Monday, August 25, 2008

America's ill

We're back.

Yes, after a swashbuckling year of rat-dodging, leech-fleeing, fish-mourning, strange-massage-receiving adventure in Asia, we've returned to the US. Everything is so clean and orderly here. The portions are gigantic. And I've yet to see a single amputee beggar here in the Pleasantville of a beach community that my parents call home.

And of course, we're sick as dogs (Indian dogs at least. American dogs appear shockingly well fed after our year in Asia). Aliyah's been fighting a fever that hit 104 the other night, and I'm quickly following suit. We're pretty sure our bodies are rejecting America.

And yes, we know, we've done a lousy job of keeping up the blog during our last couple months of traveling. Well hey, what do you expect? We were having too much fun.

With us back on American soil, this post will likely be the last on this blog. We'll keep it online for posterity, but no need to check back regularly for new posts. They're not coming.

Thanks to all for reading and keeping tabs on us this last year. We were always delighted to know our friends and family were interested in and amused with our adventure. Thanks.

Monday, July 14, 2008

Prison beating

I got beat up in prison.

Well, sort of. I got a massage that beat me up pretty good. At a spa. At a women’s correctional facility in Chiang Mai.

The women’s prison apparently uses the spa as a way to train its inmates for honest work on the outside. And let me assure you, those lady criminals are tough.

The massage studio looked like any other in Thailand—all air-conditioned cushy pastels. Our masseuses were quiet and mild-mannered—mine even wore bookish glasses—and outfitted in soft blue jammies that looked like OR scrubs. That was something of a disappointment to me. I’d been hoping for black-and-white Hamburglar outfits and faces clawmarked from shower fights.

After the masseuses gave our feet a nice biblical scrubbing, we changed into jammies of our own. Then the criminal masseuses served us tea and laid Aliyah and I down on adjacent cushions.

“Soft, medium or heavy?” my seemingly meek masseuse asked me.

“Heavy,” I said as toughly as I could. When in Rome

The criminals giggled. Aliyah wisely opted for medium. And then the pain began.

My criminal dug her elbows into my thighs with such determined ferocity I would have thought she was trying to dig a tunnel under the prison walls. She jammed her forearms into my back so violently I wondered whether she thought I was a narc. And when my masseuse sent Aliyah laughing by clamping onto my upper body and twisting it around as easily as she would a bottle cap, well, my masseuse could only have been imagining I was the member of a rival prison gang, right?

But oh, it hurt so good.

When the hour was over and I started limping toward the exit, Aliyah and I quickly agreed: best massage ever.

Just as we reached the door, in mid-whisper trying to goad each other into asking the masseuses what they were in for (assault and battery was our best guess), we noticed the armed guard was not manning his post by the exit. Before I could scream, “Jailbreak!” Aliyah pointed behind me. The guard, in a khaki uniform with a gun and billy club dangling like Christmas ornaments from his belt, was fast asleep in one of the La-Z-Boys the gals use for foot massages.

Talk about hard time.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Tourists flee

The newspaper changed our travel plans.

We had just sat down in a cafe in McLeod Ganj -- India's Little Tibet -- for a relaxing pot of Tibetan butter tea, which tasted like twelve sticks of butter melted into a thimble of boiling water. I grabbed a newspaper off an empty table -- the first paper I had seen in days in this remote hill station -- and began reading. A banner headline on page four jumped right off the page and began worming through the more cowardly parts of my character: "Kashmir still on the edge."

We had been planning on going to Kashmir in two days. I kept reading the story. The first subhed was "Tourists flee," and the text underneath quoted a businessman with a vested interest in drawing tourists to Kashmir as saying that tourists ought to stay away.

We read a couple more stories in other papers. Massive protests of thousands upon thousands of angry and riotous young men -- justified, perhaps, in their anger but not their means -- blockading major roads in Srinagar, attacking police (who often attacked back, if not first) and bringing the fragile state government of Jammu & Kashmir to the brink of collapse. AFP called the violent protests among the biggest in two decades, with at least 300 injured and 3 dead. It didn't exactly sound like the houseboat holiday we'd expected in one of the world's most notoriously beautiful (and most fiercely fought over) destinations.

So we changed our plans. We may be a little crazy, but we're not stupid.

We're off to Bangkok tonight, bidding India farewell -- at least for now -- after a wild year here.

So goodbye, India. It's been real. In spite of everything, or perhaps because of it, we'll miss you.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Fake!

