Tuesday, June 10, 2008

a day in the life - khajuraho boy!

This update is gonna be two parts. First, just a day in the life of India, and then we'll get into Khajuraho.

(A note: having just finished this post, the "Day in the Life" section is really, really long. And rambly, and probably not that interesting if you're not me. So, unless you're really invested, maybe just check out the videos in the first section, and then jump to Khajuraho.)


I've just been staring at this page blankly for a bit, wondering how on Earth I can start to describe a typical day of a Westerner traveling alone in India. To start, maybe a few numbers.

India has four times the population of the States, and one third the land mass. So, carry the one, we're talking about 10 times the population density. Now, imagine if every person in the US suddenly became 10 people. There's no longer such thing as a quiet little town. There's no such thing as an empty restaurant, or a car with just one person in it. There's no such thing as personal space. There are people everywhere. Everywhere.

Now wait a minute, wait a minute. Okay, for some little podunk town, I understand the visualization. But for a city, for the Mag Mile in Chicago, you just couldn't fit all those people! But ahhh, that's the magic of India! They DO fit all those people. It's madness! That's part of the culture shock that I wrote about when I first touched down in Delhi. Everyone's bumping your elbows. You're constantly being pushed and brushed and stepped on, and rickshaws and mopeds are actually hitting people. Not hard, but I mean actually hitting people. Your instinct, as a Westerner, is to think, when someone steps on your foot or bumps your shoulder hard, it's horribly rude. But it's not rude, it's just physically necessity. (And anyway, I'm in their culture: who am I to say what's rude in India?!) Anyway, yes, there are just that many people in India. It's that crowded.

Take a CTA bus, the Roosevelt #12 (in my head). Everybody turns into 10 people. Impossible, right? Well, yes! See the photo in my last entry? People, dozens and dozens of people, just spill out and climb on the back and roof. People are hanging out the door.

Internet here in Khajuraho is surprisingly fast (maybe 1/5 the speed in the States?), and at 75 cents an hour, and with it being stupid hot outside, I'm trying to [gasp] upload a video. If all goes well, a 5-second clip of the 5-hour "local" bus I took from Jhansi to Khajuraho will be right here:


Did that work? YES! Ooooh, we might have to put up a couple more videos! But later, later. Let's continue with a day in India.

As a Westerner in India, Indians are fascinated by you. You're bombarded with questions. As soon as someone starts talking to you, a crowd gathers (I'd say a small crowd, but who are we kidding, this is India; there's no such thing as a small crowd.) I'm asked so many questions that, just to keep myself occupied, I lie a lot. How's this, a choose-your-own adventure: Q&A in India! These are not made up.

Q1 - "Your qualification?"

A1.1 - "I don't understand." The person will repeat the question, verbatim, and obviously you're new to India. This most common question means "What's your occupation?"
A1.2 - "Scientist." You get mad respect for this one. In India, this means you're very well-educated (and therefore from a rich family), and smart, and paid well.
A1.3 - "Doctor." Nothing will get you more respect. Nothing. And I've said a lot of stuff. They're just too floored to even talk to you, and extra bewildered that you're on a local bus, or the unreserved section of the train, or just in India in the first place.
A1.4 - "Astronaut." They've never met an astronaut before, and might tell their families they met an astronaut. Guess he wasn't accepted to medical school...
A1.5 - "Governor of Illinois." More curious than impressed. Ask if you know George Bush, and then move on to Q2.
A1.6 - "Mahout." Directly to Q2.
A1.7 - "Je suis desole, je ne parle pas Anglais." Genius! Sometimes backfires ("ah, tu est francais?"), but usually, this is pure gold. You will, of course, still be stared at, but a moment of relative peace!

Q2 - "Where from?"

A2.1 - "America." Ooooh, they didn't see that coming. I'm from a superpower! They're impressed. USA? USA? George Bush! Obama, Clinton! (I swear, foreigners know more about our politics than most of us.) America is a very good answer. The crowd always leans in on that one.
A2.2 - "England." They knew it! I speak English, I'm from England, duh! They don't have much to say about England. They've met English before.
A2.3 - "South Africa." Big mistake, 'cause I don't know a damn thing about cricket, and they wonder if I've met all these players I've never heard of. They think they're about to talk to a Westerner about cricket -- how cool! -- and if you say you don't watch it, they're crestfallen.
A2.4 - "Goa." Ooooh, ace in the hole! Goa is a state in India with a lot of expats (and as a nice reversal, Rose Dias is our resident Chicago-area Goan!), and the Indians aren't as interested if you're from Goa. They're more interested in superpowers. That's why America is the best answer.

