Category Archives: India

My cheesy little adventure

Walked a kilometer south to Lanka today, looking for a market. Found a market. Saw a big gate, turned left off the main road and under the gate’s arch. Walked 500m, saw nothing promising, turned around, and returned to the main road.

Found a sandal tent and bought a pair of sandals. Went into two photo studios and noted their capabilities and printing prices in my notebook. Found an underwear store and bought a 90cm-chest tank top after 15 minutes of looking at bewildering options.

Went into a technical bookshop. Bought Fractional-Horsepower Electrical Machines, printed by Mir Publishers, U.S.S.R. They thought I was a visiting professor at B.H.U.

Saw a shop across the street called FUNK and made the obligatory visit. Tried on three shirts, none fit. They tried to sell me a women’s Ed Hardy tee.

Priced the net cafe next door. Half the price of Assi Ghat.

Crossed the street and looked into a restaurant called Hot Spice. No toilet, walked out. Saw a sign for “Heritage Hospital Main Entrance”. Followed the arrow.

Went into Heritage Hospital. In the lobby, saw an old woman on a stretcher. Asked about the Japanese Encephalitis vaccine — no dice. Used the toilet.

Checked out another internet cafe. A treehouse-type spot on a roof, accessed by a narrow, no-railing staircase. Surprisingly jam packed like the first treehouse on the block. Left.

Bought a water from the pharmacy next door, considered buying fruit.

Walked onto the B.H.U. campus through the big B.H.U. gate. Studied a massive map in the massive sun. Tried to negotiate a rickshaw tour, failed. A B.H.U. student came over and helped me get a loop ride for twenty rupees.

Saw a fraction of the campus on the loop. Took some bad photos from the moving rickshaw. Back at the B.H.U. gate I paid twenty as agreed, despite protest for thirty.

Crossed the street to retrace my steps. Hit my head while ducking under a low sign.

Got used by the internet for an hour.

Rode a rickshaw back to Assi Ghat. Think I spotted a mall en route, might be a spot to bask in A/C.

Back at Assi, picked up my sole button-down from the laundry. Went to my room to eat an orange, find out the tank top doesn’t fit, lie under the dust-collecting, electric-starved fan and sweat and record these details.

The midnight train to sweatville

It’s noon on one of those double days created by an overnight train ride in sleeper class — a paranoid ride where the cop with the HK submachine gun calls you out the first time he sees you. “You — where is your luggage?” You point beneath the seat. “ALERT!”

He urges you to take it upstairs, so you press the pack to the top bunk and lock it to the support beam. You strap your money belt around your right upper thigh (and to do so, go pants around your ankles in the bathroom) and safety pin your wallet into your right pocket.

Return to the bunk through the darkened car and notice the officer has chosen to sleep on the bunk below you. No problem, no contraband here. You climb up and position your loafers atop the fan where suction can keep an eye on them.

Get fetal, clip your day pack — an overgrown purse, really — to your main pack, entwine your forearm in a shoulder strap and lay your head down to rest on an empty water bottle. Twist the cap to let out just enough air for the bottle to mold to the shape of your skull.

Bathroom breaks at 12, 2, and 4 — that’s what you get for playing Chug n’ Rehydrate — and wake at 4:57 a.m. to an empty car at Varanasi.

Paper-cup chai on the platform, a bit of energy because who knows what’s next.  Find a rickshaw and don’t argue too hard, hotel arrival is the priority. Ride through the dark streets wearing your sunglasses as dust goggles, south to Assi Ghat.

The rickshaw drops you at Hotel Palace on Ganges, which, despite the French tourists coming down the stairs oohing and ahhing at the Ganges, is not Hotel Temple on Ganges. Find Hotel Temple by turning and looking directly behind you.

Give the rickshaw man 48 for a 40 rupee fare — a serious overpay — and inquire about a room. 350 and 550. 450 for the room with a view? Got it. Balcony, fan, and more mosquitoes than you’ve ever seen in your life.

Realize too late that the southeast window setup means you’re going to bake through the entire 104 degree day, that you’re going to call the place a hell station before you leave — but no matter. It’s simple enough and clean, ten bucks a day, and it has a desk, man, a desk!

A desk which now, at about 12:30 p.m., you’re neglecting in favor of lying naked on the bed, under the fan, with curtains drawn and lights off, the room lit Oz emerald by the sun through stained glass.

No room in the inn


Ashish the Seatmate’s recommended Hotel Sharma (“with a huge sign on top”) never materialized, so I ended up booking a room at Hotel Samrat, whose rooftop sign I can see from my current address.