The man with the mustache accused me of a felony.

We were checking out of our hotel in Amritsar for an early morning car trip to McLeod Ganj -- India's Dalai Lama Land. We owed the guesthouse 1,300 rupees for our stay of two nights, and I handed the hotel clerk two crisp 1,000 rupee notes. Frowning, he started trudging toward the door to go scare up some change. A fat man with a bureaucrat's mustache and an unflatteringly tight t-shirt was sitting in a plastic chair by the hotel's front door. He grabbed the young clerk's arm as he passed and asked to examine the money.

The man held each note above his head, squinting seriously as he examined how much light passed through each bill. Then he crinkled each into a ball next to his ear, listening with pretended meditative concentration. Then the man with the mustache, who I'm nearly certain was not even an employee of the hotel, stood and strode toward me with the aggressiveness of a confident prosecutor with an airtight case.

"Pakistan is a great country," he said knowingly.

"What?"

He repeated himself, and winked.

"What are you talking about?"

A shyster's smile unfolded beneath the mustache as the man wagged my money in my face.

"These are counterfeit," he said. "From Pakistan."

I laughed.

"Really," he said.

"Look," I said, winding my laugh down and replacing it with a well-worn tone of terse annoyance. "We may be just thirty kilometers from Pakistan here, but I got this money in Delhi. From a Citibank ATM. It's not counterfeit."

"Yes," he said, crinkling the notes next to his ear again and nodding as if this telltale rustle was proof enough. "Counterfeit, sent in the mail from Pakistan."

"Stop being ridiculous. They're not counterfeit."

"Yes they are."

"No they're not."

"Yes they are."

"No they're not."

Etc...

After a few minutes of this inane back and forth, the hotel manager showed up. Without a word, he sneered at my accuser, snatched my money from the mustachioed conspiracy theorist, threw it in a drawer, and handed me seven hundred rupees change.

I held up one of the notes to the light and shook my head.

"No, no, no," I said. "This is a fake!"

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Four more Nepal scenes

1. I crouched next to Chanu behind a sparsely-leafed tree branch in the jungle on an island in Chitwan National Park. Chanu held his fingers sternly to his lips as I stared with wide-eyed fright at two 1,000-plus pound rhinos not thirty feet away. These wild one-horned rhinos were about eight feet tall and fifteen feet long, and covered with thick bulgy body armor. They looked like dinosaurs.

Along with me and our guide Chanu, there were four other tourists, Aliyah included, stalking these rhinos by foot. A fat sixty-something Canadian lawyer with a boring drawl and a penchant for retelling sleepy stories rode an elephant a few meters away.

Chanu had warned us an hour earlier, at the start of our jungle walk, that if we came upon rhinos we might need to run (in zig-zags that would out-agile the giant beasts) and possibly need to climb trees to safety.

"Why are we doing this again?" Aliyah whispered to me after Chanu's dire speech.

An hour into our wet buggy jungle walk we stumbled upon the rhinos. Crouching low, we crept forward, though I quickly had to dart aside as the Canadian-carrying safari elephant following on our heels nearly trampled me and an Australian construction surveyor whose name I never bothered to learn.

The Aussie and I then took just a few more steps toward the rhinos before Aliyah and the others started scampering fast in the opposite direction, mouthing "Run! Run!" I did, and while frantically looking for a tree to climb while I fretted about being impaled by a rhino horn, I ran straight into one of the elephant's tree trunk legs.

False alarm anyway. The rhinos weren't charging.

Moments later, we'd set up behind a thin layer of leafy cover, watching up close two gray jungle dinosaurs while the elephant noisily chomped on branches and vines. The rhinos were incredible. I felt like I was in Jurassic Park.

Then Chanu tapped my arm and whispered in my ear.

"If the rhinos charge, and they will come fast, we go hide behind the elephant," he said. "Rhino is afraid of elephant. Otherwise, we are in trouble."

I passed the whispered instructions onto Aliyah.

"Why are we doing this again?" she asked.

2. The fake guru at Planet Osho looked like Danny Devito's Penguin -- long straggly black hair, pointy face, lumpy bowling ball belly.

Looking for a yoga class on a rainy day in Pokhara, we'd stumbled upon Planet Osho and had signed up for an immediate one-hour private session before even meeting the guru -- billed as a "teacher with experience."

Inside the yoga studio, Penguin quickly sat down on his mat -- which was actually a thin mattress with white bedsheets and a feather pillow. A nearby plastic trash can was full to the brim with junk food wrappers.