Q3 - "You are pay? Month?" (asking your salary)

A3.1 - "I am not answering." Bewilderment. Why would you withhold information? You crazy Westerners are so different.
A3.2 - "$2500 per month." Get this: they're surprised at how little it is. In India, most people think Westerners are like wildest-dreams rich (though, to them, we are kinda wildest-dreams rich...). So that leads to A3.3...
A3.3 - "Guess!" They have no idea and are usually unwilling to guess. The few that have ventured give huge ranges that always too high. Four lakhs per month, rupees? A lakh is 100,000 (for some reason in India, instead of thousand -> million -> billion, they do thousand -> lakh -> crore, which is 1000 -> 1,00,000 -> 1,00,00,000 and yes, that's how they do commas in big numbers), and a it's about 40 rupees to the dollar. So that's $10,000 a month; $120,000 a year. Not a terrible guess, but that's a heckuva salary! They think a cheap dinner in the States runs $100 a head.

Q4 - "You have wife?"

A4.1 - "No." They are so smitten with themselves! They knew it! Those crazy Westerners, wildest-dreams rich but they don't have wives! Hahahaha! Oh man, OH MAN! That is funny!
A4.2 - Actually, I always say no to that one. I love their reactions. Their jaws clench as they try to keep it civil, but they just wanna scream "YES! I KNEW IT! HA HAHAHA!" Oh man, they love that.

Indians find it bizarre that I do not live with my parents, that I travel at all. They're floored that I live(d) in place that has two bedrooms, a living room slash kitchen, a bathroom, and a hallway... with just one other person?! One man on the train boasted that sure, he lived with his 10-person family in a one-room house, but you should see the room! Very big! They guess my rent at maybe one lakh per month.

At monuments, families ask me to be in their photos. Some folks just ask me to take their pictures, on my camera. I don't know why. This man asked me today.

Just this morning I went to the ATM (Joshua, you're the best! It works!), and was followed by two men all the way there and back. Unfortunately, unless I'm on a bus or train with someone, the rule is that anyone who approaches you wants your money. This rule is correct approximately 100% of the time. Many Indians seem to think Westerners are walking volcanoes of money, ready to erupt at the slightest provocation. They ask questions -- anything to get your attention -- and they'll push the sale later. I just ignore them completely. They followed me the whole way, waited outside while I did my bank stuff, and walked with me back.

I also biked to the southern temples here, and two kids on a bike (yes, most bikes have 2 or 3 people on them) followed me the whole way. Should've ignored 'em, or pulled the French card, but I try to be human and, albeit curtly, answer some of their questions. When I get to the temples, they dismount and want to follow me around. Tour guides, see, that way I'll feel obliged to tip. I tell them I want to be alone. The security guard then also tries to be my tour guide, and even the French game doesn't shake him. He uses a good line to bring up the idea of tipping: "If you're happy with no tip, I'm happy with no tip." That makes us both happy then, don't it? The boys, who waited for me at the entrance the entire time, say they have coin collections. Do I have any dollars? How about some rupees? But we haven't eaten in four days!

Maybe here's a good place to break the bad news. The endless harassment of touts and beggars here cannot be exaggerated. I'm used to it by now, but if I'm outside, I cannot walk a block, not one block, without being accosted. It's tremendously draining, and I spend my time always feeling like a bit of a jerk. There's this nagging that maybe, just maybe, this person is honestly curious, or friendly. But they always end up demanding you visit their shop, or asking for money. When I went to say goodbye to the white-haired chapati man in Delhi? Et tu, Brahmin? It's really a tragedy of the commons. It's a breakdown of trust.

