🗓(I think it will be fun to release these one at a time; since we’re at the 20th anniversary of her adventures, I’ll try to post them as they were first sent — from early September through mid-December, 2002)
I’m very pleased to have this picture to start things off with — Helen has always had a very relaxed “when in Rome” attitude towards culture and language, always sort of fitting in despite being in unexpected places, and yet never really sacrificing her own unique identity.
In addition to her salwar kameez, the camera case she’s holding is a reminder that this all happened before digital cameras or smartphones (and you’ll hear a lot more about bananas as her adventure unfolds 😛).
Date: Fri, 6 Sep 2002
Dad, Ana, Cathleen, Ashu --Hola muchachos! I'm chilling in Bangkok. I've been chillling for five hours. The airport is nice but not exotic or anything. Full of Indians and Pakistanis and a tribe of short Mexican guys all speaking Spanish as fast as they can. Everybody is waiting around. This seems like a waiting sort of airport. But in two hours I leave for India! I just changed four dollars into bagh? --whatever it is, it's bought me a bag of "mixed nuts" that look like an Asian snack mix. It was the only thing that didn't have something to do with squid or dried jack fruit or other things a little too adventurous to be my lunch-dinner in the Flower and Fruit store. That was eighty bagh. The rest of my bagh are paying for fifteen minutes of internet. And I'm using the rest to check my mail. I'll try to write again from Delhi tonight, but if not I should at least manage tomorrow morning--afternoon. I'm going to sleep in as long as I can. It's all very exciting, but in a very sleepless sort of way. :)
I love you guys!
Date: Sat, 7 Sep 2002
You guys really should have taught me how to make a sending group or whatever it's called before I left. All this time typing in e-mail addresses!
So fun to be in the middle of India, and go over to a computer and have e-mails waiting for me, with fresh news about pergo flooring and dance apprec. classes, and computer techie interviews. Everything is really, really nice here. I figured when everything was so easy getting to Bangkok, that I was probably worrying more than I needed to about arriving in Delhi.
I didn't give you guys any details of the trip to Bangkok really, and I feel like I should go in chronological order. But at the same time, everything since then is so fresh. And chronology itself seems very fragile right now. All these different time zones and my horrible sense of time (witness my inability to foresee microwave buzzers and boarding calls) leave me unsure of whether it was only yesterday that I left Turlock, or a week ago. Is time still going at the same pace there as it is here?
Here it is Saturday, 11:20 pm and I'm sitting in the internet cafe in my hotel (wearing the pink salwaar kameez with white scarf but otherwise standing out very much from all these Indians). I got up at seven this morning, and took a bucket shower--carefully following Ashu's instructions, except that there were only two buckets instead of seven, and just one spout--more like the normal bathtub faucet, aside from it going right onto the bathroom floor. I wonder how many rupees I'm spending to describe my room's bathroom? And I still haven't even told you about the flight to Delhi, or anything!
Okay. I'll start where I'm supposed to, as soon as I've given you one other random bit of news. When I went to buy my train ticket from the hotel travel agency this morning, it turned out that the guy knew John Mock. They were colleagues, or something, and his younger brother was a colleague of David Mock, John's brother? The guy grew up in Mussoorie, but hadn't even been back for six years. And didn't seem to think it was a big coincidence at all that he would also know someone I knew.
Like the Nepali taxi driver last night who expected me to know his tourist friend from San Jose, since we were both from California.
After I e-mailed you from Bangkok, I was hailed over by an Indian looking woman who had a giant diamond in her nose and was about to explode with conversation. She'd pulled me over because of my clothes--was horrified that I might be a foreigner marrying into Pakistan and all it's evils. It turned out she was from Fiji, and married a Pakistani five years ago. She had just left him, and was on her way from Pakistan back to Fiji. It was the first time she'd had her head uncovered since she married him and converted to Islam. She had left her children from her previous marriage, left her country, left everything to go live with his relatively impoverished family. Her husband wanted her to do everything exactly like his parents and his sisters and all the women in his family had "for centuries"--everything from the way she wrapped the saran wrap to walking six steps behind him in public to taking beatings at home and meekly listening while he joined his relatives in calling her a prostitute, other terrible names. She wasn't at all happy about my dating an Indian, though her reasons didn't seem to have much to do with the Pakistani. She was half Indian, but had all sorts of prejudices against them. I think Indians must have low status in Fiji. I showed her a picture of Ashu, and she agreed that he was cute, though she still didn't completely approve of my dating him-- even as non-Pakistani as he seemed, the name Shah made her suspicious. She was still telling me more stories of her evil mother in law when I looked down at my watch and saw it was ten minutes till my flight!
I ran through that hot humid airport like you would not believe. (Ashu, I would have left you in the dust, easily!)
Then, after getting through security and feeling absolutely sure that my lungs were going to implode and my heart explode, leaving a very big mess outside gate fifteen. . . I found out the door to the gate was locked. I was ready to panick, but I calmly walked over to one of the petite thai women in her security uniform, and asked her why the door was locked. She explained that it was because boarding didn't even start for another half hour. I'd set my watch wrong for Thailand time. I leaned against a wall and commenced dying, much to the curiosity of a tall man in a turban and his elderly punjabi wife. More and more Indians showed up as boarding time approached, but even once they opened the door, there weren't more than twenty of us. As people kept trickling in after boarding should have begun, and after boarding should have ended, and as our flight should have already taken off, I began to wonder if flights to India go by Standard Indian Time. Pretty soon the room was crowded with Indians, and there was still no sign of an airplane outside.
I played with a little girl who sat next to me in the waiting room, though in my exhaustion I wasn't completely entertaining, and she would often ramble around, to the opposite end of the room from her parents and me, and then return. A two year old, and completely independent in the crowds. Finally the plane arrived, though very delayed and we took our seats. The man next to me seemed embarassed to be sitting next to me, some strange woman, and he nicely explained that he would go sit in the center isle so that I could have more room to sleep. I didn't need room to sleep, though it did feel more comfortable having that little extra bit of space. There were so many men on the plane and so few women. I think a lot of the people were travelling on business. I slept, so I don't really remember the flight over the Bay of Bengal, etc.. In the night, you really couldn't see much anyhow. Everyonce in a while I would open my eyes and there would be half naked Indian superheroes and heroines running around across the screen, brandishing swords and running through curtains of flames. Finally I opened my eyes again and the movie had been replaced by a monitor tracking our flight to Delhi. Only twenty miles left!