"Please take off your watch," the fake guru said importantly to Aliyah, even as the glint of his own gold watch became visible beneath the sleeve of his maroon jammies.

"Now," the charlatan said, "watch me first."

Struggling, the guru reached out to touch his toes, his flabby breasts rolling over his cantaloupe belly, his fat fingers clawing at empty air, unable to touch his toes. He held his breath the whole time. I pictured yoga master Sukant Tiwari telling this idiot not to fight with his body.

Guru soon exhaled loudly and instructed us to attempt the pose. I nearly palmed my feet fairly easily, but was admonished for breathing.

"Now," the huckster guru said, exhausted, "we rest."

And he laid down on his bed-mat and shut his eyes.

3. The spider was crawling up Tom's face. He was freaking out.

"What is it?" he yelped, squirming in the tiny wood and canvas box strapped to an elephant's back in which the four of us rode.

"Turn toward Ben!" Aliyah yelled at the Yale-bound sociology scholar.

He did, just as the thin-legged, big-bodied arachnid began to crawl onto the underside of his glasses.

I flicked it off.

We were on the first of two elephant safaris through the jungle of Chitwan National Park, and as we brushed against or were dragged through thick jungle foliage as the elephant rumbled along, the four of us -- me, Aliyah, Tom and his girlfriend Jill -- were constantly on bug patrol. As the member of our foursome least terrified of bugs (though still quite terrified), the job of bug flicker offer fell to me.

We were beset by loads of spiders, shiny black buzzing beetles the size of silver dollars, bright red winged somethings, wormy crawlers, giant flies, scurrying ants -- but thank goodness, none of the giant red millipedes we saw so many times on jungle trees and rocks.

I liked flicking the bugs off everybody. Sometimes I even flicked their shirts with a cracking pointer finger push when there were no bugs there at all.

I didn't consider that as a misuse of my authority as designated bug flicker offer. They were simply preemptive strikes.

4. Straddling the elephant's tough leathery neck, I clung tightly to the surprisingly handle-like cartilage curls of his massive ears.

The elephant trainer standing easily on the pachyderm's butt yelled a sharp command in Nepali and the giant beast rolled slowly onto its left side, dumping me into the river.

The trainer laughed and urged me back on. I scrambled up the elephant, hung on for dear life, and after another barked order from the trainer, was thrown like a rag doll from a champion bucking bronco.

We repeated this exercise at least a half dozen times. Each time I was flung into the river, I tried not to think too much about the trampling power of the elephant's massive legs, not to mention the river's many crocodiles -- called marsh muggers by the British for their habit of snapping up unsuspecting villagers.

After getting tossed one too many times, Aliyah and I moved to the second and friendlier attraction of the activity our resort dubbed "Elephant Bathtime." Climbing onto a second elephant, we held tight as its trainer whacked its behind with a sharp stick. The elephant immediately dunked her trunk in the river for several seconds, then curved it into a sideways U and showered us with a soaking spray jet from its 10-foot proboscis.

We repeated this several times, and as I swallowed too much river water delivered by way of pachyderm sinus, I hoped silently that the elephant didn't have a cold.

Saturday, June 21, 2008

Three Nepal Scenes

1. It was our first dinner at the Jungle Island Resort in Chitwan National Park. After a full day of riding the back of an elephant in Nepal's jungles--with only one monkey sighting and several mosquito bites to account for--we, along with the Aussies, Brits and Canadians had tiger-sized appetites.

The buffet dinner was served promptly at 7:45 p.m. (electricity on the island was non-existent except during the hours of 7:30-9:30 p.m.), which meant there was a mad rush for dinner, showers, and any reading during this time. All the food was prepared in a small kitchen, which we later found out, was the sighting of nine-foot-long python as thick as my neck.

The macaroni in sweet and sour sauce, a chicken curry that had more bone than chicken or curry, and buffalo meat dressed in something resembling the mud still caked on to my shoes seemed like a feast for Nepali kings.

As I sat down in front of my dinner, I felt like a real adventurer. I had survived the jungle, had never had such awful body odor or so many bug bites and was even wearing cargo pants. I was a natural amazon.

