Jan 29, 2007

Now I'm not dumb but I can't understand

Amber asks: She or He?????

Analyze the following image for the answer. Hint: even though it is as clear as day (not), I will tell you that you are looking at a fetus. Also, there is a small arrow drawn in for you by the ultrasound tech; this may indicate the presence of something notable in the field of view. Other than that, you have nothing but your own personal powers of deduction to guide you. Good luck, friends.

P.S. I am also including one of my favorite David Shrigleys for your amusement -- seemed appropriate to the topic. This is entitled, "Foetus Argues Moot Point with Itself in the Womb."

Jan 28, 2007

We interrupt this regularly scheduled India thing


There is totally somebody in there!!!

Jan 24, 2007

Still more India, and even more India

I assume you guy(s) are all still interested in this series of installations on India, so I will continue to expound.

We spent the next several days in Pune, then a short trip to the Buddhist and Hindu rock-cut caves at Ajanta and Ellora, and then back to Pune for a day or two. That first part was one type of experience where we actually spent quite a bit of time with some other delightful Americans (mostly Abby's family) that had come for the wedding as well. The second part of the trip was more about TJ and I traipsing around without the entourage and checking out the tourist sites of Goa and Kerala.

For those who don't know Indian geography (me before the trip), Maharashtra is the state where Bombay* (Mumbai) is located, about halfway down the western length of the country. Goa is immediately south of that on the coast - it's a small state that was until recently a Portuguese colony. Karnataka, where Bangalore is located, and Kerala are farther south still. Goa and Kerala in particular are stocked with European tourists, but one can avoid them if one wants to. When we crossed over eventually to Tamil Nadu to fly out of Madurai airport, east of Kerala, things were decidedly less touristy and I enjoyed the drive through the rural areas. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Back in Pune, preparations for the wedding involved Ashu and Abby going through grand efforts to secularize their Hindu ceremony and to write up the meaning of all the symbolism for the Americans. Little did Abby realize, but the wedding itself was so chaotic that we might not have been able to follow what was going on even with the translation... It seems that in a Hindu wedding, there aren't strict starting and ending times. People start filling in in the morning from 9 to 11:30, and maybe the bride is finished being professionally wrapped in a saree by then. Breakfast is served for those just milling about - ours was a yummy accumulation of some type of grain, tapioca, yogurt, coconut and something else and wasn't too savory for me to handle for the morning meal.

I got sareed as well! TJ is wearing a Kurta in this picture. Check out his Chappals.

After breakfast, the bride is eventually done preparing and the ceremony starts, but no one makes a grand proclamation and there is no ceremonial marching music. It just sort of starts... people are still coming in and out, kids are running around, and the ceremony carries on for a couple of hours whilst people are chatting and hanging out. At a certain point, the couple moves to the side and sits on the floor, where a fire is lit to symbolize something. The rooms fills up with smoke and the pregnant ladies take refuge outside for a while. Someone hands you a bunch of rice. Later, you will throw this rice, but not all at once like in the U.S. You throw bits at a time corresponding to things that are done during the ceremony, and then at the end you throw all the rest of it.

By now, it's time to eat again, and the hall eats in shifts. One group sits down at a set of long tables and is served an extensive lunch. While that's going on, people are still milling about socializing. Later on, the plates will be cleared and others will take a turn at eating. At the wedding in question, which was small by Indian standards, this only had to be done three times. I bet at 500-person weddings, there are like 8 shifts. It probably lasts all night!

Later in the evening, after things had finished up and we took a nap, there was a western-style reception for dinner (more food) with cocktails and music in an outdoor setting reminiscent of the Santa Monica Mountains in its geology, plantlife and overall je-ne-sais-quois.

More about Pune and the rest of our trip to follow, and then I'll eventually wrap it up and start talking about mundane things again like how sad it is that Carmen thinks she's being punished because we banished her from the bedroom due to my allergies. Sniff!

