Friday, October 31, 2008

So glad to be in Thailand (Monday, 10/20)

After much travel and little sleep, we are finally in Thailand, and life is good. It is so nice finally being in Thailand, especially after being in India for several weeks. Thailand is everything that India is not. India is loud, dirty, crowded, unsanitary, uncouth, and most people on the streets are trying to screw you out of your money. Thailand is peaceful, orderly, clean, mostly sanitary, and the people are genuinely friendly. Thailand was never ruled by colonial powers, is based on a matriarchal system, and most of the people are Buddhist. It all makes for a country that is just delightful to be in, especially after being in a country as fucked up as India. Thailand has been influenced by both eastern and western cultures, but still maintains something uniquely Thai. As Grace put it, “Thailand is happy-weird.” We watched a cartoon that really just summed up Thailand well. It involved dancing cartoon crocodile characters, mice and cows playing instruments, and everyone singing about the “Merit Sphere.” Here are the lyrics:

Come on brother and sister. Come and celebrate, on November 2, 2008. The casting of the Jhana seat, in pure gold, of the Queller of Mara who has, long been immersed in the Jhanas. Come to make merit together. Luang Pu’s Kathina, the opportunity for everyone to make great merit. It’s now quite late already, I must say farewell, my mind is concerned, being in love with the Merit Sphere. I wish to make this merit, together with my Grandpa. Grandma will be pleased if she knows. I told you a long time ago, whoever is the follower, of Master Nun Chand, must come to make this merit. I wish to make this merit. How much are you contributing? Lots, that’s all. Well, how much? To be inside the Jhana Seat, that’s all. I love you truly. What indeed can be compared, to the Merit Sphere? What indeed can be compared, to the Merit Sphere?

Oh yeah, I love Thailand!

Leaving India (Sunday, 10/19)

So, most of the last week was wonderfully uneventful. I largely avoided the annoying rickshaw drivers, which I think solved most of my problems. I walked around getting plenty of pictures, checking out the markets, and trying new foods. The people around here have so much character in their faces, so I have been wandering around the streets asking everyone if I can take their pictures, to which most people are delighted. I also spent allot of time hanging out in the hotel room, just to get away from the constant noise (people in India think that the car horn is the greatest invention ever and use it as much as possible). I also purchased plane tickets, checked email, and helped Grace get around (it’s just not safe for women to walk alone in India), but mostly I just hung out.

I got invited to another Couchsurfing get-together over at Ramki’s place on Saturday, so I gladly accepted. Ramki loves to cook, so we all got treated to some fantastic Indian foods including spicy baby eggplants, spiced cucumber slices, and Indian burritos. There were three people from Chennai, two Americans (myself included), and two people from India who had lived in the US for years, and moved back to India to teach. The conversation naturally ventured into world politics, economics, education, and the upcoming election. Over all, a lovely evening, and a welcome window of sanity within the great chaos that is India.

Sunday is our last day in India, and I am definitely ready to get out of this country. I called, Avinash, one of my Couchsurfing friends to see if I could stash a couple bags at his place while I am in Thailand, and also to see if he wanted to hang out some time during the day. To my surprise, not only did he agree to hold onto my stuff, but he also offered me a ride to the airport. Avi, you rock! He came and picked me up a little early so we could hang out and grab some dinner. We swung by his house to drop of his roommate, but looking at the time we decided to just order from Pizza Hut and hang around his place so he could check out some of my lenses (I brought them all with me) and do some test shots. I showed him all my lenses and we did some tests to compare his lenses to mine (I have some of the high-end expensive ones, and he has consumer grade lenses). As expected, my lenses tested out allot better than his, and I think I blew his mind with my macro lens. After more than an hour, the pizza finally arrives, just in time to stuff our faces and run out the door. I think we ordered something like “Spicy Punjabi,” and spicy it was.

We swing back by the hotel to pick up Grace and our bags. We are running a little late, so I move along pretty quick. Earlier in the day I had made sure we were all paid up and ready to check out. I run upstairs, grab our bags, and we are ready to go… or so I think. On our way out the door, they tell us that we owe more money. WTF. I start berating them about this apparent extra charge they have decided to add, and tell them I will be back after loading the car. I take the luggage downstairs, but one of the guys is determined to load it for us, so he grabs the bags out of my hand and starts putting them in the car, naturally in the least logical fashion. I come back up prepared to scold them, but I am pleasantly surprised to hear they have decided to give us a 5% discount, and that they only want another 200 rupees. Fine. I give them the money, but then they need to print the receipts and have me sign them. Of course they have not even started printing them yet, they are using the slowest printer in history, and for some reason they need to print three receipts. They get them printed, then for some inane reason, one of the guys starts separating the carbon copies. One of the other guys at the desk (as is typical in India, there are four guys doing the job of one) stops him and tells me to sign one of the ones that did not get separated. I do, then he starts fumbling to line up the separated copy for me to sign. Of course he is completely inept, and it takes him forever to get it lined up… poorly. He presents it to me to sign, then as I am about to sign it he yanks it away to re-align the pages, and this time does an even worse job of it. I sign it, and then ask to have the third receipt to sign. They tell me they need to fix something, then they all look confused and start arguing with each other about something on the third receipt. I ask if they need more money to which I am assured that I am paid in full, and told that it is just something for their records. I tell them that we are late, and that if they would just let me sign the receipt, they could finish their record keeping later. As usual, their response is to be patronizing, completely ignore whatever it was that I said, and continue about whatever they wanted to do in the first place. After about five minutes, they finally figure out whatever they were arguing about, and hand me the receipt to sign. Fuckers!

