Friday, August 31, 2007

Religious musings

For those of you who don't know, Bali is a Hindu island within Muslim-dominated Indonesia. Hinduism was brought here sometime in the 11th century (I think), making Balinese Hinduism a very different version of what I know.

The three gods, Shiva, Visnu, and Brahma, dominate here, but are said to be the gods of wind, water, and fire, respectively. Black and white gingham cloth is omnipresent on the island, supposedly representing the balance of good and evil. They have imported the caste system, although it seems than anyone can make an offering at the temple. However, they have also imported that favorite misogynistic practice: not allowing women in the temples if they are menstruating. Now, out of respect for another culture, I don't mind being asked to observe that practice, but every male Balinese tour guide takes it upon himself to ask every female tourist if she has her period instead of just stating the rules. (The first time I was asked this, I was initially shocked until I figured out why they were most likely asking; for someone unacquainted with Hinduism, I assume it's quite intrusive.)

Combined with importing my least favorite practices of Hinduism, the Balinese also make animal sacrifices at their temples of cow, pig, and chicken. They even have cock fighting. It's been odd witnessing all this; I can't help but think that their religion is mainly superstition and that must be how Westerners view India (although even Vivekananda said most of India is practicing superstition). And though they have artistic depictions of the Ramayana and Mahabharata, I have not heard one mention of the Gita, Vedas, or Upanishads. It seems that Indians forgot to export the best part of Hinduism.

On a slightly different note, I've also been thinking of a book I read on Tenzin Palmo where another Buddhist nun said that the emphasis on renouncing desire and selfishness is a spirituality more geared for men, and that for women, the challenge is more in renouncing comfort. We women need, she said. I was skeptical when I first read this months ago, but after my sojourn in crappy hotel accommodations, I'm inclined to agree. But fear not friends; just as no one would expect a 30-year-old man with no intention of becoming a monk to give up sex, I have no inclincation to give up my comforts just yet.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

On the Move

I'm leaving Candidasa tomorrow morning.

After one day, I decided that there is no way I can get peace in this town. Although the town is idyllic and beautiful, every man is either leering at me or trying to rip me off. Here are the highlights:

1. Though I have a budget hotel room, it has a beautiful canopy bed and outdoor bath, which I quite liked. Until I pulled back the sheets and saw, though clean sheets had been laid, the mattress padding had a palm-sized faded blood stain in the middle of the bed. Now, the thought that a woman might have been menstruating and slept here didn't bother me. It was the other thought--that a woman was in pain because some fool didn't know what he was doing--that disturbed me. The next day, they changed the mattress padding and sheets and left a hibiscus in the middle of the bed, which I thought was sweet until I picked it up and noticed it was covering up a small hole in the sheet. I don't know whether to applaud their cleverness or distrust their chalu-ness. Is it too much to ask for clean towels and sheets for $30/night? I think the Rough Guide and backpackers the world over have made traveling into an experience for students or the super wealthy. What happened to clean, safe, budget travel?

2. My first night here, I received a flyer for happy hour and dinner at a local restaurant with legong, or traditional Balinese dancers. After a comical dance lesson in Ubud, I thought it would be good to see what legong actually looks like, and since I had just arrived, it was an easy decision for dinner. The restaurant had 5 dancers perform, the first one being 9 1/2 years old and increasing in age. After each performance, the children/teens would come to each table to "shake hands" (i.e.- see if you will give them money). When I asked the first one if she's in school, the waiter says yes, but she dances every night. So when does she study? In the morning, from 7am to 12pm. Homework time? Well, her mother and father don't work, ever since the bombings in Bali. This information then confused me since the socially conscious tourist in me is against encouraging children to make money over going to school, but the trauma psychologist in me want to support a family trying to recover.
But then, the last performer (who was a young woman) began dancing, and was technically quite good, until she randomly picked up a scarf to drape around an old Australian man's neck and bring him up to the stage, for some combination of Balinese and belly dancing. Let me back up and explain that legong is a dance akin to bharatnatyam and is performed in the temples for auspicious occasions. At no point is it supposed to be cheap, tawdry affair to satisfy tourists who want a Polynesian temptress. Until now.

