This is India: Agra

IMG_0350Oh. My. God. The smell!

I think I just threw up a little in my mouth. No, literally, I think I did. Not even the seven layers of scarf around my mouth and nose can mask this kind of eye-watering stench. It is like nothing I have ever smelled before. Far beyond the regular Indian stink of urine soaked trash, this new smell is somewhere between rotting diaper and eggy sewage, a hint of sticky curry-perspiration and a definite undertone of animal. Not the live kind.

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My husband and I are coughing into one another’s shoulders, gasping into days-unwashed sleeves for a whiff of even half-fresh air and yet our rickshaw driver doesn’t even seem phased. His round, grinning head just nods slightly to the putter putter of his bicycle wheels as he squints back at us with a happy smirk and an “Ah, yes, welcome, welcome, Agra verrrry beautiful!”

No its not!

My initial thought was to spend a few days in Agra. Sipping Chai from a rooftop café, playing endless rounds of lazy backgammon with my husband and I’d get around to the Taj whenever I got around to it. But its 7:30 am on our day of arrival and after ten minutes of being here all I can think about is leaving. But first we kind of have to see the sights, after all we’ve come this far. We make a mad dash.

India_Agra_Uttar_Pradesh_squalorPerhaps it is because I have spent the early hours of a hot December morning traipsing through the halls of

Cambodia’s Angkor Watt, or because long ago I devoted some serious adolescent energy to climbing 200-something stairs to the top of the Temple of the Sun at Teotihuacan in Mexico. Or perhaps it’s the Fifty-dollars it has cost us to get in (more than we would normally spend in three days) but for me the Taj is astoundingly unimpressive.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a beautiful building but it’s just that, a building.

As the gates open we are ushered through from the foul, sullied streets of a crumbling Indian town to a pristinely surreal world of cold marble and golf-green like lawns. It’s an oddly disquieting sensation, though I do relish the momentary relief from odors unknown.

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It appears that people really only come to the Taj for one reason. The photograph. The majority of the foot traffic on the grounds is concentrated on the area just inside the second gate, a small bench overlooking the long walkway, on which Princess Diana was famously photographed. Lines form and tourists eagerly await their turn to strike a pose, finger atop the Taj’s bald dome in an unimaginative play on perspective.

Heading to the back of the compound we encounter one of India’s many filthy rivers and the stink returns. Looking over the exterior walls of the Taj grounds we watch thick black tar-water oozing by. A dead dog here, a floating rat there. I can’t help but recall the photograph a friend recently showed me from his last trip to India, taken from this very spot. In it a small dog attempts to drag the bloated corpse of a rotting man from the river’s inky shallows.

After an hour or so of sliding on socked feet across the shiny marble floors and taking photographs from every angle possible, my husband and I loose interest in this over-hyped world wonder and go for lunch.

Recipe From Thailand: Kao Kah Moo

Screen shot 2013-06-09 at 18.28.52Kao Kah Moo is a traditional Thai pork dish. It is often served in street stalls and in shopping center cafeterias. Here is how to make it!

Ingredients:

1 pork shank about 2 lbs

3 cups peanut oil

6-8 cups water (enough to cover the meat)

5-6 fresh coriander plants (cilantro)

5-8 large garlic cloves

10 Sezchuan peppercorns

2 whole star anise

2 small cinnamon sticks

6 black peppercorns

1 teaspoon black soy sauce

3 tablespoons thin soy sauce

2 teaspoons course sea salt

2-4 tablespoons sugar (to your liking)

1 teaspoon Chinese five spice powder

5 hard-boiled eggs peeled (optional)

1.5 cups pickled mustard green

10 stems fresh bokchoy, steamed

2 cups steamed jasmine rice

Method:

Heat peanut oil in a wok or large pan over a medium heat. Add pork shank and turn up heat. Fry until golden brown on both sides. Remove shank from the oil.

Smash the garlic, peppercorns and cilantro into a fine paste and set aside.

