29 November 2009

Another day in paradise

I’m really loving my Sundays lately.
i start waking up kind of early, out of the house by 9. over to Café Coffee Day for a morning bite to eat and drink. then i get in a rickshaw and ride over to Bandra Kurla Complex. it is built on reclaimed swamp land, and comprises lots of new buildings, offices, courthouses, industrial sites, and a few schools. our destination is the American School of Bombay, which lets us use there field for a super fun game of Ultimate Frisbee. today we shared the field with a soccer camp, and there were only about 10 of us, but it still worked out great, because the short field was fun, fast breaks were shorter so much more possible. it’s a game of expats, amerians and brits and a couple indians that went to college in the US (or grew up there) and have come back (repats i guess). it was a great game. after frisbee we can use the school’s pool, so we swam for a while which was heavenly.
then a few of us decided to go eat at The Bagel Shop, a place in Bandra, that bakes their own bagels and puts whatever you want on them. I had mozzarella, pesto and tomatoes, and heather had cream cheese and green olives. by then it was 4 on the clock, so we went home, rested for a little while, and then heather and i headed out to see 2012! we were waiting to see it and today was the day. the opening scene is in india, which thrilled us and the rest of the audience. we had a great time, we love our disaster movies, and this was the best once since Independence Day, in my estimation (hey! i just noticed they had the same director!). after the movie we headed over to a sweet shop for some chocolate mousse, and then took another crazy rickshaw ride back to our neighborhood for a late snack. i predictably had a dosa and we also had watermelon and tomato soup. then we took a rickshaw home.
but as we were walking through the back alleys to our apartment, we heard music, which got louder, and we saw a party going on. we started moving a bit to the music and that’s all it took for the party goers to grab us and invite us in. it was a fun little birthday party with fog and lasers and dance music. and it turned out that we knew the DJ’s, they live in our building. i met them when i first moved in, they made me tea (well their mother did). they live downstairs, and they have Shure and other music related stickers on their door, so i stopped once to talk to them. and yesterday heather met them. DJ Sam and DJ Sachin are their names, and we waved at them in the corner of the party, it was so nice to see them, they even played the Akon song heather likes. we started dancing and of course everyone came over and started to dance with us. they offered us tequila shots (i actually had one), and we met the birthday boy (he must have been 24 or 25) and wished him a happy birthday. after a few minutes it was time for us to go, we blew a kiss to the one girl who gave us shots and danced with us the most, and the birthday boy thanked us. we waved goodbye to our friends the DJs and headed home, tired but exhilarated from a full and fun day. only in india, my friends. only in india.

26 November 2009


it's the anniversary of the terrorist attacks in mumbai. i remember the day last year, to me it felt eerily like 9/11, roiling feelings of dread and nervousness, not knowing what's going on, wishing you were there while thankful that you're not. i was teaching as the news trickled in, trying to get in touch with friends in school and outside of school, trying to get news on the internet while not neglecting my students.
this one the first attack outside of the US that i could remember where they targeted foreigners. the terrorists entered mumbai from the water, at the Gateway of India, the monument built by the British, from where the British left in 1947 when India got their independence. it's in the Colaba district, a very touristed area. some travelers to Mumbai only ever see colaba, it's where the guest houses are, where many hotels are. When we started hearing about what places were being attacked, I shuddered. I had been to almost every one. Leopold's cafe. The Taj Mahal Hotel. Victoria Terminus (now officially called CST) train station, the Ville Parle Train Station. and the Nariman House, home to Chabad. While i had never been there, i had been to synagogues in mumbai, which has a pretty good sized Jewish population, 3 or 4 active synagogues, and a Chabad house for locals and Israeli and other Jewish travelers. jewish people were targeted. they also looked to single out those holding american or british passports. The attack lasted 3 days, and 166 people were killed.
i was already planning on coming to India, and this only made me feel more strongly about it. and while i didn't know where in the country i would be placed by AJWS, i was starting to feel that i would end up here in mumbai. and i have.
and i love this city. it's exciting, beautiful, exhilarating. it's on the ocean so there are beaches and there is hardly any pollution. it's very diverse with significant muslim, christian, buddhist, sikh, jain and jewish populations, as well as many western expats, and we all get along. (the muslims here don’t understand the radicalization of pakistan and they condemn the attacks as much as anyone.) there are hopping clubs and quiet temples, there are cafés and parks and seaside promenades, there are film shoots happening all the time, and the food is amazingly fantastically delicious and healthy.
the city has bounced back since last year, as india always bounces back from invasions, introductions of new religions, traumatic events and everything else. it’s all absorbed, transformed, and integrated into her. we are all mumbaikars and we love our city. we will never forget the victims of 26/11, and the heros that day. the train announcer who calmly told people to leave the station from the rear exit, over and over, until the terrorists found him and shot him. the group of young Sikhs who brough food and water to the security forces battling the terrorists. the muslim chai-wallah (tea-seller) who ran into the station and helped people to leave and then served tea to survivors and reporters covering the story. the police and other officials who fearlessly walked into the maelstrom, like the firefighters did on 9/11. the caretaker of the baby at the chabad house, who snuck the child out even as the rabbi and his wife were being killed. the workers and guests at the hotels who fought back, knew where and when to hide, how and when to escape, and saved many lives in the process. we remember the fallen and the survivors, and we come together not in fear but in love, in democracy and freedom.
living well truly is the best revenge.

13 November 2009

taste the rainbow

There was a story on NPR the other day about skin-lightening cream in India, and how they’re starting to market it to men after years of selling it to women here. Heather and I have seen the commercials for them, and I didn’t know whether to laugh or cringe. I’m settling on cringe.
there are all kinds of products, skin lotions for men and women that contain moisturizers and sunblock and some kind of lightener like lemon juice or enzymes that break down the melanin in the skin.
i guess from the cosmetics industry’s point of view, there’s 500 million more potential customers, but the idea freaks me out. with both genders. i love india so much, the people, the culture, i hate to see them be influenced by the west, but anyway it’s much more complicated than that.
is it just to stand out, to look different? in the West, (white) people go to tanning salons and buy creams to get their skin darker, is that so that they stand out? is it the same thing with skin-lightening? since most people here are some shade of brown, is it just to stand out?
are they trying to look more Western? the trend is very popular in show business, from actors and actresses to models of both genders, almost everyone you see on TV, movies and magazines has light skin, and they’re always trying to get lighter. is that the trend because they’re copying Western media? I hope not.
For there are a few indigenous reasons, too.
There is the north-south rivalry, for one. people from south India are generally much darker than those from the north, and there’s a rivalry between the two that you see a lot. Even in the language; for years the north has wanted Hindi to be the official language of India, but in the south they don’t speak Hindi, they speak Tamil or Kannada or Mayalayam or Telugu, the languages of the states down there, and they are very different from Hindi. That’s why English is so important here; it is spoken all over the country, unlike any of the regional or state languages.
the north-south difference is also very much related to history. throughout India’s history, it’s been invaded multiple times, and the vast majority of those have come from the north, through pakistan and afghanistan, and down into the subcontinent. all of those invaders, the persians, the mughals, and the most important one, the so-called aryan invasion, were all lighter skinned people.
(the aryan invasion is the theory that lighter skinned people entered india about 1500 BCE, bringing with them a language that was the mother language of both Hindi and Latin/European languages. while sometimes disputed, the theory is widely accepted and the Indian culture we know in the north is descended from these people, while the earlier Dravidian people are the ancestors of south Indians, because the aryans didn’t make it that far south. and yes, hitler was enamored with indian culture and stole the term aryan and the symbol of the swastika from the story of those invading people.)
anyway, all those invading peoples had lighter skin than the indigenous people, so light skin is also associated with power and success.
and dark skin is still associated with some of the lower castes, with light skin associated with brahmins or other higher castes.
for all these reasons, it seems that indians are trying to lighten their skin. in newspaper ads by families looking for mates for their children, a light skin color is often mentioned as a desired trait. that’s been going on for a while, but this marketing of skin-lightening cream to Indian men is new.
i guess it’s easy for me to say as a light-skinned outsider, but i have the same reaction as when i see young indian women in jeans or falling for other western trappings. i think, your culture is so rich and so beautiful, your clothing and food and everything, please don’t lose it.
but with the entire history of india, outside influences are absorbed and somehow become wholly indian, the indian culture just absorbing, redefining, and integrating them until everything becomes Indian again. India is strong and only getting stronger, so i guess it’ll just roll with this trend as well, and come out the other side still as Indian as ever, even as the culture changes and grows.

