Norman's Travel Adventures
Toronto -- not foreign enough to be exotic
I'm in Toronto for a week, leaving tomorrow. I was here for a set theory conference. It was a great conference. I met some famous set theorists whom I'd never met before and even worked with one of them. I also saw some friends and acquaintances whom I knew from other set theory conferences, and my friend Brent, who studied with me at CUNY and is not a postdoc at Toronto.
The conference is at the Fields Institute. They are the ones who give out the Fields Medal, the most prestigious award in mathematics. Apparently, that's a separate budget from their budget for computers -- they still have dinosaur CRT monitors for some of their computers. The institute itself is a nice building with a spiral staircase ascending a two stories through an atrium.
The first night, I stayed at a hostel, but had trouble sleeping and wanted a bit more privacy and comfort, so I moved to a hotel that Brent had recommended a block away from the hostel. (Oy, am I becoming an old man? I used to have no problem sleeping at hostels!) Both are within a 5 or 10 minute walk from the Fields Institute. My hotel is called the Kaisar Guest House. The bedrooms are private, but the bathrooms are mostly shared. The ceilings are low, and there are narrow hallways and lots of short flights of stairs, and you have to take off your shoes in the entry hall, and there is a kitchen and laundry facilities. In other words, it has character :-) I think in some ways I prefer it to ie the Holiday Inn, and it's half the price. Well, if somebody else were paying, I'd probably stay at the Holiday Inn, but still . . .
Toronto is foreign enough to be slightly disconcerting, but not foreign enough to be exotic or exciting. Oh, well.
Slightly disconcerting in that lots of stuff closes early for a city this size, even in hip shopping districts where I'd expect them to be open later. i.e. lots of the restaurants near the university close around 9 or 10, even though I'd imagine there are plenty of hungry students up later than that. There are few if any 24 hour pharmacies, though there are a few 24 hour convenience stores, and Tim Horton's is usually open 24 hours.
At first I thought there was no cheap food in the city. Then I found some in China Town. There, the Vietnamese sandwiches are ridonculously cheap, like $2 or $2.50. Not really much cheaper than the $4.25 one at Banh Mi Saigon in NYC, because that is an enormous sandwich. But still, cheap. Also, in Toronto Chinatown, there's a Thai place with a 5 dollar lunch special (Thai Country Kitchen, 412 Spadina. Spadina rhymes with Vagina, LOL). You can get curry with rice or curry with Pad Thai. I think it's cool that you can substitute Pad Thai for rice, because usually at Thai places, rice is cheap/comes with everything, whereas Pad Thai is its own dish and is usually expensive. So it's like getting two meals in one :-) I think I'll go there again tomorrow.
The public transit here reminds me of San Francisco. Very limited subway service but buses and/or streetcars on almost every major street. It's slow and confusing, often it's almost as fast to walk. So I've been doing a ton of walking. Tonight, I walked about 10 kilometers according to Google maps.
My approximate walking route tonight. (I took the streetcar to the start point. The end point is my hotel.)
For dinner, I went to a fast food restaurant that specialized in grilled cheese and got pulled barbecue pork and macaroni & cheese with goat cheese on whole wheat bread :-) I had a nice little visit with the guy who worked there. He lived in Flushing, Queens for part of his life, and he thinks Toronto is pretty lame compared to NYC. He also agreed with me that Montreal has better nightlife than Toronto.
Last night in France
The Ambassade de Bretagne restaurant, 43 Rue Ste Marie, gets my top recommendation. Crepes and food from Brittany. I went there for lunch yesterday and again for dinner today. Yesterday I got a three course meal for 14 euro. Tonight I got a duck dish, duck cooked with tart cherries and apples and caramel sauce with salad and thin sliced creamy potatoes on the side. A delicious stout called 11.1, brewed only on the day after Halloween every year, and with 11.1% alcohol by volume. Then after dinner, the proprietor informed me that they had a promotion -- free sugar crepes for dessert. I ate two and was stuffed.
At French restaurants in the US, I often leave feeling like the portions have been too small, but in France this has never been the case, and I`ve eaten at several restaurants. I`ll reserve my opinions on the Asians, but nobody in the Western world can do food like the French. Furthermore, at the restaurants I`ve been to (with the exception of the one at the University!), they have spoken some English and not treated me badly for speaking English.
After dinner, I wandered about by the port, gazed at the old stone fortress all lit up and the buildings of the city, ancient and modern. I felt like I was on the verge of a relevation, but I wasn`t sure what it was. I think the dinner was just that good.
I am starting to understand why Aunt Nimmy wanted her grandchildren to learn French, even though Spanish is a much more practical language. Not knowing the language, I feel like I am only grazing the surface of the place, but it is a delicious surface indeed.
I began this trip feeling that I was tiring of travel, but now I remember why I travel. But it`s hard to put my finger on. It`s for the sake of nights like this one, among other reasons.
Hollande, the socialist candidate, won the French presidential election yesterday, ousting the incumbent Sarcozy. Here in the old port district of Marseille, people were dancing in the street, and cars were honking their horns all over the place. I`ve never seen that level of political celebration in the USA.
The Young Set Theory Conference was excellent. However, I caught a virus, and so I have been staying in Marseille, rather than traveling around the south of France or to Barcelona, as I had planned. Word to the wise: 24 hour pharmacies are not as common in France as in the US; many pharmacies aren`t even open Saturday afternoons. But I managed to get the meds I needed after some searching, and now I`m just hanging out and recovering and going out to eat. The illness is pretty much down to a headache today and some mild congestion now.
I stayed an extra night at the conference site and got to spend more time with the conference attendees. On Saturday, we played Bocce Ball.
It`s nice to just relax and appreciate being somewhere different, eat fancy cheeses, walk around the port district, talk to the Afghan family in the hostel . . .
I started out this trip feeling stressed out, now I feel more relaxed. I had hoped to make the trip go easily by flying in and out of the same city and not moving around too much, but I made a lot of bookings last minute, which added to the stress level -- something to keep in mind for next trip. But . . . next year, I would like to go visit Kostas in Barcelona for a few days before attending Young Set Theory in Turino, Italia. Barcelona is such a great city . . . I almost went there this week, but that got derailed by my illness.
Krantzing about the South of France
Greetings from Marseille, France.
I'm in France for the Young Set Theory 2012 conference which starts tomorrow and goes through Friday at Luminy, on the outskirts of Marseille on the scenic and rocky south coast of France. Last year, I went to the 2011 version of this conference in Bonn and had a blast. I took a few days on either end for some additional travel. I have been hanging out in Marseilles the last few days. It took me a day or two to get into "travel mode" -- I was feeling kind of uptight but now I'm feeling more relaxed. I feel like my travel style has changed over the years. When I went on my grand tour of Europe when I was 18, I wanted to move around a lot and see all the sights. Now I'd just as soon relax and stay in fewer places and just soak up the ambiance. A big part of travel is just changing up my ordinary routine, meeting new people, trying new foods, etc. But the more I travel, the less I enjoy the planning and organizing aspects. I also always am surprised at just how much free time I have when I travel. Somehow when I'm planning the trip it feels to me like the whole time while I'm away will be a black box full of mysterious activity, and then I get there and realize I have just as much free time as before, or even more, because I'm taking a break from my usual activities. Plenty of free time to shop for essential items, take care of business I didn't get to before I left, etc.
I was in Paris for a couple days before, but other than that, this is my first time in France.
The most striking thing about France is how they kiss on both cheeks when greeting friends. It seems especially incongruous when tough looking guys do it. Actually it's more like they rub cheeks and make kissy noises and kissy faces, but still . . .
Yesterday, I took a day trip up to Aix-en-Provence with a woman named Bonny from Hong Kong whom I met at the hostel, who is working and traveling in France. It's a beautiful town with lots of great restaurants, pastry shops, cheese shops, etc. We wandered the streets for many hours. The most amusing part of the walk for me was when we emerged from a meandering alley full of the aforementioned pastry, wine, cheese, etc. shops and "Frenchy" architecture to a more modern and utilitarian-looking intersection. Across the intersection was a German store called "Shleckers", similar to a CVS or Rite Aid in the US. The contrast between the utilitarian-ness and very German-sounding name of Schleckers vs. the smelly cheese and ostentatious macaron stores was to me quite amusing. We went in and shopped for travel tissue packets. Trust the Germans to provide utilitarian stuff to the French :-) Not sure if it sounds as striking in writing as it was in person.
We also had a nice meal at an Italian restaurant, and I got a nice pastry for dessert from a pastry shop.
The hostel in Marseille was booked up for last night, so Bonny and I got a hotel room together (with two beds) and had some interesting conversations. But we come back to the hostel to use the kitchen and internet. Later today, I'm heading out to Luminy, and after the conference, I'm probably going to Nice, where I'm hoping to meet up with some Mensa hosts.
In Marseille, African fast food (similar to that sold in street stands in New York -- donner kebab, etc.) is more common than French food. One can get varying types of sandwich for about 3 euro. Many of the streets are continuous with the sidewalks, except that there are metal barriers to keep the cars from going on the proper sidewalk part. Still, I've wandered into the street unknowingly a few times.
I wish I knew how to speak French better. But I do think Spanish is a more practical language to know.
I'm not as easily wowed by foreign-ness, now that I'm a more seasoned traveler, and now that I live in New York City, which is more like Europe than is most of the rest of the USA. When I first came to Europe almost 10 years ago, it seemed so exciting. Now it seems a lot more like the US than like India or Peru . . . just more historic architecture/city planning than the US and a more relaxed pace of life. But still nice to visit.
On this trip, I brough (horror of horrors!) two bags -- my small rolling airplane bag and my school backpack (plus my mini backpack inside my school backpack). I wouldn't want to bring quite so much stuff for a very long trip to many locations, but for a two week with just three destinations, it's manageable and allows me to worry less about laundry and pack up more easily. The rolly bag is pretty light -- mostly just clothing. I also brought (GASP!) two paper books and left my kindle behind in New York. Maybe I'll finally convince myself to read Anathem now -- people say it's great, but it's hard to get into. So far, I've just been working my way through Elementary Go Problems volume 3 (of 4), when I get back home I should be ready for volume 4, which I recently ordered. It makes up for the go playing withdrawal.
