Archive for February, 2010

Hassles, frustrations and love.

Thursday, February 25th, 2010
There’s no denying the hassles of India. I’ve focused mainly on the good parts but that isn’t entirely honest. Travel here can be a bitch – the harassment from touts, the lack of personal space, the maddening traffic – and I might as well admit it. But despite the frustrations that permeate this country  I really do love it.
Before you even arrive you hear stories. OmygodtheheatgarbagesomuchpovertyTHESMELL. It’s been said before and yes, things can be crazy and chaotic. The first few days, inevitably in a major hub like Bombay or Calcutta, can trigger an existential crisis. My visa is good for a year but on day three in Delhi I was questioning my whole trip. It’s important you stick through this period and try to appreciate the humour of it all.
You’ll find it difficult to laugh, at first. But with time and plenty of patience it will come. It helps to remember that every infuriating experience just ends up being a great story. Allow me to demonstrate, using an experience from just a couple days back.
My train from Chennai to Delhi – a 34 hour mission – was scheduled to leave at 10pm. I pulled in on Tara at eight, giving myself two full hours to arrange to have her packed up and loaded on the luggage car. I ran out of gas just in front of the station. This wasn’t as bad as it sounds, because you have to empty the tank before it can be transported anyway. But it did result in a ridiculous experience.
A group of auto-rickshaw drivers ran over. They indicated with shouts of NO PARKING and gestures around the corner that I wasn’t supposed to stop there. I asked after parcel booking. This was met with more points around the corner and a chorus of parking, parking! Like people everywhere, Indians have a wonderful ability to hear what they think they know you are saying, rather than actually listening to you. I had to repeat my request for the booking office several times before they managed to shut each other up and pointed toward the station.
Now began discussions of packing! In order to load the bike on the train, she needed to be wrapped up to prevent scratches or dents when crammed in with other baggage. I went through the same thing in Varanasi, but the station there is much smaller and I had only two people offering their services. Now I had about 8 locals gathered around, some of them from the original crew of rickshaw drivers who had insisted I couldn’t park where I was parked. Others had sort of materialized out of nowhere.
They tried different tactics. Some of them took me gently by the arm and whispered things like good packing, my friend into my ear, their breath hot on my neck. Others pushed the close-talkers away while sucking their teeth, assuring me loudly and confidently they were cheap and best. I began asking for prices. The tallest man assured me that, at five-hundred rupees (eleven dollars), he was offering the best price. I burst out laughing.
In Varanasi I’d had it done for 100 rupees, and they’d done such a good job I tipped them another thirty. These guys, a group of misfits if I’d ever seen them, wanted five times as much. I took my bags off Tara with a flourish, alternating between exaggerated laughter and disbelieving utterances of panch-soh rupee (five hundred rupees in Hindi). I slung my bags over my shoulder and began walking toward the station, intent on finding the booking office and looking into packing with them. The men watched me walk away, yelling sir! sir! packing!?
NYA PACKING! I bellowed over my shoulder, feigning anger. PANCH-SOH RUPEE?! BAH HAHAHAHAH!
Most of them looked crestfallen, though a few grinned at me, appreciating the theatrics. I thought I’d made my point.
It took me a while to navigate through the madness of Chennai Central, but eventually I found the office and asked after packing. The balding official behind the intricately barred window told me you bringing the bike here, please. I asked how much for packing. He repeated his request, intent on not interfering in my bargaining with the packing wallahs who inhabit the station. I pressed him again. One hundred ten, he muttered.
I wandered back out. Weaving through crowds of colourful sari-clad women sleeping on the station floor with babies tucked under arms, I got a little lost again. I emerged and found my way back to where I’d left Tara. She was gone. I looked around frantically, visions of vindictive locals speeding through my mind. I saw a crowd of men in the nearby rickshaw parking lot, and sure enough Tara occupied the middle of their circle.
