28 March 2009

Bombs, Drugs and History

The Vietnam War and all of it brutality and ugliness continues today – in the landlocked country of Laos. I do not mean the effects of the war continue: this is not about a damaged national psyche, and I am not even referring to a mounting death toll caused by environmental or chemical hazards – the country that was the scene of the most clandestine of all of the Asian/American conflicts literally has bombs exploding daily. This is still a live battle ground, but in a very different way than you'd expect.

Laos is an achingly pretty place. Mist shrouded mountains descend into the brown rivers of the Mekong and the Nam Ou, bamboo thatches spring up on the edges of electric green rice paddies and haunting karst rock formations jut out of the land. Though it seems paternalistic and cliche to say, the people are kind, funny and deeply spiritual, almost esoteric – as a famous French saying goes “The Vietnamese plant the rice, the Cambodians watch it grow, and the Lao listen to it grow.” In the week or so we have been here the locals have been almost embarrassingly nice to us – even though we have predominantly been in backpacker enclaves along the “Banana Pancake Trail” (the cities in Asia most visited by Westerners in their 20's, and that serve comfort foods like granola and pizza, dotted with internet cafes and bars serving buckets of booze – Kathmandu, Ko Samui, Siem Reap etc.) For Lao people, this form of tourism, or any tourism for that matter, is a new sight to see – the county's borders were closed to foreigners until 1995. At that time, the restrictive form of communism that had been in power for 20 years was relaxed, and now Lao people are experiencing a third wave of colonialism that will perhaps be more insidious that the first two.


The French strolled in over one hundred years ago and claimed Laos in the same way that they did Vietnam and Cambodia, first splitting the 3 countries into 5 pieces and then lumping them together into a region called French Indochina. But unlike its two companion states, Laos didn't get much out of the deal – highly inaccessible to the French, the journey by river from Saigon (the seat of the French government) to Luang Prabang took longer than Saigon to France by steamship. Laos gained little from the French other than the superfluous “S” tacked onto the end of its name – no railways, no grand boulevards or basic infrastructure – they just took what they wanted (opium and coffee) with little benefit to the people. While this is arguably a better deal (most Vietnamese and Cambodians would have preferred less French meddling) it did ensure that Laos would remain less developed, as they were not even permitted to use their own resources for their advancement – the resources belonged to the French.

And then we all know what happened in Vietnam. The French, fighting off the Northern “Viet Minh” (communist guerrilla soldiers threatening the more Catholic and Frenchified South with a socialist revolution, led by Ho Chi Minh and backed by the Soviet Union) were bitterly humiliated at Dien Bien Phu (wiki that one for a laugh) and left Vietnam in a hurry. The Americans – terrified that the spread of communism in South East Asia would mean a domino affect throughout all of Asia (which is ultimately kind of did) rushed in – and if you don't know the rest of that story, I don't have the space to tell you.

But Laos – sweet, pretty Laos was actually the bloodiest victim and they don't even get mentioned in the name of the war. Facing their own smaller and quieter communist revolution, this country was used as a supply route for the Ho Chi Minh Trail, and was increasingly a battleground between the Viet Cong and the US (sneaky guerrilla soldiers don't respect borders, and drew the US in and out of Laos like cats and mice.) Laos claims the dubious honour of the most heavily bombed country per capita in the history of the fucking planet – the equivalent of one planeload of bombs every eight minutes was dropped on this country for NINE FUCKING YEARS. It was razed – left black and smoking and flat - in a highly classified secret war. An American reporter at the time who was accidentally flown over Laos on the way to Thailand described it as a 'moonscape', and then was forbidden from reporting about it. No one in America knew this was happening, and after the war was over in 1974, Laos was left to try to pick up the pieces without much help, and with a newly crowned communist leader more interested in his own pockets than the plight of his poorest countrymen.

So now Laos is the poorest country in Southeast Asia by far, with World Health Organization statistics on par with Sub Saharan Africa. It is not an obvious poverty like India or even Burma, but the people in villages away from the tourists are sick, illiterate and hungry. If we get sick here, the closest hospital that we can go to for serious treatment as Westerners is in THAILAND. This poverty makes the bombs keep exploding. This poverty shreds skin and breaks bones.

You often hear about UXO's (unexploded ordinance – leftover bombs) and land mines killing children because they are mistaken for toys and wee hands can't resist picking them up when they are unearthed. I knew that education work by NGOs was focused on this problem, and I assumed that the impoverished toyless children must be momentarily overcome with excitement when they saw a shiny object and then BOOM! I thought when I first saw a small rounded 'bombi' in photos that kids must think it was a neat looking ball. I thought it must be rare and completely shocking when a child was injured.

In Laos, people are so poor that children search out and dig up unexploded bombs to sell as scrap metal.

This is not a hard thing to do. An estimated third of all bombs dropped on this country did not explode on contact. Rice paddies, villages, farms, country roads are all FULL of UXOs – most deep beneath the surface. But farmers accidentally unearth them, heavy water buffalo step on the surface and their weight causes detonations and children and adults alike collect them eagerly to sell to unscrupulous scrap metal dealers despite an official ban. Hundreds of people die each year and many more injured in a country where disability may mean you and your family go hungry. This is what I mean – this war continues every day in a real and tangible way.

Sean and I got off of the beaten backpacker track in Central Northern Laos, and headed to a town called Phonsavanh, home to one of the world's greatest unexplained mysteries – The Plain of Jars. Literally thousands of monolithic stone jars cover great swaths of land and no one has been able to proved definitively what these 2500 year old jars were used for. The scenery from Luang Prabang through the mountains was stunning, but occasionally disturbing. Small villages were inhabited by traditionally costumed hill tribe women selling fruits and embroidery – and their husbands who had semi-automatic weapons strapped to their backs.

So, it turns out I came to Phonsavanh to see the ancient jars, but left with much more of an education about UXOs than prehistory. The city hosts a MAG (Mine Awareness Group) museum, where we watched a documentary and saw pieces of UXO and bombs up close for the first time. It wasn't the last time – our guesthouse was decorated liberally with bomb casings, ammo and shrapnel, even a barbecue fashioned from a hollowed out 500 lb bomb. There is a Hmong (a Laos hill tribe) village where all of the houses are constructed of bombs – even the school bell is a UXO. Bomb craters are everywhere – most filled in and used a fish ponds, and trench lines are still clearly visible in fields. During our walk around the Jars we had to carefully follow a demarcated path – red on one side, and white on the other – stay on the white side or boom. Never had I been so aware of my footprints.

So this should be enough to terrify anyone into steering far away from any metal found buried in the ground – and indeed some villages are crippled by poverty when it becomes too dangerous on a regular basis to farm the surrounding fields. But danger begins to seem relative when your family has no food for supper and a Vietnamese trader will pay you 2000 kip (35 cents CAD) for a kilogram of metal. A 500 lb bomb can be enough to feed a family for THREE MONTHS – no wonder people are reluctant or refuse outright to call MAG or the government to report artillery found in the rice paddy – they want the chance to take it apart themselves and earn a lot of extra money. Children gather around, are curious about the process and are then shown by example that bombs are really nothing to be afraid of. MAG does entire presentations for local kids and pleads with them to never ever touch a bombi, the children nod excitedly and swear that they never will – only to innocently present the MAG workers with bombis (and worse) minutes later. With millions of pounds of explosives still planted shallowly beneath the surface of Laos the problem can only get worse.


Tourism is one industry that is thriving, and that seems like an answer to at least some of the poverty in Laos. After the tsunami in 2004 devastated a lot of Southern Thailand's beaches, Laos became the next party stop on the map, with towns like Vang Vieng transforming into a Mekong river playground packed full of pizzerias, bars showing Friends 24/7 and bikinied girls puking in the gutters after a long day of tubing and 'happy shakes'. And while this behaviour is filling some local pockets with the profits from overpriced bags of Lay's potato chips imported from Thailand, it also is deeply offensive to the traditional social mores of this country. While horrified Lao people look on, young Westerners engage in behaviour that runs the gamut from mildly distasteful all the way to willfully ignorant, pretending that this is in fact Southern Thailand and not conservative Laos. Frankly, I don't think that most of them would care even if a Lao person pointed this out.

