Friday, October 21, 2011

The Motorcycle God

They say India is a land of 30 million gods.  In the rising heat of a Rajasthani morning I was driving towards an encounter with one of the freshman class.  A man had died, and a god had been born in my lifetime.  A tragic event played out on a rural road began the story, and a supernatural vehicle that refused to let go made it a meme of legendary proportions.

The cowboy state of Rajastan is no stranger to bucking theological trends.  In a country with such a bizarre variety of gods there are indeed some rules.  The principle one being that the Brahmin, the priests, set the rules.  From the very beginning, when the caste system was created, they placed themselves at the top of the totem pole.  Rajasthan has gods that the Brahmin do not acknowledge.  They were born and evolved outside of their authority.  They have found different middle men, or none at all, through which to address their followers.  I met the first of these gods as he sprung to life out of a tapestry into the dry night air.

Have you ever known a friend who could recount a monologue from one of the western classics?  Maybe a little bit of Shakespeare or a quote from Homer?  I've got a buddy like that.  Occasionally at social events he'll  perform several lines of Hamlet complete with dramatic inflections and gestures to raised eyebrows and applause.   Now imagine a guy who can recite 4,000 lines, dance, play an instrument, and sing without ever stumbling, repeating himself, or looking at a script.  He can't look at a script.  He is illiterate.  The Bopa of Rajasthan is the bard of the desert and the de facto priest of the god Pabuji.  When he performs his epic in front of a storyboard tapestry (a phad) the god comes to life and addresses the needs of the faithful: shepherds, herdsmen, and farmers sitting under the stars of the open plain.  The bard is accompanied, in the singing portions, by his wife who weaves the tones of her vocals into his to create feelings of haunting, longing, desire, and praise.  The lady I watched, dignified in posture and comportment, sang powerfully from under a red veil which completely covered her.  Audience members who had known this couple for decades had never seen her face.
  "This man is very unlucky," the host of tonight's performance whispered to me, "he has five sons with this woman."
A horde of sons would usually be a dream come true for any man in these parts.  In fact the desire for male offspring is so strong that the most dangerous time in an Indian woman's life might be her months as a fetus.  The threat has more than doubled since ultrasound technology reached a price point the average expectant parent could afford.  No more coming in under the radar.
"This man's tribe is matriarchal," the host explained, "so it is for the son that a dowry must be paid... very unlucky."
I watched the financially doomed man as he pointed to different scenes on the tapestry, explaining plot points to the audience.  The phad is riddled with intricately woven illustrations from the story, dissimilar from a comic book only in its organization.  Major events take up center stage real estate, while minor ones are scattered around the edges.  It is the bopa who trains the audience's eye on the appropriate section.  Now he pointed to a couple standing together in a procession as he projected his voice over the audience sitting in the glow of lamplight.  Pabuji was in the middle of his wedding ceremony when news arrived that some very bad guys were rustling up cattle which belonged to the goddess Deval.  He immediately abandoned the wedding and rode out after the evil wranglers.  Although the cattle were returned, a series of events were set in motion.  Ultimately Pabuji died in battle, never having returned to his long suffering fiance at the marriage altar.  It might not be a storyline that would sell tickets at a muliplex cinema in Iowa, but this theme resonates strongly in the countryside of India.
The performance was flat fascinating, but not understanding the language made it about as interesting as Japanese Kabuki or mass at St. Peters.  The pure spectacle and the knowledge that you are witnessing multiple layers of deep meaning and symbolism manage to keep you engaged for a good half hour;  but then your mind starts to slide into a series of daydreams, your stomach starts rumbling, and the whisper of the night begins to awaken hedonistic cravings.  I've experienced similar drop offs in my attention span at the opera, poorly executed theater, and during long winded sermons... well, all sermons really.  I'd like to say I'd heard the Epic of Pabuji from beginning to end, but doing so would require almost a week of dusk till dawn performances, each one picking up where the other left off.  I take my hat off to the level of skill, artistry, and dedication it takes to pull off a performance of such magnitude.  May the legend and the bopas who sing of it never die.  I looked for an appropriate moment (bathroom break) and slipped out.

As I reclined in the back of the taxi, relishing the clean escape, I noticed the mini shine on my cabby's cracked dash.  Every taxi driver in India has some form of devotional material adorning the front of his ride.  Beads on the mirror, stickers of gurus pasted on the glove box, or tiny plastic altars which light up under the glow of colored bulbs.  They are typically fairly easy to identify once you've got a feel for the land.  In Calcutta you're probably looking at Kali, in Mumbai there is a good chance it'll be Ganesh.  It's sort of a fun game to 'guess the god'.  If you get it right your cabbie will probably sparkle with enthusiasm in the growing rapport between you.  This one I couldn't put my finger on.  Maybe it wasn't a god at all.  Inside a glowing plastic encasement was a picture of a handsome mustachioed fella, posing high school yearbook style in front of a coral pink sheet.
"This man is your son?" I asked, leaning forward.
"No.. no son," he replied waving a finger, "Om Bana."