Place the fried pig led into a pot and cover with water. Add garlic paste mixture, star anise, both soy sauces, cinnamon, salt, sugar, five-spice, and eggs.

Bring pot to a boil and then reduce the heat. Cook for another 2-3 hours or until the meat becomes tender.

While the pork is cooking, thinly slice the pickled mustard green and squeeze out the pickling juices. Then boil it 1 cup of water until water evaporates. Set aside.

Just before the meat if finished, cook off rice, steam bokchoy and put together chili sauce.

Chili Sauce Ingredients:                                                                                                                                                                                                    

2-3 Thai chili peppers

½ cup vinegar

1 teaspoon salt

Method:

Smash Thai chili peppers into paste and add to vinegar and salt in a small bowl.

Serve alongside the dish.

Serve:

Serve the cooked meat over steamed Rice, topped with pickled mustard green alongside steamed bokchoy, boiled eggs and chili sauce. Use the extra liquid from stewing the pork as gravy.

Thailand: Outside a Tourist World

Hat_YaiHat Yai, Thailand’s 4th largest city, is a dirty, sprawling metropolis in a province that has seen its fair share of terrorist bombings, religious uprisings and race-ridden ridiculousness. It is a scrappy town of seedy dive bars, aging expats and nervous Malaysian sex-tourists. It has more dentists than any town needs, a relatively unimpressive live animal market and a smattering of halfway decent street vendors. And its ugly.

There is absolutely nothing to attract tourism to Hat Yai and almost everything to deter it. But I love it.

khaokhamoo_v2lHat Yai is where I discovered Kao Ka Moo (a sickly sweet, fatty, slow-cooked pork dish usually served at street stalls or in shopping mall cafeterias). It’s where I came to terms with derelict squat toilets and found that bum guns are actually multi-purpose foot bathing, hand washing, dirty luggage cleaners. Its where I spend my nights between visa runs in a $10 concrete box in a repurposed utilitarian building which offers no amenities whatsoever, listening to the honking of midnight traffic. The only drink-able coffee is at the recently bombed-and-rebuilt McDonalds, but there is a surprisingly shiny sushi restaurant just out of town. And there isn’t much else. A few shopping malls, a pharmacy here and there and like everywhere in Thailand, a 7-11 on every street corner.

When you work in the Thai tourist industry as I do, you tend to get a little over-inundated with the unreal. Exaggerated smiles, yes mams and yes sirs, mamsir, sirmams. All around you there is an elevated and enforced desire to serve and please, but with a quiet undertone of resentment. You get used to tempered flavors, frustrated instructions and a habit of apologizing for you’re customers’ mis-managed behavior.

My semi-frequent mini-trips to Hat Yai are a refreshing dose of reality and welcome relief from forced civility. This is a city that is unapologetically genuine. And not in a travel brochure way. There is no pretense of “culture” here, no shiny resorts and very few western restaurants.1152_12991575794-tpfil02aw-3768

Hat Yai is nothing special in and of itself, it could be any of a hundred Thai towns just like it, but it reminds me of a different Thailand than the one I am accustomed to. It offers a glimpse into a the real lives of normal people who’s salaries and livelihoods don’t count on impressing me or coercing a sale out of me because of my foreign face; people who really don’t care that I am there at all. Despite being even more a minority in a place like this, I somehow feel less of an obvious target and I love it.

Bringing Down Bali

231Mark is Gay.

For that matter so are Josh, Michael, Simon, John, Frank and Matt, among about a hundred others. And in case you were wondering, if you want more grunt, you should fuck a pig.

Is this for real?

Its times like these that I am grateful to my mother for a name that, while difficult for many to pronounce, will never be painted on cheap plastic tourist tack and sold en-masse on the streets of a once-lovely land gone bad.

In my mind Bali is a beautiful wonderland of silent stoicism, a peaceful realm of bicycle riding rice farmers, terraced hilly landscapes and pleasantly meandering streams. In reality Bali is a very different beast.

