March 27, 2007

mental scrapbook for the future

from bill bryson's "a short history of nearly everything:"

[atoms] are also fantastically durable. because they are so long-lived,
atoms really get around. every atom you possess has almost certainly
passed through several stars and been part of millions of organisms on
its way to becoming you. we are each so atomically numerous and so
vigorously recycled at death that a significant number of our atoms - up
to a billion for each of us, it has been suggested - probably once
belonged to shakespeare. a billion more each come from buddah and
genghis khan and beethoven, and any other historical figure you can
name. {forces a re-think in me about reincarnation.}

physicists are notoriously scornful of scientists from other fields.
when the great austrian physicist wolfgang pauli's wife left hi for a
chemist, he was staggered with disbelief. "had she taken a bullfighter
i would have understood," he remarked to a friend, " but a

it was a feeling rutherford would have understood. "all sciene is
either physics or stamp collecting," he once said, in a line that has
been used many times since. there is a certain engaging irony,
therefore, that his award of the nobel prize in 1908 was in chemistry,
not physics.

alexander von humboldt [a friend of swiss naturalist, louis agassiz] may
have had agassiz at least partially in mind when he observed that there
are three stages of scientific discovery: first, people deny that it's
true; then people deny that it is important; finally they credit the
wrong person.

this snippet from charles bukowski's poem, "the burning of the dream"
(wrapping as in the poem, but my ht/blogger might bastardize it)

i was to discover two
a) most publishers thought that anything
boring had something to do with things
b) that it would take decades of
living and writing
before i would be able to
put down
a sentence that was
anywhere near
what i wanted it to be.

a poem for king feddy


look over the rooftops
at the gravel mired in tar
and think about the problems below

there seems to be no hope
four years of college
with at least three more to go

and you wonder why you're up here
high in this tree
as the wind starts to blow

{† bukowski reminded me of this -- i should un-rhyme it, but i'm
leaving it for now.}

March 17, 2007

Yeah, Yeah, But What's It Like?

I've been way too much time talking about too little and haven't really given you a look at the bigger picture here -- namely, what's In. like?
Before I go off, I caution you.  I don't know about you but the statement, "Americans are pushy, bordering on rude.  There's a LOT of traffic and a blinding amount of neon," sure as hell doesn't sound like Laramie to me.  
What follows are broad sweeping generalizations -- I'm just trying to give you a feel ...
The streets are crowded and busy.  Traffic rules are treated more like suggestions, but not even necessarily "good ideas."
People, nearly everywhere, try to dress and look their absolute best.  Even a job that you'd consider to be menial labor will have someone as clean as tidy as is humanly possible for what they're doing.
In. is actually a bunch of tinier countries all pushed together.  Religion is serious, but in most places, not contentious.  All businesses, all homes will have an altar or some place reserved for worship.  The H. are curious, friendly and aloof.  The Muslims tend to be more aggressive in their manner but more reliable. 
In., as you've said yourself, is a place of smells.  Spices and food.  Flowers and animals.  Trash and exhaust.
Two stroke, mostly from trishaws, hangs in the air.  You can taste it as you breathe.
Women tend to wear saturated colors that nearly hurt your eyes.  They still dress fairly "traditional" for their region. 
Men tend to wear western dress -- the long sleeve dress shirt (typically pinstriped, with undershirt) is the clothing of choice.
You can hear both music, and horns, nearly anywhere you go.
Your station and position within society are both important.  When I tell people that I write for a living it's common for them to say that it is either a "noble," or an "honorable" profession.
Unless you're in some place like Ladakh, or the foothills of the Himalayas, the feeling is hot and gritty.  I haven't been anywhere in the world where a cold shower feels better than here.
Things take time.  In the West, time is what's expensive and goods are cheap.  Here it's the opposite.  I had a taxi that summed it up best on the dashboard:
RS10/hr to wait
That's right, 25 cents an hour to wait.  As long as you want.  In the past I've had rickshaw drivers wait overnight for the princely sum of two bucks.  I hired one guy to be at my beck call in G. for $5 for the week.
Family trumps everything here.  Family comes first, then everything else.  If you're without a family, like I am, you're seen as being a cross between something very sad and something mildly pathetic.
There are bugs and general grime everywhere.  There's a lot of just general rubbish -- paan packets, shreds of paper, chai cups, etc.
Westerners tend to focus on the poverty here.  Yes, there are people living on the streets, in the train stations, and in tin shacks.  There are nomads who wander streets with goats and make something along the lines of $2 a month.  And no, I wouldn't want to be in their shoes ...
But I don't buy into the whole "poverty is bad" thing.  Because if you live that life and you're happy within your station and your family is loving and caring -- even if you have a life expectancy of 55 -- is it "wrong?" 
Bo3b Johnson hit the nail on the head when he said that the problem with the Golden Rule is it assumes that everyone wants to be done unto the way that you do ... but what if they want something different?  What if something different is what they need?
There were wandering nomads in Hong Kong (most of HK is wilderness).  The UN decided to help them out and gave them buildings -- complete with plumbing and electricity and a state-of-the-art hospital.  Within five years the entire population had either died from illness, disappeared in an "unexplained manner," or were addicted to miscellaneous drugs.  The answer to why that's true is important -- and it's nearly always overlooked.
In., more than anywhere I know of, and certainly more than Japan (which is known for it), is an "incorporator."  No idea, concept or thing goes into In. without being shaped, formed or slightly changed in function.  In. plays by In.'s rules.
In. also thinks of itself as being the cradle of civilization, or if not that, all the things that civilization represents (including mathematics).
Americans, for the most part, don't go here.  Even the adventuresome now head on the trail to places like Phuket.  For In. this leaves America and the American dollar mysterious if not just kind of dumb. 
For Americans it means what every "little" country means to them -- out of sight and out of mind.  A place you learn about in a paragraph of a history book (or now in a Wikipedia entry).
And then you turn the page,

