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Tue, Sep. 5th, 2006, 05:54 pm

This will be short because I don't like posting when I'm kinda down. Most importantly, here is my address at Waterloo, so send me mail!

Rachel Small
P.O. Box 16460
E1, 212a
Village 1
University of Waterloo
Waterloo, Ontario, Canada
N2J 4B6

..or love... because I miss everyone and haven't yet made friends.

Hope school's gotten off to a good start for one and all. Let me know about it/everything.

Fri, Jun. 16th, 2006, 07:44 pm

So why doesn't anyone post on lj anymore?
What are you, too busy having lives? Shut up. I mean, entertain me (or us).

In other news, we're coming home in....gasp....3 DAYS!!!

We expect fanfare. And much love and affection.

Tue, May. 30th, 2006, 10:44 pm
Hangin' with His Holiness

Rachel is making me type, thus you can expect a good deal of incomprehensibility. Enjoy.

Anyway, we've settled into a surprisingly comfortable routine for India... not that this feels like India. We are currently staying in McLeod Ganj, a small town in the Himalayas with snow capped peaks visible over the closer green mountains (even from our cheap and lovely room - costing $4 a day). It is famous, and popular with tourists, because it is the current place of residence of the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile as well as a sizeable community of Tibetan refugees. Most of them have undergone the treacherous, roughly month long, journey over the Himalayas in order to escape the hardships of Chinese occupied Tibet. There, they face religious and cultural persecution (possessing a photo of the Dalai Lama warrants jail time, monks and nuns are frequently imprisoned and tortured for refusing to renounce him, the second most holy religious figure after the Dalai Lama, the Panchen Lama, was kidnapped soon after the Dalai Lama declared him discovered, and has remained in Chinese custody for the past 10 years, China seems to be purposely trying to eradicate Tibetan culture by forcing mass Chinese immigration to Tibet... to name just a few examples). All these measures aim to support the Chinese position that Tibet has no legitimacy (historical or otherwise) as an autonomous country. This occupation has been going on since 1951 and doesn't show signs of ending soon. Current campaigns tend to fight mainly to eliminate torture and pressure the Chinese government to respect the basic human rights of Tibetans (including freedom of religion).

So.. about us. We have gotten into the pleasant routine of waking up around 10-11 am (yes... very lazy). We then muster up the strength of thigh to scale the 250 stairs from our hotel up to the main road. Following which, we reward ourselves with a tasty breakfast (we have been conducting a thorough study of the numerous eating establishments in town in order to assess each of their merits, thereby allowing for a rapid decision making process based on the current need), over which we read the daily, shockingly ridiculous, english newspaper. We then head off to a free daycare for children of local Tibetans (many of whom work in street stalls... not really an ideal setting for toddlers) at 1:30 where we volunteer until 5. Then comes the "momos, muffins and chai hour"... oh baby! (for those not acquainted with momos (not to be confused with moomoos: massive dress-like garments for fatty fats) they are tasty little dumplings, stuffed with veggies or, our favourite, spiced potato, served piping hot, either fried or steamed). Mmmm... oh... and the carrot muffins from the local bakery are the best either of us has ever had anywhere! After this, we each head to our respective tutees. Jen is tutoring a movie star monk (if you rent Samsara- a really good movie that questions Tibetan monastic life, Jamayang plays Sonam- the main character's best friend) whose English is actually quite good. He keeps wanting explanations about prepositional phrases and such... what the hell are those? Rachel is tutoring a really cute 20-something year old, who only recently snuck over from Tibet. Rach is really enjoying tutoring her, because she is both extremely adorable and such an eager student. Today, while making up practice sentences, she wrote "I am learning English with my best friend." On weekends, we also do some garbage cleanups which have the additional benefit of raising awareness of environmental issues among locals who observe us and seem impressed (one cute shop-owner supplied us all with lollipops one day).

Also, Tibetans are never weird about spending time with us, as Indians tended to be. We do not elevate their status nor do they try to get into our pants (particularly the monks and nuns... not that that many women were making moves elsewhere). Interactions with them are easy and it is natural and comfortable to make friends with them. Not to mention the fact that Tibetans are a particularly enjoyable group of people in general. They tend to be honest, easy-going, good-natured and have a way better sense of humour than Indians in general.

