Monday, November 13, 2006

India... India... India...
The good news at least that the internet has been the most frustrating thing so far, which is obviously relatively minor, and thus our first few days here have been great! Not that our diarrhea and stomach pains have been wonderful, but given the spicy foods and entirely new set of bacteria, that was to be expected. The internet is only annoying because the first place we went to this evening closed just 20 minutes after we got there, though they neglected to tell us that when we arrived, and the current more-expensive (but 24-hour) place that we are currently at not only features hilariously cramped seating, but frustratingly out-of-date software that is making our relatively simple uploading quite the chore!
We are currently still in Trivandrum, which is home to the furthest-south international airport in India, though not much else really as far as being a tourist/traveler is concerned. However, fortunately, there are many good beaches in the nearby towns, so tomorrow we head to one, most likely Varkala, about 1.5 hours by bus to the north, for some relaxing in the sun, before heading inland to visit a wildlife preserve (though we may cruise the backwaters by boat first, we haven't really decided yet!). We saw most of the the town's sights yesterday, first visiting the Puttan Malika Palace, which is a massive 19th century building. Most of its hundreds of rooms are off limits, but the numerous that are open to the public are part of a museum, so we were able to admire the numerous beautiful woodcarved ceilings, as well as the many massive marble carvings of various Hindu deities. There were also many rusty swords, ivory and crystal thrones, but it was the architecture itself (red-roofs, dark-wood carvings everywhere) that was the most impressive. Photographs weren't allowed, but our tour guide was informative, so it was a good, if short, experience. Next door (and an even shorter experience) was the Shri Padmanabhaswamy temple, which is only open to Hindus, so we were only able to gawk at its massive stone-carved structure, and then try and peer in at the inner chambers. We did receive (regardless of whether we really wanted it!) the traditional dab of chalk on our foreheads, and the "guard" implied that we could enter for baksheesh, but being culturally inappropriate and religiously insensitive isn't worth it, even for free! But just seeing the temple was enough, as it is a massive hulking monolith, though I'm sure we will see bigger, better, and cleaner ones in the semi-near future.
Afterwards, we wandered through town, along the main road (called MG, for Mahatma Ghandi, as many main roads are), which is busy, dirty (two-fold, from piles of trash as well as polluting vehicles), but full of people and the vibrant life of modern India. The touts and drivers aren't near as obnoxious as in Egypt, and more and more our Egyptian experience is definitely coming in handy as a primer for the daily realities of being travelers in a country that is home to a drastically different culture than our own. Here, while there are taxis, the main transportation is via auto-rickshaw, which is basically a small three-wheeled cart, powered by gasoline, but that is steered not by a wheel but by handlebars similar to those on a bike. They get incredible fuel economy, despite blowing out nasty black smoke much of the time, and are able to weave around vehicles, pedestrians, and potholes alike with ean ease that cars could only dream of. Plus, they're one-half to one-third the price of taxis, and are more abundant, so they are definitely our preferred method of transit, when our own two feet aren't up to the job (i.e. when "the dogs are tired"!).
It should be noted that the prices on everything on India are a mere fraction of what things cost in America; the exchange rate is roughly 45 Indian Rupees equaling one U.S. Dollar. A rickshaw ride virtually anywhere in town costs 15-20 rupees (total for the two of us); dinners cost between 60 and 150 rupees, depending if we just get a meal and drink, or if we get 2-3 drinks each, plus soup and maybe an appetizer; books by Indian authors cost 95 rupees, while foreign books cost around 250-300 rupees (all paperbacks); the zoo, palace, and museums each cost 6 rupees to enter per person, and 20 for our camera at the zoo; a 2-litre of bottled water costs 22 rupees; our hotel costs 264 rupees a night, total... you get the idea, but you can easily live on $10/person/day, and often less, even if you don't walk much and still visit cultural sites.
