Culture Shock to the Extreme

Hello all,

Yesterday Anjali and I experienced the most intense culture shock of our trip.  We arrived in the village of Hampi in Karnataka yesterday morning, which was the heart of the sixteenth century Vijayanagar empire which dominated Southern India.  Now it is a town surrounded by ruins set amidst an evocative boulder-strewn landscape of rice paddies, banana plantations, and coconut palms.  It is also deluged by whiteys.  We have only seen a handful of whiteys here and there on our trip, and here we are SURROUNDED by them.  Australians, Europeans, Israelis, and good-old Americans.  We sat stunned in the popular Mango Tree restaurant on the banks of the Tungabhadra river watching dozens of goras eating all around us.  This is a little part of India they have taken over and staked out for their own.  As incredible as the giant rock pile-ups are, and amazing as it is to see ancient temples and ruins everywhere you luck, I am looking forward to getting out of here.  The Mango Tree had a sign that said “While you are in India, please try some Indian food.”  “Oh my God,” I realized, this means there are probably travelers who try to avoid eating Indian food.  The Mango Tree menu didn’t help, since it was loaded with Western options.  All the restaurants here advertise Italian food, German food, European pastries and desserts, and Israeli food, as Hampi is connected to Goa, and that is a favored Israeli vacation spot.  We have even seen signs in Hebrew, and the keys on the keyboard that I am currently using have Hebrew letters taped on next to the English letters.  Nutella is a restaurant staple here, and listed on menus in every possible combination with other foods.

The saddest thing is that the foreign tourists show no respect for Indians or Indian culture.  The men all wear T-shirts and shorts, and the women all dress in tight spaghetti-strap tops and short-shorts.  They go around holding hands or wrapped in each other’s arms, which is a real slap in the face to Indian social norms.   Every guidebook to India explains how to dress respectfully and conservatively, so these people are either totally ignorant, or intentionally trampling over cultural norms.  Fortunately there were lots of Indian tourists and school groups at the temples and ruins, so we didn’t feel completely disconnected from the rest of our trip.

Before Hampi we were in Hyderabad, AKA Cyberabad, India’s most hi-tech city (there is a township in Hyderabad called HITEC City -Hyderabad Information Technology Engineering Consultancy City, but we didn’t make time to visit), and surprisingly it was a real challenge finding internet cafes (or net centers, as they are called there) in the area of town where we were staying.  Before that Anjali and I made it to Pachmarhi, Madya Pradesh’s major hill station, for the New Year’s Eve period.  Actually, I almost didn’t.  The closest railway station was in a town called Pipariya, and when the doors of the train opened, so many people tried to cram their way on, that I got stuck on the train, crushed in by people, with a suitcase (Anjali refuses to travel with a backpack) and my own ginormous backpack that were very hard to manuever, and I lost sight of Anjali, who had managed to force her way off the train.  People were far more interested in cramming their way on to the train than letting an overburdened white boy off, and by the time I heard Anjali yelling for me I realized the train was moving.  I yelled “I can’t get off!” at which point an Indian man grabbed the emergency brake and stopped the train.  Anjali had jumped back on the train when it started moving, and after I yelled, people made some effort to let me get off the train, but I still had to toss the luggage off in order to disembark.

When we planned our New Year’s for the hill station of Pachmarhi we thought it would be a quiet little getaway, little knowing that it is THE place to be for Indian tourists during this period, especially ones from Maharashtra.  Prices in the region increase up to tenfold during this time (our hotel fortunately only doubled their rates), and the town is packed with celebrating Indians.  In fact, once we arrived we learned that our hotel would throw the major parties in town, one on the 30th in the lawn behind the hotel, and one on the 31st in the open courtyard of a nearby school.  Our room was “deluxe” which always means the crappiest room available.  “Deluxe” is the bottom of the barrel, compared to tags such as “imperial” or “grand”  Since meals were included, it is a good thing the place had a fine kitchen.  In fact, since all the tourists in town are Indian, the food is cooked for Indians, not whiteys, so it was spicy!  Yum.  One night I ordered Kohlapuri dal, wondering what kind of dal that was, only to discover that Kohlapuri meant that the top of the dal was covered in mounds of chilies, chili flakes, and hot chili oil.  Which is fine, I love spicy food, but I have never seen a dish arrive at my place setting like that outside of only the most chili-crazy Thai joints.  The Misty Meadows Resort served the most amazing, creamy lassis which Anjali and I ordered every meal.  The tops were covered in nuts and berries, and I was skeptical of these unusual additions at first, but was soon won over by the scrumptious delightfulness of these ambrosial concoctions.

