November 04, 2006


Regarding my memory... it's awful.  I hope that you join me in viewing this as an asset, especially as it allows me some creative freedom in making up the missing details.  To further improve the narrative thread (while extricating my faulty memory), I've taken the liberty of occasionally combining events from separate days into single entries.  I've also screwed up all of the names, but this conveniently protects confidentiality.  Hope you enjoy this approach! 

November 05, 2006

holy, holy bare feet

The bottleneck in the airport, as usual, was the long line leading through security screening, where we each had to take off our shoes.  I know the routine, don't mind it one bit.  Wouldn't say I actively enjoy it, but it's quite okay as far as security screening rituals go.

Little did I know that the very next day I'd have not one but two more "opportunities" to take off my shoes.  Outside the vast garden surrounding the Baha'i temple in Delhi, a line of shoeless patrons of all religions stretched out a good half mile from the temple.  Trying to fit in, myself and the other volunteers took off our shoes as well.

Later that day, we crossed Delhi to visit the Jama Masjid, one of the largest mosques of India.  This was an enormous building, with minarets stretching to 130 feet high and capacity for 25,000.  The cost of admission to this historical landmark: taking off your shoes.

Looking back at this point in my trip, I can't even count how many times I've had to take off my shoes, and now I think nothing of it.  With one notable exception.

Outside the Golden Temple in Amritsah, the Sikhs' crown jewel, you not only have to take off your shoes, but you have to walk through a foot washing pool.  The pool quickly became a dirty little trench of water.  I was flattered to note that, after myself and some other volunteers walked through, a devoted Sikh knelt down in front of the foot washing pool and cupped his hands to scoop up some of the holy foot wash water.  He stood up, and piously drank.

keep your mind cool, obey traffic rules

Poor first time visitors to India, clutching on the handrail of a doorless rickshaw weaving through Delhi's mesh of taxis, rickshaws, cows, and pedestrians protected only by the pantheon of 30 million Hindu gods.  Even clutching the handrail seems to bear risk, as the space between moving forward and a brutal accident is often only millimeters.

Brief spurts of silence punctate the incessant honking of horns, which presumably means simply, "i am here" rather than, "out of my way, you $#@#!".  In India, it is flashing headlights that is a nuanced version of "out of my way, you $#@#!" and there's no generosity, no right of way other than cows get first priority and pedestrians come last.

"Oh my god, we're going to die!" screamed 18-year old Ruth, only pretending that she's kidding.  Veteran traveler Bob, approaching senior citizenhood, only appears more calm but discreetly clutches his heart several times during the ride.  The driver doesn't seem at all fazed, though if his English were better he might be more defensive about his driving skills.

This being my second time in India, I'm sort of used to the routine.  I am not afraid... so long as I (or any other westerner for that matter) never have to even think about taking a turn at the wheel.

Far more harrowing is being a pedestrian in the midst of this chaos.  The Indians seem cool, but I've noted the occasional look of horror on the face of a westerner trying to cross the street.

"Keep your mind cool, obey traffic rules," says a public service billboard in Delhi.  The part about the 'traffic rules' is a lie- there aren't any.  The key is the part about keeping your mind cool.  For all the honking of horns and near-misses, there is hardly an angry driver.

The other day I thought I witnessed my first ever traffic mishap.  Bob's shoe came off as a bicycle rickshaw ran over it.  But this was no mistake.  "Now that you have lost your shoe, sir, would you like a ride?  Only twenty rupees, India Gate."

November 06, 2006

the dangers of international travel, part II

Arriving in Delhi, the first thing I noticed was that it was hard to breath.  An inpenetrable haze of pollution surrounded the airport.  Good thing for me, the volunteer placement agency had arranged for a van to pick me up at the agency, whisking me away to the cleaner and greener south side of Delhi.  I arrived at the Delhi volunteer flat, with a shared room and filtered water awaiting me.  Then I blew my nose, revealing a kleenexful of black soot.  But thankful though I was to be outside of the worst of Delhi, there were still dangers to be faced.

A seemingly inevitable part of preparing for any trip to a "developing" country is listening to horror stories of what happened to those who came before.  In the first day at the volunteer apartment, I heard about a volunteer who had gotten dengue fever two weeks before, someone else who had been bitten in the ass by a rabid dog just a few days ago, a bus ride to our placement in the Himalayan foothills that was nothing short of "harrowing" (both sleeping pills AND motion sickness pills were advised), and the seeming inevitability of everyone getting at least some sort of stomach upset from food or from foolishly forgetting not to brush their teeth using tap water.

Have to admit, this made me a bit anxious at first, and I wondered what sort of misfortune might befall me.  It's been comforting to note since, though, that all those volunteers afflicted carried on with their travels with the same resolve and nary a regret.  For the most part, illness and other mishaps were just inconveniences on the road to discovering a fascinating country.  The biggest problem seems to be simply that Western stomachs are just unaccustomed to Eastern germs.  But to some extent, these types of illnesses are just expected occurrences of life, and Indian expectations are adjusted accordingly.  In New Delhi, fevers such as Dengue are embraced, inspiring a radio station: 104 FM, "The Fever".

even buses can play bumper cars

heading to the Himalayan foothills by bus was remarkably similar to the miraculous game of rickshaw bumper cars in which nothing ever actually gets hit, only on a larger scale.  at one time we were staring face to face with another bus coming the mountain.  the driver simply put the bus in reverse and backed down the cliff-hugger.  Looking out the window, I noted that there weren't any stray buses littering the ravine 1/4 mile below.  Sighing, I finally went to sleep.

November 07, 2006

a chance mix of jolly good fellows

Being a light sleeper, I wasn't thrilled with the prospect of sharing a room with 2-4 other volunteers.  On my last big trip (to Ghana), I enjoyed traveling alone, which forced me to interact with the local culture.

