Friday, December 29, 2006

Chaos bringing people together

Making friends amongst travellers in India is really easy. For a traveller who arrived here alone, such as myself, the thanks is owed to the Indian railway system. I think it is the fact that we all feel so much at the mercy of this cumbersome, confusing, congested and often unreliable system. This results in independent travellers feeling so joined together. Not that I am complaning. I understand why the railway system is like this - it is a huge country, largely poor, and it is heavily populated throughout.

As I said, the upside of the railway chaos is that it draws travellers together. I had arranged to meet my pen-pal for the first time on Sunday evening. As a result, I decided that I would try to book a ticket to Goa for the Monday night. The overnight train from Mumbai to Goa departs Mumbai at 11pm, getting to Goa about 12 hours later.

In Mumbai, there is a special queue for travellers applying for tickets on the tourist quota. My first task that Sunday morning was to find that queue (ticket window) - the central train station in Mumbai is massive! I saw two very attractive European looking girls in the station, and I approached them to ask where the tourist counter was. They were very friendly, and told me they had just found the tourist counter and bought tickets, so they related to me exactly where to go. They told me they were from Argentina (from memory), and on closer inspection, they appeared to be identical twins. Damn it, i should have asked them that - it would have kept the conversation going longer.

On finding the tourist counter, i joined the queue, which was not very long, but very slow moving. The noise levels in the station make it very difficult to communicate with the ticket officer behind the plexi-glass, and the strong Indian accent only makes it more difficult when the customers are non-Indian. It should be noted that there are many Indians who appear to speak perfectly good English from a vocabularly and grammatical perspective, but the strong accent (often far stronger than the normal Indian accent of Indians who live abroad or work in call-centres) can literally make it seem like they are speaking a different language altogether. In front of me in the queue were couple about my age. The guy (Aaron) was from Austria, and the girl (Sandra) was from Peru. They are both doing their masters in "peace studies" somewhere in Austria, and are trying to work their way down to the south where they have some project to do related to their studies. Apparently, they are to me mediating in some conflict. But for now, they have their own conflicts to deal with. Firstly, with the Indian railways system. And secondly, like myself, Aaron is suffering from a bad sore throat. They hold my spot in the line, and I go to look for throat lozenges for both Aaron and I. I also go to enquire about buses, in case we can't get on a train, which are often full. I return with both western style menthol lozenges, as well as these curious tiny black Indian pills in a green vile. Aaron tries really likes the Indian pills, vowing to buy more.

Aaron and Sandra discover that it is not enough to have money and passport - a tourist needs proof that they have acquired Indian currency legitimately. Either a receipt from a legitimate money-changer, or an ATM receipt. They have neither, but I have fortunately kept my ATM receipt, on the advice of an Israeli I had met at Chabad. They give me the cash for their tickets, and I buy tickets for all 3 of us using my ATM receipt. Unfortunately for me, they are wanting to leave that night, but I can't leave until the following night as I don't know what time Sarita and I will be finishing our evening. Nevertheless, the friendship struck up in the queue led to us going out to lunch together as well as doing some browsing in the markets. They had just arrived in Mumbai, while I was already a veteran of a few days, so I was acting as something of a guide to the Colaba area. They had flown in to Delhi, where they had a day, and then a flight to Mumbai. They told me that Delhi was far worse than Mumbai (well, at least Colaba and Churchgate area) in terms of poverty and dirtiness etc.

Not long after this conversation, we came across the body of a man lying on the sidewalk. The body was covered up except for the head and feet. There were flies all over the body, and I asked Aaron and Sandra sincerely “Do you think he’s just asleep, or is he dead?” Sandra reflexively replied “No, I don’t think so, it couldn’t be, he’s just asleep.” But Aaron and I moved in for a closer look, nodded to each other, and then Aaron looked back to Sandra, who had maintained her distance, to indicate that he did think the man was dead. No longer being our first day in India, we all pretty much took the discovery of a corpse in our stride, and moved on, without giving it too much more discussion. Context is everything. I doubt if the same thing had happened in Australia or Austria for that matter, that we could have been so casual about it as to continue on our way to find a nice place to eat lunch.