We finally get in the car and start driving. Traffic is of course terrible, but fortunately Avi is well practiced at driving in India. We speed down the crowded street like a chase scene, swerving all over the road and honking at people to get out of the way. At one point on the highway, we come up behind a police car going slowly with the lights flashing, tailgate the cop for a second, then honk at him, swerve around, and speed off (apparently a regular practice here in India). Eventually we make it to the airport, find our way though customs, security, and onto the plane. What a relief to be out of fucking India!

An Evening at the Beach (Tuesday, 10/14)

Tuesday started with another trip to the hospital because Grace has had a headache since the day after surgery. After returning to the hotel, I decide to wonder the streets and take pictures while I still have light. After getting harrased for money from some drunk guys outside a wine shop, I continue down the street to take some more pictures. A few minutes later and I get a call from Anthony’s friend saying that he is coming to pick me up and he will be at the hotel in five minutes. Keep in mind that I never asked to be picked up today, and no one ever mentioned this to me before now. It seems pointless trying to dispute this over the phone since neither of us can understand one another, so I head back to the hotel and wait. After a few minutes he shows up and asks me where I am going. I tell him that I am just taking pictures today, and that I don’t really need to go anywhere. He stresses that he wants to take me somewhere, and appears as though he is not going to take no for an answer. I have wanted to get out to the broken bridge in the evening for the dramatic lighting, so I tell him he can take me there. I reluctantly hop on the back of his motorcycle without a helmet, and off we go.

The tide is up, and now water from the ocean is pouring INTO the river that I had previously thought never reached the ocean. This time I brought my big lens, so I am able to get some good shots of some sand crabs as well as birds and some people who don’t know I am taking their picture. There are some fishermen there at the beach using their nets to try and get some fish traveling through the tide-dependent waterway and I get some good shots of them. It’s scary to think that they actually eat fish out of the river (the one that looks more like a sewage dump), and I just hope that none of the fish I ate during my time in India came from the river. No more fish for me while I am in India.

At this point we can see a big monsoon coming inland, and my ride is urging me to leave, so I agree. We jump on the bike and he says we should go to a wine shop. I tell him that I don’t want to go to a wine shop, it is getting ready to rain, and I would like to head back to the hotel. He of course ignores my request and drives over to a wine shop, telling me that it will only be a minute. Fine. We go into the wine shop, he orders a small bottle of brandy (the brandy in India is more akin to spiced rubbing alcohol), and asks me if I want a beer. I tell him that I don’t want any beer… several times in fact, and he eventually gives up. He then asks me for 120 rupees for the brandy... which I almost expect at this point. He did drive me to the beach (albeit unsanctioned), so I consent and hand him the money. About this time it starts to rain… and when I say rain, I mean monsoon. Great. Also about this time, a really drunk guy in the wine shop starts asking me for money, to which I tell him no and start ignoring him. He continues asking me for money, and when he does not get my attention, he grabs my arm with both hands. I immediately twist my arm out of his grasp, and with the same motion push the guy away from me. He clearly does not comprehend this, and does the same thing again, to which he gets the same response. He does it yet a third time, to which he gets the same response in addition to a big foreigner in his face telling him to back off. Apparently this has little effect because he grabs my arm yet again. Evidently nothing is going to deter this guy from asking for money, short of kicking his ass, so after shoving the guy off, I decide to leave. The rain has let up a little, at least to a reasonable level, so I tell the guy I am with that I want to go. He tries to point out that it is raining (because clearly this is beyond my comprehension), but I ignore him, walk out to the bike, and wait. He seems upset that I am standing in the rain, and runs out to where I am standing. He again tells me that it is raining (again, beyond my comprehension), and asks me to come back under the roof. I tell him that I don’t care and that I want to go back to the hotel. He grabs some newspaper, wipes off the seat, and then we hop on. He drives across the street and stops under a tree, which at this point is doing little more than condensing the water droplets. Brilliant! He then tells me to stand in the entranceway of another building across the street.

After standing in the doorway for about half an hour, the rain lets up for the most part, we hop back on the bike, and away we go. At one point we drive past a puddle at the same time as another car, and suddenly my entire right side is soaking wet. Splendid! Fortunately my camera is nestled within my man-purse, and as such still nice and dry. He offers to pull over, to which I insistently tell him to keep going. A few minutes later and he pulls over to a little road-side food stand, proclaiming that we are here. He proceeds to tell me that we can now get some dinner and drink the liquor. Judging from previous experiences, I decide to go along with it, and tell him to drive up the beach so I can get some sugarcane juice to mix with the brandy. Twelve rupees later and I have two cups brimming full with freshly squeezed sugarcane juice. We drive back down to the food stand, and I am told to have a seat on one of the plastic stools in the sand. A few minutes later and we are presented with a bowl of “chili-beef.” The plastic fork I am giving is completely inept at any task but looking like a fork, so I pull out the Thai-spoon I always carry in my man-purse. My host/kidnaper is amazed that I would carry such a thing, and a conversation ensues.

After talking for a while, ordering some more food, and drinking some booze, he steers the conversation to education and how important it is. This seems a little off topic considering we were just talking about food, but whatever. He starts talking about the importance of computers in this day and age, and then asks if I will buy him a laptop. Seriously?!!! Suddenly everything makes sense, and I realize that driving me to the beach was somehow supposed to convince me that I should buy him a laptop… you know, because I’m completely loaded. I explain to him that I don’t have that kind of money. He says that is OK, and that I can just pay for part of is… WTF. Is this guy for real? I explain that I am not rich, and that I am simply not going to buy him a laptop or give him any money. He seems disappointed and the conversation essentially stops. After paying for the food, he says that he needs to go to the bathroom, so he hops on his bike and drives off.