 20 years ago Om was a small town stud driving his Royal Enfield motorcycle back home late at night, perhaps with a beer or two pulsing extra bravado through his veins.  Like him, I was about to take a Royal Enfield motorcycle up a road...  the highest road in the world.  Hopefully, unlike him, I would keep a better grip on the pavement.  Om lost control that night, swerving a little too wide into an unforgiving tree trunk.  He died on the spot.  James Dean, the Hollywood star, met a similar fate.  While filming Giant, he took a break to cut a public service announcement where he encourages safe driving on the highways, "cause no one knows what they are doing half the time.  You don't know what this guy's gonna do or that one."  Thirteen days later his Spyder crashed head on into 1950 Ford.   His bust is now a one-snapshot sideshow for a fraction of the tourists gravitating towards the magnificently perched Griffith Observatory on the hills overlooking Los Angeles.  Om's memorial, on the other hand, made for a guy with no IMDB credits to his name and no Oscars, is a mob scene.

What I expected the next day, as this same taxi driver took me to the spot, was a lonely roadside altar with some wilted flowers beside it.  I stepped out of the cab to the sound of musicians pumping dusty accordians and leading hymns.  A saddhu approached and pressed a red tikka onto my forehead.   Vendors hawked floral wreaths and coconuts for supplication.  There was a line 20 folks deep to approach a large framed picture of the deceased.  Those who made it to the front either froze in stupefied gazes at the sight of their idol, or murmured prayers and offered tokens of sacrifice.  Soon they were nudged aside by the next row of believers.
How does one go from roadside casualty to the state's most popular new god?  You have to start with the right vehicle.  Most bikes, if you crash them highside, lowside, or straight into a tree will give up the ghost along with you.  As you are carted off to the hospital or morgue the bike will take it's own kind of mechanical stretcher to the garage, where it will sit until you come back to claim it or a new, living, soul decides to put some love into it so it may ride again.  This was not how Om Bana's bike rolled.  It was carried to the police station while Om got a ride to the mortuary.  It didn't like it there.  The next morning the police arrived to find the bike gone.  They searched and eventually the bike turned up, right back at the crash site.
"Didn't we grab this bike last night?" they may have asked.
"Vijay," the chief may have yelled over his cell, "I told you to move the motorcycle to the station!"
 "I did I did," Vijay may have objected, secretly wondering if those two beers he drank last night hit him harder than he'd realized.
So they brought the bike back to the station.  In the morning it was gone again.  Now if you up the ante with a police officer in just about any country he or she is going to up the ante with you.  It doesn't matter if you are made of flesh or metal.  When the officers brought this bike back again they were going to make damn sure no prankster was to make a fool of them.  Heavy chains were brought in and locked around the bike, securing it to solid iron bars welded to the walls and floor.  It turns out you can't keep a good roadster down and when a motorcycle is in grieving, it's best to let it be.  The chains were found ruptured and the bike back at the spot it last saw its master.  The village police corps, along with the village, became believers right then and there.  Instead of throwing another chain on the bike, they threw a wreath and bowed their heads in supplication.  They were in the presence of the supernatural.

The bike stands just behind the enshrined portrait of Om, and it has it's own line, just as long.  I approached with a bottle of Bullet beer.  In a few days I'd be taking the same model of motorcycle over Rotang Pass, the gateway to the Himalayas and a documented killer of motorists who'd slipped off her muddy, twisty roads; or been caught under one of her landslides, rumbling down the mountain on a heartless killing spree.  If alcohol were to join this expedition, it would be for the gods, not for me.  Not until I was over that pass.  "Look after me Om Bana and you Mr. Motorcycle," I stammered as I poured the beer over the concrete foundation raising the bike up out of the earth.  If somehow the spirit of this bike could keep an eye on his relative, the one I'd be riding, that would be a nice comfort; but lets face it, these guys have plowed a hard road.  Om should have had a bunch of small town romances before settling down with the one who caught his heart.  He should have raised a family of little ones.  This bike should have carved up a heap of country roads before settling into old age in Om's garage, getting pampered by polish and mechanical tinkering under the wide eyes of Om's kids, hoping to one day take a spin.  Things didn't work out that way.  They deserved a drink.

As I began my ride up into the Himalayas I started running the odds.  If I collided headfirst into one of these monstrous Tata trucks in a badly timed lane change, or if I slipped off the side of the muddy mountain roads; what are the chances India's children will be visiting my shrine as adults?  I do have a pretty crisp headshot, undoubtedly snapped by a better photographer; though my L.A. Dodger cap pales in comparison to Om's headgear.  I'm not rocking the stash, but I've got a good bit of stubble going on... sort of Miami Vice's Don Johnson to Magnum P.I.'s Tom Selleck if you will.  Where I'm going to fall short, I'm sure, is in the sidekick department.  Every Batman needs a Robin.  Within a few hours my front brake was completely shot and I found oil splattered around the engine.  I wasn't feeling the loyalty here.  I didn't believe this machine would have my back in a moment of need.  Perhaps I pushed the relationship along too fast and left her jaded.  It was only our first date and I already had her 6 inches deep in oozing mud.  Better not crash.  God like status would be more probable if I survived this ride and start a cult in Los Angeles.  With all respect to Om, I'd rather wear that crown premortem than post.

