Roman Sturgis Take care of each other and make good decisions.

December 3, 2008

India Part I

Filed under: Blog — Roman @ 2:09 am

Some of you will remember my departure from Washington, DC, and the comprehensive roadtrip around the United Sates that followed. When I eventually settled in Pawleys Island, South Carolina, I began to put my thoughts down. Early on, I wrote on an index card in red marker: INDIA. I taped this note to the bookshelf over my desk, right in front of my eyes as a reminder: get your ass there. When I return to South Carolina in the spring, I look forward to throwing that note away.

A lot of westerners dream about going to India; many want nothing to do with the place. The folks my age who end up going there tend to be hippie backpacker types in search of Buddhist, yoga, or meditation training. They seem to be attracted by the mystique of an ancient civilization. Older businessmen types come back with reports about how difficult it is to travel, how dirty and crowded it is, and how it’s so nice to be back home in the States where they can drink the tap water. I have more than a few friends who believe they lost their jobs to outsourced operations in Bangalore. My trip to India was informed by all of this, and also by my interest in wanting to better understand, first hand, one of the most populous countries in the world, and a land rich in resources. India was the largest jewel in the crown of the British Empire. Why was that? I wanted to know.

India is an old country, a relatively new democracy, a rising economic power, super-populated, and speaks about a million languages. The Indian version of In God We Trust is printed in 13 languages on their currency. It’s a complicated and wonderful place, and the “graduate school” of travel, as my friend Ward told me years ago. (Ward was a Peace Corps staff member in India in the 70’s.)

A little while after I moved to Thailand, Ward e-mailed me to say he was planning a trip to Kerala, India, in the south. Would I care to join him? He had planned the trip for the second half of November, just before the high season begins in Southern India. He was coming from the coronation of the fifth King of Bhutan, and I’d be flying from Bangkok. I began my end of the journey on November 12th, at the height of the Loi Khrathang festival in northern Thailand. Before I get to India, let me explain this beautiful Thai tradition. I’m not sure if the timing of the festival intentionally coincides with the end of the rainy season, but it would make practical sense if it did, as during a week of parties fireworks are detonated at all hours of the day, and paper balloon lanterns are lit and sent up into the night sky. (If you’re going to light a lot of random fires, better to do it when the ground is damp, right?)

The high point of the week long event is the full moon, when tens of thousands of balloons are set off, some with timed fireworks inside of them that spray silver sparks downwards, like the jet-booster of a spaceship. Also during this night, one buys or makes a khrathang, a slice of buoyant banana tree trunk that is decorated with banana leaves, flowers, candles, and incense. One goes to the river to make these offerings to the water goddess for good luck. We live across the street from a wat on the river where thousands of Thais came to light their balloons and set down their khrathangs. Laura and I were excited to join them. The paper balloons are bought on the street and then you take them into the wat. A helpful monk showed me how to do it—Laura maintained a respectful distance, as women and monks are not allowed to touch the same object at once.

A helpful monk shows me how to do it.

A helpful monk shows me how to do it.

The balloon lantern consists of a hoop of bamboo with a crosspiece, and a large paper balloon pasted to the hoop. The balloon inflates to be about three or four feet high, the hoop is slightly smaller than a hula-hoop. At the center of the cross is a waxed disc, which is the fuel source. The idea is you light the candle and it slowly fills the paper balloon with hot smokey air. Eventually the balloon is inflated all the way, and after awhile you can feel it tugging on your hands, trying to take off. With a big smile, the monk told me to let go; Laura and I made our wish, and the balloon shot off up into the air to join thousands more. It was spectacular.

After doing this, with the streets packed with joyous Thais and firecrackers exploding every second, I grabbed my packed bags, kissed my wife, and headed away from the congested river to find a tuktuk to take me to the train station. We raced through lines of traffic, down back alleys, and through a parking lot, only to find that my train was delayed by an hour. Nevermind, from the train station I watched the balloons float away while I thought about the great unknown India ahead. Imagine the sky filled with orange lanterns sailing away in groups of three or four, all moving in the same general direction with the wind, floating off into the darkness. Some of these lanterns are shooting sparks out of them for half a minute or so during the first stage of their take off. All around, fireworks are exploding in green and red and yellow bursts, there’s the boom and screech of cherry bombs and bottle rockets. It was easy to imagine the world coming to an end as people sent their souls into the safety of outer space, or perhaps an exotic and explosive spawning event, like when corals release billions of eggs into the sea at once. On my overnight train ride, I saw through the window similar, smaller versions throughout the night as we traveled south.

