Archive for the ‘India’ Category

travel v. fashion
May 3, 2010

It’s no secret I’m a huge Anthro fan, so when I saw that they shot their May catalogue in India, I was excited and intrigued.

(Images by Anthropologie)

And the clothes and scenery (electric blue bikini against what appears to be a Keralan backdrop – swoon!) didn’t disappoint, at least not on an aesthetic level. But I couldn’t shake the sense that there was something just kind of ….off…about the whole thing. Something that left me disconcerted every single time I came back to the images.  Maybe it has to do with the models’ use of eye contact, or that shot of the girl riding on the back of the Indian boy’s bike or the fact that I saw that country (parts of it at least) up close and personal and it didn’t feel at all like a photo shoot in a magazine. I know that’s the way it always goes, but in this instance there was just something especially patronizing and irreverent about the discrepancy between reality and art. I don’t begrudge them for shooting there, and I understand that an exhausted, petrified me sitting in a rickshaw next to a guy with a rifle probably wouldn’t have gotten many people to buy the Anthro top I was wearing at the time, but the bottom line is I came away from the catalogue feeling rather icky, when I expected to feel warm and semi-nostalgic and ready to drop some cash on a dress or two.

I guess that’s the whole point of travel, though, right? — it makes you look at things, like the Spring lineup from your favorite store, thoroughly grounded in the first world, with fresh eyes. Which is why I’m continuing to resist the urge to bail on Ecuador. Plus, Anthro is now showing a “Galapagos” collection. And someone has to see how it compares to the real thing.

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Making sense of it all
February 18, 2010

Some final thoughts on my India experience:

I don’t regret it. At all.

I was the most stressed, sleep-deprived and overwhelmed I’ve ever been in my life. Yes, including that time I ran my college newspaper.

I learned that even the toughest situations aren’t that scary when you have good friends to help you through. (Though surely some Xanax couldn’t have hurt.)

I feel more adventurous.

I feel less jappy.

I think my brothers might respect me more.

I’m so proud of myself for making it through.

The recap, part 6: The long journey back
February 17, 2010

And then it was time to leave.

Just as I was starting to enjoy the private pool and the chocolate truffles and the prescription pain meds, Tuesday rolled around, my (supposed) last day in India. I was sad to leave Amruta and Sarah – especially since a good chunk of our time together was devoted to that whole medical emergency thing – but ready to reap one big reward from my stitches: the airport wheelchair.

I’m totally not kidding. I called on Sunday night to book it, thinking that if nothing else, it would be a great way to cut the lines if I was short on time.

“They can’t leave without the girl in the wheelchair,” Sarah reasoned. Exactly.

While I had the Continental guy on the phone, I asked him what the chances were our flight would actually take off as scheduled, at 11:35 p.m.

“I haven’t had a single flight out of Delhi take off on time,” I said, with a bit of the attitude that comes from surviving Fog Hell.

“Well, the one yesterday took off seven minutes late,” he said. Making me feel like somewhat of an asshole.

It wasn’t a complete surprise – Sarah and I had heard that the international flights were often better equipped to handle fog than domestic flights. I was also banking on the fact that the flight was one leg of a daily shuttle – meaning that Continental needed that plane to do the return trip from Newark to Delhi the next day. They had just as much of an interest in getting it out as I did – as opposed to, say, those unfeeling creeps at Spice Jet.

Sarah and I were actually doing the first leg of my trip back together: a flight from Cochi to Delhi. We had originally booked a flight that would have given me about 3.5 hours to make my connecting flight from Delhi to Newark but moved it up after realizing that even though the airports I was flying into and out of in Delhi were referenced identically, they were not, in fact, the same airport. Seriously, India, could you not just distinguish them in some way, shape or form on my reservation or ticket? Or maybe, I don’t know, give them different names?

Anyway, we had paid to switch the flight to an earlier time, albeit with a layover in Bangalore, so that I would have five hours to get my bags, drive the 6 km to the international airport and check in. When we got to the Cochi airport, the board said the flight was on time, and we patted ourselves on the back for being such knowledgeable Indian travelers.

Of course, as soon as we got up to the front of the Jetlite line (oh what? did you think there was automated anything in India? please) we were informed that our flight was delayed five hours. Giving me exactly enough time to miss my flight to the States.

Thankfully I was with Sarah. The combination of California native and professional consultant makes her an ideal travel buddy. She promptly informed the woman that that wouldn’t be working for us, thank you, and asked what the next flight to Delhi was. As luck would have it, there was a flight that was supposed to take off at 11 a.m. and was now departing around 3 p.m. (India Travel Lesson #1: Book flights for hours earlier than you actually want to leave.)

And guess who was flying said plane? Spicejet! Fab.

We ran over to the Spicejet booking office and were able to secure two seats, which was surprising considering most of the flights from Cochi to Delhi had filled up fast when we were looking originally. We also decided we were going to carry on all three of my bags (despite security guidelines to the contrary) so that I could get myself to the international airport as quickly as possible when we landed.

We hung out in the Cochi airport for a while, as our estimated time of (delayed) departure came and went. I met some guy from Oklahoma who was trying to catch the same flight to Delhi and had had to rebook too. I had an anxiety attack. I took a picture inside the Cochi airport (before being informed by Sarah that taking photos in airports in India is possibly more illegil than carrying on three bags.)

And then, miracle of miracles, we boarded.

The plane was oddly empty, enabling Sarah and I to secure a row for ourselves. A few minutes later, we learned  why. The flight was originally supposed to stop in Bombay, but since the fog in Delhi  had delayed the departure time, it was no longer going to make the layover. Because the Bombay airport is closed between 6 and 7 on Tuesdays. Didn’t you know? That makes perfect sense, India!

So all of the people who had originally booked the flight to Bombay had to cancel, seeing as it was no longer going there, leaving plenty of seats for Sarah and me. It almost seemed too good to be true. Spicejet had (almost) redeemed itself. I started to breathe a bit more normally, but assured Sarah I wouldn’t believe it until we were actually on the ground.

