eliot & drew bike through india for 3 months, trying to inconspicuously do some good in the world.


Sunday, January 31, 2010

going number 2

i'm not going to beat around the bush: toilets in india are different than toilets in america:

the basic idea is the same. you, um, just put pull the train into the station, you know? but whereas we like to sit enthroned, comfortable and relaxed atop the porcelain seat, indian dudes and babes just squat down and let 'er rip. there's always a tap with a bucket which, as one set of instructions informs us, one is to "forcefully empty in the direction of your bottom." 

we're packing toilet paper. and hand sanitizer. 

EXHIBIT B - actually pretty cozy looking. Gross Factor: 1/5 Encharitos or a Whoopi Goldberg film

our basic perceptions of indian toilets are based on whatever google image search can turn up, the few indian movies featuring the pot, and this one story our buddy seth told us about this time in thailand where four dudes just came into the bathroom while he was popping a squat and stared at him while he finished his business. personally, i think they were taking bets. those thai dudes will bet on anything. 

EXHIBIT C - Gross Factor: 4/5 Encharitos or Pizza the Hut

On the other hand, it's possible (nay, probable) that we're just spoiled. i mean, putting your butt where other people's butts have been is pretty gnarly. this is actually a really sanitary way to make boom-booms. the only part of you that comes in contact with anything is your feet, which are hopefully in shoes and pretty dirty to start with. the water makes good sense and keeps you smelly-free. i mean, yes, using your hand grosses me out but then again i come from the west where we put paper on our toilet seats, paper in our bums and paper dries our hand. is it cleaner? arguably. is it more wasteful? almost certainly. plus, most toilets india are probably totally awesome: 

EXHIBIT D - Gross Factor: 0/5 - I would be honored to "numero dos" down there.  

we'll let you know what we make of all this when we get to india. i don't know what it says about us, but we get really excited about stuff like this. cultural differences i mean, not scat. 

eeeewwww. sorry for this one, readers. 

Mumbai my honey

So just after we dash through Dubai on the way over to India, our first official Indian stop will be the Megatropolis of MUMBAI (formerly Bombay). A gigantic city on the mid-west coast of India, this town is known for being a huge tourist destination, being the home of Bollywood and home to the Gate of India. The Gate is the port at which British ships used to dock on their long voyages overseas to visit (and eventually rule) India. Past the Gate is the enormous Taj Mahal hotel, the Fort district and Colaba districts, both excellent areas for touring.

The Fort area used to house Fort St. George, which is long gone, and now the area features many government buildings and administrative offices. This is one of the oldest parts of the city, and is juxtaposed with one of the newest parts of Mumbai, Nariman Point, which features those massive skyscrapers and apartment buildings that you saw in Slumdog Millionaire.

Colaba is a popular tourist area mixed in with the Fort, featuring the Colaba causeway, a row of shopping and dining reminiscent of old colonial Bombay. The National Gallery of Modern Art, a Paris colony and the Prince of Wales museum, no wonder it's known as the Culture Square of Mumbai.

We'll be spending a couple days on the front end and the back end of the trip in this gi-normous city, and will certainly be reporting our findings here - so stay tuned, dear readers - for more, of !ncredible !ndiaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaalalalallaalalalallaallaalalaaa....

Saturday, January 30, 2010

emirates air jordan


just sampling the various vegetarian options on my way around the world. check out the meal plans:

Meal Preferences for MURRAY/ELIOTMR
Flight number
EK212United States, US (IAH) to United Arab Emirates, AE (DXB)
EK502United Arab Emirates, AE (DXB) to India, IN (BOM)
EK509India, IN (BOM) to United Arab Emirates, AE (DXB)
EK211United Arab Emirates, AE (DXB) to United States, US (IAH)

Friday, January 29, 2010

borging out

eliot and i commonly come up with our own lengthy short hand for talking about things, often constructed from obscure pop-culture references. i won't even try to sum the meaning or sources for these as they are both multitudinous, tiresome and really not all that funny to anyone else. but one phrase - "borging out" - has become commonplace for us so i thought i'd include it here. to start with, let's examine this video shall we? 

basically, eliot is convinced we're going to look like funky space aliens from beyond the stars to our countryside indian compatriots. i tend to agree - what with our ultra-tight space pants, wheeled black pedal-cows and stripes of space age reflective material.  but when a headset microphone, a bike helmet and a rearview mirror are combined ... well, my friend, you are officially borged out.

i added the nerf gun for giggles. 