At this point the night has cleared up, there is a warm breeze coming in from the ocean, and there is a full moon lighting the beach. I decide that I am pretty much done with this guy, and start walking across the sand, towards the ocean. I get a call from my host/kidnaper asking where I am. I tell him that I am on the beach, to which he asks me to come back, to which I tell him to go home. He calls me several more times, and eventually he gets the point and stops calling. I continue my walk, making sure to let the waves wash over my feet. In the moonlight I can see hundreds of crabs scurrying around me. The beach is covered with couples enjoying the romantic evening, against a backdrop of carnival-like lighting near the road. I decide to try for some night shots, so I set my camera on one of the nearby fishing boats. After getting a couple good pictures, I decide that it is time for bed, so I walk back to the road and catch a rickshaw back to the hotel. A lovely end to a most peculiar evening.

Hashing in Guindy National Park (Sunday, 10/12)

Thursday was kind of a chill day with nothing of interest to write about. Friday I felt like I was starting to get sick so I slept most of the day to try and avoid it. Saturday I was feeling allot better but I thought I would take it easy just to play it safe. Sunday on the other hand…

There was going to be another hash this Sunday, so seeing as I missed the last one, I was pretty anxious to actually make it to this one. This one was also much easier to find since we were meeting just outside the snake park for the run. I was told to be there at 3:30, so I left the hotel at 2:45 trying to make sure I would have plenty of time. I catch a rickshaw out front and tell him I want to go to the Snake Park. On the way I realize that I forgot my running shoes. Oh well, screw it. I have run in Chacos before and I can do it again. I show up early and stand around for twenty minutes before I find anyone who looks like a hasher. Eventually everyone shows up and we are ready to run. They actually have the police unlock the gate to the park for us. VIP treatment apparently. The trail is pretty fun, there are lots of false trails, but after a while it becomes clear that anything that veers off the main road is a false trail. At this point my feet are starting to hurt from running in sandy chacos, the hares pre-laid the trail and it is getting a little boring, and I don’t have a beer in my hand, so I lose motivation and start walking. It actually turned out to be quite an enjoyable walk in the park and no one died from deadly snake bites, so over all a pleasurable experience.

After we are sure everyone made it to the end, we all head to the on after, aka the party. We sit around for a while eating fresh potato chips and drinking King Fisher (beer). Apparently they managed to get King Fisher to sponsor their hash, so they get free beer every weekend for the hash… lucky bastards. After sitting around for a while, it is time for the hash circle. I was a little surprised at how conservative the hashers here are… for hashers anyways. After the circle, they start playing music and everyone continues standing around talking. Some how the conversation turns to dancing styles, they find out I can breakdance, and they hound me until I agree to show them. Once again I end up throwing down some moves and everyone crowds around to watch. How does this always happen? After dancing to exhaustion, everyone wanted to talk to the breakdancing guy, and I was never without conversation for the rest of the evening. After a while they bring out dinner, which is of course catered by a local restaurant. The party continues until it starts to rain and the party comes to an end in the wee hours of the night… or as I find out when I look at my watch, 8pm. Over all a great party, a group of people, and allot of fun getting to hash in India.

Tis the season for puffed rice (Wednesday, 10/8)

So the next morning I get a call from Anthony apologizing for last night and asking what time I would like him to pick me up. I do need to check my email, so I tell him 1:00. He shows up at the hotel with a bag of food prepared by his wife. He brought some fish and squid in little plastic bags tied shut with string. We drive along eating in the rickshaw on the way to the internet café. At one point they pull over and quickly buy us some water because they are concerned that it is too spicy. OK, whatever. They then insist on waiting for us to finish eating before we continue on our way. Again, whatever. We finally get to the internet café to check our email, and then back to the hotel. He tells me that there is a festival going on in the evening and that he will be by to pick me up later. Sounds interesting enough. I tell him that I am supposed to meet a friend for dinner at 8:00 and ask him what time the other event is. He tells me that he will pick me up at about 6:00 and that he will give me a call before hand.

6:00pm and I get a call letting me know that he is in front of the hotel. I grab my bag, head downstairs, and hop in the rickshaw. At this point I just along for the ride and really have no idea what to expect. First thing he does is head to a wine shop. One beer for me, one bottle of liquor for him, and we are on our way. We drive to a little hole in the wall shop with Indian music playing on some loudspeakers sitting on the sidewalk outside. He runs inside for a minute and then comes back out to tell me that it has not yet started and that we will have to wait. I am instructed to stay in the rickshaw and then he runs off down the street. A few minutes later and he shows up with some curried crabs for me to eat. It’s quite nice of him, but eating crabs in the back of a rickshaw is a little more than tricky. I have to crack open the shells with my teeth and then pick out what little meat is there with my fingers, all while balancing the plate on my legs and leaning outside the rickshaw so I don’t get curried crab juice everywhere. Even so, my pants still end up well marked by the meal.

After waiting in the rickshaw for close to an hour, I am informed that the festival is about to start, and I am rushed inside the building to take part in the festivities. It turns out that this place is a bottling plant, and that the festival is a celebration for the people that work there. I am presented with a Pepsi and about ten other people greet me to shake my hand. Then I am told that I should try the “apple juice” and presented with a bottle of some sort of strange apple soda. I am then told to come to the back of the room for a demonstration of the bottling equipment. The equipment is pretty basic, looks like it was made in the 1940’s, and for all I know it probably was. They start the machine up for the demonstration and start filling and capping a few bottles of lime soda. The guy has to load each bottle individually, place a bottle cap in the machine, hold down a lever to fill the bottle (the level the bottles get filled to varies wildly), and then stomp on a lever to cap it. After seeing the less than sanitary conditions and the rusty machines covered in lead paint (most paints in India are still lead based), it makes me think twice about the soda I am busy consuming. They then lead me back over to the entrance where the manager of the plant is busy giving out gifts to all his employees. Each employee receives a sari (presumably for his wife), fifty rupees, and a bag of puffed rice with slices of fruit and some leaves dropped in it. After receiving their gifts, they are told to pose for a picture and then they go to the next person. The whole ceremony only lasts about thirty minutes and then I’m told that it’s time to leave.

