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Since India, I’ve been struggling to find my voice again. My writing doesn’t feel like my own, and I’ve been fighting to get it back and to make it feel right. I don’t know where it went or what has changed, but something is different and it’s throwing me off-kilter. Life is off by a few centimeters, but it’s my hope that by making some serious changes over the next few weeks, I’ll get myself back on track.

I’m not done blogging about India. I’ve got Agra, the Taj Mahal, Varanasi and Delhi still to cover, not to mention photos galore. I’ll get to them, I promise. But I’ve got a lot to do right now — namely packing. As of 6 p.m. tomorrow, I’ll be a resident of Washington, D.C. Can you contain your excitement? ‘Cuz I sure can’t.

While I pack and you anticipate my arrival, here is something to keep you busy. If you liked Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, you’ll love this. Gregg Gethard takes us with him on his road to victory over arch nemesis Ilan. The accompanying video of the episode only enhances his story.

I can’t quite figure out what Gethard is doing at the moment, but I did find his blog. Ilan, his rival, is a Huffington Post blogger. I did a bit of Facebook stalking and learned that they are indeed Facebook friends. That counts for something these days, right?

Last week, flying back to New York, I noticed that the plane was flying on a strange path. Most of my past transatlantic flights had glanced over Iceland and Greenland before heading southwest, coming in over Cape Cod and then flying over Long Island. But this time, we flew farther north, coming in through Canada, heading straight south over Albany and following the Hudson straight down to JFK, which meant flying over Kingston. Albany, Kingston, NYC and then back to Kingston again.

Foreshadowing for this weekend, I say.

While I was in India, Tori took it upon herself to leave the nest and move up to Albany. Her new apartment, just down the street from the Capitol building, was in dire need of a visitor. The drive up to Albany was only an hour, not even enough time for me to realize that exactly six years earlier, I had made that same Kingston-Albany drive and hit a Mercedes somewhere near Thruway exit 22.

My car and I made it to Albany unscathed, where champagne, homemade bruschetta and The Real Housewives of New York City reunion awaited my arrival. Watching Countess LuAnn perform her hit, “Money Can’t Buy You Class,” I proclaimed to the Internet world that I wanted to be a countess. Because really, who doesn’t? My post brought comments from friends around the country, including Alex, who I literally haven’t seen in a decade. Friends since my first summer at Long Lake Camp, we stayed in touch sporadically, via instant messenger in its heyday and now through Facebook. On Friday, he commented that he’d seen Countess LuAnn performing a few night’s earlier in the city and I was reminded that he lived in Brooklyn. I shot him a message and we made plans to meet up for a reunion drink the next night when I was in New York City.

Saturday morning. We hiked up to Lark Street and found Ramona’s, a hole-in-the-wall joint with excellent breakfast sandwiches. After that, the Capitol to check out the day-time view under an impossibly blue sky. Highlight: the Capitol building and the Egg. (Quote Tori: “It looks like the Starship Enterprise!”)

Saturday was my in-transport day. A quick stop back in Kingston to shower and grab clothes for New York, and we were on our way to the city. I had barely enough time to drop my bag off at my uncle’s place in Park Slope before heading to Koreatown to meet Maia and Robin for dinner. This year, I’ve taken it upon myself to introduce loved ones to the best Korean meal ever — dolsat bibimbap. And you know what? Everyone likes it. Rice + veggies + beef + chili sauce = really, really good Korean food. After dinner, I ducked into the Korean grocery store for a Melona pop, my not-so-secret addiction. Robin and I said goodbye to Maia and grabbed a cab to the East Village, where we met long-lost camp friend Alex at Black and White. I learned how to use Foursquare and Alex told Robin stories about 12-year-old Melissa that even I don’t remember. By 1 a.m., the bar was too loud and our glasses were empty, so we headed outside. Robin had a train to catch, but Alex and I weren’t ready to call it a night. We walked down to Cooper Square and I realized that we were only a few blocks away from Pommes Frites. For the past six months, every trip to the Village has included an attempt to eat at Pommes Frites, but the line is permanently stretched out the door and down the street. The air was warm and there was nothing better to do, so Alex and I took our spots at the end of the line. Fifteen minutes later, we were holding piping hot cones of Belgian fries and toting a bag of four dipping sauces: peanut satay, wasabi mayo, curry ketchup and parmesan peppercorn. We found a nice little nook a couple blocks away and sat down to enjoy whatever Manhattan has to offer at 2 a.m., which happened to be inebriated college kids.