As it happened, we circled the Delhi airport for a good 45 minutes before landing. I actually laughed out loud, convinced God had reserved a special place in travel hell for me. I was kind of right – when we did actually land, we didn’t seem to be anywhere near an actual airport. Seriously. I don’t even know if we landed in Delhi itself. We taxied for at least 20 minutes – no buildings in site – before coming to a stop.

When the plane finally stopped moving, Sarah and I bolted out of our seats (specially selected to ensure quick access to the exit.) We found Bjinder quickly too, and got to the international airport without any trouble, even though a thick cloud of fog had already begun to descend on Delhi. Sarah and I considered grabbing a bite to eat together before I went through security, but after the circling and the taxiing, I wasn’t taking any chances. I gave her a hug and thanked her for my trip and said goodbye for what I thought was the last time.

I got to the Continental desk with so much time and in such good spirits, that I decided to nix the wheelchair. And I got through security and customs flawlessly – except for the security guard who felt the need to take a picture of me with my camera.

Just to check that it wasn’t…fake? Really had that 2.7 inch vari-angle LCD screen? (For the record, it does. And it really is as cool as it sounds.)

Also, yes, I have a Coach passport holder. Don’t judge me.

Anyway, the international airport was a bit more claustrophic than the domestic airport. I was surprised by how small it was – there were only a handful of gates, and most of the flights were headed to other Asian destinations. I got a Subway sandwich and read an old issue of the New Yorker still crammed into my bag. I started chatting with the Oklahoma guy from my earlier flight. I learned he was a physician’s assistant (graduated in December, but still) and promptly pulled up my pant leg and ripped off the guaze to have him examine my stitches. Which he affirmed appeared to be…stitches.

I also started chatting with a nice woman from LA who sat down next to me. Our conversation quickly turned to fog (obviously) and she mentioned that she had barely made it here too, after her train from Calcutta was delayed 12 hours.

I sympathized with her travel travails and assured her that the Delhi-Newark flight last night was only seven minutes late, confident in my superior fog knowledge and analysis abilities.

“But there wasn’t any fog last night,” the LA woman said. “It descended this morning.”

Right. Of course. Could it really have gone any other way?

The answer, my friends, is no. By the time the inevitable airport closure came, delaying our flight until the next afternoon, I had once again entered that zen-like state reminiscent of my first attempt to leave Delhi. I was a pro at this. All around me, people were freaking out – an Indian woman yelling at a Continental representative, a chaperone of some school trip yelling at her charges and – my personal favorite – a guy named Stan Rosenbloom yelling into his cell phone.

“THIS IS STAN ROSENBLOOM! THIS IS STAN ROSENBLOOM!” he kept saying, as if calling from inside a fire. “MY FLIGHT HAS BEEN CANCELED. I NEED HELP. I AM BY GATE 4.”

Oh, Stan. First of all, the flight hasn’t been canceled. Yeah, a 16-hour delay isn’t ideal, but trust me when I tell you that you couldn’t handle “canceled” and all the shit that comes along with it. Not in a million years and five trips to Agra. Second of all, that driver or business contact you’re talking to? CAN’T COME GET YOU AT GATE 4. That’s the gate we were supposed to DEPART FROM. Like, past security. You’re going to try to have to make it out of the airport yourself.

Which, actually, was harder than you might think. Things were pretty chaotic – they had closed the whole airport, so all the evening flights were bumped until the next day. Hundreds of confused people were packed together, trying to funnel through checkpoint after checkpoint with their bags, stepping around dozens of people who had given up hope hours earlier and just made their beds on the airport floors. Those of us leaving first had to go back through security (just to make sure that the weapons that made it past security in the first place weren’t be taken out of the building? Isn’t that where you want them?) And security in India isn’t a joke – it’s a full pat-down for each person, women inside a makeshift booth with a female security guard. Everyone’s bags get searched too – generally twice before you can get on the plane.

Next, we had to go back through customs. I am now the proud owner of a crossed out passport stamp – undoubtedly one of my coolest souvenirs from India. And so representative of my trip, no? Like, I almost left! But no dice.

When we finally made our way through the windowless labyrinth that is the Delhi airport (not to be confused with the other Delhi airport), we emerged onto some sketchy back parking lot. Continental had buses parked in the fog, ready to take people to a hotel. But instead of risking it, I decided just to go back to Sarah’s. Some airport official used his cell phone to call Sarah’s driver and give him directions to exactly where I was. Needless to say, Bjinder was not so happy to see me.

Walking into Sarah’s apartment for the third time after I was supposed to have left was kind of surreal. I saw her for a few minutes (another “goodbye,” not even really believing it this time) and then headed to bed to try to get a few hours sleep. My flight was already been delayed until 2:30 p.m. (that’s nearly 15 hours for those of you keeping score at home) but I was super petrified that Continental was going to pull some shit and take off earlier without me. So I woke up pretty early and monitored the Continental Web site vigilantly. It looked like everything was a go for 2:30. I headed back to the airport.

This time, Stan Rosenbloom’s warnings of Armageddon actually seemed appropriate. The airport was a mess – everyone from last evening’s canceled flights were sandwiched alongside everyone from today’s scheduled flights. Customs took nearly two hours. By that point my leg was actually starting to throb and I began regretting ditching the brilliant wheelchair plan, or at least not going in the disabled line. After some quiet pouting and a desperate plea to an unmoved airport worker (“I can’t help you”), I turned to full-blown tears and mumbled something about stitches. Sure enough, a trio of British girls let me go ahead of them.

Security wasn’t that bad (although I was getting sick of asking the guards to please not pat my shin so hard) but the gates were even worse than customs. People were sprawled out everywhere and all the chairs had long since been taken. I plopped down on the ground, displaying an over-pronounced pout and letting a tear or two linger on my cheek. I also may or may not have strategically rolled up my pant leg to reveal my wound. Still, no one moved form their coveted perches.

That was because none of their flights were taking off. It didn’t seem like any planes were getting out at all. 2:30 came and went.

I was about ready to submit to full-blown tears when I spotted this short, flamboyent Continental worker from the previous night (the image of him screaming out the Continental phone number over and over again at the belligerent crowd will surely stay with me forever), holding a giant Continental sign.

