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.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

A little confusion

If you ever need anything from the supermarket, don’t ask Ben.

Ben likes to cook in India (and he makes an excellent chicken curry), but sometimes he gets a little/lot confused about the ingredients. A few weeks ago, he went to our local vegetable market—where all of the produce is unlabeled—with the idea to make a salad to accompany the night’s meal, a thoughtful gesture, really. Our salads here consist of tomatoes, cucumbers and onions. But that particular night it was tomatoes, onions, and raw zucchini. To this day, Ben is convinced there is no difference between the two vegetables.

Another time Ben decided he wanted to spice up the chicken curry with a green chili. He came home with a single piece of okra. I can only imagine what the store owner’s reaction was when he tried to buy the quarter of a cent item.

This morning, I went to the refrigerator for an orange, which was on the week’s grocery list. Instead, I found two melon-sized fruits. “Grapefruit?” I asked. Ben was convinced they were oranges until I showed him the flamingo pink flesh. Ben had one response.

“At least it will make a funny blog.”

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Visitor Paths

You'd be surprised how many people find this blog by googling "nipplectomy."

We have an invisible stat counter buried in this blog, and yesterday Aliyah and I browsed through one of the logs it keeps on the paths visitors take to reach this site. While most visitors are friends and family and arrive via a direct link, strangers take some odd e-routes.

For instance, yesterday someone in Florida googled "fish autopsy" and clicked on a link to our post on the death of Ben Fish. Around the same time, someone in Los Angeles googled "Floating dead fish pictures" and landed in the same place, as did someone in Tucson who actually googled "ben fish." A UK googler looking for "american fish names" found his way to this post on Ben Fish too. And there was the slightly suicidal google search term of "the world seems a little less bright" that brought a visitor from North Carolina news of the death of Ben Fish.

Two days ago, someone in Egypt googled "oily thong" and clicked on this post in which I wear a, well, oily thong. The day before, someone in Baton Rouge got to the same post by googling "trying on my first thong," as did someone in Massachusetts by searching for "wearing my first thong." Oh, and someone in Spain googling "first thong experience," someone in the Canadian Saskatchewan googling "my first thong," and someone in Memphis googling "thong indian." And someone in Connecticut found their way to this blog post by googling "oily massage videos."

Someone in Wilmington, Ohio googled "looking for live in servant" and wound up on our post about our runaway servant. Someone on the east coast of the United States and someone else in Portland recently navigated to our post on the death of Aliyah Fish by googling "aliyah death" and "ALIYAHS DEATH," respectively, which while initially jarring, are probably just misspelled attempts at learning more about the death of the singer Aaliyah.

As for "nipplectomy," in the last week or so that googled word has reeled in visitors to our blog from Florida, California, Denver, Portland, New Jersey, Paris, Berlin (the same visitor twice in three minutes), London, Vienna, Washington DC, the Yukon Territory, and Park City, Utah. Oh, and someone in Ontario got there by searching "nipple amputation."

Monday, May 5, 2008

Departure and Arrival

Because it's easier than a mass e-mail...

Family and friends,

We've been in India nearly a year, and while it's been a fantastic experience, we've begun to settle on plans for getting the heck out of here. We're leaving our perch in Delhi in mid-June, traveling around Nepal, Kashmir and north India until my one-year India visa expires July 8, then heading to southeast Asia where we'll spend a month or two exploring Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos.

We'll likely be returning to America in mid to late August. Where in America our final destination will be, well, we're not exactly sure. New York is probably most likely, but much depends on where we land jobs. (I hear the US economy is booming and the job market is full of lucrative opportunities. Especially in journalism, right?)

And yes, yes, I know we've been terrible about updating the blog in recent weeks. [Insert a good excuse here.]

Cheers,
Ben

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Five More Jared's Visit Scenes

1. We were walking along a small side street in Colaba laughing about something when an Indian shopkeeper with a bushy mustache caught Jared's eye. He was holding a two-liter bottle of water -- overused to the point of being label-less and tinged with brown -- and staring at the sidewalk with determination.

The Indian took a couple purposeful steps toward the street, started to raise the water bottle, but then quickly shook his head and clutched the bottle almost lovingly to his chest. He turned around, took a couple more steps, studied the ground thoughtfully and nodded. Then, with the sudden erratic violence of Britney Spears, the Indian shopkeeper upended the bottle and shook it radically and indiscriminately over random patches of sidewalk and street. He looked like a mental patient attempting to water the lawn but who, due to furious irrationality, also managed to drench his car, the paper boy and the neighbor's dog.

