Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Whiz Kid

Interestingly enough, when traveling through a country with so many fascinating, disturbing, exciting and appalling sights, the one thing that always captures the Westerner’s attention is the Indian sense of freedom in toilet stylings.

In a country with a billion people and approximately 3 public toilets, accommodations have to be made. These consist of letting fly anytime and anyplace (God, it’s great to be a guy…) There are people dropping trou behind any tree, wall or sleeping cow to move the last curry onto it’s next plane of existence. Copping a whiz is much simpler. Every 20 feet or so, guys are just facing away from the street and letting go. This was an adjustment but, as I said, there’s not much alternative unless you never leave home. The greatest thing was strolling down the street in the tonier areas and coming across the classier version of this “any port in a storm” style. There are open air public urinals on the street. You’re still whizzing in front of 20,000 people at any given moment (God help anyone born here with a shy bladder) but you have a nice, reassuring expanse of porcelain to concentrate on.

I went out for a walk tonight in search of incomprehensibly labeled medicine for Staci who is suffering her standard Day 3 upper respiratory plague. (There’s nothing better than buying foreign medication with instructions in a different language from a druggist who has no idea what you’re asking for. The side effects can be fascinating. In Greece, I picked up some pills that cleared up my indigestion within hours… The enormous breasts lingered for several days but I managed to while away the time in a nice soapy shower.) I walked about a mile, dodging all manner of traffic and the occasional dyspeptic cow, just to find my baby some relief (I expect e-mails from you all telling her how lucky she is to have me as I’ve been my typical self on this trip and can use the manna…) Along the way, I ended up walking along a few shady, tree-lined streets that, judging by the aroma wafting from the well established wet stains imprinted into the walls and sidewalks, were particular favorites among the cognoscenti. ( I hope they appreciate this recognition…) I found myself thinking… well, hell, you all know what I found myself thinking.

This picture commemorates a spot in Jaipur, Rajasthan that is now, in a way, forever mine.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Sikh Temple

I’ve always wanted to see a Sikh Temple… just one of those things.

Sikh’s are an interesting people. They began as a warrior caste during a time when Hindu’s were being kicked about by the Moguls. The Hindu king at that time told his subjects to send him their eldest sons. They were taken into the jungle and trained as warriors. Now, in the jungle there’s a surprising shortage of hair care product so they grew theirs long and wrapped it in turbans. Today that’s still one of their five identifying characteristics*, in addition to carrying a long curved knife at all times, wearing an iron bracelet, and special long underwear (in case they’re attacked while napping or in the can) . You can recognize them today by these accoutrements as well as their common middle name “Singh“, meaning “lion” (Beats hell out of “Timmy” or “Norm“)

Held in high regard by their countrymen for valor and character (aside from occasionally dabbling with ethnic cleansing and political assassination but, hey, we've all done that; right guys?) they kicked all manner of ass in a series of wars and now hold a wide number of positions in business and politics including, currently Prime Minister. (Rahm Emmanuel really needs to carry a long curved dagger. That would bring the rest of the Dems in line real quick. If it didn‘t, he could show them his special underwear)

Sikh’s maintain temples all over India and in much of the rest of the world. Here, in addition to maintaining and revering their holy book (aka The Tenth Guru) they also run the ultimate in soup kitchens. In every Sikh temple, lunch is on for whoever wants it regardless of race, creed, caste or nationality. Volunteers from the poor to corporate CEOs work in their kitchens There are bicycles and Mercedes parked out front.

This may have been about the most fun I’ve had so far. After leaving our shoes and socks at the door (to be watched over by some corporate executive/shoe guy volunteer), we donned head covers (I got a bandana with lions printed on it and I’m never taking it off!) and walked barefoot into the temple enclosure.

Like my brother, I have a thing about kitchens and cooking utensils Can’t explain it. Just accept it.

Click to view Youtube video of kitchen operation.

The head cook took me on a tour of the operation. It was like being behind the scenes at some sort of culinary sorcerers apprentice disaster as vast mounds of food assembled themselves and gushed out in a torrent to the servers at the end. The cook proudly ran me through the operation showing each cooking station, describing the cooking process for the food being made and the incredible quantities of ghee being consumed in the process. The chapati operation in particular is fascinating.