Our hotel, the Greenland Lodge, is very nice and clean, includes complimentary mosquito coils, and we even have our own bathroom! The staff is friendly, they supply free daily copies of English-language newspapers in the lobby, and overall the place is lightyears ahead of the rather dumpy place we spent our first night at. We arrived rather early in the morning, exhausted from 2 straight days of travel, and the Greenland (recommended by Rough Guides) was full, as were the three other places nearby that either of our travel guides mentioned (we also have Lonely Planet India), so we just picked a cheap place at random. It wasn't necessarily the worst place that we'll stay at during our travels, though probably the worst yet (definitely as far as bugs, the roach Anderson killed was pretty gross), but we were able to get the sleep we needed, though our transfer to the Greenland the next morning was a delightful change - and the cost difference, 12 rupees per night, laughable given the huge difference in quality!
Anyways, after wandering through the center of town, we headed north to the other section of "culture," which consists of a very nice (and free) public botanical gardens, which is part of a complex consisting of several museums and the zoo as well. We saw 2 of the museums, first the Napier Museum, which is home to all varieties of indigineous artwork, mostly Hindu interpretations of various deities, though there were also some collections of non-Indian items from Java, Japan, China, etc. Most of the work was carved into wood, though some stone statues were also present. The museum was small by Western standards, which made it easy to actually enjoy everything it had, rather than being forced to scurry through massive galleries fighting off fatigue, crowds, and inevitably sheer boredom. The second museum was effectively an art gallery, called Shri Chitra, and it housed various paintings by a wide variety of Indian artists, probably most notably the oil works of Raja Ravi Varma, though we weren't exactly that impressed with his rather dull landscapes (though they did portray Indian life quite accurately, its just that art was imitating life a bit to exactly for our tastes!). Fortunately the zoo was right next door (though we'd already seen the reptile (as in snakes pretty much) house, which was part of the public gardens (and home to many cobras and pythons, including one boa whose cage also contained a live chicken!); the zoo was rather impressive, particularly given that we are in India, as most of the exhibits imitated natural habitats, so the many monkees, lemurs, etc. seemed right at home in the trees, as did the more spectacular one-horned rhino, tiger, lion (which we only heard roaring from a distance and never saw), and hippos. The zoo was laid out very well, with one winding path, clearly marked by signs, and thus no doubling-back was necessary, so basically it was a very leisurely walk with excellent natural views. Some animals, including all the birds, were in small and rather dirty cages, which was depressing, but the zoo is rather new and seems to at least be making a concerted effort, which was nice to see. Hopefully our 12 rupees will go towards the many more habitats that were under construction!
That's basically all that Trivandrum has to offer for sites, so today we slept in, though later than usual due to upset stomachs - the combination of the very spicy food with all the new bacteria means that diarrhea is just about a constant, so things are going well when hurried trips to the toilet aren't necessary, though it seems that every morning thus far one of us has had to make a bit of a dash to the bathroom - this morning was Anderson's turn, with his innerds keeping him awake for over an hour before he could clear things out enough to go back to sleep! But we did need a lengthy rest anyway, to finish up our jetlag recovery, and so we leisurely got up, before heading to the post office to unload some weight (which turned out to be 7 kgs, about 15 lbs.) by sending a package via boat to Anderson's parents of Egyptian souveniers and books that we have read but want to keep (Anderson got a free hardback Robert Jordan book in Germany, which turned out to be autographed, and thus a must-save). Fortunately, our post office experience, though slow by Western standards, was wonderful by Indian standards (at least from what we have heard), as after only 5 minutes of bumbling around the workers were helpfully wrapping our goods in a box for us, before stitching it up with a cotton sack and string. From there we hit up a delicious restaurant for lunch, where we enjoyed our first masala dosa (thin pancake-ish bread wrapped around flavorful potatoes, veggies and sauce) and our new favorite drink: lime juice! Lime juice is just a little bit of lime with sugar and the rest water, but it is super tasty, thirst-quenching, and usually suprisingly cold. After lunch we checked out a couple of book stores, since books are ridiculously cheap here in India (under $2 for Indian authors, around $5 or less for foreign authors), and so for cheap we were able to reload the mobile Muth library!
Tonight we just have had a less-than-satisfactory dinner from the Indian Coffee House chain (though the building, a circular spiral with ever higher tables was intriguing), then some relaxation at our hotel, before wandering to find our current internet cafe. Tomorrow we're off to the beach as mentioned, though we may go to Kovalam before Varkala, since our friend Luke (who was in India this time last year) has been lobbying for Kovalam via chat on gmail.
