathered up and jumped in covered in soap like a Keralan village local. The calm, cool water opened up a new day.

Arriving back at the dock, we had time to kill and so boarded a 150cc bike with three men and all our luggage. Again, helmets are optional, and we chose the cautious path of "not necessary." After showing the business owner Google Analytics tips on his shack wireless connection, I naively assumed that we were on good terms. Not more than 10 minutes later, as he pocketed our wad of 500 rupee notes for his troubles, he altered the arrangements of our transport, demanding yet 1000 rupees more. In a fit of rage I pounded the car, got on my cell phone and said two words beginning in B and S no fewer than 10 times. This delicate tactic smoothed over what I like to refer to in India as the "quid pro screw you." What happened to the quo?

That afternoon we spent touring Fort Cochin with a rickshaw driver who charged us a paltry 50 Rs for his all-day services (1 dollar), and took us to a number of sites, including a ginger factory where we even got to paint transport boxes. Our tour ended at a Kathakali performance in traditional Keralan style, and we watched, mesmerized, as men in dhotis spun swords, fought in traditional martial arts style, and performed Kathakali, or dramatic-style Peking Opera.

Following the performance we attempted to organize a driver for Munnar, or the far-away tea plantations in central Kerala. 90km inland, the drive takes nearly 5 hours. Because in Communist Kerala all drivers were protesting gas prices, we were warned not to attempt the roads. We were advised that we would likely get stoned by villagers. Heeding caution, we paid a muscular-looking local named Hari to drive us in his tiny personal Tata Indica. He promised that he could drive fast, and I can attest to his insanity. We made the journey in 3.5 hours, though for much of it the puzzle-piece hillsides of Munnar appeared more like a blur, and less like tea. We survived without even one stoning, and after doing a yell with 30 kids at echo point, eating fresh pineapple and black pepper off the trees, made our return to Cochin, a drive I likened to nearly 4 hours strapped into Space Mountain. We pulled the G-Forces of Maverick, and arrived back in town feeling more like Goose, albeit we'd seen elephants.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Hyderabad Homecoming

After eight months in California, I returned to my home city of Hyderabad to smiling faces, the same sights and smells, and a yoga teacher who asked me where I had been. With rooftop drinks, 80 degree weather, a new office building, and motorcycle rides across town I began to comment that in comparison to my Gurgaon residence, "I'm a South Indian at heart."

Sunday marked the first ODI in a triangle cricket series between Australia, India, and Sri Lanka. As my friend drove me cross town on his motorcycle, the thought crossed my mind that my sunglasses would not protect me from a crash. Mother would be proud of my judgement. With an Indian win, an afternoon of home-cooked food and Kingfisher beers, it was a successful day when we merged onto the city-center airport fly-over.

True to all Indian construction, there's an overwhelming mix of labor, chaos, and an underlying magic in any completed project. Whereas there is continuity in an American or European project, in that progress is noticeable, in India progress seems to exist only as a finality. Sites are littered with laborer tents, squalor and sadness, dust and debris. There are no cranes, but only men. Women carry pail after pail of dirt on small head pans. Cows meander through the maze of bamboo shafts that support what may become a building. There is not the technology of Dubai; There are not the infinite cranes of China. There is only toil and tiny tasks, iterative enough that they amount to eventual change. And then, suddenly, in the fog of night a site goes from 200 Bihari hard-hat workers clambering over bamboo shafts to massive glass buildings. Despite a circumspect eye, it's hard to determine how such transformation is possible, or even when it actually happens. Apparently, though it's not normally noticeable, someone involved knows something about what they're doing.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

One Goat Head, Please

On Saturday before my Hyderabad flight departure I spent the morning wondering the grotesque alleys of Old Delhi near Jama Masjid. Dusty blankets mark personal plots of concrete, a frenetic sea of traffic slithers through the streets, jamming up against the slower bullock carts of fruits. DVD shops blast Bollywood hits. A three-year-old finds empowerment as he drives pigeons into the sky, and an 18-year-old mother in a brilliant salwar chemise giggles. The steps are littered with beggars parading pitifully before the shaded and stoic tourist with an SLR camera. Their hardship is, however, not exaggerated, but the artifice in their positioning makes even missing limbs a hard sell. The sadness and frustration well up, but a dishonest tout quickly transforms this to anger. I offer a smile and a Hindi greeting to an elderly man, but he demands more.

On the street men sit around a small radio pulling back the facial skin on a pile of severed goat heads. I pause to stare in curiosity. I look down and realize the softness under my New Balance is a goat ear, flavored with the spit of a passing driver’s betelnut paan. The squeeling horn of a rickshaw clipping my heels quickly refocuses my attention. I shuffle through the crowd behind a cluster of women in burqas, and locate the rusty steel sign that points to Karim’s, an alley-side restaurant.

