Thursday, March 31, 2005

28. Moustache!

28-1: The State of Things, From the Ear Down

I have a moustache.

I don’t know if I should be proud or ashamed, but let’s just say that if I were a bunch of doctors, it might have been said that ‘a bunch of doctors thought that it was impossible for me to grow a moustache’, so I’m actually sort of attached to the thing.

All this means, really, is that I spend a fair amount of time trying to decide what the best angle is for it to follow down from the cleft in my lip and what the proper distance should be between the bottom edge and the top of my lip. Though it is at all times a work in progress, the current state of assessment and reassessment has resulted in a thin—perhaps even tapering—affair, as if a caricature of something French, though it is either too thin, or to lightly colored, to look very dramatic or pointy.

Add to this my new rash of aggressive haircuts, and you have the reason why I'm not actively exposing anything too far above the ear in pictures.

At this point, I think that it’s necessary to point out that this is actually the sort of look that I was going for when I set out growing this moustache nearly two months ago. When Jecca and I were trying to give a name to this style while it was still in the stages of infancy back in Calcutta, she diagnosed it as a School Pictures look. At that time, though, the moustache was more wispy, and the look largely consisted of a children’s sweater vest featuring a fluffy gray dog leaning on a pink book worn over every shirt that I own, in addition to a denim hat with a too-short brim, which for some reason, had a label sewn onto it that read Reebok-INDIA-Nike, and I thought was hilarious.

In some ways, the current state of things might actually be considered a success: while it's now too hot to wear sweater vests, and the hat looks a little too Village People with a full moustache, it is true that I currently look a lot like I walked right out of my 9th Grade school picture.

Mostly, I suppose that I'm doing this because I can, as it ultimately really doesn't make much of a difference what I look like while travelling here—everyone is going to stare, one way or another. The philosophy behind the School Pictures look has more to do with trying to make people laugh whilst they stare, as long as they’re bothering to stare—a sort of ‘See, I'm in on the joke, too’ approach to things.

Yesterday, on the bus, someone told Louis that I looked like Leonardo Dicaprio, and though I know that this isn’t really true, it sort of makes it harder to shave it off—keeping in mind that I usually only garner comparisons to Robin Williams—though if I don't cut it now, I'm going to come home with a funniest tan line that anyone has ever seen.

Tuesday, March 29, 2005

27. Our Canadian

Fig. 27-1: The King of Pants

Introducing Louis-Philippe: We first saw him in Darjeeling, we met him on a trek to Tsongu Lake in Gangtok (Sikkim), and we've all been traveling together since the train to Varanasi.

At first we were pretty sure that he was French—though we were wrong—and in the time since we met him, he has proven that the Quebecois are truly the Al Newman of the international travel scene: this kid can spit filthy lines in German, chat coyly in Korean, and speaks English just as naturally as he speaks French. On top of all this: he's funny and he cuts our hair—of which mine is currently in a funny state, but that's a story/picture for another day.

It's been nearly a month now, and we're pretty sure this one's a keeper.

To anybody who's keeping track: please say hello to Louis-Philippe.

Fig. 27-2: Jecca and Louis Humor Me by Pretending to Enjoy a Pretend Dog Fight in Varanasai

Monday, March 28, 2005

26. A Good Price on Bitter Medicine

Fig. 26-1: The Loneliness of the Long Distance Cycle Rickshaw Driver

Sometime around senior year of college, there was a period of time when I felt like I was getting away with too much in my day-to-day life, so perhaps as an answer to this, when I would go to bed at night, I would have these really involved dreams where people would tell me off severely. Though everything about these dreams seemed bad while I was dreaming them, they had the odd benefit of making me feel better when I woke up in the morning, as if a tension had finally been alleviated between what I was dishing out, and what I deserved to get back.

Anyone who is feeling a similar sort of tension in their day-to-day life, and needs to feel some sort of guilt in order to feel better, can achieve this same effect—though this one will cost you about the U.S. equivalent of about fifty little cents (and one international plane ticket, naturally): try taking the human-powered cycle rickshaw between Siliguri Junction and New Jalpaguri Station with your gigantic backpack, and sit helplessly as you watch the man operating the rickshaw pedal himself to a point somewhere near collapse, as he struggles to get you the 5km between the two stations in order to receive the 20 Rupees that you bargained him down to.

As I am not feeling the need for any more guilt than I already feel as a traveler, upon arrival at my destination my completely mortified conscience got the better of my thrifty side, and I tipped him twice the agreed amount.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

25. Easter Egg Hunt

25-1: Easter Egg?

Yesterday was a Hindu holiday called Holi, in which the arrival of Spring is welcomed by throwing bright powdered pigments at anybody that you pass on the street, though being a tourist, you tend to get the worst of it.

Just think of me as your Easter Egg.

