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“Excuse me, can I take your picture?”

If I had a rupee for every time someone asked me that in Goa, I’d be incredibly wealthy. I left the orphanage last weekend, ready for the quiet, pristine beaches of Goa after two weeks of Bangalore’s hustle and bustle. But as is generally the case with Melissa and travel, something had to go wrong. In this case, that something would be a plane crash in Mangalore, not terribly far from where I was headed. I should have known something was up when Jon messaged me “just checking in.” Five minutes later, another message from a friend, making sure I was still alive. Indeed I was, but by then I had gone online and read the breaking news alert. Three hours later, after a few hyperventilations, a frantic phone call home and a “Stay Charlie Oscar Ocsar Lima, baby”–plane-nerd talk for “cool”–from Jon, I was good to go. An hour after that, I was in Goa, ready to kiss the steaming hot ground.

I met Mimsie in Anjuna Beach, a once-upon-a-time hippie haven that’s now a hip holiday spot for backpackers looking for sun, fun and in some cases, plentiful drugs. With monsoon season only a few weeks away, the town was practically deserted and many of the shops, restaurants and guesthouses had closed down for the season. Mims had booked us at Evershine Guesthouse, where the wonderful Sebastiana served as our wonderful hostess. It was hot as hell in Goa, but ice-cold water from Sebastiana’s freezer and evenings catching the breeze on the hammock outside our room made the heat bearable.

At the urging of Lonely Planet, we spent a day at Calangute Beach, which, despite the off-season, was absolutely packed. We knew that day was going to be different when middle-aged men sat down on nearby lounge chairs and aimed their camera phones in our direction. Oh, but that was just the beginning. It was a big game of ‘one of these things is not like the others,’ only in this case, two of these things–Mimsie and myself–were not like the thousands of Indians on the beach. For one, we’re not Indian. Secondly, we were in our swimsuits, a far cry from the saris and salwars that the women around us wore in spite of the scorching sun. The next few hours included, but were not limited to, the following: women posing for photos in that not-so-subtle way so as to get us in the background; parents bringing their babies up and plopping them in our laps for photo ops; passersby sticking their cameras under our umbrella in hopes of getting a shot of us; a group of teenagers hanging around us for an entire hour hoping to get a photo, and then breaking a glass bottle 10 feet away to get our attention. By mid-afternoon, two waiters had become our bodyguards, shooing away anyone we didn’t OK and forcing beach-goers to put away their cameras as they walked past. The only people allowed to speak to us were a few kids on vacation with their parents and a law student from Mumbai who we had met earlier in the day. As we walked out, a man with a camera followed us until a lifeguard came out and ordered him to put away the camera and leave us alone. Apparently, vacationing Indians subscribe to the Lady Gaga theory: “I’m your biggest fan, I’ll follow you until you love me.”

By the end of the day, we lost count of how many photos had been taken of us, how many fake names and brilliantly concocted life stories we had come up with and how many people had tried–and failed–to talk to us.

The absurdity culminated a couple nights later at a restaurant on the water. Determined to see the sun set on our last evening in Goa, we grabbed dinner and drinks at one of the few open restaurants left in Anjuna. Unfortunately, a group of teenage boys had the same idea. They jumped at the chance to talk to us and take photos with us and ruined my last damn sunset by playing Justin Bieber (“We have Justin Bieber fever! Is that right name?”) Perhaps inspired by western reality television and under the impression that American girls are floosies (Jersey Shore airs here–enough said), I was asked by one of the guys to “go for a walk” down to a secluded area of the beach. Much as I’d like to fulfill a 16-year-old boy’s fantasy, a girl’s gotta have standards. And dignity.

The next evening, tired and tanned (or in Mimsie’s case, burned), we headed into Mapusa to catch a sleeper bus to Mumbai, where the adventure continued…

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By the second week, I’d had it with India. I reached the breaking point last Tuesday night. A thunderstorm had cut off our power yet again, the heat in our poorly ventilated room was stifling, we had just discovered a gigantic anthill in our bathroom, water from the storm was beginning to form a puddle at the entrance to our room and to top it all off, the roof was leaking–straight onto my bed. My mother was right–I could never hack it in the Peace Corps.