While there are still areas of natural semi-undisturbed beauty and the odd isolated village of native Balinese going about their business, there is a large part of the island that has fallen into a Cancun-like swamp of drunken, overindulgent cheap-trinket chaos. Except its worse than Cancun could ever be, uglier than anywhere I have seen and an embarrassment in every form. Bali has fallen victim to tourist terrorism and nowhere is the unapologetic sprawl worse than in Kuta, the main tourist center and many people’s first glimpse of this once-majestic corner of the world.

Kuta is the frat house of the Southeast Asia.

At a souvenir stand outside my hotel’s restaurant I overhear a young Australian tourist recount to his buddies the sexual escapades of the night before while still-drunkenly fingering a large bold bumper sticker advertising the “Power of the Pussy”.  To his right a small Javanese vendor is eagerly showing off his collection of profanity in print; from “Suck it Bitches” shot glasses to “Do Me Up the Bum” hats, a sticker that simply says “Boogers” and t-shirts that read “Kiss My Hairy Ass Cunt”. Who buys this shit? Seemingly someone, a lot of some ones. Booths like this one are a dime a dozen in Kuta, so much so that it is easy to become disoriented and lost in a maze of cheap sexually explicit, neon colored junk.

Outside of these seedy city alleys, the Main drag isn’t much better and caters to the unimaginative. There is a giant but crumbly McDonald’s, a number of chilly air-conditioned Starbucks and Starbucks wannabes and a Quicksilver sportswear store on every corner. The nightclubs feel freakishly like overblown airport bars and, surfing aside, there isn’t much to do here besides drink.

In fact the only useful thing I can find in Kuta is dusty two-for-one book exchange.

I have a hard time understanding how this place ever came to be. Once upon a time people came to Bali for what it originally was. For beautiful beaches and surfable waves, excellent diving, cheap eats and a relaxed vacation. Somewhere along the way it just got horribly out of hand. And while I am thoroughly disgusted with what tourism has done to the once quiet town of Kuta, I can’t help but wonder, if in some twisted way, places like these are beneficial, if only to keep the “Bitch Princess” t-shirts and booze guzzling, belligerently indulgent pho-tourists, contained.

Why Are There Only Old People Here?

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San Miguel de Allende, Mexico is hardly unheard of. A small city with colonial charm and perfect weather, San Miguel has been deemed livable, worthy, and above all, desirable by some of the top travel magazines in the world. Over time, like many places the world round, San Miguel’s industry has switched from agriculture to tourism and it now enjoys a steady annual flow of both domestic and foreign holidaymakers, many of whom attend classes at the city’s various art and language schools.  San Miguel is also home to a considerable expat community, made up largely of artistically inclined retirees from the United States. As if that’s not enough, it has also played backdrop to several Hollywood movies, is the subject of countless photography books and is inhabited by a number of recognized artists, writers and designers. Like I said, hardly unheard of.

So why does it feel like a retirement community?

Yes the majority of expats and transplants are retirees, but that’s true in a lot of places. Surely a town with so much to offer would attract at least some young people, Mexicans and foreigners alike. And yet it’s eerily old here. After all, the only reason I’m here is because I can stay free in my grandfathers recently abandoned house. He is, you guessed it, a retired American artist.

P1000936The house, which is a short five minute walk uphill from the city center, is elegant and lavish but has seen a great deal of change over the years. As a ten-year-old I remember looking out from it’s back balcony across a lonely canyon surrounded by rock-strewn hills to the cityscape beyond. The rock-strewn hills are still here, but they are no longer lonely. Once standing solitary in awkward defiance of the rugged landscape, the house is now crammed into a wall-to-wall community of gargantuan, stately homes, dwarfing its once awe inspiring stature. Creepily they are almost all empty. Here I am, twenty-something and broke living in an imported Texas suburb inhabited by no one.

After many months I have yet to meet another human being my own age. I have come across a single under-forty expat and a few flirty waiters but am constantly surprised by the number of blue-hairs in the restaurants and galleries. Even the local service industry seems to bet getting on in years.

