Sunday, March 8, 2009

Quick Updates

So I realize that I have gotten almost hopelessly behind on my blog posting, but I am unwilling to give up. I will catch up.

The past three weeks have been a flurry of activity. After spending (probably) too much time in Bangkok, I went to Chiang Mai, where I was able to play with young, but still very big, tigers, and spend a day riding an elephant and white water rafting. In Chiang Rai, we took a day to relax and then rented scooters to see the Golden Triangle area. It was a great experience, until I fell off and got the biggest bruise I have ever had in my life. From there, we crossed into Laos at Houayxai, a small border crossing. However, we were able to book The Gibbon Experience, which was probably the best, or at least most exhilirating, thing I have done in my life. From there, we took a slowboat down to Luang Phabang, a great French-influenced city in the center of northern Laos. Mike, Sam, Paul, and I actually all went our separate ways, wanting to see different places at that point. I headed to Siem Reap to see Angkor Wat. Normally I take a decent number of pictures, but I took 181 pictures in two days at Angkor. It is the most fascinating place I have ever been, and I thought it was a very relaxing and spiritual experience.

I am now writing from Bangkok, on an in-between day before I head south. Krabi, Ko Phi Phi, and a few other spots are on the agenda for the next two weeks. I hope to get some snorkling, scuba diving, and sea kayaking in before I finally leave Southeast Asia. My flight is on 3/22 from Bangkok to Dubai, where I will stay with Orna for a few days, and then a stop in New York to see my cousin Chris, his wife Llubav, and their new baby, Mikus. Finally, I will arrive home 3/28 at 10:51 am.

The trip thus far has been absolutely amazing, which is one of the reasons that I have not had time to write about it. My camera has also decided to stop letting me upload pictures to my computer, so I had to buy a new memory card. Hopefully I will be able to get them once I get home. But more importantly, I have always been on the move or doing something fun, especially since leaving India. With the stops that I have left, I feel like I will have a fully complete trip, and I will be able to go home rejuvenated and ready to attack the world. After three months of living out of a suitcase and seeing nobody besides backpackers and natives, I am excited to get home and see my friends. Oh yea, and then there is that CFA thing...

Saturday, February 21, 2009

The last time I talk about India

So this will be the last time I talk about India before diving into my Thailand adventures. I might even be able to catch up.

After Palolem, the three of us headed to Hampi. Of everywhere in India, Hampi is known as one of the more quiet and possibly spiritual cities. Also known as Vijayanagar, Hampi was founded on an ancient Hindu holy site. Even now, with the temples in somewhat of a state of disrepair, it is easy to see how glorious of a city it once was.

Unfortunately, the city still has quite a few problems. On our first night there, while at dinner, we saw one of the owners of the restaurant start toying around with live electrical wiring. While walking around the city, we saw children drawing designs in chalk around piles of cow dung. I did not have my camera with me at the time, but it was just one of those jaw-dropping moments when I realized just how many issues India is still having.

The city is completely vegetarian; because it is a holy site, there are no restaurants in town that will serve any meat. Luckily we were only here for a couple of days, because a meatatarian like myself needs to get plenty of protein.

While we were walking around the city, which is really just a large temple complex (this is the main temple), we were able to see all of the various temples. The Lotus Temple and the Vitthala Temple were the most hyped attractions, but we found plenty of amazing natural rock formations as well. This one was smiling at us. On our way back, we decided to take a less explored route and ended up on a long, circuitous route back to the city that we agreed actually proved to be the most interesting part of the trip. Away from all of the people, surrounded by nothing but banana tree groves and perilous rock formations, it was a very peaceful experience.

Leaving Hampi I had the aforementioned terrible train experience, which I will spend the next few months trying to block out of my memory.

When our train arrived in Bangalore, which is supposed to be the booming city in India due to all of the IT call centers there, we had a few issues as well. The train station did not have any signs detailing where to buy our connecting tickets to Mysore, where we were headed next. After seeing feces and vomit in the main station, we were starting to lose our patience. The people at the ticket counter proved to be less than helpful, eventually saying we had to wait until 10am (it was 8:30) and buy them at the other counter. Sam and I walked almost a quarter mile down track number 8 looking for this secondary ticket counter once it was time. The tracks at the station, like most other busy train stations we had encountered, looked and smelled like shit. Dogs and cows would move onto the tracks and relieve themselves, while the toilets from the trains drained straight onto the tracks as well. All in all it made for a great experience.

