Coffee and No Cigarettes (20060331)

Even more than Pakse, the southern Laos city of Savannahket epitomises the beautiful, slowly decaying French colonial Laos. It's so stunning, so ridiculously sublime and attractive, so much like the stars you see just before passing out after getting hit in the back of the head. And then there's the coffee. The coffee all over Laos has been good. Better than good, it's been some of the best coffee I've ever had. Certainly above and beyond the vile Nescafe that gets served all over northern India. Grown on the Bolaven Plateau, in the south-central part of the country, has a reputation not unlike Muhammed Ali. Srong, undeniably so, but lacks the harsh bitterness found in many strong coffees. Not only that, the Laos have a tradition, probably French, of making their cafe au lait with condensed milk that sits at the bottom of the cup, a white layer of dense sugary joy. I'm not a big fan of adulterating my coffee; give it to me black, bitter and strong. The condensed milk, though, was something I tried by accident. The first time I had it, down in Don Khon, I ordered and didn't specify black, and so my cup o' joe was bottomed out by that nagging white. This was the kind of ethical dilemma I wanted to face on the trip: do I ask for a new cup of pure black, or do I suffer through an impure coffee? I went for impurity, figured the least I could do was pass it on to the FMA, who'd already drunk half her cup. I raised the glass to my lips, gingerly sipping, and I hate to say it but the mixture was tolerable. Tasty, even. Delicious, more like it. So when in Laos, do as the Laotians do. Here in Savannahket, though, we found something even better than the coffee we had at Tim's, which was actually on the Bolaven Plateau. The coffee at the Lao-Paris Cafe, near the commuter ferry terminal where you can catch a boat to cross the Mekong River to Thailand, serves a unique blend. Their coffee has a rich, dark taste, just what you'd expect from a locally-picked coffee. But there's an undertone and aftertaste, too, that tastes more like a mix of 86 percent bitter chocolate than coffee. Mixed in with the condensed milk, it looks like a middle honey brown, the surface of a rich dark wood gone slightly whitish. The other remarkable thing about the coffee is that long after drinking it, I felt none of the coffee jitters that usually accompany a cup so strong in taste. It was a remarkable discovery, like Woody Allen discovering in "Sleeper" that fat and all the other bad stuff that doctors in the 1970s warned him about was actually healthy. Then, of course, there's the aforementioned aesthetics of Savannahket. The decrepit romanticism of it all was something out of a Trouffaut flick. The feel is almost impossible to communicate: sitting in the outdoor patio of the Lao-Paris Cafe, watching a ferocious rainstorm drop hammers and nails all over the place, seeing the pale and peeling skin of the French-style buildings darken with water, the rain kicking up enormous splashes from the one dirt street I've come across in this town and it's turned to thick, goopy orange mud. Only the cigarettes needed to complete the tragic romantic circle were lacking, but I figure there's enough smokers here as it is. Why ruin an otherwise perfect rainy day?

‘Falling for Tadlo (20060325-29)

Down in Si Phan Don, I asked one traveller I met who'd been in Laos for nearly a month what she thought of Tadlo and the Bolaven Plateau. "Oh," she said. "I didn't go there. Too many waterfalls." After having been in Tadlo, I can confirm that there were at least three waterfalls that I encountered. Which, I suppose, could be described as too many, although maybe she knew about more than I found. But how on Earth can you have too many waterfalls? This is like criticizing rainbows. Even Cartman from South Park liked rainbows, even if he did forget their purpose. There were quite a few tourists at the waterfallsm, which did present a bit of a problem, solved by hiking up the hill, past where the local kids were swimming and their mothers were cleaning clothes, and finding with ease at least five secluded areas perfect for doing nothing at. And in Laos, I'm beginning to realize that doing nothing is a large part of the appeal of the country. Sure, read a book. Take some photos. Write a bit, stretch those finger muscles. Heck, even go visit a hill tribe. But under no circumstances are you to strain yourself. The locals, resting under an awning in the afternoon heat, will look at you funny. The