Max's Blog

How Pop Culture Leads and Misleads

Tag: travel

Eye Spy

Usually I would do a bunch of very scholarly research (ie. wikipedia) to provide some background on this mysterious, a little bit scary rock with human-like eyes I saw in Jaisalmer, India. But I’ve got nothing. Anybody know what their deal is?


Jaisalmer Photos II

Jaisalmer Photos

Who’s Sari Now?

As a white tourist you must be mindful of many things. Before we left for India, I promised never to pose for photographs with my hands together in the ‘namaste’ style or crossed-legged with fingertips touching in the lotus position. I made this promise in a facebook status so you know I was serious. While travelling we saw some truly shocking fashion crimes committed by Western tourists, some dressed like they were at home (young women in The Hills tank tops and short shorts) or others who went too far the other way, resembling a wacked-out hippie’s concept of traditional Indian clothing mixed with Israeli rave culture. Another observation: young Asian female tourists love their extreme drop-crotch harem pants. They love ’em.

We tried to strike a balance between dressing like ourselves and being respectful. I wore jeans, t-shirts, polo shirts and hoodies, which is what a lot of Indian men wear. For Indian women, though, the sari still reigns supreme. Simple in construction but complex in draping and detailing, saris come in every vibrant hue of a Bollywood musical or the coloured powder of Holi. And they cross classes. When I noticed that even street sweepers had saris in eye-popping fuchsia, saffron, emerald and cerulean, I realized that the connection between bright colours and wealth may only be a Western thing.

Our first night in Jaisalmer, Kuldeep told us that we could rent traditional Rajasthan outfits at a shop next door for our sunset dinner on the roof of the hotel. Now, as a white person, I realized that dressing up in Indian clothes could be problematic. Mostly, I could be making a tit of myself. But as a student of fashion I felt it would be an educational experience. If I must be honest, what I really wanted was a sari like the girls were getting, but I thought that my bearded self in women’s clothes might be a little too much for Jaisalmer.

My tunic and baggy trousers came with a turban, which is simply a very long piece of fabric tightly wrapped around your head several times. Not surprisingly, the woman who ran the shop kept reminding us that we could purchase our rented outfits, but I knew I would never be able to wrap the turban myself, although I do think men look handsome in them.

Maybe I should find myself a Sikh boyfriend. I realize this may be difficult, but nothing is impossible.

And lastly…


Not in Kansas Anymore

Actually… no. I will not use another ‘Wizard of Oz’ metaphor. I shall not. I’m trying to get help with that, which is why I’ve checked myself in to the Rufus Wainwright Institution for Compulsive Judy Obsessives. But how to accurately describe what it felt like arriving in the beautiful fort city of Jaisalmer?

I know! I’ll do something really different for me; I’ll put it in terms of ‘Sex and the City’.

I hadn’t expected to have a moment like the problematic part in ‘Sex and the City 2’ when the girls first arrive in Abu Dhabi and marvel at their luxurious hotel and gorgeously-exotic surroundings. We were, after all, on a ‘budget’ trip, and I was prepared for less-than-opulent accommodations.

After waking up to see the sand dunes of the desert out the train window, we had barely finished our cups of chai when Kuldeep, our tour leader, popped into our cabin, looking crisp and clean, as though he had showered. He pointed out the approaching hill-top city.

“Are we staying up there?” someone asked.

“Yes, we’re staying in the fort,” he answered. I thought he was joking.

Auto-rickshaws whipped us from the train station, ascending the hill and through the walled city’s yellow-stone gate. Inside, it was like a European city, a labyrinthine maze of narrow streets, alleyways and markets. Whereas in Delhi everything had felt grey, in Jaisalmer both the walls and the sun were golden.

And Kuldeep didn’t lie: we were staying in the fort, which felt like the top of the world. We raced around the hotel like giddy school kids checking out each other’s rooms as they all had something special: one had a balcony, another a window seat. Ours had a sitting room. Through the stained glass windows, which faced towards the Pakistan border, you could see the surrounding town, a sports field, the odd camel in a backyard.

Eventually, when we had calmed down about our rooms and unpacked, we all found our way to the roof, where of course there was a restaurant, with a meek young waiter (could not have been more than 20) who always remembered exactly what each person ordered. Sometimes you could hear Pakistani fighter jets, creating a ‘Casablanca’ atmosphere. But at twilight, if you looked in the other direction at the rooftops and towering spires of the Jain temple, you could witness another kind of battle: kids playing with their kites, occasionally deliberately entangled the wires in a “kite war” to see whose was stronger.

