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India Trip Notes

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3-24-11 - Guides

Outside Mylapore Temple in Chennai, Clay and I left our footgear with a lady sitting with piles of flowers she was making into necklaces, two of which she handed to us, and I hesitated, asking, "How much?" and she replied, "What you wish when you come out." Okay.

As we stood in front of the largest pyramid-like gopuram arrayed with a crowd of carved deities and other beings, an Indian man maybe late twenties came up to us and asked what country we were from and so forth. He said he was studying engineering at a local college and liked to spend time here at the temple when he could and liked to help tourists out. He'd been to the States. He spoke good English and was sort of hip, a little sleezy, reminded me of a friendly guy you might meet outside a bar in Bangkok. His eyes were wet and red. He asked if we'd like a tour and we said okay.

He told us many fascinating things about the temple and about Shiva and Parvati and Lakshmi or wait, is that the same as Parvati? Can't remember. He said that the temple had been repainted sometime in recent history. There was a ton of ornate detail in many different colors up the walls of the gopuram and all over. "How many people do you think it took to do it?" he asked. Clay answered, "Three hundred." "Wow," he said, "You got it exactly" and made something out of it about how cool Clay was.

Standing by the door to the men's toilet for the best view of the most structures, he mentioned that people who come here like to support the temple and guides and give ten or twenty dollars. I said I wouldn't give more than ten or twenty rupees. He paid no mind and continued the tour.

It's not a big temple though  there's a vast pond outside the walls with a shrine in the middle and steps around that I guess are part of it. There might be more annexes I don't know about. In less than five minutes you can walk around the central area with its gopurams, statues, altars,  columns, flame lit, dark holy rooms, and tethered cow manger area with chip scooping priest.

The tour ended with a big argument about how much money he'd get for being our guide. He demanded at least five hundred rupees and I offered fifty. He got so nasty and used such vile language that I was encouraged to up my offer to one hundred rupees. Finally Clay got him off our trail by giving him another hundred.

"Oh yes," I told Clay." I'd forgotten. Wasn't thinking. Negotiate price first.

"Well," said Clay, "It's okay. He said he needs the money to stay in school."

"He's not a student," I said. "He's an addict."

On the way out the lady wanted two hundred rupees for the flowers and watching our sandals and shoes and I gave her a hundred and we walked off muttering, "Negotiate price first."

Sometimes guides at sites can be really helpful like docents at museums, but at others they can be a bit of a nuisance, even hard to get rid of. A morning in Jaipur comes to mind. It was October of 2003 and I was at the end of a few weeks in Rajasthan which I had thoroughly enjoyed. I love Rajasthan. It reminds me of the US Southwest, is dry so doesn't have a lot of the odors associated with moist decay and open sewage. There are a lot of elephants there too which is always a plus - unless they're trampling and goring you which does happen here in Tamil Nadu now and then.

Each city in Rajasthan had its castle-like fort and color. Jodhpur was yellow I think - that's the color of the fort and a lot of the clay based buildings in the city. I was traveling with an Indian guy in his early twenties. I think we met on the bus from Delhi to Jaipur, the first and last stop. In Pushkar we teemed up with a women from New Orleans I'd known in Dharamsala. She was forty and immediately became lovers with my Indian friend. I became friends with her Dutch friend - just friends. Most fortunately we were in Pushkar at the time of the camel melee when it's said 10,000 camels come for the races. It's a small place with a lovely lake in the center, and was packed with foreigners and Indians who'd come for the camel races and festivities. I was told it's unique in that it's main temple is for Brahma, the creator among other talents (not to be confused with the high caste, Brahman). Anyway, it's a very holy town. No booze at all - it's dry. I could see white clad Indian men smoking chillums of hash right in front of soldiers. Bhang lassies, mild shakes, were widely available. I got a mild one and spent the rest of the day trying to hold on to some semblance of functional sanity.

The four of us went to the camel races and were seated in the VIP guest section except for our Indian buddy who had to sit in the next section over with some other Indians. He told us not to worry, that he was used to stuff like that. The camel races were quick, lots of fun, and seemed like they could have been taking place in any number of centuries.