I tell Anthony that I need to meet my friend, and that I need to go soon. I call up my friend and get him to give Anthony directions. I am then told that we much first celebrate, which I correctly assume means to get drunk. I keep tell him that I need to go soon, but he seems unimpressed. We then drive around, picking up several other people, and as I suspected, head to another wine shop. I tell them that I don’t want another beer, but apparently I don’t have much of a choice, and I am presented with a bottle. They also bring out some curried mutton liver in what appears to be a cupcake wrapper and presented with that as well. I ask what the macaroni looking things in it are, and I am told that they are “liver tubes”, which I would assume means arteries and ducts. Yum. Being pretty hungry at this point, and also being an adventurous person, I decide to give it a try. To my surprise, it’s actually pretty good, although not something I would necessarily order if I saw it on a menu.

A good thirty minutes later and I am about done waiting around for my driver to be ready, so I tell him that he can drive me or I can walk, but either way I am leaving. He tries to convince me to stay, but it is now close to an hour after I was supposed to meet up with my friend, and I am just not having it. He agrees to take me and we hop back in the rickshaw. I call up my friend again and give the phone to the driver so my friend can explain the directions again. We jump back in the rickshaw and take off. After going less than a kilometer, the driver tells me to call my friend again so he can explain the directions, because apparently he did not get it the first two times. I tell him that I am not going to call again and that he should just take me there and stop being incompetent (ok, so I don’t actually say the last part). We drive for another couple kilometers and he pulls to the side. He starts giving me a hard time about pulling him away from his “celebration,” and I remind him that I told him about this before hand, and that I am still paying him to drive me around. He clearly does not care what I have to say and continues harassing me about wanting to leave. He says that he does not know where he is going and that I should call my friend again. This clearly is getting no where, so I give my friend a call. He tells me to just stay where I am and he will come find me. About this time the driver starts the rickshaw again, swings a U-turn, and starts driving back towards the wine shop. I tell him to stop, but he just ignores me, so I jump out while it is still moving and walk back to the intersection we were parked at. After waiting around for a few minutes, I see my friend come speeding up. He gets out to greet me, and about this time the rickshaw pulls up. The driver gets out and starts yelling at my friend in Tamil, to which my friend starts yelling back at him in Tamil. My friend tells him to get lost, we both jump in the car and we speed off towards the restaurant.

In the car I meet two other Couchsurfers, one from the UK, and another from Belgium. On our ride to the restaurant, we all laugh our asses off talking about what a clusterfuck India is, and telling stories of our experiences in Chennai. Naturally this discussion is long and in-depth, so the conversation continues for the rest of the evening. We end up going to a pretty nice outdoor restaurant where we stuff ourselves until we can no longer move. After that we decide that it would be cool to go to the beach, so we drive south to a beach just outside the city. After chilling out on the beach for an hour or so, everyone is getting tired so we decide to head back. On the way, we see plenty of dogs and cows hanging out in the middle of the road. At one point we pull over to try and touch one of the cows, which we do without any difficulty. Plenty more laughter and a little bit of misdirection later, and I get dropped of at my hotel. It’s always refreshing to have people to commiserate with when you are staying in a place as bizarre as Chennai. Good night and good luck; I’m out.

Lunch at Anthony’s home and India is such a clusterfuck (Tuesday, 10/7)

Tuesday morning and I get a call from Kumar’s cousin Anthony, asking when we would like to be picked up. Apparently at some point during the previous day he had told me that he would cook us lunch at his house. The previous day he had talked almost continuously, I could not understand half of what he was saying, and I was trying to ignore most of what I could understand, so it is entirely possible. I know this makes me sound bad, but once you have experienced India for yourself, it seems quite prudent.

So he picks us up at 1:00 and we go to his house, where his wife has cooked a delicious meal of beef masala and coconut rice. After the meal, Anthony offers to give me a tour of his home. He shows me the bedroom and then asks me in a round about way if I would lend him 2500 rupees so his kids can go to school. I ask when he can pay me back and he agrees to the following Tuesday. I lend him the money seeing as I now know where he lives and it seems like a worthy cause. We go back into the living room and they show us their wedding album. At this point Grace is about running out of energy, so we get them to take us back to the hotel.

Once I get Grace back to the room, I head back out to continue about my day. What a mistake that turns out to be. Anthony and Kumar tell me to hop in the rickshaw and they will show me around. I decide to see where it gets me, so I jump in and off we go. After a while we stop at a gas station with a long line. Beautiful. I see a roadside cart selling fresh squeezed sugarcane juice, so I decide to give it a try. Over all pretty good. Then Anthony hands me the phone and tells me to talk; something that happens with surprising frequency here in India. I say “hello?” and hear the voice of a British woman on the other end. Apparently the same thing happened to her as happened to me, and neither of us know why we are talking on the phone. Whatever. This is India after all.

Another ten minutes and they finally have gas (apparently all the rickshaws run on liquid propane). We all hop back in and away we go to the next mystery destination. We pull up next to another rickshaw and I see the British woman I talked to earlier sitting in the back. She hops in the rickshaw with me and away we go. Apparently she had given the driver of the first rickshaw 500 rupees and was supposed to get 300 in change, but was told that the driver of my rickshaw had the change. At this point I have no idea what the hell is going on, so I am of little help, but eventually she gets her 300 rupees back. We all agree that a drink is in order, so we drive first to a place that is closed, then to the same “wine shop” that I had gone to the day before. Fantastic. I order two beers, hand the guy 500 rupees, and ask for change. The guy then proceeds to make change, hand me three beers and a bottle of brandy, and hands my change to the driver. Seriously, WTF! The driver can clearly see that I am getting pissed off, hands me my change, and apologizes for ordering extra drinks.