11 November 2009

it’s been a long time since i rock and rolled

i think i’m in a band now! i answered an ad for some europeans that were playing in a classic rock band and needed a drummer. it’s not my first instrument, but i played for a couple years with Bandworks back home so i can hang in there. it turns out they also need a singer so i volunteered for that too. it’s crazy doing both at the same time but it’s a fun challenge.
there a guitarist and bassist from england, and also a 2nd guitarist from germany i think (he wasn’t there last night but will be at the next rehearsal). they’re all about my age (read old), but that means we like the same kind of music, pink floyd, rolling stones, dire straits (sultans of swing), david bowie, etc.
they rent out a studio which appeared to be in someone’s house, a room they turned into a rehearsal studio, with microphones plugged into amps, and drums set up. they brought their own guitar and bass. they’re not the greatest players in the world, it’s no Funky Little Shack, but then again i can’t really play drums for the shack. besides the fact that they would never let me get anywhere close to that drum kit! it was really really fun to be playing again, it looks like we’re going to rehearse once a week, and at some point even play at parties or bars. it’s nice to have that, and the frisbee and swimming on sundays, to keep me active and out of the house. i also still want to take hindi lessons (i have a couple leads for teachers) and maybe indian music lessons. i’m speaking some hindi in the shops, and with rickshaw drivers, but before too long i’ll try to fold lessons into my activities as well. things do move slowly here but i’m starting to realize i won’t be here forever so i’m going to get everything out of the experience that i possibly can.

10 November 2009

rising, like a phoenix, from arizona

i got the flu a couple weeks ago, but i'm feeling much better now.
2 sundays ago, i played ultimate frisbee for the first time in years. i heard about the game on a facebook group for expats living in Mumbai, people from the US, UK, australia, new zealand, and europe, mostly people in their 20’s, a good balance of men and women. they were a really nice group of people, some working at non-profits like i am, some working in the private sector as consultants or computer professionals or whatever. we met at the american school of bombay which has a great field. i taught everybody how to play ultimate, it went over really well, and we also played touch rugby, which was also really fun.

i hadn’t played any competitive sports in a long time, but i hung in there and did fine. panted a lot, but that’s to be expected. drank plenty of water, took lots of breaks, and had a great time. and after we were able to use their swimming pool which was fantastic.

the next day, monday, i was very sore all over, but i expected that. but as monday night came along, i started realizing that something was going on, something more than being sore from the game. i guess pushing myself like that was just enough to lower my defenses, because by tuesday morning, i knew i had the flu.

i hadn’t had the flu in years. my school gave us flu shots every year, and i had managed to avoid it. but this time it really hit me hard. headaches, body aches, fever, chills, sweats, the whole thing. sometimes when i’m sick here i tough it out, especially stomach stuff, but i knew i needed help.

i called my boss at the non-profit for advice, and she gave me the name and number of a local doctor she has used and trusted. Dr Hemang B Nanavati (love that name). I went to his office on tuesday around noon, waited a painful hour, and then got in. it’s a small office, with a waiting area that’s open to the outside (with a ceiling fan). you notice the order that you arrive and go in when it’s your turn; there’s no receptionist or anything.
i went in, told him my symptoms, told him i might have a fever. he felt my head and told me oh yes, you have a fever. he gave me medicine for 2 days (tylenol, antihistamines, and b-vitamins) and told me to come back thursday if i didn’t feel better.
i stayed in bed for those 2 days and didn’t eat much at all. wasn’t hungry in the slightest. tried to drink water and gatorade. the medicine helped; helped the aching and helped me sleep, and when thursday came along i almost panicked when i ran out of medicine. i went back to the good Dr Nanavati and he gave me medicine for one more day (he listened to my breathing and said you’ve got a cough now and he was right, so he gave me antibiotics too) and sent me to a local clinic for blood tests. it wasn't h1n1 (it's less common here than in the US, it was just a regular flu. ha, just. it really knocked me out).
they took my blood and tested it overnight for malaria, dengue fever, other infections, and they did a full panel of other blood and liver work.
on friday morning, it felt like i had turned a corner. i was still miserable, but i wasn’t getting any worse. i picked up the results, everything normal, and went back to see Dr Hemang B Nanavati. he gave me more medicine for the weekend and said i’d be fine by monday.
by monday, most of the flu symptoms were gone, but i was incredibly weak. i was sleeping most of the day and night, and when i did go out, i lasted an hour or so before having to come back and crash hard. i did that for the rest of the week, just sleeping, trying to eat a little, with some success, and sleeping.
yesterday was 2 weeks, and i finally went back to work. work was great about it, by the way, checking in with me every day but giving me the space i needed too. by yesterday, i was quite ready to go back, tired of being at home, even though i watched a lot of poker on youtube (caught up on the whole season of WSOP episodes) and otherwise kept myself busy.
and now, 2 weeks later, i feel my strength coming back, i can leave the house without falling apart, and i’m ready to go back to work. yesterday we actually designed an organizational chart for the non-profit, so i’m going to build it on my computer and we can include it in our business plan and other literature about the place. i’m looking forward to playing ultimate again and swimming again this weekend. and i think i actually found a band to play in, it looks like i’ll be playing drums and singing classic rock tunes. could be really fun.
oh, i started putting ads on this blog, so if you see anything you like, feel free to click on something!
be back soon, loyal readers.

25 October 2009

Here comes the Sun king

Today (Saturday, October 24th) was another holiday, called Chhath Puja. it’s mostly a holiday from the Indian states of Bihar and Orissa, in the east, but it has spread around the country and is now celebrated everywhere.
It pays homage to the sun god, Surya, and at sunrise and sunset people go down to the water and bathe and say prayers while in the water.
Here in Mumbai, it’s celebrated at Juhu beach, one of the 2 famous beaches in the city, and the only one where you can actually go in the water.
I was going to go on my own, and then fate remarkably intervened, as it does here in India.
I was buying a bathing suit at a shop on my street, because tomorrow I’m scheduled to play some Ultimate Frisbee at the American School of Bombay and they have a swimming pool there that we can use after. It’s a shop I’ve been to before, to buy material which i then took to a tailor to make a pair of pants for me (nicer pants that i can use for going out to fancier dinners or to work conferences and the like).
I knew one of the boys at the shop, he’s probably in his early 20’s, and I told him i was going to Juhu to check out the celebrations. It turns out he’s actually from Bihar, working here, but missing his family who is celebrating the holiday back home. So he invited me to go with him. he told me to meet him back at the shop in 20 minutes and we would go together.
I would have taken a rickshaw all the way there, but my new friend Raman (pictured above) and I took a rick to the local train station, took a train to Santa Cruz station, and then walked from there to the beach. it was about a half-hour walk, and the closer we got, the more crowded it was, more and more people walking the same way, all headed to the beach for the festival. The excitement was palpable, and growing.
Along the way we talked. I taught him some english, he taught me some hindi. We also talked about religion, and the fact that in Hinduism, God is One. This is widely misunderstood, as there are dozens of different gods and goddesses. but they are all manifestations of the one God; that is clear in the Hindu scriptures. I really appreciate this because it makes me feel like i am not violating any of my Jewish beliefs by participating in Hindu rituals. He told me he likes to meet people, and see things, and have different experiences. i said that i do too, it’s one of the thing that have brought me to india.
Anyway, we got to the beach, and man, was it a party. Thousands of people (okay not a half million as originally predicted, but still thousands) setting up little altars, with bamboo sticks forming a teepee looking thing, and offerings to the sun god like little oil lamps, bananas, sweets, and the other usual Hindu offerings. families were there together, and would walk down to the water, getting their feet wet, then going back to their spots on the beach. parents took babies and dipped their feet in.
it was really a spectacular sight, all the people and their little altars, all the children running around. as night fell, the fireworks started. big fireworks that the city must have put on, in the distance, and smaller fireworks lit by dozens of people on the beach, the same kind you would light at home on the 4th of July. it was just like Diwali last week, but on the beach. there were people selling chai, and roasted peanuts and other snacks, and some people went swimming.
it was really really nice to be there with a guide, with a new friend, Raman.
He sang a lot, and taught me some Hindi songs, and we joked with each other. he told me that since we’re friends, we never have to say “thank you” or “i’m sorry”, but i still thanked him a few times for taking me. he would remind me not to say thank you, and i would say i’m sorry for saying thank you, and we would both burst into laughter. this became a running joke and was pretty hilarious.
After a while, it was time to go, so we grabbed a rickshaw home. he had to pick up his brother at the store on my street before heading home. He lives in Dharavi, the largest slum in the world, home to more than a million people, but he told me that they’re not all dirt poor. many are, but many are working class, and live there because they have moved to Mumbai from elsewhere in India to work. it’s a slum but it’s also an urban neighborhood, with different areas for people from different states and with different jobs. Raman invited me to his home there sometime, and i will visit it and check it out for myself. he doesn’t seem dirt poor, his clothes are nice and clean, he's got a cell phone, and he has a job.
it was an amazing evening, and wonderful to see the celebration of another religious holiday in this amazing and very spiritual place. Tomorrow, on Sunday, I’ll play ultimate frisbee and go swimming with a bunch of ex-pats from the US, UK, Australia, New Zealand, and maybe a couple other places. i’m looking forward to it...