*Ever since independence in 1947, many locations in India have changed their names. Much of this resulted from the reorganization of the states on linguistic lines (as opposed to British colonial divisions). However, in the last six years, many major towns and cities have been renamed in ways that affect foreigners more. Among this flood of changes, three stand out. These are the former cities of Bombay, Madras, and Calcutta, which, together with Delhi, are considered the "mega cities" of India.1 They are the four most populous cities in India, and all but Madras are among the 15 most populous cities in the world.2 As a result, they are important commercial and transit hubs, and are well known outside India. Yet nearly six years later, most non-Indians still have no idea that they are now named Mumbai, Chennai, and Kolkata. The preceding information was nicked off some UCBerkeley website.

Jan 18, 2007

Horn OK Please

We exited the airport and looked around for a guy who would be holding a card with our names, since Ashu had kindly arranged for our transport from Mumbai to Pune by Taxi. I really didn't know what to expect, since we were hours late and I couldn't imagine that the guy would still be around, but we actually found him eventually... He didn't speak English, but the first thing he did was got us two bottles of Aquafina for the ride - how thoughtful, I mean really!

So we hit the road to Pune, which is a medium-sized city about 75 miles southeast of Mumbai; although it's not far, we were warned in advance that the ride takes 3-1/2 hours at best due to "road conditions." Just getting out of the big city was quite a feat, what with all the cars and animals and people in the road. Our first impressions of Mumbai were very skewed (as we would later learn) because all we really saw was shantytowns and beggars coming up to the car on the way to the road to Pune -- we weren't looking necessarily forward to coming back at the end of our trip. I didn't even know what to think about all the young women with babies approaching the car, and about the people sleeping on the sides of the road - I was too overwhelmed with tiredness and pretty relieved that I'd have a few hours to nod off.

We started our journey in the afternoon, but soon it was dark. I awoke to find our taxi in all kinds of hot water on the "highway." We kept coming up to slower-moving vehicles, and I noticed that all cargo trucks were brightly painted in a carnivally fashion, and they all said some version of "Honk OK Please" or "Sound OK Horn" painted prominently on the rear of themselves.

It didn't take long to see what was going on - people were supposed to just honk to let these generally slower vehicles know they were there. So you come up behind them, honk, try to go around them, honk more, and then when you're almost past them, you honk some more. Immediately after that you overtake another one, so you just do it again - it amounts to a non-stop honkathon from all angles. I later noted that this happens no matter what type of vehicle you're passing, whether it's a scooter or motorcycle or autorickshaw* or another car. You just beep the horn. You also beep the horn when going around a corner or a turn in a windy road. You beep at bicycles, dogs, oxen, piles of agricultural debris, burning trash, construction sites, goats, children, bales of sugarcane, painted trees, busloads of pilgrims, roadside shrines, and just to keep yourself company. (Later in the trip, Rajendra would tell us a story about the various meanings of the turn signal in India - it can mean "I'm turning this way" OR "go ahead and pass me on this side"... obviously a misinterpretation of the signal could be an immediate accident, but they seem to have it figured out.)

Eventually, we close in on Pune. We are to be staying at the flat of one Mrs. Asha R., known most famously as the mother of the one and only international man of mystery, Anand. Anand's family keeps this flat in Pune, even though they don't live there, because I think they go there often for business and/or pleasure. Our job was to get the key to the flat from Sagar, the son of the cousin of the mom of Anand. We kinda knew Sagar's address, and we sorta knew the address of the flat, and our driver kinda sorta didn't speak English. It was fun. Oh and also, they don't have addresses per se in India. Every structure has a name, and you say what street it's on in what city, and that's it. So for example:

Remi Bizcourt, Shah Industrial Estate
Off Veera Desai Road, Anheri West
Mumbai 400 053 India


3rd floor, Millennium Centre
Somajiguda Hyderabad 500 016 India


A-27, Mohan Co-operative Industrial Estate Limited
Mathura Road New Delhi 110 044 India

You get the gist. We were going to find Sagar at some address like that, and our driver kept getting out of the car to ask people where it was. Eventually, we found him, and he hopped in the vehicle with us to show us where the flat was and bring the keys over - we found it and dragged ourselves into the ye-olde-elevator up to the top floor where we entered and began to open up the place. Nobody lives there regularly, so it was fairly spartan. We flipped on the "geyser" (what the hot water heater is called) and tried to get the lay of the land. Our plan was to shower, go find food, and then pass out for the night. I went into the kitchen, turned on the light, and greeted a medium-sized albino lizard sitting in the sink. TJ and I teamed up to scoop him into a collander and shuttle him to the balcony, where we dubbed him Edgar Winter Jr. and released him into the night...