Now, I'm actually quite happy I came to India. That sounds a bit rationalistic, and maybe it is, but I'm not on an "vacation," spending lavishly and expecting opulence. No no, this is travel. Exploration, adventure. I left the States to see new things, experience new cultures. And while it's the most exhausting travel I've ever done, if India is anything, it's different! The history (so tortuous!), the culture (how diverse!), the food (a vegetarian's paradise!), the dress (nose rings, bangles, a bouquet of saris!); so much beauty here, such an experience! And that's why I came. But the touts and beggars and constant, constant harassment -- I just can't relax. But, BUT, and this is the real test: I will remember India when I'm 60. It's a heckuva trip.

The one place that actually isn't so bad is a guesthouse. The folks who work at guesthouses know that their patrons are not as rich or ignorant as most folks here believe. Well, for India, I am rich -- very! -- but I'm not a walking ATM, and I think giving to beggars only promotes begging. Anyway, the guesthouses I've been staying at here are usually in the $4-$8 a night range. The rooms themselves are always pretty spartan, so when choosing a place, it's the bathroom that counts. Huge range. Some are shared, down-the-hall style with squat toilets and bucket showers. Tonight, in Khajuraho's off season, I'm paying $5 a night for my very own attached bathroom.

This is one of the nicer bathrooms I've seen. The weird squat-or-sit, your choice toilet has plumbing, which is awesome, and the bucket shower you see is NOT the only shower. Like many bathrooms here, they've installed a nozzle shower which is just an unceremonious hole in the wall that sprays into the bathroom. This one sprays a LOT of water, everywhere, like a busted fire hydrant. Actually, it's really fun. After a day out my clothes are soaked or crusty with sweat, so I head into the bathroom with my clothes still on, shut the door, and turn the nozzle. FOOOOSH!!!! It damn near knocks you over! Suddenly you're in a submarine that's been hit, and it's really fun! RED ALERT! RED ALERT!!! WE'VE BEEN HIT! LOCK THE HOLDS, STARBOARD SIDE!!! Lots of fun in that bathroom.

So... uh, what else?

You know why this post is so ridiculously long? Partly just as a respite from the carnival of India. It's quiet here at the computer, nobody's interrogating me. No "Hello Mister!" "Where you from!" "You want shop?" "Postcards?" Being outside is unbelievable. It just doesn't stop. Oh, oh! Here, a video of Agra:


(NOOO!! I messed up! I wanted to shorten the video so it could upload, but I messed up and cut it waaaay too short! What a botch!)

Oy, someone who works at the hotel just pulled a chair up next to me. "Where you from?" I feel like a jerk, but I'm not talking. "Computer work good?" This is really happening right now. If I respond, he might just want to chat (I'm not outside, so there's a fighting chance), or he might ask me to come to his shop or travel agency. But please, just leave me alone.

Oooh, I can't believe a video worked! And in a somewhat manageable time! Here, some more!

The Brahmin in Delhi making chapatis with his son.


This hotel guy is just sitting a little behind me to my left, looking over my shoulder, as I type. I don't know if he reads English, but he's making me uncomfortable regardless. Yes, you, hotel guy!

Another video. This is really out of left field, but it's short and sweet. Feeding Mali the elephant in Thailand (tongue, trunk, whatever):


What the heck, another! Tak Bat, in Luang Prabang:


Okay, as if that weren't enough for one post, now...


I'll keep it short, partly 'cause this has been a long post, and partly 'cause there's not too much to say anyway.

Khajuraho is much, much quieter than Agra. And the number of touts and swindlers is down to small-town Indian levels, which is still outrageous, but it's manageable. But people don't come to Khajuraho for the small-town feel; they come for the temples.

These temples are all very old, from 900 to 1100 AD, but frankly, I didn't get too much into the history. I know, shame on me, but remember, I didn't think I was coming to Khajuraho until the Gujjar strike, so my unpreparedness has an explanation! Anyway, there's a lovely sign near the entrance to the first temple, and please read the paragraph starting "The temple has a lofty basement..."

...and miscellaneous scenes?!?!

The pamphlets and guide books calmly ask you to "refrain from letting the graphic nature of the friezes distract from the" blah blah blah, and the signs here only occasionally admit "erotic" content. Um, "erotic" is the curve of a woman's breast, the small of her back. I'm not sure what this is, but erotic?

