Sunday, August 20, 2017

Rajasthan from A to Z: Falling in love/love with India

"How do you like India?"

"Ah, trick question," I say to myself as I size up the large, sunburnt, middle-aged man who's just parked himself beside me.

I can't tell if he's an expat or a tourist, but his familiar accent gives away his Aussie status. He knows I'm based in Sydney, but not because of my accent, of course. He says he recognized me from the Scruff grid. He'd clearly taken the time to read my profile, which still lists my city as Sydney.

I ponder his question, which strikes me as being a bit... rote. Like the United States, India is a massive country with so many flavors. It's impossible to attach one impression or emotion to all of it.

As I stand there waiting for my Ola ride while melting in the sun, I feel frustration. But the sprawling views surrounding me - the majestic Amer Fort, the impressive Jaigarh Fort hovering above it, and the small village of Amer nestled in the valley between two of Jaipur's most popular tourist attractions on one side and a series of rolling hills on the other - kill any hate that might be bubbling under and over inside of me.

"I like it," I say, careful not to say the wrong L-word, because I'm not in love... not yet.

The Australian nods in agreement. "It's a special place. It's challenging, but it's worth the effort."

Challenging. He took the word right out of my mind. India is challenging and at times, maddening. But I am still here. I only intended to stay for two weeks, but more than three weeks in, I'm still here.

I'll end up sticking around for five weeks in total, but in this Jaipur moment, I have no idea how long I'll linger, which might be my first clue that my love/hate for India is evolving and changing. It's too soon to admit it, but I'm on the cusp of falling in love/love.

India is still too noisy, too dirty, too in your face, too everything. But as with all great loves, I appreciate it in spite of its flaws - and maybe even a little because of them.

I can't pinpoint the exact moment when I started to fall, but I know it happened somewhere in Rajasthan, India's largest state. It's also, apparently, one of its most colorful. I'm not just talking about Jaipur's "Pink City" or Jodhpur's "Blue City." I'm also referring to the menagerie of animals on the loose - camels, dogs, donkeys, goats, horses, monkeys, and, of course, cows - and the people, so vibrant, so curious, so happy to see you in their town.

And don't get me started on the children - at least not yet. I'll get to them in a moment, as I run through my A to Z impressions of the four Rajasthan towns - Jaipur, Udaipur, Jodhpur, and Pushkar - that truly make my India adventure. There may even be a sequel someday.

A country boy can survive Although I come from a small town (Kissimee, Florida, aka "Cow Town" when I was growing up there in the '70s and '80s), I've always considered myself a city boy at heart. But I may have misjudged my own nature. Although I came to India to experience the sprawling metropolises of Mumbai and New Delhi, I feel so much more at home in the small-to-smallish lower-profile towns of Rajasthan, where the livestock roaming the streets surpass anything I ever experienced in so-called "Cow Town."

Boys to men Males dominate public life in Rajasthan, to an even greater extent than in the other places I've visited in India. With the exception of The Raj Kuber, perched atop a hill in Udaipur, they run all of the hotels I stay in, the restaurants where I eat, and the attractions I take in. I see women, so regal and poised and colorfully dressed, but, for the most part, they act like they don't see me. The guys, however, stare. It doesn't matter if they're babies or boys or men, they lock their eyes on me and don't let up until they can't twist their necks any further to look back at me. I haven't seen so many handsome male faces in one place since my first trip to Buenos Aires 15 years ago. My Canadian friend Bryan, who lives in Japan, says Rajasthani men "carry themselves well." I disagree with some of his assessment of India, but not this one. Of course, handsome as their faces are, I know it's not polite to stare.

Children It's no secret that I have a soft spot for little ones, especially tots aged six and younger. I thought the ones in Cambodia were adorable, but practically every baby and toddler I see in India, and especially in Rajasthan, steals my heart. (Sunny Pawar, who played young Saroo in Lion, was no fluke.) It can't be their big brown eyes or the way they seem so alert and curious. Those are pretty common baby/toddler qualities. I haven't figured out why they move me as much as they do, but my favorite Indian memory of all might be when a group of small children pose for a selfie with me as I sit in a temple overlooking Pushkar Lake. I'm still kicking myself for not taking the pic with my own camera. It will go down as my only India regret.

Don't stop the dance The evening entertainment at Hotel Brahma Horizon, where I stayed for two nights in Pushkar...

