Indian Mass TransitGood lord India is intense. And I’ve had so many people tell me the south is less intense than the north. I’ve been to the Northwest, Rajastan, Haryana, Mumbai, Gujurat and Delhi and they all pretty much seem the same to me.

I’ve not been posting regularly lately for one reason in particular: internet access. It’s almost impossible to find a place to hook up my laptop. India has some really weird internet access regulations/policies in place so no one is willing to take the risk of opening their network to me, for lack of a better way of explaining it. Thankfully there is always a workaround. I figured since I am going to be in India the better part of three months I might as well buy a wireless modem and two months of unlimited usage. Easier said than done.

First, I had to explain myself over and over a hundred times in a hundred different mobile phone shops exactly what I wanted. Then, when someone finally understood me, most often they said they didn’t have one in stock, but they could sell me the plan! So, uh, what good would the plan do me without the modem?

Second, once I finally found a place that had one in stock–actually they didn’t and had it cycled over from across town–it took almost three hours to activate it. See, I’m a Mac snob now, I guess, and you can only activate a wireless modem via Windows, but you can use one with a Mac. So, Raj, the guy who sold it to me, drove me across town to his buddies place who had a laptop and we struggled for a couple of hours to get it setup. But, in the end, mind you, I’ve not eaten all day at this point, well, only two chappattis this morning before I got on the bus, we got it done. Raj was extremely kind and helpful. I am grateful. And so now, I have access, albeit quite slow, where ever I go now. And that makes me happy.

Monkey Business

So, I’m sitting at a table in a rooftop restaurant, deep in thought. Writing away in my travel journal about the day’s experiences in Mamallapuram. I’ve a half eaten plate of fruit in front of me, which I am kind of nibbling at half-heartedly, after all, tropical fruits aren’t my thing. I prefer a nice sour Granny Smith apple, if you know what I mean. Mind you, I’m in deep concentration mode, trying to bring out the words to describe my day and all of a sudden there’s a loud thump on my table, tea spills from my cup and I’m scared shitless when I look up and see a thirty pound bull monkey looking at me, reaching for my fruit plate. I try to shoo him away, but he bares his fangs, and my what fangs he had, at me and hisses. So, I look at him and say, “have it your way, brother. Fruit’s all yours.”

It was almost as if he understood me. He then set about sitting down on the table like a proper monkey should and for the following few minutes ate what remained of my fruit, staring at me the whole time, daring me to do something. And when he finished the fruit he jumped back up the thatch roof covering my table and then on to the roof and disappeared.

What is it with monkeys and me?


Hoopoe (upupa epops)Mamallapuram was a dusty little seaside town with naught but ten or fifteen cross streets. One half of the town is dedicated to tourism and travelers, for both are here in equal measure. Othavadai and Othavadai Cross Streets are where you’ll find the tourist haunts, places like the Sea Breeze Café, Siva’s Guest House, and the Hotel Ramakrishna litter the place. Most are pretty clean and the food is good, especially the seafood. I had fresh Marlin the other night with a bit of curry sauce on the side that was delish!

The Shore Temple was a wonderful and elegant treat. So were the birds, especially the Hoopoe and the Bee Eater. The Indian Tree Pie that I saw near Arjuna’s Penance, a massive yet understated rock carving on the West Side of town, was impressive too, even if he was a member of the crow family.

More after the jump.

It amazes me that India, what with its billion plus people, has so much wildlife and so diverse. Perhaps it is because almost half the people in the country are vegetarians, unlike the Chinese and Cambodians who will eat anything. Or, maybe it’s because the landscape of Southern India resembles a strange cross between the Coastal Plains of South Texas, the Brush Country in the South West and the Hill Country in the center. Toss them all together in a blender, add some cotton, some corn, lots of rice paddies and elephants and you’ve got Southern India. And here my ‘eye’ for game, wildlife, birds, everything, works. I’m not fighting an intense three-dimensional kaleidoscopically green jungle. Here a simple scan for movement on the horizon bears fruit almost every time, like today’s bus ride from Mamallapuram to Trichy. Alas, I’m getting ahead of myself: back to Mamallpuram.

There are two families of gypsies in town—both harmless, if inveterate beggars and touts. One hangs out across the street from the small bookshop on Othavadai Street where I purchased my “Bird of India.” There are about a dozen of them. I reckon two husbands, two wives and the rest children ranging from the age of three to ten. The older children are given trinkets to hawk about the streets all day long. But the younger ones either run about naked, or nearly so, howling about in a giant sandpit where both families congregate at the end of the day to make there way home to their village, several kilometers from here. They are all very dark and quite handsome. They are Dravidians, speaking a tongue many believe is linked to the ancient Elamites of Biblical lore. The women have large, golden circular nose rings and stringy, sun lightened black hair. The colors they wear vary from sumptuous greens to bright oranges to almost iridescent blues, which makes a wonderful contrast to their almost night black skin.