Sunday, September 18, 2011

Spooky Stuff

A long long time ago there lived a wizard up on a hill.  Below him, in the thriving city of Bhangarh, a stunning princess caught his fancy.  He was more than obsessed.  He had to have her.  But the sorcerer was an unsightly man, marred in spirit and physique from practicing the dark arts.  Seduction out of the question, he created a magical potion which would pull his beloved to him like a magnet draws metal.  The princess had sent her handmaiden to the market to buy some oil for her hair and skin, and, seizing on an opportune moment, the wizard tipped a few drops of his formula into the purchase.  But something went terribly wrong.  The princess was gripped by an uneasy feeling as she lifted the vial of oil, preparing to apply it.  She paused and then, trusting her gut,  threw the vial against a nearby boulder.  Better safe than sorry.  Then a sound.  The boulder began to move.  It rolled out of the town, up the hill, and straight through the doorway of the wizard's dark tower, coming to rest on top of the man to whom it was magically drawn.  As he lay dying he spit one final spell out of his bloody mouth.  The most powerful and destructive incantation of all.  Instantly the city crumbled, roofs toppling as the inhabitants who survived the crush fled, never looking back.  Now, in the heart of these ruins, I couched, gazing wide eyed into sliver moon darkness, waiting for a shadow to move.


Most of my adolescence was spent in the mid-west of America, where a diet of UFO conspiracies, Sunday school stories, and movies of demonic possession tends to mold young suburbanites into people who are quick to believe.  An upbringing devoid of the kind street hardened skepticism a New Yorker wears with aplomb.  In college the gaping hole in my ability to fact check was exposed when I became love sick over a girl who led me straight to her evangelical church.  St. Thomas Aquinas considered this kind of "missionary dating" an effective tool, one which this young beauty employed to perfection.  The next couple years were a steep climb back to reason... fearing every step of the way that the trail would lead to my eternal damnation.  An experience like that can make a man fairly sober, but also robs him of that last twinkle of childhood's fascination with the unknown.  In India, a country whose soil is rich in the minerals of mysticism, I hoped to rekindle that sensation.

What's left of the abandoned town of Bhangarh is considered so haunted even the supervising government office is set up a good kilometer away.  They say animals begin to flee as the sun falls.  They say an army unit was requested to look in to the phenomena, but not one of the battle hardened soldiers would volunteer.  Naturally no one is officially permitted to stay past dusk.  The welcome sign reads of stiff penalties and the locals claim you won't have a pulse by daybreak.   I was sold.   My cheeky companion, producer and director Sashi De formulated a quick plan, which was: "Let's get into the site and then formulate a plan."

We walked though the crumbling brown walls of the old city as the last of the sun's rays fragmented through acacias and khejri.  Grumpy bats woke up in the dark corners of toppled stone palaces and black faced monkeys jumped from tree to tree, scanning the sparse earth for something that might resemble dinner.  Akshat, our guide from Jaipur, reluctantly complicit in our scheme, was given a chance to re-live his community theater days.  His new mission:  Tell the guards, doing their final sweep of the grounds, that we had climbed up to the hills in the distance and would be hiking out the other side.  Classic misdirection.  By the time the guards came and hustled up the hill following the false lead we were tucked deep into one of the upper chambers of Bhangarh’s main temple.  A last minute plan always has it's deficiencies.  In this case they were a lack of food, no lights, and no sleeping gear.  I chose a small room located at the back end of what was once a great hall, which, with it's ceiling long gone, was now an open air field surrounded by high walls.  Only one door led into this section across the way.  The idea was that if someone, or something, entered through that door we would have two possible escape routes:  Out a small hole to one side of our room, or through a doorway to the left which lead to a stone staircase spanning to the top of the surrounding walls.  The entrance to our hiding spot was reached by climbing a small pile of shale like rubble, which ideally would create an abrasive rock on rock sliding noise if an intruder managed to get that far before catching our attention.

The first hour of the night was spent brazenly recounting ghost stories or the plots of horror movies, amping up the fear factor to the point where laughter would ensue and deflate the tension.  “Remember  that scene in The Ring when you see the girl crawl out of the well and she’s lumbering towards the camera with her hair covering her face?”
“Oh man, that freaked me out.  How about that part of Shutter Island when DiCaprio get’s into the secluded ward and there are all those madmen running around.. I mean, what if there is a lunatic or two running around here.. maybe in the day you think it’s just a beggar or a saddhu but at night he kills anyone he finds around here..  that could explain it right?”
“Or a satanic cult!  You’ve heard of the skull collecting tantrics in West Bengal, right?  Maybe something more extreme and unpublicized.”
  “All I know is if some freak walks through that doorway my fist is going in his teeth, they can publicize that.”
“Yeah right, you’d scream like a little girl.”
Rock on Rock sound.  We stopped talking, we stopped breathing, but my eyesight and hearing have never been so keen.   I could hear the cicadas in the surrounding forest, the flutter of bats in a distant nook of the ruins,  and the distant sway of a branch that had just received a monkey’s full weight.  What I couldn’t hear was anything right in front of us.  Then another sliding sound.  Pressure being given and relieved on a slab of loose stone.  Sashi and I looked at each other and weighed our options in silence.  If there was something there, it was terribly close.  A move to the side for either escape route could do little more than invite an attack from behind.  One guy might make it, the other might not.  Or do you split for separate exits, momentarily confusing your pursuer?  The hole was to my right, and unless the thing knew the room’s layout, or had excellent nightvision, it probably wouldn’t find it if I slipped through fast.  Plus I’d have the tactical advantage of stomping the creature's head if it came through the hole after I’d slithered out.  No.  The thought of being isolated, ten minutes ago a subject of humor, was now a horrifying option.  So we crouched there, frozen.  I mouthed the words “monkey?”  Sashi shook his head.  He silently picked up a small rock.  Tiny sweat beads on his brow gleamed in the slice of moon rising beyond us.  I scratched around the ground below me but came up with dust.  Then, going through the endless compartments in my cargo pants I found a pen.  I pulled the cap off and held it, countering my slick palm with an iron grip.  It turns out I was going to have to hit something in the teeth.  Screaming like a little girl might also be an option.  Speak of the devil and he appears.   Ten long minutes passed as we crouched in the dark, ready to spring like a derelict jack in the box.  Sashi nudged me and yanked his head to the side.  The staircase.  We stayed low.  Like a commando unit we climbed up the stairs crouched and constantly swiveling to the sides to cover the angles.  The top afforded a view of the entire courtyard.  It was completely empty.  We stared at it for minutes looking for a shadow to shift.  All was still.  Something though…  the cicadas.  The shrill whine of their wings had stopped.  The night dead quiet.