20 October 2009

Quantum Entanglement and the Pre-Trans Fallacy

(Of of my favorite things about being here is that between the slower pace of life and the dearth of the usual entertainment options, i have plenty of time to study and read. a few things have been converging:
i have been leading meditations at work based on the physics of higher dimensions, and their psychological analogs.
i visited the bhaktivedanta institute, a graduate school that studies problems in physics from the point of view which incorporates the nature of human consciousness, and i picked up a couple new papers which i’ve been reading.
i found a great book on amazon that i can read on my phone which describes the conversations between the scientists who created the physics of the early 20th century.
apple’s iTunes has a section called iTunesU, which offers free audio and video recording of University courses on a variety of subjects, in my case modern physics and religion.
heather’s been tutoring physics back home and once in a while i help.
the spiritual nature of this country lends itself to introspection.

with all these factors, lately my mind has turned to quantum physics, the nature of human consciousness, human spiritual evolution, and other fun subjects.)

here are some musings on quantum physics. i won’t do an introduction to the subject here, although i know many of my readers are novices. please forgive me for that; perhaps i will another time. all i’ll say for now is that quantum physics, also called quantum mechanics, is the physics of the 20th century and beyond; post-Newtonian physics. without it, we wouldn’t have computers or many other things, but it is still not well understood, even (especially) by physicists. it’s the weird stuff.

One reason why quantum mechanics (qm) is so difficult to comprehend is that it belies the information offered by our vision, and we, as mammals rely so heavily on our vision.
qm is telling us what the Buddha told us; what the most basic of Hebrew prayers, the Shema, tells us. we are not separate. we. are. one.
and i don’t mean we’re all one big indistinguishable blob. not at all. my friend krishna and i have been discussing this. what is the difference between repression of feelings and equanimity? they can look the same on the outside. but repressing your feelings is not the same as transforming and transcending them.
it’s like the difference between a baby that can’t speak, and an adult that has a mystical experience that cannot be described in words. one is pre-verbal, the other post-verbal. just because they are both non-verbal does not make them the same.
ken wilber calls this the pre-trans fallacy.
(sometimes people fall into its trap; this happens often with people who get involved in the landmark forum. the forum is really good for strengthening the ego level. people who get pushed around, aren’t in touch with their feelings, or don’t stand up for themselves can benefit. but in my view, the point of that is so that you can continue to evolve, to truly connect with people, which you can’t do if you’re being pushed around by them. sometimes people have so much success strengthening their ego that they develop an attitude which further isolates them from others. i’ll do what i want, and if that bothers you, that’s your problem. they are no longer controlled by people, but they are still isolated from others.)
anyway, it’s not that we’re all one big blob.
it’s that we’re all entangled. in very specific ways. ways which create and transform our experience.
when anything comes into contact (physical or psychological) with anything else, they become entangled, part of one system, together forever. we’ve all heard stories of a daughter cutting herself in the kitchen or something, and the mother feeling something instantaneously, knowing something happened. from a certain point of view, the mother-daughter are intrinsically linked, one system. in the early part of the 20th century, physicist struggled with this and didn’t know how information could be transfered instantly like that. Einstein called it “spooky action at a distance” and hated the idea. he was right. nothing is being transfered, nothing is being transmitted. rather, mother and daughter are one entity. it’s like my foot doesn’t have to tell me i stepped in something. my foot is part of me.
scientists are slowly, slowly, getting used to the idea of entanglement.
of course each of us is involved in multiple entanglements, which interact and overlap like a web of multi-faceted jewels.
and those entanglements are themselves entangled, like groups of facebook friends that overlap.
our eyes tell us that we stop at our skin, and that the next person starts at theirs. the reality of the heart, of human experience, isn’t quite so simple...

17 October 2009

a beautiful ending to a wondrous holiday

as evening fell, the firecrackers gave way to multicolored fireworks, on the streets, in people’s yards, just like the 4th of july, filling the air with that wonderful firework smell and with the brightest of colors.
and at my office, we held a puja, a religious ceremony for the holiday. a table was set up, with a white tablecloth, embroidered in colored patterns that looked like the exploding fireworks. around the table were plates with ceremonial foods like sweets, bananas, and dried fruits and nuts. on the table were a number of items. a small lit candle, small decorated boxes filled with clove and cardamom, flowers garlands, and most importantly, 5 deities, each made of brass, sitting on a pedestal, and each about 5 inches tall. they were ganesh, the elephant-headed remover of obstacles, lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, sarasvati, the goddess of wisdom, nandi, a bull representing shiva, baby krishna, and buddha. there were 6 of us in the office, including baby tara, who recently turned 1.
the ceremony went as follows: one at a time, we each washed each deity by pouring water over their heads twice. the first time we used water with sandlewood oil, and the second time was water with perfume oil. one of us poured the sandlewood water on ganesh, then each of us in turn did the same, then we moved on to the other deities, washing them one at a time. then we repeated the whole thing with the perfumed water. this took a few minutes, and it was done in peaceful silence.
once the deities were washed, we each placed a beautiful tiny flower garland around each deity, and we clothed baby krishna, putting a lovely robe on the little statue.
then we anointed each deity with 4 holy substances. in turn, we each applied one of the substances to all the deities, then we moved onto the next substances and we each applied that one. the substances were sandlewood powder, turmeric powder, red tikka powder, and grains of rice.
each time each of us visited each deity was a special moment which began and ended with a namaste, bringing the hands together in prayer position. i said little mantras to each deity, said hello to each one, and thanked each one for their presence.
after the ceremony, i led the group in a meditation where we saw the deities and their appreciation for our devotion, and dedicated the peacefulness of the moment to the happiness of all beings, and wished for a year of love, peace and prosperity for all.
then we were each presented with a blank book, put a couple celebratory diwali stickers in them, and dabbed a dot of the sandlewood, turmeric and red tikka powder on the first page of the book. then we wrote whatever came to mind; our wishes for the new year.
we followed with a celebration where we took prasadam, which just means that we ate together with a devotional and spiritual attitude towards the food. there were yummy doughnut type things, another kind of fried sweet dough, potato chips and peanuts, and bananas.
we all felt very peaceful, very calm and blissful, and full of joy. it was a beautiful and meaningful ceremony, rosh hashanah and 4th of july rolled into 1, and i was honored to be a part of it. it really made my day, and between last night’s wedding extravaganza and tonight’s puja ceremony, i really feel that my first diwali in india was meaningful and special.

and at the end, we took our books home, everyone got one of the little boxes filled with cloves and cardamom, and the group presented me with the baby krishna, and his robe, garland and pedestal to keep. the gift really touched me and i will treasure it. and i LOVE baby krishna! he loves butter, is a little mischievous, grows up to be a musician and a lover of women, and especially a lover of his one true mate, radha. i feel very close to krishna, especially now that i’ve found my radha, my heather, my wife.
i hope everyone had a happy, healthy and prosperous new year. may all beings attain happiness and the causes of happiness, and be free from suffering and the causes of suffering.

2 of the 7 dwarves

it’s amazing how quickly i can go from happy to grumpy. sometimes i wish i were more evenly-keeled, but i suppose that would take some of the bliss out of my life, so i guess i don’t. i had such an amazing night last night, so fun, but today everything is annoying me.
first the fun. last night i happened upon a wedding celebration, and i crashed it, and it was amazing. one of those incredible india moments.
it was Diwali eve, and i was walking home. there was much celebrating going on. after taking a couple pictures of kids lighting sparklers, i saw bright lights coming from behind the block of shops. i thought it was a temple doing diwali prayers so i walked around to go in. it turned out to be a wedding; there were lots of decorations, people dressed up beautifully, a fan blowing cool rose scented air. i went up to the bar and asked them what was going on, if it was a wedding (it was kinda obvious) and they said yes and offered me a drink. i turned that first one down. then i saw some folks dressed up like me at my wedding, in fancy indian suits. one was the brother of the bride. i congratulated him and asked if i could stay a while. he implored me to stay and be his guest. he sat me in one of the chairs. the kids came right up to me and started talking. the women on the other side were watching and laughing, especially when i started singing along to the music that was playing. the couple was on the stage walking around a firepit 7 times while a guy was reciting prayers into a microphone. they had a mickey mouse bounce house for the kids, and popcorn and cotton candy.
then the waiters kept coming by and offering me appetizers. i had just eaten but i didn't want to be rude so i accepted. they were delish. then i got one of the kids to get me some cotton candy. soon i got up and walked around. felt a little badly that everyone was paying attention to me, but whatever the couple was busy on stage anyway.
they had a bar with brightly colored "mocktails", and fire eaters, and a midget dude dancing (that’s a common entertainment here. it didn’t strike me as exploitative, just fun, and he was well paid. that’s a very common thing at parties here.)
the spread was crazy; indian food, bread baking, chinese food, all kinds of stuff.
i kept meeting family members of the happy couple, they were so friendly and welcoming, and all the other random guys wanted to hang out with me too. the kids did first, of course, but then after the adults did too. the decorations were bright and beautiful, it was quite a party.
you can see pictures here:

on the other hand, i was woken up today before sunrise by ridiculously loud explosions. firecrackers for diwali, lit by kids in the streets before 6am, right under my window, which won’t close because the old air conditioner was taken out and the new one has not been put in yet. they were like grenades, you could never find firecrackers this big in the States. i know it’s festive and all, but it wasn’t a great way to wake up. then i had a not-so-great skype chat with my family back home. i’ll leave out the details because i want to respect everyone’s privacy, but those pre-dawn and outrageously loud explosions and that call left me kinda grumpy. PLUS dell computer released a commercial here where they totally rip off a line from the original willy wonka movie without giving any credit. that's low. it’s funny, sometimes i’m walking around outside and people laugh as i pass, or say something to each other, and sometimes it’s great, i join them, life is great, it’s funny that i’m here and being friendly to all, we're all happy to see each other, and other times i perceive it as them laughing at me and it’s just annoying. it’s all in the perception. we create our own experience.

to end on a happy note, i just learned that it’s a tradition on Diwali to play cards and gamble, so i’ll do just that. and my office is having a Diwali Puja (religious ceremony) together this evening, which should be wonderful. so maybe i’ll take a nap and head out for that, and all will be well.

I wish everyone a happy Diwali and a prosperous new year. may Lakshmi smile upon us all this year!

election update: same same but different

well, election day came and went, and it really doesn't seem much different than politics in the US. there were basically 2 parties, though they were both alliances. the ruling party is Congress-Nationalist Congress, which as i've said is the party of Gandhi. they've been in charge pretty much for all of india's independence since 1947, except for a brief period in the late 90's, when it was controlled by the BJP (bharatiya janata) - Shiv Sena alliance.
the problem with the congress party is that they are totally corrupt, don't keep their promises, and don't really do anything. the problem with bjp-shiv sena is that they are right wing and they practice the politics of hate; hatred against any religion except hindus, especially muslims.
few people are falling for the bjp hate politics, but some people like them because at least they keep some of their promises to the people (a similar problem to hamas in gaza; they are evil, but they are (or used to be) less corrupt than the palestinian authority and are perceived as taking care of the people better, although that can be argued).
as a result, very few people voted. in mumbai only 45% of eligible voters exercised their rights; amazingly, in colaba, the place where the terrorist attacks took place a year ago, the turnout was only 35% (source: hindustan times). and they even forced all businesses to close and give their employees paid time off. over 90% of malls, movie theaters, restaurants and hotels were closed until voting ended at 5:00pm, and they still couldn't get a decent turnout.
the reason, of course, is that no one expected any change. they knew Congress would win about 55% of the assembly seats, and that bjp would win about 45%, that the stalemates would continue, that the people would be ignored for the most part.
still, there was some nice stories: young people happy to be able to vote for the first time, one old woman who left her house for the first time in 6 months to vote; a man who traveled over 1,000 kilometers from his job, just to vote. but in the end, the results were as predicted, and life for ordinary Indians will go on, unchanged.

08 October 2009

election day

next tuesday, october 13th, is the date of state assembly elections here in maharastra (the state that mumbai is in), and things are ramping up. there are banners hanging overhead, election trucks driving all around town blaring slogans from loudspeakers, and today there were even firecrackers going off in the streets near a rally.
it’s the first state elections since the terror attacks of last october 26th, so it’s a big deal.

the main 2 contenders are the congress party, the party of ghandi, which has run india for most of its independence, and the right-wing coalition of BJP and Shiv Sena, who are both Hindu nationalist parties. they are reactionary parties, reacting both to the occasional corruption found in the congress party, and to the terror attacks. congress has been accused of nepotism, as many of its national leaders have come from one family, the nehru/gandhi family (that gandhi is no relation to mahatma gandh) they have produced the first indian prime minister, nehru, and his daughter sonia, and then her son rajiv. in part, this happened because indira and rajiv were both assassinated, and the people looked to relatives to take over in those times of crisis. rajiv’s wife sonia is a leader in the party, and even though she was italian-born, the indian supreme court ruled she could be PM, but she didn’t want to be, and after all the assassinations, who can blame her. still, she’s big in the congress party, and she hand picked the current PM. and her son rahul is young, but rising quickly, and everyone expects him to be PM eventually.
the BJP/Shiv Sena alliance is, as i said, a hindu nationalist coalition, meaning they think india should be for hindus, which means not for christians and especially not for muslims. every once in a while, they tear down a mosque which was built on the site of a destroyed hindu temple, to rebuild the temple, which leads to riots and unrest and violence. mahatma gandhi would have hated them, he wanted india to be a democracy for everyone, and he in turn was killed by a radical hindu who didn’t think so, just like rabin in israel was killed by a radical jewish assasin for trying to make peace with the palestinians.
because of last year’s terror attacks, shiv sena has gained a lot of followers, and many people think they will take control of the state assembly. in turn, as they’ve gotten more popular, they have mellowed their stance, promising to be a party of all the people, not just hindus. but they are still very scary to some people.
election day is not only a national holiday, it’s also a dry day; no beer or alcohol is allowed to be sold. a good idea, as the parties will no doubt get raucous as the night goes on. it’ll be interesting to see the results.

06 October 2009

Ode to Joy

I went to hear the Symphony of India perform Beethoven’s 9th Symphony last saturday night. it took place at the National Center for the Performing Arts, which puts on shows of all kinds, from classical music and opera to traditional Indian dance and music, to classic movies from hollywood and bollywood. I had heard of the organization, so when i was online i looked for their website and checked out their calendar, and to my amazement saw that they were doing the 9th the following week. i’m a big fan of the 9th, it’s the greatest symphony ever, my favorite at least (with Stravinski’s Le Sacre du Printemps a distant second), it’s a masterpiece, a work of genius, it’s said to have restored many people’s faith. i called the theater and they were way sold out, but they said if i came the night of the show they surely would be able to find me a ticket. so i made my way down there.
it’s in the south of the city, close to the Oberoi Hotel (where Bill Clinton likes to stay, where some of the worst events of last year’s terrorist attack took place), in a nice part of town, in a cluster of buildings near the water. there’a a long pathway by the water, it’s very popular with locals. to get there, first i took a rick to the Bandra local train station, to catch a commuter train south. the Khar station is closer, but Bandra’s on the express line, with far fewer stops. I went all the way to the end, to Churchgate station, and found a taxi waiting at a stand outside. (auto-rickshaws are not allowed that far south, so you have to take one of the ubiquitous black taxis that roam around down there.) I told the driver “NCPA” and he took off. when we got to the general vicinity, it took a while to locate the box office. as it was, i had to walk a bit around the buildings to find it. but i did, and asked for one ticket for tonight, and they gave me the best seat they had. it was a reserved seat of one of the NCPA board members, maybe the 2nd best seat in the house, literally. about 15 rows back, in the first row of the main section, right where the sound came together, and with a perfect view. it was amazing to be inside the theater, a fancy, clean auditorium that would have not been out of place in London. indeed, all the people around me were very dressed up and spoke in the british-accented english found in the upper levels of educated indian society. the woman next to me was very friendly and struck up a conversation. she was on the board of directors of the NCPA, and seemed to know everyone in the place, as many of them greeted her on their way in. she was curious about my work here, and we spoke about music, and how great the seats were. she was surprised to see me in mine, of course, because she knew the board member who usually sits there, who apparently called at the last minute to cancel. we had a nice chat until the pre-concert talk began.
the gentleman gave a very competent introduction to the piece, to the time and place of its conception, to the stories about how raucous the applause was at the premier, so that police in vienna came rushing into the theater thinking something was wrong, and how beethoven, being completely deaf by then, was turned around by one of the singers to see the audience on its feet. following that talk was a little ceremony where the chorus director and president of the board and some others gave and received tokens of appreciation from each other and the conductor, as this was the last concert of the season. it turns out that the chorus was the Kazakhstan National Choir, who apparently travelled here on their own expense to perform the piece, so they gave the director of the chorus a plaque, and the director of the chorus gave the president of the board a ceremonial kazakhstani robe and hat, which was bright red, and he put on to great fanfare, saying something about winter coming up. then, to my great surprise and amusement, the gentleman who gave the talk and the president of the board and the kazakhstani choir director came to my row, said hello to my neighbor, and took their seats a few spots down from me. and then the real fun started.
the symphony comprises 4 movements, the last of which is the famous choral movement ode to joy, sung as solos and as a large chorus. the solos are famously difficult to sing (as are the instrumental parts to play), especially the soprano part. the first 3 sections are also incredibly beautiful, and by the end you’ve been through it all, driving sections and slow, elegant sections, beauty and loss, irony and joy.
the orchestra performed amazingly, the soloists were excellent, and the choir was fantastic. the sound came together so beautifully where i was sitting, and hearing it live, you could imagine the first performance in 1824 and so many other since then. the thing about hearing it live, as opposed to a recording, is that you can hear the extreme dynamic variation. on a CD, the difference between the softest and loudest possible sounds in the same recording is much smaller than in real life. i don’t mean turning the volume up or down, i mean at the same volume, how loud or soft can different parts be. on a recording they’re squeezed down to avoid distortion, but in real life, the louds are all-encompassing and the softs are delicate, with an orchestra and chorus of that size. this piece in particular has a huge dynamic range, and to go from the gentle softs to the exhilarating louds is incredible. there are even moments of total silence, and to me those can be the most beautiful parts of a song (for an example, check out the silence at 5:15 in this version of He’s Gone, from a Dead show I saw in Oakland, it’s utterly devastating). and when the 4th movement came, and they started singing, and it gets big and loud and amazing, i could hardly stay in my seat. at the end, we applauded like mad, like they must have in vienna, and i looked over at the president of the board, mouthed “wow”, expressing my extreme approval. i stayed in the theater as long as i could, and ended up meeting the one who gave the talk, and the president of the board and the Norwegian soprano who was going to sing in one of next year’s performances. after, i took a walk along the water outside, feeling like i had been touched by pure beauty, in love with all the locals who were out there, young adults out with friends and lovers. i was feeling grateful for the experience. i called my wife to share the moment with her, and then took a cab all the way back home. that was the first time i had seen the 9th live, and i was glad to have done so here.

