Wednesday, May 26, 2010
We arrived in Bangalore at 4 in the morning, and had a few hours to kill before getting to the airport to catch a flight to Kolkata. Half asleep, groggy, and homeless, we attempted to go to the city, which was a bit on the useless side at that hour. We had read that at 7 am ISKON, or the Hare Krishna headquarters, opens for tours and prayer, and what better way to experience Bangalore than with Hare Krishna dancing, chanting, prostrating, running back and forth with pink, pony tailed cultists, fanning a golden statue of their master, who, being dead, and now made of gold, could care less? Anyway, we toured their massive temple and grounds, their well-placed shops of books and vegan food and even joined in the dancing which is eerily similar to the Hora, and no, we are not now Hare Krishna, though not for lack of trying on their part.
A quick flight later we landed smoothly at the mouth of the great Hooghley River, the delta of the sacred Ganges: Calcutta, now called Kolkata, an attempt to rid the influence of the British and Indianize the name.
Kolkata is hot! ..balls sticking to your thighs hot, feeling like the french fries boy over boiling oil in McDonalds hot. We took one of the crappier hotel rooms we’ve had so far at an old hippie establishment, the not so modern Modern Lodge that has been serving blissed-out sub-continent seekers since the 60’s. There we met many characters, most whom had been there for months, volunteering with the Sisters of Charity, the organization made famous by Mother Teresa, coming to terms with themselves and their pasts: anger, truth, whatever it is that people think they are searching for, running to or away from, smoking, dropping, or epiphanizing about, mantra whispering, sutra repeating, or drinking the past away, along with the rest of India.
We spent our first night exploring the convoluted alleyways and market of Sudder Street, the area where most cheap backpackers hang out, catering to grubby hippies, the poor, upper crust shoppers looking for a bargain and backdoor dealers. Indians live and work in the streets, especially in the heat of summer. They bathe in the street, go to the public open urinals, and shit in the street. They eat, drink, burp, fart and die in the street. They get their hair cut and fresh shaves in the street, they sleep, talk, smoke, and make babies in the street. All this makes people watching in Kolkata the best site seeing. We enjoyed Chai from single use clay tea cups, which for some reason one throws on the ground after finishing the tea, a thing we found strange in such a poor country. We ate Bengali sweets and egg – veg – chicken rolls. But mostly we just sat and watched the throngs of people go by, wallas (hawkers) of any kind, shirtless, paan spitting, sweat drenched rickshaw pullers jingling their bells to warn people to get out of the way. Zen paan wallas, sitting lotus like the great caterpillar on their shelves, concocting betel nut creations for addicted clientele who spit the red stuff on all corners (except statues and pictures of Shiva of course) of India. Goat herders moving herds through alleyways and streets as if they were in an open brush desert, and not in a city of more than 15 million souls.
Kolkata has a bad and mystical reputation as the poor, downtrodden home of the saintly Mother Teresa. This all may be true; however, Kolkata is also home to the proud Bengali people, communist to the bone, and flying the red flag of the worker from every light pole. It is a city that worships Kali the destroyer goddess, whose great toe fell at the Kalighat temple when Vishnu cut her into 51 pieces. It is also the city that took the brunt of partition when, in 1947, 4 million Hindus fled present day Pakistan to Kolkata. It is a city of universities, the former British seat of power before it moved to New Dehli, the delta of the mighty Hooghley river that is the end of mother Ganges, and Indian poets, writers, and intellectuals. It is a city about which countless books have been written, and whose name means something to all people, whether they have been there or not.
After getting our fill of Sudder street and New Market we ventured further out, taking in some of the sites. We saw the Victoria memorial, commemorating the fat Queen Victoria on her 1901 diamond jubilee, and making our way around the Maiden and fort William to the banks of the Hooghley river from whose Babu Ghat we ferried across to Howrah station. All the while we watched street urchins, families, homeless and barefoot tattled devotees washing, praying, drinking, and swimming in the filthy waters who would make any westerner sick immediately were they stupid enough to swim in the putrid but revered waters. We walked back across the mighty Howrah bridge and through the flower market, where amongst the filth of Kolkata, garlands and flowers designs are made to be offered in devotion to gods.
We also saw the Indian museum, a raggedy collection of dimly lit paintings, gorily stuffed decaying animals and oddities of nature, statues of Shiva, Ganesh and Buddha gathering dust and disorganized fossils and insects, treasures of India laid out in no particular order or care. Sunday afternoon we went to pay our respects to Kali at Kalighat temple, and were taken through the chaotic maze of shrines, idols, statues, swimming in the mass of devotees cracking coconuts in a haze of incense, prostrating, chanting and wailing while dirty children and dogs fought and barked all around. Animal sacrifices are still made to the fearsome goddess who stands on Vishnu with her bloody knife and necklace of severed heads.
