The End.

15 Jan

The end.
Done.
It’s over.
You can all go home now.

It’s bittersweet. It never really began. It feels like yesterday. It never really ended. I’m still cautious about drinking from the tap. Already missing starting conversations with strangers, hearing their stories, their backgrounds, their reasons for who-what-why. The excitement of the new. The freshness of the never before seen. It’s fading and I’m clawing at it to stay relevant, but it’s losing its pigment, the color draining, the film burning out.

The conversations of where-to next? Which hostel? Which restaurant? The immediacy of the decision. The fun of the moment. Part of the reason I saved all the blog posts until just now. Sometimes it can be hard letting go. Re-watch Slumdog Millionaire. The Darjeeling Limited. Grasping at the essence. All I have left is the version behind the eyes. Snapshots and vignettes not nearly as reliable as the photos I took. And even then…

Maybe it’s because I’m a rookie. Maybe I’m not the only one feeling the vacuum of stepping back into the bubble of familiarity. The safe space is the dream – the intensity, Mumbai, the eclectic smells, the sweat-wet clothes, the human litter, the welcoming sight of Havanna Cafe, that’s the reality, the truth… the verisimilitude that’s in my head as of now – I’m waiting to be pinched. To wake up on a hard mattress, on a pillow that I’m too scared to smell, lest my illusion of whatever hygiene I have left is broken, thanking any one of the 34 million Hindu gods that I’m not sleeping on the floor this time.

But no.

The end.

As it draws to a close, you tell yourself you’re ready. It’s time. The last day or two is a waiting game. You’re convinced that you’ve seen what you had to and it’s time to go home. Back to the familiar. The safe. Friends. Family. The streets you drove on. The malls you frequented. <insert familiarity here>

But then something happens on the flight. Or at least in that same time frame; might be during the wait to board, might be whilst pushing your trolley of luggage towards the exit. Regardless of its inception, the excitement hits you BAM! like a hard shove, the kind that makes you stagger back a few feet. And once it’s there, planted in your stomach, it begins to simmer. And you start, dare I say it, you start looking forward to it all. To it all again.

That first step back into your own space. Taking in your own interior designs, smelling your own scent, pure and unbridled, only you, the silence – the soundtrack you paused when you boarded that plane the first time – it resumes playback. And the familiar is fresh again. Exciting. Un. Be. Lievable. On your own terms.

Relaying a best-of to those that matter is a treat in itself, a chance to re-affirm the experience. Filter it through in the right way. The myriad of photographs waiting to be digitized is the same, but more – perfect frames that trim away the fat. Only it’s the fat that should stay. In an ironic counter-point, it’s the healthy part. It’s the things you don’t notice that linger. The details. What you’ve forgotten, returning to you only in dreams. In isolated, singular moments such as when a bus passes by. As you’re handed a straw without the wrapper. Or you enter a bathroom with a dry floor. Someone hooting. A blanket. Fireworks. Pepsi. No, Coke. No, Pepsi. Alright, a 7-Up. Uno.

Tom.
Alyssa.
Sebastian.
Hampas.
Hannah.
John.
Rozbeh.
Paul.
Lucy.
Andrew.
There’s more.

It’s a smile on your face as you recall conversations that passed the time, classical bonding in all the right ways. And the wrong ones…

Films.
Books.
Music.
A life lived only so far. The positive chemical reaction of a shared opinion. High five! The gutted sting of disagreement. The excitement of debating it. And winning. 30 hour train rides painting a picture of India in flash frames. Should you choose to watch. Or maybe you’d prefer a song performed by a local passenger. There’s no price other than enthusiasm. The same goes for those living in the slums, embracing a lifestyle most couldn’t conceive of. Survive in. Living in a room hidden from the sun, exploring the catacombs of the Dharavi suburbs with a smile. A twitch of the head.
I am in awe.

Worthwhile travel companions that helped sweeten the dusty air working its way under your finger nails. Sharing anecdotes. Wisdoms. Toilet paper.
It takes reflection to truly appreciate what transpired. If time heals all wounds, it also soothes the experience. Massages it into the soul, ready to be called upon at a moment’s notice. Good or bad, you don’t have a choice. Just embrace it. It’s part of you now, always and forever.
Happily ever after.

The End.

Youri & Tal, thanks for making it awesome.
Much love.

Of settled shotguns and restaurant cows

3 Jan

Here’s to settling in. To finding out you might not have needed to bring your heavy walking shoes after all. The red All Stars you bought specifically to be destroyed in India not only serve you more than fine, they’re holding up pretty well at that. They even got you talking to the cute Aussie at the low table next to yours who had the same only 5 sizes down in Hampi. Here’s to settling on the rules of when and where Shotgun applies. To deciding that sleeping on the third added bed on the floor and privilege to the upper berth of the sleeper train will be allocated in rotation rather than shotgun. That shotgun can not be called for something hypothetical (“shotgun the first girl who’s desperate for a travel fling”) and stealing someone’s chair while he’s gone to the loo is only moderately accepted, albeit frowned upon. Here’s to discovering you have the tendency to spread your backpack’s content all over the room upon arrival, and how you like to leave your bathroom products piled in the sink. Here’s to rotating toilet paper buying duty too, save for when you feel safer having your own roll just in case. To selling your two half-full flasks of DEET anti-mosquito product to Tom from Hampi in exchange for a slice of chocolate cake. You haven’t used them since Thailand way back when you took traveling so seriously you carried both the Lonely Planet AND the Routard guide just so you could cross reference hostel recommendations. To becoming intimately acquainted with how the first thing that will awake with you in the morning are all the mosquito bites suddenly calling for your itching attention. You joke of hiring a little boy that will follow you on your travels just so you could be continuously scratched. You’d call him Bubu even though Youri will jokingly add that he’d probably have an upper class British name like Richard, ‘but I’ll still call him Bubu’ you insist. Here’s to itching so much you developed a new way of walking worthy of Monthy Python’s Ministery of funny walks, in which in between steps, you’ll use whichever foot is in the air to scratch the other leg.

