Spot the giraffe

From my experiences thus far, the most crucial supplies a traveler must carry are good earplugs and a cheap bike lock. India is a cacophony of horns, whistles, clangs, and shouts. These sounds have a kinetic quality which drives them perpetually throughout the day, regardless of hour or location. Earplugs allow an intelligent human being to tone the racket down a notch and catch a few hours of sleep periodically. A chain provides the unquestioning service of sanity, assuring the traveler his gear won’t grow feet and walk off into the night, let he be in the dormitory, riding the train or bus, lying on a platform, or huddled on the street corner.

Kolkata is a huge, boisterous city with a Communist government in place for the past few decades. I noticed this only in a few subtle ways: the utilitarian design of the metro and university, signs proclaiming “A state of West Bengal Enterprise” on nearly every business, and the general antiquity of the city buses. While there is a fair bit of old stuff in this far off land, these buses had wood paneling. It took me straight back to the British Colonial period, ten or so years after I was born. If it hadn’t been so packed, I would’ve half expected the ticket taker to whip out a china set for afternoon tea, only to have the pot and cups break 15 seconds later. That’s how often there is an accident in the city. Actually, surprisingly, I haven’t seen a crash yet.

Thursday the 14th, aka Valentine’s Day and what already seems like eons ago, scored me the brilliant opportunity to travel with the executive leadership team of Water for People to West Bengal’s Nadia district. The point of their visit was to see some of the arsenic filters the organization has helped fund and install over the past five years, and the reason for my tagging along was to see if I can capture the cultural, social, and religious barriers to making sure people are drinking safe water. As with any shoot, there are images you hope to make and others you just accidentally happen across like an old man in the Thomas Crapper out back. Including my discussions with a former World Bank-er and other members of the team, I think I compiled enough to count that region a success.

Much of India’s public automotive transportation is also based on millions and millions of autorickshaws and taxis. In probably my most notable Bengali event, the Ambassador I hired just past dusk on Friday the 15th was dealt a fatal blow as we crossed the VIP Bridge. On the way to interview a Dr. Gupta of the BECS, a section of grated road right before the toll both tore the poor machine to shreds. I heard a metallic “clink” during 30 seconds of intense vibrations we confirmed not much later was a mission critical component of the car. Although I did feel a bit sorry for leaving the driver, he only received Rs 100 for making me walk the last 3 KM to my destination.

A tall beer certainly makes journal entries quite a bit more interesting to write. And read, looking back on that night. After sitting in the Victoria Memorial Gardens late Saturday afternoon, waiting to photograph the building at sunset and trying to explain to every visiting Indian IT student why I’m not with my girlfriend making snooky under a tree like everyone else, I took the advice of the Lonely Planet and took my supper on Park Street. For those who are not familiar with the area, this is a length of road where everything is a bit more expensive. Especially the meals. At the beginning of the entry, I write:

If I am to blow all of my money in the first month and a half, I might as well blow it in style. The meal hopefully won’t be any more than Rs 250.

and I finish it with:

Fuck, Rs 289. Man…

To take this in context, I spent one and a quarter what I was spending on my hotel room that night. Comparatively, it is as if I were traveling in the states with the budget for a $100 hotel room and then decided to go spend $200 on myself for dinner. Money doesn’t grow on trees, but I’ll bet it makes it more of an adventure near the end of a trip if you pretend it does.

Kolkata seems to be a mecca for the 25 year-old in search of his or her place in the world. It was my first time coming across so many travel bums in one square block. First, while wandering after returning from the Water for People excursion and apparently looking lost, I ran into Katie, a graphic designer and photographer who works until she has enough money to set off. You can imagine my relief in being able to have a conversation of more than three sentences. At the restaurant she recommended, which coincidentally costs alot and is called the “Blue Sky Cafe,” I sat across from a dude who was definitely hardcore and definitely not 25. Names must be meaningless if you’re 18 months into a six year trip; he didn’t ask for mine and I did not ask for his. Early into the conversation I learned he was on an overland trek from England to Tokyo, a journey I hope to take when I become crazy enough. One or two more years of school should do it. I asked him if he had read Danziger’s Travels to which he replied, “oh yeah, he’s an amateur.” For those unfamiliar with the story, Nick Danziger is a dude who did the same trip for 17 months in the 1980’s lying and stealing his way into countries, including Soviet-occupied Afghanistan. I wasn’t about to argue with him. The coolest guy I met, however, was a German photojournalism student named Andy. Not much for tourism, he is in India putting together a story on four Muslim girl boxers. Boxers as in the fighters, not the underwear. When I asked him how he managed to come up with such a subject, he said, “YouTube.” The wonders of modern technology!