25-2: Our Attackers

Saturday, March 26, 2005

24. Following Rules

24-1: The Setup

24-2: The Pose

24-3: The Detail

23. Correspondent in the Field of Dreams

Fig. 23-1: Not Iowa

You know that spring must be coming when, in addition to popping up in the headlines and satire of those headlines that make use of childhood toys, baseball starts creeping into you tourism experience in India.

Exhibit A would have to be the three ring circus that the Major League Baseball steroid hearings have become, Exhibit B would be this recreation of the festivities in New York using Lego figures (courtesy of Bat Girl, via Kyle and Anna's watchful eyes and dilligent use of the Friendster Bulletin Board feature), while Exhibit C is the above photo (see Fig. 23-1), taken in the building just to the east of the Taj Mahal.

Am I simply suffering from Spring Training fever, or do the two pieces of marble laid out give the impression of that they might be, say, side-by-side home plates, as can be seen in bullpens throughout ballparks everywhere? Although I’m sure that these were laid out as a part of a restoration project more so than as a place to warm up pitchers, the coincidence in appearance is undeniable, and was only made more mysterious by the fact that there were no corresponding home base shaped gaps in the surrounding stonework.

The Taj Mahal itself is supposed to represent the link between the earthly world and the paradise of the afterworld, though at the moment that I happened upon these two slabs of marble, it all seemed to be lending itself too easily to that cliché of “Is this Heaven? No, it’s Iowa,” made popular by Kevin Costner’s last watch-able movie (that I can recall, anyway)—except that this Field of Dreams is much farther away from home than The Hawkeye State.

Fig. 23-2: In the Field, Gathering Information with a Rake?

Photo and Photoshop-ing courtesy of B. Alec

And while I'm on the topic of Spring Training, keep an eye on the Sunday Baseball website for taunts and updates on the coming season. Who knows? I might just be there for Opening Day—provided the snow lasts until June.

Thursday, March 24, 2005


Fig 22-1: The Chicken Maharaja Mac Value Meal

Everybody knows that fast food tastes good—even if it is only true for that brief period before the grease makes for a feeling in your stomach that approximates regret. This lesson, however, must be learned again and again, if the visits to McDonalds or any of its compatriots are far enough apart.

Last week in Delhi, I learned this lesson yet again for the first time, and although a Chicken Maharaja Mac is by no means a Big Mac, after not seeing a McDonalds for over two and a half months, it tasted just fine to me—even if the gratification it only lasted until that feeling of regret started to settle in.

Confidential to Ronald McDonald: See you when I get to Bombay.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

21. Full Power, Twenty-Four Hours

Fig 21-1: Sunrise over the Ganges

Part of the fun of going to any given place in India that large groups of people go to is fending off the armies of children that are dispersed throughout the crowd in order to sell you things. These children offer products ranging from postcards to hot glasses of chai, while still others wander the crowd searching for handouts of coins or writing utensils (school pens!). Kids often seem to be the chosen method for marketing these products, most likely on account of their undeniable cuteness and the low-to-nonexistent cost of their labor, and although the work seems to make these kids pretty cynical, in the end, they are just children, and this has the charming side effect of a sort of playfulness in the tired old sales transaction.

None of this changes the fact that I usually won’t buy anything from people who employ almost expressly annoying marketing techniques (such as begging and pleading), although certain kids make these interactions funny, at the least, when they become exasperated, and the sale is slipping away from them.

One of our funniest dealings with the child aged sales force came a few months ago in Goa (see No 06. The New Slang), when a kid sitting in a shop stall blurted “I am Full Power!” out at me as I passed by him yet another time without buying anything. At the time, I had no idea where such an ingenious phrase could have come from, though last week, as we sat watching the nightly puja on the banks of the Ganges in Varanasai, one of the little salesmen (who was trying to sell us votive candles to float in the river) got frustrated and inadvertently completed the mysterious phrase when out of desperation, he muttered “Full Power, twenty-four hours, no toilet, no shower.”

Fig 21-2: One Person's Puja is Another Person's Marketing Opportunity

It’s nice to think that these children might all have a common language when it comes to expressing their frustration with the stinginess of the tourist population, although I’m sure that this saying is born out of a tourism-industry-wide sentiment rather than some sort of 12 and under collective consciousness. Ultimately, I think that this particular kid thought that he was saying something rude to us, though if his aim was to offend, then he picked the wrong group of tourists: all we did was start laughing and beg him repeat himself, to which he obliged us--although unlike the puja happening behind him, watching this actually cost a few Rupees.

Fig 21-3: Adult Swim

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

20. March Showers

Fig. 20-1: Storm Front

Old Cities are usually called Old Cities because they've been around a while, and most of the time, they're quite cramped because they were built before a time when cars needed pass down their narrow streets. Varanasai's Old City is no exception to this model, and while it makes for very atmospheric and charming (if not claustrophobic) surroundings, it also means that there aren't many places to go when you need to jump out of the way of the people, bicycles, motorcycles, carts, cows and dogs that people the neighborhood's five-foot-wide streets.