Here’s to finding out you still won’t apply anti-mosquito nor much sunscreen nor any of the other newbie traveler measures like keeping locks on all your bags, wearing a money pouch with traveler’s checques in them, reserving accommodation ahead of time or bringing a panoply of medicine in big enough dosage to give an elephant a headache. Here’s to wondering if traveling so much has got you jaded and you can’t help but compare. The way the first time around, the experience of traveling itself was the mindblow and now you find yourself mentally summing up the pro’s and cons of Bolivia versus Guatemala. Here’s to comparing traveling alone with traveling in threes and toying with the idea of backpacking with a girlfriend once. Traveling in threes means you don’t meet as many people and your experiences are first experienced collectively before they reach you on an individual level. To concluding that the two most valuable sentences in traveling may just be ‘Would you like to join us for dinner?’ and ‘Do you mind if I join you? Sometimes adding the rationale that ‘no one should have to eat alone’ and slowly you piece together that traveling alone as a woman may have some added bonuses too, not just the usual contra of being accosted a lot. Here’s to taking a shower and considering giving your ex-girlfriend the gift of a Lonely Planet to Guatemala plus a whole itinerary jotted down at the back. To musing about the social consequence of a country being more or less prone to dormitories. To slowly learning that after having an active lobby, the second most important criteria for choosing your hostel is location, also known as Location Location Location. Here’s to wondering if traveling alone means you’d have to pay all those tuk tuk fees alone or if the price may depend on the amount of passengers.

Here’s to having gotten to drive a Tuk Tuk in Kochi in a deal to visit a shop in exchange. Here’s to Jewtown, the coolest sounding neighbourhood I can think of. To Kochin and thinking of your Indian ex-gf and wondering if she grew up around here. To thinking it looks nothing like what you imagined. What I had in mind was some sort of haven city with lots of stone edifices or cobble streets or maybe like a mix between a 16th century amsterdam and Akko in Israel. Here’s to being unable to avoid israelis and slowly softening my opinion of them. To deciding that the male israelis are still what you thought of them but that you have to admit the girls are often stunning, up until you hear them speak. Here’s to being swayed most by the gorgeous half-israelis and deciding that clearly Israeliness is better left at half the dosis. And honestly, only realizing in retrospect that you were patting your own back. Here’s to the occasional ‘There is a’ exclamation. To ‘There is a FORT outside the WINDOW’ (Jaisalmer) and ‘There is a COW inside the RESTAURANT’ (Palolem). FYI, that cow has been showing up at Little Italy Baba Restaurant every night for the last 5 years, Sam the owner told me. Here’s to making a point of remembering every one’s names including but not limited to Pawan, the enthusiastic waiter extraordinaire who’d appear out of nowhere to bring a coke, clear the table or hand out the bill with a Cirque du Soleil-like agility. Pawan was genuinely touched that I remembered his name, I was touched by his genuinity if there was such a word. Sameer the math teacher from Ladakh working at our Neptune Point beach hut. Chabi the slick tout/owner of Neptune Point who had promised us free tickets to the Christmas rave party but never came through. Tom the ever-present-at-the-lobby-archetypical-laid-back-long-term-traveler who I kept calling Ben but who could play the guitar in a way that filled me with humble envy. Here’s to channeling your inner Dalai Lama on a daily basis, though often only in retrospect and the damage has been done already. Youri and Brad will laugh about it, for channeling my inner Lama post-damage is about as effective as insisting you shouldn’t eat as much chocolate only after you had your third chocolate ball.

Here’s to German bakeries and their chocolate balls, chocolate donuts, apple pies, apple crumble pies, croissants, chocolate croissants and cheese croissants. To wondering since when Germans were ever known for bakery and who the hell is this Dylan who’s name keeps appearing in hostel names, cybercafes, bars and restaurants? Our theory is that this is the same Dylan that originally introduced the local vendors to Tim Tams (Kochin), how to make Shakshuka, the incredible value of paper (not plastic) napkins and for doing his best to edit out all the spelling mistakes in the menus. Here’s to the best shakshuka I ever had in my life (Cafe Inn, Palolem) and Banoffee pie (Palolem), again, Dylan’s work. Here’s to every single bookstore, bookshack, booktowel on the floor selling Shantaram and the White Tiger. Here’s to Malcolm Gladwell, everywhere and I do mean everywhere, and I still love the fella. Here’s to some of the finest selections of english books I’ve seen around and still finding badly photocopied editions of Are You Experienced? Here’s to actually considering reading Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus and that should tell you something as to how serious I am about becoming better. Here’s to every day, resisting the temptation to say half the sarcastic things that come to mind. To slowly accepting that not everyone wants to get better and consequently, wishes to hear how. To slowly accumulating evidence that keeping your mouth shut works out in the long term. Wondering whether you not talking much makes you seem like you are in a bad mood. You are not, but the stark contrast with your constant jest makes you feel like you are. Here’s to summarizing your new year’s resolution in 3 little rules: A) Take all the responsibility for conflict B) Remember that no one has bad intentions and C) Everyone is just looking for their happiness. They’re harder than you can imagine. To remembering to ask the How question first. How can we settle this best? How, how, how, never Why and never just point and blame. Even How can I be not mad at this? How can I frame it as not being a big deal? Name three fights in your life that are still, today, a big deal. Here’s to understanding that Youri sometimes needs time alone and smiling at the realization that he used to go on the same sunset iPod walks in Thailand, 6 years ago. Here’s to telling our story to people for the 28th time, to finding out what it means to have developed one’s best friendship online. To finding out you have very different ways of spending money, deciding where to go next and dealing with contingencies. Here’s to working these differences out, too.