At some point, a guy with a guitar came up to us and asked to play us a song. He asked for three topics (we gave him India, babies and french fries) and came up with a song off the top of his head. It was…well, impressive. After he sang, he sat down with us and we got to talking. He was from Miami and living in a van with nine other people. They had overestimated their funds and were down to their last pennies. From what I’ve gathered from Facebook, he’s on tour right now, but he didn’t mention that at all on Saturday night. Then his girlfriend sat down and joined the conversation. They had scraped together about $20 that night, she explained. She’d only slept one hour the night before and just wanted a bed and a shower. I felt for her, but knowing very little about Manhattan, couldn’t give her any suggestions, and certainly couldn’t take them back to Park Slope. Alex gave her some fries and I gave her boyfriend my Metrocard. A friend of theirs came over and said he’d found a place for them to sleep. They said goodbye and walked off into the night, leaving Alex and me to try and piece together what had just happened. A few minutes later, we stood up, looked at the remains of our snack (in a moment of clumsiness earlier, I had knocked my fries out of my own hand and onto the sidewalk) and walked into the night ourselves.

Sunday, Father’s Day. Breakfast, History of the World: Part 1 (despite my distaste for Mel Brooks) and a drive back upstate. Joanna and I met Dad at the Bowery Dugout for dinner. (And yes, that book in the background was part of my Father’s Day gift.)

Dinner was tuna sashimi, mozzarella sticks (I was in Italian-food withdrawal) and a tunasteak with light wasabi sauce. Dinner conversation was all about the food-in-the-mail diet that has taken the Weiss family by storm (yours truly excluded), next month’s Baltimore baseball trip and catching up with owner Bruce’s daughters, friends from high school who were helping their parents manage the holiday rush.

After dinner, Jo and I headed home and I went straight for the photo cabinet to find an old picture for Facebook. Came up with this, but also found another gem, which I’ll post here. I don’t know what’s better: my dad’s amazing mustache or my grandfather’s acid-wash denim shirt. Or, you know, how cute I was as a child.

Ah, how to begin? My Facebook friends and Twitter followers can tell you that the theme of this trip was ‘how many different ways could Melissa be sick/injured/infested with bugs.’ Friend Maitreya finally commented on one of my statuses, “Stop being so fragile.” Easier said than done, my friends!

Let’s get one thing out of the way–I am incredibly accident-prone. My body and medical bills are testaments to that. I fall/trip/run into things more than the average person. Way more. I like to think it’s character-building.

Frugal as ever, I opted not to purchase travelers’ insurance. I had it during last year’s Southeast Asia jaunt and it just wasn’t worth it. (I got a measly $70 back on a $200 Vietnamese hospital bill.) I calculated that unless I ended up spending more than $250 on health-related issues, getting insurance in India wasn’t worth it, either.

Well, to quote Dr. Joggi, who runs a hospital in Agra, “You came to India without insurance!?” It’s not a good sign when even your doctor thinks you’ve done something stupid.

It all started in Bangalore. Lice, while not doctor-worthy, sure aren’t fun. I know that getting lice is some weird rite of passage for elementary schoolers, much like chicken pox or shingles or what have you, but I avoided that like the plague. Maybe we Zena School kids were immune to lice, because I can’t remember a single outbreak in my six years there. Enter Korea, where I spent a year in constant contact with kids. Again, no lice. Three days at the Bangalore orphanage and I knew something was up. The itchiness, the scratchiness — it could only be one thing. Sure enough, it was. That weekend, I picked up a 25-cent Indian-brand lice shampoo that, much to my surprise, worked like a charm. (But Mimsie still brought the American stuff, just for good measure.) Indian medical care 1, American medical care 0 (and expensive). I was lice-free by the time we got to Mumbai, which was where our troubles really began.

My ear had been bothering me for a few days, so I went to a clinic near the hotel to get it checked out. Minor ear infection–no big deal. The doctor’s fee and medication came to…wait for it… wait for it…700 rupees. For about the cost of my American co-pay, I got two clinic visits and medication. Indian medical care 2, American medical care 0.