Days Blend

Well Okay,
The Radhika Beach Resort looks strikingly like a miniature golf course from the early 60's.  A nice one, but a mini-golf nonetheless.  There are winding concrete pathways, a large swimming pool, lots of statutes of mermaids (with hair strategically covering nipples, dammit), and at night there are racing ant lights that can be rivalled by Lakeside. 
Which is to say I like it a lot.
My original plan was to sit for three days here, since I very literally, had gone across, around and through the country as fast as I possibly could.  I was thinking that I would then head back to G. and do, in a word, "nothing."
Then I met far-out Sam at the poker tournament.  He lives/works in an ashram in Pune.  You may not know the name Osho, but you probably do recognize the name Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, and if you don't know that, you may recognize what my dad always called him, "That goofy son of a bitch with the high voice and all the Rolls Royces."  Sam had offered me a chance to go hang with him in OshoLand and I was going to get all over that action.  I've spent time with the Moonies, the Krishnas, Trappists, the LDS, the Jehovah's Witnesses and yes, even some Jews in my life, so I'd love that chance. 
I sat here in the easy-land of D. and I thought, okay, I'll stretch it to four days here, jump to Pune on Friday and spend two nights there before the big leap out from M. early Monday morning.  But it's problematic because there's only one flight a day off the island and that doesn't get into M. until the early evening.  The ashram has a curfew of 15:00 when they close the gates which means that it would end up costing me a couple hundred bucks just to go in, spend a night, and go out.  I'll do that for tigers, I won't do it for hucksters in orange robes.
So I've stayed in D.  I've been here ever since.
It's very reminiscent of G. -- beautiful beaches, laid back people, very little direct government intervention.  I make it a point to do something every day, but I'm not doing much.
For one thing, writing these damn entries has taken a remarkable amount of time.  For sure, writing this for you is more than any damn thing you've ever done for me.  You owe me an Apple Pancake, at the very minimum.  I've spent so much time in the Internet cafe here that the staff know me by name and reserve a very specific machine for me -- they even run errands for me like buying plane tickets.  I give them history lessons on America.
For another, I needed to just settle down a bit.
The old city of D. is completely surrounded by fortified walls and there's 17th century fort on the vulnerable edge.  I spent one day walking the dividing wall, another going through the fort (it's everything you could want: 2-story drops, cannons, cannonballs, bats, sweeping views, secret backways, mixed architecture, Portuguese on walls, newer H. temples, incredibly steep steps, unbelievably long ramps, a jail, a well, it goes on and on).  One day I went to sunset beach and walked five miles back to the hotel.  Another I just walked to the far side of the island and hung a left -- I found myself on a tan sand beach, probably three and a half miles long, with only one other person on it.
I keep hitting low tide and the ocean edge of the beach has extremely old volcanics in the water ... It creates tide pools that fill with minnows, crabs, snails and mussels.
The palm trees here are a species I'm not familiar with ... They start as a single trunk and then split into two's, three's, four's or five's.
It gets hot in the middle of the day -- hot enough that the dogs don't even chase you -- and super-pleasant at night.  There are cows everywhere, of course, but they're fat and happy -- not bony and gross.  They're too stupid to realize it, but they're the luckiest cows in In.
One day I was walking down the main highway (I've taken to walking on the road, instead of the shoulder) and a tourist gave me a lift on his scooter, incredulous that I'd walked the four miles it took to get there.  I asked if he wanted to go to dinner, but he demurred and said that he and his wife were going to eat at their place.  I bid him farewell and thanked him for the ride.
About an hour later I had a phone call, which of course, will be interesting.  It's the front desk, there's a delay and then I'm talking to the guy that'd given me a ride -- he and his wife want to know if I'll join them for dinner at their hotel. 
Sure.  I'd love to.  I haven't had a conversation with another human being since I sat on those skinny steps in J.  But first, I've got to know ... how did they find me?
They went back to the hotel and asked about "a white guy with a hat."  Bingo.  It's gotta be that guy in 502.
Dinner was good -- I had a large seafood plate (crab, shrimps, pomfret, tuna and some whitefish I don't recognize).  They're both from Germany (although she has a very heavy Irish accent) and of course, of course, if you're talking to Euros the conversation is going to be about politics ... We talk and the majority of the conversation focuses on Uganda and The Congo. 
This is the very edge of the stuff I know about -- I can name the succession since Amin, and know about all the bizarre stuff that's going on in The Congo -- but I struggle to keep up in the conversation.  They haven't met any Americans in In. (of course) and aren't surprised that I know what I know -- they'd be very surprised if they knew how few Americans knew this stuff ... In fact, I don't know any who live in America who do -- I talk about stuff like this to David Levy (and he's in Scotland).
The conversation winds along and it's going fine -- we talk about where we've gone and where we'd like to go when the trip-up happens ...
I'm talking about Malaysia and the woman says, "I've always wanted to go there.  You know why?"  Do tell.  "Because they won't allow anyone from Israel there."
It's nice to have friends everywhere, eh, Special K?
The food at my hotel is known for being the best not only on the island, but in Gu. as a whole.  I'm eating about a meal and a half a day now ... mostly prawns in various sauces and concoctions ... Think of your third favorite In. restaurant in American -- it's easily better than anything I've had before D.  Now think of your favorite place -- the food I'm eating now is better than that.  So it's pretty good.
Nagoa Beach -- the place where the Radhika is situated -- is famous throughout In.  There are many families in-and-around the beach that have saved for months or years just so they can go wade in the water with their clothes on.  The restaurant in my hotel is talked enough about that some people set a life goal of someday eating there -- and of course I'm there daily.
I sit and read before and during my meal.  The staff hovers and is overly attentive, but they're adapting to the fact that I can serve myself from a dish of food -- they're also no longer embarrassed by the fact that I tip a little bit.
The way I've travelled on this trip isn't my preferred way -- I don't like being way up-and-above the population, but I've done the whole meet-and-greet In. thing and I was after something more check-boxy than that.  I've had a great time, it's been a super trip, but it's been one of almost complete isolation.
Although I'm alone, I'm not lonely.  Personally, if this trip shows anything, it shows how much "better" I am.  A trip to a place like this has the ability to mentally break me -- the last one here nearly did -- but the long walks, the dead silences, the meals alone have all just been a part of the deal.  I would loved to have shared much, if not all, of this with someone -- the trip would have been better if I had -- but I wouldn't go so far as to say it was worse because I didn't
I'm not sure if I'll ever come back to In. -- I don't feel like I "need" to -- but Bangladesh is right next door ... there's some stuff there I'd like to see, including swamp tigers.
You damn well better thank me when you see me,

March 16, 2007

So What Else *Is* on?

I know you have a burning interest in what's on In. TV, so I took an hour to crawl the stations ... I did this back in G., and this is, very much, a present solely and exclusively for you.
My TV gets 50 channels and appears to be some dish network.  When I change to a station, I get not only the number of the station involved, but also the "signal strength" of the picture I'm looking at.
Following are channels and their description:
2 InterContinental Hotels Propaganda Station
Dumb, like hotel stations always are (ask Karpov sometime about "Branded!  It'll blow you away!").  Has the laughable tagline, "We encourage everyone to share their local knowledge with you."  At this hotel that means just referring to the outside world as, "beyond the gate," in the same way you'd say, "it's in the septic tank."
4 Euro CNN
5 Hindu Zee TV
Static is on here right now, which I take to be a "sign."
6 CNBC India
7 Star
Currently a H. news program about a "Muslim Uprising" in Pakistan.
8 Om TV
News that Go Air is now out of business.
A CNN competitor.
10 Hindu NDTV
Same programming, different voice overs.
11 Sports
British English emphasis.
12 Star Sports
English language.  Competitor to channel 11.
14 Ten/Sports
English language.
15 Z Cafe
Bad American sitcom on here right now.
16 H. Soaps
17 H. Soaps
18 Some H.station
I watch for about 10 minutes and only see commercials.  One for Wrigley's Card X Gum, one for mosquito prevention, two for how to handle chickens, a great Nike commercial for cricket.
19 Star Plus
H. Videos.
20 Star World
Bad American sitcoms.
21 National
H. news, but no sound for the station.
22 American Movies
23 H. Movies
24 Dubbed H. Movies
25 Deepak Ghatak
As awful as you'd expect.
26 Star Movies
Currently playing an American film -- Volcano, I think.
27 American News
28 HBO
American movies dubbed in H.
21 B4U Music
30 H. MTV
And we're celebrating, that's right, Holi Shamaal.
31 V
H. Videos.
32 National Geographic
In H.  The screen occasionally runs the sub-message, "This program available in H. only."
33 Discovery
This is the one that you know.
34 Travel Living
English language station for the very very high end budget.
35 Zone Reality
A commercials-only station for real estate.
36 Cartoon Network
Currently running, that's right, H. Sesame St.
37 Pogo
Currently showing Postman Pat in H.
38 Disney Playhouse
In H.
39 Nickelodean
This is the same as the one you know.
Videos in English.  Currently showing women boxing in underwear.  What's not to like?
41 ZTrendz
Videos in English.
42 PTR
This is a Russian language news station, I think.
44 TV5 Monde
French TV.  Bad game shows right now.
45 RAI Int.
Italian TV.  Right now it has an Italian Mitch Miller on.  (We also had a power outage right here.)
46 W-TV
German TV.
47 Tve Great
Castillian Spanish TV.  Lots o' lisping.
48 ZHindi
H. Soaps.
This is an odd channel ... it appears to be displaying some kind of master control for the network and lists the following weirdness
139 PAL English
140 Syria TV
141 Yemen TV
142 Abu Dhabi
143 Oman TV
144 Saudi TV
145 Qatar TV
146 Sudan TV
147 Sharjah TV
148 Libiya TV
The final entry is highlighted -- I think what they did was go to a menu of possible things to display and choose Libiya TV without hitting OK.  Something weird like that.  It's too bad.  I'd like to see Libiya TV.  Momar!  My man!
50 WorldSpace
Bad bad H. music.  No video.
51 WorldSpace
If you thought American Muzak was bad, you should hear this crap.
The World Health Organization is leaning very hard on the Ins. here to handle chickens properly -- this is part of a worldwide effort to ward off avian flu.  There are at least 10 different heavy-rotation commercials that feature a handsome In. guy and a puppet that looks suspiciously like the Kellogg's mascot.  They wander around, the chicken cracks jokes and the guy explains that you should wash your hands after handling chickens, never handle chickens with your bare hands, don't let them roam around on the planet at large, don't leave their guano around, etc.  It's dealt at absolutely the lowest possible common denominator and I find them remarkably effective. 
As I shouldn't have to tell you, but you don't know, the Cricket World Cup is starting.  Nike has a spectacular commercial where there's some gigantic traffic jam in some In. hell hole (I suspect it's either Mumbai or Kolkatta) and the itching In. men jump out and decide to play cricket on top of the traffic jam.  It includes nothing less than shattering glass, men getting hit in the testicles, elephants retrieving balls and a great still motion leap.  The commercial is "big enough" that it's news in itself.
The vast majority of the commercials here are for four things:
Motorola cell phones
Seiko Kinetic watches ("It's not your neighborhood that defines who you are, it's your watch.")
Social networking Internet sites (three or four of these)
Job Internet sites (three or four of these)
Metallica, Shakira and Roger Waters are all running ads for concerts that are going to be happening in In. within the next month.