We’d first met Akshat on a tour of the pink city, Jaipur, a picturesque desert town packed with over 500 temples.  He expertly led us to some of the more obscure ones, moving through little known passageways which circumvented the crowds pouring in for the upcoming festival of Teej.
"Anything you need or anywhere you want to see in Rajasthan I can be of service," he cheerfully offered.
 "Great, we're going to the haunted city of Bhangarh soon.  You know it?"
"Yes, of course I know it," he said, enthusiasm leaking quick.
 "Fantastic.  Come with us."
He halfheartedly agreed as we marched through the sites.  A wonderful temple to Krishna, dancing with his ruddy cheeked milkmaidens who gazed at his blue skin with desire; small shrines to Ganesh, buggy eyed in a local twist of design; orange faced Varahi Devi, who specializes in cleansing devotees of skin diseases.  In light of these gems, our final destination, on first glance, was a bit anticlimatic.  A temple lacking the art and spendor of the others, whitewashed with small nondescript idols.
"This temple used to practice a form of tantric magic.  Black magic you say," whispered Akshat.
 “Interesting," I mumbled as I slid my shoes back on. "Wait...  Are there any temples or people who still practice black magic?”
“Actually we were in the forest last month and we did meet one lady who does this.”
 As soon as the last words slipped out of his lips I could see his expression fall.  He knew where this was going.
“Good, I want you to take us there.”
“But it’s to be honest very deep in the forest and it’s a very difficult journey.”
“It’s OK, we’ve been on some long journeys.”
“Yes, but we’re not even sure if she’d be there.  She was sick, perhaps he’s in the hospital or the village.”
“It’s OK.. we’ll take that risk.”
“Well, perhaps we can talk tomorrow as I’m not sure if can be arranged.”
“Of course it can.  We’ll just go there.  See you at say 8am?”
With a forced smile he gave a slight head bobble.

In the morning Akshat pulled me aside.  He had some ground rules. 
 "I have just one thing to request again and it's that you won't be saying the word 'witchcraft'."
"What if I do?  What will happen,"  I challenged, hoping to pry some fantastical scenarios out of instigation.
"Well there are only three of us out here in these forests and you don't know what she might do."