In retrospect, I can't imagine turning back the opportunity to meet the chance miscellany of assorted rascals that make up our volunteer program.  Even the ones i didn't particularly get along with make great story characters.  There's the guy back in Delhi who was the first person I've ever met who wasn't impressed by my tall tales about the 30-foot high plaster seahorse which is the "Sears Tower" of Mattapoisett, my home town (population 5,000; he was from the same town).  There's Ronald, the 50 year-old suffering a mid-life crisis who would magically appear with his own guitar within minutes every time i picked up my guitar, and suggest I learn to play some other folk song that was more obscure.  There's Ben, the 20 year-old suffering a quarter-life crisis, i.e. the challenge of having two girlfriends at the same time and not being sure about his college major.  An 18-year old with a Zambian work permit.  A neo British imperialist equally bent on reforming the accepted forms of Indian-English grammar, and keeping that damned barking dog out of the yard.  And there is Marvin, the ESL teacher and my collaborator at the detox center who you'll hear more about in subsequent entries.

Tougher to summarize is Ivan, an 18-year old from Malibu with a gulab jamun addiction and an uncanny openness in transforming his appearance with local attire, one day a rusticly dressed sheep herder, the next an orange-turbaned Sikh warrior, and later a royally attired American Tibetan bearing incidental resemblance to Harry Potter.

Lucky and Unlucky

add to the mix of jolly good fellows who are part of daily life...

"Lucky,"- a mangy but friendly stray dog who is loyal to the volunteer flat.  Lucky loves us all, but is unaware that we all wash our hands immediately after playing with him.


"Unlucky," the spider as big as my hand, who gets one of the three bathrooms all to himself. 

preparing for the detox center

Marvin and I did our best to prepare for work at the detox center.  We were given three goals: 1) keep them occupied, 2) teach them English, and 3) get them to express themselves.

Marvin's role was primarily to teach them English, and I would support this by teaching them music.  Not knowing anything about who we would have to teach, Marvin prepared a simple English lesson plan, and I  put together a short songbook of English songs.

The night before our placement began, we pored through a book of feeback reports from past volunteers.  Two comments stood out:

"the men often vote with their feet and simply leave the room."


"it is very common to have clients escape the center, so [you] must be mindful of this" 

November 08, 2006

first day at the detox center

This wouldn't be my first time in a room full of "substance abusers".  Back in Chicago one of my  favorite neighborhood bars is a Polish/Mex dive where the regulars are a well-intentioned lot of hard-drinking rascals.  There, they look at me as the one in the room with the drinking problem- as in, not drinking enough.  "Drink up!" the bartender would demand, slamming another unrequested shot of vodka on the bar in front of me.  I'd hesitate, and he'd push: "Confidence!"  At this same bar, a first-time visitor with a particularly strong sense of her alcohol limits was accused of being pregnant because she wasn't drinking hard enough.

The clients at the detox center in Dharamsala had a different kind of good intention and a decidely more congenial approach to welcoming me.  Each of the well-groomed clients politely shook my one hand with both hands.  "Hello," "namaste," "tashi delek", we'd say (hello in English, Hindi, and Tibetan).  Before we had a chance to let any kind of awkward silence set in, Marvin started off a basic English language exercise, where they went around the room and asked the next person, "what is your name", "where are you from", "how old you are", etc.  I'm glad Marvin started out this way; it was either that, or, "Um... we're from the West.  Don't do drugs.  And don't drink.  Well, we drink, sometimes, so I guess it's okay, just not too often."  Turns out most of them knew a bit of English, and the real challenge ahead seemed to be Marvin and I remembering names that we couldn't even pronounce.

After a short break, I led a singing session, playing only the most wholesome western classics like "Oh Susanna", "The Tide is High," "When the Saints Go Marching In."  They seemed to enjoy these songs a bit, and a couple of them even knew the words to some tunes.  Then they started singing some Hindi songs; i got goosebumps when i recognized one of the songs "Dum Maro Dum" from my Rough Guide to Bollywood CD.  Then I named one song after another from this CD: Kabhi Kabhi, Roop Tera Mastana, Phir Bhi Dil Hai Hindustani... they all seemed to know every one one of them, it was an inspired but completely incomprehensible sing-a-long.  Made me think how arbitrary popular culture really is- take any song, push it out to major media outlets, and the people will learn to sing along.  Can't... resist... Hindi... pop music.

a day in Dharamsala

Wandering slowly down the winding path towards the water pump (walking quickly in rural India is an antisocial act), children dressed in identical bright colored sweaters head towards school; a boy too young for school greets us with "namaste", over and over again; unguided mules wander up in their own time; men and woman haul buckets of water.  Looking for the post office, the answer is always "one hundred meters ahead"; one hundred meters ahead, we see no post office and ask the next bystander where the post office is.  "One hundred meters ahead," is the reply.

Looking for the path to the livelier McLeod Ganj, we ask some locals playing in the dirt; one points one direction and another the next; both paths, it turns out, get there, eventually- if you have all day.  Giving up on McLeod, we rest above a rocky river, and catch a glimpse of a huge boulder inscribed "Long Live H.H. The 14th Dalai Lama"- probably visible to the Tibetans living up the hill.  One sheep after another appears over the hillside, followed by a man with a walking stick, presumably a Gaddi shepherd, who guides the sheep by hurling rocks up the hillside in the direction in which he wants them to travel.

Back in town, a woman cooks the evening's dinner over a stack of twigs on her concrete front porch, and points to the next door over where I find "MK Fastest Internet Cafe".  MK Superfast gets out of bed and turns on one of two computers in his small concrete chamber.  I ask him about the bed and he says that he does not live in the cafe, but business has been slow.

I'm on the internet for a few minutes, when MK Superfast looks over my shoulder in curiosity.  I turn around to stare him down and hope for privacy, but instead he asks with boyish wonder:

"What are you doing?" 

I explain to him that I'm using the internet...

After the third time the power goes out within a ten minute span, I decide to leave.  MK is in the process of arguing with a Tibetan monk, insisting that the monk pay for his internet usage even though his computer wasn't working.  He steps aside to confront me.  "When are you coming back?" he asks.

"I don't know," I say.

"Will you be back tomorrow?" he asks.

"I don't know."

"What time?"

"Maybe six pm, if I stop by, I'm not sure."

"Okay, I will be waiting for you then."

"Sorry, I can't say for sure whether I'll be here tomorrow.  I'll try."