D. It

I gave Mhustak a call last night, he's coming at 10:00 to take me to D.
D. is an interesting little place that I knew nothing about until planning for this trip.  I looked at the highlights section of guidebooks for things I could see near the park areas and saw the listing for D.
Like G., it was owned by the Portuguese until the mid 20th century -- they had essentially stolen (and then fortified) it from the northern-most Arab powers that hit this part of the world.  When In. wrenched the island back, by force, it came under the auspices of the In. national government; not the state of Gu. to which it is attached.  That means there is much freer trade here, and booze, and a mix of Xian, H. and Islam.
And, since it was Portuguese, it also means there'll be great beaches.
Mhustak has a friend in tow, Okhtesh.  A thin, wirey Muslim of H. extraction.  He speaks a little English -- not as much as Mhustak.  It's not clear to me if he's just along for the ride or Mhustak is afraid of getting shaken down by touts.  Whichever the case he's welcome and we hit it off right away.  In fact he thinks I'm kind of hilarious.  He sometimes asks me things just to see how I'll react.
Before we head over, we have a little matter of settling the bill and I don't have enough rupees.  Park prices were higher than I was expecting and there's no way to change money in town.
My bill is RS3400.  Very very reasonable to pay $10 for a couple of meals -- especially considering that a tout guided us there.  I say, "Listen, I don't have enough rupees.  The exchange rate is 42.5-to-1.  Let's call $100, RS4000 and you give me RS600 in change."  That's the conversation, at least -- except it takes about an hour to tell.
No, that's not acceptable.  They'll take me to town.
Fine.  We go to town and I get motioned to go back behind the retail shops. 
I've dealt with the underground in many countries in many times in my life.  I know how these things work.  I know what you do, and do not do.  They'll try to psychologically muscle me a bit, the answer, always is to stand your ground and if anything act kind of bored.
"No.  We meet in the open."  I point across the street.  "Right there."
"No, sir," my go-between says.
"Yes," and I start reading.  He leaves the car and comes back in about 15 minutes. 
"Come over here."  It's the spot I pointed to.
I look at Mhustak and pull him close.  I point with two fingers at his eyes and then mine.  "You watch me.  Nothing bad happens.  You watch."  He totally gets it.  Okhtesh thinks I'm both cool and tough.
I go across the street, with my book.  I sit down and then see the drink wallah across the way, and much to the exasperation of my go-between, walk over and look at the sodas.
Well, well, well.  Bottled Mountain Dew.  Short necks.  I buy a cold-ish one for the bargain price of three cents and go back.
I read.  Probably an hour passes.  I'll know when the money guy shows up.  He'll be well-dressed and act like he's the smartest guy in the world.
I'm in no hurry. 
He shows up and I ask for RS4000.  The thing you have to look out for here is people will try to pass you either counterfeits, or more commonly, bills that are no longer acceptable currency (torn or written on).  There's one bad RS500 note in the batch, but that doesn't bother me -- I'll just pass it directly to my go-between, he can't refuse money I've just been given.
I give a hundred dollar bill and people are fascinated by it.
"That's Benjamin Franklin."
The money guy says, "I know."
I say, "No you don't.  You have no idea who he is.  You think he was President.  He wasn't.  You know what his highest governmental position was?"
He's stupefied.  I continue.  "Of course you don't, because you're either a smart know-it-all-type or you don't speak English that well or both.  He was US Ambassador to France.  Oh, and he invented bi-focals."
Mhustak, Allah bless him, has made his way across the road.  He thinks something's wrong. 
"Everything is okay, Mhustak.  You need one of these for strength," and I buy both he and Okhtesh a Dew short neck.  He loves it.  Okhtesh is laughing so hard he's crying. 
We head out and the drive over is flat and smooth.  Mhustak doing his super-great driving as always.  I'd love to have him drive me everywhere in the world.
We get a ton of stares from the passersby.  Not because of whitey, but because there's a black, young guy, driving a sweet ride.  It's clearly unheard of.
I'm loving it.
But there's something bothering me.  For the last few days, I haven't understood a word of what's going on.  When the guys at the place would talk to each other, and the driver and the guide, and Mhustak and Oktesh right here, I'm not "getting it."  H. is a language, that if I let it just flow over me, I can understand a little -- I certainly know what's being talked about.  With something like Danish, if I fight it, I can sort of understand as well. 
But I'm getting nothing here,and I've been getting nothing here.  Why is that.
"Hey Mhustak.  What language are you speaking?"
OF COURSE.  No wonder.
I've got my sights set on a place called The Radhika Beach Resort.  It's swanky by In. standards.  who knows if they'll have rooms.
Mhustak knows the place and once on the island takes a secret backway.  I get shown a way-too-over-the-top VIP room that's $60 a night and then look at a deluxe that's running about $40.  It's very clean, has tiled floors, a small patio, a small flat screen TV, a small refrigerator, and a shower4 curtain.  Such luxury. 
I take it.
And I've been pushing so hard for so long -- literally going as fast as I can go -- that I swear to God, I ask, "What would Special K do, right now?"
And I did the obvious thing: I watched TV.  I spent the rest of the day watching H. news, H. videos, and the end of Alive
I had curry prawns for dinner with super yummy nan bread.  I had two bottles of Coke so cold that they iced when I opened them.
And then I went to sleep.
And for the first time since I've been here, I slept through the night without waking,