Landing was normal, except that none of the Indians even made a show of waiting till the end of the taxi to take off their seatbelts and start crowding for the exits. The airport was normal too--airconditioned, and extremely straightforward. As soon as we got through the little tunnel to the terminal from the airplane, we were at the luggage place, and there was my suitcase, already unloaded and waiting for me. It all was almost too smooth and fast, because I already had all my things before anyone else was ready to lead the way to customs, etc. I waited. Then followed them to immigration, which was very fast. They had almost ten desks open and working, with little boquets of flowers as decorations. Once I'd had my passport stamped, I was in another hall, where I found a Thomas Cook exchange and traded sixty dollars for rupees. There was a British guy and a couple young girls there as well. He was travelling alone and would have shared a taxi with me if I hadn't had someone waiting. His hotel had offered pickup, but when he heard the difference in price of getting picked up versus grabbing a cab himself, he thought he'd just do it. Then he saw the exchange rate and realized he was just saving himself about a pound, and he should have called. He was in his early thirties, and seemed like he could deal for himself, so I left him arguing with the exchange desk about some bureaucratic problem, and went through customs. That really just means I handed a security officer a piece of paper as I walked through the door. No one really even looked at me. The area on the other side of the doorway was strange--sort of like the celebrity paths outside movie premieres or something. Everyone on the other side of the rope was completely quiet, and completely squished in. Some of the faces came with big signs, and there, on one towards the middle right, had my name and Hotel Ajanta and the magic passcode all printed in big letters on it.
The sign was attached to a short little guy in a blue shirt, with a friendly looking face. I motioned to him and we met at the end of the roped off area. He welcomed me to India, and we then hiked out into the wilds of India. I don't really know if it was exciting of not, since I was just focused on following him and not losing him in the crowd of Indian men, and tourists, and baggage carts. It was dark and misty, and felt a lot like the outside of the Morelia airport. My driver and I talked about the weather and about how many people he'd picked up that day, and whether or not I'd been to India before, and how long I had been in airplanes and airports since I left home. We had a lot of time to talk. We must have walked a mile, and all along I rolled my little trusty little suitcase. We passed fewer and fewer people, went through a tunnel, went past one fenced in parking lot, went along another muddy paved road with stray dogs and past a few more men in Indian clothes and then into another parking lot--sort of like fairground parking--that had a big sandwich board type sign saying staff only. I didn't point out that neither of us really qualified as staff.
Then he loaded my suitcase into the front seat, opened the back door for me, and we were off. Getting out of the parking lots was bumper to bumper gridlock. I admired the grapes he had hanging from the rear view mirror, asked him about his religion, practiced my Hindi on him, learned about his family, his job, his experiences in Delhi. . . He was very nice, and even being tired, it was interesting to learn about his life and Delhi and his mini-version of India. He has a three year old and a six year old and a wife to go with them on a farm with his family in Nepal. He talks to his wife two or three times a week. He thought it was funny that I wasn't married, though he apologized for his astonishment, remembering that we were from different cultures, and that in my culture it isn't as common to marry at fifteen or sixteen. He showed me his travel journal, with entries from different tourists he had driven with to Rajasthan and other parts of India. All of them wrote very nice things about his cautious driving, and his calm, pleasant demeanor, and his amazing ability at aiming them towards good restaraunts and away from touts and other unwelcome aspects of travel in India.
His driving seemed safe enough, though we were using the line in the middle of our one way traffic lanes as a sort of third lane. Outside the car were lots of Morelia type businesses and other rather worn sorts of buildings, and all sorts of people, except for women. Things seemed to move twenty four hours here.
Everyone was awake at the hotel when I got there. My driver handed me and my luggage over to the eight different men still working at the front desk of the hotel. A manager sort of person took me over to a little side desk with comfortable seats and a quiet, dark bearded fellow brought me tea while they first took down my passport information, filed the information for the tourist police sort of office, and asked me about my flight and where I'd learned my Hindi and how long I would be staying in Mussoorie. I didn't drink the tea, but took the passport cover they gave me to make it "safe" and paid for the two nights and the airport pick up with rupees. It turned out that it cost half what I thought--only eleven dollars or so with tax per night. The bearded guy led me to my room (in complete silence) and left, after I had had him show me how the fan and things worked.
The room was really nice. Three good locks on the door, one a churchkey style. The bed was king sized--maybe from twins pushed together. The bed was just made with a tightly fitted bottom sheet (starched, I think) and two folded blankets, plus pillows. The fan hung from a very high ceiling. There is a window above my bed, but it leads into a space, not a real courtyard or anything. There's a nice carpet, a sofa, a television, and then the bathroom--with western toilet and twenty four hour hot water.
I had an Indian style breakfast in the restaraunt downstairs this morning. You look right out onto the street, and everyone on the street looks back at you. When I first came in, there were only men in the restaraunt, and they all stared at me sort of curiously. Later on, more tourists came. I stayed at the table long after I'd finished my potato pancake thing, and banana and yoghurt and glass of water. The street was so crazy. It's small, the size of our alleyway, and has people just flowing through it. Little boys in school uniforms, their arms around each other’s shoulders. Women in white veils riding behind men on motor scooters. Women in saris, women in Salwaar Kameezes, men in suits, men in work clothes, men sharing scooters and wearing funny toy looking helmets, women riding in the back of cycle rikshaws, pregnant dogs, tiny children running around and throwing pieces of ice, honking jeeps, honking taxis, but mostly pedestrians. There's a little shop across the street too, selling film and things, which makes it all even more interesting.
But I haven't actually walked outside of the hotel yet. It is an intimidating sort of street, with the mud, and the wide eyed men, and the sniffing little dogs. A man walked by with a puppy under his arm, as if it were just a briefcase. And later a man walked by with three small children in tow, clinging to his suit--one sitting in his arms. I think it would be different if I had a place to go. For now it's enough just to sit and watch, and there are two meals left to go. That should be a lot of excitement.