But then, something happened. The rain stopped, the heat broke and Bangalore suddenly became a much more tolerable place. The arrival of two more volunteers–Samuel from Germany and Simrin, a Canadian Indian–changed the atmosphere and added to our motley crew. Last Wednesday, happier than I’d been in the days prior, I agreed to co-chaperone a trip to Forum Mall, one of Bangalore’s biggest shopping centers. Stephanie and I planned to take the five oldest girls for an afternoon of arcade games and ice cream. But first we had to get them out of the door. The girls took forever to get ready. They put on their best outfits and did each other’s hair and fished around for matching earrings as the younger kids looked on in envy. Once we hailed rickshaws and made it to the mall, it was game time. The arcade was on the third floor, most easily accessed by riding the escalator. Four of the girls jumped on, excited by the idea of a moving staircase. The fifth hung back, hesitant to join her friends and terrified by this new technology. At 13 years old, Sanju had never been on an escalator. At the time it shocked me; in retrospect, I understood it. The kids spend virtually all of their time in school or at the orphanage. Everything they need is there and so they have no reason to leave. I walked Sanju around the corner and up the two flights of stairs and we met up with the other girls. Inside the arcade, we bought them point cards to play the games. In the next hour, we introduced them to Skee-ball, basketball, Whack-a-mole and the day’s highlight, the candy machine. The girls traded in their tickets for pencil cases, which were then stuffed full with the candy they’d won. We got the girls ice cream at Baskin Robbins before finding rickshaws to take us home, which is when the problems began. As a foreigner, getting a rickshaw is never a fun experience. Finding a driver who will use the meter is damn near impossible. Even when a driver does use the meter, he usually charges the meter fare plus fifty percent, simply because I’m not Indian. The sight of two white foreigners and five Indian girls set off quite a scene. Rickshaw drivers jumped over each other to try and get to us. A fight nearly broke out when a jilted driver hopped into our rickshaw and refused to leave until we agreed to ride with him instead. As a foreigner in India, I have come to expect the arguing and the jacked-up prices, but it was not something I wanted the girls to experience on our field trip. I finally shouted at the angry driver to stop yelling and get off our rickshaw so that we could leave. As Minnie, the oldest of the five, put it, “He is charging you for one way what he would charge Indians for both ways. He is a very bad man. Thief.” She was right, to a point. I have met many warm, friendly people over the past few weeks, people who hold my hand, invite me to meals and offer assistance. But here, friendship comes with a price and every conversation is a business transaction. “Hello, where are you from? Oh, America, very nice. Obama! Will you come to my shop, friend? OK, tomorrow then? Do you promise?” During the two weeks I spent at the orphanage, I avoided talking to the pastors because I knew they had a habit of taking volunteers into the office and asking for money.

It has been frustrating to not be seen as a person, but as a cash cow, just because of the color of my skin. In India, and more specifically at organizations such as my orphanage, there is a certain breakdown in communication that nobody has taken the time to fix. I chose to volunteer because I don’t have heaps of money to donate, whereas I believe the pastors accept people like me in the hopes that these volunteers will then financially support the orphanage once the experience is over. My work at the orphanage was good, but largely unstructured. Because there were fifty kids and no guidelines, I made my own schedule. Doling out coloring books was followed by scrubbing dishes and then chopping vegetables on the floor outside the kitchen. If there was time before lunch, I would go out and play with the kids some more. They have very little in the way of toys–one of the choice toys last week was a plastic salad container–and so they rely on each other and on the volunteers for entertainment.

It felt good to take the girls outside of the orphanage. It’s important for them to see that there is more to the world than what they experience within the confines of the orphanage’s bright orange walls. Part of me worries about girls like Sanju, who have been so sheltered that instead of being able to embrace new scenarios and experiences (such as the escalator), they will freeze and emotionally shut down, as she did. I don’t know what will happen to these girls once they grow too old to live at the orphanage. I don’t know what sort of training or life skills they will pick up in the next few years that will prepare them for a world beyond schoolwork and hours each day of structured prayer, but I hope that future volunteers continue the work we have done. The gates of the orphanage are locked 24 hours a day, opened only when someone (typically only the pastors or volunteers) needs to leave or enter. Inside the walls is a family. It is safe and full of love and laughter and the sort of familial bickering that ends with “I’m sorry”s and hugs. But when the gates are open and these girls walk out for the last time, what sort of world will they be faced with, and will they be prepared for it? Those are the questions that have been running through my head since I left on Saturday, but I don’t think anyone can give me an answer.

