Sunday, January 30, 2005

After Shock

Yesterday was kind of awful.

To begin with, I was not in a good state to arrive in Ahmedabad in the morning. The overnight train ride had been uncomfortable. Nine of us sat in a space meant for six people. The bench four of us perched upon was also supposed to be my bed. I could only sleep when everyone else was ready to climb up into their bunks for bed. I was ready to close my eyes a couple of hours before everyone else. It was noisy, it was dirty, it was crowded, but we had a luxurious experience compared to the people in 2nd and sleeper class. I have no right to complain.

One nice change in Ahmedabad from previous cities was that the auto-rickshaw drivers will take passengers to their destinations without any detours. No craft shop visits. No restaurants along the way. Straight to the requested location. Whoohoo! Got taken straight to the hotel I had booked. Recommended by my guidebook, turns out that Hotel Roopalee is actually the kind of place to check into only long enough to go find another hotel.

Initially, I thought I could handle it. The room was small and kind of dirty, but there was a bathroom and a bucket of hot water could be requested. The bucket arrived and after the dirt and grime of train travel, nothing sounded better than a hot bucket bath. Once in the bathroom I started to notice how nasty it was. Fresh spit stains from someone who had been chewing betel nut. There was a roach watching me bathe from above the mirror. In the process of getting clean, I was actually beginning to feel dirtier. What put me over the edge was finding someone's turd in a cup in the toilet bowl. Going back into the room, I also found the last occupant's garbage. Didn't even want to take a close look at the bed. New sheets were probably too much to hope for.

Down the road I found another hotel, three times more expensive, at $10 a night. There were some other people checking in, fleeing their nasty hotel (also recommended by a guidebook). The man behind the check-in laughed. He gets a lot of his business from people running away from other hotels.

After getting resettled, I went to the internet place next door to the hotel. Set in a huge, old building, kids play soccer in the vacant lot next door. Pigeon droppings cover the stairs and the computers are housed in cubicles decorated with betel spit and peeling grey paint. It's called the "Super Cyber Cafe." Balancing upright is a necessary computing skill because the chairs are all broken.

Yesterday I became obsessed with eating at a clean restaurant. It hasn't been something I've thought of too much in other cities. Never felt that Delhi, Agra, or Jaipur were too unpalatable. In the area of Ahmedabad where I'm staying, it seems as though the streets are just open air urinals which cars happen to drive through. Flies are abundant and migrate to the open-air restarants. I couldn't find anywhere to eat on this eastern side of the river. After crossing the Nehru Bridge to the west, immediately things seemed better. Fewer piss puddles and abandoned buildings, more businesses and green space. People have places to go and things to do.

In the end, I spent most of yesterday in the company of two lovely French women. All three of us had been refused entry into the Calico Museum. There is an unpublicized policy of only allowing 15 people into the museum in the afternoons. The quota was already filled so we couldn't go in. Marie and Bernadette and I wandered through the streets, watching women in bright saris dance at a wedding celebration. Things were looking up.

In the evening we spied a new restaurant, only two months old. It's on the top of a shopping center and Bernadette was the only one of us who noticed the tables up on the roof. After walking around the dusty city, we all needed a drink. "Aadhar: A Temple of Traditional Taste," is an undiscovered refuge above the noisy city. It's so undiscovered that we were the only customers there. The ratio of staff to diners was about 15 to 1 and we were given a grand tour. There are two outside dining gardens, one indoor snack room, a huge dining courtyard complete with temple to Shiva and fountains in the center. Currently under construction is another garden, banquet, and wedding reception area. With all the stone mosaics, wood carvings, and textile draped ceilings, it's probably the most beautiful restaurant I've seen in India. And it's completely empty. Expensive? Main dishes cost about 50 rupees/$1.25 each.

After coming down from the rooftop restaurant, the French women and I said goodbye. The calm induced by the empty restaurant faded quickly away. The auto-rickshaw driver almost killed us a few times. I sat back and tried not to look. He didn't know where he was going so I became the guide in a city I barely know. Returning to the hotel, I was met by a woman who wanted money. She pulled on my clothes and my arms until I escaped into the hotel. I wanted to check email again but was afraid to enter the ramshackle internet building in the dark.