"Oooooooh," Jared said, as wet Rorschach patterns formed on the sidewalk before us, "so that's where the water goes."


2. Jared was still a bit jet lagged, and we were looking for a bit of wine to help him sleep.

After asking directions to the nearest wine shop from two doormen and a beggar in Colaba, we found ourselves walking down a dark alley spotted with malaria-friendly pools of black water.

"Um," Jared said as we plowed on.

At the end of the alley was an open window and counter, behind which was a small inaccessible wine shop. I smiled at the three gruff Indians behind the counter.

"One bottle of Sula red, please," I said.

One of the workers ambled off his stool with a hint of surliness and walked to the wine rack along the store's back wall. He grabbed a bottle of wine and returned to the counter to hand it to me.

"Hmmm," I said, studying the label. "Zinfandel? No thanks. What else do you have?"

The worker huffed and took the wine back to the shelf. Meanwhile, two small Indian men who smelled as if they'd just bathed in feni slammed exact change on the counter and barked orders in Marathi. One of the shopkeepers handed them two fifths of cheap whiskey.

My guy returned with a bottle of wine.

"Reserve?" I said, reading the label. "No, I don't want this. Bring me a cabernet, or a shiraz, OK?"

The shopkeeper's tired eyes silently called me a fancy boy and he returned to the wine rack. While I waited, a dark-skinned man who smelled like urine and had a huff rag tucked into his back pocket elbowed me aside, dumped a handful of rupee coins on the counter, and received a bottle of vodka without having to place an order at all. A regular.

Finally my guy came back with a bottle of reasonably-priced, Indian-made Shiraz. I squinted and studied the label before smiling.

"See?" I asked the shopkeeper. "Was that so hard?


3. "I think this is rigged," Jared said as he lost another hand of blackjack at the rigged digital blackjack table we were gambling at in Goa.

The casino was in a decent air-conditioned hotel appropriately called Chances, and included a handful of Roulette tables and a bunch of rigged digital games. The blackjack game was a sleek black table with invisible sensors beneath each player's betting area, and several small screens on which a player's "cards" appeared. The dealer stood behind the table and pressed buttons to "deal" the "cards."

A new round began and I was "dealt" an 8 and a 3. The dealer was showing a 4. I doubled down. I was "dealt" a 2. Then the dealer "flipped" her down "card," which was a Jack. Then she "dealt" herself a 7 and everyone lost.

Similar things had happened several times, and while our own experience was not even close to a large enough sample to draw any firm conclusions about the stilted statistics on which this digital game was based, the lack of transparency provided enough circumstantial evidence for me to convict.

"Jesus!" I said, slamming the rigged blackjack table and turning to a man in a suit standing behind the dealer. "Why don't you have a table that uses real cards?

"That is not allowed," the casino official said.

"Well, how do I know this digital game isn't fixed?" I demanded.

"That is also not allowed," the casino official said.

"Seems rigged to me," I said, as I placed my bet for the next rigged hand.


4. "I can't believe you made me wear this," Jared said as he walked into a busy outdoor Saturday night market in Goa wearing a loose-fitting long-sleeved black-and-white shirt with portraits of a passively plaintive Jesus on the chest and both elbows.

"You lost a bet, dude."

"This is a very nice shirt," an Indian woman said to Jared as he passed her stall. "You want to buy bed cover?"

Jared had that afternoon lost a passionately-contested game of Playa (a mashup of Spades and Hearts that Aliyah and I invented on the beach in Mexico last year), and as punishment had to either get a card-sized temporary tattoo of our choosing, or wear for one night the shirt of our choosing. He'd opted for the shirt. We made him wear Jesus, which was not hard to find in Goa, which is full of God-fearing Christians.

"I like very much your shirt," an Indian hawker said to Jared as he strolled with a modicum of embarrassment through the market. "Want to buy another one?" he added, pointing to several identical shirts in his stall.

"No thanks," Jared said. "I think one shirt of this fictional character is plenty."

The guy looked a little hurt.

We kept walking and a hefty Indian woman soon latched onto Jared's Jesus-elbow-patched arm.

"I love this shirt!" she said. "Where did you get it?"

"Bala," Jared said, repeating his chronic mispronunciation of Baga, which is the beach we were staying near.

"Oh yes, Bala," the woman said. "You must have bought it from my friend Maria. She's the only one in Goa who sells that shirt."

"What?" Jared said. "What about that guy? And that one?" he quipped, pointing to two nearby stalls selling his Jesus shirt. The woman shrugged.

"Jesus," Jared said, shaking his head sarcastically.

"Exactly," I said.




5. The three of us were ass to ankles in the back of the autorickshaw, and all wondering why on earth our autowallah had pulled to the curb on this random street.

Motioning with a stubby digit that he would be just one minute, our autowallah started fiddling with the lockbox-cum-seat in the front of his vehicle. After much jingling and fumbling, he pulled a small metal cannister out and smiled.

"Is he going to drink that?" Aliyah said.

"Brake oil," the autowallah said in broken English.

"Don't drink it," Jared said.

The autowallah bent over and generously emptied the contents of his brake oil can into a his green and yellow machine. Then, standing up, he lightly shook the can to make sure it was empty. Satisfied that it was, the autowallah, with absolute carelessness but clear purpose, tossed the empty metal can into the street next to his vehicle.

Jared giggled before I could begin one of my overused rants about how so many Indians seem to keep their homes immaculately clean, no matter how slummy the neighborhood outside, while being so quick, obvious and almost proud to litter in even the nicest public spaces.

"Excuse me," Aliyah said to the autowallah as Jared kept giggling. "I think you dropped your can."

The autowallah said nothing and started his vehicle.

"Oh," Jared said, looking at the garbage in the street. "So that's where the brake oil goes."

Monday, April 14, 2008

Five Jared's Visit Scenes

1. Jared's lips curled as he stared at the brown-gray smear and seeped-in grime on his pillow at our budget guest house in Bombay.

"Gross," he said, inching away from his bed.

"What?" I said, flopping down on my own nasty pillow and allowing any number of invisible disease agents to commence exploration of my body. "They have pillow cases."

"That don't look washed."

"Yeah."

Jared went to the dresser and took out a short-sleeve blue polo shirt he'd worn all day and had hung up to air out. He brought it to the bed and placed it delicately over his pillow, smiling proudly at this new line of defense.

"I'd rather sleep on a shirt soaked in Sandrew sweat than that," he said, pointing at his filthy pillow.


2. Jared and Aliyah were in a rolling race.

It had been a skittishly-played, back-and-forth game of backgammon -- a new favorite hobby of ours that we picked up after Sawyer asked Locke on a recent episode of Lost to play backgammon and Aliyah said, "Backgammon is fun."

Now, weeks later, in the final game of our round robin tournament, Aliyah and Jared were pinning all to chance. No opportunities to bounce opposing pieces to the bar remained. It was all about who got the highest rolls.

The stakes were high. The loser would have to yell curses -- "May you have 1,000 daughters!" -- at disagreeable autorickshaw drivers for the rest of the week.

Aliyah shut her eyes and blew on the dice. 1 and 2. She shook her head.

Jared rolled. 4 and 6.

"Uh oh," I said from the sidelines.

Aliyah rolled again: 3 and 1. Jared: 3 and 6. He was, by now, almost assured a victory.

Aliyah looked up at our ceiling and held the dice like an offering.

"God!" she cried. "If you exist! I need doubles! If you exist, give me doubles!"

Taking a deep breath, Aliyah rolled. 1 and 2.

"Damn it," she yelled.

"I knew it," clucked the peanut gallery.


3. The slowly roasting chicken outside the Iranian-Lebanese restaurant on Colaba Causeway had been tempting me for days. The joint didn't appear from the outside to be the paragon of class or cleanliness, but on our last day in Bombay I convinced Jared that we should eat lunch there.

Our all-smiles waiter steered me toward the chicken shwarma platter, and Jar opted for the easier-on-his-stomach Mushroom Mania sandwich. The food arrived quickly, and I went to town slapping together sandwich rolls full of chicken, french fries, pickled beets and creamy garlic sauce.

It was about halfway through lunch that I picked up a purple stick of pickled beet and saw something brown at its tip. I looked closer. A dead cockroach. Nearly an inch long. Buried in a plate of raw vegetables I'd been devouring. In India.

After our requisite "Yuck"s and "Gross"s, I politely signaled the waiter, who apologized sheepishly and replaced the offending beet dish.

Then I ate everything else on my plate, not to mention everything Jared left on his.

The bill came, and it did not, as many Indian restaurants do, include a compulsory tip. As we waited for our still-all-smiles waiter to bring change, we debated a gratuity.

"Are you kidding?" Jared said. "No. No. No. In America, you would eat for free."

"Right."