*One of these babies:

Jan 17, 2007

Sidebar fixed

Sorry to have worried you unnecessarily.

Why is my sidebar still down there?... and more India

As I was saying, we don't even know if they'll let us land. Some time later, we hear that they are in fact permitting us to land, but this is a priviledge reserved only for long-haul flights with connections and the planes are being spaced out over time. We had gotten a late start to begin with, and now it looked like we'd have to fly around the airport a bit and waste some more time. Our fairly generous layover was starting to look shorter and shorter - after we landed, we sat around for at least an hour before we got a gate, and by that time we would have missed our connecting flight had we not been pretty sure that was delayed in getting off the ground as well.

About forty of us ran through the terminal (a thing I hate doing, running through airport terminals) to get to the Mumbai flight. We talked to one girl while going through security (yes, again) with our hand luggage. She was going to India for her own wedding, which was to be one week later. The screener tried to give her a hard time about all the candles that were in her carryon, but she shut him down nicely with fierce stress-induced aggression. She herself was from Long Island, but was marrying an Indian dude; she had her mother in tow as well. Anyway, we did all make it onto the flight, which was also delayed by three hours.

Somehow I wasn't surprised when we landed in Mumbai and our luggage was nowhere to be found. Wait, hold on, back up.

Landing in Mumbai International airport is confusing because depending on which side of the plane you're on, you can't quite get a sense of what kind of city you're at. You can see some tall buildings and some air pollution, so you know there's a city there, but you also see the slapped-together shacks of the slums coming right smack up to the airport, practically spilling onto the runways. It looks like an undulating sea of corrugated metal.

The plane landed and we had the novelty pleasure of getting off onto one of those rolling stairway things. Entering the terminal, things are a little dusty and there are all these random potted plants along the hallway to the baggage claim - the plants look a little confused. "Why are we here?" they are asking.

Now, as I was saying, our baggage was nowhere, but at least it seemed that all the people from our Newark flight were in the same boat. We waiting in a chaotic "queue" of frustrated travellers, and bit by bit we became aware of little things like the fact that people were smoking. Inside. In the line. Actually, those were the Germans, but still - it's the little things that strike you as different when you first get somewhere.

For the sake of getting anywhere, I can't tell this story in real time, but if I could, we'd be at the lost luggage counter for quite a while. We eventually got our pink slips with some kind of vague instructions to call British Airways if we don't hear from them soon. We were told that our luggage would be brought to us in Pune as soon as it came in. The people telling us this did not look overly concerned with the veracity of this claim. We shrugged and went through customs, then out into the midday chaos. I saw a million faces, lots of taxis, and a goat...

India: Let's do this thing.

It's now or never, India. Just you and me, mano a mano. If I don't write about you now, I'm just going to drift off into never doing it at all.

It's a hard thing, describing an experience in which something weird and different happened every day, so I guess that just makes me procrastinate the whole thing. This is amazingly similar to the laundry problem and the crap-lying-around problem and all the other housekeeping problems I have. It's as if my brain says, "Well, if you're not going to do the whole thing justice right now, and complete the entire project, there's really no need to start, now, is there?" I've been fighting that natural inclination to be all-or-nothing my whole life.

Let's take some pressure off, and I'll just tell you some of the stories now and we'll just see how it goes, kay?

The beginning of our journey was kind of inauspicious. We called a taxi to the train station, and the taxi never came - by the time we tracked it down, we were just barely going to make our Septa/NJT trains to Newark. As it turned out, we were rushing for nothing because somehow I had pulled the train departure time from an outdated Septa schedule anyway (from the Septa website, no less) and the train was already gone. The next regional train was in an hour. Since it was already 9 pm, we made the decision to just suck it up and take Amtrak, a much pricier option than the regional rail but one that would get us there in not much more than an hour. (Our plan was to sleep in the Newark Airport Hilton and then get up very early for our flight.)