Cooked on a massive steel griddle the size of two king-sized beds, the breads begin as pancakes of raw dough slapped onto the griddle by one volunteer and then make their way across, in nearly constant motion, being nudged along and then flipped by other volunteers. By the time they reach the far end of the griddle, they are browning and puffing up like pocket pita. At this point they’re hooked by one last worker and tossed, smoking and steaming onto a chapati mountain which will be chipped away at by other volunteers carrying them off to be served. The smell is wonderful.

Throughout the rest of the temple you can see visitors eating, washing, resting and visiting. In addition to feeding visitors they will also take in anyone that needs someplace to crash for a day or two; down on their luck travellers and such. This is their way of brightening up their Karma for the next round.

Happily devoid of priests, everything is pretty much a committee operation right down to the volunteers singing, chanting, playing instruments and fanning the Holy book (which by the way has its own room in a corner of the temple, where it’s tucked into bed at night under nice covers and probably given a little drink of water. In the winter it gets a blanket. Not a bad life for a book.)

Meeting and talking with these guys was just downright fun. Supremely confident and good-humored (and reportedly enjoying a nice drink here and there.) you get the impression that Sikh’s know they’re cool. If India is “Happy days”, the Sikh’s are Fonzie.

Day one in Delhi

New Delhi is a city on the make.

Driving through it, you get the feeling that you’re seeing the prototype for the first cities. Life is going on every where you look and anything that stands still is built on or made useful in some unusual way. You get odd images in your head of a coral reef or other group organism; something composed of individual entities but somehow self-organizing. The city is recreating itself constantly. Shouldering itself up out of the ash mound of its own funeral pyre like some luckless Phoenix being consumed and reborn repeatedly and at the same time. It is astonishing to see. (Staci wonders what will happen a thousand years from now as future archeologists try to make sense of the various strata built over, under, next to and behind each other).

The first cities must have organized much like this. Someone finds a need, any need, no matter how minor, grabs it and holds on for dear life. Any place there is space available, whether it’s a 8 foot store front, a push cart on the street, a stack of sheets on a bicycle, or a beggar with an old bathroom scale on the sidewalk, everyone’s looking for their piece of the action.

No place is this more visible today than during a rickshaw ride through Chandni Chowk bazaar in Old Delhi. Like the Suq in Cairo, buildings date back hundreds of years and have just adjusted themselves to passing centuries as if time were merely a minor inconvenience. The narrow, shadowed passages between buildings and shops (I’m not going to call them streets) are ceilinged over by an incomprehensible tangle of electric and phone wires (can you say power outage??) the likes of which would cause any OSHA inspector to pitch forward in a dead faint. Speeding through the bazaar on the back of our bicycle rickshaw, Staci and I just couldn’t seem to look at everything fast enough. I ran video the entire time while Staci took still shots, hoping to make sense of it later.

Before going any further, I have to voice my admiration for the drivers in Delhi. If I was impressed the night before, I was completely blown away today. Everything is moving in every conceivable direction including up and down as well as some options not even available in 3-dimensional geometry (the sporty new offerings from Tata Motors apparently include some form of low-speed warp drive capable of bending time and space as well as other vehicles and pedestrians). I couldn‘t take enough video of the driving. I‘d always thought Cairo drivers were the most radical on the planet but they’re sad little sissy-men compared to these hurtling kamikazes blasting in and out of traffic, five to a motorcycle, sipping coffee on their way to wherever they’re headed.

In the bazaar we saw every line of human endeavor; shop keepers, hawkers crying their wares, street barbers shaving customers as scooters and rickshaws caromed within inches of the blade. Artificers of every stripe banging away at metal ware bowls and pans, motor and engine repair, welders at work and hundreds of tiny workshops or craft suppliers. Fast food stands consisting of open flame grills supplied them all with every type of food imaginable. The smell of cooking oil, fresh bread and cooked meats combining with odors from spice shops, dog whiz, smoke and a sanitation system that long ago threw up it’s hands in frustration and gave up the ghost. (Staci’s just pointed out that I could be traumatizing the grandnephews during peak toilet training time… Don‘t get scared, kids. Uncle Dennis was just using poetic license The sewer system doesn’t really have hands and won’t reach up and grab you…

As long as you behave.

Hello, Delhi

The first thing we noticed getting off the plane in Delhi was the smell of smoke. We were ready for this, having checked out for the latest forecast for Delhi. “Smoky” was forecast for every foreseeable day. A dense pall from burning wood, coal and animal dung suffuses the city (The dung is used for cooking, not practical jokes, if you were wondering…)

We picked up our bags and headed for customs, which was pretty cursory . The most intriguing feature of it was the thermal imagining monitor in front of each counter. The Indian health authorities are serious as a heart attack about keeping out the swine flu (or, if you are a Muslim, cow flu.). Each arriving passenger can see themselves in glowing infrared on the monitors as they are scanned for the tale-tale colors of fever.