We were advised to stay in the jeep.  Wild animals of certain vicious varieties roamed the forest.  We were also reminded again, not to use any hot button words when around her,  including now ‘black magic’.  The jungle was thick and the slick tires struggled through deep puddles on the muddy track.  We bounced on the hard benches and squinted into the bush looking for predators.  It opened up atop a small hill, where the trees broke to accommodate the witches home and a barren patch of land in front.  The word mansion seems grandiose.  To say castle would seem cliché and entail towers I suppose.  It was somewhere between a fortress and an asylum.  A 60+ room, cellblock style building, rusty bars on chipped concrete window frames, and a huge metal gate for a front door, chained shut.  Not a sound but for the caw of crows and hoots of other unknown birds hidden in the tree canopy.  It sat in the company of two other similar buildings each about 200 meters away, all separated, surrounded, and slowly succumbing to the jungle’s dense vegetation.  In front of the gate lay a concrete slab with  a type of iron wood stove on top.  Akshat, in hushed tones, said this is where the witch’s guru was cremated upon death.  How he fit in that small thing I'm not sure.  Perhaps in pieces.
After five minutes of gate slapping and yelling it looked like we’d missed the chance.  With the others conceding and loading back into the jeep I walked back for one more spirited try.  I pried the gate back as far as the chain would allow and wedged my head in to get a slight view of an open courtyard inside.  Pigeons fluttered and for a moment I had a surge of fear that someone might grab my face, or put theirs right up to mine in horror show fashion.  “Namaste,” I shouted.  Then a shuffling of feet, way in the back.  An extremely old lady scooted up, coke bottle glasses, stooped frame, the remains of her original teeth in an mouth open with incredulity.  The gate swung open to reveal the site of two more grannies scuttling out of the different corners of the dilapidated structure.  Instantly I recognized the one.  She held an air of authority, but the face was soft and harmless.  Father time had made a long visit before us and drained the fire out of eyes that were said to make men stammer and look away.  Now those eyes spoke of resignation and acceptance.  After a life of struggle and defiance she had come to a truce with life.  We followed her into a room where she bent down with pained effort to sit on a cot.  I took a seat on the floor beside her.  She read my palms and made several guesses, a couple on the money, a few misfires.  Her prediction of my future was not as rosy as I would have liked, which I suppose lends it some credibility.. most fortune tellers stay positive, tailoring answers their clients want to hear.  I asked her some more general  questions about philosophy and kept my promise to avoid the touchy subjects.  I wasn't concerned about repercussions, but I didn't want to be the guy who hassles a bone weary, long suffering spinster.  Husband and guru passed on,  she and the other two octogenarians were waiting out there final days together in isolation.  Who was I to come into their house and press them about town rumors?
As we got up to leave, she took us through a few passageways to another tiny courtyard and opened up a door leading to a small shine for Kali, the angry goddess.  We took water in our hands and placed in on the lips and then the head.  Then it was time to leave.  Walking back towards the entrance the silent of the three intercepted us.  She wanted to show us one more room.  “This is where we practice the tantric arts,” she told Akshat, who stiffened up so fast he stopped translating, instead muttering, “We should go.. we need to go.”  On the walls were posters of Kali in much more terrific form than the simple stone idol at the shrine.  Skulls adorned her necklace, a bloody sword swung from her right hand and a decapitated head was clutched in the left.  Her outstretched tongue was dripping red.  There was a small desk with a mirror beside it.  Something about the mirror caught my attention, and I stooped down quickly to take a peek.  There staring back at me was the grinning mischevious face I'd expected.  The lines though, were deeper, and for a second, just a second, the eye contact was a little off.  Something in my eyes.  Something incongruous with the way I was moving them.  I looked harder.  "We should go," said Akshat again, standing ramrod straight just behind the room's doorway.  "Yeah, sure," I shook my head as one who stoops down and stands up too fast.  We walked out.  The gate shut behind us.
 A couple days later we walked out of Bangharh, intact but sore and worn from a night of stone seated vigilance.   I found myself in the odd state of being disappointed to see the sun rise.  We’d survived the night when legend had dictated we’d be dead.  As good as it those first rays of felt on my face, they also evaporated a little more of the mystery in this world.   No black cauldrons or flying broomsticks at the witch's retreat, no monsters in the haunted city.  What little I'd seen, well, I was probably grasping at straws, turning tricks of light, shade, and sound around in my imagination until I could squeeze out a story.  On the path to the main gate a guard moseyed out of his shack, thumbs tucked in his belt in that classic pose of authority.  He stopped just there and fixed a look on me, shaking his head slowly.  “No ghosts,” I said with a palms up shrug.  “No ghost,” he replied, “Tenua.”  Panther.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Fighting Words

