Friday, November 25, 2011

Turkey Day Away

By: Kathleen

When it comes to holidays some travel better than others. Christmas can be spent on tropical beaches or ski slopes, New Years Eve can be spent anywhere you want, but Thanksgiving, All American Holiday that it is, can’t truly be celebrated without being in the U.S with friends or family.

You can take the tree out of Christmas, the snow and the reindeer and it is still a holiday, but take the turkey and the pie and the fire and the love ones out of thanksgiving and it becomes nothing more than another Thursday in November, no more special or interesting than any other.

So it was that this year I woke up in New Delhi and my first thought was “ It’s Thanksgiving”. As Fiz slept on beside me I played back some of my favorite Thanksgiving memories and then, in a fit of nostalgia started to try to remember as many Thanksgivings as I could, in order.
An hour later I was decidedly homesick. As it happens this was also the first time in four days that I’ve had enough energy to do anything other than lay in bed and read, so to test how human I felt and to celebrate the day we did something decidedly American, we went to the mall.

“The mall?” Everyone at home asked, yes, the mall.  New Delhi has changed quite a lot since my first visit here in 2008, a new metro is being built and new malls are springing up. The Select City Walk Mall is nicer than the mall near my home, and shiny new. Inside, purified air is pumped into a well lit space with international name brands like The Body Shop, Lush, Nike, Benetton, Adias, Marks and Spencers vie with Indian companies like Woodland. Here you can stop and get latté or a cinnamon roll (from Cinnabon) and still find stores that are selling the latest saree fashions. This year there are even lingerie shops added in, though no Victoria secret yet.

We got some pizza, which was made on a tortilla and had string cheese as mozzarella and stopped at the Crosswords for the latest George R.R. Martin book. We saw a kidi- table set up for making "Thanksgiving Gratitude pots" and wondered what the hell those were and counted the number of stores with Thanksgiving sales ( 4).It was very tiring after being so sick and we moved slowly.

The mall itself is a great place to people watch, ex-pats from all over the world gather here to shop, relax and escape the craziness of India. Well-healed locals lunch dressed in jeans and shalwar tops, all well manicured and done up. There are the occasional groups of Indians who stumble in and look about in awe, clearly new to the mall experience. It’s a happening place.

I have to wonder what India will be like in 10 years, 5 years even. The big cities are changing so fast and the country, and smaller cities are… Not. The divide between the two is getting bigger every year. The airport that I first flew into with no AC and squat toilets has been torn down and now a gleaming smoked glass and echoed steel marvel stands in its place. It’s hardly the same city I first met. It’s catching up with the future.

There is evidence of the changing India in other ways too. A new movie features a sperm donor as its main hero and my husband’s teenage cousin has a ‘spin the bottle’ ap on his iPad ( though it’s rules say things like “ kiss any girl on the check” and “ flick your friend’s forehead” which seems silly considering I was dating people at his age but these things take longer over here).

Though it’s undeniable that India is changing I wonder, as it vies for superpower status, is it changing fast enough? Compared with China India lags far behind in many areas, China is cleaner, its cities are more modern, its people are more familiar with middle class life an are less fettered by religion or custom. India has creativity though and imagination in abundance… if only it could get itself organized. But organization seems a far-fetched dream the moment you walk out of the mall. Then the traffic and the smog and the beggars hit you and its India all over again.

 But it’s Thanksgiving and I should be giving thanks, Here’s my list. This Thanksgiving, I’d like to say I’m grateful for all the things that have aligned that have made it able for me to travel, to learn about and to compare countries, to get new stamps and cross new boarders. I’m thankful for my health and the health of my husband and family. I’m thankful for the feel of wind in my hair, for the clean air, for clean water and clean food. I’m thankful for my friends and loved ones at home and for those abroad.

I’m thankful, despite all the issues it comes with, to be an American. It becomes especially clear on days like this that there is no place like home, no other place where I can get a taco and a swarma and a seaweed salad in the same town. There’s no other place where such amazing diversity of people and beliefs intermingle to create such astounding thoughts and dreams. I hope that we can find our way, that we can as a country get things straightened out because although here in Delhi I may be able to get the latest hits and the newest fashion…. I still can’t get a decent burger and certainly not a turkey.  

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Down with the Sickness

By Fiz

Traveling while sick sucks.  Few things are as disconcerting as feeling unwell in an unfamiliar place, where the doctors speak an unfamiliar language to one another, as if to spare you knowing what is making you feel like shit. 

