Wednesday, April 23, 2008

India in overdrive

Aaaaaah, the sweet, sweet comfort of home, of washing machines, hot showers, of abundant toilet paper---especially of abundant toilet paper. I arrived back to the US of A yesterday and have never been happier to return. After six healthy weeks in India I entered the US half zombified after catching some kind of bug from the airline breakfast. As if 18 hours of flights were not arduous enough.

But let's get back to the fun stuff.

In the southernmost and communist state of Kerala in India, in a blissfully quiet fort town of Kochi (a.k.a. Cochin) I had decided to get a traditional Indian outfit, called a salwar kameez. A sari is the most traditional attire in India but being little more than a 5 1/2 meter long piece of cloth wrapped around your body, if you don't wear it correctly you could lose your outfit with one misplaced footstep. The salwar setup is easy and practical, and once I had the cloth picked out it was tailored to my measurements in a mere two hours for about $20.

I started observing reactions from people. Would people stare less if I wore my Indian garb? Would I be treated with increased respect with the salwar kameez? The reactions did not seem to differ. Kids would equally flash big white-toothed smiles and say, "Hello, what is your good name?" (They still learn ancient British English expressions in schools). Women would smile or try not to sit next to me on buses, and men would stare or ask the usual, "Where from?" before trying their sales/beg pitch. Groups of men would gape and laugh while some men just gawked. I did discover that people reacted very differently whether I was alone or with a "travel husband". I spent the majority of my time traveling with other backpackers met on the road, many male, and was having a great time being left alone.

Until Hyderabad. Here I was left too alone, by nice people, anyway. Sure the beggars and the rickshaw drivers thought I was Mrs. Bill Gates coming to save their day, and they flocked. There were no other backpackers so I was on my own to fend them off for four days in one of the two hottest months of the year. I carried a rain umbrella to shield myself from the sun and to jab rickshaw drivers out of my path. It was so hot I couldn't move, it was between 100 and 107 degrees Fahrenheit (over 40C) everyday, but I had to cover up as much as possible. Half the population of Hyderabad is Muslim, so women actually walk around in burkas (the black capes that cover a woman from head to toe, everything except the eyes) in this heat. I have learned that many Muslims think western women have no morals showing their skin and prancing around talking to random men, and I wondered if people thought of me the same. At times groups of people would point and laugh at me sometimes in a leering kind of way. It was a terrible place to be as a solo female traveler and I have never been happier than the evening I got on the train to my next destination. Maybe I would have liked it if I had been with someone else to help me laugh off the uncomfortable edge; definately if the temperature were 20 degrees cooler. Who knows who knows.

Hard to understand Hyderabad

One day I decided to take a tour to Hyderabad's movie Mecca, Ramoji Film City. The tour cost $10 and I expected a swing around the movie grounds, but lo-and-behold the place is a Universal Studios-like theme park! I watched how movies are made and sat on rides, I secretly snickered with joy when our seats shook to the vibrations of Hyderabad being destroyed by bombs and fire on screen, and guffawed at the fake boulders and broken glass in the “streets” that didn't look too much unlike the streets of real life. I was the only non-Indian in the complex and I kept my musing under tight control. Imagine standing out like a lone zebra in a herd of horses, or the interest a cat attracts wandering around the dog park, that was me inside Ramoji Film City. Thankfully one family adopted me and I had some positive company for a few hours.

Next stop: Aurangabad. Does it sound like a place that would have orangutans or is that just my wacky imagination? There were some monkeys (no orangutans), but the main attractions are two nearby sites of massive and ancient cave temples carved out rock by hand, both World Heritage sites. There were tourists here, what a relief!!! And the temples at Ellora showed a history of tolerance that many are incapable of today, with temples from three different religions (Hindu, Buddhist and Jain) standing side by side that were used for hundreds of years without strife.

Peaceful Jain cave temple

Arriving back to Mumbai the day of my flight home, it was as if I was arriving to an entirely new city. Last month Mumbai seemed a chaotic third-world city; after seeing more of India I now found Mumbai to be the modern metropolis touted in the guidebooks. I ran into a traveler I had met in Aurangabad on the street, and then we soon ran into another we both knew. What are the odds with a population of 16.4 million...!

Scoping out western girls in swimsuits...?!

I could go on forever about India. The country is as deliciously overbearing as its food and my stomach as well as my brain and all my poor overburdened senses really need to stop and take a rest.

Tomorrow I'm off to Japan for the summer!