That's all for now.
Was it worth it?
After the last two summers, I'm comparatively burned out on travel. I once had a fantasy to take a year off to travel. I'm not so sure anymore that's something I want to do. I have a lot of the world left to see, but I don't have to do it all at once. I think I'd rather get a job abroad for a year than just travel around.
I'm glad I have my experience with international travel. It keeps my mind nimble, and broadens my horizons. In the case of my most recent trip, I probably spent more time interacting one on one with Leah than in the previous eight years combined. But travel also involves a ridiculous amount of time (both planning and executing), money, and hassle, and sometimes even some physical discomfort. Of course, with experience, I will be able to spend less time planning and achieve the same level of comfort with less money. But still . . . think of all the other things I could of done for a month this summer. Well, meh, I probably would have played computer games for a month or something.
I worked on my thesis for an hour and a half today. I'm feeling refreshed from my trip, and excited for a whole year without teaching to really focus on my thesis. That's a big improvement over last summer, when I felt dejected and discouraged about my research. I think I've been through enough ups and downs with my research now, and at the same time seen enough progress over the last couple of years, that I'm less phased by the challenge than I was before, and I'm confident I'll be able to herald the energy to continue making progress and eventually finish.
I've gotten back on my usual sleep schedule (4AM to noon) over the course of just a few days. I did it by going to bed earlier, not later. The 31st, I slept from 11 AM to 8:30 PM. Then I slept from 6 AM to 1 PM the next day, and today from 4:30 AM to 11:30 AM.
I lost five pounds since I left New York! This is thanks to my large amount of physical activity on the trip with Leah, combined with moderating my consumption of the unlimited candy and beer at the mensa convention. I now weight 162, 7 pounds above my weight goal. Around the end of March, I was about 180. I'm now lighter than I have ever been in my adult life. I think I'll do fine getting back into my diet and exercise routine.
Returning to New York after travelling is refreshing, just as it was last summer. It gives me a new perspective on my home city and helps me to appreciate things I took for granted. Tonight, I wandered around my neighborhood a bit and spent about an hour browsing through a little organic foods market. I bought a ginger beer and a mango. I really like little stores like that. You don't find them so much in other cities.
The things I like best now about New York are in some ways different from the things that originally attracted me to the city. I don't go to nearly as much theater stuff as I used to, though I'm planning to see a dance performance soon. I really love the diversity of the people in New York. It's refreshing to hear so many different languages and to run into people with diverse lifestyles and interests and perspectives.
My digestive tract is healthy again. My face is full of peeling sunburns, but none particularly severe.
The flight back was kind of a pain because I had to change planes twice and go through security five times (Cuzco airport security, Lima airport security, Security upon entering Bogota airport (metal detector, bag scan), security upon flying out of Bogota (manual bag search), and US customs.) I took the subway home from JFK, enjoying being among New York people. Then I had a bagel from my favorite neighborhood bagel place and slept all day. So now my sleep schedule is almost perfectly inverted. I slept from 10 AM til 8:30 PM roughly. But I'll get it back on track in a couple of days.
I don´t have energy for the blow by blow format, so some highlights, mostly.
We had a great rafting trip with our two Peruvian guides, Frank and Segundo. On the way to the put in site, we had to go over a 4316 meter pass. That was kind of fun but also made us feel really weird.
Highlights of the rafting trip:
Some local boys hitched a ride with us after lunch. After riding for a few minutes, one of them dove headfirst into the water and swam around, then caught onto the kayak, then swam ashore. He had to really know the river or he could have banged his head on a rock.
At the end of the trip, we were sharing a liter of beer waiting to be picked up. Segundo filled his cup on the ground and then spilled a bit on the ground as a blessing to Pachamama, the earth goddess. I told him I thought he was Catholic. He said he believes in Pachamama more than Catholicism. Frank agreed, even though he had earlier told us he was a religious Catholic. We also had a nice chat with a local guy who had worked many years helping with the development of genetically enhanced crops, if I remember right.
The rafting itself was nice too. Very pretty and good exercise. It was rainforest, but not deep jungle. Some day, I´ll have to go on an expedition deep in the Amazon . . .
My Spanish has gotten substantially better, I think?
Santa Teresa was great. The zipline was a real highlight of the trip. 6 lengths of zipline a total of two kilometers long between the mountains! Santa Teresa also had a great natural hot springs, which was open 24 hours!
Machu Picchu was pretty but overpriced.
On the train from Machu Picchu to Cusco, I was sitting next to chess grandmaster David Smerdon from Australia. We had a nice conversation.
Leah and I are both a bit ill now. I have some diarrhea. I didn´t manage to avoid it after all. Oh well.
I´m looking forward to coming back to the US soon.
Back in Cusco
Very tired, but happy.
Trekking Colca Canyon
We headed for the Arequipa bus station around noon. We had to wait until 3:30 PM for a bus to Cabanaconde, the starting point for treks in Colca Canyon. The bus trip was almost six hours and passed some beautiful mountainous scenery. On the bus, we had a great conversation in Spanish with some of the other passengers. We told some jokes, among other things. It was hard to come up with jokes that weren´t wordplay, and therefore translated well. I also made up some Spanish wordplay jokes on the spot. For instance, there were many pink mammals living on a hill, and then they all died. What is it called now? Answer: El Cerro de cero cerdos (the hill of zero pigs).
We finally arrived in Cabanaconde, where we stayed at the Pachamama lodge. Pachamama is the earth goddess, I think. For dinner, we had a delicious wood oven pizza with veggies and alpaca meat. The hostel also gave us some advice about trekking, and a tiny map. We thought, we already have two bigger maps, we don´t need it. It turned out that the bigger maps were mostly useless, and the tiny one was very useful and the primary one that we made use of on our trek.This map
will help you to make sense of the following.
The region where we trekked is only accessible by foot and pack animal (mule and donkey). They are gradually building more roads, and there is a possible project in the works to build a 4 kilometer cable car (i.e. sky ride) route across the canyon from Cabanaconde (which is accessible by road) to Tapay .
We trekked for three days and two nights and then got back to Cabanaconde on the third night. The first day, we hiked from Cabanaconde to San Juan. This took us all the way from the top of the canyon to the bottom, an elevation drop of over a kilometer! This part was tough on my knees. We later figured out that I am better at uphill, and Leah is better at downhill. That is because I have stronger leg muscles and lungs, but Leah has better hiking boots and agility and knees. By the third day, we were switching off items from the packs, with me carrying more going uphill and Leah carrying more going downhill.
Anyway, the first day, by the time we finished planning logistics, we started hiking around 10:30. We finally got to the bottom of the canyon, crossed the Colca river on a nice modern bridge, and headed down up the last half hour stretch to San Juan, exhausted. The trip was supposed to take 3 and a half hours at a gentle pace, but it took us 5. San Juan is more a scattering of buildings than a town, but there is one group of buldings larger than the others, which we dubbed the "real San Juan". However, a lodge was set up to intercept travelers before they got there. We never found the way to the real San Juan, though we saw it from a distance. We think the people running the lodge intentionally made it hard to find, to avoid competition on water, or maybe even from other lodges. Anyway, Posada del Roy in San Juan provided adequate lodging, though the bamboo wall was so thin we could easily hear the people in the next room over. There was no electricity. At night, the stars were amazing. Throughout the region, it is really warm in the day and cold at night, like 80 or so in the day and 50 or lower at night. There is no heat, so all the beds have lots of heavy blankets.
The second day, we did a short hike uphill to Tapay, which had been our original destination for the first night. It was supposed to take two hours, but it took us three. There, we stayed at Hostal Maruja. We had a nice lunch of vegetable soup with quinoa, grilled chicken, rice, and lemondade. The hostal had a pen of guinea pigs, a traditional food in Peru. They made cute chirping sounds. Tapay is mostly small buildings constructed of rock, bamboo0-like plants, and tin roofs, connected by footpaths. It had a central plaza which seemed incongrous, with lots of cement, park benches, and flowers.
The next day, we started very early, because we had to make it all the way back to Cabanaconde by dark. We knew that we had the option of hiring mules if we couldn´t make it on foot, but we hoped to make it on foot. We woke up at 5:30, about a half hour earlier than the previous day, and headed out at 7:45.
The first stretch that day, from Tapay downhill to Cosnirhua, turned out to be the most dangerous stretch of trail either of us had hiked, but it was beautiful. It was a very narrow path going downhill, with no sort of wall or guardrail in many places. The ground was full of loose stones, making it slippery. To our right was a dropoff. To our left was a cliff. The cliff had rocks jutting out of it, but we had to be careful about holding them for support because some of them were loose. After going downhill awhile, we saw a part of the trail ahead that was brown colored instead of grey, and we guessed that the trail got easier there. It turned out we were wrong, and that was the start of the really hard part. The brown colored part was where a shallow stream (less than a centimeter deep) ran directly over the trail! After successfully getting past the stream, we got to a part where the color of the rock changed dramatically from grey to yellow. Here, all the rock was crumbling -- the walls and the part underfoot. After navigating this section, we were almost to a bridge. Just before the bridge was a very short stretch where the trail was almost nonexistent, crumbling away off the edge of the cliff. We got across by holding onto tree roots for support. Finally, we made it to the bridge! This bouncy hanging bridge crossed a tributary of the Colca. We crossed the bridge, and were soon in Cosnirhua.
In Cosnirhua, we had one of the most memorable parts of the trip, a nice conversation with a guy who was selling food and drink to travellers at a stand at the side of the trail. We tried two new fruits. One of them was the texture of yogurt and had seeds that you swallow rather than chew because they´re spicy.We asked him all kinds of things about the culture of the area. We had seen very few teenagers or people our age. It turned out that this was because there are no high schools or colleges in the area, so everyone goes away to school. We learned that to build the bridges, 15 to 20 men had to carry one bridge cable down the winding track! Electricity and cell phone service just came to the area a few years ago. We learned the difference between donkeys and mules, too. Mules are a cross between a donkey and a horse. A mule is stronger than a donkey, but a donkey is faster. The man also told us about the plan to build a cable car or a road to connect Cosnirhua to the outside world. The closest road has only a few kilometers to go.