When I say goodbye to Aaron and Sandra that afternoon, it was really quite heartfelt considering the brief amount of time we had known each other. We said to eachother that hopefully we will bump into each other in Goa, but I know realistically that probably won't happen, as neither of us has even decided what part of the Goa region we are going to.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Shabbos in Mumbai

First day (Friday 15th) in Mumbai was crazy. Thanks to all the scary stories I had heard, I was really paranoid (the paranoia passes after a day or so) about pickpockets and bag snatchers etc while walking down the street. After a fairly meager room service breakfast of toast and tea, I realized I didn’t have any bottle water to wash my teeth with. I decided to use tea instead of water, such is the paranoid madness that infects someone on their first day in India. After brushing my teeth, I locked all my baggage, summoned my courage, and I ventured out into the streets. I was clutching my small backpack the whole time, and constantly checking that my wallet, passport, and money belt were all in place. After a bit of a walk, I decided to try and find Beyt Chabad, as I planned to go there that night anyway, so I figured it would be good to work out where it is. The map I had was good, except that I overestimated the distances. It turned out it was only two blocks from my accommodation. It is down a tiny laneway (frequented by pedestrians and goats) off the main road (frequented by oxen and everything else). It was heartening to see a menorah amongst all that chaos.

The Shabbos dinner on Friday night was excellent. It was about 40 people. Most were Israeli travelers, but not all. Some were volunteers for various organizations, some Israeli businessmen, and even a photo-journalist (say it with a French accent) from France. There was also one Jewish Indian family there – very nice people. I got plenty of valuable information from the travelers I sat next to.

Gil, the guy sitting next to me on my right, about my age, was in India to buy diamonds for his company. He had, with a degree of guilt, confessed to me that information, as well having had confessed to having what he described as a "soft landing” in India, as he had arrived with his boss and they had been staying at the luxury Taj Mahal Hotel (which is confusingly in Colaba, Mumbai - no where near the actual Taj Mahal which is in Agra near Delhi - but one of the world's more famous hotels nonetheless). However, his boss had gone back to Israel, and he was now in India on his own, "finishing off some other business," what ever that meant, and now staying in far less luxurious accommodation. I asked Gil what the Indians were like to do business with and he said something to the effect that he had found them to be surprisingly tough and cunning in the negotiations. Gil asked me if I normally have a Kiddush back in Australia. “Yes, every Shabbat, normally with my family.” He then replied, again quietly, that this had been one of the very few times in his life. I said “That can’t be true. Do you have a Pesach seder every year?” “Yes.” “So then I’m guessing that you say the opening Kiddush there, so you have a Kiddush at least once a year.” “I guess so, sort of…” “Well, you’re here now, that’s what counts” I said, as if to reassure him, but he looked at me puzzlingly. Thinking he didn’t quite hear me, I repeated myself, “Well, you’re here now, that’s what counts,” but he didn’t seem to understand that English language expression.

They also did the thing where they went around the room and everyone introduced themselves, gave their Hebrew name, said something interesting, or told a story, or suggested a song. I told them all about my Lariam experiences, and it got quite a few laughs, but I don’t think it quite amused the crowd as much as my name, “Alter Leyzar.”

Later, I noticed Gil had missed his turn. “Hey, you didn’t stand up and tell everyone about yourself.”

“Oh no, not for me, believe me, this is not for me.” He was the only person who didn’t take their turn. Perhaps it was that he was somewhat embarrassed about his profession in the present company of all these hippy-like travellers, many of whom were about his own age. “Actually, I really need to get going…” and he excused himself to me, and left. It was if I had served as a kind of counsellor for Gil to confess a few things that for his own reasons had been causing him anxiety. I think, because I was not a fellow Israeli, that he had felt more comfortable to confide in me all that he had believed in his own mind to put him on the outer from almost everyone else.

