Saturday, April 28, 2007

three weeks in the land of the haves and have-nots.

india has been one of the most maddening, demanding, challenging, frustrating, exhilarating and saddening experiences of my life.

in three short weeks, hardly enough to sample, let alone pass judgment on this amazing country, I have nevertheless seen things that break my heart, things that try my faith in humankind, and things that make me glad to be a member of the human race.

first of all, I had heard, like everyone else, that india evokes strong feelings of either revulsion or elation in the casual visitor. there is no way to visit india for any substantial length of time and remain unmoved or ambivalent. this was very true for Delaney. almost from the very first day, he found the heat, the filth, the crowds, the poverty, the endless haggling, the aggressive touts, and the food contrary to what he knows and enjoys. we laughed when we heard from a fellow Ice person that India stands for I'll Never Do It Again, laughter that bordered on manic tears. it's a very difficult place.

first of all, I have my own interpretation of what India stands for: Is Not Doable in April. normally I am among the most fastidious of planners. I make endless lists, consult various websites and books, and pick the brains of those who have gone before. but reason deserted me this time. had I paid close attention to any of a number of sources, I would have learned that the best time to visit india is not april, but between october and march. april is hot. blisteringly, searingly, tarzan-couldn't-take-this-kind-of-hot, H-O-T hot. not all of india is hot in april, but several of the places I was bent on visiting certainly are. and we paid for it. boy, did we pay for it. there were several occasions simply walking down the street between the hours of 10:00 am and 6:00 pm when I thought I would instantly combust. so, this is Piece of Sage Advice #1: if, like myself, you have spent the last ten years thickening your blood in such climates as seattle, mongolia and, oh, ANTARCTICA, do not visit india in april.

aside from the astounding heat index, india is challenging on many other fronts. I thought myself a seasoned traveler. I had lived in a developing country for two years, and visited several other locations as a budget-conscious backpacker. crowds don't bother me; I can glide serenely through them. touts don't bother me; I say no with a smile and keep on walking. I can stay inside during the hottest part of the day, wear sunscreen and protective layers, and patronize air-conditioned establishments to escape the worst of the heat. but the real challenges for me were the unavoidable filth and the in-your-face poverty, especially when it affected women, children and the handicapped.

the filth in india's cities is legendary. some streets are conscientiously swept by the lower castes; others are left piled high with vegetable peelings, empty bottles and plastic bags, dog shit, cow dung, and the detritus of everyday life in a country with little sanitation infrastructure. but even in areas that looked recently swept, one only had to go around a corner or take a train ride to the outer edges of the city to see what had happened to all that garbage: it was still there, encrusting streambeds, littering entire hillsides, being picked through by the less fortunate to see what they could scrounge and recycle or sell. I am certain that underneath all the garbage is a somewhat attractive country. but it's hard to tell. how do you unearth it when a billion people carry out their daily lives on top of it?

on the poverty front, india is truly a land of the haves v. the have-nots. everyone has heard of india's legendary poverty. it is staggering. beggars that drag themselves through marketplaces and alongside cars waiting at red lights, some with missing limbs, others with grotesquely swollen growths, some with fly-blown infants on their arms. children that make the rounds on train platforms, using the gesture of fingers-from-hand-to-pursed mouth to mime hunger. it was heartbreaking. how individual travelers react to beggars is really up to them. some choose to give alms, or baksheesh, to each person that asks. others donate sums to organizations such as orphanges or poorhouses that are set up to shelter and assist the homeless and destitute. still others choose their beggars according to some kind of criterium, such as: handicapped and deformed get money, healthy and able-to-work don't. women with babies on their hips are a difficult decision. is the child well-fed? does the mother face a beating by her husband if she returns home without the day's pay earned by begging? not something I can determine with a swift look as I pass her on the street.

we arrived in delhi in the wee hours of april 7. it was hot, but not as hot as I had thought it would be, even at 2:30 am. my first we're-not-in-kansas-anymore moment was in the restroom of the baggage claim area. there was a squat toilet set into the floor. not a problem -- I'd used those extensively in japan and mongolia. but instead of toilet paper, there was a spigot on the wall, with a little bucket underneath. what to do? I had read that most of india cleans themselves with water after they use the toilet. but my attempts to do so only resulted in me getting most of my clothing and shoes wet along with my nether regions.

