Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come

Every Christmas in Colorado, I go to the Denver Performing Arts Complex and watch a stage production of the popular story by Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol. The main character in this story, Ebenezer Scrooge, is a miserly old man who gets a visit from three ghosts: The Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet to Come. This third ghost, who can peer into the future, shows Scrooge the dire consequences of his greed – that he will die alone and unloved. Terrified, Scrooge changes his ways and becomes loving and kind.

Traveling to India is like getting a visit from this third ghost, The Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come.

India -- at least, PARTS of India -- represent a nightmare vision of what the world could become if it doesn’t strengthen its environmental standards, curb its population growth, cut bureaucracy, cut corruption, increase transparency and accountability, and strengthen law enforcement.




The beaches in Tamil Nadu, the southern Indian state where we now are, are naturally beautiful. This state’s shoreline is blessed with and sapphire waters and smooth sand. But no one goes to the beaches, which are covered in filth and flies. Undeveloped beachfront property is piled with bottles, cardboard, and broken furniture. Green fields bloom with the colors of plastic bags instead of flowers. Discarded mattresses lay by the side of the shore. Human feces is piled on the rocks. Most Indians just stand on the sidewalk and look appreciatively at the water. No one dares to go in.

This is all the more tragic because of the climate. Even in December, the weather is swelteringly hot. Sweat beads on your forehead as you sit at a restaurant, batting a swarm of flies away from your food.

Due to the heat, everyone tries to cool down their rooms. Most can’t afford air conditioning, so they power ceiling fans. Unfortunately, this is India, and it’s bursting at the seams with people. Not a single inch of the country has breathing space. The streets are packed with foot traffic at 6 in the morning. From pre-dawn until past midnight, everyplace you look -- the rocks, the rooftops, the restaurants – are covered with literally hundreds of people.




When this large of a population tries to turn on their ceiling fans, the demand for energy becomes unsustainable. All electricity shuts off. At the peak of the heat, when you’re raked with sweat and flies are swarming all around you, you can’t even sit by a ceiling fan or refrigerate your water.

And this is what its like in December – the winter season. Just imagine southern India in the summer. I can’t imagine what diseases sprout when you combine this degree of streetside trash with monsoon waters and mosquitos.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Sai Baba's ashram

More than a century ago, a 16-year-old mystic began performing miracles in Shirdi, a town in east-central India. He split his time equally between the Muslim mosque and the Hindu temple, spreading a message of unity and tolerance. His message and his miracles won him thousands of followers, who worshipped him as a living god. He called himself Sai Baba, and he died in 1918.

Eight years later, in 1926, Sai Baba: the Sequel was born.

A 14-year-old boy from Puttaparthi, a small town in the West Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, began performing miracles. Among his most attention-grabbing feats is the ability to produce ashes from thin air. His followers hang photos of him in homes as far away as Brighton, Colo., and ashes emerge from the portrait. Countless examples of these miracles have won him millions upon millions devotees, who worship him as the reincarnation of Sai Baba.

Although Sai Baba has a strong interfaith following – including Muslims -- he has joined the pantheon of Hindu deities. His face is depicted on cell phone ads, painted on the sides of cargo trucks, hanging from grocery store walls. Anywhere you might view a painting of Ganesh or Shiva or Krishna painted, you’re likely to see Sai Baba, as well.

His face is unforgettable – he wears a bright orange robe, and his Afro puffs out like Jimi Hendrix.



His ashram in Puttaparthi is where we have spent the last four days. Around 50,000 Sai Baba followers visit this ashram each day, rendering it the size of a small town. Another 40,000 daily visit the original Sai Baba’s ashram in Shirdi.

All day long, the Puttaparthi ashram buzzes with the activity of a college campus. Devotees sleep in the campus dorms and eat at the campus dining hall. Some attend lectures; others hang out on the quad. It even has its own planetarium. I’m not joking.

Large signs everyone instruct people to observe “Silence!” while walking through the ashram’s many-acre campus. The dining hall tables all hold placards instructing people to observe the same silence. God can only speak to a silent heart, the signs read.

It’s fitting, then, that the day we arrived at the ashram, my friend became sick and lost her voice. She tried whispering for a day; the next morning she fell silent. Now she signals that she has recovered, but is vowing to keep her silence until we leave.




Those who do speak say mostly one phrase – “Sai Ram,” a blessing of the Hindu god Ram. People say “Sai Ram” to mean everything. “Sai Ram” means hello. It means pardon me, I’m trying to get past you. It means please put your plate in the correct bin. It means you can exit from the south gate, not the west gate.

The ashram campus is also gender-segregated. Men and women eat at single-sex dining halls. They stand in separate lines. They pray in separate areas. There is an on-site shopping complex, which women can browse in the morning and men visit in the evening.

Men and women also sit in separate sections of the main auditorium, where Sai Baba appears each afternoon.

Being at an ashram waiting for the guru to come on stage is like being at the biggest summer rock concert of the season. The line starts forming two hours before the show. Signs posted by the entrance specify the items you can’t carry into the concert hall –cassettes, books, umbrellas, razors, food, flowers, plates, pens. You shuffle through the single-sex line until security pats you down, searching for illicit contraband, and runs a bomb-detector over your outfit.

The auditorium is a large, empty open-air hall with a ceiling covered in small chandeliers. It resembles the Fillmore Auditorium in Denver, except its pillars are pink, and shaped like lotus flowers, and its borders feature a band of blue- and gold-plated elephants running across the ceiling.




The crowd sits quietly in the auditorium and waits. They know the star of the show is always fashionably late. Servers parade through carrying trays of drinks (water). Identifiable by the bright bandanas tied around their neck, they resemble Boy Scouts wearing saris.

Then an audible surge of anticipation sweeps through the crowd. No one can see or hear anything, but everyone knows the star is about to come on stage. The crowd – all sitting cross-legged on the marble floor – scoots forward. People begin whispering loudly and craning their necks.

The band strikes up an “Om.” The crowd chants the mantra in a low rumble. The chandeliers overhead all light up in sync.

And then – he appears. The legend himself. He is 83 now, and rests on a cushion on a plush red throne, his regal wheelchair. He is flanked by a support crew of five or six men wearing white – his holy rendition of call girls by his side.

The crowd is breathless. Everyone raises their hands in prayer. People try to sit on their knees to get a closer look. Security scouts dart around, madly gesturing everyone to resume their Indian-style sitting posture.

Sai Baba is past the point where he has to say anything. His uttering a single word would reverberate like a rock legend striking a single chord.

But now he is in his twilight years, in a wheelchair, and the guru’s appearance is brief. Two or three lucky people in the front row get a chance to bow at his wheelchair before he disappears backstage. He is wheeled out again onto the stage, where his devotees can see his face, but he cannot speak. No one seems to mind, though. They are awed to be in his presence. “Sai Baba: Live!” For them, it is like looking at the face of Jesus -- another miracle-maker with a message of love.

Then Sai Baba is wheeled offstage, and the crowd spends an hour singing devotional hymns with the cover band. No problem, though. They’ll be back tomorrow, to catch another glimpse of Sai Baba, the guru with the orange jumpsuit and the Jimi Hendrix hair.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Going Postal in India

“We were in the most high-tech city in India, and we couldn’t find a wireless connection.”

Everything in India is a headache. Our two days in Bangalore have been consistent hassle. No, hassle is too light of a word. It’s been a hair-graying, wrinkle-forming, blood-pressure-raising debacle.

It began when we de-boarded the train in Bangalore City. My parents wanted to hire a porter to carry their heavy suitcases down and then up two flights of stairs. “How much do you charge?” my dad asks a porter in Hindi. He grabs the bag and starts walking away with it. Dad and I both physically intervene. “No, how much?” Dad asks again in Hindi. He continues walking away with it. “No! Stop! How much?” we ask. “60 rupees,” he finally says in perfect Hindi. Highway robbery. Or, in this case, platform robbery. We needle our baggage away from his grubby hands and I carry it myself. I’m not dealing with porters anymore.



Outside, we’re surrounded by a thick crowd of touts competing to overcharge us for a ride from the train station to M.G. Road, Bangalore’s urban core. They start quoting us between 200 to 350 rupees for a ride; they pull out laminated “price sheets” to substantiate their claims. My friend finds a taxi driver who says he’ll take us for 50 rupees. We start loading our baggage into his car. Then he changes his tune. “150 rupees,” he says suddenly. “No, you said 50,” I reply. “50 won’t pay for the fuel,” he says. “But you told us 50 a couple minutes ago,” I say. “No. 150,” he says.

