Tuesday, September 27, 2005

The Dark Side of the Fiesta

I learned later that a man in Ahmedabad had been struck down by lightning during the storm I watched from my rooftop. Funny how often beauty portends danger. Perhaps the secret lies in beauty’s ability to blind us to peril, as it did me, standing there beneath our large metal television antenna during a thunderstorm.

I took a walk through the flooded streets the next day, where crowds of college kids with nothing better to do stood knee-deep in water to watch cars imitate boats, and helped rickshaw drivers float their vehicles across the intersection (I've reattached a larger version of the pic from the last blog entry, so you can click to expand it). That was also a sight with a sort of beauty to it, innocent and fun, until I read in the paper that three people had drowned. Newspapers have a way of ruining your day.

Like the way the newspapers here keep talking about the death of Navratri this year. I’ve been looking forward to the festival, eager to see how raas-garba is done in the homeland…but this year, the Supreme Court has issued a ban on the use of loudspeakers after 10 p.m. It’s ridiculous, since usually people get out of the office by 8 p.m and won’t even arrive until after 10. Several of Ahmedabad’s largest garba organizers have thrown in the towel, refusing to hold celebrations this year, and I just read that many of the most popular singers have decided it would be more profitable to travel abroad where they can sing until the late hours. Every day the front page talks about how quiet Navratri 2005 will be, but there is one glimmer of hope…some have figured that since the ban specifies loudspeakers and says nothing about dhols, they will simply hire dholis to play their drums after the speakers go off. Sales of dhols have gone up 30% this year. Navratri starts next week, so I’ll let you know how it goes.

Over the weekend I attended some psychoanalysis sessions at the Antarnad Foundation, an institute of psychotherapy at which I’m conducting part of my autism work. The seminars consisted of students presenting transcripts of their patients’ therapy sessions to an attending, who then offered his expert analysis. For example, he enlightened us all by explaining that when one 8-year old patient rolled a piece of clay into a carrot and then cut it, he was reenacting a castration fantasy and was actually expressing anxiety about the impending fate of his…er, carrot. And when he then smushed all the clay back into a ball, he was demonstrating a “manic reparation” in which he desperately attempted to fix what was…broken, you might say. I can’t imagine how my childhood games might have been interpreted. (Though I’m poking fun at the more colorful interpretations, some of the analyses he gave were actually incredibly insightful…Freudian theory gets a bad rap these days, especially in the west.) It wouldn’t be ethical to write down the stories of the patients I heard analyzed those two days, but I think you might have reacted much the same way I did had you heard them. At the end I walked out both amazed and frightened by human psychology. I went home and watched Star Wars, and tried my best not to interpret the symbolism behind Luke and his father fighting with light sabers.

You recall that I mentioned to you to a restaurant here that listed one of its “Mexican dishes” as “rastada” – as if the Jamaican bobsled team were in the back cooking. Well, tonight we went to a restaurant that was holding a Mexican food festival. I felt brave. We walked in, and my bravado collapsed into laughter. An auntie and uncle were at the doorway dressed in sombreros and Hawaiian t-shirts. Enrique Iglesias’ “Hero” played on the speakers. When we sat down, instead of giving us chips and salsa, they served us popcorn…yep, masala and all. I decided to order a chimichanga, figuring that at least if they fried it, I wouldn’t be able to recognize the horrible defacement of a burrito. All the amusement screeched to a halt when the food came. My plate (I wish I had taken a picture) featured, at the center, a large mound of Basmati rice. Flanking the rice on one side was a pool of salsa; on the other, what appeared to be Mexican chili.

I stared at the waiter. “Where’s the chimichanga?” “This is a chimichanga, sir.” His intelligence appeared to be somehow impeded by the sombrero, so I tried again. “A chimichanga is a fried burrito,” I explained. Now he was really straining himself against the effects of the sombrero, and he managed only a nervous smile, like a kid caught driving without a license. Finally some initiative burst through the straw and he offered to go fry me a burrito. I declined, but asked for some beans, secretly fearing he would go bring me a different variety of popcorn instead. The music had by this time exhausted its repertoire and returned to the Enrique Iglesias song. Luckily, the mystery was soon solved…beneath what I thought was chili were a few small triangles that looked like samosa. They even tasted like samosa, except for the chili on top, but I was satisfied…someone had fried something, and I had reason to rejoice. My grandmother, on the other hand, hadn’t been so lucky…her “fajitas” were chapatis filled with beans, with a little paneer tikka on the side. Qué será será.