Luckily we were able to get onto our train and got to Mysore with no other problems. Mysore was an interesting city, but it was actually the quirky experiences we had there that made it a good experience, more than the actual sites. There is the Mysore Palace, which really left an impression on Sam, but given that it was about 100 years old, I thought it was just average. We did have to bribe a police officer to let us out of the palace grounds. We had walked inside the ground toward the main gate. When we got there, the police officer told us that foreigners could not exit the gate, but he could make an exception for a small price. Paying 10 rupees ($.20) or walking 2 km around was an easy choice. Seeing a man sleeping out on the street, with nothing but a mosquito net and a bicycle was a new sight for all of us. St. Philomena's Church is supposed to be the "Most beautiful church" in Karnataka, but despite the interesting gothic architecture, the lack of maintenance and notably missing stained glass windows (there were normal glass windows with colored paint over them instead) did not impress me much. We also went up Chamundi Hill, where there was a fifteen foot cartoonesque statue of Nandi, which was quite surreal. Walking around on the street, we had our first taste of Jack Fruit (the edible parts on the left are picked out of the whole fruit, on the right). It has a taste and consistency somewhere between pineapple and apple. Once painted cows were added to the mix, we officially had the most random two day experiences while in Mysore.

After Mysore, we headed to Alleppey, a nice, quiet town on close to the beach, where we heard we would be able to take a back-water boat tour. The boat tour was indeed a fascinating experience. The backwaters were originally swamps that were connected so they now form a system of canals connecting various rice plantations in a huge area. With the water, the house boats on tour, the palm trees growing on the edge of the water, and the rice patties everywhere, it was a truly unique experience.

We also stayed at a very nice, air conditioned room that was run by a man with some clear western business training. He had suggestions for where we could find internet cafes, served dinner at the guest house, and directed us to the Secret Beach. I guess it was not really that much of a secret because he told everyone how to get there, but even so, there were not very many tourists there at all.

At this point, we were getting ready to wrap up our travels. But we still had to move across the country from Alleppey to Chennai to get our flight out, so we decided to stop in Madurai. Madurai is known for their unique collection of extremely colorful temples, called the Meenakshi Sundareswarar Temple. Given that Madurai is directly between Alleppey and Chennai, it seemed like a great idea. The temple was actually featured on the cover of the South India Rough Guide, which we were using as a guide for our journey.

Unfortunately, when we got there, we found out that the temples were completely covered for repainting. Even though they were 65% done, they had not removed any of the scaffolding. Unfortunately, there was no real way to know about the construction, since information does not really make its way to the internet in India. Our next plan of attack was to take a tour of the secondary temples, palaces, and other noteworthy sites in the city. Unfortunately, the tour was basically a scam to take us to various dilapidated "palaces" and "temples" where they tried to charge us exorbitant fees to enter and see the "monuments." There was a Ghandi Museum on the tour that advertised that they had the clothes Ghandi was wearing while he died. Unfortunately, the museum was in complete disrepair and the cloth Ghandi had been wearing as not even well displayed, showing disrespect for one of the most influential leaders to have ever come out of India. Also unfortunate was the fact that most of the museum was simply government propaganda, blaming the British for all of the country's problems and taking credit for any of its successes. There was one open temple we were able to see on the tour, which was nice. Unfortunately we had to drive forty five minutes outside of the city to see it, instead of seeing the massive complex in the city, but we were willing to take what we could get. We were excited about the last stop as well, which was supposed to be another vibrant temple, but unfortunately it was not lit at night and again we were being asked to pay 250 rupees for a temple that Indians could visit for free. So, overall our tour was supposed to cost 200 rupees per person, including entrance fees, but unfortunately they lied to us. If we had gone into all of the attractions we were taken to, we would have paid 1050 rupees for 15 minutes in each one. The whole entire city seemed like it would be interesting to see, but unfortunately it just did not work out that way.

