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.