Europe in India Am I in Udaipur, or did I fall asleep and wake up somewhere on the Balkan Peninsula? I don't believe I've ever seen more breathtaking lake scenery than the aerial view of Udaipur's Fateh Sagar Lake and Lake Pichola. Both are artificial, but who cares when they're framed by such stunning natural and architectural beauty? Scenes from the '80s James Bond film Octopussy were shot at Pichola's Lake Palace (as the locals don't tire of reminding anyone who'll pay attention), and the 2011 movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel was filmed in Udaipur. No wonder I feel so much like Judi Dench mid-late-in-life reinvention while I'm here. Except I want to end up with Sid Makkar, not Bill Nighy.

Funky Monkey Cafe I may not be able to find a real hamburger in India, but I'll settle for an omelette for lunch and for dinner. Within an hour of my arrival, FMC is already my favorite place in Pushkar, where I'll eat three of six meals in two days.

Got milkshakes? I've had a lot of delicious milkshakes in India, but none of them can compare to the butterscotch-flavored one I guzzle in the cafe at Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur. Move over, Kelis. This light-brown treat would bring all the boys to anyone's yard.

Hold the forts From to Nahargarh, Amer, and Jaigarh in Jaipur to Mehrangarh in Jodhpur (above), I've officially had my fill of amazing forts in India. But like I said, amazing.

I follow... lakes Like Udaipur's famous bodies of water, Pushkar Lake is man-made but as gorgeous as any natural wonder.

Jodhpur It's got the "Blue City" and Mehrangarh Fort, but the best thing about Rajasthan's second-biggest city (after Udaipur) are the people. They are, by far, the friendliest and most welcoming I've encountered in India. Of the many locals who stop me as I walk through the old city to welcome me to their stomping ground, one group of young men stand out. That's largely because of the most handsome one, who appears to be in his late teens. He holds out his hand as he greets me, and I reach out to shake it before realizing he's not offering a handshake. He wants to share the packet of nuts he's holding with me. I decline, but I'm thoroughly moved by the gesture. If only he were a few years older, I think as I walk on, dying to look back.

Kings of the road Yup, to borrow from Beyonce, cows run the world in India, especially in Rajasthan, where drivers respect their right of way more than they do that of  human pedestrians.

Lights out They may be impatient as hell on the road (see "Honk honk" in my previous India post), but when it comes to the rolling blackouts that occasionally strike Udaipur and Pushkar, the locals go about their business as if they don't even notice. That might be a good thing and a bad thing, the latter because it apparently stops some hotels from splurging on standby generators. A hot shower suddenly turned cold doesn't make for particularly soothing ablution.

Make My Trip Thanks to their long-distance cab service, I make my way from New Delhi to Jaipur to Udaipur to Jodhpur to Pushkar to New Delhi in air-conditioned comfort. The roads may be often wretched and the lack of seat belts may be life-threatening, but I don't mind paying the extra rupees and enduring the occasional customer service glitches (always eventually rectified) in order to escape traveling in cattle class via bus or train.

Night moves I can't say much about the nightlife anywhere in India. Over the course of five weeks, I'll stay out past 10pm only twice, once in Mumbai, the other time in Udaipur. The latter after-hours reminds me of Milan and Tel Aviv. As with those respective Italian and Israeli cities, the best nightlife isn't in bars or in restaurants or in the club. It's right there on the streets, where people-watchers can get everything their eyes desire and so much more. Just be careful not to step in cow dung.

Pushkar My favorite stop in Rajasthan - and India. There's not much to do (unless you're lucky enough to meet a 22-year-old Israeli traveler on your first day), but the ultra-religious hippie town offers a taste of peace and quiet that I've been so hungry for since my arrival in India. Oh, and there's also the stunning scenery, which is practically a given in Rajasthan.

Questions 67 and 68 "Where are you from?" I am asked this countless times in Rajasthan, even by minors? I sometimes answer, "the U.S.," but usually, I say, "New York City," unless they guess "Africa," or more specifically, "Nigeria," or "the West Indies" first. I'm surprised they've even heard of the West Indies. That's more than I can say for most of the people who inquire about my origins in Australia. The West Indies is spot on, but can they actually tell just by looking at me, or are they trying to spare me the embarrassment of being associated with Donald Trump?

Riding in cars without a seat belt Here's one more reason to say, "Thank you, India" (to quote Alanis Morissette). My head has gotten a bit banged up, and my neck is stiff from being tossed around on bumpy roads, but I haven't been flung through any windshields. There's always that.