Here’s to our growing list of inside jokes. To teasing Bradley about all the indie films I can name that he has not seen (Cash back, breaking upwards, heima and the list goes on, hilariously painfully), to commenting on things in that British National Geographic tone. To finishing off exclaimed confusions with the sentence ‘What is up with that?’ pronounced in a Californian surfer dude voice that we all seem to know too well, somehow. To mentioning Bradley’s sisters, mockingly accusing Youri of being sensitive and Bradley of being petty. Here’s to Bradley and I’s never ending disagreement as to which girl (or type) we find more attractive, then contently state that we really should be each other’s wingmen, what with non overlapping preferences. Here’s to Youri and Bradley misinterpreting my stated preference for petite, voluptuous women into supposedly obese midgets. I meant the right volume in the right place, but their own version still cracks me up. Here’s to finding out that the worst thing about trying to keep a blog is chronology. To not having written a single account of Jaisalmer, Udaipur, Mumbai part II or Goa. To cherishing the illusion that you can still easily catch up. To calling this exact sort of entry I’m typing now a Youri-piece: poignant fluff of little facts. To Youri’s writing being impressive and I wish I complimented him more often on more things. To remembering having read that advice in Robin Sharma’s Guide to Greatness 2 that I leafed through, the annoyingly recurring guru from The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari. To him and some bearded dude named OSHO not only appearing but literally covering entire self-help / spirituality section bookshelves everywhere we’ve been. To thinking that OSHO is quite the logo / brand name and every time, toying with the idea of buying the Dalai’s book The Art of Happiness and I probably will buy it, but in Mumbai Part III right before I leave. Here’s to running out of money even though I have some more even though I actually have none as it is borrowed. To thinking how my ex would only think it confirms her theory that I’m not reasonable with money and me thinking about a piece Malcolm Gladwell (yes, again) wrote on entrepreneurs not being the ruthless risk takers they are often thought to be, but rather very calculating ones. But I am the one traveling here in India and not, it seems, in fucked up cold Holland. I think coming back to the Netherlands and facing the cold is going to be the real culture shock. Here’s to slowly starting to think, and even plan for coming back to Europe. To finally mailing Birgit from IDEO’s HR about starting that internship in February, only to receive an out-of-office reply that will last until the 24th of January. Here’s to learning a lesson or two on postponing duties.

To thinking that you could never travel for 6 months, let alone a year like them Israelis and Scandinavians love to do, for you are slowly, and surely, getting bored. The dreaded B-word. 30 days into the trip, you start hearing yourself uttering slogans like ‘A beach is a beach is a beach’ while simultaneously thinking it applies to temples too. To occasionally remembering that you still really want to travel Madagascar some day. To considering the risks and options of having sex in one of those sleeper cabins, gathering tips such as that some have a lock on their sliding doors but that tinted windows might make the whole affair much kinkier. Then remembering how Bradley once needed to pee so bad he nearly did it out the window of said cabin. And how he deleted your iPhone picture of him hunched there. To recalling all the couples you have seen backpacking, the hot girlfrfiends and irritated boyfriends and Youri’s assertion that backpacking together would probably be a make or break thing, and yourself thinking that the worse part would be if your girlfriend constantly utters her annoyance at things inherently backpacky, mostly dirt and hygiene, insects and discomfort, interminable waiting times and resisting the temptation to solve all and any problem with just more money. To imagining yourself sitting your gf down before the trip and clearly explaining that it will not be easy, nor clean nor fluid nor clear nor safe nor cosy, but really worth it if she can keep herself from complaining about it all. To remembering that Dimitri may be the best travel companion you can imagine one having, and wondering if you will get to do it again. To thinking that it would do him so much good to travel alone, then mentally recommending the same to so many more people, not unlike that Malcolm Gladwell book. Insisting that traveling alone will truly ‘root you’, as someone put it so well. Here’s to finding out that playing all of your Raph and Tal’s Choice songs in one big shuffle might just be the best thing to do, while Vampire Weekend’s second album worked wonders on that camel ride in Jaisalmer. Here’s to finding out that even after ingesting three Bang (ganja) cookies in a row, you still feel nothing, unless you consider that glacier like bowel movement at 4 AM something. Here’s to waking up in the middle of the desert under a sky so starry that looking up without your glasses, it looks like TV static, Here’s to putting on your red All Stars and walking off in the desert with a roll of toilet paper and your iPhone. To bowel movements causing the kind of pain that makes you thing of gargantuan glaciers moving through your body with a slowness only equaled by the pain they cause as they drift through you. You never knew your body could contain nor experience metaphors of such scale. Here’s to stopping midway to turn on the compass app on your iPhone and sincerely orientating yourself with it, just in case you can’t find your way back, just in case your embarrassment drives you to walk father than you can find your walk back from. To imagining an India Times headline saying ‘White caucasian male found naked in the desert with just an iPhone and his All Stars. I was wearing a jeans though, I remember, it was fucking cold and I remember praying to god that I don’t stain my pulled down jeans in the act. Here’s to that American hippie girl, Alyssa, who spoke so incredibly slow it was mind boggling. How it did not annoy me one bit while speaking to her, but hearing her talk to someone else was like watching someone pulling out a fatal Jenga block in such slow motion it might as well be a picture.