In the next town, Malata, we saw a small museum of local culture. Then we started the hike back to Cabanaconde. We got down and across the the Colca River around 2 PM. There, we stopped at an overly touristy inn with swimming pools and palm trees to buy more water. (Overall, in the region, we spent more money on bottled water than on lodging!) We started uphill at 2:40, with me carrying most of the load, since Leah had carried most of the load downhill. The 1200 meter ascent to Cabanaconde was strenuous, but the trail was much safer than the trail we had hiked earlier that day. We got to the top just as it got dark, and made our way back to Pachamama inn, exhausted but very satisfied.
The next day (yesterday), we took a bus back to Arequipa. This bus was delayed somewhat because it was overloaded on the uphills, and because we had to wait for an oversized load to pass. In Arequipa, we had just enough time to collect the things we´d left behind, do laundry, try unsuccessfully to recover Leah´s bank card, and have a bite to eat before heading to the bus station to catch an overnight bus to Cuzco.
We had booked a luxury bus to Cuzco, so we had high expectations. The line advertised seats that reclined 160 degrees. The experience turned out to be similar to riding an airplane, in both the good and the bad ways. At the beginning of the ride, there was an hour of announcements and commercials on the tv screens that we had to listen to. They told us repeatedly that it was the law that we had to keep our seatbelts fastened. I thought this was funny, because the other buses we´d taken didn´t even have seatbelts. They also told us the locations of the emergency exits, served a small supper, made us go through security, had an in flight magazine -- seriously, just like flying in a plane. The seats turned out not to recline quite as far as we´d expected. To make matters worse, Leah´s seat would not stay reclined unless she kept leaning back into it, so I switched seats with her. With my larger body weight, it wasn´t much of a hassle for me. We couldn´t recline quite all the way without bothering the people behind us. Around 9PM, they finally turned off the lights and the sound on the movie, and we tried to sleep. I got some sleep a few hours anyway. Leah got even less and is sleeping now in our hostel.
In the morning, the flight attendant came around and asked us to return our pillows, blankets, and magazines. We couldn´t find both magazines right away. She insisted that we MUST return them. Later, there was an announcement over the loudspeaker that if we didn´t return the magazine, we would have to pay for it! What bullshit -- we didn´t want it in the first place. But we found it and returned it.
Well, now we are in Cuzco at the Ecopackers hostel. Tomorrow, we head out for our three day rafting trip. Then we will hang out for a bit in Santa Teresa, then visit Macchu Picchu, and get back to Cuzco the 28th, when we will be staying at El Tuco hostel. We will again be in remote areas and might not be in touch until at least the 26th, maybe the 28th. Then again, we might find that, like in the Colca Canyon area, the jungle towns along the Urubamba river might have cell phone service.
Leah and I have made good travel companions, much better than I´d expected. Our skills go together well. Between the two of us, we don´t get lost, though either one of us alone would. Her Spanish skills are very helpful, and she knew more about hiking than me. My experience travelling and ability to take things in stride and play the big brother role at times is helpful. Leah sometimes gets very frustrated or hungry and loses her temper, but she is usually able to recover pretty quickly. Of course, I sometimes get crabby or grumpy too, but I don´t lose my temper in the same way as easily. We have not been talking Spanish much between the two of us because it got to be too stressful, but we speak a lot of Spanish with the Peruvians we meet. We are really enjoying each other´s company, and I feel we are growing closer. We had not spent much time together in the last few years, so I wasn´t sure how our interactions would go, but I feel we´ve gotten along very well. We have been playing go on my phone and telling lots of jokes.
Our stomachs are still doing great, and the altitude has not been a problem. So far, it´s really been an excellent trip.
Leah and I arrived in Peru yesterday.
The plane made two stops between Santiago and Arequipa, in Iquique, Chile and Arica, Chile. In Arica, we had to get out and go through customs. We got to the Santiago airport at 5AM, a comfortable two and a half hours before our flight time and very short on sleep. However, we accidentally got in the line for security for international flights. We needed the domestic line because we weren't going through customs until Arica. We waited close to an hour in line then went up to separate windows at the end of the line. At my window, they caught my mistake and told me to go to the national line. But at Leah's window, they didn't catch it. She got all the way through customs and into the international wing of the airport before she realized and turned her phone on and called me. Then she went back to customs to get her exit card back, went out of the international wing, in through the security line for domestic flights, and got to the gate with about a half hour to spare.
My favorite thing about the flights was that when we got off the planes, we walked from the plane into the airport, and it wasn't highly regimented. We could hang out and meander outside for a bit rather than being shepherded carefully. My second favorite thing was the mountainous scenery on the final leg of the trip. The last flight leg was a half hour, but the equivalent bus ride is something like seven hours, and we could tell why. We were playing a game of go on the plane, and Leah wanted me to make my move, but I was too engrossed in the scenery. The window seat was wasted on her :-P
Arequipa is a beautiful city. It is at an altitude of 7500 feet, but the altitude didn't give us any trouble. The architectural style is a mix between Greco-Roman and Incan, I think. The ratio of taxis to nontaxi cars in the street is even higher than in Manhattan -- apparently most Peruvians don't own cars.
The cuisine is a refreshing change from the bland fare of Chile. My most memorable meal so far consisted of three dishes: thinly sliced potatoes in a rectangular casserole type slice with egg, fatty grilled pork, and a hot pepper stuffed with ground beef, peanuts, and some kind of sweet fruit, I think. The stuffed pepper was my favorite of the three by far, and the peanut wasn't enough to aggravate Leah's allergies from across the table. At lunchtime today, Leah got hungry rather abruptly, and we stopped at the first restaurant we found. It was a chain grilled chicken place called Chicken Palace (the name was English, not Spanish) with decorations about like a fast food place, so we weren't expecting much, but we were pleasantly surprised. It turned out to greatly exceed our expectations. The chicken was delicious, and there was an unlimited salad bar included featuring cooked beets, carrots, brocoli, and spinach. I also had chicha, a mildly fermented corn beverage. It was made from purple corn, surprisingly -- I was expecting it to be yellow but it was deep purple. It was very tasty and kind of sweet. Leah and I have been eating so many purple foods lately that our poop has been beet colored. (We had a lot of beets in Chile one day, plus some fresh raspberry juice.)
This morning, Leah and I split a mate de coca (coca leaf tea), which is legal and commonly available here. I think I noticed mild effects, similar to those of coffee, but I can't say for sure.
Leah lost her ATM card today. An ATM machine ate it because she was taking too long supposedly, though we think it malfunctioned. We contacted her bank and had them freeze it until she recovers it, and talked to the bank that owns the ATM. It's not certain that they'll be able to recover it, but in case they can't, I still have an ATM card and a credit card, and Leah has another debit card in Santiago.
Today, we also did laundry and finished the business of getting SIM cards for our cell phones.
The weather here has been gorgeous. Temperature in the 60s most of the day, and not a cloud in the sky. We had been thinking of going to the Lake Titicaca area for a while, but we decided to instead spend more time closer to Arequipa where it will be warmer, and we won't have to deal with a large change in altitude. Tomorrow, we are leaving Arequipa proper on a six hour bus ride to Cabanaconde, where we will begin our exploration of the Cañon de Colca area. At 3300 meters (compared to over 4000 for Lake Titicaca), it is the highest elevation we will encounter in this region, except maybe on the bus ride. This is the second deepest canyon in the Americas, twice as deep as the Grand Canyon if I remember right. (The largest is in the Americas is in this same region, too.) We will be hiking around the region, staying in small towns at night. We may not have access to phone and internet for part of the time. Today, we purchased a topographic map and a compass in preparation, and went to the bank to change our large bills for smaller ones since they can't always make change in the small towns. The woman at the map store was very helpful in suggesting a good route for us.
We will get back to Arequipa around the 19th and then take the bus to Cusco on the 20th, though these plans are not completely firm. We just have to get to Cusco by about midday on the 21st so we can touch base with our rafting company and leave for our rafting trip the morning of the 22nd.
Our stomachs have been holding out great so far. We have been avoiding raw fruits and vegetables unless we wash or peel them ourselves, and we have also been avoiding shelfish and undercooked meat. For water we have been consuming bottled water and well boiled tap water. (I follow Lonely Planet's recommendation to boil for at least three minutes at this altitude.) The small towns in the Colca Canyon region will have bottled water available and will also have facilities for boiling water.
There are a few people trying to sell us stuff, especially in the main square, but not very aggressively. This is a great improvement over my experience in India and Egypt. Prices for food, transit, and accomodations are substantially cheaper than in the US, but not nearly as cheap as in India. There are few animals in the streets besides a couple stray dogs (fewer than in Santiago), and the vast majority of the vehicles are ordinary cars, vans, and buses -- no three wheelers. Almost every corner has street signs, and the traffic flows in a a fairly orderly fashion, staying between the lines, although the intersections without traffic lights are a bit chaotic, since there are no stop signs, and it's kind of a chicken match to see which car gets to go.
We are staying in a private room with its own bathroom. The room is very comfortable, except for the fact that it is near a road, and so there is lots of traffic noise. It even has plenty of hot water for both of us to take hot showers consecutively, an enormous improvement over the place I stayed in Santiago, where I never had enough hot water for a comfortable shower.
Okay, that's all for now. I hope this long post satisfied those of you who sent me emails asking for longer posts ;-). I look forward to your comments.
Right after yesterday´s post, I had a nice conversation with one of my roommates in Spanish, a college teacher from Colombia named Paula. We talked about what it´s like to live in different cities, our work, music, and politics.
Once again, I have confirmed that having a long conversation in Spanish is an entirely different skill from understanding spoken spanish easily.
Tonight, I´m going to Leah´s host family´s house for dinner. Today, Leah and Terry and I walked around the central part of the city.