Luang Prabang is a good example of this new colonialism. While Vang Vieng has been created as an intentional stop on the party circuit, beautiful, historical Luang Prabang is an ancient capital city with over 60 temples and monastery, and is a UNESCO world heritage site. Its location halfway between the most common backpacker border crossing in the North and Vang Vieng has made it a requisite stop on the circuit, yet most of the people we met there were not interested in seeing the beautiful Wats and the great museum or Royal Palace. Despite signs everywhere reminding people that this is not Vang Vieng and to please be respectful, partiers rage on all night, heading to illegal afterhours and river parties. The penalty doled out to a local caught dealing drugs is death, and the production and consumption of opium is destroying small villages, sapping more and more people of their motivation and hanging the heavy weight of addiction around their necks. Yet spoiled backpackers laze around smoking opium, oblivious to the exploitative and one sided nature of encouraging the drug trade in a poor country where hope is in short supply yet poppies are everywhere. We get to go home and leave the problems behind, like we always do.

This is a relentless 24 hour tourism, because as these backpackers stumble to bed, eager Japanese and Western tourists are just getting up to watch the procession of monks receiving morning alms. Again, despite posters and literature pleading people to stand back quietly and allow the locals to give alms in peace, Sean witnessed people shoving flashing cameras in monk's faces, trying to get the perfect shot in the pre-dawn light. People jostled and pushed and shoved as if this was a parade and not a solemn religious ceremony, and made a mockery of the ritual by trying to simultaneously offer food and take photos, ignoring the signs posted everywhere asking people not to do so. Sean came back to bed in a state of disgust.

This is all in a deeply spiritual and meaningful city for Lao people, people who would probably like to tell us to “Fuck Off,” go home and leave their country alone for once, but who need our precious American dollars to buy food for their families. Like the decision to take apart dangerous live bombs, the decision to deal drugs to tourists or the 'decision' to do anything that is made under the duress of crippling poverty, this is structured choice. That is to say, there is not really any real choice involved.

While we all play a part in this, it is the Americans who irritate me the most. Many are here as part of package tour groups (though it is a ridiculously easy country to travel in) and pronounce the country “Louse” or “Lay- oss” - if they even know that much. I witnessed a girl talking on the phone to her mother and drawling “Um, I dunno what city I'm in. L-U something? It doesn't really matter....” They, like all people, LOVE Laos for its easygoing and sweet nature, but it hasn't really cottoned for them that the reason this country is as poor as it is is BECAUSE OF THEM. They don't leave the tourist ghettos to go see the real damage that they caused, the limbless children and endless bomb craters, the spoiled farmland and drunk old men. They're all about the party, man. They stay on the party circuit and sit and smoke opium with drug dealers desperate to sell to them to support their own habits, eat manufactured tourist food in video cafes and then claim to have seen the 'real Laos' and have communed with locals. All the while, I can't help but see images of the war everywhere, the war that they desperately pretend did not happen here - if they even know about it at all.

Almost adding insult to injury is how genuinely nice Lao people are – they do not judge us as Westerners even though they have every right to. They do not all make the connection between our bulging fists of dollars and the erosion of Lao culture, between the poverty that drives them to risk explosion and death and our extreme wealth. If they too believe America, not MAG or Laos, should be paying to disarm all of these UXOs then they do not mention it to us. But it is true – the United States should have been held accountable by the World Court and forced to foot the entire bill long ago. Lao people were not combatants in the war – Laos was a sovereign nation attacked immorally and illegally and they are still attacked daily – by poverty and the bombs it helps unearth.

24 March 2009


By the time we arrived at Chennai airport I felt like a refugee, stumbling on my last legs toward safety. OK, it wasn't that bad. But my brain was frazzled to the point where I felt like I was on constantly on the verge of frustrated tears. In the last few weeks everything had gotten hard – food (whether Indian or Western) arrived at our table and was nothing like I had pictured, touts were aggressive and mean, buses meant to take 2 hours took 5. The beautiful temples and smiling children we encountered stopped sustaining me and each angering incident felt like a personal affront – I had hit a wall and I needed a break.

Our last real break had been over 6 weeks prior – an idyllic ten days spent snuggled gratefully in the lap of Anjuna Beach in Goa, eating and reading and walking up beaches hand in hand. A month later we were ready for what I had dreamed about for years – a lazy houseboating experience through the backwaters of Kerala. This is where the vast tributaries of India empty out into the ocean, creating a delta of channels and small waterways barely above sea level and populated by easy going villagers with an ancient sea faring culture. For most people, this is the highlight of a trip to Southern India, and is described by Lonely Planet as one of the top ten things to do before you die.

We started the backwaters on a huge high. I had arranged a homestay 12 kilometres from Alleppey (accessible only by boat) staying with a Keralan Syrian Orthodox family, one of the oldest surviving Christian sects in the world. The religion, food and customs fascinated me, and our room and the people we met were amazing. Thomas, the patriarch of the family, led us on a few village walks where he stopped and introduced us to the villagers and arranged for us to try toddy (the local coconut derived tipple.) We canoed through the purple dusk, fireflies illuminating the palms while Thomas and his friends sang haunting local music that echoed and bounced off of the houses and churches on the banks of the canal. The days were spent lazing in hammocks, playing with his adorable daughters and answering the giggling “Hello! One pen?” calls of the local children.

In a rare stroke of genius planning, we had arranged for the boat to pick us up at the homestay so we would not have to backtrack and go to Alleppey to embark. When it pulled up I was delighted – it was decorated tastefully and was quite posh and luxurious. Cool lemonade was handed to us immediately, and we sat down in our comfortable deck chairs to begin our 2 night trip.

Our crew consisted of 3 men – a slightly uncomfortable ratio, but they all seemed eager and happy to be there. There were 2 young men, the cook Adithaya, the server Rajan and an old geezery guy with one jutting tooth in his mouth who seemed to be the captain and whose toothlessness made his name impossible to decipher. Old Chomper donned a leather outback-style Aussie cowboy hat and took his seat to begin steering our boat. Took his seat RIGHT THERE. Practically in our living room. Normally I would be totally okay with this – but as we had not been able to find a “party boat” scenario where we would share with one or more couples on a large boat, this boat was actually quite small and this grizzled little man was kind of in my space. I took a few deep breaths, decided I was being a giant baby and relaxed.

We began the first leg of our journey. I had envisioned our ketuvalum (converted rice barge) as a floating sanctuary upon which we would read, soak in the scenery of the narrow backwater channels and just basically be in love. This was the image that flashed before my eyes when instead we were paraded, along with hundreds of other boats, down a wide shipping channel and docked approximately 2 hours from where we started, near a village. I poked my head down the hallway toward our cook and server. “Um...excuse me? We're stopping?” I asked.
“Yes, madam. Stopping for the lunch.” That made sense to Sean and I, and we sat down to a marvelous lunch of delicious fried fish, multiple curries and chutneys and fruit. The food was delicious, yes...but it was somewhat sullied by the frequent lung clearing hoarking and spitting of the men walking by on shore, some of whom couldn't resist a good “stop n' stare” as they walked by. Laughing at the absurdity, we finished and reverted to our deck chairs to hit the open water and start heading down smaller, more scenic canals.

We sat in those chairs for a good long time, and our crew did not re-emerge. After almost half an hour of throat clearing and loud chair repositioning, our attempts to draw attention to our urge to leave, Sean stole a glance down toward the kitchen and reported back to me.
“Um, hmm. They're all asleep on the floor.” I was indignant.
“What? They're what?”
“They're sleeping. Have a look.” Sure enough, down the hall all 3 men were sprawled out on the bare hardwood floor, mouths agape. Old Chomper was snoring. Loudly.

Finally, probably due to my shameless noise making, the men awoke. It was now approximately 3pm. “Now we go” said the server Rajan, who's English was the best. “Between 1 and 3 sun too hot – we take rest.” I gestured toward the multitudes of other houseboats happily chugging away down the canal.
“Do all boats stop? Um, I mean, these other boats seemed to go....” The server stared at me blankly. “Fine, okay – lets go?”

We spent 2 more hours peacefully cruising down the channel – only occasionally roused from relaxation by the crew coming to talk with the captain, kind of lolling about our living space and shouting (to be fair, speaking volume in India is considerably louder than in the West, so to their ears they were not shouting) – finally turning down a small waterway lined with homes and people fishing and bathing. I immediately began to relax – the dread I had been feeling melted away. To think I had been worrying that they were going to keep us in wide commercial canals! I looked at Sean. “See baby, this is what I've been dreaming of....” The boat began turning again, not toward the picturesque little lanes to our right. No, it turned left.

