Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Yelagiri Hills, photographed

Group shot minus me at Chennai Central: pre-trip

Don't drink too much water on the way or else you'll have to use this (train toilet)

Hanging outside the train.

Sabya and I.

Leaving the station.

1st class, AC.

Poor donkey!


Really nice photo, think David took this one.

Absolutely adorable baby!

Love this! Where does this door even go?

Hello, Mr.

Morning chai time.

Jackfruit, holler! Some of the biggest jackfruits I've ever seen.

Morning fruit stand.


Walking towards the hills


Collecting water.

Tip top.

This laugh look familiar?

Paddy posing.

We made it!

I met a friend along the way.

Summit stretch.

Me, Sabya, Meera.

Climbing into the caves.

Climbing up.


Yelagiri Hills, written

Buenos dias.
First news is that I’m healed- partially. The toe is giving me less trouble and my pink eyes are turning whiter by the day. I am slowly but surely returning to sound health (knock on wood). I'm feeling good as I had a really productive weekend. Let's start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.
Friday night, I attended my first ever “foam party.” L-A-M-E is the first word that comes to mind. Having never been to a foam party before, I didn’t really have any idea what to expect. Supposedly such are really popular in Europe, where people go to clubs and get doused in…foam. Due to my generally innocent (or na├»ve) nature, I thought that the party would be one big bubble bath. Turns out, a foam party typically signifies a wet and wild time- complete with sud machines, strobe lights, and house music. Could have been exciting (with a strict emphasis on could), but the Chennai foam party fell short. There was something about the suds machine being made of an old shampoo bottle, the dizzying strobe lights, and the headache-inducing house music that made me leave feeling disappointed. Oh well, next time I'll bathe in my own tub.
Saturday and Sunday proved to be the saving graces of the weekend. The cream of the crop, as they say. Saturday afternoon I headed to Chennai central railway station to meet up with five friends from work. We had booked a train for the six of us to head to Yelagiri hills, a relaxing area and decent hiking destination about four hours west of Chennai. As usual, not all of our tickets had been confirmed but we lucked out with a kind TT (ticket taker) who helped us get situated. By accident, we had booked the first class a/c coach. Although comfortable, it was largely a waste of money as we spent most of the time standing in the corridor between the two coaches, hanging our heads and feet out the doorway and enjoying the views. Within ten minutes of leaving the station the views completely change. The urban side of Chennai surrenders itself to smaller developments, villages, and finally vast fields of green. The stench of pollution and exhaust gives way to fresh and cool air and it doesn't take long for me to think, "why don't I do this more often?"
After nearly four hours, we got off at Jolarpet and had the task of finding a ride to take us to Yelagiri. Thankfully, bargaining was easier as a result of two members in the group being Tamil speakers. For 450 rupees (9 bucks) in total, we piled into a taxi whose interior resembled 70s drab. The roads were steep and incredibly windy, reminding me of my trip to the Kham region of Tibet a few years back. I didn't have the mindset to allow myself to get carsick, though, as the ride was pleasant with windows down and dare I say cold air! As we neared the hills we were met with an overwhelmingly fresh scent- eucalyptus! The lankiness of eucalyptus trees is no indicator of the smell they're capable of producing. The trees lined the road and emitted a fragrance unmatched to anything I've smelled in India. (When you get accustomed to the daily smell of piss and pollution, a breath of fresh air is not to be taken for granted!)
After one hour or so of driving, we got dropped off near a spot that appeared to have several accommodations. As is most often the case, I'm the "budget traveler" of the group and couldn't afford the hotel we had originally booked. Since I was the minority in the situation, I offered to try searching around that hotel for some cheaper digs. As luck would have it, there was a place directly across the street which was offering a room for 1/3 the price of our first hotel. A few of us checked out the room and it appeared clean enough. Basic, but clean. Perhaps in the excitement of finding cheap digs did we become oblivious to other indicators on the "sketch scale." The hotel was neon green and actually had no name at all. No sign out front, nothing. Also, turns out the man who offered us the room didn't even work at the hotel! Maybe his eagerness to show the place (coupled with intense whiskey breath) should have given this away, but we didn't know. Lastly, while the street was quiet and dark on all sides of our new pad, our area seemed to be the village hangout. I would have never stayed there alone, but with four other guys in the group we felt safe. Anyhow, although a bit on the sketchy side, the hotel was just fine for one night of stay.
We awoke at 5:30 the next morning with the intent to start hiking bright and early. Considering the night before we had entertained ourselves quite late with card games, singing, and most notably, my tae kwon do exhibition, we were more exhausted than we had intended. We managed to leave the hotel a little after 6:00- not bad for a group of night owls. We walked the streets in search for breakfast but were told everywhere we went that no food would be served until 8:00. We contemplated filling up on coffee and bananas but decided against it. We had to walk a few kilometers before even reaching the base of the foothills, so chances were we could find something along the way. About 45 minutes into our walk, we discovered "Silent Waters," a cozy little cottage serving an all you can eat South Indian breakfast buffet for 100 rupees/head. Bring on the idli, vadai, poori and omelets!
Finally, around 9:00 we set out for the foothills. We passed villages, rice paddies, and donkeys whose front legs were tied together. I found this to be cruel but was told many people in rural areas do this so that the donkeys don't run far away. Suppose this works, as the donkeys certainly can't run but basically hop their way along the roads. The hike itself was great, although it turned out to be much less challenging that I had hoped for. It's been a while since I've hiked, though, and it felt good to get sweaty, dirty, and rock climb! We stopped a couple times for photo shoots along the way and after about an hour made it to the top. As out of shape as I feel here, I managed to beat everyone to the top- woohoo! Must get the hardcore outdoorsy thing from my Mom. :)
A seemingly misplaced American flag was perched at the top of the hill which David managed to swipe within minutes. He felt justified in doing so as he is "an American who appreciates good souvenirs." We chilled at the top for a couple hours, enjoying views of the village below, snapping photos and munching on snacks. Around mid-day we decided to head down to meet up with dear Reihem, the member of our group who had opted to "smoke cigarettes at base camp and meet us on the way back." Oooooh, Reihem. Turns out he had his own stories to share, though; he was invited into a South Indian village wedding and asked to perform puja (prayer). I think had we arrived at the scene any later he would have been married off to the village girl who had been eying his Hawaiian shirt and sexy linen pants.
We made it back to the hotel around 3:00, packed up and set off. The train ride back was pretty uneventful as most of us passed out as soon as we found our seats. At around 9:00 pm, we approached Chennai central. I've found that there's no way to ease oneself into Chennai. There's no buffer...no way to coax into city life. The intensity of smells, sounds, and heat of Chennai is dramatic and there's no way to dilute any of it. Long after the sun had gone down, I found myself sweating through the train station and out into the streets that always honk. I haggle endlessly with auto drivers to get a price that's not 10x what it should be and realize, just like that, I'm back "home."
All in all, the weekend was awesome and the group were great travel companions. We spent half the time talking about where our next trip will be. Until then...