Cajón del Maipo
Today, I went to a town in the mountains in the outskirts of Santiago, called Cajón del Maipo. It was pretty, and the air smelled good. Leah did not come along. She was busy preparing for our Peru trip. I walked around some and then came back to Santiago.
On the bus ride out, the scenery began to resemble India a bit more. In that the buildings were more ramshackle and such.
I haven´t been very social at the hostel. Probably because I´m kind of exhausted from the long flight still? Or maybe because I feel like I ought to talk to people in Spanish but it´s kind of intimidating.
I forgot to mention that Leah´s boyfriend Terry had his home broken into. His laptop was robbed. This happened my second day in Chile. I hope the police manage to recover it. The crime was perpetrated by twelve year olds.´
I was very tired when I got back to the hostel today around 6 PM. I started reading the Windup Bird Chronicles. Kindle sure is great for travelling.
First few days in Santiago
The flight from Seattle was three legs -- Seattle to Miami, Miami to Bógota, Bógota to Santiago. The plane was the same for the second and third legs, but everybody had to get off in Bógota, travel through the airport to another gate, and get back on the plane. So I´ve kind of been to Colombia. Woo. I didn´t buy anything in the Bógita airport because I figured it wouldn´t be very representative of Colombian food anyway. On the last leg, I got three consecutive seats to sleep on. The plane was half empty. One of the flight attendants offered me the three seats in exchange for my seat so that two other flight attendants could sleep sitting up on my seat and the adjacent seat, with a curtain around them for darkness. I´m not sure why the flight attendants didn´t sleep on the three consecutive seats. I can´t sleep sitting up, so it was a major boon for me.
So far, we have hung out in Santiago for a couple days, and we took a day trip to Valparaiso with a group of students in Leah´s program (actually, the summer program students from the same school) another day.
I have not found Chile particularly striking. I have never encountered a Chilean restaurant in NYC or anywhere else, and I think it´s because Chilean food is largely unremarkable and bland (there´s hot sauce available, but the food itself is not particularly flavorful.) and excessively fatty. The signature dish in Valparaiso was an enormous plate of soggy french fries topped with scrambled egg and beef and dripping in oil. On the bright side, there are a few interesting exotic fruits to try.
Santiago seems more like the US or Europe than like India or Egypt or China in terms of the level of economic development (Okay, Shanghai was futuristic looking in some ways, but this was a sort of facade for the "real" China. Actually, I wonder how much wealthier Santiago is than the rest of Chile.). But that similarity means that the differences are more surprising because I don´t expect them. The most striking is the many dogs roaming the streets. They are more aggressive than any of the street animals I encountered in India. In India, you keep your distance and they keep theirs, for the most part. My first or second night in Santiago, I saw street dogs chasing cars in the street. The Chilenos really like their dogs, though. In Valparaiso, they even built a house for the street dogs.
The second most striking thing about Chile is the artistic quality of the graffiti. This was especially the case in Valparaiso, but also in Santiago.
One of the small differences between Chile and the USA is that in the USA, after the crosswalk turns red, the the traffic light in the same direction turns yellow, and you still have a few seconds to cross the street. In Chile, the light in the same direction turns red at the exact same time as the crosswalk turns red. I came close to being run over for not knowing this one time. So prima facie, it´s more dangerous to cross a busy street in India, where there are no traffic signals in most places. But I don´t think I ever had such a close call in India.
Tonight, Leah and I ate at a really nice restaurant featuring food from Argentinian Patagonia. I had a steak with quail eggs. We had chocolate fondue for dessert. Earlier today, we walked up a hill park for a view of the city, the smaller of the two hill parks in the city but the one with the nicer view.
Santiago also has very polluted air. Visibly so.
Tomorrow we´re going for a walk in a park on the outskirts of the city.
I´ve been speaking Spanish about half the time with Leah, but not very much or very well with the Chileans. Having the ability to carry on a conversation with someone patient versus having good pronunciation and listening abilities are two very different skills.
I met Leah´s boyfriend Terry Wang. His name is pronounced like ¨Wong,¨ so if I pronounced it like ¨Wang,¨ I´d be pronouncing it the wong way. She and he kiss all over the place :-). In Valparaiso, they were making out like crazy in the graveyard. It´s nice to see her with a boyfriend.
In Valparaiso, we also visited one of the houses of the famous poet Pablo Neruda. It was nice.
On Tuesday night, I will go to Leah´s host family´s house for dinner. That´s the only time I will meet them. Leah said they are very formal about guests and wouldn´t want me to come over informally. I find that disappointing -- I was hoping to spend a lot of time with them.
I can´t understand Spanish too well, but I have still been able to make some puns in Spanish. For instance, upon pulling a grape out of the chocolate fondue: oooo, va la uva.
I´m in Santiago now. I´m tempted to write a huge blog post, but I should get to sleep. Had a nice conversation with Leah in Spanish. She taught me some Chilean slang. We ate cazuela. The two of us seem to be on the same wavelength, which is good because we aren´t always. Compared to the places I went last summer, Santiago is pretty similar to the US or Europe so far.
Ready for South America
This time my bag weighs in at 23 pounds, vs. 30 pounds for last summer's trip. Not too shabby, especially considering the weather will be colder this time around. But I still wish it were lighter.
I've been having a blast in Portland and Seattle. On July 6, I leave Seattle for Santiago de Chile. Then I will be loaming about South America with my snisty istler, Leah. We will be going on a 3 day whitewater rafting trip in the Peruvian rainforest. I'm psyched.
Did you know there's also a rainforest just west of Seattle?
I'll be updating on here sporadically or more for the next few weeks. I'll be in Santiago for a week, followed by Peru: Arequipa, Lake Titicaca, Cuzco, rainforest rafting, Santa Teresa/Macchu Picchu, back to Cuzco, and flying home July 30.
I was there
I was there, in Cairo, last summer. I stayed less than a mile away from where the riots are taking place. I visited the Egyptian museum.
I particularly like this video
that Dad shared with me a week or so ago. My favorite part is about 40 seconds in. As an atheist, it makes me feel good. In the US, atheists are the least trusted minority, according to a study
. After spending just a few days in the Arab world, it's pretty clear to me that atheists would be even less accepted there. And here is someone rising above that, in the name of something better.
Last few days in China
I just posted below my postings from when I was in China. I had originally sent them out by email to a few close friends and family because internet censorship in China prevented me from posting them.
The last few days in China were beautiful. I went hiking in the beautiful green hills around Cuandixia. On the bus to Cuandixia, I met an Italian girl who was visiting her boyfriend who is working in Beijing for the state-run newspaper, translating from Italian to Chinese. She invited me to have dinner with them on my last night in Beijing. We had a great meal and discussed politics. It was refreshing to finally meet someone interested in talking politics after all that time in China.
In Cuandixia, I met a branch of a local club called the "Donkey Friendship." It is a mountain climbing (mostly hiking up mountains, not scaling cliffs) club for retired people.
The flight was long and I couldn't sleep. I played computer games and watched movies. The guy next to me on one of the legs was coming from Indonesia to go to grad school in physics in Maryland. He had taught himself English and spoke it quite well. The guy next to me on the first leg was from Nigeria. He had been attending an academic conference in China.
The flight went over Iraq, almost directly over Baghdad. That was a surprise. I hadn't realized that they did that with commercial flights.
I will post photos soonish . . .
China, part 2
August 16, 2010
Suzhou was a great day trip. The gardens there were beautiful.
The next couple days in Shanghai were quiet but fun. One day, I went
with Zhiyi and her friend to a shopping mall and for sushi. At the
shopping mall, we looked at electronics. Even though many computers
are made in China, they are actually a bit more expensive here than in
the US, because they are shipped to the US and then back to China,
resulting in more tariffs. It's not clear exactly how much more
expensive. The lable prices were 30 or 40% higher, but you can cut
them down some by bargaining. It's maybe a scheme by the government to
collect more taxes . . . This is in contrast with things like cab
rides and meals at cheap restaurants, and single popsicles, which cost
a fourth or so what you'd pay in the US.
We then went to a bar, which had been my suggestion since a week
earlier when we went to a restaurant, the beer selection was limited.
Zhiyi and her friend seemed immune to the 90+ degree heat that still
pervaded even late at night. They thought it was amusing that it was
so tough on me and we walked a long time looking at the different bar
options. We finally chose one, but this bar was expensive with an
equally limited beer selection as the restaurant from a week ago. We
walked out and grabbed a cab. By this time, the heat was making me
feel goofy. I felt drunk even though I wasn't. The weirdness of China
just hit me full-on. It felt so surreal to be here. In many ways,
China is a lot more like the US than India is. But in others, it's
just so foreign. I think the language is a big part of it. In India,
most people know at least a tiny bit of English, and signs are mostly
in English. In Egypt, English is about like in China, but at least
they have an alphabet. In China, it's just these weird characters.
When I give my current host's address to a cabbie, a part of me is
amazed that he can make any sense of the characters, even though my
rational side knows better. I actually built up a vocabulary of
nearly 50 of them. I can recognize them and draw most of them, but I
can't pronounce them. The language system is so inefficient. I was
ranting about it in the cab. But at the same time, it's beautiful.
Each character has a meaning by itself, but two characters together
don't mean literally their combination -- they have a certain
idiomatic meaning, for instance, "small heart" means caution, "fire
car" means train, etc. Zhiyi told me that Chinese people think of two
or three characters as composing a word most of the time and don't
think about the component parts -- very puns are based on the
component parts of the words. Of course, some words are just one
character, and some idioms are four or more characters. One four
character idiom is "keep box giveback pearl" meaning that you bought a
box with a pearl in it, them kept the box and gave back the pearl --
i.e. you didn't recognize which part of something was valuable. Also,
Chinese is a tonal language. There are four different tones (rising,
falling, high, falling then rising), each of which gives the same
sounds a different meaning. This makes Chinese speach sound strangely
animated to me. A high school graduate can write between 6000 and 8000
characters. They don't learn more in college unless they take Chinese
language courses. A language professor would know 30,000 or so.