“I’m going to die, and the last thing I’ll have listened to is a cheesy Backstreet Boys ballad.”

That’s what was going through my head (and evidently, my iPod) Saturday night as the bus I was in sped through the Nilgiris district, a spread of mountains in the northwestern part of Tamil Nadu, south of Bangalore. It was close to dusk and eyesight was limited, not to mention the buses, trucks and motorbikes driving down the mountain, sharing the already narrow road with us. Steph had already popped a Dramamine and refused to look out the window. It was just me, a dozen Indians and some absurdly cheesy 1980s Bollywood film playing on repeat. There are worse ways of dying, I’m sure. I just can’t think of any at the moment.

How did I get to that point? Well, when I first arrived at the orphanage, Dwarakanath suggested Steph and I escape the oppressive May heat by taking a weekend trip to a city called Ooty. One of many hill communities in the Nigiris region, Ooty was a summer vacation spot for the British in colonial days. Because of its altitude (7,500 feet above sea level), it’s a good 15 degrees cooler than Bangalore, and therefore still a popular spot for people looking to escape the heat.

But as is the case with most things in this country, nothing is simple. Booking a ticket in advance at this time of year is a must, something we were unaware of when we strolled into the bus terminal at 5 p.m. on Friday. Tickets to Ooty were sold out, but we were told that if we caught a bus to nearby Mysore, we would have no problem finding a bus to Ooty in the morning. Stephanie had spent a weekend there in April but was game to return. Mysore is a nice little city of 800,000 (when compared to Bangalore’s millions, 800,000 seems like nothing), with a palace, markets and gardens. We toured the palace (and gave the security guard a $2 “tip” to let us bring our cameras in–bribery is alive and well in these parts) and grabbed lunch (one of the best dal makhanis I’ve ever had) before heading to the bus station.

Which brings me to the bus ride. It started out like any normal ride on a coach bus. But then we entered Bandipur National Park, home to elephants, deer, tigers and monkeys, just to name a few. A few kilometers into the park, our bus slowed enough for me to snap a photo of the local residents, a few gigantic elephants. Farther up the mountain, we met with hundreds of monkeys, much to my disdain. (After last year’s monkey attack in Thailand, I am decidedly anti-monkey.)

No big deal, just a few elephants hanging out on the side of the road.

Monkeys--the bane of my existance

Once we neared the top, we were gifted with breathtaking views of the surrounding valleys. The hills looked lush and green and virtually untouched, the way I picture the world looking before humans came along and mucked it all up. If not for the fact that the bus could careen off the edge of the road at any moment, I would have savored the view much more. It’s not that I’m afraid of heights, per say. I’m just afraid of being trapped inside a bus that is tumbling down a steep hill at warp speed. Completely logical, if you ask me. As Steph put it, “This is what you read about in the news–people dying. On buses. In India.”

Eventually and miraculously, we made it up to Ooty in one piece. We found a place to stay, grabbed dinner and watched MTV India, which plays the most amazing Bollywood music videos. As has become habit for me on vacation, I indulged in some late-night CNN before drifting off to sleep.

The next morning, we headed into town to see what Ooty was all about. First stop: Thread Garden. The garden was kitsch to the max. According to the guides, the “garden” was created by 50 local women over the course of 12 years. The “flowers” are made of thread wrapped around paper. From a distance, the creations looked as real as the flowers outside. Tourist trap? Yes. Worth every last rupee? At 10 rupees (about 20 cents), absofreakinglutely.

We left the garden and headed down to the boathouse, where we rented a paddleboat and took to the lake. What happens when you and your friend are the only two young white girls surrounded by hundreds of Indians? You guessed it–or did you?–photo shoot time. Every few minutes, some young guys would ram into our boat, wave and ask where we’re from as others snapped photos from a distance. In all of my travels, I have never felt like such a celebrity. (I should mention that a day earlier in Mysore, a father rushed up to me with a baby in his arms and three kids in tow as another family member took our picture.)

We spent the rest of the afternoon wandering around town before getting an evening minibus back to Mysore. A minibus in the States could legally seat, at most, 15 people. But when in India, cram as many people into one vehicle as possible. In this case, the magic number was 35. A few kilometers outside of Mysore, we dropped off the standers, leaving the final number head count at 25, including six of us in a backseat meant for four.