I did not realize that in the 21st century children still had so much fun with kites. Which is why you should, despite what bed-bound Dorothy says at the very end of , venture past front yard and seek adventure and the unknown.


Night Train to Jaisalmer

“Oh, dude, you have no idea! They’ll be just a hole in the floor and you’ll have to squat over it. And there’s nothing to hold onto, and everything is dirty, but the train’s moving, so you want to hold the wall so you don’t fall down. But there’s shit everywhere, so you don’t know what to do! You brought your own TP, right? Get ready.”

This was Ankit, one of the Kiwis on our tour, describing the washrooms on Indian trains. He had been born in India, but moved to New Zealand soon after. He had visited his parents’ country many times and spoke Hindi, which proved useful when we needed someone to yell at queue-cutters and order spicy dishes for us (waiters did not trust the taste buds of white people). Ankit was on the tour because he wanted to show his girlfriend Danny the country from which he came. They became our closest friends despite the fact that, due to their accents, I thought her name was “Denny” (which is still how I pronounce it).

I’m not a germaphobe. I am pretty relaxed about those things, and did not reach for my hand sanitizer as much as some of the others. But I do not like the smell of excrement, and the idea of squatting in some foul bathroom on a moving train with my arms stretched out in a make-shift yoga position (the Indians did invent it, didn’t they?) did not fill my heart with joy.

The grimy train station in New Delhi didn’t do much to alleviate my fears. After we threw our backpacks in a heap and formed a protective circle around them (a maneuver we would refine at train station after train station) we took in the sights and sounds around us. Third-class commuter trains clanked pass in which men stood shoulder to shoulder (we called them ‘cattle-cars’). Rats scurried along the tracks. The toilets on Indian trains are just holes that release their contents out onto the tracks below and, probably because of balancing issues, many passengers wait until they are at the station before using them. So I should have said “sights and sounds and smells”.

You may think of yourself as a hardcore backpacker, a Mountain Equipment Co-op adventurer, who thrives on overnight trains, cold showers (or none at all) and sporadic street-food meals of mysterious contents. But after only a little while, the romance begins to evaporate and all you want is a warm bath and your pillow from home. You forget that the inconveniences of travel are why you bought your plane ticket, that ‘the journey’ is the oldest story of humankind. Very few tales are about being comfortable and safe.

Still, after two foggy days in Delhi, we were all ready for a bit of sun and a bit of pampering. I just wanted to get on the train, find our seats and shut out the world for awhile.

I should thank Ankit for freaking us out. He set the bar so low that our train once it arrive could only be a pleasant surprise. Der and I were sharing a compartment with him and Danny and two other of our girls. The standard Indian overnight train has a large compartment on one side, with six bunks that pull down, and a thin, vertical one across the corridor which has two bunk beds. It was not so different from a European train. We even had a curtain that pulled across to give us privacy from the aisle.

But where the lowered expectations really paid off was the bathrooms. There were two: a “western” one (ie. with a toilet) and an Indian-style one (ie. a hole in the ground). The water in the sinks ran and there was no shit all over the walls. I didn’t have to squat over a squatter for the entire five weeks we were in India.

Before the train left, Ankit found himself some travel food. One would assume travel food would be solid substances which create the least mess possible. Not in India. Whatever it was Ankit bought, it was a plastic container with a variety of liquidy sauces which you dipped paratha in. This had the potential of creating the most mess possible.

That train ride was also our fist encounter with the ‘chai guys’, the young men who walk up and down the aisles chanting a rhythmic “Chai, chai, chai, chai!” There are regional variations of the refrain. Some do it very fast, a rat-a-tat-tat- “CHAI-CHAI-CHAI-CHAI!” Others let out a solitary, lonely “Chai…!” Chai, both on trains and off, and it is available everywhere, is always served very hot and milky and sweet, and wee little shot-glass are five rupees (about 17 cents). I can not overstate how comforting a little cup can be. 

The men sometimes sell snacks and, even though they announce them in English, the calls have become so monotonous and melodic, you still have to decipher them. Tomato soup (which is poured from the same giant canteens they use for chai) becomes “TO-MAAAAAA-to-sup!” Danny had us in stitches with her impression, rounding out every accented syllable, of “veg-get-ta-ble cut-let”. We never learned what a ‘vegetable cutlet’ actually was, but for the rest of the trip, when a conversation had died down and everyone was quiet, someone would whisper, “Veg-get-ta-ble cut-let.”