I stand my ground. “What price did you tell her?,” I ask, gesturing to one of my friends. He ignores my question and starts talking about fuel cost, distance – anything but the answer to my question. “What price did you tell her? Tell me what price you told her.” I keep repeating my question. He looks away from me; starts talking to my dad. I physically stand in front of my dad so that he’s forced to look at me. “What price did you tell her?”

“I can’t speak English,” he says to me in English. “You’re a dirty liar,” I replied. A crowd of at least 20 taxi drivers, all men in ugly brown uniforms, had gathered around to watch the scene. “Let’s go,” I said to my family. The taxi driver followed us, talking nonstop in English, trying to convince us to ride with him. “I thought you couldn’t speak English, liar!” I yelled behind me as I walked away. The crowd laughed.



We purchased two rickshaw rides from a government-sponsored pre-paid counter, for 50 rupees each, but the rickshaw drivers tried to rip us off for a 10 rupee per bag “luggage fee” (there is no such thing).

We reached M.G. Road, found a restaurant playing AC/DC at top volume, and parked half of our crew there with the luggage while the other half started searching for cheap hotels. A long hour passed. Then another. All the hotels were far beyond our price range.

Finally we met some Nepalese men, who advised us on the cheapest hotel in the area. It was too dirty for my parents taste, but fine by my low standards.

“I’ll check in and stay here with my friends,” I told the hotel receptionist.

The receptionist looked at my passport, signed me in, and took a deposit. I returned to the restaurant; I gathered my luggage and my friends.

An hour later, I was in the hotel lobby once again – but this time, the atmosphere had changed.

“You can’t stay here,” the receptionist told us on arrival. “You’re American. Only Indians and Nepalese can stay here.”

“But you saw my U.S. passport,” I protested, “and you let me sign in.”

“No, you cannot stay,” he replied, ignoring my logical point.



“But I showed you my passport. You said I could stay. You let me sign in,” I protested. “I walked all the way to my storage area, got my baggage, and walked all the way back here.”

“Only Indians,” he said. “Nepalese is okay. Not foreigners.”

“Then you should have said that when I showed you my passport.” I was angry at this point. “I could have checked other hotels. Now it’s evening, and I’m not walking around this seedy neighborhood at night. Not with all my luggage on my back and no place to stay.”

“You can’t stay here,” he said.

“I’m not leaving,” I replied.

I was feeling bull-headed. I would not trudge along these shady streets at night searching for a room I couldn’t afford. It became a matter of principle.

I staged a sit-in. My friends and I anchored ourselves to the dingy couch in the dimly-lit hotel lobby. We talked. We read the newspaper. We ate donuts. We refused to leave the hotel lobby’s couch. We would sit there all night, if necessary.

After about 2 hours passed, the hotel staff relented. “Okay, you can stay,” the receptionist said. “Give me your passports and another deposit.”

Our hotel room’s windows couldn’t close, so mosquitoes swarmed our beds all night. The people outnumbered the beds, forcing some of us to sleep on the floor. Still, we considered our stay in that room a victory. We had out-stubborned the hotel reception desk. It’s like being more Catholic than the Pope.




The next day, I went to the Air India office to get a paper ticket for a flight we’d purchased from travel agent www.Orbitz.com.

In November my friend and I had purchased an “electronic” ticket, but one week later, Orbitz.com left me a voicemail saying our carrier, Air India, required paper tickets. Orbitz said they had mailed our paper ticket to my address in Atlanta.

No good, I told Orbitz. I’m in India. I need that ticket to leave India.



Go to the Air India office, Orbitz told me, and fill out a lost ticket form. Sounds simple, right?

It took 5 phone calls to various Air India extensions before I could decipher that they have an office in Bangalore. It took two calls to the Bangalore office before I could get any semblance of its address.

Bear in mind that I don’t have a cell phone or a landline – each time I make a phone call, I need to search for a cybercafe with Skype (an internet-based phone system, which only some cybercafes have). My calls to India cost 34 cents a minute.

At any rate, I visited the Air India office on my first morning in Bangalore, optimistically hoping they could re-issue us tickets. Instead, five Indian women crowded around a copy of our e-ticket printout, not knowing what to do, each suggesting something different. One thing they agreed: they could not re-issue us tickets. I would need to call Orbitz, and ask Orbitz to call the Bangalore office to confirm that I indeed had paid Orbitz for the ticket. Only after hearing from Orbitz directly, they said, could they re-issue a ticket.



I left the Air India office and searched for a cybercafe in order to phone Orbitz. I finally found one, but a sign in front said it was closed for the entire month of December. So I took a taxi to a busy street near my hotel, where I scouted out five or six cybercafes. None of them had Skype.

Finally, I started ducking into alleys with my friend’s laptop, trying to find an unlocked wireless signal. Fortuantely, I was in Bangalore, the only place in India where this would be possible. I found a weak wireless signal, and signed on.

The signal was so weak that every call to Orbitz – and I made at least 4 or 5 calls -- was dropped midway through. Each time this happened, I’d call back and start from scratch, waiting on hold and explaining the situation to a new agent.

I wondered if I was placing an international call to the U.S. while talking to Orbitz agents at a call center in Bangalore. It could be that the people with whom I’m on a long-distance call are actually next door.



After more than an hour of repeated calls, I’d made minimal headway. Two of the Orbitz agents had gone as far as to place me on hold while they called the Air India Bangalore office. My calls were dropped while on hold.

(A ludicrous policy prevents Orbitz agents from giving me their phone extension or their name – a rule that ensures that anytime a call is dropped, we start over from square one.)

Two friends and I took a rickshaw through rush-hour traffic back to the Air India office, hoping that one of the Orbitz agents had called it. No such luck. And now Air India was changing its story. Orbitz would have to call the Air India branch in Chicago to confirm our pre-paid ticket, and Chicago would have to call Bangalore.

“But our bus tickets out of Bangalore are for tomorrow,” I said.

Then Orbitz should call Chicago, Bangalore said, and Chicago must call Chennai, and you need to collect your paper tickets in Chennai.



Jesus. All because Air India isn’t modern enough to issue electronic tickets, and our paper ones are sitting in an Atlanta P.O. Box.

We took another overpriced rickshaw to M.G. Street and started searching for a wireless spot from which we could phone Orbitz, again, with this new instruction.

Of course, we couldn’t find a wireless connection strong enough to make a phone call. We tried paying for wireless at coffeeshops. At bookstores. Behind the beauty parlor. In front of Ruby Tuesday’s. In a stairwell near a guy selling photocopied books. We tried everywhere. We asked cybercafes if we could pay to plug into their lines. They all said no.

We were in the most high-tech city in India, and we couldn’t find a wireless connection.

And that’s what’s so funny about India. Bangalore is undoubtedly a modern city. It has designer shops and coffeehouses. Its women wear jeans instead of saris. Its men drink espresso instead of tea. The intersections have traffic lights. We didn’t see a single cow or monkey on the streets (though dead rats may always be a fixture of Indian sidewalks).

We had a beer at a bar on Thursday night, and we felt like we could have easily been in Denver, Chicago or any major U.S. city. Nirvana and Limp Bizkit music videos played on a flat-screen, the stairs were carved from frosted glass, the red plush booths were illuminated with matching mood lighting. Boys and girls in their twenties mingled at mixed-gender tables, drinking alcohol and eating appetizers. Two twentysomething women in tight tanktops lit cigarettes.

But the mess of motorcycles on the streets, the constant honking of horns, the way the smog burns your eyes, the mosquitoes chewing you alive – you’re always keenly aware that you’re in an Indian city. And as our experience shows, no hotel or taxi service or airline in an Indian city has its act together (at least, none that we've encountered in our many months here). At best, they’re disorganized and incompetent. At worst, they outright lie.

Much is made of India’s rise to power, especially as a technology giant. Certainly, there’s an inkling of truth to this. Being in India is like going to the business school of the streets – you learn to deal with insolent, irrational and stubborn people; to act assertively to get what you want; you learn to be suspicious of everyone; to furiously guard your self-interest in order to not be scammed for every last penny. In those regards, Indians have an advantage. They’re better-practiced.

But their strengths double as their weaknesses. And when it comes to good old-fashioned “who would you rather hire” – well, I don’t think India, in the long run, really has as strong of a chance as some people in the West believe.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Parent Pilgrimage kick-off

Each corner of India – north, east, south, and west – is home to one of Hinduism four holiest sites.

