Friday, December 25, 2009

I'm Back

I can’t believe it has been six weeks since I have posted anything here. Six whole weeks, with my last post being about toilets. I meant to write more after that, but one morning I woke up and decided I just wanted to live life, not really write about it so much and after about six months of a self-imposed hiatus from all things social, I was suddenly caught up inside the cyclone. It was kicked off by cocktails at Fio with various fashion people, and then from there it was a party for the fantastic design label 11.11 in their new studio, the absolute flop of a party for Lamborghini, restaurant reviews, boutique openings, and invitations to events and parties ranging from the breast cancer cocktails at Ferrigamo, the polo finals at the Jaipur Polo Grounds in Delhi, and some party at Louis Vuitton. There were trips to Chandigarh and yet another to McLeod Ganj. And there was the zipwire tour I did at Neemrana as part of a magazine article where we also filmed a bit of a pilot segment we hope will be used for the television show I am trying to kick start.

As busy as all of that sounds, I have spent the bulk of the past six or so weeks on my own doing a lot of nothing. Well, not exactly nothing, really, but thinking and reflecting. This past year has been one of the most painful and lonely times I have ever experienced. I spent the bulk of the year feeling angry, depressed, isolated and alone. Most of the people I considered friends no longer phoned or answered when I called or texted. So I decided to step back and take some time out and face what was happening instead of running from it. It hasn’t been easy. It still isn’t. But it is getting easier and I am realizing things about myself I never imagined.

I also find myself at a place where I don’t know what happens next. After over a year of not working (and television commercials, extra work in films and freelance writing may sound glamorous and exciting, but they don’t really pay the bills) I am figuring out what next. I have the option of going back to the US, which in some ways I am open to, at least for some time, but in others, I am resisting it. I want to travel more. I would prefer to stay in India or head off to Cambodia, Thailand, Bhutan or someplace exciting and new. I don’t know yet what I can or will do, I just know I can’t stay here, like this, in this space.

And in the middle of all this reflection, I have been writing and photographing for a magazine and have seen several of my pieces published. Yesterday, I received the coolest Christmas gift ever. In the latest issue of Yuva, which I bought yesterday, there is a letter from a reader commenting on my story. Did I mention it was a cover story? It was… Anyway, I digress. It is just a small blurb of a letter, but it may as well be the Pulitzer. I am so happy about it. It is one thing to have something published, but another thing entirely to discover that a complete stranger has actually read it. And then felt inspired enough to comment. I want to know how many other letters have come in about the story or any of my stories, but am too embarrassed to ask. I don’t want to seem desperate or needy. It is like a drug and now I want more…

I am reading the book, The Angel’s Game by one of my favorite authors, Carlos Ruiz Zafón who also wrote The Shadow of the Wind, a book I highly recommend, and the first paragraph reads:

A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story. He will never forget the sweet poison of vanity in his blood, and the belief that, if he succeeds in not letting anyone discover his lack of talent, the dream of literature will provide him with a roof over his head, a hot meal at the end of the day, and what he covets the most: his name printed on a miserable piece of paper that surely will outlive him. A writer is condemned to remember that moment, because from then on he is doomed and his soul has a price.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

World Toilet Day

Anyone who knows me, knows that I am bathroom shy. You might even say I am in potty denial. I just don’t want anyone to know that I actually engage in certain activities, and I think that by denying them, they will ultimately go away. But today is different. I’m coming out of the closet as a person who has and who uses the toilet. Why? Because today is about a good case, it is about awareness. It is about the 2.5 billion people without access to sanitation. It is about a situation affecting almost half of the global population. And that is not funny. 


There is more to this than not having clean water or a comfy little seat to sit on. We all talk about human rights and equal rights and all of that, and meanwhile there is almost half a planet without the basic necessities a lot of us take for granted. Even if we wish we didn't have to. 

Please check out http://worldtoiletday.com/squat/ for more information.

Monday, November 09, 2009

I'm a Star!



I love it when it is all about me. I really, really do. And last Thursday was so all about me, it was amazing. It started on Tuesday with a phone call from a casting office, asking if I would be part of a TV commercial shooting in Agra on Thursday. I, being the camera whore that I am, immediately said yes. I had no idea what I would be doing, but really didn’t care. There would be hair, makeup and lighting. What more did I need I to know?


We left for Agra on Wednesday evening as we had a 7am call to the set. I was snug and in bed just after midnight, and in my usual fashion, could not sleep at all. Visions of cameras and craft services were dancing in my head and before I knew it, it was 5am and I my phone was ringing with a wake-up call. Then it was hair, makeup and wardrobe, before heading off to the set, the Taj Mahal. There were two different locations shooting that morning and after 5 minutes, we were told that we were needed at Agra Fort, and so we left after what has to be the shortest visit ever in the history of the Taj Mahal. I doubt anyone else has been there for less than 10 minutes. Ever.

We got to Agra Fort and that is when the chaos started. It turns out, I was not in the commercial, I was the star of the commercial. The star. S-T-A-R, and all in capital letters. I can’t explain it, but I love when the camera is on me. It just feels so wonderful, so natural and I lose all my inhibitions. Things I would never do in the privacy of my own home, I would gladly do in front of a camera. Like I said, I’m a camera whore.


Agra Fort is a pretty popular monument, a lot of it due to the fact that on a clear day, there are some pretty fabulous views of the Taj Mahal. Just take a look at the second picture. So a bit into shooting, the place fills with tourists. Suddenly, they forget about the monument and cameras are focused on us. At one point I was shooting my close-up while 200 or so people were watching me, pointing, snapping pictures. I was in heaven. All those people with all those cameras, all looking at me. Taking pictures of me. Pointing at me. And I have proof. My character had a camera. My own camera, so I was able to snap pictures of the whole event. Check out the crowd that was there watching me. Me. Me. Me.

It was just what I needed. This past year has been a rollercoaster of emotion and I had been feeling more down than anything lately. It was just the pick me up I needed. Just the tiny escape from reality that I needed to get myself up and running at full speed again.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Ready For My Close-Up

September 21, 2009


It is now 22:00 and I should be going to sleep. I need to go to sleep. Really, I do. I want to be fresh for tomorrow, alive and full of all those things that make me so incredible and easy to like. I was planning on being in bed on my way to sleep already over thirty minutes ago. That was the plan. But who can sleep on a night like tonight? Tomorrow is a huge day. HUGE.


It all started a couple of weeks ago. I was out having a bite to eat and reading Vanity Fair online, wondering what all I would have to do to actually get my name in the pages of Vanity Fair, but this is another story for another blog on another day, and suddenly someone interrupted me. He wanted to know if I was interested in being an extra in a movie. I said sure, sent off pictures of myself and basically forgot about it.

Then a few days later I got an email with details. It is for a movie titled “Eat, Pray, Love”, based on the book by Liz Gilbert. Parts of it would be filmed near Delhi, and star an actress named Julia Roberts. You know, Pretty Woman? Erin Brockovich? Notting Hill? Yes, THAT Julia Roberts!

So tomorrow morning I have a 03:00 alarm and a 04:00 pick up and then a ninety or so minute drive to the set, or as we in the biz are wont to call it, the location. And Julia (as we are colleagues now, I feel it is OK to just call her Julia and I will tell her to just call me Robb) will be there all day. I may be scrubbing floors with Julia. How many of you can say you have every done that? Maybe you have scrubbed floors, but not with Julia Roberts. And certainly not on film.

So I should be closing for now and get some sleep. Julia is probably tucked in and already in dreamland. Or maybe she is awake with the excitement of meeting me.

September 22, 2009

3am is really early. I mean, like REALLY early. I would normally be groggy from waking up so early, but the fact is I barely closed my eyes. My head was filled with all the memories I was about to make. Julia and I joking around the set, or perhaps comparing notes on India. She would ask me where she and Danny should go for the weekend and I would give her tips and offer to babysit the twins. She would confide in me that she is a bit insecure about her acting abilities and I would patiently reassure her and give her a big, big hug to make her feel better. She would tell the director that her new BFF should not merely be background decoration, but should play a more substantial role for the betterment of the film and meanwhile, back in her trailer, I would playfully clutch her Oscar for my imaginary acceptance speech while she took pictures for her Facebook page. And oh, how she and I would laugh at our private jokes while everyone else looked on in jealousy.

I arrived on location to the signs of “No personal photography” and a list of rules:

  • Strictly no personal photography is allowed on set
  • Please deposit your mobile phones and cameras with the designated person
  • No mobile phones to be carried to set
  • Any phones or cameras on set will be confiscated
  • No personal food or drink is allowed on set
  • Smoking is banned on set
  • Please remain silent and disciplined when on set

 I saw the signs, as they were hanging from and leaning on anything that didn’t move, took pictures and then changed into my costume and waited for Julia. Actually, we waited and waited and just before lunch we were all taught a chant we would be using in a scene. See, we were playing people from the ashram, and supposedly people from ashrams chant. A lot. So we chanted… Govind bolo hari gopal bolo… Radha Ramana hari gopala bolo... over and over and over again. And then we chanted some more, just to be sure we all had it and could do it while clapping. The religious experience of walking and chewing gum. After we all kind of got it, we were taken to the set and I picked my cushion and sat myself down. There were supposed to be some empty spaces so I was told to keep the one next to me free. Five minutes later, I was told “the actress will be coming in and sitting there”. THERE? Next to me? ME? This shot had all the makings of a close-up and my pillow was going to be next to hers. This was it, the start of our lifelong friendship. It was too good to be true. I could not believe my luck. And rightly so. I was asked to stand up and was moved a couple of feet away. I would be less than two meters from “the actress”, but that is not the same as being next to and in the same frame with. I was robbed.