3. The hotel had arranged for a tour yesterday of the surrounding area, which included the oldest village in Bali, water palaces made by the former king, and a temple on the top of the tallest mountain. In all fairness, these were beautiful places. But the tour guides conspired to irritate me as much as possible. I don't mind if they asked for a fixed price for giving a tour, but they don't and then ask you for more money no matter how much you give them, saying, "Thank you, now I can buy my children rice tonight." Cha-lu. Not to mention that when I get back from one of the tours, my driver is talking with a throng of other drivers, and they all unabashedly stare at me in the most lecherous way possible. When I asked the driver, "Can you tell them not to stare?," he just laughs. Which makes me think that he was party to a frat-like conversation about me. (I admit that this thought is a bit paranoid, but that doesn't mean I'm wrong.)

4. Although it cost 35,000 Rupiah to get a taxi from Ubud to Candidasa, and the hotel in Kuta tells me it will cost 50,000 Rupiah for a taxi from Kuta to the airport, the hotel manager here tells me it will cost 300,000 Rupiah for a taxi from Cnadidasa to Kuta tomorrow. Now, 300,000 Rupiah is about U.S.$30, which is not bad, but how can a trip that takes 2 hours cost six times as much as one that takes 1 hour. Then the manager and his sidekick tell me I can go find a taxi elsewhere. But here's the problem when you travel alone as a woman: there seems to be no regulation of taxis here (people who have vehicles offer a ride) and is it really advisable for me to get in a car with a strange man? So, I will suck it up and pay the exorbitant fair, though I bargained them down to 250,000 Rupiah. (I've found that saying I'm Indian helps in haggling since they then know that I'm not a clueless Westerner only thinking in dollars. I also heard that it's better to think of it as hiring a driver rather than catching a cab.)

Now, I admit, I should probably be more open-minded about my experiences here. Perhaps good service is not culturally expected here, just like yelling isn't really yelling in India, or how in Mongolia, people don't wait in lines but just rush to get what they want in throngs. Perhaps, using your children to emotionally manipulate tourists into forking over money is considered a good business tactic. Perhaps, leering at women and offering coconut massages is a compliment. But, my friends, I have hit my limit of cultural understanding. So I will go to Kuta and be surrounded by Australians and surfers. At least I'll know when to be offended and when not to over there.

PS- For my non-Hindi-speaking friends, chalu can most closely be translated at guileful, but encompasses a measure of manipulation and cleverness that no English word possesses.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Traveling in Bali

I've moved from Ubud in central Bali to Candidasa, a small town on the coast. After traveling for 5 weeks, I thought this would be a simple transfer of hotels, but Bali is conspiring to try my patience. For the first time last night I had mosquitoes in my room, biting me all night. I think this was because I turned off the AC since all of Bali is the perfect room temperature for me. Then, this morning, I thought I had an tour of an NGO that is trying to preserve ancient Balinese dyeing and cloth-making techniques (at least that's what the receptionist told me). At 9am the place wasn't open, and at 10am, the clerk told me that there are no tours today of the shop. Then, I waited in the usual spot for the hotel shuttle to come pick me up. The 11:20 shuttle didn't show, and an hour later, neither did the 12:20. I finally haggled a taxi driver into driving me back, and found out that, starting yesterday, the hotel has changed their drop off and pick-up point in town. They've notified people taking the shuttle into town. Except, I took a taxi early in the morning for my nonexistant tour. Humph. Inefficiency. The one thing that always makes me impatient and cranky (most likely the reason I am always annoyed at Fordham).

After an hour-long drive, I've reached Candidasa, and settled into a nice but much more budget hotel. All is going well, except that I'm in desperate need of cash and a bikini wax. The receptionist tells me that the ATM is 30 minutes away and that one of the staff members will take me on his vespa. The spa is closer, so he takes me there first, only to find out that apparently all of Bali is unaware of the concept of waxing (this was a problem in the hotel in Ubud, too). I think it may be because the Balinese don't seem to have hair. But they are obsessed with Hindi films, so you would think they could accomodate a Punjabi girl. No go. So we head off for the ATM. Without helmets. Which makes me a bit nervous, until I remember how many times my parents fell off scooters in India. Thankfully, my father has taught me how to stay on a motorbike without holding onto anyone, because guy who drove me had a scent that made me want to keep my distance unless my life depended on it. And even then, I may take a minute to deliberate.

To top it off, being Indian here is a bit like being blonde in America. I attribute my newfound pseudo-celebrity status to Bollywood films. Normally I would rejoice in the advancement of Indians, except that it is leading to comments from leacherous men. The most offensive being an offer from an old man for a coconut massage; the most comical being that I look like Aishwaria Rai's younger sister and questions as to why I'm living in New York and not an actress in India. If only they could see my cousins and my girls back home in New York.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Kuala Lumpur and Bali

Photos from Kuala Lumpur...