After tutoring, we usually end up doing something that teaches us more about the Tibetan cause. Sometimes we see films (at 80 cents each... in a theater resembling a "deluxe" bus) or listen to ex-political prisoners who speak at a cafe. A small dinner or a big desert usually fits in somewhere here.

We've both become quite interested and emotionally involved in the plight of Tibetans. We plan to spend our last week here, when we wont be changing diapers and wiping runny noses, trying to assess what we can do from home.

Anyway, McLeod Ganj is pretty great. And, when it results in amazing carrot muffins, we don't entirely mind the hoards of tourists who pass through here.

We'll probably spend the rest of our India time here, except for the last week, when we'll quickly check out Amritsar and then spend 5 days or so back in real India in Delhi, the capital, from where we'll fly home.

We're really looking forward to seeing everyone. And to having bagels with cream cheese.

Mon, May. 22nd, 2006, 12:56 am

(Sorry in advance that India is screwing with lj formatting)

In case anyone was looking forward to continuity, we're not going to
talk about any of the things we said we would in our last entry.
Whatever - there's plenty else to catch up on. Before the rant that
Rachel wants to get into about animals, we'd like to declare that we
are considerably closer to understanding india as a whole, as we've
recently grasped one of its fundamental laws - LOST (Laws of Stupid
Transport). We have yet to ascertain all of its manifestations and
implications however it is clear that it is universal and
far-reaching. One of the LOST laws (the order is not yet clear to us)
is the following:
Any bus service, irrespective of location of departure or arrival or
of the class of service, must have at least one optimally inconvenient
departure time. It follows that if there is only one bus, it must
depart and arrive between the hours of 1:30 and 4:30 am (regardless of
the distance between the two points.)
Needless to say, we've been affected by this law numerous times. One
manifestation of this is a bus stopping and waiting in what can only
be described as the middle of nowhere (where even a chai stand could
not be found!) for hours such that the arrival time will be optimally
Overnight bus services must be maximally uncomfortable. Common methods
of propagating this include the bus not being permitted to leave until
it holds at least 3 times its capacity (there is also the stipulation
that, for every person who disembarks, at least 3 people must embark.
And the bus must wait at the stop until this happens.) At all costs,
sleep must be kept to a minimum. This can be achieved in numerous
ways, including: maintaining serpentine roads and meticulously carved
potholes, the contruction of speedbumps every 100m (drivers are
instructed to accelerate while approaching them), music played at the
maximum level prior to cauding hearing impairment and, as a last
resort, encouraging male passengers without a seat to push their
crotches against seated women passengers.

Now we're out of time for the animal rant. Damn. Next time, maybe.

Sun, May. 14th, 2006, 03:09 pm
rambly and ranty

It's funny to have a mental-posting-block because of having too much to say and update on. We've travelled over 3300 km since we last wrote a newsy post (not counting the omelet post) and visited about 13 cities. We've gone from sandcastle-cities in the desert to forested hills with holy rivers running through them, risking our lives with everything from tigers and Indian men to interminable (but rather terminal) bus journeys and thrilling trips down white water rapids. We've made good friends with westerners, chatting with them in trendy cafes and Italian restaurants, stayed with an Indian friend and his family, who wouldn't let us leave, and spent a morning being watched by a huge classroom full of students, whose class we were supposed to be observing. We've met with 3 NGO's, which covered the full phony-inspiring gamut, and come face to face with enough animals to satisfy even the most intense animals enthusiast ever (aka: Rach).

Starting to feel like this could go on and on, but perhaps it'd be best to get into some actual details. This'll probably not be in chronological order.

