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Il Primo Bagno

The beach on New Year’s Day was a grey that mirrored the cold ripping into our skin. The temperature was flailing around five degrees and as we stomped in our rubber boots through the sand, a man wrapped in a black scarf blew on his hands. “Sei nuoto?” he motioned to the water. “Si”, we nodded, we were here to swim.

Kristin and I had read about the Annual New Year’s Day Swim held at Lido Beach, Venice, and had waded through the flooded streets on five hours sleep to get here. The gathered crowd, which numbered in the hundreds, milled about with anticipation, but no one looked like they were dressed, or rather undressed for swimming.

We surveyed the crowd, and noticed a cordoned-off bunker, blocked by a six-foot high sand pile, as if the beach had been prepared for battle. A security officer dressed in canary yellow pointed behind it. “Forte”, he grinned.

Climbing over the sand bunker, we saw the ‘forte’ for the first time: Thirty men and women exposing their chests, backs, and thighs, to the freezing cold. One man wore a bowtie, a blue speedo, and an ear-to-ear grin. He held a red balloon that was flapping like a dog’s tongue in the breeze.

Auguri Di Capodanno

Auguri Di Capodanno

Backstage

Backstage

Feeling the warmth

Feeling the warmth

A bare-chested man looked at us big-eyed. Swimming?!” “Yes, yes, si!”, we confirmed. “Americani!” our man gestured to the crowds. “Americanis e bagno!!” He yelled in Italian for the would-be bathers to halt while we stripped off our clothes in army tents strewn along the bunker. Within 30 seconds we were down to our suits. I flung open the tent flap, flexed my muscles against the frigid air, and grabbed a balloon.

Lines of people cheered us on as we stormed the beach, heads down, surging with adrenaline, the wind whipping our balloons, hands clapping, people cheering, the bow-tied man in front. The crowd shouting at the two of us, “Giovani! Young people!” My foot hit the water, and my hearing suddenly became muted. Napolean at Waterloo, Churchill at the gate, Tom Hanks storming Normandy. As my face hit the water, the only thing I saw was blue speedo.

March of the penguins

March of the penguins

Waiter!

Waiter!

En route to the Golden Globes

En route to the Golden Globes

Surprisingly, the water was semi-tolerable. I was braced for absolute zero, -273, but it seemed like a mere -142. Kristin was in front of me up to her waist. “Get all the way in! ” she yelled, pointing towards the men beside me who were doing back-strokes. I splashed a couple of icicles her way, dove all the way in and felt my body seize.

My organs tightened and clung together for internal warmth. My lungs cradled my intestines, my heart bulged, my parasympathetic system fought. I managed to look around, and incredibly, no one was getting out. Everyone was still happily swimming lengths in the frigid water some holding glasses of Champagne. Kristin and I huddled together for warmth while the Italians sang aloud and bobbed.

Pack-animals

Pack-animals

Next year's poster

Next year's poster

Finally, a couple of sane people broke for shore, and we followed, jerking our frozen limbs towards the sand. Cameras snapped away as we neared the shore, and as we posed for a group picture, a toweled man was interviewed on Italian TV. We ran for the bunkers where our clothes were waiting, along with wine and lentils, the traditional good luck New Year’s Day meal.

A Dutch couple approached us, the man looking like a cross between Owen Wilson and Willem Dafoe, with blue, waterlogged eyes. “We got married here in Venice years ago on this same week, and we come back every New Year to celebrate our anniversary”. The woman, who had watched her husband from the safety of the beach, smiled warmly. “This year is better, last year there was snow on the ground.” I tucked my blue hands into my pockets and managed a smile.

Last year there was snow. Whether it was the couple’s story that made me feel warmer, or the fact that I had a coat on again, it didn’t really matter. The Italian spirit seems to always make things better. The crowd thinned, and as we put on our gloves and said goodbye, a red balloon disappeared over the sea, curving and dipping in a figure-eight, almost like a bowtie.

Clothed and happy

Clothed and happy

New Year’s Eve in Venezia

It’s been a while, but we are now starting to post again (ahh yes, New Year’s resolutions). Kristin and I have been in Italy since late August with a 6-week trip back to the US in between. We are living in the small town of Barga, Tuscany. Many stories, but we’ll begin with our New Year’s Eve trip to Venice, a four hour train ride from Barga.

Venice, New Year’s Eve was a bathtub. The rain began in the morning and as the canals rose up, the streets started to trickle with rubber-booted tourists wading through the waterlogged streets. We couldn’t wait to join them.

Our morning mission: Obtain our own boots for the midnight party in Piazza San Marco, which was supposed to be well under water at high tide. Most boots in the tourist shops were on ‘sale’ for 20-25 Euros. Kristin liked a spotted leopard pair, but had to settle for shiny black. I went with a matte black, soldier of fortune special. Tourists spoke English alongside Italian, holding their maps at arms length. I lost our own map after putting it down (we think) to try on some boots.