As you can see, rather than something that had to be lived through, that night train turned out to be really enjoyable. Not since undergrad had I experienced a night in which everyone had so much to  share. When we were setting up our beds and sleeping bags we could barely stop talking, like kids during a sleep over, too excited to quiet down.

There was an incident in the night, when we had finally started to drift off, when an Indian man just threw open the curtains and claimed that we were in his seats. After several increasingly annoyed exchanges with Angit in Hindi, he left.

“What did you say?” I asked.

“I told him he was wrong and to fuck off,” Angit laughed.

“That’s all?” From that point onward, when Ankit would speak to locals in Hindi, whether it be asking directions or placing an order with a head-wabbling waiter, I would marvel at how many sentences it took to get across a simple message.

After that, as we finally stopped talking, as we got comfortable on our hard little bunks and got used to the rocking of the train, I fell asleep. I got a better night’s rest than I did either night in Delhi.

We woke up in the desert.

Feeling Sikh to the Stomach


Phil and Liz, who share the first names of their queen and her husband, were a British couple on our tour. They had married quite young and had been married for quite some time. Liz was a lovely woman, very interested in everything. She should have been a teacher. Phil had a white beard and what must be described as a twinkle in his eye (an Indian man on the street once yelled “Santa Claus!” at him). Liz had wanted to come to India her whole life. Phil had not.

Part of the difficulty was that back home in London Phil wrote health and safety manuals. India is not the place you want to go when your career is making sure everything is un-sketchy and above board. The fact that a taxi driver once took a cell phone call while driving a van-full of us down a winding mountain road, with Phil demanding that he hang up (“I’m not joking! Put down the phone, please!”) was, in hindsight, one of the more minor safety infringements we witnessed.

In India you routinely have to drum out what was drilled into you as a child, stop looking for that seat belt and enjoy the ride.

After a visit to the Jama Masjid, India’s largest mosque, and a walk through Old Delhi, where we saw our first monkeys, greedily eyeing some bananas, Kuldeep took us to a Sikh temple.

“Now, at this Sikh temple,” he began, pronouncing Sikh like ‘sick’, “You will be welcomed by a man who is very knowledgeable about religion, very knowledgeable about history, but he is the type of man that if you ask him a question, he will answer it for thirty minutes. So please keep this in mind.”

Outside the temple we took off our shoes and washed our feet under an open tape. Both the water and the marble floor were freezing cold. We were led into what felt like the temple’s waiting room and we met the verbose gentleman. He wore a brightly coloured turban.

He welcomed us and began to explain the Sikh religion. This went on for quite some time and eventually worked in an allegory about Snow White. I’m not kidding. It had something to do with the Evil Queen and not liking what she saw in the mirror and how the ignorant of us, when confronted by reflections we don’t like, try to change the mirror rather than ourselves. It’s an interesting philosophical point but which has nothing to do in the slightest with the story of Snow White.

When the talk was finally over orange handkerchiefs were handed out for us to tie around our heads before we entered the temple. As we began putting them on I heard someone beside me ask if he had to. It was Phil.

Phil began a conversation with the longwinded gentleman about religion.  Not only did I think he was insane for beginning a protracted debate about spirituality (with this man in particular), but I was also embarrassed as a white Westerner. Inside, I was rolling my eyes.

Now, I’m not religious at all. In the ongoing battle between the Hitchens atheists and the Blair faithful, I am unmovable in the former camp. But when you’re in freakin’ India and you get welcomed into a Sikh temple, just put the God-damned bandana on and be respectful.

But Phil kept to his guns and the rest of us went into the temple leaving him and the gentleman outside debating. We walked around the main altar and sat quietly on the carpet watching the faithful pray. Then they showed us the low-tech kitchen where women were rolling dough. Many Sikh temples have kitchens for the needy.

When we went back to the waiting room, the cosmic debate was just winding down.

“I think you should read a bit more about science,” Phil was saying, with a smile.

Unsurprisingly for a small group travelling together, we eventually learned everything about each other, including the tidbit that Phil and Liz had escaped a cult as a newly married couple. They left with no money, young children and family members who shunned them. This shed some light on Phil’s stubborn scepticism.