I jumped up and ran over to him, asking breathlessly if the flight to Newark was boarding (the board still had it listed as “delayed” and at a different gate.) And lo and behold, he affirmed that it was boarding from a new gate and yes I could proceed to pre-flight security and I’m pretty sure at that point I clapped.

I went through the second security check (yes, they do a full security check – carry-on search and all – before you can enter the plane) before realizing I was the only one holding a Continental boarding pass in a sea full of Malaysian Air tickets. Everywhere I turned, there was a Malaysian air passenger. It just didn’t seem right.

I remember repeating “I don’t want to go to Malaysia. I don’t want to go to Malaysia” like a mantra. I remember finally spotting Oklahoma Guy and LA Lady further back in line. And then I was pushed into a little bus and zoomed toward a big plane that a flight attendant affirmed was bound for New Jersey.

I probably don’t even have to tell you that I was seated next to an annoying three year-old with a grandmother who immediately designated me the de facto babysitter. Kid was legitimately running up and down the aisles as we were taking off. (Flight attendant over loud speaker: “Please. Pick. Up. The. Little. Boy. NOW”)

I probably also don’t have to tell you that immediately after takeoff I went and found myself a new seat in a deserted row toward the back. (Those 16 hour delays really free up seats.)

This time, I didn’t even bother with the Ambien. I didn’t bust out my neck pillow. I don’t even think I used my ipod. Instead, I ticked down the 15 airborne hours with reruns of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations and What Not To Wear – anything to stop myself from thinking. I wasn’t ready to rehash the trip in my head, evaluate my epiphanies, even check my wound. All I wanted, all I could think about, was getting to New Jersey.

Previously

The recap, part 1

The recap, part 2

The recap, part 3

The recap, part 4

The recap, part 5

The recap, part 5: The one where I end up in the hospital
February 14, 2010

It started out innocently enough. Amruta said we should broaden our horizons – you know, explore a new five-star hotel chain. So we threw caution to the wind, said goodbye to our dear, perfect Taj in Kovalem and booked a night at the Hotel Zuri in Kumarakom, a few hours up the Keralan coast.

I’m pretty adverse to using the word “rude” – I think it stems back to an overzealous girl scout leader who led our manners class in the first grade; I quit shortly thereafter – but there’s not really any other way to describe the Zuri hotel staff. They refused to accept that the package we had booked came with two king beds…until we showed them the description on their own Web site.  Then they insisted that they didn’t actually have any rooms with two king beds (interesting.) After some prodding, they offered to give us a cot for free.

We endured a pretty creepy dinner in the hotel’s deserted fish restaurant – which everyone from the concierge to the guy who drove us to our room on a golf cart cautioned would be impossible to get a reservation at – and then headed back to the room for a relaxing night in with a bootleg version of Up In The Air.

Amruta and Sarah were watching the first few minutes on the (one) king sized bed when I got up to grab …something? Lip gloss, hairbrush, who knows? This much is certain: I was definitely standing up when the power went off, as it’s apt to do at least once a day in India. It’s not really a big deal if you’re in a hotel or nicer apartment building- the back-up generators kick in really fast. But for the moment, we were shrouded in black, and as I went to regain my spot on the (one) king sized bed, I hit my leg against the cot (we weren’t even supposed to have.)

I could tell that I had probably nicked my shin, but it really didn’t hurt that much and besides, I’m a mature, graceful 24-year old. (OK, actually, nothing in that previous sentence is presently true, considering my klutzy nature and that awful birthday, but still. I’m an adult! And I hadn’t inflicted a scar-inducing cut on my leg since the first time I tried to shave my legs at summer camp.)

When the lights came on, though, I could tell things weren’t right.

Note: This is where it starts to get just a tad graphic.

There wasn’t that much blood, but there was this clear liquid oozing down my leg. And the laceration wasn’t that big, but it was deep, probably the deepest cut I’d ever seen. And it was…strange.

“What is that?” Sarah asked, pointing at some white blob now visible beneath the torn skin. Amruta and I – children of doctors/general know-it-alls – both kind of looked at each other like, um? this can’t be good.

I was kind of starting to hyperventilate when Sarah came up with the brilliant idea to email a photo of the wound from her blackberry.

“Hello Medical friends and family,” she wrote in an email to Dave, my Dad and Tracey – our missing quarter who also happens to be a third-year med student. Here’s the message verbatim, complete with Sarah’s … unique brand of spelling.

“rachel hit her leg on the side of a cot in our hotel room. It seems to be a rather deep cut so we wanted long distance medicaladvice.

In the attached picture you see her calf with a picture of the cut. It is about an inch at its longest, and seems to have a white part in the middle.  “It looks like fat, ew” (that was Rachel’s reaction.) We washed it with soap and water and are applying pressure, then a band aide.

Is there anything else we should do? Should we be concerned about the white “fat” deposit? Thanks for any advice.

Thanks!!
Sarah”

In lieu of the attached photo, which I’m confident you probably don’t want to see, I’ll show you the cute little piece of metal that inflicted such pain on yours truly.

Yeah. Ouch.

Tracey was the first to respond to the email – I think suggesting stitches, but I can’t remember. Dave’s more memorable reply simply said “You could get a bone infection.” Thanks, babe. Appreciated that one. Meanwhile, my Dad was spending a good 10 minutes examining the photo under the lights of a Southern Vermont gas station on the way home from a weekend of skiing (of course), attempting to do his best telemedicine.

I called him the next morning from Amruta’s phone and asked him to call me back on her number. “Is this long-distance?” he asked, to which I responded with the extreme dramatics I’m known for. “THERE IS A CHUNK OF MY LEG MISSING, IN RURAL INDIA, AND YOU’RE WORRIED ABOUT PHONE RATES?” Needless to say, he called back.

At that point, my plan was just to try to keep the wound clean until I got back to the States – which was (supposed) to be in about 48 hours. But my dad said I had only 24 hours to get it sutured if that’s what it needed. At which point the conversation started to go like this.

“But I don’t want to get stitches in rural India!”

“So don’t get stitches.”

“But I know I need stitches!”

“So get stitches.”

“But I don’t want to get stitches!”

