Still In India
Hello from Mumbai, everyone!
I'm sitting in an internet cafe at the moment not so far away from a gorgeous Raj building called the Victoria Terminus (Natalie, this would be your sort of place) and it's incredibly strange to think that everyone arrived back in America three weeks ago while I have been in India and experiencing what we know can only happen here...
Some stories (and to be clear, some of these are shamelessly copied and pasted from my friend Kate's blog, because she is very funny):
After boarding the 36-hour express train to Chennai, I settled down in my side upper berth and awaited the usual Indian man who would come up to me and engage in useful conversation, and maybe even add to my business card collection (after three weeks it still pales compared to Sam's). This didn't happen, however. Maybe traveling as a white male alone is just less interesting to Indian people? The train wasn't a bust though - I read three books, wrote a lot in my journal, and consumed a ridiculous amount of Indian train tomato soup. Mmmmm....
After a very long journey, I arrived at the Chennai Central station and was met by my friends, who took me to the Uluru Children's Home, the organization that they were volunteering at. The town in Tamil Nadu where it is situated was hard-hit by the Asian tsunami and there was a lot of housing in the area built by Habitat for Humanity and other NGOs. UCH itself was founded to educate and provide for the girls in the area whose families cannot support them. My friends Kate, Alice, and Deepa had been volunteering for three months there and I spent a week helping out. Sounds normal enough right?
ACT 1: UCH
Story #1 by Kate: Rejection
On Christmas Eve, we go with Zach to Pondicherry, with the intention of him staying a few days while we wrap up business at UCH. We get into the holiday spirit early in the day when Zach is bumped by a motorcycle at very slow speed while bargaining with a rickshaw. The Christmas cheer continues as we call about 30 hotels and guesthouses, none of which have a room for Zach. Even the freaky ones with names like “The House of Fun” are entirely full. The clincher comes when we go to our eagerly anticipated dinner spot, convince them we have a reservation (we don’t), sit down, and then learn that the special holiday meal will not be served for another three hours. It is not until we are back on the bus to Uluru (bursting with holiday spirit!) that we realize Zach, a (Jewish) wanderer rejected from every inn, is reenacting the story of Christmas Eve. Is Zach Jesus? We scan the highway for barns/troughs of hay/maybe a manger, but even those do not present themselves. The next morning, more desperate, we bust out our Lonely Planet and try hotels in Jew Town (no Christmas rush there!) and distant Nagaland. But nothing, nothing, nothing.
Sidenote by me: This was actually a very enjoyable Christmas. Please don't worry! But seriously, I might be Jesus.
Story #2 by Kate: A Very Beautiful Man
In our final days of UCH, a newcomer arrives. In order to preserve his privacy on this blog, we will call him by another name of a similarly Hispanic nature: Juan Rodrigo de la Noche (English translation: John Roderick of the Night).
Here are some pertinent facts about Rodrigo (who was rooming with Zach):
1. He is six foot six (at least) and has hair like Jesus - is this a theme?
2. Rodrigo is a wearer of alarmingly short shorts. Some of them, alarmingly short pink (neon!) shorts.
3. During dinner one evening, in front of many young children, he discovers “ants in his pants”, and proceeds to stand up in the direct center of the dining area, and fish these ants out of his pants (in reality, alarmingly short shorts) with his hands.
4. When not wearing these shorts, Rodrigo travels in style with very very skinny jeans and a fedora (how perfect for the heat!). He is very familiar with Indian clothing and appropriateness.
5. His “Where’s Waldo?” style stripy underwear becomes a permanent hanging fixture in the volunteer area. When Alice is sent by the kitchen staff to look for a red and white dishcloth, she comes shockingly close to bringing these.
6. As he is an engineer, we assume he has come to UCH to install new computers in the computer center. Instead, he has come to organize an intercommunity cricket match.
7. Never one to support corporations, Rodrigo spends a day fashioning a homemade cricket trophy out of a slab of rock and a smart looking red ribbon. After painstaking hours, he proceeds to drop the trophy and render it unusable.
8. He finds the act of riding a motorcycle very, very sensual.
ACT II: GOA
Kate, Alice, and Deepa finished their time at UCH and then we all got onto a train to Goa on the 27th of December, a perfectly timed departure right when unrest in Goa became reported on the news so that we got off the waitlist after being numbers 50 - 53. The fun begins on the train:
Story #1 by Kate: Fiesta Time
The Vasco Express, running straight from Chennai to Goa, turned out to be quite the party car. We had our suspicions early on, when we noticed our Indian neighbors were presiding over a large stash of bongo drums and several cases of beer, but didn’t think much of it until we reached the hills near Goa—ie: The Land of Tunnels. The instant our train entered a tunnel, everyone in our car immediately switched off the lights, started beating their bongos, screaming, and in the case of many, participating in a frisky dance party. Then, the second the train emerged from the tunnel, the noise died instantly, the lights came on, and everyone sat around looking normal, pretending nothing had happened. This went down not once, but at least fifteen times, no matter how long or short (8 second fiesta!) the tunnels were. During one tunnel where we failed to make enough noise, we heard cheering coming from an adjacent car, and realized our wild tradition had spread. Let me also note that most everyone in our car was over the age of 30.