Leaving the airport, well after midnight, we drove through a city that did not sleep or even take a quick nap while the boss was out.. The 1:00am rush hour was in full swing. Busses, cars, tricycle taxies, and anything else with wheels was careening about with reckless abandon, totally devoid of anything approaching order. It was exciting just to be a passenger on the bus (it would get much more exciting during the day time). Cars were coming towards us on the left, right and up the middle of the road as our bus explored all the same options including the sidewalks. As motor trikes and scooters wove in and out, it was like being inside a video game, “Grand Theft Auto - New Delhi Rush”. I just needed the right music and a joystick controller and I would have been up on the sidewalk, running over pedestrians. (That is, if there were sidewalks and the pedestrians had not already been run over.

Driving through the night, you could see the basis of the that constant overused bromide about India being “a study of contrasts” We saw it in gleaming buildings and new construction alongside hovels by the road side; a magnificent new subway being built above darkened cave homes in the refuse piles as wretched tents made of blue tarps dopplered by.

After about 45 minutes we arrived at our hotel; a new 7-story five-star edifice flanked by two gigantic new super malls; one bigger than the next and more modern than anything I remember in the states (most of the same shops including a Hard Rock Café and Victoria Secrets)

We found our way up to our room and passed out


Tuesday, October 20, 2009

The Photoshopped Portrait of Dorian Gray

I should note, at the outset, that I think of my body as a machine; every part operating in concert with every other part to carry me to peak performance.

I should then note that this particular machine appears to be a Soviet-era Russian coupe, all shiny cardboard and concrete, with both powerful cylinders gargling nearly in tune as they power the Denny Harris juggernaut erratically down to the corner for the last jar of beets.

Things being what they are these days, I'm not seeing the possibility of trading up anytime soon so I'm trying to make sure I'm tuned up and ready for travel. (Enough of that; my store of automotive metaphor is very limited...)

Staci and I approached our preparations methodically, as usual, with me going through the medicine cabinet to see what sort of interesting stuff was left over from our last trip (Germans have foaming hemmorhoid spray! Honestly!) while she checked the W.H.O. website for site specific information and vaccination suggestions. In short order we ended up at the local travel medicine office. This place actually specializes in giving vaccinations for anything of an infectious nature that's been reported as lurking about an area and possibly up to no good.

I was vaccinationed for Diptheria, Tetanus, Pertussis, Hepatitis, Typhoid and the Flu. As sensation returned to my arms I clumsily maneuvered a stack of prescriptions into my pocket which I later traded for anti-malaria pills and some antibiotics "just in case" as the Doctor said. We passed on the shots they offered us for other forms of pestilence apparently floating about ("Japanese encephalitis? Three separate shots; $450; all the best people are getting them...") as we're not exactly going to be wading  through swamps. (At least not intentionally; it is an odd numbered year and you never know where you're going to end up travelling with me.) I'm also going to take my chances with The Heebie-Jeebies, which are primarily affecting the northern border area near Bhutan, as well as the Willies. (Which my younger brother has suffered from for most of his life. Check out his website. Maybe you can help send him to summer camp or something...)

Having taken action to preclude the problems least likely to affect us during the trip, I was now free to fall apart in a more natural and organic manner. My teeth are suddenly giving me trouble (actually the teeth are okay but apparently I'm going to have to have the gums pulled. I really need to find a different  Dentist ...), I have tonsilitis, one eardrum has swollen out past the ear where it can be seen pulsing rhythmically and my back has gone out. I also have what appear to be the early warning signs for Heebie-Jeebies.

In the best vampire-film-climax tradition, I've spent the last few days crumbling messily to dust. I've even essayed a few theatrical poses and cries of anguish as I cower behind the blanket to shield myself from the deadly rays of the morning sun... and that draft that keeps getting in. Amazingly, my wife hasn't once been moved to shower me with sympathy and care or draw a cool hand across my brow while cooing "There, there..."; (a particular favorite of mine...)  Even more astonishingly, she steadfastly refuses to do my packing for me.

It was worth a try, though.