Gandhi Anniversary & Posthumous Criticism

This Saturday will be the anniversary of the death of Mohandas Gandhi, the well-respected liberator of India from the British occupation and the endorser of a method of non-violent protest. The man is a legend in India, with most major cities featuring a statue of Gandhi. However, like most human beings, he held views that contradicted his overall ethos of equality and peace.

In this Guardian OP/Ed article by Michael Connellan, Gandhi is criticized for his rather archaic views towards women's rights and gender relations, some of which are faulted for setting India back significantly in regards to gender equality and social progress. Here's an excerpt from the article:

"Mohandas Gandhi, whose death anniversary falls on Saturday, was an amazing human being. He led his country to freedom and helped destroy the British Empire. Little wonder India worshipped him, and still worships him, as the Mahatma – "Great Soul". In the west he is viewed as a near-perfect combination of compassion, bravery and wisdom.
But Gandhi was also a puritan and a misogynist who helped ensure that India remains one of the most sexually repressed nations on earth – and, by and large, a dreadful place to be born female. George Orwell, in his 1949 essay Reflections on Gandhi, said that "saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent". If only.
Gandhi despised his own sexual desires, and despised sex in any context except for procreation. He preached that the failure to control carnal urges led to complaints including constipation. He believed that sex was bad for the health of an individual, and that sexual freedom would lead Indians to failure as a people. He sought to consign his nation to what Martin Luther called "the hell of celibacy". He took his own celibacy vow unilaterally, without consulting his wife.
Both Gandhi and his hagiographers claimed he viewed women as equal to men, pointing to his inclusion of women in India's independence struggle. He celebrated non-violent protest as a "feminine" principle, neutralising the masculine brutality of British rule. But his sexual hang-ups caused him to carry monstrously sexist views. His view of the female body was warped. As accounted by Rita Banerji, in her book Sex and Power, "he believed menstruation was a manifestation of the distortion of a woman's soul by her sexuality".
During Gandhi's time as a dissident in South Africa, he discovered a male youth had been harassing two of his female followers. Gandhi responded by personally cutting the girls' hair off, to ensure the "sinner's eye" was "sterilised". Gandhi boasted of the incident in his writings, pushing the message to all Indians that women should carry responsibility for sexual attacks upon them. Such a legacy still lingers. In the summer of 2009, colleges in north India reacted to a spate of sexual harassment cases by banning women from wearing jeans, as western-style dress was too "provocative" for the males on campus."

At the end of the day, you question how much someone is a product of their environment/upbringing, and how in turn they come to form their points of view as an adult. Gandhi was clearly a complicated human being, with his own set of hypocrisies and self-contradictions, and you can't separate his great social triumphs from the legacy of gender oppression his memory has impressed on Indian society up to this day.
But then, perhaps it is the responsibility of every Indian to cull the good from the bad, hence the annual celebration of his good works. I dunno - nobody's perfect, I guess, and I imagine you just need to regard everyone as a human being, with faults and flaws,despite the tendency to treat respected figures as saints or saviors. Not sanctioning his views, but perhaps respectfully celebrating the good while not forgetting the bad.

OK, just got a little too heavy for this blog - MASHED POTATOES!

Food of India, part V: The Mystery of Chicken 65

you may or may not know this, but both eliot and i are vegetarians and have been for quite a while.  but today i want to focus on a mysterious meat-centered dish known the world over as CHICKEN 65.  here's what we know about chicken 65:

  1. i was introduced to it via the little indian buffet down the highway from where i work.  all meat-eaters rave about.  i snuck a bite. it's pretty great. 
  2. visiting pakistani and indian workers to a large hosting company here in town not only were shocked to find it, they  were elated, claiming it's one of their favorite dishes back home. 
  3. no one knows where the name comes from. 

it sort of resembles spicy chicken wings in that it's bright orange (at least where i've seen it) and fried, often deep friend. it's bright, it's spicy and it's delicious. but what in the blazes does the 65 refer to? to the Google!

i have to say, i'm disappointed in the internet. the wiki article writes that no one knows where the name comes from.  it offers some explanations.  searching around a bit, it seems that the year it was created in a hotel called Buhari in Channais / Madras is a popular story and at least has some claim considering the other "annual" dishes they serve.  like everything else in india, there seem to be about 1000 angles and answers for this question. frankly, india seems a country content with ambiguity and happy with what they have. it seems like every time i try to track down some bit of indian minutiae, i end up with a whole bunch more questions.

i leave it to you, dear readers. what DOES the 65 in chicken 65 refer to? 