Here’s to being drafted to play extras in a Indian-French production of a TV series set in the 18th century. To Francis, the incredibly gay and enthusiastic casting director that had promised us all the snacks and cigarettes in the world and never came through. He did take us all to that all you can eat Thali place that is now legendary in our memory. How the waiters came in and handed us all a big metal place, then kept coming like Abraham’s angels, kept coming to distribute ever coming little bowls of this or that curry, more and more, then chapatis then carrot salad then yoghurt sauce then another vegetable mix, then more curry, ever more spicy, ever coming, served in canteen style except you were sitting still while the canteen kept coming to you. Here’s to a marathon of eating and sweating and plowing through both thinking it’s all as tasty as it is painful, the ultimate cullinary S&M that makes India what it is. Here’s to being fully clothed in a French officer’s uniform and being taken from scene to scene like cattle. To shooting a scene high up a ruined castle on a hill overlooking what has got to be the most incredible sight so far. To asking all the cute supporting film crew girls to take pictures of you and please send them to your email address that you later realized forgot to give. To being shocked at the amount of cigarettes the french actors kept smoking in between shots and how one hid his pack right in a little ‘antique’ box on the table. To those maharadja Indian extras with the awe-commanding beards that rolled all the way back to their ears. To that american actor who kept fucking up his lines with such consistency that you wonder how he landed the part in the first place. To that beautiful french actress whom the TV series was named after (Rani) and watching Youri and Bradley approach her each in turn to congratulate her on her performance in Martyrs, some movie I have never heard about nor care, unlike Bradley and say, Cash back? Here’s to Udaipur endless rooftop restaurants, a real battle to the skies like a crowdsourced babylon tower, rendering the streets at the bottom almost claustrophobic. Here’s to the grandmother running that 8th of July Aussi restaurant in Jaisalmer for whom I’ll always be Ketchup-boy. Funny how these are the things you end up craving the most. The grandmotherness, I mean, not the ketchup. To a piece of genuine interaction not bound by price or service. To feeling like a kid again, a lover, a friend, anything but a customer. Here’s to miscalculating how long it would take us from Colaba to the bus station in Mumbai and running after a train already in motion like in the movies. Here’s to running with your backpack and watching Bradley jump on first, then throwing your backpack on and jumping after it, then watching Youri struggle as he runs after the train but slowly loses speed and never makes it. To the panic but conviction that reaching that bus station is primordial, more than worrying about Youri, for the first to reach the bus could tell it to wait for the rest. Here’s to being smashed and I mean smashed by Indians on a packed train commute, packed so much so that you strain to hold on to your bags which are inching away from you in the constant pressure of 50 surrounding bodies swaying left and right from the commotion. Here’s to the two gentlemen who did everything they could to help us, and help they did. To finding out the phone number you have saved of Youri is erroneous and you’re now trying to crack the mistake like a CIA analyst. To finally charging Bradley’s phone at a fruit juice stand at an intermediary train stop and finding out Youri is already there and has called the travel agent in Udaipur and we’ll catch the bus at a nearer stop and might not miss it after all. Here’s to that bus ending up showing up 3 hours later, way beyond our fear or losing it and into our growing irritation at it ever showing up.

Here’s to first teaching Bradley to ride a motorcycle in Palolem and later Youri, in Hampi. To finding out you are yourself somewhat addicted to riding a motorcycle, exhilarated by the notion that only abroad is where vendors will hand over to you the keys of a 300 CC Honda Sport Race motorbike in bright yellow without asking about your nonexistant driver’s licence, let alone derisory experience driving motorbikes at all. Here’s to remembering your mother has always been the most permissive of mothers save for two rules: no hitch-hiking and no motorbiking. Here’s to swearing to yourself you won’t break the other rule. Here’s to religiously updating your Facebook updates because you promised your mother you will let her know at all times where you are and where you are going. To knowing full well that your mother doesn’t actually have Facebook, but your brother does. Here’s to celebrating New Year’s Eve on the sleeper train but not as much celebrating as much as just sleeping through it, uncaring. What with the weather and the holiday, time not only feels like but passes too just like a July-August break. The way the summer holiday only really has just two days: the day it starts and the day it ends. Everything in between is just time. I honestly don’t know the date of today, nor the day of the week, nor the hour unless I look at the bottom of the screen, keeping track of my internet time. The way I constantly remember in shock that we are in December, or euhm, January, as in, Europe-winter-halfway-through-the-year and honestly, wake me up in the middle of the night and I’ll swear it is August. Here’s to never falling as fatally sick as you had prepared yourself to be. To becoming an expert in the subtle differences between the upper, middle, lower and cross aisle sleeper berths. How the lower one lets you put your backpack underneath the seat but is next to the window, meaning cold in Rajasthan. How the middle means you depend on the sleepiness of the lower berth’s passenger while the top one is always ready for sleep, but uncomfortable to sit. How valuable a blanket is on train rides and how it’s okay loosing it if you’re heading for the (warmer) south of India. Here’s to loosing your hat on the Dubai flight, your blanket left on the sleeper bus. To losing your iPhone earphones with handy remote god knows where and forgetting your back with money-passport-and-Nikon at the delicious Evergreen restaurant in Hampi, only to retrieve it back an hour later, feeling like the cliche stupid tourist. Here’s to your Nikon camera not having needed to recharge its battery once, not once, I am still amazed by this. To your iPhone 4 too, lasting longer than you thought. Here’s to Infinite Jest, the massive 1000 page book you never thought you’d have the mental ability to read. To finding out it’s actually entertaining once you let go of the ‘what the fuck is going on?’ confusion that will last well into the 200 first pages. To calling it the House of Leaves of India or what the baby of Magnolia and Requiem for a dream would look like. To having two more unread books in your backpack (Death at intervals and Shades of grey) which you won’t read but just carry around for that authentic battered look of having come along for the ride. To noticing that the creases on the back of the second hand Infinite Jest you bought in Jaisalmer suggest that the previous reader never made it past the book’s first half. To casually wondering if the previous reader is the sort of white caucasian male that won’t make it back from India, at least, not before appearing in the India Times’ headlines first. Here’s to having a nothingness day. To explaining to flabbergasted internauts from home that of course you can find the time to write lengthy email replies. That should I be so busy as to not being able to spend time on internet, too, being so busy as to hurry around the country on schedule would sort of defeat the purpose, wouldn’t it? So here’s to watching Tron in Mumbai in 3D, to regretting that McDonalds which harmed me and Youri’s bowels more than any curry has. Here’s to looking at your nails and wondering why you only stop biting them when traveling. To wondering if this time is the ONE, and might you finally have stopped for good? Here’s to concluding that traveling once a year alone could be the sort of me-time that I came to love in Kippur. Here’s to having some right now. And here’s to leaving the computer to rejoin Brad and Youri, travel companions extraordinaires.Oh and here’s to happy new year, if living in January is the sort of thing you are into.

Youri Licht and the trail to Monkey Temple Mountain!