Before leaving India for good, our last stop was Mammallapuram. It is a quiet beach city just two hours away from Chennai, a little bit touristy, but overall it had some appeal for us. We would just relax and spend our last few days eating fresh seafood curries and reading on the beach. We were able to check out Shiva's Butterball, the Shore Temple, see a crocodile preserve, (including this one that is 30 years old, 4.85 meters long, and weights 575 kg), and see the incredible amount of marble sculptors everywhere in the city, making everything from necklaces to 6 foot high statues.

In the end, however, we got just a little bit too much culture. While hanging out on the beach one day, Mike had put his wallet into a shirt on the beach. Even with Sam and I sitting near it, some gypsies managed to steal it, which had all of his ATM and credit cards, along with our room key. We had been using our own lock with three keys, but both of the other keys were in the room. I managed to sneak in through the window and grab another key, but Mike still did not have his wallet. The police were also unwilling to take a report from him, simply telling him to come back at a later, specified time. This was, of course, because there were no officers there who could take the report, despite five officers clearly sitting there without anything to do. Mike was not able to get a new debit card until we were in Bangkok. Until then, Sam and I loaned him money as he needed it.

Upon initally checking into our hotel, we agreed on 700 rupees a night for a room that included air conditioning and breakfast. We had the clerk (who actually was running the hotel) write us a receipt including all of the details of our arrangement. Everything seemed to be falling in place, but it did not take long for things to go sour. The next morning, after we had finished eating breakfast, our waiter brought a bill. We told him that we had breakfast included with the room, at which point he told us that only two breakfasts were included, not three. We told him we would straighten it out with the owner when he returned. Later on that afternoon, when we returned to the hotel and tried to turn on our air conditioning, I found out that it did not work. Going down to the desk, I found the man with whom we had made the original agreement. He told me that only two breakfasts were included with the room and that the room did not come with air conditioning (both lies). 700 rupees was just simply too cheap for that. I went back upstairs and talked with Mike and Sam. Mike decided to go down and give it a shot. A few minutes later he came back upstairs to report that the man had threatened to rip Mike's teeth out of his skull. The conversation had started innocently enough, but it escalated as the hotel operator realized that we were not just going to deal with his bullshit. Mike, who had already had his wallet stolen that day, was furious. Not only was this completely unprofessional from a hotel operator, but the last thing we wanted to deal with was feeling unsafe in our own hotel. We suffered through the hot night with no air conditioning.

The third day, I found the fuse box outside of our room that had a fuse marked "Room 15 AC." I turned the switch, and suddenly the air conditioner turned on. Not wanting to arouse their attention, we turned it back off, only turning it on at night while we were in the room so that we could sleep. We also decided not to eat our breakfast there, since it was not that good and we were growing spiteful of the hotel staff.

The fourth morning, our last day, I woke up early and was having breakfast with a friend I had met the previous day when I was approached by a hotel staff member. "You need to move rooms," he told me. After inquiring why we needed to change rooms, he told me that the room we were in had been reserved a month in advance, and, even though they knew we were planning to stay for four days, had still given us the room. We would be moved to another room without air conditioning. Irritated by this fact but also by the rudeness of interrupting my breakfast, I told him that I would talk to my friends and deal with the issue later. When I started walking back to the room, I saw that the outside door leading up to our room had been taken down and there were two men putting cement down on the ground in order to put down a tile floor on the balcony outside our room. Despite our need to get in and out of the room, they had chosen that day as the day when the tile floor needed to be put in.

After a fairly long discussion about what to do, we decided that we had had enough. This hotel dilemma had already cost us hours of time as we had to discuss what to do before and accomodate our dishonest hotel operator. Trying to find another hotel would be simply another hassle. As I have documented, we had been recipients of mistreatment on a number of occasions, but this was by far the most extreme. As this malicious behavior could not go unpunished, we hatched a plan. We decided to move into the other room, and the next morning, instead of checking out and paying our balance, we would simply leave out the back door without paying. The room that we were moved to was not nearly as nice as the first room; aside from the lack of air conditioning, it was smaller, had a bad smell in the bathroom, and had quite a few holes in the screens to let mosquitos into the room. We suffered through the night, and in the morning, at 8 am we packed all of our things and went out the back door of the hotel compound and to our prearranged taxi.