The next morning, I went to Knesset Eliyahoo, the famous Iraqi synagogue . When I was called to the Torah, the gabbai asked me in Hebrew “What’s your name?”
“Alter Leyzar ben Shmuel” to which he replied in Hebrew “No, what’s your Hebrew name?” I repeated “Alter Leyzar ben Shmuel – Alter Leyzar, it’s a Yiddish name.” Clearly, the Iraqis had never heard such an Ashkenazi name before. Myself, the Ashkenazic rabbi (who was there from Beyt Chabad), and the Gabbai, all just laughed.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Passage to India

Well, here is my first post since I left Australia. Don't expect champagne writing – I don't have the time to for that. When I get back to Australia, I'll hopefully write a bit more elaborately about my trip. For now, I'd just like to update you on what's been happening.

The flight over was a long process, as it always is when you fly to anywhere from Perth. On the flight to Phuket, they showed "The Illusionist." It was a good film, but I thought the ending was weak and not consistent with the incidents in the film. As far as 2006 films about magicians go, I'd place it second behind "The Prestige." OK, enough with the film critique already.

The plane was on the tarmac in Phuket for about 45 minutes (passengers going on to Bangkok were told to stay on the plane). Some new passengers boarded, and next to me sat a Thai guy, a surgeon who turned out to be both a windsurfing enthusiast (although he's now much more into kitesurfing). That gave us plenty to talk about. "Kitesurfing is addictive" he told me, adding "I think about kitesurfing constantly." Apart from talking about that, I also asked him what he thought about the military coup in Thailand. He wasn't too concerned, and was largely positive about it, as he said the government had been corrupt. It's funny how people just get used to things, be it annoyingly ubiquitous mobile phone ring-tones, or military coups. I can't imagine a similarly educated Australian person being so nonchalant about the elected government being displaced by the military.

The new Bangkok airport terminal, which has only been opened a month or two, is absolutely massive, and a true marvel of human architecture. It reminded me of the Death Star in "Return of the Jedi" but not so much of the one in "Star Wars (A New Hope)." While browsing in one of the duty free shops, I saw two girls, one of them with Hebrew writing on the back of her t-shirt.
"So, I'm guessing you two or on your way back from Shnat?"
"Yes, how did you know that?" as if I might be psychic.
"Well, to be honest, I just read the back of your shirt" I said, as if disappointingly confessing that I wasn't. We all laughed a bit at that.
"We're on our way back home"
"Where's that?"
"Oh yeah? I'm from Perth too." Something of a coincidence I thought.
"Do you know what Habonim is?" they asked.
"Yeh (I'm not stupid), I'm just a lot older than you, that's all."
"Did you go to Habo?"
"A little bit, but I wasn 't like a huge Habo person or anything. My sister was really into Habo though. She went on Shnat and was a madracha and all that"
"What's her name?"
I told them. It drew a blank, as I expected. "You won't know her, she's even older than me!" It was a reminder of how fast time has flown the last ten years or so. It's really scary where all these years went.

I went to the departure gate, hoping they'd be some other travellers to meet – may be we could even split a cab. However, it was virtually all Indians in our departure lounge. I spoke to only one person, an Indian guy named Mathu, who had the appearance of someone who worked in I.T. I asked him a few questions about India, and he was very polite. When we boarded the plane, by amazing coincidence, it turned out his was the seat next to mine. I gave Mathu the address of my blog, and said I'd mention him...well, there it was.

On arrival at Mumbai airport, I changed some money, and took a pre-paid cab to the hotel. When I got in the cab, I showed the driver a printout of the address of the hotel. However, I soon realized that he was probably illiterate (later this was confirmed by an Indian friend that almost all taxi drivers are illiterate), so I just told him orally. Amazingly, he managed to drop me right to the door. The ride from the airport was a big shock. The chaos of the traffic (which included the odd horse, bull, and goat), the masses of poor people sleeping on the ground by the side of the road, or under a parked bus. Forget motorcyclists having helmets, some didn't even wear shoes. Many times it seemed that we were going to be in accident, but we never were – it's just how people drive in India.