I walked quickly toward them, yelling out HEY, NO FUCKING PACKING. As I crossed the raised median to enter the parking lot I stepped down into an ankle deep pool of stagnant water that reeked of garbage and piss. Gross. I was hoping they wouldn’t notice, because it would seriously hamper the emotion I was trying to show. Though this was around when I stopped faking the anger and began actually feeling it.
There is a point, even after almost seven months here, when this country makes you lose it. Slipping on my stinking, soaked right flip flop, I roughly shoved the men who didn’t back away from Tara quickly enough, kicked up her stand and began pushing her toward the station. They called after me, a few of them following alongside, pleading with me for packing, sir? I told them to get their hands off my bike. They acquiesced.
I quickly jogged her up into the building, calling out for wandering locals to clear the way. Inside, I began bargaining with the packing wallahs who started at three hundred. Ek-soh das, one hundred ten, I told them flatly. They shook their heads and quoted several different prices. One them tried  the close talk again, whispering that he was the best at two hundred. I returned the favour, but instead of speaking into his ear, I menacingly leaned into his face. His glassy, bloodshot eyes widened as I came only a few inches away. No, I growled. Ek. Soh. Das. He agreed.
I tried to cool down as they packed. The Chennai night was hot and muggy, and I was sweating heavily from the anger and effort of running the bike through the station. I needed some water, but didn’t want to let them pack the bike without my supervision. I flapped my collar to get some air, and tried joking with the loitering locals to calm myself. They had seen the bargaining go down and were amused by my firmness and grasp of Hindi. They asked where I was from, and gave knowing nods when I told them I was Canadian. My tension began to melt.
The bike now packed, I shoved my forms and paperwork through the bars at the balding official. He took one look at Tara’s registration and snorted. This original. Needing copies, please. Fuck. I had forgotten to get copies of the papers. I sighed, hoisted my heavy backpack on my shoulders once again, and ambled out into the steamy darkness.
Twenty minutes of wandering through cycle-rickshaws and buses, I had my copies. I made my way back, assuring all sorts of transport wallahs that I didn’t need their services. I got to the office to see several locals in front of me, each with their arm through the bars waving forms and rupees. I was frustrated again, now as much with myself for forgetting the intricacies of Indian bureaucracy as with the red tape itself. I waited patiently for the locals to book their packages before adding my sheaf of papers to the desk.
While the paperwork was being completed, the portly station manager appeared at my side. He began explaining that the luggage car was full and I wouldn’t be able to take the bike on the train. It would have to wait for tomorrow. I smiled winningly at him and assured him that saab-kooch milega, anything is possible. He furrowed his brow, confused. I was trying Hindi on a Tamil speaker, which was more than useless: it was counter-productive. The Tamils are resentful of the Northern, Hindi-speaking establishment. Many of them refuse to learn Hindi or refuse to speak it even if they understand.
I dropped the Hindi and began pleading with him to get Tara on my train. I didn’t want to be in Delhi without her. He explained that I had booked her too late, that it was now less than an hour before departure. I gaped at him.
How could I explain to this man the last hour or so? The rickshaw drivers, the packing wallahs, the paperwork, the wandering the streets asking for Xerox? Xerox possible? I shouldn’t have stopped for that chai. I wanted to explode, but there was no one to blame. India had done me in.
But the station manager smiled, took me by the arm. How long you are staying in Delhi, sir? A few days, I mumbled. Excellent sir, then you are having no problem. I am taking care of your bike. It is on the same train tomorrow. I promise this, sir. You are waiting one day then going to Delhi station. The bike is waiting for you then.
I took a deep breath and thanked him, shook his hand. I went and said goodbye to Tara, which amused the loiterers greatly. I explained that she was my wife, that I’d spent more money on her than any girlfriend I’d ever had. The joke slayed my audience, as it always does. I bought myself a magazine and some biscuits and made my way to the platform. I boarded the train, finding my pallet and saying hello to the men with whom I’d share the four-bed berth. They were Southerners who were heading north for business. We exchanged names and pleasantries.
After a few minutes of polite banter, one of them asked the inevitable.
So, what is your thinking of India?
I smiled without hesitating. I love this country.