The Kuala Lumpur Twin Towers. Not a postcard shot, but it proves I was there.

Little India in KL.

My desperate attempt to evade the lingering scent of bird poop with mogra.

Rescued by my new favorite hairdresser.

As for Bali, it is too beautiful for words...

Thinking of my mom, who would like the flower, but reprimand me for not wearing earrings.

The Resort at which I am staying, located on a hillside. The huts seen here are private cabanas for spa treatments.

One of the stops on my cycling tour of Ubud, next to the cave temple pictured below.

Balinese girls coming home from school. Today was a festival because of the full moon, which is why they are in traditional Balinese dress. The locals here are incredibly friendly, running out of their yards to say hello and kids holding out their hands for you as you ride by.

Lotus flowers.

Cooking class. I think I'm rolling a spring roll. I doubt I will ever do this again.

Cycling tour across rice paddies of Ubud.

Cave temple in Ubud. I think the guy insisted on being in the photo.

The scented oil and rose petal bath I got to take tonight. I've decided that every woman should know what it's like to have rose petals cling to you as you come out of a bath.

More tomorrow. Miss you all immensely.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Lay-overs and beauty tips

So, I've mainly been writing about countries I've spent more than a day in, which makes sense, I suppose, but leaves out some cool excursions in Dubai and Kuala Lumpur. Between South Africa and India, I was laid over (that always sounds so vulgar) in Dubai for 12 hours, so I left the airport to take a tour and have a facial (which, by the way, was the single best idea I've had while in transit-- it was 100 times more relaxing and refreshing than any other facial I've had). Anyway, my digital camera was dead, so my photos of Dubai are all on a disposable camera. However, the old city of Dubai is beautiful-- stone fortresses and colorful river boats. Most of the city has been developed in the past 15 years, so there's a lot of skyscrapers, but really the old city and spice market are the best parts.

In contrast, Kuala Lumpur has a nice mix of old and new, and even their Twin Towers are more aesthetic than skyscrapers anywhere else I've seen. It's a bit like the difference between a Trump tower and a building designed by Frank Lloyd Wright: they're both expensive and impressive, but only one is actually pretty.

I have photos that I will try to upload sometime soon, but in keeping with my Dubai beauty ingenuity, I decided to get my hair washed and blown out in KL (after seeing the major sights, of course). This is mainly because while waiting in line to enter the airport in Bangalore, a bird shit on my head. My mother and some Italians standing in line behind me told me this is good luck, but funny, I don't remember learning that when I studied in Italy. I used as much soap as I could in the Bangalore airport to scrub it out, but still fell gross (I think more so because it was brown, not white like pigeon poop). I was able to buy jasmine wreaths in an attempt to cover the scent I was convinced was following me in little India in KL (apparently India's biggest export is people and I keep finding them on this trip- I forgot to mention all the Kerala men with mustaches that were staring at me in Dubai). But then, serendipitously, in the main train station (akin to Grand Central) I found a salon. Now, I admit I had my doubts; concerns about lice and bleached highlights ran through my head. But the receptionist was a transvestite named Diva, and I am willing to bet on the talent and taste of tranies the world over. So, my friends, my hair is sleek and shiny and my advice to you is this: lay-overs are the best time to get pampered and beautified. It may also lead to other lay-overs.

Friday, August 24, 2007

My India

It's been 4 years since I've been in India, and I'm not sure whether it has changed a lot or if I have. I don't think I could have managed taking auto-rickshaws everywhere a few years ago (granted Bangalore is much easier to get by in using English than anywhere else). And although I still think you can't know India until you know it's smells and noises, I know the smells bothered me a lot more as a child, and now the noises do. But, overall, it's nice to finally have an India of my own...

Lalbagh Botanical Gardens:

Tuesday, August 21, 2007


Some of you know that I am from Coorg (officially Kodagu). Well, half of me, at least. Some of you couldn't find Coorg on the map. So, after a brief visit yesterday, here's are some pictures and a brief tutorial.

Coorg is in Karnataka, about a 5 hour drive south of Bangalore. Wikipedia has a decent explanation of the countryside and history at
And my aunt and uncle have a gorgeous bed and breakfast there that I think you should all visit:

But without further ado, here are the photos...

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Out of Africa

Although I didn't get to see any lions of leopards, photos at last...