Selfies At Mehrangarh Fort, I'm bombarded with selfie requests, and of course, I always oblige. As Eran, the 22-year-old Israeli in Pushkar, will tell me, it's not just a black thing. Everyone stares at him, too, and they request selfies with him and his Isreali friends. Some locals even try out their Hebrew on Eran, because they can tell where he's from on sight. It makes him feel like a celebrity, he'll admit. Celebrity. It'll be the second time a fellow foreign visitor takes the word right out of my mind. Suddenly, I feel slightly less special, though. Oh, well. At least I get a few cool shots out of India's unexpected selfie obsession (see above).

Tuk-tuking in Jaipur The things you see on the side of the road while riding in the back of a rickshaw from Jal Mahal to Ramada Jaipur.

Under a mountain Another town, another mountain to admire. Rajasthan's gorgeous curves are perhaps its best natural feature.

Views Mumbai and New Delhi may have urban excitement and higher profiles, but Rajasthan has far more incredible views, especially the ones from above.

Whisky Johnnie Walker, meet your match. India's Officer's Choice BLUE classic grain whisky is so "exquisite & smooth" that you might not even notice it blending into your apple juice.

To the eXtreme My friend Bryan calls Rajasthan "India lite," and although I know what he's getting at, I respectfully disagree. During my two weeks here, I experience as many extremes as I do anywhere in India: extreme heat, extreme noise, extreme filth, extreme poverty, extreme beauty. There seems to be no middle of the road in India, except for the one all of my Make My Trip drivers keep swerving into.

Yummy My meals in Rajasthan don't wow me quite as much as the ones I had in Mumbai, Goa, and New Delhi, but that might be partly because I've branched out from mostly Indian fare. Interestingly, the best meals I have will be from room service at Kingfisher Hotel in Udaipur, aka my least favorite accommodations in India. How can they do chicken corn soup and chicken biryani so well and customer service so poorly?

Zoo (revisited) To quote Florence Johnston from the '70s and '80s sitcom The Jeffersons (which I binge watch, along with Three's Company, on YouTube during hotel breaks in Udaipur), This place is better than the zoo! I don't believe I've ever seen so many different kinds of animals in the same place not locked in a cage or confined to a controlled outdoor space.

Parting observations: Shockingly, in five weeks in India, the only cockroach I see will be the one that crawls out of my carry-on in Mumbai. Don't even ask how it got in there, or why I don't see more, considering the generally low sanitation standards one encounters in India. Just one. That's a lot less than I can say for Sydney and Bangkok, both of which are crawling with the creepiest of insects.

Also, I don't believe I've ever seen so few smokers anywhere in the world. In fact, the only people I can vividly recall smoking during my time in India are my friend Juan and the people from whom he bummed several cigarettes in Mumbai. I probably see more people smoking from hookahs than smoking cigarettes. Their bodies won't thank them down the line (hookahs are apparently as hazardous to one's health as cigarettes), but my nose certainly does. Thank you, India, one more time.

Friday, August 4, 2017

India from A to Z: Impressions of a first-timer

I love India.

Eating the local cuisine can be like having an out-of-body experience (culinary nirvana?). One particularly palatable lunch – butter chicken and nan bread at a Punjabi restaurant in Calangute, Goa – actually made me moan with pleasure. The billed add-ons (up to 20% in government taxes, plus an optional 10% service charge) can increase the listed price by nearly a third, but it's usually worth it. And the people never bore. Sure they can be pushy and literally in-your-face (alpha maleness is such a thing here), but they're also charming and fascinating.

Then I hate India.

The traffic, the noise, the chaos, and the street litter assault the senses and test one’s sanity.

I haven’t had such extreme alternating reactions to a place, sometimes within the span of one minute, since my final year in Buenos Aires. In some ways/areas, the country is surprisingly Western. Connaught Place in New Delhi could be a middle-class shopping area in any European metropolis, right down to its Roman architecture. If I squint and tilt my head just so, I might even be able to swear I'm in London's Piccadilly Circus.

In others ways/areas, India is the most foreign experience I've had yet, just edging out Cusco in Peru. I've lived in New York City, Buenos Aires, Bangkok, and Cape Town, so I know poverty and homelessness, but never has it been more confronting (literally) for me than in Mumbai and New Delhi.

Women follow me through sweaty, crowded marketplaces in South Mumbai, grabbing and imploring. A few use their babies as props, shoving them in my face, because, well, what's a desperate mother to do? If I won't help them, how could I possibly refuse the adorable little one? I can't, so well-played.

During one Uber trip through New Delhi's traffic-jammed streets, I clutch my backpack while watching homeless people go car to car, banging on windows and begging for handouts. One man holds the stump of his half leg up so I can get a clear view, presumably to garner sympathy. It works, but I'm too frozen with shock to reach into my pockets.