Instead of leaving from Mammallapurm and heading straight to the airport as planned, we were forced to spend the day in Chennai after fleeing from our hotel. Despite being somewhat of an inconvenience, we were able to read a little bit and catch a Tamil movie. The movie was a cross between The Matrix, Memento, and a romantic comedy, all in Tamil. After a quick dinner, we were off to the airport, ready to leave India forever, with no regrets.

Of course our red-eye flight to Bangkok was delayed, but no one could tell us how long it was going to be. We eventually took off around 2:30 am.

Good-bye India!

Monday, February 16, 2009


As you can see, I have made a few changes to the structure of the blog. On the right side, you can now subscribe using RSS and add my blog to Google Reader or any other Reader. Underneath, I have a collection of links to various photo albums, which I will add to when I can. And below that, I have a few links to interesting sites I have found along the way. Let me know if any of them do not work.

Below I have my travel map from Trip Advisor, which shows the places I have been in the world. The link to my travel profile is on the right as well.

Some notes about my Indian experience

Even before leaving for India, I became familiar with quite a few of the problems that I would experience, mostly through Sam and Mike's blog: I quickly learned that poverty, corruption, and lack of sanitation would be three main challenges I would deal with while traveling there. I prepared myself for what I knew would be more of an experience than a true vacation.

I also knew that I wanted to see the world. Not only did I want to go and see the beautiful beaches, mountains, and man-made wonders, but I wanted to see how people across the globe, across all walks of life, are living. In my mind, getting as far outside of the Lincoln Park / educated middle class bubble as possible would open my eyes to the problems that exist across the world and also to how fortunate I truly was (Note: I am truly fortunate, and I have a much deeper appreciation for the advantages I have had in my life after seeing how the least fortunate are living in India).

In my mind, my timing to start the trip could not have been better. Mike and Sam had been in India and Nepal for two months already, and they had seen some areas of India that are much worse than anything I was going to encounter, at least in terms of poverty levels. While in the Ganges valley, for instance, their clothes were actually washed by their hotel in sewage. I, on the other hand, was fortunate enough to see the Taj Mahal in the first few days of being there and also spend more time in the South, where the people are generally more educated and less impoverished. I was excited.

While dealing with some of the more absurd problems we encountered in India, Mike, Sam, and I did a fantastic job of maintaining our morale and seeing the humor in what we saw. However, once we had booked our flight to Thailand and could start counting down the days until we left, our patience started wearing thin. We were tired of dealing with the problems that exist, which I will do my best to lay out here.

The biggest challenge in discussing the problems with India to people who have not been there is that an honest assessment will look exaggerated. When I say that people in India do not understand what a germ is, I am not saying that some of the places are less than sanitary. I literally mean that they do not have the fundamental understanding of cleanliness and Germ Theory. Except for the top 1% or so of educated Indians, not a single one we talked to could grasp the concept of a microorganism that would cause disease. When trying to find a place to eat, for instance, we could not make decisions based on whether the menu looked nice or the prices. We literally had to go into the kitchen and see if the conditions were satisfactory. Of course, our standards of cleanliness dropped suddenly at first, and continued to drop over time. By the end of the trip, if we were eating at a restaurant and there were 100 flies hovering around, landing on us, the dirty dishes on the other tables, and on various spots in the kitchen, but there were 8 other tourists eating there, we would find it acceptable and deal with the flies. Street vendors are a popular source of food for locals, but rarely did we find it acceptable. Most of the food sold by street vendors was some variation of fried meat, potatoes, and vegetables that had been fried hours ago and had been sitting out in the sun, completely unprotected from the hundreds of flies buzzing around it, for hours. Occasionally, we would find a place that was making fresh food, and we would happily indulge. These vendors did not understand the fact that fresh food was cleaner and safer, only that westerners had some "strange" preference for it, and they could therefore make more money by cooking the food fresh.