"I will see you tomorrow."

"Maybe," I say as I leave.

November 09, 2006

up to McLeod Ganj

Later that week, I took another stab at getting to McLeod Ganj, the upper town of Dharamsala that is vastly more popular on the tourist circuit.  It was quite a pleasant commute.  Monks going uphill, monkeys going downhill, monks going downhill,, monkeys going uphill, monkeys going up trees, monks walking around trees.

At the time of my visit, I had forgotten about a passage from a book I had read to prepare for my trip, Keila Diehl's "Echoes from Dharamsala."  Though the focus of this book is the role of music in the Tibetan community, at one point Diehl turns her anthropological lens on the most sizeable subgroup of the Western refugee community in McLeod Ganj, the "'dharma bums' [who] eat all their meals in cafes, wander all day in and out of shops... wear their long hair loose, block doorways with their backpacks, and physically dominate local buses."  She goes on to say that "Focused as they are on establishing intense shared experiences with one another, their contact with Tibetans is limited to hanging out with... unemployed Tibetan male youth who cultivate peripheral relationships with the Tibetan refugee community for reasons of their own."

Despite my forgetfulness, it was nearly impossible to not make this same conclusion afresh for myself.  Amidst an impressive range of Tibetan crafts and gorgeous clothes that were too small for all of us Westerners, McLeod Ganj is choked with traffic from oversized taxis, forcing the Western refugees off the road as they're in the process of finding themselves.  This was just the kind of scene that I was hoping to avoid on this trip, so I didn't stay long.

On my taxi ride down, I felt some renewed anxiety over the treacherousness of the road (at one point even the driver gasped at a close call), and found myself surprised that we made it back alive.  "Westerners could never do this drive.  How is it that Indians are such competent drivers?"

"It is because the wheel is on the right hand side," was the driver's answer. 

Back at the volunteer flat, I asked Marvin about his commute to McLeod Ganj.  Turns out his driver was a little more clever.  He didn't bother to turn on the engine, just released the brake and let his car roll down the hill.  "What are we paying you for?" Marvin asked as he paid the requisite cab fare.

"My time." 

November 10, 2006

in the news...

Part of the daily ritual is reading the Times of India and the Hindustan Times, India's two most widely distributed English-language papers, which arrived at our flat at 7 am each day.

Britney Spears, Paris Hilton, and Angelina Jolie were all front page news.  Jolie was visiting an Afghan refugee center in New Delhi; Spears and Hilton were of note that day presumably because they continued to be blonde.  In retrospect, this makes some sense in the Land of No Blondes, just as USA Today might give part of the front page to an alien, when such arrives in the states one day: "Green-skinned martian scratches his back."

Other news of note, a bus had fallen into a gorge in a neighboring district of Himachal Pradesh, and  an elephant polo match in Jaipur was stirring controversy about ethical treatment of animals.  The most interesting news was tucked a few pages in: the former chief minister of Bhopal claimed that drinking cow urine can cure cancer.  To demonstrate his faith, he raised a glass of such cow urine and drank it down in one confident swill.  Moved by the experience, the government decided to provide subsidies to cow sheds selling cow urine for medicinal use.

November 11, 2006

singing, dancing, and anything but the King's English

Gradually, Marvin and I established our routine at the detox center.  Marvin would lead the day's English lesson, then I'd run a session on music.  In between the sessions, we'd have a short break, when chai tea was served.  Each evening, Marvin and I would get together to discuss lesson plans, wondering how we could go beyond the day's activities and get the clients to open up about their "problem."

This day's lesson was about likes and dislikes.  As an example, Marvin asked me, "Rob, what do you like?"

"I like chai tea,"  I responded in all sincerity.

Then we went around the room, each person asking the next what they liked, and each answered "I like chai tea."  I began to wonder if that was the addiction that brought them to the center, until we got to Neelam, who answered honestly, "beer and cigarettes."  Aside from that, we didn't feel like we were learning too much about them yet.

I enjoyed Marvin's English lessons, especially the way he capitalized on his power to choose which subset of the English language they would learn.  Starting with a textbook example, he would take great pains to introduce an obscure British colloquialism.  "And there it is!" they would have to exclaim at the end of a conversation about asking for directions.

Marvin also helped me plan my own English lessons, leading up to the day's song.  Guided by a desire to get them to open up about their substance abuse problem and discuss solutions, I led a lesson on friendship: 

"Anoop, my friend, what is wrong?"

"I have pain in my stomach."

"Then we must go to the doctor.  Lean on me, Anoop, when you are not strong."

This, of course, led into a sing along of Bill Wither's "Lean On Me."  Surprisingly, they took to this song (I could only guess which they would like), but even more surprising was their almost universal interest in Bob Marley, Bryan Adams, and "Hotel California."  Most surprising of all, some of them had seen "O Brother Where Art Thou?" and some even knew the words to "You Are My Sunshine".

For the most part, it was hard to tell that this was a detox group.  It was only when we reviewed the case files that we noticed a broad range of substance abuse problems.  Some, of course, struggled with alcohol; the less well-off resorted to shoe polish or petrol.  A commonly abused and mysterious substance was bhang; we didn't understand the staff's explanation, but now (in December) I am looking at Wikipedia's very interesting description (  Basically, it's a cannabis derivative, which is never on the menu but can be obtained in many North Indian restaurants simply by ordering a yoghurt-based drink called a "special lassi".

A night on the town in Dharamsala

Most international travelers arrive at Dharamsala's bus station and skip over the town itself, heading uphill to McLeod Ganj.  But I quite liked the relative quiet of Dharamsala, and the lack of the tourist scene which, just up the hill, seemed to obliterate any vestiges of authentic local culture.  I also liked seeing the same familiar faces every day.  With one exception.

"Where were you?" asked MK Superfast as I passed by him on the path home.

"I don't check the internet every night."

"But I have been waiting for you!" 


