Tuesday, August 7, 2007

India, Week 5: Currying Favor

This may come as a surprise, but, in India, they serve lots of Indian food. The following will not come as a surprise: I detest Indian food; it falls in the category of things that aren't bagels, cereal, or Angela Lansbury. Fortunately, before Gandhi started the "Free India" nonsense, the East India Company had sufficiently colonized most of India to include Pizza Huts, McDonalds, Subways, and other civilized eateries, making it possible for me to avoid Indian food or anything that might dare expand my palate over the first four weeks of my travels. And then I got to Goa.

Goa is India's smallest state, nestled on the western coastline a fifteen-hour train ride south of Mumbai. It is beautiful! Luscious forests, crystalline waters, and a gorgeous, temperate climate prevail. There isn't a lot of traffic, and, unlike much of coastal India, Goa keeps its beach and toilet facilities distinct. (The Portuguese liked Goa so much that they conquered it in the 15th century, built a slew of cathedrals, and declared it a second Lisbon. The city proved less popular than they hoped, however, due to high taxes and bubonic plague.)

Aside from succumbing to plague, the Portuguese are not to be trusted with any task, and westernizing Goa is no exception. There are no western franchises anywhere in the downtown area; within walking distance of my hostel, I could find only Indian food. Now, having spent the previous fifteen hours on a foodless train, I was starving. I saw a sign advertising "fish curry" and, in a fit of desperation, figured I've eaten fish, I've heard of curry, it couldn't be that bad. Right? For the first time, I underestimated India.

The "fish curry" consisted of a whole fish (head, tail, bones, scales, eyes, everything) that had been dipped in a fryer and plopped onto a pile of rice. As the fish and I stared at each other, neither particularly amused by the other's presence, I vowed never again to respect another culture. For dinner that night, I ate at a restaurant called U.S. Pizza, where the letters were painted to look like the American flag, the periods were stars, and the logo was a football player carrying a pizza box. (The effect was diminished slightly by the sign's subtitle: "America's Favourite Pizza.")

Until this point of my post-Hyderabad travels, my transportation had consisted entirely of trains. The Indian train system is surprisingly efficient (i.e. you get in a train, and it quite possibly takes you where it says it will in a timeframe that somewhat resembles the published schedule). After you decipher the online reservation system (where you go to one site to check the schedule, another to make the reservation, and a third to pay for the ticket), you can get most anywhere, and, by traveling at night, you can fall asleep in one city and wake up at your destination. (This, of course, assumes you're able to sleep through the ambient buzz of cockroaches, rats, tea vendors who shout "Chai!" at two in the morning, and little girls who see you reading the last 100 pages of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows and proceed to tell you how it ends.) Stations aren't labeled very clearly (in the Roman alphabet, at any rate), so you need to keep a vigilant sense of where you are, or as happened to me in Goa, you'll throw your bags and person from a moving train as it pulls out of the desired station.

When I packed for India, I had the foresight to realize that my trip would consist of two legs: the stationary four weeks in Hyderabad and the itinerant two weeks everywhere else. Accordingly, I brought a huge suitcase (for the first leg) and small suitcase (for the second), planning to leave the huge suitcase at the cloakroom in the Hyderabad train station upon exiting the city and to pick it up when I returned at the end of my trip. My brilliant plan, alas, went the way of the Portuguese due to one itty-bitty kink: the Hyderabad train station doesn't have a cloakroom. My huge suitcase would accompany me for the duration of my journey.

After hauling over 80 pounds of luggage through the Indian train system, I can state with certainty that the Indian government hates handicapped people. Doorways are narrow; there are no ramps. Level walkways, where they exist, are occupied by nappers or vendors selling Indian food.

To spare myself further inequities of this nature, I decided to get to Bangalore, my next destination, by bus. My ticket said "sleeper" which I interpreted to be a bunk of some sort, and, indeed, it was. Of a chartreuse, coffiny sort. The space between the bunk and the ceiling was such that you couldn't sit up or even lay on your side. So you're trapped on your back, staring at the ceiling which, like the curtains and walls, is neon green. (As a child, that was my favorite color. I was a stupid child.) The bed is so narrow that, whenever the bus turns, you're flung into the aisle, or, if you aim correctly, into the steel rods that attach the bunk to the ceiling, thus saving yourself a nasty fall at the expense of your vertebrae. Due to the bunk's length, if you're my height or taller, your legs will be hanging into the aisle, and I'm not the world's tallest person. (My parents assure me I'm average height, which is true, were I an Asian woman in the 18th century.) Though you're forcibly reclined, very little about a "sleeper" bus is conducive to sleep. The bunk of death, the blaring horn, the Bollywood movies blasted continuously from 6:00 pm until the following afternoon. (The horn and Bollywood movies are depressingly indistinguishable.) On the advice of Lonely Planet, I brought earplugs; unfortunately I had left my sensory deprivation chamber at home.

The next day, against all odds, I arrived at Bangalore. I'm not quite sure how to describe the city. Let's just say, if J. K. Rowling designed six amazing cities, Bangalore would be the middle 400 pages of the seventh city. It's polluted, brain-numbing, overpopulated, and heavily trafficked. Navigating the sidewalks (where they exist) is exceedingly difficult. Even if you can dodge the Bangalorians peeing and spit(t)ing in all directions, cars use the sidewalk as an extra lane and have no patience for the pedestrians upon it. Additionally, the merciless sun and stifling air (a combination of dust, exhaust, and urine) leaves one praying for a ticket elsewhere or sunstroke, whichever gets you out quicker. I settled for the former and took an all-day tour of Mysore, a town three hours away whose name, according to my friend Robbie, describes what the British brought the natives.

In Mysore, we saw a variety of sights including the Maharajah's Palace and its souvenir store, neither of which permitted shoes; another souvenir store and an arts-and-crafts store, both shoe-friendly; a restaurant that served Indian food (I waited in the bus); and St. Philomena's Cathedral, recently renamed St. Joseph's to attract tourists—it worked, we went there. (St. Philojoseph's is the largest cathedral in India after those in Goa. It's comforting to know the Portuguese have maintained at least one record.)

Our final stop of the evening was the Brindavan Gardens which the brochure described as "manmade paradise." Located rather ominously under a giant dam, the gardens had all you would expect from gardens (grass, hedges, ponds) with one notable addition: a singing fountain. Twice an hour, the lights in the garden would extinguish, and the fountain would spring to live, spraying geysers in random directions as strobe lights flashed and Bollywood pop blared, proving that epileptic fits need not be limited to epileptics. (I'm surprised they haven't installed one of these on the sleeper bus.)

Upon leaving the gardens, I realized that I had only one more week in India. And that was a very long time.

PS: To give you a more quantitative sense of my love of Indian food, during my time in India, I lost 12 pounds, or 8.75% of my body weight. I plan to market my findings as "The South Asian Diet," where you can eat whatever you want as long as you're in a country where all the food sucks.

Continued >>

 Old Goa. Note the absence of plague hospitals. Turns out these would've been more useful than cathedrals.

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