Flexibility is obviously a required trait for those who want to avoid a mental breakdown. My stay in the smoggy city lasted two days longer than I had hoped because of an unintended consequence of India Railway’s decision to launch online booking. Nearly every single train, and I do mean 99.83%, are wait-listed for at least five days. This single fact is likely killing the boutique tourism of backpackers who don’t know where they want to be in the next week. There’s more than one of us, mind you, and it is a realistic impossibility to book your ticket to an unknown destination. After spending my last night in the Salvation Army Guest House dormitory building structure because I would be beaten, robbed, and raped if I slept in Howrah Station instead, I was off to Hyderabad.

Traveling by train for a single stretch of over 24 hours is an experience required of every visitor to this country. It gives you exposure to the myriad diseases and disfigurements beggars seem to have, is the only method of transportation in the world you can hear “chai, coffee; coffee chai” from a sing-song voice every 3.2 minutes, and lets you meet the type of people you wouldn’t normally sleep across from on a SpiceJet flight. Furthermore, going by second-class sleeper will be the only opportunity most will have to experience sheer and utter boredom. At least twice the type you thought you felt as a young child. India Rail should even mark up the absurdly cheap tickets and bill it as an amusement park ride. They could call it “Journey to Mars” but in small print mention the ride replicates what it would be like to get there using 1960’s technology. Like the lunar lander with hella tiny rockets. The “flight” would take absolutely forever, and when you have to go wee or throw out your leftover food it gets ejected into “space.”

On a somewhat related note, the India Railways company is the largest, non-military employer in the world. It transports over five billion passengers annually. If an organization such as Whitman Direct Action or, uh, UO Direct Action were to negotiate a recycling program with the head office, I think it would have the impact of single-handily ending pollution in all of Southeast Asia.

The 10 or so hours I spent in Hyderabad can be summarised by a single compound word: food-hospitality. It is the way of the true people. An extraordinary amount of treats, fried things, and fresh fruit was pushed my way as I sat on the floor of the Tajuddin house after delivering Kip’s mom’s package. After politely accepting a third and forth plate, my gut busted all over the floor. Not really. I had to keep eating. The gut-busting happened after I stood up.

As another word of advice from the open spigot known as my mouth, don’t ever buy a waitlisted takal fare from a booking office 1000 KM from your point of departure. They may appear to know what they are talking about but, if you hear those words, just say “no” and back slowly through the door. To leave Hyderabad, I had to cancel my train ticket and pay almost double for an A/C Semi-Sleeper bus where, in typical Indian fashion, they sell as many tickets as possible. I woke up at one point during the overnight ride to a TV show I really didn’t want to listen to. Hindi slap-stick comedy makes you want to punch the overhead speaker out. I now see why only the newest buses are in good condition.

The reason for my detour to the Kolwan Valley was to assess how the team at MUWCI was doing with implementing our mutual survey. A summary of several lengthier updates I wrote to the rest of the team, including a description of the difficulties MUWCI is having, is as follows:

  • We are a in a bit over our heads

The next few weeks will definitely be the most interesting of the project.

When I made it back to Pune Junction this past Thursday, my mind was a flutter with revelations of the deepest ocean trench. As a disclaimer, “every truth I write is a complete and utter lie.” This is what I came up with:

Life is not intrinsically “good” or “bad.” Events that happen in life are not “good” or “bad.” One’s opinions of the events depend exclusively on how one assigns value to an event. If, for instance, one were not to get a part in a school play, that person may establish a negative relationship to the event. To the other person receiving the part, the event would be seen as “good.” As such, in that simple proof, the event itself solely exists. It is, and has no intrinsic value.

Understanding the relationship between a person and an event is a key to enlightenment. Acting upon this understanding is one step towards achieving enlightenment. The trick is to separate one’s self from any emotion attached to an event and then recognize the opportunities stemming from an event like thin threads of light.