As we joined the midday crowds, Kristin hopped up on one of the temporary raised catwalks, and did a supermodel strut. She stood out among the many others schlepping above the current. One Italian sat outside his glass shop with a romantic sneer, eyeing the duck lines of tourists waddling above, ready to take one out with his charm.

Walking the planks

Walking the planks

Flooded Piazza San Marco

Flooded Piazza San Marco

Hanging out by a canal

Hanging out by a canal

In the afternoon, we made reservations at ‘Il Ridotto’, a restaurant five minutes from San Marco, and put on our snazzy attire (Kristin glimmering in a beautiful black dress and silk heels - which she later switched to rubber boots - I in the traditional shirt/tie/fisherman waders ensemble. The meal began with an impeccably fresh tartare of Venice’s best Pesce, complete with lavender flowers and crunchy bits of smoky kelp, and ended three hours later with chocolate truffles that I dropped like balls into my mouth. “Piu vino?”, the waitress asked for the tenth time. “Si!”, we raised our glasses, and were met with a downpour of prosecco.

Leaving the restaurant behind, San Marco flashed with spotlights as we waded in at the fashionable time of 11:50, the water up to our knees. Some timid partiers created a traffic jam on the walking planks by refusing to step off into the water, while others dove off, using the walkways as diving boards. We chose the latter.

Midnight hit, champagne spurted. Kisses were exchanged. Sparklers were lit and bottles passed around. A boy towed his friend in an inflatable raft, waving an Italian flag. A lone boot floated by amidst a sea of corks, its owner nowhere to be seen.

The square at midnight

The square at midnight

Pimp

Pimp

Having a seat

Having a seat

The gigantic sound system thundered, in competition with the fireworks above and San Marco Square became the more informal St. Mark’s Outdoor Water Dance Party. Revelers splashed, and bobbed like buoys. Kristin and I danced to such international hits as The Black Eyed Pea’s ‘I Got A Feeling’ and the infamous Uno, Due, Tre, Quattro song, while the new New Year ticked away. We paid a 1 am visit to the Hard Rock Café, the furthest thing from a café in Italy, followed by a needless 2:30 am visit to a local bar and ordered beers that would sit un-drunk in our room. We waded back to our hotel, tired, sopping and happy. My tie took up residence on the bedside lamp, and stayed there, unmoving, while 6 flights below, the invading water was finally pulled back out to sea.

A lone cork on New Year's Day

A lone cork on New Year's Day

More to come from Italia, including New Year’s Day in Venice, our neighbors, and how we got to this darn country in the first place

Fishing in Bangkok

Update: Following a 2 week meditation in the intense heat of Calcutta, Kristin and I spent a month traveling through Bali, and the Gili Islands of Indonesia, before landing in Bangkok on August 3. Many stories to tell, but we’ll begin again in Bangkok:

The first night in Bangkok, an hour after landing, I got spat on by a snarling dog that was hiding in one of the hundreds of alleyways lining the main streets. It hurled itself against my leg, but quickly backed off when Kristin brandished a Thai water bottle, ready to counterattack. Following an epic journey through India, Nepal and Indonesia, Thailand conceptually seemed like one more appendage on a many-limbed Shiva. We quickly realized it needed to be put on a short leash.

Seeking relief, we sought out a late-night dinner in the expat safe-haven of Khao San Road. The food we found however, was authentically Thai as the Olive Garden is Italian – the pad thai we attempted, at a joint named ironically, ‘Pad Thai’, was limpid, drowning in a sea of oil and spicelessness.

Khao San is haunted by the ghosts of hippie-past, which now appear to be a United Nations of 21 year old backpacking Spring Breakers. The latest craze is a fish massage, where you stick your feet in a tepid pool of backpacker stew, and hundreds of small fish nibble on the dead skin of your feet, creating a ‘massage-like’ feeling. One backpacker with open wounds, scabs and a few haphazardly placed band-aids, dangled her legs in the water, the fish nibbling away at her pressure points.

Khao San Road

Khao San Road

Street meat

Street meat

Thai Fish Massage

Thai Fish Massage

We escaped Khao San and hailed a hot pink taxi as fuschias and lime greens drove by, a fleet of cars on acid. By our luck, our driver happened to be an ex-Thai boxing champion, Mr. Kumron Sawatdipol, with a record of 110-47, and a stack of boxing magazines strewn across the back ledge of his taxi window. After learning about his background - he couldn’t remember much about his fights, but had a jagged scar above his left eye - it became obvious we needed to see a fight with him. Once Kristin began to converse with him in Thai he started to swoon and promptly offered to take us to Lumphini Stadium, the premier Muay Thai venue in Thailand.