So we buy our tickets and since the train was running five minutes late, TJ decides to go into McDonalds. I spend the next ten minutes sweating bullets as the train comes and is announced and waits and TJ is still in the MacDo. I'm shouting across the station, "Just leave the damn food where it is, the train is going to leave!" but he doesn't hear me. He shows up running and we dash onto the train, smashing people with our big backpacks and cramming up the aisle for a seat. As soon as we manage to sit down, he puts his drink down and I promptly spill it into my seat, so I can't really sit down the whole ride. The train then proceeds to NOT stop at the Newark Airport stop, even though the marquis said it would.

From that point on, things improved - we got off at the main Newark stop and took a cab, and it turned out the Airport Hilton was shockingly nicely appointed! I even took some of the mini shampoos/conditioners with me in my carryon bag, despite my policy against accumulating little useless things, because they were Neutrogena and I like Neutrogena (pay attention, this will come in handy later).

We go early the next morning, make the plane, all is well. Except that because of the unusually intense fog in London, most planes in and out have been cancelled and that's exactly where we're headed in order to transfer to the Mumbai flight. Sailing through the air watching the in-flight entertainment, we don't know if they're going to let us land...

(This image is a teaser so you'll stay tuned to future installments. What IS that thing? What could it be?)

Jan 14, 2007

I don't get it

How come sometimes when you post, your whole sidebar shoots down to the bottom of the page? I tried making the graphics narrower... worked in the past, but not today. Anyone?

I know, I know, my trip... but...

I am having my quarterly Rose Polenzani love-affair-rekindling moment right now. Will you share it with me?

I will tell you about India in good time... all in good time.

Jan 5, 2007

Jumping ahead

I realize that by writing about today's Ayurvedic experience I'm jumping ahead of the story, which I plan to tell in some semi-linear way when I get home. (Here in India, it's been very hard to get a reliable internet connection even though we've been staying in "nice" hotels... I'll probably fill you in more on that later. Anyway, it made blogging-as-I-go totally unfeasible. Right now, I'm at the Abad Whispering Palms in Kumarkom, a fairly shmancy place - in fact probably the nicest place we've stayed at so far - in a town with nothing to do except visit the bird sanctuary, which we're doing at the crack of dawn tomorrow. The internet connection here is reliable -- reliably slow, that is, but it seems to work for more than ten minutes at a time so I'm risking this entry with cautious optimism.)

I just came from my Ayurvedic massage. In truth, I wouldn't have done it at all, except for two things; first, like I said, there's nothing else to do right now except sit around and "relax," which is sometimes hard for me to do, and secondly, it's cheap. Even at a fancy hotel where we're paying almost comparable to U.S. prices, the full-body massage is 900 rupees. If you were here, you'd know that that is outlandishly expensive and equates to about $20. Elsewhere, this could cost 200-500 rupees, but we splurged just to get the Ayurvedic experience in Kerala as opposed to back in the States or not at all.

So, TJ and I decided to both go for it, even though I was recovering from a sunburn from the Goa "snorkling boat trip" (which was great except that there was no snorkling at all, but I digress). Since the first half of our trip was devoted to attending Abby and Ashu's wedding in Pune, and the second half was nominally our "real" honeymoon, we haven't shyed away from trying to get luxurious this week. (I'll write more later about how sometimes it can be difficult to "get luxurious" in India even if you are willing to pay, as exemplified by our houseboat trip yesterday.)

So in the name of honeymooning, we got the full-body massage and TJ added on an additional 45-minute Sirodhara* treatment. He's still in his, while I just got out of mine and am ready to recount the experience.

I was curious going into it how a South Indian ayurvedic massage might differ from the classic American version of the Swedish deep-tissue thing we usually get back home. I've had maybe six massages in my life, at various occasions, and I can tell you that even in the most intimate cases, there's a level of distance between the masseuse/masseur and the client. For example, someone will show you your room, and then leave while you take off your things and get under the sheet. Then, although they may do scandalous things like touch your butt, they do them one at a time and then replace that body part under the sheet. If you flip over, you do so under the sheet. It's very decorous.