One very memorable experience was staying with the family of a friend we had met in a tiny village while volunteering. He insisted that when we got to the city where he lives with his family while not teaching we should give him a call. This we did, and promptly got invited to stay at his house for a few days and get shown the city. And so we were plunked into an Indian household, complete with 10 resident family members. In India, when a woman gets married, she moves into the house of her husband's parents, where they'll live for the rest of their life. They were more affluent than we had expected, and at least half our stay there was spent being shown the weird and tacky jewelry the women owned (a mix of nice things made of gold, and things that looked to us like you could buy them at home at a Dollar store), as well as their genuinely gorgeous saris (some with silver or gold threads sewn in). Probably our favorite part was getting to chat with two girls exactly our age who spoke English flawlessly and were studying to be nurses. In some ways they were so similar to us. Their father works in the Navy, so they've moved around India a fair bit during their life, and were thus more worldly than the average Indian girl by far. However, in some ways, they were quite close-minded. Their liberalism was very limited, though it was hard to see its boundaries at first. They, along with the rest of the family, were extremely interested in us, and the girls particularly kept telling us how important we were to them and how much they would miss us. They kept saying we wouldn't miss them as much as they would us. Though we did create an actual bond with them, that struck us as true - we didn't feel that we would really miss them, though we;d be happy to keep in touch. We left feeling a little disappointed and perhaps disillusioned about this discrepancy. It clearly wasn't because they were so much more taken with our personalities than we were with theirs. Obviously much of their infatuation with us was because we were "their two Canadian friends". They spoke about telling their school friends about us. We felt like a fancy object to be admired and shown to your friends, to elevate your social status. We felt this particularly strongly on another occasion when, one evening, we were brought to their neighbours' house and sat down in a large room to talk with the patriarch, surrounded by about 30 people sitting on the floor. Only the patriarch would talk to us (an ugly man in his forties, whose english was nearly incomprehensible) though his niece spoke much better english. After a bit the conversation struck us as him quizzing us on everything from Indian agriculture to the English language (!!!). At one point we realized it actually was a quiz after he asked us "what is the difference between Ms. and Mrs.?" and we answered in a way that he deemed satisfactory, inciting a "correct!" on his part. We felt like we were on display and being mocked, as every incomprehensible thing he said, followed by our confused answers, made the crowd laugh. We also hated that most of the jokes he made, if not at our expense, were at the expense of women in his household, whom he compared to buffalos and who apparently knew nothing about anything. Needless to say, we didn't so much as crack a smile at those jokes, even after they were explained to us a few times. We extracted ourselves from the scene as soon as we could. It only reinforced how much we were enjoying living with our friend and the family across the road who chatted with us not to show us up, but because they were interested, and who were always respectful.

Though we did enjoy our stay there and were constantly struck with how amazingly hospitable they were and how much of themselves they were willing to give to guests (for example: we slept in the nicest bed in the nicest room in the house, while almost everyone else slept on the floor, including visiting family) we did leave with a certain feeling of disillusionment. It's starting to seem to us that no relationship with an Indian can be totally comfortable and fun, no matter how good a person they are. (We're out of time, but will get into two more examples of this next time we post, as they're good stories). Back to this family - they didn't seem to understand that, despite being Westerners, we don't have a neverending supply of money and that we worked for what we do have. When we chose a cheaper restaurant over the nicest one in town it flustered everyone, as the latter is "where tourists eat". In general, everyone everywhere thinks they know what's best for tourists, and are often comically off. People try and take care of us, thinking they know better, and can;t seem to grasp that we've managed to travel around their country independently for 3 months taking normal public transportation, eating their food, and not being constantly shepherded around by locals. This is turning into a bit of a rant. And none too concise a one at that.

Put otherwise, the difficulty of having purely pleasant and enjoyable relationships with locals we meet is probably the most striking and saddening difference between India and South America. It was so effortless there, and we keep appreciating that mroe and more in retrospect. As a few people have commented to us in emails, this trip is probably teaching us more than our last, but is simply not as fun. We both are starting to feel like we'll really need a vacation from India when we get home, whereas South America was one.

Tue, Apr. 25th, 2006, 05:01 pm
Omelet War!

In another example of India's craziness (this is becoming a recurring theme...) and of that of the tourism industry, we'd like to discuss the most impassioned rivalry we've encountered in a city we were in a few days ago - Jodphur. Despite our having visited and heard the tales of the city's legendary fort that has never been conquered, this takes the cake. Or, shall we say, the egg.

In a pleasant (aka: smelly, noisy, shit-filled, but fun) market square surrounding a clocktower in Jodphur, stand two proud and established ...uhh.. stands. One is steeped in tradition, run by an old white-haired and bearded man who has perfected his trade over the past 30 years. Behind the other, stands a cheerful and smiling youth of 18 or 19 (he doesn't seem quite sure and says he needs to ask his mother) who, with zealous entrepreneurship has dared to question the monopoly of the other's time honored establishment and to suggest that there may be a better way.