Similar to Proud

I arise before dawn and make my way to the main office.  The world is dead still with the only motion being the roosting of a few straggling party bats.  The moon is half-full.  Standing on the G. beach seems like it was so very long ago and so very far away.
No one's up yet so I just sit on the doorstep and wait.  My jeep shows up -- it's a Tata, cut in the exactly the same way as the Murati was in B.  The driver is a somewhat slick-backed want-to-be-wise-cracking guy -- almost certainly a tout on his off time.  There's no telling how much this rides gonna cost.
Gr. as a park is run differently than B.  Here the park owns and operates jeeps -- if you bring one in from the outside (a "gypsy"), it's midly frowned upon.  The park hits you up with an additional fee and still force-feeds you a guide which, as the guidebook says, "speak little or no English and does nothing."
We pay.  All the rates are shown in dollars, but they're expecting payment in rupees.  Entry to the park is $40, the miscellaneous other fees raise it another ten bucks.
We've never talked about the Asian lion so it's worth saying a few words on the side about it.  They are related to the African lion, but have been removed from them long enough that they're a different sub-species.  Asians are slightly smaller, have a bigger belly, the males have a shaggier mane, and the big difference is Africans are primarily scavengers whereas Asians only eat and kill live.
The Asian lion used to be throughout Asia, but in the 20th century was hunted down to the point where there were only about 20 left.  Their biggest hunter, of all people, decided to protect them and as a result has left the only tiny outpost of Asian lions in the world.  It's right here in Gr., and there's about 325 now.
With some animals you can't be sure if you're seeing the only ones or if there's some tiny outpost of them somewhere else (like with the Vietnamese rhino).  But lions, unlike leopards, can't inhabit a region much different than what's sitting right here in Gr., so the odds are very high that these are the last ones on the planet.
Unfortunately, for the first time in the history of the park, there was a poaching incident last week.  Three lions were killed -- all the meat, bones and organs were taken -- and the skins were left not less than 500m from the ranger station.  When a killing like this happens, there's no question that it's professionals, and one of three things must be true:
* The park is in on it.
* The park knows about it and is doing nothing to stop it.
* The park is incapable of stopping it.
It's an ugly situation no matter what is true.
An investigation has been called, but this means what it always means in In. -- a bunch of fat H. men will sit around and talk about how serious the problem is, but no one will figure out anything.
Which means there's no telling what the lion situation is going to be today.  They may have gone far and away, they may not react.  One thing is for damn sure and that is I don't want to run across a poacher.  Why they've done the killing is anyone's guess, but my bet is that the market for tigers is getting in such short supply that they've decided to skip on over to Gr. and peg a few lions instead.
We're assigned a guide that, on the surface at least, appears to be one of the dullest people I've ever come in contact with -- all things considered, that is saying a lot.  We're also given "Trail #1," as with B., they divide things up.  The guide's happy with this, "Lion.  Good chance," and beams at me with the dopey thumb's up.  Just turn around, goddammit.
Gr. is also the largest population of leopards (aka panthers) in In. -- there are more than there are lions, in fact -- but seeing one of those would be borderline miraculous.  Leopards get up and go and masters of not being seen.
The very first thing I notice is how strong my sense of smell is today.  I don't know if it's how little I've been eating, or the fact that I spent 29 hours in a sensory deprived train car, or what.  But I'm smelling everything -- and I'm having a good sense of directional smell.  There's a flower to my right, there's a cow behind me to the left, etc.
We enter the park and immediately I smell, then see, a couple wild pigs.  I wait.  I wait.  These guys don't see them, so I point them out.  "Oh yes, those are pigs.  Look!"  Yeah, no kidding.  It was me who showed you, remember?
Then I see some spotted deer (chital).  I wait.  I wait.  They don't see them, so I point them out.  "Those are spotted deer!  Look!"  These guys are hacks.  I'm going to have to do all the spotting myself. 
Now don't get me wrong, I'm really good at spotting wildlife.  Really good.  In fact, even with my left eye bad, I don't know anyone who's better.  You can put me driving a car of three people and I'll see more wildlife than the rest of the car combined -- I've done it several times.  But, come on, these guys do it for a living, or at least in theory they do, and they see them every day.  I'm sitting here in an unfamiliar environment, looking at unfamiliar critters -- I just shouldn't be outspotting these guys. 
Man, I would kill to have that Nirobi bushman with me that I had in Kaziranga for the rhinos all those years ago.
The landscape is similar to B., but much much drier.  Everything is very dusty and what little grass there is is mostly irrigated/cultivated.  And whereas B. is essentially pristine, almost to the point of having to be in a bubble while you're there, Gr. has people living on the land -- the Muldahari -- nomaidc goat grazing kinds of people.  We see a bunch of them as we drive along.  So many, in fact, that I'm having my doubts about this section of the park. 
In fact, I'd go so far as to say that we aren't going to see any lions except for two factors.  For one, we're seeing a lot of wildlife -- not on the scale of B., but this is easily equal to say the open Wyoming plain.  And for another, we're the only jeep that's been on this road today.  In fact, it's possible that we're the only one that's been on here this week.
We wind along but there's no sign of lions.  At one point we see an unusual bird with waddles on the top of its head. 
"What's that?"  I ask.
"It's a bird."
"I know it's a bird.  What type?"
"No, what kind of bird is it?"
"What kind?  Like this car is a Tata.  What kind of bird is that?"
"What species?"
Oh nevermind.  And damn your entire "English speaking" country while you're at it.
We wind around and get to some kind of official iron-works gate.  The driver and guide talk and then the driver goes inside.  We're starting to get on the edge of no where and the way I can tell is how the kids approach the vehicle.  You'd think that the great white warrior would be the major attraction, but it's not ... It's the jeep they're interested in.  They look it over in the same way you'd look at something in a museum that you weren't sure you could touch. 
The speedometer is cool, bordering on really really cool. 
And the gear shift is obvious and really smart.  Having a gear shift like that?  In a place like that?  Working that way?  That's smart.  That's really smart.
The glove box is a mystery.  I don't know what that's for.  It's not the engine.  No way.  The engine has to be at least twice that big.  I don't know.  Temple?  Is it a temple?  Maybe.  These people are temple crazy.
And man, these guys carry a lot of water.  Look at all that water.  In bottles.  Heh, heh.  Bottled water.  Can you imagine?  Do they have to pay for water in bottles?  I doubt it.  No, maybe they do.  No, I don't think so.  I don't know.  I think they pay for everything.  Even food.  Hmm.
Let's look at that speedometer again.  That's pretty cool.  That's the coolest thing I've seen this month.
One of them says, in the mildest of British accents, "Hello.  What's your good name?" to me. 
I say, "b1.  What is your name?"  Blank expression.  I point at me "b1."  Then I point at him, "You?"  Blank expression.  They know how to ask the question, they just don't know what to do with the response.  I try again and then one of his friends gets it.  He points and says, "Blershev."  Then we go around the circle and everyone says their name.  After each one I try to say the name and they laugh.  After awhile they're laughing so hard that they're crying.  Then I point at myself and spin my finger by my head.  "I'm crazy."  They love that.
An old grizzled man-thing comes out and opens the gate to whatever the hell this place is and we leave the kids.  "Goodbye, sir."  They wave by sticking their palms out and waggling their fingers up and down.
We move into the zone and there's considerably less wildlife than there was.  Very mild, rolling, dusty hills.  Very little vegetation.  Paths here and there that look human to me.  Whenever we come upon a "lusher" spot there's always a small spring or a rivulet.  We come across the occasional wandering person.  People doing laundry by the rivulets.  A motorcycle passes us one way, and then another.
We stop at a small bridge with a pond in front of it.
Lions.  I can smell them.  They're here.  Pretty close.  Upwind from us, for sure.
We stop and look.  I tell the guide and the driver I can smell them, but they either don't believe me or don't understand.  I look.  Nothing.
We drive on down the path and come to the end.  It's some sort of watering hole-cum-concrete manufacturing plant.  It looks like the natives use this to fashion building materials.  The driver and the guide both get out of the jeep and encourage me to do so.  We all poke around in different spots, looking for tracks.
This area is used by the animals, for sure.  There're dear tracks everywhere.  Peacock prints.  A couple wild pigs.  Nothing else. 
I smell deer.  Nothing else.
There's a sign on the road, along with a primitive gate, that says, "No tourists beyond this point."  My guide ignores it and hikes up the road a bit.
He comes back.  "No."
We start heading back and there's three locals standing at the bridge where I could smell the lions before.  They're looking off into the distance.  The guide and the driver get out and talk to them.
I stay in the jeep and am just looking around at the general area.  It's nice, but it's odd.  The park only feels slightly less trodden than the general In. countryside -- which means it feels pretty beaten.  It's pretty, but it would be prettier if it were allowed to breathe a bit away from the people.  But the contention between the people and the land is decades old here and very touchy -- the In. government, in fact, pays money to the local tribes for the buffalo that the lions (inevitably) kill.
I'm just pondering the world for about five minutes when my driver says to me, "There are lions there."
They motion for me to get down and point.  I know where they should be, just under the shade of that tree (an acacia, I think), but I don't see them.  I'm not adjusted to what I should be seeing.
"I don't see them."
"Come."  And both the driver and the guide start to walk into the wilderness.  I follow a fair distance behind, looking.  I still don't see them.
I'm looking for lions.  They'll be about the color of the straw here.  They'll be kind of furry.  Lions are kind of furry.  And they'll look like lions.  They'll be lion-like.  And they will probably be looking at or near me.  And they'll probably be lying down.  Look on the ground.  Look for something that looks like a lion.
I'm not seeing any.
I walk a bit more and just as my driver says, "Now?"  I see them. 
Two lions.  Cubs, but old ones.  Maybe three years old.  They're looking at my guide in front.  I stop.
My brother and I share a trait that is almost uniquely Asian and that is we laugh when we get nervous or embarrassed.  I have no idea where we got this from, because we've been that way since we were kids -- and our parents certainly didn't do it.  I've been in movie theaters several times when something's happened on-screen and he and I have had our laughs echo solo in the darkness. 
I laugh and they immediately understand why.  It's nice to communicate. 
"No, this is close enough."
The lions are a little over 100 feet away.  "Come!"  I edge a little more forward.  "Come!"
"No.  This is fine."
"Because those are lions.  Lions eat meat.  I am meat."
They laugh.  "Come!"
No.  This really is close enough.
The lions are interested in us.  Curious.  And they don't take their eyes off us.  We stand and look for about five minutes.  It seems like and eternity. 
I go back to the jeep, the driver and guide follow.  The locals think it's funny that I've, essentially retreated.  They especially liked the part of the play where I acted out the very-well-played part of "meat."  They also are fascinated by the lions, which surprises me a little because they've got to see them all the time.
As we sit in the jeep, the lions get up.  But there aren't two, there are four.  A very large lioness moves behind and the three old-ish cubs move in front.  It's two females and a male.  The lioness moves quickly across the road, maybe 50 feet from the jeep and into the bush.  She's making her way to the water tank.  The three younger ones take their time.  They're tracking over the area we were in, and particularly are interested in the trail of the driver.
They get to the road, again about 50 feet from the vehicle, and lie down in the middle of it.  The male rolls on his back and scratches himself.  The get up and move into a small set of undergrowth on the far side of the road.
We sit for a bit and then the driver wheels the jeep around.  We go back to where the cats had left the road.  The three are lying, but muscle tense, in the shade.  We are, at most 25 feet away.  They don't move and we don't move.  I'm close enough that I can see the flies on their noses and an identifying white patch of fur behind one of the female's front paws.
My brother has a bunch of wildlife photos on his walls, some he's shot with a self-made motion-sensitive camera, the rest have been shot by his wife under a fair amount of magnification.  If I shot these lions, right now, with that level of magnification, I would see the reflection of my camera in the left eye of the closest one.
Aside from a few antelope that I've taunted in WY, I've never been this close to a truly feral animal.  Which means I've also never been this close to a carnivore.  They are attentive without being tense, and probably because I'm both the highest, and only exposed person in the vehicle, they are staring at me.
They're beautiful creatures.  100% muscle.  Faces that are losing the look of juvenile.  The coats are a light amber with just a hint of darkening near their heads.  The look is one of curiosity.  In the guide books they say that the lions essentially ignore the jeeps, but right now, right this second, we are quite literally, the only game in town.
It is awesome.
People fall into two broad categories when they run across wildlife -- those who just stop and stare, and those who expect "something more."  You see those kinds of people at the zoos -- they holler at the animals and bang on the glass.  Your cousin is one -- I once saw him chase a tapir through the edge of a Malaysian rain forest (and I'm still not sure what he would have done if he'd caught it).  I've never understood where it comes from -- but it's not an inherent part of me.  It was either beaten out of me as a small child, or I never had it in me in the first place.
The driver has it in spades, though.  He's making a squeezing/clicking sound with his mouth.  The lions are interested in this.  Definitely.
After sitting for maybe ten minutes, we drive down the road.  The driver and guide get out of the jeep to have a post-codial cigarette and offer me one.  I've smoked bidi with Muslims before, in fact my Xmas cards one year had the photo of it -- but this isn't the time, nor the place.
The mom is also somewhere in here and I don't want to tangle with that.
"How was it?" the guide asks.
He's not going to understand.  How do I make this succinct?  It's something I've thought about, nearly every day, for the last ten years.  I cut this part of my last In. trip off and had regretted it.  There's almost nothing in my life I regret (although the things I do regret are biggies).  And now it's done.  Not only is it done, but sort of against the odds -- post poaching and with the two stupidest of the three stooges guiding me.
They both know the word and kind of mock it.  They follow this with "You should have a camera.  You need camera.  No camera, mistake.  Big mistake."
I'm not having this conversation, so I say the obvious.  "Yes."
We get back in the jeep and drive back.  The lions have moved up next to the road.  We pull up next to them and now I am, at most seven feet away.  I can hear them breathe.  I can even hear them blink.
The idiot driver is making his clicking sound again.  Without taking my eyes off the lions I lean forward to ask him to stop and just as I do, I see a flicker in the eyes of the male.  He's switched from curious and playful to something far more sinister.  That, right there, two arm's lengths from me, without question, is the look of "kill."
Fortunately the guide has seen it too and whispers to the driver -- without even thinking I say, "He's right, we need to go now."
The piece of crap Tata has been starting only sometimes.  I'm figuring out just what the hell I should do if this lion comes at me.  I'd say it weighs about 300 pounds, but it may well be more because of the muscle mass.  I'm not sure.  And indecision, in a situation like this, is worse than no plan.  Go between the seats feet up and kick like hell.  That's the best, I guess.
The Tata fires up and it's only then that the driver sees what the guide and I have been seeing.  He mutters some obscenity under his breath and the jeep starts pulling away.  The male jumps up and starts following the jeep.  The driver accelerates and the lion kicks into full-on "hunt" mode, dropping low to the ground and running fast.  He's gaining on us.  And, at the risk of personification, it seems as though he's enjoying it.
The road is going to drop down back to the place where we originally saw them.  We can't hit that bridge at speed or we'll either spill the vehicle or punch through the bridge.  Which means we can't go faster than we are right now.  Which means we'll have to slow up in about 100 yards.  Which means I may be the front page news of the Gu. paper tomorrow.
And then the lion just quits running.  He goes to a plod.  He's not tired.  In fact, I don't know why he stopped.  He lies down in the road and watches us pull away.
The driver and guide don't speak to each other and it takes about 40 minutes of rolling through the park for me to regain general mental composure.  I'm flicking through everything frame-by-frame.  So much of your life get encapsulated into days that you just forget.  So much just "goes away."  It's so rarely that something lives up to your expectations.  And my expectations are so high.  Both of myself and the people around me -- it's more of a curse than a blessing.  While it's true it has brought about some of the greatest accomplishments of my life, it's also left me, and many of the people I've truly loved, gigantic psychological scars.
And then there is this.
If you sit and describe the ultimate event, the thing you'd like to see, would it be less than what just happened?  Probably.  Goddamn.
Lions.  Here.  In this place.  You'd never see a slide and think, "That's where lions are."  Never.  I smelled them, I saw them, they chased me.
We see some more wildlife, but nothing like what's happened, we drop the guide and head back to the hotel.  The fee for the gypsy jeep is RS800, which is only RS200 more than the park -- it's not unreasonable.  Now normally I'd book another evening trip into the park -- in fact, I have never been disappointed by a second trip into In.'s major wildlife parks, even after a major sighting, but I don't think I will today.  The park itself is not beautiful and it's not clear how things can get "better."  Only an idiot keeps climbing a mountain once he's at the top.
I spend the afternoon writing postcards and a letter that I may or may not be able to find postage for -- sitting on my terrace with my mountain view room.  Lots of time to think.
If I stand up on my chair, and look to the left, just beyond the mango plantation, I can see the trace of the road.  If you go across that road, just at the bend, there are lions -- they are, in fact, the last Asiatic lions in the world ...
... I know this because I've seen them,

