. The only way to communicate is for them to speak English with one another, or else it's the old 'point and grunt' charade game. It seems like the culturally uniting forces in India are English, Bollywood actors, and a food called Dahl.
Getting to India from Istanbul was a painful experience. Luckily for us, Scott had arranged for a car to pick us up from the airport, without which we would have been so lost in the unbelievably foreign surroundings. Upon exiting the terminal there were a few Indian things that were impossible to not notice. First, there seriously are hordes of Indians to perform any task and every task. With a population of 1.2 billion people, India has a surplus of workers at every level- from working in the hotel lobby, to retrieving luggage carts, to brewing a pot of coffee (sometimes it takes as many as six). In order to perform the small tasks of moving our backpacks from the luggage cart to the car and opening and closing the car doors, 5 Indian men were involved and all expected to be paid a 10 rupee tip. Second, is getting used to seeing all of the women in their ornately colorful saris, especially since, even in India, they look incredibly out of place. Everyone has heard of the poverty and filth of India. Rightly so, most streets are covered in piles of trash, emaciated people and animals litter the roads, and the air and rivers are clogged with exhaust fumes and sewage. Amid this however, are all the women wearing flowing pink, green, orange, rainbow, and any and every color saris. On top of that they are also decorated in gold jewelry displayed from their ear and nose piercings. These beautifully dressed women simply don't look like they belong in the roads of dirt and trash.
We arrived in Bangalore on a Wednesday morning and the plan was to leave with Scott and Laura for Bombay on Friday
. Ironically, they both went to college together at Georgetown but didn't meet each other until they found themselves in the same program for new hires of Infosys (an Indian IT company) in Bangalore. So, after a couple days of recuperation for John's digestive system, we flew from Bangalore to the sprawling metropolis of Bombay for the weekend. Bombay is oppressively hot and humid, even into the early fall. The two hour bus ride from the airport to the city center (some 14 kilometers) was hot. The bus was of course packed, and Kristina began feeling a little self conscious of all the men staring at her. We've been stared at a lot on this trip already, but this time it was because her shirt was cut just a little lower than what is normal here. Getting to our hotel once we dropped off the bus in the appropriate neighborhood was of course almost impossible also. If you or your driver does not know exactly where you are going, often you are screwed and left to the whim of any passerby on the street. At that point you are often directed in at least 3 different directions by the various people you ask. People are incredibly willing to come help give you directions, the lure of seeing what 'the white people' are trying to do often attracts a crowd. The problem is that the directions are often of little use. If you are left to your own devices it is often best to bust out the lonely planet like a good tourist, go to the map page of the city and do your best.
There is a lot to see in Bombay and we had two days to see some of it. The major outing of the weekend was to Elephanta Island. This island was a Hindu holy site made of elaborate cave carvings figured to date to around 600 AD. Not much else is known about the island. We were taken there on a boat and dropped off at the island to face the usual crowds tourists herded in one uniform mass like cows
. The holy site is on an elevated patch of land in the middle of the island, approached by a long series of steps. These steps are lined on both sides with stalls side to side selling all the usual tourist necessities and all the usual touts shoving something into your face telling you that you want it and that its only going to cost you 200 rupees to get it. Its kind of like bushwhacking. You literally have to use your arms to hack through the touts, often with no end in sight, and just hope that you are going to come out the other side in good shape and in the right place. The caves were actually very impressive. The carvings are some of the most intricate we have seen yet, and they are amazingly well preserved considering that they are twice the age of Yoda. Of course, being in the capitol of Bollywood, we had to see the popular Bollywood movie of the season. Foreign film critics may think that these song and dance, overly dramatic movies are terrible, but they are a religion here in India. The film we saw had 4 of Bollywoods most beloved actors. The film was essentially a rotation of three scenes; crazy colorful song and dance, one of the two women crying, or the actors staring intensely into the landscape. It was fun, although after 3.5 hours of this it had gone a bit overboard. Bombay is also known for its food. Scott and Laura picked out some choice Bombay restaurants where we dined finely on some seafood traditional to the state of Kerala. This was one of the best seafood meals either of us had ever had.