Friday, September 23, 2005


Last night I was awakened by a flicker of light in the room. I tried to keep my eyes shut, but my lids proved useless as curtains against the glow. Finally I rose from bed, and found myself in pitch black – no one was around, and the tube light above me was cold. Yet a moment later my room filled with white light, and one look out the window was enough to make me put on my slippers, get out my umbrella, and climb the stairs to the terrace on top of our house.

Standing on the roof in the rain, I had to peer from under the umbrella to see the hazy sky above. No cloud could be seen, nor star, only a misty gray screen that gave no clue to its depth or distance. It was like the blank screen of a movie theater before the previews; and as if a movie star were about to emerge upon that silver canvas, the night sky had become paparazzi, illuminating the entire globe with flash upon flash of light. Most were diffuse explosions of white, gleam scattered by droplets. But several would streak across the length of the sky in jagged, restless paths. At least 4 flashes lit my eyes every second, making it the most spectacular lightning show I have ever seen. It felt as if the world had been turned into one of those plasma balls, where the energy beams focus on your finger as you trace the curve of the globe. Or, as if hundreds of celestial cameras were frantically shooting. And there I stood, beneath the umbrella, smiling at the sky, as if I were the star they were hoping to catch on film.

In the morning it felt like a dream, except my slippers were still wet. The sun shone through grayish clouds and I thought the storm was over. However, today, for the first time, I saw lightning during daylight. It was like seeing Neel in the kitchen. (Both lightning and Neel, by the way, could do me considerable damage for that comment, but both are far enough away at the moment for me not to worry about it.) Thunder erupted as a kind of applause, so powerfully that I felt our roof was going to blow off like the hat of a man in the wind. And yet, there was still the searing heat…when the clouds aren’t dripping, my pores are, and it’s caused me to have to change my shirt twice today. To think, this is the decline of the monsoon season!

It hasn’t stopped my days from getting busier. I’ve been visiting preschools to convince them to let me screen their children for autism, as well as giving lectures to teachers to educate them about the problem. I’ve learned just how careful I have to be with what I say…after I had given a ton of examples of behavior that might alert one to the presence of autism in a child, one of the schoolteachers approached me sheepishly in the hallway. I had mentioned in my talk, to give an example of repetitive motor behavior, that some autistic children will rock themselves back and forth continuously for hours on end. She had come to me to confess that she will sometimes rock back and forth when listening to a lecture, and was now worried that she had a disorder. Everyone’s a hypochondriac (medical students should know that, because we’re the worst ones), and it seems I’ll need to be very cautious if I don’t want to cause widespread panic.

One of the schools I visited was busy preparing an annual march for world peace, so I joined the teachers and busloads of children in trampling through the trafficky streets with banners and signs. Words of love and peace were carried on cardboard, people walking hand in hand. That was a special moment for me, because I could feel Berkeley in the air. Go Bears!

I’m going to bed, and perhaps this time the night will keep its promise and let the world be dark. Thanks to everyone for writing comments on the blog, they're always fun to read. By the way, I finally managed to get a small handful of pics uploaded to the blog, starting from the tuk-tuk entry. The pic of the flooded street shown above is of the cross street (vijay char rasta) nearest our house - I'm so thankful I bought gore-tex lined shoes before my trip!

Monday, September 19, 2005

Like Walking in Water

Life in Ahmedabad has crawled along at its beautifully slow pace. My muscles have finally started to believe me, that they can let down their tension, that they don’t have to run around all day trying to accomplish things. My brain took the cue too, and has laid off a few million neurons to prepare for the slow season. The gears inside still creak around just enough to let me enjoy the perennial drowsiness, and to let me realize how different things are here. I take less for granted now…for example, I no longer expect that water will be disease-free, that elevator doors will open on their own, or that sidewalks will not double as urinals for schoolchildren. I’ve become comfortable with fewer comforts. However, in other ways I am being spoiled...I no longer put my own dishes away, clean anything, or have to prepare even the simplest snack, since Shankar, who has been employed by my grandparents for decades, does all those things. It’s a very strange mix of third-world reality and first-class luxury. Though they are well off, it’s not that my grandparents live atop a mountain of silver – the occasional mouse runs through the kitchen here like any other house on the street – but labor is cheap enough that middle-class folks don’t deal with it.