As I stuck my fork into a pile of jungle feast, the lights suddenly went out and I found myself in complete darkness. Power outages in Nepal are common, so all of us laughed and continued to eat in the pitch black. A minute later the power went on, followed by shrieks and groans. As we looked down at our plates, we realized we weren't the only ones who were hungry. Cockroaches had taken advantage of the darkness and had scuttled onto our plates for a feast of their own. I like to think the crunchiness in the chicken was the excess bone. Dinner time, at least for us, was over.

2. We were into the second hour of our jungle walk in Chitwan National Park. Our guide, Chanu, had shown us many scary animals and fauna, including giganta-sized rhinos with horns that could pierce through our bodies as easily as a needles through silk, poisonous plants that, if touched, could turn our entire bodies crimson, and fresh sloth bear poo which indicated the ferocious creatures were lurking around the corner. Our weapons? Walking sticks.

Several of the other tourists were scared, walking tenderly on the footpath trying to make as little noise as possible. One said she wanted to head back to base camp. I, on the other hand, felt invincible. That was until Chanu stopped, smiled and held up a thick blade of grass, which had my nemesis lurching and squirming up the green plant. "Blood leech," Chanu exclaimed proudly. Memories of my experience in Pokhara re-emerged (See Fear Factor Nepal). I'd rather be surrounded by starved tigers and marsh muggers than a single leech. Chanu pointed to my arm and said matter-of-factly, "There is a leech." I screamed and did what Ben has termed my "banshee impression." The group of tourists looked confused. "Just kidding," said Chanu.

3. It was like an episode from Lost. We wanted off the island, but forces beyond our control wanted to keep us there. Our three days at the Jungle Island Resort were over. Our clothes had never smelled worse and never had we wanted wi-fi, light from a source that wasn't a kerosene lamp and AC so badly. The trip, especially the elephant bathing, had been fantastic, especially because we were on a private jungle island for just us and nine other tourists. But we were ready to return from the stone age.

The plan was to depart the island at 8:15 a.m. by boat to the mainland before we'd be escorted by tourist bus back to Kathmandu. Chanu, our guide, had news for us. A strike was going on over...school books. The government was supposed to provide books to a school, but they were never delivered. The natural solution? A strike blocking the main road. Naturally.

The plan of action was to wait the strike out. After a few hours of playing scrabble, gin rummy, and eating far too much candy out of sheer boredom, it was announced that we would leave the island by row boat and walk around the strike--1.5 kilometers--where we would then be picked up by bus. Annoying, but simple enough, we thought.

As we started down the path, a heavy rainfall impeded our journey and we had to hide out in an elephant trainer's shack before we could continue down the muddy, slippery path to the row boat. After waiting for the row boat to arrive to the bank, 11 of us piled into a small, narrow boat, that because of our weight, was riding much too low beneath the water. A toothpick-sized layer of wood separated the water and the lip of the boat.

A jeep (not a bus) waited for us on the other side. We squeezed in, 11 of us, and went down a bumpy path not to the tourist bus but to a hotel affiliated with the Jungle Island Resort. We took our 50 pound bags into the hotel, only to be hold to pile back into a small bus. We were told that the strike might be over. The strike wasn't over, we soon discovered after running into miles of parked cars that hadn't moved for hours. "Now you walk," said the bus driver. Naturally.

After walking down a busy road with our rhino-sized backpacks for half an hour (I felt like I was in an iron man competition, except instead of being cheered on, the Nepalis were looking at us as if we were Shiva himself), another bus picked us up. "Finally," I thought. "Now we'll be able to go to Kathmandu." We were especially worried because we had a flight back to Delhi the next day. Wrong.

This bus took us to another bus which wasn't a tourist vehicle at all, but a local bus. The seats had strange stains and was made for midgets. I'm pretty sure there were a few goats and Nepalis piled on to the top of the bus as well. There was no room for our luggage except for our laps. Fiver hours and two chip bags later, we were back to what we would call 'home' for the night. Naturally.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Fear Factor: Nepal

We got mugged on the way to the World Peace Pagoda, but it didn't go down exactly the way we'd expected.

After being advised by the Lonely Planet that there had been in recent years a string of tourists who'd reported getting mugged on the two-hour forest hike from the small lakeside town of Pokhara to the hill-straddling World Peace Pagoda, we'd elected to leave our more important possessions -- camera, passports, etc -- in our $7-a-night hotel room, figuring they'd be safer there than in the path of Maoist muggers.