Puri, a beach town in the East Indian state of Orissa, is the holiest city in India’s east. It’s the home of Lord Jagannath, the “Lord of the Universe.” Hindu pilgrims have visited Puri for centuries to catch a glimpse of Lord Jagannath himself, who is carved from wood and lives in a temple with his brother and sister.

Many pilgrims even commit suicide in the presence of Jagannath, wanting to die while being watched by the Lord. When the British invaded India and saw the spectacle, they coined the English word “juggernaut,” which means a “compelling, destructive force.”

My parents, who are traveling with me for the next four weeks, choose Puri so that they, too, could look into the eyes of Lord Jagannath. (They are on a month-long pilgrimage to east and south India’s holy sites). They visited Jagannath’s temple twice in the past few days – once without me, because I was on my period and, as such, was not allowed to enter the temple, and then once again with me.

Lord Jagannath’s temple is a perfect microcosm of India – chaotic, claustrophobic, filled with crooks. And, like India, the best and only way to derive meaning from it is to filter out the madness and focus on the divine.

Lord Jagannath and his brother and sister, all of whom are large carvings with intense eyes, live in a dark room. The walls are painted black. There are no windows. A single door opens into another dark, windowless cavern. The only light comes from candles.

Enormous puddles of water are spilled across the floor, probably left over from the God’s morning bath. In the afternoons, rice from the God’s lunch turns the floor into a sticky mess. The priests feed the Gods seven times a day.

Lord Jagganth’s room is clogged with pilgrims, who come to pray, and priests, who come to extort money from the pilgrims.

My mom and I entered the room. The crowd and the darkness and the puddles immediately gripped us. My first thought was of the news reports of Hindus getting trampled to death at temples. It’s easy, very easy, to see how that could happen in a heartbeat.

“Look at Vaghuan,” said my mom, using the Nepali word for “God.” I made eye contact with Lord Jagannath. I held his gaze as my mom and I pushed our way through the thick maze, circling the statues clockwise.

A priest stopped us and forcibly directed me to bow my head, then deposit money. I obeyed, foolishly, because he was a priest.

“Don’t do as they say!” my mom told me afterward. They’re scammers, like the rest of India.

We circled the Gods, bowed to Lord Jagannath, left five rupees at his feet. We bowed to Lord Jagannath’s sister, and left five rupees at her feet.

“That’s all you’re leaving?,” a different priest sneered at my mom. “You’re disgusting. I can’t believe you.”

I couldn’t believe him. This so-called holy man talks trash to pilgrims who waited their whole lives for a chance to pray at this spot? It reminded me of the irate priests in Jerusalem who screamed at Christians to hurry up as they knelt in prayer at the site of Jesus’ crucifixion. There’s nothing like a sacred site to bring out the sins of greed and anger in the men who purport to be holy.

“Don’t think about them,” my mom told me later. “Just focus on Lord Jagannath.”



Yes, the temple is just like greater India. Tune out the scammers, the pollution, the traffic, the monkeys, the beggars, the trash, the thieves around every corner. Keep eye contact with the Lord.

In Puri, your faith in humanity is rigorously tested. I mentioned Puri is a beach town, but let me tell you about this despicable beach.

On one side of Puri are the hotels, where pilgrims rest. The beach by these hotels is relatively clean, by Indian standards. Yes, there are hypodermic needles in the sand (we saw two), and yes, there are wrappers and plastic bottles and dog feces everywhere, but, hey, that’s India. No big deal.

Travel a little further, past the hotels, and you’ll reach a primeval fishing village that hasn’t changed in 500 years. The huts are built from clay and straw; the streets are too narrow for vehicles to pass. This is the Land Time Forgot, and it exists in a parallel universe where motors, plastic bottles, wrappers, haven’t been invented yet. Ducks and chickens roam in people’s front yards, where the fish – the day’s catch – sit drying in the sun. There’s one tiny store, but carries only homemade goods. It sells nothing with packaging. You get the feeling that the people who live here have never seen packaging; never heard of Coca-Cola. It is a self-contained fishing village.

And it’s infested as hell.

The kids all have open sores on their faces and arms. The stench is disease is rampant. Behind the straw huts, where all the villagers take out their fishing boats, the beach is covered with human feces. Absolutely covered. I’m not talking about one or two people taking a crap in the sand. I mean, this beach is the toilet, and at any given second, you can see at least five men with their pants down. We gingerly walk along the shoreline, but the feces is everywhere. There’s no way to avoid it. The waves touch our feet, and we scramble out of its path. The water is a carrier for infectious disease.

It’s hard to imagine how people can trash their environment so abrasively. In the cities, its easy to blame faceless “government” or “industry” for the diesel exhaust. But in this fishing village, its individuals who are crapping all over the beach, turning a natural resource into, literally, a dump. It wouldn’t be hard for them to build a latrine – just dig a hole in the ground! – but laziness prompts them to excrete into the water table instead.

Along this beach, strewn among the human feces, are the bloated bodies of dead sea turtles. Sea turtles are an endangered species; it’s thought that they will be extinct within our lifetime. They’re dying in droves at this exact beach, where – judging by the dozen recently-killed corpses – we estimate that at least two sea turtles a day are trapped by the fishing nets and carried on shore. These turtles are larger than my torso, and its clear they’ve reached sexual maturity; they might have some to Puri to mate, and instead were killed and turned into crow food.

Flies fester this beach, feeding on dead corpses and human feces.

This is truly the land that time forgot.

But time, it seems, passes slowly in Puri. My grandparents came to Puri to pray, back when the fishing village looked exactly like it does now. When my grandkids visit Puri – or will my grandkids be only ¼ Nepali? Will their genes be too white to be allowed entry to the Hindus-only temple? – the fishing village might still look the same.

Ah, yes, my grandparents. I’ll close this with a happy story.

At Lord Jagannath’s temple, there is a Nepali priest who lives by the temple’s west gate.

My parents met this Nepali priest, who handwrote our names into a book of Nepali visitors. He then flipped through his book and read aloud the names of several of my uncles, aunts and cousins who had prayed in the same spot. “Raghab Dhoj Pant, wife Indira, son Ranjan,” he read. “Hari Dhoj Pant and wife Basudha.”

“What about my parents?,” asked my dad, whose name is Prahlad Dhoj Pant.

The priest flipped through a single volume of a large book. “In 1956,” he read aloud, “Bhadra Kumari Pant, wife of Dambar Dhoj Pant, visited this temple.”

Wow. We were amazed. How can so many Nepali visitors be so meticulously documented – and their entries found – in a single paper book? Such organization.

Perhaps India does have a praying chance, after all.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

A well-dressed cow

If you need to beg for money in India, make sure you have a nicely-dressed cow.

We spotted a “sadhu,” a holy beggar dressed in orange rags, walking from shop to shop along the narrow streets of Varanasi. Most beggars are ignored – there are just too many of them – but his ally, his cow, won him a plate brimming with donations.

This cow wore a bright sequined cape, garlands around his neck and a crown of flowers on his head. He was the cow equivalent of an Indian bride.

*****

In both Nepal and India, drug dealers are everywhere. We were offered hashish three times on the way to breakfast. Three times on the way to breakfast!

A simple “no” won’t deter the dealers. Indians are persistent. So we’ve started messing with them.

Like last night. As we were buying apples at a fruit stand, a dealer approached us and asked, “Hey, you want some hash?”

“I already have a hat,” my friend said.

“No, hash, hash,” the dealer replied.

“Yes, I’m wearing a hat now, can’t you see?,” said my friend, who was bare-headed.

“I’m talking about dope,” the dealer replied.

“Are you calling me a dope?” she said.

The dealer laughed. “You are happy like flower, not sad like rain,” he replied.

****
Talk about a shitty job.

There’s a large yellow curtain, tied to wooden poles, opposite the clay oven at the restaurant we frequent.

Behind this yellow curtain are six water buffalo. These buffalo voluntarily confine themselves to the space behind the yellow curtain; backstage.

Needless to say, the buffalo create a lot of crap. And someone’s job is to pick up this crap with their bare hands, pat it into “dung pies,” and stick these shit pies to the sides of the restaurant’s walls. The walls are tiled, end to end, in shit pie after shit pie. Handprints are engraved into each one. Once the pies dry, someone peels them off the wall and burns them for heat.

Let’s just hope that whoever has this job isn’t also the cook.

****
We’re in our Varanasi hotel room and someone is throwing stones and trash at our window. We can hear a loud “clang!” twice a minute.