For dinner we went to a rooftop restaurant that served us beer that had to be kept under the table. The woman from N.O. took us there because she knew they served beer because they'd offered it to her at breakfast - probably, she figured, to let her know for later. I can't remember anyone's name but we were very close for a couple of weeks. That's traveling.

That night we went to the carnival grounds outside of the camel race stadium. We saw a show with young dancers and acrobats in a tent with speakers that blared music and announcements so loud that I instantly stuffed tissue from my pocket into my ears. My Indian friend shrugged and said that that's what they want, indicating the rest of the audience which seemed to be mostly dark, poor country people. And the show was unsophisticated and simple, reminding me of La Strada, of an earlier time.

The last thing I can remember from there is sharing a small amount of beer and some local harder booze with camel jockeys, one of whom periodically opened the flap of the tent to peer out, making sure we wouldn't get caught. And that night in the semi-dark outside I got to take a brief, trembling ride on a camel that won one of the races I'd seen.

Later in Jaisalmer we went on a three day camel safari in the desert with a couple of other now faceless foreigners and two absolutely indispensable guides. They gave us three hot meals a day prepared over a campfire. They also knew where to go in the desert. I remember setting up camp on a sand dune under the stars in what seemed like seriously remote desert when we spied a small form walking toward us from a great distance with a flashlight. When close, I could see it was a little kid, like six years old, carrying a six pack of beer which we eagerly bought from him. Later some guys on other camels came through and sold us "opium" which later I learned was a local smoke made from camel milk and dung and - no I don't remember what it was made from but, though it was fun smoking it and maybe it did something, it wasn't opium.

The next day my Indian friend who'd been riding his camel too fast for our guides got carried away racing around and excited the camel ridden by his new lover so that it took off and she fell off but her foot was caught in one stirrup so that she was being dragged at high speed upside down. It looked to me like it was going to kill her. The culprit leaped off his camel and that's from way up and caught hers by the bit bringing it to a stop and got her uncaught as the guides screamed Hindi at him and I thought my gosh he got heroic real quick when he needed to.

Camels are tough to ride, harder than horses which I rode as a kid. I think they walk differently but they seem sort of the same except, to me, bumpier. I think these had one hump. Or was it two? At the end of the safari I, the oldest by far of our group of six, was the only one who was not sore. They were all groaning and aching. I, however, had walked behind my camel - as fast as I could possibly walk to keep up - more than I'd ridden it. Great exercise.

I liked Jaisalmer. I had a nice little room there in a place run by a Dutch woman and her Muslim mate. It cost sixty rupees a day, about a dollar and a quarter. Had my own bathroom and they'd bring me a bucket of hot water if I asked. They'd bring me tea on the roof at a table with shade - for a nickel. I was there a week. The worst thing that happened was when a cow died in front and dogs were eating it up to the extent of crawling inside - and it was really hot and it started smelling and she couldn't get the city to take it away. I can remember going to the front door, holding my breath, opening it, and walking away as quickly and far as I could till gasping in air. Finally she paid a hundred rupees baksheesh (bribe) and the cow was gone.

There was a really good restaurant and guest house run by an Austrian man who made unbelievably sumptuous European food. And there was music. A lot of interesting people hung out at his place. He was trying to raise money to build a school for the local kids, some of whom were the performers, wonderful, rhythmic music with a beautiful young dancer, I think she was fourteen, who wooed us all. The next day a young boy came up to me and said he'd noticed I liked looking at his sister dancing.  I responded yes she was excellent. "Would you like to go to bed with her?" he asked. "No thanks," I said. That's the only time that sort of thing has happened to me in India.

I met a handsome young Aryuvedic doctor at the Austrian restaurant and later went to his office to see if anything could be done for my tinnitus. I've got what in one place I saw called crickets tinnitus. That's what it's like. It always sounds to me like I'm in a jungle or woods filled with insect sounds. Glad I don't have the high pitched rining type. Mine is white noise and I don't mind it at all and mainly don't notice it. I just noticed it now cause I'm writing this. It's really loud. And it's sort of weird.