initial trek that the Financial and Menu Adviser and I went on through the Tadlo Falls area found us being mocked by the locals, in spirit if nothing else. We walked five kilometers or so in midday heat up to the third waterfall, situated just past a Ngai tribe village. Actually, the path to the waterfall went straight through their vilage, which the FMA found very disconcerting. The villagers, for their part, looked unperturbed, and their children were absolutely ecstatic at seeing us. Lots of short humans shouting out "Sabaidee!" was very cute. Sadly, it all turned a bit Indianesque when they followed up their hellos with demands for pens, money and food, but it was still nothing like the full-on begging assault I struggled through in India. Besides, I could very easily come back here and do some volunteer work. All throughout India, we both looked for a place that we could feel comfortable enough to stay for an extended period of time, volunteering for the community. I could theoretically do that in Darjeeling, but no single place struck me as particularly inspiring or friendly. Laos, like a favored child, has been quite beautiful so far and seems to have gotten all the charm that India lacks. The people in the villages we met were sometimes not so friendly about taking their photo, but enough of the kids were. We met children, half-naked in the heat, seven meters up a tree collecting berries by alternatively putting them in a basket and throwing them at each other. Others, crossing the sturdy wooden bridges that crossed the Se Don river, pushed long wooden sticks, posibly bamboo, in front of them with make-shift wheels attached. It was quite a strange sight, three or four boys, some fully clothed, the younger ones generally fairly naked, running along at full speed with these wheeled sticks on the ground in front of them. The point of the game could have been the race itself, for all I knew, but these toys were all over Tadlo. We headed back early, the FMA suffering from one of her frequent migraines. There's no point in going in to details, but I wouldn't wish those head traumas on anyone. The next day we walked up next to the river, finding the second Tadlo area waterfall (mysteriously called Tadlo) bereft of people. We swam in the strong current, dried in the sun, and the FMA put her many skills on display again as she cut my hair. Of all the non-arrestable offenses we could do while alone at a waterfall, I got my hair cut. The sun was out, it was a warm cloudless day, and the only noise was the billowing pounding of the water slamming down from the river 20 meters above. After other people showed up, we headed up the river to another village, another Ngai tribe village call Ban Khiang Tang Lay. They had set up their subsistence food gardens right on the banks of the Se Don, cutting long, narrow steps into the ground and planting neatly arranged rectangles of greenery. It was a small but beautiful thing to stumble onto, the grounds well-kept and clearly a source of pride to the woman we saw working them. A pleasant continuation from Don Khon, the food - especially the grilled fish - was fantastic. We stayed at Tim's Guesthouse, and the owner, Soulideth, is a godsend to the area. He and his family have their guesthouse and kitchen, of course, but he also runs the official tourism kiosk and was able to provide very helpful maps of the area and recommendations for different excursions from Tadlo. I was quite happy to try the Lao Lao, the Laos version of Japanese shochu, a harsher rice liquor than sake. To compensate, Skye convinced me to take a brief elephant ride through the area. For US$5 each, 50,000 kip, we spent an hour and a half on the back of an old gray lady pachyderm named Moon. Thankfully, her caretakers treated her well, with none of the pointed sticks near the eye or other tortuous abuse that we saw in India or Thailand. Soulideth also runs a computer resource center for local children, helping to teach them English and how to use computers at the same time. It's clearly a project that would benefit the region immensely, but as always, funding and manpower are big issues that need to be overcome. Wooden bungalows, cheap prices and lush vegetation defined the Bolaven Plateau and Tadlo, much as the same things did down in Si Phan Don. But without the mighty Mekong coursing through, and a lack of guides to facilitate communicating with the hill tribes, the very worthy charms of the region were less readily apparent and in need of some searching out.