We intended to spend a few hours at the Mysore bus station before catching a late-night bus to Bangalore, but 10 minutes, a few whiffs of public restroom air and several spitting men later, we gave up on the idea. We decided to spend a night at a local hotel and take a bus back to Bangalore in the morning. Even that didn’t go off without a hitch, as some strange man on the street felt the need to pinch my backside as he walked past me. Classy, I know.

The next morning we woke up early and jumped on a bus to Bangalore. I honed my newfound pushy-Indian skills and snagged a pair of seats before the bus filled up. Five hours and an absurdly long rickshaw ride later, we were happy to be back at the orphanage and ready for another week of chopping vegetables, washing dishes and playing with kids.

It’s hot as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore.

Except I am. Because I’m in India and don’t have that choice.

Because I’m on the outskirts of a dirty, dusty, crowded city. Because the fan in my room provides only the smallest bit of relief before the power cuts out again. Because I take four showers a day not only to wash off the sweat and grime, but to cool down my body, which has been cooking in the 95-degree heat.

I’m going to take it because it’s only been a few days, but I’ve already fallen in love with these kids. They speak no English, and I obviously don’t speak Cannada, the local language, so we communicate in funny faces, hand games and colored pencils. The week has been crazy and emotion-fueled. A full-scale lice infestation has left the kids scratching their heads like mad. Mornings are spent coloring and breaking up fights over clothing. The afternoons are mine, so I usually head into town with Stephanie, the other volunteer. We sip room-temperature sodas on shaded stoops, browse the markets and occasionally head to the mall to refuel on coloring books for the kids.

This is hard, much harder than I expected. But I didn’t sign up for a luxury vacation. As Dwarakanath, the program director, put it, “If this wasn’t a third-world country, would we still need your help?”

Wake up in Brooklyn, groggily shower and grab a bagel before heading to the airport.

Curse the long line at check-in.

Board the flight and discover that I have neighbors. So much for stretching out.

Start watching “Postgrad” on my personal screen and realize that Alexis Bledel’s character’s unemployment makes me feel a little better about my own situation. I might be jobless, but I’ve had one hell of a good time.

Twenty minutes into “Postgrad,” I wonder why we haven’t taken off yet.

The captain then gets on the speakers and says that Homeland Security is ordering our plane back to the gate.

A handful of security agents get on the plane and escort a man off. I start texting and tweeting and figure out that the guy, who is sitting five rows in front of me, is on the no-fly list. Patrick calls me as I’m freaking out to get some quotes about the situation. Then I get a couple texts from friends letting me know that it was a false alarm and the man wasn’t actually on the list.

We take off and I finish “Postgrad” and get through “Couple’s Retreat,” “Invictus” and several episodes of “Glee” and “Grey’s Anatomy” before attempting sleep.
Sleep attempts fail.

We land in Dubai! I take a taxi straight to Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world. Tickets to the top are sold out already, so I spend the morning alternating between sitting at the base and walking around the mall next door. Dubai malls are a force to be reckoned with, people. As Jon put it in an e-mail to me this morning, “Dubai is one big mall. Not much more than that.” As Jon put it several months ago, “Dubai is the love child of Vegas and Saudi Arabia.” That is, to date, the best definition one could give of this city. Scantily clad tourists and women in burkas stand side by side in line for aquarium tickets. Men in long white thobes with gutras on their heads pose for photos in front of the Burj Khalifa. Sensory overload.

I make my way across town and wander through the gold market, shut down because it’s Friday. The air becomes fragrant and I realize that I’ve drifted into the spice market, also closed for the day. The smells still permeate the air and I’m sure that this place has held those scents for generations. A voice comes on a speaker, but I can’t figure out from where. The afternoon prayers are being called, but the city doesn’t stop moving.

I walk down the street to the creek and see rickety wooden water taxis ferrying people back and forth. I want to ride one, too, but have no real reason to do so. I stand against the railing for a few minutes before deciding to hop on. Hell, this trip is about doing what I want, because I may never have the chance to do it again. I hop on the boat and let the breeze and spray from the water hit my face as we go down the creek, feeling a sense of freedom I haven’t felt in some time. I don’t know a single person in this country, but for whatever reason, that doesn’t scare me.