Sunrise and our campsite

Me with rhinos in the background

Winter lilies


Elephants in the mist




Monday, August 13, 2007

Cast of Characters

It's still going to be a day or two until I can post photos from the safari trip, but here's the cast of characters that accompanied me to Kruger National Park:
Storm: White, blonde South African driver to Kruger. Seriously, his name was Storm. When he told me, I nearly burst out laughing, it was so cliche, but then thought I should stay on the good side of a man who could leave me abandoned in the wild.
MJ: Girl in car with Storm. Most likely, girlfriend. Possibly racist, along with Storm.
Emily: Appeared to be normal American girl who stayed at the same hotel. Young 20s and still looking to impress the world with her intelligence. Reminded me of how annoying I must have been at that age. Reaction to subtle racist comments by Storm and MJ: "I think that's par for the course, here."
TJ: Big, white South African tour guide. Imagine Hurly from Lost with blonde dreadlocks. Blatantly declares that he does not smile. Has been camping and sleeping in a tin trailer for 3 1/2 years.
Suze: 40-something divorcee with 5 kids between 8 and 23. Lots of fun after six pack of beer and 1/2 bottle of wine each night. Possibly heard her purging after breakfast, but circumspect.
Derek and Lee: British-Irish engaged couple. Little known since they were in blissful coupledom, although that may also be because they were both accountants. However, Derek was useful, having memorized the conversion table from metric to English measurement.
Me: Was newly resolved to move out of the US after I get my degree. Now reconsidering.

Thursday, August 9, 2007

Women's Day

I have arrived (safely) in South Africa on a national holiday, Women's Day, which I thought was a rather good sign for me, the occasional rabid feminist. From what I could gather from the cab driver, it appears that Women's Day is the South African version of Mother's Day where husbands and children should take care of the women they know and buy them stuff. The day also turns out to be loaded with irony; I unexpectedly got my period as soon as I landed, and will be camping in Kruger Park for the next two nights. Plus, thought the hostel I'm staying in is nice, they don't provide towels, which was a surprise to me for reasons that seem rather presumptuous now. So, Women's Day became a trip to the mall, just like Mother's Day in the U.S., with the hope that some store is open. Thankfully, some fancy linen store was, and I have paid more for a towel here than I ever would back home. And then impulsively bought other items, like an alarm clock, back-up disposable camera (the battery has been dying inconveniently in mine), and of course, a book (by J. M. Coetzee).

I don't think I'll have much Internet access over the next 2-3 days, so I might have to wait until I get to India to upload photos. But thank you all for reading. It's a bit weird writing without knowing exactly who is reading this (other than my parents, who are consistent beyond measure), so thanks to everyone who has been posting and emailing me, as well.

Wednesday, August 8, 2007

Fleeting thoughts before leaving Beunos Aires

My flight to South Africa is later tonight, but here are some final photos and thoughts before leaving BA.
1. When you order coffee or tea, they give you a shot of soda water with it. I don´t know why this idea hasn't caught on in Europe or the States yet.
2. If you click on Emily's blog on the left, she has a nice analysis of the pros and cons of the seated throne versus the squat toilet. I think the bidet deserves an equally eloquent ode, especially since a crudely exposed tap and plastic pitcher await me in India.
3. The men in Argentina have no shame is staring at a woman, and it's unlike anything I've ever experienced. I mean, the men in New York will, usually, try to be discreet, and in Italy they'll tease you, but the men here simply stare. Occasionally, it's flattering, but often I want to channel the drill Sargent from An Officer and a Gentleman and shout, "Why are you eyeballing me, boy?"
4. After meeting a bunch of really nice and really beautiful women, I have decided that we all have the same problems with men and most of us are under-appreciated.
5. To be fair to men, I've also so met some really kind and generous ones who have showed me the city and given me some of the best compliments. My favorite was when one suddenly grabbed my hand and said "you're such a nice girl!" No one in New York ever compliments anyone on being nice or kind. Beautiful, yes. Smart, maybe. But never nice. Which is a shame; it's really my favorite one.

The patio at my hotel.

El Caminato in La Boca.

La Boca.

Eating Indian food at Bangalore, which was oddly designed like an English pub.

Monday, August 6, 2007


It turns out that there´s a Ramakrishna Center in Buenos Aires. Of course, I had to go check it out since I can´t think of any other instance where I would hear bajans sung in Spanish and see Vivekananda´s Karma Yoga written in Spanish. The center (they call it the Ashrama) is located about an hour and half (by train) outside of the main city, so it´s a beautiful sprawling property. (Unfortunately my camera battery died Saturday night, so I don´t have any pictures.) I think I was somewhat of a novelty there since the Argentinian devotees were really excite to meet a real-life Indian. (By the way, one of the things I haven´t written about is how in Spanish, Indiano is actually a really pejorative term for Native Americans, and so Indians have to refer to themselves as Hindu; I´m not sure what an Indian Muslim would do).