We'd already had a busy day -- Aliyah had run for an hour that morning, then we'd kayaked on the lake for two, and after lunch we'd walked for at least another hour before even reaching the trail head -- and as we set off on the hike, we were already pretty tired. But exhaustion was quickly replaced by awe, as we chugged along a small dirt path bordering beautiful, brilliant green rice paddies peppered with smiling Nepalis.

After getting lost a couple times -- once being offered help by a Nepali teen who spoke excellent English but would only give us directions if he could act as paid guide (denied), and once by a group of Nepali women and girls who spoke no English but seemed tickled to point us in the right direction free of charge -- we set off into the forested hills on what seemed to be the correct path. We scrambled up over hundreds of mossy stone steps, and after passing and briefly chatting with a dazed and confused British trekker, we quickly realized we were otherwise the only hikers on the mountain.

The scenery was gorgeous, lush, green, and serene. We listened to bullfrogs croak loudly and watched as a family of monkeys scampered past us, not ten feet away.

"This is a real forest," Aliyah said.

The mugging happened about an hour into our forest trek. Aliyah stopped in the narrow mud path. She bent over at the waist, her eyes glued on her shoes. And then she let loose a shriek that could have raised the dead.

"What's wrong?" I nearly yelled, racing toward her.

"Oh my god!" Aliyah screamed. "Get them off me! Get them off me!"

"Get what off you?"

Aliyah turned around, sheer terror spilling across her frantic face, and pointed to her feet. I immediately saw what looked to be a three-inch long earthworm crawling across her ankle. As I looked closer, I saw several more, ranging in size from one to four inches, crawling all over her shoes. Several were actually wriggling through the synthetic mesh of her Nike running shoes, their tails flapping wildly in the air as they struggled to bore through shoe and sock to the tender flesh beneath.

Leeches. They were everywhere.

"Oh shit," I said like a soprano (not a tough Italian Soprano -- a high-voiced fragile soprano).

As Aliyah continued to scream in terror and bounce around like she had to pee really, really bad, I began whacking her shoes with the Lonely Planet and my water bottle. That didn't do much good.

I knew that picking leeches off the skin can raise the risk of infection, and that the preferred method of removal is either a lit match or a pinch of salt (think of those childhood shriveling snail experiments). But I figured there wasn't much harm in me plucking leeches from Aliyah's shoes. No harm other than me having to touch a bunch of disgusting leeches, that is.

As Aliyah continued to totter on the edge of a nervous breakdown (to her credit, it was terrifying, and I learned later that during the whole awful episode Aliyah was under the mistaken impression that leeches could actually burrow beneath her skin and make themselves a nice home snuggled among organs and veins), I began nervously pulling at the tails of leeches half-buried in her shoes. This was easier said than done. Leeches are strong and resilient, wriggling and fighting each time I tried to grab them. And as soon as I pulled one off Aliyah's shoe, it would immediately try to attach itself to my thumb or forefinger.

A couple minutes into this awful exercise, I looked down at my own feet.

"Oh shit," I said. My feet and ankles had as many leeches on them as Aliyah's, and they were burrowing similarly into the mesh of my crappy athletic shoes.

At this point, Aliyah did what I've since dubbed her "banshee impression," rounding on me with frightening red-faced anxiety, pointing to her shoe, and screaming at a glass-shattering pitch, "Get it off me! Get it off me!"

I looked down. The biggest leech yet -- at least four or five inches -- was wiggling its way below Aliyah's bloodying sock and into the dark dampness between cotton and flesh.

"If I pick it off it could get infected," I said as calmly as I could, simultaneously thinking, "I really do not want to touch that thing."

"I don't care," my terrifying girlfriend screamed. "Get it off NOW!"

I know when an order is an order. I yanked the leech off immediately.

It is worth noting, I think, that while I appeared to do an admirable job of keeping a brave, calm and commanding front during the leech episode, I was inwardly as terrified as Aliyah. I've got a thing about my feet, and a thing about bugs, and a thing about snakes, and this whole catastrophe seemed to be a grotesque marriage of the three -- an army of tiny bloodsucking snake-like bugs attacking my feet. I was scared and grossed out.

A few minutes after discovering the leeches, we actually decided to keep going toward the World Peace Pagoda. We didn't know how far it was, but we figured it couldn't be farther than the hour we'd just hiked into the isolated forest. But as soon as we reached a dead end a few minutes later (the whole time, Aliyah continued to pause to examine her feet and freak out every fifteen seconds or so), we realized the smartest course of action was to head back.