All events have these opportunities to take advantage of. Whether a person’s relationship to an event is positive or negative, there are always opportunities to move forward and progress. Again, the key is to look past the emotional relationship to the event, look through the cloud, and see where it will take you next.

Many times, the phrase “Nothing is Impossible” is said. In thinking about this, I believe the common reaction is one of inadequacy. Other people can do “great” things but it impossible to do “great” things yourself. The truth of the matter is that it is impossible do other people’s “great” things. You do not live their life flow, as they do not live yours. What should be said instead is “Dream. And do.” This phrase recognizes the unique values of each person, and their ability to do a multitude of “great,” impossible things, while emphasizing the need to look past their emotional attachment to the past. We must see, imagine, and dream the opportunities for progress.

Ironically enough, I woke up the next morning in my upper berth with a bitchin’ headache and gnarly fever. Natural Capitalism only ceded 55 pages of its sweet, recycled post-consumer content to me. Ye basta!

The area surrounding Kodaikanal at this time of year brings me to memories of the high Pacific Northwest during late May or early June. Under a stunning blue sky, the dark forests and meandering trails call my name in a way only the purest siren can. The air is often crisp and always clear; taking a gorgeous image is generally only a matter of pointing your lens. A chance encounter with Jeannette of Human Resources in front of the Kodaikanal International School on Saturday morning provided the opportunity to go on a stellar six hour hike to the highest point in the Palni Hills, a peak I can’t recall the name of, with her and a few friends. Along the way, the trail flirts with the edge of the mountain which drops thousands of feet down to the plains. Hot air rising from below offers priceless views of clouds forming in an endless dance. When we arrived at the top, we could see for miles and miles and miles and miles. Or kilometers, rather.

This past week has brought a wide range of experiences. While crossing the Bendy soccer field Sunday, I was nearly destroyed by a pack of wild dogs. My life was spared by five seconds of stupor and then an adrenaline-fueled sprint to the gate. For dinner that night, I was invited to the Shelton Cottage, the current residence of Tim and Katie Waring. Tim is a PhD student looking at, among other things, the traditional organizations which monitor fair distribution of irrigation water. Over left-over pizza and a delicious rhubarb dessert, we had an extraordinary conversation on topics ranging from Ghandi’s legacy to India, cultural as a method of evolution, and the SDK for the iPhone. They were, by far, the best dinner company I have had yet in the country. Monday and Tuesday were dedicated solely to producing as many images as I could for the KIS Development office. The current count tops out around 867 frames of French, Hindi, art, drama, and the “dish,” or dispensary. My mind has become numb to photographing. And writing, for that matter. This is the update that never ends.

One last thing. Today I escaped from campus for several hours to visit one of Tim’s small villages to photograph. It was dope. Dinner at the Royal Tibetan reminded me of good times with the Beckwiths.

Tomorrow I plan on running a double loop around the lake which will hopefully make my legs sore enough for the next few days of travel. Back to the Kolwan Valley and Appropriate Technology Study Group!

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5 Comments

  1. I agree with the earplugs and bike lock!

    I’m in Hanoi, Vietnam right now where motorcycles honk their horns constantly starting as early as 5 am. I forgot to bring earplugs and of course no one here sells them or has any idea what I’m talking about when I ask where I could find them. I managed to find one old earplug from a jetblue flight from december which brought me some sanity!

    the adventure sounds great, you deserve a good meal every once in awhile! alright man, well I’m off to Tam Coc!

  2. fun to read daniel, thanx. let me dream a little of traveling years ago. i’m keeping my fingers crossed that you find some money that you hid in a sock right when you need it near the conclusion of your adventure best of luck, b.

  3. hey donny ! i miss you soooo much.
    when are you coming backk?

    i go to mexico in 19 days. haha its not better than going to india for 3 months. geez im way jealous.

    love youu,

    maggerss :]

  4. dude, your trip sounds sick. i just got back from costa rica. we have to go kayaking or climb something this summer.
    JORDAN

  5. Umm… I just did the currency conversion and 289 Rs is only $7.13. Haha, you cheap ass.

    It sounds like your trip is really hitting its stride now and you’re experiencing tremendous new things in every way at an astounding rate. I like your philosophy. That’s something that I’ve been thinking about as well, how to see the good in every event and let that lead me to more good events and how to do my own unique great deeds.

    It’s always good hearing from you

    Shane

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