05 October 2009

refrigerator? i hardly even know her!

got a refrigerator the other day, and all i can say is, what a great invention. a couple days before i went with my landlord to an appliance store, picked one out, and left a deposit. they delivered it and it works like a charm. between that and my gas range, i can actually start cooking. the range is attached to a big gas canister, and there are two burners, but only one of them works, but that’s okay so far. (the landlord promises to get that fixed, that and a couple other things which need work, it’s all happening, gradually.) you turn the gas on, then hold a flame to it to ignite. i made tea this morning! went shopping a couple days ago for tea and sugar and milk and cereal, and this morning i made tea. yum. i know it’s simple but i’ll move on from there. coffee, soup, ready-made-meals, fried eggs and toast, there’s a whole world of homemade food that’s opening up to me! amazing. actually, i might look for a microwave. could come in handy.

been playing a little online poker lately. if i think about how much money i’m spending here, rent is 500 (US$10) per day; i’m spending about that much every day on food and other expenses; and electricity, internet and other incidentals work out to less than 200 rupes a day, 4 bucks. calculated that way, if i make only $25 a day playing poker online, i can pretty much sustain myself here indefinitely. (i realize the risks, and, it probably won’t work out, but it’s really fun to think about.) i play almost exclusively in pot limit omaha hi/lo tournaments (although i should really try ring games, that’s where the money is, but i love playing in tournaments and i tend to do adequately. i’ve actually won about $250 in the last couple days (had a great game where i finished 2nd out of 96, and i also won a couple 9-person games), and i finished just out of the money in another 35 player tourney. it’s fun but also quite stressful, big decisions to make every few seconds. we’ll see how it goes, but if i can win or place in 1 tournament a day, and not lose more than 3 or 4, that would be plenty. at the very least i will try not to lose anything!

23 September 2009

a walk on the brighter side

much better now.
okay, first of all i have to stop being a martyr when i’m sick. i have the instinct to ride it out alone, but really i could have called any of the people at my NGO, they would have brought over anything, i could have showered at dee's house, truly there were options. i was depressed as well as sick so i didn’t do anything. but i did start taking cipro, the antibiotic of choice in these situations, and on day 4 i went into the office and they were so sweet, they showered me with love and that helped. then they took me to a little grocery store where i found campbell’s tomato soup, mm mm good, and goldfish crackers, a comfort food of my childhood, and i went home and cooked it, the first thing i’d had in a couple days, and it really helped. the next day, today, i woke up feeling much better, between the soup and the cipro, love from the folks at my NGO, and phone calls to my wife and my mother, and everything looked different. i had a great day today. spent the day with my landlord, Viqar Kahn, doing stuff for the apartment that needed doing. we called to get my internet turned on, there’s already a cable installed, they just have to activate it, should take a couple days. then we went to find a refrigerator. we went to a shop he knows, and found one, about 3/4 sized, in good shape, used, and i gave a down payment for delivery in a couple days (everything takes a couple days). the same guy in the store said he could fix my air conditioner when he delivers the refrigerator. then we went to the police station to register with them, all foreigners must register when they rent an apartment, it’s an anti-terrorism thing. there were some hoops through which to jump; copies of my passport and visa, a passport-sized photo, a form to fill out and then xerox, then back to the station to turn it all in. but we got it done.
everyone’s trying to feed me today. i met some downstairs neighbors. they had a bunch of musician’s stickers on their door, marshall and shure, which i had noticed earlier, and their door was open, so i said hi, they invited me in, and we talked. their mom (i presume) quickly served me tea and cookies, and who am i to refuse, so i partook. the guys said they were DJ’s, playing at local parties and discotheques, DJ Sam and DJ Sachin, they were very nice, we talked about music and bands and i told them to let me know when they are spinning so i can show up and dance. we’ll see about that. great to meet the neighbors. then, later, when i was out with Viqar, he took me to a shop he likes and bought us little chicken sandwiches. it was great, i have to say, white meat with mayo and lettuce on a little roll. just a snack, and i ate some, but not all of it. i stopped when i thought it was time to stop, and he didn’t mind.
Viqar is great. he’s so sweet and such a good and honest person. he doesn’t like to lie because it twists him up inside. he’s muslim, and i wish more americans knew muslims like him, a real muslim who is a good person. we’ve talked a lot. he doesn’t consider the taliban or any of those people to be really muslim. he doesn’t like the burka, because often it’s misused, and men climb in there so they can smooch in public. (that’s one use of the burka i never thought of.) he said that he doesn’t like when men force women to wear it, that in islam women should obey their husbands, but husbands should honor the wishes of their wives, and not force them to do anything they don’t want to do. and he thinks it’s ridiculous to commit any act of violence on any innocent person, he is very emphatic that such a thing is not done by a muslim. he’s gentle and when he does lose his temper, as he did once in traffic, he is very hard on himself, apologizing profusely after. as someone who also beats himself up when i don’t meet my own standards of patience and compassion, i was able to offer him words of consolation, reminding him that we all make mistakes, but only good people care about it and try to do better next time. he’s a little harsh on hindus and their polytheism, making fun of them praying to trees and the ocean, and their reliance on holy men to say prayers for them. i told him today i was jewish, because we’ve been talking a lot about religion, and he keeps talking about one god without form, without duality, without distinction, and i keep agreeing with him. i think he assumed i was christian. so after knowing him a while, and coming to trust his broad-mindedness, i told him. he didn’t care at all, although i could tell he had little experience with jewish people, but he was trying. it didn’t seem to faze him at all, he judges people by their hearts, and not even in that way, for only god can judge people. at this point, we call each other friends. it was fun to ride around with him. i saw lots of things around town, a couple really nice looking bakeries, a couple nice independent cafés, a tempur-pedic mattress store, another grocery store near our apartment. my circle of familiarity is growing larger, and i have faith now that i will get to know this city and be able to find my way around. i’m back in my apartment now, the sun just set, and the skies have opened up. it’s pouring, first time it’s rained in more than a week, and it’s really coming down. the streets are flooding and the lightning is flashing. i’m glad to be indoors and i’m thankful for the downpour, because for the first time in a long time, it’s not unbearably hot. the rain really cooled the air, and it’s a little breezy too. my spirits are in much better shape, i don’t feel so lonely, meeting neighbors and local shopkeepers (my local shaving-wallah waved hi to me today). wow the lightning and thunder are outrageous now. beautiful. i’m waiting for the power to go out...
haha, only 5 minutes later, a big strike of lightning, and the power went out on the whole block. it’s okay, i’ve got candles.