My grandmother continues to try and teach me Gujarati. I haven’t fully grown accustomed to understanding either the Gujarati or the English used by my relatives, and no one has fully grown accustomed to my English. It has made for some confusing situations. For example, a conversation between my grandmother’s sister, Babymasi, and me, during which she requested that I take her blood pressure...she kept using the abbreviation “b.p.”, and in spite of straining my ears, what I heard over and over was “pee-pee.” Here’s the conversation:
“Rishi...you have to take my b.p.”
“My b.p. You have to take it.”
“Every day.”
“Because you are a doctor.”
“Yes, but...no, I’m not...”
“You must take my b.p. every day.”
Finally my grandmother pulled a blood pressure cuff out of a drawer. Ah. One nervous smile, one relieved smile, and one short prayer later, I took her sister’s blood pressure. I got a different reading than what she’s used to, instantly lost all credibility, and she hasn’t let me take it since.

I’ve also begun work on my project. For those whom I haven’t told, the project concerns setting up a screening program for autism among the preschools and pediatric wards of the city. The screening tool, a simple parental questionnaire, is almost complete (some revisions remain to the Gujarati translation), and I have begun to enlist the assistance of preschool teachers and physicians who will help me with its distribution.

In my quest to meet teachers, I came across one man who does not believe in teaching. He believes that “schools make naturally vibrant children into failures for life,” and has created a group called the Learning Network, whose first principle is that nothing can be taught. Everything must be learned through the natural process of curiosity. Thus, his three children do not attend school, but rather learn everything at home (though he recoils with horror if you use the term ‘home-schooling’...he is determined that they not be schooled at all). He explained that he allows his children to determine what they learn, and he and his wife merely accompany them on their intellectual journey. His 5-year old son has not yet shown any interest in reading, and so he says, “we do not push books on him. He enjoys pictures, so we create art together.” He pointed to his 3-year old son and said, “he’s in a world of his own, so we let him be.” At the moment, the child was curiously exploring how to relieve himself on the carpet. The children also have not been vaccinated, said the man proudly, as he does not believe in doctors...whenever the kids get sick, he performs pranic healing, and they become healthy. He learned pranic healing in a 2-day workshop offered by a local center, and when I heard this, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity; so, I got the info for the center and in a few days will become a pranic healer myself. I didn’t ask him if attending the workshop violated the first principle of his group, or if his life had been changed by the movie “Big Daddy.” He’s a very intelligent man who dropped out of school at the age of 16 and has created a happy, artistic and well-educated life for himself nonetheless; I only hope, for the sake of his children, that his theories work.

In scattered other news, I bought a new guitar (a jumbo “Epephone,” rip-off of Epiphone) and started guitar lessons, I’ve finally begun reading for pleasure again (highly recommend The Kite Runner and Interpreter of Maladies), and I went bowling barefoot today (here, you take your shoes off for everything). My immune system had its first seminar in strange-and-disquieting-diseases, but I survived, and my appetite returned after two nights of crampy pain that made me regret ever making fun of girl’s periods. The rains have worsened, dark clouds thundering louder than California clouds know how, blackened sky taking flash photography of the mess below. When the rains let up it’s cooler outside, allowing us to take walks, jump puddles, and buy more Cadbury chocolate from the corner market. My inclination to become a tostada-wallah renewed itself with a vengeance today when I saw a restaurant list its “Mexican dishes” as “burio” and “rastada.” There’s more to tell, but I feel like slowing down again, so I’m going to go read to myself until the gears in my head stop creaking for the night.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Ahmedabad: Land of the Gujus

I spent only four hours in Mumbai before connecting with my domestic flight to Ahmedabad. The airports have vastly improved since I last saw them...but, of course, they're filled with the same wonderfully inefficient people! I had to exchange some dollars into rupees, but found no one at the currency exchange counter. I drummed my fingers for a couple of minutes before I finally peeked over the counter and saw the worker sleeping underneath, on a bed of old newspapers. I woke him up, only to have him plead, “Nay, bhai! Come back in four hours.” He then started snoring, as if to say, “Welcome to India.”