So the parts with Julia were done and then we set up for all different kinds of shots. I got chosen for the close-up. Imagine if you will, me sitting and clapping while the camera which was located about two feet away from my face filmed me. Up close. I was instantly glad I had thought to trim any unsightly hair. It was amazing. The more I am in front of a camera, the more I realize I not only love it, but I was born to be there.

Well, we finish the shoot and are told by the director that it was a wrap for the day and that “tomorrow we will shoot swami and the band” just as I was standing up. That was when a voice from behind me laughed and said “swami and the band?” and I turned around saying something like “sounds like a 70’s band” and there I was, face to face with Julia Roberts and we locked eyes. And there it was, that smile beaming at me. AT ME! And then she told me in that voice of hers, “you are the single most devastatingly handsome man I have ever laid eyes on in my entire life”, but she said it using the words “remember the 70’s” and I swooned. I have seen that smile a gazillion times on film, but it just does not capture how truly spectacular and amazing and big it really is. And this wasn’t an “acting” smile, this was the real deal and it was fabulous. I will never wash my eyes or ears again.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

My New Roommate

I have a new roommate. He’s quite cute, very quiet and has a thing for bugs. I don’t mean he likes them, I mean he eats them. He chases them around the wall and before you know it, there he is, chomping away on a yummy moth.

My house is surrounded by parks, and in these parks live all sorts of creatures from peacocks to deer to bats to ducks to moths. As my living area opens onto a terrace I keep locked and to myself at night, I tend to keep my window and front door wide open with the ceiling fan airing things out and of course, a light on. And what happens when there is a light on in a dark area? It’s a mini-creature circuit party. Yes indeed, the bugs come out at night and so does my roomie, a little green gecko.

I don’t know where he spends his day, because he is always gone when I wake up, but as soon as the light comes on in the evening, he takes to his battle station at the top of the wall, just under the ceiling and waits. And then they come, moth after moth. I find it fascinating to watch him chase them down. He stalks them not unlike a cat and then suddenly moves so quick that if you blink, it is all over. I was taking picture of him earlier with the zoom and there he was, post moth, licking his lips. Seriously, he was licking moth innards from his little lizard lips.

But I have to say, I think he is getting a bit flabby around the edges. Hanging out at the light has made him a bit lazy. He no longer gets exercise looking for them, he just hangs out until they fly almost directly into his mouth. And he eats them by the dozens. Just this evening I have already counted 12, and there he is, still on high alert and he is just a tiny thing. I am worried he is going to eat one too many and I am going to come home to gecko covered walls. Or worse, get partially digested moth bits all over me.

Most of the people I know hate the lizards. A few are terrified of them. I love them. I think they are just so cute. And they eat bugs before they have a chance to fly into my mouth mid snore. I sleep easier knowing I have someone, or some thing, to watch over me. Once when living in Defence Colony, I tried to catch one, to put him outside where he could be with his little lizard friends and family. I only managed to break off the end of his tail and I was immediately filled with remorse. Every time I would see him for weeks after, I would apologize and try to start a conversation, but he wanted nothing to do with me.

And so now, I lavish all my attention and moths on the one that came for dinner a week ago and simply refuses to leave.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

McBlog

When I a slightly younger man living in the US, there were a few eating places that for me were just not done, like McDonalds and KFC.

Yes, I have eaten at McDonalds, but for most of my life, the bulk of that had all taken place before I had reached the age of consent. I was entirely the victim, but this was back in the 70’s when the golden arches were for special occasions, like say a birthday, good grades or a relative coming home. Nothing said “Uncle Billy finally made parole” Like a Big Mac. Not that I have an Uncle Billy, but if I did, I assume he would have been a petty criminal, in and out of the local slammer giving us plenty of occasions to order styrofoam packed food and giving me material for the ever elusive book I have been wanting to write. But I digress. I personally, even as a little child just never really found anything from McDonalds to be even remotely palatable, much less digestible. Well, maybe the ice cream sundaes, but then it is kind of hard to kill ice cream. I also never understood why, after eating McDonalds, one would have a series of Quarter Pounder with cheese flavored burps. It just isn’t right.

And I also find Ronald McDonald just a tad creepy. I always have and I can’t really explain why. Must be the striped socks.

KFC was a completely different experience. We never actually ate at KFC, those secret herbs and spices were always brought home in a red and white bucket with lots of grease stains on the outside. KFC was not about birthdays or shotgun weddings and was instead almost always reserved for nights when there was a movie on “Wonderful World of Disney”, or perhaps a special “Lawrence Welk”. Maybe it’s just me, but even as a child, a bucket full of breasts, legs and thighs just seemed so, well, icky. Foreshadowing of thing to come? Hmmm… Perhaps.

I would, at times, try to reject eating out of the bucket but it usually ended with someone saying something along the lines of “as long as you are under my roof, young man, you will bloody well eat what I make for you and you will like it!” As I was going through my “I-want-to-be-a-lawyer-when-I-grow-up” phase, I did take the opportunity on several occasions to eloquently argue that walking up to a counter and telling a pimply teenager to “hand over sixteen pieces and throw in some slaw, mashed taters and some of them fresh backed biscuits, will ya” was making dinner. But they weren’t having it. Furthermore, I got weird looks whenever I was asked what I would like for dinner, something that usually happened on my birthday. How was I to know that squab was seen as an unreasonable request from a six year old with a developing, highly discernable palate? And an hour or so later, I would be squeezing ketchup out into the lid of my Styrofoam-ish burger container, angrily dipping my fries, wondering what I had done to deserve this, dreaming of the squab I was missing. And wondering what squab actually was. But Joan Collins, who I was once obsessed with, had mentioned it on TV so it was high on my list of likes.

Moving abroad changes people. It does. One cannot move abroad, at least to a place like India and remain unchanged. And now, on a not so infrequent basis, I find myself cringing as I order up a McChicken or a Zinger with cheese at one of the previously mentioned chains. But Delhi is transforming rapidly and now, much to my dismay, one of my favorite foods is available inside one of my most unliked theme restaurants, and so it was yesterday, that I strutted into the Hard Rock Café here in New Delhi for a real live cheeseburger. With real beef. Imported. It isn’t In-N-Out, but one can’t be picky when beef is basically forbidden and in the past two years I have had to buy it on the black market and cook it on the BBQ under cover of darkness with only a select group of edge-livers like myself.

Like KFC and McDonalds, I had been to Hard Rock before. When I didn’t know any better, when it was in Beverly Hills and New York City and when it was possible to run into Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, Ally Sheedy, Demi Moore or Rob Lowe on any given night. But HRC quickly went from being the place to be to being off the map and I avoided it at all costs.
That is, until it opened in Delhi and my curiosity got the better of me. I went to see if they might have real burgers. Not lamb or chicken or veggie, but real beef that had once been roaming the plains in real cows. I know if my “make-promise-you-no-eat-cow” landlord knew what I was up to when I left the building, I would be thrown from the roof. But this will be our little secret.

So, yes, yesterday I sat in a completely deserted Hard Rock Café, directly under some thing that Steven Tyler had worn at some gig or another a couple of decades ago, eating my beefy cheeseburger and having a Danish beer while waiting for Ankit to arrive. We were going to the film. As usual, he was late and then refused to come into the restaurant. I at first admired his reserve, assuming he didn’t want to be seen exiting such a place, but I later found out the truth was much deeper than that. I asked him why he didn’t do inside and his reply was “I don’t like that kind of music” It was only when I told him that they don’t play hard rock music and had just run a clip of a corset clad Madonna that I saw the twinkle of reconsideration his eye.

On a side note, in typing this, I accidentally misspelled “McDonalds” and guess what? It is in the Word spell checker.

Now that worries me.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

A New Beginning

After a fantastic and amazing time in Amritsar and McLeod Ganj, I am back in Delhi and Ulco is en route to St. Petersburg after a few days stop over in Dubai. I myself, am facing what is one of the most exciting times in my life and have that feeling, and the knowledge, that I am on the edge of something big, HUGE, happening.

It all started back in June. After months and months of not working and going through an almost paralyzing depression, I decided to leave India. I had spent months applying for jobs, registering on sites and nothing at all came of it. When the list of the top ten worst places in the world to live was released, I was desperate enough to apply in all those countries. Still, nothing happened. Not even a single response. I hadn’t looked for a job since I was in my early twenties. They came looking for me, and suddenly I could not even get a simple reply. There was nothing here for me anymore and there was no light on the horizon. Manuel was going back to Scotland and I could not watch my bank account go down anymore. In all honestly, there wasn’t any lower it could get. I decided I was going to go back to the US and since the recession was in full swing, take whatever job I could get and go back to school taking classes in creative writing, photography or anything else along those lines.

Then I got a call from the ad agency that had brought me to India in the fist place asking if I would be willing to go back to work for three months. I didn’t want to do it, but it was a job and a job meant cash so I said yes. In less than a week I found a place to live, moved and started my temporary job. Two weeks into my job, the client I was working on decided they didn’t want any temporary people, or more precisely, foreigners, on their account as of the first of August. Three months of salary quickly became one month and all I had done was bought myself another month or so in India only to find myself once again unemployed and with an uncertain future.