I booked my train to Dehra Dunn this morning after I had eaten. I'll take the express at seven in the morning tomorrow. The manager is sending someone with me to help me find my seat and get me settled. The people at the hotel are all very serious and respectful and make life far easier than it ought to be. It can't really count as an adventure while there are all these people around taking care of me!
So, what shall I have for lunch?
I think I'll go scope out the menu. Funny that I can do so much without ever leaving this safe little oasis. Afterwards, maybe I'll watch some TV. They shoved the Indian Express newspaper under my door this morning. Looks like the Indian cricket team is doing alright.
I'll keep you up to date.
I send much much love!
Cathleen has to take lots of notes in her dance apprec. class for me. . . I'm so excited for her!
Date: Sun, Sept 8, 2002
I'm in the most beautiful place on earth. It feels like the highest place on earth too. Looking out in either direction I have to almost catch my breath, it feels as if the mountain sides just slope down and down forever. They're bright green now too, because of the monsoon, with all sorts of flowering bushes and plants. It's well forested--somehow the trees manage to hang on to the sides of the mountain, and there are two different types of monkeys that. . . well, I feel as if they ought to be springing from tree to tree, but all the monkeys I've seen have been loping along the ground. The silver ones are langurs or something. I saw them for the first time as we were driving up in the taxi. There were at least twelve of them, some just babies, all casually picnicing on some sort of seeds that had fallen in the road. They showed absolutely no fear at all of the taxi driver, which, considering the width of the road and the speed that he was driving, was remarkable.
Yesterday was so intense. I know I should write all the details of my trip from the hotel to the station and from there to Dehra Dunn, and then the taxi ride, but I don't know how. I spent an hour writing in my journal last night and never even got to the part where I got on the train, and my train left at seven in the morning. Describing the day feels like writing a novel to rival Vikram Seth's in length, and meanwhile, all I want to do right now is tell you about my room and my breakfast and the birds that were calling at dawn outside my windows.
I know if I'm not careful, I'll spend my entire day in this internet cafe, and completely miss all my Hindi lessons. But my first one doesn't start until afternoon, and I'm not guarding my rupees so carefully that I can't at least spend some time describing yesterday's journey and the guest house and the amazing luck I've had ever since I left the Hotel Ajanta in Delhi.
I woke up at three in the morning in the hotel. There was so much going on all night. I have the feeling sometimes that Indians don't sleep. Not that this is an entirely new or original suspicion. There were a zillion employees in the hotel, and since most flights into India arrive in the middle of the night, all the different facilities of the hotel are twenty four hours too. So many people talking and people walking around the outside of my room, and glasses breaking, and toilets flushing. . . I didn't let myself get out of bed until four thirty, but I really hardly slept at all. By the time I got my wake up call at six, I was already completely packed, and comfortably curled up with the newspaper (more cricket scores). One of the zillion identical looking employees (same blue shirts, same exact mustache and hair cut, same aloof and professional manner) noticed me coming out of my room and helped me with my luggage. Then I found someone, there were zillions of employees just waiting to be found--one of them was deeply sleeping behind the money exchange counter--and explained that I'd like someone to go with me to the train station and set me up. The guy who'd been asked to the night before wasn't there--or maybe he was and I just lost him among the other blue shirts and mustaches.
After some discussion, and my changing a little bit more money with one of the consious employees, me and my luggage and an old man with a black shirt and no mustache (!) were loaded into the back of a little green rickshaw, in the middle of all the early morning chaos of my street. The rickshaw drove us through alleys, along big streets and small streets, through crazy intersections, past extreme poverty, cows, lumber shops, chai wallas, resting employees. It's funny how scared I was before I got onto the airplane when I wasn't experiencing anything at all to be frightened of, and how actually being in India, propelling through early morning Delhi at rediculous speeds on the back of the least stabil vehicle I've been on in my life, didn't seem like anything frightening at all. Maybe my senses were too full of all these other new sights, the craziness of this new place, to have room for fear. Instead, I enjoyed the ride, and happily chatted away in Hindi with the guy who'd been sent with me. We didn't have a complicated conversation, since my Hindi isn't that proficient, but we talked about my stay in India and my return to Delhi and studying Hindi in the mountains. I didn't really believe we'd reached the station when we got there.
We were still in the sort of underworld, or land of limbo that we had been driving through. Everything was still washed of any color but brown, and covered in dirt. People were still lying face down in the dust. Such hopeless people wandering around. It felt a little like I imagine Egypt must have felt like during its terrible famine, when parents had to protect their children, because there were people desperate enough to capture them and eat them. We parked outside a motorcycle (also dust covered) rental place, and walked through the brown muddy pavement across puddles and between walking corpses, to a platform where we stood in line while my companion got a platform pass and I watched the suitcase. It was all so surreal. But nothing terrible happened, and I didn't feel like a different person having been so close to poverty in real life. Such poverty isn't really easier to believe in person than it is on television or in movies. For our sanity, I think even our imagination sets limits. So I stood and stared at my suitcase, next to a pile of human feces, and waited for the guy to push his way through the crowd until his wrist slid through the little hole at the bottom of the glass window, and came back out with the pass. He had to struggle to get his hand back, there were so many other hands trying to push their way towards that glass.
Then my suitcase was on his shoulders and we were walking past that building to the relatively empty, but equally dirty platform, and walking and walking to find my car, and then my seat in the old train. I gave the guy some money after he put down my suitcase. I think I gave him about fifty cents. Then he cheerfully explained that it had cost sixty cents to get the pass, so I gave him another twenty ruppees (forty more cents) and he smiled very big, and talked about my coming back to Delhi, and seeing him again. Then he pointed to my baggage and said "baggage", nodding and smiling over and over again. And then he left.