Come Friday night, Dharamsala is not exactly lively.  But Marvin and I, thankful that we were staff and not clients at the detox center, needed a drink.  Not to mention that the other volunteers, most of whom worked with children, needed to unwind.  On my daily commute back from the detox center, I noticed a proud sign in front of the Stay Well hotel pronouncing the existence of a "Snookar and Pool table".  Snooker, being a British/Indian variant of pool, is a rare treat in the States.  So, I stepped inside the hotel, and in my best slow and deliberate English, I asked the receptionist (who looked to be about 12 years old) how late they were open.

"Yes," was his answer.

"Yes, but until what hour will the snookar room be open?"

"Yes," was his answer.

"Is it open now?"

"Yes," was his answer.

"Will it be open later tonight?" 

"No English."

Proud of my discovery, I rounded up a couple of other volunteers to check out the snookar table, later than night when the "snookar hall" may or may be open.  When we arrived, the same boy was working at the reception desk.  The boy and I had our routine down:

"Is the snooker room open?" 

"Yes," he answered.

"We would like to play snooker."

"Yes," he answered.

"Can we play snooker now?"  After we pantomimed our best snooker-playing motions, I think he finally got it.  He led us down a short stairway underneath the lobby, unlocked a padlocked door, revealing a dank and dungeoney stone chamber with painted walls chipping in layers, white beneath green beneath pink.  The snooker table was the real thing.  It appeared as if the room was built around it by trial and error, the side walls chipped away to make space for the oversized table.  Uselessly, a quarter-length concrete column hung like a stalactite from the ceiling.

"How much, snooker?" I asked.  He hesitated and looked up in the air for the answer, as if he had never been asked that question before.  "60 rupees!" he exlaimed excitedly.

"50 rupees," countered Ivan.

"Yes..." and it was easy as that.  We were introduced to our table, the "cue" which was a wooden stick with no tip, and a jar of 'toilet powder.'

In between futile attempts at snooker and hitting our heads on the stalactite column, we noticed that across from the table was a stash of empty bottles, including beers with intimidating names such as "Thunderbolt," and "Royal Challenge," as well as "8 PM: A blend of Indian Scotch and Whisky".  This helped Marvin and I remember again that we were not clients but staff at the detox center, so Marvin went upstairs to try to order some beer.

Marvin returned ten minutes later, disappointed.  Asking about beer, the boy had responded only with the trademark Indian head waggle, which presumably translates into some level of indecision between yes and no, depending on the angle and velocity of the waggle.  But there was no beer to show for it.  Until ten minutes later, when the boy came downstairs.  "I go to market," he said.  We gave him some money, and in short time the underage boy came back with beer and soda.  And so we played our game of snooker, hit our heads on the stalactite, drank some beer, and generally had a grand old time in lower Dharamsala.

November 13, 2006

white on white

Working at a detox center is supposed to be emotionally difficult, "depressing and sometimes violent", I was warned.  But our clients composed the calmest, most respectful classroom any teacher could ever hope for.  Was it the cultural difference, or the prescription meds we later found out they were taking?  Some of them seemed to be legitimately thriving in the center.  Dechen, the Tibetan ex-soldier, had a very sharp mind and was taking quickly to the ukulele I had brought.   Thokmay was similing constantly, and admitted that this was a better life than his very difficult family life back home.  Sadly, there were still a couple of clients we worried about, two who seemed dysfunctional in their own calm and respectful way.

Subhash, for one, always had this vacant look on his face, and was completely lost when it was his turn to speak.  But there was hope- if you had him one on one, he was coherent and responsive, if haltingly so.  You could even get him to dance, if you stood next to him, and said, "Subhash, Subhash!  Dance!"  He would instantly leap to his feet and dance about the coolest, funkiest, almost zombie-like shuffle, that with proper media exposure might spark a nationwide craze of imitation.

Most of the rest seemed to be doing okay, despite occasional comments that the residential center felt like jail, they were bored when we weren't around, and more frequent comments that they missed their homes. 

Most worrisome of the lot was Rakesh.  When it was his turn to speak, he would get as far as opening his mouth, but sometimes the only thing that would come out was a stream of drool.  And yet, at times it seemed that Rakesh might at least be capable of going through the motions of taking care of himself.  After shaving one day he opened up his trunk and removed a bottle of mustard oil, which he poured into his hands and rubbed across his face.  We looked to Neelam to explain this peculiarly Indian custom.  His response: "Rakesh... his mind is gone."

One day, I decided to do an art project with the class.  They would all draw pictures of a place they wanted to go.  Most of them drew their homes; the Tibetans all drew places in Tibet where they had never been but wished to some day go.  Practicing their English, they each took turns in front of the class describing the place that they had drawn.  We got halfway around the room.

"Excuse me sir, Rakesh is saying that he cannot draw."  It appeared to me that Rakesh was drawing just as actively as anyone else.  The only problem was, he was drawing with a white crayon on a white sheet of paper.


November 15, 2006

Traveling through time

Sometimes, traveling across the world can feel like traveling back through time.  While Westerners back home tend to pity the developing world's lack of "essential" resources such as electricity and standing showers, many travelers to rural areas enjoy (at least in the short term) the peacefulness of a life from a simpler time, living closer to the earth.

One of the joys of traveling in rural India is the bucket shower.  To make the use of limited water resources, you get one bucket of water for your shower, and that's it.  You learn to appreciate and savor every drop of the water.  Of course laundry is the same- you need to wash your clothes in just one bucket.  While at the volunteer flat we had the luxury of a water tank that was regularly refilled, I often looked on in admiration at some of the poorer locals, lining up to fill up buckets of water at the town "water pump." And why not?  If you had the time...  "I wish I could be strong and patient like them," I thought.

One Sunday morning, I woke up shortly after sunrise with just one goal in mind for the day: to wash my laundry.  I hadn't any clean clothes left.  So I placed a bucket under the water tap, turned it on, and... nothing.  Just to be sure I turned the tap all the way in the other direction, just in case i had confused clockwise vs. counterclockwise.  Nothing.

Then I thought of all the townsfolk hauling buckets of water from the tap, and thought "they're cool, I want to be like them."  So, carrying an empty plastic bucket, I went down the hill towards the town water pump.  There were a few folks there working the pump to fill up their own buckets of water, but after waiting ten minutes, it was my turn.  I filled up the bucket, turned around and started back up the hill.