I decided to take a bit of advantage of the situation. I had been in Thailand in February and had found it amazingly inexpensive, more so than India, even. I decided I would take a few months and travel around Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, writing and taking pictures for some magazines. I contacted a few people I knew at some publications and they liked the idea. Little did I know, but I had put into motion something larger than I could have imagined at the time. My little idea of traveling and writing for some magazines has become a twice weekly television program. We are on the verge of getting endorsed by a highly reputable tourism focused company in India that will open all the other necessary doors for us. The first two episodes are scripted out and it is all moving forward. Hopefully we will start shooting in October. I can’t go into details yet, but it is an original concept that has not yet been done before. I will keep you all posted.

In addition to that, I was asked to audition for a movie and have heard it went really well. I haven’t heard back an official “yes” yet, but as of now it is looking very positive in my favor. It is a pretty big role in a film set to shoot in November. Suddenly it seems that everything I wanted so many years ago and never really stopped dreaming about is all knocking on my door. I have a hard time comprehending it might actually be here, my dreams, right here in front of me. If I think about it too much, I just want to laugh and cry and scream and shout. There are still a few hurdles to jump, but so far, not one person has been negative and has only added to the idea. I now find myself having to turn down ideas as I am only one hosting the show and there is only so much I can do.

On a side note, I am sitting at “The Living Room”, a restaurant I practically live at, typing all of this out. I was just interrupted by someone asking if I would be interested in being in a film shooting in a week. I said yes and now photos are on their way for someone to decide if I have the right hairline, cheekbones, coloring and look.

What I find interesting about all of this, is that whenever I try to do something lately that is not in the creative area, it goes all wrong. There are no positions, no funding, or an endless number of things get in the way. As soon as I put my attention into writing or acting, things work out effortlessly, they come to me, people cross my path and doors open. So I have taken it as a sign that this new shift in career is exactly where I need to be heading.

The other day, I was thinking about all of this and feeling a bit too old to be making a career change at my age, and one into film and television at that. But I was reading an old column of Dominick Dunne, one of my favorite writers at Vanity Fair and whose column was one of the first pieces I read each month. I have been reading him for as long as I can remember and he was one of the inspirations for me to start writing, but for some reason, I have never read one of his books. (Not to self: Get Dominick Dunne book) I was very surprised to learn that he didn’t start writing until he was 50. Not only that, he didn’t write for Vanity Fair until he was 59. 59! My fears of age were immediately and permanently tossed aside.

So it looks like the months ahead are going to be a rollercoaster of a time in the best possible way…

Thursday, September 03, 2009

McLeod Ganj

I am sitting in the room of the hotel in front of the big window as the rain continues to pour down as it has done almost non-stop since something in the middle of the night. The windows are open and fresh, chilly mountain air pours in while the thunder booms and echoes all around. The view from where I am sitting is nothing but trees and cloudy skies. It all feels light years away from Delhi.

After Amritsar, Ulco decided he wanted to see some mountains and so we headed to McLeod Ganj, the home of the Dalai Lama. There were no trains and only one bus available from Amritsar to Dharamsala, which is just a few kilometers from McLeod Ganj. The journey was just over six hours on a bus that we were told was direct and would be making no stops, but in reality we stopped to pick up and drop off people all the time and one stop had us sitting at a station for about thirty minutes while peddlers flooded the bus with everything from coconuts to mango juice to plastic table clothes in a variety of colors and floral patterns. Our trip took just under seven hours and after getting the bus from Dharamsala to McLeod Ganj, we checked into the “only deluxe hotel” in the area.

I was here in April, when the Himalayas were covered in snow and the village of McLeod Ganj was quite busy, the streets quite crowded and noisy.  I wasn’t all that impressed and preferred the quiet calm of the village Naddi, where we stayed last time, an hour or so walk from McLeod Ganj through some beautiful scenery. This time, however, the streets are quiet. The place feels relaxed and almost deserted. The plan was to stay for one night and then head out, but we are staying for three. We pass the days having various teas in tiny cafes, taking walks and just enjoying the serenity of it all. The air is definitely chilly, today probably about 15 degrees (59 Fahrenheit) , a far cry from the high 30s and low to mid 40s (above 104 Fahrenheit) of that have been in Delhi the past few months.

Yesterday morning we walked to Bhagsu, just two or so kilometers away, to a waterfall Manuel and I had visited in April. Then it was barely more than a trickle, hardly worth the effort. Now, it is absolutely gushing and the path we walked over and the area we sat in then are now under the numbingly cold water. We took a path up to the top of the falls and just sat there taking in the view and the peace and the sound of the water while mountain goats watched us with suspicious eyes.

We made our way back down and headed into town, stopping along the river here and there for a drink or just to take in the view and nature. It was only cut short by the looming threat of the ever darkening clouds and the distant claps of thunder. We made it to Tsuglagkhang, the residence of the Dalai Lama, before it started to rain for a few minutes, then it took a break, long enough for us to walk back to the hotel and then it came pouring down.

In between the rain we do little walks. I took Ulco to Naddi, which offers much more expansive views of the Himalayas, but other than that, it is all about relaxing. I am reading “Freedom in Exile”, the autobiography of the Dalai Lama. It is a fascinating read and I highly recommend it. It is not a book about Buddhism, although his story and Buddhism are so intertwined that his story cannot be told without some inclusion. It is full of history and intrigue. I am now at the part where the Chinese Government has decided to take control of Tibet.

With McLeod Ganj being the head of the Tibetan Government in exile, the place is filled with refugees and obviously there are political messages everywhere about the state of affairs in Tibet. The first night here, Ulco and I met a twenty-four year old refugee at a restaurant who moved here when he was nine, separated from his family to live with an Uncle. He has seen them a few times since then, but cannot return to his country or he will be put in jail or worse. He dreams of going to the US or Canada to work in the mines. His entire life uncertain and so far from what I can imagine.

This was the perfect place to come after the Golden Temple and the entire trip has been completely relaxing, with the heavy rains even forcing us to slow down and just unwind. Tomorrow evening we head to Delhi, but until then there are books to read and cups of tea to drink. 

Amritsar

After years of saying he had absolutely no interest in traveling to India, Ulco is here for the second time in just under a year. Last year we spent two weeks traveling through Rajasthan and this time decided to do something different. I was going to plan something in advance, but a few days before he was scheduled to leave for India, Ulco informed me he had a cough, a sore throat and perhaps a fever, and as they are doing checks on swine flu upon arriving in India, it wasn’t entirely clear if Ulco was going to be coming or not. There was the possibility of a few days in quarantine if he was feverish and coughing upon arrival. But it turned out to be bronchitis and he arrived exactly on time.

This trip we decided to start in Amritsar and then decide where to go from there. The reason we chose Amritsar was for the Golden Temple, the holiest place for Sikhs. We also opted for the train and off we went to the New Delhi railway station to buy tickets for the 07:20 train the following morning. The only problem, which we discovered after traveling to the station was that tickets can only be bought for trains of the same day or we could make arrangements through the tourist desk which conveniently closed about four hours before we arrived. We had no choice then but to go to an agent who told and showed us that the train was sold out, but he could get us on the train using one of the quotas of tickets for tourists, military, VIP, etc. We put down a deposit and then picked up the tickets the next morning and discovered that the tickets were about two thousand rupees and the fee for the government approved travel agent was also around two thousand rupees. In any case, we ended up with seats on the train and pulled out at exactly 07:20 on Monday morning.

We arrived in Amritsar in the rain and grabbed a rickshaw to the Golden Temple where we would look for a guesthouse. On the train we had a bit of a discussion about where to stay. I wanted to stay at the Golden Temple itself, a place Lonely Planet describes as “more of an experience than a hotel”, but Ulco was not having it. He was being lured by the posters for the five-star hotel and tried to tempt me with ideas of massages and lingering by the pool after a swim. We settled on a guesthouse which was about fifty meters or so from the temple complex, checked in, had a quick lunch and made our way to the temple itself.

We checked our shoes, washed our feet and covered our heads with the touristy orange bandanas which read “Golden Temple” and soon, without any of the normal security checks that come with visiting almost any other place, we were inside the complex walking along the Parkarma, a marble walkway that borders the holy pool in which the temple itself seems to be floating. Prayers being said or maybe better put, sung by four priests inside the temple, filled the complex as people bathed in the holy waters or just sat next to the pool, some chatting with friends, some in meditation or lost in thought while others studies their scriptures and teachings. Guards in traditional uniforms strolled as well, making sure children behaved and giving directions or information.

The Golden Temple itself is reached from a causeway named “Gurus’ Bridge” and people are let inside in small-ish numbers. The line moved quite fast and there was very little pushing and shoving. In fact, I would have to say the whole experience at the temple was one of the most enjoyable I have had as a tourist in India. Nobody tried to sell us anything, nobody wanted money. Everyone wanted to talk with us, ask us questions and share about the temple, what we should see, the best times to visit and when to sit and stand during the prayers. We were made to feel so welcome and everyone was so genuinely nice. It was a far cry from Pushkar where we were conned within minutes of arriving, or Agra where the peddlers are worse than the mosquitoes. Even walking through the tiny and winding streets of the city, we had similar experiences. Children came up to us with hands held out for shaking and bight smiles everywhere. I hate to say it, but sometimes being in India, when someone is nice to you or comes up and wants to start a conversation, the first thought that goes through my head is “what do they want from me?” This was a completely unexpected pleasure.