I didn’t choose it so much as walk into a decent-looking lobby on railroad flophouse row, find out there weren’t any rooms, ask about Hotel Sharma, get sloppy directions, and ask the burly checking-in Kerala man with the bright yellow Polo, “Could you just come point it out to me?” The linebacker and I walked twenty meters down the street and for once the touts stayed silent.

The hotel didn’t have a sign (in English), so I went in, said the token room melega?, followed the houseboy to the top floor up turret stairs, glanced at the room, dingy but with a big enough bed and a lock on the door, and went back down to try for a good price.

Took the room for a couple dollars, threw my stuff down, and only then noticed the crunched-up chips in the bed, the pan wrappers and cigarette butts behind the headboard, and the likely presence of bugs and seed throughout the mattress. In response, I hit the streets in search of Lucknow’s famous dried-fruit ice cream.

Found the ice cream — lassi, actually — and got force-fed further sweets by a curious sweet dealer.

Returned to Samrat to find a crowd in the lobby awaiting my arrival. “I don’t serve to foreigners,” the owner said. “You must leave.” Right now, fast. Half of the crowd seemed to be representatives of another hotel which had agreed to take me in.

Went upstairs with the houseboy who monitored the  re-packing of the mosquito net and soap bar. I locked the door at one point which he immediately protested — he had more fear than I did, I guess.

The clerk returned my rent and tried to point me to the other hotel, but, “Nah, you guys are kicking me out. I’ll take it from here, thanks.”

Sought information from the cook at the thali joint across the street, who dispatched a 12 year-old boy to guide me to the originally intended Hotel Sharma. No luck — “This hotel not for you. You go to Mohan Hotel.”

The clerk drew a crude map and I set off via rickshaw, too tired to insist in Hindi that the ride would be worth only 11 cents, not 22.

I found and skipped the Mohan — amenities overkill — and continued up the road on foot. Just beyond, found a hotel recommended by the sweet dealer — Hotel Indore Regency. A guard, a cramped but air conditioned lobby, a bed (also top floor, last door), a bathroom with a lightbulb — I’ll take it. Negotiated a 15% discount and filled out carbon copy forms.

Freddie Mercury carried my bag to the room. I tipped him five rupees, popped a heartburn pill, took a cold shower and collapsed.

Lucknow – the name is true

Everything went so smoothly over the first month here in India until about 30 minutes ago. A combination of the heat, the heavy hot kathi roll in my stomach, and the sight of my train coach flying toward the other end of the platform conspired to put me on my intended train’s doppelganger, headed in the opposite direction of my destination.

It surprised me that I made such a simple mistake. What with the familiar north-south corridor between Bhadohi and Mirzapur and the ever-present Ganges, I thought I had myself oriented. Until I got onto the Kashi Vishwanath Express headed east for Varanasi instead of west for Lucknow.

Why did I choose to climb into the luggage car? Was that really the best place to ask about the location of the AC car? And if I really only wanted to ask one question, wouldn’t it have been better to confirm the destination?

When I asked about the AC car, a luggage man in an orange reflector vest pointed toward the back of the train. I made a run for it, and when the whistle blew, I jumped into the closest door, a random sleeper car. I remember seeing the time on the digital station clock just before jumping in the door: 2:25. A full, clear 12 minutes before the scheduled departure listed on my ticket, but somehow this slipped by.

It was lucky to have picked not only that sleeper car, but also a seat with two guys who spoke enough English to inform me that the train was bound for Varanasi. But not to worry: In two hours it would reverse course and head back to Lucknow.

Even more clutch, when the train I held a ticket for and the train I was riding stopped next to each other in some forsaken railroad wilderness, the guys urged me to put away my camera, hurry, and switch trains. Zipping my bag, whipping on the frame pack, and shaking hands like a politician, I ran to the door, down the steps (so much farther without a platform), across two sets of tracks (I think I looked both ways), and to the door of an AC car. Locked.

Devoted maybe five seconds to banging on it with a flat palm, then ran alongside the train, loafers having trouble with the fist-sized stones underfoot. Next car sleeper class, also locked. Found the door at the car’s far end locked as well. Started putting together contingency plans in case either train started moving. Which door on the Varanasi-bound could I get back to? Any?

The next car had an open door — phew — and a woman with a basket of carrots about to make the ascent. I decided I’d rather be rude than left on the tracks, so I gave a “Hey–” and cut in front. What? I doubt she had a ticket.