Fortunately for us we didn’t get seriously sick till we arrived in India, where I do speak a bit of the language, Hindi.  It was in Varanasi, about 7 days into our stay, when it hit.  It started in the middle of the night, I woke up at some god awful hour and remember thinking that I was going to hurt in the morning.  Sure enough, I did.
Before my sitar lesson at 11:30 I had already vomited once and had 4 bouts of diarrhea.  Without going into the grizzly details, and believe me, you’re glad I’m sparing you, I was puking out my brains and shitting a steady stream for the rest of the day.  By 5 I conceded that I needed a doctor, so we called.

Now in India if you need a doctor to make a house call, make sure you call a good 2 hours before you actually think you will want to make the call. 

Like a proper Indian he said he would be there in less than an hour.  It was past 7 when he finally showed up, and the guest house staff had yelled at him at least once between 6 and 6:30.

‘You are sick.’ he declared authoritatively, like I needed him to tell me that.  He took my blood pressure and pulse, and said I was mildly dehydrated, and need an IV. And with that he sent for a nurse to come with an IV and a box full of everything imaginable.  Most of which I didn’t even use, but of course we had to pay for it all.

The nurse arrived another hour later and put the IV in and began prepping some injections for me.  When we asked what he was giving me he said “medicine”… no shit.
I asked again what it was, and got the same reply.  He eventually had to call the doctor as if to get permission to tell us what he was injecting me with.  Then we asked what the side effects were, and if it had any adverse reactions to what I take for my epilepsy, and he again had to call the doctor who instead of answering the question just said that it was all fine.  Eventually the doctor said that we didn’t find the medicine satisfactory so we should just go to the hospital. 

This went on for an hour.  Every time we asked the nurse anything he had to stop look at us confused and call the doctor.  On top of that he didn’t wash his hands once the entire time he was handling the shots or the drip or anything at all.  When he came the next day he actually blew his nose into his hand and rubbed it off on his pants and carried on changing the IV like nothing happened.  I was too shocked to say anything until it was done.  He was sick and he didn’t even wash his hands. Fucking asshole.

In fact the only time he did wash his hands was after he pulled the IV out.  The IV was in my arm for just shy of 2 days and I had been given 4000 mg of an anonymous antibiotic.  Then that evening we got on a 14 hr train to Delhi where family met us. 

And once there Kathleen promptly fell ill with the flu. 

Indians don’t understand the concept of having an upset stomach, which we both had.  They understand even less the idea of a restrictive diet not for weight loss.  So the very next day after we settled in with family, they serve very oily chicken.  I managed to avoid it, but Kathleen was guilted into eating to drumsticks.

Kathleen spent the entire night vomiting, the next day we took her to a clinic, and we hadn’t even finished telling the doctor what was wrong with her when he started telling the nurse to give Kathleen a shot.  Then it took another 5 minutes to find out what the shot was for, let alone what the name of the medication was called.
Then he gave us a list of things to buy from the pharmacy before he gave a lab order for a blood test. 

So when we got home less than 30 minutes after going in we look up what antibiotic he prescribed Kathleen on and we find out that the drugs are for respiratory infection, and UTI’s.  WTF??

We thought we had made it clear that she had stomach problems.  On top of that the side effects of the drug were nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Which just so happened to be the major symptoms of whatever the hell had infected Kathleen to begin with. We called the doctor back and told him that we thought he gave us the wrong antibiotic, and he said he didn’t and left it at that.


Doctors here are terrible, they don’t really listen to what you say, and they act like you know nothing about health, and remedies.  But worst of all, you don’t feel like you can trust anybody, or feel comfortable or safe in anybodies hands.  The only comfort is that the needles come in packages so you can watch the nurse crack one open before the tip slides under your skin.  Also, they suck at taking blood, and giving shots.

In short, don’t get sick in India. It’s almost worth catching a quick flight to Bangkok if you feel yourself coming down with something serious.  Or try to track down a well known Ayurvedic doctor in the area.

Ah well, we are both on the mend, and hopefully we will be in Australia soon.

Friday, November 11, 2011


By Fiz and Kathleen

A hellish bus ride south from Pokara, that included a loud argument with the bus drivers (which we lost), and a ride on top of a jeep, brought us to the border crossing to India.  From there us and our travel companions had two options either we make do with the mediocre accommodations, with no information of the bus timings in India, or we could cross and hope for better beds, with India’s idea of a bus schedule. We opted to cross.

The hotel should be casted in a horror flick set in India.  The place was creepy.  We walked in just before dusk and when we walked inside it was pitch black. We wandered in bumping into walls and the first person carrying a flashlight was a family of Indian tourists.  Some one brushed past us to go kick on the generator.  The din it raised shattered the silence of the hotel.