On the same note, there is absolutely no infrastructure for sanitation. In most cities, there are open-air sewers that dump the sewage straight into the nearest body of water. These cannot actually do even this simplest function, of course, because locals throw all of their garbage on the ground, which eventually collects in the sewers. The garbage will remain here until someone feels compelled to gather some of it up and burn it. Incineration is not a formal form of waste disposal, but rather a quick way to produce some heat and get rid of the garbage. One night in Delhi, while trying to find a hotel in a very busy district, we stumbled upon a young man who was lighting plastic bags on fire and holding his hands in front of them for the heat. Nevermind that burning plastic has to produce of the most noxious gases possible, it was 55 degrees Fahrenheit and he was cold. The plastic garbage was the easiest thing to burn, so he did. This occurred in the city, so of course the pollution filled the air and moved into people's houses, hotels, and restaurants. But no one on the street even gave him a second glance. In Allappe, I took this picture. The street vendor has a wooden cart from which he sells bananas on the street. Apparently there was too much garbage in the sewers a few feet away from him, so he decided to light it on fire. After talking with him, he expressed no concern that the fire could burn down his stand.

In Hampi, the ancient city with many natural rock formations and man-made rock carvings, we stumbled upon this garbage pile. In the same city, we saw children drawing chalk designs around cow dung. Unfortunately, I did not have my camera to take a picture. Since cows are considered holy, they are permitted anywhere they wish, including in the cities. And when they defecate, the dung will just sit in the middle of the road until it is stomped into nothing or put in a pile with other garbage and burned. I wish that these were isolated incidents, but this is really the overriding theme. There is garbage everywhere, no sewage system, and nobody seems to even view this as a problem.

The mosquitos in India are brutal as well. Toward the end of the trip, while in a more tropical climate, the three of us began accumulating mosquito bites at an alarming rate. Each day I would check and somehow have more bites than the day before. This is in spite of wearing deep woods off 24 hours a day and sleeping under a mosquito net. With the ever-present risk of malaria everywhere in India, constantly having 40 mosquito bites not only made us quite itchy, but provided a large health risk as well.

Although I touched on this already by discussing the lack of garbage removal and sanitation systems, another one of the major problems in India is the lack of infrastructure. Cities do not really exist in the western sense of the word. Villages simply merge together and become overcrowded, leaving winding, barely paved roads to be shared by cycle rickshaws, autorickshaws, pedestrians, mopeds, and cars. Everything is lackluster in location, since nothing was actually planned. For instance, when trying to leave Delhi, it feels like one should be getting out into the suburbs after leaving the truly packed downtown area. However, the "outskirts" of the city actually composes most of the population and can continue for miles, with no sign of organization. On a positive note, while the British were in control, they created a basic transportation system that makes it possible to travel around the country. Roads and railroads have been built and make land travel possible.

Traveling around is its own challenge, and may actually be one of the hardest parts of being in India. When riding a bus, for instance, the buses will speed down the road at a breakneck pace, honking continuously and forcing vehicles going in both directions to pull over the side of the road, simply because the bus is the biggest vehicle. It is like a giant game of chicken. Spending too much time on a bus is out of the question, as it is both stressful and nauseating. Although the track is in place, taking a train is a difficult process as well. There is a website with ticket availability and times, but it wrong about 30% of the time, and you cannot order tickets online anyway. So showing up at the train station is really the only way to buy tickets. Once the tickets are purchased, it is really a crapshoot as to when the train will show up. A twelve hour train ride could easily depart two hours late and lose another four hours during the journey, arriving a total of six hours late. I was on a train that was supposed to take four hours and somehow took eight. So much extra time needs to be reserved for travel, and only one leg of a journey can really be booked at a time, due to the uncertainty of the trains.

This brings me to one of my worst experiences of the entire trip. While already tired from a few restless nights and stressed out from various hassles, our only option for traveling from Hampi to Bangalore on an overnight train. Mike and Sam told me it was actually nicer than the normal trains, as you could get an air conditioned sleeper class. For some reason I was thinking that it would be like the train system in Europe, where the a/c sleeper class was actually a convenient and comfortable way to travel. My experiences with the trains had been all right so far. For the shorter trips, we had taken a non a/c on the train and it had been less than sanitary, but tolerable. On this overnight train, in the nicest cabin in the entire train, I was near panic. Once we got into the train, Mike and Sam fell asleep rather quickly as they were quite tired, but I decided to read for a while first. In the non a/c class, everyone throws their garbage out of the windows, so that the train is actually reasonable clean. However, the windows do not open in the a/c class, so everyone throws their garbage on the floor. Of course, there is no one that cleans up the garbage with any regularity, so the train becomes a breeding ground for insects, in this case silverfish.