The train was old, and worn, and the seats were narrow with three on the left and two on the right. More and more people came on and took their seats. Snack guys walked through passing out their goods. A man in kurta pajamas, with ret betel nut stained teeth came and quietly sat next to me. He took out a cell phone to check the time. I asked him if he was going to Dehra Dunn. He said yes. He asked where I was from. I asked him about the sociology of modern India book he was reading. Then another man came and sat down. We talked about my Hindi (in Hindi, the nice slow kind) and about Mussoorie, and about the best ways to learn. The train kept filling up. I kept looking up to see that my baggage was still there, though I couldn't imagine how anyone could manage to sneak it away.
He insisted that I get a hindi newspaper, instead of the Times that I was reading. So he and the other gentleman and I all got separate newspapers from the boy passing them out. The kurta pajama guy was very short, and played with his feet, just like Dr. Lutke, so that he reminded me very much of an oompa loompa. He turned out to be a lot more like Marieke's Dad though. He even had the same greying beard. The other man, the one seated on his other side, next to the window, was more of a mix between Grandpa Norm and Mr. Ozga. The paan addict turned out to be an anthropologist from Delhi university. The Ozga type fellow was an oil businessman, who had travelled in Russia, and kept the Hanumman Chalissa in his front coat pocket. The train employees kept on bringing more complementary chai trays, and my new aquaintances drank it non stop the whole time we were travelling. They also insisted that I follow their example and take one of the bottle of purified water the boys were handing out, though neither of the other men actually neglected their chai long enough to even sip water.
We were on the train six hours together, and my kurta pajama guy was extremely outgoing. I found about the NGO he was going to meet with in Dehra Dunn, and his family, and his kids. All this was in English. The oil businessman also spoke English, though not as well, and he also was very happy to practice it with me. I got lectures on life, long discussions on Hinduism and caste, advice on the best way to get to Mussoorie, how to make friends in life and be successful, interrogations on my hobbies, my past travel experiences, my family. Six hours, non stop talking. I showed them the Lonely Planet book , which they perused carefully and finally approved. I showed them the pictures of you all, which they also inspected carefully.
They were incredibly friendly, and very interested in my welfare and my safe arrival in Mussoorie. I really felt as if I had ended up with two new grandparents. They got along with each other well too, though the anthropologist, who had studied five years with tribes on the Nepalese border, and should have been more patient, could hardly bear to wait for the other man's English. So the anthropologist spoke a lot more. He exchanged e-mails with me, and gave me his cell number, and made me promise to call him when I got to Mussoorie, and to look up him and his wife when I return to Delhi.
And the whole way we were passing exceptionally interesting things, so that I didn't feel bored for a second. The train seemed so distant from the women sitting down to relieve themselves next to the tracks, and the pigs, and the trash, and the crumbling brick buildings where so many people were living. There were little kids playing in drecky water, there were white egrets in green fields, there was a wild peacock. It was very flat outside. Then, after hours and hours, and many cups of chai (I held off, thinking of my bladder and the prospect of the train toilet) and a meal of peas and four stale french fries with ketchup covered vegetable cutlets, we reached the hills. The rivers were flowing more, the villages looked better cared for, there were blackberry bushes, sawmills, men out of fairytales walking through forests with giant sacks over their shoulders.
My elderly gentlemen asked the family in front of me if they could fit me into a share taxi with them, and the family aquiesced. But then the pajama guy decided he wanted to introduce me to his NGO director friend, who might know of other NGOs in Mussoorie. He was also hoping to introduce me to paan and chai wallas and all the other mandatory (in his mind) experiences of a trip to India.Which wouldn't have worked with my sharing a taxi and leaving at once with the family. So instead I met the NGO director, though it turned out they had an appointment, and then followed them and the director's son, who carried my bag despite my protests ( so sexist!) to the taxi station across the street. Dehra Dunn reminded me of Morelia or at least, Patzcuaro. Nothing too intimidating, but it was still nice to have people watching out for me. And then, in the midst of their discussions with the taxi driver, who didn't know my hotel in Landour, but could get me at least to Mussoorie (drivers don't like driving up to Landour, because the road grows even narrower, and is very very steep). Then a guy in his twenties with an Australia t-shirt asked if I was going to Landour. He and his friend were as well, and they knew of my hotel, though they lived nearby. Would I like to share a taxi? We could all split the cost.
I left my anthropologist and the NGO people with warm goodbyes and then set off with Clint, the Texan (despite the shirt, I know), and his wife, an Anglo-Indian girl from Pune. Clint is a little older than me, and has lived in Mussoorie four years. Stephanie, his wife, moved here a year ago when they married. We got along really well. Stephanie was impressed by my knowlege of India (I asked her if she spoke Marathi) and I was impressed at her knowlege of everything else. You should have seen her buy vegetables when we stopped at the stand in Mussoorie. She is maybe my age? And teaches at English lit and geography at the Woodstock boarding school to ninth and tenth graders. I found out way more than that about them. . . I think we already really count as friends. The road up to Mussoorie was very narrow, and windy, but perfectly maintained. There was even a little stone wall the entire hour and a half up the mountain. Lots of scooters passed us, women in saris sitting side saddle on the back, without helmets. Maybe because of all the other cars we encountered, and scooters, who seemed far more exposed than we did, I wasn't frightened by the straight drop off on the edge of the road, or the incredible speed with which we took turns. Our taxi driver did a good job of honking as we passed turns, so that whoever we ran into head on would have at least had a chance to notice us before the accident.
It was so unbelievably beautiful. I almost wanted to cry--the mountains, the waterfalls, the stone walls above the road to keep back mud slides. The mountains were partly veiled in mist.
There's so much more to tell you. But for now, know that I am safely here, and meeting very friendly people, and settled in a quaint rustic room with beautiful windows out onto the mountain, and my own western style bathroom (though I still haven't gotten the shower to work). It's so quiet and peaceful here. I can walk up to the language school or the hotel, and not see a single person on my way, or even a car or scooter. Just the forest, and the monkeys, and the himalayas in the background when the sun burns off the mist.
It's so amazing to think how easily I could have gone my whole life without seeing this incredible place.
I wish so much that you were with me, to see it with my eyes and feel the sunshine warming the crisp cool mountain air.