a low point

warning: some of the following may not be suitable for reading during meal times.
it’s been a miserable couple of days. i’ve been sick, maybe the sickest i’ve been so far this trip. i don’t know what i ate or drank, but something got me. in the bathroom every 2 or 3 hours, even through the night, pure liquid coming out, i don’t know if i can drink enough water to replace the fluids coming out of me. the first day i forced myself to eat, the next two days i couldn’t eat a thing, and i was a little nauseated too. i’ve had absolutely zero energy, i can hardly force myself out of the apartment once or twice a day, sit on a stoop outside, then go back in. that’s all i can handle. i’m also depressed and lonely, missing my heather, feeling alone in the big city, miserable in my hot apartment, sweating profusely, as if i wasn’t losing enough fluids, but i can’t muster the strength to leave, and even if i did, where would i go? my ceiling fan is trying but it’s really just pushing hot air around. i’m lonely and i miss pizza and vitamin water and my car and harbin hot springs and high-speed internet and friends. and to add to my misery, on day 2 i ran out of water.
the way water works in this apartment is like this: there’s a tank on top of the building that’s filled by city pipes. and there’s a big plastic tank in my apartment that gets filled by the roof water tank from 7:00 - 10:00 every night. so in the middle of the first night i went to the bathroom, and forgot to turn off one of the taps, which leaked a little, so when i woke up my tank was empty. no water coming out of the faucets, no water to flush the toilet, to shower, to wash myself, anything. and i really needed to wash myself! how pathetic. i really wanted, needed to shower but that was impossible. in one of my brief excursions out, i bought bottled water and used that to wash with, and waited out the day. fortunately the tank did fill up that night, so i was able to shower, but it was a very rough day. i was supposed to call the landlord and get some stuff done for the apartment, but i couldn’t come close to doing that. so i just stayed here all day, bathing in my own sweat, feeling awful, watching time pass. god it felt like prison. i was really starting to wonder why i gave up my comfy easy chair and cable tv and internet and yummy snacks and all the other comforts of home. woe was me.

home sweet home

okay, i’m happy to say that i officially live in mumbai. long ago, it was my will to live here in india, and now it is no longer a dream. the process was easy, actually, because i had a lot of help. my friend Dee, another volunteer for the same organization, introduced me to a broker, who drove us around looking at places for rent. the first few were sad, because our price range was so low, but then he took us to a place a little further west, near nicer, hipper neighborhoods, and by the beach. but we couldn’t get in that day, so we made plans to meet the next day.
that night, heather left for LA.
we decided that she would go back to the states for a couple months to work, and then come back. the idea had been brewing for a few weeks. between a few clients, and the fact that it’s high school entrance exam season, a couple months of work there could sustain us for another 6 months or more. we’ve been spending more than we planned, so we had to do something. and she’s an angel for doing this for me, for us. did i mention i have the best wife ever?
of course it’s been terribly hard being apart. even though we spent so much time apart in california before we were married, this feels different, much harder, much further. since the wedding we’ve spent almost all our time together, and it’s hard to be apart.
anyway, the next day i went back to the place on the beach, and it was nice, but small. but the owner said he had another place nearby, so we went to look at it, and that was the one. the owner turned out to be a great guy, i had a much better feeling about him than about the brokers that introduced us, and he was willing to negotiate a price with which we could live, so i told him we’d take it. it’s 2 rooms, with a small bathroom and narrow kitchen, but it has tv, air con, and easy internet hookup, the rooms are a good size, and the location is great. we’re paying 15,000 rupee a month, which is about US$309. it’s walking distance to the beach, there’s a nice promenade that is very popular at sunset, there’s even a bandshell with live music at times. it’s on a market street, with shops of all kinds, and fresh fruits and vegetables, and close to nicer parts of town with fancy stores and restaurants and coffee shops. and there’s a bagel shop nearby that’s a great cafe, with wifi, when it works. the apartment needs a little work; we have to get a fridge, fix the ac, get the sink fixed, but the landlord will help me with all of it, and by the time heather returns, we’ll have a nice home here.

here's our address. please write!!!! i'd love to receive some snail mail.
bhakti and heather
flat #202
moti ram niwas, bobdi house
ram mandir road
danda, khar (w), mumbai 400 052

and while i'm at it, my new mobile number is
976 890 3200
US callers dial 01191 before the number

there's no voicemail, so if it doesn't work, it's off for the moment. try try again.


the city of amritsar is in the punjab, in the northwest corner of india. punjabis are a proud people who travel all over the world, and many thing that people think of as indian are more specifically punjabi. a lot of the food, bhangra music, and especially the image of a turbaned man. most punjabis are of the sikh religion, which was created as a response to hinduism and islam, and tried to incorporate elements of both while also integrating principles of equality. the founders of sikhism were early proponents of equality, supporting the rights of women, untouchables and other minorities long before anyone in the West thought of it. they believe in one god, but also in karma and reincarnation, and they don't think we need a priest or intermediary to reach god. religious sikhs don’t cut there hair and wear turbans, so all the turbaned indian taxi drivers are punjabi sikhs. in general, sikhs are not tolerated in pakistan (most left for india at partition), but have generally gotten along very well in india. (there was a period where some militant sikhs wanted a separate country for themselves, called Khalistan (you can still see that written on the back of some taxis in the US), and there was an incident where prime minister indira ghandi, nehru’s daughter, sent in troops to quash an uprising in a heavy-handed way, and was subsequently assassinated by some of her sikh bodyguards.) despite that one incident, they are a proud and happy part of india’s pluralistic society.
we were only in amritsar for a couple days, but we saw some amazing sights. foremost is the golden temple, the most important sikh temple, built in the middle of an artificial lake, and covered in pure gold. it reflects off the water beautifully, and some say it is the 2nd loveliest building in india. we went inside and it was so powerful spiritually, they are constantly chanting from their books and playing music, and sikhs pilgrimage there from all over the world. it really was incredible in there, just sitting and taking in the religious devotion.
the next place we saw was the Mata (mother’s) Temple, built to a 20th century woman who was revered as a spiritual presence until her death just a few years ago. the temple is incredible, like nothing we’ve seen in india. it’s built to resemble a womb, you enter and there are a series of caves and tunnels and waterways to walk through. some passageways are so small you have to duck, maybe even crawl through, then they open into larger wombs, er, rooms. the walls are covered with pictures of deities and millions of tiny mirrors, and by the time you get out, you really feel like you’ve been rebirthed. apparently women go there from all over india to pray for children.
and finally we took a ride a few kilometers to the pakistani border, the only open border between the 2 countries, to watch the nightly border-closing ceremony. it felt like a sporting event; there were stands filled with supporters (on both sides), and patriotic chanting (hindustan zindabad! Jai Hind!). the border guards march up to each other, stand face to face, and scowl mightily at their counterparts on the other side.
you can see the border closing ceremony here.