Now time for a little back-to-the-future action, since last you read we were in Dahab, about to leave for Cairo. Our last day in Dahab was pretty laid-back, we just wandered about, ate one last time at King Chicken, our favorite cheap restaurant in town, and then talked with our friend Osama, who owns a music store next to King Chicken. We then caught the overnight bus back to Cairo, which frankly was terrible. We were on East Delta, instead of Upper Egypt Bus which we took the rest of the time, and the bus seats were much smaller, and the edge of our assigned seat had a very sharp point, which Anderson kept hitting his leg on while trying to sleep. We also stopped numerous times, and even had to get out of the bus near the Suez Canal for the lamest bag inspection ever (and at 4 a.m. on top of it), so by the time we arrived in downtown Cairo around 6, we were pretty out of it. Our plan was to simply find food and then catch a taxi to the airport, so we could sit there and maybe sleep, or at least just let our fried brains avoid the bustle of Cairo, but of course that's not at all what happened:
As we meandered down the street away from the bus station, sending all-too-frequent taxis away, we stopped at a corner store to inquire about early-morning food options, and the three young guys hanging out there nicely offered to take us the 3 blocks to the nearest falafel joint. After some wandering, we got some warm, fresh Egyptian breakfast food, much-needed after our arduous bus journey. One of the guys, named Ahdam, invited us up to his apartment, which was just across the street, and since we had nothing else to do, we took him up on his offer. He lives there with his mother, a former English teacher, who was in the midst of her morning prayers when we arrived. We had some tea, and then proceeded to watch a quality bootleg of the movie "2 Fast, 2 Furious," which arguably was about the most complicated cinema we could handle, given our condition! Everyone was very nice, and though we were tired the conversation and company was far better than the airport, and then, when the noon-time prayers were approaching, Ahdam asked if we'd like to join them, since Friday prayer is the biggest of the Muslim week. After making sure that it would be appropriate it we went, Liz got washed and dressed (as in completely wrapped up in skirt and headscarf) and then went out with Ahdam's mother, while Anderson washed with the three guys. The washing involves three rinses of the face, feet, arms, mouth, and privates, and then one final rinse of the head and ears, in order to be clean before God. Liz got to skip the privates-washing (which is done privately, it should be noted), and we semi-learned some Arabic prayer-phrases in order to do things right. Being regular Egyptian men, they ended up departing too late to catch the service at the mosque that Liz went to, so we each ended up at different mosques (though there is literally one every few blocks in downtown Cairo), but the service itself was quite quick, consisting of a reading by the imam, before some praying, then a quick series of kneeling/praying, before sitting and listening to the end of the service. Then a handshake, and things are over. Muslims pray five times a day, though most Egyptians don't go to the mosque all that often, many it seems only go once a week, if they can, but the whole experience was quite interesting and unexpected, though very ritualistic (of course). Afterwards, we enjoyed some koshari, and quickly said our goodbyes, before catching a taxi to the Cairo airport. Getting through security wasn't bad, and both flights on Qatar Airways went just fine, with good food, though poor sleep, on each plane, and the complementary alcoholic beverages certainly didn't hurt, though the Heineken's on our flight from Doha to Trivandrum were ultra-warm. Our 6-hour layover in Doha was about as good as possible, though Qatar is apparently painfully oil-rich, as the duty-free items were frighteningly numerous, including hundreds of types of alcohol, plus just about every Western bit of electronics one could imagine(all at ridiculous prices), plus several $300 raffles that were for new BMWs and the like. Pretty ridiculous, all and all, particularly given the rampant poverty throughout other parts of the Middle East, but then, as Americans, we don't really have much room to talk.
However, with the wonderful news of the Republicans losing control of both the House and Senate, hopefully the evil grip of Bush and his cronies is nearing its end, and some normalcy (and much-needed reality) can begin returning to American politics, both domestically and internationally. Hopefully you all voted Democratic, since tragically our 2-party system doesn't leave much room for variety, and that when we return from our travels America will be better off than when we left it!
Hopefully more updates will come soon, though given the quality of the internet around here that is somewhat of an unknown, but all is well in India, we are happy to be here and enjoying everything but the diarrhea and the humidity! When you wake up tomorrow and head to work, we'll most likely be at the beach, so we'll make sure to catch some sun for you as well!

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