As the plane took off, I watched Mumbai take a precipitous fall below. Whenever I take a night flight out of Los Angeles, I look out the window and am amazed at how the city lights and freeways make LA look like a living computer chip when viewed from above. It is robotic, disturbing, beautiful. Mumbai, beneath ashen clouds, looked like glittering coals, and brought to my mind images of smoked corn with masala and lemon. When we began the descent into Ahmedabad, I realized that my grandparents’ city has fewer lights and less structure than even Mumbai. It was easy to peer at the randomly assorted twinkling lights, nothing but blackness between them, and imagine I was in space...a few stars here, a cluster of galaxies there. The Milky Chai. The plane landed and I came down to earth.

My smile was broader than the sky when I arrived at my grandparents’ house. It was just as I remembered it...an endearingly faded red brick house with a perimeter of green garden, and beyond that a dirt road that used to become a moat during the rainy seasons. When we were young, Neel and I used to think that the house was a tower, and we could have sworn it was at least four or five stories high. Later we understood that it was really two stories and a terrace, but that didn’t change the magic of it.

Inside, I let myself be surrounded by the atmosphere of my home away from America. It would be too much here to describe the memories of which I was reminded as I unloaded my bag, but I’ll just say that I’ve never been so happy to see uneven tile floors, rickety fans or rusted iron gates. There are no flaws in this house, only wrinkles...just like on the people who give it life, my grandparents.

In the morning and afternoon, my grandmother and I communicate in Guj-English, and I’m slowly picking up some conversational skill in our native Gujarati. In the evenings, my grandfather and I discuss medicine, the politics of India, religion. I told him about the spider and the cricket, and asked his opinion on what I should have done back in that Lantau forest. He said, “Either option is harmful, and it is a tough decision. Whatever you choose, the important thing is awareness. Religion teaches us bewareness – it frightens us, says that one way is always better than another. The important thing is awareness.” Pearls of wisdom always roll from his tongue in casual evening conversations.

Ahmedabad is cleaner than I remember - there are street signs, occasionally street lanes (more like timid suggestions than real directions), and even countdown clocks that tell you how long before the traffic light turns green. Not that it matters, of course...people usually go as they please, honking by habit more than by way of warning. Back in LA I've become a pretty aggressive driver, and I'd wondered if that style of driving might serve me well in India. However, to be safe as an aggressive driver, you have to count on the fact that other people are following the very rules you are bending. Here, the only rules of the road are these: get where you need to go, and try not to hit anything. Here, I'd be considered meek behind the wheel. If I ever fulfill my childhood dream of becoming a video game designer, I'm going to make Mario Kart: India edition; Mario will drive a Bajaj, and instead of leaving behind banana peels, he'll leave behind gigantic potholes. The recent rains here have filled these potholes so you can't tell how deep they are until you drive over them, which is tons of fun, you won't know till you try it.

There are some nice restaurants too; some of them, signs of westernization, boast U.S. symbols on their windows or front lawns, such as the tall Statue of Liberty reproduction in the front of one New York-style cafe. Fast food chains have of course dug their claws into our soil as well, but to their credit have made some attempt to mix with the local culture. A front-page article in the Times of India, titled “Only Veg Please, Because We Are Like This Only”, boasted that Ahmedabad has the world’s first fully vegetarian Pizza Hut. It's a big relief for me to finally be able to let down my guard about finding Rishi-friendly food outside the house. A couple of nights ago we went to an Italian restaurant for dinner and I asked one of my standard questions – is the pasta made with eggs? The waiter's eyes widened in disbelief at my question, and he said, “Sir, we are pure vegetarian here.” Then he laughed, as if to say, "Welcome to Gujarat." Oh, and I've found an addiction...no, not to Manikchand Gutkha, but to the greatest thing to hit grocery store shelves since Soft Batch cookies: Mango-flavored Corn Flakes! Dude...the best cereal ever...chai and nasto simply can't compete.

So my life has hit a nice routine here, after all the traveling in HK and Bangkok. Except for yesterday, which was far from routine...yesterday I reached into the back of a young boy and pulled several stones out of his kidney. Not with my fingers, of course, but with forceps and an endoscope. My uncle had taken me to a small hospital on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, past the last city traffic lights, past the farms where men lead expeditions of cows down dirt roads, past the last traces of smog. In a dank little surgery wing, he instructed me to take off my shoes and put on the "O.R. slippers" - a bloodstained pair of flip-flops. In the O.R., a young boy anesthetized with ether awaited us, and we used pneumatic lithotripsy to smash his stones before removing them piece by piece with tiny forceps. When the operation was done, I couldn't wash my hands for several minutes because the building had run out of water, and they had to call out to bring some. I kept imagining one of the UCSD scrub nurses fainting, and at least that thought brought me a smile.