The waiter brought our change. And then he didn't leave. At first he pretended to tidy up our table, but then he dropped this pretense and just hovered.

I took every rupee out of the leather bill book and put them in my wallet.

I stood up and looked at our still-hovering-but-no-longer-all-smiles waiter. He nearly snarled and narrowed his eyes with unmitigated disgust.

I paused, hurt, before quickly remembering that I too had been aggrieved.

"You served me a dead bug," I said to the waiter who had served me a dead bug.

He continued to look at me with more revulsion than I had shown at the sight of the cockroach in my lunch.


4. The monk looked like Hayden Christensen.

Jared was busy haggling with a t-shirt vendor on Colaba Causeway in Bombay when a white skinned monk in orange robes who had white paint smeared where a unibrow bridge might otherwise have been tapped me on the shoulder.

"Are you Canadian or American?" said the Buddhist Anakin Skywalker.

"American," I said.

The gora monk smiled and handed me a small brochure for a tour led by monks that included stops at a house shaped like a shoe and a vegetarian restaurant that serves some sort of holy seaweed.

"No thanks," I said, studying Anakin evermore skeptically. "Where are you from, anyway?"

"Canada," said the Canadian monk.

I narrowed my eyes and gave his orange robes a slow and obvious appraisal.

"You sure don't look Canadian."

Anakin shrugged. "I've lived in India for almost a year," he said.

"So have I," I laughed. "But I don't look like you."


5. "How many fingers do you have?" Jared said to the old woman who looked like an old man who was violently hacking apart coconuts with a frightening machete in front of ZanziBar -- our preferred beachfront watering hole in Goa.

The old woman let Jared's provocation pass -- possibly because she spoke no English -- and eventually overcharged him for no fewer than three coconuts. One to snack on, and two stuffed with straws through which coconut milk could be sucked.

Jared returned to our table, red-faced and giggling, and immediately ordered a shot of rum. The waiter quickly brought him a not-quite-clean glass with at least two ounces of noxious liquor in it.

Jared looked at the rum in his glass and then looked at the coconut, which had only a small hole on top, and which appeared very nearly full.

"Now," Jared said, "the question is, how do I get this" -- and he held up the rum -- "in here" -- he pointed to the coconut.

I love to pontificate, particularly when solicited, so I was very quick to reply. But Jared was faster.

No sooner had he smacked a tipsy period on his last sentence had Jared upended the glass of rum into his coconut. It was as if instead of asking how he might best transfer one of the liquids into a second container, he had simply said, "Now I am going to hastily transfer one of these liquids into a second container."

Half of the dark rum either missed the small hole entirely (and sloshed onto the table and Jared's lap) or quickly caused the coconut's liquid content to exceed capacity (thus spilling onto the table and Jared's lap).

"Oh man," Jared said. "My leg is covered in rum."

Then he took a sip from his coconut and smiled.

"Pretty good though," he said.



Thursday, April 10, 2008

Urgent Business

I had told the same lie so many times in the last two hours I was starting to believe it.

"I have urgent business in Bombay," I said, looking at my watch with aggressive annoyance. "And this delay is unacceptable."

"Now," I continued, poking my finger in the chest of Go Air's backpedaling customer service representative, "when will my plane take off?"

Of course, there was no "urgent business" -- other than meeting Aliyah in Bombay sooner rather than later. And for some reason, no one seemed to question exactly what sort of professional business the gora with a ratty t-shirt and too much red hair poking out from his backwards baseball cap might actually have that was so pressing.

Still, as my Delhi-Bombay flight was delayed, delayed, and then delayed some more, I found my "I'm a busy businessman" story giving me a lot of leverage, and I used it.

Eventually the Go Air customer service rep went into hiding, and the waiting passengers in Delhi's lousy domestic terminal became increasingly restless. Feet tapped. Eyes rolled. Foreheads tightened. Our plane was two hours late -- with no satisfying explanation from Go Air -- and we were mad.

Nearly an hour after the customer service rep had disappeared, I noticed a flash of neon green out of the corner of my eye -- the customer service rep's shirt. I bounced out of my seat and charged forward.

"This is outrageous!" I nearly yelled, shaking my fist above my head. "Where is our plane?"

"I'm sorry, sir. It was an unavoidable delay."

"When will I get to Bombay? I have urgent business!" I said, and actually believed myself.

"Well, if the plane arrives soon, and if we board you all quickly--"

"If!" I scoffed meanly. "I don't care about if! I have urgent business in Bombay! When will you get me there?"