And we were then a tiny boat amongst many. A speck in a huge shipping channel, at least twice as wide as the one we'd been on earlier. The beautiful scenery melted away behind us and was replaced by supply boats on one side, and a featureless, unending rice paddy on the other. We pulled in for the night, docking within sight of a busy bridge with cars zooming across. Paradise? More like rush hour under the Patullo Bridge. Many other houseboats started pulling into the same area, which made me less angry at the early hour, but I was still irritated. The booking office that we had chosen to go with had seemed like the best in town – the agent had glossy photos, sample menus, had even offered to take us to see the boat himself. And he emphatically stressed that his company specialized in houseboating for people who wanted to see authentic Kerala – that his routes were superior to other companies and took houseboaters down channels normally unseen by tourists. I wanted to find the agent and break his thumbs.

After a lavish Southern Indian supper, we sat down in our comfy chairs and split a few beers. As the hour grew later, our crew's voices slowly began to increase in volume until they were shouting to one another at full volume. This generally signals that people are having a good time in India, and so while I was definitely irritated I tried to take it with good humour. I also realized that the living area was probably where the crew slept at night, so it was with a generous spirit that Sean and I retired early.

I had a much less generous spirit the next morning when I woke up. We had chosen “No AC” as an environmental measure, though it didn't seem to be reducing the pollutants our boat was spewing into the delicate eco-system and it left me waking groggy, confused and coated in sweat in the stagnant 40 degree air. Our crew, we could tell by the banging and loud voices, was already awake. Bleary eyed. I stumbled to the living area and surveyed the morning outside. Every other boat that had been docked the night before was gone. Vanished. I glanced at the clock and it was barely 9am – clearly the rest of the boats had started up and left even though their patrons had still been sleeping. Ours had just lazed around and waited for us to get up. A grey cloud of distrust and anger settled over my head – these guys were all about saving fuel and cutting corners. This was a sham.

We were on our way for mere hours when again, the crew wanted to stop. They wanted us to get off of the boat and have a look at shops. They wanted us to stop at this village and see a church. They wanted us to get off and look at a fish market to purchase prawns at over inflated prices so that they would get a cut. Everything, every stop and every move just began to seem more and more calculating. I was determined to get everything out of the boating that I could, even at this point, and so we declined their offers of shopping and sight seeing and chose rather to stay on the kettuvalum and try desperately to relax.

Today, however, the crew seemed much more comfortable with us. The lolling and conversations of yesterday began to get louder and more invasive they were basically on top of us. Adithya would thump up the hall, pass off a cell phone to the captain and lounge on our bench seating area while the mobile conversation took place. Then the two men would have a full volume exchange, leading Rajan to come barreling up the hall and join in. Even when they were working down the hall, every few minutes a lull in their conversation would happen – my shoulders would begin to drop – and then sharp machine gun bursts of Malayalam would shatter the silence. The thing was, they were so polite and friendly to us whenever they weren't loudly arguing and laughing with each other that we couldn't reasonably get angry – we couldn't tell them to get the fuck away from us and let us relax in peace. So instead I sat and stewed. I felt like the wife of an 18th century pioneer – my delicate sensibilities offended more and more with each hoark and loud burst of Malayalam – I wanted to shout “I. Don't. Belong. Here!” and then possibly have some sort of 'spell' or 'case of the vapours.'

But that can be the rub with Indian tourism – they have absolutely no problems charging extremely high fees for tourist services – fees comparable to those in SE Asia – yet they have absolutely NONE of the customer service training that goes along with it. Ninety Nine percent of the time I am totally fine with rustic. I am fine with non-existent service, with unapologetically bad mannered waiters and hotel staff. But NOT when I am paying a week's budget for 2 days – 2 days that are supposed to be blissful and perfect and high end. The decor, the food the boat itself was perfect. But the lack of personal space, the lazy itinerary down huge canals and the clear attempts to get away with using as little fuel as possible – I was that kind of disappointed that makes you pout and want to slam doors and sleep all day. Except I couldn't, because an old man with one tooth was shouting and sitting in my seat.

Finally Sean had had enough (and you know that means it has gone too far.) After our crew's epic nap on the second day he piped up and asked “Um, are we going down any actual small channels?”
“Oh, yes yes. Of course. Tomorrow. Would you like to buy some beer or wine items?” We were past laughing – I just saw rupees floating away in front of my eyes.

The final morning we woke and were ferried back to the dock in Alleppey by 10am. There were no small channels. No scenes of local life. It was basically a Disneyfied boat trip around a big lake and characterless waterways. We should have stayed at the homestay, where the amazing scenery can be experienced with much less of an environmental footprint and we actually got to interact with the local culture instead of being served by it. This kind of disappointment is hard to get over.

And so I think from that point on we were basically done. We saw the beautiful tea plantations of Munnar, spotted wild elephants in Kumily, and enjoyed the towering statuary and oceanside temples of Tamil Nadu, but everything felt hard. Every bus ride seemed fraught with misunderstanding, every hotel was dodgy and every meal was unappetizing. People, fiercely proud and protective of their threatened Tamil language, refused to speak to us in English, there were no signs posted and people seemed angered when we asked for help. Guides demanded extra tips and fees at the end of tours, and drivers unabashedly ripped us off. Everyday was difficult, hot, dirty and tiring. Nothing seemed beautiful anymore. We started referring to the day we would arrive in Bangkok as “Thaimas.”

I wish I could say that we ended India on a high. Sometimes I wish I could be one of those hippies who comes here and exotifies the people to a point that they can do no wrong, and leaves with images of Krishna and Shiva dancing on their eyelids. But frankly, for me on some days it was hard enough to be tolerant, let alone enamoured.

At the Chennai airport we settled in for a drink and some incredibly overpriced bar snacks at the lounge and breathed a sigh of relief. Sean looked at me, earnestly and said “So, you wanna get a houseboat in Kerala?” I couldn't even laugh at the thought. But somewhere out there, I'm sure Old Chomper sure was......

19 March 2009


Samaparp Satpretpry is the greatest friend to have in Thailand. If he lived in Switzerland he would be the greatest friend to have in Switzerland. The same would be said for Ghana, Peru or any country he lived in. The reason is – Sam likes to drive, he likes to chat and he likes to show off his country, and he often utters phrases that start with “Well, you can stay at one of my family's condos and then we'll.....”

Sam, coming from a well heeled family, had attended four years of high school in Winnipeg (of all places to send a Thai person) and he and Sean had been Dungeons and Dragons pals. He moved back to Thailand after University and Sean contacted him for the first time in years on facebook mere weeks before we landed in Bangkok. Not only did he meet us at the airport and take us for 2am Chinese food, the next day he laid out a road atlas of Thailand on the table and over drinks (for him, 4 cokes and for us – Chang beer) detailed a week long trip of the North he was planning. It would take him to the Northernmost point in Thailand, the largest dam in Thailand, the Thai-Burma border and, for good measure, the floating market at Damnoen Saduak. Oh, and did we want to join him?

Well, emphatic yeses were exclaimed, and we set out a few days late,r after Sean and I explored Ayuthaya and Kanchanaburi independently. With Sam we stopped and cycled around the ancient ruins at Sukothai and Si Satchanalai, and as we got closer to Mae Sot (the Thai town on the border with Burma) Sam revealed that he had arranged a day trip into the Burmese town of Myawaddy for us and that we wouldn't need visas. Now we had a bit of a dilemma. Sean didn't want to go to Burma at all, but rather than risk offending his long lost pal he grinned and beared it and we crossed the “Friendship” bridge the next day in a hired van with a driver.

Sean did not want to come here, and I suppose I shouldn't have either, but the Lonely Planet articles I had read described Burma's empty beaches, a remote and ethereal temple balanced on a cliff by a single strand of Buddha's hair, its friendly and open people and of a rich animist tradition. I was excited! I saw this daytrip as a precursor to a longer, thorough tour through Burma, from Rangoon to Mandalay and Inle Lake, and I was thankful to Sam for the opportunity to introduce Sean to the idea of this future trip.

Sean had every reason to abhor the idea of visiting Burma – and the number one reason is Myanmar. Myanmar is the new name (a name that the people do not support) that the military junta has christened Burma in the hope that the West will drop its negative associations with the brutal regime that controls the country. This is the same government that has repeatedly jailed democratically elected president (though she has never been allowed to take office) Aung San Suu Kyi, that has shot peacefully protesting monks dead in the street and that refuses to allow any sort of free speech. This is fascism with no ideology behind it, and these are the officials fattening themselves with pork and beer bought with money bribed out of honest people's pockets. This is a hell on earth. Sean was a member of an Amnesty International group in high school, and Burma was one of his pet causes. I could see on his face that he was also excited to see the culture that he has studied and revered, but was deeply conflicted about this visit.