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Food of India, part IV: beer!

today we're going to tackle the two most popular beers in india: Kingfisher and Haywards 5000, both of which are lagers (meaning, among other things that they bottom-ferment as opposed to "real" ales which top ferment.)

Haywards distinguishes itself as the world's largest selling strong beer, reportedly selling 14 million cases worldwide on average. most reviewers claim that it is strong and assertive but not pungent or unpleasant.  it seems to have a pretty popular following (mostly among folks who had it once and are trying to track it down again, if the forums are any indication).  since the term lager can cover a lot of beer (and in my estimation popular lagers like pilsners are generally tasteless) i imagine that Haywards is probably a middle-of-the-road drinking kinda beer. on the other hand, as the can indicates, it is "SUPER STRONG." i've never had one so i'll leave it here with Haywards 5000's official slug line: 

"Launched in 1983, Hayward's 5000 lager is synonymous with strong beer in India. It's an authentic, premium Indian lager that hails as India's most preferred and popular beer. The bold character and lingering flavor of this Indian classic derives from a careful blend of select hops and malts in a brewing process that exemplifies timeless Indian traditions. Exclusively brewed and bottled in India under SABMiller supervision, this Crown Jewel of Indian beers is now enjoyed worldwide!"

Now Kingfisher you've probably heard of if you spend any amount of time in bars. Take it away, Kingfisher Breweries Marketing Department: 

"Kingfisher Premium Lager is a conventionally fermented beer, with a perfect balance of flavor congenors. It is brewed to the highest international standards, from the finest quality malted barley and hops.

Kingfisher Premium Lager has won numerous international awards for its excellence & exceptional quality.
Kingfisher Premium Lager is available in over 55 countries. In England, Kingfisher Premium is the lager of choice at the over 7000 Indian restaurants. It is also available at stores such as Sainsbury's & Safeway. In the US, Kingfisher is the largest selling lager in Indian restaurants nation-wide!
Kingfisher Premium Lager enhances the taste sensation of many foods - From the savory spiciness of Indian cuisine, to the wholesome taste of steaks, burgers, hot dogs, pizza & pasta!"

Again, i'm generally unimpressed with light beers. But India is no different than the rest of the world and folks prefer what's Cheap and available. Heck, I wouldn't fault a man for drinking (the nigh-tasteless) Lone Star Beer.

As soon as we have boots on the ground in india, we'll let you know how these beers measure up in their native land.  it somehow doesn't seem right to review indian beer in america. until then, please enjoy more efforts from the good folks trying to sell you Kingfisher (OOOhh LA-la-la-La Le-Ley-OOOOOO!) and Haywards 5000 (Dude!).

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Food of India, part III: naan

naan is actually a generic term although you will hear people say "i love naan bread." this is pretty much the equivalent of saying "i like bread" which, while perhaps true, is a little vague.  naan just means flat bread (often JUST "bread"), usually leavened with yeast. and, yes, the typically variety you get in an indian or middle eastern restaurant is delicious. i can't fault you there.

in the north of india, heavily influenced by greek and arabian culture, you'll find naan is the staple, and the back-bone of every meal (conversely, in the humid south, rice is king).  naan comes in a bunch of forms - from buttered breakfast varieties, to sugar sweets. roti is a "pocketed" variety of naan, sometimes called india pita.

it's common throughout asia to eat with one's hands (always the right!) and bread and rice act as utensils.  don't believe me? let's take a trip down to the india buffet around the corner: you'll see old and young alike grab a pinch of rice or naan, drop it into the daal and pick the whole shooting-match up to munch on. before you freak out about the nastiness of eating with one's hands, i highly suggest you go take a peak at the kitchen staff at your favorite restaurant. think every single one of those forks and spoons is getting a sanitized scrubbing? think again. at least with your hands you're in control of how clean they are.