As the customer service rep stumbled over his nervous answer -- and as I silently contemplated how the necessity of pushy persistence to get almost anything done in India had turned me into a real jerk -- I looked behind me and almost fell over. There was a crowd of nearly twenty Indian males -- teens, middle-aged father types, seniors, and more! -- gathered around and behind me. Their faces were angry and self-righteous, and seemed to delight in seeing the customer service rep squirm. They were the closest thing to a mob that I've been a part of in India. And apparently I was their leader.

A young man with a big smile made up of irregularly shaped quadrilaterals with too much space between them stepped up next to me and spat at the customer service rep: "We have urgent business in Bombay!"

"Yeah!" several men chimed in. At least one more added an emphatic "Urgent business!"

"The plane had technical problems," the customer service rep nearly begged. "Technical problems!"

"Technical problems my foot!" said my weird-toothed sidekick, elbowing me in search of chummy approval.

Considering for the first time the possibility that I didn't want them to rush through fixing a technical problem on a plane I was about to board in India, and also realizing that I'm nicer than this, I smiled uncomfortably and figured it was time for this gora to resign as protest leader and just sit down and wait patiently for my flight in a way that wouldn't embarrass my mother.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Aliyah Shahid, reporting from Bombay

Here's another one. Check it out here.

Video games on video

Two more TV pieces by Aliyah: here and here.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Holy Holi!

The rainbow motorcycle gangs sped through Delhi's streets with a strange mixture of tough guy malice in their eyes and bright Easter egg pigmentation on their faces.

There were three, sometimes four, to a motorcycle, packed too tightly against each other, each of them looking for victims with a fierce devotion understandable in a 14-year-old trickster on Halloween, but downright puzzling in these 25-year-old Indian professionals covered in bright colors.

This was Holi, India's festival of colors, a day on which millions of people purchase packets of bright chemical powders and industrial strength dyes, which they then proceed to toss, rub, smear and shoot onto their friends, family, and, most importantly, complete strangers.

The significance of the holiday is still something of a mystery to me, even after diligent Wikipedia study. As best I can tell, a demon king was made immortal by some other make-believe deity, grew arrogant, declared war on heaven and earth, and demanded that all worship no other god but him. The nerve.

The demon king's son defied his father and continued to pray to Vishnu. Dad tried to kill his son. Several times. He kept failing. There may have been some magic involved in his son's odds-defying escapes. So demon dad ordered his boy to sit in a pyre on the lap of his sister Holika, who had a magic shawl that could not be burned. The fire started. The shawl jumped providentially from Holika's shoulders to her brother's. He survived, she burned to death. Holika's death by fire is celebrated as Holi.

What? I know.

Generally, we found there to be two sorts of Holi practitioners. Members of the first group were kind and friendly. They would approach, smiling, their white teeth the only unblemished part of a face that was a maroon-pink smear. Tipping their head as a means of asking permission, this Holi celebrator would then gently rub a colorful powder on my forehead, ask me to do the same, and then embrace me while saying "Happy Holi."

And then there were the rainbow warriors, who seemed to view the holiday as an excuse to indulge in vacant machismo, an invitation to throw anything and everything at anyone and everyone.

We encountered our cruelest example of such a dope when, already splotched with pink and green, Aliyah and I were in a bicycle rickshaw on our way to lunch. Our colorful faces and clothes had drawn honks and smiles from many passing cars, and one family in a sedan had even slowed to throw a water balloon at us (it landed unbroken in my lap, so Aliyah threw it back at them). All was in good fun.

And then we rounded a corner, only to see a beat-up gold car coming at us too fast, and head-on. There was only one person in the car, and as he pulled even with us, he leaned out his window, narrowed his eyes, snarled like an angry dog, and threw an egg at us as hard as he could.

"Yuck," Aliyah said.

"I hope we don't get salmonella," I said, picking bits of gooey eggshell off each of us.

Even our rickshaw driver felt bad for us, and recognized the violent hurling of a hard projectile full of colorless (and possibly-diseased) goo as antithetical to the spirit of the holiday. He handed me an oily rag to clean with.

But in the end, the friendly smearers certainly outnumbered the rainbow motorcycle gangs and egg-chucking thugs. After all, violence is no way to celebrate a holiday that commemorates with festive colors the burning of an innocent woman.

You can check out the photos here.

Monday, March 10, 2008

It's Vogue!

It's been 36 hours since we waded knee deep in the in the absurdly luxuriant waters of glitterati life, and I'm still a little queasy.