How Now, Brown Laos (20060322-25)

From the relatively urban Pakse to the extremely rural Si Phan Don, travelling down the southern end of Route 13 by sawngthaew was one of those only-in-Southeast-Asia experiences. For one thing, Laos in mid-March is in the middle of its hot-and-dry season; everything was brown. The fields that weren't brown had been burned black. Skeletal grasses break in the breezes that merely push the hot air around, and it's easily in the mid-30s by mid-day, and nearer to 40 on a sealed road. Route 13 is a sealed road, but this was a good thing, a blissful thing. Smoother than Thai silk, the trip down had a lot of potential to be quick and zippy. But Laos is as past-paced as Manhattan is lethargic; stops were frequent. We stopped to piss. We stopped for cigarette breaks. We stopped to let on more passengers. Most frequently, we stopped so that roadside vendors could run us down and approach with sticks of things. Barbecued chicken was common, although it looked like the stick had been put through the rear end of headless chicken, then defeathered and roasted and spread wide. There were warm puff pastries, and grilled black cockroaches, and bags of baguettes, both plain and smeared on the inside with an unknown brown pate. I'm still working on the courage to try the roaches. However bad they are, they can't be as bad as getting giardia in India. There were bigger plastic bags with bottled water and sode, and small plastic bags with chewing gum. And they're all being shoved in your face, repeatedly, until the driver honks and they scurry off before getting run over. The sawngthaew dropped us off at Ban Noknok, a small village at the top of the Si Phan Don area, in the general vicinity of where we wanted to be, but just not quite there - more than 20 km from the closest mainland town to our island destination. So we chartered a boat on the spot, paying 90,000 kip (US$9) each for the nearly 90 minute ride that was just the two of us, the driver, and a sun covering so we didn't get too badly scorched. The boat was a long, narrow cigarillo of wood, with an outboard motor in the back. The propeller, like a little metal flower, was at the end of a stem about half the length of the boat itself. Slowly - you must understand, everything in Laos moves at a blissfully languid pace, like walking through setting Jell-o - slowly, we wove a path between the islands. It really did seem that there were 4000 islands in Si Phan Don, as the name claims. In this widened chunk of the Mekong River, nestled on Cambodia's back, the islands change shape and sometimes disappear entirely, depending on the height of the river. Aiding this malleable geography is the fact that many of the islands are no more than trees sticking out of submerged rock. Surprisingly, even near the Mekong brown was the predominant color, with trees partially dead, or perhaps just hibernating and waiting for water. Green must be a wet season thing. Once on Don Khon, in Ban Khon, the main village, we found a nice little guesthouse called Bounpha's. For US$4 per night, we could stay in bungalows with fans and electricity provided by a private car battery. Or, for US$2, we could opt for the more rustic choice with shared bathrooms and no fan, but a deck and a hammock overlooking the Mekong. When you're in a hammock drinking Beer Lao, privacy and power lose all usefulness. Our first evening there, we saw the sun dip behind the trees and under the water as slowly as time passes in Laos. The colors were the yellows, oranges, reds and purples you expect to find in a sunset in Southeast Asia, with none of the pollution and all of the beauty as the stars slowly pop into view, like a time-delayed circuit. The FMA and I spent the next few days reading, drinking Beer Lao, and doing most of nothing. We walked through the village Khon to Ban Khon Tai, running into few tourists but plenty of locals, nearly all of whom greeted us with a cheerful "Sabaidee!" We saw boys playing something like volleyball in the late afternoon, when the heat had begun to taper off just a bit. The ball was a hollow brown wicker thing, and they used both hands and feet to slam it over a net at each other. The day after, we saw a group of girls playing at the other end of the village. Their game looked strangely like dodgeball, except they were throwing their sandals at each other, not a ball. At one point, we mustered enough energy to rouse ourselves from the hammock and occasional Mekong breeze to check out Somphamit Falls, a beautiful series of rapids and steep edges that the water tumbled off of like a baby from a building, all in slow-slow motion. Most of the people we encountered there were tourists and travellers who could speak English. Unfortunately, sometimes their ability to communicate was inversely proportional to their friendliness, but I guess that's to be expected. I imagine it's hard to go any place that's talked about in a Lonely Planet and not find at least one other person there, these days. It's not so lonely, not with more than six billion other potential travellers. Still, we met a French man travelling after his girlfriend returned home to work, and Japanese college student who came from a part of Tokyo near where the FMA used to live. He was kind about us practicing our Japanese on him. I was only there for a few days, three