Anyway, it was a really interesting and fun experience to hear readings and Sanskrit words in Spanish. Plus, their songs are much more fun than the songs at the center in New York. They´re also much more laid back and Latin American about the whole affair, starting whenever they please and kissing everyone hello. I´m sure Swami Adishwarananda in New York would have a fit. There´s also an Argentinian swami who´s much too good looking to be a swami; if he starts taking on disciples, they´re going to jump off of cliffs like lemmings for him.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

In love again

The sun shone today for the first time since I arrived on Monday, and I am in love with Buenos Aires again. It may have helped that I had a tango lesson this morning, and am now addicted. Or that I have wonderful friends at home, who quickly responded to my advice-seeking email with reassurances that I am not a social pariah. Or, my Spatalian is getting better (one shopkeeper told me I spoke Spanish like a Brazilian, which, despite my limited knowledge of Brazil, flattered me since there´s nothing worse than sounding like an American).

I´ve finally figured out how to post photos from my camera, so here´s a few- just random street scenes. Thank you all for your posts and reading this blog; it´s made traveling solo much more fun.

Friday, August 3, 2007

What to do on a rainy day?

So, it´s official, if you´re going to do Buenos Aires, do it in the summer. It rained all day today, and it´s so cold, even the tourists don´t want to go out.

That being said, it´s also perfect museum weather. I went to the MALBA, the big modern art museum here, akin to MOMA (Funny how modern art museums like their abbreviations). Like most modern art museums, somethings were nice, but others were just weird. Just because it´s art doesn´t mean it´s good.

However, lunch in the museum cafe was spiced up with the arrival of a French/Luxembourg man who spoke English! (Yes, I have become an obnoxious American tourist who demands everyone speak English to me. If the British made my ancestors accommodate them, I figure the rest of the world should accommodate me. By the way, does anyone know what people from Luxembourg are called?). He then steered me towards the Museum of Fine Arts, which was amazing. It had collections on top of collections of the European masters, from Monet to Pissaro to Renoir to Picasso. There was a Van Gogh painting there that I had never seen in any art history book of mine.

I was too cold and tired to go out after returning from the museum treks, so I ordered in, which turned out to be a great idea since I got to eat dinner with one of the staff members and his girlfriend, Martin and Barbara. It´s much easier to learn about a country by eating dinner with locals than by reading guidebooks or going out to bars. And more enjoyable, in my opinion. Plus, I´m feeling sick and need to save up my energy for tango lessons tomorrow!

One last thing, for my dad: Yes, the toilets do flush clockwise. I checked three different bowls.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Around the town

Dear Sherif,
You have a black tongue like my grandfather and I hate you for it.

It´s freakin´ cold here. There´s no way for me to romanticize it and make this sound like a charming travel log. I had to buy a wool hat and polartec gloves, which I think I will be sleeping in if the nice buzz I got from wine at dinner tonight wears off.

But, despite that, I got to see most of the city today. BA has a city greeter program much like NYC, and my guide, Mauricio, took me all around the city in his warm car to show me the touristy and not-so-touristy places. Granted, some of the places you had to imagine in the summer, like the park planted with at least 100 different types of rose bushes. Before any of you start getting ideas, Mauricio is about 70 with grandkids. But, he is also a practicing psychologist (Argentina has the highest number of psychoanalysts per capita) who set me up with tango lessons this weekend with his friend´s son. And incredibly kind and eager to show anyone BA for free.

For some reason, Buenos Aires seems to remind me of Florence. That may be because that was the last time I was traveling alone for an extended period of time, or because it looks like Italy with its green "farmacia" signs every 2 blocks, cobblestone streets, and 1970s pre-fab structures rudely interrupting a row of stone facades. It smells like Florence, too- a mixture of wood burning stoves and exhaust fumes, I think.

Fortunately or unfortunately, globalization makes an authentic Argentine experience hard to come by. The Simpsons movie is being heavily promoted here, as is Harry Potter and Ocean´s 13. McDonald´s is not as ubiquitous as it is in India and France, but present nonetheless. I think I saw a "Big and Tall" store on the way home tonight, and know I saw HSBC, Citibank, and ads for Yoga classes. I guess America is America, even if it´s South America.