The night of our Bollywood extravaganza, Mimsie nearly had to roll me out of bed. Maybe it was the sun or dehydration, but my head felt like a sumo wrestler had made his home on my brain. To give you an idea of how much Ibuprofen I popped that night, I was afraid to take more than a couple sips of Mimsie’s cosmo.

I slept virtually all of the next day. When I stumbled out of bed for dinner, my headache was gone, but something else was wrong. So terribly, awfully, painfully wrong. So begins the E.coli saga.

Oh, E.coli. Until this trip, the term ‘E.coli’ conjured up images of spinach and meat in my head. Now? Me, curled up on a bed, feeling like a pregnant woman having contractions. We’re talking shooting pain that literally stopped you in your tracks. Mims felt it, too, and so we spent the second half of our time in Mumbai in agony over what we had dubbed the ‘alien babies’ in our stomach.

My pain subsided enough for me to walk around the city on our last day, but Mimsie got worse and worse. She couldn’t stand up straight, much less carry her bags. After the 22-hour train ride to Agra, I convinced her to go to a local clinic. I figured they’d give her some antibiotics, maybe a shot, and then we’d be on our way. But no, Dr. Joggi had different plans. Mims was only a day or two away from going into septic shock and ending up spending three nights in the hospital, hooked up to an IV and under constant supervision. I really give her credit for sticking it out — had I been in her place, I would’ve absolutely lost it.

My own alien baby had yet to completely disappear, so Mimsie made me see the doctor before she was released. Turns out I also had E.coli, though not as severe a case as hers. We concluded that we got it from the water at our hotel in Mumbai, as that was the only time we ate/drank the same thing. I don’t know how bad my E.coli could have gotten, but I’m gonna go ahead and say that Mims saved my life. Granted, I saved hers first. Tit for tat.

Oh, and my medical bill in Agra? For the visit to Dr. Joggi and a week’s worth of antibiotics, I paid just under 4000 rupees, less than $100 US. Indian medical system 3, American medical system 0.

Mims and I parted ways in Agra, her to a city south of Delhi and me to Varanasi. I had just gotten settled in my sleeper compartment when, of course, I hit my foot against the bed. A sharp pain shot through my foot, and I realized that I had a tender welt on the side of my foot. I vaguely remembered some swelling in that same spot a few weeks earlier, after numerous run-ins with walls and furniture in my room in Bangalore. I snapped a photo and sent it on to my med school friend Kevin. His response: “I can’t tell if your foot is broken from a photo.” Much less a blurry one taken on my Blackberry camera. Brilliant, Melissa.

I finally got myself to a hospital in Delhi, where the doctor told me that while nothing was broken, there was tissue damage and my foot would be swollen for months. She prescribed an anti-inflammatory and I was on my way. Max Hospital doctor visit and medicine bill: 500 rupees, around $10 US. Indian medical system 4, American medical system 0. (Are we sensing a trend here?)

Earlier today, I swung by a pharmacy to pick up more anti-malarials. Instructions indicate that one should take them for a full month after returning home so as to completely eliminate the possibility of contracting malaria. Can you guess how much 30 pills cost? Guess! Wait, first let me tell you that anti-malarials in America go for about $250, according to the woman I spoke to at Kingston’s Nekos-Dedricks pharmacy. OK, ready? A month’s supply of anti-malarials in India go for 19 rupees. That is not even a dollar. That is not even HALF a dollar. Indian medical system 1,000,000, American medical system 0.

Having recently shelled out nearly a grand to pay for March’s ER bill (for a damn pulled muscle, people), I’m floored by the low cost of medical care in India. For three nights in a ‘deluxe air-conditioned room,’ countless IVs, pills and food, Mimsie’s bill came to about $1000 US. Good thing she bought insurance, right?

So there you have it, friends. The good and the bad, the itchy and the alien baby. I will miss the amazing medical care provided at such a low cost. While these prices seemed like nothing to me, I was given a reality check at Max Hospital. Shocked that I could be treated at Max for less than the cost of a steak dinner, I told one of the nurses how impressive it was that such quality health care was so affordable. Then she pointed out something I foolishly had not thought of. Five hundred, six hundred rupees — that’s not a lot for us, but that’s a hefty chunk of change in a country where the per capita income is around $1000 US. India has made me more aware of how much money is carelessly thrown around.