Another weird thing about being in China is that it's exactly 12 time
zones away from New York. I feel so far away. India is almost as far.
(Maybe further since it's further south? I don't think so, but maybe
close.) But something about that twelve timezones -- when it's 11PM
there, it's 11AM for most of my family and friends -- is freaky.
Anyway, we bought beer at a store and brought it to my hotel room. We
realized we didn't have a bottle opener . . . but then . . . I
remembered a device I'd bought in India. Toenail clipper with attached
knife blade bottle opener to the rescue!
My final day in Shanghai, I went with Zhiyi to a doctor because the
diarrhea had come back a couple days before I left India. It had
continued, mild but persistent. The health care system in China was
interesting to observe. A doctor visit costs only 14 yuan (about 2
dollars). You can arrive at the clinic and wait and see a doctor a
couple hours later, for non-emergency care. In the US, you're lucky to
see someone that fast in the emergency room! You only see the doctor
for ten minutes or so. I had the optiont to instead go to the
foreigners' clinic for 500 yuan. They help you bill to your insurance,
and they speak English. But they don't have any greater expertise in
travel medicine. Since Zhiyi was available to translate for me, I went
to the Chinese clinic. The first doctor we saw, after an hour or two
waiting, turned out to be the wrong one. The diarrhea department was
actually its own clinic in a separate building. So we went there. The
stool sample came out negative. The doctor was loud and brusque,
especially by Chinese standards. She said the diarrhea was just from
eating too much greasy food. She gave me some meds to take, and I
changed my diet some, and now it is finally better again. I guess this
all makes sense. In the US in the rare cases when if I get diarrhea,
the first thing I do is modify my diet, and it usually clears up
within in a day or two. In China and India, I have a limited
opportunity to try food that I wouldn't otherwise get, so I didn't
change my diet. Well, enough poop talk.
I took a night train to Beijing. My host here is a 65 year old guy who
lives an hour outside the city by public transit. It's a bit of a
shlep, but it's nice to stay in this neighborhood because I get to see
some slice of life China that I wouldn't otherwise see. When I walk
back at night, the men are sitting on stools around low tables on the
sidewalks, eating food from little restaurants, smoking, playing cards
or Chinese chess. After I arrived, my host treated me to a delicious
restaurant meal, enormous. There was a beef and vegetable dish in a
pot that was kept warm on a gas burner, and a whole fish, lightly
breaded and cooked in sweet and sour sauce, and some cold greasy
vegetables, and some sweet sesame rolls.
I have not spent a huge amount of time with my host. We talk in the
morning and evening, and he encourages me to get up early and go out
during the day. He is a nice guy, but not as interesting to talk to as
my host in Agra was. He showed me his stamp collection and we talked
about classical music and our families and travel. His wife is
currently visiting her sick parent in another town.
In Beijing, so far I have seen the forbidden city, the summer palace,
and the temple of heaven. They are all pretty. The summer palace was
very crowded. The forbidden city was nice, but too repetitive. You see
one big red wall and one pagoda, you've seen them all. At the temple
of heaven, the architecture was nice, but the surrounding large park
full of cypress trees was nicer.
Today, I took a long day trip out to a section of the Great Wall
distant enough to not get throngs of people. It was amazing. The
scenery was at least as amazing as the wall itself (notice a pattern
here?) Green hills . . . It's amazing that they built such a massive
structure, and it's so pretty, perched atop the crests of the
mountains. There were annoying local villagers selling water and
souvenirs. They hassle you way less than the touts in India, but they
are still annoying. Realizing how annoying they are made me realize
just how profoundly annoying the touts in India were . . .
Anyway, I took the cable car up, walked a way along the top, and
walked back. I took a bus partway to the wall and then a cab. I think
someone on the bus was maybe in league with the cab drivers and got me
to get off the bus early so that the cab ride would be longer, but I'm
not certain. I managed to bargain the cabbies down to half their first
price, 250 yuan instead of 480 for the round trip. The bus ride back
took an hour than the bus ride out. Maybe because it was a local
rather than an express bus, and there was heavier traffic. The whole
trip took pretty much all day, and I just spent two and a half hours
at the wall, but it was worth it to go to a less crowded section.
Yesterday, I ate Peking Duck. It was delicious. I left the head mostly
untouched, but the other meat was great. As a side dish, I had lotus
root in sweet fruity sauce. Lotus root tastes kind of like jicama.
Today, I ate a moon cake. It was nasty. I'm not sure what all the fuss
is about. In Shanghai, I went one day to an expensive Hong Kong style
dim sum place. It was bland and not so good. Oh well. Some meals are
amazing, others aren't. But it's great to eat authentic Chinese food,
and I have gotten quite good with chopsticks.
I also got two massages while I was here, a body massage and a foot
massage. In India, I got a body massage too. It's fun and makes me
feel good, and it's so cheap compared to the US!
I continue to think about whether Chinese people are really very
oppressed or not. They sure don't seem to act like they are oppressed.
They look pretty happy and well adjusted. But is that just a sign that
they've been so successfully oppressed that they don't realize it? And
really, ( I know I'm repeating my last post) how much better is the
USA? Sure, we vote, but how much difference does it make? Do we really
control our government in a meaningful way? Maybe they oppress us even
more subtly than the Chinese government oppresses the CHinese. Make us
think we have a say while the wars continue in Iraq and Afghanistan in
spite of campaing promises.
Some people, when I told them I was going to India and China, asked,
"do you know the language?" I said, "no, but I'll manage." And I do
manage fine. I get lost or ripped off occasionally, but I manage just
fine. BUT . . . the bigger thing is, I don't maximize the utility of
my trip. If I knew the languages, I could really interact with the
locals and learn more about the places I visit. As it is, I feel like
a clumsy outsider with very little understanding of the culture. The
next time I go on a big trip like this, I will either go to a Spanish
speaking country, or else I will start my trip with a month or so of
intensive language study. Then, armed (or should it be "tongued"?)
with some language skils, I will be able to talk to the locals and
even to visit remote villages where nobody speaks English. I think
that if I spent two months in a Spanish speaking country, by the end,
I would be pretty fluent in Spanish, able to understand normal speed
conversation and movies and read novels. It would be great. And . . .
I think if I really wanted to, I could take a one month course in
Hindi, or maybe even Chinese, and then live in India or China for a
few more months and come out with strong language skills. The whole
model for learning languages in schools is silly. To learn a language
effectively, you have to live it, you have to be forced to use it
because it's the only way to communicate. That conversation with the
Egyptian girls in Spanish is still one of my favorite memories from
the entire trip! When it really came down to necessity for
communication, I was able to speak Spanish much better than I
One way in which the Chinese are more free than the Indians is in
terms of open sexuality. China is not quite like the US, let alone
Europe, in this regard, but it's much freer than India. Girls go
around in short shorts. Couples openly show affection in public, and I
even saw one couple kissing (though in two weeks in New York, I'd
probably see several couples kissing, passionately . . . or maybe not
-- I don't really keep count.) In India, the only place where I saw
couples being openly affectionate (and even one couple kissing) was in
Chandigarh, perhaps the most modern and progressive city in India.
Public displays of affection are actually illegal in India! I walked
past a couple of adult stores tonight. They had sex toys but no pornos
on display. If I understand correctly from Zhiyi, softcore porn is
legal here, but not hardcore.
Tomorrow, I will be going on an overnight trip to Cuandixia, a village
about 60 km from here (but a three hour bus ride). I will leave most
of my things at my host's place, taking only a small bag.
August 20 at 2 AM is my flight back. I get back to the US 25 hours
later, at 3PM the same day. Argh.
China, Part 1
August 10, 2010
First of all, for those of you who are curious about the "Great
Firewall of China" check out this link.http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2008/03/-ldquo-the-connection-has-been-reset-rdquo/6650/
THere are easy ways to get around the censorship, but not from an
internet cafe without prior preparation.
"What the government cares about is making the quest for information
just enough of a nuisance that people generally won’t bother. " That
sounds silly, but it works.
One young woman I talked to, who shall remain anonymous, told me that
she didn't feel oppressed living here. "Why bother messing with
special software just to access facebook? We have our own social
networking software . . . Everyone has their problems [but I do not
Anyway, down to the travel log.
The last couple of days in India were great. My host in Agra invited
me to come back any time, stay as long as I want, stay with his family
in other parts of India, and he extended this invitation to my family
as well! I think I'll be back . . . :-)
On August 4th, I took a sequence of two trains up to Chandigarh. THe
first one left at 6AM. In retrospect, I should have gone by bus. The
buses theoretically take a bit longer to get places, but they run
several times an hour, as opposed to the trains which must be booked
in advance and run several times a day.
In Delhi, I had to wait about four hours for my connection. This time,
I found the air conditioned tourist room. There, I had a nice
conversation with a Spanish couple. The guy spoke English well, the
woman not so much. They were about 30 years old. So first I spoke
mostly in ENglish with the guy, and then he took a rest and I had a
Spanish conversation with his girlfriend.
I talked to the guy about how India was different from what I expected
-- people are not starving in the streets and almost everyone has a
roof over their heads, because families and communities look out for
their members. He told me that this is not the whole story, just what
"they want you to think." In reality, people from low castes are
treated very badly, and are not supported by the community. He
suggested abook for me to read on the topic. Well, what can I say --
India is a very complicated country, and I have only scratched the
surface of it, but I feel like I know it a lot better than I did a few
Several people had discouraged me from visiting Chandigarh, saying it
is boring and the rock garden is kitschy. I'm glad I ignored them. It
is the cleanest city in India, and it is beautiful and easy to find
your way around! Street signs! Orderly traffic! Air conditioned
electronics stores and restaurants! No animal shit or litter on the
streets! No aggressive touts! I wouldn't want to spend all my time
travelling there, but it was such a relief after nearly a month in
India. If I were to live in India, I would choose Chandigarh, I think.
