Monday, January 26, 2009

To tour the ruins or ruin the tours? Hampi, India

Hampi is a boulder strewn moonscape of ancient ruins amid palm trees and banana plantations. It is bisected by a river which over the eons carved the granite bedrock into formations which cause endless speculation by climbers like me and the dreadlocked Israeli hippies alike, who flock here to achieve enlightenment via a gigantic spliff. Hampi is fascinating in it's sprawl of ruined statues and temples which defy time itself, but for some reason it just reminds me of the song "my humps." I can't get it out of my head. "My humps, my humps! My lovely lady lumps!"

Every day tourists flock to Hampi to observe the antiquity of the turbulent world of ancient India. As western tourists, we're the definite minority. Most of the people who come here are Indian in origin, and many of them are on a sort of pilgrimage to the site either out of intellectual interest or genuine spiritual devotion. We are therefore outsiders in so many ways, and we always feel like intruders as a result.

So when it comes time to deny the inevitable offer to join a "tour" we decide instead to remain in ignorance and wander around the ruins in a world of our own-- a world full of catch phrases and remembered lines from television shows and "my humps! my hump, my hump!" which I sing loudly as we walk. We walk through a crowd of Muslim women in Burkas and my friends are momentarily embarrassed as I do the motions which I assume correspond with the lines "don't pull on my hand boy, you ain't my man boy, I'm jus' tryna dance boy, and move my humps. In the back and in the front." I'll never know whether these Muslim women were embarrassed or offended. I can't see the expressions on their faces through their all-cloaking garments designed I'm sure to protect them against my humps.

I am wondering if there are other ways to ruin the tours. Should I go out of my way, or just be myself? Is my mere presence there enough? I feel like I am offending people who journey miles and miles to seek out the 500 year old statue of Ganesha and throw themselves at its feet in supplication, misery and joy all mixed confusedly together like vegetable curry. I non-chalantly take a picture and move on to the next boulder problem.

Bouldering is sort of a spiritual art, I tell myself. One can experience bliss and disappointment in the constant pursuit of perfection. This one doesn't have a good landing. It's too high-ball. Too slopey. Too much over-hang here. Certainly it involves a long journey and confronting new and unframilair things, like any other spiritual quest. I have come all the way to India for this Boulder. What makes the Indians so different from me? My musings are interrupted by Ritik's query.

"Should we go over here to the other temples whose names we can't pronounce?"

"They do have more letters."

Yentrodharaka Anjaneya temple. Yent- ro- dar- ah -ka. An -jah- ney? Whatever. I still feel bad about the women in Burkas and how I offended them. I pretty sure they don't understand my humps. I'm not even sure I understand them. So maybe they didn't know to be offended.

I lieback a small flake and lunge up to the highest hold and hit it. I try to find the right foot-holds before my body creeps earth-ward to the dirt, but my foot slips off the tiny crystal of granite and I fall. Try again. This time focus and don't be thinking about the woman in the Burka or what you're going to do with all that junk, all that junk inside your trunk.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Move b%$#@! Get out da Way! A lesson in Indian driving

I remember so clearly so many days where I would be flying down the highway, feeling the wind in my hair, watching the malevolent summer sun dip beneath the horizon on a curving road through the mountains, the air chilling my sunburned body, only to see those familiar blue-lights in the background. In my experience, the police officer who pulls me over usually expresses his outright contempt for my reckless disregard for life and threatens some kind of steeper more punishing fee than has been levied, scaring me into compliance with his authoritarian threats. At least India is lawless, I thought one day as I was handed the key to a drastically underpowered motorcycle which I had rented for 10$.

Not "lawless" exactly as it turns out. There are rules, but given India's history of road construction (most of the major roads have been built in the mid-1990's or later)it's lack of infrastructure including law enforcement vehicles, officers and the lack of clear laws render these necessary, these rules are mostly de-facto codes which dictate an informal road etiquette. I speak of simple rules like honking all the time for any reason with no explanation. It's just common courtesy.

Many of the vehicles that we pass on our stint on the Goan roads have signs painted on their bumper which remind us to "Horn ok please" "honk honk when pass" and my favorite-- "horni" which I am sure I am interpreting in the wrong sort of way.