I remember the first time I noticed it. I was driving from Sebastopol to San Francisco to visit Heather McFarlin and her daughter Avilla. I noticed this sound in the car and thought that there was a hiss coming over the radio but the radio wasn't on so I kept trying to turn things off till there was nothing left but the engine and then, by chance, the traffic came to a standstill and I turned the engine off and - the sound was still there. I was truly puzzled. When I pulled into Heather's Pacific Heights driveway, I turned off the engine, got out, stood on the drive, listened, and with amazement, threw up my hands and said aloud, "It's me!"

The Aryuvedic doctor said that tinnitus is related to MS, involved the deterioration of nerve sheathing in the ears. He said there was a fifty fifty chance his treatment would help. It might make it better and might not. I went three times to have him and another doctor and two nurses massage me with oil and strap a wide leather collar on my head and pour hot oil in it and in my ears. Each treatment lasted an hour and a half and was very pleasant. The total bill was like twenty-five dollars. I don't think it helped at all but I'd like to do it again.

Speaking of doing it again, back in Jaipur I got a haircut with massage in a little cubby with no electricity by a man with his scissors and razors and combs and brushes and tonics and mirror on a ledge. There were a few guys sitting on a bench talking with him as he massaged my head and neck and cut my hair. How much? I asked. "Ten rupees," he said. "Can I have another?" "Of course." Stopped at three.

Remember the very loud entertainment at the Pushkar carnival? Compared to my first night back in Jaipur that was just a mic test. There I stayed in a suburban family-run guest home in this large, clean, well-furnished room with soft bed, modern bathroom (never saw a tub in India), and TV. Splurged to get a couple of days luxury for fifteen dollars a night. I just lay in my room all morning, watched TV, went downstairs for some food and tea, returned and lay down and read, recuperated from more rugged accommodations, energetic schedule, train ride.

In the afternoon I went out to walk around the neighborhood and noticed the open area next to the guest home was being prepared for some event. I asked and was told there would be religious music provided by the city government, part of some program to bring traditional culture to the various residential areas of town. Well, that's good, I thought, noticing the jumbo speakers. People started to gather and sit on colorful material and pavement. The musicians arrived - drummers, instruments, a couple of singers/chanters. I'd come back periodically waiting for them to get going and finally they did. With the first notes I felt like I'd been blasted bodily through the air to smash against the wall across the street. There must be some mistake I thought holding my ears and running back into the compound where I was staying. Back in my room the windows were rattling, the walls were throbbing, the music and electronic distortion and feedback issuing from the speakers was so great I feared hearing loss from a distance, from the bathroom, from under the covers. I went out on the balcony with toilet paper in my ears and looked down at the crowd sitting contented and happy, listening with appreciation as they were blasted with fierce sound waves. No one leaping up to run away. Amazing.

I tried to watch TV but could only hear what people were saying with my ear against the side where I couldn't see the screen and anyway, more noise is not what I needed. It's a memory that's stored together with those of nights of illness, headaches, dizziness, and vomiting, staggering around unable to find surcease of agony. It was hard for me to believe that this was real, that this could happen, could be acceptable, was not some alternate psychotic state I'd fallen into.  It went on pounding the room like shells from nearby cannons - till four in the morning. Really. Unbelievable. The next night I could hear it miles away, the city's gift to another district, and wondered how the people over there were doing.

Most of my experiences in Rajasthan were fine, like visiting the forts, most impressive. In Jodhpur a young English woman and I went to the Raj's home, had tea in an old English room with Elephant foot stools which wouldn't be done now by Indians. Half of that place was for the existing Raj and family and the other half a five star hotel. There were beautiful grounds with so many flowers in bloom I wondered how much they kept that up. Men in turbans served complimentary fruit drinks. We watched the sunset sitting on a balcony overlooking the city and mountains beyond.