And, despite his complaining (which was always done with a smile) I think he rather enjoyed the madness of India. And anyways, the deal had been that if he took Liz to India she would go RVing around New Zealand with him. Thus are strong marriages made.

So How Was India?

Oh my God, I’m such a tease. I acted like I was about to post everything about my trip and then disappeared for three weeks. My apologies. You see, what had happened was that I started writing about New Delhi (twice, actually) and bogged down in the second paragraph both times, unable to go on. I had wanted to write chronologically, creating impressions for you, the reader, of all the different places we went, cities many of which I had not heard of before our trip.

But it all became too daunting. And I was working on my WORN article. And some other excuses, but they stop now. Having caught a cold after some intense days working out at the Y and a fabulous birthday (cake from the WORN girls; surprise decorated living room; the first Szechwan Chinese food we’ve tried since Peter’s mournful closing). So, curled up on the couch amidst a pile of crumpled Kleenexes, with my laptop keeping me warm like a snoozing kitten, updating my blog is unavoidable.

Well, I have some internships to apply for…

No. No more excuses.

“So how was India?” friends ask when I see them for the first time.

“Great,” I say. “Really great.” What else can one say?  

My friend Alyssa caught the right drift when she asked me increasingly-specific questions, knowing that answers would lead to different stories like branches on a tree.

But many of you don’t even know the basics of my trip, so I will start there.

Dervla and I went on an Intrepid tour of Northern India. There were sixteen of us (we eventually settled on the somewhat-lame nickname ‘the Sweet Sixteen’). The group was comprised of Aussies, Kiwis, a few Brits with us as the only North Americans. We were surrounded by people for whom Queen Victoria’s manner of speaking had left a greater legacy on their tongues than on our own.

Our tour leader was a young Indian man named Kuldeep, which means ‘the light of home’ he told us during our orientation meeting in the chilly basement of our hotel in Delhi. He was charming and Bollywood handsome, with a broad, bright smile, but with an accent which sometimes reminded me of the aliens in ‘Galaxy Quest’.

Intrepid took care of transportation and accommodation, and Kuldeep personally was in charge of getting us from the one to the other. Usually this meant coming around on the train to warn us when our stop was coming up (on night trains, we would be groggy and a bit cranky, especially if we hadn’t been able to buy a five-rupee cup of chai yet), leading us through the station, and making us huddle by the side of the road while he sorted through the crowd of drivers who surrounded him, recognizing a tour leader of a bunch of cash-dispensing white people. He’d miraculously  arrange six tuk-tuks (auto-rickshaws) to take us to our hotel. Often when speaking to other Indians, Kuldeep’s smile would disappear and he would become all business.

With the tour we went to New Delhi, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur, Pushkar, Jaipur, Bharatpur, Agra, Varanasi and Kolkata. We rode trains, buses, taxis, auto-rickshaws, cycle-rickshaws, paddle boats and camels. Der and I left the tour in Kolkata and flew to the South, staying in Kerala, Goa and ending our trip in Mumbai. I feel like the old lady in ‘Titanic’, presented with the computer animated retelling of the ship’s sinking boiled down to essentials, informing the men “The actual experience was quite different.”

Here are some pictures of New Delhi.


Such a Long Journey

‘What am I doing here?’

The room was large and dark and cold. Our first night in India and I’m shivering under a measly blanket. The furniture in our hotel room is ridiculously oversized. An intimidating hulking wardrobe hogs almost an entire wall. Despite the entire place being made of cold, echoing marble, the walls are thin and let in the sounds from the street. Although it is only four am, New Delhi is coming to life with noises that sound nothing like noises at home. In my semi-asleep state the difference between inside and outside is blurred and the early morning bustle, the cars and dogs and chatter, are invading our room.

‘Why am I here?’ I also asked myself, and for the first time became a little scared.

British Airways, with whom we had flown eight hours to London and then seven hours to Delhi, went quickly from being my new favourite airline to being my least favourite. I had never flown with my own personal TV screen before, and got giddy watching romantic comedies and ‘How I Met Your Mother’ and ‘Frasier’ and never-before-seen Britcoms and an episode of ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ with Sarah Jessica Parker in which she discovers an ancestor who may have accused someone of being a witch in Salem (“I feel… that if my forebear… was in any way responsible…for a person being accused, I would feel like… it sounds silly, but I would feel like I would somehow have to… atone.”)

Dervla and I drank gin and tonics (“The drink of the colonists,” she told me. “It supposedly helped stave off malaria,”) and buzzed over the Atlantic.