i'm not sure what else to say about naan so i'll just drop a link here to a much greater authority on the subject of making naan, Manjula. looooooove that accent.

hallucinate or cook in the sun, your choice.

eliot and i both decided to go with doxycycline for our malaria medication. the decision basically came down to cost and side effects. Chloroquine used to be the thing to do, but it has some pretty serious side effects that can happen.  while uncommon, many malaria-carrying mosquitoes are resistant to chloroquine now.  oh, and only the females carry malaria (of course, the harlots). some quick notes on malaria meds, taken from http://www.travelindependent.info which, as i've said before, is the real deal. i highly recommend it to anyone traveling anywhere, as it's filled with no-nonsense, rational advice that really cuts through the chaff. anyway: 

"Since compliance is always an issue, Mefloquine is easier because it is only taken once a week and has a long half life. They should be taken with a full glass of water and with food. Additionally, Doxycycline is irritating so after taking it, one should maintain an upright position (don't go to sleep) for an hour to decrease the chance that it will reflux back up. Just to mention, Doxycycline is one of the drugs used to treat traveller's diarrhoea, so using it daily to protect against malaria will also help to prevent traveller's diarrhoea or so the theory goes. This is because it is an anti-biotic ...

"The most common side effect of Mefloquine is vivid dreams. These tend to occur the night the tablet is taken, and are not necessarily nightmares, just vivid dreams. For Doxycycline it is photosensitivity (increased sensitivity of skin to sunlight) and an upset stomach. Make sure you are taking the right medication for the region you are travelling in. Again... you may not need either Mefloquine or Doxycycline - it is quite possible to visit a country with a malarial risk and never get anywhere near an that risk area (Cambodia, Bolivia, Thailand, South Africa, Iran, Namibia, China, Burma, Nepal - there are loads of them!).

"As a footnote, many feel the focus on Malaria is misdirected, Dengue fever is common in regions such as SE Asia (its geographic spread is similar to that of malaria). The carrying mosquitoes of Dengue live indoors and bite during the day, when most are least vigilant. Dengue can be every bit as dangerous as malaria. However there's no need for paranoia - a quick squirt of repellent on the ankles or covering up is a simple, easy and effective measure. In contrast to malaria, which is more common in rural areas, it is larger cities that present the greater risk from Dengue fever."

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Food of India, part II: saag paneer

saag paneer (also called Palek Paneer) is a super tasty dish that indians enjoy on a daily basis. i enjoy it when i make the drive down to bombay hall for lunch. either way, it's delicious to the max.

saag is usually made with spinach or mustard greens, and it's basically just wilted and then cream is added. paneer is the name of a simple cheese (usually homemade) that goes in the dish. actually, i was up at the grocery last night and saw paneer in the cheese section so, there you go. not so exotic.

like most of what westerners think of as "indian" cuisine, saag paneer is punjabi. see, when pakistan was united in 1947, all the conservative muslims went thataway, which drove alot of ethnic hindus down into the country from the Punjab region.  at least, that's the story i heard from the nice indian lady on splendid table who went on and on about how awesome mangoes were (see previous post!). punjab cuisine became all the rage and as more immigrants left india for the west, that's the cuisine they brought with them. pretty much all the indian food you've had, chances are, has been punjabi.

here is a video on how to make this dish. you know it's a good recipe when every ingredient is "to taste" and the cooks eye-ball everything.

my life, on my back

here's that gear list i promised:

1. leather medical bag (first aid kit), contains #2-15 below
2. toothbrush
3. eye glasses & case
4. multi-vitamins (90 ct.)
5. bandage wraps
6. back-up contact case
7. liquid tears
8. lighter, 2 boxes of matches
9. neosporin packs
10. 2 clif bars (emergency rations)
11. alcohol prep pads
12. carmex lip balm
13. hand sanitizer spray bottle
14. band-aids
15. debridement kit (contains a razor blade, tweezers, scissors, prep pads, etc.)
16. 1 ft. bungies (3)
17. 3 ft. bungie
18. cotton t-shirt
19. pearl-izumi bike shorts (with secret wallet!)
20. light-weight wool long-sleeve shirt
21. 100 wt. wool fleece
22. pack sacks (medium sized, sea-to-summit)
23. north face conversion pants
24. hat
25. rain jacket
26. tent
27. rain-fly for bags
28. bed roll
29. waterproof bag containing video and still camera
30. additional bag for bike handlebars (overflow bag)
31. compass (thanks, mom)
32. playing cards
33. weather-proof travel journal (thanks, eliot's mom)
34. 2 trusty ball-point pens
35. big journal
36. map of india (thanks, dad)
37. hindi picture / language book
38. packing strap
39. exofficio travel underwear (sooooo cool)
40. luggage tag (thanks, passport travel clinic)
41. travel towel (also soooo cool)
42. katadyn filter bottle
43. 16oz. nalgene bottles
44. the one and only Realistic Radio
45. bike multi-tool
46. rope
47. ear plugs
48. super glue
the other 48 (whoops). sealable baggie
49. 30% DEET bugspray
50. permethrin bandana (thanks again, eliot's mom)
51. water absorbing, cool-keeping bandana (triple thanks, eliot's mom)
52. lucky red bandana
53. tom's slip on shoes
54. new balance trail running shoes w/ dr. schol's

this is the list of gear i'm carrying as it stands. there will be a few more things added (some clothing adjustments, sunscreen, a cellphone) but for the most part this is life for the next 100 days.

Food of India, pt. 1

i have officially declared it food week here on the blog, meaning that in addition to our usually, nonsensical posts, you're going to be learning about the cuisine of india.

when your talking about food in india, you have to start with the mango. the mango is national fruit of india  and there are hundreds of varieties available in india. due to some bizarre ban on fruit from india, the united states couldn't import them, so we mostly had the boring ol' standard mango. however, in 2007 the ban was lifted so if you look around you may find a few crazy varieties. expect them to be expensive and not-as-fresh as mangoes grown more locally.

mangoes in india are like apples in the states, only like a hundred-times bigger deal.  India is the largest producer of mangoes in the world, by far. but india represents less than one percent of the global trade in mangos since the consume nearly all the mangoes produced. these are serious, mango-eating people.

in the traditional folk medicine of india, Ayurveda, mangoes are used to restore and maintain balance in the body.  they are made into chutneys and pickled, but they're also eaten raw with salt or a little chili.  much like our friends in mexico, indians are obsessed with matching sweet to spicy. pahna is a cool drink made from mango juice enjoyed in the peak of the hot season, and a mango-yogurt smoothie called lassi is super popular as well. a freshly squeezed mango-juice from a street vendor will run you about 20 rupees (about 43¢).  march to may is the best time to get mangoes across the country, since that's when the bulk of the fruit ripens (just prior to the monsoon season).  lucky for us, we arrive february 25 and leave may 28 - during a lull in tourism and at the very peak of the mango-buying season meaning prices will be low and the fruit fresh, plump and delicious.

among indians, the consensus is that the alphonso mango (also called Hapoos) is king. named for Afonso de Albuquerque, it's grown mostly in Karnataka and Maharastra.  It's apparently amazing on it's own, and makes the best smoothies and candies. it's also really expensive, and can run you about 50 rupees ($1.08). it was described by one reporter as "knockout sweet, sorbet-smooth and very wet." the juicier the better when it comes to mangoes, as lapping up the overspill is de rigueur

Monday, January 25, 2010

back-pack conversion

as eliot mentioned, we put our bags through conversions so that we could take them off the bike and carry them on us.  when we're moving through crowded (and pick-pocket laden) bus and train stations, or moving through a market, it's going to be handy to be able to pick up our bikes and not worry about the stuff on the back getting ripped off. 

the conversion was done by my dear-old mom, becky hicks, on her singer sowing machine that she won in a contest sometime in the way-back-when. the basic premise was to take the main bag and attached straps for a backpack, then add a loop at the top of that bag with a carbiner.  then take the two side bags and clip them into that carabiner, and put a bungy around the whole thing. for added security i may be putting the rain-fly over this so would-be muggers and fiends can't even see the bags. who knows. i'm very happy with the way this turned out and while it's not the most comfortable thing in the world, it is a very effective way to move quickly on foot with all my gear in tow. 