Remember that scene in ‘Roadtip’ where the four stars find themselves in Slovakia, where a few dollars allows them to live like royalty? India has sort of been like that. I can get by on $15-20 US a day here, including my room, meals and rickshaw rides around town. I got pretty down on America in this post, but the truth of the matter is that even in trying times we have it pretty good, and I think that it is important to remember that.

“I gotta go, Mom. We’re meeting a casting agent.”
“Are you serious?”

Yes, I was very serious. Tourists in Mumbai are regularly cast as extras in Bollywood films, usually to add foreign flavor into an otherwise homogeneous cast. Mimsie and I were determined to make it big in Bollywood. Since arriving in Bangalore last month, I’ve clocked significant hours in Indian theaters and can go on for a good half-hour about the latest Bollywood gossip. Being an extra was the natural next step, or so we thought.

Impressing me with her Internet detective skills, Mimsie tracked down an Mumbai agent who specializes in casting foreigners as extras. Polo, as his business card lists his name, met us last Saturday afternoon. We sat down with him and his friend Uzer to talk business. Finding work at the moment was more difficult, Polo said, because the fewer movies were being filmed in the (insufferable) summer heat. While he couldn’t promise us any acting gigs, he and Uzer were going to an exclusive Bollywood party that night, and did we want to go? Um, hell yes we did.

We arranged to meet them later that evening and headed back to the hotel, where I popped Ibuprofen to kill my throbbing headache (the beginning of a 24-hour bug, but more on that at a later date) and we showered and got ready.

By 11 p.m., I was on the back of Uzer’s motorbike, zipping through the best and worst of Mumbai as we headed to the club, located in the Juhu suburb. As we drove through the ritzier neighborhoods, Uzer pointed out celebrity homes and important landmarks. As we drove through the slums, he didn’t say anything. He didn’t have to. The slums spoke for themselves: burning heaps of garbage, kids in filthy clothes roaming the streets (at close to midnight, mind you!), dilapidated homes on top of dilapidated homes on top of dilapidated homes. But past the grime and poverty, you could see families and communities, formed around bonfires, chai stalls and snack shops. For all the fear that films like Slumdog Millionaire have instilled in us, I felt pretty safe.

That is, until another motorbike ran into us. When we headed out, I joked to Uzer, “You can’t crash–I’m not wearing a helmet.” He laughed and told me not to worry, he’d keep me safe. True to his word, he managed to keep our bike upright as another crashed into our left side, spilling the driver and his passenger onto the pavement. As the crash wasn’t Uzer’s fault and the bike wasn’t damaged, we only stopped for a moment to get over the shock before getting back on the road.

We made it to the club just before midnight, when the free entry for those not on the list (and we were so on the list) turned into a whopping 4,000-rupee (US$100) cover. The next few hours were spent getting Bollywood dance tutorials from the guys and showing our stuff on the dance floor. The mix of Hindi and English music (including my dear Taylor Swift and my less-dear Justin Bieber) kept the crowd going until the early hours of the morning. The whole thing couldn’t have been more like a Bollywood club video if it tried.

On our way back to the hotel, Uzer showed me some of the coolest sights around the city–Chowpatty Beach, the world’s largest house (set on the top half of a high-rise apartment) and most importantly, the home of Bollywood legend (and the current object of my affections) Shah Rukh Khan. It was nearly 4 a.m. by the time he dropped me off at my hotel. In the span of five hours, I had sped through the slums, gotten a whirlwind tour of Mumbai from the descendent of Delhi royalty, been in the Indian version of a fender-bender and learned to dance like a Bollywood star.

It is those nights — the late late ones that only seem to occur when you’re in a strange new city in a strange new country and have no idea what’s going on around you — that always end up being the ones people want to hear about. They’re the ones that give you the crazy stories to tell. (“Remember that time you got caught up in a street riot in Budapest? Or how about the night you and a stranger downed bottles of wine and chatted in the dim glow of a restaurant generator in Vietnam, oblivious to the typhoon raging outside?”) Every time I come home, it’s the same routine. “Tell me everything!” But then, the hours of sipping coffee at local cafes and people-watching pale in comparison to 30 seconds of being attacked by Thai monkeys. Last Saturday night was surely one of the highlights, but it shouldn’t overshadow my mornings sipping chai on a balcony overlooking the Ganges River or the thrill of cramming into a train overflowing with families and luggage and speeding through the North Indian countryside. For better or for worse, every step of this trip has been an adventure of some sort–it’s just a matter of taking note of the small things along the way as well as the extravagant ones.