Even one of the figures is shocked! (Or maybe, just maybe, she was all into it in her younger, wilder days. But now she's a thousand years old, chiseled in stone with these savages giving in to their baser instincts, and she's just so ashamed.)

Sometimes you have to admire the ingenuity of the artists (and the flexibility of the figures!):

The one in the top center? That's just plain clever! Zooming in:

Now most of the carvings are pretty mundane (or honestly erotic, in a sensual way), and they're only occasionally punctuated with seriously R-rated stuff:

And, while it's hard to notice anything but the sex, I do like nice stairs:

Isn't that a great ladder! A thousand years old, and don't you just want, need to climb it? It doesn't even go anywhere now -- just a fenced-off window -- but I'll be damned if I didn't climb it anyway!

Next up, train to the Ajanta Caves, and then continue to Mumbai. Mumbai to Dubai for a brief li'l visit, and then, on to EGYPT! (Oh boy oh boy oh boy!) But hey, one day at a time.

You know today is the 56th day of my trip? Two more days and we've made it halfway!


jdcooper said...

I dig the vids and am *stoked* that the ATM worked. I'll keep my eye on it here and let you know if there are any weird charges. How much, anyway, so that I can tell if there are any weird charges.

love you tons

Tracy said...

I stumbled upon your blog through Boots n' All after searching the forum about Thailand, where I just spent two weeks in a haze of acclimation after spending 4 months in the Westernized comfort of New Zealand and Australia. I am now in Mumbai and can relate to the frustration tinged with awe that India elicits. As a 20something pale-skinned American female in India, I completely understand the feeling of that large bullseye on your back. I think your attitude is great, however, and will only help you with those great memories that you will have a year later. Good luck with your travels. I am headed to Egypt (after Turkey) and look forward to your impressions.

Cam said...

great stuff! i really like the videos, particularly the one of you feeding the elephant. "okay, that's all i got... stop walking towards me!" awesome. that has to be the weirdest temple i ever saw. one can only assume that it's a temple to a fertility god(ess) or something. can't wait for the next chapter of our adventure!

Anonymous said...

Really fun blog! Loved the videos. Laughed out loud. Loved hearing your voice. And Josh is the greatest brother ever.

Today's NYT had an article about Egyptians' feelings that the US doesn't respect them and doesn't understand their deep value of hospitality. Maybe you should read it.

Love you,

Harold said...

Hi Jake. We had a nice surprise in the mail today - your very newsy postcard. Thanks a lot. From reading your blog you seem to be having a ( mostly) great time, which through your entertaning writing, I am experiencing vicariously and learning a lot.
I look forward to reading about the rest of the trip. Enjoy!!


Anonymous said...

How many days later? I finally get it--Caps Locks from Mom. While I didn't understand until yesterday (June 11), the minute I saw your headline "Hello from Kashmir" I thought WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING IN KASHMIR? ISN'T ONE WAR ZONE ENOUGH?

Read that Egyptians are all psyched about Barak, so wear your pin proudly.

BTW, what do you do most evenings?

Much love,

Jake Cooper said...

1 - Sorry I'm being a little lax on the blog, but my sprint-to-the-finish here is somewhat dizzying (Gujjar strike made me go the long way 'round, and I'm trying to hit up sights on the way), so it'll pro'lly be a little while.

2 - Tracy: Isn't it nice to commiserate sometimes! Ran into a Spanish couple at the train station and we had a good time trading "and just when I thought I shook 'em..." stories. I hope Egypt is a blast (I've already quite decided it will be), and I loooove Turkey... from what I remember! Have fun!

3 - Thanks Harold and Cam and Joshua.

4 - EXTRA thanks to Joshua. I seriously don't know what I'd be doing right now without your financial logistics help.

5 - Mom, good question. All sorts of things, often chores. I'll put a little note on sending a package from India in the next entry; you'll see.

6 - Maybe it's just 'cause of my pin, but it seems everyone in Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Malaysia, and India are all rooting for Barack. GObama!!

Anonymous said...

One more thing--I don't hear about, or even see, local women. Taboo for them to talk to you? Don't they ride buses? Why no women?