We ran. We'd already exercised hard all day. But while we were basically running on nothing but adrenaline and fumes, we were somehow able to race down the mountain at a furious pace. Terror will do that, I suppose. It's a wonder one of us didn't slip and fall. Especially because I spent much of the run leafing through the Lonely Planet to make sure I was well-versed in the art of leech removal.

We stopped a couple times during this twenty-minute run to pluck leeches from our feet (there were still several digging through our shoes) and for Aliyah to worry about the blood on her socks and the constant red drip-drip-drip on the back of my left calf.

Close to the base of the mountain, we ran into three old Nepali women carrying bundles of sticks. We must have been quite a sight -- two terrified, scrambling Americans roaring down the mountain, pausing only to shake and hit our feet.

"Namaste," I said, offering by way of explanation, "Leeches."

As we neared (relative) civilization, and as Aliyah grew more worried over the nearing inevitability of having to actually see the leeches on her feet, I adopted what I'm sure was the grating habit of greeting every Nepali we passed with a cheery "Namaste!"

We quickly crossed a bridge over the dammed lake, hit a road, and found a small store. A man with a colorful fez was sitting outside. I asked him for matches. He gave me a box. I asked for salt. He spooned some into a makeshift paper packet. I threw down 100 Nepali rupees (about $1.50) and told him to keep the change. Then I ran outside, where Aliyah was still freaking out.

Still under the mistaken impression that leeches could tunnel under her flesh, an outcome that Aliyah was half-convinced would require the certain amputation of both her feet, Aliyah buried her face under my baseball cap and cried while I started to remove her shoes and socks. We were sitting on a low concrete platform -- not unlike a stage -- and we quickly drew an audience of perhaps thirty interested Nepalis.

Aliyah peeked out from under the hat as I removed her left shoe and saw three preschool-aged Nepali boys staring at her with confused amazement. She managed a gurgling laugh from beneath a veritable sea of tears.

I took off Aliyah's left sock, which was dotted with blood. There were no leeches on her foot.

"OK," said the man in the hat who had sold me the matches. "You are OK."

I took off Aliyah's right shoe and sock. No leeches there either. Both feet had two or three bloody bites on them, but none of the leeches that had made it to her flesh had stuck around for seconds. They'd fed and bolted.

"You are OK!" said my friend in the hat. "No problem."

And then through a complicated series of gestures and broken phrases, he made it plain that the leeches had bitten Aliyah and then split.

"This happens to all Nepali women one or two times a day," he said in hobbled English.

Aliyah soon stopped crying.

I was waiting for the crowd to disperse before I took my own shoes off, but after a couple of minutes of them waiting and watching, it became clear that wouldn't happen. So, I took off my shoes with much flair and fanfare (even announcing "Tada!" once). One of my shoes had a big wormy leech in it, but otherwise, I too was clean. One of the Nepali women plucked that leech out of my shoe and inspected both of our shoes and socks to make sure they were clear of blood suckers.

My friend in the hat gave us a bag for us to dump our shoes and socks in (we were still far too afraid of the possibility of sneaky hidden leeches to put them back on) and we began the long three-mile walk back to our hotel...barefoot. And laughing the whole time.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

A touch of the divine

Surprise, surprise. The tarot card reader was a fraud.

Giving into Aliyah's guilty curiosity of astrological and occult ruses, I recently purchased a "divination for couple" session with an "expert" in Gurgaon. The "expert" -- we'll call her Bhavana -- "is a popular Tarot reader, rune consultant and also a crystal healer," according to her promotional materials.

"I promise to be on my best behavior," I told Aliyah on the car ride over, stifling a somewhat wicked giggle.

We arrived at Bhavana's apartment, where candles were lit, a pressure cooker was whistling, and a small Mona Lisa print hung framed on the wall. Bhavana was barefoot and wore jeans. Aliyah sat down on the couch, but Bhavana told her to move. The tarot card reader must always face east, she intoned.

We chatted for a few minutes before the session began, and Bhavana's casual conversation began to betray her ignorance. When I mentioned the tough job market we faced back home, she asked, "Is there a slump of some kind?" When I explained that there was, she said something to the effect of "I don't pay attention to such things. I am concerned only with the spiritual, with what the cards tell me."

We were allowed six questions, and Aliyah first inquired about our relationship. Bhavana squinched her eyes tightly and drew a balled fist to her mouth while she drew seven cards on her coffee table. I couldn't make out what they were exactly, though many looked like cartoon royals and monks with unnaturally big bottoms.