long time no post

greetings, loyal readers. it's been a while since i've posted, although i have almost 4000 words written, ready to go up. partially it's because internet access has been a little more difficult as i get settled in mumbai, part of it is that i've been very busy here.
i have arrived at my volunteer post here in Mumbai, India's cultural and financial capital. it's a big city, long and narrow, and so in some ways is reminiscent of new york. it's modern and cosmopolitan; people wear jeans and t-shirts, and are doing all kinds of interesting work. and the film industry is here, i've seen 2 shoots going on already. at some point i'll look into getting involved; i hear that they hire westerners to play small roles in soap operas and that there is voice over work available. i could be an extra, but i've done that in the states, it's a lot of sitting around, hurry up and wait, for very little money here. but it's fun to run into a shoot.
i've found an apartment, more on that later, have a new mobile phone number, and am starting to get to know the city and even meet some people.
but first, some ketchup:
we finished our time in kashmir, probably staying a couple days too long, just enough for some of it to start to become wearisome. the seemingly nonstop visits from trinket salesmen on boats, who not only come onto your houseboat uninvited and sit in the living room until you show up, but also ride up next to you when you are out, watching the sunset or going somewhere, and hang on to your boat, and throw jewelry or pipes or papier maché boxes on your boat. they’re hard to get rid of.. apparently only the 30th “no” means no to them. yes, that got old. and while the food was great, after a while we longed for some variety.
but don’t get me wrong, dal lake was so peaceful and beautiful, we loved our sunset cruises, and we did get some nice souvenirs, including a couple magic boxes for my niece and nephew. they’re magic because they have a trick to opening them, which i shall not reveal here.
and YES i went water skiing on dal lake! haven’t been in like 20 years, but i used to do it all the time in high school. my friend joe shostak drove a boat for the miami airport hilton and whenever they didn’t have customers, he could take out his friends. i used to love water skiing, so on our first big boat trip, we passed by the “bathing boats”, which have little powerboats taking people skiing. they have a big wooden board that floats, kind of like water skiing lite, where you just stand and hold on and don’t even get wet. it was a hoot seeing indian tourists in their saris skiing around the lake. but they also told me they had regular skis, and i said heck yes, and they pulled them out for me. they told me it’s an extra 50 rupees every time i fell (because the boat had to circle around and start over), so that was some incentive. i fell the first time (swallowed some nasty lake water), but the second time we tried i was up and not going down again. it was incredibly fun, i never thought i’d be doing that here but it was amazing. heather’s got a video i’ll link to shortly. later that day, we were boating around in some of the local residential neighborhoods, the locals just throw their garbage into the lake, so those areas were nasty. we even saw a big decaying goat or something floating in the water, and i thought back to the lake water i inadvertently swallowed while waterskiing. no wonder i got a little sick there!
the day before we were going to leave there was an incident in Srinigar. Kashmir as we all know is a troubled region, the flashpoint for 2 of the wars between india and pakistan, and the location of tensions in 2002 that almost led to another war between the 2 nuclear states. it’s a very long story, but the short version is that when pakistan was partitioned away from india, creating a muslim state next to the hindu-majority but democratic and pluralistic india, both sides wanted kashmir. and although it was and is predominately muslim, the maharaja was hindu. he stalled in 1947, pakistan invaded, and then he asked india for help. most kashmiris want some kind of independence. whenever there is trouble, either from pakistan directly, or from pakistan-supported kashmiri militants, the indian army overreacts and thereby does not endear itself to the people. they want less of an army presence, but then again, the army is protecting the borders and they would be overrun if not for that protection.
it’s true that there is a huge indian army presence in all of kashmir, not just the city of srinigar. on the drive up there were checkpoints (where we had to register as foreign travelers), and lots of little bunkers protected by razor wire and manned by a soldier with a machine gun. there were jeeps on the roads with roof mounted machine guns, and dozens of army trucks with personnel and equipment. to tell you the truth, i was happy to see them, i felt like they were keeping kashmir safe, but i’m sure their presence irks some locals, and they don’t always act (or react) as one would like.
anyway, there was a good example the day before we left. in a popular town square (the one where we were to have found a car out of town the next day), there was a shooting. militants, muslim separatists who oppose indian rule, shot a couple army officers in the street. everyone in the crowded plaza ran, some got trampled, and then the indian army got angry and beat up some locals, just because they were there. they closed the plaza and it was all over the news. we were supposed to go there the next day to catch a car out of the valley! i don’t know if any tourists were there at the time, but that was a little close for comfort. our host, the wonderful Yusef Peer, always went with us into town, joking that if anything happened he would know which way to run. i guess it wasn’t a joke though. we weren’t scared of anything else happening, and we were leaving anyway, but we hired a private car to drive us down. it was a little more money, but safety first, right? it took about 7 hours to drive down to jammu, the nearest train station, where we bought a ticket for the night train to amritsar, only 4 or 5 hours away. we arrived at 2 in the morning, and walked across the street to the Grand Hotel, where we woke up the attendant (who was sleeping on the floor near the front door), and crashed, hard.

27 August 2009

"My shangri-la beneath the summer moon, I will return again" --- from Kashmir by Led Zeppelin

A week in Kashmir, and my heart is filled with peace. This stunning valley is the most serene place i've ever been, and the only place in India where that word truly applies. We are staying on a houseboat on the sprawling Dal Lake, a beautiful, mirror-flat, winding lake, green with lotus leafs, and for the most part pristine. Our houseboat is spectacular and the food amazingly terrific. it is run by Yusef, the brother of Baba, our hotelier in Dharamsala, and their father was a cook for Doctors without Borders. Yusef (like his brother) couldn't be more sweet, and he's a fantastic cook, having learned from his father. We actually had roast chicken and potatoes and spinach last night, and it was real, fresh and delicious. first meat i've had here; it reminded me of the chicken dinner i had in belize for the (faux) millennial new year, when we met the chicken that day and ate it the same night.
to get anywhere, you get on a little rowboat called a shikara, they have cushions and canopies and radios powered by car batteries. they just row you around the lake. sunsets are spectacular. and there are other shop-boats, that row by you and sell you juice or water or cookies. or saffron, or paper-mache items, or jewelry. the boat rides are incredibly peaceful and lovely.

Kashmir is totally muslim, and they say it feels more like iran or afghanistan than most of india. for the last 20 years there has been "trouble", as they like to call it, but it's peaceful now, more or less, and the plus is that it hasn't been developed in the last 20 years the way that the rest of touristed india has been. so it still has an old world feel, with 150 year old wooden buildings and a less crowded feeling, even on land. and i enjoy greeting people with "salaam aleichem" almost as much as with "namaste".
I'll write more later on Kashmir, including impressions of all the mosques, and some differences between hindu and muslim culture, as i've seen them. and i'll post pictures, and maybe even a surprise video of me water-skiing on dal lake, insha'allah (god willing).

21 August 2009

last day in dharamsala

okay, it's been hard to decide what to do next, and to leave this place. it's been very comfortable (although the town is starting to feel very small, same walks by the same shops and sights every day), there's so much coffee in town, and the inertia is hitting us hard. maybe there's more inertia at higher altitudes, i don't know.
but i think we're set to leave tomorrow. another couple days of crazy travel, with paradise waiting at the end (if the fates allow...).
we're going to take a public bus up to Jammu, a 5 hour, relatively flat ride, from what i'm told, then we take a shared cab up to Srinigar in Kashmir. We've got leads on 2 houseboats. one is farooq, brother of bashir, whom we met here in dharamsala. he owns a shop here, i started talking to him, and he's got a houseboat on dal lake. he called his brother and they're ready for us, they even have flowers for our room because they know we're on our honeymoon. and as a backup, baba, our hotel manager from the Ladies' Venture, has family with a houseboat up there too, and i've got his number. (it's great having a phone here.) i think baba's place will be cheaper than farooq's, but farooq's is still relatively inexpensive and relatively more luxurious, so we'll probably start there. plus his brother bash was so nice, i know they'll make us feel like family. these houseboats stays are very homey, eating with the family, which sounds very nice.
kashmir is pretty much 100% muslim, they say it feels like iran or afghanistan as far as that goes, which i'm very much looking forward to. all the kashmiris i've met so far have been super sweet and hospitable. plus, ramadan starts tomorrow, which is a great time to go, festival time, with feasts after sunset every night. should be a very different experience, another adventure. i've always wanted to go to kashmir and finally it's safe to do so.
we're going to enjoy one last day here in dharamsala and then head up, stay there about a week, and then figure out how to get back down, and make our way to mumbai to start my work there.
by the way, the dogs here have been quite a challenge. dharamsala is where i was bit by a rabid dog 14 years ago, and while i'm skittish about dogs everywhere in india, especially so here. the first night we were out late they were running around wildly, there are so many street dogs, it really freaked me out. i think i may have hid behind heather once or twice (not exactly throwing her to the wolves but instinctually not far off). plus the streets are steep and narrow, especially if there's a car or motorcycle passing, so there's sometimes no place to hide from them. but a group of european veterinarians just arrived here to spay and neuter the dogs and take care of the sick ones, and the dogs do look a little healthier than last time. i cringe when i see tourists bending down to pet them, but it's been okay, and i guess it's helping me deal with the fear a bit.
okay that's all for now. see you in the kashmir valley! i'll take pix there, for sure...

20 August 2009

what's that bright yellow thing in the sky?

the sun came out today, all the grey clouds cleared up. we hiked up to dharamkot, the next town up, with a visit to the Tushita meditation center, where i did a 10 day meditation retreat 14 years ago. it's so cool seeing a place after so long, i remembered it, but it hardly feels like the same me, but then it does.
it's so hard to leave here, but i think we're going in a day or so. up to the vale of kashmir, and its capital city of srinigar, to stay on a houseboat on dal lake. it's supposed to be one of the most beautiful places in the world...

14 August 2009

chillin' in d'sala

we're still in dharamsala, relaxing here, eating good food, sleeping a lot, recharging our batteries. it's still monsoony up here, and since we're so high up, the clouds lie low like fog, and it rains a little bit each day. not raining now though.
just posted a buncha new pix at facebook. no captions yet, they are forthcoming. these should all be public links, friend or not.
kids, a chicken and a bat
Jaisalmer Fort
camels and more
and a slug