We paid homage to mother Teresa’s Nirmal Hriday home for the dying while watching the communists march in support of their candidate. We finished the night by splurging on a real Bengali meal of fish, prawns the size of a small cat and rose water soaked sweets.
Apart from the searing heat and humidity, and the constant drenching of filth and sweat, Kolkata was by far our favorite metropolis thus far. It is a place of legend and horror, and felt more “Indian” than any other place we have been. It is a place where the poor and lame with bleeding, pusy wounds, severed limbs, fallen extremities, and deformities of every kind line the streets to beg and sleep. Women hire babies to increase their chances of begging with a child on their hip, and the skilled auto rickshaw drivers ply the roads, giving you a roller coaster ride through the gridlocked streets that’s unmatched by any amusement park. We were happy to leave the heat and get onto our air conditioned train car to Darjeeling, but sad to leave this buzzing hive of humanity where one can live on a penny or a thousand dollars a day.
For more pictures of krazy Kolkata, click here.
Our next stop after leaving the beaches of
The town itself is centered on a bazaar with shops and a clasic temple. The
The temples and buildings are covered with intricate carvings, mostly showing scenes of Vedic stories, Gods, and animals. We wandered through ruins and climbed a nearby hill to see a temple at the top and take in the early morning sun over the rest of the village. When the heat became unbearable, around we retreated to a shadowy nook or the river to stay cool while the rest of the town and animals slept the heat away. We watched and were watched by many Indian pilgrims coming to perform devotion rituals (puja) at the temples and got blessed by the resident elephant of the temple, Laxmi, who will bless your head with her trunk once she gets a shiny coin.
We finished up after 2 days and bused back to the town where the trains depart from, Hospet. There we spent a few hours at a fancy hotel pool with a group of French travelers who were doing the same thing. (The French guy was fed up with Indian food and lamenting the lack of wine or cheese or anything that doesn’t taste like curry.) We ate a roadside dinner of vegetable thali (lots of little bowls of curries and dals and a big heap of rice to eat it with) and boarded the overnight train for Bangalore, this time in general sleeper class (no AC). On board we befriended a generous family who insisted on feeding us our second dinner and offered us the two bunks separate from the others. We woke up at 4 am in Bangalore, part of a long travel leg that would eventually find us in Kolkata later that afternoon.
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Goa was colonized by the Portugese who came over in the 1500s and converted many people to Christianity, and only recently left in the 1960s. The Portugese influence can still be felt in the many Catholic churches, the last names of people (Fernandes, Rames, etc.), the language and the food. It is known as being a very laid-back place and westerners have been coming since hippie times to hang out on the beautiful beaches. The coastline is all white, sandy, palm-tree filled beaches and we settled on a beach in the south called Palolem, a 1-mile strip of temporary beach huts and restaurants, all advertising the same “multi-cuisine” menu of Indio-Italian-Chinese-Israeli-thai-goan and seafood. Since it's low season, the beach is in the process of shutting down for the next few months of monsoons, so prices are cheap and negotiable and things shut down, however signs of the high-season scene were evident everywhere: yoga on the beach, aryuvedic massage, meditation workshops, tai chi and Goan cooking classes.
We got a "coco hut" on the beach for a few bucks per night and settled in for 5 days of what felt like an undeserved (but still welcome) beach vacation. The heat was much more tolerable with the sea breezes and the ocean to cool off in and the water was warm and inviting. We spent some days just hanging out, reading, playing in the waves, drinking fruit lassis and eating Goan fish curry rice. On our second day there, we were approached by a local restaurant owner who asked if we were interested in being extras in a Bollywood movie that was filming at a near-by beach resort. They offered food and drink for the entire day and 1000 Rupees (about $20) and since we really had no other plans, we accepted.
The day started at 8 am and about 30 other white tourists of all kinds were bused to the set, which was just a nearby beach, and were instructed to hang out under umbrellas until they needed us for shooting. A bus of Indian tourists and locals also showed up to be extras. Indian women are very modest, however, and do not wear bathing suits on the beach. If they do swim, they wear all their clothes or a sari, so all the white ladies provided the skin. We spent the day baking, gawking at the Bollywood stars, all of whom are quite famous, we were reassured by some of the Indians, and walking on cue during the scenes. The movie is called Golmaar III and as you can guess by the title, is a “threequel” and we were not able to gather from the explanations what the movie is exactly about, but our scene involves some jet skis and the stars being chased by a jet ski and some very melodramatic physical comedy….and not much in the way of acting. We got an autograph and a picture with Johnny Lever, a famous comedian, and got some surreptitious shots of the other young stars, all of whom are chased by personal assistants with umbrellas to keep them out of the sun (and keep them from getting tan as dark skin is not considered beautiful), make up and hair people, a person to carry the cell phone, and a whole host of other helpers and quasi-directors. As extras, we had to walk around on the beach a lot—strange because most people lay in the sun when they go to the beach and this looked like a scene from a busy park with all of us strolling in different directions—and most of the people who sign up to be extras are backpackers living on peanuts in India, so there are a lot of dreadlocks and aging hippies in the crowd. Anyways, the movie releases in November so make sure to look out for us in our Bollywood debut!