In the morning I walked around Bangkok in search of good food (check) and a set of monk’s robes for Ward (check, check), who was to bring them to another friend in South Africa. This was the start of a mini import-export operation; I ended up with a duffle bag of spices, khurta, books, and assorted souvenirs that I brought back with my from India.

I flew JetAirways, which, according to Indians I met, is good for international, but sucks for flights within India. I was very happy with my service from Bangkok to Delhi. The meal was above-average for in-flight dining; for example, even in coach class, people are given real silverware and cloth napkins. I know, right? From BKK to DEL is a four hour flight, about the same as flights I’ve taken from Boston to Houston. In Delhi a driver with the hotel I booked with met me and took me to Connaught Circle. Delhi and Washington, DC have some similarities in terms of street and government building layout, all Paris inspired. Wide avenues with unobstructed, yet smoggy, views to major landmarks like the India Gate (l’arc de triumph) at the east end of the “mall” and Central Secretariat and the President’s Estate on the west end. Connaught Circle, or Circus, or Place, as it is called, is north of the mall. It’s a city center for eating, shopping, and cinema, but my hotel (Hotel55) in the circle itself, was not a place I would recommend. For $60 a night, including two different VAT taxes that added up to 20%, I got a crummy room with a rusty toilet, and about two hundred static channels of Indian television. (During this time, India was playing England in an important cricket series; India easily won, which was a big deal, apparently.) My room was fine for one night, but I was all to happy to join my friend at his accommodations down the street at the Imperial Hotel, one of the nicest places in town. For budget travelers, I was unable to find guest houses in Delhi for five or six dollars a night, which we have many of in Chiang Mai. In Kerala, where we spent most of our time, I imagine guest houses or budget lodging would be a possibility.

I had three days in Delhi as a primer to India. This was my first adult exposure to the drastic disparity between have and have nots that is on a whole new scale in India compared to what I see in Chiang Mai, which is so mild in comparison. As a child, I lived in Jakarta, Indonesia, and I remember seeing crippling poverty, but I was sheltered from most of it. I’ve been criticized for saying this: I really believe the average homeless man in the United States is better off than the average street side working man in India or Indonesia. For example, in India, I often saw men or women squatting on the filthy sidewalk with a scale in front of them. The business is, for a few rupee, you can weigh yourself, or perhaps your bags, and that’s income. Compare this to a non-schizophrenic homeless man in Boston who lives in a shelter, eats three squares a day at a soup kitchen, is granted emergency room care no questions asked, and stims for change to buy his booze or drugs or cigarettes or extra food or sex or scratch tickets or whatever. This is not hyperbole. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do more to help our homeless in America, and especially those that are mentally ill. But I do want to illustrate how different the quality of life is for even our worst off in the States compared to someone scratching by in a developing country. It’s all relative of course, and over the next year, a lot of us “rich,” fat Americans are going to feel a small pinch of what it’s like to be a global have not. I don’t say that to be snide, but so much of our problems in the States are connected to over-indulgence. This was highlighted for me when I walked the streets of Delhi, where the constant crush of solicitors was not a function of capitalism, but rather survival. End of sermon.

In addition to doing some great shopping for the women in my life at the khadi shop where Ghandi used to buy his khurtas (a khurta is a long shirt, like a night gown), picking up a number of books, and eating at several great restaurants where we were often the only white faces in the room, Ward and I had the pleasure of meeting a former ambassador for India named Salman. We joined Salman and his wife Kusum for drinks and dinner at the Gymkhana Club, which used to be a hangout for British colonial politicians, but which was reclaimed by Indian elites in ’47, the year of Indian Independence and the bloody partition of Pakistan/India. I think gymkhana is a common term that means something like a racquet club or a country club, as I’ve seen an advertisement in Thailand for a gymkhana, too. However, the place we went to in Delhi was THE Gymkhana club, which was quite nice. I would say the gin and tonic I sipped on at the Gymkhana club was the most authentic G&T I have and ever will have in my life. After, Ward and I were treated to dinner. Our hosts were more than generous and I’m afraid I fulfilled the image of the gluttonous American by eating more than seconds. It was just so good, though! And who can resist getting as much Indian food as one can while in India? This was an often used justification…

Some sites in Delhi: No Taj Mahal for me, as Agra is a full day event and our time was limited.


Inside Red Fort

Instead, we spent the day walking around inside the Red Fort which is something like 2 kilometers long and was built in the mid 16th century. It’s just massive. I’ve not been inside many castles, but the interior of the fort could house a small town, it seemed (and probably did at some point).