Tell him I’m going to smash his teeth in,” were the first words I uttered with conviction that morning.  “Hun Hau,” were the probably the second, gesturing to the dumplings on my plate as a dark purple shiner gained territory around my eye socket.
It’s a good idea when you travel to keep your cool.  You could have easily be offended by a misunderstanding, you might cause someone to lose face (which carries more weight outside of western culture), and, most importantly, the law rarely smiles on belligerent foreigners.  In India, there is another variable to consider.  Indians are generally a peaceable people.  Trouble will generally not find you.  If it did, you're not dealing with people who have thrown a lot of punches in their lives.  If you're a reasonable fit man and have had a scrap or two you'd be the betting favorite to win a fistfight against the average man on the streets of India.  But you will not be fighting a man on the streets of India.  You will be fighting all Indians.  Mobs form quick here and, as anyone who has recklessly caused a traffic accident could tell you, they are extremely violent and short on mercy.  You won't worry about the police arriving, you'll be praying they come faster.
I've only had three brushes with brawls in my travels.  In Shanghai, a relatively safe city, two drunks toppled out of an alley bar just as I was walking by at 2 A.M.  "Hello, hello!" they kept chanting as they walked behind me, keeping up with my accelerating pace.  When one grabbed my arm I spun and cracked him in the face, then took off in a sprint as he floundered back into his buddy's arms.  His face crumpled, his friend's mouth pursed in a giant O.  Probably just drunks being drunks, but when it's two against one in the middle of the night you hit first.  Another time I found myself in a bar in Riga, two sheets to the wind, when a monstrous buzz-cut commando sat in the stool next to me, pulsating vibes of trouble.  I avoided eye contact, but in a couple minutes he was staring right at me.  "Hey.  Hey you.  Where you from?"  "Hey.  You me... we break," he said smacking a closed fist into his other palm.  "I don't understand," I replied with a big stupid smile.  He returned it with a smile of his own, most of the teeth missing.  "We break!  We break!," he said again throwing short hooks and jabs into the small space between us.  "I'm sorry man.  I don't understand.  You are Latvian right?  I love Latvia.  Riga very beautiful.  Nice street.  Nice church.  Nice girls!" I offered with a laugh, desperate to change the subject.  He flat stared at me for five long seconds, considering options.  "Ok," he finally said thrusting out a meaty open hand, "Friend."  This is how it's done.  If you do fight, make it hard and fast and then leave the scene with haste.  But preferably confuse your would be assailant until you can diffuse the aggression.  This was not the pattern I followed in India. 
 We had returned from the state of Orissa with a swagger in our steps and our first episode of a new travel show in the can.  After being on a creative roll of filming, writing, and planning our return to Kolkata was buoyed by a balloon full of energy that had began to escape at a squeak and then, by the fourth day of inactivity, like a flatulent blast.  Unable to resist the draw of free accomodation I’d posted up in New Town, a.k.a under-development town.  High rise buildings springing up slowly from swampland and cow pasture on the extreme edge of the city.  When it rains the muddy roads connecting these concrete skeletons to highways turn into moats.  In a way it captures a reality of India:  cutting edge technology and engineering for the individual, banana republic infrastructure for the public.  It was here, and just then, in this upper-class-isolation-post-festival-cooldown moment, that the region’s world renown microbes rammed down the gates of my immune system and sacked my body like barbarians in Rome.  It was bound to happen, planning to make it through a trip to India without getting sick is like planning the Caribbean without sunburn, Russia without vodka, or Brazil without dancing.  The odds are heavily against you.
I was on the cusp of recovery when the producer announced he’d lined up a full day of shooting.  We had a plan!  We were back in motion!  We were out the door on the way to the action when a cowboy cabbie cuts us off and pulls a stunt.  To be fair, he had a beef.  We’d called for car service the night before.  The guy overslept.  So we called a taxi stand 10 minutes down the way.  20 minutes later I was chomping at the bit.  The forces of evil were conspiring to hold me inactive in this compound another day.  I’d already said my long goodbye to the toilet… going back now would be awkward.  “Jump the first cab we see on the street!” I admonished.  So we did, and then the taxi stand guy caught us.  I’m not going to pretend to understand Bengali, but I do know the difference in tonality and gesture between, “Hey sorry we’re late,” and “Get your ass out of this other taxi right now or else.”  The guy started in on me first, finger waving and barking, and then, unsatisfied with a blank sunglass stare, moved onto the producer and his girlfriend in the backseat.  That’s the moment I snapped like Shia Labeoaf.  I don't believe the two native speakers in the back translated my desire to give the guy some quick dental work, but he definitely picked up on my tonality and gestures, not to mention English vulgarities are fairly universally understood.  I got out of the cab.  It was going down and i was ready.  Mounting frustrations had found an outlet.  Our entourages separated us.  It was anti-climatic.  But not two hours later I had my sweaty arms clasped around a man’s knees, springing forward to drive him to the ground.
Fighting another man, mano a mano is always serious business, but when you step into a cage to do it the intensity doubles down.  The X factor, however, was the camera, and my announcement that I was hosting a show.  No intensity level was discussed, but I assumed these variables might soften the hard reality of two men sealed into a dirt pit.  As soon as our arms grasped, I knew I had assumed wrong.  With a twist of the hips I was tossed to the ground.  Hard.  Too upright.  The secret to wrestling is leverage.  You've got to get low.  We returned to the center of the cage.  I squated and then exploded for the man's knees.  I wrapped my arms around his sweaty legs and drove forward.  For a moment I thought I had him.  Then he reached over my back, clasping my underwear in an iron grip, lifted my legs out of the soil, and piledrove me into the dirt. 
This ass-kicking, of which I was mainly on the receiving end, was official.  Cops, community leaders, and my said entourage lined the outside of the cage and squealed with glee as I got flipped, spun, and pushed around like a genetically inferior caveman.  And make no mistake, by the end of a Kushti wrestling match, dressed in a soiled loincloth and caked with mud, you look like you timewarped in from the Paleolithic era.
There is a lot of leverage in a healthy pot belly

Two Kushti wrestlers doing the dirty
Wrestling in India goes beyond sport and into religious devotion.  Practitioners live together, train together,  and follow strict guidelines of diet, duties, and denial of certain worldly pleasures.  You can wallow around with a fellow wrestler in tighty whiteys, but doing so with a female is strictly off limits, inside a cage or out, for your entire career.  When you enter the cage you offer a puja, a prayer, to Hanuman, the monkey god.  Judging from Hanuman's muscular depiction he was probably the king of the throwdown, an asset that no doubt made him the ideal alley in Rama's quest to kill the demon Ravana.
The rules seem similar to freestyle except weight classes be damned.  When I lost to the lightweight, they gave me a middleweight.  When I couldn’t budge the middleweight a heavy decided he’d show me a trick or two.  The experience was the ying to my yang.  After having 3 different guys own me my gas tank was empty and my aggression gone.  Twenty minutes in the mud akhara had cleaned my soul out as efficiently as yesterday’s microbes had flushed my pipes.
I took a rinse off in the river Ganges (which is like sobering up by drinking a beer) and we headed for Chinatown.  The Sino-Indian war almost put an end to this community, but there were still some holdouts, maintaining temples and cooking scrumptious dumplings on the streets.  It was munching a fish filled delectable, eye socket throbbing, when I realized that occasionally an aggressor is a good thing.  The microbe in your stomach or the muddy Indian who’s got you in a headlock gives you a chance to work something out and emerge a new, stronger man.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

How to Play the Foreigner Card to Save Bodily Injury from Blunt Weapons

What can you do when a Japanese police officer pulls you over for speeding, when priests catch you in the bell tower of a church in Poland, or a muscle bound Latvian commando wants to smash your teeth in at an underground bar?  You start speaking English!  The he-doesn't-know-what he's doing rational combined with the I-don't-want-to-struggle-through-this-dialogue dread packs a one two punch that'll squeak you out of most jams, or at least lessen the severity of the consequences.  Two days ago, it kept my skull intact.