Midway through another journey by Uber, a group of young boys carrying stacks of books approach my vehicle one by one, hawking their English-language reading material. One has a collection of short stories by Western literary legends like Oscar Wilde and Leo Tolstoy one book up from the bottom of his load. I'm tempted, and he seems to sense it, but I have to let him down. I'm traveling as light as possible, and Kindle books take up far less luggage space as I trek from town to town.

To be honest, India was never high on my to-do list, but I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who visited this country and didn’t rave about it. I’m still waiting for that India – the one I’ll dream about and return to for years to come – to reveal itself. (I have high hopes for next week in Rajasthan.) In the meantime, here are some impressions from my first two and a half weeks in India, alphabetized.

Alibaug The Koh Samet of India, only significantly less horrid – and thank Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, I didn’t have to bunk with bloodthirsty mosquitoes at U Tropicana Resort Alibaug.

Bromance Sex between men is discouraged in India and, according to the gay dating app Scruff, punishable by life imprisonment. Got it. In an intriguing twist, though, it’s perfectly acceptable for two “straight” men to cuddle and hold hands as they walk down the street. Step forward, step way back.

Cows with attitude They roam the streets and the beaches freely, stopping and blocking traffic as if they run this town. My friend Juan (who took the photo above and the video at the bottom) says they’re sacred in India, which might be why the dogs, which everyone but me ignores, seem sort of jealous. The sacred status of the bovines might partly explain why every restaurant menu has a vegetarian section with as many options as the non-vegetarian section. (Dishes with diary products are included among the vegetarian listings.) It also must be why it’s virtually impossible to get a traditional Western hamburger here, even at the McDonald’s in Calangute, which, curiously, doesn’t even have them on the menu. The one at Nehru Place in New Delhi has a mutton burger, but as much as I love lamb, it's no substitute for you-know-what between two buns.

(New) Delhi A much better entry point than Mumbai. India's capital city is more manicured and manageable (as in Bangkok, there are strategically placed footbridges to make crossing the congested streets less risky), and there's a higher emphasis on beauty and culture (Exhibit A: Humayun's Tomb, above, a mausoleum precursor to the Taj Mahal in Agra). In India’s tale of two cities, like Melbourne over Sydney, Jerusalem over Tel Aviv, Sao Paolo over Rio, Madrid over Barcelona, and New York over Los Angeles, New Delhi wins.

English It’s one of India’s official languages, but I’m shocked by how few locals seem able to speak it.

Friendship revisited Mumbai is so much more enjoyable with an old mate whom you haven’t seen since your final night in Buenos Aires six and a half years earlier. Griping about the sketchiness that surrounds you is definitely a two-person sport.

Goa It reminds me of Cabo San Lucas. No, it reminds me of Mar del Plata. No, it reminds me of Phuket. No, it reminds me of Bali. If you’ve seen one trendy Latin or South Asian beachside tourist trap, have you pretty much seen them all?

Honk honk The bane of my existence for two and half weeks and counting. Why do drivers do it incessantly and usually without cause? Because they can.

Ink There are tattooists all over Calangute, but I can’t imagine allowing someone who hawks their inking services on the street to permanently deface my body.

Justin Timberlake What is it with the more-than-a-decade-old FutureSex/LoveSounds? I hear it playing everywhere.... OK, in two restaurants, but that's still a lot of 2006 in 2017.

K in Calcutta Do you know India's third city is now known as Kolkata? I didn't until I looked it up on Wikipedia shortly after arriving in the country. A number of Indian cities have changed names in recent years (Bombay became Mumbai, and Bangalore switched to Bengaluru, for instance), apparently part of the country’s effort to distance itself from its past as a British colony. I feel a twinge of guilt for mostly preferring the colonial-era names. Bombay just has a more magical ring than Mumbai, and Mother Teresa's turf will, in my head, always be Calcutta, not Kolkata.

Lotus Temple My second visit to a sacred Baha’i place. (My first was in Haifa, Israel, back in 2013.) How Sydney Opera House is it?!

Mumbai The city where I make my India debut and spend one week. My first few days in Andheri West are a nightmare where crossing the street is like playing Russian Roulette. Thankfully, my lovely and extremely understanding Airbnb host allows me to cancel our agreement without charge and relocate to South Mumbai, which at least has sidewalks and plenty of eating and drinking options. But where is that Bollywood glamour I’ve heard so much about? I just can’t imagine Priyanka Chopra walking these grim, polluted streets.