But I will write more e-mails, and do my best to describe the churches, the cows, these mountains, and this winding street that goes down to the valley. Imagine that crooked street in San Francisco, but with stone instead, and with pines and other mountain trees in between, and dogs barking furiously at brown and grey monkeys that don't even care enough to give them a single look.
I send so much love!
Tue, Sept 10, 2002
I feel as if I just walked up and down half dome, though I really just walked down to Landour Bazaar. The road is incredibly steep, much more difficult than the walk from the guest house to the school or down to Char Dukan ("four store") where I e-mail. I hadn't realized how far a walk we were from Mussoorie. Landour bazaar, which has a couple of egg stores, an e-mail center, a bank, and a bookshop, plus a couple snack shops, is about twenty minutes down the mountain, past lots of quaint little houses, all displaying brightly colored collections of wash hanging out to dry. The view the whole way down is incredible, but breathing is such a challenge for my lungs, unaccustomed to the elevation and such climbs, that I can only really appreciate it at the times that I stop to catch my breath. My intention had been to buy an umbrella, since the monsoon season doesn't end for another two weeks, and a perfectly blue sky can turn into dark thunder clouds in twenty minutes, easily. Umbrellas are also a good defense against the more agressive brown monkeys, who are known for chasing lone pedestrians.
As it turned out, none of the little street shops were really up to umbrella sales (or at least, none that I could find). One of the little egg shops did display several fat caged hens though, with the cooked versions sitting on the open counter of the sweet shop facing it. The book store was very small, and had many books on Landour and Garwahl. They had two dictionaries too, but they were so bulky. And now that I've realized I probably won't be able to change money, much less withdraw it, without going down to Mussoorie, an hour's hard hike, even three dollars of my current reserves seems terribly expensive. I think I'll end up going to Mussoorie Saturday morning, when I don't have classes in the way, and see what I can manage with the banks. All of them are closed by four, when I normally finish.
Today is my third day of classes, but somehow I feel as if I've been here forever. Urmila ji, Dinkar ji. . . those are my favorite of my four teachers. They are both very challenging, so that by the end of the class I am almost sweating after all of the drills on new expressions and conjunct verbs and conjuct participle sort of things. "Having seen Mussoorie, I became happy" "Mussoorie dechkar mujko khushi hui" "Having seen Mussoorie, they became happy" "Mussoorie dechkar unko khushi hue" and over and over again, a new grammatic construction, a couple of examples and then drills until I can hardly remember my own name. But I like them very much. It's challenging and I really feel myself learning. Urmila ji has also been having me read stories, and she doesn't let me get away with a thing. I flinch every time I realize I've forgotten to touch my mouth with my tongue for the dental t's--for really she has no mercy as far as grammar and pronunciation go. She is a really neat person. She reminds me a lot of my friend Marisa, in Santa Cruz, the Chicana American Studies major, except with a bindi and lots of henna in her hair and on her hands, and a sari--that is always wrapped in a brown homespun sort of shawl. (The ensemble is completed with a pair of tennis shoes and an umbrella).
The other two teachers aren't as good. Joshi ji is interesting--his family comes from a village, and I got to interrogate him about the crops I'd seen on the way from Delhi(apparently they were sugar cane, which his family also grows) and electric and diesel tube wells and all the other things I'm interested in. I made him tell me all about his family. He didn't see his wife until the day of their wedding. Now they live below Landour bazaar (he walks all that way every day!) with their small daughter, and their sixteen year old neice. My other teacher refuses to speak to me in Hindi, so that the only time we use Hindi is when we sit reading together. I am learning a lot as I read and she translates. I can feel my vocabulary expanding. But it's not as stimulating and challenging as the other two classes with Urmila ji and the older gentleman, Dinkar ji.
The Italians have explained to me that next week I should be able to request which teachers and time slots I'd prefer, so maybe I can try another couple when that time comes. The people in the guest house are all so wonderful. The gang of Italians is very loud and boisterous.There are about ten of us right now, plus an elderly Indian gentleman and his servant, who have come from Delhi with their dog, Buddy, a yellow lab who is treated like a king while the servant, an adult man, is treated like less than a dog (though without any malicious intent whatsoever, it's just the customary relationship). We are served incredible dahl and subzi and rice with yoghurt and roti, family style around one of the big tables in the central room. Last night, the Italians finished dinner with an hour of singing at the top of their lungs. Kiri, a girl from Cambridge, and Padamma, from Hamburg, also joined them intermittantly. Padama and the Italians knew every Simon and Garfunkel song every written, but the Italians also serenaded us with soap commercials from Italy and rather irreverant impressions of Eros Ramazotti (holding their noses to get the perfect nazalized tones). The Italians are totally crazy. Kiri is more serious, but in a friendly way. She's taught French in Africa and lived in Ecuador and Dubai as well. Her Mom is English and her Dad Punjabi, so she actually spent her first ten years in Delhi, but only speaking English. Padama's Dad, who died two years ago, was Tamil. She doesn't speak Tamil though, just very good Hindi. She's been to India on and off since she was a baby (she's gorgeous, when I met her I was sure she was a model, and maybe she is) and is very very confident in her Hindi with the men at the guesthouse and the other teachers. She does the best job of fitting in of any of us, and is actually good friends with one of the teachers. Lots of the girls have clothes taylored for them in Mussoorie, but Padama's are something exceptional. . . she's very good at picking materials and styles, and her shalls are also gorgeous. She's sort of aloof, but not in a mean way. I'm hoping we'll be friends, since she's staying another three weeks, while Kiri and the Italians will only be here another week or so. Kiri will be here two weeks. I guess I'm outlasting them all. But I'm glad I'm staying six weeks. I really want to be able to speak fast, and be able to have conversations with all the different people, and I know in six weeks I will only just be reaching that level.
I miss you guys. I don't feel so far away though. Somehow I feel much closer to you than I do to Delhi. Delhi feels as if it is on the other side of the world.
I may not e-mail again for a day or two, just until I can get to a real bank. But I send tons and tons of love and extra big hugs to Cathleen for her birthday.
Will you e-mail me photos of the house when you move in the furniture?
I love you all so much.
Please take care and stay well. I'll see you again in no time at all!
What excitement !