A trip to Mumbai could not be complete without seeing its Jewish community. The 26/11 attacks, which included an assault on Mumbai’s Jewish Center, claimed the lives of 166 people, including Rabbi Gavriel Holtzberg and his wife Rivke, who ran the city’s Chabad House.

Chabad houses around the world are known for welcoming weary Jewish travelers and providing food and TLC, as well as supporting the local Jewish population. In Seoul, Chabad was one of my favorite places to see friends, attend services and eat amazing (and kosher) food. It wouldn’t have been right for me to visit Mumbai without attending Shabbat services at one of the local synagogues. Friend Ariel spent a year here working with the city’s Jewish population, and her stories alone made me want to experience a Mumbai Shabbat.

The century-old Keneseth Eliyahoo synagogue in the Fort neighborhood is absolutely stunning. The bright blue and white structure stands out from the drab buildings surrounding it. The security guard posted out front put me at ease as I walked inside and up the stairs to the women’s section. The old synagogue is showing its age and is in dire need of restoration, but it was easy to picture the building as it once was, lively and bright and filled with kavanah.

It’s been a long time since I’ve attended services anywhere, but the words still came easily and I was filled with a sense of wholeness as we made our way through the service. This community has been through a lot, but it is still here and thriving, and that alone amazes me. There are several thousand Jews in Mumbai, but only two dozen were at synagogue that night, a little disheartening when you think about it. But my reservations went away and shivers ran down my spine as the dozen or so men started dancing and clapping and singing a niggun after “Lecha Dodi,” the song meant to welcome the Sabbath bride. Watching the men–old men, young men, Israelis, Indians, Americans–grow louder and louder as they danced with their arms around each other, the sound of their voices reverberating off the walls of the old shul, I was reassured that despite the events of 26/11 and terrorist attempts to destroy the heart of the city’s Jewish community, this place was going to be just fine.

It wasn’t until 5 a.m., somewhere between Goa and Mumbai, that I really felt as though I’d returned to the backpacking lifestyle. Nine hours into our overnight bus drive, we stopped at a rest station on the side of the road. As I walked over to the toilets, I was hit with that overwhelming, stomach-churning stench I’d forgotten, the kind that exists in bathrooms that are cleaned about once every century. Old Melissa would have run away and dry-heaved in a bush. But New Melissa held the collar of her shirt over her nose, smiled and thought, “I’m back.” After weeks of living out of a backpack, checking beds for bugs and wondering how safe the tap water is, I’ve finally got the routine down.

A few hours later, we were in Mumbai and ready to take on the city. Our first day was low-key as we got settled into our new digs in the Fort section of the city. That night, we made plans to meet up with our law school friend Anurag, who lives in Mumbai, and Maitreya, a college acquaintance of mine who happened to be in Mumbai visiting family. Wine, beer and a few hours of hookah with new friends ensued. It was nice to be able to go out past dark. In both Bangalore and Goa, it didn’t feel safe to walk around at night. The catcalls, stares and occasional grabs and gropes become much scarier in the dark, so it’s just been better to pack it in early. But accompanied by guys, I felt safer that night than I had in weeks.

The next morning began with a bit of a headache, as mornings after wine tend to do. I went heavy on the coffee at breakfast and was in top shape to head out to Elephanta Island with Mims.

Elephanta Island is an hour-long boat ride away, so first stop: docks. The docks are located right next to the Gateway to India, constructed to welcome King George and Queen Mary upon their visit to Bombay nearly 100 years ago. The arch stands in front of the Taj Mahal Palace and Tower, one of the sites of the 26/11 terror attacks, as they’re known in India. The best view of the two isn’t from the docks, but from the water. I snapped a couple photos, but as is usually the case, pictures don’t do the actual view justice.

Elephanta Island was…hot. And swarming with monkeys. Sounds like my ideal afternoon, right? It was surprisingly fun, as we spent a few hours exploring the huge stone carvings in the caves around the island. The 1500-year-old temples carved into the caves have withstood both time and Portuguese occupation and now welcome thousands of guests a year.

We ended the afternoon with a quick lunch before freshening up for a meeting with our Bollywood agent. More in the next post…

Not the greatest photo. Taj on the left, Gateway to India on the right.

Not the greatest photo. Taj on the left, Gateway to India on the right.