After finishing our drinks in one of the sleaziest places in town, we jump back in the rickshaw and take off for the beach. On our way to the beach a police officer flags us down and motions for us to pull over. Our driver’s response is of course to speed up and swerve around the officer, almost running him over with the rickshaw in the process. Sitting in the back, the British woman and I look at each other in amazement of what just happened, but the driver acts as if this is perfectly normal. We get to the beach and both of us are extremely happy to be out of the rickshaw.

We walk out to the beach and start talking about what a clusterfuck India is. The events of the day were all on par with what both of us had experienced in our times in India and at this point nothing so far during the day had truly shocked either of us. We both vented about how frustrating India is, the patronization that takes place, and how poorly women are treated. About the time we are complaining about the drivers, one of them walks over and sits down next to us. He then starts asking if we like “jig jig.” After a couple minutes, we figure out that he wants us to have sex, to which we both emphatically tell him that we are not going to, and that he needs to get lost. He clearly does not get the point, and continues on about “jig jig.” Apparently this kind of behavior is commonplace in India. Indian men’s attitudes towards women are really fucked up, and as such women here are generally treated quite poorly.

At this point both of us are about through with the bullshit and get up to leave. We walk back to the rickshaw and sit down. She suggests that we should try to steal the rickshaw and drive off, which at this point is starting to sound like a good idea. I check for keys but no luck. Anthony and Kumar show back up and Anthony apologizes for the behavior. I hop in the back and we start driving. I tell them to just take us back to the hotel. We drive in the general direction of the hotel, and then for one reason or another they pull over and stop on the side of the road. Great, now what. They say “you enjoy jig jig,” and start getting out of the rickshaw. Screw these guys. We both get out and start looking for another rickshaw. They run after us, somehow surprised by our actions, and start asking what is wrong. We explain to them that there is not going to be any “jig jig,” and that we are not getting back in the rickshaw unless they cut the crap. They are very apologetic, and agree to chill out.

We hop back in the rickshaw and start driving again. Kumar is driving irraticly, which is pretty much standard for rickshaw drivers in Chennai, but after hitting a couple things in the road, it is apparent that he has had too much to drink. They pull over and Anthony takes over driving. Meanwhile, Kumar gets out, walks around, and hops in the back with us. This just gets better. Next he starts trying to reach across me and feel up the British woman… fortunately I am a professional, and quickly place him in a therapeutic restraint, pinning his hands down so he can’t do anything. He seems to chill out, so I let him go. A few minutes later and he tries it again and receives the same restraint. He acts frustrated, as if he were completely reasonable and my actions were ridiculous.

We finally get to the “Paradise Guest House” which at that point really does seem like paradise, and tell the drivers to get lost. We duck inside, exchange information, and then she heads up to her room. I wait for a couple minutes to make sure they are gone, and then head back outside to get a different rickshaw back to my hotel. What a damn clusterfuck this evening turned out to be.

Streets, Temple, “Wine Shop” and the beach (Monday, 10/6)

It’s Monday morning and I have decided to walk down the street for some picture taking. I bring my big lens so I can really get up close and personal with my photos without having anyone know I am taking their picture. Now keep in mind that most people actually like having their picture taken, especially by a foreigner, but it alters their behavior and they start posing for the pictures. By staying far away, I am able to get more authentic street scenes, so I just pick a busy street corner and stand there taking pictures for close to half an hour. As I suspected, no one seems to care… that is until a police officer taps me on the shoulder. He asks me if I am a press reporter and I tell him that I am not. Seeming satisfied he walks away. At this point I am fairly well acclimated to Indian culture and nothing about this seems more strange than anything else that happens here, so I continue clicking my shutter in peace. A few minutes later and I hear someone yelling from a rickshaw, and who should it be but Kumar, the guy I met the other day. He asks if I need to go somewhere and I tell him that I need to find a place with internet, to which he says that he will take me there. Great.

I head back to the hotel, get Grace, and then we head for the internet. We get to an internet café and find that they are in the middle of a rolling blackout, and that they will not have power for the next two hours. Super. I ask the driver if he knows of another place with internet, and says that he does. We start driving and he says he can take us to some very good stores. This of course means that they get gas coupons for taking foreigners to these recently opened stores to look around, regardless of whether we buy anything. We say that we are not interested in going to stores to look around, and that we just want to find the internet. He replies that he knows a place and off we go. A few minutes later and we are back at the same place we started. Clearly there is some sort of communication breakdown here. They offer to take us all over town to the tourist destinations. I am not particularly thrilled about tourist destinations, but Grace had wanted to see one of the Hindu temples, so we agree to go to the temple.

We get to the temple a few minutes later and we are instructed to leave our shoes outside. We walk into the temple and are approached by a guide. I tell him that we don’t need a guide, to which he replies that our driver arranged for a guide. Grace tells me to go along with it, so I do. He then proceeds to order us around, tells us where to stand, and even tells me what to take pictures of. This guy is really starting to get on my nerves. If it were not for Grace I would have long since ditched this guy. He then orders us to donate 500 rupees for the poor. Now I am all for helping the poor, but this guy is an asshole. Screw it. I give the guy 500 rupees, which he takes inside the temple and supposedly places at the base of the alter (there is a big sign that says “Non-Hindu not allowed inside”). We try to ditch the guy, but nine days after hip surgery and Grace is not moving too quickly. He quickly catches up and continues trying to give us a “tour.” At this point I am pretty much just ignoring the guy and trying to get out of this tourist hell. After what seems like an eternity, we finally make it back to the rickshaw. I start walking over to get our shoes and am quickly diverted back to the rickshaw and told that our shoes will be brought to us. The “tour guide” then asks us for 500 rupees each. Is this guy for real? I flatly refuse and tell him that I did not like the tour. He continues to demand money for his “valuable service,” so I eventually give him 200 rupees just to go away… money well spent.