It was on my way back up the hill, that I realized that the hill was pretty steep.  And the bucket was quite a bit heavier than it was when it was empty.  And it was sort of warm out.  In no time I was sweating profusely.  Thinking about Jack and Jill, I had the revelation that they had the luxury of walking *downhill* with their filled pail of water, whereas I had to walk up the hill.  "Those priveleged brats," I thought before cursing under my breath the name of every Hindu god I could think of.  It really is liberating to be able to take the name of not one but millions of gods in vain.

To make a long story end, by the time I got up the hill, I really needed a shower.  So, using up my bucket of water, my laundry would have to wait for another time.


The next day, in the local newspaper, there was an article about an expected water crisis in Dharamsala by 2021.  Meaning, some day, even that water pump may run dry...  Once in a while you see an article in the Western press warn about impending water shortages in the U.S. in the later part of the century.  So in a sense, world travel can be like moving *ahead* through time.  And I would be a little more ready for this.

November 16, 2006

show us how to get down

The next day at the detox center started just like any other day, except that we had one less pair of hands to shake in greeting.  Rakesh was gone.  He had slipped through the unlocked gate and run away, never to be heard from or seen again, as far as we knew.

One client short, we had to carry on as if nothing had happened.  At this point, I felt like the music was losing some of its freshness.  So, for this day I had planned some theatre games based on my personally disastrous Player's Workshop improv training in Chicago.  One of the games was "walk like me," where one person in class would do a crazy walk across the circle, and would say to another person, for example, "Dechen, walk like me!" and Dechen would first imitate the new walk, then make up his own walk, "Sonam, walk like me!" and so on.  We did some other classics like the mirror game (where one person leads and the other imitates their moves), zip zap boing, and bunny bunny.  We also played one of my personal favorites- I can't remember the name, but everyone in the circle claps their hands to mark the rhythm.  Then, it goes something like this:

"Hey Marvin!"

"Hey what!"

"Hey Marvin!"

"Hey what!"

"Show us how to get down!"

"No way!"

"Show us how to get down!"


Then Marvin makes up some kind of dance, and everyone in the room has to imitate that dance until it is passed on to the next person, "Hey Anoop!" "Hey what!" etc.

The game was simple enough, and seemed to run on its own momentum, even for those whose English was weak.  But then we got to Subhash.

"Hey Thokmay!"

"Hey What!"

And then... a minute or so passed, the clapping started to dissipate along with their enthusiasm, and still nothing but a vacant glance from Subhash.  "Subhash!  Dance!" Dechen shouted.

"Get down!" Subhash shouted enthusiastically, before dancing the coolest, funkiest, most zombie-like shuffle that, mark my words, some day will spark a nationwide craze.

November 18, 2006

pakistan border ceremony

One of the tourist attractions in Punjab is the border crossing ceremony at the border with Pakistan.  Kind of like a high school pep rally, except instead of juniors versus seniors, it is Indians versus Pakistanis.  Add to that the reputed frenziness of a public event in one of the world's most crowded cultures- it's true, I felt like a water molecule with but one choice but to flow in the same direction as everyone else.  The border patrol took active part in this, each trying to outdo the other with the most ridiculous march they could think of (think Monty Python's "Ministry of Silly Walks").

November 20, 2006

preparing for the bollywood production

With still a week of sessions left to go, Marvin still had a steady stream of English lesson plans lined up, but I was running low on ideas.  I wanted to have them do a play, but based on what we covered in class, I felt like they could comfortably communicate only about asking for directions, going to a doctor, and ordering food at a restaurant.  Not knowing any Shakespearean classics that fit this bill, I strung together Marvin's lesson plans with a narrative thread, and we called it "An Evening at Happy Eat Restaurant".  A story about asking for directions to the restaurant, ordering food at the restaurant, getting sick from the bad food at the restaurant, and going to a doctor (in that order)...

There was real talent in the group, Marvin and I agreed, so we set to work to casting the roles.  We were confident in our group's English abilities regarding banal conversations and obscure British colloquialisms.  We were particularly excited about Dechen, a natural ham.  At the first day of practice, we watched the results unfold:

Raj: "Excuse me sir, I am lost.  Can you direct me to the Happy Eat Restaurant?"

Ranjeet: "Yes.  Go straight ahead, then turn left on Jogiware road.  It is on the right side, just past the Police Station."

Raj: "Thank you, sir.  Have a good day!"

Dechen: "Points to the right and shouts excitedly!"

It was at that point we had to explain to Dechen that the words in parentheses were stage directions and not dialogue.

November 21, 2006

another day in Dharamsala

Indians love their cinema, and much like America back in the day, there's a movie theatre in every corner of the country.  Even Dharamsala has its own, "Himalaya Talkies," an old movie hall with a balcony and a corrugated metal roof held in place by rocks.  Marvin and I paid 20 rupees (50 cents) each for admission and chose seats in the most lively part of the theatre, the teen hangout section in the balcony.  The movie was "Shiva," a horribly bloody action flick in which a woman getting stabbed inspires a group of bandits to break out into song and dance (a defining feature of all Bollywood films).

The audience was a bit rowdy, but this is not to say they weren't paying attention.  Whenever the projector's power went out (which happened every few minutes), they would whistle to get the attention of the projector operator to get the power back on.  In the midst of all the onscreen violence, a small band of Tibetan monks filed in to enjoy the movie for themselves. 

That afternoon, after the movie, I went to a reliable and cheap internet cafe downtown, where not one but a whole family of staff members observed my internet activity from over my shoulder.  The lack of privacy didn't bother me as much when I was offered a free cup of chai tea.

On the walk back home, I saw a man ahead who looked like MK Superfast, the pushy owner of the neighborhood internet cafe.  I hope it's not him, but he stops me.  "Where have you been?  You have not been going to the other internet cafe?" he asks accusingly.