And then I discover the nightclub scene. It turns out that San Miguel does have a sizeable population of young people. It just keeps them locked up until dark. A little cheap tequila and some economically priced shots of something pink and advertised as two-for-one is apparently the motivation they need to immerge from the walled-in courtyards and classrooms, or wherever it is that they hide away all day.

While my night out reassures me of a somewhat balanced demographic I am still surprised by the absence of younger foreigners. Not that I want the place to turn into the next Cancun or anything, it’s just that I think people are missing something here.

San Miguel is the Antigua, Guatemala of Mexico, but with a lot more class and a little less tack. It may very well be in my imagination but San Miguel feels just a little more “real” and a little less precious. It’s central park is brimming with vendors peddling all sorts of deliciousness from fresh-shaved coconut, to boiled chili-corn, made-to-order tacos, churros in melted sugary bliss, squash flavored ice cream and pickled pheasant eggs. Outside the main square, fancy looking but surprisingly affordable restaurants with rooftop bars offer all day two-for-one margaritas, served with a smile and a big bowl of cacahuetes (peanuts, I just love that word).

P1010150The fruit/flower/meat market is many city blocks long and exudes the overwhelmingly mouthwatering smell of ripe guavas. Here you can order gigantic, juicy liquados (blended fruit drinks) munch on greasy Mexican sandwiches or purchase a whole roasted chicken with handmade tortillas and fresh spicy salsa for diner. Meanwhile a stroll through the back streets just a few blocks from the city center will present you with more boutique jewelry shops, art galleries and craft stores than you can handle, dozens of hole-in-the-wall pastry shops (the best kind) and some sketchily awesome local bars. For a more high-end shopping experience there is also a great deal of designer clothing, soft leather, hand blown glass and locally made furniture to be had. And one can’t miss out on the hot springs or the bullfights!

Whatever you love, San Miguel has it, except the ocean, which is the only reason I can’t stay. If you like Cancun, go to Cancun, and stay there, please, but if your looking for something a little different, equally as easy and safe enough to not make the news, San Miguel de Allende is your spot. Even if your twenty-something and broke!

This is India: Varanasi

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Urine.

It’s the first thing I notice stepping off the train, the overwhelming, nauseating, wet smell of days-old urine.

It is the middle of the night and surprisingly chilly, outside the station it’s cloudy and dark. Years of experience have taught me that 3am excursions in the streets of poor cities with all your worldly possessions on your back, is a recipe for some less that agreeable encounters. Here in Varanasi this is even more true than usual. Finding transportation, which would in this case be an arthritic, bicycle-powered rickshaw, almost certainly overpriced because it is in the wee hours of the morning, is only the first hurdle we face. Transport can only take you so far here, we will eventually have to navigate the cow-poop encrusted, maze-like, pedestrian-only allies of the city, and in pitch darkness, searching for a hotel where we aren’t sure we’ll get a room. In addition to tricky transport conditions, this part of India is known for colorful characters, scam artists and late night robberies.

For this reason we have little choice but to spend the remainder of an already frustrating and sleep deprived night on the piss-covered floors of the Mughal Sarai Train Station. Having already lost a camera, computer, two pairs of fake Ray Bans, a pullover in desperate in need of a wash and my reading glasses, to petty midnight train theft, we are weary of our loaded bags and the $10,000 in salary payouts (from a contract we recently finished in Thailand), burning a hole in my husband’s pocket.IMG_0295

Who is stupid enough to travel with that much cash on hand? Apparently we are.

This is a new low in my travel experience. While I have stayed in some pretty down and out joints, sharing a mattress with bedbugs, sleeping in someone else’s dirty sheets, and calling a foam-flat on a dirty floor a bed, I don’t think I have ever spent the night on a piece of refrigerator sized Styrofoam on the floor of a public train station. And this isn’t just any train statin, this is a rat-infested dump filled with rotting oranges, vicious monkeys and what seems like the city’s entire population of vagrant crazies. My husband and I take turns “sleeping”, counting down the hours until we can escape from the ever-present stink of urine and the feeling that we’ve just crossed some sort of line where our dignity is concerned (and yet in retrospect it was a valuable and eye-opening experience summed up simply by “shit, this is how some people live”).