We spent 2 days touring other parts of Goa on a Royal Enfield Bullet motorcycle, a common bike here in India, but more of a classic collectors item in the US, I have been reassured by my husband who was very excited to drive us around. It was actually a perfect way to see the landscape and capture some of the subtleties that you don’t see from a bus window, but cover some ground. Plus, it was cool to ride on the back of a bike—but don’t think this means that I have changed my mind at all about the safety of these things. We braved the crazy Indian drivers who honk before passing, but then take slower trucks on hills around blind curves at breakneck speeds or drive without their lights or on the wrong side of the road. We toured some unpopulated beaches, stopping on the way to admire cashew trees (the fruit is sweet and tastes like cashews) and some Hindu temples. We visited an old Portugese coastal fort and were offered coconuts from a family who just climbed a palm tree to go them. We ate fish curry and prawns at a little local restaurant and saw some smaller towns and villages. We also spent a day touring Panaji, the current capital of Goa, and then stopped in Old Goa, the former capital, that was abandoned due to cholera and malaria and the plague in the 18th century. Old Goa has several huge Portugese-style churches and one in particular that houses the relics of a saint, and many Indian Christians were making a pilgrimage to the town, enduring the ridiculous heat to pray and offer devotion.
We wound up our trip to Goa after 6 days, managing to find an electrician who took our adaptor apart and fixed the blown fuse, and, even though the trains are mostly booked out for the next 6 weeks because all of India is on their summer vacation, we were able to somehow secure train tickets to our next destination. We left the laid back beaches on a blissfully air conditioned day train and traveled inland to the state of Karnatika, arriving in the town of Hospet and then, in 110 degree weather, boarded a bus that took us to Hampi.
For more pictures of Goa, click here.
Sunday, May 16, 2010
We flew from Israel to India and arrived around 4:30 in the morning, not knowing exactly how to proceed. It was too early to check into our hotel and we were too tired to go exploring Mumbai after an overnight flight, and there was no place in the airport to crash for a few hours. We also feared the searing heat that we knew awaited us outside of the confines of the airport’s A/C. We finally decided to venture into the city, towards the hotel, to try our luck at getting a room early (checkout time in India is 9 a.m.) If not, we would drop our bags and head out to the city for a few hours. We got a cab and ventured into the hot, steamy dawn. Mumbai is a city that, at last census in 2001, had over 16 million people and where over 50% of the population lives in a slum. We drove the southern tip of the peninsula, where the center of the city lies, passing on the way thousands of sleeping bodies everywhere: on sidewalks and streets, car hoods, carts, and benches. If there was room, someone (and often entire families) was sprawled out on it.
We arrived at our budget hotel, not far from the great Victoria Station, and they were kind enough to give us a room early. Lodging in Mumbai is more expensive than in the rest of the country, and we had searched to find a budget room. When we walked up to the room, we saw why the price was cheap. The room was hot and stuffy, literally a box with plywood walls with a filthy, shared bathroom and shit-stained toilet, and starting at 7 am, just as we were trying to fall asleep, loud blaring music and voices from the other plywood-box rooms surrounding ours. It felt more like a bad storage unit than a hotel room, and definitely not like the pictures in the brochure. Too tired to protest, we crashed, but after a few hours, we had enough. After Rusha yelled at the guy next door if he could turn down the cricket game he was watching on TV at concert hall levels and he responded that he couldn’t, we went to the lobby and, still half asleep complained till we were moved to a better room. The result, though still made of quarter inch plywood, had its own bathroom/shower and a door leading to a balcony. The Hotel New Bengal was our introduction to the budget hotels of India.
After sleeping off the all-nighter on the plane, we ventured out to take care of some logistics, like train tickets to Goa, our next destination. We walked into Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (Victoria Station), one of the busiest stations in the world, servicing over 2 million people daily on more than a 1000 trains. There were people everywhere (a theme, you see) sprawled asleep, sitting in large family groups on the floor, with packages and bags piles everywhere. It gave us our first taste of how colorful India is, especially the women in their brightly colored, beautiful saris.
We booked our tickets to Goa, which takes a number of steps and is supposed to be a challenging process for Western logic, but it wasn’t all that bad. Then we went out into the wall of 95 degree heat at 80% humidity. The challenge to our trip to India in May and June is that it is the hottest time of year here, and while many of the locals seem to have adapted to the climate and seem to merely glisten, we have not and seem to be soaked and constantly producing more sweat all the time.