We can’t see, through the streetlight-devoid alleys, who the perpetrator is.

“Screw you!,” my friend yells out the window, after trash smacks the window pane for the two dozenth time. “Quit it!”

She looks at me, confused.

“Am I yelling at a monkey?,” she asks. “I don’t know.”

Monday, December 1, 2008

Trekking in the Himalayas

In the month since I last wrote in my blog and now, I’ve:
-- Trekked in the Himalayas for 10 days,
-- Visited the Taj Mahal,
-- Picked the first orphans who’ll be supported by my families’ foundation, and
-- Watched a surgery for injuries sustained from a water buffalo attack

Here’s the story, in five scenes.




Scene 1: The Taj Mahal

In early November (on the 5th, to be exact), we catch a train to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. We arrive the evening before Laurel’s birthday and visit an upscale Indian restaurant for dinner, where the waitstaff bring out blankets to shield our legs from mosquitoes.

We visit the Taj Mahal at dawn, as the sunrise casts light and shadows on its marble walls. The 17th century monument is symmetrical on every side, and its splendor exceeds it hype. It was built, humorously, by a Moghul king who died during an opium-induced sex fest at age 74.

From Agra, we ride a bumpy bus to the India-Nepal border, where we discover that the border-crossing station doesn’t have electricity. The guards stamp our passports by the dim glow of a single flickering candlelight.

Little did we know it would mark the start of an electricity-free month.

Scene 2: The Journey

Our first Indian scam took place at the border, where we paid for “tourist bus” tickets but were herded like cattle onto the public bus, which traveled at an average speed of – no joke – 7 miles per hour. For 11 hours.

The bus stopped constantly. Is someone selling corn on the side of the road? Let’s stop the bus. Have we reached a town with a tea stand? We’ll stop. Waiting for a prospective passenger who said he’d be standing by the side of a highway? Halt the bus for 20 minutes!

People filtered on and off, riding on the rooftop if there wasn’t space in the aisles.

After 11 hours of squirming on rickety bus seats, we finally reached Pokhara, Nepal, only 75 miles from where we started.

Mt. Macchapucchre, towering at 23,000 feet, stretches across the sky to greet us.

I point out to my friend that the mountain’s topmost 3,000-ish feet are bare; its slope is too steep to hold snow. No climber has ever summitted Macchapuchree.



“I’ve never seen a mountain that couldn’t be summitted,” my friend said. She would later laugh at herself for saying those words – less than two weeks later, while standing at Macchapuchre’s Base Camp, an icy river bed at the lowest point of a valley, a measly 12,137 feet in altitude.

She’d stare at the sky and study the rocky summits towering yet another 11,000 feet higher than where we stood.

“That one can’t be summitted, either,” she’d observe. “There’s no route. It’s too cold for trad climbing, and there’s no continuous ice face. And that one --,” she’d point, “can’t be summitted either. Nor that one. Nor that one. Impossible.”




Scene 3: Trekking

Our first two days of trekking are all uphill, up, up, up, up, 10 hours a day, up slopes so steep we get vertigo when we move too quickly. On the morning of Day 3 we awake while the moon is full and robust; its glow illuminates the snow-capped peaks of Mt. Annapurna and Mt. Dhaulagiri.

We hike with headlamps and mittens for an hour, until we reach the top of a hill, named for the indigenous Poon tribe that lives on that hill, altitude 10,474 feet.



The sky’s colors – as many Coloradoans know – become more intense as you rise in altitude. We watch the first glimpse of dawn burst into a symphony of vivid reds.

We endure an 11-hour day of traversing the mountains. We ascend 1,092 feet to Poon Hill to watch the sunrise, then descend that same distance to our starting point. We then descend another 1,049 feet before ascending 1,804 feet until we can rest for the night.



Our hike raises us above cloud line, then down into the mist, then above cloud line again.

The landscape changes with the altitude. At its low points, the trees are covered with moss and tiny purple flowers spring from rocks and fallen logs. The air is so thick with water that life can’t help but thrive from every crevasse. Waterfalls of all sizes spring from every direction, countless waterfalls. The sound of the nearby river indicates how much further we’ll have to descend before we cross the bridge and can start ascending again.

Once we do cross that bridge we walk higher, higher, for hours, until we’re above cloud line. The landscape turns into dry, bushy yellow grasses on clay soil. It’s brought to life by the hisses and whirrs of insects and birds, or on occasion, by the jingle of cowbells worn around the neck of every horse, donkey and dog that cross our path.

We check into a teahouse for the evening and warm ourselves by the fire in the kitchen, in the clay pot they call a “stove.” The next morning we descend a little lower in altitude, to a lush area covered with bamboo, oak trees, aloe vera and rhodedendrons. Even at 10,000 feet, the landscape is dotted with rice paddies, poinsettas, marigolds – and marijuana, enormous trees of marijuana, taller than the ears of corn they’re planted next to.

We sleep in teahouses at night, little stone shacks perched on whatever ground could be terraced flat. Most rooms don’t have electricity; some say they’ve been without lights for weeks. Walls are paper-thin; some built from nothing but a single sheet of tin.



It’s too cold to sit outside our sleeping bags after sunset, so we eat a candlelit dinner of rice and lentils (dal baht) and crawl into our sleeping bags by 6 pm. Thick fog rolls in at night, obscuring the sight of everything except the water buffalo nearby. Morning skies are clear, and at our altitude, the colors of the sunrise are more majestic than ever. The sun paints vivid pinks and reds on the 24,000-ft peaks.

On Day 4 we continue with the ups and downs – descend 2,722 feet, then ascend 1,213 feet. This is tiresome.

By Day 5 we reach the tiny, remote high-altitude villages, just before Base Camp. Just to eat dinner, I pile on 3 long-sleeve shirts, a fleece, a down jacket, an outer shell, 2 pairs of pants, wool socks and mittens. Still my toes feel like a singular block of ice, and I curl and uncurl them while I eat to improve circulation.

Until today, the scenery has reminded me of other places I’ve hiked. The lush mossy forests, with life sprouting from every nook and corner of rock and tree, resembled hikes in Japan during the rainy season. The terraced rice fields reminded me of hilly northern Thailand. The dry landscape above cloud line was reminiscent of trails in Arizona.



But by the time we reach 12,137 feet, on Day 6, the scenery becomes downright fictional. It looks like Lord of the Rings meets Impressionist Art. Heck, it looks downright cartoonish. There’s no other way to describe it.

We reach the Base Camp of Macchapucchre on Day 6, and spend a night acclimating before our sunrise hike to Annapurna Base Camp, 13,548 feet. The mountains are unlike anything we’ve ever imagined. They tower over us like imposing gods. Some portions held snow and glaciers. Other shot into the sky as sheer, straight-angle rock face. Their vertical rise measured 10,000 feet above where we stood. We’ve seen these same mountains from a distance, but up close, these are Mountains.

It took us four days to walk back to town. We finished the trek on Day 10. We’ve all been changed from the vision of the Mountains.

Scene 4: The orphanage

My parents have launched a Foundation to sponsor orphans in Kathmandu, Nepal. The day after I arrive in Kathmandu, I go with them to Bal Mandir, one of the city’s largest and most reputable orphanages, to agree to an ongoing relationship between our Foundation and this particular orphanage.



In Nepal, its hard to decide whether or not your charitable contribution is going to “leak” into the pockets of the corrupt, but we’ve met with Bal Mandir officials several times, and we feel like at least the majority of our money will go towards the children.

Most of the infants at the orphanage get adopted by foreigners, so we decide to start sponsoring kindergarden-aged kids, who are unlikely to be adopted. We decide that the Foundation can afford to sponsor 8 kids per year, at $375 per child, which covers the entire cost of housing, meals, and private school.

I spend 4 days in Kathmandu and visit Bal Mandir twice, selecting the kids on my second visit. We read through their case files. We give priority to the kids who’ve lost both of their parents to either death or disappearance. We decline the kids who are registered as orphans because their mother got remarried – which, in Nepal, is included in the definition of “orphan.” (Stepfathers usually reject the child, because she is the spawn of a different man).



The kids – mostly boys – were adorable. Like most kindergardeners, they have virtually zero attention span. “Which of you is Suman Gurung?,” we ask when we walk into a playroom filled with children causing havoc. A little boy, wide-eyed, walks up to us. “And which one of you is --?” By the time we’ve called up the second boy, little Suman has wandered away, playing with blocks in the sparsely-furnished room.