Gotta run to have lunch...I'm having trouble posting pictures from these slow internet connections, so I'll post pics of the house and of Bangkok once I find a way. For now, I'll leave you with a sort of homecoming poem about our house in Ahmedabad, which may paint a verbal picture of my return here.

Tower of brick
Shines red in monsoon showers
While emerald gardens surround her
Peacocks sway through the grounds
And walk round me like whispers

Twin sister doors
Stand majestic guard
Against thunder’s raucous din
My relative royalty sleeps
Within white linen sheets

Mosquitoes buzz in Mummy’s ears
Seek heat in spastic yellow bulbs
Gullible to humming plastic
That replaces summer sun

And we itch for relief
To ditch the sticky heat
With fresh Dairy Den thick shakes
Strawberry bits soothe the lips
Mango pulp drips from our spoons
I savor a half-moon bite
From a Chocobar’s milky white

As stainless steel rings
Cups and bowls clatter
To announce lunch
And Papa shaves at the table
Foam brushed upon his chin
Albino coats for whiskered skin
My cheeks filled with chuckles
Whenever I sit beside him

Patient as warm ghee
Glistens on folded roti
From Gangaram’s hardy hands
That held me often as a boy
Only to behold me as a man

When today I bow through the doorway
Of aged sagacious brick
That knew me once in a joyous hour
Shining red in monsoon showers.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Those Tricky Tuk-Tuks

Bangkok reminds me a lot of Bombay...the innumerable rickshaws (“tuk-tuks”), narrow streets where lanes are a fleeting and subjective phenomenon, street peddlers, beggars, the pungent and sweet smells of the local food mixing in the exhaust of cars to remind you that while you may not be able to breathe, you are alive. On the bus to Khao San Road, the famous backpacker’s street where cheap guesthouses and internet cafés form the microculture, I met a couple of Britons. Not knowing where I was going to stay anyway, I followed them to the Bella Bella guesthouse, and managed to get a single room with a fan for 170 Bhat a night ($1 = 40 Bhat). Like nearly all the guesthouses in the area, Bella Bella has a restaurant and internet café attached, and an in-house “travel agent” – in other words, whoever happens to be behind the counter. I got a couple of maps and tourist pamphlets and set off to see the sights.

Although I’m sure it’s famous by now, some of you may not have heard of my sense of direction...it’s been missing for years. So even at the risk of being a picture-perfect Clueless Tourist, I walked with a brightly colored map in hand, searching for street signs and landmarks that would help me get somewhere in the ballpark of where I might reasonably want to be. A friendly young Thai man took pity on me, and came up to me to say hi. We made some small talk for a while, during which I found out he was an aspiring English teacher, and wanted to practice his English with me. He excitedly described all the beautiful things I should see in his city, and asked if he could see my map...on it, he proceeded to draw me out a fool-proof path to these sights, and even showed me how to write my name in Thai. He also wrote down the name of a good tailor’s shop, Voglee tailors, in case I wanted any clothes made for cheap. I thanked him, wished him good luck on becoming a teacher, and continued down the street.

A tuk-tuk driver saw me with my map, asked to see it, and I showed him the drawn path of the sights I wanted to see. He offered to take me to each one, then back to Khao San Road, for a good price – we haggled with the price, then I jumped in, and we were off. He dropped me at a temple that held the Lucky Buddha statue, and said he would wait outside. I wandered around the perimeter of the temple, but it appeared to be closed...again, a random Thai man took pity on my lost expression, and motioned to me to sit down with him. He said, “I come to see temple too, but forget that today special day for monks...they do prayer until 1 pm today. So what I do? I have to wait outside. I’m a policeman, you see?” He proudly showed me his badge. “But I’m on holiday today, and it’s my only day to go to temple, so I wait.” We small-talked for a while about Hollywood movies. Then he said, “You don’t stay here until 1 pm, still one more hour. You don’t sit all day - don’t tell me joke! You like shopping? I tell you good shop, I get great suit made. Voglee tailor, and did you see TV yesterday? No? Don’t tell me joke! They have big sale.” He turned into a walking commercial, and I switched him off to go find my driver.