The room had that, accidental overdose kind of décor that’s so popular amongst cheap stays in Asia and we left the light on all night to prevent cockroaches from appearing.

Food was another issue, there were no restaurants in Sunali so we settled for cold deep fried sandwiches and samosa and chai from a tiny street vendor. We ate in what we later realized was their bedroom/living room/ kitchen.

Let me pause for a moment and explain “ we”. There was the two of us, a young German couple and a solo-woman from Taiwan. We didn’t really talk, we weren’t really friends but for two days and two nights we found food together, took busses and trains together and slept under the same roof. This is called safety in numbers and it the unspoken agreement is, we all go together and no one gets left behind. This is one of those rules of the road that I really love, it reminds me of epic travel adventures, meeting people in taverns and hazarding the road together. It cool that it still exists. Once we reached our destination we split ways, no contact information necessary.

That’s the way the road works, you meet people, some you love some you hate, many in-between. You exchange stories often more openly than you ever would at home, you talk politics and bitch about world events and you above all try to impress upon one another what you country is like.

Amongst other English speakers we usually try to find all the possible differences between our language. I know that sounds contradictory but there are so many kinds of English and though we all speak a common tongue we don’t always know what the other person is saying.

Then there are the regional differences, people like nothing s much as to point out where exactly they are from in the English speaking world and why, this is especially popular amongst Americans who I think get tired of being lumped together when we are sometimes very different. “Noooo, that’s what they say in Georgia not North Carolina” or “ I’m from Massachusetts… no not Boston.” “ Ohio is nothing like Minnesota” ect.

Fiz started this post, but I’m finishing it in a very interesting place, a government lassi shop called the Blue Lassi in Varanasi while he goes and has a sitar lesson. I was told that they have wi-fi here, but I haven’t seen any evidence of this yet. Its very surreal to be typing away while I’m sitting next to an eclectic mix of tourists and locals. Occasionally a cow wanders past, or a funeral…. There’s lots of those here. The other day we were in here with some French tourist we were chilling with when all of a sudden we hear this strange puttering noise. Two men pushing a cart came into view, on the cart there was a contraption that looked like an engine with a large exhaust pipe spewing white smoke. “oh no!” yelled one of the customers in genuine dismay as the staff ran to cover the doorways with totally ineffectual plastic.

Within minutes the streets, the shops, and our lassi spot was filled with noxious white gas. I took my bandana off and doubled it up as a mask. “ What is that?” somebody shouted… in truth we don’t really know but what we could gather from the waiters was “antibacterial/ anti-mosquito”…” trying to stop malaria”…. Great. Then they came back again.

If I ever wondered before what a bioterrorism attack would be like, I guess I have a better idea now. It was pretty scary even if it wasn’t going to kill me( immediately). There was nothing you could do it just happened so fast. Oh India, thou art so interesting….

Still its good to be back, hard to believe this is my third time. Four years ago if you had asked me I never would have guessed that this land and its people would become such a deep part of my life. My understanding of myself, life and especially Fiz deepens every time I come here, a great big unfolding, messy colorful, splendid, dirty, terrifying and delicious mystery. ( and OMG I wish the dude next to me would stop slurping his curd!)

Friday, November 4, 2011

Rooftop Riding

By Kathleen

Ok so the busses in Nepal are bad, not as bad as say Vietnam, but bad. You think I would have learned by now to not trust the time frames and to expect no toilets. As we careened up and down the mountains between Kathmandu and Pokara I was struck by how beautiful the views were, or would have been I suppose if it wasn’t for the persistent haze of pollution and dust.

It’s a serious shame how polluted Nepal is. Here we are in one of the outdoor capitals of the world and it’s filthy. Locals and tourists alike contribute to the piles of rubbish on the side of the roads and the busses spew black smog into the air leaving you gasping and wishing you had a cigarette because at least that is filtered. The peaks of the mountains were lost in the haze and though I am in the Himalaya it hardly feels like it.

Busses and trucks fill the highway, a slender strip of road just one lane for either direction, clinging to the side of the mountains that rise sharply from a tropical forest floor. The buses in the true Indic style are painted with faces and slogans.         “ Wel-come”, “ Good Luck” and my favorite “ Speed Control”(yeah they are called brakes and I sure as hell hope that you have them). You should always be wary of getting on a vehicle that has “ Good Luck” painted above the door.