The Rath Yatra festival in Puri draws up to a million pilgrims from all over India.  The sight of the god Jagannath, emerging once a year from his temple for a ride, brings all the boys to the yard; and the chance to pull his whip puts them into a religious frenzy.  By yanking the 220 ropes attached to the god's chariot, or even touching one, your sins are absolved.  Woot!  Having a questionable balance on my karmic chart made this sound like an attractive deal.  Sashi, the producer of the show we were filming, also thought this a fantastic idea.  I get to the ropes: Good TV!  I get trampled: Also good TV!  So into the human stew I push, squirm, and slide.  4 ropes means 8 sides of possibilities, right?  Not so fast.  One side of each rope is patrolled by cops, their special guests, and cheeky Indians who think a grab of the ropes is worth a crack from a baton.. and cracked they got. 
The chariot stopped for a moment, and, unbeknown to me, the line when slack with a slight curvature in it.  I pressed forward.. 5 feet of flesh to the rope, 50 feet of bodies behind me leaning their weight into reaching the prize.  Then horns blew, the crowd let out a roar, and the ropes began to tighten.  Our nook in the curve became a trap.  The thick twine clotheslines the first row of devotees and sent the second row back like stones in a slingshot.. I saw a gap and leapt.  If there was any point to the little amount of jump-roping I've done in my life this was it.  The line snapped like a bowstring under my feet and I came down to the pavement on the other side.  What a difference this other side.  One minute I felt like a man in a mosh pit, the next thing you know it was as spacious as St. Peters in low season.  What was a quest is now a cakewalk.  Turning around I grabbed the rope easily.  A handful of other guys made it under or over.  They now put their hands alongside mine.  We looked at each other with the camaraderie of accomplishment glimmering in our eyes.  We did it.  Then the cops came.  The sound of rattan hitting someone's back made me turn.  A tall wiry man in a khaki uniform had a baton lifted above my head, ready to drive its weight down onto my sorry ass.  I let go of the rope and shot my hands up.  "Wait!  Stop!," I barked with authority, and then quickly tacked on a whoopsy shrug and a dopey smile.  He froze.  Then, coming to a decision with the stick still raised, gave a get-outta-here jerk of his head, and brought the baton down with fierce precision... onto the guy next to me.  Whack!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Full Circle: Desert to Desert

Egypt began with sunrise 1/1/11 on the top of Mt. Sinai.  It officially ended 1/11/11 when i boarded a 14 hour bus from Dakla Oasis to Cairo Airport.  I'd just said goodbye to my friends after watching the sun set over the western desert and the horizon go from orange, to red, to the deepest purple you could imagine.
I didn't write as much of this country as I expected.  Maybe it was because someone gave me their LP Egypt guidebook as I was leaving Jordan.  Traveling with a book has its advantages, but it also takes away a level of surprise and a dependence on the help of others which leads to interesting conversations and friendships.  Or maybe I wrote less because Egypt's 3,000 year old tourist industry streamlined things to less story-worthy material.  Or, more likely, it was the company of friends that changed the tone of the trip.  Not that things became uneventful, but they were eventful in a "You had to be there" kind of way.
It's hard to describe what it's like to be in a small room with ten Nubian men smoking hash from three joints, a glass jar, and a sheesha; looking for a polite excuse to decline an invitation for a second night of lung-caking inhalation; and laughing at the proposal for a "Nubian massage" whispered in my friend's ear.  It's a tall order to make you crack up like we did on top of a crumbling monastery wall imagining the comedic threads that would come from Pharaoh Tutankhamen brought back to life, Jurassic Park style, and then demanding all his treasures returned, tourists driven off, and souvenir hawkers set to rebuilding or placed in chains for selling postcards with his image next to camels humping.  I can't convey the sublime moment of laying on a sand dune in the vast western desert, having just soaked in natural hot springs, staring up at the universe and tossing around deep and absurd thoughts.. like future colonies on mars, on which my buddy and I should be the only men.. the first to father martians with the abundance of women who would naturally volunteer for the program.
What I can tell you is that the people in the Middle East are some of the friendliest in the world.  That Jerusalem is magical and Tel Aviv is going to put a dent in your budget.  That I'm much more wary walking around Venice Beach at 2am than Damascus, Syria.  I can tell you that it's good to wake up early on your travels and see things in the soft morning glow before the tour buses start their engines.  That you should bring a laptop because internet cafes are becoming as scarce as payphones.  That it's good to see an old friend on the road and meet some new ones.  And finally I can tell you that there is something about moving that's important for the soul.  Heraclitus said, "You could not step twice into the same river, for other waters are ever flowing on you."  Try to hold on to one spot and the stream will wear you down as smooth as its rocks.  I made like a felluca:  Observant and present when docked, sails up and ready to go when the wind began to blow.  Walks over sand dunes and down ancient alleys, buses that may or may not be going where I intended, overnight trains on which I slept to the thunk a thunk of the tracks below..  the anticipation and unpredictability of the next, the new, the yet to be discovered.  Getting from A to B was always more thrilling than being there. 