Thu, Sept 12, 2002
And I was worried that with all those old geezers Dad and Ana would be getting bored. Now they have their own Western style gunfights going on right on the street! I'm glad the electrician was able to fix the breakers, though I don't understand why anyone would steal them. What do people use breakers for?
Yesterday in my conversation class, Joshi ji taught me how to jam a meter, so that you can steal electricity. And about how to bribe people in government offices. Really you should only bribe people that you know well, who won't turn you in, and you should be very discreet as far as higher officials go. There are actually a lot of honest ones. He's never bribed anyone, but before teaching he worked in an office, where he once accepted a bribe of twenty dollars. He considered it fair, since the guy was having him go through a lot of extra loops to get whatever paper work the guy needed.
Twenty dollars is tons here, a rediculous amount. I went down to Mussoorie yesterday inbetween my classes, in the pouring rain, that just let up this morning after over thirty hours of straight buckets. The walk really wasn't at all bad. After Landour, everything isn't half as steep, and Mussoorie's bazaars are full of all sorts of interesting clothes shops, and cloth shops, and snack shops, little booths where you can get a shave, other booths for a shampoo, more of the egg shops, shoe shops. It seemed like a very nice town, and that was in the rain.
I had to go to three different banks before I got someone to give me money for my card, and even that was an adventure. You should have seen the bank--not at all like in Mexico. This was like something out of the middle ages. I had to sort of crawl under a chain into a shed that had been turned into an office space. In the corner were two big cages, one for deposits, the other for withdrawals. No one came over to help me, and there wasn't a line anywhere. Finally a cleaning lady motioned to me that I was supposed to walk around the counter and approach one of the men drinking chai, smoking cigarettes, tickling each other. . . I found a man at a desk who nodded to me, and understood my credit card wish. He decided to use me as a learning experience for another under office employee (bapu instead of bapu ji), showed him where to put my passport number, my name, all the other little things on the slip. Where he should check my signature. After some struggle on his part, the lower peon guy finished filling out the slip, and the bapu ji brought out an old fashioned plastic credit card slider. He carefully showed the other guy how to place the card in, and the paper, then bang! he slammed the slider thing across the card, which had slipped slightly out of place in the process. What a sick feeling I had in my stomach! More force was used in trying to unjam the little contraption, more men appeared from other desks, one offered a metal stake/ spike, one of the ones men were occasionally coming over and skewering receipts and things with. For a while they prodded at the card with that, attempted loosening the different parts of the slider. Finally my card reappeared, still in one piece, but bent at the corner. It took another half hour of time for the bapu and bapu ji to actually figure out which number to dial to authorize my advance, and finish the paperwork. Then, I got my passport and credit card back, but I still had to go and trade a metal token saying "Bank of Baroda 6" with a man in one of the cages, before I could get my huge stack of bills and leave. I withdrew about two hundred dollars, though if I'd known what a challenge it would be, I might have chosen to withdraw more. Next time I'll know.
On my way back I bought a big black umbrella with a plastic blue handle, and a bar of cadbury chocolate, all for less than two dollars. The umbrella is very nice, though I felt funny walking back holding two umbrellas (the other was borrowed from the school). Outside of Mussoorie I got lost and ended up having to ask directions from three different people (you should have seen how many people I talked to before I got to the different banks!), who did get me back to Landour, but I think each person was thinking of a different path, so that none of the different ways I ended up using seemed very directly connected, or even vaguely related to the way I'd come down. By the end I was on a little dirt path (more of a river than a path) going up the mountain through the jungle and wondering if I wasn't on my way to Delhi rather than anywhere in Uttar Anchal. But the nature of the path, zigzagging every ten feet, with a two foot high step at each corner, was reassuring. Almost all the paths that go steeply up seem to somehow arrive at Landour, or at least Char Dukan.
And here I am, back where I'm supposed to be. And the rain has finally stopped. A couple friends and I are plotting a trip to Rishikesh this weekend, if the weather allows. Kiran goes back to England next Friday, and many of the Italians have already left, so I feel as if I ought to go travel with her, just in case the people who arrive later aren't people I enjoy quite as much. Kiran is very very fun, and the other woman we're planning on going with is also very nice. She reminds me very much of someone, but I haven't figured out who.
Everything's going alright with Cathleen's classes? Is she going to do anything for her birthday?
I think of all of you very much. Soon I think I'll buy stationary and start writing letters. Internet works well, but it costs money, and isn't of much comfort after dark when I'm thinking of my day and wanting so much to share all the little events with you. Being able to write letters will make me feel much better. And then I can sketch my shower, and the mountains, and the umbrella, and all the other little things words are so inadequate for. And maybe then I'll be able to practice my Hindi on Ashu as well. :)
I send much love to all of you. Keep on writing to me!
Mon, Sept 16, 2002
Dear Ana, Dad, Cathleen and Ashu,
It's nice of you to forward my e-mails to people. I felt so guilty for not writing to Aron and Laura and all the other important people I really do want to write to, that I almost put in other people's addresses this morning. But then, much to the amusement of the Italian next to me (there are three computers in our booth) and much to the impatience of the Italian waiting to take my place, I couldn't write. (I kept on deleting my first sentence) It's so impersonal to send out a letter to so many people, and there are different things I want to say about Machli and the floor and oompa loompa's, and Ashu's new job, and I really don't want to say those things to everyone.
I don't mind your forwarding my e-mails, but I think I am going to continue just writing to the four of you for now. You can edit out whatever is too personal or obscure to be shared. E-mail time is so precious and I want to be able to write to you without having to edit my thoughts or worry about my spelling or the accuracy of my descriptions.
We left for Rishikesh Friday afternoon, Maria, Kiri and I. Maria had a taxi come and pick us up from the guesthouse at the top of the hill, and then drive us down to Mussoorie. It was drizzling when we left, and we still had to veer around mudslides, but after veering around other taxis and cows and monkeys and scooters and villagers, mudslides really didn't phase us. We were a little unsettled by the clouds that we entered halfway down the mountain though. Even with the warning honks going around curves, we would have preferred to be fully visible to any oncoming traffic.