We visited the temple complex several times, midday, sunset, sunrise, and each time it was just wonderful and different and relaxing and beautiful. I am so looking forward to going back one day very soon and just spending more time in such an amazing place.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

This And That

Here are incidents, thoughts, observations and details from my trip that didn’t make it into other entries due to not fitting in, or I just plain forgot at the time…

***

When I boarded the double-decker bus from Chiang Mai to Bangkok, I was seated in the front seat of the upper deck, right in front of the video monitor. It was just as we were pulling out that a karaoke greatest hits DVD was put on. At first I thought it was a joke, but then the music started. I was actually wondering if a microphone was going to be passed around, but we were just there to watch the videos and the color changing Thai text while not singing.

The first video was a girl who gets dumped by a guy who then flaunts his less pretty girl in front of her.

The second video was a guy who gets dumped by a girl who then flaunts her less handsome guy in front of him.

The third video, and my personal favorite, was a girl who gets dumped by her guy and ends up homeless on the street. She is then enslaved by an evil woman who makes her do all the household chores. The girl holds fast to her dreams of love and freedom and one day runs away and gets on a bus.

The fourth video was a girl who gets dumped by a guy and moves in with the guy who secretly loves her only to dump him for the guy who originally dumped her.

I was happy the DVD stopped after four songs. I had clearly been on an emotional journey through the relationship landscape.

***

I spent some time on a beach and have this piece of advice for all the men out there either wearing or contemplating wearing a speedo:

Stand in front of a full-length mirror
Strip naked.
Look at yourself.
Stand straight with your arms at your side.
Moving only your head, look down.

Now, if you can see your dangly bits, then maybe a speedo is for you. But if your dangly bits are even slightly obscured from view, don’t even think of anything stretchy on the beach. Oh, and while you are naked, check out your back. If there is hair, shave it, wax it or cover it up.

***

I was in Boots, a British pharmacy on every corner in most Thai cities, looking to stock up on some FCUK hair wax when another product caught my attention. In fact, I did a double take to make sure I had seen what I think I saw, and sure enough, there it was, Finale Pink Nipple Cream a product that “make nipples color soft”. Call me naïve. Call me out of the loop, but since when did nipple coloring come into vogue? I almost bought a tube for myself, just to see what would happen, but I am a bit scared that I might end up with strawberry pink nipples just as I might be heading towards a beach. And I don’t want people telling their funny holiday stories while referring to me as “that pink nipple guy”.

***

Another product I found in Boots a short while later is “Smart Oil for Men” which is a “product for specific area”. Now, the box didn’t saw what the specific area is, but it does say “Micronutrients help penetrate effectively”, so I kind of have an idea of what “specific area” means. What I am not clear on is if the micronutrients help the oil to penetrate or the oil helps the specific area to… Must investigate.

***

I was walking down the street in Bangkok one night and felt something grab me from behind. At first I brushed it off as being in my mind as it was crowded, but there was some definite feeling action going on. All over my back and then onto my shoulder. When I turned around to check it out and put a stop to it, there was a curious baby elephant behind me.

***

I don’t understand people who spend money to travel, who decide to go on holidays to what I imagine for many are dream locations and in many cases, one-in-a-lifetime experiences, then go out of their way to stay in the bubble of home. It pains me when I am in places like France, Spain, Greece, Israel, India, Thailand or wherever, and instead of indulging in what I believe is one of the best things about travel, the food, they make a mad dash for McDonald’s. Or KFC, Pizza Hut, Dairy Queen or any place else where they can taste the same old thing cooked the same old way they can have it back home. Go to any foreign country, and the more exotic it is, the more people you will find crammed into some American fast food restaurant. What is the point? I have even been in countries where people do try the food and then complain the Chinese food in Beijing doesn’t taste like Ping’s Chinese restaurant in Des Moines, which is “a hell of a lot better, if you ask me!”

***

There seems to be a craze in Thailand. Collagen in just about any and everything. While wandering the airport, I did come across a fast food restaurant that has, among other things, collagen burgers. I kept walking.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Airport Security... How I do Love Thee...

I feel the need to complain. I was at Suvarnabhumi airport in Bangkok and if you were there early Friday morning, August 15, 2009, you would have found me at gate E9 both waiting for my flight to board and also fuming at the incredibly ridiculous rules one is subjected to if one is attempting air travel. As I often do. And to top it off, I had been up for over twenty-four hours. I had been at the airport for about seven hours, and in spite of having had a yummy breakfast of a Whopper with Cheese menu from Burger King, I was not in the best of moods. If I were a woman, you might even say I was PMS-ing.

I have had it to here, HERE I say, with airport security rules. I don’t understand them. Yes, I have seen the signs and I don’t pack ice-skates, axes, canisters of petrol, semi-automatic weapons, kerosene, or even leaf blowers in my carry-on luggage. I know better than that. I’m a safety boy and a good little traveler. But I did happen to have a glass, a real live breakable glass beer mug from Myanmar in my carry-on. In fact, I only had the one backpack, so everything I had with me was destined to be stowed away in the overhead bin.

Anyone who flies knows that the laptop has to come out and be scanned separately, belts tend to be removed, pockets get emptied and any liquid or gel goes into the clear plastic baggies available at the security check for “your convenience”. I would like to know who decided it was convenient for me, because I would like to give them a little cuddle.

So I get to the security check and get asked if I have any liquids. The first thing I pull out is my over-priced waterproof, and it REALLY is waterproof and didn’t once melt into my eyes, sunblock I bought on Ko Samet. I don’t want it as a souvenir, but like most things on an island it was triple the normal price. And as I am quite small, I used only a portion of it. It got confiscated. Why? Because it is in a container of over 100 milliliters. 125ml to be exact. She looked at me as if I had some dastardly plan cooking, to sunblock myself at 36,000 feet.

Then she took my brand new tube of Colgate because there was almost the full 150ml of it. It was the same tube I bought in Sukhothai. The tube I have carried as if it were my own child. And it wouldn’t be so bad if there were size selections in smaller cities and villages. But there aren’t. You bloody well take what they give you, mister! So I will be flying back without my sunblock and without toothpaste. And I was planning on brushing just after security and again just before I landed, as is my ritual. And I had news-worthy Whopper breath!

But what really gets me is the fact that right after she took my sunblock but before she eyed my Colgate gel, I accidentally pulled out the glass mug. Both security people saw it, and I was even forthcoming with the information and said “oh, this is glass” expecting that to be tossed in the bin. I knew that might happen when I took it out of Myanmar. I had been expecting it, really. But they didn’t even flinch and so I put it back in my backpack. I also had miles and miles of cables with me, a laptop, a camera with multiple lenses and multiple batteries. I had a Lonely Planet thick enough to be used as a wheel block for the plane. But what to they take? My sunblock and toothpaste. I forget about the bottle of Kamillosan in my bag, my MAC lipbalm and my FCUK hair wax. All of which should have been in the plastic baggie, none of which were and none of which got noticed or confiscated during the scan. Next time, I will “forget” anything oversized and see what happens. I am always early. I always have time to kill at the airport, might as well have some fun by getting on the nerves of those behind me.

I know this is all about safety and I am all for getting from A to Z without any mid-air disasters, but I don’t get the logic. I can take thick, breakable glass on board, but not toothpaste. They serve the meals with metal knives and forks and glasses. In all classes on Thai Airways, which I happen to be flying. I know this is my fault, I forgot to check the volume, but where is the logic to all of this? Since when is brushing teeth a security issue?

It isn’t even about the amount of the substance, it is about the mount of the substance per package. Last time I took five tubes of the same L’Oreal face wash home and it was no problem. Each package was under 100ml. So had my backpack been filled with hundreds of packets of toothpaste or sunblock, they would not have cared as long as each individual package was under 100ml. Makes no sense to me at all.

And all of this was after being told I could not listen to my iPod or have my mobile turned on in the visa processing center a few days earlier, because batteries were a security hazard. So I turned of my iPod and my iPhone, put them both in the bag that held my digital camera and extra battery which the guard examined and was admitted into the visa processing center by the very same guard.

I am all for rules, but let’s have some logic and some consistency. And some common sense. That is really what gets on my nerves. Well, that and the lady behind me who poured what smelled like gallons of Patpong Girl perfume all over herself while we were descending, but before we got put into an hour-long holding pattern over the Delhi.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Just Beachy

With my one-year Indian visa in my hot little hand, I decided it was time for some beach action. I went online and checked the weather forecast that said it was nothing but thunderstorms no matter where I decided to go. So, I decided to go to Ko Samet. By the time I got my visa, there would not be time to get to Ko Samet the same day. I picked up my visa at four and the last boat from Ban Phe, 3 hours away minimum, leaves at five. I opted to go only to Pattaya for the night before continuing on to Ban Phe and Ko Samet.

I got to Pattaya and headed immediately for the beach. I was desperate for water and waves and sand between my toes. What I got was a lot of loud music, drunken people and girls dancing on poles. My hotel was just a hundred or so meters away from the infamous “Walking Street”, which make the ping pong bars in Bangkok and Bourbon Street in New Orleans seem so Disney and family oriented.