The stadium was electric, the crowd a burly kind of Thai stock exchange, raising hands and yelling bets as the fighters warily eyed each other. Kristin and I took our seats ringside, separated from the second and third tier by a chain-linked fence. The crowd above hurled themselves against the barriers, yelling ‘Ohh, Ayy’ with each landed kick, spittle flying from their mouths.

San Chai, the main event and holder of the champion belt, and his challenger Kuncho began the match by performing the Muay Thai ritual of Ram Muay, a complex and weaving dance of veneration for their masters. They executed a series of elaborate bows, several times facing the crowd and gracefully flapping their arms in unison, balancing on one foot like ribbon-clad flamingoes. Kristin tried to get up-close to snap some photos next to a male fan videotaping the pre-match drama, only to be pushed back by a bouncer pointing to a small placard on the canvas mat stating, “WOMEN are NOT ALLOWED on stage”. She didn’t take it lightly.

Muay Thai embrace

Muay Thai embrace

Men only

Men only

Find Kristin in the crowd

Find Kristin in the crowd

As the fighters came together, San Chai’s opening salvo was a long, graceful kick, easily ducked by Kuncho. We were propelled out of our seats, now with enthusiasm, up as close to the ring as we could get, next to the friends and family of the challenger. As the challenger, Kuncho began to assert himself, his grandmother grabbed Kristin’s hand and began shaking it in both of hers while screaming her grandsons name and smiling at her. San Chai began to lose ground, each kick echoed by the increasingly unruly crowd, which sensed an upheaval in the works. The grandmother became ecstatic, and as the closing bell rang and the challenger was declared the winner, Kristin and the grandmother did a victory dance, the crowd roaring in approval.

Our taxi driver, happy to be immersed in his old sport, led us away, ending the night with a midnight drive through the flower market, a nocturnal array of greens and shimmering golds. When San Chai fell, it was obvious the crowd loved an underdog, and in retrospect so did we. Mighty Bangkok has its share of shadowy streets, and sordid back alleys; the tourists and kids come here in the thousands, nibbling away like massage-fish at whatever the city has to offer, but there is always the the elegant, graceful side full of tradition, that offers a counter.

Next stop, onto the southern islands of Thailand - Ko Tao and Ko Samui..

Gone meditating

A quick one, Kristin and I are about to embark on a 10-day vipassana. During this time, no communication is allowed (including internet, voice, or eye-contact, although there may be a twitter loophole that has yet to be plugged).

aniwheel-blue

We’ll be back on June 28 with more posts.

Like a Virgin

In a down economy, most countries fall back on their primary commodities. While the US ‘Buys American’, Nepal has cornered the market in pre-pubescent Virgins. One such pure soul, the Kumari, is a living goddess believed to be a manifestation of the Hindu goddess Durga. She is selected by a committee of royal priests and lives in the Kumari Ghar, a centrally located palace in Kathmandu. She is now 3 years old.

Not wanting to miss a goddess who just learned to chew solid food, Kristin and I decided to see the spritely Rapunzel for ourselves. Taking a bicycle rickshaw driven by a charming old man who greeted us with a “Namaste”, we journeyed twenty minutes through narrow pothole-ridden alleys, and temple-laden squares. As we rode our driver cocked his head as if on a swivel, whistling into the crowd to magically part the throngs in front of us.

The kumari

The kumari

Seeing the Kumari is not a sure thing; she only appears twice a day, and only then for approximately ten seconds. The selection process for the Kumari is rigorous. She must possess 32 different features, including such notables as:

  • Eyelashes like a cow
  • A small, delicate tongue
  • A chest like a lion
  • She must also be fearless, which is proven by exposing her to 108 decapitated goats and buffalos, while men wearing masks dance around her. All this for a very limited reign; the Kumari lives in the palace until she menstruates, at which point she is booted out, and a new Kumari-selection process takes place.

    Once we had properly digested the Kumari backstory, we found a tour guide to take us to see the goddess in the flesh. Toya, our guide, had an in with the Kumari’s keepers, and got her to come out on cue. She appeared at the front window, peeking her head out, and gesturing to the crowd like a minature Pope. Then, just as suddenly, she was gone, perhaps to don her scarlet brocade sari, receive her devout subjects, or play with some blocks.

    No photographs were allowed in the Kumari’s presence so the picture below is post-Kumari. I may photoshop in a Virgin at a later-date.

    The Kumari's window

    The Kumari's window

    After leaving the Kumari’s lair, Toya whisked us through temple after temple, often times getting past armed guards because he ‘knew’ someone on the inside. Inside one such temple, there was a surreal Vanilla Skyesque scene, with not a Nepali or foreigner in sight. Only a single armed guard stood watch over all the empty space as if it was, and probably is, the most valuable commodity in Kathmandu.