At this point Grace is more than worn out and just wants to go back to the hotel. The driver keeps insisting that he can take me to “very nice shop” to which we have to keep reminding him that we want to go back to the hotel. Eventually we get back to the hotel, which never seemed quite so nice. Grace is about to pass out or puke, and I am exhausted from trying to take care of Grace. I get Grace back up to the room, where she pretty much collapses on the bed. I need to have a drink and get some more pictures, so I go back downstairs and ask the driver if he knows where a “wineshop” is. He says that he does and that he would be happy to take me there. I agree and hop in. We get to this place, and go to the window to order a beer. The driver asks if I will buy him some brandy, to which I foolishly agree. He then leads me down into an air-conditioned room with really poor lighting. A few minutes later and his brother shows up. A few minutes after that and his brother’s best friend shows up. I foolishly agree to buy them drinks as well. Soon they start ordering food and more drinks, and I am expected to pay. I tell them that I am not paying for any more drinks, and if they want more drinks they can pay for them, to which they quickly stop ordering. I cut my losses, finish my drink, and get out.

Once outside they ask me where I want to go next. I think for a minute then tell them that I want to go to a fishing village. They drive me to a nearby village and I start taking pictures. I ask some people in the village if I can take their pictures, which they actually seem quite happy about. I click some shots and give them each a couple rupees for their trouble. All of a sudden, several people start asking to have their picture taken again. It equates to nothing but shutter clicks for me, so I oblige them. They then ask for more money. Although I feel like a complete asshole, I tell them that I will not give them more money, and continue walking. At this point it is becoming clear that being a foreigner is equivalent to having “sucker” written across my forehead, and that giving anyone money is like verifying the fact. I decide that tipping people for taking their picture it is just going to cause problems, so I start saying “no money” while I ask to take their picture. This apparently has no effect on their desire to have their picture taken and I proceed down the beach clicking my shutter freely.

About a kilometer down the beach and I meet up with the rickshaw driver who is waiting for me with another beer and some food. I join him for some refreshments and then get up to continue my walk down the beach. He tells me that he knows a really nice place further down the beach and that he will drive me there. I jump in the rickshaw and we head further down the coast. I get out, walk down to the water, and after counting my money and making a mental inventory of all the items in my bag, ask the driver to hold my stuff while I go for a swim. I keep an eye on him, but the water feels fantastic and the sun is beginning to set. Over all, a fantastic end to a more than bizarre day.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Trying to go Hashing (Sunday, 10/5)

OK, so for those of you that don’t know, I recently got into Hashing… no it has nothing to do with drugs. If you don’t know what it is, check it out:
Anyways, hashers are great people, and there is a vast international network of them all over the globe. I thought I would try to get in a couple runs in India while I am here. I found a hash here in Chennai, the Madras Hash House Harriers, so I asked if I could join them for a run. So I head upstairs for some food at the hotel restaurant before I embark because I am starving. I figure I will leave myself about an hour to get there, which gives me thirty minutes for dinner. Should be fine, right? I order some food and wait… and wait, and wait, and pretty soon 45 minutes has gone by. I am getting ready to say screw it and run downstairs, at which point they finally bring everything out. Great. I cram my face with spicy Indian food as fast as I can (more of a challenge than you might think), and literally run downstairs to grab a rickshaw. Of course it is an unusually long time before I find one, but after a minute or two I finally get one. This would of course be the driver that speaks the least English in all of Chennai. I tell him where I am going, ask him how much, and he says 100 rupees. Fine. I express that I am in a hurry, to which he responds that he understands. Half a block later and he pulls over to ask for directions. Ugh. I give him the piece of paper I wrote the directions on and he shows it to the guy. They talk in Tamil for a minute and then we drive off. The driver then turns to me and tells me 500 rupees. It did look like a significant distance on the map, so fine, it’s worth it. I can always get a ride back with someone so this should be my only expense. We head close to two miles in what seems like the wrong direction, and then suddenly pull off at a gas station. Not only that, but one with a huge line leading to the pump. WTF!!!!
Half an hour later and we are finally on our way. If I had been smart I would have just bailed out and called it a night, but I was really enthusiastic about going to this run, so I tried to stay optimistic; besides, they don’t actually leave until thirty minutes after the start time.
So we start driving, and indeed we had been driving in the wrong direction for the sole purpose of getting gas at the most crowded station in town. Keep in mind that gas stations are not a rare commodity here in Chennai, so I am a little pissed, but my optimism gets the better of me and I say nothing. Naturally traffic is terrible and we spend most of our time either stopped or swerving around some vehicle only to stop again two meters later. I have looked at a map and know that the run is on the edge of town, so I hold out hope that traffic will lighten up. About the time I am starting to convince myself that there is still hope, we stop for directions again. I hand the pice of paper to the driver, he talks to someone in Tamal for a couple minutes, and after resisting the urge to strangle my driver, we are once again off and moving. Fantastic.
At this point we have already passed the meet up time, but I am still clinging to some shred of hope that I can get there before everyone takes off. Hashers leave a trail of flour anyways, so even if they are gone, as long as I can find the place I should be able to follow the trail and catch up. We drive past one landmark, but I am told that the next landmark is very far. Great. I don’t give up hope and we keep going. Maybe I can get there right as they leave and jump right in.
After a while we pass the next landmark. At this point it is well past the start time and all I am clinging to is the hope that I can follow the trail and meet them at the party afterwards, but the prospect of being so close keeps me going. Eventually we pull over again and ask for directions. I tell the driver that I am in a hurry and ask him to keep going, but he ignores me. I resist the urge to kill the driver and sit patiently while he asks ten different people where this place actually is. Fifteen minutes later and one of them feels confident that the place is about twenty kilometers further down the road, so we start driving again. The driver turns to me and tells me that it will be another 500 rupees because it is a very long ways. I try to negotiate less, but he is not having it. I reluctantly agree, with the thought that I would rather pay another 500 rupees to actually get there than to pay 500 rupees for my return trip and never find the place.
About two kilometers later, he pulls off at a little stand on the side of the road, I would assume to ask directions… but no, he is stopping to get snacks. I really hate this guy right now. A few minutes later and we are on our way again. Both my optimism and my enthusiasm are waning, but I press onward with a sense of adventure and the vague notion that something will work out. We continue driving for what seems like forever. Although beautiful, I am not pleased to see the sun setting on the horizon as this means it will be difficult if not impossible to follow the trail. At this point I only cling to the hope that they are already done with the run, and that the party is at the same place as the start. By the time we reach our supposed destination (IE the place the guy on the side of the road was sure of), it is dark, it’s two hours past when the run was supposed to start, this clearly is not the destination, and I am out of enthusiasm. Fuck it. I enlist the help of a bystander, who speaks enough English to communicate effectively, and I negotiate a return rate of less than half what it cost to get down there. An hour and a half later and I am back at the hotel, tired and defeated. For anyone wondering what it is like to spend four and a half hours in a rickshaw and never find your destination: it sucks.