November 23, 2006

an evening at Happy Eat Restaurant: A Bollywood Musical

Then the day was upon us, of the final performance of the detox center musical production, "An Evening at Happy Eat Restaurant..."  I expected the guys to be nervous, and they were.  Especially when the audience showed up- at least 15 fellow volunteers and associated detox center staff.  The staff counselor encouraged the shy detox clients to come out from hiding in their bedrooms, and they did, each diligently shaking hands with every individual member of the audience.

Neelam rushed back into his room.  "I have just shaken a woman's hand!" he exclaimed.  "I will not wash my hand for a week!" 

And then the play started with a sing-along dance of "You Are My Sunshine."  Indians and Tibetans alike imitated our best imitation of the square dance.  Then we entered the first scene, Rohit and Dawa making plans to go to the Happy Eat Restaurant.  They got all the lines, and everything seemed to be going smoothly.

If the actors were nervous it didn't show.  This was their most dramatic and inspired performance yet.  Marvin and I were both amazed that they had almost completely memorized their lines in just a week's time- while we still had to refer to the script.  And then high point of the play- Dechen falls out of his chair at the restaurant, shouting "I MUST HAVE EATEN BAD BOCOLLI!"  The R's are a little hard on the Tibetans.

A good time was had by all.  Most surprisingly, otherwise shy Ranjeet made himself legendary as "that crazy dancer in the orange sweater."  At the end of the play, the detox center staff brought out a Bollywood mix CD and the volunteers and detox clients had a little dance and chai tea party together.


The following weekend, I noticed a review of the event in the local newspaper.  Next to an incomprehensible Hindi-language article about the show, was a photograph of the party.  There were no Tibetans or Indians in the picture.  The media was more interested in those white foreigners dancing in their detox center.

November 24, 2006

tea with the Dalai Lama

I got swept away in a sea of maroon robes, Tibetan monks who kneeled and bowed to kiss the ground repeatedly.  Trying my best to fit in despite wearing the wrong colors, I imitated the monks though I only pretended to kiss the floor.  Then the throat singing followed, an eerie and haunting low-frequency chorus which frankly would have scared me if the source weren't a reputedly peaceful people.  I tried my best to imitate until a fit of coughing exposed me as the monk impostor that I was.  Of the three other westerners I noted in the monkly mob, only a man who looked like Jack Black, squinting with strained concentration, seemed to be making any noise.

But just as the throat singing subsided into the Dalai Lama's proper teaching, my effort at conformity was rewarded.  When the huge metal tea kettles came around, my cup was filled just like the rest with a milky unsweetened tea.  Fiddling with the tuning band of my portable radio, I finally found the English translation of the lecture, which apparently was an expounding on the previous day's lecture on "emptiness."  Grasping for some basic comprehension, I felt lost in phrases such as "empowerment of basis" and striving for the "cleliate (sp?) mind."  Then something hit me over the head.  It was a blue pillow.  I turned around and saw a monk smiling at me.  Everyone else was sitting on a cushion, and he wanted me to have one, too.

As the teaching dragged on and my effort at comprehension diminished, I had to pee really bad but noticed that not one monk had left for the bathroom, and the stairwell was blocked by a guard armed with a rifle.  Then at last the break came.  "Now it is time for break," the thick-accented English translator explained.  "Even if you don't like to piss, you should go outside and piss now," he suggested.  I wonder what version of the Tibetan to English dictionary he had. 

November 27, 2006

Journey into the Himalayas

As usual, I prepared for my next adventure by listening to stories about the various dangers that might befall me.  Asking about hiking up to Triund in the Himalayas, I learned that bears are known to sometimes roam the slopes.  And if I saw a bear, the key way to prevent him/her from eating me would be to start singing like a madman.  This would avoid startling the bear, and give the furry thing some time to wander to more pleasant surroundings.  Furthermore, according to the local Indians, if a bear starts to chase you, the best thing to do is to run downhill rather than uphill.  This is because (they say) when a bear is running downhill, their hair gets in their eyes.

But I wasn't scared of bears.  Every bear I had ever known was both friendly and harmless.  Paddington, Bearenstein, Yogi, the Chicago Cubs... who's afraid of them? 


About the actual hike- there's not much to say, but so much to show.  It was sunny and warm on the way up, and the number of chai tea stands on the way seemed excessive.  But soon after the sun went down, the temperature went from cool, to cold, to "what the hell was I thinking" cold, to diabolically freezing.  I huddled under a tarp overnight with two Gaddi shepherds, a Belarusian, a Brit, and a dog that followed me for the entire 11 km hike.

The full picture show of my trip, including this hike, is here.

A picture may be worth a thousand words, but in this case a freezer is worth a thousand pictures.  If you want to know how cold I was, go stick your head in a freezer for eight hours.  It'll be worth it- it builds character. 

Trees Are Green Gold

Punjab is the most prosperous state in India, and may stay that way forever the way things seem to be going.  "Each One, Teach One, Plant One" is posted on a public service billboard, in Chandigarh.  "Trees are Green Gold" is the name of some thesis-like pamphlet I was given in Amritsar.  There are trees- young trees- everywhere, all arranged at fixed intervals forming squares around plots of land throughout Punjab.  In Chandigarh earlier today, for the first time in my life a shopkeeper thanked me for refusing a plastic bag.

And (not sure if this is also related to Sikhism)- pollution-free bicycle rickshaws seem to be the most common form of transportation in the capital city Chandigarh.  This poor rascal, probably old enough for retirement in the U.S., pulled me and my enormous backpack from the bus station to my hotel a couple of miles away.  The fare?  15 rupees, or about 30 cents.

From just a surface view, Sikhism seems to be one of the most progressive religions out there, from their tenet of tree planting to their basic philosophy of equality.  Sikh cities offer Gurudwaras, basically free dormitories for visitors to their holy sites, regardless of their religious affiliation.  In Amritsar, they also offered a free meal of dal and rice to 3,000 people a day.

So, if you're looking for a greater meaning in your life, and are willing to learn how to tie a turban, then Sikhism may be a good choice.

November 28, 2006

interview at the Rock Garden

Visiting the Rock Garden in Chandigarh, I met a man at the ticket booth who was acting suspiciously friendly.  He was glad to learn that I was an American, and gave me a sort of informal tour of the rock garden, even though he had never been there before.

"That over there is made of rock," he explained, pointing to a rock.  "And that, see over there where the water is rushing down, is a waterfall."  He was trying hard.

Judging from the fact that he appeared reasonably affluent and middle-aged, I decided to trust the man, certainly not a hustler.  Turns out he was a high-ranking electrical engineer, and might have just been curious about Americans.  As I had read but not really experienced, many friendly Indians are apt to ask highly personal questions when just meeting.  "Are you married?",  "What is your salary?", "What are your qualifications?", "What do you think of such behavior?" (pointing at a man and a woman holding hands), etc.  He complained about how much government money was probably being spent on maintaining and developing the rock garden, but I countered that maybe hotels and other local businesses benefited from the increased traffic.  "You are a brilliant man," he concluded, probably based on the fact that I could recognize a rock for a rock and a waterfall for a waterfall.  "America is powerful," he later concluded, flexing his arms.

At one point, his wife, otherwise reticent, cut in to address her husband.  "It's clear to see the man is bored and wants you to leave him alone."

But the man had just one more question to ask.  "Would you like to meet my daughter?  She is very beautiful.  You could visit her for a month, and then decide whether to marry her."

"But the man is far too tall," cautioned his wife.

talking squirrels

Please forgive the selfish and irrelevant tangent...

My first night at the Divyadeep hotel in Chanidgarh, I had a dream about one "S. Q. Worrell, the World's Friendliest Squirrel".  He was quite the charismatic and talkative squirrel.  He would stand upright on his hind legs, on top of his wood chip pile.  He would animatedly tell stories, with broad sweeping gestures of his paws.

Then one day, I woke up and he had run away.  I had forgotten to feed him.

November 30, 2006

wondering about the wonders of the world

The week before my last visit to India (2005), I was on a CTA bus carrying a Hindi language book, muttering to myself with grammatical abandon in my newly discovered language.

"You are going to India?" asked an Indian stranger sitting across for me, part of the typical nightly migration of Indian-Americans south down Western Avenue from Devon street.

"Yes," I answered.

"And you will see the Taj Mahal?"

"No, I won't have time."

"What do you mean, you are not having time!  The Taj Mahal is the greatest wonder of the world!  You must be seeing it!"  he admonished, folding his arms and turning away in disgust.


Two years later, the Taj Mahal is on my itinerary, as a "must-see" site, guilt-induced or otherwise.  Not that I'm an iconoclast, but I had some reservations about the Taj.  It's exploitively priced (50 cents for Indians, $20 for foreigners), reputedly very crowded, and, as one of the world's greatest tourist attractions, is also one of the world's greatest con-artist magnets.  And though it's often regarded as the "world's greatest monument to love", if you take the time to read about the Taj beyond the tourist brochures, you'll realize it's just as much a monument to Shah Jehan's megalomania and fabulous wealth as it was to romanticism.

But I had to see for myself.  If for no other reason than to appease the Indian stranger on the Western Avenue bus.

On a typical morning at 5:30 AM I am either drifting dreamily through fields of mushroom and pepperoni pizza, or else devouring a stack of imaginary chocolate chip pancakes that's higher than I am tall.  But this day, I was actually awake at 5:30 AM, ready for the day's adventure.  My sleepy cab driver pulled up, and drove me towards the Taj gate well before sunrise.

I was the first one there.  After buying my ticket, I walked through the security check, where a rigorous search of my bag revealed a chocolate Power Bar.  The guard looked concerned.

"Sir!  You must be standing over here and eating this now!" he exclaimed, pointing to a spot just to the left.  Momentarily confused, I stepped over to the "visitor chocolate bar eating station" and ate my Power Bar, just quickly enough to still be the first person in line.

Some other tourists were right behind me, but were busy setting up their cameras in anticipation of sunrise.  Though it was pitch black, I had the Taj to myself for a good twenty minutes.  Just me, and some pigeons.

As sunrise approached I took some obligatory snapshots of the structure, comparable to what you'd see in any India travel brochure.  The Taj really was a fabuluous work of art, and as such probably shouldn't be reduced to words.  If you really want to know more just do your own Google search- of course so many have written about it.

How great is the Taj?  Having seen the Golden Temple, the lion-guarded bridge over the Danube river in Budapest, even the Baha'i Temple outside of Chicago, I couldn't say one monument is better than another, though the Taj certainly deserves its mention as "one of the best".


faded grandeur

Intrigued by my guidebook's description of a particular hotel's "faded grandeur," I decided I'd check it out.  The price was right (300 rupees), even if nothing else was.  The ceiling sagged threateningly, the bathroom trashcan was full of water and moldy candy bar wrappers.  The television was green, the blankets yellow, the water a rusty red.  Taking a shower would have made me less clean.  And yet, aside from the lack of human visitors, I have never seen a more popular hotel, based on a quick count of the lizards and flies in my room.

December 01, 2006

Indiana Jones and the Temple of Busdriver Snacks

One of my favorite things to do when I travel is to try out the various forms of transportation.  Amongst my most memorable trips ever was the Fung Wah bus- the super-economical $10 express service from Chinatown, New York City to Chinatown, Boston.  It was one of the longest five hours of my life.  If my name, too, was Fung Wah and I was under five feet tall, I might have been almost comfortable.  But to this day I have yet to find a means of transportation so taxing.

Indian transport standards tend to be a lot better.  The bus to the Himalayas was designed to match Western standards, luxurious and comfortable.  The Indian train from Chandigarh to Delhi was even better.  Not only was it comfortable, but we were all served chai tea, breakfast, more chai tea, and a newspaper.  The second class train from Delhi to Agra was a bit grubbier, but like the other train, it was on time to the minute.  By far the least comfortable leg of my journey was the 16-hour direct flight back home.  My neighbor in front of me pushed his chair back until it hit my knees.  Assuming his chair was broken, he repeatedly pushed back even harder, even after I explained to him my regret that my legs weren't retractable.  All I could do to keep my sanity was to mumble to myself:

"Better than the Fung Wah... Better than the Fung Wah!"