Maybe more than other people, I strongly dislike bugs. I am not afraid of them, but I know they are disgusting. Mosquitos, flies, and silverfish all breed disease and are a nuisance as well. Cockroaches are the worst.

On this train, once the lights were mostly out, the silverfish began to come out and scrounge around looking for food. While sitting on a bunk and reading, I saw them crawling along the floor, up the walls, and onto the mattresses where other people were sleeping. Whenever any of them would come near me on the ground, I would stomp them to death. Given our relative sizes, one would expect that one stomp would be enough to end their lives, but in many cases it took three. As more and more came out, I started to lose it. What made it worse was that the remaining Indians who were awake on the train not only thought I was odd for killing them, but they were amused and laughed at me that I was not comfortable with these bugs. Any hope of sleeping quickly disappeared as I resolved to keep the bugs off of me. I had gotten a copy of Slumdog Millionaire on DVD, so I turned on Mike's laptop to watch it. 2/3 of the way through the movie, the power on the laptop was fading, so I plugged it into the outlet. No power. I asked what the problem was to an employee, and he told me that none of the outlets were working; they would be fixed in the morning. I went back to the bunk and sat down to start to read. With enough adrenaline pumping through my veins from the bugs, I was nowhere close to being tired at this point, although I was sure to feel the consequences in the morning.

Then I noticed that there were various Indians waking up, brushing off a few silverfish, and walking to the toilet. The toilet on the trains is actually just a hole in the ground. When I was using it, I could actually see the tracks below me. Because the toilets are just squatters (meaning no seat, just a hole in the ground), the bathroom becomes a veritable pool of feces and urine. The Indians, who are accustomed to going barefoot everywhere, were walking to and into the room completely barefoot. While walking back, I could see their wet footprints, and I watched them as they stepped on the sixty or so silverfish I killed over the course of the night. Being trapped on this train, I felt completely isolated from the world, and I felt a world away from anyone who had the slightest idea what hygiene was. A few times during the night I began to hyperventilate, but I managed to get to Mysore without anything worse than some trauma to my nerves.

The poverty and lack of education almost goes without saying. So many people in the cities and villages are living on almost no income, living in collective shanties. Education is minimal, and many children are pulled out of school at a young age so that they can work. Since no job really pays a real wage, each family needs every child to be supplying income to the family from a very young age. The book White Tiger does a great job describing in much better detail many of these systemic problems. I would recommend this book for anyone who wants to get an insider's look at the various societal problems in India right now.

Corruption is another large problem. Anything can be accomplished in India for the right price. An interesting observation was made by another foreign backpacker I met. He said that while we are not technically above the law, there is no crime we could commit that we do not have enough money to bribe our way out of it, thus giving us above the law status. Native Indians who want to avoid prison can bribe police officers and judges. To buy a house or start a business, bribes have to be paid to the right people to ensure that all applications make it through the bureacracy on time. Doctors are able to use bribes to "double dip;" they will receive a government salary for working at a public hospital, give 1/3 of the salary to the regional director, and then work full time at a private hospital. This is the reason there are no doctors at the public hospitals (Another example from White Tiger). With a system of corruption so pervasive, it is impossible to imagine how to change it.

One of the worst problems is actually the hardest to notice at first, but the racism in India is worse than anything I have seen anywhere else in the world. Although the caste system is technically illegal, it is still very much followed in practice. Untouchables are given the job to move cow dung from one spot to another and are not allowed to make eye contact with above classes. Anyone with any amount of money will have a team of servants to handle all of the day to day errands that would take hours or days without them, and when their uneducated servants do not live up to their standards, they will beat them. The masters try to keep their violence private, especially from westerners, but on occasion we have seen it happen. While Mike was at a computer store getting his laptop fixed, the owner went into the back of the store, and after a quick discussion, slapped his servant across the head. He thought Mike did not see it happen, but once he realized Mike had, he simply pretended it had not happened. With no education system in place and no way to make political changes in the corrupt system, it is impossibly difficult to rise above one's position from birth.