Also interesting in our train experience were a number of (what appeared to be) planned stops. They were:
1) Scenic View Stop. Pretty self-explanatory. Everyone gets out of the train, takes some pictures of mountains, we move on.
2) Monkey Feeding Stop. Shortly after the SVS, our train came to a halt (in the middle of nowhere) next to a large group of monkeys. Immediately, every Indian tourist on the train rushed to the windows and began throwing food out to the primates. While some of it was train food, much of it was taken from little prepacked ziplocked bags, as if the passengers had anticipated this feeding session, and boarded the train prepared!
3) Let the Men Throw Rocks Stop. In LMTRS, the train halted for about 35 minutes in the middle of nowhere, so every man on the train could exit and throw a large number of stones off the side of the mountain. It began as quickly as it ended, and we all moved on.
Despite at least an hour and a half of halt time, our train arrived punctually in Goa, implying these stops were all planned into the timetable as part of a grander scheme.
Story #2 by Kate: Xavier’s
In Goa, we’ve had some issues with speed of dining service (thus the leckfasts, meals which start at breakfast and go so long that we decide to eat lunch by the end as well), but it is mostly relaxing. Xavier’s took it to a stunningly new height. We have our own special waiter who doesn’t appear to a) be serving anyone else or b) exist. After much speculation on his whereabouts (is he sleeping? injured? organizing a riot?), he finally comes to take our orders. A short decade passes before we see him once more, at last with Zach’s soup and rice in hand. But then he vanishes. When he appears again (without food) after a huge hiatus, we ask him to bring the rest of our meals. He responds by bringing us an extra table (almost what we wanted!), and by sweeping in to take away Zach’s rice and run away with it before we can protest. In all my dining experience, this rice removal was unprecedented. Eventually things shook themselves out, and actually came, but only the drinks he thought Zach ordered (he seemed to be only willing to serve Mr. Duffy). What a struggle it was. All was served by the end of the meal though.
Story #3 by Kate: New Years
We had ourselves a lovely little New Years on the beach, featuring a very elongated dinner and the musical stylings of a certain Rick Shaw (note the name, my friends). We hoped it might be some sort of singing motorcar, but no, Rick is in fact, a man, albeit a musically incompetent and rather bitter one. As he got up to play his tunes (ie play his backing tape), the five of us decided to break out our crazy teenage moves on the dance floor. We suspect Rick Shaw has been trying to reach out to the youth for quite some time now (coarsening up his image, perhaps?), and this was—most likely—the greatest moment of his life. He later stormed off the stage in a huff, vitriolically cursing the inferior sound system. Beside us on the dance floor, was the breathtakingly sensual and very middle-aged Scarf Lady. At first we thought she was twisting her hips and shaking her scarf in a special monogamous treat only for the eyes of Rick Shaw, but we soon discovered that she was, in fact, non-discriminatory. What a scandal! Another key player in the dancing was Old White Man, who gradually (under the wing of some young friends) transformed his classic old man swivel step to crazed Indian-male style flinging of the hands.
That's it for Kate's stories. Hope you all thought they were as funny as I did. New Year's was amazing. We stood directly below the fireworks that were being set off and it was such a mix of green and blue and red explosions in the sky and the surf is lapping at your feet at the same time. Some fireworks hit the water and still exploded and that was incredible, a chandelier of light beneath the surface. I won't forget that one for a long time.
We're in Mumbai now and it's such a cosmopolitan city and different than all the places I've been before, which is not a surprise to me anymore because I know that every single microcosm of India is wholly its own. I have only 4 days left in India so I am running around doing last minute shopping and organizing my stay in Chennai from the 8th to the morning of the 10th when I fly out - to New Zealand!
It's been quite an adventure here in India and I don't regret a second of it. If any of you ever have a chance to come to the South, you should jump on it. It has been so relaxed compared to sections of the north - though most of this feeling is probably thanks to Global LAB getting me ready for it - and the simple pleasures like having dosa and iddly and uttapam at your fingertips each morning are pretty nice too.
Hope you are all doing well, and I'm missing you a lot,