Finding a Hotel (Friday, 10/3)

So Grace gets discharged on Saturday, so it’s time to find a hotel. I walk out of the hotel and find a rickshaw on the street. After a minute or two of negotiations, we agree on 100 rupees, so I hop in. When we get there I look for the nearest hotel and direct the driver there. We get to the hotel and he then demands 200 rupees. I say no and try to hand him 100. We argue for several minutes and I refuse to get out of the rickshaw. Eventually I agree to 120 Rupees just to get rid of this guy. Later I find out that what I should have done was refuse to give the guy was to tell him to go to the police station, which apparently scares the shit out of them.
Anyways, so I am now standing in front of the “Hotel MGM Apple.” I go inside to check on the prices. At about 1800 rupees/night, I think I can do better, so I start walking down the road paralleling the. After walking a little ways, I get flagged down by another rickshaw driver who I thoroughly ignore until he drives away. I take some more pictures and keep walking. All of a sudden this guy comes up to me and introduces himself as Kumar. Fantastic, and why should I care? “Nice to meet you” I say, shake his hand, and continue walking. He again proceeds to get my attention, and offer to show me around for only 10 rupees. I am in search of a cheap hotel, so I ask him if he knows a hotel for less than 1000 rupees. He says that he does and that he will show me. I get in the rickshaw and he drives me to a hotel that costs 950 rupees, and has both an elevator and air-conditioning (things Grace has deemed necessary for the next place that we stay). Fantastic! I start checking into the hotel, when my driver comes up and tells me to come outside. Fine, whatever. So I walk outside and am now told that there is another hotel for only 600 rupees. I ask if this other hotel has AC and they say that it does. Sounds great. So I tell the people at the desk that it is too expensive, and we leave for the cheaper hotel.
He drives me to another hotel and tells me to stay in the rickshaw and he will go in to negotiate price. A little strange, but fine, it’s worth a shot. He comes back out a couple minutes later and tells me that they are all booked up. So they drive me to another hotel. I go inside and check out the prices, but they are even more expensive than the hotel I was just at. I express this to the driver with much emphasis, to which he apologizes and tells me he knows another hotel. He drives me to the next hotel, I check the prices, and they too are higher than the first hotel. WTF! I tell the hotel manager that it costs too much, he seems uninterested, and I leave. Now I ask my driver again if there is actually any place cheaper. He gets on the phone, talks to someone for a couple minutes, and then says that he does indeed know of such a place, so I get back in the rickshaw and we drive to the next place. We get to where we are going; I get out, and realize it is the same hotel he took me to in the first place. Seriously, WTF! Screw it. So I go back inside, pretend like nothing ever happened, book the room, and pay 3000 rupees as a deposit for the first couple days. They ask me where my luggage is and I inform them that it is still at the hospital, and that we will be coming back later. They seem confused, but go along with it. I get the driver to take me back to the hospital, pay him for his time, and head back upstairs. Upon returning to the room, I inform Grace that I found a cheap place to stay. At this point she informs me that we are not checking out of the hospital until tomorrow, but that we will not know for sure until later in the evening… are you freaking kidding me!? Whatever. So I get a call on my cell phone asking me if we will be checking in tonight. I try to explain that I am not sure and we might be checking in tomorrow. The problem is that the Indian phone system sucks and neither of us can understand what the other is saying. Eventually they just keep repeating “when are you coming,” to which I keep repeating “tomorrow.” This cycle repeats its self about a dozen times before they finally hang up. Whatever, I will figure it out tomorrow. This is definitely India.