No singles/partners I am actually turned away from a restaurant at Connaught Place in New Delhi because it has a “couples-only” policy. I’ve never heard of such a thing. But then, this is a country where some hotels won’t accommodate unmarried couples, which means if you're traveling with a friend, you're booking separate rooms.

Oh, my stomach! I’ve been traveling the world for centuries, and my stomach never failed me – until Alibaug. Warning: Don’t only not drink the tap water in India – don’t brush your teeth with it either! After four days of illness, I finally make my way to Dr. Vasudev V. Dukle at Dr. Dukle's Hospital & Research Centre in Goa. I spend 45 minutes of a Saturday morning in a waiting room that reminds me of a medical scene from the 1800s. While watching barefoot nurses and patients pass, I almost expect a dog, or a cow, to walk by. Total cost of the examination, antibiotics, and probiotics: 400 rupees, or around US$6

Pizza by the Bay My favorite place in Mumbai, though I never actually try the pizza. But what is it with the dog playing dead outside? He's in the same position in the middle of the sidewalk two days in a row, only flipped over with his legs facing the Arabian Sea on the second day. Lazy, generic-looking dogs playing dead appear to be a thing in India, and they’ll pass out just about anywhere.

Quiet! The constant barrage of sounds has me considering one of those silence retreats up north. A few weeks ago, I went out with a guy in Bangkok who had just returned from 10 days at a Thai retreat. He said the silence was easy since he's a man of few words, but he struggled with the meditation because clearing your head of all thoughts while sitting in an awkward position is as difficult as it sounds. I was impressed by his chilled-out vibe, until he admitted the reason he kept taking his bag into the bathroom was because he had a bottle of cheap Thai rum inside of it. Apparently, the pints of beer we were drinking weren't doing the trick, so he was going to the loo to take swigs of the hard stuff. Hmm...kind of undermines the efficacy of the whole 10-days-of-silence thing, doesn't it?

Rickshaws Don't underestimate the power of the Indian tuk-tuk! When my Uber collides with one on the mean mean streets of New Delhi, a shouting match ensues, and the rickshaw is the only vehicle that drives away without a scratch or a dent.

Standing on the beach No-one lies on the beach in Calangute. They just stand at the edge of the water in the middle of the day, like they’re at God’s house party.

Taj Mahal One of the few things I’d wake up at 4.30 in the morning and travel three hours to see. It’s magnificent, of course, but pretty much just a glorious photo op, a 15-minute thrill.

Uber The best (air-conditioned) way to get around the urban masses that are Mumbai and New Delhi.

Vodafone Although it’s annoying as hell that it can take up to 24 hours to activate your SIM card, Vodafone India might offer the best data rate in the world. You’ll need everything but blood to sign up (don’t forget to bring your passport and two passport photos), but for the price of 600 rupees (less than $10), you get a local phone number, unlimited free local calls, and an automatic 1024 MB 4G data top-up every day just after midnight.

Wine I’ve never thought of India as a wine country, but the Sula Sauvignon Blanc and Late Harvest are among the best I’ve had anywhere.

eXpats I encounter none during the first three legs of my trip, in Mumbai, Alibaug, and Goa, not even on Grindr. (Naturally, I won't be hanging out with the one I wrote about in this HuffPost essay.) But then, I see only a handful of Westerners over the course of my first two weeks in India. I’m told they’re mostly up north, which, judging from the evidence in New Delhi, appears to be true. I’ve never been particularly drawn to my fellow expats anywhere, but for the first time ever, I find myself looking to spot just one, if only so that we can compare notes. I can't shake the feeling that I'm missing something.

You lookin’ at me? It can’t be my skin color – I’ve seen a number of locals who are darker than me. So what exactly is it about me that has been attracting so much attention? My friend Juan, who is Bolivian, says he gets it, too, so it must be a thing here. I’m not a big fan of being stared at, but I do appreciate it when they at least try to engage me, and a lot of people do here. It makes me feel less like an animal in a...

Zoo Those Mumbai slum tours are icky at best. I’m not really sure how anyone can think it’s a good idea to exploit poverty and the poor for a buck, or rather, a rupee. Our photo op/"cultural experience" is their harsh reality. You'll see plenty of run-down scenery during a regular, unscheduled stroll through Mumbai, Alibaug, Goa, or New Delhi. As for India's poor, they're people, not uncaged wildlife. If we want to gawk at living, breathing tourist attractions, there's always the zoo... or the beach?