29 Dec

There’s something about forward momentum that has a man feel marked by a sense of fate. You feel, underneath the hum of the road and the film of sweat on your arms that something permeates, the road itself, perhaps, as a piece of something never laying still, pushing deeper into you for every bit you go further into it.

You, man, as in ‘man’ the beast have a natural balance somewhere inside you and in turns out you have to sit still long enough to feel your body stop swaying. The tricky bit may be that it’s all happening on a bike.
India as a scooter: An automaton beast that propels you forward, which you  fear for the potential of it’s awe, and never for a moment look back, plugging at the hooter like a tuk tuk driver synchronizing bleeps to the blinking of his eyelids.

To move on the soil of this place, is to take leave of yourself, surrendering to the landscape, pressing the eject button and being flung outward,  soaking into the earth, past the flies and cigarette cartons, into the bedrock that carved this place and it’s people. It made the monuments and tickles the bowels of unwary tourists, but with a little respect it makes for a religious shower.

There’s good advice for this riding thing:
Brad said you have to have to trust the bike. Tal told me not to fight the curves with my body, and it dawned on me to believe in my own perfectly adequate sense of gravity on the infernal thing. In fact, the naan bread finally making itself useful then: A trusty aid in all efforts gravity-lowering.

The thing about forward momentum culminates in the reversion of self. The sides blur and become clearer for it, along with the understanding that travel is something you do because its one of the prime elements. The stuff of life. Not just for something as self-sale rewarding as growth or to act as intellectual pat-on-the-back candy. It’s the simple absorbing of new atoms, and the replenishing of your cells as you drop the self  in self-aware.
The realization that those who do this have awoken to the necessity of fresh experience to live on.
The caveman turns on and pulls you awake through your roots.

Comfort in the final act, the lifting of your gaze past the picture playing through the handlebars into the heart of the place. Your body relaxes and no longer absorbs the shock hits of culture clash. Resistance washes away and whatever sway you have now is nature passing through you, like a Hindi man at a crossing tilting his head equilaterally, following his zen pace despite the disturbed rumblings surrounding him, like his totem animal: The Cow.
A thing to note, this cow in passing, in slow motion. Paced like a 3 hour Russian film these creatures tread through on fine hooves barely audible, eating plastic, shitting and enduring traffic.  The revelation, that on the totem pole it would be nearest to the earth and content for it, not feeling the weight of the eagle at the top for all the grass it has to feed on.

So this is your day on a bike, scenery on fast forward. Think of the landscape found in any respectable National Geographic issue. Think of the one you paged through in the dentists office, because your only other reading choice was  a Time magazine old enough to quote Reagan. Think of the women in colourful saris like spice in woven baskets, ruffled only by the promise of wind in the air. Scenery flowing watercolours, palmtrees and rice paddies. This all come to life: Picture-book Vietnam meets Israel (On account of The Sheshbesh cafe, ratatouille red shakshuka and all the midnight middle east hardtalk hour with Rivka you can eavesdrop on) set in India. The place of a thousand places, boulder valley banofee pie 10 hours from coastline banofee pie. Meridian points of pleasure on a jagged course. Everything from food to geography as something being mapped and graphed on an ancient design that craves things you’ll never put an accurate name on but will beat through in morse code when you listen for its thumping.

The last thing you can really do as the sun sets is trace a line on the horizon. Recounting the kilometers (Or miles for my American compatriots). From the summit of the mountain you’re tracing down, mountain to stairs, stairs to bike, bike on road and road to offroad, behind the tractor, and past the cows, workers, kids and every other creature you’ve met into all the places you’ve slept, eaten and pood in on this trip.
Throw in the sky and you can trace back the movement around you, day to night and your passage through this land becomes sweeping. Your thumb starts getting bigger than the monuments in the distance and that’s when it hits you that this is your piece of never-never land where you’ll never grow a day beyond 25 years old in 2010. Snapshot immortality. Four dimensions vacuum sealed into a pocket in your brain. Future reference points for when the aliens teach us to live with time out of joint.

Naturally then: take stock of your year.
Wherever you are this is where you stop and meet your maker. If you shake hands with yourself on this height then grip hard and firm. Say a piece of thanks.
You’ve become a marked man, marked by something way bigger then yourself and the gravity bubble around you. For a moment it’s bigger than work and everyone else. For a moment this is you taking stock in the mouth where all things meet and are boiled down to their essence. Every grain of sand from the hourglass you used to measure this last year culminates with a set of steep stairs that climb to this point. This is the view from which you take ownership, being humbled in the process.
It’s nice to know evolution hasn’t removed that part of us that is rendered quiet by staring past Hanuman’s (The Monkey God) temple at the peak of a boulder the size of a mountain stacked on other mountains.

Finally you land up here, documenting the thing to try and label it and store it for later. File it in the cabinet under ‘G,’ where you keep the Good memories. You may need it later in the year when you call on it to recontextualize a particularly bad day, realigning yourself by recalling the real scheme of things, whatever they may be.
However well you do it doesn’t really matter.

Somewhere is the impression of a shoe on a piece of boulder and the handprint you left clenched on the handlebar.  The residue a man leaves on a surface and the markings the surface leaves on the man.

So this is Hampi. A place to which you come to ride a bike up a mountain.
If you’re polite you might say thanks to your God for the view.
And if you do, throw in a kind word for Hanuman.

Happy New Year, folks.