"Marriage is not in the near future, nor is it in the far future," Bhavana said importantly. She told us marriage was out of the question before June 2009 (sigh of relief), but good news! The cards said we were free to marry after that.

Bhavana squished her eyes again and hummed a bit while she drew cards for Aliyah's next question -- this one on the health and future of her family members. I took a picture (with flash) of Bhavana while she pulled cards.

"Please don't," the fake fortune teller snapped. Then, without skipping a beat, she angrily turned to Aliyah and said, "Your dad's health is not going to be very good." (That's what we get for taking the fraud's photo. Sorry, Agha.)

Bhavana quickly cooled down and tried to be a bit more passively reassuring, but in the middle of her assessment of Aliyah's mother she turned to me and demanded rudely, "How much did you pay for this experience?" (I booked it through a separate company, so I suppose it was reasonable that she didn't know.)

I told her, and Bhavana continued as if this fiscal blip had not even happened.

Aliyah asked about her job prospects upon her return to the US, and Bhavana pulled a card (with a colorfully gowned sorcerer on it?), which she didn't even look at before saying, "Things are going to be fine. You're going to get something of your choice."

"Phew," Aliyah said.

"Within a year," Bhavana said.

There was a moment of silence.

"What's 11 and 10?" Bhavana said for no reason. "Twenty-two?"

"Um," I said.

"I'm pretty sure 11 and 10 is 22," said the expert.

"It's not," I said. "It's 21."

This aside was never explained. I made a note to myself not to invite Bhavana with us to Las Vegas.

It was soon my turn to pull a card, and Bhavana instructed me to think long and seriously about my question as I selected from her fan of oversized cards. With soap operatic exaggeration, I spent at least ten seconds studying the cards, almost selecting one, pulling back, scratching my chin, hovering over another, before finally pulling one. Bhavana flipped it over. The picture was of a heart with three swords through it.

"Can he pick again?" Aliyah said.

Bhavana gasped.

"You've gone through a lot. My God! Disaster!"

She turned toward me tenderly.

"You've had a really hard life, haven't you?" she said softly.

"Not really," I said. "In fact, it's been relatively easy, I'd say."

"Then you obviously didn't concentrate on your question correctly when you picked a card," she scoffed meanly.

"Um," I said.

Perhaps trying to rescue herself, Bhavana turned to Aliyah.

"Do you have a sister?" Bhavana asked.

"Yes," Aliyah said. "You told me about her health and future ten minutes ago."

"Oh right," Bhavana scrambled. "She's younger than you, right?"

"No," Aliyah said.

"Oh," Bhavana backpedaled, looking at a random card in front of her. "But she is married."

"No," Aliyah said.

"Oh," Bhavana stuttered. "But she is more frank than you."

"Not necessarily," Aliyah said.

Etc.

It was no surprise that Bhavana was a charlatan. But that she was so inept a huckster, well, that was a bit of a shock. I had expected her to at least be skilled in extracting from our conversation and answers nuggets of truth that she could spin into plausible fortune telling. Instead, she couldn't even add 10 and 11 or remember the "fortune" she'd told five minutes earlier.

"Can I interest you in any charm bracelets to protect against danger on your travels?" she asked as we prepared to leave. "I've charged them with protective energy myself."

No thanks, Bhavana. We'll stick with reason.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Gold class

I felt like a modern day maharaja.

The waiter, dressed in a well-pressed black dress shirt, leaned over our seats and politely offered us champagne flutes of sparkling apple juice. I pressed a button on the side of my heavenly red leather La-Z-Boy and inclined from my totally horizontal 180 degree position to a 150-degree angle that allowed me to sip my juice. Yawning, Aliyah reached her hand out from beneath a red velvet blanket to grab her flute.

Just another day at the movies.

This is a trip to the cinema in style in India. For about $18 (as opposed to $4 for a normal movie ticket), you get one of 32 cushy leather thrones in a VIP theater dubbed "Gold Class." First, there's a private entrance (so maharajas like us don't have to mix with the commoners) that leads to a stylish black and red lounge with an Italian espresso machine, red velvet love seats, a five-star bathroom (with tricolor shoe polisher!) and oil paintings of Marlon Brando and James Dean bathed in soft yellow light. While we waited in the lounge to be let into the theater, a waiter brought us a menu that included many of the usuals (popcorn and pepsi), but also some higher-end items, like litchi iced tea and spaghetti bolognese.

