Monthly Archives: November 2009

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Image by m4r00n3d

This year, the Hindu holy day of Diwali fell on October 17th.

This year, my twelve-hour layover in Chennai, formerly Madras, fell on October 17th.

As with most religious holidays such as Eid (end of Ramadan) or Hanukkah, Diwali—the Festival of Lights—is celebrated with family. And as I had no family to speak of in India, I was destined to spend my first Diwali alone.

My plane ticket from Delhi to Kuala Lumpur cost me less than $200, but the scheduling called for a half-day stretch in the seaport on the Bay of Bengal for which a juicy cocktail is named. Knowing I’d be stationary for such a long while, I sent messages to a few CouchSurfers in the city hoping I’d have a couple of babysitters. Not knowing I had booked my flight on Hindu’s biggest holiday (though not everyone in India is Hindu, Diwali is also an official government holiday just like Christmas in the US), I had several responses to my queries, but they were all very tentative: “I might/might not be in the city,” “I may/may not be available to take you around town.”

In the end, blood proved thicker than water and my would-be CS day hosts apologized profusely and with great regret that they wouldn’t be available; the last host informing me of this after I had already arrived in lush, tropical Chennai. With most tourist sites closed for the holiday, and with the temperature being in the mid-90s, I decided to spend a couple hours at the movies.

I printed up the boarding pass for my international flight, which departed a little before midnight, and after a short stroll around the compact airport which included an abortive attempt to secure a banana-chocolate milkshake (apparently, adding banana to a chocolate milkshake necessitated consultation with the restaurant manager, restaurant owner, and airport authorities), then argued with a rickshaw driver over the price to take me to the Chennai Citi Center mall (got him down to 130 rupees, about $2.80). We arrived at the boxy, but baroque, shopping center after a half-hour of whizzing through relatively empty streets and past shuttered storefronts. I had my mind all set for something Hollywood or Bollywood. I got nothing: every showing of every film was sold out for the entire day. I guess it was for the best, as all the movies were in Tamil anyway.

After another haggling session, this time with a pack of audacious but idle rick drivers trying to finance a very merry Diwali on my lone airport run, I trekked back to the terminal.

I was sleepy and sweaty.

I still had six hours before my flight.

I wasn’t allowed through Immigration with a boarding pass printed from the website.

I wasn’t allowed through Immigration without a departure form from my airline.

I wasn’t allowed through Immigration to just sit and wait at the gate.

The airline counter didn’t open until two hours before my flight. There were four hours left.

I bought a bar of soap at the pharmacy and took a bird bath in the bathroom, changing into a clean shirt and the least-dirty of the two pair of jeans I had.

And I sat. Wrote. Sat. Ate. Sat. Whistled. Sat. Twiddled. Sat. Watched the old school departure board letters flap around, spelling the names of far-off-sounding destinations one letter at a time (very cool!). Sat. Wrote. Sat. Ate. Etc.

I checked into the flight and scored a window seat on an exit row.

I marched triumphantly, for the second time, to Immigration. “Happy Diwali,” I said to the officer who immediately frowned and gave me a defiant Indian head wiggle.

“Not everyone in India celebrates Diwali, you know,” he schooled. “We Tamils celebrate the Harvest Festival in January, called Pongal.”

I stood stunned, but I guess I would have responded the same way had I been working somewhere and was greeted with “Happy Kwanzaa.” In fact, I know I would have (I told y’all Indians were black).

The moral of this story: Stop trying to be a smart ass by erroneously invoking people’s cultures when a simple “hello” would suffice.

Happy Thanksgiving, errbody!