Into this foray, wandered two Canadian girls one day (following the trusty advice of their Lonely Planet guidebook in search of "the egg man who has been doing his thing for 30 years"). They stumbled into the first place they saw, and promptly said "who cares?" upon realizing this was not the same stand their book had recommended (which was in fact 1 meter away). A good time was had as they savored 2 cups of chai along with a fantastic omelet, complete with cheese, green chili, tomato, onion, and a secret ingredient (which was confided in them but which they will never disclose). The experience was so thoroughly enjoyed and the value so outstanding (at 50cents for a two egg omelet, making two sandwiches with 4 pieces of toast) that they felt it necessary to indulge in another. Then, much to their surprise, out came the books. Several volumes were thrust upon them for their perusal, chock full of comments written by fellow travellers in admiration of the omelet (and the cute owner's smile to boot). There were pictures and postcards and photos and poems all praising the prolific producer of the palate-pleasing product. They were enthusiastically shown fellow Canadians who had written to Vicky from back home bemoaning the lack of comparable omelets. Then Vicky revealed his greatest curse - he was not mentioned in Lonely Planet.

How could he succeed, how could he compete?
Without sacred LP, no Indian shop is complete!
Always would his neighbour make, with speed,
more omelets, and have more people to feed!
Every night, while sleeping, though he tried to ban it,
Came the haunting words: Recommended by Lonely Planet.
Unless he could claim as his own that phrase,
he'd be miserable till the end of his days...

The two Canadians left with their bellies full of eggs, and their minds full of questions.
Is not an omelet just an omelet?
Was Lonely Planet right? Was the other omelet stand the better?

Later that night, in the dark and quiet market place, they bought a bottle of water, hardly noticing from which vendor. But alas! T'was the son of the aged omelet maker, who promptly sat them down and opened up his books, again full of praise. And as they left, an underhanded blow: "Vicky's omelets are poison! They have made many travelers sick!" They gasped, and glared, unable to believe how the battle had come to this.

Now they needed to know whose were better. They vowed to give a fair chance to both the following day, despite their feeling that the stand they had just left had stooped too low.

And so they returned with stomachs growling and hearts filled with fear. Would Vicky curse their treachery as they sat, eating omelets just one meter away? Would he fail to see that this wasn't a betrayal - it was the only way. They resolved to visit the old man first, in the hopes of being able to appease Vicky, by returning to him. After all, their aim was not to fuel the battle fires.

A smug man, thinking he had converted the two girls, sat them down and prepared the omelet and chai. They ate in silence, neither wanting to influence the other. Then they shocked the older man by rising and walking over to Vicky. "One omelet and two chai, please", they said, polite as can be. Smiling all the while, Vicky whipped up their meal. For the second time, they evaluated all: was the texture just right, the bread toasted to perfection, the spices too spicy? Soon enough, they were smiling too - Vicky was the clear winner.

And so ended one battle of this bitter omelet war.
For, in India, even an egg is enough to fight for.

Tue, Apr. 11th, 2006, 03:16 pm
Another ramble

Yes, yes, it's been a while... but we have been in India and perhaps the rampant incompetence is infectious.

We're now in Bikaner, where we've been for 2 weeks or so, as we're volunteering with an organization named Gaavaniyar (more below).

Since we've last written, numerous crazy, incomprehensible, horrid, and great things have happened.

- The holiday of Holi - when everyone smears powder dye on everyone else. Unfortunately we got inappropriately touched and ended up needing to put up our dukes (literally.. I actually knocked someone who had bugged Jen off his feet, such that he landed on the pavement on his back, and Jen punched another idiot, which incited a policeman, who had seen what had happened, to chase after him with a baton)
- The heat - we're currently in the desert and, whereas everyone keeps telling us that this is the nice time of year when it's a comfortable temperature we're convinced that we're beginning to melt. We have to escape this part of the country soon, as the temperature will soon be in the 50s every day
- Sadhus - people who in the name of religion and gods and whatever else (by the way, there are 330 MILLION gods worshipped by Hindus in India...) abandon their lives and families and become wandering beggars (who often wear little to no clothes). In their attempt to get money from us they will frequently twang a string or play some other very poor excuse for an interest while yelling. Or they try and smear holy we have no clue what on our face and then get us to pay for it. Other people we're constantly dodging are ladies who start a conversation with you, shake your hand, then try, as quickly as possible, to get some smear of Henna on your hand such that you have to either pay for that or allow them to complete a design and pay more.