March 15, 2007

Now vs. Then

Kind Sir,
It's worth talking about the differences I'm seeing between now and a decade ago.  While it's not as bad as comparing apples to oranges, it is sort of like comparing McIntoshes to Granny Smiths -- I'm not covering exactly the same ground in exactly the same way.
The big things I notice are:
Lack of open sewage.  Open sewers were a big deal, and a major health risk, when I was here before.  I haven't run across a single one.  {What's weird is I was exposed to so much open sewage when I was here before I actually grew to sort of like the smell.  Odd, I know.}
Building.  Building, building, building.  Nearly on the scale of East Germany after the wall came down.  I'm not sure what's causing this -- my myopic view of the world hints that it might be outsourcing funds, but really, it could be anything.  One thing's for sure, there's a lot of money coming from somewhere.
I don't get stared at nearly as much now.  I'm not sure why this is.  Is it because I'm older?  Not wearing sun glasses?  Fatter?  Are people just more used to seeing whitey?  I don't know.  In the In. culture it's not considered rude to stare, so they'll just lay into you.
Speaking of sun glasses, I'm seeing Ins. wearing them now.  And this never used to be the case.
Things are considerably more expensive, maybe by a factor of ten.  So there's been some serious inflation here.  The division between the truly poor and those who are not is growing.
General unrest.  It seems like people are a little more worked up now than they were before, but this may be a jaundiced perception I'm getting from watching much more television this time than last.
Everything else is pretty much the same.
For what it's worth,