having sufficiently drenched myself, delaney and I went outside to meet our driver. a friend from my borders days, chris, had put me in touch with a friend of his that lives in delhi and works for a catholic nonprofit. she and I had been communicating by e-mail and she had not only graciously offered her apartment as a crash pad for whenever we found ourselves in delhi, she had given us scads of useful information on how to dress, what to see and do, what to bring, the virtues of using a travel agent, and so on. in fact, she had sent the driver to pick us up and take us to her apartment. when we arrived at caroline's place in south delhi, we were stunned. she was up and waiting for us, as she promised she would be, at 3:30 am, with a cold beer. and her apartment was palatial. huge, elegantly appointed, with peacocks visible from her balcony, and fully equipped for two very hot and tired travelers. we had planned on staying one night and setting out the next day. we ended up staying for three nights.

one of the first things caroline and her friend sarah did for us was to take us shopping for indian clothes. we needed stuff that was culturally appropriate, as well as better suited to the heat. I bought two kurtas, which are like shirts that go down to the knee and have long slits up the sides. most indian women wear them over loose pants. I also bought a dupatta, or scarf, which could be draped over both shoulders from the front with the ends hanging down my back, or used to cover my head if I went into a hindu temple. delaney bought two indian-style cotton button-down shirts and a pair of drawstring pants. we were ready.

caroline told us an interesting aside about the caste system in india. there are four or five major castes, with the highest being brahmins and the lowest being the dalits, or scheduled castes (formerly known as 'untouchables'). not everyone in india ascribes to the system, but many people do, and it informs various aspects of their lives, from whom they marry to the type of employment available to them. for example, caroline's housekeeper rakesh is of a certain caste. he comes by almost every weekday to do her housework. but when she asked him if he would include cleaning her ceiling fans in his regular duties, he refused. apparently that is the work of a lower caste. and when she asked if he would mind watering her plants, he also refused. that is the work of a higher caste.

I read a newspaper article about groups of dalits having mass conversions to christianity and buddhism. they felt that the dignity that was denied them under the hindu caste system could be regained if they switched religions.

caroline's advice about using a travel agent was spot-on. we went to one she suggested, a man named vivek, and he very helpfully set up a series of train rides around india as well as a round-trip plane ticket to nepal. india's train system was inducted by the british, and in my opinion it's the best way to see the country. sleeper trains have compartments with anywhere from four to eight bunks in them, and linens are included in the price. attendants come by offering bottled water, omelette sandwiches, little cups of chai, and veg or non-veg indian meals for sale. there is a toilet at the end of the car, where your waste products go right out onto the train tracks when you flush. often you share a compartment with a family or a couple that is eager to practice their english and to ask what you think of india. and you go to sleep in one city, lulled by the swaying of the train and the whistle blowing, and wake up in another.

our first overnight train trip took us to varanasi, the holiest city in the hindu religion. varanasi sits on the ganges river and is famously visited by millions of pilgrims every year. I wanted to see and experience the city for myself.

we took a cycle-rickshaw to the old city and asked around until we found our hostel, a run-down establishment owned by a guru-like, cheerful indian man and his japanese wife. kumiko's is something of a legend among young japanese travelers. the place was full of them. kumiko is a large, slow-moving woman who seems to wear one muumuu-like outfit and speaks four languages -- japanese, english, hindi and bengali (her husband is from the bengal region) and makes a western-style breakfast and a japanese-style dinner for the guests every day (as far as we could tell, the only difference was the presence of bread at breakfast and rice at dinner). when the meal is ready to be passed, dish by dish, in a conga line up the stairs to the eating area on the third floor, kumiko stands at the bottom of the stairwell and yells gohaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan! (mealtime!) a dorm bed is 50 rupees (a little over a dollar). delaney and I splurged on a double room for 120 rupees. there were three light switches in our room, labeled with the following cryptic words: fun / light / ?.