When I went in for today's massage, I came into a room where a nice young lady basically indicated that I should take it all off and lie down on a table. No sheet! In fact, she just stood there, waiting. "Ok," I thought, "I can go with this." I lay down on the fiberglass table, which was not like a standard padded massage table covered by a sheet, and more like an autopsy table. In fact, I felt like I was about to be autopsied except for having walked in off the street and not come in cold in a bag. I wonder if autopsy tables are flat, or if they are crowned in the middle like this one, with a curb all around the edges to catch the liquids?

It soon became clear why the curb was needed - this massage was more about covering me with large quantities of warm oil and rubbing me. Not kneading me, the way one would expect in a western massage, but rubbing me the way you'd rub your skin if you were trying to get warmer. I think it's all about increasing circulation and lymphatic flow or something.

She started with my face and then moved to my scalp. If she had been an American person, I would have joked around about how my thick hair was going to take more oil than she had in her pot. As it was, I didn't say anything, but I closed my eyes and envisioned the likely appearance of my head. She was rubbing this stuff in as if she were trying to give me dreds! I was cringing-slash-enjoying it.

The rest of the massage was more rubbing with oils. The oil smelled a lot like dinner, which made me feel a lot like dinner. In fact, I felt that if you spit-roasted me right there (literally, not in the Paul Hamilton sense) I'd be extremely tender and tasty. (SIDEBAR: I've noticed that a lot of things in India smell like dinner - for example, breakfast smells like dinner, lunch smells like dinner, and sometimes dessert smells like dinner. I'm really starting to get sick of both sweet and savory things that smell like dinner. You know what I want right now? I want a hippie salad with romaine, red potatos, garbanzos, kidney beans, sprouts, boiled egg, plain tuna, olives, lemon juice and salt and THAT'S IT. No cardamom! No CUMIN, for god's sake, no more CUMIN!!! Ok, I'm done fantasizing for now.)

I'm smelling like dinner, and she's massaging. To make a short story short, a full-body massage here apparently means that they massage everything they can see without an endoscope. 'Nuff said.

After that, I got into one of those boxes that you only see in 1950s weight-loss magazine ads, the kind where you sit in it and they close the doors and slide a piece over the top so only your head is sticking out, then they steam you. I was starting to get concerned, knowing I'm not supposed to raise my body temperature that much during pregnancy, but I was really only in there for five minutes. Finally, top the whole thing off with a shower, where you try in vain to get most of the oil off you. Then, you get something more rubbed into the part of your hair, and finaly some sandalwood placed between your eyes and at the base of your neck. And voila! You're cured of what ails you.

I don't regret doing it, but it was, you know, not a life-changing experience. In fact, it got a little boring. I think I'm becoming more and more like my mother in that things that are nominally relaxing and meditative are tending to make me itch a little as time goes on. This morning, I met a girl named Salima who had come from a 2-week cleanse in Bangalore, where she was massaged thrice weekly between accupuncture treatments, yoga classes, and enemas. Bah! I couldn't do it. I like the idea of feeling renewed by such a thing, but I'd last a few days tops.

Right now, Irish Lady is waiting to use this portal into the international world at large (the internet terminal) so I'm signing off. I hope to fill you in with more juicy bits when I arrive at home! It's not too late to tell me if you want anything from India - want me to bring you a little elephant statue? Or one of those crazy dolls with the ebony fingernails? Or a beautiful Saree you'll never figure out when to wear? Just let me know, I'll do my best.


* SIRODHARA ~ Ayurvedic forehead oil flow treatment - Luke warm herb-infused Ayurvedic oil is gently and steadily poured over the forehead in a continuous stream using a special rhythmic swaying movement, while a gentle massage is given also on the forehead. This results in a fantastic sense of deep relaxation and inner peace; highly effective in removing mental stress and anxieties, in treating insomnia and headaches and improves memory.