Of dubious directions and japanese prophecies

21 Dec

Udaipur – I tried composing a blog post some days ago but couldn’t go through with it – I’d like to compliment Youri by saying his writing humbled me to the point of fuck it – I like my Facebook posts so I’m keeping the style until I feel like actually tying phrases together again – plus, I have to first tediously recapitulate shit that happened up to a week ago in Jaipur – Youri likes to do these ‘feelings’ pieces which are admittedly great reads, but in 20 years, I feel the tedious might matter, so… – Blegh, here we go – We left Agra to Udaipur – Some early train ride – Did I mention that I tend to wake up early here in India? – I woke up early on the train ride and went for a ‘stroll’ – more like a back and forth ambulation through the other train compartments – bumped into this group of schoolkids – there’s always a little moment of ‘sniffing each other’s asses’ – deciding whether to bully each other for being so absurdly otherworldly different from each other or laugh it off with warm conviviality – I remember being a scouts leader and having the 12-13 year old guys – a wolfpack with the same delicate balance constantly preserved between establishing alphaness and laughing it off – so these schoolkids, I do confident with a smile – the atmosphere relaxes – this one kid, a fucking rock star started showing off his dance moves – I pull out my iPhone and filmed the legend – Seems like a thing in India, kids aren’t afraid of showing off their dance moves – fat kid in Jaisalmer rocked his baby fat on serious Indian bollywood moves – arrived in Jaipur from Agra – I have limited impressions of the city, chiefly due to being sick and spending most of our stay there in bed with Brad – It’s not what you think, unless you thought (correctly) that he too was sick – Nothing too bad, just adapting to India, curbing my enthusiasm for anything goes eating-sleeping-moving habits – did see a bit of the city, it felt congested and the whole ‘pink city’ was already dethroned by piles of dirt and banana peels, look left-right-left-right-left-left-jumpforyourlife-tuk-tuk ridden street lanes – I did get a very nice barber shave for twice the price but at 90 eurocents total, I didn’t feel like bargaining – smiled a knowing ‘this is double because I’m white eh?’ and said Fine, sat down, very nice, I want to get barbered again sometime.

Went from Jaipur to see the Chand Baori well for the day – just getting there was half the adventure – Sometimes the Lonely Planet gets suspiciously vague on details – It started its directions with a very confidant ‘Catch the bus to Sikandra for 45 rupees (1 1/2 hours)’ and went on to recommend catching ‘a communal vehicle to Abu Neri for 5 rupees’ and yet another ‘communal vehicle to the well, 5 rupees’ – Notice how the guide surreptitiously went from ‘THE’ bus to ‘A’ communal vehicle. – Right, we got to to Sikandra no problem and then what? Ask the local shopkeeper where we may catch a communal vehicle? Nobody’s english was remotely good enough to even understand what we were doing in that shit hole in the first place – Except for a little swarm of jeep owners, they knew very well, offering a direct ride to the well for 300 rupees – You look at the guide saying we should easily catch a ghost vehicle for 5 rupees and think ‘Fuck you editor, you probably just asked your guesthouse owner in Jaipur what would be the way to get there, jotted it down and went ahead and finished your lassi, never actually leaving the comfort of your pretentious self’ – 5 rupees wouldn’t even buy me a pack of kleenex after a good hour of hassling – anyway, sorry I got carried away there – we found ourselves in that situation where you don’t know who you can trust anymore, jeep owners saying there is not bus going there, locals having no idea what we were talking about, the guide stoically unhelpful – Brad and Youri were close to giving up – we found a kid working on a bus discreetly agreeing to our asking if that bus was going our way – he seemed under pressure, as if the jeep owners did not want him to tell us – we took the hint with hope and jumped on, one-upping (or was it one-fingering) the jeepers and off we were – we were quite the oddity on that bus, everyone staring at us (more than usual) and I think most of the people present had honestly never seen a backpacker before, let alone a trio of fine white boys like us – twenty minutes in and we are starting to wonder where the fuck the bus is headed – the kid meanwhile slowly turned into a perhaps malignant teenager who we were not sure we could trust either – a bespeckled and seemingly honest 40 year old man kept shaking his head in mute sigh whenever we asked out loud about the town we were hoping the bus was going to – found ourselves again stuck in a situation where information is sparse, conflicting and dubious either way, not knowing whom we could trust and who actually knew what he was talking about – doubt crawled in, we had driven too long and too far already by all accounts – jumped off in some side-off-the-road shithole where most passengers got off – back to square one, even less people, not even a jeeper to jump on the opportunity to rip us off – went around until we found some spontanous entrepreneur who offered a ride to the Chand Boari well and back to Sikandra for 500 – No choice no choice, we shook hands, noticed he was missing two fingers, still unsure of his trustworthiness but no choice, we jumped on his jeep and made our way to the well – twenty minutes in and it seems even they don’t know where they are headed to – they ask their way to locals and we slowly find our way there – I tell Brad and Youri that for all this shit, I bet we’ll arrive there only to find a busload of japanese tourists all fresh all wearing pink hats all touting massive cameras, I bet there will be even be Wifi there, like crawling through the jungle for weeks only to stumble upon a highway McDonalds – we finally got there and lo-and-behold, a fucking busload of japanese tourists, the spot-on prophecy of the week – the well itself was surreal – you can see it in the movie The Fall (or the trailer, for that matter) – Had me a little Sigur Ros moment there – sat and stared and thought – nearby kids were very eager to be taken pictures of – it’s another thing here, kids LOVE to be photographed – I even taught them how to focus and snap pictures themselves, while holding my heart praying they don’t drop my beloved Nikon – then back to Jaipur – then off to Jaisalmer.

India In A Sentence:

18 Dec

At this stage there’s no way I can recall things in a linear manner. The only reason Bill Bryson can do it, I imagine, is by the power of great planning and charting things like the course of man and the plotting of stars.

I’m dealing with my fragmented mind and it smells a lot like sandals and curry.
Time is continuous, yet out of joint. My travel companions feel as if this trip is one quick rush, like water drained from a bathtub perhaps, but here i’m sensing time stretched to its ends. Rushed and at the same time so far apart i’ve lost it’s thread.
Or maybe it’s just the bhang lassis talking. Eitherway if  Leonardo Dicaprio went inside right now, he’d probably leave because of the smell and the sound of the barking dogs. Everything here, whether sweet, salty or putrifying is pushed to the extreme, warped by the heat and the India-ness of India.

India in a sentence: The one place where you can walk into a tiny bakery, so small, that you can smell the sweetness of the cake intermingled with the snotpiss on the sidewalk. Ambiguity ambles through this town’s main veins. Things are packed, but beneath the smell of fermenting piss is a sense of calm that no matter how rushed it gets there’s something placid and calm at the heart of it all, and this heart then, dictating the ebb and flow of the place. Basically I’m saying there’s stress with a whole layer of calm underlying it, a ratio not unlike that found in a good shwarma.

