India Travelogue, Ep. 20:

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When I started this, I had no idea I’d write this many episodes. But here I am. I can’t say how many more I’ll post, so I wanted to pause for a moment with a postcard-worthy snapshot I took of our Kerala riverboat ride. If a photo is worth a thousand words, this one needs no caption. I never could have imagined this and yet, in an odd way, it looks exactly how I thought India should.

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India Travelogue, Ep. 19:

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This photo is from the same evening as yesterday’s post, shot while I walked at night through a small village in Kerala. I was surprised that all the doors were open and you could see inside every home and shop. (So unlike America, where we close ourselves off.) Because I’ve sewn my whole life and love to quilt, this scene stopped me in my tracks. We pay lots of money in the US for antique, treadle sewing machines. This one was a beaut. I thought about my fancy Bernina machine at home that probably cost more than the annual income of several of the families in this village combined. Some things are universal though: the owner of this shop saved an impressive pile of scraps. (I would have enjoyed sorting through them because what quilter doesn’t love a pile of scraps?)

India Travelogue, Ep. 18:

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I snapped this photo on the next to last day of our trip. We were in Kerala and took a boat ride to a scenic spot where we ate whole fish steamed in banana leaves at a modest, roadside stand. The proprietor beamed with pride when we praised his cooking as the best of our trip.

While returning, our guide suggested we stop our boat early and walk the rest of the way through a small village. The sun was setting and we spent a good bit of time standing outside a temple where people were singing and praying. By the time we walked back to our waiting van, it was dark. As we passed the open doors of village homes, I couldn’t help but pause and look inside.

I felt nosy looking too long, and a little intrusive taking this photo. Most of all I felt humbled by the life that is mine.

White. American. Educated. Healthy. Prosperous.

Why are these blessings mine and not others?

I’ve long known I’m an incurable existentialist and answering questions such as this can be a fool’s errand. Or naval gazing of a sort that is the purview of a prosperous, white American.

So I did the only thing I knew to do. I quietly whispered “Namaste” to the open door and continued my journey.

***

Namaste is a traditional Hindu greeting translated as “The God/light in me honors the God/light in you.”

 

 

India Travelogue, Ep. 17:

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I have been known to be a prolific shopper in my day, but I was pretty restrained in India, in part because of the monetary crisis (cash shortage) that hit the day after we arrived, and in part because I had spent a butt-load of money on a 25th Wedding Anniversary party right before my big trip.

I’ve already talked about the trinkets I brought home as gifts for others, but this quilt is one of  three “treasures” I bought for myself. It’s hand sewn by Indian women who make their living this way and it’s patched together from used saris (traditional Indian dresses).

I knew when I saw it I had to have it. I asked how much and the seller said $350. I paused but not long. I mean . . . I’m a quilter. How could I say no?

But then my friend Vandana walked up and took over. She frowned at me and stared at the seller. “How much?” she demanded. He repeated the price and she immediately gave him a stern “No!”

By the time she finished negotiating, the price was $160 and I was one happy camper.

I grew up poor enough that bargaining has always been deeply embarrassing to me. To my way of thinking, not paying the sticker price means you can’t afford it. When shopping for cars and houses, I have on many occasions told my husband “Just pay what they’re asking!” (Fortunately, he doesn’t listen to me.)

But Vandana . . . She is a stud. Just watching her work was a primer in deal-making. She was firm but not belligerent or rude. Hard-nosed but not unreasonable. Tough but fair. Bargaining is de rigueur in her culture and she made sure her American friends got square deals in every single instance.

And ain’t my prize just grand?

 

India Travelogue, Ep. 16:

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I love this video more than any I shot on my trip. This man’s skill with a machete and his ability to serve coconut fast is incredible. I can’t remember how much we paid per coconut, but it was minimal, perhaps a dollar or two. In addition to drinking the coconut water, we ate the flesh. And as my friend Vandana pointed out, there’s no comparison to the coconut you get in the states. The coconut in India is far more tender (not at all chewy like it is here) and sweeter. These coconut vendors were common in Kerala but this particular man had the very best fruit (and the best technique).