The walking here is precarious, when trying to dodge stubborn cows, pedestrians, motorcycles, and mopeds while at the same time trying not to fall into either a tourist-trap silk shop or (much worse) one of the many piles left in the middle of the road by any given cow that happens to be wandering around. After spending a couple of good long days navigating this maze of crowded and cow-pie covered streets, an out-of-season rain storm chased us indoors and onto the rooftop restaurant of our guesthouse to watch as the storm front rolled in (see Figs. 20-1, 2).

The level of delight that registered with most of the tourists that had gathered to watch the storm's arrival was probably two-fold, as the appearance of the storm was sudden and stunning, while at the same time it seemed to promise to bathe the streets of the filth that we all spending so much energy trying not to accidentally step in. However, when I emerged from our guesthouse the next morning, I learned that things don't always work here as they work in clichés that involve rain washing all the scum off the streets, and the downpour had not cleaned the streets at all. On the contrary, it simply dispersed what had previously lay in inert clumps, and made for a thin layer filth that there was no way of avoiding by way of careful stepping.

Gross? Absolutely—though add this into the equation: all that any of us have for footwear these days is sandals. Ick. Let's just say that we're not afraid of shit, although I can tell you that there was much foot washing when we got back from a long day of walking around.

Fig. 20-2: March Showers Bring April Flowers?

Monday, March 21, 2005

19. No Running Starts on Rooftops

Fig. 19-1: The Competition

One afternoon in Varanasai, through the haze of allergy medication, I tried my hand at the popular Indian sport of Kite Flying, though I quickly found that I lack any sort of natural talent for this variation on, what for me, was a childhood hobby. The Old City here is so cramped, that all recreation within its boundaries is limited to that which can be undertaken on its rooftops. It's in this environment that, for a very long time now, people of all ages have been taking to the air with kites whose lines are dipped in a mixture of crushed light bulbs and glue, and try to assert air dominance in their particular part of the elevated neighborhood by cutting down any nearby kites with this sharpened string. The effect of having all of these kites whipping around the sky is a little bit ridiculous at first, but the competition is nothing short of dead serious.

Kites here are smaller and simpler in appearance than those of my youth, though they proved much harder to get airborne than the ones that we used to buy as kids at the gas station, as there are no running starts on rooftops, so air resistance has to be achieved through a rapid succession of jerks on the line, alternately pulling the line in, and letting it out with a judiciousness that I simply couldn’t comprehend.

On top of this, the market-bought kite of a western tourist would be a hotly sought-after prize, and a few kids on nearby rooftops told me as much when they tried to get me to just give them the kite instead of having to wait for me figure out how to get the thing in the air before they cut me down.

Suffice to say, I did neither: by the time I was done trying to accomplish the first of these two tasks, my kite was trashed to the point where it was no longer airworthy, let alone trophy material.

Fig. 19-2: Liftoff over the Ganges

Friday, March 11, 2005

18. New Habits

Fig. 18-1: "He's not dead Son, he's just sleeping"

I'm always up for something new, and ever since I bought a new mechanical pencil in Calcutta, my new hobby appears to be drawing sleeping people on overnight trains. I know that this might seem like kind of a weird thing to do, but nowhere on my ticket does it say that I cannot draw my fellow train occupants1, and people who aren't sleeping tend to be so much more inquisitive about what you're doing than the sleeping kind. I have to admit, though, that my conscience does edge in when I think about what it would be like to wake up and find yourself the unwitting subject of one of these portraits.

On second thought, maybe drawing people on trains is a creepy thing to do.

Fig. 18-2: Woman on Train (Not Sleeping)


1. Even if there was a rule against this, I've always been one to follow the examples set for me by authority figures, and apparently Indian Railways employees can selectively choose which rules they adhere to, as we learned last night on the overnight train from Darjeeling to Varanasai, where the conductor saw fit to charge us full fare for two seats that we had already reserved and paid for once, on account of the fact that we weren't able to pick up the ticket from the travel agent in time, although the rules outline a 25% surcharge for a lost ticket. Oh well.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

17. Fingernail and Big Cheese University

Fig 17-1: University of Cochin-Santa Cruz

This picture goes out to the absurdly long list of people that I know who have attended, are currently attending, or may someday attend the University of California-Santa Cruz.

What is it about Santa Cruz that attracts the kind of people that I'm acquainted with? I hesitate to speculate, but I can only guess that it has something to do with the school's longstanding reputation for academic excellence in all areas. If, by chance, it had something to do with the way that the school's name sounded, then you all might want to consider saving some money, and direct your grad school applications to the humble Santa Cruz College (Fig. 17-1) in Fort Cochin, Kerala instead.

Not-so-confidential to Big Cheese and Fingernail:
If you really want the double major, you're going to have to convince them that you've left your party animal ways behind. If that doesn't work, then I say it's time to let me pull some of the Don King maneuvers that I've promised with your academic career; we'll get you the fight that you want.