Because we’re sponsoring specific kids, we have total decision-making authority over the kids’ lives. My parents and I decide to send these 8 kids to Kathmandu’s best private schools, even if it ends up costing more. I left Kathmandu, and headed back to India, while my parents remained in the city to negotiate tuition.

Scene 5: The hospital

I visit Kathmandu’s Helping Hands Community Hospital to write a story about it for a magazine in Colorado. While I’m there, I go into the surgical room and watch, up-close, as a woman has surgery for injuries she sustained from a water buffalo attack.

I’ll post the link to the story and video when it’s published.

Monday, November 10, 2008

From Egypt to India

We ended our 1.5 months in Egypt with an expedition through the White Desert, a strange and mystical portion of the Sahara where the crystal sand gleams like snow.

Anvil- and mushroom-shaped white rocks, as high as 40 feet, jut from the ashen ground. This desert looks like the moon.

The White Sahara Desert is hundreds of miles from civilization, and despite the specks of sand hovering over the horizon, the night sky still burst with stars. We could spot a different shooting star nearly every 15 minutes, sometimes more frequently.

After returning from the White Sahara Desert we had a spare day to spend in Cairo before needing to return to Mohammad’s house in Alexandria, Egypt to retrieve our backpacks. We spent the extra day in Giza, back at the Pyramids.

What’s strange about the Pyramids is that all photos taken of them are only taken from in front, so that the viewer sees the sand around it.

Take a photo from behind the Pyramids, and you’ll see a different story.

The Pyramids and the Sphinx gaze out over an urban cluster just a few meters away. Giza is a “suburb” of Cairo, which holds the dubious distinction of World’s Most Polluted City. Like most developing-world cities, Giza is teeming with honking cars, crowded streets, dogs and vendors on every corner, concrete buildings haphazardly shoved into every modicum of space.

The eyes of the Sphinx, unchanged for 5,000 years, have watched Giza grow from a desert to an urban headache.

We, however, were ready to leave Egypt after not 5,000 years but 5 weeks. We happily boarded an airplane bound for New Delhi, via Abu Dhabi.

We spent a few more days in New Delhi than we had planned, waiting for our luggage, which had chosen to stay in Abu Dhabi. We had been warned that India is a hard country to travel in, but we found it relatively relaxed.

In Cairo, you always have to be on guard, because a boy could run up to you on the street and grab your breasts. This happened to me four times.

Three out of four times, I was surrounded by a large crowd of men (as is ALWAYS the case when walking down the streets of Cairo) and couldn’t identify exactly who it was that did it. I know that it was always a little boy, under the age of 10.

The first time it happened, I thought it might have been an accident. There was a swarm of young boys around me, all reaching out with their hands, and I thought it might have been an accidental brush.

The second time, I felt uncomfortable. It was too firm a grab to be an accident.

The third time, I turned and chased down the entire crowd of young boys that had been following me. They ran away in terror. I don’t think they’d ever see an angry female screaming that she was going to beat them down.

The fourth time, a boy around age 10 who had been sitting by the side of a building stood up, ran to me, grabbed my right breast, and ran away. I was with two friends, one of which is a 6-foot, 2-inch tall man, and he chased the little kid down the block.

Meanwhile, some bystander witness apologized on behalf of Egyptians. The apology was directed not to me, but to my 6’2” friend. In Egypt, it’s customary for men to address only men. If they wanted to ask about me – what’s my name, am I also from America – they’d ask it to the male in the group, as though I wasn’t there.

India, or at least New Delhi, was much different. The only place I was ever grabbed was on my arm, by beggar girls.

The scams in India were more elaborate – people pose as (fake) authority guards and tried to convince us that the train ticket office was closed and they could escort us to an “after-hours” (fake) office – but the Indian touts are lazier. In Egypt, the touts stalk you as you walk from hotel to hotel; they refuse to leave you alone. In India, a loud firm “go away!” (“bhago!”) will get them to go away.

New Delhi was also far less crowded and polluted than Cairo. We all became sick upon entering Cairo; we immediately developed sore throats from breathing the air. Nothing like that happened in Delhi.

Perhaps best of all, India’s packaged products have “fixed pricing.” Anything manufactured in India – a bottle of water, shampoo, toothpaste – has the price printed onto the packaging, so we were assured that the shopkeepers couldn’t charge us triple the actual price.

Of course, they’d still try. I’d buy a box of apple juice and the shopkeeper would say, “85 rupees.” And I’d point to the label and reply, “But it says 70.” And – here’s the great part – the shopkeeper would reply “okay” and charge me 70. In Egypt, that would NEVER happen. A two-hour fight would ensue. (Refer to my earlier story, in which we read the correct prices for falafel printed on the menu, and the restaurant refused to acquiese.)

Once we got our luggage, we departed New Delhi for Rishikesh, the yoga-ashram capital of India. It was a tourist grotto, filled with meditating backpackers, but it was nice to be so close to the source of the Ganges River, where the upstream water is so clean you can touch it. We befriended some Israelis, went to a few yoga classes, took photos in the sand.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

At a restaurant in Luxor, Egypt, we asked the waiter how much a falafel sandwich costs.

"3 pounds" he said.

"And what about a plate of ful (Egyptian beans)?," we asked.

"10 pounds," he said.

We ordered the falafel and asked to see a menu. The menu was written in Arabic, which my friend learned how to read in college. The first two items on the menu? Falafel sandwich, 75 cents, and a plate of ful, 75 cents.

We called the waiter over. "This says "ful", 75 cents," my friend told him, pointing to the word "ful" and sounding out the letters. "And this below it says fa-la-fel," he pointed.

"Oh yeah, well what does this say?," asked the waiter, pointing to a different item.

My friend sounded out the word.

"But what does it mean?" the waiter asked.

"I don't know," my friend said.

"See, you can't read Arabic then!" the waiter said.

"I don't need to know what every food on this menu is. This says ful, 75 cents, and falafel, 75 cents! That's all I need to know!" my friend replied.

The waiter wouldn't budge, so we called over the manager.

"Those aren't the prices on the menu," the manager said, pointing to the prices on the menu. "Those, um, those are the barcodes. The scanner PLU codes."

"Why would you print the barcodes on the menu -- and why are they the same number for both dishes?" we asked.

"We have a different menu that we'll release tomorrow that shows that its 3 pounds for falafel," the manager replied.

"But this is today, and this is the menu you are handing out right now," we retorted.

"What's the big deal?" the manager replied. "Why do you care so much about money?"

This mockery lasted for more than 2 hours. In Egypt, even when you CATCH people scamming to you, they continue to blatently lie in your face, then guilt-trip you about it.

In the end, we wrangled the fair price from the manager, but it cost of 2 hours of our time.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Story of Sayid

So, the story of Sayid:

We were in Aswan, Egypt; home to about a million sailboats. These simple wooden sailboats -- called "feluccas" -- carry people down the Nile River, toward Luxor.

We had two desires:

One, to visit Abu Simbel, a stunning Ancient Egyptian monument to Ramses II, carved in rock. Two, to take a felucca ride down the Nile to Luxor.

Abu Simbel is located far south, about 30 miles from Egypt's border with Sudan, in an area that's marred with dangers (or so they say). In order to visit Abu Simbel, we had to depart Aswan at 3 a.m. flanked by an armed police convoy.

To arrange this, we had to enlist the services of someone who could reserve us a seat in a microbus traveling with the convoy.

Enter: Sayid. He, like all the other trip organizers in Aswan, stood by the banks of the Nile waiting for tourist business. He promised us a trip to Abu Simbel, followed by a 2-night, 3-day felucca ride, for a price that was far lower than any of his competitors. (We had asked around, and knew that the prices could sometimes vary by a factor of 10).

We thought we had everything in the bag, but when we went shopping with Sayid for food for the falucca tour, the situation began to unravel. With him accompanying us, the prices of food seemed to triple.

We were a bit confused -- after all, food was included in the cost of the falucca ride, so everything we were paying at the store would be deducted from the final price we paid to Sayid. If this was a scam, we reasoned, it worked AGAINST Sayid's favor.

Later that same evening, Sayid told us that the trip to Abu Simbel was cancelled. He claimed the microbus that we were supposed to take had been in an accident. An unlikely story, but it was already 10 pm and we were scheduled to leave at 3 am. It was too late to book a different tour.

We shrugged and went to bed, figuring everything would get delayed by a day.

At 3 am, there was a knock on our door. The microbus driver had shown up. Sayid had lied about the bus crash. Our trip to Abu Simbel hadn't been cancelled after all. But why had he lied? We hadn't paid him in advance. Cancelling the trip meant cancelling his business. We wondered if Sayid was a very stupid scammer.