There’s no denying the hassles of India. I’ve focused mainly on the good parts but that isn’t entirely honest. Travel here can be a bitch – the harassment from touts, the lack of personal space, the maddening traffic – and I might as well admit it. But despite the frustrations that permeate this country  I really do love it.

Before you even arrive you hear stories. OmygodtheheatgarbagesomuchpovertyTHESMELL. It’s been said before and yes, things can be crazy and chaotic. The first few days, inevitably in a major hub like Bombay or Calcutta, can trigger an existential crisis. My visa is good for a year but on day three in Delhi I was questioning my whole trip. It’s important you stick through this period and try to appreciate the humour of it all.

You’ll find it difficult to laugh, at first. But with time and plenty of patience it will come. It helps to remember that every infuriating experience just ends up being a great story. Allow me to demonstrate, using an experience from just a couple days back.

My train from Chennai to Delhi – a 34 hour mission – was scheduled to leave at 10pm. I pulled in on Tara at eight, giving myself two full hours to arrange to have her packed up and loaded on the luggage car. I ran out of gas just in front of the station. This wasn’t as bad as it sounds, because you have to empty the tank before it can be transported anyway. But it did result in a ridiculous experience.

A group of auto-rickshaw drivers ran over. They indicated with shouts of NO PARKING and gestures around the corner that I wasn’t supposed to stop there. I asked after parcel booking. This was met with more points around the corner and a chorus of parking, parking! Like people everywhere, Indians have a wonderful ability to hear what they think they know you are saying, rather than actually listening to you. I had to repeat my request for the booking office several times before they managed to shut each other up and pointed toward the station.

Now began discussions of packing! In order to load the bike on the train, she needed to be wrapped up to prevent scratches or dents when crammed in with other baggage. I went through the same thing in Varanasi, but the station there is much smaller and I had only two people offering their services. Now I had about 8 locals gathered around, some of them from the original crew of rickshaw drivers who had insisted I couldn’t park where I was parked. Others had sort of materialized out of nowhere.

They tried different tactics. Some of them took me gently by the arm and whispered things like good packing, my friend into my ear, their breath hot on my neck. Others pushed the close-talkers away while sucking their teeth, assuring me loudly and confidently they were cheap and best. I began asking for prices. The tallest man assured me that, at five-hundred rupees (eleven dollars), he was offering the best price. I burst out laughing.

In Varanasi I’d had it done for 100 rupees, and they’d done such a good job I tipped them another thirty. These guys, a group of misfits if I’d ever seen them, wanted five times as much. I took my bags off Tara with a flourish, alternating between exaggerated laughter and disbelieving utterances of pahnch-soh rupee (five hundred rupees in Hindi). I slung my bags over my shoulder and began walking toward the station, intent on finding the booking office and looking into packing with them. The men watched me walk away, yelling sir! sir! packing!?

NYA PACKING! I bellowed over my shoulder, feigning anger. PANCH-SOH RUPEE?! BAH HAHAHAHAH!

Most of them looked crestfallen, though a few grinned at me, appreciating the theatrics. I thought I’d made my point.

It took me a while to navigate through the madness of Chennai Central, but eventually I found the office and asked after packing. The balding official behind the intricately barred window told me you bringing the bike here, please. I asked how much for packing. He repeated his request, intent on not interfering in my bargaining with the packing wallahs who inhabit the station. I pressed him again. One hundred ten, he muttered.

I wandered back out. Weaving through crowds of colourful sari-clad women sleeping on the station floor with babies tucked under arms, I got a little lost again. I emerged and found my way back to where I’d left Tara. She was gone. I looked around frantically, visions of vindictive locals speeding through my mind. I saw a crowd of men in the nearby rickshaw parking lot, and sure enough Tara occupied the middle of their circle.

I walked quickly toward them, yelling out HEY, NO FUCKING PACKING. As I crossed the raised median to enter the parking lot I stepped down into an ankle deep pool of stagnant water that reeked of garbage and piss. Gross. I was hoping they wouldn’t notice, because it would seriously hamper the emotion I was trying to show. Though this was around when I stopped faking the anger and began actually feeling it.

There is a point, even after seven months here, when this country makes you lose it. Slipping on my stinking, soaked flip flop, I roughly shoved the men who didn’t back away from Tara quickly enough, kicked up her stand and began pushing her toward the station. They called after me, a few of them following alongside, pleading with me for packing, sir? I told them to get their hands off my bike. They acquiesced.

I quickly jogged her up into the building, calling out for wandering locals to clear the way. Inside, I began bargaining with the packing wallahs who started at three hundred. Ek-soh das, one hundred ten, I told them flatly. They shook their heads and quoted several different prices. One them tried  the close talk again, whispering that he was the best at two hundred. I returned the favour, but instead of speaking into his ear, I menacingly leaned into his face. His glassy, bloodshot eyes widened as I came only a few inches away. No, I growled. Ek. Soh. Das. He agreed.