- City layouts (can we even call them that?)
- Hindi - we're really trying...
- English - some things are cute though... At least once a day we get a "What is your good name, sir?". Also, the following are copy pasted from emails with volunteering agencies:
"We can offer to you one project i.e. you can work in Child Representative program to design an idea/formulate to initiate children's forum in selected villages & facilitate formats & photography processes." WHAT DO THEY WANT US TO DO???
Another, cuter, one:
"Please find enclosed a copy of our overview for your perusal. We need to discuss the possibility of any work for you.
Could we request a copy of your resume for our perusal.
Looking forward to communicating with you on this."


- the smell - India smells like sewage. The heat is only making it worse.

- discovering how much oil was in the food... turns out to be ladle-fulls in a single dish.. uuurrghgh.. Suffice it to say, we've been eating a lot of fruit and boiled eggs lately.
- We had one particular day where we had a graphic image sensory overload. First there was a dog who, it seemed a few minutes ago, had just had half his head taken off (we can't imagine how). He was staggering down a crowded city street, no one seemed to really be paying much notice. Not just his scalp, but the whole top of his skull was missing. It was probably the most disturbing and upsetting thing either of us has ever seen. We're sure he had maybe an hour, max to live. That day we also saw hordes of people with completely devastating disabilities. Many, though not missing limbs, had such severe muscular atrophy that their limbs were as thin as their bones and clearly couldn't be used. Most somehow pulled themselves around on carts, (more like a makeshift skateboard) an inch or two above the pavement. Many didn't even have that, and just dragged the length of their entire body along the ground using one arm that worked. Other than that particular day, we frequently see people shoving injured (or pretending to be injured) children into our face to get money. We never give, of course. We've heard too many stories of people hurting their children to increase the family's income. Besides, if their kids are making money, why would a family ever send them to school?

- the cows - Though they're considered holy and are therefore not eaten, that doesn't prevent them from suffering. Many are starving.. Those that eat will often end up ingesting plastic since they eat from garbage heaps. Ultimately the plastic bags get caught in their stomachs, which swell as huge protrusions jutting out from their body and ultimately rupture. Other cows are used to cart around huge loads, creating large open sores all over them.


- Travelling around with an awesome group of folk artists - This was definitely one of the coolest experiences either of us has ever had while traveling. It came together because we decided to volunteer for a few weeks with Gaavaniyar, an organization which helps folk artists live and preserve their traditions, while also educating rural people on health issues, education, etc... During our 4 days spent traveling with them to different tiny villages we got to watch their shows, make friends, learn to cook some Indian food, and see rural desert India at its most real. At one point, we found ourselves having tea with the grandmother of one of our troupe friends. Knowing our friend was 30, and watching this woman walk around with a back stooped such that it was parallel to the ground, we guessed she was 75. She looked about 90. Turns out she was 60 and had our friend's mother when she was 13... It was an incredibly surreal experience to be in the middle of the desert, having tea with this woman. We've certainly never been further off the beaten track. We also met our friend's cousin who was 16, about to be married (which is not a young age to be getting married, as many have child marriages at 5), and unhappy about it.

- Having beer, meat (for Jen), and enjoyable chats with a Muslim friend. We were sworn to secrecy about it, as the family we're living with while volunteering is a Hindu family whose moral rigidity surprised us, as they're middle class and very educated. The son, who's a 23-year-old zoologist is great to chat with as well, though the topics covered tend to be a little more limited and we can't speak our minds as freely.

- Spending one night in the mansion of a former Rajput prime minister (of some district or other). T'was gorgeous and awesomely decorated with an eclectic array of antiques (everything from old swords, to hand woven silks, to old whisky bottles (with the now undrinkable whisky inside to boot). We made friends with the owner (the prime minister's grandson, 30 years old) and thus were invited to a "drink party" (as they called it) in which we sat around with his friends drinking mojitos (rum with fresh mint leaves, lemon, and cane sugar), listening to a fusion of Indian folk music and songs like "say my name" (these mixed together within a single song). He was interesting to talk to as he was a rare Indian who had had a couple of serious relationships and was now caught between his family's traditional expectations (to arrange a marriage for him with someone of the same caste who would be content to care for the family forever) and his own tastes (having dated 2 Europeans, there was no way, even if she was Indian, that these two things could be reconciled). Anyway, we had a delicious dinner and our room was amazing (complete with a HUGE bathroom, silk couches and arm chairs, really high and gorgeously painted vaulted ceilings, and numerous hand carved tables and dressers. Not to mention much appreciated a/c and a tv! We watched sister act 2 and Pirates of the Carribean..) Probably because he liked us, we got the whole thing for under 30$ Canadian. Definitely worth feeling like royalty for a day (and it made for an excellent monthiversary).