When combined, all of these problems make for a mostly chaotic society. With so little education and organized business, labor productivity is at absurdly low levels. I cannot begin to count the number of people I observed "working," but who were not doing anything conceivably close to an economically productive activity. Scammers and trinket sellers are two easily defined examples, but there are also quite a few people who are doing something that defies reason. For instance, in Delhi, I saw a man, who did not appear to be employed by any organization, taking apart the sidewalk, one piece at a time. Why he was doing this defied logic.

From the tourist perspective, India is one of the worst places I have ever been. In many places across the world, tourists occasionally pay too much for a good, are targeted by pickpockets, or eat at overpriced touristy restaurants, but overall the experience is still enjoyable. In India, the entire tourism industry is designed to scam tourists. 90% of monuments and ruin sites in India cost 10 rupees ($.20) as an entrance fee for natives, and 250 rupees ($5) for tourists. Many of these places are only tourist sites because they are old, but they are poorly maintained and definitely not worth any entrance fee. While in Madurai, we signed up for a bus tour that was supposed to include our entrance fees, but upon arriving to each minor site, we were told that we needed to pay 250 rupees for an entrance fee and another 80 rupees for our cameras. After overpaying for too many sites in India, I stopped paying the fee for any site that was not clearly on my destination list.

Luckily we had a Rough Guides tour book, which served as a good guide not only for the sites we wanted to visit, but also for the prices of rickshaw rides. On almost every occasion, rickshaw drivers would try to charge 400 or 500 rupees for a ride that should never be more than 50 rupees. It would take stern negotations with four or five drivers to finally secure a reasonable fare. Even so, the driver would almost always try to charge us more than the agreed upon price once we arrived at the destination, or they would not take us there at all. When we arrived, they would pretend like the original conversation had never happened. On the rare occasion that a driver offered us a fair price and took us to the location with no hassle, we would normally leave a monstrous tip, simply for being one of the 5% of people who were somewhat honest. Hotels were not honest with us as well. Even when paying a deposit and receiving a receipt, the desk clerk would try to change the terms of the arrangement. In one hotel, we paid for an inital night up front when we were showed to our rooms, and when we tried to check out, the clerk told us we had not paid. He had security cameras of the main area, where we should have made the payment. Since he did not have any video of us paying originally, we would have to pay for the first night again. Obviously the clerk who took our payment in the room knew that this was how they functioned and took advantage of us.

It is truly infuriating to not be able to trust a single person in the tourism industry for even the simplest of agreements. Always being vigilant becomes quite a tiring process.

Since the tourism industry is mostly about scamming people anyway, it would draw in the most aggressive and dishonest people. While traveling, we all tried to latch onto anyone who was friendly and worked outside of the. We were able to meet quite a few locals who did not have much, if any, exposure to tourists. These people were almost invariable hospitable, kind, and generous to a fault. Mike and I met one young man in Allappe who invited us to his home for lunch, cooked by his mother. While we were there, he explained a fair amount of his cultural experiences and his ambitions to us. He also tried to give us presents, which I did not feel comfortable accepting. However, it was very refreshing having prolonged exposure to someone living there with a much more positive outlook who is also quite friendly. It gives me hope for the future there.

Overall, after quite a lot of thought and some time since the experience ended, there is not any aspect of Indian culture that I would implement in the United States. Whenever I have traveled previously, there have usually been a few aspects of the culture I thought were superior to the culture at home. Unfortunately, this was not so in India. Culturally, India was deficient in every way. That said, my trip through India has been an incredible learning experience and a great test of my patience.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Slumdog Millionaire and White Tiger

So to follow up my last massive post, I wanted to talk about Slumdog Millionaire and White Tiger, which are the two easiest ways for anyone at home to get a sense of what India is really like.

Slumdog Millionaire (Warning: Slight plot spoiler) is an interesting movie in which the main character, Jamal Malik, progresses through the questions of "Who Wants to be a Millionaire," with each segment being interrupted with a flashback chronicling his difficult upbringing from orphan to his current position working in a call center and the intertwined story of the love of his life, Latika. While the story is very catching and the movie has its own merit, the most interesting part for me was seeing the portrayal of Indian culture. At the beginning of the movie, the slums in Mumbai are shown, and although I did not travel to Mumbai, Mike and Sam have told me this is a very accurate representation, and I have seen similar poverty in the rest of India. Later on, the director takes some artistic license by cleaning up the city for several scenes. For instance, there is a scene in the train station, and it looks like a regular bustling train station. However, by all accounts, there are literally thousands of homeless people sleeping on the platform, so merely walking to or from a train is a daunting task. It is also one of the worst smelling places on earth.