The curves were sharp and the drop incredibly steep but there at least the smog helped, you couldn’t see either the mountain peaks above or the valley below so its wasn’t as terrifying as it would have been. The careening made me fear for my life at points but that too served a purpose… at least I wasn’t thinking about how much I had to take a piss. There’s no stopping for ladies, just the gents who get to pee off the “edge of the world”. I suppose I could have joined them but then it would be a bunch of Nepali guys watching me hike into the bush and who’s to say if the bus would have waited for me to return.

Leaving Bahktapur was sad, it was such a beautiful city but we wanted to see more of the country. Kathmandu is a bonified shit-hole worth only the airport and few short stops. Pokara at the other end of the valley is the gateway to the Himalaya and you can see the snow crested mountains lining the edge of the lake. In between there are tens of dusty little towns clinging precariously to the side of the road, all concrete and poverty, nothing much worth seeing. However higher up from the road there are a few little gems, one of which was our destination Bandipur.

Once Bandipur was a trade hub, a last stop before the dangerous trails into Tibet…. That’s’ all over now with the boarder closed and McAdam roads replacing dirt caravan routes, but the town remains. Few tourists visit here and it’s a wonder why, the village is perched at the top of a peak with terraced paddies of rice and wheat and veggies draping down below it like a skirt. Nearby there are caves to explore and in the right weather paragliding.

I’m not one for heights or dark confined spaces so both of these marvels were lost on me but it was lovely to spend a day wandering the streets of the town and trying to catch baby ducks.

Getting up their was an experience, after being on the public bus for 7 hours we were let off in Dumre a sketchy little way point, more of a glorified truck stop than a town. There we were told that getting up to the top of the mountain and our destination was impossible.  It was after dark and we hadn’t booked a Jeep. The guide book had said nothing about having to book and Jeep and really that seemed unlikely so despite the persistent arguing of the local motel owner I told Fiz to go ask around.

Just as we were begging to give up hope a Jeep filled with around 23 singing Nepalis pulled up next to us. “ Bandipur!” the driver shouted, “ Bandipur?” we asked, “Bandipur 300 rupees” he answered, about 15 times the going rate, but it was either that or spend the night in Dumre, we paid and jumped on, the roof was the only available spot.

With one leg over the sitar and one arm to hold on with we rode upwards, and upwards… and upwards, each turn taking us higher into the night and deeper into the forest, all was black. The young Nepali girls riding up top with us began to sing a merry song back and forth with those sitting below and as I started at the moon I found it amazing how beautiful life can be.

Then the headlights on the Jeep went out, great…, luckily there was some Neplai innovation and a lamp was procured, this had apparently happened before. With the only the lamp to guide us I was glad for the cover of darkness, shielding me from the sight of the drop below. The lights did come back on eventually.
When we were offloaded in Bandipur the power was out and the city was dark except for candles. The guesthouse, the restaurant all was light by the glow of flame and for a moment it seemed as though we had take a Jeep right into the 1830s, complete with the locals cooking our dinner over wood fire.

The next day we met two travelers, a couple, one Aussie the other from home and teamed up to enjoy the evening. He was biking (BIKING!) the highway so we made plans to ride the bus with his lady. Which we did, at least for a short while, in the stylish Nepali comfort of the bus roof.

Now really you would think, the roads are dangerous enough why get on the roof? Well, one the pollution is less bad when you are in a breeze, you can stretch out up there and the views are ten times better…. And you can smoke…. You know the usual reasons.

For anyone who’s ever been impressed at Fiz’s rolling ability they would be all the more so to see him doing it on a bus roof, in the Himalaya as we careened around corners. Champion skills.

Eventually we were made to get down and ride like normal people in the bus where the diesel fumes leaked back in the cab and gave all of us a choking headache for the remaining hour and a half.

Pokara, sadly, is a disappointment, the weather has been bad and if I’m in the mountains well then I’d be damned, you can’t see anything through the haze, not even the lake. So much for pristine nature.

It seems likely that I won’t see the Himalayas at all, the plane ride in will be my only glimpse at their majesty. I’m sure I am not only underprepared materially to walk but totally physically unable to do any of the trails. I’m not a whimp I’m just pathetically out of shape. I know my limits. Hopefully in a couple of years when we come back to India we can make a pit-stop here and actually do some treks, the thought of them will be my motivation.

They say the weather will clear, and visibility will return in 3 or 4 days, but by then dear readers we will have moved on. A new plan stirs us and we are canceling our time in Chitwan to head across the boarder early. India is next but only for a moment to see family and get visas. Then, well we have to eat and in order to eat we’ll be needing money. Word amongst backpackers is the jobs are easy picking in the land down under…