It was cold in Mussoorie, but very warm in Dehra Dunn when we got down there. It had been drizzling, and the streets were very muddy, the air was full of exhaust fumes. We had to dash across a very busy street to get from the prepaid taxi stand to the bus station, which was a muddy gravel parking lot. The bus that we wanted was getting a tune up, with an indefinite departure time (they weren't sure how long it would take to put the pieces of the engine back together), but another bus arrived on the other side of the lot, also supposedly headed for Rishikesh. We ran across puddles and around exhaust spewing buses, and got there as it was already almost full--and only with men. We pushed our way on, but then decided the prospect of a busride in a bus full of men, without any place to sit down, wasn't worth the forty cent ticket, and got back off again. It was starting to get dark, so rather than wait for another bus, we went and found a taxi driver from the prepaid stand, who agreed to take us to Rishikesh for 360 rupees (about seven dollars?).
It was a long ride, and we were all grateful for having chosen to take a taxi. By the time we arrived in Rishikesh, after driving back up into the mountains towards the single patch of lights that the city provided, it was very dark. We were dropped off at another of the prepaid taxi stands. From there we took a motor rickshaw through streets and alleyways, water from puddles splashing up on our clothes, until we had reached a bazaar near the bridge that we would take to cross the Ganges.
It's hard to describe rivers--their sounds, the different currents in the water, their width and depth. The river was far bigger than I expected, and after we had walked through the well lit streets of the bazaar full of stuff for Indian tourists, glass necklaces, little puja accesories, Garhwal shawls, prayer scarves, sweets. . . we came to the bridge. It was suspended high above the river, and with wire mesh on either side instead of railings, but wide enough that it still felt safe, even for someone as chicken as me. The river seemed so huge and powerful below us, and so black even with the lights from the city. It took some time to cross the bridge, and we were almost alone on it. One scooter, with a man and a sari clad woman passed us, as well as two men with umbrellas. Everytime another person or bicycle or scooter came on, the bridge would bounce just slightly. None of us spoke as we walked. I think the size and power of the river, and being suspended there in space above it, made all of us feel very small.
Our hotel wasn't far from the end of the bridge. We chose one of their most basic rooms, with four cots with thick mattresses and an Indian style bathroom with a cement floor. In the middle of the room was a refrigerator sized air conditioner, badly in need of paint. There were also two big ceiling fans. I think in all the room cost two fifty rupees (five dollars?) per night.
We didn't go out that night, just ate in the little restaraunt next to the reception, and then stayed up late talking about Cambridge and Delhi shopping and education systems in our respective countries and different things to see in India and Nepal. Both Maria and Kiri like telling stories, and proved to be very entertaining people to travel with. Too entertaining, since we didn't get to bed until quite late. We woke up the next morning to the bells of a Ganga arti at the temple near our hotel.
Rishikesh in daylight was completely different than I had imagined the night before. Outside the hotel were several cows, being shooed away from carts of limes and bananas and other vegetables. Next to us was another hotel/ashram with a pretty garden in front. They advertised ayurvedic massages, and after enquiring at the front desk, Kiri and Maria booked some for themselves for the next day. Then we wandered along the shops and temples at the edge of the river. The streets were full of Sadhus and beggars and pilgrims, and people from all over India. Kiri gave me a lesson in telling Sikh turbans from the other turbans, which I should have been able to do before, living in Turlock, but I hadn't seen enough other turbans to be able to tell the difference.
No one was bathing from the ghats. The river was quite high, and the current seemed dangerously fast for anyone to even consider getting in. Just a month ago, an Israeli man jumped in and never came up again. There are so many undertides, and whirlpools and things. Kiri went river rafting on the river as a child. I don't think she went during the monsoon though. Even for rafting, some of those waves and currents looked too dangerous.
We had breakfast at a well known little restaraunt near the river, with a man dressed up as the "Chote walla" sitting in front, his body covered in purple paint, motioning to people to come in. But there were so many sadhus and odd looking people about that the purple paint hardly seemed out of the ordinary. After our dosas and paranthas we walked for more than an hour to get to the Lakshman temple. Now that it was daylight, all the temples were overflowing with people, and the two main bridges were full of people and cows, stray dogs, donkeys and ponies, all moving across in either direction.
The temples were beautiful. The river was beautiful. In places on our walk, we felt completely alone in the jungle, with only a couple of monkeys, or a woman out hanging her laundry sharing the silence and the view of the river with us. Other times we were surrounded by Sadhus or families. The weather had cleared up completely from the day before, and now it was sunny and hot. All three of us were soon drenched in sweat--a novel experience after being bundled in all our warm clothes in Landour, and still not being able to keep warm.
We sat in a German bakery, well shaded on a hill directly above the bridge, and opposite two big temples, and watched the people and the animals, filling the bridges. There were school children too, and so many different types of salwaar kameezes and saris and old people and young people--little old women holding hands and struggling to keep up with the rest of their families. Entire groups from villages, with their feet bare and the women's saris and the men's lungies tied up around their waists so that their legs were exposed up to their knees.
If we had sat there people watching the whole day, I wouldn't have minded, but I grew hungry, and there wasn't anything in the cafe that would have matched my appetite. We had been drinking lime water, which only seemed to make me hungrier. We decided to walk back, but in the process ended up on many new streets, in different shops. . . little tables were set up, selling sandlewood and big piles of asfoetida, that strange gummy spice. Every shop seemed to have its supply of prayer beads, of all different sizes and varieties. Poor people had coffee cans filled with burning trash, upon which they roasted tortilla type things to sell.
There was so much to see and watch. We were very much tourists, but it was a beautiful, incredible place to be a tourist. The light was so beautiful, and being next to that river, in the middle of the hills. . . Maybe they were like Sonora, or Patzcuaro. But the river was bigger than any of the other rivers I have seen. We took a trail back along the river back, through isolated ashrams with their own private ghats. Inbetween two ashrams, there was a set of steps that went down to the sand and rock on the shore, and we walked down and washed our feet in the water.
We spent the evening, and dusk just sitting watching the river flow by, the different artis on the other side. It was all extremely beautiful.
We came back yesterday afternoon with the bus to Dehra Dunn, then took a taxi back. Both were harrowing experiences, but we were too tired to be fully impressed.