Pachmarhi is a plateau located inside a double caldera.  The now extinct volcano had two great explosions, so Pachmarhi is ringed by two sets of mountain peaks.  The area is filled with scenic woods and beautiful waterfalls.  Our first full day (or the first full day we didn’t spend sleeping recovering from our overnight train journey) we hired a jeep (gypsy is what they are called here) to see some of the local sights.  Our non-English-speaking driver took us to a ticket station where we were told it would be 1710 (!) rupees to get a pass to see the sights,  which seemed astronomically expensive in context.  I walked away in shock, only to have a generalissimo-type figure in aviator shades with a military cap and camo fatigues follow me from behind the counter to explain that if we left the jeep outside the woods, and did more hiking, the fee would only be 710 rupees to see the waterfalls with a guide.  I told him we didn’t want a guide, and that we wanted a cheaper option.  He explained there was no cheaper option, and we were required to have a guide. None of the three guidebooks we brought said a guide was necessary, in fact they suggested walking or biking to some of the closer spots, so I thought we were being lied to, but he seemed official, so I relented.

The area of Pachmarhi is largely controlled by the Indian army, who make up most of the population, and it seemed like the military had their fingers in the tourist industry as well.  After agreeing to pay the fee, the generalissimo jumped in the jeep and said he would be our guide. This really freaked me out, especially after he quickly announced that for a little extra, he would take us on special routes through the woods where the Indian tourists didn’t go, and we could see “untouched natural beauty.”  I wasn’t picturing untouched natural beauty, I was picturing us raped, robbed and murdered out in the forest by generalisimo and his army buddies.  He took us to some ancient Buddhist caves in the area, told us no more than what I already knew from our travel books, told us a maximum time we had in the area, and then waited at the bottom of the cliff while we did the strenous climbing ourselves.  I was fuming.  I felt lied to.  I felt ripped off.  The whole reason we rented our own jeep was so we could be on our own schedule, and now I was being told the “maximum” amount of time I could spend in an area. Bullshit!  But this guy seemed military, and we were in a military town, so what power did I have in this situation?  Our Indian cellphone didn’t even get service up at the hill station.  While I explored the caves with Anjali I kept having imaginary confrontations with the generalissimo in my head.  When we returned to the base of the cliff, I asked the man his name, and he replied, “Thakur,” pointing to it embroiderd on his chest.  Oh, right.  I asked his job title and employer and learned that he was the senior-most Madhya Pradesh Forest Guide, having served as a guide in the area for twenty-eight years.  He explained that all tourists, foreign and Indian, needed a guide to visit the waterfalls in order to ensure the protection of rare plants.  After a lengthy questioning period I accepted the guy’s legitimacy, and realized his fatigues were not military camo, but a more playful pine leaf design used by the forest service.

Once he started taking us through the woods and sharing his geological and botanical knowledge with us I realized that we had really lucked out in scoring such a knowledgeable and sensitive guide.  He railed constantly about the Indian tourists who visit the area and how they don’t appreciate nature and throw garbage everywhere and talk the whole time.  He said there were only about 200 foreign tourists in Pachmarhi a year, and I realized why he wanted to be our guide, and share some really special places with us.  He took us off the general trail and showed us the world’s largest mango tree (to me, anyway), silver ferns, the curry plant, neem plant, carniverous pitcher plants and the Mahua tree, whose leaves are fermented to make a potent tribal liquor.  He explained that the tribals in the area make no handicrafts -which explained why we saw nothing but mass-produced plastic crap in the market the night before- but they harvest a health miracle mineral called shilajeet, harvest amazing honey, and brew up wicked Mahua.  He showed us a giant rocky overhang covered in prehistoric rock art of hunters and beasts.  The guide books claim the rock art in the area was painted 10,000 years ago, but Mr. Thakur claimed the art was 35,000 years old.  Mr. Thakur explained that he has discovered 300 prehistoric art sites in Pachmarhi that only he knows about, as he fears if he tells the forest service that the sites will become popular with Indian tourists and they will deface the art and cover it with graffitti.  Sure enough, I could see that a few people had already done just that on the site he was sharing with us.