I, on the other hand, ascribe to a belief that even in countries with highly corrupt and violent governments there can be benefit to visiting. I wanted to remind the Burmese that the West has not forgotten about them, that we care and we are not all ignoring them like our governments are. I wanted to put money directly into the hands of guesthouses and restaurants and small shops. And as we entered Burma in our AC van I realized that this was not the kind of daytrip we were going to have.

Myawaddy is not a normal Burmese town, I should point out. While everywhere in Burma people are crippled by poverty, hopelessness and ennui, Myawaddy is a tribally administered area and these problems are coupled with corruption and violence at the highest levels. This is like “Burma Extreme” where the Karen people who are a minority elsewhere are armed and in charge. There is lore that there are pockets of Thai nationals who have been stuck in settlements in the hills for decades, and that if they emerge and try to make it home they will be surrounded on all sides and shot.

This is not a pretty picture. This is not a pleasant place to be.

We had embarked on a tour of poverty and desperation, and we were those people in a van staring out our windows and gawking at the locals. And, in true ironic style, the day we did this tour was Canadian Thanksgiving.

Our modern minivan began navigating streets and small alleys to visit a few places of note, and immediately I noticed the unpaved streets and open sewage running in the gutters. We pulled up to a strange Buddhist temple, the grounds paved in shiny pool tiles and decorated with humongous statues of “Nats,” half human/half animal gods that are remnants of the native animism of this region and that have been absorbed in Buddhism the way that we have absorbed things like the Easter Bunny into Christianity. The temple was filled with people, lazing around in the cool shade and staring at us with absolute indifference. I realized that this was midday on a Monday, and I asked the guide why so many people were here. Shouldn't they be working? Our guide, and extremely sensitive and educated Thai man who spoke the local dialect well, did little to conceal his laughter.
“No jobs! No work. No money. So come to temple.”

We parked outside of the local market, and left the coolness of the van. A wall of moist heat hit me, making me queasy with its intensity, and I prepared for the mad rush of touts and vendors who I expected would swarm us. But no one even approached us. No one tried to sell us a thing, until we were leaving the market and we passed by a large amount of cycle rickshaws parked in one area, their owners napping in the bucket seats or chatting in groups. One young guy noticed us and shyly asked
“rickshaw?” The small glimmer of hope in his eyes slammed into my chest.

As we got back in the van, I noticed that the bank was closed. It was 1pm on a Monday, and the “Myanmar Bank” was gated up and deserted. The guide saw us pointing and talking about it.
“Yah, banks close now.”
“Is it a holiday?” I asked. “Is this normal?”
“Yah, normal. You put money in bank, government take it. Government take your money if they want it. So, no one use bank. Bank have no business, bank close. Bank close for good.” We stood, stunned, at the prospect of a country forced to close its banks because of its own corruption. There wasn't even pretense here. No one was pretending that things were okay.

Back in the van, we wound through streets and small lanes, seeing one sight again and again – small bamboo and thatch huts filled with men. The guide told us that these were casinos – the only businesses that thrive in this part of Burma. We also passed throngs of women and children just sitting around, their eyes lifting to ours and then slowly sinking back down. No one had discernible expressions on their faces – rather than seem happy or angry at our presence they seemed to not care at all. This was something that I had never encountered. This was hopelessness.

And why not? Why have hope? We passed beautiful houses on our way to the next sight, multistoried mansions in comparison to the reed thatched cottages everywhere around us. These, the guide explained, were the houses of the government men – the Karen tribal leaders. We saw, with our very own eyes, huge shipments of building materials bearing the stamps of the UN – supplies meant for the Cyclone Nargis victims in the Irrawaddy Delta a thousand kilometres from here. We saw them being used to build houses for the local politicians. What must these people think of us? What kind of manufactured truth must have trickled down from Rangoon to explain the presence of these materials here? With the heavy censorship of the internet and state run media, what chance did the average citizen of Myawaddy have to learn about what was happening in the world, what was happening in their own country? My face burned with a mixture of anger and shame.

Though my brain was calling out in was in distress, we had one more sight to see. We climbed to a graceful Wat perched on a green hill, removing our shoes and climbing the hundreds of stairs with our bare feet sizzling painfully on hot marble. At the top we were greeted by snoozing monks and women with babies, as well as a painted and gold-leafed tortoise that a monk roused from under a bench for our amusement. I stood on the top of the stairs, gazing out onto the countryside of Burma, and I felt completely numb. I wanted nothing more than to leave this place and forget what I had seen. Us being here was of no benefit to the locals. Sean and I couldn't even make eye contact.

We descended the steps and a small boy about 9 years old silently approached us, holding out a bouquet of greenery he had in his hand. It didn't even contain flowers, it was just leaves and ferns. I have a policy of never giving money to children (I don't want to encourage the adults who put them there in the first place when they should be in school or playing) so Sean and I ducked our heads and murmured “Sorry, no. Sorry. No....” We got in the van.

As we pulled away the little boy's eyes met mine through the window.

“STOP!” I hollered. “Stop. Stop the car.” I reached into my wallet and pulled out 150 Thai Baht (5 bucks Canadian) and thrust it at the child, accepting his bouquet. He looked at the money quizzically, and our guide explained to him how much it was worth in Burmese kyat. Slowly, and in my memory it is in slow motion, his eyes widened. He was stunned for a few moments, and then magically, his face broke into a huge smile. Our van was pulling away and he chased after it, waving the money in the air in thanks or celebration or shock, like he didn't know what to do. I sat in silence the rest of the way back to Thailand.

We arrived back in Mae Sot mid afternoon, and sat down at a Thai-Muslim restaurant near the town's mosque for a fiery curry. While we were waiting for our food, Sam asked us, “So, what did you think of Burma?” Sean and I both struggled for words.
“Um, interesting. Thank you for arranging the trip.” We headed for the Golden Triangle, and didn't speak about it again.

There was something so ironic, so terrible about being in Burma on Thanksgiving, especially the hope-drained city of Myawaddy. For it is a special kind of evil to rob people of their natural inclination to work and create – when the instincts that make us human have been robbed from us, what is left? When we are herded into casinos, when our money and future are stolen, when we elect a woman democratically only to have her rot under house arrest rather than lead the government – hope is lost. This is not a “triumph over adversity” happy ending sort of story – there is no revolution for Burma, peaceful or violent. The military government is relentless, corruption is rife and human rights are meaningless, yet countries like India and China still trade with them, gobbling up their vast oil reserves and textiles, their greed making the West's feeble embargoes meaningless.

The Burmese government dip their fat sticky fingers into everything, including the small amounts made from the burgeoning tourism industry, and so it is nearly impossible to backpack Burma without lining the government's coffers. Even sacred cows like foreign aid medicines and food supplies are confiscated and profits divided between the rich and important. There is a sense of futility – even activists have given up.

People who speak out disappear.
The only reason Aung San Suu Kyi hasn't is because of her high profile, her Nobel Peace Prize.
In Burma, there is often no hope.

But there can be comfort. One thing – one memory of this day keeps me from despair. Throughout Southeast Asia, spirit houses are found in the yards of those who practice Theravada Buddhism (about 90% of the population.) They are elaborately decorated shrines, a small representation of your home that sits at eye level atop a pedestal, like a large birdhouse that is meant to be a place that disembodied spirits can live happily without cursing the inhabitants of your home. Every evening people present it with offerings – fruit, juice boxes and yoghurt, candies, and it is not uncommon in Thailand and Laos for a spirit house to be very costly and posh looking. It wasn't until we were driving through a slum-like neighbourhood on our way back to the border that I saw one in Burma. It was made of plain, unadorned corrugated metal, the same metal used to roof the more permanent looking structures in town, and it was bent into a simple curved A-frame shape. It was perched in front of a small shack, its crudeness unlike any other spirit house I had seen, but still unmistakable as such. I imagined a woman, filled with faith and love and concern for her family, setting sweets and fruits in front of the shrine whenever she could afford to. I can't decide whether the image is heartbreaking or uplifting.

They can't take everything from Burma. People will still dream, even if they have to be shaken awake to do so.

So there. Now you know. Tell other people.