And so on and so forth. By the time I got off the phone with him, I had decided that I probably had to see a doctor.

As it turned out, I didn’t really have much choice in the matter. When we went down to the lobby for breakfast, the hotel manager was waiting for us.

He had heard about the episode, no doubt, from the two hotel staff members who had brought us a first aid kit the night before in response to Sarah’s call to the front desk. The staffers had looked petrified, tentatively peering in from behind the door to get a good look at the screaming white girl. And now, clearly, this manager was scared we were going to sue.

The upside? We finally got the customer service we deserved. The manager ordered us breakfast (made to order omelettes and hash browns that were apparently only available for VIPs) on his walkie talkie as he escorted us to the hotel doctor.

My dad had said that the hotel would probably have a doctor on call, so I was feeling OK about the whole thing. And the little exam room they took me into was nice, although the doctor himself seemed a little…discombobulated? Lacking confidence?

He tentatively pulled back my bandage and took a look at the cut.

“It’s very deep,” he said.

“Right,” I said. “Do you think I need stitches?”

“Oh yes, it might need stitches.”

“Right, so do you think it needs stitches?”

“Oh,” he said. “I don’t know. You’d have to see a medical doctor for that.”

A medical doctor? So who exactly ARE YOU THEN? I gave the manager a quizzical look.

“He’s just the spa doctor,” he said.

And that’s when I realized I was basically being examined by the Indian version of Dr. Spaceman. And promptly jerked my injured leg away from his spa-certified hands.

All visions of having my leg fixed poolside had instantly vanished. We were going to have to go to a legit hospital. In Kumarakom, India. It was the one time I actually wished I was still in Delhi, a big city with big hospitals and doctors who knew more about sterilizing instruments and setting bones than giving deep tissue massages.

The manager, still fearing a lawsuit – I think by that point I had casually mentioned that my mother was a lawyer and my father was a doctor – set us up with a chaffeaured car to take me to the ER. Better still, he was enlisting someone from the HR department to go with us, since none of us spoke the local language. (Amruta is fluent in Maranti and can get by in Hindi, but in Kerala they speak Malayalam, which I believe she described as “a crazy-assed langauge.”)

So, with the driver and the HR guy (nicknamed Toby by us, obviously) sitting in the front seat, and Amruta, Sarah and me crammed in the back, we set off toward the closest hospital. I’m pretty sure I cried all the way there, with Sarah holding my hand and stroking my hair and telling me it was going to be OK.

We finally pulled up to the ER, except it wasn’t identified as such. The sign outside, in huge letters, declared: CASUALTY.

Yes, CASUALTY. I crossed my fingers that something had been lost in translation. And then gleefully posed for a picture, because somehow it seemed like the only logical thing to do.


That’s Toby on the right, holding my Longchamp bag. And there’s me, sporting my sexy leg wound.

The ER itself was quite…well, I think Amruta used the word “rustic.” Toby told her that the main hospital was actually nicer and more technologically advanced, but the good part about the ER was that I only had to wait a few minutes to be led back to the “OR” – aka a small room with a bench in the middle. There, surrounded by nuns (Oh, did I not mention that it was a missionary hospital? And thus swarming with clergy and decorated with pictures of JC?) I laid down on the bench. A guy who appeared to be a doctor – after the “spa doctor” incident, I wasn’t asking questions – coated my shin with iodine and administered a shot. Then, he put in two stitches and basically called me a pussy for being nervous.

Here’s me, post-surgery, waiting for Toby to collect all my drugs from the hospital pharmacy.

Note: You, too, would look like that if you had to get stitches in an Indian ER. Also, check out JC watching over me. (Photo by Sarah.)

After a while, Toby returned with my meds: two types of pills for pain and a hefty dose of antibiotics. It was the first – and, fingers crossed, last – time I would be given meds with directions in Hindi.

Oh, and for all you curious, sciency-types: it turned out that the “white blob” we had trouble identifying the night before was actually fascia, the tissue that that surrounds muscle, much like a “sausage casing” (thanks Google.) Vom.

Grossness aside, I actually was pretty lucky. Yes, the cut was deep, but it didn’t go into the muscle. And the location of the cut ensured there wasn’t much blood – not a lot of vessels there – or a ton of pain – not a lot of nerves.

Of course, the stitches themselves didn’t feel great, and I did still have to be concerned about the risk of infection. When we got back to the hotel, the manager cautioned us against leaving that day. We had originally planned to spend the night on a house boat – a traditional Keralan way to see the backwaters. Instead, the manager offered to arrange an afternoon house boat trip for us for free and upgrade our accommodations for that evening.

We took him up on it.

We stopped at a “restaurant” – aka a table placed outside a little green shack right by the water – and enjoyed a traditional Keralan lunch: rice, grilled fish, cabbage, pickle and coconut milk – all served on a banana leaf.

Sarah even managed to get some work done.

And Amruta and I managed to relax.

Kind of.

The boat ride wrapped up just in time to catch the sunset…from our new private pool.

There were truffles, too.

And perhaps most importantly…Hotel Zuri outfits.

Which called for a bit of a photo shoot, obviously.

After the free food, the free houseboat, the comped medical care, the private pool, and the upgraded suite (still with only one king bed), Amruta and Sarah seemed pretty pleased with our adventure. Me? I’m not sure – but I’m thinking maybe it was worth it just for the story.

Previously

The recap, part 1

The recap, part 2

The recap, part 3

The recap, part 4

The recap, part 4: Bombay & Kerala
February 8, 2010

I’m sure Bombay is a perfectly lovely city: warm, colorful, with plenty to see and do.

I just can’t really tell you much about it. Because after the canceled flight, and then the other canceled flight, and then the three-hour delay, I was left with about seven hours of daylight to explore.

Make that six, actually, as my lovely hostess had some trouble getting to the airport on time to pick up her exhausted, semi-disheveled friend.

“Oh?” she said, when I finally got up the nerve to borrow a businessman’s blackberry. “You’re here already?”

Yes, Amruta. If by “already” you mean three hours – and two days – late.