Red Fort from the outside

That day we also visited Jama Masjid mosque near the Red Fort, which sits high above the surrounding city. After walking through a market bazaar and up a hundred feet of big steps, we enjoyed a commanding view of the city, though one can only see so far through the smog. On another day, we visited Nizamuddin’s tomb, a complex of stone walls and fortifications, a tomb, and a major mosque designed to resemble paradise. This paradise was breath taking, with symmetrical plots of green pasture and gardens divided by running channels of water and thoughtfully planted trees. How many slaves were needed to make such a thing, and all for what? One person? His family? We just don’t have anything to compare it to in modern civilization.

We walked often, but we also wanted to take the new subway system. I had read about this enormous public works project a few years ago. A guy named Elattubalapil Sreedharan, a public works engineer in his 70’s, was brought out of retirement to do the project. Putting in a subway under Delhi was a big and complicated job and it was reportedly finished on time and on budget. I remember reading that he only agreed to do it if the government would allow him carte blanche to do what he needed to do, in effect allowing him to streamline the bureaucracy and avoid corruption. It’s a nice, modern tube, complete with “mind the gap” posters, and tokens that use RFIDs stored with your fare, which you buy at a counter. Trips are priced by distance, and you exit by dropping the plastic RFID token into the turnstill at the end to be reused. The Delhi subway is light years beyond our beloved Boston T; quiet, fast, and smooth.

After three nights in Delhi, we left for Kerala, the epicenter of the spice trade where we were to spend the majority of our trip.

Be sure not to miss Part II of this post!!


  1. Glad to see more travel writing from you.

    Gymkhana’s a tricky word – I think of it as a loanword from Spanish to southwestern American English. In boarding school in California, the horseraces every spring – Washington poles, barrel-racing, ring-spearing, silver-dollar pickup – were called a gymkhana.

    Gymkhana, my poetry teacher tells me, was how they’d occupy the girls on the ranches while the men did useful things like branding cattle and castrating bulls.

    In Spanish, while originally it too meant a horse-based competition, it now means any vaguely competetive collection of events – it’s used in schools the way we might say, “mini-Olympics.”

    But spanish wikipedia tells me that “khana” is hindi & persian, & so it seems like it’s a loanword of a loanword, and gets around. And isn’t “gym” greek? Persian too?

    At any rate. Bell’s ringing. I’m back on the bus.


    Comment by Jim Sligh — December 3, 2008 @ 8:43 am

  2. A few thoughts:
    – I never knew about monks and females unable to touch objects at the same time. Very interesting. How did you first know about this? Did she do this by accident long ago or is it common knowledge?
    -I forget where I first heard it, but it’s probably from a stand-up comic, that said “America is the only place in the world where you find fat homeless people”. I agree with your statement; we should not forget our homeless, especially those that are mentally ill, but they have a far easier life than those in Africa, India, and other poorer areas of the world.
    -When I hear gymkhana, I just think of Gymkata, which is one of the best of the worst action movies that came out in the 70s or 80s involving an American who uses his gymnastics and some moves to create a ‘deadly new form of martial arts!’. As you can tell, I’m not as cultured as you or Sligh. Alas.
    I’m very excited to hear more of your adventures and glad you’ve been able to mark India off your list. Hope all is well in Thaiworld.

    Comment by Rev — December 3, 2008 @ 9:14 am

  3. My expirience/conclusion on India was quite similar. I completely agree with you on the homeless-man-in-America-having-a-better-life-than-Indian-street-people assertion.

    I’ll forward you my thought-blurb on my time in India and we can discuss.

    I must ask did you go to the Mughal restaurant next to the Jama Masjid? I believe it’s called, “Kareem’s”. Your dinner at the club sounds amazing, but the food at Kareem’s was really out-of-this-world.

    On a prickly and totally nitpicky linguistic note, calling the Jama Masjid the “Jama Masjid mosque” is sort of like saying the “Jama Mosque mosque” in English. Technically speaking, it should be the “Jama mosque” or just the “Jama Masjid”. We do this all the time in English, i.e. “panini sandwich” (sandwich sandwich) or “the La Brea Tar Pits” (the the tar tar pits).

    Regardless, the Jama Masjid is an amazing place. There are photos of me in a skirt/wrap because I was wearing shorts the day I went and had to “dress modestly” to enter.

    Keep it coming. The writing is great.

    Comment by Morgan — December 3, 2008 @ 12:22 pm

  4. […] Back on the mainland, hawkers were selling the paper candle lanterns that Thais send up during Loi Krathong. Our group stood on the beach, toasting the sky as hundreds of these yellow glowing blimps took off […]

    Pingback by Roman Sturgis − Krabi Part II — January 31, 2009 @ 3:11 am

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