When we arrived at the hotel, it really looked like a dump from the outside. They told me my room was in the guest house, an annex around the corner. A guy carried my large backpack, I held onto to my overnight bag, and we walked to the guest house. A large rat ran by on the street, just in front of where we were walking. Two couples of foreigners (Americans I think) also walked passed about the same time. They appeared intoxicated, and they laughed, as if either at myself or the porter. I was feeling very disconcerted – the dirtiness and poverty was still affecting me – but those laughing Americans, they really exacerbated that feeling. I wanted to turn around and say "Can I help you with something, friend?" Travis Bickle (DeNiro character in Taxi Driver) style.

We got to room, and it was a relief to see it was nice and spacious with colonial furniture, just like on the pictures I saw on the internet. I unpacked some toiletries, took a nice cool shower, and went to sleep.

Coming up in future blog posts: I go to Shabbat Chanukah at Chabad, and then later, I meet Sarita (my Indian penpal) in person for the first time.

Monday, December 11, 2006

India trip, entry 1: Mind-altering experiences

Frosh Travel Diary – India trip, entry 1: Mind-altering experiences:

Ok, some people may be thinking why I am writing my first entry to my travel diary now, 2 days before I leave to India. In a word: Mefloquine (sold under the brand name Larium).

After, much deliberation, and internet research into anti-malarial medication, as well as consultation with my Father, I decided to take Larium. You only have to take it weekly and it’s commonly prescribed in Europe. It is not the usual medication prescribed in Australia, however; that’s doxycycline (which has its own problems)- plus you have to remember to take that one daily.

I took my first tablet last Thursday. So far I don’t think I have suffered any of the more uncommon and serious side effects that I had been worried about it. However, I have noticed that I had been feeling sleepy at times when I ought not to have, and not feeling sleepy at times when I ought to have. Furthermore, while sleeping, I have been experiencing for more dreams than usual. Dreams that feel far more vivid, more detailed, feel more real, and stay in the memory for longer. I looked it up online today, and these sleep problems, as well as the dreaming, are apparently common side effects. I think the Europeans must view mind-altering side effects less seriously than Australians do.

By the way, apologies to anyone whose face I may have yawned in over the last few days.

On Saturday night at Frank’s (from Judo) going-back-to-Europe party, I mentioned I was taking Mefloquine (in the context that I was refusing alcohol). Some guy with a broad Aussie accent, a registered nurse so he said, started lecturing me that I was crazy to be on it, and that it’s a toxic drug, and was extremely bad for you etc, I don’t think he got the irony that he was both drunk and stoned while he was giving the “don’t take drugs” lecture.

Last night, I was at the airport, I had all this luggage (far more than I will actually be taking in the awake world) – I had to repack it at the airport for some security regulations, and my immediate family were all there, but they weren’t helping one bit. My friend Marji was there too (in this alternate universe, he was joining me on the trip, but had almost no luggage, just a tiny day pack. “Yes, am I travelling light. It is typical Czech, actually”). Marji wasn’t helping with the luggage repacking either. So real did the dream feel, that it took me several minutes of being awake this morning to stop being pissed off at my family and Marji. (Marji, quit giggling while you read this!) “You didn’t have to help repack, but you could have at least hung around and watched my other bags for me, instead of all selfishly wondering off to have a coffee.”

I will try to write regular journal entries, but that will depend on availability of internet facilities amongst other things. Don’t expect entries to be proof-read!

The Day After Yesterday: The aftermath of daylight saving

The Day After Yesterday: The aftermath of daylight saving.

Yesterday (Sunday 3rd Dec) was the first day of daylight saving in Perth for nearly 20 years, and I must admit the first day went pretty well. On Saturday night I adjusted all my watches and clocks – I even went around to my grandparents and adjusted their video clock for them, thus cementing myself in their top four favourite grandchildren. “Take that, Blake, Alana, and Michelle!” But I digress…On Sunday morning, I woke up, rode my bike down to Inglewood pool to swim some laps, all at a lazy 10am. However, in UV radiation terms, it was like swimming at only 9am – no sunburn for me - pretty sweet!