nights - I think - but those days blend together, and my memory makes mush out of it all. It's entirely possible that I saw two sunsets in a row, says the memory, even though the logic dictates that as a definite impossibility. Another day, the FMA and I hired a boat and driver for nearly two hours to go catch a glimpse of the freshwater Irrawaddy dolphins. The boat drove for about 20 minutes to the southern end of Don Khon, close enough to Cambodia that you could throw a rock from the boat and hit a Cambodian on the head. In the middle of this open expanse of water there was a rocky outcropping, big enough to stop the boat at and walk around on. It took less than ten minutes of standing around before the guide shouted out. The FMA and I both turned, only to see water rippling. Before we knew it, though, the pod of what was three dolphins became very easy to track, pushing their domes out for air with regularity. I wanted to try to get closer, so I asked the boat driver if that was possible. I was praying that if he said yes, he wouldn't use the motor and scare away the skittish non-fish. His English wasn't good enough to explain this to, but his classical training in dolphin tours paid off. I needn't have worried; when we got back in the boat, he pulled out an our and we were off. Back in the water, it was all domes and dorsal fins, punctuated by bursts of air that were followed by ripples where the dolphins had been. Like any proper sea-going mammal, they had enough common sense to stay away from people, which meant that my photos of their silvery gray bodies didn't amount to much. Shyness aside, they were quite beautiful and graceful. Leaving Don Khon was hard. Food was a bit more expensive than in Pakse, with a bit less variety. The local steamed fish and coconut in banana leaf was fantastic, as was the fried fish with chili sauce. Fish anything was the way to go down at the Mekong. Besides, it's hard to argue with a bungalow and riverside hammock for US$2 a night. Did I mention: 20,000 kip. Two bucks. But rare electricity means having to go to bed at nine or so, the mildly humid heat was stifling, and it was so beautiful that the FMA was in danger of buying property. If the rest of Laos turns out to be as nice as Si Phan Don, we might just have to come back. Every year.

Pulling for Pakse (20060321)

When I was younger, my parents would drill into my head the importance of first impressions. "Wash your hair," of course, but also "Cut your hair," "Take off that motorcycle jacket," or "For the last time, you can not go out without pants." I had a rough childhood. Anyway, first impressions: my first true Laos experience occurred, I think, while I was still in Thailand. Getting from the train station in the eastern Thai city of Ubon Ratchathani to Chong Mek and the Laos border was ridiculously complicated. The night train in from Bangkok was sweet and easy, with comfortable bedding, clean aisles and toilets, and trash bins every two feet. It was all very and pleasantly un-Indian. Once in Ubon, I began to wonder if I'd unwittingly crossed the border in the middle of the night. A two-minute tuk-tuk ride to the bus station, followed by a bus to somewhere. I still don't know where the heck it was. From there we jumped on a sawngthaew, a pick-up truck with an open-air but covered bed with benches, converted for passengers, which took us to within one kilometer of the border. But we didn't know this, and nobody said nuthin' since most of the passengers were Thai, and so we jumped yet another sawngthaew. Finally there, I was hoping that the border would be a thin dirt checkpoint where I could do a little jig with one leg doing the Thai tango and the other shaking up a Laos lindy-hop. Oh, how sadly mistaken I was. The FMA and I walked through a long, wasit-height gate on wheels and trudged up a dirt path next to the road. The first building we saw housed the Thai customs officials, who thankfully didn't check our bags. Not that I was carry any contraband, but that opening my framepack would've taken more tolerance and smiles than I was prepared to dole out. The lack of dancing border guards or travellers was really quite disappointing. Having received our exit stamp, we strolled through another twisty gate experience on to a relatively unmarked building, noted by only one sign as belonging to Laos and housing their immigration officials. After filling out the proper papers, we paid our "unofficial" bribe of 100 Baht (US$2.50) each with a B1000 note, and received B800 in 20s. This seemed ridiculous, but I consoled the FMA, lamenting her now-shoebox sized wallet, that it could only get worse with the Laos kip. By this time, it was past noon, it was roastingly hot, and it had been more than three hours since we arrived in Ubon. The "bus" station on the Laos side of the border seemed devoid of buses, but overrun by sawngthaew all charging the same price to get to Pakse - my first practical encounter with Communism. The ride there was quick and pleasant, really. The road was paved, as smooth as India's road's weren't, so the 40 km to Pakse zipped by. Back in Thailand, Mater FMA had sent along a care package poste restante with some much-needed migraine medication, extra earplugs and a surprise - well-intentioned candies. But sugar-coated perishables don't do well in scorching heat, so