On the way to the next temple, which boasted the Standing Buddha statue, the driver asked if I like shopping. I was getting tired of all the shopping references, and said no repeatedly, but he kept begging me to just stop for two minutes at one shop. “Why?” I queried him. Finally he lowered his voice and said, “Because they give me gas coupon if I bring tourist.” Now the game was out, the mystery revealed, and my head practically made an audible click as I switched into Tourist With A Clue. I agreed to see his precious shop, partly so he could get a gas coupon and partly because I now felt like an anthropologist documenting the ways of the tuk-tuk. We arrived at the shop, I poked my head out, and what I saw gave me the type of stinging but appreciative smile you get when someone’s played a good joke on you. Sure enough, it was Voglee tailors.

I now had been recommended to this store by a random guy on the street, a policeman on holiday outside a temple, and a driver. I stepped inside, interested to see the tailors that had all of Bangkok on their payroll. My eagerness to meet the masterminds faded when I saw that they were already getting ready to take my measurements. I bolted out of the store within 30 seconds, apparently enough time for a coupon to have materialized in my driver’s hand, and he gave me a smile that said, “thank you.” We drove off to see the Standing Buddha, an on the way I pieced together the rest of the puzzle. With additional experience I gained the next day, I learned the game works like this:

Tuk-tuk drivers employ people, or simply ask their friends, to stand around on street corners and approach tourists with small talk. They will give you a plausible story that they are a policeman on holiday, a military officer on his week off, or any other such thing, and even show you a fake badge. They take interest that you see certain sights they consider most beautiful, and even draw you a path on your map that will, conveniently, pass by a participating shop – Voglee tailors, for instance. The moment you are leaving them, a tuk-tuk will pull up and ask to see your map, or a driver will happen to walk by and say he can give you a good price to see all the sights you want to see. Then they do everything in their power to get you to that store, including taking you to false locations of temples (as I learned the next day when I saw the real Lucky Buddha, a block down from the closed temple to which I’d been taken). It’s very clever, really. And in truth, not a bad deal for the tourist either, who gets driven all over Bangkok almost for free (with the addition of a 5-minute stop at a store)...as long as you firmly refuse to believe anyone if they tell you your tourist attraction is closed for the day, closed for special prayer, or any other such nonsense. Never believe anything is closed in Bangkok until you see it with your own eyes...I surprised a couple of drivers the next day by blowing past their vehement attempts to get me to turn away from a supposedly shut-down landmark, and enjoyed their defeated looks when I stepped into the real (and very open) temples I wanted to see. If they get you to believe the temples are closed, they can convince you more easily that it’s time to go shopping.

That first night, after the Standing Buddha and with no more secrets between us, my tuk-tuk driver and I had become friends; and so I easily obliged when he begged me to stop at just one more store before he took me home. He had already driven me valiantly for a couple of hours in ridiculous traffic...why not get the poor old fellow another coupon, when it would take just five minutes of my time? We pulled up to a store, I told him I’d be back in under a minute, and I hopped through the tinted doors to an air-conditioned room. Then my jaw dropped.

There were tan leather couches, long oak tables, and clusters of potted plants. Anyone might have mistaken it for a rather posh hotel lobby if not for the large glass display case. For inside the display case sat about thirty women, all now suggestively smiling at me. A man in a very nice black suit took my arm and asked me to sit down, have a drink...and how about some Thai massage? He started to list the “services” provided by these women. I glanced through the glass, but tried not to meet the mascara-enhanced stares – I couldn’t decide if I felt more sorry for the youngest or the oldest woman in the group. (Mom and Dad, I know you’re horrified, but don’t worry – there was no nudity, because they had tried to give the place as distinguished a look as possible. Or, because they didn’t want to give anything away for free.) I yanked my arm away and headed for the door, but the man came after me and took my arm again – he really had a finely tailored suit, and I wondered if Voglee tailors was behind this too – and said, “Please, take just look!” Then he pointed to one of the women, who wore a numbered card around her neck. “Try #24,” he said. “She verrry goooood.” “Why do you say that?” I asked, not even knowing why I was asking. A tired look crossed his eyes. “Because,” he said quietly. “She’s my sister.”

At that point I was more disgusted with him than with the entire business of prostitution, and I yanked my arm away again, heading outside with him calling out “I give you gooood price!” My tuk-tuk driver waited with a big grin on his face, and when I saw his expression, upset though I was about his latest trick, I almost wanted to laugh with him. “You no like Thai massage with boom-boom?” he asked as we drove back to Khao San Road.