Deciding we could no longer trust him, we met him the following day and told him we wanted to book our felucca ride with someone else. Standing at the Nile's edge, on Sayid's motorboat, we asked Sayid for our food back. He claimed it was stored on a different boat, and that we'd have to go to a different dock to retrieve it.

He drove us in his motorboat to another dock, where we sat for an hour, waiting. Then he unlocked a compartment underneath where we'd been sitting. The food had been there all along.

He demanded 40 Egyptian pounds from us, for the motorboat ride. We screamed at him for wasting our time and demanded he return us to our original dock.

With much hassle, we booked another tour for the following day. Our felucca ride was better than we had imagined: scenic sunset views on the sapphire blue Nile; the hilarious company of British and Australian travelers who soon became our new friends. We fell asleep under a starry sky, docked on the Nile River banks.

We were shocked, however, when the first morning after camping out on the boat, we opened our eyes and saw Sayid looming over us like a character from a B-grade horror movie. He was stalking us.

We had to restrain our felucca driver from punching him out. Apparently, Sayid has quite a nasty reputation among felucca drivers. Even his own family, we hear, despises him.

The 'Story of Sayid' became a bit of a running joke on the Felucca, and while we half expected him to show up again, lurking in the papyrus, it was all smooth sailing thereafter.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Scams, rip-offs and cheats

Being a Westerner in the developing world means that many people see you as MoneyBags McGee. They look at you and don't see a person -- they see dollars. And they'll stop at nothing to scam those dollars from you.


I may sound dramatic, but potential scams happen, literally, dozens of times a day. If you're not on guard at all moments, you can kiss your wallet good-bye. We've been scammed for small amounts several times, but we're doing relatively well. Most travelers we've met have lost much larger amounts.

Some of the more common scams include:

-- A tout will follow you around as you're searching for hotels in a new city. (Your backpack is an obvious sign that you need a hotel). You know full well that if you walk into a hotel with him in tow, the hotel will pay him a "commission" and tack it onto your bill. Yet you can't lose him. You tell him to go away. Get lost. Scram. Goodbye. You get stern with him. You yell. He continues to stalk you.

You and your friends devise a "divide and conquer" plan: one of you will stand on the street and engage the stalker/tout in conversation, while the other one ducks into a hotel and looks for a room. This plan fails, because the person who sneaks away immediately attracts the attention of another greedy stalker looking for commission.

-- A really suave tout stands inside the hotel lobby, posing as the staff. He has a copy of the hotel keys and shows you the room. He negotiates the price of the room with you. He helps you check in. Yes, he's a tout, earning a commission, but you might never know it.

-- "The official" -- a man in uniform stands in front of a train station and explains that a given ticket office is closed, or sells tickets to locals only, or doesn't sell tickets as far in advance as the ones you need. He then redirects you to the "foreigner office" or the "advance sales office" or the "after-hours office," which in fact is a scam-office that sells fake tickets.

-- "The counterfeit" -- a person hands you US dollars and asks you to exchange it with them for Egyptian pounds. Then they either hand you counterfeit money or they claim that YOU shortchanged THEM, and demand more money.

True story: some Australians we met got counterfeit money at the DESK of an established Exchange Bureau.

-- You pay for something at a store or a restaurant, and the shopkeeper/server doesn't give you change. You ask for change. They give you PART of it. At this point, most Westerners fail to count their change and they walk away. If you're street-smart, you count your change, then stand your ground. The shopkeeper gives you another portion of it. You continue to stand there with your hand extended. They give you a little more. Then they tell you that they don't have any smaller bills or coins, so they're unable to give you adequate change. At this point, you either demand it and make a fuss, or you ask that they trade you another item in exchange for being shortchanged. Either way, this costs you 10 minutes of your life.

-- The "premise changing" scam. You ask an Egyptian taxi driver how much a ride will cost. "Ten pounds," he'll say. You and your friend get into the cab and complete the ride. Upon exiting, you hand him 10 Egyptian pounds. He looks at you and says, "no, 10 British pounds."

When you refuse, he raises the stakes. "10 British pounds EACH."

-- The "bribery" scam. When you refuse to give the cab driver "10 each," he refuses to unlock the trunk, where your baggage is kept, until you pay him 10 each -- plus another 10 for a "baggage fee," plus a "tip."

-- If people say "everything is included" -- that means NOTHING is.

-- Inventing the amount of time it will take to get from one city to the next by bus, then encouraging you to take a "private car" that gets you there "faster."

I wanted to tell the story of Sayid, the ostensible "driver" of a felucca sailboat that cruised down the Nile River from Aswan to Luxor, who pulled one of the most frustrating and ingenious scams we've countered. But right now it seems our internet time is running short. Stay tuned for the story of Sayid next.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Photos

I've assembled a slideshow of the best photos from the last 6 weeks, taken in Egypt and Israel. Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Quirks of the two countries


Quirks about Egypt:

- Mannequins wearing hijab (veils)
- Donkey-carts and horse-drawn buggies driven down six-lane highways of congested urban traffic
- Drivers at night keep their headlights off, and flash them only if they're about to hit you
- Drivers will never brake for a pedestrian or for another car, preferring insted to honk or flash their headlights
- City water pipes lay ON the road, where they can easily get smashed, insted of underneath the road
- Some cafes and street vendors swear that falafel (a delicious fava bean patty) is sold only during the morning hours. Others only offer it past 10 p.m. Some say it's off-limits during Ramadan; others say it can only be sold between 3-5 p.m. every other day.
- Garlic-scented hair conditioner
- Streets filled with sheep
- A donkey cart with "Toyota" painted onto the plywood
- Crazy 7-way intersections with bumpy concrete, manhole covers halfway out, pipes exposed, and the thick clog of diesel burning your lungs
- Buses blast loud low-quality "Allah!" music throughout a 15-hour ride. The bus stops occasionally so passangers can pray at rest stops.
- No one checks when you set off the metal detector. And EVERYONE sets off the metal detector. You could probably walk through a metal detector with a gun slung over your shoulder and no one would say a word.

Quirks about Israel

- Half-assed security everywhere: entering a bus station or a restaurant or a sandwich shop requires letting a 19-year-old security guard take a cursory glance at your backpack.
- Peanut-butter flavored Cheetos.
- Push/Pull on doors is totally reversed.
- Our friends' lease, for his apartment in Tel Aviv, stipulated that he COULD NOT use electricity on Friday nights or Saturdays, which are considered to be a holy time of the week (Shabbat). If he's caught trying to use electricity on Friday night or Saturday, he could be evicted.
- Tel Aviv's maze-like six-story bus station, which sells clearance thongs.
- Jerusalem's highly organized three-story bus station, which sells yarmulkes.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Jerusalem: A Two-Act Play

Meanwhile, back in America -- looks like the Dow is falling but Britney Spears' popularity is rising. Has the world turned upside-down?

We're in Egypt now, but before I tell stories of our trip here, I'll recap Jerusalem: A Two-Act Play.

SCENE ONE: JERUSALEM'S WAILING WALL.

Bring an engineer to Jerusalem, and he'll be the first to point out that the holiest site in Judiasm is a structural retaining wall.

The "Wailing Wall" is an appropriate name -- hundreds of Jews wail, sob and bow at this otherwise ordinary-looking 2,000-year-old wall at the base of the Temple Mount. A couple milennia ago, Romans destroyed the Jew's holiest temple, and this retaining wall is all that remains.

Three of us -- two girls, one guy -- washed our hands and began walking toward the wall to pay our respects.

On the way, an old woman began yelling at us in Hebrew. We ignored her, figuring she was a beggar, a vendor or just plain crazy. We kept walking. She kept yelling. Walking. Yelling. Walking. Yelling. Finally we figured out what she was trying to tell us -- the Wailing Wall is gender-segregated and the guy was supposed to be on the other side. Oops!

He headed off to the other corner of the wall, where the Hasidic Jews at the enterance handed him what appeared to be a paper take-out cup, like the kind a elementary school cafeteria would serve fries in.

"Put this on your head," they told him. It was, apparently, a McYarmulke. (Pronounced ya-ma-kah .... it's a little cap Jewish men wear over their future bald spot).

It was generous for them to give him one -- they could have required all non-Jewish visitors to buy a Yarmulke at the Yarmulke Stand in the bus station. That's right, the Jerusalem bus station sells every design and size of Yarmulke a man could possibly want.

