Saturday, June 19, 2004

Baby's first 'stan!

I am writing this from an internet cafe in Cairo where they are playing Usher loud enough to feel the bass in my spine.

So, as you have probably gathered from the last sentence I am no longer in India. The last few days were an insane mad dash. After getting marooned in the middle of no where, I (eventually) went to the city of Udaipur (only 22 hours by train and bus, during which time I subsisted on 300 g. of cashews, three fried things from the roadside, a glass of apple juice, some hard candies I bought for a rupee, and a bottle of mineral water. And I was actually developing bedsores on my legs from sitting for so long in the heat). Udaipur was in the province of Rajistan (my first 'stan!) and my kinda India. Men with big turbans and waxed mustaches, snake charmers, inlaid palaces, camels and elephants all over the place. This was it. Udaipur was the city of lakes and sunrises - interesting since the lakes were dry from drought and absolutely nothing was open before 10 am. But regardless, it was beautiful. I was staying in this old haveli of a hotel (like most things in India, older than my country). I had an old state room, done completely in inlaid marble with ornate ceilings and pillowed seating areas. I felt like a most honored member of the harem. And the scrumptious palak paneer at the rooftop restaurant was served with really fluffy delicious naan, just like on 6th St, not some glorified chapti.

The sites were pretty - I could describe them, but in order to save both you and I time, just see the old Bond movie Octopussy. It was filmed in Udaipur and pretty much covers it.

The best part of Udaipur though is that it is known for its miniature paintings. Incredibly intricate and colorful paintings done sometimes with a single hair for a brush. I bought a bunch as souvenirs but also decided to try it myself (I would always get yelled at art school when I was younger for refusing to paint anything bigger than a liner brush anyway), and signed up for a class. It was quite a bit harder than I anticipated, but the teacher was impressed with my abilities, and asked where I learned to paint. I told him that my grandmother had taught me when I was small. Then he wanted to know if my grandmother had ever studied in India. Picturing my 80-something blond haired grandma sitting in her kitchen on Long Island, I told him I didn’t think so. He told me that I should check with her. Anyone who paints well enough to teach others must have studied here at some point. I told him I would drop him an e-mail if I was wrong.

After class, I wandered a few more of the sights, and checked out the famous Mor Chowk inlaided peacocks. And, at the museum at Bangore-ki Haveli, the world’s largest turban, encompassing all four known styles of turban tying. How can you argue with that?

After some shopping, I returned to Bangore-ki Haveli for the night dance show before heading out. The performers were off the hook. Given, the first dance was a little plain, and the one entitled “Happy to be a Virgin” did little for me on a number of levels, most were really something. They had girls that did this whirlie thing with big pots of fire on their heads. Then there was this guy who made his puppet juggle its head, and, call me simple, but I enjoyed that more than most Broadway plays I’ve seen. Then up comes the main event. A woman in a red sari starts dancing with a glass on her head, then balances a huge pot on top of it. Then she climbed on a pair of drinking glasses and danced around. She added another pot and danced on a deep serving bowl. Two more pots, and then hopping around on a bunch of broken glass. Two more pots, then dancing on a pair of upturned rusty swords. She eventually got up to eight big pots, but they didn’t make her dance around on anything else at that point. It was really fucking cool.

Then came a miserable overnight bus trip to Jaipur, the pink city. (The only pink I saw in Jaipur was the Pepobismo.) After getting hopelessly lost on a rickshaw, I arrived at my guesthouse at 8:15. At 8:45, I was at the tourist office signing up for a city tour with 25 Indian tourists. The tour was interesting, I learned everything I could have possibly wanted to know about the maharaja. We covered, at speeds that would make even the most seasoned package tourist’s head spin : Biria Mandir (a temple made out of really really white stone), the Sanjay Sharma Museum and Research Institute (where they had a Snakes and Ladders game from 1750), Jantar Mantar (the world’s largest stone astrological observatory – guess it had to be somewhere – which was a cross between getting stuck in an M. C. Etcher drawing and “Honey I Shrunk the Kids”©), the City Palace and Museum (which had a robe from the Maharaja Sawai Madhu Singh I, who was more than 7 feet tall, weighed more than 500 pounds and had 50 in chest. I am only 64 inches tall.), Jaigarh Fort (with the world’s largest cannon, fired only once, unsuccessfully), the Naharagarh Fort (which had a neat interior paint job), Amber Fort (If have to see one more frigging fort…) and the planetarium. I got a nice little thali lunch at the Naharagarh Fort overlooking the city - which was of incredible interest to my fellow tourees, who noted that they had never seen a white person eat India food. (Note to my countrymen : get out of the McDonald's people. Please.) This, of course, lead to the discovery that I could speak English, and encouraged two teenage girls to talk my ear off for the rest of the day about some of the world’s more intellectual pursuits, specifically which Bollywood actor was the hottest. They didn’t even know who Patrick Swayzee was. I must be getting old.