When the Dravidians first arrived in Tamil Nadu is suggested by scholars around 1800BC, perhaps after the fall of the Harrappan Civilization of the Indus Valley. The Dravidians have, as I mentioned, almost coal black skin—although shades exist from night black to creamy chocolate. They also have very Caucasoid features. If one were to remove the pigment from their skin their small ears, small noses and bewitching eyes would look much like a Northern European. Such are the oddities of human migration. They are very different from the Northern Indians, what with their rather large noses and paler skin. They are, as I said, a handsome people—as a matter of fact, one afternoon I saw an absolutely stunning young woman of about twenty-five. Her skin was the color of Hershey’s Dark Chocolate. She had long, silky black hair, green eyes wearing a shocking blue sari that clung to her curvaceous Hindu figure. But I digress. Unlike the East Asians, Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Thais and Vietnamese who shun the sun—preferring skin as milky as possible—the Dravidians seem to revel in the sunlight.

If the Dravidians are the first immigrants to this land—after all, are we not all of Africa—there are more recent immigrants here too. Take Gulam, for example, the Kashmiri shopkeeper next to my hotel.

“I fled Srinigar many years ago. I am not liking the violence there, although I miss the mountain air in the Spring. I like the ocean. I am making good business here in Mamallapuram too, unlike life in Kashmir, which once was rich but is now poor and unhappy. I can send money home to my old parents and they can live in peace, without worries,” he told me the other night.

Gulam is Muslim, “but,” as he says, “that does not matter here. We are all Indians. Christians. Muslims. Hindus. No one kills for stupid reasons here. Like yesterday when they had the peaceful strike in sympathy for the Tamils. I participated in the strike too. I prefer it that way.”

“Besides,” he adds, “the only person here in Mamallapuram who bothers me is that nasty old, half-crazy one-legged Sadhu. I always smile at him and drop a few rupees in his bowl.”

It was well after dusk when I left Gulam and the mosquito brigands were out in force. Clouds of them descending on those foolish enough to stop moving for a few moments, dive bombing into fleshy white and black skin alike. And just as there are many mosquitoes in Mamallapuram, there are many gods too. One sees Mosques dedicated to the worship of Allah, the Crucifix more frequently and a pantheon of multi-colored, strange faced and many armed Hindu deities all about the town.

The other family of gypsies hang out, as far as I can tell, solely on the beach. There are about a dozen of them too, although one is clearly the grandmother and matriarch. The children are just as loud as the others, but more fluent in their English, Running about, telling beggar riddles and jokes much like the young Uzbek girl I adored in Bukhara in 2003, Saltinoi. Now she was a character.

I’m not sure what it is about India this time around, perhaps it is mostly because I am different, different attitude, different state of mind, more open, loose, travel hardened and a bit inured to the filth and squalor about me . . .

I’m not under any kind of pressure this either. No wife to return home to. No assets to manage. No quotas to meet. No time constraints. All, including illness, weighed heavy on me the first two times I visited India and it showed. I hated the place. I couldn’t deal with the filth, the beggars, the immensity and intensity of what entails India. But now? Not so.

Every day the worries of the world fade further into the background. Every day I wake up with a bigger grin than that which I fell asleep with. Saturdays have turned into Wednesdays and Tuesdays into Sundays. Time has become fluid, free and relaxed.

I keep having this thought that I should be revolted or something, that I should not be enjoying myself. But truth be told, the insanity of this place is infectious. Sure, my patience gets tried frequently. India is, quite simply, the most illogical, chaotic, intense and unique place on the planet. Step outside my room and look around. The return and do it again twenty minutes later. Everything has changed.

In India every day is literally a new lifetime. What more could a traveler ask for?

Has He Really Ever Been To India?

I’m seriously beginning to doubt Friedman has really ever been here. I am currently in the most ‘advanced’ and celebrated internet cafe chain in India, Sify i-Way, and one, they won’t let me use my own laptop. I don’t know why. All it would take is unplugging the box, you know? But hey, that’s cool.

But, here’s the kicker: I’m using a painfully slow old Windows Box, using Windows 2000.

I’m serious, I haven’t seen a free wi-fi place since Malaysia.

Friedman is a fucking moron.

Lastly, I am in Trichy now. Heading on to Madurai tomorrow. Will write more when I have better access.

Mamallapuram Photos

Monkey On A WireStrange day today. There was a general strike here in Tamil Nadu, in sympathy for the last of the Tamil Tiger’s who are holding up in about a 300 square kilometer part of north eastern Sri Lanka. The Lankan government is going in too, so this should be the end. That being said, the Tamils here in Tamil Nadu called for and held a general strike in the state. When even tourist establishments are shut down you know they are pretty serious about it. So, access to the internet was out all day. The strike ended just a little while ago.