we later figured out that 'fun' was fan, and light was light, but we never did find out what ? was.

varanasi was hot. this rather obvious condition was coupled with the exciting possibility of frequent power outages, which meant our fan would slowly whir to a stop as we descended into the pit of eternal despair.

we walked the narrow, cobblestoned, shit-stained alleyways and strolled along the ghats next to the river ganges. we saw bodies being cremated and people offering puja in the form of incense, prayers and marigold blossoms. we passed dogs that were more skin and bone than actual dog, and groups of young men playing cricket. we saw strung-out hippie westerners sporting dreadlocks, loincloths and vacant looks. and poor delaney had stomach issues almost the entire time. that, along with the fearsome heat, meant that we did and saw little in varanasi. no matter. I was happy just to be there, with the pilgrims, the doubters, the seekers and the believers.

I've read a couple of very fine books while in india. the first is a must for anyone planning to visit this country. it was recommened by caroline, and, in spite of the fact that I rarely read fiction, I needed something for the train and she swore up and down it would change my life. and it actually did. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry is one of those novels that is so powerful you can barely move after finishing it. it helped me understand india's turbulent caste wars, the State of Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi in the 1970s, and the way millions and millions of people live and die in abject poverty.

I am now in the middle of Blink by Malcolm Gladwell. not as life-changing, but certainly entertaining in a Freakonomics sort of way.

well, the rest of my india experience will have to wait for another blog entry. we're in kathmandu, nepal, and getting ready to head out tomorrow for three weeks of trekking around the annapurna circuit. I will almost certainly not have internet access during this time. but I'm happy and well, and nepal is amazing, and we're having mexican food tonight!

namaste and big hugs,

Friday, April 13, 2007

westward to the east.

aloha from india!

but before I blog about india...prior to coming here, we spent two weeks in japan getting spoiled rotten by my mom and her family.

my mom and I flew to japan from hawaii on march 21. she's originally from okinawa, where my grandma and an aunt still live, and also has sisters and a brother in osaka and yokohama. one brother lives in LA, where he owns a sushi bar named Sushi Tsune after my grandmother.

my mom and I spent a few days in osaka, then flew to okinawa. delaney met us there. then delaney and I flew back to osaka and used it as a base for a week of travels around southern honshu.

in okinawa, we stayed with my grandmother and auntie takae in my grandma's two-story concrete home in itoman, a little fishing town on the southern side of the island. most of our days were filled with sightseeing, eating, viewing the world swimming championships on TV (go michael phelps!), and marveling over the amount of japanese food delaney could put away on a daily basis.

here we all are at my grandma's favorite restaurant, the cheerily named Hello Restaurant. she and auntie takae go there every day for lunch. L - R: auntie saechan, my mom, grandma, auntie takae, me and delaney.

my auntie saechan bought a day-long bus tour for all of us, which took us to several interesting and scenic places on okinawa island. one of these stops was at something called Ryukyu Village (okinawa used to be known as the ryukyu kingdom prior to its annexation to japan), where you could see people in old-time costume playing traditional instruments, cooking traditional foods, making pottery and other handicrafts, pressing sugarcane with an old-fashioned water buffalo press, and so forth. my mom and aunties said it reminded them a lot of their childhood. here are auntie saechan, my mom and auntie takae in front of one of the traditional stone-tiled roofs. the figure crawling over the roof at top right is a shisa, or mythical lion-dog. pairs of shisa are staged at the gate of every household in okinawa to keep away evil spirits. you would never guess it, but these lovely ladies are 55, 65 and 62 years old respectively. if genetics are to be believed, I guess I'm going to be carded until I'm about 50.

here's a picture of delaney manfully tackling a meal at a fancy new organic restaurant specializing in ryukyu cuisine. our hosts were astounded that he would eat not only the mundane stuff like raw fish, seaweed and pickled radish root, but also purely okinawan exotica such as pigs'-feet soup, stinky fermented soybeans, and bittermelon stir-fry. trust me. that's stuff I don't even eat.