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Come again, Doc!

I have been to the doctor more in the last 2 1/2 months since I've been in India than I have in the last five years of my life. I think Monday marked the fourth time I've been to a doc since coming here. What's happening to me?! A look at my ailments thus far:

- toe infection
- wisdom tooth troubles
- infected ear
- eye infection

Am I missing anything? While I like to consider myself a pretty healthy individual, I can't seem to avoid doing stupid things here. Like slamming a heavy door on my toe and causing a "traumatic nail avulsion"- basically this means that almost my entire toe nail was ripped off. Ouch! Since I walk around everywhere either in flip-flops or barefoot- in one of the world's dirtiest cities- you can imagine it didn't take long for my toe to develop an infection.
Wisdom tooth troubles? Okay- this one was unavoidable. Just coincidental, I suppose, that within a few weeks of me arriving in India a few of them start to erupt... slowly, painfully, but surely. The pain has subsided since then, but since I am sans health insurance, I plan on getting them removed before I leave in India (the cost to do so will likely be one quarter of what I'd pay in the states).
Ear infection was, sadly, 100% my fault. I got the idea in my head that I wanted to get the inside cartilage of my ears pierced. Rather than waiting the idea out till I could at least discover an appropriate "piercing parlor," I chose the first place I found. Should I have left the moment the man said he had never given such a piercing before? Perhaps, but hey, everyone's gotta start somewhere! After checking out my new studs in the mirror, I left the shop thinking, "I look cool." 48 hours later, my ears were red, swollen, and irritated...I didn't look so cool. The earrings were short lived, as they survived only three days in my ears.
Lastly, the latest of ailments to come my way has been good old fashioned conjunctivitis, aka- pink eye. I didn't know anyone could get pink eye past elementary school! What do you know, though, I've proved all my prior misconceptions wrong. Woke up the other day with my left eye swollen shut- all the symptoms indicating the pinkest of eyes. After texting nearly everyone in my office in search for a good doctor, I was referred to Saktara Nethralaya, one of the largest eye hospitals in the city. I walked in around 11:30, thinking I would beat the lunchtime rush. While I have tried my best to get used to the crowds in India, I wasn't prepared to find myself waiting amongst 200+ people in the waiting room! Dear Lord.
I was suggested to go straight to the emergency counter so that I could be seen earlier. To be honest, this wasn't an easy move for me. I quickly learned that my "emergency" was relative. There were at least fifty people in the ampitheater-sized waiting room with blood soaked eye bandages. God only knows what happened to their eyes.
Interestingly, the old man I sat next to represented an older, twin version of me and my ailments. We both had pink eye and bandages over our big toe. His case was more serious, though; in addition to pink eye, he had cataracts and glaucoma. While I was just missing half a toe nail, he was missing his entire big toe as a result of an "encounter with machinery."
Is there a lesson to learn from all this? That I should be more grateful and less clumsy? More attentive and less whiny? You decide. As they say, "experience is the toughest of teachers; it gives the test first, and the lesson afterwards."

