Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Crown of Palaces

"India is freedom. Everything is free." It was said by a rickshaw driver in response to a remark about animals in the streets. On India's roads, cars, trucks, bicycles, pushcarts, rickshaws, cows and dogs all fight for space. Trucks brush past animals with an inch to spare. Vehicle size and horn duration dictate right-of-way. Within reason, you're free to do just about anything. Push it too far and you'll just have to pay off the policeman that catches you.

Traveling in India tests you. For all the beauty and intrigue, there can be a chaotic lack of civility. There are so many people, and they get so close to you, wanting to talk to you, sell you something, take their picture. The air is filled with the clamor of blaring horns and frantic Hindi yelling. Garbage is strewn across streets, alleys and empty plots of land. The ubiquity and persistence of the very poor makes you question not only your approach to it but your thoughts on humanity.

Someone told me yesterday that 90% of Indians are happy. The other 10%, he said, were the richest 5% and the poorest 5%. I'm not sure that's entirely true, but many people here play the hand they're dealt and find things to be happy about.

The Taj Mahal is pretty spectacular. Built almost 400 years ago by a labor force of 20,000, it's perfect in its architecture, symmetry, layout, and beauty. The white marble is powerful and oddly luminescent.

Was convinced to take a slight detour to Rishikesh, a small town on the Ganges north of Delhi. It's the hippiest spot I've ever seen. I was skeptical of yoga and meditation before, and now having seen the extreme, I sense my suspicions have been confirmed.

Pumped to get up north. Manali on Saturday.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

The Darjeeling Limited. Kind of.

Took the overnight open-air sleeper from Mumbai to Udaipur -- it was $9, and it was nuts. I've never been startled awake so often by such pungent odors or blaring horns. However, barreling through the Indian countryside and pulling into over-crowded train stations in what appeared to be near-desolate towns was pretty incredible.

Udaipur, in south Rajasthan, is a beautiful, idyllic (but touristy) city. The buildings are white and the people are colorful. Blue lakes and green hills surround the city. It feels like pure India, stuck in an age before the boom -- as such, a number of movies (and parts of Octopussy and The Darjeeling Limited) have been filmed here.

It's also a very sleepy city, especially after Mumbai. The people are all content with a slower pace and proud of "the most beautiful city in India."

Spent some time with some of the younger professional set -- the owner of the only Honda motorcycle dealership, the chef/owner of a popular new vegan restaurant -- it's always best to see a city through locals' eyes, but driving around through old Indian streets in a new VW blasting American dubstep makes for a pretty interesting contrast.

The highway from Manali to Leh closes in three weeks, so I need to keep moving. Next stop: Agra!

Friday, September 21, 2012

Maximum City

Mumbai is fascinating. It's a city of extreme opposites, it's the antithesis of itself. Rich and poor, new and old, state-of-the-art and antiquated, clean and dirty, calm and chaotic -- for most in Mumbai, life seems to exist mainly at the poles.

It is at once enchanting, spellbinding, majestic, appalling, frustrating, and heartbreaking.

Demographically, India is a very young country, and the youth possess a particular energy and vitality. In my four days in Mumbai I met Bollywood actors and actresses, software engineers, doctors, real estate developers, musicians, bankers -- they all shared a remarkable faith in one's self, in the future, and in India.

On the downside, there's the poverty. There have been improvements in access to education and a decline in the poverty rate, but urban blight is quickly apparent and severe.

Also, the infrastucture lags badly behind the rate of economic growth. Public transport, though universal, far-reaching and efficient, is old and decrepit. Construction timelines are painfully long and further complicated by corrupt politicians and a powerful mafia.

Mobile voice and data rates are incredibly cheap. I paid less than $5 for 100 minutes of talk time and 2GB of data -- incoming calls are free, so jump on Skype and give me a call at +91 98-19-798025.

Sorry for the stream-of-conciousness. The trip is off to a solid start -- heading north on the train, more to come!