a word of advice for anyone who is planning to visit japan: get the Japan Rail Pass. trust me on this one. if you're planning to spend at least a week there, the JRP is the best deal around. it's available only to foreigners, and can only be purchased prior to coming to japan. it's sold in 7, 14 and 21-day increments and allows for unlimited travel on all Japan Rail lines, including bullet trains. for $244 each, we received the seven-day pass, which we used on city trains, intercity trains and bullet trains every single day that we were based out of osaka. one bullet train ticket can cost nearly $200, so this pass was an incredible bargain. we spent many an hour sitting and taking in the views in japan's unbelievably spotless, efficiently timed, punctual and comfortable train system.

here we are in front of the okinawan peace memorial and museum, an astoundingly educational and moving experience. the battle of okinawa in 1944 pitted the american forces against the japanese imperialist army. as okinawa is an extremely strategic military location, the americans and the japanese were both hell-bent on acquiring it for use as a base in the pacific theater. the okinawan civilians (who at that time were not yet japanese citizens) were caught in the middle of intense fighting. many were massacred or forced to commit mass suicide by japanese soldiers, who told them that if they didn't, the american barbarians would run them over with their tanks and that the only way to save their honor was to die en masse for the emperor. there are memorials and shrines all over okinawa to those who died in the horrific conditions. one of the most famous, himeyuri-no-to, is a natural limestone cave where dozens of high-school aged nurses perished. they were first urged by the americans to surrender and come out, but having heard stories from the japanese soldiers about what americans were like, they stayed inside and were killed by a bomb.

the most impressive thing about all these museums and memorials is the pervasive theme of peace and harmony, and how human beings not only have the capacity to inflict grievous violence on each other, but also harbor the potential for living together peacefully. (this was also the theme at the atomic-bomb peace park in hiroshima, which delaney and I visited the following week. those pics have yet to be posted as they're stuck in delaney's camera.)

in osaka, my cousin's son keishin was about to graduate from kindergarten, so my mom and I decided to attend the ceremony. boy, were we impressed. first of all, while walking there we were passed by several moms on bicycle or in cars, kindergarteners in tow, on their way to the special event. every single mom was wearing a formal suit, usually black, with a corsage pinned to the shoulder. we started to feel a little underdressed. when we arrived, the headmaster himself greeted us at the doorway. he asked if we were there for a certain student, and we said yes, we're here to see keishin hayakawa graduate. he was very understanding and welcoming, even when he discovered that we had not brought a set of indoor slippers to wear. (everyone has a set that they keep at the kindergarten, which they change into from their street shoes to keep the place tidy.) no problem -- he instantly procured a pair for each of us, emblazed with the kindergarten's name: Akebono ("dawn") Day Care and Kindergarten. then it was time to go upstairs to the third floor auditorium, where video cameras were trained on every kid. over the next couple of hours, we were treated to songs and speeches (most of them by the kindergarteners themselves or their younger schoolmates, and all of them from memory) and pomp and circumstance and pageantry that we agreed later we had only ever seen on the collegiate level back in the states. here is my cousin's son, accepting his diploma from the headmaster. note the deep bow signifying lots of proper humility.

anyone who has been to japan has probably heard that they use squat toilets. well, yes, they do, and those deserve an entire blog entry for themselves, but nowadays they also have these rather space-age sit-down models that feature a choice of big v. little flush (see characters at right) and nowadays the best thing to come along for your bum since charmin: the built-in bidet. this control panel is on your right as you sit on the toilet. the buttons offer such post-BM goodies as a shower spray (from front or back), adjustable water temperature, adjustable strength of water stream, warm air blast, heated seats, and vacuum to whisk away offending odors. some of them will sense when you open the cubicle door and lift their lids automatically, as if to say Welcome! and enjoy! my auntie saechan has one in her house. on a visit with my dad a few years ago, we realized that had we hadn't seen dad for a while. upon investigating, he was found in the bathroom giddily trying out all the bidet choices.

finally, some silly pics of me and Tate taken in hawaii that I forgot to upload earlier. hopefully more to come soon about the rest of japan, and then india!
namaste and jaa, mata ne ~