The city was built about 60 years ago, when India gained its
independence, as a capital for the states of Haryana and Punjab. It is
divided into rectangular sectors. It has tree lined streets. The
symbol of the city, the open hand, stands over the government center
on a flagpole-like stick. But the most exciting part of Chandigarh is
the rock garden, an enormous folk art environment. Google it for more
On the train up to Chandigarh, I met an Indian-American man travelling
with his family. We had a nice converstaion about the similarities and
differences between Indian and American culture.
I got to Chandigarh around dark and found a hotel, recommended by
lonely planet. The express train had been delayed, taking 5.5 hours
instead of 3.5. I stayed only one night.
In Chandigarh, before I visited the rock garden, I had lunch at a
cafeteria by a beautiful lake. (More precisely, I visited the rock
garden briefly, found their cafeteria was closed, and went out looking
for lunch.) There, I met an apple farmer living in or near the nearby
hill town of Shimla and his wife. He also has a law degree, but he
mostly does apple farming because it's a family tradition. They were
in Chandigarh to sell their apples wholesale. They had gotten engaged
(or was it married?) a week after they met. But it was not an arranged
marriage if I understand right. They have one child, a year and a half
old, and have been married for three years.
I wandered around the rock garden for a couple of hours. It was so
beautiful. Waterfalls, moss covered rocks, bridges, statues built out
of junk, swings hanging from high archways . . . unlike a lot of art
in India, which has more the feeling of craft, this was truly creative
At the exit, a sign proclaimed that anyone interested could meet the
creator, Nek Chand. Naturally, I wanted to. He was a friendly guy. He
is sort of a hero to me -- an independent thinker and a creative
genius. He started this environment on his own when he was a forest
ranger. Eventually it was discovered by the government. Some wanted to
destroy it since it was on government land, but instead they turned it
into a park and gave him a bunch of workers and a budget to expand it.
The expansion continues to this day.
I had some tea with Mr. Chand and two of the administrators. He showed
me some newspaper and magazine articles about himself and his garden,
and I got a photo with him. I gave him a donation of 500 Ruppees
towards the preservation and expansion of the garden. I did this
because I thought it was fair since I paid the Indian admission price
of 10 ruppees. In contrast, at the Taj Mahal, and many other sites,
foreigners pay about 30 times as much as Indians. In return, he gave
me a gift, an art book full of photos of the rock garden. I accepted
it, though it barely fit in my bag.
After visiting with Mr. Chand, I hurried back to my hotel and then to
the bus station to catch a bus back to Delhi to have dinner with my
Mensa contact Kishore. The bus was slower than I expected, and he
lived further than I realized from the center of Delhi, so I didn't
arrive until 10PM. But we kept in touch by phone, so he was not mad
that I was late, though his wife had gone to sleep. He took me for
dinner at a nice restaurant and we had a nice visit, though I was very
tired. Then he took me to a guest house that he's booked for me. It
took him and his driver half an hour to find the guest house because
the streets were not marked and nobody gave good directions! Kishore
lives in a wealthy, modern suburb of Delhi called Gurgaon, as clean as
Chandigarh though not as well organized. It is full of call centers --
you know, when you call customer service from the US and get someone
from India. They are in big shiny buildings in Gurgaon, among other
places. I hope I get to spend more time with Kishore next time I'm in
The next day, I took my cab (which Kishore also arranged) to the
airport. I arrived three hours before my flight to Shanghai. It only
took a half hour to check in and get through security and passport
control! This was at a brand spanking new international terminal that
had only opened a few days previous.
At the airport, I had a fancy cup of hot chocolate, by far the best
chocolate I had in India.
The flight to China was uneventful. The plane was half empty. I could
have lain down over three seats if I wanted and really slept, but I
just took two seats. I didn't see as many mountains as I expected.
Maybe we went around the main part of the Himalayas.
We arrived in China about an hour late. By the time I got through
passport control it was pretty late. My friend Zhiyi met me at the
airport and took me back to a hotel that she'd arranged for me.
On the bus back from the airport (the subway had shut down for the
night) what I found most amazing was a beautiful bridge lit up by
rainbow colored lights in a changing pattern.
Probably the first thing I noticed about Shanghai is how modern it is.
The infrastructure seems to be just as good as in New York, if not
better (except that the tap water is not potable). Everybody crosses
at crosswalks. The streets are clean. The street signs are in CHinese
and English and even tell you which way is north and south or east and
west. The subways have walls to keep you from falling on the tracks.
They run every five minutes or so from about 5 or 6 AM til 11 PM and
then completely stop! I still don't understand why so few cities have
24 hour subways, and I'm very happy to live in a city that has them.
There are no beggars or homeless people to be seen in Shanghai. I hear
that the police rounded them up and took them to the countryside so
that the city would be clean during the current World Expo. And . . .
I think this is just one example of what's going on here. The face of
the city looks beautiful . . . but what's going on under the
My first day in SHanghai, I went with Zhiyi to the museum of urban
planning. It was beautiful, but the writing style was creepy.
Everything is planned from the top down, or so they'd like you to
think. This region was chose for this development for this reason,
And yet . . . Shanghai is every bit as capitalist as New York. It is
not communist, only authoritarian. There is no socialized healthcare,
and you can't even go for emergency health care if you can't pay.
College requires tuition.
The people in China are much less outgoing than in India. If I
compliment someone on their clothing, they will get a weird look on
their face. Granted, they don't know what I'm saying since they don't
speak English. But in India, they would probably be more social, even
if they didn't know my language. I did get a smile out of one little
girl though when I smiled at her.
One night, I went to dinner with Zhiyi and her friend. We went to a
"hot pot" place. You get a pot full of boiling water with herbs in it
and a divider. One side is spicy, the other side is mild. Then you
order whatever meat and veggies you want to cook in the pot. We also
got some delicious crispy banana pancakes and pineapple pancakes. We
got fish, lamb, two kinds of mushroom (completely different from each
other -- one came in bundles of long thin stalks, the other was a
larger flat short stalked variety, cilantro, and lotus root. Lotus
root tastes kind of like jicama, but a bit sweeter maybe. You can mix
your own sauces from a selection of about 20 components, each with
descriptions hilariously translated into English telling you what
they're made of and what they go well with.
Cow Meat Sauce.
Explodes the Garlichibiscus.
the peanut is garrulous.
This was one of the most memorable meals of my life, and the
conversation was great, too. Zhiyi's friend spoke only a little
English, but Zhiyi translated for us.
One day, I went out on my own and saw the beautiful Yu Gardens and
tasted some tea.
Yesterday, Zhiyi and I went to the World Expo. Every country has its
own "pavillion" a flashy looking building with a long line. The
problem is there are no descriptions of what's inside. So you have to
ask people coming out and risk waiting in line for nothing. There were
also outdoor music and dance shows and pavilions with corporate rather
than national sponsors. The pavilions are full of videos, museum
displays, etc. The Saudi Arabian one is the most popular, with an 8
hour wait! The longest wait we did was 3 hours for Japan. The pavilion
was okay, but we had a great time waiting in line and visiting, so it
was all good.
One day, we will go on a daytrip to nearby Suzhou to see more
ornamental gardens. On the night of the 13th, I'm taking a night train
to Beijing. I already have Servas day host contact there. In all of
China, there are only about a 20 Servas hosts, due to government
regulations, and they are all day hosts.
All the food here has been amazing, and I've learned to get along
pretty well with chopsticks.
I'm glad I have the oppourtunity to visit China, but I sure wouldn't
want to live here. It is probably the scariest place I've ever been.
Not scary in the sense that I'm terrified all the time. Scary in the
sense that something is very wrong, but you barely notice unless you
dig. And that makes it even scarier.
But then again . . . a lot is wrong in the USA, too . . . and we deal
with it. Most of us barely notice. But at least in the USA, there is
not much in the way of government censorship.
Forgot to mention . . .
On the train from Varanasi to Agra, I met a veterinarian and his business partner. They were on their way back from some part of Uttar Pradesh with some bull semen they had purchased there to sell in their home town of Jaipur -- there are better purebreds in Uttar Pradesh. They were carrying it in a liquid nitrogen cooled container inside a cardboard box.
I went third class AC. I slept almost as well as I had in first class, but not quite, and i met much more interesting people. I had a cute little sleeping nook up against the top of the car, with a curved wall and a curtain for privacy. It was a bit of a challenge to climb up and down from it.
A beautiful family and a beautiful building
I am staying in Agra with a wonderful Servas family. Grandfather, grandmother, father, mother, and two children. The grandfather is quite a character. He is a retired member of the state senate and president of the table tennis association. He and his son are 11th and 12th in a patrilineal sequence of marble workers, the first of whom worked on the Taj Mahal. The grandfather and his son are now working on restoring the Taj.
Grandfather has an eccentric outlook on life. He is into his own flavor of spirituality, merging aspects of Hinduism, Buddhism, and even Christianity. If I try to describe it here, I will probably misrepresent him, but I'll try to give my interpretation of what he told me. He does not believe in absolutes -- he says that everything is true and everything is false -- in different ways. I can relate to this philosophy. Recently I have been thinking a lot about the idea of coming as close as possible to contradiction while somehow maintaining consistency. But the difference between him and me is that even an outright logical contradiction does not seem to bother him. For me it's a game -- how can you say something that sounds like a contradiction and then explain how it's logically consistent. For him, there's nothing wrong with contradiction. This is a view that many religious people I've met this summer have expressed in one form or another. An Israeli recommended a postmodernist book on the topic -- The Shortness of Everything, I think it was called. I'll try to read it later.
Grandpa is very casual with his family, playing with his grandchildren jovially, dressing casually, etc. His childhood was much different. He came from a very wealthy family (wealthy enough to afford British servants!), where the tradition was that father and son should not be friendly with each other but rather keep a formal distance. He is partly reacting against that in being casual with his family. He enjoys life and does not worry too much. He also does not believe in going to doctors for the most part. But he is happy, which is the most important I would say. He shares a direct style of communication with me.
