Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Special Guest Appearance By Yev

Do you remember those Scrubs episodes when the writers clearly don’t have any good material with JD as the main character? To solve this problem they simply have JD “tap” one of the supporting characters like Turk, Carla or Elliot and the whole episode is shown from their perspective using their inner monologues. Think of this as a “very special” episode of Ashley’s blog as she taps out to her version of “Elliot” (sort of)…

While she may have never mentioned it before, my name is Yev and I’m her boyfriend. A little context here may be useful. We’ve been dating since freshman year (5 years) and I’ve been her travel companion, bag attendant and general sherpa-of-all-trades as we’ve traveled to England, Scotland, the Czech Republic, Fiji, Australia, France, Greece, Egypt, Turkey, Ukraine and, most recently, Italy. Now that she’s been in India for quite some time I’ve decided to track across the Atlantic to set out on our newest adventure. Amazingly our flights started in the same place and flew in exactly the opposite directions - mine through London and hers through Singapore – to ultimately make it to the same place, proving once again that the world is in-fact round.

All right let’s get right to it, we’ve got more than a week of tromping to catch up on.

I first saw Ashley on Friday as I landed in Cochin, otherwise known as Kochi to our postcolonial Indian friends (most cities in India have two names, think Mumbai/Bombay). The flight was two hours late, but as I would come to find out the more appropriate description would be the flight was only two hours late.

Observation 1: Indian air travel is not for the faint of heart.

First your flight will inevitably be late. This in itself is OK because US flights are late all the time. However the problem arises in that unlike US airports, once you cross past security into the waiting area there is very little to do and sometimes its impossible to go back into the general ticketing area which may have a bit more in terms of entertainment, shopping, dining options, etc. I actually witnessed an irate, native Indian, business class traveler verbally berate an airline employee because he could do nothing to let him go back outside of security when it was announced that our flight was two hours late. All the while they were standing next to the head of the security checkpoint as he barely flinched, pretended to ignore the traveler and ultimately said, “no exiting the security area”. Ironically enough I was able to grant exit by telling them that I needed to go outside in order to change my US currency to rupees (yay capitalism) in order to call Ashley about the flight delay. I think it may have helped that I was clearly a foreigner and armed to the teeth with travel gear. However, in general the plane gets you where you need to go so I guess its OK.

The next day we had the full Cochin experience; walk by the water in the main city, watching the sunset in Fort Cochin as an army of kittens paraded around looking for the fresh catch, a canoe ride through the backwaters (used as a laundry, bath, and pool at the same time), oh and one other thing…having the driver side mirror ripped clearly off of our tour van by an oncoming bus and having it fly through the aforementioned van as we continue to weave in and out of traffic. This brings us to:

Observation 2: Driving in India is unlike anything I have ever experienced before…read scary, life flashing before your eyes scary.

Here is the thing, while there are marked lanes on the roads, streetlights sprinkled around major intersections, and a smattering of traffic cops, driving in India is completely and utterly out of control. Cars, trucks, busses, rickshaws, auto-rickshaws, cattle and goats weave in and out of lanes, squeeze through the tiniest openings and cross into oncoming traffic if there is even the smallest chance that they may not end up slamming head on before dodging back into relative safety. At least when you take an auto-rickshaw they can’t go very fast, and when you take a hotel or hired car they generally do what they can to keep their car in one piece, but these facts do little to assuage one when you sit in a car and experience the madness that I think directly correlates with a group of people migrating from bicycle to car use without so much as an adjustment in driving behavior despite the 5x increase in average speed.

The next day Ashley took me to see the 500-year-old Cochin synagogue (see previous posts for interesting facts). The Jews here did a fantastic job of completely sequestering themselves from the rest of the population. So much so that as soon as the congregation dies off, which may be sooner rather than later, as the youngest member is a 34-year old who is obviously the byproduct of generations of inbreeding, the state will inherit the synagogue, which includes the sacred Torah. This would be OK except that sacred places and monuments here have a tendency to slowly disintegrate. This brings me to my next observation…

Observation 3: Indian monuments are amazing, and it’s a damn good thing that we get to see them now, because they simply won’t last.

Indian monuments, churches, mosques, temples, castles, etc., are amazing, rivaling their European counterparts- the only problem is they were more amazing 20 years ago, and more amazing 50 years ago, and so on. While their European brothers go out of their way to restore historic structures, in India they sit around and slowly disappear. Murals fade away, stone walls crumble and fall, graffiti and trash permeate on the facades and grounds of the most amazing structures I’ve ever seen. But what do you expect? This country has other pressing needs. Water, energy, food - it’s a grab bag of social issues that take precedence over the preservation of century old buildings. Such is life.

We then flew back to Hyderabad where I spent the next three days hanging out in hotel Google. We spent an evening at the old fort ate a really good authentic Indian dinner and witnessed some general guest house staff shenanigans which included them pounding on Ashley’s door for five minutes as I was taking a nap simply to attempt to clean the room for the second time that day (yes it was still clean from the first time). The one thing that did stand out for me during my time in Hyderabad was how fairly benign the city’s trash problem was, and in correlation how nice the city smelled.

Observation 4: Indian cities, even the large developed ones, smell.

It really makes you appreciate the amazing innovation that is the landfill. Aggregating trash into one central, and hopefully distant, location is a wonderful phenomenon. Indeed driving through an Indian town you see trash everywhere. Even the large historic monuments are littered. Because of this certain parts of the city smell very badly (think New Jersey). I can only imagine that this problem gets worst when it rains and the trash begins to rot. To really prove my point I’d like to reference an episode of the Simpsons, which we ironically watched in India, where Apu reacts to a particularly bad smell by saying (with a bad Indian accent), “That is the worst smell I’ve ever smelled, and I’m from India.”

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