The depictions of children begging and their "masters" is also mostly accurate. Begging is so entrenched in Indian culture that poor parents will send out children to beg for money. Even worse, they will mutilate their own children, by blinding them or hacking off limbs, so that the pity will generate higher income. There is a scene depicting this sort of violence with a collective, where an entrepreneurial man (I use the term loosely) picks up orphan children and feeds them in exchange for their begging services. After they are old enough, he will mutilate them as well.

Later in the movie, Jamal's brother Salim says that India is the center of the new, developing world. Although I strongly disagree with this point of view, many Indians do seem to share it. They see high rise buildings going up and see that they have a large corporation (Tata), and they think they are the next world powerhouse. In reality, their building construction is so poor that the buildings look like they have aged fifty years before they are completed, and Tata is only internationally known because they provide every product to Indians, making it a billion dollar company.

White Tiger provides a more complete lesson as to the problems in India right now, from corruption to lack of education to lack of sanitation.

An excerpt:

One day, as I was driving my ex-employers Mr Ashok and Pinky Madam in their Honday City car, Mr Ashok put a hand on my shoulder, and said, 'Pull over to the side.' Following this command, he leaned forward so close that I could smell his aftershave - it was a delicious, fruitlike smell that day - and said, politely as ever, 'Balram, I have a few questions to ask you, all right?'
'Yes, sir,' I said.
'Balram,' Mr Ashok asked, ' how many planets are there in the sky?'
I gave the answer as best as I could.
'Balram, who was the first prime minister of India?'
And then: 'Balram, what is the difference between a Hindu and a Muslim?'
And then: 'What is the name of our continent?'
Mr Ashok leaned back and asked Pinky Madam, 'Did you hear his answers?'
'Was he joking?' she asked, and my heart beat faster, as it did every time she said something.
'No. That's really what he thinks the correct answers are.'
She giggled when she heard this: but his face, which I saw reflected in my rearview mirror, was serious.
'The thing is, he probably has... what, two, three years of schooling in him? He can read and write, but he doesn't get what he's read. He's half-baked. The country is full of people like him, I'll tell you that. And we entrust our glorious parliamentary democracy' - he pointed at me - 'to characters like these. That's the whole tragedy of this country.'
He sighed.
'All right, Balram, start the car again.'
That night, I was lying in bed, inside my mosquito net, thinking about his words. He was right, sir - I didn't like the way he had spoken about me, but he was right.
'The Autobiography of a Half-Baked Indian.' That's what I ought to call my life's story.
Me, and thousands of others in this country like me, are half-baked, because we were never allowed to complete our schooling. Open our skulls, look in with a penlight, and you'll find an odd museum of ideas: sentences of history or mathematics remembered from school textbooks (no boy remembers his schooling like one who was taken out of school, let me assure you), sentences about politics read in a newspaper while waiting for someone to come to an office, triangles and pyramids seen on the torn pages of the old geometry textbooks which every tea shop in this country uses to wrap its snacks in, bits of All India Radio news bulletins, things that drop into your mind, like lizards from the ceiling, in the half-hour before falling asleep - all these ideas, half formed and half digested and half correct, mix up with other half-cooked ideas in your head, and I guess these half-formed ideas bugger one another, and make more half-formed ideas, and this is what you act on and live with.

Although I find the narration style and actual plot less than perfect, the insight into Indian culture far outweighs any criticisms I have of the story. I have heard a few people comment on what they though about Slumdog Millionaire, but I am curious what everyone else thinks.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Blessed by an Elephant

I have to say this is a first, but it never hurts to have an elephant's blessing. That's an old Hindi saying, by the way.

Monday, January 12, 2009

Goings on

Lots of new stories up, but some new pictures have to wait, as the internet is really slow here in Hampi. I hope to have them up shortly!