Dry and monstrously big, India’s capital city houses over twelve million people who, despite sprawling over 570 square miles at the apex of the Indo-Gangetic plain, still seem stacked on top of one another. The New Delhi train depot served as my introduction to the city and my most uncomfortable experience in India: thousands of people milling around the dusty platforms, spitting phlegm despite signs discouraging the practice (hello H1N1/SARS/bird flu/regular flu!), kids running around in tiny t-shirts and no underwear, pulverized fecal matter rising with the clouds of dust as trains pulled into the station. I was afraid to lick my lips. At the station, I was conspicuously foreign, which for me is unsettling in chaotic environments like this, and I was stared at more than at any time on my journey. One guy came up to me with a gob of amber wax at the end of a stick and offered to clean my ears for me. I responded in Spanish, and he retreated with a grin that said, “What the hell is this muhfuka speaking?”

Unlike Mumbai, where I stayed with a friend I already knew who doubled as a translator and had easy access to transportation, Delhi meant the renewed adventure of traveling solo. And while I met many interesting people and had numerous profound conversations via that friend, it’s always when I’m alone that I meet the most surprising people. North India was not short on surprises. In fact, during my five days there, I met:

Willy and Ula, an inspiring middle-aged German couple I met on the train from Delhi to Agra. With their grown children off raising families, Willy and Ula had already trekked through Latin America for a month with rudimentary Spanish before traipsing off to India with rudimentary English. They had been taken advantage of by the staff of their hotel and were trying to cope with thickly-accented Indian English by the time we met. I decided to ask if my CouchSurfing host could help them once we got to Agra. It turned out to be the best decision I could make.

Rajat, a no-limit soldier stationed at one of the many military installations in heavily-fortified Agra. Soft-spoken and sharp-featured, he commanded respect from his on-base inferiors to the off-base touts and rickshaw drivers swarming around us at the station. He met us with the names and phone numbers of a couple hotels in town and before taking me back to his place to grab a shower (this was post-14-hour train ride from Mumbai), he made sure Willy and Ula were safely tucked away in a hotel and that we had decently-priced transport to the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort the next day. The consummate CouchSurfing host, Rajat introduced me to Tulsi Mulethi tea and the Hindu tenet of present-focused living. ‘Preciate ya, brother.

Jag, the film and television director who grew up in Australia to Indian parents and brought her cross-cultural perspective back from Oz. Our paths crossed at another CouchSurfer’s house in Delhi and I knew we’d be hanging hard once I saw her large eyes and wide smile. We got our grub on at a frou-frou restaurant on Delhi’s periphery, then our club on at a crowded nightspot a few barrios over. It was just a day in Delhi, but memorable nonetheless.

Tino and Tony, dance instructors imported from abroad to establish the Indian National Ballet who happened to be crashing one floor down in my central Delhi guesthouse. Tino, a hip-hop and jazz teacher from the Canary Islands who spoke English with a British accent and black American idioms, sat pulling his hair out over a girl in Mumbai who had turned him out. Tony, a fellow Southerner, whipped up some slammin’ gumbo and garlic pasta using recipes he had learned from his ex-wife. Tino and I sat and sulked (in Spanish) in their apartment because it was Diwali—the biggest Hindu holiday—and salsa night had been cancelled. Family holidays always suck when you’re on vacation.

I was honored to have this diverse group of miscreants and ne’er-do-wells cross my path. It’s the type of interaction that makes traveling alone worthwhile; I’d never have met any of them had I been rolling with one of my peeps. And I’d be six friends short.

And watch the Magic Carpet Maker waterproof one of India’s famous rugs at the carpet factory in Agra. Sorry about the sideways video, folks. Just turn ya head. 😉

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So, enough personal foolishness; back to the trip:

Following what most guidebooks recommend, I hit the Taj Mahal (attractively pronounced “Taj Mel” by the locals) a little after dawn, before the balmy air in the ancient military city of Agra thickened to a hearty stew of celestial heat and earthy odors. It was tough not getting people into the shots, considering every other gringo seemed to follow the same guidebook advice. Still, I managed to capture an infantesimal degree of the wonder and awe induced by early morning sunlight striking a structure as magnificently designed as the Taj, a confection of marble as intricately woven as lace. Indeed a monument to eternal love. Enjoy.