But the less pleasant experiences are often more fun to tell. The train ride from Jaisulmur in the far West to Jaipur in the East took off in the afternoon. As I approached the train on the landing, the owner of the guest house met me and said I'd been undercharged a little over a hundred rupees by an underling. I went to get my sleeper bunk only to find a young Finish man there. He had the same ticket and said I was the third to show up with one as well. I spent my time standing between cars looking at the scenery till dark, sitting on the floor reading, lying on the floor my backpack as a pillow, wandering the aisle between cars, stepping over people sleeping on the floor.

At five in the morning we pulled into Jaipur. As soon as I detrained, I was met by a young Indian guy who briskly asked, "Rickshaw sir?"

"No thanks," I said.

"Why not?"

"I don't want one now."

"You must be going somewhere."

"Yeah, I'm going to walk over there and get some tea."

"Drink your tea and then we'll get you a rickshaw."

"No, I don't want to go now," I said walking over to the tea stand and saying, "Ek Chai denna, chini nai," meaning one tea please without sugar.

"You can't stay here in the station. Let me get you a hotel."

"I have a place to stay," I said looking at the papers. Nothing in English. I asked where an English paper was and the man selling them gestured toward the exit.

"Then we'll take you to your place to stay," he said aggressively.

"No, leave me alone," I said.

"You must be tired. You need to take a rickshaw to your hotel."

"No, it's too early."

"Hotels are open twenty four hours."

"It's a family's place. I don't want to bother them."

"It's their duty to take care of you when you arrive," he said forcefully.

"I want a newspaper, to go somewhere and read and drink more tea and wait till seven."

"No! You should go now!"

"Quit telling me what to do!" I said. "Leave me alone!" But he wouldn't. He just kept pounding at me insisting that I go with him to get a rickshaw immediately. Drinking my second tea in small plastic cup I noticed an Indian businessman looking at me with embarrassment. The rickshaw provider persisted. Finally I pulled out my trump card, something to say I'd gathered from - I don't know where - but it's very effective.

"I do not want to buy drugs from you!" I said to him loudly. Heads turned. He looked puzzled, disturbed. "I do not want to buy drugs from you!" I repeated and kept repeating it till he went away, went away running. The businessman smiled.

I've heard it said that if you think you're a peaceful, loving person who doesn't get angry, wouldn't ever yell at people, just go to India. So far I'd say, go to Northern India.

I stepped outside the main door of the large station to see hundreds of people in the dark sleeping on the pavement in front. I walked through them to the street. A man walked up to me, "Rickshaw sir?"

"No thanks. I want to find a newspaper, read it and get more tea.  Where can I get an English newspaper?"

"Down there," he pointed to a light a ways off across a side street at the edge of the station property. I thanked him, grateful that he wasn't like the guy before, walked there, got The Times of India probably, and walked back to the front of the station. The same guy who'd showed me where to get the paper was there. Someone was standing with him - the first guy, the overly aggressive one. I realized they were a team.

"Oh no," I said. "Come on, tell me. Where can I get some tea and sit down?"

They took me across the street a good distance in front to a tea stand. I ordered one, went in, and sat on a wooden chair at a bare wooden table. I think the rest of the men there were rickshaw drivers because of their brown shirts and pants. They smiled at me. My two would-be drivers sat in front of me.

"Would you like some tea?" I asked. They nodded. I got them each a tea. I think they were four rupees each.

I sat there and read the paper while they drank their tea and the aggressive one glared at me. "Are you ready yet for your rickshaw?" he asked.

"No no no," I said. "Not for a long time."

"Well," he said with hostility, his hand at his neck, his teeth gritting. "Maybe we should just take you out of here, cut your throat, and take you to a hospital for the commission." He drew his hand across his throat to demonstrate.

"Okay," I said turning the page. "Just let me finish the paper first."

"Oh! Humph!" he grunted with exasperation, turned to his friend, and barked, "Let's leave this asshole."

"Goodbye," I called out as they left.

An hour later a very nice young plump man with glasses, sort of nerdy looking, drove me in his rickshaw to my guest house where I took a shower and a nap.

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