As we enter Karim’s, a famed meat restaurant, and we purchase our lunch, I’m able to separate my plate from the outside world. Compared with the mall-lined friviolity of Gurgaon, Old Delhi is, if not trendy, at least authentic. The men and women who line the streets live their own lives, not pandering to tawdry Western style and mediocre clubs. Despite the palpable squalor that manifests itself in sights, sounds, and smells, somehow I find that the encountered cultural authenticity is sufficient to refresh me.

Office Shenanigans

On Friday I was told, “good luck,” at least a dozen times after my willingness to participate in an office-wide Indian roast. I was to sit on stage and field questions from hundreds of coworkers, and tested critically on my wit and ability to respond to inquiries like “who killed the dead sea,” and “why is a manhole cover called a manhole cover?” Bollywood sound cues told me if my Shakespearean wit had failed or won the crowd.

When the tables turned and I was able to ask questions to my counterparts, I asked the office director, “Who’s a luckier man, Saif Ali Khan or Abishek Bacchan?” For those not versed in Bollywood gossip, Saif and Abishek are movie stars married (ostensibly in Saif’s case, based on recent reports and the large arm tatoo of Kareena’s name) to gorgeous Indian women, each with his own set of virtues and vices. For example, Saif has royal blood, and is a decendent of a former cricket captain and Nobel Prize laureate, while Abishek is married to Miss World Aishwarya Rai but lives in the shadow of his father, a man known across the sub-continent on every billboard and whiskey ad as the “Big B.” My question alluded to one obvious consideration, though the director parried my blow with a deft non-sequiter and a smile offering to keep it “family safe.”

Again, I asked, “in cricket, why are the ‘slips’ the guys with the surest hands?” After good laughs, laconic wit, and a general attempt to embrace the awkwardness that comes while sitting in front of 200 co-workers with an umbrella drink, being judged with Bollywood jingles, and walking the line between humor and homelessness, I survived.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Mid-Week Beats

India allows for a bizarre dynamic of challenge and ease, discomfort and glamor. As our car pulls to the front of Ministry of Sound, an overweight, akimbo bouncer in 11pm sunglasses steps aside as my Rajasthani friend Vrinda and I make our entrance.

Inside the beat is part Punjab and part American hip-hop. The crowd is college local, and the drinks are surprisingly expensive. For 200 INR apiece, 700 percent mark-up on a Kingfisher is no deterrant to the visceral beat calling me bar-side like a Siren.

Punjabis, light on their toes, with undulating motions beckon us to the dance floor, and we cut through the fog and strobing lights with our well-practiced moves. We return the exchange of culture later in the night, as knowing Will Smith lyrics and preemptively enacting moves in the form of cheesy lyrical dances markedly improves our coolness.

Our 2am return on N8 from South Delhi to Gurgaon leads us through the toll plaza of inefficiency. Lack of lanes and laws leads cars to infinitely wedge into narrow points of entry, and the arbitrary price of 16 rupees means that each car must wait for a dilatory man to open packs of change, and dispense 2 small coins to each driver. Where are the Bobs from Office Space when you need them?

Tiger Team

Friday marks departure for Rajasthan and Ranthambore National Park from Delhi. Departing from Bikaner House bus station near Khan Market, my Hindi comes in handy when I spout the phrase, “yaha bus jaipur se jana hai (this bus is going to jaipur?).”

After an iPod night aboard the bus to Jaipur, we arrive and check into our small hotel for a few hours of needed sleep. The car from Jaipur to Ranthambore is nearly five hours, though the distance is minimal. Roads are littered with oxen, doddling rickshaws and lumbering trucks for which our horn is a futile tool. Half way through the drive our grinning driver surprises us by pulling a DVD screen from the ceiling and putting on a faux-violent and typically disultory Hindi film.

Staying at the Raj Palace in Ranthambore, our facilities are nice, and are markedly improved by the warm sunshine, Kingfisher, and Ben Harper I play from my portable SonicImpact speakers. But not all is lost, as we have tiger-printed sheets and curtains.

Our first safari is unsuccessful, but we manage to spot crocodiles and paw prints, ostensibly fresh, but impossible to validate. Reminded of my September safari in Tarangire National Park in Tanzania where zebra and wildebeast became banal sightings, our initial enthusiasm for deer dwindled as scores ambled in the dry forest.

Five AM on day two tiger team has better luck. Traveling with two other Stanford kids and my Egyptian/Californian friend Heba, we cut through the frigid morning air as a hooded possie on the top of an open-air jeep. The tigers don’t know what hits them.

Our first spotting includes a tigress 10m off the path sleeping under a tree. As our unfortunate driver, hit by a branch as we careen down the dirt path, bleeds from his eye, we attempt to evacuate the park prematurely. Perhaps our second tiger sighting is a karmac reward for our selflessness, as it walks down the path toward our speeding vehicle. Pausing, we let it draw close, within 3m of the car until it nonchalantly graces by the front bumper and into the brush. With a heavy step, it powerfully takes deliberate steps, impressing the elusive paw prints into the soft dust for future jeeps to discover.

Satisfied with our fortune, we play soccer with Indian tourist kids, peruse over-priced Kashmiri carpets, and begin the return journey to Jaipur and Delhi.