never give up

hot on the heels of my last post (re: being a commando), i went paintballing with some friends on saturday for my buddy chris's bachelor party. there were seven of us: mike, chris, jeremy, jeff, me, daniel (former army weapons trainer - sheesh), and nate (former tank engineer).  the games were really fun and while i probably looked like this:

i felt like i looked like this:

now, in order to appreciate the rest of this story, you need to know that the place were playing was a large dry creek bed of solid rock.  on either side of the ravine was shrubs, brush and woods, and the whole place was nestled in a steep ravine with a railroad track cutting across it, supported by tall columns.  now, towards the end of the fourth game, i shot jeff in the mask and he called "i'm out" and started walking out. i turned my attention back to the rest of the game when i heard jeff screaming.

i ran over to find jeff - never a small guy, or one to complain - grabbing his leg and screaming.  he had fallen down a small mudslide and into a little pool of water that was collecting around the base of one of the columns.  it was the strangest thing - i was totally calm.  i threw off my mask and gun, jumped in the water and patted his leg down - no protuberances, that's good. i grabbed him under his arms and hauled him out of the water. chris and jeremy showed up.

he was screaming about his ankle but he could move it just fine.  that made me think it was the ankle. jeremy (his brother) stayed with him while chris, mike, nate and i gathered up gear and quickly moved the quarter mile back to the trucks. i left some water with jeff, told him to stay calm.  when we got back he was trying to move with some walking sticks but it was slow going.  i took off my belt and using some sticks made a field-splint, effectively setting the bone and isolating his ankle.  when he felt comfortable, we picked him up and carried him up the steep scree to the top of the ravine. it took four of us working in tandem with jeff. it was brutal.

mike found a bed-liner for a pick-up truck in the brush and we hauled it out.  jeff lay down in it and the remaining six of us hauled him maybe 200 yards through brush, cactus, dead trees and thorns to chris' truck, and then on to the med clinic.  the funniest thing is that afterwards, mike asked me if i was an EMT. i laughed and said no, but he pointed out i seemed to know what i was doing. and people were looking to me for queues.  it was strange but all this nonsense about survival and self-reliance i've been on about in preparation for this trip totally kicked in. it's amazing that my last post was about just that kind of feeling: your friend's leg is broken and you have to get him to safety. work with what you have. NEVER GIVE UP.

Inventory, or "Wow, this is gonna be my life for 3 months"

So, now that I (Eliot) have returned to San Antone, Drew and I decided to do a big visual inventory of all of our gear. I will compile a comprehensive list later once everything is put together, but this is all my gear, at about 75% capacity.

Also, we customed out our pannier bags so that we can detach them and carry them at will through train stations and airports and the like, or if we want to remove our junk from the bikes for whatever reason, we can do it with relative ease. Check this shot of my fully functional pannier-backpack-messenger bag. Good idea, Drew - much praise to Drew's Mom Becky for utilizing her supreme sewing skills for Drew's custom pannier-pack (images to come).

Now, to buy some super-duper undies that will survive the intense heat of India, and will hopefully keep me less-stinky than I would be otherwise. Technology!

Thursday, January 21, 2010


without getting too much into it (because there is a TON of useful info) here are some links to some amazingly useful sites:

check out the forums at http://www.indiamike.com/

the real skinny. seriously cannot say enough about http://www.travelindependent.info/

another no-nonsense resource: http://artoftravel.com/

it's really easy to get spooked while reading these articles. petty theft, begging, sanitation, a 100% guarantee of getting diarrhea ... but you gotta be proactive right? getting scared and running is not the way to solve a problem. be prepared, adapt and get moving. on a psychological level, that whole fight-or-flight thing is kicking in: it's not too late to back out.

then again, that's dumb. more than any other lesson so far, planning for this trip has taught me that the best way to solve a problem is head on.  look at a challenge as a way to get stronger. scared of getting mugged? learn some self-defense. scarred of getting sick? learn to be healthy. gotta be a commando about this.

on a much lighter (and heartening) note, regarding food in india, one sight reads:

Food: Fantastic and loads of variety, but getting ill or fear of, makes you a little wary.
Vegetarians: Heaven on earth

mmmmmmm, saag paneer ...


some good advice from Neema Avashia, who has made 8 (or more?) trips to India:

    Stay Healthy
    Equip yourself with preventive medicines and basic first aid equipment before you leave home. Having these supplies will save you the trouble of going in search of a doctor or drugstore if you get sick. Always carry a water bottle with you. Either boil your own water, or make sure to buy bottled water from a reliable distributor (Bisleri, Yes!, etc.). Indian drinking water contains many forms of bacteria that cannot be filtered out by using a bazaar.jpg (18950 bytes)simple filter. If you have to drink soda, avoid bottled sodas since they may be watered down with the same contaminated water that you are trying to avoid. If you eat on the street, consume only fresh fruit or food that is boiled or fried.Food that hasn’t been cooked at high temperatures could make you sick. The one time that I decided to eat out and didn’t take care to make sure that my food was fresh and properly prepared, I ended up in bed for four days with a bad case of diarrhea—you don’t want this.
    Be Safe
    Always keep your passport and any other important papers close to you. Don’t leave important documents in your luggage. Also, keep two photographs and your passport information in a safe, separate place in case your passport is lost or stolen. Contact the state ITDC (Indian Tourism Development Corporation) or the state tourism office (usually located in the capital city) for travel information. Travel brochures and advice can be acquired at these centers. The ITDC location information can be found in a local phone book. Use STS (Station-to-Station) phone booths to make intra-country and foreign calls. The cost of calling from these booths is less expensive than calling from a house or hotel, and they can be found virtually anywhere. Look for movie theatres to stop at when you’re on the road and need a bathroom break. Theatre bathrooms are usually the cleanest you will find while on the road. You may also want to carry toilet paper with you. Don’t give money to beggars; offer to buy them a meal instead. Pulling out money leaves you open to being robbed or mobbed by beggars. Also, be prepared to see many, many people begging for money—especially in train stations and outside temples.
    Find Transportation
    Realize that personal space doesn’t exist in India. On any Indian city bus people sit three to a seat, and there are usually three orderly rows of people standing in the aisle. With this many people in one bus, you’re bound to get pushed around, which, although unintentional, is disconcerting for people who aren’t used to so much body contact. However, women should be very careful—for them, sometimes the jostling and pushing by men is intentional. Nevertheless, a city bus ride is definitely an experience worth having at least once—just so you know what I’m talking about.
    Avoid putting your luggage on the top of the bus when travelling. If you do so, it may not be there when you get to your destination. Even if it is a little uncomfortable, try to keep your luggage with you on the bus.
    Only carry as much luggage as you can handle without looking weak or helpless. As a girl travelling alone in India, I was often accosted by eager porters wanting to carry my luggage. Carrying only one small bag helped me to demonstrate that I didn’t need help. Also, on the one occasion when I was followed by a strange man who seemed to have bad intentions, being able to handle my luggage alone helped me to move quickly and stave off any problems that might have arisen.
    If using a taxi or rikshaw, make sure the rikshaw.jpg (20611 bytes)meter is at the lowest rate when you begin the trip. Drivers may rip you off if they think you don’t know any better. Negotiating prices beforehand can also help you avoid being cheated.
    Confirm your return flight at least two days in advance in order to avoid getting bumped. Indian airport computers aren’t always reliable; confirming your flight ahead of time could save you grief at the airport.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


today i want to write about the fifth largest religion in the world, sikhism.  while there are 23 million adherents to this faith, and you see them all the time, most people don't even know they exist, let alone what they espouse to believe.  it's important to take a minute and identify these guys because:

1. they are a large, influential faith in the world
2. they are totally awesome

i'll get to that second point in a bit, but first let's lay down the basics.  sikhs follow the teachings of ten gurus who lived from 1469-1708.  the one you really need to know is Guru Nanak Dev - he got the whole thing rolling and the whole religion is really based on his teachings. the other nine gurus are each considered to have his spirit though (like the flame of one candle lighting the next) so as they added to and expanded his teachings they became canon. this is not unlike the star wars novelizations by timothy zahn, which many fans consider to carry on the tonality, scope and adventure of the original franchise. but i digress.

the most basic tenant is that there is one God and it is timeless, boundless, sightless, completely powerful and, insofar as we can understand it, the whole of the universe.  "God is everywhere for the awakened mind" is one way the Sikh's think about this.  a fundamental idea is that God can never be fully know but _aspects_ of God are knowable. those aspects include the knowledge that God wants us to Share with Each Other, Have an Optimistic View, Protect Weak and Innocent Creatures (especially humans), and Vigorously Participate in Giving Charity.  pretty standard monotheistic stuff, but these guys take it a step further.