we passed them around the sawngthaew. One old lady liked them so much we gave her the bag, and she reciprocated with some savory grains from a banana leaf. First impressions of Laos? The people were friendly and the roads were smooth. Good qualities so far, and Pakse turned out to only make the good better. We did have to catch our fifth transfer of the day there, a motorcycle tuk-tuk that was literally a rickshaw cab welded to the side of a bike. The unblemished city roads made the trip to our guesthouse far less intimidating than it could've been. The French colonial part of Pakse, where most of the guesthouses were, was very pleasant. Very, very, nearly bizarrely enjoyable. Wide, well-maintained roads separated two- to four-story buildings, some with thin columns or pencilesque balconies. The groundfloor was invariably a shop front, but often the shop was simply the owner's living room. Shutters over the windows had rounded tops with slats to filter the light. Archways were moulded into the design and rooftops sagged in the heat. Walking to the restaurant Xuan Mai, we saw TVs, VCRs, couches; a standard of living far above the average Indian home we encountered. Once there, the food was as impressive as everything else. Our first real encounter with Laos cuisine, we tried the beef laap. However you transliterate it, with one or two A's, or an R, doesn't affect the taste: A spicy salad of meat, fish, chicken, pork or beef, lemongrass, red chilis, scallions and onions, it burned the mouth in a beautiful fire of taste. We also ordered a pork fried rice and spring rolls, more Chinese in style but nonetheless tasty and in such generous servings that I wondered aloud how we were going to finish all the food. The FMA, ever-present to fulfilling her job description, suggested we try to find a homeless person to donate the food to. And in a deus ex machina that the worst sit-com writer could never invent, a homeless guy nearly instantaneously appeared. Before that, we hadn't seen a single homeless person in Pakse. The hid in the shadows cast by the streetlight, but lifted his hand to his mouth, a gesture we also saw in India. He was hungry. We pointed at the food, he nodded. I lifted the plate towards him, and he disappeared and reappeared just as quick with a plastic bag. We scraped the heaping plate of pork fried rice into the bag, and he ducked away into the darkness again. As we walked home, I looked for him. The placid streets, empty and sparsely lit at nine, kept their mysteries close, revealing only a gentle breeze to relax the hot March night.

The Quiet Megalopolis (20060320)

You'd never have thought that teeming Bangkok could be a quiet, calm place to soothe your savaged nerves, unless, of course, you'd just left India. Compared to the chaotic subcontinent, Bangkok has proven to be a placid palooka, filled with conveniently-timed buses, a plethora (I love that word) of fresh films, excellent street food with no fears of poisoning or undercooking attached, and hospitals doing wonderful five-star hotel impersonations. The original reason for coming back to Thailand was to get a visa for Laos. The Financial and Menu Adviser and I didn't mind chilling out for the few days it would take to get our passports sent off and back. But after the various bouts of illness that we both suffered in India, we figured a trip to a sane doctor who doesn't ruin people's sciatic nerves with unnecessary shots of antibiotics was in order. This turned out to be a Good Call. Seems that I became infected with giardia at some point in the past two months. Before leavcing, I did say that I wanted to make friends in India. This was ridiculous. Forunately, I was fairly asymptomatic and the antibiotic treatment went off without a hitch. BNH Hospital was decked out in marble and we got served our take-home drugs in little privacy bags, as if we'd just bought something cute and useless from Japan. (The FMA also took the meds just in case, and we are both now pleasantly bug-free, thanks for asking.) Unable to drink alcohol thanks to the medication, the FMA and I opted for the next best thing: movies. We love movies, and big-screen cinema just didn't happen for us in India. So we checked out Brokeback Mountain, V for Vendetta and A History of Violence, three films all adapted from other sources. For a grand ticket total of 320 Bt. each, or US$8, we ducked the 35 degrees C and swimming poolesque humidity for three afternoons, although by the end of it, I think my dreams consisted of gay cowboys fighting governments with hitherto unknown Incredible Hulkesque tempers. Weird. More than any other joint we ate at in the past week, Jokhpachana Restaurant off Thanon Samsen in Banglamphu served up the best pad thai, the freshest steamed mussels and had the friendliest service, with very affordable prices. A streetside joint that has tables on both sides of the road, the consistency of it all was shocking only because, once again, it was so sorely lacking during our trip to India. And of course, I've been playing catch-up here in blogworld. Later today, I'm off to Laos, so I'm not sure how often I'll be able to update for the next month. That's part of the fun of visiting Communist countries: so much is utterly unknown. But if it all gets to be too much for me, you can bet I'll be relaxing in Bangkok at the end of it.

Recommended India (20060317)

I might have a few more things to say about India, but I think for now this list of places to stay and eat and a few things to bring will tie up in a nice pwiddy widdle bow my first Indian adventure. Whenever possible, I've included contact info. UPDATED 19 MAR Tamil Nadu Chennai: The Madras thali at Maharaja Restaurant on Anna Salai Rd. was a good, affordable introduction to the thali. Mamallapuram: The dance festival in December and January was fun, and the eggplant masala at the Golden Palate Restaurant on East Raja St. was superb. GP is on the main road through town. Trichy: The chilli gobi fry at Sangeetha Restaurant in Hotel Aanand, near the main bus depot, was excellent. Kanyakumari: Heading out of town to check out the Padmanabhapuram Palace is worth the trek, and provides an excellent contrast to the architectual mundanity of Tamil Nadu. (Some guidebooks may put their info on it in the Kerala section, but it's closer to Kanyakumari than it is to Trivandrum.) Kerala Kollam: The state government-run three-hour backwater tour of the canals of Monroe Island was one of the best experiences I had in India. Kochi: The spice and rice warehouses on River (Calvathy) Rd. and the street it becomes, Bazaar (Boat Jetty) Rd., were interesting and colorful. The buildings, as well, either were old or looked it; either way, they're worth a visit. I was also impressed by the Pardesi Synagogue and the Jewish cemetery. You might find the graveyard merely macabre, but the synagogue is beautiful, even if it does look like your bubbe from Jersey decorated it. The Meen Varathathu (or Porichathu; it's the fish steamed in the the banana leaf with the spices) from the Old Courtyard restaurant on Princess St. and the food stall near the Chinese fishing nets where only locals eat were excellent and at utter opposite ends of the financial spectrum. Rajasthan Jaipur: Don't miss the Jantar Mantar observatory, but don't do anything else here, either. Skip skip skip past the Amber Fort, a big stinking waste of time, especially if you've seen the far more impressive Bundi Palace. Nawalgarh: The odd murals and the havelis they're painted on in the Shekhawati region are not to be missed, nor are the fiercely beautiful women of this area. Nawalgarh's an excellent base to explore the nearby towns because of the efforts of Ramesh Jangrid. The Tourist Pension (0159.422.4060) that he and his wife run is budget-traveller affordable and they'll provide you with excellent hand-drawn maps of Nawalgarh and other nearby towns. Ramesh also runs an eco-farm and lodge at nearby Apani Dani (015.422.2239), which is a bit classier and priced accordingly. Even if you don't stay at the eco-farm, drop in for a tour of their organic farm and green-friendly energy and water systems. Jaisalmer: The town and living fort areas are beautiful and not to be missed. Skip the palace and any other "sights" unless you're long on cash and time. The camel safari was fun, but might be more interesting if you do more than the standard one-night, two-day trip. Staying at the Hotel Krishna Palace, one of a massive pile of old havelis-turned-hotels, was actually quite enjoyable. Impeccably clean, an absolute rarity, and very friendly service. Jodhpur: The audio tour at Meherangarh was absolutely worth the Rs. 250: don't skip this for anything. Also, be sure that you look around back for the curator's garden and take a stroll along the parapets for beautiful, tourist-free views of the Blue City. Jaswant Bhavan, a paying guesthouse, had excellent, large affordable rooms (0291.261.1131). Bundi: It's a small town, but definitely go there. The Palace and the "secret" tour are well worth it, although if the curator asks for Rs. 100 in baksheesh, talk him down. We paid Rs. 50, after a big tip. And stay at the lovely Haveli Parihar (0747.244.6675), one of the few guesthouses run by a young woman, with very affordable prices. Shashi and her family treated us and the other guests staying there like gold. New Delhi Skip the Jantar Mantar here, which is a bit smallish compared to its larger twin in Jaipur, and head straight for Humayun's Tomb. It's an excellent example of Mughal architecture and obviously influenced the Taj Mahal, plus the pricey ticket (Rs. 250) seems to be actually going to restoring the complex. Give the Red and Old Farts, I mean Forts, a pass. Uttar and Madhya Pradesh Agra: Taj Mahal. Rs. 750. Worth it. We got a free tour with our ticket, but be wary of the touts - you can't swing a tandoori chicken without hitting ten of them. Khajuraho: The pornographic temples are really quite interesting and worth the shlep here, but if the guidebook tells you to fly, fly. We lucked out with out taxis, but the shlep down here from Uttar Pradesh by train or bus would be painful, unless you started in the north and had no idea what you were getting into. Varanasi: Some people run screaming from Varanasi, and yes, the part of town near the ghats does smell awful. But it has a certain charm that much of northern India lacks, and I found it growing on me. I'd go back here, and if I was on a tight budget again, and wanted to stay near the ghats, Ganga Fuji Hotel was reasonable enough. West Bengal Darjeeling: It provides a great escape from India, and once you get on the hill above the train station, it has very little to do with India. I strongly recommend Andy's Guesthouse (0354.225.3125), amazingly clean and friendly, and eating at Kunga, Sonam Kitchen (down the hill from Andy's) and Dekevas, next to Kunga. But we ate at Kunga as often as we could, and never got sick of it. Calcutta: Didn't stay long enough to recommend anything, but like Varanasi, it seemed to have a charm that grew on me. I'd come back here, next time in India. UPDATED Packing Be sure you bring earplugs and an eye mask, especially if you're planning on taking a long bus ride, which I can guarantee you will be noisy and bumpy. Also, an unfitted bedsheet is essential, since many of the budget rooms have unpleasant looking bedding - actually, a lot of them are just plain festy - even if the rest of the place seems to be clean. If you can splurge a bit before leaving, I found a hyrdation pack - CamelBak, for example - to be extremely useful for cutting down on extraneous trash and keeping cold water cool. Quick-dry synthetic clothes were also very useful for travelling in the cooler months, since I could rinse them out every night and they'd be dry by morning. They don't take up too much space, either.

Frustratingly Interesting India (20060315)

The Indian government tourism department promotes the country as being "Incredible India!" It's more like, "Frustratingly Interesting - India!" But before I tell you why, and if you've noticed a date six weeks in the future from my last post, I figure I should explain just what the heck is going on. People from parents to teachers to ex-girlfrends to strangers walking down the street have all accused me of living in the past. Actually, the strangers usually just accuse me of not wearing pants, but - wait, wrong blog. Anyway, I've never really been one to listen to advice. Because of the server problems we were having for most of the India trip, I'm a bit behind in typing up just what the subcontinent was like. I've finished typing up the blog entries from southern India, but the ones from the north lie patiently in my journal, nagging me at three in the morning to run to the 24-hour 'net cafe and share them with the world. Which means, I'm currently in Bangkok, awaiting my visa for Laos and getting treated for giardia. Always wanted to make friends in India. Lucky me. So, I'll be concurrently publishing old stories from India and new ones from Laos. Since there's about 20 left from India, I figure it's better to move on with the future rather than getting mired in the past. To sum up India: It was frustratingly interesting. If it's your first time there, I wouldn't recommend spending more than a month in India unless you really, really, really love Indian culture. And if you really, really, really love Indian culture, I'm not sure I like you anymore. Just kidding. Sort of. I'll start with the good stuff, and try not to rant too much. The beautiful, amazing things in India are truly beautiful and amazing. In the north, that means the physical. The stuff you can go and see and touch and pray gets preserved fr all eternity. The bas relief porn - it's porn folks, "erotica" is just a tidy word for it - in Khajraho is quite amazing. I don't think I've ever seen sculpture carved with such energy. The Taj Mahal must been seen to be believed. I can't really imagine going there more than once, but that once you'll never forget. You won't forget the exhorbitant price, either, but - as anyone from L.A. can tell you - beauty ain't cheap. The dilapidated and hauntingly impressive palace in Bundi, with its secret rooms and amazingly preserved paintings; the quirky frescoes, havelis and stunningly beautiful women of the Shekhawati region; the impressive rise of Jaisalmer out of the barren desert; the vibrant and vital Varanasi; all are sparkplugs firing in the mud of my brain. The south was, of course, slower, the sticky humidity - even in January - the perfect metaphor for the pace of life. The people were generally friendlier, although we did meet some extremely kind and good-hearted folks up north, and the food was without a doubt better prepared down where it's all fresh and ripe. Getting sick, as both my Financial and Menu Adviser and I did, is nearly unavoidable in India, and puts a real drag on any Indian trip. But illness isn't just anywhere near as bad as the way Indian men treat their female counterparts. The Indian media's spin on Western culture - we're all a bunch of horny, amoral sluts and rapists, don'tcha know? - is clearly designed to keep Indian women afraid of Western men and Western values as "modern" Indian culture like absurd "The Man Show" and, oh, just about any Indian magazine on society - teaches men that it's okay to have multiple simultaneous partners, but if you're girlfriend has had two boyfriends in her life she's probably too loose for you. And that's "loose," meant literally. Indian women, of course, must wear saris out of the house to show that they are pure, while men are allowed to wear any combination of lungi, shirt, pants or whatever they like, wherever they want, whenever they want. All of which and more has created a male standard of acceptance of at least staring down, and leading straight up to physically assaulting young foreign women, who wouldn't be travelling alone unless they were whorish slatterns unfit for wedding, right? The FMA and I heard dozens of horror stories, from one young lady actually getting assaulted to double-digit stats on verbal abuse. Then there's the shit. The poop. Animal feces is, of course, everywhere, as there are feral cows and goats roaming the streets of most cities. The ones with brands are owned, but if you look closely, you'll see plenty of unmarked beasts. And the human crap. I saw two or three people defecate right onto the sidewalk. The statistics say that something like more than 50 percent of Indians lack running water and proper sewage. Locals don't use toilet paper - hello, left hand! - but there's no sanitation, no soap, either. Fifty percent of children suffer from malnutrition, and 80 percent of women are functionally illiterate. All this, while a small but growing well-heeled middle-class pretends that these problems don't exist. Of course there are problems in more industrialized countries, but none of them quite so shocking. With India's population soaring past a billion, the window for getting the infrastructure to catch up with the people it serves is getting smaller every year. Part of the infrastructure problem is the ignorance of the envirnoment. I met one guy who loved the fact that Indian culture was "virtually unchanged since it was founded in the Indus Valley 5000 years ago." It's one thing to drop refuse on the ground after it's served its purpose when it's all biodegradable, as I imagine it was back then. But now? Plastic wrappers float in open city-sewer lines. They lay abandoned on the road, on the sidewalk, in the middle of national monuments and in national parks. The FMA got stared at horribly when, on a long-distance train which had trash containers filled to overflowing, she took a peel from an orange she'd just eaten and stuffed it in a plastic bag, then put it in her backpack to be disposed of later. Everybody else just dropped stuff on the floor of the train, to be swept away at some indeterminate point in the future when a poor kid came crawling along the floor with a straw broom. Show me a photo of a trash-free site in India, and I'll show you a heavily-cropped photo. Maybe the word "pristine" doesn't exist in Hindi or Tamil or any of the 12 other major languages spoken there. I remember very clearly one of the hidden, locked-off rooms of the palace in Bundi - which was overrun by monkeys and bats - had a pile of monkey feces laying in one corner. There were scattered bits of the stuff about, but the large majority of it was on this concrete block in the corner. I said it when I got to India, and I'll say it again: Animals know enough to not shit where they eat. So what the heck is going on in India? This is what a 5000-year-old civilization has come to? I know that all these things are concerns of those who care about the future of India, but except for a few towns that actively promoted trash removal, or like Kerala and its 90 percent literacy rate, promoted education for men and women, on a individual level it seems that most people just couldn't give a damn. It is hard to travel through a country where you seem to be more concerned with the place than the people who live there.

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