We got our first taste of Indian street food, getting tasty mysore masala dosas, then down through the city walking through the Azad and Oval Maidens, open grassy parks in the middle of the city where dozens of cricket games were taking place, passing the High Court and University of Mumbai, and we even checked out out the Kneset Eliyahoo synagogue, servicing the Jewish community of Mumbai. We ended at the Gateway of India, an archway built for the British king in 1911 that stands on the pier, and we watched families and tourists blend as the sun descended behind the massive archway. We also stopped in the famous 5-star Taj Mahal Hotel, one of the targets of the 2008 terror attack on Mumbai. The hotel is now guarded like a military base.
We walked back to the hotel, in the now slightly more tolerable heat. The streets were littered with people, and we passed stalls selling sugar cane and mango juice, and other foods and drinks, and an occasional, but powerful stink of sewer, shit, death, or garbage. For many of the people, the city streets are their bathroom, and people seem to shit and piss anywhere, including corners of the inside of quieter buildings, which is hard on the nose and harder for these people who have no place to live.
We started our second day in Mumbai with a trip to Crawford market, a fruit and livestock market where we stocked up on mangos and watermelon, then continued through the Zaveri Bazaar, checking out the people standing in line to make offerings at the temples. We then walked along the waterfront to Chowpatty Beach, where we tasted kulfi (Indian pistachio ice cream, cut into a slice and weighed on a scale), ate pav bhaji (vegetable stew on a Portuguese style bun) and walked through the Hanging Gardens on a hill above the beach. We also visited the Mahatma Gandhi museum, a house that he used to occupy when he stayed in Mumbai. The place is simple and tells the story of Gandhi’s life. It still gives off an aura of peace and strength, and we both got goosebumps walking through the home, filled with memorabilia, of a man who so quietly changed the world and was a true mahatma (great soul). Towards the end of the day, we stopped in a Hari Krshna temple, and while wandering through, we were befriended by a Canadian kid who has been living in the temple’s ashram for 4 years, training to be a monk. He gave us a grand tour, explaining the krshna religion, rituals and history. It was fascinating to watch and learn, while dancing, music, devotion and prayer were going on all around us.
For our last day in Mumbai, we booked a “slum tour” in the Dharavi Slum, on which the book and movie Slumdog Millionaire is based. We were curious to compare our slum experience working in Uganda with that of one in India and this slum in particular is famous for being an interesting economic success story. In just 500 acres live over a million people, on average sharing 1 toilet between 15,000 people. However, inside the slum are also thousands of single room factories, employing 250,000 people and producing an annual tax free income of over 1.4 billion dollars. Most businesses are based on recycling of different plastics, metals and glass and garbage collected by slum residents or brought from Mumbai, or even exported from foreign countries. The raw material is processed, and then resold internationally. It is a unique economic model and world-renowned and has unfortunately not been replicated successfully in other slum areas. The slum has clinics, hospitals, churches, temples and mosques, Wi-Fi zones and even permanent apartment buildings. And yet, the whole place is an illegal tenement and has been for 200 years. We ended our day, walking back in 100 degree weather, stopping at the dhobi ghats, Mumbai’s laundry facility, made up of hundreds of concrete tubs of water and men beating the clothes on stones. Here the city’s dirty clothes are washed, dried, pressed, and somehow returned to the rightful owner in one day, an unbelievable logistical feat. By nightfall we had collected our backpacks and marched back to Victoria Station, through a train worker’s strike that was crippling the city (fortunately it was the local trains, not the long distance ones) and caught our night train south to Goa. For a link to more pics, click here.
After crossing at the Arava border on foot from
Our plan for the visit was to see family, sample some of Israel’s unbelievable cuisine, replace some of our worn clothes that have been limping along with us, bruised and battered from travel and harsh laundry, take care of some logistics before India, and see the country as best we could. We happen to be in
Guy’s grandparents asked us to present a talk to their residential community about our time volunteering in
The next day we went for a bike tour of the area with our friend Dr. May, a retired doctor who lived in
Guy’s grandparents treated us to a 5-star visit to
The 2 weeks were rounded out by visits to Guy’s aunt, Adi and her family. Her son just started his service in the navy this year, so we went with them to visit him on his base with all the other families bringing suitcases of food both to picnic and to leave for the kids, who are complaining that the food is neither good nor plentiful on base. We also visited Haifa and walked around the lower city, which is the arab quarter, where we ate amazing falafel and shwarma and saw the Bahai temple gardens. We saw all of Guy’s cousins several times and visited with his childhood friend Liat who lives in Tel Aviv, as well as a friend of Guy’s from college who has since moved to
To see more pictures from Jerusalem click here.