10 August 2009

An Oasis in the Sky

We’re now in Dharamsala, in the Dhauladhar range of the Himalaya, at an elevation of 1770 meters (5800 feet). Dharamsala, being in the mountains, has different neighborhoods at different elevations, and we’re actually a little bit above the Indian town of Dharamsala, in McCloud Ganj, named after the Englishman who settled it as a British garrison in the 1850s. (When westerners say Dharamsala, they really mean the Mccloud Ganj neighborhood.) It was a tiny village until 1960 when the Dalai Lama took refuge here after the devastating Chinese crackdown on Tibet. There are more Tibetans (and Westerners) here than Indians, and the town has a quiet, friendly, comfortable feel. There are cafés and movie houses (where they show Western movies on DVD on televisions, some big-screen, for a tiny entrance fee; I might go see The Reader today) and Tibetan handicraft shops and fantastic little restaurants. There are also great bookstores and libraries and centers for Tibetan refugees with museums and information about their plight. And while Indians are certainly religious, there’s a certain quiet spirituality to the Tibetans here (most are monks or nuns, refugees from the Chinese persecution of their religion). Their smiles are beautiful and quick to appear, and they are perfectly honest and fair, which is a nice change from some of the other places where the locals try to squeeze every last rupee out of you and charge ridiculous tourist prices to Westerners. Travelers tend to stay here in Dharamsala for a long time, sometimes months, and study yoga or languages (Tibetan or Hindi) or take meditation workshops or Ayurvedic (traditional Indian medicine) retreats. We’re going to chill out here for a week or 10 days, do some hiking, read, drink coffee, and relax.
Nearby are the villages of Bhagsu and Dharamkot, short 2km hikes away. They used to be tiny villages with nothing there, but now many Westerners, especially Israelis, like to go there, so they’ve been developed a bit with guest houses and restaurants. We’re going to hike there to check them out, but we’ll probably stay here in McCloud Ganj.
I was also here during my first trip to India, in the fall of 1995, 14 shortlong years ago. When we were in Pushkar a couple weeks ago, another place I visited back then, it was mostly unrecognizable, much bigger. I recognized the main market street but otherwise I couldn’t find my old guest house or anything.
Here in Dharamsala, there have been incredible changes in the last 14 years as well. So many new buildings, however here I was able to orient myself quickly and find my way around. Some places from back then are still here, like the Chocolate Log, which serves real coffee and cakes in a sunny courtyard. And we found the guest house I stayed in last time, the Ladies Venture. I told them I had returned after 14 years and they were tickled by that. (This is also where I was bit by the stray dog last time I was here, and had to hike down to the Tibetan hospital for rabies shots, but that didn’t spoil my opinion of the place.) It’s now run by a young man from Kashmir, who not only checks you in but makes your chai and cooks any meals you have in the place, because the Tibetan sisters who own it are getting on in years, but it still has the same peaceful feel (in fact one of the hotel rules is to keep a peaceful (shanti) demeanor, and they reserve the right to refuse service to anyone giving off bad vibes). So we’ll stay here for a while. I might take a Hindi lesson or two.
It’s raining now outside, beautiful cleansing rain, while I write this in our room at the Ladies Venture. It’s also much cooler here in the mountains. I have a conference call with American Jewish World Service and Dreamcatchers, the organization in Mumbai for whom I plan to volunteer. It looks like I’ll be helping them set up social networking systems so that the street children of Mumbai can communicate with one another, express themselves, and envision a better future. Oh yes, I have an Indian phone now, from the US you can dial 011-91-987-166-6539 (international code, country code, and 10-digit number).

From the desert to the mountains- what a long, strange trip.

It’s been a little while since I last posted here, because we've been on the move, and deep in the desert where internet connections were hard to come by. We got as far as Jaisalmer, a mere 100 km from the Pakistan border, deep in the Thar desert. And now, we are finished with our trip through the desert, finished with our planned tour through Rajasthan, land of kings, and are now back on our own. The tour was nice, it was a good way to see the desert, but it was a little rushed, with more or less fixed departure times, and only a day or 2 in each place. Now we’re on our own itinerary and schedule, and I’m much happier that way.
By the way, thanks to all my readers, I don’t know how many of you there are but I appreciate your interest, and I hope you’re enjoying these little stories. You can respond to any post at the bottom of each one, so feel free to comment, even if it’s just to let me know you’re out there.

Our journey to Dharamsala was incredible; one of those India horror stories (like the dog bite/rabies shots) that becomes an amazing story later. We booked a bus from Delhi, which was supposed to be a nice, air-conditioned overnight bus, leaving at 5pm and arriving in Dharamsala at 7 the next morning. The bus turned out to be awful, with windows that wouldn’t close, A/C that barely worked, and stains on all the seats from previous difficult journeys. And the worst part was that we were in the back, over the tires (I think our seats were attached directly to the tires), so we were bounced around ridiculously. We literally were bounced into the air every few seconds with the bumps. Sleeping was impossible. And just when we thought it could not get any worse, sure enough, the bus broke down at 3 in the morning. The driver left, or climbed on the roof to sleep, or something, but was nowhere to be found. He left the engine running until it ran out of gas about about 8 in the morning. Most of us slept through it, some people didn’t even notice we were stopped. I got off the bus at one point (stepping over a couple people sleeping on the aisle, I guess they could lie down flat, but yuck, that floor), but we were in the middle of nowhere with no one around. Slowly, as the sun rose, we realized our predicament. Apparently the driver took off to find a mechanic, and one arrived at 8:30 or 9 am, took out a very important-looking part of the engine (the starter motor? the distributor? the solonoid?), got on a passing local bus, and left us again. We had no idea what was going on and no way to reach anyone with the bus.
Pretty early on, a group of Israelis (the demographics on the bus were about 1/3rd Israeli travelers (Dharamsala is a favorite destination of theirs), 1/3rd Tibetans, and 1/3rd other Western travelers) decided to bail. They took an auto-rickshaw to a supposed taxi-stand in town, to grab a taxi the rest of the way. The rest of us stayed behind. But when the mechanic showed up, took that part and left again, more of us had reached our limit. I had gotten the phone number of a taxi driver earlier, when the first group left, so I called him back, we negotiated a price, and 6 of us started the drive to Dharamsala. The other 4 were Israeli, and were happy to learn that I’m Jewish and could speak a little bit of Hebrew. I told them if my Hindi doesn’t improve in Dharamsala, at least my Hebrew would. A few hours later, after some crazy winding mountain roads with steep drops and no guard rails, we arrived. That made it about a 24 journey, with very little sleep and much physical discomfort. Heather and I hauled on our backpacks and looked around the main square. It had changed considerably, but I found the road we needed, used the Chocolate Log as a landmark, and sure enough, the Ladies Venture guest house was right where it was supposed to be. Amazingly, they had one room left, so we took it, showered, and crashed. What a journey! But we made it to our destination with a happy ending, so all ended well.
here are some camel pix:

01 August 2009

Shave & a Haircut, a Few Rupee

got another shave today (in Udaipur, a beautiful city of lakes in Rajasthan), it’s one of the true indulgent pleasures of traveling in India, something for the most part lost to the modern western world, which brings you back to an earlier time. It’s something you can do for yourself, of course, but it’s such a treat to have it done, something i suppose like women going to get a manicure or pedicure. Here’s what happens.
you find a barbershop, identifiable by chairs facing a mirrored wall, with shaving products on display on shelves all around. you tell them what you want, mostly by just saying “shaving”. you tell them you want a new blade, and you point out any facial hair that you want to keep. then you lean back.
he starts by gently massaging your face, to wake up the skin, and to get the lay of the land. then he takes a dab or two of shaving cream from a tube and puts in on your face. he uses an old fashioned bristle brush (probably camel hair) to spread it around vigorously, which also wakes up the skin.
the shaving-wallah (wallah just means anyone who does something; shaving wallah, laundry wallah, etc.) then pulls out his straight edge razor, takes out the old blade, washes the razor with a bit of alcohol, pulls out a new razor blade from a small box of them, and puts it into the razor. he begins the shave, pulling your skin when necessary to make a tight, flat surface. they are so good at what they do, it’s the best shaves i’ve ever had, and it can’t compare to a safety razor like we have back home. he carefully shaves everything, around the chin, the neck, the wispy hairs at the back of the neck, the sideburns, and around any mustache or beard. sometimes he will lather you up and do it all again.
after the shave comes a variety of soothing applications. first he uses a spray bottle of water to remove the rest of the shaving cream, and wipes your face expertly with a towel. he wipes the water from your eyes perfectly, just as you would yourself, with enough pressure but not too much. then he applies some kind of alcohol based after-shave liquid, slapping it on your face, giving a bit of a tingle that you can feel is so good for you, followed by an anti-septic astringent, to close any small cuts (there usually are none) and prevent infection. after that comes liquid aloe vera, which he massages into your skin, even into places not shaved, like your forehead.
after that, if you don’t stop him (and why would you?), you get a face massage. he slathers on an absurd amount of oil, but it doesn’t drip, and he rubs rubs rubs. the oil sounds gross but it’s really wonderful, and he rubs your cheeks, forehead, neck, chin, sides of your nose, ears, and temples. sometimes he will use one of those electric massagers that go on the back of your hand with a strap, and makes your fingers vibrate. sometimes he will apply the electric massager directly and before to long it turns into a full on head massage, including these kind of punctuated slaps or thrusts with the palm onto the head, which are harder to do than they seem (i tried).
finally, there comes another spritz of water from the spray bottle, and a solid but not too hard wiping of the face with a towel. all the oil is gone and your face feels healthy, glowing and alive. it’s both fantastically relaxing and invigorating, an experienced not to be missed.