Either Tal or Brad (who knows, let’s call ‘em Bral) told me that with Indian culture the burden of understanding a conversation lies with the listener and not the speaker. Let the above reflect on the feeling of this place.

So then, with words and memories out of wedlock, I hereby present you with a few more “India In a Sentence” sentences:

India In a Sentence: getting told by your hotel manager that their Camel Safaris are the most esteemed, having run 30 years, and saying it with honesty and (mucho) gusto. Then finding out that the same is true of probable almost every other place, which has, quite naturally, also been in this business for the same amount of time.
Lesson – Lateral thinking. Do it. Find the loophole. I assure you, your conversational partner has and he’s using it as like a hulla hoop.
India In A Sentence: Finding a Cold Beer in a hot place. And on that note, bringing fucking leg salve on a camel safari. (Is there such a thing as leg salve?)
Bralouri(bradtalyouri): Best thing ever! (6 minutes into Camel Safari)
Bralouri: look at the dunes, totally makes it worth it! (3.00 hours in)
Bralouri: Jeep. (Day 2 on being asked the question: Would you like to do the rest of the way home on camel or jeep?)
Lesson: Fucking Salve.

India In a Sentence: Sometimes you have to descend a few steps to get higher. Chand Baori according to the Lonely Planet describes a gentle trip from one bus, to a public transport vehicle to another all under 100 rupees. What it doesn’t describe is the ashen-faced T.B-AIDS non-sugar coated reality that’s staring you in the face demanding instant coinage. It doesn’t speak of the foreign face syndrome stares that border on the excessive to the back alleys filled with human excrement and cowpats.
Lesson: Fuck you. Stop complaining. Instead, open your eyes as wide as you can and take it all in. This might be the best day you’ll have. When at the end, after you’ve negotiated your way past the deceit and stone-walling you’ll land at the prettiest set of steps you’ll ever find.
Super-steps, twice sunnier for all the shit you’ve endured on the way there. Character building, and building blocks for a blog. Steps that’ll endure for years, not just because they were built of sturdy stuff in 14something(15?) but also because you’ll have them on your laptop wallpaper. Go there right, or even go there at all and you might just make one of those moments that you’ll some day see again flashing briefly just before the cartoon anvil drops. Who can put a price tag on that?

India In A Sentence: Nothing is permanent. Enjoy coughing desert sand out of your mouth for the week. Enjoy it for how you got it, from sleeping under the stars in the sand dunes, for being covered by four blankets, for drinking chai teas in the cold desert and for seeing the camels in the distance, no light, just the moon.
Lesson: ….

Go to India.
Find a Sentence.

Of halted ricochets and Vaj Mahals

14 Dec

I have picked up a couple of… thingies about backpacking that I would like to share with you. I’m not sure what to call them yet, something something syndromes, phenomena, points, patterns. They’re quirky little themes I picked up along the way and sometimes recognize from previous trips as well. Here goes.

The Ricochet Effect (ha, ‘effect’, much better than ‘syndrome’)
The last 6-7 days, or in fact our entire trip so far has been quite the whirlwind. One morning I’m racing from the faculty to Schiphol airport to catch my 14.30 flight to Dubai, the next I’m on a train departing from Mumbai to Agra and the third I’m arriving in Jaipur. We spent one full day in Mumbai and didn’t so much spent it on sightseeing as much as just wandering around getting used to the idea of being in India. We quickly nominated Cafe Mandegar our home basis in terms of food and otherwise just hopped in and out of bookstores, internet cafes and the legendary Hotel Lawrence. Get lost at 2 AM, eat Chicken Tandoori in a wrap at 3 AM from the semi-closed premise of what can only be described as a snackbar slash garage. It didn’t matter, we were on a frenzy. Like a drunk falling off his stool forehead first on the counter and feeling nothing, the last thing India’s culture shock did was slow us down. Shock, what shock? You wouldn’t believe how fast you can get used to the sight of the earth’s poorest scattered across the side walks like when you go on holidays in the summer, come back and realize you left all the windows closed only to find your apartment literally covered in dead flies. How fast you’ll casually step over a sleeping beggar, then a pile of dirt, then a resting cow, then human excrements. No time, no time, we were already on our way to Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. We made reservations (a novelty to my backpacking style) at Tourist Rest House, a hostel lauded by the Lonely Planet for its peaceful inner courtyard and its quiet location ‘away from the hustle and the bustle of the Taj Ganj’, the crowded neighborhood directly adjacent to the Taj Mahal. Let me tell you something, when you’re 25 and out to meet people, you want to be as much in the hustle of the bustle as can be. Peaceful inner courtyards is Lonely Planet code for retired French couples from Nantes looking to relax.

The Taj Mahal itself was pretty amazing. Or perhaps mostly pretty. It hadn’t been on my radar when we first planned India but Youri’s argument that being in India, ‘we might as well’ made sense. We woke up early so we could be at the Taj before the hustlers would wake up and crowd the place. To be honest, if you’re gonna visit a temple or a monument of sorts, avoiding the bustle is actually a good idea. Youri, the gentler hearted poo man of the group agreed to let one of our Indian suitors be our guide to the Taj. Neither me nor Brad cared much for live audio commentary on what we felt was a pretty straightforward sight, but Youri has a soft spot for getting the full experience and, more importantly, a spot for it in his budget. Little did I know our friendly guide here was going to comment on his depraved sex life as well, but that is for later. First he insisted on making himself useful by pointing out the symmetry of the buildings around us… Sigh, how can I put it… is there seriously anything easier to spot than symmetry? Look left, look right, looks familiar? I kept a safe distance and focused on shooting what I desperately hoped were non-cliche pictures of the site. My own little photographic meme are people. I like to photograph people. Kids make for fantastic portraits, I’m not sure why, my own theory is that they are not as guarded or self-conscious as adults. They have a way of looking at the camera, or better said, let the camera look at them. I also like to take pictures of tourists taking ridiculous pictures of themselves. So I did that for a while.