Friday, March 13, 2009

aspiring filmmaker + urban planner = ?

Chennai is everything in its absolute and its opposite. I've been toying with the idea of getting a video camera for quite some time now. I don't know anything about operating one, nor do I know about editing, etc, but I'm really interested in filming parts of my life here. Maybe sometime in the next couple months if I'm really ambitious I will take to reading up on what's involved in filming and I will start purchasing equipment. Wish me luck!
I've been riding to work everyday with Suba, my colleague. Suba is the proud owner of a Scooty Pep, a brand of motorized scooter here that I completely adore (the name Scooty Pep, that is...too cute). I swear every single time I ride I contemplate that it could be my last. Last day of my life, that is. Apologies for the morbid nature of such a statement- but seriously! I sit behind Suba as we drive the 5 km to the office and can't help but keep my eyes wide open to everything around me. We weave in between cars, buses, auto-rickshaws, bicyclists, men pushing carts of watermelon, occasional cows, and just today- a man dancing in the middle of the road?! We had no alternative but to declare him legally insane.
One of the biggest problems that I find in Chennai in terms of traffic and road hazards is the absence of sidewalks. Sidewalks are few and far between here and consequently, people, animals and bicycles are all forced to share the "highway" with fast-moving vehicles. The majority of accidents I read about in the paper are due to vehicles trying to dodge a bicyclist, cart-pusher, what have you.
I suppose one of my biggest frustrations with the city is just that: there's really no such thing as going for a casual walk or bike ride. Unless of course I choose to go in the early morning or late night hours- neither of which would feel safe. Such a scenario is forcing me to realize how much I take advantage of rules of the road in New Hampshire, for example. Ha!! It makes me want to laugh at the ULTRA polite tendencies of New Hampshire drivers. Giving pedestrians the right of way. Always breaking for small children, etc. Such road courtesy does not exist in any form whatsoever here. It's not to say that auto-drivers will intentionally speed up when they see someone crossing the road, but they certainly will not slow down either. It's more like a quick diversion maneuver to weave in another direction. It's taken me awhile to get used to the fact that people will almost never slow down for you, and that getting nudged by a vehicle from behind when you're crossing the street is commonplace- it's just an indication that you need to move yo' ass faster!
During rush hour, the traffic makes you feel like you're in a slow-moving parking garage. From an aerial view, it would appear that all the cars are actually just parked in the middle of the road. At a closer glance, though, you can tell they're moving..barely. I've desperately tried to think clean thoughts on these rides- pretty hard to do when inhaling puffs of black smoke from the bus in front of me. I was coming to work everyday with my hair stinking like pollution. Now, as per Suba's recommendation, I wear a scarf. I don't mind that the red scarf I wear indicates to some people that I've recently been married, to others that I am Muslim. Between the scarf over my head and my Hollywood influenced, over-sized sunglasses, I am an incognito force not to be messed with.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Feliz cumpleanos a mi

Birthday dinner at Moonrakers- best seafood I've had in India!

The four of us + the catch of the day

You can come to my party too, Mister!

It's my birthday, you wanna be friends?

Beach juggling

Lou, Daniel, and David

Israel vs. India wrestling match (Perry and Arathi)

Me and Nipsi. Were we standing in front of a seemingly misplaced road-side shrine or an impromptu birthday present on wheels?

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Large and in charge

Word up!

I haven't written in awhile, and as is always the case, when too much time elapses I don't know where to start. Alas, though, I'm coming to you now not as an amateur or a rookie...I am now older and wiser, as just this past weekend I celebrated my 23rd birthday. Woohoo!
A birthday to remember, indeed. Come to think of it, this birthday brought many firsts for me. First time being celebrated abroad. First time that February 28th didn't represent the dead of winter. First birthday on the beach! And probably several other etc's.
The birthday party was a success, complete with about 15 friends, the beach, sun, music (brought to you live, as well as through the pod), bottles of beer, and the freshest of grilled seafood. With a bit of homemade "slam poetry" thrown in for good measure (recipe: my life story to the tune of Del the Funky Homosapien/Fiona Apple), we managed to have ourselves a great weekend!
In other news, I've managed to relocate an average of once/month since I've been here. And as the beginning of the month may indicate, I have "shifted" yet again (note: Indians say "shifted" instead of moved). I started out in the prison cells of IIT's campus, relocated for the month of February into a colorful, furniture-less and most recently, water-less flat near my office, and now, I've moved again. My new apartment is complete with more furniture than I can handle, as well as rather aggressive water pressure. Cheers! I'm living alone, and realized just yesterday that this, too, is new for me. I've never lived alone before and while I'm eager to host friends and company, I must say I'm enjoying the responsibility of looking after my own space.

Pics will be up soon!

And for the next issue, I hope to brainstorm some fantstic Indian-isms.
Till then!