We shared a beautiful walk through highland forest, only spying the occasional tribal children who use the trails in the area.  Mr. Thakur warned us what we would see once we rejoined the main trail and sure enough it was covered with garbage, Indian tourists talking loudly, and even playing Bollywood music on boomboxes.  He took us to a small falls called Apsara Vihar (Fairy Pool), which was covered in garbage, overrun by dozens and dozens of people eating snacks at the nearby snack bar in the woods, and I was really underwhelmed compared to the spectacular falls we have in the Columbia gorge.  It was only when the trek continued to Rajat Pratap (Silver Fall) that I was awed by the scenery.  The fall drops hundreds of feet into a massive ravine covered in forest.  The panorama was immense, providing a view of both sets of mountain rings, and several enormous forest valleys which are apparently lined with fourteen waterfalls during the wet season.  Later he took us to Bee Falls, a very popular spot where hundreds of Indians congregate to bathe in the towering cascade, and eat chai and snacks at the neighboring stalls deep in a gorge.  Anjali didn’t join the masses at the lower falls, but instead bathed in the secret middle falls, that Mr. Thakur led us to as a peaceful alternative to the chaos below.  Anjali lived out her wet sari fantasy swimming around the hidden pool.  At the end of our day together I learned through Mr. Thakur that our jeep driver’s wife brews up wicked Mahua, and even though it was “unlegal,” he could hook us up with a bottle.  Although I am not much of a drinker, I jumped at the chance to sample the local forbidden brew, and when the driver’s wife ended up being out, we drove to a neighboring compound where we got some of what I was told was good stuff, brewed 25 km away out in the tribal sticks.  I sampled it later that night and it smelled and tasted like funky rotten flowers, but it sure felt good.