SCENE TWO: THE SITE OF JESUS' CRUCIFIXION

When Jesus was nailed to the Cross, the scene must have been unglamorous: an angry mob, some wood, and a hammer.

Now, the site where He died is festooned with silver and gold. It looks like a hip-hop video. The site of the crucifixion is some shiny bling-bling.

The angry mob, however, hasn't disappeared. They've just converted into priests.

At the site of the crucifixion, a long line of devout Christians, who are undoubtedly making one of the most important pilgrimages of their lives, wait for their chance to kneel and pray at the location of the Cross. Many of them are elderly and have probably scrimped and saved and waited and prayed for their once-in-a-lifetime chance to see the place of Holy Passion.

But their moment in God's presence is probably ruined by the priests.

These guys have spent too long watching Christian pilgraims, and have lost their patience for crowd-control. They stand next to the worshippers, yelling "hurry up! HURRY UP!," and fly into a tizzy once a worshipper has been at the Cross for longer than a few seconds. Most of the time, the priests begin screaming before a Christian has even had enough time to bow.

One particularly angry priest physically shoved an old lady out of the way. Security rushed him, demanding to know what he was doing. "I asked her to leave!!" he bellowed. Security apologized to the old lady and allowed her to get to the front of the line. "NO!!" the priest yelled, and rushed in for interference. Another priest caught wind of this and ran over, trying to calm the first priest down. Suddenly people are screaming in different languages. Commotion ensues.

Even all the bling-bling in the world can't make the site of the Crucifixion sacrosanct.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Yom Kippur

Zohar invited us to stay at his kibbutz -- a communal village, population 650 -- in northern Israel.
We leapt at the prospect of seeing a communal village, although Laurel was a little hesitant. Should she spend Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year, at the kibbutz? Or should she try to spend it with Israeli relatives she's never met before; family with whom she shares a common great-grandfather?

Thanks to strange serendipity, she didn't have to choose. As it turns out, Laurel's relative lives on the same kibbutz. In fact, he's Zohan's next-door neighbor!

This relative, Yani, is extremely friendly. He wholeheartedly greeted Laurel when she knocked on his door, and he hosted us for three consecutive dinners. Today he and his wife drove us to Mt. Carmel, took us to a Sufi market, and bought us an amazing hummus, dolma, and lamb kebab lunch.

Devout Jews fast on Yom Kippur, but the kibbutz is populated with kids in their early 20's who care more about fun than fasting. We spent The Day of Judgment hanging out at a campfire with about 25 Israeli youth. We cooked pizzas over the fire, munched on cookies, and enjoyed an unconventional, fasting-free Yom Kippur.

In general, we're better-fed in Israel than we ever were in Egypt. During Ramadan in Egypt, there simply was no food available. We'd get hungry, and climb onto the roof of the hostel, and shake a palm tree until dates fell out. We'd munch on the dates and call it lunch.

We were poor and hungry, and we all lost weight. Here in Israel, we're promptly putting those pounds back on, one scoop of tahina at a time.

The landscape here looks dry -- rust-colored soil, stone settings -- but amazingly, this kibbutz is brimming with fruit. Our days consist of picking pomegranates out of trees, watching quails, walking past the sheep pastures, picking wild herbs to make tea.

We're returning to Tel Aviv tonight.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Don't mess with the Zohar

Zohar is an Israeli man who had a month's vacation from his job in the military last year.

He spent that month traveling through California, Colorado and Texas, and found our house through Couchsurfing.com. We let him sleep in our basement for a few weeks.

Now, good karma comes into play. We're staying at his apartment in Tel Aviv.

It's amazing how a border -- an arbitrary, imaginary line -- changes everything.

As soon as we crossed into Israel, we faced a new language, new code of socially acceptable behavior, and new standards of health and hygene.

The hummus here -- as opposed to in Egypt -- is sold in a safety-sealed plastic package, without flies. The prices here have quadrupled. It's acceptable to wear short skirts here. Instead of people fasting for Ramadan, public transit shuts down for the Sabbath.

We seem to have arrived in both Egypt and Israel exactly in time for their annual religious holidays. We spent Ramadan in Egypt; now we're spending Yom Kippur and Sukkot at Zohar's kibbutz in northern Israel.

I never took the time to describe the "iftar," the breaking of the fast, that happens every sunset in the Arab world. The bustling, crazy, traffic-choked streets clear out. The loud panic subsides to a whisper. For a brief hour, the streets are completely quiet. All you hear is the Call to Prayer singing "Allah Akbar" and all you see are groups of men sitting together on rugs, eating their first meal of the day.

Here in Israel, we're about to witness Yom Kippur, the day of judgment. Everything shuts down on that day -- no public transit, no jobs. Everyone fasts.

Maybe the more countries change, the more things stay the same.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Border crossing

Crossing the border on foot from Egypt into Israel is something everyone should experience once -- and only once.

Yesterday we tried to catch a bus from Dahab (our coral reef resort hangout) to the border. But since the bus only runs once a day (which you have to GO to the bus station to discover), our plans were waylaid for an extra 24 hours.

We caught the bus to the border this morning, but had to bribe the bus driver to take us to the actual border, instead of dropping us off at the central bus station. He demanded an extra 5 Egyptian Pounds from each passanger, under the table.

I got off the bus desperate to change my tampon. I was leaking blood everywhere; my pants were stained deep red from the bus ride.

Unfortuantely, the nearest bathroom was across the border, and a long line of Korean tourists were standing in the way.

With a determined look on my face, I jumped ahead of all of them in line, knocking mothers and little kids out of my path. I did this not just once but twice, through two security checkpoints. I darted into the dirtiest bathroom I've ever seen -- far worse than anything in Nepal -- and took care of business.

We exited Egypt and walked to the Israeli enterance, where my passport was flagged because it shows that I was born in Nepal. Security called for backup, and soon three people stated questioning me:

When did you move to America?
Why?
Why didn't your parents just keep their jobs in Nepal, insted of moving?
What do each of your parents do for work?
What are your parents names?
What did you study in college?
What part-time jobs did you have during college?
How are you paying for this trip?

I found the questioning utterly pointless, given that they have no way of verifying my answers.

And so on. In total, security detained me for more than an hour, suspicious of my ties to Nepal. I don't think they believed me when I claimed that I no longer have a Nepalese passport.

Finally across the border, we caught a bus to Eilat, where we're waiting to take the 1 a.m. bus to Tel Aviv. In total, we'll be in transit for about 24 hours.

Welcome to World Tour, Country #2.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Thou shalt dodge a Dromedary

It's 3:30 in the morning, and I dimly spot a large object lumbering towards me on the gravely path.

"Jimal! Left!," someone calls out, and I duck to my right to avoid being run over by a camel. These creatures seem as heavy as horses, and getting stepped on by one would be an ugly injury.

I wonder why camels are allowed on such narrow winding paths in pitch-black dark. Surely my headlight can't spot them coming from above.

But our paths cross, the camel and I, and he continues a steady saunter downward while I push on toward the summit.

I've been walking since 2 a.m., and I need to reach the top by 5 a.m., in time to see daybreak over the mountains.

I have no trouble doing so, and I find a narrow stone ledge at the summit of Mt. Sinai.

It's here where (according to Christians, Jews and Muslims alike) Moses recieved the 10 Commandments from God. I had read about this mountain millions of times in Catholic school, but never did I imagine it to be so desolate.

Life is impossible in these mountains for plants, trees -- for anyone other than camels and box-lunch tourists on air-conditioned buses.

I try to imagine 40 days of solitude on this mountaintop, as Moses spent when he talked to God. Once the sun rises on these mountains, they become scorching hot and unbearably dry. Anyone would start hearing voices, it seems.

As the sun rises, the only voices I hear are hymns in German, in Korean, in languages I can't identify. They're sung by the pilgrims sharing the crowded summit with me.

As I start my descent back down, I hear the gurgles and groans of camels. 40 years from now, the camels will still be on Mt. Sinai.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Even in a tropical paradise, sometimes its the strange people you meet -- not the sunny place you're in -- that sticks in your mind the most.

This is true of Dahab, Egypt.

This beach town on the Sinai peninsula, near the Gulf of Aqaba, boasts some of the bluest, bluest waters in the world, and an elaborate seascape of coral reef.

It's my first time snorkeling and my first glimpse of coral reef. I'm identifying an entire new world underwater of puffer fish and parrot fish.