In the futuristic Heathrow Five in London we had to run to catch our connecting flight and just barely made it. We asked the flight attendant as we boarded to check if our bags had made it on.

“They have been processed; they’re in our system.”

“What does that mean?”

“It means I’m ninety percent certain they will be put on.”

And, as the pilot apologized because we were delayed due to a few more bags being loaded, we high-fived and had another gin and tonic.

We arrived at the Delhi airport in the middle of the night and a middle-aged man with vibrantly hennaed hair checked me through customs. Like a lot in New Delhi, the airport is sparklingly new, with wall-sized posters representing the different groups of India beaming at you as you enter the washrooms (the Sikh, warm and turbaned; the Kashmiri, beautiful and Asiatic, with a river boat in the background).

I was relieved when I spotted Dervla’s backpack coming along the ramp, for if hers made it on, surely mine would fully.

Oh, silly Max.

After twenty minutes, when we were sure it wasn’t coming, I crabbily filled out a form and was assured that my bag was on another flight, would be arriving the next day and would be delivered directly to our hotel.

The outside of the airport looked like any other airport. It actually reminded me of the Dublin airport, airports being one of those globalized spaces that are both in specific countries and are not. A man from Intrepid picked us up and, as Dervla made small talk with an Irish couple who were also being ferried to their hotel, I looked out the foggy windows.

We passed highway overpasses and grassy islands and dark laneways. It didn’t look that different from driving from Pearson in the early morning. Only the odd band of dark figures, huddled around open fires, made me feel we weren’t in Toronto any more.

I was worried about my bag. I had never lost a bag and now when I was arriving in my first third world country, about to set off on a three week tour the next day, did my trusty backpack go missing. Beyond the practicality of needing my toothbrush and more undies (and some official forms which Intrepid claimed we needed, which of course ended up in my bag and not Der’s), you want to have your stuff when you arrive in a foreign land because you need that little bit of home.

The next afternoon, a driver would show up and after I ran back upstairs to retrieve the airport form to prove the bag was mine, and then again to grab some money because he gruffly requested a tip, I would be reunited with my clothes and books (as you all may know, my favourite kinds of objects).

That early morning though, arriving in our Delhi neighbourhood, illuminated by neon signs and with wild dogs wandering the deserted streets, all I wanted was a bed.

There’s No Place Like…

I lay in bed.

I have done that a lot in the week since I got back.

Why did I never realize my bed was the most comfortable thing in the world? Took six weeks of minuscule thin mattresses on top of hard plywood frames to realize that.

My room is winter-grey. And quiet. No cars honking outside, no dogs barking (except for our elderly yellow lab who now runs the household). No men yelling at each other on the street. (Were they fighting? Were they greeting each other? Who knew.) No mournful call to prayer.

I should get up.

I have things to do.

Laundry, for one. That took me two whole days to attend to.

And I need to find a job… again. This time I promised, swore to God like clench-fisted Scarlet O’Hara, that I would not work in the service industry again. But maybe I will.

There’s snow outside my window.

And my WORN article. A feature, mind you. Need to work on that. But then I remembered Monday was a holiday (thank you, Dalton!) so maybe I could excusably sleep another day.

I roll out of bed. My backpack’s lying on my floor, as though I still might need it for something soon.

I stumble downstairs. Am I still allowed to be jet-lagged?

Denied regular access to both coffee and facebook for six weeks, I now abuse both, microwaving my mug and repeatedly pressing the ‘refresh’ button, waiting for emails which never come.

Which reminds me: I need to download my photos, two memory cards worth. Like putting my backpack away, that will really mean the trip is over.

I know I should, that I’ll enjoy looking at the pictures and all the memories they bring back, but I don’t want to. Yet.

So I snuggle back into my very comfortable bed, the most comfortable bed in the world, and read more of The Corrections.

Despite all the coffee, I fall back asleep.

In the afternoon I actually manage to get dressed and walk to Dervla’s. She is also having trouble readjusting. She also took embarrassingly long to do her laundry.

We walk to Starbucks and get hot chocolates.

“I’ve been checking your blog every day to see if you’ve started writing about our trip yet,” she says.

And my blog. Another responsibility. Writing is yet another activity which will put the trip firmly in the past tense.

I need to start, though. The longer I wait, the more I adjust to being back home, the more India feels like a dream.

Also, where to begin?

I’ll start at the beginning.