The first night staying with them, they asked me to cook for them. I decided to make chicken piccatta with pasta. Well, my version of chicken piccatta has evolved a bit from the standard, but that's neither here nor there. I had to go to four different grocery stores and a produce stand to procure the necessary ingredients. The last one was the last resort -- The Biggest Grocery Store in Agra, Chopra and Sons, run by Sikhs. I had to take a cycle rickshaw there -- the others were within walking distance. The only missing ingredient was the nonessential parmesan cheese, but Grandpa really wanted me to get it to have everything I needed. Chopra and sons was much smaller than a 7-11, though much better stocked. I told the family about the grocery stores in the US. I wonder if they have bigger ones in Mumbai or Bangalore than in Agra. Probably so, but I don't know how much bigger. The second hardest ingredient to find had been fresh mushrooms. The first place I looked had only canned mushrooms, the second none at all. I found them at the third place. Pepper, pasta, lemon, and garlic were easy to find. The chicken the father picked up separately.
The children are very bright and speak better English than their mother and than many rickshaw drivers and hotel staff I've met. I taught them the chicken dance and the Israeli Mayim dance, sang songs with them and am having a great time with them.
Last night, through communication errors and cultural differences, I ended up in an uncomfortable situation. I told Grandpa how my father had quit medicine to work for the family business, and he told me he knew a man with a similar story, who quit the military to run the family business, and would i like to meet him? I did, so we met at the guy's store and chatted a while. We had a nice conversation about Afghanistan (Grandpa was bored but the Captain and I had a nice conversation). The Captain said he believed that if the US just pulls out of Afghanistan, the region would become completely unstable and there would be mass carnage there. Of course I've heard this argument before, but it was interesting to hear it again somehow. What I couldn't quite get him to see was the opportunity cost of being in Afghanistan. It's so expensive. We have never tried swapping our aid and diplomacy budget with our military budget, or at least making them closer to equal. Imagine what we could achieve that way -- well, I talked about it some in the last post. The Captain agreed with me that building schools in Afghanistan is crucial, but thinks that the Taliban would not let them operate properly if we pulled out. Well, Taliban is not currently interfering with the schools that CARE has built there (see the link from my last post). The Captain also told me a bit about life in the Indian military. In his day, military people were encouraged not to save their money -- they had a nice pension and they shouldn't think like businessmen, who are a lower caste then military.
Next, we said goodbye to the Captain and had a drink and some food with one of his sons. (The Captain is a teetotaler). I had 500 mL of strong beer, enough to have a small but substantial effect on me since I'm not a heavy or frequent drinker. The Captain's son also had some beer, and Grandpa had some whiskey. Then Grandpa suggested that the Captain's son show me the buisiness, and said he'd rather stay in the other room and enjoy his whiskey, was that okay with us? We agreed, and . . .
before I knew it, the son was making a sales pitch at me to buy jewelry (or jewellery, the UK spelling, which I thought was an error on their sign) and art. Of course, he denied that he was making a sales pitch -- he was just showing me the business. But I felt uncomfortable, because here I'd just had a beer, and I was expecting purely social time and ended up in a situation that I spent a lot of time as a tourist trying to avoid. As a tourist in India, half the people i meet on the street are trying to get me into stores to sell me stuff, and it gets annoying when you're not in the mood for it -- I stay with servas people in part to take a break from such things. To make things more complicated, I actually found a piece of art I liked.
Later that night, I discussed things with Grandpa, and I know he didn't intend to do anything mean to me, and I don't think the Captain's son intended to take advantage of me either -- it was just a communication error. I went back to the shop this morning and have a substantial pile of clothing and art that I'm considering buying, but I haven't paid for it yet since it's expensive and bulky -- I'm still deciding which of it I want to buy. Well, the experience last night was uncomfortable, but it was a nice experience anyway -- I like to put myself in uncomfortable situations because it helps me to learn and grow. I think I will buy a lot from this store because I am confident that since the Captain is a good friend of Grandpa, I will get a good deal and good quality items. I avoided making large (by US standards) purchases (though I bought some things) at other art and clothing stores that I was led into off the street because I doubted the quality.
Oh, the Taj Mahal! I almost forgot it. Yesterday morning, I woke up early in the morning at 5AM (they have a special verb for that in Hebrew, Hashkem). The family had giving me walking directions, and I walked to the Taj. All the other buildings I've seen in my travels have been miss-able. Pretty, but nothing spectacular. The Taj . . . lives up to its reputation. My first sight of it was actually the previous day when I arrived in Agra and the rickshaw driver pointed out its silhouette shimmering in the distance.
The entire grounds around the Taj are meticulously landscaped, with a beautiful garden. Unlike most of India, it is largely free of litter. I didn't bring my camera -- I preferred to just enjoy it without being interrupted by the need to take photos. I did hire a pro to take a few photos of me, though. I spent six hours mostly just admiring the beauty of the place. The Taj, the gardens, the surrounding red sandstone buildings, the reflecting pool . . . The whole thing has bilateral symmetry, but when you look at it from different angles, it looks so different. From the left versus the right, a different part seems to be in front. The black birds circling the white building and landing on it added greatly to the beauty and fantasy quality, as did the overcast weather and light rain. The temperature was mercifully cool. All of India has seemed like a fantasy to me in some ways -- palaces, paupers, traditional dress and food, stray animals roaming the street, oxcarts plying about, red red earth, lush green vegetation, holy men, exotic fruits, ramshackle buildings, children with contagious smiles, cycle rickshaws, bazaars . . . but the Taj, the Taj felt like a fantasy afresh, even after I've gotten used to India -- a fantasy within a fantasy! When I first saw it yesterday morning it seemed to just be hovering there, looming, larger than life, larger than reality, perfect in its beauty, mythical, larger than life, larger than the universe. For a few moments, I was overcome with emotion. It was meant to be a paradise on earth, and it evokes that mood well.
floats in morning monsoon mist;
a fantasy within a fantasy --
you are bigger than you are.
What the fuck, Obama???
"A recent report from the Congressional Research Service finds that the war on terror, including Afghanistan and Iraq, has been, by far, the costliest war in American history aside from World War II. It adjusted costs of all previous wars for inflation.
. . . .
"In the presidential campaign, Mr. Obama promised to invest in a global education fund. Since then, he seems to have forgotten the idea — even though he is spending enough every five weeks in Afghanistan to ensure that practically every child on our planet gets a primary education."
~One Soldier or 20 Schools?
When I voted for Obama, it was my understanding that he planned to move our troops out of Iraq and Afghanistan, not as quickly as I wanted, but within a few years at any rate. It appears that he's doing the opposite. A primary education for EVERY CHILD ON THE PLANET . . . versus five weeks of military spending. We need to get our priorities straight as a country.
In the next Presidential election, I'm voting for a serious peacenik, even if it's someone like Mike Gravel, who I almost voted for last time around but decided against since he didn't seem to be all there mentally. Well, anybody who would spend as much as Obama has on violence is not all there mentally either.
First a note, I have left a long comment about global warming and immigration in the Bangalore Encounters thread.
Having traveled for some time now in countries with a range of languages, I have begun to think that the world might be better off if everybody spoke the same language. Communication is key to understanding. Communication, not just between governments, but between common people, is important for peace processes and for mutual understanding between cultures, I think. So from this perspective, we would certainly be better off if everyone spoke the same language. The loss would be in terms of a loss in cultural richness and diversity, as languages fall out of use. Arguably, this could also lead to a loss in expressive diversity, though many linguists would say this is not the case. Would it be worth the cost? I'd say maybe so. At the very least, I would advocate a continuation of the trend of teaching school in India in English. (Do I sound like a cultural imperialist? Maybe I am one in some ways. But I can't help the fact that English is the de facto world language already.) Even in areas where Hindi or another local language is more important locally, it does students a service to learn English, which they can use to participate in the global economy. All the wealthy people I've met in India have spoke good English. This suggests (but does not logically imply) that by teaching English heavily to all Indian students, we can improve people's economic well being. Say, at least half the classes being taught in English -- enough so that they can become fluent in English while still teaching enough classes in Hindi or a local language so that proficiency in that language can develop. Of course, the cause and effect might be the other way around -- maybe after people become rich, their English gets better. But this seems unlikely since good English skills are needed for lots of high paying jobs. And since early childhood is the best time for language learning, it stands to reason that people should learn English from an early age, rather than having elementary school classes other than English class conducted exclusively in Hindi.
Varanasi -- a very nicey city
My first day in Varanasi, I went to a Lonely Planet recommended hotel, Shanti Guest House. It is a big hotel with a rooftop restaurant. The room is basic, lacking furniture besides a bed, chair, and AC, but adequate. The bathroom has a urinal as well as a toilet. Like most cheap Indian hotels, the shower just sort of goes in the middle of the bathroom with no curtain or tub and a drain on the floor, so the bathroom gets wet when you shower. When I tried to FLUSH the urinal, the tube coming out of the bottom of the urinal got disconnected, and pee-water spilled onto the floor. Yuck. Oh, well, it doesn't actually need to be flushed.
My stomach problems continue to improve.
The first day in Varanasi (yesterday), after I checked into the hotel, I chilled at the rooftop restaurant and enjoyed the food and most of all, the views of monkeys scampering across the rooftops. This is the most monkeys I've seen anywhere in India, I think, though there were some on Chamundi Hill near Mysore as well.
Today, I got up a bit late, around 8 (I know, not late by my US standards . . . ) and had breakfast, where I met some Spanish young women. I went for a walk with them along the Ghats -- oops too hot by the time we got going (11 AM or so). After an hour or so I made a retreat to the hotel, a bit sunburned -- I hadn't put on sunblock since I knew it would sweat right off. This is only the second time I've been sunburned this trip, the first being when I went snorkeling in Eilat. Neither time has been particularly bad. Now I'm wearing my long sleeved shirt with sun protection built in, and my hat, to avoid further sunburn. Tonight, I'm going on a boat ride on the Varanasi that is free with my hotel room. Later tonight, I will likely catch a classical Indian music performance with dinner.