The place is full of “Nana Couples”, which is basically an older western guy and his much younger, sometimes shockingly so, young girl/boyfriend. The whole place is geared for drinking and sex. Girls dancing on the bars, girls on poles, girls lined up outside, girls pulling you in, calling after you and for just about thirty dollars, girls to go home with you and do whatever you like. If girls are not your thing, Boyztown is the same thing, just change the gender, and if you are looking for a smash of the two, there are ladyboys everywhere…

After the quiet ruins and temples of the week before, it was a bit of a shock to the system, just a little too much and all up close and personal. I didn’t like it at all and so opted to go to bed and get an early start, which ended with me going to bed and then taking another look at the place in the light of day. The whole place smelled of suntan oil, stale beer and cigarettes. While the dancing girls were hanging out at the bars, the ladyboys were out in full force. the streets were deserted and I had the full, if not unwanted, attention. “Where you go? What you like to do? You want to have the sex with me? Why not?” is what you hear as they grab you around the waist to pull you closer. And they are freakishly strong and one time I actually had to shove the person away. I took that as a clear sign I needed to get my things on a minivan and get myself to Ko Samet.

I had been warned a bit about Ko Samet. Told how touristy it was, the drugs, the noise and everything else one can imagine from an island cut off from the rest of the world after five in the evening. I had also been told the weather would be horrible, that I should stay in Pattaya, but I had decided that I would risk it. And what an amazing choice it was. The skies were clear, the water was blue-green and the sand was white. I found a little place just a few meters from the sand and spent the next two days shoeless and lazy. I would wake early and take a sunrise swim followed by a walk, another swim and then I would stake out a beach chair and an umbrella where I would hang out, swimming and eating until about four, when I would take a short nap, shower and head out to the beach for a beer and dinner and a sheesha. At night I would watch the fire show, go for a walk and then off to bed to repeat it all again.

That is how I spent my birthday. I was worried about being alone, wondering if I would get sad or depressed, but not at all. I am at that place where I enjoy my own company. Yeah, it would have been nice if my friends were there, but I had a great day on my own.

Now I am back in Bangkok for the final few hours before heading back home to Delhi. I am both ready and not ready. I feel relaxed and detoxed from the past few months and not really ready to head back to reality… In fact, the entire trip, only four people had my Thai mobile number, so I was able to really disconnect. On the other hand, I am excited to be heading back as I am working on a fabulous project that I am planning on kicking off on October 1,which I will tell everyone about when the timing is right… And Ulco is coming for a holiday in just two weeks and we will be backpacking around a different piece of India than last time. What he doesn’t know is that last time I was gentle on him. This time, he is getting the full Indian backpacking experience.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Unexpected Detour

I had a brilliant idea. Brilliant. I decided I would go to the elephant camp and spend a few days working with elephants. As almost everyone knows, I am obsessed with them and I thought this would be great. I would get to spend three entire days with them, training, riding, bathing and whatever else one does when working with elephants. I went online to check it out and there were no spots available. So next time I know I am coming to Thailand, I will book well in advance.

So I went with my second choice of Nong Khai as I feel a few days doing nothing would be a nice change after the pace I have been keeping the past few days and I am thinking of taking a short course in Thai boxing to kick-start my getting back into the gym groove. I checked out of my quiet little guesthouse and took a tuk-tuk to the bus station to catch the 7pm bus, putting me in Nong Khai about twelve hours later. I figured it was better to arrive without a place during daylight rather than take a bus mid day and arriving after two in the morning or something like that.

I got to the bus station and was informed that all buses to Udon Thani where sold out. And Udon Thani is where the bus change happens for the last hour or so to Nong Khai. So, as I have not yet had my Thai boxing classes, I couldn’t bust-a-move and get my way, I had to decide what else to do. The only buses still leaving were heading to Bangkok and that is where I find myself at the moment. While I wasn’t too happy about it at first, it works out well. I have a few things I need to take care of and will pick up my visa on Monday so that will be out of the way. As soon as that is done, then I am off again. Not sure where, but am tossing around either heading a bit south and doing some island hopping, or heading east and going to Angkor Wat. I would love to see Angkor Wat and also, it would give me a few days in Cambodia, but it takes a full day to get there and at least three days to explore the ruins. I am not sure I want to be that rushed, but at the moment I am tired, having been traveling on the bus all night and now waiting for my room to get free so I can move in.

I was at the bus station in Bangkok just before 5am, having no clue where to go and the metro doesn’t open until 6. I also needed to find a place to stay and was not looking forward to wandering the streets of Bangkok so early. It was then that I met the semi-heavily tattooed Tabitha. She is English, university age and taking a bit of time out to study Thai boxing. I was jealous and we hit it off immediately. She had stayed in a guesthouse named Suk 11 and suggested I give it a try. Once it was late enough, we shared a taxi to the metro station and chatted until I reached my stop at Nana. It took me all of five minutes to find the place, and just like Tabitha said, it feels like a tree house. I registered and paid and now just killing time waiting for the room to be free as, once again, I am in desperate need of a shower, which seems to be a common situation for me on this trip.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Loving Chiang Mai

Ok, maybe I am a bit of an addict. A whore, even. But toss a temple, Buddha, dragon or elephant at me and I am all yours. Throw them at me all at once and I become something of a screamer. I’ll even beg for more. Bring it on and keep it coming. Yes, yes, yes! That’s it…

Chiang Mai seems to know this, and how. The whole city seems built with only those four images in mind, and I keep walking from temple to temple trying to get my next fix. Every temple I see leaves me wanting more and more and more and I fear I may end up overdoing it.

And being in a city with over four hundred temples, temptation is everywhere. I have even tried promising myself that ‘this one is the last one’ and then I see a golden pagoda and I give into the urge the binge. I feel embarrassed by my lack of willpower as I succumb to my desires, feeding them. And feeding them only makes them hungrier. It is a vicious circle in which I find myself and I just can’t get enough.

Chiang Mai is absolutely gorgeous, and has a laid back vibe. While Bangkok is all about faster and now, Chiang Mai is all about doing it slower, taking the time and doing it right. No rushing here. Service is slower, people walk slower, drive slower. This makes it so much nice to just walk around and explore all the little nooks and crannies. And that is how Chiang Mai is to be discovered. Slowly and like a lover, taking the time to find and enjoy all the secret places that bring so much pleasure. I started with the Lonely Planet walking tour and after ten minutes decided to just make my own way. From pretty much each temple, another temple can be seen. And if not, just walk for a minute or two, something is bound to be there. Walking down almost any street or even alleyway is almost guaranteed to uncover a lonely temple off the touristy path.

But unfortunately, like it happens so many times, it is over before it feels like it even began and while I would love for it to go on and on, my time in Chiang Mai is coming to an end. I am not sure yet where I should go. I am thinking of either heading more north to Chiang Rai, or heading east to Nong Khai for a few lazy days sitting by the Mekong or perhaps on a slowboat going a bit down the river. I am thinking of crossing over into Laos, but not sure yet. But I will figure that out later. Right now, I am basking in the afterglow with a smile that says I have been satisfied yet left wanting more.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Myawaddi, Myanmar

Mae Sot is a nothing little town, really, but it serves as a border crossing in Myanmar and that was my entire reason for going there. Unfortunately, only a day pass is issued and passports are held hostage to guarantee a return before 16:30. I rose early and took a motorcycle taxi to the Friendship Bridge and within a minute or two I was signed out of Thailand started the 420 meter walk across the bridge and in a few minutes was being stamped into Myanmar and then I was on my own in the border town of Myawaddi.

It may only be 420 meters away, but the differences are vast. Myawaddi was like being back in India in many ways. The roads were in bad condition, pot-holed and in places non existent. Immediately across the border, there are lines and lines of cycle tuk-tuks ready to take visitors anywhere. But for all the tuk-tuks waiting, I was the only tourist, and the only firangi I saw all day. I decided to do as much as possible on foot and took the first street that left the main road.

While it did remind me of India in many ways, it was also very different. The biggest difference was the people, from the children to the adults. It was obvious they don’t get so many tourists. People watched from a distance and kids shied away from the camera. They were obviously poor, but not one person approached me for money or anything else.

I did after some point stumble across a small billiard hall and was invited in for a game. I didn’t play as I imagined there would be so much to see, so many temples to explore and the clock was ticking. Looking back I should have stayed for a while and relaxed. As it turned out, there are a few temples around, but they are very small and don’t take much exploring like some of the larger ones in Thailand or India.

But I did see what is by far the most bizarre and unusual temple I have ever seen. It is in the shape of a giant crocodile that happens to have a pagoda on his back. In his open mouth that is baring the usual set of teeth one would expect on a crocodile, there are several Buddhas. Yes, the temple itself is in the open mouth of the crocodile.

From there we did several more temples and I have no idea what the names are. Everything was in Burmese. As I said, it is not touristy like Thailand, and even here it is often difficult to find descriptions in anything other than the local language. But at one temple I did get invited to join in for lunch, an offer I immediately took them up on. The spread of food there was absolutely unbelievable. I didn’t even realize I was hungry until I saw the sea of bowls all brimming with different dishes. I have no idea what I had, they just put a few kinds of noodles in a bowl, and started adding things and then poured a creamy chicken sauce and some hot peppers. It was one of the better meals I have had on the trip so far.

It was soon clear there was not really anything else to do, at least not in that area and there was no time to travel anywhere else, so I headed back to the border area looking for market. It was then I realized I had not seen a single market of any type all day. There were stores, but only selling what people needed. There were no stalls with handicrafts or souvenirs. Not even a single Myawaddi snowdome. I wasn’t ready to go yet, so I went to the Riverside Café which is conveniently located on the river overlooking Thailand and ordered myself a Myanmar brand beer, which comes served with a Myanmar brand beer glass mug. It was then I realized it was the perfect souvenir and so I managed to buy it from the café.