We went back to her grandparents’ house in a neighborhood called Andheri -apparently like the Brooklyn of Bombay – and I had my first home-cooked Indian meal of the trip: cauliflower, peas, dosa and rice.

Amruta had taken the day off from work and initially claimed to have a whole itinerary planned for us. But upon further investigation it was revealed that “full day itinerary” really meant “bar picked out for tonight.”

She did escort me through one authentically Bombay experience though: a rush hour ride on the metro. The trip, in the “ladies first class” car – first class, no; ladies, yes – was like nothing I’d ever seen and I really wanted to take a picture. But these women were ready to cut a bitch in order to get a better spot in the jam-packed, doorless car and I wasn’t about to get my precious Nikon in their way. So for now, I’ll leave you with this inadequate description -brightly colored saris pressed together in some sort of claustrophobic rainbow, women hanging out the door frames, women grabbing onto other women’s arms, hips, anything to propel themselves deeper in the car –  and this slightly more adequate video, and let you imagine what it’s like inside.

The next morning, we had a 5:45 a.m. flight to Cochi – in the Southern India state of Kerala. This was the only flight of my entire trip that didn’t get canceled or delayed, which obviously meant that I had to lose my boarding pass just prior to security. Thanks, India, for keeping me on my toes!

Despite the country’s best efforts, I did eventually make it to Kerala, which was like nothing I’d ever seen before. It was what I imagine Fiji or maybe parts of Hawaii must be like – a lush tropical oasis with forests of palm trees, winding back roads and rough seas dotted with fisherman’s boats.

Our hotel was like a little island of five-star goodness smack dab in the middle of the aforementioned natural beauty. The lobby had no windows or doors, just big gaping holes to let in the light and colors from the outside; private sitting areas were nestled behind dense plants and flowering trees; and a breathtaking infinity pool made me feel like I had accidentally stumbled into a Conde Naste travel photo shoot. The (complimentary!) breakfast buffet served pool side included the most glorious fruit table I’ve ever seen: bowls of pomegranite seeds, fresh guava, three types of bananas – none of them Chiquita. I was only sad it wasn’t mango season.

It was perfect – the definition of paradise, really – but, as I’d learned in previous days, there’s not much perfection Delhi isn’t capable of spoiling. As Amruta and I were lying in the sun by the pool, Sarah was stuck in the Bangalore airport. Her flight out of Delhi was only delayed five hours, but that was enough to botch her connecting flight in Bangalore. For a while it looked like she might not be able to make it to Kovalem at all, and be forced to meet us straight in Kumarakom the next day, but some good old-fashioned yelling scored her an evening flight and an eventual midnight arrival at the Taj Kovalem.

By then though, I was already asleep, tucked away in my dark wood bed in our villa. It was the one night of the trip I would sleep soundly, passed out for a solid eight hours, dreaming of infinity pools and fresh-squeezed watermelon juice and the complimentary shell necklaces the hotel staff put around our necks when we arrived.

The next morning would mark the start of what I thought was – finally! – the relaxing, vacation-like portion of my trip. We sat by the pool in three parallel, cushioned lounge chairs, snacking on extra chocolate muffins stolen from breakfast and chatting like three old friends who haven’t been together in 17 months tend to do. When the sun started to fade, we made our way up the coast to Kumarakom, in a five-hour-long car ride through back roads dotted with sugarcane juice stands and religious processions of colorfully-costumed women. I was enthralled with the scenery, slightly sunburnt and blissfully happy. And if I knew then what I know now, I would have savored every second of it.

Next up: The One Where I End Up In The Hospital.

Previously

The recap, part 1

The recap, part 2

The recap, part 3

The recap, part 3: Still in Delhi. Yes, really.
February 4, 2010

I would go back to India in a heartbeat, despite the fact that I was pretty miserable during much of my trip. But I will never again travel alone – anywhere.

When I was by myself, each obstacle seemed insurmountable. As you probably guessed, my 3 p.m. flight on Thursday, the one I felt so grateful to land, turned out to be an illusion, as Gob Bluth would say. I was on my way to the airport Thursday afternoon when I got a call from Sarah.

“Don’t freak out,” she said. “But they canceled your flight.”

For no apparent reason. In the middle of the (clear! safe!) day.

“I think we should be done with Spicejet,” she said, to which I responded with a resounding “fuck Spicejet.”

She suggested I head to the airport anyway and try to book an earlier flight in person at the ticket windows with a more trustworthy airline (apparently Air India has pilots specially trained to deal with fog? who knew?) But when I got there, everything was an even bigger mess than the night before, and I had no one to help me negotiate the crowds or watch my bags or even say, “hey, this is f-ing insane.” A lot of it is about that actually, I think, just having someone to acknowledge that the situation you’re in is pretty crazy and that things in this country are much, much different from home and that you’re not crazy for having a hard time with it.

Take my land transportation experiences, for example. (You know things are bad when you have to divide your transportation disasters into land, air and sea.) I had two, um, “driving incidents” that week, the first being that Sarah’s driver was rear-ended while we were heading into Delhi from Gurgaon. If you’ve ever sat in rush hour traffic in Delhi, I’m sure you can imagine the scene; if not, think LA rush hour traffic + cows + NO RULES + fog + us stopped in the middle of it all. Anyway, when Bjinder got out to start yelling at the vehicle that hit us, which more resembled one of those Oregon Trail wagons than an actual automobile, I was left in the backseat freaking out. In the states I would have at least texted someone, someone who would appreciate the absurdity and hilariousness and of course this would happen to me aspects to this situation, but here it was just me, marinating in my thoughts and worries, blowing each situation out of proportion in my head.

The day before, though, I had another “driving incident,” which was arguably scarier. I was sitting in the back seat with Lena, attempting to get to some Ghandi memorial (Smitri? Indira? Not sure, the driver didn’t know how to get to either) when the driver got out to ask directions. Everything seemed pretty normal, until the car started rolling. Down the street. I mention as much to Lena – “um, are we moving?” – and she quickly lunges into the front seat head first, slamming the break with her hands. I run out of the car, open the driver’s side door and slide into the front seat, replacing her hands with my feet and putting the car in park. And then we start laughing. Because when you’re not alone and there’s someone else to reassure you that, yes, that just happened, but hey, we’re still alive!, things are much easier to deal with and accept and move on from, and turn into a funny story to tell your friends when you get home.