This time I entered the car asking “Lucknow? Lucknow?” like I’m the one selling snacks. A few nods confirmed the destination, so I plopped down and chugged all of the water in my bottle.

That problem sorted out, it was time to start playing catch-up internally.

A carpetman loses his mobile in India

The Jaipur Vodafone store has a line like the Bronx DMV. And why am I here? Because my phone disappeared somehow — not on Holi, mind you, but innocently the day before. Just up and left. Pulled a Houdini.

I had it at the PJ Exports office, maybe in the car, not when I got home. Or did I? Did I absently misplace it? Will I find it somewhere in my accumulated junk when I pack up tonight at the Sneh Deep guesthouse? Doubtful, because I didn’t hear a vibration when I tried calling it with the houseboy’s loaned phone, lying on my bed, staring at the ceiling.

After a last-ditch call to the guy whose office I thought I’d left it in didn’t yield success — “I’ve had my men looking all morning,” he said — I accepted the $22 Nokia as gone forever.

Talked with Manoj the guesthouse owner about options. He drew a map to the shop that would suspend the SIM card, maybe sell me a used phone. A buddy, apparently, who doesn’t speak much English.

Walked down, found the mobile man, and attempted to converse in Hindi. “Phone hoagie-yah.” He eventually convinced me that I needed to visit the Vodafone store in Raja Park. He explained the same to the autorickshaw driver, and we quickly agreed on half of his quoted transit price. Made our way down a crumbling road in the direction of the mobile man’s point.

Eventually a major intersection. Driver turned right, I glanced left and saw the Vodafone store.

And here I am, still waiting on a DMV line to get a new SIM card.

I’m a carpetman, people. Can’t be in India without a mobile.

What would you be doing right now?

One of the first instincts upon a change of location is to start thinking in terms of parallel existence–comparing hours, schedules, routines, and so on.

Sitting on the roof of the hotel, staring at the moonlit Taj, you think, “I’d be walking into work right now.”

This isn’t so much looking back, but looking sideways. Conditional thinking: If I hadn’t decided to make this trip, I would be…

But you made it. You’re here. Not there. I don’t think such comparison is a rewarding outlook, yet I found that line–I’d be walking into work right now–on page one of my India journal.

So why employ this perspective? To relish in new-found freedom? To put an economic spin on the trip and force yourself to make the most of it (to get your money’s worth, considering the lost earnings)? To believe you’ve finally figured things out? To coordinate a prank call to a friend?

Photo of Taj Mahal during Diwali by Deivis via Flickr.

Can Foreigners Buy Guns? Three Lessons…

Calcutta Maidan Gun Shooting

Dripping the obligatory Calcutta sweat, I bounded up a couple steps and through the door. Might be some cheap stuff in here. Stopped and scanned the three walls of dark brown rifles standing straight and serious like courtroom wood paneling.

Whipped off my sunglasses and looked the shopkeeper in the eye: “Can foreigners buy guns?” “No.” “Thank you,” and I left with mock urgency.

My friend might have punched my arm. He’s Indian, and according to my notepad he said, “You realize, man, that if anything goes down in the next three days with a gun, the cops are going to go to that guy, and he’ll say that some white guy with weird shades came in and asked if foreigners can buy guns.”

Yeah, it was a pretty random question. But (in retrospect) it accomplished three things.

1. It intersected the existence of an Upstate New York pizza man with that of a Calcutta arms dealer, just for a second, as the dealer answered what, for his line of work, is a legitimate question.

2. It let me try on another self. A man in the market for a firearm. Part of why travel increases the odds of self-discovery is the surplus of opportunities for casting aside your usual identity.

3. It’s worthwhile (and usually downright entertaining) to check out what you expect to be a dead end.

The reason the photo is so boring is because Sobby handed me his camera.

You can check out his badass galleries and expect his stuff on here sooner or later.

PS — When I go back to Calcutta, the only cannon I’m shopping for is a baritone sax.

How an Indian Barber Will Make You a Sinner

Indian barber

Pride — My beard is a work of art, but he can probably make it sweeter.

Sloth — Sure, go ahead and clip the nose hairs.

Envy — The barber at the next chair over is better than my guy. He’s got a bigger shrine, and come on, just look at that collection of coconut oils.

Lust — A scalp massage is nice, but is there something behind the pink curtain in the back of the shop?

Gluttony — Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhh air conditioning.

Greed — And all of a sudden, you find yourself in back and forth negotiations over 20 rupees.

Wrath — Botched my beard! (Wrath turns into joy when you get your first beard compliment in weeks.)

Photo by Arul Baskaran via Flickr