And then I went to dinner. After eating nothing but vegetarian food for a month in India and Nepal, in my last city before returning to Delhi to fly out, I decided to throw caution to the wind and get myself a tandoori chicken. It was so good, and the staff looked on somewhat bemused as I consumed an ENTIRE chicken all by myself, in less than 20 minutes. Stuffed, I returned to my room to sleep contentedly for 4 hours, at which time the food poisoning kicked in. The next 8 hours were uncomfortable to say the least. I tried to go shopping in the famous Jaipur bazaar when I was feeling a little better, but lasted about 15 minutes before I had to have the rickshaw take me home. For those of you that know that I secretly travel only to all these places as an excuse to go shopping will realize just how seriously ill I was. I had been kicked out of my room so I laid on my guesthouse couch for 2 hours, pouring sweat and writhing in agony, until it was time to get on the bus to Delhi. What better way to recover from food poisoning than by taking an 8 hour bus ride?

I arrived back in Delhi late and was too tired to brave the teaming masses to the guesthouse, so I took a rickshaw. Now everyone who travels in India has at least one story of one disastrous rickshaw rice with a driver who was high as a kite. I had been lucky, and with less than 24 hours to go, I thought my luck would hold out. Nope. This guy was playing bumper bikes the whole way, twice hitting something hard enough to knock me completely off the seat, and once turning the whole contraption on its side, spilling me and my backpack into the street. And, on top of all this, he tried to demand an extra 20 rupees. Not on my watch brother.

Next day, I did some last minute shopping and generally got ready to go. My favorite adventure though was dying my hair black. I decided that my faded strawberry blond 'fro would attract a little more attention than I wanted in the Middle East. So I went to Lucky Ladies Beauty Parlor and told them to dye it brown. I was thinking Cameron Diaz in “Being John Malkovich,” I got Cruella de Ville in “101 Dalmations.” The dye didn’t take evenly. I have stripes. Oh well. Hair grows back. You probably don’t want me to go into details about the ensuing bikini wax. That night I left I had pizza and beer (in true grad student style) with Vishal1 and Vishal2, two of my future colleagues at Harvard who are living in Delhi, before heading to the airport.

I got the 4:30 am flight to Dubai, UAE, which has the nicest airport ever. It looks like high class mall, with some airplanes. My gate was next to Sax's. I got my connection to Cairo, where Sarah, another future classmate, picked me up at the airport. One the way to their house, I looked out the window and remarked what a clean and well-organized place Cairo was. That one earn me a confused look in the rearview mirror. I didn’t care. I just sat in the back and chanted happily though somewhat insanely, “I’m not in Delhi anymore! I’m not in Delhi anymore!”

I am staying with her family here. They are spoiling me. I have all the good Egyptian food I can eat, a soft bed, A/C, the good life. Yesterday I hung around with Sarah and her cousin, smoked sheesha (TOBACCO MOM!) and went shopping. Today I went to the Egyptian museum. It has more mummies than an entire season of Scooby Doo, but nothing much is marked and things are stacked rather haphazardly. Except the King Tutankamen room. That was the coolest single exhibit I’ve seen in a museum anywhere. And the mummy room was cool too, if you go in for 6000 year old dead guys.

Sorry this is not that interesting, but I am watching the clock here, and it is hard to be funny and charming under pressure.

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