We'd scored an invite to a ritzy party thrown by Vogue and Audi celebrating the magazine's "love affair with India" at a swank five-star hotel in Delhi. So we put on our Saturday best (that's a button-down shirt and jeans for me), had an autorickshaw drop us at the hotel's back entrance (tuk-tuks aren't allowed to use the fancy front), and got ready to live large.

To get into the party, we had to walk across a red carpet and get passed a polystyrene woman armed with a brilliant smile and a guest list. She looked at my natty beard, my tangled hair, my ridiculous Thai street market shoes, and -- perhaps assuming I was some sort of artist (how else would I have such a hot girlfriend?) -- let us in.

Inside, the setup was fantastic. One room held a sharply arranged frameless photo exhibit of dozens of compelling photographs with Indian themes that had run in Vogue over the last 70 years. Indian butlers circled with trays of champagne flutes. We stayed in this room just long enough to drink a couple and eavesdrop on several catty men commenting on the "horrid" outfits of many of the young models in the photographs.

The next room: bonanza! A huge spread of first-rate sushi. All-you-can-eat sushi. And I did. Indian butlers circling with trays of toothpicks and appetizers, the best easily being the shrimp tempura that were each the size of a small lobster.

After I ate my first of four plates of raw fish, we hit the bar.

"Can I get a martini?" I asked the bow-tied bartender.

"Sorry," he said genuinely, shaking his head. "All I have is red and white wine, this," and here he held up a bottle of Belvedere vodka, "or this," and he held up a bottle of Chivas Regal.

"I'll take a scotch."

We strolled the room laughing. I felt like I was in a living, breathing modern art exhibit. An Indian man with dyed blond hair was wearing a leather jacket, tight leather pants and leather boots. A white woman showing too much leg for her age wore a floppy white Mad Hatter cap as she flirted with a Michael Stipe lookalike. In a corner, a senior leader of a national political party best known for Hindu nationalism chatted with a woman half his age while a bodyguard in full camouflage and shiny black boots held a machine gun beside him.

We ate and drank and laughed for awhile, but soon we began to feel really bad, if not outright disgusted. The whole thing was so phony. Plus, with hundreds of millions of people living in abject poverty in this country, hundreds of thousands of them in this city, and thousands of them within a strong stone's throw of this party -- well, it seemed pretty awful to wash down unnecessary bites of imported octopus with fancy scotch. We left.

I woke up in the middle of the night with a tumultuous tummy and vomited. I'd like to think that it was the physical embodiment of my moral reprehension, a physiological rejection of the useless glamor I had soaked in.

Really, it was probably just the raw fish and scotch.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

An open letter to the state of Ohio

Dear Ohio,

We've had some good times together. The batting cages in Toledo. My cousin's basement in Cleveland. That time I changed planes in Columbus. It's been fun. We've shared a lot. But I think we need to talk.

You see, Ohio, you keep disappointing me. I didn't pay much attention to your betrayal in 2000 -- I was too busy yelling at your unfortunately-phallic-shaped cousin in the south. You pretty much got a free pass.

Four years went by, and I thought we'd be OK. Surely, I thought, you'd learned from your mistake. You'd lost hundreds of thousands of manufacturing jobs -- more, I've read, than you lost during the Great Depression. You were poor and sick -- dying, by some accounts. But I believed in you. I knew you'd taken some time and gotten in touch with who you really are. I was sure you'd turn things around.

And then you went ahead and got behind W. Again. Sure, there was probably some cheating. But you should have known better.

Today was almost the last straw, Ohio. Now I know Hillary Clinton is no George Bush. And despite the hyperventilated parsing I eagerly watch each day on CNN, I know that her political platform is nearly identical to that of the candidate I'm so enamored with.

No, Ohio, your latest mistake is neither as ludicrous nor as calamitous as your errors in the recent past. But it hurts just as bad.

Now you may be thinking, Ohio, that I'm being unfair. After all, plenty of your pals have been just as foolish as you. Arizona, Texas, Oklahoma -- they almost always pick wrong!

Ah, but that's part of your problem, Ohio, always shifting the blame to someone else. I expect better from you. Those other states, they just don't know any better. But you should.

Really, Ohio, I just don't know what to do with you. If you hadn't given me Aliyah (who I'm fairly certain is the smartest among your native born), I think you and I would have to call it quits.