I only spent a few hours in Myanmar, but it was enough to drive me to see more. I am hoping that soon I will be able to go to Yangon and then visit one of my dream places, Mandalay. I don’t know why, but that name just conjures up the most exotic images. But for now, it is off to the north and the city of Chiang Mai… Only seven or so hours of travel ahead of me and hopefully no sniffing honeys sitting next to me…

A Little Voice Named Ann

Pinocchio had his Jiminy and I have mine. Her name is Ann. It was today, while I was at Sukhothai Historical Park that Ann decided to make an appearance. She started nagging me and she didn’t let up. I kept screaming at her to “shut up!”, but she went on and on like a broken record. Not that she was there, but her voice was there, in my head.

See, for some reason I burn in Thailand faster than any place else I have ever been. I don’t know why, but it does. And whenever I get even the slightest indication that I might possibly be changing skin tones, Ann’s voice plays in my head. It is a conversation I have had so many times wit her, that now it just goes on without her…

“Your face is burning. You should be using sunscreen” Ann would say
“I am.”
“You’re not. You’re pinking”
“I have sunscreen. I’m wearing it.“
“Are you sure? Did it say ‘sunscreen’ or make any references to SPF on the package?”
“Yes, it is just melting off my face.”
“You should be using waterproof.”
“It is waterproof.”
“If it was waterproof, why is it melting off your face?”
“I don’t know, Ann, it just is.”
“But you said it was waterproof. Did it actually say ‘waterproof’ on the bottle?”
“Yes.”
“Let’s have a look at the bottle, then”
“I don’t have it with me”
“Don’t have it with you? How can you even consider leaving the house without at least three different options of sunblock? What SPF are you using?”
“30”
“30? THIRTY? I won’t expose my skin to even the light in the fridge unless I am wearing at least three layers of 60!”
“Hmmmm…”
“Don’t hmmmm me. Well, all I can say is ‘thank heavens it is not my face’, I mean really, look at you…” She says as she flashes her elasticity my way… “well, you better go put on some of this right now, before you do more irreparable damage to your already road-mapped skin. You’ll never have skin like mine, but you should make an attempt to salvage what you can, at least. And don’t for a moment think you can just keep injecting weapons of mass destruction into your face. It only makes it worse in the long run.”

And this was the conversation I had with myself today touring the ancient ruins, feeling my face turning red while the waterproof SPF30 lotion from Nivea – which is all they have anywhere, and I did check the label three times, with Ann’s voice coaching me on – melted into my eyes. I kept hearing "I told you so>' see, Ann is not unlike Hermione Granger. In fact, I would say she has a serious case against Miss Rowling for using her likeness so completely in her books. I can imagine her in school, knowing everything, or even if she didn't, she would pretend to, just to one-up the other kids and give them something of an inferiority complex. But I have to say, she has always had my best interests at heart and I love her dearly. even when she nags.

Kind of.

But there may be hope for me. Just today I saw an ad for milk here in Thailand. Among the other normal benefits like calcium and all that kind of healthy crap, it also has been collagen enhanced. So now, I am thinking that if I drink collagen enhanced milk, I can replace the collagen in my skin, thereby reenergizing the lost elasticity and then I won’t have to worry about how much I smile and whether that particular facial expression was worth dipping into my rapidly depleting resources.

Friday, August 07, 2009

Sukhothai

I forgot to mention one thing in that last post. The girl who snarled at me at the station? Remember her? She was on my bus to Sukhothai and she just would not stop snarling and giving me dirty looks. Anyway, I had just gotten to the guesthouse and taken the last room, when who should show up? Snarling girl and her boyfriend. It was almost midnight and they were turned away because the place was full. I waved and smiled and wished them luck.

Established in the thirteenth century, Sukhothai (Rising of Happiness) was the very first capital of Siam. It is now known as Sukhothai Historical Park, filled with the ruins of the ancient capital. I had imagined a sort of Ayuthaya and was completely unprepared for what was waiting for me. I rented a bike to be able to see more of the place as it is quite spread out. If Ayuthya was stunning, then Sukhothai was spectacular and in at least one case for me, breathtaking. Seriously.

The first ruin, which is just past the entrance I used is Wat Mathahat. This was considered the spiritual center of the old city. It is filled with Buddhas and if you squint your eyes and use a little imagination, it is easy to visualize how magnificent it must have been.

One thing I really loved about Skuhothai Historical Park is the way they have kept everything sectioned off from the rest of the developing world. There were no phone lines going through the area, no McDonald’s arches enhancing the scenery. It was lush and green and full of ponds with Lotus flowers in bloom. Most people were on bicycles or walking and there was no graffiti anywhere. I saw no declarations of love carved into old walls as I have seen on way too many places.

From Wat Mathahat, I was determined to see Wat Si Chum. I got a bit lost, but I love it when that happens. I stumbled across Wat Chang Rop, a chedi with a base of elephants. Everyone knows I have a HUGE love of elephants and this was a most welcome surprise and I took a bit of a break from biking to just sit back and admire it. To most people, it is probably not such a big thing, but for me, it was perfect.

From there I went to Wat Si Chum and I can honestly say from the first sight, I gasped. It was amazing. The Wat itself is very small and there is a narrow opening facing the entrance. It is through that opening that one gets a glimpse of the twenty five meter high Buddha sitting inside. I can’t explain it, really, but just when you get to a point where you think you have kind of seen it, to have something that incredible appear was just awesome. As it was a bit further away by bike and most people can’t take the heat (I feel it is a bit cool compared to Delhi) I had the place to myself.

I won’t say much more about the park as I think the pictures will do a much better job of explaining it that I ever could.

All too soon it was time to head back, shower and get to the bus station for the trip to Mae Sot. What I thought would be a nice bus, like the one from Ayuthaya to Sukhothai, turned out to be an overcrowded minivan. Two guys were sitting in the narrow aisle on chairs made for children, but they where the only ones that would fit between the actual seats. It all started off ok, but once we hit the mountains, it became a white-knuckle ride. We zigged and zagged at top speed, slowing down only for the military checkpoints. To add to the entertainment, the woman to my left would sniff from her inhaler about every three to five minutes. I timed it. And then she would act really weird for a few minutes, doing all sorts of odd things with her fingers and the window. Because she kept looking at me and smiling, I thought she was trying to show me something of interest, a temple or elephant perhaps. But I realized she was just in her own space and began to wonder if there wasn’t glue in her inhaler.

And as if one sniffing woman on a minivan is not enough, the air suddenly filled the a sweet citrusy smell. The woman to my right was holding a green orange and using her thumbnail to press little dents into the skin, releasing the smell. She would then shove it against her nose and hold it there for a few seconds. She repeated the process 8 times (yes, I counted) and then put the orange back in her handbag and zipped it up.

It was in the downpour of the monsoon that I arrived in Mae Sot without a place to stay arranged. That is part of the plan this trip… No plans. Play it by ear and see what happens. Lucky for me, I got a place that is basically a group of teak bungalows all spread out around a garden. There is no bar here, no restaurant except for breakfast, and ever that is toast and coffee or tea. For beer or anything else, there are places just a couple of minutes walk away, but here, here in this place is silence and nature. The chorus of frogs who are going to be singing me to sleep tonight.

All Thai'ed Up

I am at the end of my second day in Thailand and finally have a few moments to write. At this very moment I am in a little town named Mae Sot, sitting in my little teak bungalow, listening to the almost deafening chorus of frogs. I can’t hear anything else. No cars. No people. No music. Just frogs, and it is wonderful. A wonderful end to a great day.

I arrived in Bangkok yesterday morning at five, and by half past ten, everything for my visa was done. I had filled I my papers, been interviewed and the visa was approved. It still takes five days for them to process that for reasons I don’t understand, but it did mean that I was as Hualamphong train station ready to get a train to anywhere. As it turned out, there was a train leaving for Ayuthaya in 15 minutes. It was only a 3rd class non air-conditioned train, but I figured it was only for two hours, so I would do it. I booked the ticket and less than twenty minutes later I was heading north. The train was not bad at all. I wouldn’t want to spend endless hours on it, but for two hours, it wasn’t bad. The only episode was when I tried to get a bit more comfortable and broke the seat. The bench gave way and fell to the floor with me on it. I was a bit embarrassed, but more scared that someone would yell at me and I would have no clue what they were saying. But nobody even glanced my way and the guy across from me gave me his seat and fixed the bench in just a few minutes like it was something that happened everyday. Maybe it does.

After two hours, I arrived in Ayuthaya, checked my backpack, rented a bike and took a long boat across the river to go explore the ruins. The whole place is a mix between new and old. It was the capital of Thailand before Bangkok. It had over four hundred temples, but most of them now are nothing but ruins. Some of them little more than a few bricks from the foundation. I only had a few hours as I decided I did not want to stay the night there, so I went through the Lonely Planet and narrowed down the one must-see, and for me, that was Wat Phra Mahathat. By coincidence, it was the first ruin I came upon. It was stunning with dramatically leaning structures and remnants of what must have been several hundreds, if not thousands of Buddhas. The site I was most interested in seeing is the stone Buddha head which has been taken over by a the twisted base of a tree, making it look as though the Buddha is merely taking a peak at the outside world from his hiding place.