- The breakfast buffet in a very hippy town named Pushkar... yummmm... and so cheap... It's great to have muesli and cereal and porridge every once in a while.

We're sure this is nearly incomprehensible - we wrote this in way too little time. Oh well.
Missing everyone.. Having a great time but looking forward to spending the whole summer somewhere sane, say Montreal.

Wed, Mar. 15th, 2006, 08:18 pm
A short post

So we've now been in India for almost a month..though it doesn't feel like it. We've definitely gotten into the swing of things, but don't take that to mean that we understand anything about this crazy country.

About it being crazy - here's a quote from a book we've read called "May You Be the Mother of a Hundred Sons" by Elizabeth Bumiller. It was written in 1990, so the numbers quoted are definitely a bit off, but from what Jen and I can judge, not too much seems to have changed drastically, especially in terms of quality of life.

"The 'typical' Indian woman, representing about 75% of the four hundred million women and female children in India, lives in a village. She comes from a small peasant family that owns less than an acre of land, or from a landless family that depends on the whims of big farmers for sporadic working wages. She can neither read not write, although she would like to, and has rarely traveled more than 20 miles from her place of birth. In many cases she does not know who the prime minister of India is and cannot identify her country on a map. Sometimes she does not know about the existence of her own village panchayat, or governing council,m but even if she does, she is rarely aware that there is a place reserved for a woman member, because only men attend the meetings. She does not own land in her own name, or even jointly with her husband. She believes that she catches colds and fevers from evil spirits that lurk in the trees. Her occupation is field work, chiefly harvesting, planting and weeding, for which she often receives less than 50 cents a day--in many cases, half the wage that a man receives for the same amount of work.

She has to juggle this labor with her other full-time job, the care of the house and the children. Her husband does not help her; indeed, he does not even consider what she does at home as work. No American woman who struggles with family and career can completely understand what this means in India. A village woman starts her life from scratch every day. Even a single chapati, the Indian flatbread, has behind it a chain of drudgery that has not changed in thousands of years. To make a chapati, a woman needs water, which is often several miles away by foot. She also needs wheat, which she must harves6t by scythe, under a blazing sun in a back-breaking bent forward motion, and then grind by hand. To cook the bread she needs fuel, either firewood, which she collects herself, or cow-dung cakes, which she makes herself. To get the dung she must feed the cow, and to feed the cow, she must walk several miles to collect suitable grasses. (This assumes that the family is lucky enough to even have a cow; many do not) The bread is at last prepared over a small mud stove built into the dirt floor of her hut. While she cooks, she breastfeeds 1 child and watches 3 others. If she fails in any of these tasks, or performs them to slowly, her husband often feels it is his prerogative to beat her. And yet invariably she considers her husband a god and says that she loves him. I used to ask village women exactly why they love their husbands, a question that often confused them. 'I love him because he gives me food and clothes' was the usual answer. My favorite response came from a thirty year old village woman named Malti Devi, who in a leap of logic explained that she loved her husband 'because if I don't, he will beat me'.

If anything is obvious to us it's that India is a country of great contradictions. Just yesterday morning, we were reading an article about how Indian women's views towards premarital sex or sexuality in general are becoming much more liberal. Looking at the survey more carefully, however, we realized that the study was only conducted with single women between the ages of 18 and 30 in 12 major cities across India. From our experience, if you make it to 20 and are unmarried here, either there's something wrong with you, or you come from a progressive family. Not to mention that the majority of Indians to not live in the cities. Also, 50% of respondents were students, putting them into the very small percentage of Indian women who are in non-compulsory education. That said, though the middle class Indian represents a tiny percentage of the overall population, there are more of them than there are Americans and Canadians in the world. The upper class here seems very good at forgetting about the rest of their country which, in Jaipur, is easy to do - the average person we talk to has an email address and cellphone and goes to good cafes where people work on laptops. Even on the half hour bus ride to Amber, however, we saw the other three quarters of the population, bent over in a field, or selling cow dung for fuel on the side of the street.

This is just one of the many things that we're grappling with. It's not always getting us down, but it takes up headspace, and makes us look forward to volunteering.