On the drive back, I thought about something that had happened earlier in the day. My original tuk-tuk driver was an older man, but after we agreed on the price of the ride, he had actually dropped me off to another tuk-tuk...when I asked him why, he said he wanted his son to drive me around. I suppose he, just like the man with the Voglee suit, had been doing what he could to help his loved ones...by bringing business to his family.

The rest of the Bangkok trip, I walked the streets as Tourist Who Takes No Crap and calmly dismissed all attempts at friendly discourse by random Thai men. Everyone, I felt, had an agenda. That’s what a big city does to you...makes you learn to be rude in all the right places...gives you your own agenda.

For all of you who snickered back home when I said I was going to get a Thai massage in Bangkok, okay, fine...you win. But I did get a Thai massage the next night, a legitimate one, in a place without any tinted windows and with no one in suits. 2 hours of clean, fully clothed massage for under 10 bucks. Relaxed, I enjoyed the rest of my stay in Bangkok...I saw the Grand Palace, Golden Mountain, a traditional costume dance to music that reminded me of Javanese gamelan, and several temples. By this point in my trip, I had seen a Giant Buddha, a Lucky Buddha, a Standing Buddha, a Reclining Buddha, and an Emerald Buddha...about the only Buddha I haven’t seen is a Bhangra Buddha. Hey, you never know.

As I left Khao San Road for the airport, it occurred to me, I still don’t know why, that I was going to miss Bangkok. In spite of all the cards it kept up its sleeves, I hoped one day I would come back again to try another hand. I’m now in Ahmedabad, India, at last. I’m too tired to write more now, so I’ll tell you about this wonderful place, my home for the next 5 months, in my next entry.

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Hong Kong, Part Deux

I'm now at the end of my stay in Hong Kong - Homan, sorry for bashing it :), but it is one huge outdoor mall. I even took a bus to the southern tip, rode for one hour just to get to a beach, and what did I find? Waterfront shops! The sand was on sale for $1 a pound (club price). I finally broke down and bought something, an "original" black and white painting that was instantly replaced once I had paid for it.

Deciding to explore more of Hong Kong proper (I've been staying in Kowloon, which is just across a short strip of water), I went to The Peak, which provided a picturesque panorama of HK's skyline (see pic). From there I headed to Lan Kwai Fong, which is the famous nightlife scene of the central city; although I was not alone, my companion (a distant relative charged with showing me around for the night) was not the talkative type, and so we simply people-watched in silence. If there was any place to do that, this was it - drunk foreigners dressed up in animal outfits, a group of locals all wearing blue t-shirts yelling at each other to drink from a communal water bottle (seemed to be some sort of hazing), a Chinese rock band playing INXS' Need You Tonight...it was people-watching at its strange best. I was glad, since conversation languished between me and my host; if anyone spoke between us, it was like a sonic boom.

The next night I saw the laser show at Kowloon's harbor. As Kowloon is just across the water from HK, it provides a perfect view of the city's skyline, and the laser show even utilizes all of HK's tallest skyscrapers, which either have laser beacons at their tips or the ability to flash odd combinations of light at you. Imagine watching a laser show in New York where the Empire State Building had green beams teeming from the tip and the Chrysler building had dancing lights, and you've got the idea. It was as if a maniac had gotten hold of the city's light switches and was trying to play a symphony with them - a somewhat fascinating yet truly bizarre display of electric prowess. And this happens every night, with an extended show on Sundays. I'm told the show would have made more sense to me had I listened to the radio narrative that goes with it, but as luck would have it I was bathed in silence with my favorite evening host.

Today I finally jumped ship and went to explore the neighboring island of Lantau, which is an hour away by ferry. It houses the world's tallest Buddha statue, a 34-meter 250-ton giant that sits atop a lotus throne overlooking the lush green hills of the island. The area around it is serene despite the tourists, and the 268-step climb to the Buddha is well worth the views. Afterwards I had vegetarian Chinese food at the nearby Po Lin Monastery; I was expecting a humble meal, but rather found myself feasting on a spicy 4-course lunch with soup, spring rolls, tofu with vegetables, and spinach & mushroom (mmmm...Chinese Zachary's). Lantau was everything I'd been waiting for in my trip.