The town feels more like a Thai island than Islamic Egypt. We can freely swim in bikinis while staring across the gulf at Saudi Arabia. It's amazing to realize that a tiny stretch of sea separates a beach where women can deep-sea dive from a country where women can't drive.

Of course, snorkeling, coral reefs, reflections on freedom -- blah blah blah. None of this is as colorful as Mickey.

Mickey is a middle-aged Danish woman who's been living in Egypt for the past 7 years.

When I call her "colorful," I mean it literally. She's bright red, head-to-toe. Her color might come from sunburn; it might come from her excessive alcohol consumption. We suspect it comes from both.

She looks old for her age, with saggy, wrinkled skin and an incessant cough from a lifetime of cigarettes and hash. Her cough sounds like water hissing as it hits a pot of hot oil.

She's our neighbor at Camp Sabry, a Bedouin camp overrun by cats.

None of the Camp Sabry residents can sit in our musty, unclean rooms in the evenings, so we all converge under the woven canopy in the center of the campsite.

This space has become our "living room." The cats outnumber the people at least 3-to-1. They seem to multiply hourly.

Sitting in Camp Sabry's "living room" last night, Mickey -- in her usual drunk state -- tried to tell us a story. She made it through "Once upon a time," before devolving into a coughing fit. She sounded like the muck of ancient earth was lodged in her lungs.

All the other guests began laughing at this old woman's failed state. She looked around angrily, then tried again. "Once upon a time -- " she began, before her words dissolved into fitful coughing.

She managed to tell the story -- a fictional tale about a fish with a golden head -- though she told it in a rambling, convoluted way, like Sarah Palin trying to answer a foreign policy question.

Then she walked off, defeated.

Half an hour passed. It seemed like the night was calming down. Even the cats had disappeared.

Then I noticed everyone staring at me. What? Wait, no, they're not staring at me. They're staring at some spectacle behind me.

It's Mickey, completely topless, drunk beyond her skull. Her body is as red and saggy and wrinkled as her face. Her breasts, somehow, are perky and creamy milk-white.

She walks past all the practicing Muslim boys, who are vacationing in Dahab to celebrate the end of Ramadan fasting. They glance, look away, glance again, then look away with vigor.

She stumbles toward the bathroom, then back toward her room. But she walks through the wrong door.

We watch as she enters someone elses' open bedroom door. We wait for her to realize her mistake and leave. She does not.

After some hesitation, the guests crowd the doorway. Mickey is passed out asleep on someone's bed. Four feet away from her is an innocent man, sleeping, oblivious to his intruder.

The Muslim men aren't sure what to do. One grabs a towel and places it around her, covering her skin. They try to pick her up.

She wakes up, falls over. Shoots a look at the innocent man asleep in the next bed.

"WHAT'S he fucking doing in my fucking room?" It begins as an angry bellow, then falls to a mumble. By the end of the question, she's asleep.

The sleeping man wakes up from of the commotion. Screams.

Just another night in tropical snorkeling paradise .....

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Crossing the Sahara

We crossed the Sahara on a bouncy bus, gazing for hours at the endless sea of sand in every direction. The Sahara is barren, empty, desolate.

We drive for an hour. Flat sand. There is no life here, no mercy. Leave someone in the sands without water, and they'd die quickly.

We drive another hour. And another. And another. The scenery never changes.

Then, suddenly, trees. We rub our eyes. Is it a mirage? No -- it's truly an oasis.

The Siwa oasis, which worshipped the Ancient Egyptian god Amun until (relatively) not too long ago, is a solitary small town close to the Libyan border. Donkey-carts outnumber cars. The stones give way to dwellings carved into the stone, which gradually give way to modern dwellings made out of stone and mud-brick.

Women are rarely seen, not even at markets. They are cloaked from head-to-toe, with a mesh veil hiding even their eyes. By contrast, women in burquas in cosmopolitan Cairo look exposed.

So on our second night at the Siwa oasis, when we had the opportunity to visit a woman's house, Laurel and I lept at the chance. No man other than her son could accompany us; women can only be in the company of other women.

Their privacy is so fiercely guarded that her son wouldn't even reveal her name.

But we did get to see her face: smiling and shy. The left side of her mouth had large yellowed teeth, the right side had no teeth. At home she wore a simple beige tunic and a blue headscarf over her curly black hair. Although she was slender, she had an unbelievably large booty.

She brought us tea and cookies; applied henna to Laurel's hands. A television, her only contact with the outside world, played in the background the entire time. It had satellite stations, most of which were in Italian, and for awhile it broadcast images of women in thong bikinis sunbathing on the Italian Riviera. I wondered how television rocked the Berber (nomadic north Africans who settled in Siwa) way of life; I wondered if shows like these were the equivalent of porn.

She couldn't speak any English. She didn't want her picture taken. She didn't ask for any money for the hours she spent applying henna to Laurel's hands; Laurel had to forcifully press 10 Egyptian pounds ($2 U.S. Dollars) into her palms.

Her son drove us back to town on his donkey-cart. We realized he's probably the sole breadwinner of the family, as his father, whom we met, is blind. Even without eyesight, though, the father can expertly manuever the TV remote.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Salaam alaykum

“Is salaam ‘alaykum!,” we’re greeted at the train station in Alexandria. The man who says it, Mohammad Abdallah, was born and raised in the Sudan but lives in Egypt and holds a U.S. passport.

In the early 1990’s, when he was a young immigrant studying in America, he lived with my friends’ family in Broomfield, Colo., and when he discovered we are in Egypt, he invited us to stay with him, his wife and their three daughters, ages 9 months through 9 years.

We’ve been spending the past few days at his apartment in Alexandria, a coastal city bordering the Mediterranean Sea.

Outside the famed Library of Alexandria, we met an Egyptian-born guy from Los Angeles named Mustafa and his crew of Egyptian “homies” – twentysomethings with sideways baseball caps who listen to hip-hop all day and stay bored because its cool. We’ve spent the past two afternoons hanging out with them by the sea. They smoke cigarettes, rap Ludacris and Bizzy Bone lyrics, and complain about how none of the Egyptian girls will get naked for them.

All day long, we’re hot and hungry. We sleep late into the afternoon – it’s too hot to move much while the sun is out – and stay awake late into the night, when the temperature cools. We’re usually still awake by the 4 a.m. morning Call to Prayer.

At night, the city erupts with characteristic craziness. Horses pull wagons piled with eggplants down narrow, trash-strewn streets. Children ride tricycles past sheep and goats tied outside butcher shops. Men weld chicken cages as the animals cluck inside. Pedestrians dance around microbuses driving within an inch of bodies.

After breaking fast with Mohammad at sunset, we ventured out to buy a watermelon from a midnight melon cart. Someone had carved “Allah Akbar” – “God is Great” – into the melon skin.

My friend, who studied Arabic in college, read aloud from the watermelon rind. I practiced reading the Arabic numbers on license plates passing by. We began to sweat in the smoggy night humidity.

We're going to Siwa tomorrow, a small oasis town at Egypt's western border, next to Libya. More than a dozen tourists were kidnapped at the Egypt-Libya border a few days ago, but that was in the south. We're heading to the north, which (fingers crossed!) will be safe.

“Is salaam ‘alaykum!” – peace be with you.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Walk like an Egyptian

Day 2. 500 to go.


We spent Day Two at the Pyramids in Giza, which are both majestic and subtle. In a barren desert, with no buildings to compare relative size, the enormity of the pyramids is hard to grasp. Standing next to the pyramids, you lose all concept of space, distance and size.


Laurel and I rode camels across the sands, reaching a dune plateau overlooking all 9 pyramids: the 6 pyramids of Giza and 3 to the east. We pause to gaze over the stark landscape, then turn our camels in the direction of the Sphinx. I think of the empty desert the Sphinx used to look upon; how that space has now become a dense cluster of cement high-rises thick with smog and soot.


We dismount our camels by the Sphinx. Our legs are sore from riding. “You’ll be walking like an Egyptian,” says our camel guide Samir.


Back in Giza, Laurel befriends an Egyptian perfume-seller, Ismael, who is about to go to 1 out of his 4 homes to have dinner with 1 out of his 4 wives.


Laurel tells him we’ve love to experience breaking a daily Ramadan fast with a Muslim family; he invites us into his living room, where we recite the first verse of the Koran while breaking fast with sweet plum-colored juice. One of his wives cooks us the best falafel we’ve ever tasted.


We pile back of the street, bellies full, smoke a hookah on the sidewalk, drink a cup of tea, and catch a bus back to Cairo.