Sneaking up into the bell tower of a church in Beirut

An abandoned monastery

Old and new friends at the Funny Mummy cafe in Dahab, Egypt

Dawn of 1/1/11 where Moses got the 10 Commandments

A felluca makes its way up the Nile in Aswan

A souq in Aswan

The fastest way down a dune

On the trail from the Valley of the Kings to Hatshepsut's temple

Egypt and Egypped

Imagine walking into a coffeeshop in any American city as a German tourist, backpack still on, Let's Go USA guidebook in hand.  You order a black coffee and the barista says, "Ten dollars please."
"Ten dollars?!" you say.  That seems a little steep.
"Ten dollars," he repeats with conviction and turns to his colleagues for support.  The other employee chimes in, "Coffee?  Yeah, it's ten dollars," as if citing a well known fact.
That's out of your budget so you wave "no thanks" and make your way for the door.
"OK... seven dollars," the barista barks just as you walk out.
Now you are an American traveling in Australia.  You jump on the bus to get across town.
"Five dollars," says the driver.
"Five?  No... one or two, right?" you counter, sure its a misunderstanding.
"Its five dollars to ride the bus!" he huffs with such well rehearsed indignation you'd swear you've offended him.
Such is the experience of a traveler in Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, or any piece of Egypt that's been kissed, or in some cases bear hugged, by tourism.  From the minute you step out of your hotel door every bottle of water, bus ride, candy bar, haircut, cup of tea, or museum fee could turn into a heated negotiation.  Some will let you walk out of their empty restaurant before accepting the same amount of money a local would pay.
Of course suckers do abound.  Get to the ancient temples at 6am, enjoy a serene walk around the majestic past with only the rising sun and waking birds for company.. and then, as you're leaving, slow your walk and watch them arrive.  They come just as the barbarian armies which tore down these great civilizations at their delicate ends.  The warships and cavalry are now oversized blue and yellow buses.  The swords and axes now cameras.  They come from castles they've constructed, fit with provisions so they need not venture outside the high walls.  Fort Hilton.  Citadel Sheraton.  They wear the garb of their tribe:  Hawaiian shirts, daisy duke shorts, spaghetti strap tops.  Continental breakfasts still digesting they march straight through the temple in a direct line from one touted highlight to the next, checking them off.  There is no time to wander and reflect.  Their commander, General Tourguide has 7 more temples for them to conquer before the sun sets.
If they haven't noticed no Egyptian wears shorts in public, they undoubtedly also haven't noticed that the ferry to cross the Nile cost 20 cents, not 10 dollars.  A bottle of water 40 cents, not 2 dollars. 

In the wake of a con I had to rectify with the help of the police, several Egyptians, embarrassed to hear the story, pointed out that there are bad people and good people everywhere.  Absolutely true.  Get away from the tourist trail and you'll find mostly warm, welcoming people.  They'll call out greeting from cafes, help you out with directions on the bus, lend you their phones and even money if you're in a spot.  They want to know where you are from and what you've seen.  They universally say, "Welcome to Egypt.. welcome," with the tone of a proud host ushering a new friend into his house.
Soon I was reminded that a raw deal is not a purely Egyptian specialty.  The carriage rider who switched my money around and claimed, "I am a Muslim.  I don't lie," temporarily had me for a 20 dollar loss.  The Christian cab driver who told me three times "I love Jesus," tried to double my fare for a 4 dollar loss.  A casting agency in Los Angeles, for whom I cut my trip short, tried to take me for a 350$ loss by refusing to refund what I spend to adjust my plane ticket.
The Egyptian police helped me get my 20 back.  Threat of a law suit helped me get the 350.  As my old man says, "The right incentive always motivates people to honesty."
Aswan PD hard at work on my case

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Egypt: Come for the Big, Remember the Small

Sinai Peninsula

The big attraction:  Diving the Red Sea.  Saw lots of fish.  No killer sharks. Damn.

The small ones:  Mt. Sinai.  Made a last minute plan from Tel Aviv, Israel to meet my friend Greg on the summit of Moses' mountain 24 hours later for sunrise on 1/1/11.. going non stop subway, bus, taxi, minivan, walking, microbus, hiking to get there for that magical moment.

Smaller one:  Going into a pharmacy to get some Valium for the 10 hr bus ride to Cairo.  After some friendly small talk the pharmacist asks, "You have lady?"  Then slides me a quaalude and a viagra as a parting present and instructs me to take half of each before getting it on.. but only half!  Get that at Walgreens.


Mistaking the Sphinx for another camel ride tout I missed out on ancient words of wisdom by accidentally telling him to "talk to the hand".
The big attraction:  The pyramids.  Amazing sight but lots of touts constantly hard selling camel rides and the best view, honest to God, is just outside the gates on the roof of a Pizza Hut.. you don't even have to buy a slice.


Big attraction:  Ancient tombs all around.  Interesting history and hieroglyphics.

Quiet side of Elephantine Island.. not in the LP.

Smaller attraction:  Nubian village next to ruins.  Put away the guidebook and got lost in the windy streets.  Met some kids playing soccer and got schooled as the guest star goalie. Approached a group of guys to get directions home and am now invited to a wedding tomorrow.  At the market my buddy Greg pays for use of public bathroom with a cigarette. Guy hits him up for another smoke on the way out, so Greg makes him shake on the deal that we've got a free piss there tomorrow.  Everyone who hears I'm American smiles and says, "Obama good!"   Down the road I bought a t-shirt in a shop and the owner invites us to Christmas mass in the big Coptic church in town (their xmas is later than ours)  I might give this one a skip in light of what just happened in Alexandria.. as a believer I'd at least be a martyr, as an atheist I'd just be unlucky.  Talked with another guy a few blocks down while munching a falafel and he invites us for tea and hasheesh at his cafe overlooking the Nile... that might be more my speed.