The evening ended with one of the hotel workers trying to get into my room. I had asked for some toilet paper but the hotel didn't have any. One of the men working there offered to go to the store and get some, but I said no thank you. While I took the elevator up to the room, he apparently ran up the stairs. I was surprised to see him at my door when I exited the lift. He still wanted to go buy the toilet paper. No thanks. He wanted to show me how to turn the key in the lock. No. And he wanted to show me how to flick on the light in the room. Goodbye. I told him goodbye about five times. He started to push into the room and I had to shove my body against the door and lock it quickly. Goodbye!

I almost I wished I was back in Delhi, being stalked by my nemesis.

After a good night's sleep, I don't feel so culture shocked. The restaurant on the corner with flies also sells packaged cookies. Cookies for breakfast. Before catching the overnight bus to Aurangabad, I'm hoping to pay a visit to Gandhi's former ashram on the outskirts of the city. Going to the ashram was my reason for coming here in the first place. Almost forgot about it in all the drama of the day before. I'm hoping that my next destination will be very boring.

Friday, January 21, 2005

City Oasis

Today was another great day of walking around the city with Martina. We walked from Connaught Place to Humayun's Tomb. It looked like a pretty straight-forward walk on the map, but in reality there is a confusing intersection of two huge roads where we became a little lost. A beaten up street dog followed us as we went in circles for a while. We were abandoned after the dog figured out that we didn't know where we were going.

Humayun's Tomb is an ancient building set on beautifully restored grounds. Red earthen paths lead across green lawns to the huge tomb built of red sandstone. Green parrots flew throughout the grounds and we saw so many birds of prey whirling on thermal updrafts that they were impossible to count. Such a peaceful place. A nice escape from the hotel for a day.

Before meeting Martina, my nemesis cornered me at breakfast for a good half hour. She found me again in the afternoon when I was making photocopies in the computer room. She harassed the men in the room into giving her free internet time later in the evening because she was "overcharged" for something. She announced to them (and to me, by default) that I was needed to help her send some photos TONIGHT since I'm checking out in the morning. The men working here know I am trying to avoid her. They are sick of her demands as well. When she wasn't looking, we all made faces at each other to vent our frustrations. We got the giggles and one man rushed me out of the room and pointed out a new place to hide.

The men who work the evening shift locked the computer room so Senora Ruida couldn't get in. They are tired of her hassles and are seeking passive revenge. One man said, "It's hard to do business with her around." They would rather shut the whole computing room down than deal with her histrionics. I was given the keys to the room and am currently typing in the dark. I hoped she couldn't see me in here, but she put her face up against the glass pane of the door and started pounding on it. I told her to come back later. Plan B is for everyone to say that the server has gone down and there is no more internet tonight.

My nemesis has moved up to my floor, in a room across the hall so it's harder to avoid getting suckered into her crises now... Thankfully I'm on the train to Agra at 6am and there will only be aggressive hotel touts, rickshaw-wallahs, and pickpockets to worry about at the other end.

Thursday, January 20, 2005

Goat Stampede

A few days ago I left Thailand, unrested, and starving. Tried to see as many films during the Bangkok International Film Festival as possible. The Motorcycle Diaries was the best one I saw. Made me wish I was in South America with Chris. Well, I was wishing that anyway.

I'm typing under a little bit of duress. My nemesis will pass through here again in less than ten minutes and I want to avoid her if at all possible. How is it that some people are so great that within a couple of introductory sentences you know you can spend a whole day together? And then there are people like Senora Ruida who drive people like me to search out escape routes.

Tonight I hid in the bathroom next to the hotel restaurant for ten minutes while my nemesis stood haranguing the clerk at the front desk. The entire staff of the hotel rolls their eyes when they see her coming. Afraid that she might still be at the front desk, I had the good fortune to find a back staircase near the bathroom. Whoohoo! I ran up the stairs. Three flights up I decided to switch to the elevator. The doors of the elevator opened and there she was. "Ay, Jeni!! Where have you been all day?" Didn't tell her that a possible answer to that question was, "Hiding from you."

No time to explain now why I am running away. Could be because she asked me to take some pictures of her the first day I was in Delhi. Sounded like a simple request, happy to do it... She presented the photo taking as going out to take pictures of some women down the street. Truth was she wanted me to take pictures of her with women, any women, who looked poverty stricken. She had a hard time finding anyone that she thought looked sufficiently poor.

Then we had to go looking for a little girl she knew, and the offices of Qantas airlines, and a million other things. Along the way she yelled at people, demanded they translate English to Hindi and back again, and tried to palm off her garbage on men just walking down the street. For my first day in Delhi, Delhi itself was not stressful, but a little Mexican woman with dyed orange hair just about put me over the edge.