Unfortunately, though, during most of my trip – at least most of the stressful parts – I didn’t have Lena or Amruta or Sarah by my side. There was no one to find the humor in the delays and angry airport mobs and affirm that I wasn’t a horrible, cursed human being incapable of seeing the world. Because honestly, standing in line trying to book my third ticket to Bombay, with people screaming and pushing all around me, that’s how I felt.

When my tears (c’mon, you knew it was coming) and elbows finally got me to the front of the lines, I was told there were no flights to Bombay available for the rest of the day. None on Kingfisher, none on Jet Airways. By this point I had turned into the only thing that sticks out more than a white girl in an Indian airport: a white girl hysterically crying in an Indian airport.

The tears at least helped me practice a new skill I had picked up the evening before – asking random people to use their cell phones. This was another really hard part of being alone  and without technology – every time my flights got delayed or canceled (and trust, the fun doesn’t stop here), I had no way to contact Sarah or Amruta and tell them what had happened. So I took to borrowing people’s cell phones, dozens of them: from a mother of two, from a diplomat, from a businessman who eventually had to awkwardly approach me again and say “I think your friend is calling.” (Thanks, Amruta.)

This time, I called Sarah, who immediately had Bjinder come pick me back up. I was so lucky to have that resource – especially because Bjinder was one of the only drivers who could actually drive where you asked him to – but it didn’t change the fact that I was still alone, in this strange city that I was supposed to have left 24 hours ago. I wasn’t really sure what to do, so I went back to Lodhi Gardens.

And watched the people.

Even the balloon man.

And the schoolchildren.

And then remembered I was still in Delhi.

And threw myself a pity party.

Seriously. Like, poor children would come up to me begging for money and I would literally give them this look that was all, bitch, please. I’ve had two flights canceled today.

And then I would stop and think about it a little bit and the itty bitty sane part of my brain that was still functioning on one hour of sleep would realize, hey, maybe this isn’t that big of a deal. Poverty, going to bed without food in your stomach, without a parent to tuck you in – that’s a tragedy. This? This is an inconvenience.

So I dealt with it. I had Sarah – lovely, calm, mature, responsible Sarah – book me a 6 a.m. flight the next morning on Air India, with their supposedly trained pilots. And I, once again, called Lena – a friend of Sarah’s I had met the previous weekend – to say, for the second time, surprise! I’m still here.

You know what’s a really easy way to annoy a new friend you don’t know that well but are trying to form a relationship with? Consistently say that you’re leaving, do the whole goodbye thing, and then show back up. Repeat. And insist that they hang out with you because, honestly, you have nowhere else to go. Except hang out with Bjinder in the Honda.

Lena is either a super awesome person or a super awesome liar or just felt super bad for my pitiful self, but for whatever reason she kept letting me tag along with her. At one point, she even let me crash a dinner that she had already scheduled with a professional colleague. (I know, how annoying am I?) After dinner – where I felt the need to share my sob story with almost everyone in the restaurant – I went back to Sarah’s and slept another 45 minutes in preparation for my third attempt to get the fuck out of Delhi.

And lo and behold, the third time was the charm. Things weren’t looking so good when I first showed up to the airport – the TV was playing some news program that featured this massive graphic saying “FOG HAVOC” swirling across the screen in bright red letters. Not so reassuring. Nor was the fact that we sat on the runway for three hours, with frequent announcements involving the phrase “zero visibility” – but eventually we had the 125 feet we needed (yes, I know all the lingo now) and we took off and I felt the need to start clapping. Like with my hands. And yes, being the white girl clapping for no apparent reason attracted almost as much attention as being the white girl hysterically crying. But I didn’t care. Because I was finally – finally! – in the air, on my way to Bombay. With 17 whole hours to see the city.

Previously

The recap, part 2: Still in Delhi. And not by choice.
February 2, 2010

Delhi, India is not really somewhere you want to get stuck. The pollution will turn your snot black; the poverty is pervasive, woven throughout the fabric of the city; the residents are notoriously cold; the traffic horrific. There are just too many people – too many people to have electricity all the time, too many people to take a hot shower for longer than four minutes, too many people to fit in the buses and trains.

In sharp contrast, though, the tourist attractions – at least when I was there – were eerily empty. I lasted only 20 minutes in the Crafts Museum’s dark, cold rooms, checking behind many a cultish object and warrior sword before ultimately fleeing to the similarly cold and dark central courtyard. This time of year, the whole city is like that – all grays and browns and muted tones, with a chill made worse by the fact that there’s no central heating.

And then there’s the fog.

I’ve never had such strong and complicated feelings about a weather pattern. There’s two sides to this debacle, I guess: on the one hand, after booking my tickets and arriving in Delhi, I heard from tons of people that the fog is always awful in January. That you just can’t travel to Delhi that month, didn’t you know?, and you should never, ever book an evening or morning flight.

(I didn’t know. And I exclusively booked evening and morning flights.)

On the other hand, this wasn’t just any fog. By all accounts, it was record-breaking: the worst fog in seven years, no visibility, hundreds of canceled flights and trains.

And then there was me: the naive American, sans cell phone, in the midst of it all. The first flight I had booked out of Delhi was a 10:30 p.m. flight to Mumbai on Wednesday, January 20. I picked the time because Amruta was supposed to fly with me after a business meeting in Delhi (subsequently canceled, of course), and I picked the airline, Spicejet, because it sounded cool. Obviously.

By Tuesday, I had wised up – a little, at least – and decided my best bet was to pay the change fee and move my ticket up to the 6:30 p.m. Spicejet flight. The fog doesn’t usually descend until 9 or 10 p.m. (after clearing up around 10 or 11 a.m.), so this seemed like a safe bet. I congratulated my worrier self for thinking ahead and strong-arming my inner cheap Jew.

When I woke up on Wednesday, I was greeted with, well, I don’t think I can make it any scarier than the Times of India did in a news article from 1/21:

“If Delhiites thought Tuesday’s fog was the worst of the season, Wednesday unleashed a nightmare.”