they believe in reincarnation, but not in any kind of heaven or hell.  one sikh i spoke to in college put it this way: "heaven is the joy on the face of a child, and the happiness that can live in the human heart.  hell is the pain we inflict upon each other, the wars we wage and the destruction we cause." they do however believe that with proper, intense meditation, a man can overcome the illusion of the world (maya - a term borrowed from hinduism) and come to conquer the Five Really Bad Hang Ups:  ego, anger, greed, attachment and lust. When this is done, one can become enlightened, get to know those knowable bits of God and break the cycle of rebirth by joining with God in perfect union.

their base of operations is this enormous temple called Harmandir Sahib - colloquially referred to as the Golden Temple. it is a seriously impressive structure and one i would love to see when we visit india. unfortunately it's really close to pakistan so it's probably a no-go. nevertheless, it is a giant palace made of gold where Sikh's regularly gather to read some scripture, shoot the breeze and sip some garam chai (more on this another time).

the Sikhs had their own Empire for a while, standing in opposition to the Moghul Empire (1556-1707). they were amazing warriors and brilliant scholars.  the Sikh empire is still recognized as being one of the most tolerant and pluralistic, with Muslims, Hindus, Christians and Jews being allowed to move and worship freely as well as hold high office. when the Raj finally beat them, he outlawed their martial arts, Shaster Vidiya, but it's stayed alive. the last remaining master of the "Science of Arms" keeps a school in England where he passes on the training.  and just like every completely awesome warrior band from the numerous fantasy paperbacks that liter my bookshelf, there is an elite unit with a sweet name - The Akali Nihangs - the blue turbaned elite fighter force of the Sikh Empire. 


each baptized sikh comes with kung-fu grip and five action-accessories: kes (growing your hair into an awesome heavy-metal mane of manliness), kangha (a sweet comb to maintain said dudely locks), kara (an iron bracelet), kirpan (a KNIFE) and kaccha (super underwear).  seriously though, each of these serves a special purpose:

  1. kes - a sikh is not allowed to cut their hair.  this includes shaving their beards (but they can trim them, see below). they wear large turbans wrapped up around their heads to keep all their hair in when they're out and about (also, they look rather stylish --> boom Boom BooM BOOM). the reason for doing this is that it is considered unnatural to cut hair - if God wanted it short, he wouldn't make it grow.  thus not cutting one's hair is an act of submission to God's will (and handsome to boot - just ask my girlfriend)  more importantly, though, it identifies a Sikh to all the world. As Guru Singh wrote "..How can he hide himself with hair and turban on his head and with a flowing beard?" 
  2. kangha - the comb reminds the Sikh to be hygienic, disciplined and for goodness sake to wash behind one's ears. this is both a practical implement to facilitate kes, and a token of one's obedience to staying positive and healthy, keeps the turban in place (yes, really) and, just like my seltsen blue lightly medicated shampoo and condition, "keeps hair healthy, clean, shining and tangle-free."
  3. kara - the iron braclet is to remind a Sikh to use his or her hands for good stuff and not for bad. that's pretty much it, actually. it reminds the sikh to be helpful, kind and giving. 
  4. kirpan - believe it or not, the knife is worn to further the sikh idea of non-violence. each sikh is commanded to carry the blade at all times (making airline flying difficult for them) in order to defend the helpless and weak, fight injustice and to prevent violence.  Sikhs were awesome warriors but they truly believed that if you were strong, smart and skillful, you would only use violence to stop violence. they really buy this too - sikhs have traditionally been pretty non-violent dudes.  from day one their religion opposed the cast system and they had little love of british oppression, extremist violence and any kind of war. 
  5. kaccha - alright, i make fun but this is pretty cool, too. like the kara reminds the sikh of the responsibility in his hands,  the kaccha reminds a Sikh to use his (cough, cough / wink, wink) for noble purposes. it's like a big post-it note that sikhs wear so that when they see it they pause and ask themselves, "is what i'm about to do with what's in there going to be glorifying to my God, honorable to my family and just plain decent?" 
if beard-growing, turban-wearing, holy underoo-sporting Jedi from india aren't cool to you, then you probably aren't very cool yourself.  as the icing on the already well-iced cake that is Sikhism, they get this awesome insignia which incidentally looks alot like the Klingon insignia from star trek: