Thursday, March 26, 2009

Entry from February 2009

So I've been in Hong Kong now for quite a while without chronicling too much, so I figured it would be a good idea to write the gist of what happened down before I forgot. Hong Kong is quite different from India. The step from India to Europe or the US is so big that it makes Hong Kong seem like another western country but with a slight Chinese flavor.

Before coming here I was in Germany with my family after having travelled around with my mother in India. This put me in a very relaxed sort of very unoutgoing mood. I lost track of time during the Christmas celebrations and so I didn't do much thinking about the next step in my study abroad odyssey until it was upon me. That actually turned out to have a negative effect on my arrival in Hong Kong as I was mentally totally unprepared to deal with all the crazy exchange students and get on with all the meeting of people that was called for when I arrived here.

The Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK) is peculiar in that it has approximately 300 exchange students present every semester. Somewhere between 100 to 150 of them are Americans. CUHK seems to be divided into different groups mostly along language lines. So there are Cantonese speakers from Hong Kong, Mandarin speakers from the Mainland, and English speakers from the west. These groups seem to keep to themselves. Within the exchange students there also seem to be cliques of different languages, the one I'm more aware of is a German speaking group, but I suspect that there is a French speaking one floating around as well. I have mostly been hanging out with the people who live near me, but usually I do things with exchange students. I'm friends with one of my roomapes (I have two.) and I know his friends but we haven't done any real hanging yet.

The Chinese students behave very differently from Indian that they aren't as in your face friendly. They've been described to me as shy by another exchange student, and I think that is actually a good description. Usually they won't come to you, you have to approach them, but generally after the first time of forced conversation they will recognize you and say hi. I've had a little difficulty approaching people though because all of a sudden I feel nervous about forcing them to speak English, something which was less difficult in India as everyone with even the vaguest idea of what English might be tried to approach me. The floor I live on is a typical college dorm with all of the facilities that I would expect at home. The one major difference though is that no one leaves their doors open, so it lends itself to a much more antisocial environment.

Another peculiarity is that people don't seem to know other people's friends by default. I missed my juggling clubs in India as you can't buy them in Asia so I brought them here. I was trying to teach this one guy from my hostel to juggle, and three young women who were touristing around seemed interested, so I invited them (unlike in India where everyone comes up to see what you're doing people kind of walk around and look interested but don't dare approach you). I asked them their names and then introduced myself and tried to introduce the guy I was with, but they largely ignored him, which was kind of awkward. I taught them sort of the basics of how to juggle and one of them learned surprisingly fast. The guy they ignored made very rapid progress as well. I was impressed.

Infrastructure here is amazing. The subway/metro (technically called the MTR) has trains that come by every 3 or 4 minutes, so you almost never have to wait to go anywhere. Everything here, including the MTR is clean, and there is almost no trash anywhere. This is probably because there is a 1500 Hong Kong Dollar fine (200 real dollars) for littering. Coming from India I feel like I could literally eat off the floors here. It was cool. The bathrooms here are western and cleaned very regularly, perhaps twice a day.

My dorm is on the top of this huge hill and next to it is this beautiful pool of water surrounding a Banyan tree at the edge of a cliff like incline. A banyan tree is a cool because it has roots coming off of its branches that end up going down to the ground and supporting the tree some more. The pool is very clear and the view from the pool onto the bay is stellar. At night the Banyan tree is lit but the water is not so when I approached the edge of the cliff for the first time I couldn't identify what the surface of the pool was. At first I wondered if there was no ground there, and upon closer inspection I decided it must be very polished black marble as I could see the outlines of the tiles on the bottom of the pool through the still clear water. I then proceeded to step into the pool with my sneakers on, and was standing with one foot submerged and the other partly submerged before my brain registered what I had done. Interestingly enough this other exchange student did the same thing a little bit later. I think the message behind this is that if you have trouble identifying a surface be very careful to determine what it is before doing anything with it.

I've been doing my best to learn Chinese names, but they're very difficult to remember because they use a very different set of sounds than I'm used to. Also they have an intonation that goes along with them. If you make the wrong intonation your pronunciation is not only wrong, but it's so wrong that Chinese speakers can't figure out what you're trying to say. There's a real sing song to learning the language and it's very difficult, especially because my level of confidence in my language ability affects my intonation. Almost every Chinese student knows these things and have resigned themselves to using an English name. They sometimes choose cool things like Sky or Dragon, other times they just go for English names such as William or Edwin. It kind of sucks because they often choose goofy names without realizing it. It is also not so good because they give up their real name to a certain extent. I've made an effort to learn their real names, but just sort of remembering doesn't cut it. If you want to use their real names, you need to be able to say them. It's been quite difficult, and a bit awkward as everyone introduces themselves by saying "You can call me..." and then Elvis or whatever other bizarre name they have chosen for themselves.

My one roomape, Han Qi, has been really helpful in my so far pretty clumsy attempts to learn Chinese, and I'm pretty grateful already. This one incident occurred with his friend who happened to be a bit less friendly than your average person. When I asked him what his name was he started searching for an English name to tell me, but then Han Qi jumped in and said, "You can call him Jao Yu" in the same way people introduce themselves with their English names. In general Han Qi is a pretty funny guy and I'm impressed with his ability to make jokes in English despite his occasional difficulties with the language. Most of the jokes I make come from playing with the language, so saying something funny in another language is quite difficult. Han Qi's style of humor is more conceptual and so he plays with ideas rather than technicalities in the language, so it's much more portable than your typical joke. People who have difficulty enjoying the finer things in life often say that puns are the death of wit, and I never really understood how that might be true till now.

Food here is very different from Indian Cuisine. Meat is part of everything here. "Vegetarian" dishes also occasionally have meat in them. Chinese food also includes most parts of the animal in what is eaten. Often there are bones in the food, and often what you get is an bird that has simply been hacked into bitesized chunks with a heavy butcher's knife. At one pseudo party for the opening of the hostel there was an entire (head, feet, and everything except perhaps guts) pig laid out on a table which was being chopped up for the students. Chicken feet is a common food, and I tried it but don't care for it much. At first I tried ordering things at random without knowing what they were but quite often I've ended with something that I really did not care to eat, so I usually try to get an informed opinion on what will be in my dish before I order it. The weird animal parts aside, the food is not super spicy. Often it's fairly bland unless you add some sort of sauce. Noodle dishes are common and rice with some sort of a side meat dish is also very common. Although as far as taste goes I much prefer India, I do enjoy using chopsticks a lot. It makes me eat slower because I need to figure out how to pick up this or that thing, but is generally pretty simple unless something needs to be cut.

Hong Kong is famous for being a wild and crazy place. The bars are famous and so I was expecting Lan Kwai Fong (the most famous of the bar collections) to be a sprawling district of debauchery. It happens to be about only one (smallish) block of bars and clubs. The streets bordering on this block have a couple of bars too. And after midnight (when the MTR closes) there is a huge string of taxis outside the district waiting for smashed partiers to go home. It is cool to stand in the middle of the bars and see all the lights at eye level in contrast to the dark city above that. The rest of Hong Kong seems to be quite asleep at those times, although I've only been out incredibly late in other places on weird days such as Thursdays. I suspect that the reputation of Hong Kong is based off it being relatively crazier than the surroundings, something that I have no evidence for as I have not left Hong Kong yet.

I went to the Chinese New Years parade. It was not too impressive. The streets were lined with spectators about 50 to 100 people thick. But the parade had one float every 4 or 5 minutes and the floats were generally let downs as well as the people walking and dancing instead of floats occasionally. If the parade had been denser it may have been worth it, but it was not something I'd recommend going out of your way to see. The fireworks on the other hand were good. They were all concentrated in one place and our viewing angle was not ideal, but they had a fair amount of fireworks (20 minutes worth). The one issue was that since they were all very concentrated spatially the smoke clouds grew around the fireworks so that near the end of the show we could barely see anything anymore.

Two more things caught my attention recently. I was in the city one sunday and I saw many people chilling in various bizarre places such as underpasses under roads or bridges over roads. They were sitting on carboard and were usually eating or playing cards. It was clearly a picnic but on asphalt. Probably there just isn't enough grass to go to, so people go out on nice days and chill out together on cardboard and asphalt. The other thing I thought funny was that people here don't wave like we do. Instead they open and close their hands as opposed to moving their arm.

As far as being a tourist goes, up till now I have looked at a variety of different temples and gardens here. I don't understand how the temples here work, or what people generally feel about religion. The temples are not too impressive at first glance. Generally they consist of one large room filled with incense. The main religion in Hong Kong, as in many other places, seems to be shopping. There are huge malls at every MTR stop, and many markets in the various streets. I prefer open markets to malls when I need to get something, but haggling seems to be necessary in many of them. I have developed a dislike for haggling although when I was testing the waters to see the approximate price of an object, I felt a rush of adrenhaline, so perhaps I will enjoy it here. I found a beautiful market only one stop away from my school in Tai Po District. They have lots of different foods there and all kinds of useful and cheap objects for which you can't haggle. I like the market in Tai Po because it's more of a market for real people and not as touristy as the places closer to the center of Hong Kong.

I went with some of my friends to an India restaurant after the New Year's Parade. The food was very expensive but they made an excellent Palak Aloo and Chana Masala. Their Rotis were only so-so though. The thing that was most interesting to me was the way all the Indian restaurant owners behaved as Indian tourist sharks back in India. They swarmed out around us and tried to convince me to go to their restaurant as opposed to the others. Outside the restaurant there was someone selling Burfees and Ladoos and when we gave him one of the bags he gave us a Ladoo in to throw away, in a typical Indian way he threw it onto the street in front of his shop. I was shocked that they had managed to come to this completely different world without changing their habits. I wonder how long they've been here and how long they plan on staying. I've been doing my best to adapt, but it seems that I could join the already existing group of American expatriats who live here and continue living as I've always done.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

End of India

During the approach of winter there were a couple of changes on campus. Most notably, besides the sometimes frigid nigh time temperatures, was the nasty caustic fog that often seemed to rise in the mornings. It was a blend of water, something surely carcinogenic, and perhaps dust, which was pretty irritating to my eyes. One positive thing that came to, though was the appearance of these red eyed ferret like things that I think are mongeese. (Plural of mongoose?) The Indians partially told me yes that it was a mongoose, or no it was something else. In any case, whatever they are it is reputed that if you see one, your day will be lucky. I've seen many of them and on one day I saw two or three. I dunno if I'm particularly lucky, but the day I saw the most was peculiarly good.

Winter also brought along with it the majors (final exams) which brought classes back to my immediate attention. I'd been pretty blasé to most of my classes, especially since my main interest had been in learning things outside of academia. Still it had been my general policy to attend all the classes as I usually have difficulty understanding any of the material if I don't attend. This may not have been such a great idea as they were all a bit early and that destroyed my attending any of the nocturnal happenings which may have been going on. One class was pretty bad as I really couldn't stand the teacher, who would just scrawl one prolly incorrect proof or poorly thought out example after the other on the board. It always seemed more or less the same to me somehow, so I couldn't help but think about the last time I was sitting in her class. It was as if I had woken up from some sort of a dream whenever I stepped into her class and she was continuing her lecture from just before I dozed off. Anyway, by hook or by crook (and with many clichés) I had managed to pass everything before the majors, so I wasn't too stressed about performing well on the last exams. I studied quite a bit for the majors, but mostly out of principle.

Amit and I had decided to go for a trip together after the end of all the majors. We had two goals; I wanted to relax and he wanted to see snow. This made us pretty flexible, but the first objective made the whole trip pretty poorly planned. I thought it would be cool to go pretty far since it would be my last trip before I toured stuff I knew with my Mom, but I didn't take into account the amount of time it would take to go from place to place. Also objective number 1 also made the amount of research that went into trains minimal, so it wasn't till the day of departure that we figured out what train we would be on. This made for several goodbyes to the same people, which is actually kind of awkward. At the very end after everything was decided Nitin invited me to a last treat where on Johannes's ingenious prompting I had two ice creams in a row. It was great to be together one last time with my best friends in one place before we had to separate. It drove the fact that I was leaving permanently home, though.

The first stop on Amit and my journey was a place called Varanasi. Varanasi is also known as Benares and is popularly known as one of the holiest cities in India. It lies on the Ganga (Ganges) and happens to be one of the dirtiest places I've been in. The tradition in Hinduism is to burn the bodies of the dead and then dump their ashes into a river. As the Ganga is a river who's source is in heaven being 'buried' in the Ganga is thought to be a pretty good thing. Our hotel was right next to one of the places where the funeral pyres are built. This troubled Amit once he found out about it. People who rent out their land to grieving families are said to be very polluting according to Hinduism. If you see one of their faces in the morning your day is bound to be bad they say. Because Amit had such an aversion to the burning grounds, we avoided them for the most parts.

Having Amit along made life much easier for me as a tourist. On the one hand I got no contact with the locals, on the other hand there were no difficulties with languages anymore. Amit spoke both Hindi and the local dialect so he could get reasonabler prices on most items. Also most of the local people who wanted to talk to me in Varanasi were just out to loot tourists, and so wouldn't have made too great of experiences. The one time I left Amit for two minutes to see a burning Ghat I was already latched on to by one of the tourist sharks. I was standing there, trying to be respectful while someone's loved one was being given last rites, and this dude appears out of nowhere like a vampire. He starts with the usual tourist questions, to get me into some sort of conversation that inevitably leads to some reason to give him money. I left without being friendly.

We met a Hungarian tourist named Zoltan in our hotel. I found his story interesting. Apparently he had developed a fascination for this musical instrument called the toubla. It consists of two drums which are played with only your hands and have a pretty big variety of sounds that come out of it. He had found some Hungarian musician who played said instrument in a band and after a long time accepted Zoltan as a student. Now after having studied the instrument for a while he decided to go to India for the dual purpose of seeing the land from which his instrument came and to attend some classical Indian music concerts. I was amazed that someone could become so enamored with the drums as an instrument, and impressed that he would go so far as to visit a foreign country for 2 or 3 months because of it. There seemed to be a bit of interest in Hinduism there too, but it seems it all grew out of his love for the instrument. Zoltan then accompanied us through Varanasi and it made the otherwise pretty unpleasant city worth visiting. Zoltan also made one surprising point about fireworks. I've always liked them and thought of them as a demonstration of how great people are. He on the other hand found them to epitomize pointlessness as they are expensive, and only worth seeing for some seconds before leaving just garbage and smoke behind which pollutes the world around us. I had never thought of it, Zoltan may have a point.

Most Indian cities have a popular drug of choice, which most middle aged men partake in. In Delhi it's chewing tobacco, but in Varanasi it's this thing called pan. Pan is essentially this leaf which changes your spit red after you chew it. Usually the leaf is wrapped around all this tasty stuff, occasionally with spices, occasionally with tobacco. I dunno if marijuana is put in it or not. Anyway, rumor has it that it is bad for your teeth, and people are certainly addicted to it. I was intrigued so I tried it. I had only a simple pan with tasty stuff but no other added things. It tastes like eating a potpourri box if they taste like they smell. The taste was imitated in some mouthfresheners that are served after meals, so by that time I had acquired a taste for it. Essentially you just chew till your mouth is full and then you spit. At first your spit isn't red, but after a your mouth is empty it becomes red. It was pleasant but not particularly exciting. I was later informed that there are pan shops where you can buy the finest pans for maybe 100 times what the sample I tried. I'm not going to indulge that far, though.

The next step in our journey was to go north into Nepal where we wanted to find snow. This was a bit problematic as crossing the Nepalese border requires a visa which is only buyable in US dollars (25 to be exact). This is an enormous sum of money, and I needed to find a place to change the money. After getting the moneys it was necessary to go to the border which we had to do in two steps. First by train and then by bus. We ended up arriving on the border at this village called Sonauli, whose only highlite is one honest shopkeeper and the border. The rest was surrounded by people trying to screw tourists. We got a night bus out of Sonauli, but it necessitated our waiting for quite a while in the middle of nowhere. We met a taylor there, whose little brother was aspiring to be a professional cricket player. We also met this guy from Ireland who was staying in Varanasi to learn toubla as well. His tourist visa had expired so he was traveling to Kathmandu (Nepal's capital) to renew his Indian tourist visa so he could continue his music studies. He was not nearly as friendly (or as not crazy seeming) as Zoltan, and it made me wonder why this particular instrument had captured the minds of two such different people from such different places.

The bus ride to Pokhara (Nepal's biggest tourist center) proved to be long and winding and unfortunately ended before dawn. Nights in Nepal are colder than those in Delhi. I did not have enough warm clothes, so I made a provisional jacket by wrapping my sleeping bag around me like a jacket and strapping it into place with my backpack. It was stylish and effective and thus equipped we found a hotel. It was tricky though, because here the official language was not Hindi, and most people didn't speak english.

The hotel owner was incredibly nice and took us to see the sites of Pokhara which boil down to a lake and the mountains around it. I had planned to buy a jacket from Nepal, since it would be colder in the north where we planned to find the snow. Unfortunately the jackets in the local markets were not only too short, but generally not very cool looking. When we looked in the tourist markets they had some of the cooler "traditional" looking tibetan jackets. It occurred to me then, though that I had not seen a single person wearing them. It seemed to me as if I could play make believe in a toy jacket made for such a purpose, or I could get something that is worn. To avoid living in a constructed world, I therefore ended up buying a ludicrously cheap North Face rip off as it was indeed the sort of thing I had seen Nepalis wearing.

The hotel had a cook named Suraj in it. Suraj works as a cook for tourist hotels and moves from season to season to different areas. At the moment it was Goa season, and he usually would be working in Goa, but for some circumstances that I don't really remember he was now in Nepal, for which it was off season due to the temperatures. He was a great cook and was very friendly with us. He also spoke excellent Hindi according to Amit, and it would have been cool to have stayed there longer, but the main objective of the trip, to see snow, had still not been achieved, so we had to leave after only one day in Pokhara.

My usual technique for traveling is to guestimate how long trips will take between places and then grab whatever mode of transportation works, after I've decided that I wanted to move on. This usually worked pretty well, in India, and allowed me to go on very flexible vacations, but this time it went severely wrong, as I had not adequately informed myself about the differences between Nepal and India. Nepal is basically entrenched in the Himalayas and so the reason that people come is for the beautiful nature. This lends itself to some awesome vistas, but unfortunately also made train travel impossible. People prolly didn't build trains as the mountains are pretty tricky to reconcile with tracks. Instead, roads were built on the mountainsides. This made bus travel the only means of transportation. The buses travel twice as slow as the estimate for my hypothetical trains that I had envisioned to use from one place to another. I discovered this on the day of our departure. I also found out that there were no buses that traveled north in such a way as to see snow and return to Delhi on time to pick up my Mom from the Airport. We then planned to go by a more southern route to Delhi which passed through a Wildlife preserve.

Unfortunately the bus ride made Amit sick so we had opted to get out halfway very close to Sonauli in the exceptionally unpleasant Butwal. Butwal prolly has the worst selection of hotels in Nepal. The best hotel was ridiculously overpriced, so we opted to find a different hotel. When we learned that all the other excuses for hotels were more expensive or about the same price we looked at the rooms of the hotel. They were so bad I decided to look at the marginally cheaper ones. They were in fact so bad that we returned for a third time to the best hotel which was bad by any normal persons standards. Apparently, Nepal is well known for prostitution for which the hotels in Butwal are generally used. Also it seems to be common knowledge that the laundry is not often washed in these hotels. I was so appalled at the whole situation that I didn't eat dinner, although I had already more or less skipped lunch and breakfast. Needless to say we left as soon as possible for the border and I reentered India only 3 or 4 days after having left. (Pretty anticlimactic.) However the bus rides back were incredibly beautiful.

After arriving in Sonauli essentially we found the fastest way to return to Delhi before my mother arrived. This involved first getting a bus to a place Gorakhpur and then a train from Gorakhpur to Delhi. In the process of traveling to Gorakhpur we also left lunch behind and so I arrived there unnaturally aggressive due to being in starvation mode for too long. We were then standing in a line to get tickets for a train which was leaving in half an hour. Of course, as every Indian bureaucratic procedure I'd encountered, it was horrendously slow. Miraculously we were approaching the end of the line just as our train was bound to arrive. Now, Indian lines are generally not lines they consist rather of a big amorphous mass of people around a ticket counter window through which you need to force your way to the front. This sucks especially if you haven't dealt with it before.

This line, however was a proper line like you see pretty much anywhere. Out of right, however this young guy appeared and tried to slide his way into the front of the line. People told him not to and asked him nicely and less nicely to leave, but he would just smirk snidely at them and then turn back to his creeping to the ticket counter. I was furious and all the pent up aggression of having been cut in line for the last 5 months and the lack of food made something snap in brain and just as he forced his arm into the window of the ticket counter, I forcibly dragged him back out of the line. He was surprised and asked me "what?" in Hindi. I had lost it at that point and just told him in English to get to the back of the line, and pushed him back for added emphasis. He ended up hovering around the beginning of the line a bit prolly to provoke something similarly ridiculous from me, but eventually he disappeared somewhere into the crowd. I was a bit upset but didn't dwell on it as it had become necessary to hurry to our own train once we got to the ticket counter who told us to go to some other counter as our train was waiting on the platform.

We delayed a bit at the other counter but eventually decided to bribe the conductor of the train rather than wasting our time. The conductor told us it would cost 1000 rupees to get to Delhi and he would accept whatever we might give for himself. So the assumption was that it would cost 1200 rupees, which is quite a load of money. He didn't make out the ticket immediately, though, so we had some time to scheme while crammed in between luggage and people with tickets. I had plenty of time to fume, as I didn't want to pay so much to return. I finally calmed down after Amit magicked a vegetarian burger off of a vendor. Once I had exited starvation mode, I was able to rationalize the fiasco of having to leave Nepal in a a rush as well as having to overpay the conductor. Amit, however had used his time to scheme instead of fume and so he quickly suggested some alternatives. My original thought had been that it was easily possible to evade the conductor by simply leaving at one of the next stops and then finding a new train going in the right direction, but I felt it would be unfair to betray the trust of the conductor. People in India have a pretty cool tendency to trust strangers and so rickshaw drivers take you places before getting paid, people don't pick your pockets, and sometimes people will tell you to come back later for your change (which they give to you even if you come back much later). This is pretty awesome and in this case the conductor let us on the train without a ticket because he trusted us to pay the ticket when he finally returned. So one option was immediately not cool.

Amit's alternative however was good. He suggested that we tell the conductor that we'd prefer to get out in Kanpur, which was about halfway to Delhi. In Kanpur then we could change trains and board a train on which one of Amit's friends was head conductor. This would give us a relatively free alternative to arrive in Delhi with a bed. The only downside was that we had to get out in Kanpur and wait on the station. When the conductor finally arrived Amit asked what the price of a ticket to Kanpur was, and got the response that it wasn't possible to make an official ticket to get to Kanpur. Amit then asked whether it would be possible to get an unofficial ticket and so then the conductor told him that he should pay him when he left the car so that it wasn't as obvious that he was accepting bribes. (The conversation took place in Hindi so I have no clue what exactly was said.) Anyway, Amit and I then had to decide what would be a reasonable amount as a bribe. I suggested 400 rupees which apparently is a good amount. (200 per head is normal.) Amit then left the wagon after the conductor had moved to the transition between cars, and paid him and we were golden. I don't approve of bribing conductors on principle, but the sangfroid with which Amit perpetrated it without ever having done it before was impressive.

Kanpur's train station is a sketchy place and we arrived very late considering that we had been doing exhausting things all day. We got out around 11 and waited for the train which should arrive around midnight or 1. The train in question, however was notorious for being late, and this time was no exception. We had to wait till 2:30 or 3 till the train finally arrived. While we were waiting it was necessary for Amit to buy a station pass for us as we weren't allowed on the platforms if we didn't possess a ticket. (Apparently the penalty would have been an enormous fine which would have defeated the purpose of changing trains in the first place.) We managed to find Amit's friend's father immediately by asking another conductor, and so we quickly got on board, and without any question as to why we needed his help we where set. Our benevolent host did not have any free beds in his wagons but the man we asked first offered us the free beds in his wagon without hesitation. We then talked a bit with the our host who also provided us with tea, and by we, I mean Amit in Hindi, before we finally went to bed.

We got off the train in Delhi one day before Mom was supposed to arrive. She was coming in at a ludicrously early hour. Contrary to the debacle involving Nepal, I had planned ahead for my Mom's trip and booked all the important trains ahead of time. The planning did not include hotels as I was certain we could deal with that on the spot and I did not know how reserving hotels in India worked. As my master plan involved having mom stay the first night in Delhi, I needed to organize a room for her. Johannes had used the local guest house to provide a room for his girlfriend when she arrived, so I figured I'd be able to do the same for my mom. Well, it was Sunday on the given day before Mom arrived, but I still wanted to make sure there would be a room available. I therefore searched out the headquarters of the guest housing and I found someone who seemed to be in charge of doling out rooms. I asked him about prospects for a room for the next day, and he told me I'd need to get a signature from the Dean of Students on a particular form which he gave me, and then he told me he might be able to get me something, although there was nothing at the moment. Well, as the last time an Indian had told me not to worry about something it all worked out, I followed the same principle, and took the form. Now all I needed to do was get a signature the next day when the Dean of Students was around and I would have my room.

I arrived early at the airport because Delhi is a bit of an overwhelming place when to come to for the first time. As I merrily waltzed to the door to the terminal I was greeted by a guard carrying an automatic weapon. Despite his poor english I understood quite quickly that no non ticket carrying people would be allowed in. (The tremendous crowd of people outside waiting also tipped me off.) Now, it is a good rule of thumb not to argue with people toting machine guns, so I resolved to wait at a different entrance far from the crowds. Mom's plane arrived, but her luggage came off the plane at the very end of the unloading period so I was worried the whole time that she had left the terminal through the main door, and I had missed her. However, she did eventually come, but the adequately armed guard still refused to let me enter the terminal and help her change money despite the fact that she clearly recognized me.

When we got back to IIT I showed her various ordinary campus things, which I figured might interest her as well as took her to collect the signature for her housing. At some point I took her to a convenient place to check email, and then I nonchalantly resolved to get the gentleman from the previous evening to get me a room. She agreed to do various internetish things while I went to take care of the simple situation. Well, when I returned to the headquarters of the housing people, I was unpleasantly surprised by finding not one benevolent gentleman from the day before, but rather three or four hostile bureaucratic types from the day itself. I went to an old man with a rather sinister mustache who seemed to be in charge of everything and handed him my impeccably signed form. He glanced at the dates and briskly informed me that there was nothing available and nothing he could do for me. I was momentarily off balance, and appalled at the idea that the room that I had quite confidently assured my mother would be there for her, might in fact be somewhere entirely different. I thought for a moment and remembered what someone had told me a while back about tourist prices and the like. If you argue long enough people will give in, but if you just accept what they say they will be only too happy to give you whatever garbage you are willing take. In this case the garbage was nothing. So I resolved to just stand around and argue with these people till something materialized. I tried unsuccessfully to talk to the evil looking boss but he was no less abrupt. The other office people also took notice of me and glanced at my paper and assured me that nothing could be done, although one of them showed the paper again to the boss. He seemed to realize I wouldn't leave so he told me to go to this other guy (Mr. Sharma) in one of the hosels (Arawali hostel) who was in charge of a different branch of guest housing.

Mr. Sharma was incredibly nice on the other hand, but he informed me that I had the wrong form. I would need to get a much simpler one with the same signature on it, otherwise, he couldn't help me. I was on a mission at this point and I was not too thrilled with the prospect of unearthing the Dean of Students again, so I applied the same technique of arguing. I had to make the point that he wouldn't disallow me getting housing in a more modest location (the first form was for the best the campus had to offer) after already giving me permission once. Then I had to make the argument that he would be very difficult to find. One phone call by Mr. Sharma to the Dean later, it was confirmed that I could have the room without going on another expedition to find the Dean. Unfortunately my new room would allegedly not have any bedding, but I figured I could deal with that drawing on student's bedding in my hostel.

Ordinarily I would just have my mother sleep in my hostel, but Kumaon, like all other boys hostels would not allow any women to sleep there (or generally even enter) because of the constant danger that perhaps some sort of intercourse might occur. Fortunately the New Vindhyachal Appartments as the modest housing was called did manage to dig up some bedding for my mother, so the first night ended up being pretty comfortable doing justice to the odyssey that was required to make it possible.

The next morning as we were going to return the key of the room we encountered a hoard of dogs angrily barking at extremely screwed white dog. I was feeling bad for the one dog and generally looking at the various dogs when I noticed an oddly fat brown dog which was walking just several steps in front of us. After a moment I realized it was a monkey, which is actually pretty odd for campus. There are black-faced white monkeys with long tails called Langurs, which are kept on campus to scare off the red faced brown ones. There are also glass shards placed on the campus walls to keep monkeys out. The fact that a brown monkey had made it on campus anyway, was surprising, as well as the fact that the dogs ignored him. (Apparently 4 dogs vs one monkey ends up in favor of the primate.) Anyway, I was so shocked that I stared at the monkey who had stopped and turned around. Now, these brown monkeys are incredibly mean and annoying animals, in that they destroy all kinds of things to get food, learn how to deal with most human things, and attack people if they look the monkeys in the eyes. While my brain was trying to reconcile the monkey's current location inside campus walls with my understanding of monkey policy, I was blankly staring directly into its eyes. The monkey then reacted as I was told monkeys do and bared his teeth and came at me in a monkeyish attack. I didn't particularly approve of the idea of getting mauled by a monkey and contracted aids or something next to my Mom, so I gathered my monkey dueling knowledge that I had acquired earlier. Apparently, the way to defeat a monkey is not to throw things at them because they can dodge very well, but rather a monkey can be beaten into submission with a stick. I had no stick on me, so instead I kicked at the monkey with my sneaker clad foot. He backed off but I didn't take my eyes off him because I was worried about his next move. He got up on his hind legs, bit his arm and came at me again. I kicked out again and he backed off for a second time, but he still wasn't convinced that he couldn't take me. There were no sticks obviously available, so I then took my backpack, as I figured it would seem adequately stickish when swung and on his third charge swung it at him. Monkeys know about human's superiority involving sticks, so my adversary got the idea and sat himself down some distance away from me and let us pass. Needless to say, I felt pretty pumped for the rest of the day after having emerged victorious.

While still in Delhi, I took my mom to the famous SN (Sarojini Nagar) cloth market. It was hectic as usual, and served to give an impression of what markets are like in India. On the way I also finally perfected my auto-rickshaw fare estimation method. Essentially all that is necessary is one distance for which the correct price is known and a map. Every other distance is measured in fractions of the known distance and the price is the same fraction of the known price. This was the first time for a long time that I had to use the autos since I had switched over to buses since I had figured out which ones to take. I was surprised by my often unreasonably obsessive need to get what I surmised were the correct prices. I was a bit overboard in haggling for the rest of our journeys, through India.

When we finally left Delhi on the train it was interest to note that now that I was accompanied by Mom I was less approached by random guys who wanted to engage in small talk. Mom also was hardly approached, even in the trains where it is usually typical to waste the time on long trips with longer delays with talking to random strangers. It was prolly because my mom is a women and randomly approaching them is less accepted. Also I think during my journeys I was seen as her guardian or keeper, and so got a different kind of treatment than on my other travels. The impression of my keeperhood would make sense as often I would walk ahead of Mom through crowded streets where there wasn't enough room to go side by side. I also generally did all the talking to local people as I had thought I knew how to talk to them, as well as I would have to deal with all the unpleasantness such as bargaining. In addition to this, I kept all the smaller bills in my more accessible wallet, whereas Mom had all the more valuable stuff in less readily available pockets, so I was always the one who paid for everything.

Our first stop after Delhi was Orchha, which I had already visited. It was also very nice the second time around. The next planned stop was Amit's house in Aligarh for which I had no train ticket for. Since my phone had stopped working properly after entering Nepal, I had to borrow other people's phones to make a plan with how to meet Amit. Unfortunately, there were no trains to Aligarh from Jhansi, (the only train station near Orchha) so we needed to take a train to Agra and find a bus from there. Agra is an incredibly horrible place, which has become a nightmarish den of tourist sharks due to the presence of the Taj Mahal. The best way to lose a ton of money is to go there and trust anyone. We therefore went straight to the nearest prepaid auto stand and had ourselves driven to the bus station that had buses that go to Aligarh. Unfortunately our train was incredibly late, and so we arrived in Aligarh around midnight.

I could vaguely remember the way to Amit's house from the train station though since I had walked from there on my last visit. I resolved to do it again in the dark with my mother as I didn't have a phone, and I figured the crime rate was too low to be worried. The path is actually very simple and I quickly found a critical junction where I was certain we had to turn left off of the main road we had been on and walk a little bit down what was a market by day before turning right at a peculiar curb which would lead us directly to Amit's house. I considered the rode that should be a market during the day and then figured it was the right one. As I started down the road, however, an Indian shopkeeper who happened to selling something at that time to a crowd of other late-night wanderers shouted to us. As he sounded pretty excited I stopped at went to him as he may have had something important to say. He did not speak much English so I tried to communicate to him in my terrible Hindi. According to him there was a dead body in the street somehow and I was quite confused as to how or why. He and the other peoples in the street were adamant that we not continue on our way. Quite quickly they woke up a slimy lawyer type who happened to speak English and lived at the junction of roads.

This man then enquired as to why we were there and what we were looking for. I explained that I was going to my friend's house. After I had established that it was indeed a friend and not some sort of sketchy personage, the lawyer enquired as to the address of my friend's house. He was obviously unimpressed with my rationality when I told him I did not know it. Eventually he ended up calling Amit who was awake and nervous I would get lost. He happened in his house right were I would have ended up walking if I hadn't been detained by a mob of helpful locals. Despite being furious at having my arrival in the middle of the night without help thwarted, I thanked the various mob members for helping us out, because I think they did the right thing. I would have preferred to have been left to my own devices, but, despite that they had no idea who I was, these guys saw a situation in which they thought help was needed and went out of there way to provide it. Such a willingness to help and attempts to do so are awesome in my opinion and deserve thanks, even if they don't always prove helpful.

Once at Amit's house, we were of course served as is customary for guests. The food was excellent as usual, and my mom and his mother seemed to hit it off well. Amit's mom and sister took the opportunity to let my mom try the various Indian outfits, which included a Sari and this more ceremonial outfit called a Lungi. They also insisted on getting bangles for my mom. Bangles are circular bracelets worn by married women so that their husbands have longer lives. They are in fact vestigial chains from a slightly less liberal time. Apparently recently bangles weren't only worn on the arms, but on the feet and the necks as well. The bangles were made of heavy silver and so obviously represented chains. Anyway, nowadays bangles are thought of simply as jewelry without any sinister implications which have the added bonus of increasing the life of the husband. Amit's mother and sister also insisted on providing my mom with a bindi (one of those stereotypical red dots in the middle of the forehead). I was happy to watch, and happier that no one was trying to fit me out with a Kurta and a Dhoti.

We of course took my mom to the various things to see in Aligarh, one being the AMU and another being a temple. The temple was a little ways off from Amit's house, but we had eaten so much that walking seemed like a good idea. The temple was equipped with a musician and a stereo system, which was set to too loud. The temple itself was nice, though. On the return journey to Amit's house we encountered a Maruti van, which was hanging with the back left wheel off the side of the road over a huge ditch. Apparently the differential in the car was poor, so only the airborne wheel was spinning. Happy to find a situation which I understood and knew how to help I decided to help push the van (it was a pretty small one by European standards) back on the road. Amit and I helped the one guy who was standing a bit cluelessly next to the car push it back on the road. The whole incident prolly only took less than two minutes and we immediately left the scene afterwards, but I was pumped.

The time with Amit's family was very peaceful and beautiful so that when we returned to the busy roads of Delhi for a couple of hours en route to Jodhpur it was like descending back into hell. We killed some hours tourist watching at the Red Fort (Lal Qila) before boarding the reserved train to Jodhpur.

Nitin found us easily and we were once again buried in a pile of delicious food. It is customary to serve the guest of the house till they have finished eating before the people in the house get to eat. Nitin was not used to this role and so instead of paying attention to how full our bowls were he would talk with us. Occasionally he would remember his hostish duties he would offer to refill one of my dishes. It was not as traditional as the red carpet treatment in Amit's house, but it made me feel a little more at home, than the more formal serving etiquette.

We went to see a beautiful park filled with Langurs and some archeological sites for which Jodhpur is not famous for. We also went to a temple where Mom and I were given Prashad (holy food) and some sort of holy cloth on the whim of one of the priests there. I was nonplussed at the gift, the cloth portion of which was wrapped around my head as a turban and given to my mom as a shawl, so I accepted and looked at the various secret sacred trees that he deigned to show us.

When we returned to Nitin's house we were encountered by a young boy and his mother. The young boy was named Himanshu (means "piece of ice" or "moon"). His mother wished him to try his English on me. He was a bit nervous at first but ended up talking quite a great deal. He seemed to be pretty excited about American movies and that was the first common ground we found. Himanshu had indeed seen a ton of movies. Just as I suspected we had run out of conversation material he then invited us to come to his house, which was just down the street. Nitin accompanied us to help us make a more graceful exit I suspect. Himanshu lives with his mother and sister, but their father died a while ago. They were relatively poor but his mother seemed to be have been able to keep them above water till now. (How they will pay for the daughter's dowry I have no idea.) Himanshu claims to want to be a terrorist when he grows up. I guessed he said that because he wanted to provoke a response, so I didn't make a big deal about it. It seems, though, as if he doesn't really know what it means. He finds guns to be cool, as is pretty typical for kids around his age, and he watches a ton of violent movies. I think he imagines that a terrorist is like a police officer but without being hampered by technicalities that prevent him from doing the right thing. Sort of a lone ranger sort of thing. In any case, he was not very negatively inclined towards the US as it was the unending source of amazing movies and apparently of American watches. (I don't know any famous American watch brands off the top of my head. Perhaps Timex?) He then seemed very interested in giving me something. At first he wanted to give me a beautiful and very large deepak (mustard oil lamp) which was hanging from the ceiling, but I didn't want to steal stuff from his house. I took him up on his second offer of a battery rigged to an LED which changed colors so that he wouldn't offer me something else. His sister was studying for her midterms in the final year of high school so she could go to a good college in Electrical Engineering. She barely spoke any English, but it seems that she was studying out of interest and not for typical reasons of money. I tried to communicate my approval of her area of study, and we left so as not to disturb them further.

Nitin showed us the marriage video of his older brother, which was pretty interesting. As I had not been able to attend an actual marriage this was the best window into the tradition as I would get. It is said that everyone enjoys Indian marriages except the bride and the groom. It also seemed that way as everyone was dancing and having fun except for the bride, who were slightly scared looking and the like. An interesting custom at the end of the marriage is that the bride and her family should cry as the bride leaves home quasi forever. The bride is essentially marked as the property of the man by the addition of a bindi and some red paint on her forehead just in her hair, which she renews whenever it starts fading for the rest of her life. So essentially the red paint in her hair is like a wedding ring. The man doesn't need to wear anything to symbolize his responsibilities or whatever to the woman. The other telltale sign of married women is their wearing of bangles.

Nitin's mother also dressed my mom in a Sari, as well as gave her some bangles of her own. The bangles she had were of Rajasthani (the state Jodhpur is in) style and were much thicker than the ones that Amit's mom gave my Mother. They barely fit over Mom's hands and she had to relax while Nitin's mom applied an excessive amount of force to get them on her arms. Prolly my mom now has enough bangles that my dad will never die.

When we left Jodhpur we went to Udaipur, which was also in Rajasthan, and so famous for its castles and lakes. The coolest thing I saw there, though, were elephants. I saw three, my first and only three during my stay in India. As camels are bigger than I expected them, elephants are smaller. Essentially they are similar size as camels, although perhaps slightly taller. They are very broad, and they pretty much don't have a neck. Still their feet can't be much bigger in diameter than the length of my foot. About one or two people fit on on an elephants back and that's about it. I saw one on two occasions walking along a busy street, once across the a lake and once just on the other side of the street. Contrary to my expectations the elephants move gracefully and deliberately despite their huge size. They seem to be much more graceful than camels in any case. I saw a third one from very close. It could be be hidden behind a large tree, and happened to be chilling next to such a large tree with an elderly bearded Sadhu sitting on its back. I did not have the courage to ask him why he happened to have an elephant or any other of the intriguing questions which pop into my mind. I did manage to work up the nerve to take a picture of the pair. It made coming to Udaipur worthwhile even if there had been nothing else to see there.

The return journey required some clever haggling tricks to get to the train station at a reasonable price, but the return to Delhi was relatively uneventful. In Delhi, fresh off of the train station I met two German tourists who had just gotten off of the plane and were looking for a bus to Agra. I would have liked to tell them to relax and get some bearings before rushing off into tourist hell, but they were in a hurry and only wanted my expertise in getting the first bus to Agra. I did so but not without second thoughts. Mom and I then went to the beautiful Humayun's tomb which is only slightly less beautiful then the Taj Mahal, while being many times cheaper and many more times more peaceful. It is located right next to the Nuzamuddin train station which happened to be the station we arrived on. After we finished seeing the tomb and had collected the change the cashier promised to give me when we entered, we returned to IIT again to have the famous butter chicken (Murg Makhani) which was only our second or third meat dish since arriving in India. (Nitin had provided the previous one.) Butter chicken is prolly the most popular meat dish in India, and so I figured despite my mother's vegetable addict tendencies I had to introduce her to it. It was a hit as can only be expected from such a dish.

Again I had to organize a room for my mom to stay that night. This time I didn't feel like embarking on a new crusade to the various hegemons of the different hotels. Instead I asked the warden of my hostel, who had been so kind as to offer me assistance as I was leaving and not in need of it a little more than a week ago. At first he only half heartedly went about suggesting useless alternatives, but soon after he quickly mobilized his resources and magicked together two nights in the appropriate hotels and for that particular night he got Mom a spot in Himadri, the local girls hostel. Luckily for me there was an open room on the second floor of the hostel, but the mattress for the beds was on the first floor in the common room. This meant that someone would have to abet the guard to lug the mattress up a floor so that my mother would have something to sleep on. The obvious colugger was clearly me, so I gained entrance to Himadri to make sure Mom's room was appropriately outfitted. The girls' hostel was much cleaner than the boys hostel, and more modern. (There are only two girls' hostels as opposed to 9 boys' hostels, which might explain the added care.) The rooms however were just as dirty, but they didn't have an annoying dividing wall between the two portions of the room. Other than that I didn't see that much scandalous stuff.

When I asked the warden to help me find a room for Mom, he invited me to wait in his home while he made some telephone calls. This was my second visit to his house, which is part of the hostel. The first time was at the very beginning of the semester when I was checking in and needed to borrow his internet connection. The first day his apartment seemed pretty crummy to me. Especially by western his standards, his apartment wasn't the greatest. Curiously enough, the second time I entered his abode, it was as if transformed into a quite nice accommodation. All the other hostels and houses and hotels I had seen brought a huge change in my expectations out of a house. The change was pretty blatant to me when I finally saw his home again.

The last two days were spent Christmas shopping. (I was already almost finished by some hardcore haggling in Udaipur for shawls, so I was not too pleased.) We went to this place called Palika bazaar, which is an underground market underneath Connaught Place. It was a mess. You could not walk more than two steps without some skumbag calling to you to look at this or to buy that. It was also full of people looking at stuff. It was the loudest and seediest market I had seen up to that point. We left without buying anything as it was just to ridiculous. We ended up taking the metro to the Jama Masjid instead. Jama Masjid is the biggest mosque in Delhi, and was built by Shah Jahan, who is best known for his construction of the Taj Mahal. It was my first entry into a mosque and I was unprepared for what I saw inside. Essentially and wholly contrary to my expectations, there was nothing inside, just some carpets to sit on and some niches in which perhaps people sat. It was not even really a building in a normal sense, more like one wall and a roof supported by pillars. I thought there would be some sort of altar or something, but there wasn't. There was only this gate/pulpitish thing on the way in, which may have served as a place for an imam to do his thing. I resolved to inform myself more about this sort of thing as clearly I have no idea.

The last day before leaving I and my mom went one last time to SN market to buy some more last minute present type things. It was incredibly peaceful after Palika Bazaar and all the various tourist markets I had been on. We were blown away by how relatively nice it was despite how crazy it had seemed the first time we had been there. It was here that I made one more discovery. I spoke to the people in Hindi for various prices and other questions and low and behold, they without batting an eye answered in Hindi, and generally were delighted to deal with me. Also on the previous day I had found an auto driver who spoke so little english I had to direct him almost purely in Hindi to my destination. The nasty haggling attitude had disappeared and we could reasonably arrive to a decent price and get on with our lives. Unfortunately for me the Hindi number system is still beyond me and many other words are pretty far over my head so I did not understand the responses of the various SN market shopkeepers, but a lightbulb finally appeared over my head. I realized that all this time when I had been feeling like a foreigner, it wasn't my skin color or the like that locked me out of society, but rather my language that kept me in my role. I'm convinced that if I could speak Hindi I would quickly be accepted by the majority of the people I encountered as someone who could be dealt with as a member of the society and not as an outlandish stranger loaded with cash for the taking. By using English constantly I forced people to come to me on my terms and was not joining into their culture. I don't doubt that to this made the difference more than anything else. Using the language is the key to entering the culture and a huge step in understanding the thinking of the people. Surely I would not be treated as an Indian, but at least I would become in their eyes someone who belonged there.

Amit showed up on the last day I was there and shared dinner with us one last time before I was leaving India for good. He was also kind enough to organize a taxi for us on the next day, which saved me a ton of trouble and haggling that I was only too happy to avoid. It was tough saying goodbye, but I was also happy to return to my family in Germany.

So, that was India. I've spent a large portion of my free time here in Germany writing all this stuff up (as you may have surmised by the obscene length of my letter) so that I will have it later. It seems as if it takes as much time to document something as is needed to actually do it. The next step from here after New Years is to go to Hong Kong, which I'm psyched about, but nervous as well. I'm sure I'll learn a lot, and surely it will be as interesting and eye opening as India. India was a complicated place and I'm glad to have been there, but I'm also glad to be moving on. The worst thing about going is leaving all the good friends I found and made behind.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

More Pictures!

This is Kumaon's rival hostel Vindhyachal displaying a typical Indian building style.
Me and Akleesh.  He is a gardener at IIT.  He's about my age and as had a really tough life.  He's a good guy, will be married sometime this Spring I think.

Friday, January 30, 2009

Some Pictures

Here I am with another exchange student and a Doctor from some obscure town visiting the best monument in Delhi (Humayun's Tomb).

Here is a close up of said tomb.
The statues behind me are huge. They're effigies of Ram's enemies for Dusshera. Fortunately they will be burned to the ground at dusk. (They also happen to be filled with fireworks.)

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

More content from a while ago.

One of the biggest Hindu Holidays is the festival of lights (Diwali or Deepawali depending on who you talk to.). It commemorates the return of Ram (the ideal man and incarnation of Vishnu) to his home after he and the monkey god Hanuman killed the evil (or not so evil according to your sources), ten-headed, Sri Lankan wizard dude Ravana who had stolen Sita (Ram's wife). Any way there is a smaller festival a week or two before Diwali, which commemorates the killing of Ravana called Dusshera. This is pretty cool as in many places in India huge effigies of Ravana and his two lieutenants (who I believe are also his brothers) are built and subsequently burnt to the ground. This was also done on my campus which I of course attended as the effigies were maybe 40 feet tall or so. The thing I didn't realize at the time was that it was also considered to be a good idea to stuff the chest of the effigies with fireworks. This gave the burning an added dimension of craziness. Fortunately they were only the kind of explosives that make loud noises without flying around. It seemed pretty reckless but it ensured that everyone had a blast on Dusshera.

It has pretty much not rained since the Rendezvous event (So late September or so). This is easy to monitor as there was an asphalt painting competition at Rendezvous where they painted pictures with chalk on the street to the main building. They still haven't been washed away, so it's possible to infer that it doesn't rain too much during the nights, and during the days I haven't seen any rain. Only once there was a very short shower. My mom noticed all the dust that is now everywhere which sort of crept onto everything without my noticing. Prolly this is also a symptom of the lack of rain. This hasn't bothered me too much as I've gradually become used to the amount of airborne dirt, but my mom was pretty shocked when she encountered it. Also when we finally washed my clothes with real washing machines in Germany there was a layer of dirt with every load of laundry and every time I washed things on my own in Indian machines the water became a distinctly darker color regardless of how often I washed them.

The european student all complained of the food a bit and got sick of rice because it was with every meal. I find that eating Indian food is awesome, and I don't dislike the food, but I also miss western food, in particular bread, for which there is no suitable analog. The european students then often organized themselves around food related events. Particularly this one French couple had an apartment off campus where we went to have something unIndian for a change. Usually it was crêpes or something along those lines. We also had something that was supposed to be Mouse au chocolat, which contained raw eggs, but was very good. I also tried eating at a McDonalds, which I generally don't do at home for the weirdness of it. The burgers there consist of either these vegetarian potato based burgers or of chicken patties. The best that they have to offer is a Chicken Maharaja Burger which is very well spiced and reasonably filling for a chicken dish. The Mcdonalds generally have a big sign near the counter saying that they do not serve beef products there to avoid any social uproar.

Right before Diwali I went traveling to the south before returning North to Aligarh to my friend Amit's house. We briefly checked out a little known city with ancient forts called Orchha. It is near the somewhat uglier train hub called Jhansi, and has beautiful palaces and temples belonging to one despot or the other a little while back. My travel companions consisted of an Austrian, a German, and a Swiss guy so we were all able to speak German together. This was cool as it made discussing our intentions in front of sales people possible and gave us an added edge of privacy on our journey. It also led to the chance encounter with a tourist from Lichtenstein, who also happened to speak German. Tourist's often have interesting stories behind why they came to a given place. I liked this guy's story because of how extreme it was. Essentially he worked as an mechanic in one of the smallest countries in the world and then decided to just quit his job and see the world, and so he's been traveling for maybe six months or so, I can't remember the details. The idea of just getting up and leaving has always been cool to me, and the fact that he just went was cool to me. Of course it's not all as cool as it sounds since his sister had already done something similar. Also my one problem with his story was he did not really understand the places he went to, rather he was more about sight-seeing it seemed. The thing that hinted toward this was that he was completely oblivious to the fact that Diwali was approaching, which is hard to imagine as any Indian you would have talked to would prolly have mentioned it, and was preparing for it. Be that as it may, Orchha was a beautiful and quiet place unlike many of the tourist traps in India such as our next destination; Kajuraho.

Kajuraho is a town that has no train connections to the outside world but is still heavily visited by tourists because it is the site of some temples which have some pretty explicit sculptures of people having sex. I was struck down with a migraine the morning of our arrival so I missed the viewing of the main group of temples. I did manage to see some of the other temples which also had strangely globularly breasted women in suggestive poses. The temples were very beautiful, but it was hard to unite the possibly sexually freed temples with the somewhat more repressed modern India of today. It's also unclear who built them and why. Despite the beauty of the temples, though, I personally did not enjoy Kajuraho because of the surrounding village. It was similar to my experiences in Jaisalmer in that it seemed to exist solely as a showroom of useless junk to sell to tourists. It was almost impossible to avoid young kids and young adults who were trying to be friendly in order to sell something or get money as tourguides or something. Apparently the trick to getting around these people is to be very impolite and just ignoring them completely. Unfortunately my companions weren't cold enough to complete not talk with them, which led to us leading an army of people in hopes of money around with us. Despite the beauty of the temples, I would not recommend going there.

I then left my German speaking friends behind (they were going to go to some wildlife preserves) and went to Delhi in a rush to meet Amit so I could accompany him home for Diwali. Amit lives in a city called Aligarh, which is cool for several reasons. I personally liked it as it had no tourist attractions. This meant there were no tourists, and none of the tourist sharks who come along with them. This also meant that very few people spoke English, but that wasn't so bad. Aligarh is an industrial city famous for making locks. It also is split into to sides a Hindu and an Muslim population, which do not really mix. There is a huge market at the intersection of the two parts of the city, the muslim side is not as bright and gaudy as the Hindu side. Sometimes that particular area is the site of riots so that there are soldiers there to ensure the peace is kept. Aligarh is also home to the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU) in which Amit got his Undergrad degrees. (He is now working on his Masters.) Accompanied by Amit then, I was able to just observe normal people doing what they generally do.

He also took me to his home which was a on top of his landlord's home. He had two patios (huge balconies), one on in front of his home and one on it's roof. Indian homes, or at least those in Aligarh, are generally built from bricks and concrete. Essentially the walls are made of brick which are sandwiched between two enormous plates of concrete which compose the roof and the floor. This is really cool as it makes spilling water on the floor not a big deal at all. In fact there were no sinks in the house, there were only two places (one in the kitchen and one on the front patio) where there were spigots and the water was allowed to fall on the floor, and then run along the floor to the outlets that lined the house to pour into the streets. I thought it was pretty cool, especially as his mother didn't use a sink in the kitchen, although that isn't typical in India. The house was incredibly clean, and everything had a place and a function. It was really nice to see something that really worked well for a change. The showers consisted of a bucket with a mug, but that actually was pretty nice, especially because his mother boiled water in the morning for me so that I could shower at a decent temperature for a change. (When I returned to Delhi I also quickly procured a bucket and a mug to take advantage of hot water spigots at IIT.) The toilet was Indian, which I had gotten used to, and almost prefer, by that time. The flushing consisted of just pouring a bucket of water into the toilet, which was pretty simple, and kind of cool since I never understood what all was necessary to flush a toilet before.

Amit's mother was an amazing cook, and in keeping with the traditions I as a guest was served. Typically the women eat after the men have eaten enough, so I was forced to eat with Amit, while his beautiful sister kept bringing refilling my various dishes with whatever had been finished. It was pretty tough to eat all the good food and when I was full his sister would not ask me if I wanted more but instead would ask very sweetly to please have some more of this or that. It was so bad that I was half to three quarters full when the next meal started, but I persevered (the food was too good not to) and had extra helpings at every meal.

I took part in the family Pooja (Hindu prayer) for Diwali, which essentially consisted of chanting some mantras and stuff while waving a plate full of deepaks (clay bowls filled with mustard oil, with a wick which is lit like a candle) in front of some idols. There was also an interesting portion in the Pooja when the traditional greeting of the parents is done. It consists of touching the feet of the elder people in your family and then bringing your hand to your chest and stuff. It went up the family by age, and the Amit's mother did it to his father, but he wasn't required to do it to her. I thought it was worth noting that a hierarchy is built into the greeting of family and into the prayer itself. Traditionally younger siblings don't call their older brothers or sisters in families, but by a title that means older brother or sister.

Later that night we lit deepaks and lined them all around the roof and front patio and Amit's sister made a Rangoli in front of the house. (Rangolis are temporary floor pictures usually made with flowers or colored dust. Basically it's just spread on the ground in a pattern that often has a concentric scheme. It's very pretty. Then there were fireworks all around, although less spectacular than previous years, I'm told. It was all in all pretty dangerous I suspect as they were just normal people shooting them off, but it was cool that a large portion of the city was celebrating. The Muslim part of town, however, had only very few fireworks above it.

When I returned from Diwali Johannes (the German dude) and I went to the nearby Jawarhallal Nehru University (JNU) to see what it was like. JNU is a more humanities oriented school very near to us. (It was in fact just across the large street which borders our campus wall, which I had only realized at that point.) We walked onto campus and had the plan to find a mess in one of the hostels and to eat there, as it would facilitate the meeting of JNUites. The mess food in JNU is comparable to ours, but lacks the variety of roti (breadish things) and prolly is just as monotonous. We met one of the grad students who was happy to show us around, he didn't speak the greatest english, but was the second best of our random sampling (the sample size consisted of four and was chosen based off of who was sitting next to me in the mess and of the student who directed us to the mess in the first place). The student was kind enough to show us his room and explained the general situation on campus. Apparently JNU students are mostly grad students, who aren't subjected to the same strict rules that apply to IIT. Unfortunately they need to supply their own internet connections, but on the upside girls are allowed to enter boys hostels as they please whenever they wish. (The other way around is not permitted, but the hostels are generally not incredibly far apart either as they are at IIT.) The students seem to be more active as far as clubs, parties, shows and other fun stuff are concerned, but there is also a huge amount of politics on campus. (Politics seems to involve having annoying people asking you to support them in causes.) Campus was also generally prettier, newer, and cleaner than at IIT. In general it seemed like a nice place. I figured I'd check it out later in the semester but that never ended up happening.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Piece of News: January 9, 2008

So, I'm in Germany now as I'm writing this, perhaps I'll be in Hong Kong before I mail it though. I have just a couple of remarks to summarize. A while back I discovered that there are two branches of Indian cuisine. The one is based off of Hindu recipes and they are all traditionally vegetarian. Most of them are excellent and generally consist of a sauce (or gravy) and some number of vegetables inside, as well as occasionally this type of somewhat solid yogurt cheese hybrid called paneer. The other branch is derived from food types brought to India by the Mughals when they took control of the land back in the day before the British. (Mughals were the Muslim rulers who took over India and prolly are serve as the origin of the word 'mogul'.) The Mughals being Muslims have nothing against eating meat apart from pigs. The dishes officially taken from them are of course then meat dishes. As far as I can tell though, the only type of meat dishes that survived are the ones consisting only of meat with or without some sauce. So essentially meat in the absence of any vegetable. My guess (and the explanation given to me) for reason behind the lack of vegetation in all the Mughal dishes is that people nowadays want to escape from all the vegetables and just eat meat for a change. The Mughal dishes are also pretty good, but generally I take the vegetarian ones because they are cheaper and still incredibly good. (A better reason would be that meat can be pretty sketchy, but that isn't why I usually avoid it.) It's scary, but I think I could be a vegetarian with this kind of food, since I don't miss the meat. Often there is no milk or egg products in the food either, so being vegan here would be pretty simple and very tasty. Although I don't miss the meat, whenever I have it I really enjoy it, so now that I'm back in the western hemisphere I have no qualms about continuing to eat other animals on a regular basis.

If you by some chance managed to read that far in one of my last monster emails, I made plans to interview the mess workers here. I ended up doing it with the help of my two closest Indian friends, Nitin and Amit. I unfortunately was unable to understand what they were saying as my Hindi has not reached a serviceable level yet. (I can ask many basic questions, but neither my vocabulary nor my aural comprehension is enough to understand the answers.) The interviews turned out very successful and many of the people seemed very flattered that I interviewed them. That was actually one of the motives behind it. I wanted to hear the stories behind how they had gotten to be in their position, understand what their position is, and give them a feeling of being interesting and important by interviewing them. I may have defeated the purpose of this, as I did not interview everyone, but for a few I think it was prolly postive. I interviewed 4 or 5 mess workers, a gardener, as well as a sweeper, and a guard. I wanted to interview my favorite guard (Sanjeev) who had taught me much of my Hindi, but I ran out of time, and also I already have talked with him about his story. Fortunately I've been spared the necessity of elaborating on what they said here as I still haven't gotten the interviews translated, yet. (My two friends who took the interviews still need to get that done. My Hindi skillz aren't enough to figure it out.)

The gardener seemed like a really good guy. I met him while juggling. He came to me and tried to ask about it in Hindi. I asked him for his name, which he told me was Akleesh. He, like many other people has had his name tattooed to his arm. At first I though it was some sort of a degrading ID tag, like for a dog or something, but apparently it's just something people do (it's usually more popular in villages). He was a pretty hardworking guy and from what Nitin and Amit have told me his was one of the better interviews.

I found a mint bush on the banks of some mountains at the hill station of Mussoorie which I mentioned last time. The weather was quite european and the markets there were very peaceful. No one called out to us to go to their shops unlike the usual practice in India. Besides chilling out though, there wasn't too much to do there. All I wanted was to chill though, so it was fine. While we were there we went to see a Tibetan colony and a waterfall. The Tibetan colony was mostly funded by Europeans, so the houses were really sweet. It took me a moment to figure out why I liked them, so much, but I'm pretty sure it was because of them being somewhat outlandish in appearance, but clearly up to western standards as far as everything else was concerned. They were also built upon a hill so the effect was quite cool. There was a Buddhist temple there too that we looked at. (Most Tibetans are thought to be Buddhist.) Amit was there so he was able to tell inform when the Buddhist priest/monk who was chilling in the temple observed to some other Hindi speaker in the temple that I was pretty superficial. I think he was referring to what I was looking at in the temple. I didn't speak a word to the guy, so the speed with which he managed to succinctly summarize me as a person is quite impressive.

The temple was very pretty and was situated on this mountain ridge in an incredibly scenic position. Apart from attracting tourists, though I don't think it was an extremely practical place to locate the the city. Massoorie as a whole is positioned on a mountain ridge, but in such a way that all the roads could be level, so it was a pretty cool place to walk around. It was also extremely quiet there before we arrived. I was there with this German guy Johannes with whom I get along really well. When we were returning to our hotel at some late hour we were by far the loudest thing around. We found a scorpion that was mostly dead on the road, and we were a little bit freaked out by the idea of them hypothetically running around our rooms at night. The waterfalls turned out to be not too exciting, and a bit annoying as it also attracted a ton of Indian tourists who have the habit of asking white people for the opportunity to take pictures with them. It is ok to take a couple of pictures, but if 15 people all want pictures and won't stop asking, it's incredibly annoying. Once or twice after I said no, people would try to casually sneak up next to me and have their friends take a picture inconspicuously. We avoided them and moved to more remote parts of the river after that.

All in all Massoorie was good, although getting there we took a bus. It was a tourist bus and cost somewhere between 2 and 4 times the local bus's price. The driver was much worse than those of the local buses and the seats were not that much more comfortable. Trying to sleep on the bus was next to impossible as there were speed breakers on the road and the driver didn't seem to care about slowing down. Thus every 5 minutes or so the bus would jump with a loud noise making it difficult to sleep. Since we sat in the back we got more of the effect and were often bounced up off our seats, which made sleeping very difficult. The last bump I was almost asleep, but not only was I woken by being thrown up off my seat, I also managed to bang my face off of the luggage rack above me, which cut my eyebrow. Fortunately I wasn't wearing glasses at the time, but the luggage rack had drawn blood. I thought it was kind of funny at the time, but I refrained from using the tourist buses afterwards. I had the thought at the time that it kind of sucked to be bleeding from the eye in the back of a loud bus which periodically threw me out of my seat, but at least it offered a pretty ridiculous story to tell afterwards. Often when stuff really sucks I console myself with the "it'll be a funny story later" or with the "it's an experience" rationalization. I've found them to be pretty effective.

One interesting thing about Indians is that they don't say "thank you" very often. Often if someone is just doing there job, there is no need to acknowledge any appreciation for it. Please by the same token is not used very often. It's also a reflection of the idea of asymmetric given relationships. Basically If a friend loans me some money, I should not pay him back, at least not precisely. I can give him more or less than what he gave me, but not in the form of cash usually. I would have to buy him something else or the like. Settling your debts is like saying the relationship is over in some ways. This is pretty cool as I will buy some people food or tchai, and someone else will buy it for me later. I really like this idea as it is only natural to help someone who is need now, even if they can't return the favor as someone else will help me later when I need it. Still, this makes saying thank you pretty rare and special, and so I got a ton of huge smiles when I arrived. I still say thank you, but what's interesting is that the word means something here as opposed to being a formality. A little brother of a friend of mine back home mentioned that 'please' and 'thank you' lose their meanings since they are overused, and I think I agree. I don't think we should stop being polite, I just figure it's something to think on.

Anyway, this is a good place to stop as I've written a lot so I'll cut it into smaller pieces. I can also just send a big mail, but I think this makes it more readable. (I'm in Hong Kong now, so I'll keep sending the India stuff periodically, and maybe some Hong Kong stuff eventually.)

Happy New Year!

Mammoth Post Suspected From November 10, 2008

I've become a bit reclusive recently, which is kind of weird and runs counter to the whole plan of learning about Indian culture while I'm here. It's kind of more IIT culture though that I'm exposed to, which this german guy (Johannes) I juggle with pointed out. I get a pretty good feel for certain aspects of the culture here, but perhaps it's a stereotyped version especially since the people I deal with are mostly students. I talk with other people on trains or buses when I'm out touristing about. I've met many old people and middle-aged guys and aspiring business people, but they are generally fairly well educated, as they speak english. The real India is allegedly in villages, which makes sense as some statistic that I won't cite claimed that 80% of the population lives there. That's a pretty sizeable chunk of the people, and from what I understand they are very poorly educated as well as poor. A friend of mine agreed to take me to his village later in the semester, and I'm going to the town of another friend of mine during Diwali (the biggest festival here), where I will get a glimpse into the lives there. I am very curious, but it still strikes me that my viewpoint here is pretty narrow. It also occurs to me that my viewpoint at home is pretty narrow as well. I've been brought up in a WASP area amongst middle class people, and I live at UMass most of the time surrounded by the educated middle class. So when I say that America is this or that, it just means that my slice of America is like this or that. Basically I haven't talked with really poor people or rich people. I've got an incomplete view of almost everything it seems. I wonder what portion of stuff would be good to see in order to have an understanding of what a place is actually like. My little brother did an internship in a museum where he did all sorts of odd-jobs with the relatively exploited workers there. They were definitely from a much poorer less educated class of people. I'm not sure what portion of the population they make up, but it occurs to me that perhaps it would be good to gather experiences across these economic boundaries as well. With that in mind, I think maybe I will interview the workers in the Mess (cafeteria) here, with the help of my friend Amit (the guy who I am visiting for Diwali), in case they don't speak enough english. They are generally treated as servants by the students who don't feel to bad about giving them orders or the like. This makes me a bit uncomfortable but I have grown used to it.

I went to buy some curtains at the Sarojini Nagar (SN) market recently because I wanted to remove the black paper that the previous students had pasted to my window for privacy and to keep out the sun, but I did not want to give up the option of privacy. I went with another friend of mine and he helped me bargain for the curtains. We went under the assumption that they would try to rip me off, and that he would get a lower price suggested. To test our hypothesis he went without me to ask how much a curtain was and then afterwards I would come and ask about the same curtain. We got the same offer, I think it was 125 rupees. (So about 3 dollars.) So perhaps the overcharging of foreigners is somewhat of a myth. Or conversely the idea that Indian's get fairer offers is not true. Generally the foreigners get ripped off trying to rent autorickshaws. They are like motorized tricycles with a roof and a windshield. This is the standard form of transportation, and I hate them. The drivers always force you to argue down the price, which is annoying, especially if you don't actually know the price. Essentially what I do is I argue with three or four different drivers to test their lower limits, and generally they all fall around some number. The lowest offer I get I assume to be fair and I try to get that price from the next auto driver. It's incredibly annoying, and the better the driver speaks english the worse, because it means they are very good at ripping off tourists. Typically the most heinous are middleaged with mustaches and good english. In any case, I've argued drivers to take me to Connaught Place (CP) for around 70 rupees (~$1.75). This is a fair price actually and when this Sikh friend of mine (Parminder) was taking me to a temple near CP he also got it to 70 rupees. Of course he didn't have to argue for a long time, but the bottom line is that if you have a good idea of the price you can generally get the item at that cost. I've also been with some Indians and Indian Seeming individuals who have gotten ripped off despite the fact that they looked local. So basically everyone needs to be careful and bargain their brains out, but the real price seems to be available to everyone. Exceptions to this rule are some tourist places, although if you make it a big enough hassle, apparently you can get discounts. The theory was put to me that westerners get ripped off because they don't complain. So if people trying to sell stuff see that it will be annoying to get some white individual to comply with their demands they will eventually become more reasonable. Still Lal Quila for instance charges 250 rupees for tickets for foreign people and 10 rupees from locals. Taj Mahal wants 750 rupees. It's pretty annoying to see the clear double standard.

When Parminder took me to the Sikh temple in Delhi, I couldn't help but compare it to the Golden Temple in Amritsar. Both temples had an outer wall with the actual holy temple building in the center of this lake. That was pretty cool. Also there was no insane mass of tourists and people looking for tourists there. It was really nice, like going to some random church back home. There was no hassle and people were chilling in the island temple listening to this dude singing with an accompaniment of outlandish (or in prolly more correctly for finding them here inlandish) instruments. There were also a collection of religious men reading the holy book of the Sikhs for people. You can buy a reading for yourself so these guys just keep rereading the book over and over. It was like a real place where people practiced Sikhism not a showcase of the religion as the Golden temple had been. Much like St Peters at the Vatican is this ridiculous church, the Golden Temple is a caricature of a real temple. I think in the future if I am looking for real things I will try to go to places that aren't known for them.

As I have become extremely lazy due to the amount of nothing that often goes on here, I've decided to motivate myself, myself. So in order to do that I've come up with a schedule which assigns like an hour a day to do things for me so that I at least progress in some senses. Most importantly I've decided to start searching for a future topic for grad school type things in the future.

Some of my classes I really don't care about here, and so I've had tremendous difficulty working for them since I just don't care. Basically I have plans and the classes interrupt me and waste my time and energy. If I can integrate my classes with my plans, probably I will be in much better shape. Particularly a certain sociology paper is annoying as it really gives me nothing in return for the time I waste trying to write it.

The weekend before last I and an Austrian fellow named Lukas went to this place called Jodhpur in the "deserts" of Rajasthan, the westernmost state of India at the latitude of Delhi. The deserts turned out to be pretty barren shrublands. The train ride over was in the sleeper class which is a pretty chill class because it's extremely cheap, and as my one friend pointed out, you talk with everyone. On the way to Jodhpur this turned out to be not so good of a thing because we encountered a blowhard from one of the medical schools in Delhi. He was so full of bs that I was surprised he didn't explode and cover the compartment in it. He seemed content in liberally dispensing it orally, though, throughout the night, which I couldn't avoid without being extremely rude. I finally escaped by going to my bed to write some diary entry before going to sleep.

The third reason the sleeper class is awesome is because it facilitates a plan that Lukas and I have schemed into existence. If a tourist is able to get a good night's sleep on a train, then he or she can avoid hotels entirely and spend one day in each location and wake up in a new spot the next day. This is theoretically cheaper, allows us to cover more ground in a shorter period of time, and what's best is that this way none of your days are wasted by traveling. The downsides are that hygiene is pretty bad without showers and cities need to spaced at a reasonable distance apart to make it worthwhile. Otherwise if a city is too close we don't get enough sleep or arrive at a ludicrous hour. I like this because it is counterintuitive to me that a city might be too close of a destination.

Jodhpur upon arrival was extremely hot. I sweated a lot there, but the humidity was extremely low, which actually made it more pleasant than Delhi. When I returned to IIT I felt very sticky and unpleasant because of this. The reason people go to Rajasthan is for the forts. Jodhpur had a huge fort named Mehrangarh which did not disappoint. It was enormous. It reminded me of the castle Carcassonne, which is a monstrous citadel in the south of France. The audio guide was pretty funny, and we saw many beautiful things there.

On the way out there was this dude who was overcharging people for a camel ride. I had two things on my list of to dos when in India, and they were to ride a camel and to ride an elephant. So I overpaid the guy. It was pretty cool. The scariest part being when the camel gets up or gets down. It is very unsmooth. A camel is also an immense animal. Much like the first time I saw a horse I was surprised at how big this thing was. This camel's hump was at least at a height of 8 or 9 feet. The head was higher as it was on this huge long neck. The camel did not walk very smoothly so I would sway from side to side on this thing. I was basically guided by the very unfriendly looking camel owner down a street and then back up for what was allegedly half a kilometer. All along the way people, most likely Indian tourists come to see the fort waved and smiled. I'm not sure what was more of an oddity to them, the camel or me. It was like I was a star of some kind. It was interesting.

Many Indians seem fascinated or taken surprised to see tourists. I'm not sure why, but even in very touristy areas many people who don't seem to be out to screw me are very curious about me and where I come from etc. I think it may really be lack of exposure. It has happened two or three times to me that I have been doing something or going somewhere, and I see this white guy here. On the Metro this happened once and here in IIT it happened also. I sort of turned and looked (hopefully not stared) at him and wondered to myself, "How did he get here? What is he doing here?" and stuff like that. White people are pretty rare in the non explicitly tourist places that even I am shocked and curious to see one.

After the first day in Jodhpur we set the night train plan into action and went to the nearby town of Jaisalmer. Unfortunately we hit upon a a problem. All the trains were booked or only offered standing room, neither of which we desired, all the local buses had already left, which made our only option to travel by tour bus, which sucks because you have to reserve them and that they are no better than the local buses in my humble opinion. We managed to organize one forty minutes before the bus departed and then got to the departure point by auto-rickshaw. We had reserved a sleeper class bus. The kind bus official gave us the worst bunk on the bus. The mattress had been torn up and the cover that was also in shreds was moldy. Yay! We prolly should have made a fuss about it, but we were too happy that we had gotten a place on the bus to complain to the driver. Instead, Lukas and I spent a long time complaining to each other in German before deciding that there was nothing to do except sleep. Unfortunately just as we had reached this conclusion and after the bus had reached an uncomfortable level of fullness, some dude got up onto our bunk. I don't particularly like confrontations so I didn't brutally throw him out of the bunk. When I timidly started to complain he claimed that he was at a nearby village and wouldn't be there for long, so I tolerated it. After a while I made the mistake of talking to him which would make the inevitable ejection of him from my bed more difficult. He was an english teacher, in a village. I did end up asking him to leave pretty late. Around 11 or midnight. I can't remember, but either way I was moronically tired when I was woken upon arrival to Jaisalmer around 4 or 4:30.

People were telling me welcome to Jaisalmer. There were three or four of them everyone holding a brochure with the picture of their hotel on it. Each of them wanted us to agree to come to their hotel. Lukas and I decided to leave the bus and they followed us. Outside there were maybe 15 of these hotel guys all trying to get us to come to theirs. No one waited for us to say anything, they would just talk to us all at the same time and interrupt us whenever we tried to say anything to someone else. People grabbed us and flashed fliers into our faces for a while. Eventually we told them to leave us alone and started to walk off. As we halted a bit further to regroup the mob quickly overtook us and assaulted us again. Someone offered us tea on the roof of their hotel with no strings attached. (A common strategy here is to give something for free or be kind and then expect guilt to ensnare the hapless victim into buying something.) All of a sudden everyone offered this. Now as we didn't need a hotel, we didn't want a room anyway, but partly in order to avoid the crowd, and partly to see the sunrise from an advantageous spot we agreed to follow this one guy.

By the way, the sunrise and sunset are the only tourist attractions in Jaisalmer. They have a huge fort, but so does every place in Rajasthan. Given the two attractions, you can imagine how exciting Jaisalmer is. As the sunrise and sunset look surprisingly similar to the others I have seen on those rare occasions that I am conscious at the appropriate times, I wouldn't particularly recommend going there. The guy took us to the top of his hotel and when we reached the roof he viciously shook two serving boys awake who were sleeping on the roof. (The roof was built as a large deck.) We got the impression that he might as well be waking some animals from his manner. He then had them make us tea, and stayed with us to have a conversation that would hopefully lead to our renting a room from him. Apparently he got the funds for his hotel from his rich cousin and was toying with the idea of building another hotel next to the first. It was like he was playing business man with his rich cousins money. That and the way he woke the servants up made me not very sympathetic. We left after he went to go scavenge some tourists off the train that arrived at 5 and watched the sunrise from the fort walls. (It was a much better location for seeing it than the hotel roof.) Lukas had some misgivings about just accepting his hospitality (including the toilet) and then leaving. I figure though, if he made the offer of giving us tea et cetera without asking for payment, then we shouldn't feel obligated since if we were then it wasn't a gift.

It seems that Jaisalmer has no industries or other reason besides tourism to really stay alive. And everyone seems to try to make a living doing the same thing. As Lukas and I later walked through the fort, we realized that we were just wondering past one shop that sold useless junk after the other with restaurants here and there. It was very depressing to me that so many of these people based their lives around us. Two reasons make this pretty uncool in my opinion. First of all their welfare is hugely out of their control. They build something to please me and if I arbitrarily decide I don't want it, there's nothing they can do. It's as if the quality their work in their eyes is unimportant. They can't work for the satisfaction of what they are doing. Without me, their work is more or less pointless. Secondly the constant pandering to tourists places foreigners on a pedestal. The world is clearly cut into two groups now: humble workers who can only hope that the noble foreigners come and deign to dispense their life-giving money on the dying town. It was pretty chilling to me. But someone pointed out that perhaps working for money anywhere is like this. I think there is generally a mix of personal satisfaction and goals in the job and ensuring whoever is buying your product is happy, and this seems to be an extreme case of ensuring your customer is happy. Maybe I would feel like I would have less dignity if I were one of these guys, in any case, I'm not sure what the difference is, but I think there is one.

So the one thing besides the motions of nearby stars that Jaisalmer is famous for is taking camel safaris. I had already ridden a camel in Jodhpur but I figured a longer experience would be better, and as an added bonus, we could see the sun going down in the desert! Riding the camels again was fun, although I had developed some sort of a stomach ache and that tainted my perception a lot. We were guided by there two small children who spoke only very poor english. I wonder what they thought about us. The "safari" was a shortened version of a several day trip. Basically we rode the camels for maybe 2 or 3 hours. During the trip we stopped at a bunch of tombs and then also at a "gypsy village". The tombs were interesting. I bought a rock off a child there for no particular reason. The "gypsy village" was a collection of makeshift huts which stick in my mind for having tarp or trashbag roofs. Basically we stopped and a group of women who had dressed up and painted designs on their faces came up and sang a song for us while two of them danced. I felt particularly rotten watching this. I feel like these people are being exploited by me and by the people from the Camel touring society etc. Particularly when I looked at their really cheap houses I feel like I'm taking advantage of their poverty into making them humiliate themselves by dancing for me.

We ended the safari on this set of dunes which rose out of nowhere from the shrublands. It was fun playing on the dunes, although my stomach did not let up torturing me. That night in accordance with the night train plan we boarded a bus again, but there was only one place to go which was Jodhpur, so we went back. (This wasn't really a cheaper or good way of setting our plan into action, but we made due with what we had.) The return trip was miserable, because I was a mess.

We did end up getting a hotel because I was feeling very sick and we weren't returning to IIT till that evening. I slept while Lukas went to some monument place. Around noon I got up and Lukas and I went for a pseudo random walk through the back streets of Jodhpur. We ended up in this Muslim area and it was particularly cool because no one accosted us trying to sell anything. Many people said hi, and everyone was friendly. We saw a passing parade dedicated to Ganesh, a peculiar dude with an elephant's head. People had spray painted their bodies and were on carts making a lot of noise. Many beckoned us to join them on the wagons, but Lukas and I declined. Earlier in the morning we had met a pair of French girls with the most abominable english that I've heard in a long time (makes me glad that I learned French, as it seems the French are the only people who can't speak English) and a young reprobate who tried to sell me a monstrous basket (which I almost mailed home). The basket was maybe 4 or 5 feet in diameter and was strong enough to support the weight of at least an Indian woman. We ended up getting on the train platform just before it left. I met a friend of mine from IIT who happened to have been there while we were there. It's too bad I didn't know, since it would have been awesome to visit him, but I had fun anyway.

I talked with a lot of people on the train who were delighted to help me read out of this book designed to learn Hindi. It was funny, people would read a word out loud while I was struggling to decipher, it as if to prove that they too could read Hindi. I talked with people about arranged marriages and how they had gotten married and the like too. It was very interesting. People seem to be happy with what they ended up with partially because there is no alternative.

The internet connection here is really, really slow. I used to think that this was due somehow to the low level of development of the Indian infrastructure, but apparently, as Lukas clarified for me, the connection used to be much faster. The connection is so slow because the University has set it to that level! In order to limit our abilities to waste our time or something the administrators have decided to remove our options. It's like we aren't trusted by the University to make decisions on our own. They remove our access to the common room which has a tv and some games from certain time, they don't allow the students to change their major more than once, they separate genders as much as possible, and they block easy access to the internet. It's like they try to force their students to study by removing everything else that people like doing. The general response seems to be apathy and watching a lot of movies. Also the students are very involved in interhostel competitions, but aren't very focused on their studies. It is frustrating that we aren't treated as adults. Many students seem a bit more dependent on their families than the students here, but they are still adults and should be allowed to make their own decisions I think. But then that may be my upbringing talking.

The movies they watch are of course impossible to steal off the crippled internet connection, but the students, being some of the brightest people in India managed to set up a LAN which allows the students to share files on an internal network. The percentage of porn on the LAN is pretty large, although I would have expected that it would be extremely taboo here. Most of the students are very open about watching porn and sharing it.

The weekend after the Jodhpur trip there was this huge festival here called Rendezvous where there were a lot of other colleges invited here to take part in a variety of events. Almost all events were competitions, as usual. There were a large portion of group dancing events and some music shows too. I attended a group dance and one of the music shows, both of which were pretty good. The music was a sort of Indian rock. It wasn't bad. There was another event which took place called Podium where a bunch of DJs set up shop in front of the library and played music while tons of students, mostly guys danced. (This started at noon and went till 5.) There was another dance called RDX where you could only enter or leave if you were accompanied by someone of the opposite gender. I tried my luck in the chess competition in which mostly pretty bad players were playing. Unfortunately I was undone in the second round by a pretty nasty trap which I should prolly have been familiar with. Fortunately there was no one there I particularly wanted to impress, so it didn't bother me too much. I got the rest of the tournament off, which was pretty chill.

I met these two crazy people at this quizzing competition I was part of, the day before. One was from Kashmere and the other from Haryana. They asked me where I was from and then we talked a little bit after the competition, nothing of substance was said, though. The guy from Haryana in particular was very possessive. He managed to decide from our brief encounter that he and I were good friends. I ran into him the next day after my gruesome demise in the chess competition. He then made plans for me coming to Haryana to visit him and asked me a ton of things about me. I, out of courtesy, didn't make the conversation particularly awkward. Later he searched me out in my room just before he was about to leave. It was the incredibly draining and weird to me. The idea of immediate friendship seems pretty irrational and in many ways unhealthy to me. I have encountered 3 or 4 people like this here so far. It's unnerving. I don't know what to tell these people, especially as I don't want to be slave to random people's whims in order to not hurt their feelings.

Since then not much has happened. Camille and Julien, two french students had a housewarming party, so I got to see their apartment. The French, Swiss, and American (me) students went as well as Amit, an Indian friend of mine and Camille's all went. The French and Swiss spoke French amongst themselves, and since I was not feeling in the mood to be social I did not try to either follow along in French or get them to speak English. So I basically hung out with Camille, Amit and Julien off to one side while the Francophone students did their thing. The apartment was pretty cool. And we had crêpes along with various condiments we brought along. I bought honey which is expensive, but incredibly good. (It's also awesome on rotis (Indian bread type stuff) from the mess. Incidentally, bees are apparently still having some sort of housing issues and are leaving their hives en mass for no apparent reason. Somebody ought to get on to that.

My roomape also moved out and got an apartment with his girlfriend. This leaves me with almost a single. (Occasionally he still shows up for stuff.) It's pretty chill, since he would usually go to bed about an hour or two before me and would often take naps during the day. Now I don't have to worry about waking him. Although my sleeping habits may be in danger of drifting more towards later hours at night and sleeping a bit during the day.

Alright before I end this absurdly long communication, I figure people might be interested in knowing the following, US passports will warp like crazy if they are left in a moist environment, so I'd recommend a plastic bag. (Mine straightened out after I kept it tied flat in a plastic bag.) German passports mold if kept in a moist environment. I'd also recommend a plastic bag. Sandals made of cow leather seem to chafe my feet in a moist environment. Plastic bags might work for this one too, but instead I have resorted to generally wearing sneakers and my rubber shower flip-flops instead. Mosquitos like to bite ankles, so I'd recommend wearing socks at night.

That's all for the moment. Tonight I leave for Mussoorie, partially because I want to go some place farther away from the bomb blasts which seem to becoming vogue in Delhi, and partially because I'm tagging along with a group of cool people. Hope everyone is having a smashing semester.