Um, yeah. What they said.

Sarah’s apartment was engulfed in a thick layer of white. It was kind of like being in the middle of a cloud on an airplane (oh, the irony.) Sarah herself was not in said apartment, but rather sitting on an airplane at the Delhi domestic airport, attempting to fly to Bangalore for a last-minute business trip, which of course never happened.

By 11 a.m., she received word that my flight too had already been delayed by four hours – you know, back to the time I had paid money to avoid. I started to suspect I was starring in this movie.*

(I never post graphics or photos here that aren’t my own…but c’mon. It’s a movie about killer fog.)

The Times of India, too, seemed convinced we were embroiled in some sort of epic, other-worldly saga.

“Those out driving said the fog set in all of a sudden, leaving them completely blinded in a matter of seconds.”

Is this a news article? Eventually, after all the melodrama, some actual information:

“The fog began setting in around 8.30pm and in less than an hour, visibility had fallen to zero in several areas.”

Now that’s some solid reporting. Because 9:30 was exactly the time I was boarding my little Spicejet plane, keeping my fingers crossed that this would somehow work out, despite mounting evidence to the contrary.

At that point I was pretty calm. Once I got to the airport, I entered this kind of zen-like state where I was all, what’s the worst that could happen? My flight gets canceled? Nbd. (I think the Indian chick lit novel I picked up the night before may have had something to do with it. That shit was good. Or maybe our visit to the B’hai Temple, where Lena tried to get me to calm the f down earlier that morning.)

Anyway, we did actually board and we were really close to taking off. But you couldn’t see anything at all out the windows, and even the buses that took us from the gate to the plane had trouble driving. So I spent the hours we sat on the plane just bracing for the cancelation, and when it came, I was OK. If it was too dangerous to fly, it was too dangerous to fly, I reasoned.

What I hadn’t considered was that the process of rebooking my ticket might, in fact, be more dangerous than flying in zero visibility weather. There was screaming and pushing and shoving – which I have seen people (um, my mom) do at an airport before, but this was to such an extreme that some guy took out his cell phone and started videotaping it. If you find that shit on Youtube, let me know.

I was fortunate enough to elicit pity from win the favor of a super sweet 18-year old Delhiite (who had, of course, lived in NJ until she was eight.) She took me under her wing as we hustled to the ticket window, then ran back to the baggage claim (“I wouldn’t trust our stuff there for a second,” she said) and then headed back to the ticket window to try to get on flights for the next day. When my bags took much longer than hers to come around on the carousel, I told her to go ahead, I would be fine, to which she responded, “no, you’ll never make it.” At that point I was considering holding her hand for the rest of the evening.

She eventually helped me push my way up to the ticket window, where I got super lucky (or so I thought) by snagging a seat on a 3 p.m. direct flight for the next day, while everyone else was getting stuck on a 5 p.m. flight with a layover. She then called Sarah’s driver from her cell and instructed him, in Hindi, on where to pick me up.

By the time I got back to Sarah’s apartment, I wasn’t even upset – just thankful for her help. I had one of those my-faith-in-humanity-is-restored moments, awed by the fact that she had stood by my side the whole time, giving up a better seat on an earlier flight to help a girl she didn’t even know. That surely canceled out the rifle pointed at my head two days ago, I reasoned. Maybe I had been too hard on Delhi. Maybe the people could be lovely and helpful and warm, if you let them. Maybe I should have given the Crafts Museum another shot.

Funnily enough, I would end up with plenty of time to give the Crafts Museum another shot.

*Credit goes to Amruta, or really, her work friends, for this reference.

Previously

India photographic
February 1, 2010

A bunch of (edited!) photos are up here. I wouldn’t say I’m super thrilled with them but I guess it’s a start. And I do still love my Nikon.

The recap, part 1: Delhi & Agra
February 1, 2010

I guess we should start at the beginning.

Which is a pretty inauspicious place to start, actually. Because within 10 minutes of leaving my apartment, I managed to lose my debit card, leaving me cashless for my transcontinental journey. An hour later, in an unrelated incident (by which I mean it’s related only by the fact that I’m an idiot), I found myself being questioned by a train conductor after a mysterious ticket turned up with a receipt baring my credit card info. Yeah. By the time we pulled into Newark, I was feeling pretty great about my ability to travel across the world. Since I was evidently so adept at getting myself across state lines and all. Leg #1: fail.

Leg #2 of the journey was surprisingly fine, though, thus proving that most things I worry about usually end up okay (while other random shit that never even crosses my mind generally hits the fan.) The fifteen hour flight went by super fast, even though the Ambien I finally convinced my dad to prescribe me DID NOT WORK. Let me repeat: prescription medication so ubiquitous it’s referenced in a Jay Z song was no match for my anxiety and adrenaline. In case you ever need quantitative proof of how much of a freak I am, just remember I’m apparently impervious to sleeping pills.

Anyway, I make it to Sar’s apartment, tired but happy to be reunited with the red-headed, tap dancing alcoholic who first stole my heart freshman year. (And by stole my heart, I mean drank me under the table. Like I literally had to go to the hospital because I tried to go shot-for-shot with her.)

Anyway, we’re both way more mature now.

Note: outfits will be explained in recap #3 #4 #5. All in due time.

Sarah was a wonderful hostess. We traipsed around to a few tourist attractions over the weekends: Humayun’s tomb, Lodhi gardens.

On Saturday night, we went to a chic Asian fusion restaurant. With its rooftop bar, inflated prices and fish flown in daily from Japan, it felt like I had been there before. Like in my own country. I was left wondering where all the 50-cent three-course meals my Rough Guide had touted were.  I wanted the real, authentic India, dammit, poverty, pollution and all! I didn’t fly around the world to go to a Stephen Starr restaurant!