I thought I had been mumbling this under my breath, but my neighbor next to me stirred out of his sleep and glared at me a second before shutting his eyes again.

"Sorry," I said.

The highlight of all my public transit in India, though, would have to be the local buses in Delhi.  I arrived back in Delhi the day before my return flight.  Waiting for a bus back from the ancient ruined city of Qutb Minar, I blew my nose, revealing a kleenexful of black soot.  Then I heard someone screaming desperately, "ADHCHINI-ADHCHINI-ADHCHINI-ADHCHINI-ADHCHINI!" progressively getting louder until the 505 bus to Adhchini pulled up at the bus stop.  I stepped on, paid my ten ruppees, and lurched down the aisle a little faster than I planned as the driver put his lead foot to the accelerator.  Weaving and dodging through traffic, the bus made quite good time through the city.

"ADHCHINI-ADHCHINI-ADHCHINI-ADHCHINI-ADHCHINI!" shouted the ticket collector repeatedly.  At one point, without warning or without the bus slowing down, the collector leapt out of the bus and staggered on his feet.  Running towards a market, he disappeared.

A couple of minutes later, I noticed the ticket collector sprinting after the bus, with a bottle of water and a package of biscuits tucked under his arm.  In an act of athleticism I had only seen in Indiana Jones movies, he lunged at the bus, which was still moving at full speed.  Catching on to the side of the bus, he climbed towards the door and pulled himself in, handing the snacks to the driver.

Resuming his post at the front of the bus, the collector got back to work.  "ADHCHINI-ADHCHINI-ADHCHINI-ADHCHINI-ADHCHINI!" he shouted.

December 09, 2006

odd jobs

The Indian economy is largely sustained by an abundance of cheap labor.  Some interesting jobs I've heard about:

-A rat exterminator, who can be paid to sit in your basement overnight with a flashlight and a stick. 

-A manual ferris wheel operator, who runs like a hampster inside the ferris wheel to keep it turning... until he gets tired. 

-A train station clock changer, who manually turns the hands of a giant clock whenever he feels like it (we hope at least every few minutes) based on his wristwatch.

December 19, 2006

a selfish act of selflessness

Probably the most common reaction I heard from people hearing about my volunteer trip to India was that I must be very selfless.

I've been called a lot of things before, but selfless?

Most folks travel for a change of pace from their day-to-day life.  Some cats travel to relax, and get away from everyday stresses.  Other rascals travel to seek adventure, and get away from the mundaneness of their everyday life.  When people travel the world, some go to see buildings.  Some go to see animals.  Some go to see people.

I'd put myself in the last category- I like to travel to learn about people.  Strange and interesting people whose weird accents and eccentric behaviors I can recreate in stories about back home.  Misunderstandings, miscommunications, and differences in approach that might be frustrating back home can be amusing on the road.  When traveling, it's easier not to judge people, but just observe them to understand the differences.  This works both ways- a foreign traveler has a ready-made excuse for any and every faux pas they commit.  And somewhere beneath custom and culture and the way our personalities are shaped by our upbringings, there's a common thread of humanity.  People are people...  

Meeting people in a natural context is not easy to do in a short vacation.  You're likely to meet taxi drivers, hotel staff, panhandlers, shopkeepers- all people that ultimately just want your money.

When you're actually woven into the context of the locals' day to day lives, as I felt I was when I was volunteering, you really get to know people.  In my case, I got to work with a great bunch of guys, a multicultural mix of fun-loving rascals.  In many ways these guys were much like some of my friends back home, with the exception that they have acknowledged a problem in their lives, kind of like a food allergy, that prevents them from moderation.  But I had been on the job for precisely seven seconds when I realized there was no way I could just step in to their world and say "don't do drugs or alcohol" and really have it mean anything to them.  Not even in three weeks' time.  So I set smaller goals, and just tried to find something to keep them occupied.

Maybe this wasn't a typical volunteer experience.  We sang some songs, did some acting, drew some pictures, and generally just had a good time.  By and by they came to trust us, and invited us into their rooms over tea break  We eventually even got a glimpse into the nature of their substance abuse problems, and it was clear they all wanted their lives to improve.  But it's only in retrospect that I can rationalize our work as being positive and constructive- I hope.  Any activity or skill they can develop helps them develop and enjoy a second identity, an identify free of drugs and alcohol.  Dechen and Raj discovered a real talent for acting.  Thokmay learned to play a little ukelele.  Sonam and Torma had mastered the art of James Brown funk on kazoo.  My only concern is that they wouldn't necessarily have those same opportunities back home.

That said, most people who do volunteer do so to feel good about themselves.  And that's all I did.  I just took some time off from work to do something I enjoyed.

the picture show

I'm too lazy to look this up on the internet, but I think the tradition of posing for photographs comes from a time past when a long light exposure was required to capture film.  Even today we still tend to take pictures of things that stand still- buildings, mountains, people pretending to smile.  But unless you're a really clever photographer, these pictures are just nouns.  But everything that makes stories happen are verbs, the things that happen when things aren't standing still.  So I hope you enjoy my picture show for what it is- a narrative of things that are not happening.

And here it is


December 21, 2006

culture shock?

Back in America, for the first time in a week I was surrounded by people who didn't necessarily want my money.  Instead, they just wanted to know:

"So, do you have culture shock?"

"Shock" is such a strong word, that my offhand answer would simply be just "no."  People are the same everywhere, culture and customs are different everywhere.  Within the same country even, societal expectations swing back and forth like a pendulum throughout the course of history.  Aishwarya Rai is outraging most of India for kissing someone in a movie- this in the same country that brought the Kama Sutra to the world millenia ago.

It all seems so arbitrary.

As for "reverse culture shock," I think most folks on coming home from India would agree that hot showers are one of the greatest luxuries we have.  My response was different, though, and a bit surprising to even myself:

Never in my life have I had such a strong urge to sink my teeth into some "sacred cow."  Hamburgers, carne asada tacos, Brazilian churrascarias...  The only time I felt any guilt was the other day at Subway.  I ordered a meatball sandwich, and as the Indian-American staff prepared just what I asked for, without protest.  In India we might've all gone to prison.