Now, I suppose I'd better get upstairs and start rummaging through my closet for anything that still fits me and screams out "Tourist!" to the casual observer. More on that later.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Intermission 1- Prelude to Outfitting

When I was a child I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man...I started wearing sandals with black socks.

There is a moment of transition; of transformation.

It's a balancing point in life. A moment when you find yourself at the crest of a mountain, looking not only back at the path you've taken to that peak but also ahead to the coming descent. You're balanced on the razor's edge...

Yep, you're up to your junk in metaphorical imagery.

Welcome to middle age! Come in! Sit down (Making that sound your dad used to make...) and get comfortable. Help yourself to a cup of coffee. (Better stick with the decaf. You'll be up all night again.)

I remember being a young guy, observing those older men (Sages!) who looked out, with direct eyes, from that summit. I didn't realize they were standing on any metaphorical mountain peaks at that point, of course. I was too preoccupied with wondering why these balding dweebs would actually be outdoors, in broad daylight, walking around shopping malls or mowing their lawns while wearing hemmed shorts, tucked-in banlon shirts buttoned all the way up and old dress shoes with black knee socks. Now that I'm a great big, grown up boy of 56 (Pause for imagined protestations of disbelief. If stuck for one, go with "Oh, no, Denny! You can't be 56!  Really?"  Try not to snigger. It ruins the effect.) and have developed the respect for age to be found among, well, primarily the aged.. my understanding has evolved.

The stages progress, roughly, as follows. (Take note, Kubler-Ross):

The first cracks in the wall came in your thirties when, hopefully, you realized that any chance of looking cool had passed you by. While a few of your friends continued, embarrassingly, in their attempts to keep up, (This would be the point to say "You know who you are." but, sadly, you really don't. ) we accepted it and welcomed the savings on clothing and hair care products.
Some took longer to learn the lesson; like a friend of mine who persisted in going shirtless. He was working in the yard one day when a couple of teen girls walked by smiling and obviously checking him out. He was pleased and still studiously holding his gut in as they passed by when he heard one of them giggle "Nice tits, mister."

The haunted look on his face as he related this story over a couple bottles was tragic... Hilariously tragic.

Next came your forties. In addition to finally "truly getting" Sinatra, you gratefully embraced the Hawaiian shirt and gave up on trying to force your hair into configurations that "Man was not meant to play with." Freshly shorn and wearing your new bifocals, you looked upon your mature visage (ferocious toad!) and readied yourself for the final battle. (Theme music wells up in the background; full strings in a minor key swell with the addition of woodwinds and foreboding minor-sevenths... 
Your fifties... You reach what you think is a fresh plateau of realization nearly every year and call it wisdom.

You're wrong...

(Spoiler alert. If you're mid-fifties and are not ready to face what lies beyond no longer caring what you wear to the home center/grocery store or who the hell sees you, skip ahead.)

While hunting down the right footwear for this trip I picked up these quasi-sneaker/sandal things. Variously labelled as "reef-runners" or "surf shoes", they're basically open-backed sneakers with open cutouts on tops and sides. They're breathable as hell and seem just the thing for clambering around hot, humid or dusty temples and ruins; a nice, stable alternative to my old hiking sandals. Perfect...

Of course there could be blister problems from going between wet and dry environments and varied types of ground. I made the obvious adjustment.

As I look down at my feet with horrified realization dawning, I can hear the music building up, no longer an incidental background theme but loud and urgent; darkly triumphant, with the brass section taking the fore. As the darkness rises up around me (Not unlike, oddly enough, a cloak and helmet, why not?) the mechanical sound of my breathing is drowned out by the mocking laughter of generations of my predecessors, some long dead; (my father's chuckle standing out clearly) as they point at me with amusement from the half-mown back yards of time...

Seriously, though, these things are really comfy...

Monday, October 12, 2009

Travels With Dennis in Search of...

I used to spend a lot of time (between apologies) explaining to Staci my vacation philosophy (read- excuses).

This is based on a pay-as-you-go sort of Karmic balance principle that each moment of pleasure must be balanced by an equal moment of pain. The "moment of pain" in question consists of travelling with me in odd numbered years and can stretch out to a couple weeks so I suppose "moment" doesn't do it justice...

The even numbered year trips would be magnificent; full of perfect moments, memory snapshots that never fade and nicely composed photos with native wildlife waving to the camera while double, full arc rainbows framed the perfectly centered flight of swans silhouetted against the dawn sky...

And that was outside Gary, Indiana.

Then there were... the other trips.