07 March 2009

"Yes. Very Relax." : An Ayurvedic Treatment in Kerala

It should be said that I was aware that it was an Ayurvedic Hospital, and at no point was I under the impression that it was a spa. The word spa conjures the thought of soft world beat music, dim mood lighting and scented candles, where slippered patrons glide around led by herbal tea proffering estheticians. “Indian Hospital” brings up a much different set of mental images.

Periyar Tiger Reserve and National Park is located on the border of Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the two Southern most states in India, but it technically falls in the former. We arrived after a 4.5 hour bus ride from Munnar, a hill station at 1500 metre altitude famed for its tea and spice plantations. Now that we were coming to the end of our 5.5 months in India, we were traveling at a more frenetic pace than we had before, spending 2 nights in some cities (that gives you one day to arrive and recover, one full day to cram everything in, and then you leave the next day) and just one night in others; an exhausting pace that we had managed to avoid until then. We had originally had a carefully thought out itinerary for our final 2 weeks, one that would give us a perfect and relaxing amount of time to get from Cochi to Chennai, but it had been dashed to pieces a few days earlier by a fellow Canadian couple's recent experiences.

See, I had only ever seen a Hindu temple in Singapore – Vancouver's Indian diaspora is predominantly Sikh, and other than a few free vegetarian meals at the Hare Krishna temples (by the way – that is a Western thing only. All Hindus love Krishna, but they DO NOT shave their heads, recruit at the airport and hawk cookbooks. I have not seen a single Indian Hare Krishna the entire time I have been in India) in my poor student days, I had no experience with a traditional mandir. The temples in Singapore have huge colouful towers decorated with three dimensional sculptures of gods and goddesses, and I could not wait to step off of the plane in Delhi and start seeing them left and right. Weeks into India I had still only seen monochromatic corncob shaped temples, made of natural stone and left unpainted. I assumed that just around each corner my perfect “Really Really Indian” temple would be lurking.....and it never was. I finally piped up, and was told that the style I was waiting for is called Dravidian (the term for the ancient race of Sanskrit speaking Southern Indian people), is unique to Tamil Nadu ( it is mainly Tamils that make up Singapore's sizable Indian population) and that the prime examples were to be found in Madurai – home to the penultimate Dravidian temple, the Sri Meenakshi. I was ecstatic to have figured out the reason, and from that point onward Madurai featured heavily in our plans for the South.

That is, until we met Brad and Lisa. They were a Canadian couple at our idyllic homestay deep in the backwaters near Alleppey who were also traveling for a year, and they had recently been to Madurai. For four hours. In a manner I was familiar with, out of the pair Lisa did most of the talking, and she informed us that they had arrived in Madurai with high hopes – only to get to the temple and find out that the once-a-decade scaffolding and painting of all 12 towers at once was occurring. And had been for 23 months. The Hindus believe that a temple can not be worshiped in part – one must venerate the entire site at once. Therefore, even though there are twelve humongous, gloriously detailed technicolour towers at Madurai, all must be covered until the paint job is complete on each and every one. Stunned with this news, we reshuffled everything around to spend more time in Tamil Nadu in places like Tiruchipalli and Chidambaram in search of my elusive Dravidian dream.

Which brought us to Periyar, a place we had abandoned the idea of visiting in lieu of other, less touristy places but that just happened to lay on the best route between Munnar and Tamil Nadu for our new whirlwind itinerary of temple hopping. We were exhausted from our hair raising bus ride through the mountains, and anticipating another 8 days of breakneck speed we decided to relax with an Ayurvedic treatment and massage at a highly recommended clinic. It's a term that gets thrown around a lot in the West, and is used to hock medicines and shampoos indiscriminately but Ayurveda actually originates in Kerala and refers to medicines and treatments derived from herbs and natural processes. And, for tourists, kick ass massages.

We arrived at the clinic and within minutes had chosen our services, Sean picking a 45 minute neck and shoulder massage and steam bath and me a 30 minute full body massage followed by 30 minute sirodara and steam bath. Sean was reluctant – I am always dragging him into various massages (“ooooh, look honey. Painful Thai leg massage!”) that he is never happy with. About a year ago I even surprised him with a luxe 90 minute couples massage at Spa Utopia that should have been euphoric but ended up just plain awkward when they 'mixed things up' by giving us each therapists of the opposite sex, mine making soothing “ooh” noises. For Sean, it was not so romantic to see a cooing muscular man rub his naked girlfriend. Even our massage on a pristine Jamaican beach was spoiled by a slack jawed American couple who had dragged themselves out of their primordial trailer park ooze to spend their vacation “arguin' o'er da casino an der buffay” next to us. In addition to the unpleasantness of the strange situations we end up in, Sean is invariably left in more pain that when he began, most notably illustrated by giant thumb print bruises he received in Chiang Mai Thailand. The bruises paled in comparison to the sour expression on his face. But, knowing that a true Keralan Ayurveda experience meant a lot to me, he conceded and we entered separate rooms to get started.

Two young ladies in colourful saris covered by blue lab coats ushered me into a treatment room, consisting of a tall wooden bed, a strange box with a hole cut in the top and a changing room with its bamboo curtain rolled up to the top. I stepped inside and one of the women came forward and said “All gone. It's all off” and gestured to my clothes, up and down. She made no attempt to close the curtain, and just stood there expectantly.
“All off?” I replied, though I wasn't surprised. See, in India public nudity is extremely shameful. The tiniest amount of cleavage and the sight of shoulders or knees count as too much skin, and you never see women in anything revealing (except for Bollywood actresses and modern city girls at a nightclub.) As many women have no bathtubs or showers in their homes, they bathe in communal areas – rivers, ponds or streams – and do so while remaining fully clothed in their saris, adjusting and pushing parts of it aside to wash. Ditto for swimming – the full sari in the water, more modern girls clearly wearing a bathing suit under their clothes but electing to keep a undress or capris and tank top on, as if each swim is incidental and the bikini will be revealed at a later point. (It never is.) I have even heard tales of men who have never seen their wives naked. This all changes, in fact goes straight out the window, when it's just women around. I had had 2 massages in India before this one, and every modicum of privacy was abandoned – you strip naked and are massaged everywhere – nipples, butt cheeks, inner thighs - everywhere but your actual genitals, but they do get really close. No sheet is held up to give the illusion of privacy, no attempt to avert the eyes, no precautions at all are taken to make the masseuse and client feel at ease with the nakedness before them. It was in this atmosphere of fluorescent lighting and stained white walls that I unrobed, standing before the 2 women completely nude.

For a moment we all stood there in the charmless room, me all naked and tattooed and them completely clothed, eyes ogling my tattoos. I nervously laughed, “So,what are your names?” The first one replied “Josmy” which took me a second to get and pronounce correctly, and then I looked at the other girl. “And you?” She clearly answered “Lindsey.” I started to say it, and then realized what she had said. “Wait – Lindsey?” Josmy was quick to respond. “Yah, Josmy very difficult name for you, but Lindsey is better!”
“Well, not better,” I replied, “just easier. A famous rock n roll singer in the West was also named Lindsay, he was in Fleetwood Ma......” I trailed off, as they clearly had no idea what I was talking about. “Not so much with the classic rock...”

Josmy was fiddling with a strip of long white cloth, and asked me to turn around while she swiftly fashioned a tight loin cloth thing, prodding and poking liberally at my bum to keep it in place. Satisfied, Lindsey sat me down on a plastic stool, said a prayer and began rubbing oil into my scalp. This was not particularly relaxing, as my hair was still knotted from our open windowed bus ride earlier, and as she whipped my head around she pulled at all of the small knots and caused me a lot of pain. Sensing this, probably from the tense expression on my face, she asked me “You have many problems?” Ever the passive aggressive Canadian traveler, I responded
“Nope! Good!”

We moved onto face massage, and then it was time for me to hop up onto the big wooden table. The table was approximately 4 feet off of the ground, and completely lacking any padding or cushion designed to make me comfortable. Just wood. What was more, the footstool that I had been sitting on seemed to have vanished, and so I was left to scramble up onto the table, loincloth flapping around in the most undignified manner imaginable. As my ankles reached up around my ears the tiny piece of modesty I had been afforded shifted completely and began to seem more and more decorative in purpose.

I closed my eyes, surprised and relieved that the table was not as hard as I expected. A few deep sighs and I was ready for relaxation. The room was quiet, darkened and peaceful, and I could hear the soft tinkering of the women preparing the herbal oils and compounds for my treatments as I lay still and calm.