Now I'm back in Landour. It's chilly, but not freezing. I should go eat soon, and then I will have the rest of my classes for the day.
I loved all of your e-mails so much. Reading them makes me incredibly happy. I feel like reading them a hundred times, but then I won't have time to write at all. So I am disciplined, and only read selected bits and pieces over again before I click on compose.
I send very very much love.
here I am again!
Sat, Sept 21, 2002
Hey you all! I've sent the Rishikesh e-mail from last week again. This time tell me if you get it, or not. I'm sorry that I haven't really written much since then. My stomach discovered it was in India towards the middle of last week which made excursions anywhere far from a restroom rather risky for some time. It didn't help that I couldn't resist just "tasting" the spicy food the guesthouse kept on feeding us. Pounds of rice won't make up for a bite of their bhindi, but I really completely lose all good sense when I see a plate of okra. I really think it's an addiction. Then Thursday night was Kiri's last night here, so she and Maria and I all went down to Mussoorie after class (I ate nothing but parle G biscuits the whole day, just so I would be feeling well enough to walk down with them). We had a really great time. We took the chairlift up from the middle of the two bazaars, all the way to the top of the hill above Mussoorie. There were beautiful views of all the valleys, and then the Himalayas on the other side. Sometimes, the valley is blurry because of the humidity, and looking down from up at the guesthouse, it looks a little bit like the view from College eight. There are the mountains which disappear into a grey blue ocean, with light sparkling off the metal roofs of the city. But Thursday night everything was clear, and you could see all the rivers branching out into the different valleys, the different terraced fields. . . the details of the villages on the other mountain ridges. At the top of the rather long and steep ride in the chairlift, was a little fairground of souvenir booths, rides for little kids, and photo booths. We managed to escape the touts, who were probably especially persistant because it was nearing nightfall, and enjoy the views in solitude. They (the views) were really incredible, as was the sunset over the mountains. It was an almost full moon, and even after the sun set, the sky was full of pink and blue. . . so beautiful. But the line to get down was quite long. Lots of people must have spent the day up there. So we decided to go have a drink at the little hill top cafe. I was good, and had a seven up. But then the line was still long, and we were enjoying sitting there and talking so much that we didn't want to leave. I know, I know, it's awful, but I let them talk me into sharing an order of vegetable pakora. It was incredible--like the texture of the best french fries ever, freshly prepared and light and crisp, and very very very spicy. I think they had powdered it with lemon juice and cayenne pepper. So irresistable. I really only had a couple pieces. But I shouldn't have even touched the stuff, even if it was heaven, even if it was the nicest thing I've eaten in ages. By the time we left, we were the last women to actually go down, which made us feel a little bit uncomfortable, but all the men around us were respectful and nice, and the chair ride down was even more gorgeous than everything so far. All the lights from the houses around the different hills, and the lights of Mussoorie, and the thousands and thousands of sparkling lights from the Dehra Dunn valley below. I sent Dad and Ana a postcard with a photo of Mussoorie at night. It's so incredibly romantic. I completely understand why people would go there for their honeymoons. Plus, it has clean fresh cool air, and all those views during the day, and a very pretty little bazaars, and monkeys, and nice walks along the mountain sides. We joined all the Indians on the streets and walked around so Kiri could see more of the different buildings before she left. Then we went to a little second story restaraunt with views out onto the street and ordered the least spicy things we could find. I barely ate at all, but the least spicy things were still full of peppers, and just dipping my roti in the sauce gave me a pretty good dose of spices.It didn't seem so sinful at the time. I had a salty lime soda with dinner. . . so yummy! Like a fresh margarita without the taquila. After dinner we walked to the taxi stand and took a taxi back to our respective dwellings. And then I spent the night. . . well, let's just say I didn't feel especially inclined to leave my room the next morning. I cancelled my classes and my trip to Haridwar with the Italians for that weekend, and, once there was really nothing left in my stomach, intestines, entire digestive track, at all, I went to sleep. I woke up a couple hours later feeling extremely weak, but drinking more water helped. I was strong enough to get dressed and go down to the little shop in Sister's Bazaar for arrowroot biscuits, and after eating, strong enough to even take one of those bucket showers. Anyhow I spent the day eating biscuits and drinking water and reading my Hindi children's books.The biscuits really were a good idea. I felt a hundred times better by the end of the day, though still very weak. When I woke up yesterday morning I almost felt like my old self. I ate some crackers and decided to risk walking down to the internet booth at Char Dukan. It was really really warm outside, and kids were playing in the street, everyone in the world had done laundry and it was covering every wall and fence and roof, sitting in the sun to dry. But the power had gone out before the internet walla's generator could charge. All those dark little monitors! I was feeling so much better though, that I decided it would be alright to walk down to Landour bazaar, to buy paper and envelopes, and when I'd walked all the way there, I decided I'd be alright going all the way to Mussoorie. I had a really nice day, though I spent a lot of it sitting in a chai shop writing and people watching. (no chai, just an orange fanta) My diet of biscuits wasn't leaving me a lot of spare energy, but I did do some shopping in a bookstore, where I found a big Hindi-English dictionary and a women's magazine in Hindi to use it on. And then underwear at a pharmacy, from five male employees, where they had to bring out their available pairs in shoeboxes from some back shelves!
On the way back I was feeling really weak and faint, but I stopped and bought a couple of bananas to eat when I got back. I'd only gotten about half a block (imagine more winding blocks, with little children running around, and overburdened coolies from the mountains, and fruit stands, and cows and dogs, and horse manure as well) when I felt a tug on the plastic bag of bananas in my hand. I looked down and there was a brown monkey pulling with both hands on my produce. It only took him a second to rip open the bag, and by the time I realized what had happened and had shouted after him, he was already long gone. Such a theif!
I bought more shortly afterwards, and this time was much more careful and alert while passing dark allyways!
I love you all tons and tons. Forgive my spelling, and keep on writing to me. I spent time writing letters yesterday, but now I feel as if it will all be old news. Maybe by the time you get the letters you'll have forgotten! :)
I send gigantic hugs.