From there I crossed back over the river to another Wat, and then another, the last one with a nineteen meter high Buddha and a room with 84,000 Buddha images. I quickly found the nineteen meter high Buddha, but could not find the other room, but time was running out and so I headed back. It was only after I returned the bike and sat down for a quick meal before my bus, that I discovered the 84,000 Buddhas are on the wall right behind the nineteen meter one. So I saw it, but I didn’t realize it.

After just a couple of short hours in Ayuthaya, I decided it was time to move on and be someplace else for the night, so headed to the bus station to see what was going where. I am not sure some of the people on the bus were too happy to see me. In fact, one French girls kept snarling at me while we were still at the station. Not sure what her problem was, but I had been up for over a day and a half, a day filled with plane, taxi, subway, train, bicycle, motorcycle and now a bus (in that order). I felt, and probably looked disgusting, but actually I was too tired to really care.

I ultimately decided to head from Ayuthaya to Sukhothai, the original capital of Siam, before it was moved to Ayuthaya. There is a World Hertitage Park I was determined to see. It was about six hours by bus before I arrived in Sukhothai at almost eleven in the night without a reservation. I have decided that reservations are out this trip. I am making it all up as I go along. As happens when a foreigner steps off any mode of transport, there is a wave of people coming at you “were going?”, “you need hotel? Sleep? I know good place. You like. Very close. Very cheap. Only one room left.” Normally I wouldn’t go for it, but I was in desperate need of a shower, a toothbrush and sleep. And since I decided this trip was all about the adventure, I decided to throw caution to the wind and see what came back to me.

The guesthouse was very cool, and there was a nice vibe to the place and it was the perfect ending to an exhausting day. I settled in for the night and tried to sleep, but was too worried about oversleeping my alarm and I wanted to be at the Sukhothai Old City first thing in the morning, so I kept waking up and checking the time even though I had set the alarm. I did manage to get a few hours of sleep and after a nice breakfast and feeling a bit more human, I got a tuk-tuk to the old city…

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Going to Thailand

I have my ticket to Thailand in my hot little hand and tomorrow night I am heading to Bangkok. This trip will be decidedly different than last time. Last trip, I basically stayed put in Bangkok, leaving the city for only a few days to go to Prachuapkhirikhan for some non-touristy time.

This time, I am planning on heading straight from the airport to the visa handling center and once everything is dropped off, I am going to take myself to a bus station and head north. The goal is to make it to Chiang Mai and see a bunch of things in between. I am also planning on doing this on as minimal a budget as possible, so it will be buses, trains, and any other transport that does not leave the ground. I want to see Thailand, not view it at a distance through a tiny window from 36,000 feet. The only unfortunate thing is that I will not have my passport with me, as I have to leave it at the visa center for the week. That means I can’t just make brief trips into Laos or Myanmar. I might do an excursion to Cambodia once I get my visa back, depending on how that goes.

I am also packing light. And by light, I mean going with basically nothing. Most of my clothes need to go to the laundry and I haven’t had the time to send them out. So my thinking is to just arrive in Bangkok with my laptop, camera and toothbrush and sort out the rest as I go along. If I have changed in any way since living in India, it is the fact that I can get by with so much less than ever before. Packing for a weekend would mean at least five pairs of shoes. I would pack an entire carry-on suitcase and extra bag for a night in Brussels. Now I am heading out for a week without anything. I am just craving adventure right now. I want to be shocked, surprised, inspired and awed. I want to just go and see what happens. Or what doesn’t. I want to be out of my comfort zone, although after India, I am not sure where that is anymore. Things I deal with now on a daily basis would have been unimaginable even for an hour just a few years ago.

I know people don’t understand. I met someone here in Delhi, an Indian guy living abroad, but here for a brief period for work. He doesn’t get it at all. We would have long discussions about it and I would find myself at something of a loss to explain it. He hates being in India. It makes him miserable. He can’t understand why I would choose to live here. I know most people who know me wonder the same thing, especially after reading some of the stuff that comes my way. I often ask myself what I am doing here. I wonder if it would not be better, easier, more relaxed, if I lived back in Europe or the US. But for some reason I stay. I have stopped trying to explain it. I have stopped trying to analyze it. I am just going to let it be and when the time comes to make a change, I will do it.

But for now, there is Thailand. There is adventure. There are temples to see, people to meet, elephants to ride and lots of stories yet to be written.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Say My Name...

So, the landlord family has learned a wee bit of English, and nobody practices more than their son, the smiley guy. In case you missed it, I call him smiley guy as he normally just stands there and smiles while his cousin/brother/whatever speaks to me in English. But not anymore. Smiley guy is throwing around his new found English every chance he gets. The bad part is, is that he only really knows one word, which he says over and over and over again. And the word, just in case you might be wondering, is "Robb".

Yes, he has discovered my name and uses it almost non-stop. He is like a toddler that has picked up one word and is trying both happy and confused with the sound and the response it generates. I hear it sometimes from a distance "Robb!" I hear it outside my door, "Robb!" But no matter where he is, he only knows one way to say it. No "Robb?" as in "are you there?" or "Robb" as though he were telling someone my name. Nope, he is always calling for me, trying to get my attention. And like a toddler, he then points at something he finds interesting or thinks I might find interesting.

"Robb!" he shouts as he points to an airplane, a bird, a table or whatever. I have actually become sick of hearing my own name. I need a new one, and fast. It is like he is rediscovering the world and "Robb!" is the gateway to some amazing place he has never seen before. And not only that, but he has taught the rest of the family my name, so it is now a chorus of calls everytime I pass their flat. But they have failed to realize that even though they now speak my name, that does not mean I speak Hindi. They now look frustrated, confused and unsure when they start a sentence with "Robb!" and then say something in Hindi and still get a blank look from me. What further confuses them is when I respond with "Hindi nahin" meaning I don't speak Hindi. It is as though that one sentence proves I am a liar, a charlatan. I have many times resisted the almost overwhelming urge to shout "chutiya!" just to see what response that gets, but have decided that telling the landlord to fuck off is probably not in my best interest. At least until my things are in the moving truck and on their way to a more civilized destination.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

My Morning Surprise

This morning, like most mornings, I took a shower. And this morning, like most of my mornings since moving, there was a banging at my door. And like most of the mornings this past week, it is the smiley guy from downstairs with some news he delivers in Hindi and some urgent need to inspect, repair or just look at something. But the knock during the shower was the second one of the morning. The first one arrived at half past four. I was sound asleep and suddenly there was a banging. I thought the house might be on fire, but no, he just needed to inspect something and then he took a hose and was on his way. I tried to go back to sleep, but it was futile. Too awake to sleep and too tired to actually do anything, I listened to the planes passing, while thinking about how I am going to get out of this situation.

But back to this morning's shower. There I was with my shampoo lathered into a luxurious richness when I heard it. I decided to ignore it. I was in the shower. I was naked. The banging came again as I was rubbing some L’Oreal face wash into my eyes, which, take it from me, burns. I was tired, I was cranky and I had soap in my eyes. The banging came again. I screamed something at the door, toweled off and decided to see what the urgency was all about.

I am used to seeing smiley guy at my door. In fact, seeing him at my door is quite a relief after last Sunday. I had gone out early to snap some pics and enjoy the early morning weather and I came home to find the door of my flat locked from the inside. Someone was in my house. It was all very Goldilocks and the Three Bears. I banged on the door having no idea who was inside and was surpised when my door opened and smiley guy welcomed me in. It seems there was no water in their flat, so he decided to use my shower. And, quite noisily, my toilet. Imagine the look of sheer joy on my face. After that, I really thought I had "been there, done that" and was not at all prepared for was the long line of people standing outside my door, desperate to get onto my terrace. It seems there is a pooja tonight and my terrace is to be the kitchen. The terrace above the little terrace is to be party central. A pooja is a religious blessing ceremony done for just about anything. New office. New car. New building. This evening is the pooja for the building. It is not new, but it has been somewhat remodeled, assuming that one can call a splash of paint remodeling.

So in came the big pots, the potable gas burners, kilos and kilos of rice and chicken and goat and whatever else is on the menu. And then there was me, clad in basically my towel while the crew filed in and started looking around. I wanted to get dressed and so closed the door, thinking that people would get the hint. I had just zipped up the jeans when a head pokes through my window. "Namaste". It was the landlord. "Khanna?" I declined. I informed him I am was trying to get ready for work and then he told me that there would be a bit dinner tonight. On my terrace. And of course, I have been invited for what I am sure will prove everyone watching me eat and asking me if I am married. Asking me why I am not married. Telling me I need a nice Indian girl. I will smile politely. I will be kind and charming, knowing that in just a few days, I will be far away in Thailand, hopefully deep in a jungle on the back of an elephant.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Shower Anyone?

Yesterday morning as I went from my bed to the shower, I had a most unusual and awkward experience…

Thursday evening I moved into my new flat on the top floor of the building where I have been living the past three weeks. I live in what is called a Parsati. It is basically a studio apartment split by a terrace. When you walk in the main door, the living space is on the left. The living space is just one room that has no kitchen or bathroom. On the left side of the tiny terrace is the miniscule kitchen and contortionist size bathroom. There is also a small staircase that leads to the roof terrace that offer great views of the parks and the monuments.

I learned just minutes after moving all my things in, that the roof terrace is used quite often by the family that owns the building. Quite often as in all the time… And it was just before seven yesterday morning that there was a knock on my window. I had shut the main door when I went to bed and now that the sun was up, the masses wanted in. I open the door and there is the mother with her sister-in-law. I figured they would stay a few minutes and then the number of voices increased and at one point, someone poked there head into the window of my room and looked around. Fortunately for me, I was not doing anything embarrassing, but I did give her a bit of a stern look. What is social etiquette when a relative of the non-English speaking landlord pops their head in the window?