Then, after playing in the “Jay Margo ‘Improv’ Softball Invitational” at 4pm down at Yokine Reserve – where I stole so many bases that I hear the police are now looking for me – there was still plenty of daylight left for me to head over to Maccabi grounds and play the Great Chanukah Soccer Comp. In fact even after this finished, there was STILL enough daylight to ride by bike to Fresh Provision to buy milk, plus a few ingredients for dinner.

It was the first sign of trouble. A girl who works there who kind of knows me warned me
“We’re not meant to tell customers this, but we’ve heard from our suppliers that the cows couldn’t be milked this morning, as they are apparently upset with daylight saving.”
“Upset? Who’s upset?”
“The cows! They don’t like daylight saving. They’re pissed off and want us to change the clocks back to how they were.”
“Oh dear, well we can’t just give into their bovine demands – otherwise it won’t end there. You know what cows are like. Give them an inch…”
“Yes, I suppose you’re right” she said, but you could tell that neither us were convinced.

I left the store feeling with a slight eerie feeling. However, I put it behind me, realising that I could always switch to soy milk and just hope that people wouldn’t think that I’m some kind of lactose intolerant bigot.

I was a fool to think that would be the first glitch in the new regime. I woke up this morning, and in the light of day, I noticed that while my vertical blinds were okay, the curtains in my meals area did look a little faded. On closer inspection, more than just a little – they were a lot faded! I was starting to panic just a wee bit, so I phoned my sister to see what the story was with her.
“Hi Mish, it’s me, no time for niceties, sorry. Think very carefully about what I’m going to ask you. Now I want you go and take a good look at your curtains and tell me: DO THEY LOOK FADED?”
“Quit stalling, there’s no time for that – ARE YOUR CUTAINS FADED? Yes or no?”
“I don’t have curtain, only blinds. What’s this all about?”
“Sorry to yell…It’s just that I think that my…well, I’m fairly certain actually, that my curtains are faded, and I’m kind of freaking out over here.”
“Ok, calm down, I think your curtains were already faded. They’ve been that way since you moved into that house – it’s a fairly old house, with fairly old curtains.”
“Hmmm. Well, I’m going to have to think about this, I’m not fully convinced.”

So, there I am driving in the car this morning, knowing I am going to have to switch to soy milk next week due to the impending dairy shortage, plus live in a house with faded curtains. I turn the radio to the AM band to get some good news. But there was no good news. I hear on the radio the dams have now almost completely evaporated, apparently due to the ‘extra’ hour of daylight we had. I called my father at his work from the car (hands-free of course), now in a mad panic. I told him what I had just heard regarding the water-shortage, and asked him if it was possible to switch to soy-water. He told me he’d inquire with his suppliers and order some in to his pharmacy. He also said that, now that he thinks about it, the swimming pool was totally empty this morning.
“Really? The swimming pool? Gone? Empty?”
“Oh wait, perhaps I’m thinking of the bath tub. To be honest, I can’t recall which one. I’ll take a look after work and get back to you.”

By the time I got to my desk, I was so distraught that I needed some cheering up. I phoned my comedian buddy Jeff Hewitt (check out the Wikipedia article on him by the way) who also moonlights as a divorce lawyer. He’s very good – he’s drafted all the pre-nuptial contracts I gave to all those girls who wanted to marry me, and I’m still single.

Anyway, Jeff informed me that he had no time to cheer me up. He’s been inundated with all these new clients this morning. “What the?” It seems that with everyone doing outdoor things to all hours, wives weren’t in the kitchen at 6pm to cook dinner for the family, yada yada yada, family break down etc, and Perth society has gone from Pleasantville to Sin City in less than 23 hours.

So that does it, next week I’m getting out of this hell-hole that Perth has become. I’m going to India, where there’s no daylight saving, curtains are gloriously bright, the drinking-water is not a problem, and only 1 in 26 (arranged) marriages ends in divorce. Sadly, the cows still run the show over there, but no society is totally perfect.

Monday, 4 December 2006