The G. Factor

I sleep fairly well, waking up a couple of times for stops and just general commotion in the aisles.  Every time I check my bag, it's still right where I left it.
About 07:00 I reset my bed into seats and start watching the stops about 09:00.  Since this is the J.V. Express, I'm expecting the terminus to be V, but that may not be true. 
I get my ticket checked for the fourth time and ask the conductor how many stops to V.  He riddles them off in his head and says, "Ten."
Wait a minute, I thought we were due in at 10:00.  "What time do we get there?"
Ooooooh.  Hmm.  Well, for one thing, I could have kept the bed down for a lot longer, but for another that's going to put me at V. in the evening.  I'd like to make the hop to Gr. tonight, but I also don't want to roll into there after dark. 
So let's see ... if I can get a car right away, I'll go; if I can't, I'll get a room and leave tomorrow, BUT that would mean I lose a day and I don't really want to do that.
We're starting to see camels as part of the labor force which means two things: the deserts are getting close, and we're now, probably, officially in Islam country.  The landscape is getting drier and drier -- the people getting fewer. 
By the mid afternoon, I'm the only person left on my coach. 
And the desert train bullets on. 
We're far enough out in the country now that people stop and watch as the train goes by.  It's a big deal for the kids especially -- probably one of two sights that people see during the day (the other being the eastbound express).
At 16:00 I shift mental gears.  I have to be ready for V.  We're in the middle of Gu. and the rules are different here.  Islam is going to run the show and it's not inconceivable I would be under some risk.  I'm pretty sure the Department of State has an advisory against just being in Gu. -- and this, for sure, is the state where the train bombings occurred (although I'm a long way from that border).
I run through the five pillars of Islam in my head (one hell of a lot easier to remember than the ten commandments, I might add) and brace up.
We pull into V and I'm not expecting this.  It's a small town, bordering on nothing.  For the terminus of an express I'm expecting more.  This may not be easy.
Most people hop off the train, down off the platform, walk across the tracks and then climb up the other side.  That seems a little too high risk for me so I follow the women and small children down the block or so to the end of the platform and then wrap my way back around.
We've been heading almost due west which means it gets dark later here.  I look at the sun, it's about 90 minutes to sundown.  Let's see, what would I pay for a car?  It's about an hour to Gr.  I'd do RS1000 easy.  Now I've just gotta see if there's a car.
I'm not even off the platform yet, not even to the station, when a young, small, Muslim is on my arm.  Extremely aggressive. 
"D.?  D.?  Are you going to D.?"
Interesting.  D. is probably next on my list, but after Gr.  I'm surprised he's asking about it.
"No, sorry, I'm going to Gr.  Can you take me to Gr.?"
"D.?  D.?  Are you going to D.?"
I stop.  "Listen to me.  Gr.  How much to Gr.?"
He says, "Gr.?  Selpenthreepees."
I think he's saying RS700.  I say, "I'm sorry.  I don't understand your accent.  Fingers.  Use fingers."  He flashes me 7.
Now normally this would be an opening bid and we'd crawl down from here, but I'm not certain of the place I'm going and he may have to drive around a bit and I might be able to use him for D. later.  Less than $20 is reasonable anyway.  "Yes."
We get into his car, there's a large crescent moon and star above the rearview mirror.  He's put a board over the decaying upolhosertry in the back seat and covered that with a blanket.  Aside from that, the car is in great shape and he's clearly very proud of it.
"This car is my father's," he beams.
"It's a nice car," I say.
"What's your name?"
"I am Mhustak.  What is your good name, sir?"
"I am b1.  My friends call me, 'Red,' like the color.  You may pick either, as you choose."  He particularly likes this and calls me, "Mr. Red."
It takes about five blocks to get out of V., and this guy is an amazing driver.  A great driver.  No chances, no blind passing.  In fact, he's more cautious than I'd be.
"Where are you from, Mr. Red?"
I've already practiced this one.  "The United States ..."
I try the short version, "America."
He puts it together, "Oh, USA.  USA!  No one here from USA!  Never."
"I know.  They're all afraid.  They're afraid of you."  He laughs.  Gotta throw in the kicker before I get kidnapped.  "George Bush, bad."
He shakes his head and closes his eyes.  "I know.  That man.  Something wrong.  Not right."
"I know.  I'm sorry," I say.
After an hour or so we get to Gr., but it's a city he's not familiar with.  He stops to ask directions and the car gets swarmed with touts.  One guy, much to Mhustak's dismay, talks his way into the car, "I will show you."
I tell him where I want to go and he gives the classic con artist line, "It's closed."
"I don't care, let's go there."  Mhustak is pretty shaken but is noticeably relieved by the fact that this hasn't fazed me in the least.  I lean forward and whisper to him, "Don't worry.  We'll be fine."
We get to the hotel, and sure as hell, it's closed.  Probably the first time in history that a tout has used that line and been correct.
And I now break the cardinal rule or travel -- you should never ever have a tout recommend something.  Ever.  Because they will get commissions and you'll end up being charged, maybe 50% more.
But, it's going to get dark and I need to be situated.  I can't be on the roads at night, especially the roads of Gu.  "Make it nice," I add.
We go to another place with a couple of whiteys sitting out front.  No rooms.
We then drive clear out of town and then keep going.  The bad thing about something like this is you're at the complete mercy of whatever pricing scheme people set up to travel back-and-forth to town.  But I've seen Gr. and it's just like the guidebooks say -- a relatively nasty place.
We get to a place called Anil Farm House.  It's a large mango plantation.  There are several buildings set apart from each other, immaculately groomed.
I ask to see a room and he gets two keys.  The first room he shows me is the River View room.  It's a clean room with a bed and a bath and a large patio overlooking a muddy trickle of a river.  All for the low price of RS2000. 
The second is the Mountain View room.  The layout is the same as the River View room except here the jungle has been trimmed back to give a view of a small grassy knoll in the distance.  This one is RS1500.  $35 a night for this in the middle of no where with night approaching?  Sure.
I pay Mhustak and get a phone number in case I want him for D.
The management apologizes that the only food they have this evening is thali (essentially an In. mixed platter) and I say "no problem."  I take a shower and then head for my first meal in 36 hours.
"Hey, how many guests do you guys have right now anyway?"
That may even be a lie.  I may be the only one.  If I'd known that, or at least thought about it, I would have taken a lesser room. 
No matter.  I made the jump and did it pretty damn cleanly.
I sit down to dinner and have three people do nothing more than stand and watch my every move.  I've had this type of thing happen to me in the past in In.  It used to really freak me out, now I just sit and read.
The food isn't bad.  Greens in puddles, yellows in puddles, roti, and an extremely good dahl.  I get to wash it down with icy cold 200ml pony cokes.  They're surprised by how little I eat.  "I just look big," I say.
I set up the plans for a jeep in the morning ...
... and maybe, just maybe, there'll be lions,