Shown around some more by another Couchsurfing friend (Thursday, 10/2)

So I get in touch with another Couchsurfer in Chennai and arrange to meet up to get shown around town. Apparently I gave him the wrong hospital name, so it took a little longer for him to find me… What can I say, I am a dumb ass. Anyways, so he picks me up, I apologize for the bad directions, and we head to a restaurant for some tea. We talk about photography, Couchsurfing, my interesting living situation, and living in India for the better part of two hours until the restaurant is getting ready to close.
Next he wants to take me to a snack bar, so I happily agree. We get there, he orders something (you have to pay before hand and then present your receipt to actually get it), and then we walk over to the bar. There are about six people standing around, and we are all handed little stainless steel bowls. After that, we are one at a time served some tasty little snacks, of which I have no idea what they were called. Basically, the guy would take some sort of bite-sized, crunchy flatbread, break a hole in the top, stuff it with some sort of potato concoction, then dip it in sweet sauce, then dip it in spicy sauce, drop it in your bowl, and you would quickly stuff the whole thing in your mouth. He went around five or six times until he ran out of filling, then we drank the sauce that was left in our bowls. All in all, quite the tasty, if not spicy treat.
We were still hungry, so we decided to order something else. I have no idea what he orderd, but it made no difference because I recognized none of the items on the menu. He paid (he refused to let me pay for anything), and again we presented the receipt to the snack bar, where they proceeded to make some sort of concoction. It started with some cracker looking things on a plate, then some sort of potato concoction, then some sort sweet yogurt sauce, followed by some brown mystery sauce, followed by about eight different spices, all in generous proportions, and then topped with some sort of crunchy snack mix. What was it? I have no idea, and neither did my host. What did it taste like? Nothing I had ever tried before. Would I eat it again? Yep.
While we were busy devouring our spicy-cracker-potato-yogurt thing, they brought us our second dish. It was some sort of bean dish topped with fresh onions and came with some buttered Indian bread. It actually tasted allot like chili with dinner roles, but with an India flare for spice.
After that, we decided to go for ice-cream. We went to a little hole in the wall place, where I ordered some flavor of milkshake that was purely Indian. I had the option of getting it with icecream or without. My host counseled me to get it without, so I did. A few minutes later and it came… it was more like melted soft serve than it was like a milkshake, and it contained hard chunks of some sort of flavorless sweet stuff. By far the worst “milkshake” I have ever had. I choked down about half of it and then gave up. I wanted to wash the nasty flavor out of my mouth, so I decided to order something else. I tried to order a Pepsi, but was informed that he did not sell Pepsi. This, despite the refrigerator full of Pepsi behind him. When my host asked about this, he was told that the Pepsi was for the restaurant next door and that he did not sell Pepsi… whatever. So I order a black cherry float. At least it sounded good in theory. A few minutes later I am served this foamy pink syrup with approximately the same color and consistency as Pepto-Bismol. For that matter, the flavor was just about as pleasant. So, fully nauseated, we leave and head to his apartment to chill out. There is a security guard at his building, as there are at most middle-class homes around the city. About his only job is to open and close the gate when people get there, which he does admirably upon our arrival. We park the car literally under the building, in one of the tightest parking spots you have ever seen, and head upstairs. We talk photography and compare lenses a couple lenses for image sharpness, flare, color rendition, etc. After a while, I am so tired that my eyes are barely staying open, so we get back in the car so he can drive me back. We drive around to the front gate to find the security guard asleep, laying on a blanket on the ground. We flash the lights and he does not move. We honk the horn and he does not move. Finally my friend gets out of the car and has to actually wake him up so he can unlock the gate… now that’s some first rate Indian service J

“Dandiya Nite” Dance (Wednesday, 10/1)

So I spent a couple days wondering around Madras aimlessly. I got an invitation to go to some sort of dance, although I had no idea what to expect. I got a ride from one of my new Couchsurfing friends and we drove to the dance. Once there we stood around for a while until we met up with some other Couchsurfers who were holding our tickets. From outside you could hear the pulsating rhythms vibrating your body. After going inside we saw an entire auditorium of people dancing in unison. After going upstairs to the balcony we got a good view of the crowd all doing a traditional dance in traditional costumes decorated with silk, sequins, and silver. After taking plenty of pictures, it was our turn to lean some traditional Indian dance. The main event of the evening was to be a large group dance involving clicking small sticks together. My camera was hijacked by one of the other Couchsurfers and it was time to learn. While the basic steps were not very difficult, there are enough variations that you can get as fancy as you like. Everything from extra steps, to spins and stick twirls were all options. Once we learned some of the basic moves, it was time to go downstairs to hit the dance floor.
After dancing for a little while, the band quit playing and a DJ started up for the intermission. Although the beat kept going, the music changed to more of a nightclub sound and the dance floor started to clear out. Ironically enough, a big circle formed directly in front of me… this was of course too much to resist, so breakdancing naturally ensued. Now keeping in mind that breakdancing usually draws some sort of crowd, I was prepared for people to stare at the crazy foreigner, but holy shit! I did one move, and by the time I stood back up there was a crowd of probably 50 people. I did one more move, looked up, and had probably 300 people gathered around me watching with enthusiasm. I’m all for putting on a show, but Damn! I am only one man. I did my best and tried to encourage others to join in (there were a couple guys that tried some stuff), but apparently not as many people know how to breakdance in India as in the US.
After about ten minutes the circle finally disintegrated and everyone started to go nuts with their new found enthusiasm. I continued dancing with my fellow Couchsurfers and we all went nuts as well. A little more dancing until the DJ stopped spinning, and it was time for a water break followed by some more picture taking. They got all the young kids out on the floor for a dance contest. It was quite cute and much picture taking ensued. I wish I had a better low-light lens because it was hard for me to get any good pictures, but I got at least one or two.
After all the kids finished their contest, it was time for the adults to dance, so downstairs we went. Everyone formed four concentric circles, probably twenty meters in diameter, all moving in opposing directions. Everyone clicked their sticks together in unison and moved in unison. It was quite a sight to see. After practicing in my head for a couple minutes, it was time to jump into the mix. Once I got about half way around the circle, I pretty much had it down, so I started copying other people’s moves and adding a little variation to my dance. Most people seemed pretty pleased that the foreigner could follow along with the traditional dance. I got plenty of complements on my dancing, including from one of the dancing judges, so I must have been doing something right. The circle lasted for probably close to an hour before people broke out into smaller groups. Over all, quite a good time and definitely something worth repeating if I ever have another opportunity.