I'm not ready to break it off quite yet, Ohio, but I'm really hoping you'll do some serious thinking about who you are. Against my better judgment, I'm giving you another chance in November. Don't let me down. Because I really don't want there to be any weirdness when I see you at Christmas.

Best,
Ben

Say Cheese

Check out Aliyah's latest TV piece.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

We're not in Kansas anymore

I felt like the Wizard of Oz.

We'd just spent a half hour flying in a hot air balloon several hundred feet above verdant farms, barking dogs and the occasional waving villager in Haryana, several miles south of Gurgaon. Our balloon cast a shadow on the square green grids beneath us, and we watched from above as animals that looked like deer but weren't seemed to swim through the farms below.

"It looks like Ohio," Aliyah said.

And OK, I admit it. Flying 500 hundred feet above the ground in a delicate basket carrying two meter-high metal cannisters full of liquefied natural gas just below a nylon balloon entrapping 77,000 cubic feet of 212-degree air -- it might not have been the smartest thing we've ever done. But it sure was fun.

The private balloon ride was part of what seems to be a never-ending series of birthday gifts to me from Aliyah. The balloon trip was operated by a company called Exciting Lives that also traffics in chocolate spa treatments in Bangalore.

The balloon ride was fantastic, but the best was our Oz moment at the end. Our pilot, Captain Jack, had just put us down in a barren brown field that was a little too close to a string of giant power lines (Don't worry -- this being India, it's unlikely electricity was running through them).

Our basket hit the ground and tipped forward, though not steeply enough to toss us out. We threw our weight to the other side, and the basket was evenly grounded.

"Wow," Aliyah said.

I looked across the field and saw two villagers hurrying toward our balloon. One had a colorful scarf wrapped around his head. We smiled and waved.

Then we turned around. Eight more villagers were coming from the opposite direction. I turned a bit to the right and saw a third group moving toward us. Aliyah tapped my shoulder. I turned around and she pointed to a half dozen Indians emerging Field of Dreams-style from a tight wall of brown stalks about 50 feet away.

"They're coming out of the weeds!" I said.


Within seconds there were 40 villagers huddled tightly around our balloon. Captain Jack wouldn't let us get out of the basket because he said our weight was holding it on the ground, so we stayed inside. The villagers stared at us in awe. I think they thought Aliyah was God, and I might have agreed with them, were it not for the indisputable fact that Aliyah exists. But the farmers sure were impressed. I felt like I was the main attraction in a zoo exhibit of some strange future. The villagers were all incredibly nice, but they were also quite stare-y.

As the crowd closed in tighter, Captain Jack pulled a metal lever and a 15-foot jet of flame exploded into the balloon. At least a half dozen villagers literally ran for their lives.

I pulled my camera from my pocket and started taking photos. I showed each photo to the villagers using the screen on the back of my camera. They were duly amazed. And rightly so! I had just dropped out of the sky and had a magic silver box that perfectly captured their likeness. I am Ben, the Wonderful Wizard of India.

After about ten minutes of gawking, the car that had trailed the balloon finally caught up with us, and the Exciting Lives guy pushed through the crowd to get to our balloon.

"So sorry we took so long," he said. "We usually try to beat you here so the villagers don't crowd like this."

"Are you kidding?" Aliyah said. "This was the best part."

Saturday, March 1, 2008

American Idol, Idol America

“Hurry up Ben. You’re going to miss American Idol!”

Ben came running out of the bathroom, his hair still soaked. He was just in time to see Ryan Seacrest’s smiling face as the host announced the night’s remaining contestants. “Phew, that was close,” he said.

“It’s a great day to be alive,” I added.

We’ve both become desperate when it comes to watching television in India. Because American TV shows are so limited here, we’ll watch anything we can get. We pop popcorn for My Wife & Kids, we sing along to the theme song for Friends, and we jump up and down when American Inventor or Hope & Faith is on. We even download episodes of American Idol that we may have missed during the week. And no, I’m not proud to admit it.

I think our standards have lowered because of the slim pickings. For example, we went and saw American Gangster in the theater last weekend (I didn’t know what the movie was about, only that it had the word ‘American’ in it). We thought it was the best movie ever. But when we asked our friends and family about it, they merely replied that “it was just okay.” Just okay? How about the best movie of my life?

I just hope I can distinguish what’s really good and what’s not when I come back.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Hindi Fiddler

Check out my story in The Forward about a Hindi version of Fiddler on the Roof.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Red-handed

He begged me not to tell, but I told anyway.