The Big Silver Ribbons

I'm up at 07:00 and go down to the breakfast buffet that's included with the room.  It's all nasty looking food in puddles, so I get about four spoonfuls of dahl and ask for four slices of toast (they're about 4" x 4").  I haven't been eating much at all, and the pounds are starting to shed, but I'm also getting a slight dent in a couple of my fingernails -- this can be an iron deficiency.  So I'm trying to eat a little of something.
I go back to my room, and at ten minutes to 09:00 there's a knock at my door.  It's the non-English speaking ticket guy.  Second class, two-tier, AC sleeper.  Today.  The train leaves at noon.  Perfect.
It's a journey of a little under 1,000 miles.  Tickets are RS1600.  The service fee is RS200, I tip the guy another RS100.  We're all going to have a good day.
I pack and leave, stopping at the storefront across the street.  I buy a bag of nuts, two cokes, a bag of potato chips, three large bottles of water and a pair of fingernail clippers.  The store clerk likes me and throws in a bag of crackers.
I get to the station about 45 minutes early and am there not five minutes when the tourism guy runs up to me.
"Did you see tigers?"
"Oh yes." 
He seems even happier than I am about it.
"You are leaving today."
"Yes, I am ..."
"You are in berth number 35."  That's right, he's already checked out where I am and has been waiting to make sure I make the train.
"How do I know what train it is?"
"What!  It's that one!  On the track right now!"
I bid farewell, find my coach, and get on.  I've ridden this class and style before.  They're bunk beds (two-high in this case) where you ride in seats during the day and make them down to beds at night.  The seats have loops under them that you lock your luggage to.  The seating is a little rough during the day -- the seat backs a little too straight up-and-down -- but it's a really good ride at night.
The compartments all have nylon curtains that slightly offset the entire-light-blue color scheme of the carriage.  I think one of the differences between this and third class is the presence of the curtains and everyone makes it a point to close theirs. 
I've been given a side seat that runs down the aisle of the car -- I would be facing another passenger if that seat was sold, but no one is there.  Closing the drape seems too claustrophobic, so I leave it open.
At noon on the dot, the J.-V. Express heads out.  I've got a 22 hour ride and I'm looking forward to it.  Aside from a blimp, train is my favorite way to travel and when you're on a train you can just completely "let go."  You know you're going somewhere, so that's taken care of, and there's nothing else you can do.  Maybe post-sex is the only time I'm more relaxed than I am on a train.
I don't read, I don't listen to my iPod, I just sit and watch In. spin past outside. 
Desert.  A few plants.  People, people, always people, of course.  Lots of laborers doing tasks here and there.  In all my experiences in the third world, nearly all the manual labor is done by women.  Only the real heavy stuff, like rolling a 6' diameter conduit, is done by men -- women do everything else.  I'm not sure what the hell the men do.  Sit around and talk about how hard life is, I guess.
The day flows into night and about 19:00 I set up my bed, only to have my bench mate show up at the very next stop.  I apologize and break the bed down, but he's already talked to the coachman and arranged something else. 
I sit my bed up again and the coachman comes by. 
"35," he says and I hand him RS35, he gives me bed sheets.  It's not until about an hour later that I realize he was reciting my berth number -- the sheets are included in the ticket.  Oh well, there goes 90 cents.
I change into my track suit and decide to put my money and passport in my luggage.  It's not ideal, but it's better than having it "unguarded" in my berth.  It's locked anyway, it'll be fine.
Even without earplugs, I fall quickly to sleep,

The Communication Gap

As you are probably aware, this is a wonderful time to be monoglot in English -- you can get a long, long way just speaking English.  But even in a country that claims to hold English as an official language, like In., you'll find yourself running against the hard grain of no-communication.  But you have to make your point known -- the question is how. 
For your viewing pleasure, I've included b1's Language Travel Tips. 
First and foremost, keep trying.  Just keep trying.
Second, when you compose thoughts and ideas, it helps if you keep them in English for two reasons: one is the structure of the language helps you keep logical flow to what you're talking about, the other is even people who speak no English will know a few words.  You might trip on the landmine they recognize, giving you an explosion of understanding.  Even when I'm communicating at the very most basic level, I make sure I'm not trying to express ideas that someone else who speaks English couldn't understand.  It's truly stunning how few people do this.
Strip the unnecessary words out.  Nouns are primarily what you want.  If you ever want to see how not to speak to someone that doesn't speak English fluently, listen to Brits.  "Excuse me, sir, if it's no bother, do you know if you'll have any more apples any time today?"  Uh, no.  "Apples?" is the question you're looking for.
Don't be afraid to sign for what you want.  When you say "bed," lie your head on your hands.  When you say "car" steer with your hands.  Be exuberant.  There are some signs that everyone knows: rubbing your thumb and fingers together for "money," circling your finger by your head for "crazy."
There are some hand signals that are regional.  "Half" in most of Asia, and all of Islam, is signalled by making a chopping motion to your forearm.  In most of Asia "come here" is done palm down with a scooping motion, like you were trying to move water down a trough (they think of a curled finger as being something between obscene and just funny).
Learn a few of the local words:
Thank you
Numbers aren't really necessary because you can sign them.
There are a few common words to almost all languages -- you use these, people will understand them: taxi and kaput jump to mind immediately, there are more.
Carry a small pad of paper and a pen with you.  Draw things that are too complicated for rudimentary communication.
"Okay" is the king of all words.  Everyone, everywhere, knows this.  And it can be a question or a statement.  You do a deal and you pay.  "Okay?"  "Okay!"  They're always surprised that you know that word in their language.  Maybe you aren't a rich barbarian after all. 