The speedometer on my bike doesn't work. But this is just an inconvenience really since I have no idea what the speed limits are or what any of the other rules might be for that matter. Traffic consists of pedestrians, motorcycles, bikes, trucks, cars, rickshaws, cows and other animals including the very traffic savvy inbred Indian dog. Obstacles include all of the above plus potholes, road garbage (occasionally on fire), dead things, sand, and the dreaded Indian "hill" which very few Indians have successfully learned to navigate. Give them some credit-- their country is flat. Indian drivers on hills are like Californian drivers in snow.

My gas gauge doesn't work either. I just watched a guy pour three liters into the tank and the dial is reading very close to empty. I noticed this several minutes ago, but I begin to reevaluate my theories about the malfunctioning dials when my bike starts to lose power and lurches to a grinding halt in the trash speckled sand of the roadside-- right next to a cow eating garbage who looks up at me with an indifferent cud-chewing stare. This isn't the first time this has happened to me in India.

When I first rented a motorcycle we asked the owner deferentially if he had filled it up with gas. He nodded "yes" and we decided that the gas gauge was just another non-functional part of the decorations of the bike, like the big racing stripe down the side of the gas tank. I blame the miscommunication on misinterpreted body-language. In India, the nod means "maybe" and the head bob can mean anything. We've all started doing it. It's really convenient when you're just not sure how to answer. "Do you love me?" she might say, and your head bob will express nothing but get you off the hook. Also, in India it's not acceptable to give an unfavorable answer. Rather than tell you they don't know which way to the bank when you ask them for directions, they'll just motion wildly with their hands in the general direction in which you were already walking. This keeps everyone happy. I was surprised when I ran out of gas the first time, and totally un-shocked when it happened again.

Luckily, everyone keeps gas for such an occasion, and if they don't have it on hand, they'd be happy to siphon it out of their neighbors tractor for you and charge you an exorbitant amount for the spare liters which the neighbor may be paid for, or maybe not. You'll never know. But you're on the road again.

Laurel clings to me as the engine of this beautiful 1950's classic motorcycle rumbles down the pavement, the sensual vibrations of the motor propelling us faster down the winding road, into the future at a blinding pace. Suddenly, a man with a whistle jumps out in front of me confrontationally, and I swerve and slam on the brakes. The foot-brake is on the left side for some reason, and it takes me a second to react. I slow to a stop, nearly missing this lunatic road jumper who blows his whistle loudly in my ear. Is this just typical Indian madness? What is going on here?

He identifies himself as a police officer and asks me "where is your helmet?" sounding like a stern grandmother admonishing reckless youth. I look at him, stupefied. I'm thinking, "since when does India care about this?" and I'm trying to think of how to appropriately bribe him. What do you say "I've got four Mahatmas that say I was wearing a helmet"? I watch a man cruise past with three unhelmeted young children on the back of his bike. "Why didn't you stop him?" says Laurel. "Rules only for driver" says the Indian cop in the classic illogical fashion that characterizes this country and it's laws, or its semblance of laws. I sit there and stew, wondering what he will do to me. Will he beat me and then send me on my way?

Instead he stands out into traffic and pulls over another unhelmeted motorist who slams on his brakes, nearly killing a road-side goat, and comes to an enraged but powerless stop in the middle of the freeway. Seeing as how this officer was now busy with another gentlemen, he simply writes me a ticket for 100 rupees (2 USD) and sends me on my way with a handful of educational literature.

Later while nursing my fragile driver's ego over a few beers, I peruse the educational literature. One pamphlet is shaped like a cell phone and warns "if you steer, don't talk. If you talk, don't steer" and threatens that "while you steer if you talk your driving concentration gets reduced." Another pamphlet tells us that "two wheeler is meant for two and not too many." I wonder if the motorcycle which held a helmetless and nursing mother received a ticket like we did, as the happy father drove recklessly through the palm forest's winding roads.

Two things are certain with regard to Indian driving. The first is that this whole thing is relatively new and therefore they are making an effort not only to form the appropriate laws but also to enforce them in all cases, recklessly stepping in front of every lawbreaker. The other certainty is that I'll be more careful next time officer.