At that moment a few things happened. There was an auto rickshaw depot right outside the clinic that I had noticed on my way in, and there began a scuffle of some kind. Motors the approximate volume of helicopters roared into life, loose parts clanked and moaned, and men started screeching at one another in Malayalam (the language of Kerala – less 'ticka ticka' than Hindi, and more like 'marbles in your mouth yet you are struggling to speak around them while underwater' sounding.) Then the chanting Arabic of call to prayer at a nearby mosque began howling through the air. At the same time Josmy, whose English was better than Lindsey's and so she seemed to have been promoted to the speaker of the two, asked me “What is your good name?” followed by the popular litany of questions about marital status, employment and parentage that inevitably come after. I kept my eyes closed and my answers curt, hoping that the hint would be internationally understood, and after another minute of questioning they fell silent and I felt a 'whoosh' of hot oil splash up both sides of my body at the same time.

The oil was a moderate temperature, and smelled like pralines (brown sugar and pecan candies) and felt wonderful. Two sets of hands smoothed the oil up and down my body, picking up speed until it felt like they were going to fling me off of the table and into the glass wall behind me. There was no kneading or actual massaging of a particular muscle group, just fast rhythmic gliding from my head to my toes. More oil was lavishly drizzled over me every few minutes, and in addition to the 'ready to launch' feeling, soon I was slithering and sliding around the slick wooden table and their hands, rather than keep me in place, actually seemed to be aiding in the slipperiness. My eyes popped open as I felt myself hula-ing against my will, limbs flying akimbo, and at this point they said “okay – now turn over!”

Things on my back were a little more stable due to the fact that I planted my balled up fists and tried frantically to anchor myself. The girls, now whispering to one another in the international language of heated local gossip, began a similar set of movements that were now accented by foot tickling and gentle pinching of my thighs and bum. A Hindu temple on the same block, perhaps competing with the call to prayer and rickshaw commotion, began blaring a devotional song heavy on the tabla drums and bell ringing. It complimented the bum pinching quite nicely. “You feel relax?” Josmy asked, all the while shimmying me like a rag doll.
“Oh yeah. Very relax.” I replied, wondering when the 'relaxation' massage would end.

Sirodara was next, the treatment I had been waiting for ever since I had seen a picture in a posh Thomas Cook guide of Kerala. Sirodara is an ancient Ayurvedic treatment in which a brass pot is filled with heated medicated oil (or sometimes ghee – clarified butter) and placed over a patient's forehead. The pot is swayed back and forth in a hypnotic rhythmic motion and the oil streams out onto the forehead from a small hole drilled in the bottom. The oil flows backward into the hair, saturating it completely and then collecting in another pot below, to be transfered back to the heater for the process to start again. The thirty minutes of continuous flow are thought to be good for cooling the body and aiding in sleep.

The Sirodara was much more relaxing than the massage, probably due to Josmy leaving the room for most of it and me being left alone with Lindsey. I smiled at her beatifically, thankful that she spoke poor English and was too embarrassed to use her limited skills to ask the questions about my weight/age/paleness that I knew she was aching to ask. Normally I would have engaged her, and told her her English was very good etc, but at this point I was dying to maintain the silence and couldn't bear to answer any questions about how often I bleach my skin (to the shock of many Indians, I don't. Of course I don't.)

To my surprise, the hot oil spirographing its way around my forehead actually did feel cooling (I often find Ayurvedic suggestions full of crap. For instance, there is a common consensus that drinking hot liquids with a new tattoo will heat the blood and cause sickness. Ditto for cold liquids and other situations, and no amount of reasoning can convince people otherwise.) I started to feel very loose and calm, and was able to tune out the cacophony outside and let my mind wander. That is, until Josmy returned. “Nice tittoos! How much you pay?” I paused and thought about how to best answer this delicate question – this is a girl who probably makes in a month what a tattoo session in Vancouver costs for 2 hours. I started to say
“100 US....” per hour, but her shriek when the sentence was half out of my mouth stopped me from completing it. I decide to let her believe that my entire sleeve cost 100 US dollars, rather than the actual, much higher figure.
“Wow!!! So expensive!” She exclaimed, and translated for Lindsey, who clucked in agreement.“You like Sirodara? You feel relax?”
“Yes. Very relax.” I was thankful that my eyes were closed so that she could not see them rolling.

Soon it was time for my steam bath – but first the girls had to wring out the gallon of oil that was soaking my hair. Again, this was entrusted to Lindsey, who clearly had never had anyone pull on her hair before and therefore had no idea that it hurt quite a bit. (Or, she had had many people pull on her hair and she did this job as a way to cleanse her emotional demons by enacting the same torture on other people.) Josmy was keeping a watchful eye on the situation. “Oh! You have many hair fall!” 'Hair fall' is a national obsession in India. Besides being a perfect example of strange Indianized English, it is a mix of consumer manipulation and an actual problem for many women due to pollution in the air, filthy water and a genetic predisposition (probably exacerbated by the small gene pools of caste restricted marriage.) Pantene, Garnier Fructis and Head and Shoulders all cash in on this panic by marketing their own products guaranteed to 'fight hair fall.' I have been shedding more strands than usual, due to a side effect from my anti-malarials, and I started to explain.
“See, I am taking anti malaria pills – you know malaria? See, um, you know the mosquito disease? Bzzzz?” She finally understood the word and gasped.
“Oh! You have!?” I sighed, and tried to backtrack.
“No – I mean, I have to take pills to stop malaria, stop malaria...ummmm – prevent? No malaria pills? And these pills cause hairfall. For us, its common. Malaria. Ummm, westerners are getting malaria very easily, and so....” I paused, as she looked at me with eyes completely glazed over, probably feeling sorry for me about my malaria. “...yes. I have many hair fall.” I finished. Moments like these – moments when a complete language barrier goes up and there is nothing you can do to take it down – are common in my life. Being misunderstood is hard for me to handle, and it inevitably leads to me trying to remedy the problem by using a lot of confusing words and strange hand gestures and I end up making it worse. Like here, I am surprised that she didn't end up thinking that I had syphilis and a midget fetish or something due to my long winded explanation.

The steam bath was actually one of those personal saunas that were a popular fad item at swingers parties in the seventies, essentially a big wooden box with a seat inside and a hole at the top for your head to pop out. I sat inside the box, which had obviously been designed for a much taller person, with my legs swinging around at the knee and only my nose-on-up sticking out of the hole. Beautifully scented steam began to curl around my still loin-clothed body and waft out the top of the sauna, steam that actually smelled a lot like a Christmas supper. There was rosemary and a lot of sage in the herbal compound added to the bath, and my stomach began to growl nostalgically for something from home – something Western that did not come out of a schlocky phone book-thick hotel menu offering “Israllie/Continantal/Chineese/Maxicon/Indian/Pezza” choices. I realized that Sean's treatment must have ended at least 30 minutes earlier, so I said to Josmy, “Is Sean, my boyfriend, is he sitting outside?” She nodded. “Can you grab him? I was hoping he could take a picture.” Her expression turned to pure horror.

“Here? Him in here?” Her eyes darted to Lindsey, who seemed equally stricken with panic at the idea. They rushed around the room, tidying it up and tugging at the curtains to ensure that they were properly sealed (a precaution I had kind of hoped that they had taken before they insisted I strip and then coated me in oil.) Not wanting to offend them, I said
“It's not like he can see me! I'm in a box! Is it okay?” They looked at me like I was crazy, and said
“OK, OK. It's OK,” nervously, as Lindsey started shoving an orange towel into the small gap between my neck and the rim of the sauna's head opening. I will point out that it was so dark inside that even I could not see my own torso when I looked down into the steam bath, and there was no way Sean could have seen even if he craned his neck. The idea that my 'husband” would see me naked, or partially naked, or perhaps see a small shadow of something that maybe could possibly be a breast or elbow was unimaginable to them. When they felt I was sufficiently covered they called Sean, twittering in disbelief as he casually strolled in, took a few photos and left. I couldn't resist. “It's OK – he couldn't see anything! And he sees me naked all the time, so it's no big deal.” I'm not sure that they understood me.

Josmy was suddenly interested in Sean. “How old is your husband?” She asked me.
“Twenty five.” I replied, awaiting the inevitable.
“And how old you?”
“Twenty seven.” Her hands flew up to her mouth in shock.
“No! No! You twenty two! He twenty five, you twenty two!” I had no idea what she meant. Did she mean I looked twenty two, or that if Sean was twenty five I should be younger than him and therefore should be approximately twenty two?
“Ummm, well, in the West its common for women to be a little bit older than their husbands, um, not always, but, y'know. Sometimes.” I sighed. “How about in India? Is this common?” She vehemently shook her head.
“Oh no! Wife always younger than man.” She looked at me seriously. “You twenty two.”
“Do you mean I look twenty two?” I was genuinely at a loss.
“Yah. You twenty two.” Lindsey now nodded in agreement.
“Umm. Thank you?”