After my nemesis decided I was next in-line to be her personal assistant (the last person to have that position escaped by checking out), she started calling my hotel room every hour or so. If I'm spotted crossing the lobby, she screams "JENI! JENI! JENI! JENI!" till I either find a place to hide or go see what she wants. Somehow I've taken photos of her, made her a new Yahoo!, downloaded photos into it, searched for round-the-world airfares on the web, put her in contact with SERVAS... and that's after saying NO to 70% of her requests. My "no's" are always followed by masterful guilt-trips and reassurances that my help will only take five minutes... Grrr. I am a sucker.

Aside from her, Delhi is great. This morning I finally decided to go out of the hotel's neighborhood and took an auto-rickshaw over to the Red Fort. The driver left me off in the middle of a busy intersection, far from the fort's entrance. Wandering around the perimeter of the gate, the goats and their laughing masters ran past. I knew to watch out for crazy bus and rickshaw drivers but hadn't expected a riot of goats. A Western woman approached from the opposite direction and I asked her if she knew where the entrance was. Turns out she was looking for it too. I spent the rest of the day with Martina from Switzerland. She was great company and we'll go out together tomorrow as well.

After the fort, Martina led us back homeward from the fort by plunging right into the middle of Chandni Chowk, a busy market street. Don't know how long it took us to walk home again, past the wooden carts, roaming cattle, and stalls that sell all kinds of things you don't think about people needing. Broken cigarette lighters? Over there. Are you missing a suitcase handle? That guy has replacements. Does your zipper need fixing? Give him your pants and it will be repaired in a Delhi minute.

It was great to be sucked up into the city.

Hijole! She'll be here any minute. Run away!

Monday, January 10, 2005

A Place to Rest?

Since Chris left, I haven't been sleeping so well. Missing him and feeling sad that he's gone, I've been drowning my loneliness in epic Russian literature and bad VH1 videos. Wish they would program David Bowie videos instead of Paula Abdul.

This morning started off with more excitement than expected. I don't usually remember dreams. They slip back down into the dark reaches of the mind when I wake under normal circumstances. Today was different so it's easy to remember that the precise moment of waking, I had just finished dreaming of arriving in India (looking suspiciously like the border of Mexico and Guatemala) and had moved on to traveling through Portugal. The Portugal of my dreams looked a lot like a pastoral version of rural Europe. Huge trees cast blue-green shadows over a woodland crisscrossed with shallow canals. Boatmen were poling rafts down the canals, ferrying people through the countryside. And as I was deciding whether or not to jump on a passing raft, sleep was shattered by a startling crash.

I understand why sudden shocks cause heart attacks. My heart was pounding so hard I thought it would burst out of my chest. What was that noise in the dark? Dreams receded as the dark room came into view. It sounded like something had been pushed or crashed. Couldn't have been the TV. No breaking glass. The sofa couldn't crash. The bed was still standing. Argh. In a groggy stupor I struggled to reach the light.

A flick of the switch revealed bare wires hanging down from the ceiling. I didn't remember those being there before. I peeked over the end of the bed. The sound made sense once I saw the ceiling fan shattered on the tile floor at the foot. During the night the fan had oscillated and revolved, slowly working it's screws out of the ceiling. Before daylight, the screws were finally free and plastic and metal rained down. Shrapnel covered the floor.


I went looking in the darkness for someone to tell that the fan had killed itself. I found a young boy, the watchman, cocooned in a white sheet and told him. Didn't want the owners to think that I had destroyed the fan as payback for attempting to double the price of the room the day before. Greedy buggers.

The boy inspected the mess. "Ohhh!!" Sleepy smile. "Sleeping? Ohhh! Bad." With that he returned to his cocoon.

People are afraid to go to the beach for fear of tsunamis. People are afraid to travel because of disease. Me, now I'm wary of ceiling fans. I'm thankful the bed was placed where it was, out of the line of freefall. Nothing like an appliance the weight of a bowling ball suspended above your head as you sleep...

Tonight I'm in a different room. This one has a ceiling fan and a regular stand alone fan. I pointed at the ceiling fan and shook my head. The owner chuckled and walked away.

Saturday, January 08, 2005

Alone Again

Now it is a strange thing, but things that are good to have and days that are good to spend are soon told about, and not much to listen to; while things that are uncomfortable, palpitating, and even gruesome, may make a good tale, and take a deal of telling anyway. - The Hobbit

There were three weeks of good days with Chris. Today he has left to return to the opposite side of the world and I'm too emotionally spent to write more.