Anyhow, I went to the Shore Temple, took some shots. Saw some really cool birds today, a Hoopoe and a Green Bee-Eater and had another ‘monkey experience’ of which I will write about tomorrow or the next day. I may not be around tomorrow as I’m heading to Trichy. It should take all day because I’ll be riding in the lowest of low classes on the slowest of slow trains. Remind me to make reservations well in advance in the future, please?

So, if I am not around tomorrow you’ll know where I am, sweating my tush off, in a hard seat, if I get one at all, rolling along the South Indian countryside. It doesn’t get much better.

(All of today’s photos can be found here.)

Oh, The Irony I Tell You, The Irony!

Oh The Irony!More photos from today are here.

Random Notes from The Road

ColorsThere is only one ATM in Mamallapuram and yesterday there was quite a line for it. I was about twenty back. While waiting I saw something I hadn’t seen in a long time. Men acting like gentlemen. Let me explain.

There was a lady in line, about 8th back I’d say, and all the Indian men before here offered for her to ‘jump the queue.’ Needless to say, after several months in South East Asia it was pleasant to see men act with a little chivalry. (Yes, I was born in the south and some things, well, I just think men should be polite and somewhat chivalrous towards women. If that makes me sexist, so be it.) Regardless, it was nice to see after the way women were treated in places like Vietnam, Malaysia, Thailand and Laos. I got really tired of seeing women always walking three steps behind men. Talk about annoying.

Also, I snapped a few shots at dusk last night. You can see them here. I especially like the old man preparing his fishing line and the father carrying home two dozen eggs.

One last note, while on board the Tiger Breeze, I asked Captain Miller if he had seen any perceptible decline in shipping, cargo carries, etc. . . in the last few months. His reply was pretty clear that he had: “We spent ten days off Singapore in anchorage a few weeks back because there was no cargo. We did the same in India a few weeks before that as well. And we haven’t carried a full load across the Indian Ocean in about three months.”

Shipping, is clearly down. Although he did note that his route was still, “profitable.”

The “Shoe”

The ShoeWhat is a single shoe doing in the middle of the road? How did it get there? Was it lost? Did it fall out of a trash bag in a lorry? If it were lost, how was it lost? Was someone walking and it fell off? Perhaps he was on a bike? She was riding a moped? A kid on the back of a truck that wouldn’t stop? How can one lose a shoe and not realize it’s been lost?

Say you are walking, maybe drunk, and you realize, “oh, snap, I lost my shoe somewhere?”

The thing is, a human, unlike a horse, which also wear shoes, can stop and say, “my shoe fell off.” A horse can’t. (Maybe it can, you’ll have to ask Don for sure.) Although I assume the horse damn well might be thinking and aware he lost his shoe. It would probably go something like this. “My human sure it lighter. Glad his old lady has him on that new Atkins diet, cuz he waz getting fat and my back was hurting. Where is that watering hole again? Oh yeah, past the cedar post and through the mesquite patch. Darn, I just lost a shoe. Not much I can do about it.”

But a human, drunk or otherwise, can say it. A human can also stop, retrieve said shoe and put it back on, unlike our equine friend. So, as I sit on this balcony, sipping masala tea, watching a shoeless man wander around in the street, a parade of colors, peoples and animals all around I ask myself: “how did that shoe come to be there?”

See, this is what India does: it forces me to ponder the deepest, most meaningless riddles of life. I’m sinking in deep and fast. Oh dear.

Note To Self

When walking in India, no matter how hard it is to pay attention to where you are putting your feet, do watch out for the following hazards: cow shit, goat shit, dog shit and, of course, human shit. Cow and goat shit aren’t bad. Dog shit is nasty and the smell does linger, but human feces are the worst.

It makes no difference if a blue face-painted, dredlocked, sadhu with an orange beard is dancing naked in front of you (this really happened) or you are watching a pack of mangy dogs nip at the heels of a big brahma bull in anticipation of all hell breaking loose, or you are about to be run down by an errant rickshaw: shit stinks when you step in it.

Don’t say you weren’t warned.

Tiger Breeze Photos, Group Two

Straits of Malacca At NightHere’s another set of Tiger Breeze photos. These are mostly for my father’s benefit, as he wanted to see photos of every nook and cranny aboard.

There are two I like in particular: this one, of the shaft which turns the ‘screw.’ This is the shaft that actually turns the propeller, which has five blades. It’s hard to believe it only makes 78 RPMs a minute, but each of the six cylinders of the engine put out 5,000hp. That’s a bit of power, methinks.

And then this one: a photo of dogs, rooks and a hawk all fighting for the same scraps the Russian seamen were tossing overboard at the Port of Vizag.

More on India soon, but I must confess. After almost 9 days on the water, two thirds of which was spent sleeping (the ship was a veritable sleep inducing machine it was so wonderful) that I am suffering from a massive case of sensory overload. India is just so intense in every conceivable way. And that is a good thing!