Overjoyed to be around a wooden jungle rather than a concrete one, I went for a hike in the trails beside the Buddha. I've hiked through rainforests in three different countries in my life, and can honestly say I've never been truly frightened of the local insects until now...they nearly made me jump out of my skin! Bat-like furry ferocities with butterfly wings, real butterflies the size of small countries (gorgeous but freaky), spiders that could chomp my nose off with a single bite. Every moment carried with it a certain peril. I got lost on the trail (of course), which was fortunate because I happened upon a small monastery hidden in the mountains where I was able to hear the monks chanting. That brought with it a sense of peace, and I braved the trail back to the Buddha.

What follows is a tiny tale followed by philosophical musing, so feel free to skip this if you're short on time, it may not be interesting. I was walking along the trail, noticing that members of an odd species of flying cricket were leaping from just under my every footfall, when I saw a large spider's web. I took another step, and a legion of crickets sprayed from underneath me in all directions...one of them inadvertently straight into the clutches of the web! I froze, fascinated by how it seemed to be floating in mid-air, when the corner of my eye announced the coming of the architect, which looked to be a cross between a spider and a stegosaurus.

A dilemma dropped into my dazed look. The cricket's unfortunate position was a result of the threat of my footstep, and therefore I felt responsible for it; I could save its life, but that would mean destroying the spider's web and depriving it of its meal, which would constitute a direct attack on its livelihood. I hesitated to interfere with nature's course, and while I paused an old bedtime story told to me by my father many years ago flashed into my mind. It is the story of a Jain monk who was wandering the woods...he came across a wounded bird who was about to be eaten by a snake. Not wanting the bird to die, yet not wanting to deprive the snake of its natural food, he stepped between the two - this allowed the bird to flee and the snake to take a bite of the monk's leg as a substitute meal. Such self-sacrifice is considered a high virtue, and I have often marveled at the monk's unique solution. I have also wondered if I would be capable of such sacrifice.

My hesitation was enough to allow the spider to skillfully suffocate the cricket in a white cocoon of webbing (yes, that's the actual pic). Its moves were as beautiful as they were deadly, and when I emerged from my reverie I realized that I had failed to act at all. Unlike the monk, I could not feasibly have provided an alternate meal for the spider; unlike the monk, I was no help to anyone. I realized too late that I should probably have saved the cricket, since both creatures would then at least have been alive. A home can be rebuilt, food can be replaced, but the cricket's life was over for good, and I still ached with a sense of responsibility.

Arriving back at the giant Buddha, I took comfort in his forgiving look and decided that the cricket and the spider had taught me a lesson; they had reminded me of the principles of my childhood story, and shown me that philosophy without action can be as harmful as action without philosophy.

Tomorrow I head to Bangkok, back to a jungle of people and streets. More to come soon...

Sunday, September 04, 2005

An American in Hong Kong

My trip begins with a 4-day stay in HK; I was picked up from the airport by one of my cousin's friends, a 23 year old diamond-business guy from Mumbai who decided to seek his fortune in Sheng Zen. The first thing he said to me was, "no one could mistake you for Indian!" I guess there's no hiding the America in me; I wanted to tell him no one would mistake him for Chinese, but I let it go. On the bus ride to Kowloon, I learned that my new Indo-Chinese friend was about to be engaged to a girl in India who'd been picked recently by his parents. I asked him if he was happy, and he said yes. I asked him if physical attraction was important to him, and he said, "If a child is born to an ugly mother, what should it do? Commit suicide? No, it must love her." I didn't quite know what to say to that, so there ended our discussion on arranged marriage.

At my cousin Prasanna's place, I've been playing with his two adorable kids (see pic), and wandering out into the city to see the sights. Hong Kong really is a shopper's paradise - it's almost a pity I hate shopping. There's not much else to do in the concrete jungle, as far as I can yet tell...anybody who's been here have any suggestions? Everywhere you look you see tall buildings, and you would swear you're still in downtown no matter how far you travel. Many of them are apartment buildings (Zen question of the day: how many flats does it take to make a high-rise?). The bustle of the sidewalks reminds me of New York...you must walk with a skilled purpose to avoid being a pinball. Oh, and I made one discovery this morning - soymilk is cheaper here than regular milk! Score: Jain boy 1, Dairy industry 0.

Thursday, September 01, 2005


Hello, friends and family! I'm taking a year off of medical school, and this blog is for you to peek into my travels and my thoughts; I'll update it as often as I can. I'd love to read your comments - and even if I can't respond to everyone individually, know that I'm thinking of you and that I always look forward to hearing how you're doing. Enjoy this view into my world, and I'll see you when I get back...