I waited for the voices to die down and decided to hop across the terrace for a shower. There I was, in my shorts, carrying my towel and still trying to wake up when I noticed the audience. They were all there, on the roof terrace. The landlady, her husband, her brother, her brother’s wife, her niece, her newly engaged daughter and one of her sons. They smiled. They waved. They said “Namaste” and “hello” and I turned red and didn’t know what to do. I am used to being surprised by an uninvited spider holding the shower hostage, but this was something completely new and I was way out of comfort zone. I did the only thing I could do. I put my hands together, said “Namaste” and “hello” and went in the bathroom, ready for a nice shower to rinse the whole experience away.

I turned on the shower and out came a trickle of water. It seem that being just a meter or so below the water tanks mean I have absolutely no water pressure. I guess I will go green and start taking bucket showers. But yesterday morning I had no choice but to press my body up against the wall while the few drops of water lazily did their job. I splashed some here and tried splashing some there. It was creative showering at it’s best, but not the experience that makes me sing. See, I like to sing in the shower and I more often than not, pretend that that I am in a recording booth and the shower head is my mic which just happens to be spouting water. I sing, I purr, I rap. I have raised the roof off of many a bathroom. But this roof, I am afraid, will stay firmly in place.

The evening before was a different matter. Just after my things were shifted, there had been a massive downpour, and I had put on my swimsuit and I sat on the roof terrace just enjoying the cool water. If I had thought about it, I would have taken my big black umbrella and performed “Singin’ in the Rain” right there on the rooftop. I saw people on all the other rooftops doing their version of the same thing. I also saw people bring out the soap and take shower in the downpour. Now I know why. They, like me, are probably roof-dwellers and have no other shower option.

But for the moment, I was stuck in the shower, trying to make the best with what I had, fully aware that there was an audience waiting for me to come out so they could inspect my work. I dried off the one or two drops of water, wrapped myself in a towel and opened the door with my head held high. I didn’t even look at them, I just went into my room and shut the door, all the time telling myself I can’t live like this. It seems I am not a tenant, I am family. I have been told as much, in those exact words. I have been told to call the landlady “Momma”, something I have managed to resist. I am the older son and by moving in, it seems I have signed away all rights to the privacy I might have once had. I made the mistake of having food at their place the night I moved upstairs and that seems to have sealed my fate. Now I feel like a prisoner and have no idea what to do. I am just hoping it is a phase and my privacy will somehow, if only slowly, be restored.

But something tells me otherwise…

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Just My Luck

After months of unemployment, depression and a rather bleak outlook, I am happy to announce that my luck has turned around. This last week alone has been completely unbelievable. And just when I think it might stop, more and more keeps coming…

It all started about a week ago when I received the following message:

Dear Lucky winner,

We are happy to inform you that your email address have emerged winner of 50,000.00 POUNDS in the NOKIA PROMOTION PROGRAM 2009. The online cyber draws was conducted from an exclusive list of 3,000 email addresses of individuals and corporate bodies picked by an advanced automated random computer selection from the web.


And from there it has been an avalanche of winnings. At least once a day, I learn that I am a winner. So far this week, I have won £250,000.00 from Microsoft, £1,500,000.00 from third category draws in the UK (whatever that is, but who cares? I WON!). I was just getting used to my new winnings when I learned I am now the proud owner of a brand new BMW 5 Series car and an additional cash prize of £500,000.00 GBP with congratulations from BMW Automobile Company. And even though I use Gmail almost exclusively, I discover I have won yet another £500,000.00) for the Year 2009 Lottery promotion which is organized by YAHOO/MSN LOTTERY INC & WINDOWS LIVE.

Don’t even get me started on the $500,000.00 I won in the Powerball Promo or the lump sum payout of $1,000,000 from Peugot. And then this morning, the biggest win of them all from the prestigious COCA COLA COMPANY, which successfully organized a Sweepstakes marking the 2010 SOUTH AFRICA WORLD CUP PROMOTIONAL LOTTERY. Participants for the draws were randomly selected and drawn from a wide range of web hosts which we enjoy their e-business patronage. However, no tickets were sold but all email addresses were attached to different ticket numbers for representation and privacy. And wouldn’t you know it, my email address as indicated was drawn and attached to ticket number 0098876 with serial numbers MSL099876 and drew the lucky numbers 9-21-17-39-23-13(20) which subsequently won me £500,000,000.00!

Even though I have won well over half a billion dollars already this month, I can honestly tell you, that all this money does not buy feelings of confidence and adequacy. Now I don’t know who has been talking, but some has to be. I noticed that I am also getting emails from someone named Avik telling me to “power up your manliness”, Aicolt and Barnett2003 are telling me how I can “be sooo big she’ll be amazed” and “supercharge bedroom performance” and then there is Dieter.Nehring commanding me to “penetrate harder and give her more pleasure” while Delta703 is telling me I need to make my hose greater. I never actually thought it was that bad until a few minutes ago and suddenly I have the almost uncontrollable urge to use my new found riches to buy a Ferrari to overcompensate for all my shortcomings.

But something tells me that if I just wait a few more days, I’ll win one and well, why pay for what you can get for free?

Thursday, July 16, 2009

No Marry Life (Part 2)

I am relieved to let you know that I might have been a bit hasty in my last post about being the unwilling groom in shotgun wedding. Monday afternoon, as I was at home sick and trying to get some sleep in spite of a stomach infection that was successfully keeping me up and out of bed, there was a knock at my door. Since I have moved, there have been only a few knocks on my door, each of them from the landlord’s family. They are, after all, the only people who know where I live. This time it was the two sons. For some reason, no matter who comes up, they always come in pairs. One to do the talking and one to do the smiling. So there they were, the pair of them, Joseph the talker and Rajiv the smiler. I did not know their names at the time and discovered them during the events of this story, so when I answered the door, they were basically nice dressed guy and guy in shorts and t-shirt.

In the few moments I have been free from work and free from illnesses that make me wish I was on the other side of near death, I almost always have my camera with me, just waiting, lurking, stalking life, if you will, for some perfect photographic moment to appear. It seems I have been spotted. “Can we borrow and use your camera?” asked Joseph. I think I turned a few shades of white. Asking to borrow my camera would be like asking to borrow and use my wife. If I had a wife, which I don’t, but you get the picture.

“My sister make engage” said the smiling one and then Joseph translated that the sister was getting engaged on Wednesday and they wanted to take pictures. This is one of those awkward moments when I don’t know what to do. On one hand, I don’t want anyone molesting my “wife”, but on the other, it is my landlord, the guardian of my things whilst I am toiling in the fields of long hard labor. What does one do in that situation? Then the lightbulb went off. I remembered I still have my old 35mm SLR and offered to loan them that. “Where does memory card go?” and I explained the memory card was a roll of film they would have to purchase at the store. I gave Joseph a 2 minute lesson on the fine art of family portrait making and sent them on their way. I was also invited to the engagement and party afterwards.

The next day, they returned my camera as it seems a friend had loaned them something a bit easier to use, a camera with just one button. I was again invited to attend Wednesday and told them I would be there after work.

Fast forward to yesterday evening… I come home from work and there are about 8 people in the house of the landlord. “Khanna? Khanna? Tea?” and I motion that I will go upstairs and pop back down in a bit, which is exactly what I did. And then it was picture time. Each one of them had their picture taken sitting next to me, while I am sure I gave my best deer-in-the-headlights smile. I knew this was coming, but it is never a comfortable thing for me. I was then told to go upstairs and freshen up for the bachelor party which was going to be on the roof terrace. The roof terrace that will be mine the day after tomorrow.

A bachelor party works a bit different. Or at least this one did. It is a “party” only for bachelors. It has nothing to do with the groom. It is just a group of single guys, sitting around, talking and drinking. I could not drink thanks to antibiotics and they had been drinking since mid-day. “Sir, please, I have very love for you” Ashish, the other brother would say in increasingly slurred speech as the evening wore on. “You very great man. I friend to you. I have very, very love for you. You great man. No eat cow. Mother make great the food. Chicken, mutton, pork,. No make cow. Cow no eating. I have very love for you. You great man” and on it went. Of course, in between his declarations of adoration, I got the usual questions about marriage, but now that it was just a bunch of guys, it ramped up a bit.

Once they all realized I was not married, that I had been and was now divorced, their attention shifted. “You bring the womans here for to fuck?” and of course I said no. They took it as a sign of respect for their mother and confirmation that I would not be notorious. But then Ashish says “I send girlfriend to place tomorrow. She like make fuck you.” I thanked him for his generosity and politely declined but he was not hearing it. “Me five girlfriend”, he said looking very proud and virile. I looked over at him, his oversized belly and could not help myself I said “And do you fuck them all?” He was a bit shocked and changed the subject slightly. “Where find gigolo?” I looked puzzled. “Where find man woman gigolo?” I said go online. “How much pay gigolo?” and they were all a bit disappointed I have not had sex with a prostitute. But then all was well with the group when Ashish said “I send girlfriend you tomorrow. You can make fuck.”

So now, I am hiding out at “TLR”, not sure if he remembers or not. I would not know what to say. I am a bit rusty on my social graces when it comes to turning down unwanted sex sent by the landlord’s son in a country in which I am a guest.