Aliyah was out for a morning run when our newest servant (after Shukti's return last week from a long, muddily-explained absence, we have two servants), knocked on the door. The 12-year-old boy handed me the three newspapers we subscribe to. Then he held up a straw broom.

"Cleaning?"

I nodded, motioned him inside, and walked back to my desk. On the way, I noticed (with a minimum of consciousness) that my wallet was sitting on top of a chest of drawers in our living room.

The boy started taking out the trash and I got back to work. I padded away at the keys and the boy piled dirty clothes on the couch. Then, hunchbacked, he started sweeping.

I was writing a complicated story for the law magazine about rules for foreign investment in India's retail market, and, in between cluttered thoughts, I took a deep distracted breath and looked up. My wallet was no longer sitting on the chest of drawers.

I must have made some kind of a noise. Because the boy's wide-open eyes peeked over the top of the couch and met mine. He tried to bob his head casually, but he looked scared. Then he ducked behind the couch again. He was about seven feet away from me, a wobbly brown couch the only thing preventing me from seeing what he was doing.

I sat still for a few seconds and wondered if I could have made a mistake. In the meantime, I heard paper rustling behind the couch. I got up and walked behind the boy. He was crouched forward on the ground, dirty sweepings at his feet, my open wallet in his hand.

I knew exactly how much money was supposed to be in my wallet because Aliyah had, just an hour earlier, declared that I was rich after she borrowed 100 rupees from my wallet. So I had counted the bills inside (there was 800 rupees, about $20) and announced that I was definitely not rich.

Now, shaking, the boy handed me my wallet. The correct amount of money was inside. I wondered again if I might have made a mistake.

Then the boy incriminated himself. He began blubbering in Hindi. He bowed low on the ground and pressed his forehead onto the tops of my bare feet, his small hands tightly gripping my ankles. I didn't understand the words he said, but the message was clear. He was begging.

Still a bit shocked (We liked this boy! We had given him extra money and sweets! We were the liberal Americans who had treated kindly and respectfully a boy unfairly born into servitude! What the hell sort of repayment was this for our self-righteous benevolence?), I pulled the boy up. His cheeks quivered and his eyes were afraid. He pawed at my shirt and rattled on in apologetic Hindi. His little voice choked as he made clear with pantomimes that he would be beaten if I told. I remain confident that our landlords are not the sort of people who would beat a servant for any reason, but the prospect still unnerved me.

The uncomfortable begging continued, and I didn't say much. I didn't know how to react. Finally, I told the boy to leave. He stood in the doorway for a moment, silently pleading. Then he left.

I started thinking, and remembered that twice in the last two weeks I'd looked in my wallet and found a sum lower than I expected. Nothing much, maybe 500 rupees (less than $13) each time. Both times I had fleetingly considered theft, but had quickly chalked up each instance to me having had too much to drink the night before and simply losing count. I was no longer so sure.

Aliyah returned a few minutes later. "We have a problem," I said.

Obviously, we didn't want this poor boy to be punished too harshly or kicked out of our landlord's house. His life sucks enough as it is, and we have always prided ourselves on trying to treat everyone, but particularly those in lower castes who are unfairly persecuted here, with respect, and on trying to make the lives of people like this boy a little better. The last thing we wanted was to contribute to making this boy's life even harder and lousier than it already is.

Well, the second-to-last thing, I guess. Because it turns out that when it comes down to it, the last thing we want is for a proven thief -- no matter how young or downtrodden he may be -- to have ready access to our home. We realized we'd never feel comfortable leaving the house again unless we told our landlords what had happened.

They were understanding and concerned. They swore up and down that he'd never be allowed in our house again and never be allowed anywhere near a key to our house (which the servants must retrieve from and return to Mrs. Aggarwal when it's time to clean and Aliyah and I aren't here). Mr. Aggarwal let slip that there's a debate in his family about whether to keep Shukti or the thief-child. Mr. Aggarwal said he's for Shukti, even though Mrs. Aggarwal prefers the boy burglar because he's a better cook. I put in my pitch for Shukti.

Shukti came and cleaned our house while I wrote this. He's done a helluva good job since he returned last week. He's been doing it all -- scrubbing the bathroom, washing the dishes, and even scraping the grime out of the inside of the garbage can in our kitchen. Bonanza!

I don't know what will happen to the poor little crook, nor do I know what I hope will happen to him. I'm not really angry at him for stealing a few bucks from me -- inarguably, he needs it more than me. But I do begrudge him putting me in a situation where I was forced to break the code of the schoolyard.