I hail a cab to take me back to the airport. Sleep-deprived, I think I’m having a conversation with the driver until I realize it’s just me talking. He hasn’t said a word since I got in the car.

Airport, at last. Immigration, security and then Starbucks, because I’ve never been more desperate for a cup of coffee.

And now, I wait to board my flight to India.

I hate writing postcards, but I love getting them. When I was younger, my grandmother would send me postcards from all over the world. I kept most of the postcards and put them in a photo album. When I first started traveling, I would pick up postcards every place I went with the intention of mailing them out, but somehow never got around to doing that. I returned from every trip with a handful of blank postcards, or worse–postcards that had been written and addressed…but never mailed.

I’m going to try and change that this time around, friends. If you would like a postcard from India, e-mail me your address: melissa.e.weiss[at]gmail.com. I promise that I will send a postcard to each and every person who wants one.

Now, I’m off to New York City for the afternoon/evening. My flight takes off from JFK at 11:20 a.m. tomorrow. I’m bringing my Blackberry, so I’ll have e-mail, Internet and Skype the entire time I’m traveling. I’ll also have phone and texting capabilities, but that costs a pretty penny, so if you really need me, find me on Skype or Gchat.

And with that, I’ll bid you farewell. The next time you hear from me, I’ll be in Dubai (or, more likely, at JFK waiting for my flight). À bientôt!

Today is my last full day upstate and I haven’t even started to pack. Massive fail, I know. I have a ton to do before I head to Brooklyn tomorrow. (My flight isn’t until Thursday morning, but I don’t want to risk morning traffic in the city on the way to JFK, so I’m heading to the city tomorrow afternoon.) I’m hitting the mall today to pick up the basics–hand sanitizer, shampoo/conditioner, toilet paper, sunblock, wedding ring.

Time out.

Wedding ring?

You betcha. The roommate of a college friend is currently in Mumbai and suggested that while I travel, I wear a rock on my hand to ward off overly friendly locals. Pair that with “My wealthy husband is not feeling well and staying inside our hotel today” and I will successfully dodge some unwanted attention. (At least, that’s what I hope will happen.) I never imagined that the first time I slipped a ring on my finger would be when I’m gross and sweaty and lugging a rucksack through the sweltering Indian heat, but whatever. I’m game.

That’s the plan today. Normal? No. But I’ve come to realize that nothing about my life is normal anymore.

What are some essentials that I’m likely to forget? Remind me before I go shopping today!

There is nothing that makes me happier than finding a nice, quiet spot and pulling out a book.

Hadson Cove, Mactan Island, Cebu, Philippines, March 2009

A couple months ago, I purchased a copy of Bill Bryson’s Neither Here nor There: Travels in Europe. This was my second Bryson book; I made it through most of Made in America before ditching the book in Phnom Penh in October. I was slightly disappointed by Made in America, but Erin urged me to give him another shot.

Kingston Point Beach, Kingston, NY, April 2010

I expected a lot from Travels in Europe. Who doesn’t love to read about a man living our dreams, hopping from country to country, seeing the local sites, eating the regional delicacies and…complaining about absolutely everything and everyone.

Yeah. I got through Norway, France and Belgium before I had to put the book down. I picked it back up a few weeks later and got through a few more countries before giving up again.

I gave this book a shot, I swear I did. My biggest issue with this book is that Bryson travels alone, doesn’t speak to anyone who isn’t performing some service for him and makes no attempt to do anything beyond walk around, stare at the locals and order beer or coffee from a cafe. One of the greatest things about traveling like this is that you are constantly meeting new people, making connections and finding you have more in common with complete strangers than you thought. Bryson…well, Bryson missed out.

I’m done with Bill Bryson, but am now actively seeking book recommendations! I’ll be picking up a couple books before I leave and then trade them in and pick up new ones as I travel. Feel free to comment here, Facebook or e-mail me with suggestions!

Seoul Arts Center, Gangnam, Seoul, South Korea, July 2009

From my friends over at CNN.com:

The U.S. Embassy and the British Foreign Office warned their citizens about the possibility of terror attacks in India.
“There are increased indications that terrorists are planning imminent attacks in New Delhi,” the U.S. alert said Saturday. “Terrorists have targeted places in the past where U.S. citizens or Westerners are known to congregate or visit.”

Awesome.