I tried to cool down as they packed. The Chennai night was hot and muggy, and I was sweating heavily from the anger and effort of running the bike through the station. I needed some water, but didn’t want to let them pack the bike without my supervision. I flapped my collar to get some air, and tried joking with the loitering locals to calm myself. They had seen the bargaining go down and were amused by my firmness and grasp of Hindi. They asked where I was from, and gave knowing nods when I told them I was Canadian. My tension began to melt.

The bike now packed, I shoved my forms and paperwork through the bars at the balding official. He took one look at Tara’s registration and snorted. This original. Needing copies, pl

Island Travels

Thursday, February 18th, 2010

The hopeless romantic in me is alive and well.

Between the days of diving and the evenings of low key parties, there hasn’t been much time or impetus for writing. Scuba diving is an experience that resists description – until you try it you can’t quite understand what it’s like. The setting has the opposite problem: it so perfectly fits the tropical paradise bill it’s cliched.

Still, a few words on where I am are necessary. The Andaman Islands sit much closer to Burma than to the Indian mainland, but the British set up a penal colony for Indian dissidents and, following Japanese occupation in WWII, they were incorporated into the newly independent India. Geographically, they have much more in common with South-East rather than South Asia. The sand is creamy white and soft, like baby powder. The water that idyllic turquoise that adorns postcards taped to computer monitors in Canadian offices. My home is a rickety bamboo and wood structure looking in on a sandy courtyard of coconut palms. It’s beautiful and basic.

The simplicity, however, makes it hard to write. Unlike the crazy days of motorcycle crashes and cliff-edge roads, here I find myself lost in a blissful monotony of beach, hammock, book, food. It’s a holiday from traveling. The diving provides some keyboard-worthy highlights, no doubt, but I don’t really think I can do justice to the sensations of weightlessness and peace. The visuals are intense – tiny tropical fish, intricate coral structures, soaring sea turtles – and the empty darkness of the night dive was unforgettable. But if you aren’t a diver, how much common ground can there be?

Eventually, my laptop-opening motivation came from a girl. I can’t figure out if I should be surprised.

She arrived with a friend from university who was meeting me here. They’d been on the same flight from the mainland and had taken the ferry together. Because I had booked a room where I was staying for the friend, she decided to come check it out.

The instant we locked eyes I felt something. I saw in her face, in her sharp intake of breath, that she felt it too. I’ve never had that happen to me before. I was instantly worried and tried to play it cool through the introductions. A newly-minted doctor from Germany, though she hasn’t really lived there for years. My name is Evan.

One well acknowledged facet of the backpacker scene is the easy hook up. In party-centered spots such as the Thai beaches people are free from the social pressures of home and lubricated by local whiskey. Things begin and end quickly. There is an unspoken agreement to leave out any emotional attachment, both parties fully aware of the temporary existence that comes with traveling. And it’s fine.

In India, things are different. People are in the country for longer and can spend more time in the places they visit. They are often slightly older (say, 26 instead of 21) and more focused on culture, history and/or spirituality. Alcohol is taboo, taxed or even banned in certain areas, owing to the devout nature of local custom. Travelers talk in term of connections, not getting laid. Things remain temporary, obviously, but less so.

The situation is unique. It’s a middle ground that allows for beautiful relationships with deep emotional links without much risk of painful breakups. You know you only have a week or three together so you allow things to get intense quickly and you part in bittersweet acceptance. I made a mistake with this system last fall, getting too attached after a month with a girl up in the mountains. We went separate ways for two months and, when I tried to rendezvous with her down south, I found she’d met another guy. It was painful but entirely my fault. A learning experience.

With the doctor, things developed in a hurry yet felt natural. I found myself revealing things to her, things I reserve for my closest friends or family. She reciprocated and we would spend hours just prodding and poking. There was trust. She challenged me intellectually and didn’t hesitate to call me on my bullshit. I had to be sharp with her, any laziness would be pounced upon.

She was also jaw-dropping.

Now she’s gone. I want to be melodramatic but it doesn’t feel right. If we reconnect, wonderful. She’s a traveler and so am I. Odds are, however, that we’ll never see each other again. And it’s fine.

And therein lies perhaps the most valuable and life-touching aspect of long term backpacking: the other travelers. People from all over the world with amazing stories and experiences and perspectives. They barely know you and they push you and inquire into you, forcing you to inquire into yourself. You barely know them and you trust them and share rooms with them, talking about their fears and dreams before you know their age or last name. And, after all you’ve shared, you may never see them again.

And it’s fine.