I guess we'll recap on the last few weeks since we've posted.

After Varanasi, we headed to Khajuraho, home of sexy sculptures covering numerous temples. They were definitely not lacking on the risque front (for example, one sculpture featured a young gentlemen..uh... thoroughly enjoying a personal interaction with his horse, while a nearby lady pretended to cover her eyes, while really watching the scene) In such a sexually charged atmosphere, a romance was bound to blossom. A young man by the name of Ram (who was actually rather cute and very enjoyable to talk to - we had some nice discussions over teas) fell in love with Rachel and would probably have asked for her hand in marriage, had it not been for the depth of her love for her boyfriend, Evan, (remember those photos we took before south america?) which left her cold to Ram's advances. Ram did, however, inform us "I'm sorry to say, but I'll wait for you". It was quite heartbreaking really. It was probably one of the most awkward scenarios we've ever been in, which was only accentuated when he repeatedly told Jen that he knew he had her support in pursuing Rachel. Once, when Rach briefly left the table to catch a gecko, he said to Jen "She's really beautiful, isn't she? Tell her." Needless to say, we were a little relieved to leave that town, though the temples really were amazing (and the ones that weren't super-explicit were generally gorgeous and surprisingly touching).
Next we were off to Orccha, which was pleasantly uneventful (we made large efforts to not make any local friends). There were several nice forts and temples there, and a good restaurant. Most of all we enjoyed not being hassled all the time.

Then Gwalior, where we were hardpressed to find an affordable place to stay. We ended up in a dharamsala, which is where Indian pilgrims stay when visiting religious sites. It was definitely rudimentary (and we couldn't bring ourselves to use the bathroom there more than once or twice). The fort above the city was pretty cool though, and the views from it spectacular.

After we returned to Agra, this time on our own terms and budget. We enjoyed it exponentially more and settled into a fun tourist area. Needless to say, the Taj Mahal was spectacularly beautiful. It's one of the few major tourist attractions we've been to that meets and even surpasses expectations. At the moment, we can't think of a more beautiful building that either of us has ever seen (or seen photos of). It seemed perfectly appropriate, if not obvious, that it was a monument built for love.

Another town with a whole royal ghost city followed. A highlight of it was a pachisi gameboard on which an emperor used to use slavewomen as pieces.

Now we're in Jaipur, where surprisingly enough we've been for almost 2 weeks. Don't ask us how this happened. Although we're rather sure we haven't taken any mind-altering substances, we're not exactly sure what we've done with the time. Our daily routine always seems to include brekkie at a nearby rooftop restaurant (by now we're friends with the owners, who give us the Indian daily newspaper when we walk in - sometimes opened to the puzzles/games page as we're getting addicted to a number game called Sudoku). We have done some out of the ordinary things (lets not put you to sleep here). One day we bussed out to Balaji, a town where, as people have been doing for hundreds of years, crowds come twice a week to exorcise their possessed loved ones. T'was quite a scene and we were definitely the only white people around. There were huge lines outside the temple of people chanting, and tv screens to relay what was going on inside (where only the gurus and possessed people were allowed in) to the outside crowds. We're not sure whether it's unfortunate or fortunate, but they weren't on. We're guessing this may be related to a security concern, as last week there were bombings in Varanasi (yes, the same place we visited... eek). Regarding those - there does seem to be heightened security everywhere, so we're not too concerned about our safety (though it was a hell of a jolt over our morning eggs and muesli to read about).

What else? We went to see a really weird Indian movie (in Hindi, but it didn;t matter as the dialogue was amazingly predictable) in probably india's most famous movie theatre. It was strange to see everyone all dressed up, and to look up and see chandeliers and wood-panelled walls. None of this was more weird than the movie itself. It was half teen fluff (and really bad at that) and half serious political drama (you know, the we're-starting-a-revolution! type of movie). We're pretty sure that the moral of the movie was that if you are enraged with a political figure in your democratic government (say a defense minister) the appropriate course of action is to murder them and then take your city's communication system hostage and confess your crime before becoming a martyr. If it's even possible, we left the movie more confused about this country than we were before.

We also checked out a palace, a fort (where we saw people bathing their elephants) and, yesterday, the annual elephant festival. It basically consisted of a surprisingly cool parade of elephants, musicians, and dancers followed by a very lame game of elephant polo (the pitch could barely fit all the elephants!) and a chance for tourists to ride around on the elephants (needless to say, we abstained.) Unsure of whether or not we supported their domestication of elephants, we certainly weren;t going to go so far as to financially support their owners.