I did gain respect for our guide (shortly before losing it altogether) when he took out his flash light and placed it right on the marble. The precious stones that formed the decorative details all shone and glowed like… like they were backlit, it was very nice to see. Something we wouldn’t have discovered otherwise. The second highlight was when he pointed out to the pillars and their visual illusion. Sticking halfway out of the facade, they had only three sides but the broken lines on their sides gave the illusion that they had in fact 6. Very nice. After that, the awe somewhat faded and we enjoyed the more quiet impression of the Taj Mahal. It is during that time that Brad and Youri left off to visit one smaller hall, leaving me alone with the guide and what I will now forever remember as the Vaj Mahal. We were sitting on a bench eyeing a duo of Japanese girls performing a sequence of Cirque du Soleil type poses in front of the Vaj -I mean Taj- as their father (I do hope it was their father) took pictures of them. ‘You like Japanese women?’ says our guide. Not too perturbed by what I felt was just chitchat, I tell him Asian women aren’t really my thing. ‘Ah, too bad. Japanese women very good sex’. Still pathetically unaware of the information that would follow, I just nodded and probably threw in a nonchalant ‘I can imagine’. The kind of blase comment that would normally just fade the conversation to a stop. But oh no, no my guide was just warming up on the topic. ‘Japanese women very tight vajin, you feel a lot.’ Did he just say ‘vajin’? What followed was a series of truly unrequested pieces of information. Highlights (I will spare you) included but were not limited to ‘I go to girls to have sex at least 2-3 times a week, but definitely every friday night’ (kind of like the sabath eh?), ‘Tourist girls very easy to fuck, tell them I am guide, show them my pass, have fuck’ (this one time a girl stayed in Agra for 30 days, he had sex 30 times. The mathematical logic of Descartes at work…) and my all-time whatever’s-the-opposite-of-favourite, something about nepalese girls, first times and blood that I won’t even bother to pretend I remember literally. Needless to say, I made sure Brad and Youri never left me alone with our guide after that. Jezus fuck. You know how backpackers will lament the fact that ‘you never really leave the gringo trail and actually connect with the locals’? Well let me tell you, you might not WANT to connect with the locals. At least not indiscriminately.

The rest of our brief stay in Agra wasn’t as marking. We did pass by a wedding party one night and the guard was kind enough to let us in. Aha yes see that, that’s the kind of leaving the gringo trail that I am all for. That was cool. We did stand out from the dressed up crowd in our jeans and t-shirts, but what a sight. The father of the bride was sitting on a horse in a sort of maharadja costume that nicely matched his pride. The girls (bride’s maids?) warmed up the dancefloor while a brass orchestra was playing music that reminded us of Kusturica films and the photographers (easily 5 of them) snapped away the whole scene. It was only after having eyed a particular bride’s maid (the only one I found genuinely attractive) for some ten minutes that I realized she was actually the bride herself. There went my potential connection with the locals. At least, not without a few complications I wasn’t particularly in the mood of facing. Again, we zoomed off Agra that same night and left for yet another destination, Jaipur.

Youri and Brad should show up in a minute so let me quickly explain what The Ricochet Effect actually is by quoting the mail I sent to Walter, my professor, in response to his enquiring of my enjoying the billions of strange foods, sights, people, languages, music, buildings etc: We’re slowing the pace a bit, for the rapid succession of Mumbai, Agra (Taj Mahal) and Jaipur, interspersed by low-class non-heated 12-to-20 hour train rides have all taken their toll. I call it the something something of Curbing your enthusiasm. (Not sure yet if it’s the Point or Phenomenon or Syndrome or any other fancy label for a ‘thing’). Basically, the first few days are an everything-goes wild ride where you travel on the surface of things, eating any kind of food (save for water and uncooked vegetables), sleeping in less than optimal circumstances (or not sleep much at all), travel at a fast pace and soon enough your body, or the country, or the former as a spokesperson of the latter says ‘curb your enthusiasm boy, you are in India’ and just like that, you’re forced to face the fact that there is only so far you can bounce on the surface of the water before you plunge in.

Passage Through India and other movements involving my bowels.

11 Dec

It was somewhere between Mannu’s hand on my leg and staring out the window of our train trying to focus on my happy place that my perspective on India began to take shape. And then we got to the Taj Mahal and just when you think you’ve got a handle on the place, you look upon the white palace and get lost in the sublime.

Approximately 3 days in ( I’ve lost track of all time) and things are moving at the pace of a tuk tuk weaving it’s way through traffic like it’s a Michael bay movie. Seriously, the first time you ride in one of those ( provided you’ve haggled with the driver down to a suitable price- that’s a mini game in itself ) it’s a ride you’ll find yourself playing over and over again in between each grateful kiss you give to the ground. And then you notice the family next to you, asleep, under a blanket, quite content with their humble place on the side walk and you can’t help but reflect on the absurdity of what you would typically complain about. And just when you think you’re over it, you notice that three legged dog is still following you. That’s when you go grab a bite.

And man, what a bite. If there’s one lesson I learn from India it’s that you can be a vegetarian and not turn into a pretentious shell of self-righteousness. But hey, I don’t judge… Out loud.

Point is, vegan food here is some of the best I’ve ever had- veggie pancake omelette surprise with a side of garlic naan and coconut chutney will make your tastebuds ( each individual one) sprout an erection and ejaculate warm creamy juices throughout each mouthful. It’s messy but worth it. And who cares if people stare? Life in India is about getting by, through whatever means necessary. Sometimes that means you’ll see a man with no legs wandering the halls of a train selling peanuts, other times it’s a haemephrodite begging for money who will put a curse on you if you don’t pay up ( yes, really). But whatever you go through, there’s one saying that seems to tie everyone together, that summarises the situation over here with aplomb: Don’t worry, chicken curry.

Add it to your vernacular.