India Travelogue, Ep. 15:

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After yesterday’s rant about clean air, I just wanted to share a lighthearted photo today.

These are my friends Vandana and Rama. They grew up in India but moved to the states after college. Both are accomplished scientists whose families contribute so much to our small community. I’ve been their friends for five years and I cannot tell you how much they’ve enriched my life. New culture, new foods, new faith traditions, and new perspectives have all come my way because of their friendship.

They are the reason I traveled to India last month. Without their planning, their encouragement, their guidance, and their patience, I never would have contemplated a trip to a locale so far outside my knowledge and comfort zone. That they agreed to take four American women who’d never traveled to India on a two-week trip says a great deal about their spirit of adventure and fortitude (and, frankly, their denial of our frailties, neuroses and demands).

This photo was taken late in our trip (in Karala) as they introduced us to the delight of fresh coconut water. Tomorrow, I’ll tell you about that. Today, I just want to say friendship is one of the greatest blessings of my life. Trips come and go but friends are for life (if you do it right).

India Travelogue, Ep. 14:

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Today’s photo is from a newspaper story I read the first day of our trip. The air quality was shockingly bad during our visit. Many folks were wearing masks and even though we discussed buying them, we somehow failed to do it, to our own detriment. (I had only once before encountered smog so bad, in San Paulo, Brazil.) Ten days into our trip, the burning in my nose and throat turned into a respiratory infection and I came home sick. I can only imagine how much one’s quality of life is diminished by this level of pollution over time. At the risk of sounding political, anyone who wishes to dismantle the EPA (I’m calling out you, @realdonaldTrump and your toady, Pruitt) should be made to breathe polluted air until you cry uncle. Seriously, don’t be an ignorant or willfully misinformed or blasé American. Fight to protect your air! #india #travel #anamericangoestoindia

India Travelogue, Ep. 13.

Click here to watch video:

Today’s post is a short video I shot on one of our long van rides. We were in a rural area and traffic was light so it’s not a nail-biter compared to Delhi, which I did not have the opportunity to video. But it does show how dividing lines are considered mere suggestions. Drivers routinely move into oncoming traffic and split the middle when passing. And notice the motorized rickshaw (called “autos”) that heads right for us (wrong lane, wrong way).

Driving rules that if broken would get you ticketed or arrested in the US are mostly ignored in India but it all seems to work out somehow. Nobody’s asleep at the wheel because you have to be alert in a game where all rules are negotiable. Bonus points to anyone who noticed Indians drive on the opposite side of the road as Americans.

India Travelogue, Ep. 12:

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One of the most fascinating (and hair-raising) aspects of my trip was the sights and sounds to be found on India’s roads. I could write five posts about it (and might) but today’s reflection is about what I called the “clown car” effect. Everywhere I looked, there were motorized vehicles with about triple to quadruple the riders they were designed for.

Case in point: scooters were everywhere and we rarely saw one or even two riders. More typically, there were three to five riders. One memorable exception I saw was a single rider transporting a full sized refrigerator on the back of his scooter. Understandably, the fridge took up all the room that would have otherwise been allotted to additional riders.

Riders rarely wore helmets. Most wore sandals. Women rode side-saddle. And you just haven’t seen family togetherness until you’ve seen a family of five zipping down the road at nearly 50 mph on a single scooter — young son, father, young daughter, mother and infant (on mother’s lap) lined up like a cartoon illustration you can’t imagine until you see it in real life.

Efficiency rather than comfort or safety seems to be the name of the game. How else do you explain four to five folks riding a tractor down the road (I saw this multiple times), or dozens of folks riding in a dump truck (I couldn’t count them all but I’m guessing maybe 50 souls), or cars carrying two to three times the American legal limit?

Bicycles, farm and heavy equipment, carts pulled by livestock, busses, semis, rickshaws (both pedaled and motorized), scooters, motorcycles, cars, trucks, vans . . . you name it. If it had wheels or legs and could move forward, I saw it in traffic, both urban and rural.