March 14, 2007

Go, Then Stop

Forgot to mention a thing that happened yesterday ... On the way into the park we were flagged down by a park official of some type and he just hops a ride in my jeep to the park.  Doesn't even acknowledge me or say "thanks" or anything.  And it's not even that far.  I mean, it's literally like half a city block
On the way back, the same guy just climbs in. 
And this, is a mistake.  He starts chatting with the driver and I just cut in.
"So what makes you think you can just ride in my jeep?  Doesn't that seem presumptuous to you?  You think, 'oh, stupid tourist, I'll just do whatever?'
"Well, I'll tell you, it's rude.  Rude."  They're quiet now.  He doesn't understand what I'm saying, but he'll understand this next part, for sure.  I rub my thumb and fingers together.  "You owe me 100 rupees."
Driver shifts gears.  No talking.  Good.
I cackle a little bit and there's nervous laughs and glances at the front.
We go to drop the official and he speaks to me.  I hiss, "You can just owe me."
I'm taking mefloquine for malaria and one of the side effects can be extremely vivid dreams.  I'm also taking large doses of vitamin C, and I've been off it for a while -- whenever I do that, I get saturated colors.
When I was in high school, I had an assignment to keep track of my dreams and as we went around class and people read what they were dreaming, I realized just how far gone my mind was.  Everyone else was dreaming of their boyfriends and families, where I was having stuff that was better suited to Dali paintings.  When it came to be my turn to read, I lied and just made up something mundane.
Now if you mix a little psychotropics into things, it gets truly bizarre.  I won't go into the details here because, quite frankly, it's none of your business and the dreams I've been having are disturbing at a level down to the very core of my being, but here are some small images: my old del Sol in Denver has been converted to three wheels and parked in a place I never left it -- oh yeah, and the paint is animated; Darlene is talking to me but her tongue isn't, shall we say, "normal;" grandparents I've never met have house cats, the way they feed is by eating other cats in their entirety.  And this is just the tip of the ice berg.
Since I was about 8 I've had a theme that runs through my dreams -- I have two or three like this a week -- and that is that something amazing happens, I'm astounded and everyone else either ignores it or doesn't care.  Louella once said, "That's funny, it's just like your waking life."  And it sort of is.
The vague theme of these dreams I've been having is roughly the same.  But they are so real and so hard hitting that when I wake up I'm having trouble making out the differences between what really is happening and what isn't.  When I dream, I come with a pre-loaded RAM of assumptions, beliefs and behaviors that are somehow hardcoded before the dream "starts," and it's taking me quite a while, in some cases hours, to figure out what's real and what's not.
This, of course, is compounded by things like screaming calls to prayer, the smell of cow dung smoke in the air, blaring H. themes, quickly spoken foreign languages and an untold number of visions of spectacular things.  Sleep is both amazing and discomforting.  When I lie down it's both with feeling of anticipation and great uncertainty. 
But I would not describe what happens to me at night as "rest."
I have toast (only) for breakfast and read until my car shows up.  The driver claims he speaks English, but in fact speaks almost none.  He's much more aggressive on the roads than the other guy and he too is shocked that I want to ride in the front seat -- in fact he goes in and gets the hotel manager to come out and talk with me. 
"Sir, are you comfortable?"
I guess there's no explaining whitey.
I just ignore the fact that the seat belts have been removed and turn my confidence over to whatever higher power is appropriate.
We drive through the countryside and at one point he takes a turn.  My orientation is surprisingly good when I'm "afield" and I know, right away, that I have never been on this road before in my life.  Over several gestures and minutes I inform the driver of this little fact and he gets it back through to me that this road has less traffic and is better.
Okay, whatever.  We'll just let it roll and see what happens.  Maybe I'll end up in J., maybe not, but it is, as my dear dear friend Mary, who works for Chrysler once said, "a nice ride."
And I'll be damned if he's not right.  This road is absolutely new and there is no one on it.  Almost like a test track.  We just fly.
After stopping to top the radiator, we hit the edge of J. and I need a bank -- I'm almost out of rupees.  Just in front of me I can make out the National Bank of India.  It's super-crowded here, but I tell the driver to stop in H.  He's surprised both that I'm speaking H., and that I'm asking him to stop. 
I point at a gap on the shoulder.  "Go there."
I walk the two blocks back to the bank, but it wasn't exactly what I needed -- it's a branch, not a main bank.  But they have an ATM.  I check my cargo pockets, I don't have my credit cards -- they must be back in my super-secret pocket of my pack.  I go back and get my pack.  They're not there.  I rifle through everything in my pack.
The driver asks in English, "Is there a problem?"  "Problem" is a word that everyone who deals with tourists knows.
"No."  Hmm.  Did I lose my credit cards?  If I had my money belt, this wouldn't be happening, because they'd be right there.  Hmm.  But stuff like this doesn't get stolen.  It just doesn't.  Not where I've been, not with the people I've been in contact with.  Hell, I haven't even had a maid in a room since G.
Traffic swirls by around us.  A government official comes up to tell us something along the lines of "you can't park here," so I do the simple and obvious thing -- strike up an immediate conversation and starting talking real fast asking questions.  He immediately retreats.  That trick always works.
I pull out my passport ziplock and open my passport, and there, in the pages, are my cards.  Great.
I go back and there are two people struggling to use the ATM.  The whole concept of using a card and a PIN and getting cash is not only new, but a little heavy.  I wait in line and immediately the vibe changes -- they get nervous that whitey is even here.
There is no mark anywhere on the machine that indicates my card is okay to use (not even the typically ubiquitous VISA symbol), BUT the machine doesn't hold my card either, so I'm going to try it.
The first guy can't get his card to be recognized.  He struggles for about 15 minutes and gets no where.  The second guy gets it to work and withdraws a little money. 
The first guy tries again.  There's a fair amount of shouting and scuffling and the line now has four people behind me.  It's driving them insane because they really want to push in and scuffle too, but whitey is being a problem -- just the fact that he's standing here is a mild discomfort.
I feel like I've waited long enough.  I say, "Let me try."  Everyone's surprised that I'm even able to speak, so they stand aside and I step up to the machine.  It doesn't read my card on first pass, so I try it a lot faster. 
And now all the people in line behind me are in the ATM.  There's seven of us if you count me (but if you count me, you should probably count me double or triple), there's no air conditioning and it's a room slightly larger than a phone booth.  I'd conservatively say it's about 115 degrees with 85 percent humidity, and I'm certain those figures are low.
I'm being asked for my PIN.
So let's see.  I'm in a foreign country with six people at a bank that I know all want money.  I'm being asked for a PIN and everyone is staring right at the screen.
I'm also at least a head taller than everyone in this room and may well out-weigh the heaviest one two-to-one.  There's a guy standing just behind me to the left -- he's the loudest one and clearly the ring leader of this group such as it is.  I can reach him with my left elbow easy.  I could put him down in a blink.  A little bit of quick bloodshed is shocking enough that people will back off.  Then I'm outta there. 
I can work this a couple of different ways, if I need to.
I go ahead and enter my PIN, but the entry process is super slow.  There's probably a 15 second delay between every digit I enter.  Everyone's looking at the screen.
How much would I like to withdraw?
I hadn't even considered getting this far.  Let's see, how much do I need $200 worth -- RS8000 -- that should do me.  A guy next to me says, "It wants to know how much you want to withdraw."
"Oh," I say and type in 8000.
And with absolutely zero delay.  Zero as in none, it spits out RS7500 in brand new 500's and RS500 in 100's.  Amazing.
I'm not the only one.  There's a hushed murmur over the amount of cash I now hold in my hand.  I turn to the guy that was having problems, motion and say, "Try faster.  That works sometimes."
Now I've got to get the hell out.  I quickly leave the booth and as I leave the gate, the sun is to my back, I can tell I've picked up someone following me.  I can navigate through a crowd with a surprising amount of dexterity when I have to and between the length of my stride and several fast dodges, quickly lose whoever or whatever it was.
I get back to the car, we make a quick run to the train station, I pay and go inside.  The bad news is my super-helper isn't at the tourism office today.  He's got some underlings that would rather I wasn't there -- I get a hotel recommendation from them, leave a note for my pal, and then head into the station.
The ticket lines are the bedlam you'd expect.  The way to deal with this in this country is to ignore it -- hire a travel agent and have them do it for you.  I learned that the hard way, years ago.
I find my hotel.  It's nice by In. standards -- even has a small refrigerator.  I tell the receptionist that I need to buy a train ticket, "I'll send a boy up."
I go back to my room and take a two hour nap, never awakened by the "boy."  So, I go back downstairs and say I still need to talk to the person.
A guy comes up who speaks no English.  No problem.  I write everything down in big block letters.
J. => V 
CLASS 1, 2 OR 3
He leaves and so do I.  I haven't had an Internet cafe since G and I need to write to you. 
I wander around and find a place.  It's a tiny store above retail shops "P-10 Computing."  The stairs leading up are narrow enough that they only hold about half the length of my foot.
"Internet?"  I ask.
"Yes, sir.  Unfortunately it's down right now."
Whoa.  Whoa, whoa, whoa.  This guy is completely and totally fluent in English.  100% native. 
I haven't been able to say a full sentence to anyone in about a week.  It's so nice just to be able to talk.  So I sit down and have a conversation with him.  Turns out he's a former call-center guy.  We talk about families and politics and religion and how he likes living back in In. compared to Spain.
Travelling by myself, and in the particular way I'm doing it, is so isolating.  And, as you know, I'm a big communicating kind of guy anyway.  It's just great.
When the conversation closes, I get directions to another cafe and trundle off.
I miss the one he directed me to, but find another.  This one too is on the second floor and the spiral staircase is so narrow that I have to tiptoe my way up.
I bang out email to you and my pals and then head back. 
The walk back to the hotel is in the blackness of a town with no street lights (fairly common for the smaller In. towns) and it's only once I walk in that I realize I feel completely safe on the streets here.  Never even think twice about it.
I ask the front desk if there's been news on my tickets.
"Do you even know what I'm talking about?"
"Do I have train tickets or not?"
"Okay, great.  I'm sure this will all work itself out.  You gentlemen have a good evening."
I go up to my room and as I'm getting ready for bed the phone rings.  This'll be interesting.  It always is in this country.  I've had one call on this trip so far -- a crank call from teenage girls at the White Tiger Lodge.  This could be anything, but considering it's M.P., it's probably not the cops.
"Hello, sir?  You wanted train tickets?"
"I will send a man up."
Great.  Maybe.
There's a knock on the door and I let in a man who is very distressed to discover I only speak English.
"No problem," I say and I write out in big block letters the ticket I need. 
He says, "You stay.  I get English.  Come."
I've had a million conversations like this in my life.  It means I should stay put, he's got a pal who speaks English and then he'll come back.
I go brush my teeth in a bathroom (that has the largest cockroach I've ever seen -- quite a bit larger than my thumb) then there's another knock at the door.  It's my new-found pal again with a nicer dressed guy.
"Yes, sir.  I've come to find what you need."
His English is pretty good.  Maybe 70% American fluent.  Certainly good enough for my purposes.  I explain what I need and he's starting to fixate on which class I want.
Along with heavy sign language I say, "I don't care.  First class is best.  Then second.  Then third.  Two tier is better than three tier.  But I need to have a bed.  Bed."  I point at my bed.  "Bed is important.  But I need a ticket.  I need to be on that train."
He asks for RS2500 to cover and sends the runner off, then leaves himself. 
About 20 minutes later they come back.  "The ticket office is now closed.  They open at 09:00.  You probably will not get first class, but second should be possible."  They hand me RS500 back and say that they'll give me change and a ticket tomorrow.
I don't know these guys from Adam, but I know in my gut that this is going to work.
I go to bed and realize that my sore throat is finally starting to get better,