I'd like to offer my friends the chance to relive these memories and test out the other theory I propounded to Staci that "the odd number year trips make for great memories and stories. It just takes some time (sometimes years) for the initial trauma to wear off and reveal the underlying fun" (She never bought into that. I guess she doesn't like fun.)

My brother, Bill, joined me on a simple trip to southern Illinois for my Uncle's funeral. I figured we could save some time by flying to St. Louis and then driving over. That worked out; didn't it, Bill?

My buddy Bob joined me and George on an exciting cross-country van excursion to the Rocky mountains. He got to relax in the back of the van while I did all the hard driving work. (In retrospect, we probably should have poked some breathing holes in the back of the van but, in my defense, we did give him plenty of exercise on the mountain roads.) Good times, right, Bob?

Staci will never forget our romantic trip to Belize. Sometimes she still sits straight up in bed at 3 AM, screaming with delight. I'm sure she's getting closer and closer to realizing how much fun we had. As a matter of fact, last time she told one of our friends about our "being hopelessly lost in the jungle" (Which is an exaggeration. I'm sure I would have found the way out eventually.) she had  a bit of a smile on her face. Not a particularly pleasant smile, but...

It was also an odd-numbered year in the mid-seventies when I was camping in the Yucatan, being chased through the jungle around Coba by wild pigs as iguanas and large spiders dropped off branches onto my head and shoulders. (I don't believe I was being targeted. They were probably just startled by the high-pitched screams that seemed to follow me around everywhere until I'd run out of breath.) I finally got some rest after stopping at what passed for a food cart in the jungle, a metal pan cooking over a oil drum fire, and bought myself some nice iguana soft tacos. I believe in trying out local cuisine when I travel.

As I lay in a hotel bed drifting in and out of consciousness and a colorful melange of bodily fluids for the next week, I had a gradual revelation about the "local cuisine" concept. A hotel maid nursed me; bathing me, forcing medicine and water into me and checking for continued respiration. (I vaguely remember Mexican children poking me with sticks and giggling but, then, I also seem to recall long, rambling conversations with St. Anthony and a tiny Morey Amsterdam about our favorite sandwich spreads...)

Ah, memories...

Next time- Travel provisioning!

Sunday, October 11, 2009


In less than 2 weeks, Staci and I will be off to India for nearly a month and feverish preparations are in full swing!

By this I mean that Staci has spent nearly a month practicing various packing modalities, weighing luggage combinations and calculating the various fashion permutations permitted by tops, blouses and scarves in 3 basic color families (An excercise that seems to involve a solid grasp of Game theory, calculus and kindly Dr. Feynman's K-matrix guide to energy quanta) For my part, I'm carefully anchoring down the north end of the sofa; watching South Park and Phineas & Ferb reruns just in case useful travel tips should turn up. The day before we leave I'll wedge anything that looks useful into my duffel and hope for the best. (While this doesn't usually play out well, the results aren't really much different when I do prepare so I figure I'm a number of cartoons ahead of the game.) At any rate, Staci is prepared and that makes all the difference.

I should probably explain our unique dynamic.

While I'm a veritable compendium of esoteric wisdom; able to discuss quantum entanglement, predynastic Egyptian pit burial practices of the Gerzean and Amratian periods as well as any number of areas of knowledge (as long as they serve no useful purpose in real life) I am, apparently, completely devoid of anything approaching common sense. I'll probably die standing out in a field with a flock of turkeys, gazing up in gape-mouthed wonder at the sky as my lungs fill up with rain. Staci will not be surprised by this and will probably give me "the look" as I lay in my coffin looking just like myself.

Staci, however, has that kind of black belt female logic always at work which still manages to amaze me. She's somehow able to connect cause with effect before consequences. (I'm like a dog watching a human use a can opener... How the hell does she do that?)

Fortunately, she's done the heavy lifting for this trip, meaning we have our innoculations, medications, preparations, recommendations and anything else rhyming with "ations" that may prove useful. It's a good thing as this trip is a bit more involved than most of the ones we've done.

We're going to the usual big sights in Delhi and Agra as well as camping in the tiger preserve at Ranthambore, camel trekking, seeing the temple carvings at Khajuraho, travelling to the annual camel fair in Pushkar and floating around the backwaters of Kerala on a houseboat. This provides me all manner of opportunities to help Staci maintain her childlike sense of wonder with my continuing inability to "see that coming." (Flashbacks to follow...)

Should be interesting.