Varanasi is located on the holy Ganges river. There is a sort of boardwalk (without boards) along the river, with steps called Ghats going down into the river. Lots of people swim there even though it contains 1.5 million fecal coliforms per liter, and the safe level for swimming is 500 per liter. I will not be swimming in the Ganges! Many hindus believe that if someone dies in a certain place on the Ganges (near my hotel) and is then cremated there, they will go straight to moksha/nirvana. Even if they don't die there, they will get better karma for being cremated there. You can watch the cremations take place. I watched for a while, but between the cremation fire heat and the weather, it was too hot to watch the whole process. Maybe tomorrow morning or this evening I'll wait for longer. It's not that big a deal to me to watch -- maybe it would be if I knew the person and could see their face, but otherwise, it's just a body -- I've seen living bodies in India doing all kinds of things they wouldn't do in the USA. That's more dramatic to me than whatever a dead body might be doing.
Tomorrow I will try to get up early and enjoy the Ghats before it gets too hot, then retreat to my room or the rooftop restaurant for midday. Tomorrow night, I take a train to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. I have already made arrangements to stay with a Servas host in Agra. He is an artist and yoga instructor.
For those of you who thought I was harsh against Israel . . . here's a criticism against India.
In India, it's against the law for an opposite sex couple to have a public display of affection, even including holding hands if the police are feeling nasty or don't like you.
If the US were to adopt Israel's marriage laws (marriage must be performed out of the country unless it's between people of the same religion) or India's PDA laws, I would prefer Israel's marriage laws. Because marriage is not nearly as important as the relationship that is privately agreed upon.
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Swimming with sweat
Dinner in Bangalore with Rohan and Sundar was amazing! It was one of those 25 course (generously counting butter topping as a course) meals that I told you in the last post are common at weddings, at a restaurant. The food kept coming and coming. All vegetarian -- for vegetarians, India is heaven. I couldn't nearly finish all of it. Perhaps my favorite part was a strong raisin sauce.
Then I flew to Delhi, spent a few hours there, and took an overnight train to Varanasi.
In Delhi, I road on the subway. In some ways, it is better than the new york subway! It is air conditioned, even before you get on the train! They use electronic cards for fares, and you can hold it up to the sensor while it's in your wallet, something I can't always do with electronic cards like that. The trains have automated station announcements, both auditory and electronic.
I might have to take back my claim that there are fewer beggars in Delhi than in San Francisco, though -- the child beggars at the Chandni Chawk market were quite annoying.
In the Delhi airport, I hired a prepaid cab, to avoid touts. I planned to take the cab to the train station and store my luggage there, then look around. To my dismay, the cab driver repeatedly tried to sell me a city tour. At the end of the ride, rather than get mad at him, I explained to him clearly why that was annoying to me. He said he understood. Then I gave him a decent tip. I credit this positive interaction to my reflection on a book I'm currently reading that I picked up on the way into Bangalore at the airport, Emotional Intelligence. It is a classic that has been recommended to me many times, and I'm glad to be finally reading it.
I didn't want to go see umpty zillion more temples. I'm not really so big on seeing temples. It bothers me that many people here seem to think that's all tourists want to do. For instance, right now I am in Sarnath, a suburb of Varanasi. Yesterday, I was walking in the countryside on the outskirts of Sarnath. On two occasions, I encountered locals, who asked me, "Have you seen Sarnath?" I said, "That's a silly question. I'm in Sarnath RIGHT NOW. I'm seeing Sarnath RIGHT NOW!" One didn't quite understand due to his poor English, I think. The next one did, and he laughed. Both asked, "have you seen this temple, have you seen that temple?" I told him, the temples are part of the town -- the temples are not the same thing as the town. I'm not so big on tmples.
Anyway, the night train to Delhi was nice. The "first class AC" sleeper car was far from that by American standards. A hard bunk bed. I shared my section with just one other guy, though most of the sections were four person. The food was mediocre. I managed to sleep eight hours though, with some interruption -- I've gotten used to hard beds here. On the way out of Varanasi, I am in third class AC because higher classes were not available. I think it will be fine, but I might try to upgrade to second class AC (that train has no first class). Third class has 3-tier bunk beds, 6 beds to a berth. 2nd is like 1st, but with fewer amenities -- I don't think the amenities were very helpful anyway. Sheets and pillows are provided in all three. There are lower, non-AC classes as well.
Anyway, I got to Varanasi, and took an autorickshaw 12 km to Sarnath where my Servas host, Dr. Jain, was waiting for me. Riding through the polluted, trashed, muddy streets of Varanasi, I began to understand why Mysore is considered something like India's third-cleanest city -- yuck! When I get back to NYC, it will not seem as dirty to me. Dr. Jain is an interesting character. He runs a guest house and an elementary school system. There are preschools in the nearby villages and a central elementary school in Sarnath. There are students of both sexes, but they emphasize recruiting girls. He collects contributions, mostly from foreigners, for scholarships -- about $170 for a year scholarship -- I'm considering making such a contribution. He has a Ph.D. in geology, his thesis is on water resources. His school takes no government money because he doesn't want to deal with the bureaucracy. The school has moral education classes, but does not advocate any particular religion. He is starting public speaking classes soon for the older students. Unlike many schools in India, classes are conducted in Hindi, not in English, though there is an English class. He said that in rural areas, English is not needed. I personally would conduct classes in English if it were my school. But he says students who go to school in English and speak another langauge at home don't gain a full mastery of either -- that's a good point. Being able to express yourself well with proper usage in at least one language is a crucial skill. More on my thoughts on language in another post. Dr. Jain also thinks that it's important to not have corporal punishment in schools and encourages his teachers to get to know the students and solve discipline problems cooperatively rather than punitively when possible, and never with corporal punishment.
Dr. Jain also runs a guesthouse, one of the rooms of which I'm staying in. There are no other guests because it's not tourist season. The electricity usually works from the source, but sometimes the circuits go out, due to bad wiring and confusing systems of switches. At one point, my fan stopped working. They moved me temporarily to another room. Finally they figured out that four different switches had to be on for the fan to work.
1) the on/off switch for the fan
2) the power level dial for the fan.
3) the power control for my whole room, camouflaged with the wall paint outside my room
4) another switch, far away from my room!
I don't think there's a single air conditioner in all of Sarnath! It gets I think into the nineties during the day, and it is VERY humid. So humid I can't even use sunblock -- when I tried it sweated off in a half hour, stinging badly. So humid that the sweat piles up on your forehead and falls in your eyes. You wipe it off. Fifteen minutes later you're swimming again. It's an interesting experience. I still maintain that I prefer humid heat to dry heat, a minority opinion. Because at least in humid heat I stay hydrated and I don't get feel as much like like I'm about to barf. But I do feel like I am producing more sweat than can easily escape, even when I carry around a towel to wipe myself. Inside under a fan it's better. But the internet place I'm in now -- the fan isn't working. When I saw that Dr. Jain had no AC, I thought of deciding not to stay with him, but I figured, if he, his two teenage daughters, his wife, and his elderly father can do it all year long, I can do it for a few days. And it's given me more appreciation of what it's like to live in India.
Dr. Jain and family are serving me delicious vegetarian food at every meal and lots of tea. Yesterday, we had mangoes. Not a magical firm texture like the amazing mango in Florida. Rather, mushy -- at the very peak of ripeness, starting to ferment just a little bit ---- YUM! I have learned to eat with my hand like an Indian. You use only your right hand to put food in your mouth. The left hand is for serving and for cleaning your ass in the bathroom. You pour the sauces over the rice, or spoon them over, and mix it all with your fingers and eat it. You can also pick stuff up with bread. I am losing a few pounds in India due to the lack of junk food among other reasons. I recently weighed in at 76 kilos, fully clothed. I think that in Israel I actually gained weight.
The spices and flavors are amazing, but after a few days it starts to get old -- time for some meat or some American food soon -- after I leave the Jains to live stay at a hotel in Varanasi for a couple days.
The Jains are (surprise) of the Jain religion, but they also follow some Hindu gods. Dr. Jain told me that in India people do not proselytize like Christians in the US. There is a much more pluralistic view on religion. Educated people often do not see the Gods literally, but rather as aspects of natural forces or creations of humans. Dr. Jain had five girls if I remember right, the youngest two of whom (age 14 and 17) Are living at home. One of the older ones is married, and if I remember right all three are working. The married one had an arranged marriage. However, Dr. Jain told me that if another daughter wanted to choose her own spouse, even a non-Jain, he would be okay with it. In India, while arranged marriage is getting less and less common, it is still fairly uncommon for women to work.
I haven't seen a lot of sights in Sarnath, partly due to the disgusting weather, partly cuz I'm tired of temples. I did see some ruins. The kids at the ruins first tried to sell me junk -- postcards, statues, but when I finally convinced them I wasn't interested, they invited me to socialize with them. Score!
Later, I socialized with the tourist police, and they explained to me the card game they were playing and talked about sex. Last night, I wandered into the countryside. I met many people. One gave me a ride to his place on his motor bike, where I met his family. They gave me some snacks. Then I rode with him into town where he insisted on buying me a sprite, even after I offered to pay twice. The young man I had met in Thicksay also bought me some snacks. India has a lot to teach us about generosity.
Today, I toured Dr. Jain's main primary school. He was busy with paperwork and sent an assistant to give me the tour. All the classes were given a chance to talk to me. But all they could say was "what's your name" and "my name is . . ." even thought they were learning much more advanced written English. The students seemed quite happy. After first grade, I think, they take a test, which only about one out of four passes. They then have one chance to repeat first grade and take the test again -- otherwise they're thrown out. So the upper classes were small -- about 20 or 25 students per class. Kindergarten and first grade were much larger.
In the past day or two, I read a novel from the guesthouse library that I strongly recommend. It's called Mistress of Spices. I think Victor might like this novel . . . it feels like a poem. On one level, it is about a woman who is born a long time ago in India and acquires magic powers relating to spices. She then goes to modern day Oakland, California, where she has a spice shop and uses her powers to help people. She's not supposed to get too involved with people or to leave her store, but she does . . .
On another level, it's about the struggles of Indian immigrants coming to America, and about love and about human nature.