And so goes our first night in India.

IMG_0073Thankfully the sun finally rises, the streets come to life and at last we are free. We are reassured of our decision to tough it out at the train station when we find that almost every hotel, hostel and guest house in town is full. Apparently when my husband said he had checked the dates of local holidays, he hadn’t. We have inconveniently arrived during Diwali, the many-days-long, festival of lights and one of the most important Hindi holidays. As you can imagine, this generates a huge influx in local tourism.

But sometimes negative begets positive and we finally take a room at the only hotel with an available space, despite the fact that it’s about double our desired budget.

We love it.

The Ganesh Guest House is located in a labyrinth of hallways and alleys that seem to lead nowhere, but eventually end up somewhere. It is a clean, colorful and a perfectly placed refuge in the chaos that is Varanasi. The rooftop restaurant overlooks the Gangers River and a set of winding stairs leads directly down to the famous Ghats, a series of stairs dropping into the water.

Now that we are settled, I need a new Camera. It would be a crime to travel here without one. Luckily India is one of those strange places that is as ancient as it is modern and while you can eat fire-cooked curries out of banana leaves and sip hot chai from a hand-pinched clay cup, you can just as easily find your way into the most well stocked Cannon store imaginable.

Finally restored to my prior self, camera attached at the hip I can now explore the city.

Varanasi is disgusting place and it’s my favorite place in India. Cliché as it may sound, there is nowhere is the world as raw as this. It’s a city of life and death, of false holy-men, medical curiosities and gold-glitter pilgrimages. It is the hotbed of all that is sacred in the Hindi world and yet somehow one of the most glaring examples of pollution, overpopulation and a complete disregard for those very wonders that are held so dear.

IMG_0276Take the Ganges, holiest of the holy, here is a river thought by Hindus, to be the liberator of the endless cycle of life and death, a dunk in which, supposedly brings the bather closer to nirvana. Yet in the early hours of the morning it doubles as the city dump yard, a convenient toilet and a cow washing station. Despite being the most unsavory body of water on earth (due in part to the fact that it is where bodies are burned after death) it serves as a place to wash your teeth, scrubs your balls and clean behind your ears. Uniquely it is also a dirty-diaper dispensary and compost disposal. Coming from the world of compulsory recycling, antiseptic toothpaste and a don’t-look attitude towards death it is confusing to me how something so revered can be both bathtub and burial ground. But this is why Varanasi is so great, because I just don’t get it and I never will.

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On this particular occasion, both to my great relief and morbid disappointment there are no floating human corpses. A few cows and a dog, but nothing so grotesque as I had been expecting after hearing my husband’s stories of charred cadavers and skull goblets. Instead the river today is just a stinky, slow moving cesspool of mucky mystery.

But Varanasi isn’t all death and dirty water, its also one of the most colorful examples of life, both literally and figuratively. There are people everywhere. A striking young woman lays freshly cleaned Sari’s to dry in the dirt along the Ganges while gangs of children partake firecracker contests nearby, screaming at tourists to get out of the way before the tiny blasts blow apart chunks of dried cow dung and mashed trash balls. In the market pathway a man holds the head of a dying cow in his lap (he will do this for three days straight), caressing its muzzle and muttering in its ear. Down by the water a group of old women sit side byIMG_0040 side forming dung patties for cooking fuel while at street level a man in a floor-length pink Lungi chases a goat out of his shop. My husband is approached repeatedly by the same crooked-walking boat captain trying to sell him a river ride and small girls materialize from nowhere with colorful pots of skin paint and attempt to decorate on my hands. As evening draws near groups of holy men and gurus, fake and real, model dramatically while tourists pay for pictures. In Varanasi, as in much of India, life is lived backwards, upside-down and totally in public.

For me a day on the streets of this mystic city is as confusing as it is thrilling and leaves me with a full memory card and the desperate need for a shower.