Interestingly, during two weeks of travel, I didn’t see a single highway patrolman (I assume they have them) and I only saw one accident. India’s roads are jam-packed with what might best be called improvised modes of transportation but people are alert and seem to maneuver far better than many of the American motorists I encounter daily. Mario’s got nothing on Kumar, man!

 

 

India Travelogue, Ep. 11:

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Okay, I’ve patiently written my way through 10 episodes of this travelogue without addressing a topic of utmost importance and I just can’t wait any longer.

The bathroom sitch must be discussed.

At the risk of using a bad pun, it’s a crapshoot. Emphasis on the crap.

I know. That was an easy shot. But I’m going to stand my ground as a First World Lady of High Standards and just acknowledge the accommodations were dismal.

I realize dismal is relative. But I’m the one telling this story so my assessment is the one that matters. Imagine the worst American truck-stop bathroom you’ve ever patronized and throw that image out of your head as not comparable. That’s right, most of the public bathrooms were horror shows.

But here’s the great thing about relativity — after about three days, your standards change. During the middle of our trip, as one friend and I exited one bathroom that would have previously been considered appalling, she remarked “Well, that wasn’t bad!” Then we laughed about how an unlit toilet the size of phone booth without a flushing toilet, toilet paper, soap, or paper towels suddenly became “not bad.”

The worst part of our trip is that both my friend and I suffered from “sluggish” digestive tracts during our travel. I just want to say the timing of medicine to alleviate that condition is no laughing matter when you travel 5-18 hours every day and you never know what kind of bathroom you’re going to find on the road. The planning surrounding this problem consumed most of our mental and emotional energy and I’m not joking. Ask our companions.

Toward the end of our trip, I went on a hunger strike. I can’t explain it except to say my body was in revolt and I simply stopped eating. (I lost five pounds in 14 days.) Somehow, my bowels knew the exact moment I touched down on U.S. soil because I had to rush off the airplane in Dallas for the ladies room.

And I can say without hyperbole that I was never so happy to see an American public bathroom in my life. I’d been carrying a roll of toilet paper, a bar of soap, Clorox wipes, and hand sanitizing wipes in my purse for two weeks. I dumped all my supplies in the trash at DFW and never looked back.

Epilogue: Here’s the thing you need to know. Indian restrooms usually have one, or sometimes two, of two basic options: either a “Turkish” toilet (a hole in the ground) or an American toilet. All the American toilets I chose (except for the ones in my hotels) lacked supplies like toilet paper, soap and paper towels. Instead, they all offered either a hand held bidet (imagine the sprayer on your kitchen faucet), a spigot near the foot of the toilet (I still don’t get this), or a pail of water with a cup submerged in the water (WHAT?). Apparently water is preferred over toilet paper. And, mind you, it’s all cold water.

It’s a nightmare! First of all, that hose has been sprayed all over and I’m sure it’s scattered some particles with it. It also explains why all the bathrooms are wet. Every surface. Dripping wet. When you and your clothes are dry and you step into a wet bathroom, well, eeeew! Also, you have to handle the hose — the hose that all those hands have handled and pointed at their nether regions. And air drying? Are you KIDDING me??? You try pulling up your pants when your bottom has been hosed off and there’s not a shred of toilet paper or a paper towel in sight! I only encountered one bathroom that was private enough and clean enough that I dared touch the hose and give it a try. I got water EVERYWHERE. And since it was my hotel bathroom, I had to clean up the mess before my roommate used it next. I cannot fathom how this ever caught on. And the bathrooms that have buckets and cups instead of hoses? I’m still having nightmares about that cesspool of germs. The handheld bidet is the worst idea ever. Unless the water stream is automated (no hands) and warmed, why would anyone think this is a good idea?
And I haven’t even told the story about the time I stood watch for my friends (because many bathroom doors don’t lock) and they ditched me. Which means I got walked in on by an Indian stranger. And they ditched-ditched me.  Which means I exited the restroom and my bus was gone. You know that scene in “Almost Famous” where they leave the lead singer at the gas station? Yeah, they had to send the tour guide back for me. I have no idea why I’m smiling in the photo above. It’s a wonder I didn’t shiv somebody.