Returning to Bangalore on Monday night, we took until Friday to get a lot of the logistics for the rest of our time in India sorted out. Wednesday was actually a dead day due to the bundh which the workers of the state of Karnataka called for. This is a one-day strike, and this particular strike was about a boundary dispute with another state
. I was not able to make the connection with what the bundh was supposed to achieve and why striking was the way to achieve it, but as we have discovered, often logic is not a reasonable way to try to understand a situation. Bundhs often turn violent, and this one was mildly violent as well. We were urged not to step food outside, so we observed that and spent most of the day watching movies. Thursday was business as normal, and although some property was damage from stone throwing, things looked normal the next day.
To plan travel here, you have to think of planning travel fifteen years ago in the states. You just have to know exactly what you need to know, the internet is often not too helpful, or if you don't know the intricate systems of public transportation, lodging, and roads, you must use a travel agent. We spent the better part of two days, and five visits to a travel agents office to get things planned out for our remaining time in India. Oh, even though you might not know how to use the public transportation systems, where to go about bookings and reservations, you have to have reservations on most busses and trains. There are so many people in this country, that the transport is not adequately able to cope with the volume of people. There is no doubt that a lot of frustration results from travel here. Our travel agent was very helpful in sorting everything out for us
. The 10% commission charge was well deserved. Our latest trip was to Bandipur national park south of Mysore. This park has India's highest density of leopards, as well as a high density of tigers, elephant, spotted deer and wild boar. All travel involved, our Saturday bus took 9 hours to go the 200 kilometers to the park. This also is typical for India. Busses are often no mach for the bad roads and herds of grazing animals. The two days we stayed at a lodge with a helpful staff of people Kristina deemed to be 'safari masters' They were actually very knowledgeable wildlife rangers who took us for morning and evening 'safaris' through the jungle in the park. We did not see the grand prize of sightings, the tiger, but we did get close ups of wild elephant herds, playful spotted deer clans and the occasional lonely wild Gaur and Boar. Made for some good photo ops. During some down time on Sunday, we were invited to take a jeep ride to the top of the highest peak in Bandipur to see one of Karnataka's most famous Hindu temples. We were ushered into a tiny crammed temple, definitely the only white people for weeks who had come anywhere near. We had absolutely no idea what we were doing as people pushed and shoved closer toward the holy man at the center of the temple. The craziest and most disturbing part of the event was that all parties, holy man and all, were yelling at each other and forcefully shoving each other out of the way. It didn't seem all that holy. We kept our eyes open to observe, but we let folks slowly push us out of the way, rightfully so, as we had no real religious business there
We are back in Bangalore for our last day. Tonight we take an overnight train to Hampi which is the most popular ancient Hindu temple sight in India. On the 14th we go silent for ten days. Literally. We have enrolled ourselves in an intensive 10-day Vipassana meditation course in Hyderabad. We don't know a whole lot about this, but it was Buddha's course of mediation toward his enlightenment. We'll do it for 10 days, Buddha did it for years. Men and women are kept separate, you cant bring anything that smells, cant read, cant write, no contact with the outside world, and the real kicker, no talking for 10 days. It should certainly prove itself to be quite a challenge.
We'll emerge on the 26th for our train north to Delhi, and onward to Nepal. We'll write before we begin meditation, and surely we will write after.
P.S. What I (Kristina) am happy to report, is that I have engaged in the spicy Indian food battle and am doing surprisingly well. For everyone who knows how sensitive my taste buds are, you will be impressed that I am eating all of the fiery masala dishes with relish. I've been trying everything, and even though my eyes water and I sweat profusely, I can honestly say that I love Indian food and am growing to love the burning sensation as well!
India is a difficult place to figure out. The vastness of the country combined with the thousands of years of cultural history make the nation incredibly diverse. While it may be homogenous in the sense that the great majority of the population is actually Indian, the cultural diversity and language diversity is equal, perhaps greater than the diversity found in the states. The different states in India have completely different customs, festivals, language and foods. It would be like driving from California into Nevada, and all of a sudden Nevadans didn't celebrate Christmas, spoke no English, and ate no pasta, pizza or burgers. This is no exaggeration. For example, Bangalore is in the state of Karnataka. In Karnataka, the people are darker skinned, outside of Bangalore speak almost no English, and to our surprise, they speak no Hindi here either. They speak Kannada. Kannada is so distinctly different from Hindi, that someone from the north who does speak Hindi cannot understand anything that a Karnatakan speaking Kanada will say