Other than siteseeing, we've been doing a lot of reading (including the book on Indian women that we quoted before, "Koba the Dread", and "Angels and Demons") and have started trying to learn Hindi (which is by far the hardest language either of us has ever tried to learn. Suffice it to say that there are about 10 letters int he alphabet, the pronunciation of each is indistinguishable from the other as far as we're concerned.)

We're out of time now and such cannot discuss the absolute craziness and mayhem that was today, but we don;t really mind keeping you waiting...

Much love...

Mon, Feb. 20th, 2006, 12:11 pm

So we've spent about 5 days in India and all we can conclude is that this country is crazy.

Our first few trip days, after the flights that is, were not so hot as we firstly found ourselves stranded on the streets of Delhi (in a taxi) without a hotel at 3am. Next thing we knew we were in some "Tourist Office" where they found us a place to stay (costing about twice our daily budget). The next morning we were somehow whisked back to the office and convinced that there was nowhere cheap to stay in Delhi and no way of getting out of Delhi for the next 7 days (due to a Handicraft fair). Ultimately, we were connived into paying an amount we're embarassed to admit to for a driver to drive us to Agra, the hotel there, and the train the next day to Varanasi. All this because we were convinced that, in order to stay in our budget, we had to get out of the Delhi area fast. To make matters worse, our one day in Agra was a Friday, thus we arrived to find the Taj Mahal closed. We'll probably go back to Agra to see it in a few months. In our defence, we had spent 24 hours traveling with little to no sleep. Also, the tour we ended up getting wasn;t bullshit. Everything was exactly as promised, it was simply WAAAY too nice for us (the hotel room was gorgeous). Also, in the train station while waiting for the train, and on another occasion, we met a total of eight people who had fallen into the same situation, two of whom were from India. Other people had even paid more.

In any case, things have been going much better since then. We're now in Varanasi, which is an ancient city along the Ganges, lined with ghats (large steps and landing leading down to the incredibly filthy and very holy river). Seeing a burning ghat (ghat where bodies are cremated before being put in the river) was somewhat unsettling, though not disturbing, as in India this is the choice way of having your body dealt with (and people travel from all over the country right before they die to be able to undergo it). Unfortunately, not just the river but the entire city is beyond dirty, and you're literally dodging cow shit and worse every step. We won't get into smells.
The food, however, has been really great and cheap thus far. Lots of curries that are suprisingly good and this mornign we even found a bakery with...wait for it.. cappucino! (We also had a very good cinammon bun and a satisfying, though not exactly traditional chocolatine...you can't imagine how excited we were).

Tomorrow sometime we're off to Khajuraho, a group of many ruined temples in the middle of nowhere, all chock full of erotic sculptures. And from what we've heard, not tame ones either. We'll report on that later.

We've yet to fully fall into our India Stride, but we're getting better at dealing with constant pestering. For example, a few rules:
1) If asked where you're going, the correct answer is always a firm "nowhere" (works surprisingly well)
2) Though it seems like everyone on the street will yell "Hello, HALLO" at you, if you need help you must always find the one person who is actually otherwise occupied.
3) Don't look at anyone. They will interpret your casual glance as sexual/commercial interest.

We'll add to this list as we go along.

Missing home a little. Loving everyone a lot.


Tue, Feb. 14th, 2006, 02:51 pm
because numbers and lists make me feel organized

*Hours till flight #1: 5
*Percent packed: 80% or so
*Number of missing items: at least 5
*Degree of nervousness: High, but shrinking
*Degree of excitement: Medium, but growing
*Family members home: 0
*Family members driving me to airport: 4
*Time difference between Delhi and here: +10.5 hours
*Amount of times Jen and I have spoken on the phone today: at least 10
*Percentage of trip that is planned: <1%
*Number of volunteer organizations whose telephone numbers and addresses we have: at least 30! Yay half-plans!
*Number of absolutely stunning and gorgeous nudie photos of a friend seen in the past hour: 4
*Amount I'll miss everyone: a hella lot... :(

Anywho, must go find missing items and get my life organized. Hope everyone has a fabulous 4 months!

p.s. Write me! (rachelblumesmall@gmail.com)

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