As it turns out, I was wrong. I didn’t want the authentic, real India. In fact, after finding said India the next day, I practically begged Sarah to take me to a Stephen Starr restaurant. Actually, fuck Stephen Starr. By the time I got to Bombay, I was ready for the new Morimoto restaurant at the Taj.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The turning point that left me running for the five-star hotel buffets was my trip to Agra – home to the Taj Mahal – on Monday. I left Sarah’s apartment at 4 a.m. to catch a “two-hour long” train, which deserves its own quotes, because in India, there are no rules, let alone timetables. After about hour four, the Asian tourists around me started getting restless and a bunch of Americans started complaining, but I noticed this older Indian guy just kind of laughing at all of them. By the end of that day, I totally got it.

We arrived in Agra too late for me to join a tour group I had researched, so I headed off to the Taj on my own. Sarah had suggested I hire a driver – super cheap in India – but I was convinced I could handle roughing it on a rickshaw. I blame the Stephen Starr syndrome and a total lack of sleep (I had terrible insomnia for most of the trip.)

Anyway, it didn’t go down so well. I don’t know how to set the scene, except to emphasize that everything is just so difficult in India, especially when you’re alone and female and painfully white. You can’t just walk places, which was hard for someone as taxi-adverse and stubborn as me to accept. All day, I kept finding myself in situations where I was the only tourist – surrounded by barefoot children, cows, bubbling pots of curry and just people, people people – all of them staring at me. I still can’t really figure it out – there were a decent number of tourists at the actual Taj, how did they manage to seemingly disappear immediately outside the entrance booth? Um, maybe they read the following advice (sadly read by me prior to the trip and then blatantly ignored) from the Miami Herald: “Hire a regulated guide: You do not want to endure the ride leading to the Taj or the final walk to its gate alone.”

Yeah. Well, I endured it. I also endured a rickshaw ride during which a MAN ARMED WITH A RIFLE jumped on and sat in front of me, the butt of said rifle aimed disturbingly close to my head. And then, just for kicks, I decided to endure a mile-long walk to Agra Fort train station – the train station on the wrong side of town. Again, I don’t even know how to explain this, except to say that the train station on the right side of town? You don’t even want to be there alone.

I stood in line after line at several ticket windows, where no tourists ever go, because there are special tourist tickets online. And I actually had one of those special tourist tickets, but it was for 8 p.m., and I quickly realized there was no way in hell I was going to survive in Agra until then, especially when the trains were running five hours late. So I eventually pushed my way up to the front of a line, attempted to communicate that I wanted to go to Delhi and purchased…a 60 rupee ticket. Which is about $1.20. Not a good sign, considering my trip to Agra had cost $15 and still made me miss Amtrak.

By the time I made it on to the train, I was missing Metro North, New Jersey transit and even Septa. Just the simple act of boarding made me want to throw my hands in the air and hire a driver. I had thought that the train was coming on track #3, but two super nice San Franciscans (hi Iggy! hi Allison!) directed me to track #2. Sure enough, a train soon pulled up there – and hoards of people started jumping on it. While it was still moving. Because there are no doors on trains in India. Never one to give up a seat willingly, I followed suit, using my Longchamp bag as protection from jutting elbows. I wedged myself in the middle of a bench and watched as the car filled with people. Though everyone was staring at me already, I decided to whip out the hot pink-encased blackberry I had borrowed from Sarah’s roommate, just to make me stand out a little bit more. As I’m trying to convince both her and myself that I am indeed fine and can handle this, I see Allison running down the platform, screaming “get out!”

Gladly.

It was the wrong train, and Allison and Iggy had felt so bad for giving me the wrong info that they had searched for me. After coming up empty-handed in a few cars, they finally asked someone, who immediately identified my exact location. Like, the white girl? Of course we know where she is. Hard to miss.

By the time the real train came (four hours late, I believe), I had decided there was no way I could make it three hours in the general seating car. Instead, I tagged along with Iggy and Allison to the second-class sleeper, eventually convincing the conductor to let me upgrade my ticket. It actually wasn’t that hard of a sell – I think he realized there was no way I could cut it back there and had no choice but to take my 100 rupees and let me stay.

I met up with Sarah in Gurgaon that night for a late dinner and finally accepted defeat. “Do you want Indian food? Takeout?” Sar asked. No. Absolutely not. At that point, I was ready to cry at the drop of a samosa. Instead, I requested something vaguely American, zen-like and extremely fancy, and off we went to the Trident hotel’s mediterranean buffet, where we ordered four different types of ice cream (in addition to cakes and pastries, obv) for dessert. Here’s Sar with a sampling:

Yes, it was pricey, even by American standards. Yes, it was food I could have gotten anywhere else in the world, especially Philly. But you know what? That night, for the first time in almost a week, I slept more than 45 minutes. Which was a very good thing, considering all the sleepless nights –  and corresponding disasters adventures – to come.

homecoming
January 28, 2010

I have never been so happy to see New Jersey.

I made it to Newark last night, mostly in one piece, only 16.5 hours late. After 12 13 days, two canceled flights, 35 hours of plane and train delays, two stitches in my left leg, seven nights of insomnia, 17 hours in Bombay (seven of them in the daylight) and one rifle-armed rickshaw ride, I was ready for home – even if I had to travel the entire length of the garden state to get there. Dave picked me up at the airport and we drove – on a glorious American highway, with lanes! and rules! that people follow! – southbound, stopping at Wendy’s for my first cheeseburger in nearly two weeks.

It’s so good to be back.

India was … indescribable. Insane. Exhilarating, awful, overwhelming, scary, confusing and beautiful, all at the same time. It was a sensory overload, a lesson in worst case scenarios and a reminder of how in love I am with my friends.

I’m glad I went, though that didn’t stop me from laughing in the face of the customs official (was it the first or second time I tried to leave the country? can’t remember) that informed me my visa required two months between visits. “No worries,” I assured him. “I’d rather kill myself than come back anytime soon.”

I actually don’t feel that way right at this very moment, sitting in my old Philadelphia bedroom, staring out at a city that seems so calm, and almost lifeless, in comparison. I already miss Sarah and Amruta (a lot) and even, somehow, the craziness of it all (a little.) I don’t know if that really makes the hours spent in an Indian ER or the havoc-wreaking Delhi fog worth it, but I’m going to embrace this jet-lag-induced nostalgia for now and just go with it. If nothing else, I’m coming away from this with some really great stories – which, I think, was the point of this whole thing to begin with.