The steaming was over, and I slid out of the contraption, slick now with oil as well as steam. Josmy and Lindsey, armed with thin towels that I hoped were stained and not dirty (you know you have been traveling in India for a long time when a stained towel becomes the preferred option.) Vigorous would be a mild term for the way that they began drying me off, sloughing off grey dead skin cells in droves. I began giggling, and even that began coming out stuttered from the movement “hhhh-eee h-hheee hhh-eee.” Off came the loincloth and - ! - there was no sparing even my privates from the onslaught. To my pleasant surprise, the intense drying-off job actually seemed to have left me feeling fresh and clean rather than sallow and greasy like massages usually do. My skin, though slightly dewy, did not feel oily or gross in any way, but my hair was a different story – hanging in strings and coated in thick oil. Josmy advised me to wash my hair “in a day or two” and then she regarded me with eyebrows furrowed in confusion as I began dressing, trying to read the writing on the bum of my panties. It is a cute quote from a popular movie, though a little rude in that American Eagle double entendre sort of way. I quickly hauled my pants up, nearly bailing on my slippery oiled feet rather than have to try to explain what “Flute Soloist” meant, and how it related to the the 'Pinewood Band Camp' crest on the front of the panties.

I stepped out of the room into the equally dingy waiting area, only to see Sean already up and ready in anticipation. I called a quick “Thank you!” to Lindsey and Josmy, who were already off with another client. We walked down the street, past the bickering rickshaw cartel, past the Hindu temple still blaring devotionals and past the mosque, now quiet but surrounded by Muslims munching on kebabs. “So?” I asked Sean, “how was it?” He grimaced.
“My shoulders hurt more now than they did earlier. It was a baffling ordeal. I didn't get my steam bath and no one could explain to me why not. The guy massaging me didn't listen to a thing I said. He actually did the opposite of things I said.” He paused. “How was yours?” I thought for a second.
“It was great. It was a terrible massage, and the sirodara was sucked of all of its relaxation by all kinds of loud noises and questioning, and I think that they may have insulted my age, but it was an experience. A true Indian experience.” Sean laughed. We walked down the street toward our guesthouse, eager to get to sleep in preparation for the hellishly hectic days ahead. I stopped and looked at Sean.
“Did I mention they pinched my bum?”

(If you live in Vancouver and you want a great massage with a professional who, I can assure you, will not pinch your bum - click here.)

02 March 2009

India Hit Me

There should be a question mark at the end of that sentence....

I don't always get along with India, but when I do it is a love affair that sweeps me off my feet.

I find tears of joy in my eyes nearly everyday, and sometimes my voice cracks when I am trying to describe a recent experience, no matter how mundane, to a fellow traveler. Something about the way that the ugly and the beautiful are entwined here is addictive and emotional, as how walking a filth covered street leading to a gold dipped palace makes you appreciate it with all the more rapture when you get there. The sheer amount that you have to work in India to make things happen – the amount of false information and bad directions you have to sift through to get to your final destination makes the pay off of what you came to see so much more dramatic and rewarding. If you had to slay a dragon to maneuver through the halls of the Louvre, you'd really fucking enjoy that mysterious smile.

Never have I felt as alive, yet I have become blase at even the most hair raising danger on the roads, and am no longer afraid to eat or drink things that could make me sick. It's as if the excitement and chaos surrounding you blinds you to your own mortality, and risks unimaginable at home become commonplace. A different sense of danger exists in India; a helmetless family of four on a single motorbike weaves in and out of traffic; a toddler balances on her father's handlebars for a bike around town; unskilled people work with live electrical connections to fix a short, sparks flying; young men balance precariously on the tops of crowded buses that wind their way up potholed mountain roads. At first all of these things shocked me deeply, but now as my auto rickshaw adds to the din and pollution of the roads that we zigzag across I no longer even bat an eye.

My emotions run at extreme highs and lows – its as if I have manic depression brought on by my environment. One moment I am marveling at the neem whitened grin of a bejeweled local woman, and the next I am recoiling in horror at the carelessly spit splash of red paan from someone's mouth that has landed on my bare foot. Some days I can never imagine leaving this place, but home sickness, when it hits, hits hard. We both treat each other with utter disregard at times - my love affair with India is an abusive relationship.

It is a land of paradox. I grit my teeth with frustration only to have my mouth fill with poetry.

Conversely, it is often when I am at my wits end that amazing things happen, as if all of the thirty three million Hindu Gods come sweeping in from their crowded heaven to remind me of the love that I have for this country. I may not thrive on the squalor and filth like some European backpacker types, at times I fantasize about modernity and cleanliness when I should be calmly appreciating local customs, and some days I cannot force any more masala into my tender stomach, but I am truly a different person from the girl who arrived in Delhi in late October. I love it here. I love it in a way that is made more intense by all of its problems, just like the way I love my mean, troubled cat with more passion than I do my sweet and banal cat. She's so easy to love that it seems uncomplicated and less meaningful. When Kevin (mean cat) loves me it is fierce and difficult and powerful. And, I suppose, not for everyone.

I have a tendency to dwell on the negative aspects of situations when I write – writing is my catharsis, I use it to vent all of the ugly thoughts I have when instead I should spend more time with the good ones. The past 4.5 months in India have been unbelievable, and I will always remember the way I feel – vibrantly alive, completely fearless and filled with wonder at the magic of the world. So, I'll end this with a list of some snapshots from my brain that I will carry with me forever.

*A tiny mewling “Hello!” from the mouth of a toddler in the backwaters of Kerala as I walked by, her young mum giggling at the cleverness of her painted baby.

*Rushing past a 500 year old temple in Hampi at sunset and witnessing a spontaneous marching band performance featuring pounding tabla drums, and remembering to slow down and enjoy every minute of life.

*In Mumbai, teasing begging kids in my limited Hindi and having them drop their well-oiled routine and react like giddy children, bouncing around either side of my rickshaw.

*A sadhu in Rishikesh administering a prayer ritual for which many holy men charge tourists inflated prices, and then refusing my money in the name of spirituality.

After the blessing.

*An impromptu magic show performed on a wall of the ancient Jaisalmer Fort by a brightly turbaned young boy, his enthusiasm slicing through my cynicism.

*A cooking class with a Tibetan refugee in Dharamsala when I was having a really bad day– I came away knowing more than just how to make a momo and with some perspective on my trivial troubles.

*The unpretentious welcome to eat communal food with thousands of Sikh pilgrims in the vast kitchens of Amritsar's Golden Temple.

Inside of the communal kitchen at the Golden Temple. That's A LOT of chapatis.

*Escaping the bitter cold high in the Himalayas by sitting around the indoor fire pit on a farm in Chamba, and eating the most amazing home cooked food of my life. I later commissioned the matriarch of the family to come to Canada to cook for my wedding.

*Witnessing the sheer majesty of the Taj Mahal twice, once with my love and once with my mum.

*Seeing microlending in action in the marketplaces of Rajasthan, where women use small loans to start family businesses, creating self sustaining local economies.

*The echo of men's voices singing Keralan folk songs as we canoed through the canals just past sundown.

*Emerging from the Jama Masjid and choosing the youngest cycle rickshaw driver to give us a tour of Old Delhi, his face cracking into an unimaginably infectious smile when we paid him double the agreed upon rate.

No English but a HUGE smile.

*Asking our friend Shaily, he who has confessed that he's “not very good at being Indian” how to say things in Hindi, and the exchange inevitably playing out like: “Hey Shaily, how do you say
*insert word* in Hindi?”
“Just say *word*. Everyone knows *word*.”

*The delight of eating each amazing meal in Anjuna, especially the huge stuffed omelets, homemade bread and fresh juice prepared by a Goan family in their beautiful Portuguese style home.

*Drinking beers at Leopold's Cafe mere weeks after terrorist attacks left 10 patrons dead, joining the multitudes of Mumbaikers refusing to cower at home.

*Performing nasal cleansing, sun salutations and dragon pose in the yoga capital of the world, Rishikesh.

*Eating in a “Meals Ready” thali restaurant in Mysore, a dozen different dishes ladled out on a huge pile of rice set upon a banana leaf that you eat with only your right hand.