Our hotel parties on the 30th and 31st featured a Bollywood cover band from Bhopal featuring bongos and lots of pre-recorded electronic parts, and really bad computer DJs who would only play 30 seconds of a song, abruptly and traumatically crash into the next one, and then within a few songs bring back the original song for another 30 seconds.  Horrible.  The party on the 30th occurred in the freezing lawn behind the hotel where we hovered around a bonfire and waited for a dinner that wasn’t served until after 10:30pm.  Indians eat late.  On New Year’s Eve the party occurred in the courtyard of a nearby school.  At both events I was the only whitey, and while it was fun to see Indians partying in their element, the atrocious DJing drove me away both times.  It was all current Bollywood hits with a few bhangra songs thrown in, mostly of the cheezy pop variety, except for Panjabi MC’s “Dhol Jageero Da,” which made appearences both nights.  The one completely surprising moment was when the DJ threw in a bit of a track by Panamanian reggaeton producer El Chombo on New Year’s Eve.  That really threw me.  In remote central India . . . Wow.  At the New Year’s Eve party there was a prohibited corner, where they served chicken and alcohol for additional money beyond the 600 rupee cover charge.  All the veg food lining the courtyard was free, and mostly average, except for a really good moong dal desert.  The chaat counter was hopping, but I was wary of being served dicey water in the chutneys, so I abstained.
After Pachmarhi we transferred some trains to Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, where Anjali and I had never been.  In fact, neither of us had ever been South of Pune, and we were impressed by how much friendlier people seemed than in the North.  Hyderabad is a Muslim city in a Hindu state.  Which means that while Telugu is the state language, many people in Hyderabad speak Urdu, so Anjali and I could still get by with some Hindi, since Hindi and Urdu are very similar in their spoken forms.  I was eager to buy Telugu soundtrack CDs, since their percussion-riot aesthetics are the most exciting thing I have heard in years.  I bought about 150 of them, which wasn’t hard, since they run less than a buck each.  We spent the evenings watching South Indian movie dance and fight scenes on cable at our hotel.  Despite the popularity of the Telugu movies in theaters and on TV, it was still Bollywood music that dominated the soundscape in Hyderabad.  Even in the music stores it was mostly music in Hindi that got played.  We stayed at the Hotel Taj Mahal, which is not related to the Taj chain of Mumbai, although that chain does have several super-expensive branches in Hyderabad.  Our hotel had an amazing and hopping South Indian restaurant, that since the only whitey they ever served while I was there was me, meant that I got real Indian food.  The best was their unlimited South Indian thali.  The thali was slightly different every day, and would include dal, sambar, rasam, pappadum, pooris, curds, raita (with chilies and ginger in it!), salty fried chilies, a vegetarian version of something like fried pork skins, a wet curry, two dry vegetable curries, a savory fried rice, dessert, and all the white rice you could eat.  If you emptied any of the little bowls, the waiters would quickly bring new ones, sometimes even if you begged them not to, until maybe you had three bowls of curry, rasam, sambar, dal, etc.  They wouldn’t stop until you couldn’t move.   All super-tasty, and all you could eat for less than two bucks.
While the food at the hotel was probably too spicy for most Americans, I wanted something even hotter.  For years Indians in America have been telling me that the cooking of Andhra Pradesh is the spiciest in the Subcontinent.  I was really looking forward to testing myself on this cuisine.  After questioning several locals I got the impression that it is the meat dishes that are primarily the spicy ones, and since I don’t eat meat I was very disappointed.  We finally got a recommendation to try a restaurant called Rayalaseema Ruchulu with Andhra specialties, which took some time, and the efforts of two autorickshaw wallahs to finally find.  We tried Gutti Vankaya, a peanuty-sauce eggplant dish, a mixed vegetable curry in an unusual dark brown sauce, a dish called Ulavacharu, which was essentially a dark brown broth, with a tamarind taste.  Very savory.  You eat it by pouring it over a bunch of white rice.  For desert we tried Bakshalu (Bobbatlu) a butter-dripping flat bread stuffed with a sweet moong dal paste.  Even though I asked for it spicy, the dishes weren’t that hot, yet all had very unique flavors, unlike anything else I have had in India.
One thing that was very noticeable in Hyderabad was how intense security was.  To go into a mall you had to go through a metal detector, get patted down, and have your bags searched.  Same if you wanted to go to the park bordering the giant Hussain Sagar lake in the center of town, or a grocery store (They have grocery stores in Hyderabad!), or a bakery.  The Karachi bakery had three guards and a metal detector.  Anjali learned that behind covered women’s security screening areas they even pat full frontal.  There have been terrorist bombings in Hyderabad in the past, and they obviously take the threat of future terrorist activity very seriously.  There is an old Muslim part of town, and also super ritzy modern areas with incredibly fancy malls and shopping districts that seemed much more posh than anything I had experienced in America.  Since Hyderabad has surpassed Bangalore as the hi-tech capitol of India, there are lots of people there with money to burn.

While I said we are in Hampi, we are actually spending the evenings in the more mellow guest house enclave of Virupapuragadda a couple-minute boat ride across the river from the Hampi Bazaar.  I got blessed by the temple elephant Lakshmi at the Virupaksha temple in the center of the Bazaar today.  Lakshmi gets a bath in the river every morning, which we witnessed upon our early arrival in town.  When you visit the temple you may either offer Lakshmi a banana (or big handful of bananas) which she will quickly grab in her trunk and then devour, or place a  coin or a bill on the end of her snout, which she will give to her handler, and then bring her trunk back around to bop you on the head as her way of blessing you.  I did it and it felt great. Our days have been spent exploring some of the more than 500 ruins that dot the landscape around Hampi.  Tomorrow we transfer a couple trains to eventually find ourselves in Chennai, Tamil Nadu.

I hope everyone is well,


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