After a few minutes of giggling in the lounge, we headed into the theater and crawled gratefully onto our leather sofa-chairs. We played with the recline-incline buttons. We drank complimentary apple juice from regal glasses and curled up under soft blankets. We pressed the red call button on the table between our chairs and ordered a tub of popcorn the size of an autorickshaw, a soda, and a mint-chocolate shake (that they served in a martini glass).

"I've never been more comfortable in India," Aliyah said.

And that, my friends, is how you get your girlfriend to enjoy an Indiana Jones movie.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Four auto scenes

Due to budget cuts, the typical five scene format has been reduced to four. Apologies. -BF

1. I'd lost a bet several weeks before, and though Jared left the country before I fulfilled it, I wound up having to a couple weeks ago when the craziest autowallah in our neighborhood was the only driver around one night. His vehicle was nearly full of boxes of god knows what. Dead bodies maybe. Regardless, there was no room for two in the carriage.

Aliyah squeezed in the back next to the boxed corpses. Crazy patted the edge of the driver's seat next to him.

"Do it," Aliyah said.

I got in and put my arm around the automaniac, half my body hanging out of the auto, the other half clinging to the vehicle's interior for dear life as Crazy flew over potholes and sped around sharp curves.

It was actually pretty fun. That is, until the nutty driver started talking to himself/me/no one.

"Whiskey, dinner, Pepsi, whiskey, whiskey," he said in that faraway gravelly voice.

"How you doing up there?" Aliyah said.

"Um," I said in a too-high voice.


2. The woman wore a colorful sari and had teeth browner than her skin. She held a baby in one arm and a fan of magazines in the other. I know the magazines were for sale. I'm not sure about the baby.

"Siiiiiiiir," she said in that hollow, strung out plea that Delhi beggars here are made to memorize without understanding. "Siiiiir."

She tugged on my jeans. I didn't even look at her. She went over to Aliyah's side.

"Siiiiir," the awful beggar said, tugging at Aliyah's pants ("Madam," "Ma'am" and "Miss" are typically not in the panhandling vocabulary here). "Siiiiir."

I said something moderately funny and Aliyah laughed. The light turned green and just as we pulled away, the beggar freed one hand by dropping her magazines and slapped Aliyah in the face.

We were silent, breathless.

"She just slapped me!" Aliyah said.

"Sorry sir," I said.


3. Every day it's the same thing. I leave the house in the early afternoon to go do some writing at the sheesha and coffee cafe, Mocha, in Defence Colony Market. It's a slow and lazy part of the day for the autowallahs. There are typically at least five and as many as fifteen waiting at the stand around the corner from our house.

Sometimes one of them spots me as soon as I shut the front gate at our house -- pretty impressive from 30 yards away (and through a corner hedge and fence). The spotter never plays it cool. He immediately starts running toward me, waving.

"Sir!" he says. "Sir!"

The others immediately perk up on tiptoes like a gang of meerkats. Their eyes open wide and their noses point in my direction as they stand still for a split second before running toward me.

Soon they're all crowding around me, bandying harmonies of "Sir"s back and forth among them. Some will gently grab at my elbow to lead me to their rickshaw.

I feel like the prettiest girl at the prom. And whoever's lucky enough to get picked on any given day, well, I imagine he does too.


4. The autowallah pointed me to the backseat of his vehicle. An old man was already sitting there. I shook my head no.

"You share," the autowallah said. "Thirty rupees."

Thirty rupees was a pretty good price.

"Me first," I demanded.

"OK," said the autowallah.

We drove for about ten minutes and I chatted uncomfortably with the old man about where I was from and if I was married.

We arrived at my destination and I got out and handed the autowallah a 100-rupee note. That's a bit more than US$2.

The autowallah shook his head. "No change," he said, shrugging his shoulders unapologetically.

"How can you not have change?" I said angrily, even though it's pretty common for autowallahs to fail to produce change for even the smallest bills.

"Fine," I grumbled, digging through the coins in my wallet and producing a jingly amalgamation of 27 rupees. I shoved them toward the autowallah.

"Thirty," he said, after taking a long time to count them.

"You don't have change!" I yelled. "So you either get 27 or nothing."

The autowallah considered this for a minute, then reached into his front pocket and removed a two-inch thick wad of bills. He could have made change of several 1,000-rupee notes, not to mention my measly 100.

Then I said some things in a loud voice that would make my mother cringe. And she doesn't cringe easily.