*A quiet early morning moment drinking spicy masala chai while surrounded by the craziness of the annual Pushkar Camel Fair.

His name was Mr Raju.

*Watching the Oscars live at 6am in Cochi and being amongst the first in India to find out that Slumdog Millionaire had taken 8 awards, including Best Picture.

*Being offered snacks, tea and meals by even the poorest people that we met along the way.

*A rickshaw driver insisting that Sean take the wheel one late night in Udaipur, and his peals of laughter echoing through the streets as Sean weaved unsteadily down the roads.

I know that there will be more memories that I will think of and have to add to this list. SO many many more!
I don't think I'll ever stop. India hit me, and it felt like a kiss.

For more photos like these of India (and to witness some of these moments) click here.

Kommunist Kerala.

Okay, so I couldn't resist the alliteration. But it is true – the Southern Indian state of Kerala, home to lazy backwaters, a rich Jewish and Catholic heritage and strange and beautiful art and dance, also has the world's only truly democratically elected communist government, and also the longest running (1957.) Kerala, is a literal and figurative breath of fresh air from the pollution and the chaos of Northern India and it is partly due to an efficient and responsible communism that should be an inspiration for the rest of subcontinent.

Simple things shock me now that I have spent 4.5 months traipsing through this baffling country. I'm so used to certain unpleasant aspects in the cities that I now notice when things aren't fucked up, rather than when they are. Upon pulling into the nicer neighbourhoods of Mumbai, I would look at Sean and say in wonderment “Look! There is very little rubble here! I mean, there is still rubble, but much less than most places!” (As a note, I have kicked rubble in my flip flopped feet numerous times, once cracking my toenail nearly in half. It is something I constantly have to be on the look out for.) Or, even more commonly I will have a sense that something is strange at a bus stop or train station, and I'll realize “Hey – I know what it is - it doesn't smell like pee! Yay!”

Sean and I spend hour after futile hour discussing what we could do to fix the lack of Indian infrastructure, and we always come up exhausted and lacking in even the most basic of solutions. Their colonial past has left India in a much earlier state of self governance and experience – hundreds of years of racist British rule set back homegrown politics and they are still recovering. And now, in the aftermath of the urban explosion, India can be an “every man out for himself” sort of society – why worry about that pollution/beggar/leper/dog if your own house and family are safe? Sheer disregard for human suffering is a hallmark of modern, city dwelling life around the world, and therefore things like reliable electricity, an adequate living wage and clean drinking water for the masses become a last priority. I would have a lot less irritation at the state of things if the media didn't constantly proclaim how modern and advanced India is – as if its problems have been fixed! The people with money and power refuse to see the plight of the poor as anything but a deserved consequence for sins in a past life or caste justice, and instead insist that India is on the cusp of world power status – as if this is on the basis anything but its huge population.

Maybe I should clarify the lack of simple quality-of-life measures – in some places there are no street lights. This seems like a trivial thing, but truly try to picture a city the size of Edmonton with no street lights – in a country that is touting itself as a modern nation. Now also imagine no sewer systems in those same places. Roads everywhere are potholed with giant craters – they have been there, unfixed for so long that now rickshaw drivers instinctively swerve around them. The monthly welfare amount given to widows is 400 rupees – 10 bux CAD – even in India this is a pittance. Very few state run orphanages and old age homes exist, and the few animal welfare programs are funded privately. Many villages and small cities have only the most basic of public schools, and attendance is not mandatory. Sewers, hygiene and innoculations against disease are not found out of the cities. Yet – INDIA HAS A THRIVING SPACE PROGRAM. And they are damned proud of it, at least if one is to believe the media's constant nationalist braggadocio. While children starve - hundreds each day – billions of rupees are funneled into redundant exploration with the sole purpose of stoking the nation's ego.

Reading Western media and hearing news that they are in the space age, one can easily be fooled into thinking that India is now part of the “Second World,” pulling millions out of poverty each year and playing with the big boys on the world political stage. Upper middle class Indians shop at lavish shopping malls, dine in world class restaurants and vacation in Singapore, Dubai and Maldives. Everyone else, the people who clean the shit from the open sewers, the labourers who construct the highways and then live on the side of them in tents at night, the butchers and bakers and candle fucking stick makers – they suffer. They suffer because there is no social safety net if they get sick or even just age, and therefore this entirely new middle class that India is bragging about finally having achieved is one step away from the slum. The workers are exploited while a more true bourgeois than the world has ever seen relaxes and reaps their caste based rewards and eats at TGI Fridays while congratulating themselves on the “New India” in which they live. If there has ever been a country more perfectly poised for a true Marx style communist revolution, this is it.

That was a bit tangential, but it's hard to talk about Kerala's Marxism without referencing the rest of India. This is the wealthiest state, has the highest literacy rate of all of the developing world (91%!) and an infant mortality rate 5 times lower than the rest of the country. Signs advertising jewels, private medical treatments, cars and luxury items are everywhere. The streets are clean – they actually have garbage pick up rather than large piles of trash in the street (most of India relies on cows, dogs and rats as their waste removal strategy, followed by scavengers who take all items of value for recycling, followed finally by burning, which leaves soot in your eyes and a burning plastic taste in your mouth.) Government run stores advertise “no margin goods” - making food and textiles affordable for everyone. Religion, often stunted or outright banned in communist societies, is tolerated and embraced, and red hammer and sickle flags decorate streets that are lined with huge churches, synagogues and Hindu temples. Most shocking of all – no children have approached me to beg for money since I have been here.

Its like a giant endorsement for Marxism.

Isn't this counterintuitive to what we've been taught about communism? Isn't the common statement “Oh, I believe in ideal communism, but in practice it can never work...” being proved wrong here? Granted, this is a state level government, and we have no idea what would happen if Kerala separated from the rest of the subcontinent, but in my eyes it's looking pretty good.

Communism in India is not unique to Kerala – the Bengali state government has also at times elected communist officials, and openly Marxist parties have fared far better here than in the West since the 50's. Although it's also not always idyllic fluffy socialism - Naxalites, communists from the Naxal region who believe in taking power forcibly with violence, have been active for decades and still commit terrorist acts, and even the most centre socialist parties have been rocked with corruption. But not in Kerala. Here it has worked.

Marx was convinced that Germany was the perfect candidate for his communist revolution – the criteria of many skilled workers being exploited by a small number of wealthy who were reaping all of the benefits easily being met. France or England could have also fit the bill. But despite the best efforts of agitators in these countries, Communism did not sweep across Europe, rather waiting nearly 50 years for Lenin and his Bolsheviks in Russia. Lenin bent and broke Marxism until it was scarcely recognizable, substituting the disgruntled factory workers with landless peasants – an agrarian revolution rather than one hatched in the city. All the rest - Mao, Ho Chi Minh, Castro and Pol Pot all followed suit, using their rural farmers in place of the proletariat – and all (arguably) failing, at least to some degree. But India.....

India is still 50% agrarian, but more and more its citizens are streaming into the cities, making them bloated giants with no infrastructure to take on these new financial refugees. Things become hotter, more crowded, even less livable. The rich, whose generations-old caste privilege is a direct parallel to Marx's land owning bourgeoisie, exploit the poor. They then grow ever more wealthy, all the while losing their practical skills, unable to even make a small meal or do their own laundry, these tasks all done for them by people who are effectively indentured servants and who go home to the slums at night. I think this all fits nicely into Marx's theories, don't you?

The exploitation of cheap labour is not confined to the poorest of the poor – increasingly IT hubs such as Bangalore and Mumbai are serving the needs of Western business at the expense of the locals. Tech and engineering jobs are highly desirable, and this has led to such a glut of recent grads that both Western and Indian firms can treat these middle class workers as expendable, knowing that there is a line-up of applicants waiting for their chance. Here, as always, the history of colonization in India is still tangible and relevant. This should come as no surprise – after all, where would India be today if it had been allowed to have its own industrial revolution rather than contributing to Britain's? Perhaps they would have achieved social equality under other terms and all of these problems would be a long distant memory.

I say Workers of India, Unite. The country would grind to a stuttering and groaning halt almost instantly without the chai wallahs, maids and rickshaw drivers willing to work for peanuts. This isn't even to mention the factory workers and manual labourers that Marx actually specifies in his 150 year old doctrines, or the newly exploited educated middle class!
A new, truly Marxist era in a country where it just might work.

Now I just need to convince 1 billion people that I'm right......