    After an anecdote-filled tour, we sat down for tea with our driver and Toya, who launched into a tale of his past life. Years ago Toya, who is also a trekking guide, went on a Himalayan tour with a British businessman. Toya made such an impression on the Brit that the man sent him 100 pounds a month for three years to fund his graduate studies. After three years, the man disappeared, never to be heard from again. He only lives on in the stories that Toya tells to everyone he meets, in a not so subtle attempt to repeat history.

    /

    Temple greeting committe

    Temple greeting committe

    Hanging out in Durbar Square

    Hanging out in Durbar Square

    Toya and our driver

    Toya and our driver

    We finished our tea, and were directed to a restaurant overlooking Durbar Square, but not before paying off the bicycle rickshaw man. As I handed him a crisp 1000 Rupee note (around $15) - for a couple of hours of service (including waiting around for us while we toured), he looked at me sternly and demanded 500 more. The man, who we had thought we had made a personal connection to, was asking for more money, after an already generous tip (rickshaw drivers typically make anywhere 20 – 50 Rupees a trip). His overzealous demand made me want to rip the money from his hand.

    Therein lies the dilemma of making a personal connection to anyone in a poor country. Money is king first and foremost. Some people get ‘saved’ in different ways, and if you’re not lucky enough to be chosen for your virtue and placed in an ivory tower, or sent mysterious money packages from a stranger, scrounging from the tourist money-train is a pretty attractive alternative. If they only knew that while the well is deep over here, back home it’s another hole altogether.

    Politics Nepali Style

    Politics Nepali-style is a bit like Korean food – a mish-mash of parties strewn about, thrown into a parliamentary pot and left to stew indefinitely. These days it seems the ultimate pickled party is the Maoists, a Communist party that fought a People’s War from 1996-2006 to reform the ruling monarchy, but have been since booted out of the government. It turns out incorporating an army of guerillas into a regular military is kind of tricky.

    Kristin and I have witnessed first-hand the thuggery of the military. Stepping out of the Kathmandu Guest House and into the clogged arteries of Thamel, I saw a truck full of young army boys pull up brandishing rifles. They hopped out and apprehended two Nepali teenagers. It’s unclear what the kids were doing, perhaps committing the cardinal sin of accosting a Westerner. They were immediately thrown into the back of the truck into a den of waiting and smirking soldiers. One of the soldiers donkey-punched one kid from behind repeatedly, while another kicked the other in the face. As the truck pulled away the sounds of fist-to-face faded into the night air; TNT by ACDC played, smoking out whatever serenity was left in the streets. I turned in disbelief to a guard who had watched the entire thing. He simply shrugged. His partner was half-dressed, undershirt covering his unmoving body.

    Today, June 01, is a strike for the Newaris, the indigenous people of the Kathmandu Valley, who want their own nation state. No cars are allowed on the streets, and as Kristin and I walked from our oasis, the Himalayan International Yoga Academy, we caught a ride into town on a tiny trailer attached to the back of a bicycle, usually used for transporting produce.

    Nepal's finest hard at work

    Nepal's finest hard at work

    Strike roadblock

    Strike roadblock

    Newari striker

    Newari striker

    Nepalis love a good strike, and today is no exception. Kristin took these pictures today as we walked down a street filled only with crowds swelling as vehicles were stopped. Two young men who drove up in a motorcycle were first yelled at, swarmed, then threatened at close range by a stick-wielding self-loving Newari. After a couple of seconds, the Newari smashed his stick down on the front of the man’s bike. Two boys watched nearby, one with an arm draped around the other. I asked what they thought of the whole scene. “We don’t really care. It’s all for the Newaris. Welcome to Nepal.”

    Trying to establish order

    Trying to establish order

    In search of nirvana

    In search of nirvana

    Pathos

    Pathos

    Welcome to Nepal, where the Himalayas cast a natural shadow over the Kathmandu valley, and waving red flags precipitate incoming storms. Without exception, every Nepali I’ve talked to has expressed zero hope for the incoming government. Here, the biggest agenda is just to get a constitution together, something which was supposed to be done last year, but will certainly not get done until next year. On the plus side, Thamel’s clogged streets are clear today, but the honking taxis and careening rickshaws will all be back tomorrow, as will the certainty of politics as usual.

    Thanka, but no thanka

    Kathmandu, Nepal is a barrage of streets, characters and yak wool. Kristin and I have been here for six days after completing a 20 day trek through the Annapurna Himalayas, and a four day kayak clinic down the Seti River, where I capsized my green “Bliss Stick” kayak approximately once per hour. After spending three days being rescued from Class II rapids, we thought it a clever idea to retreat to dry land.

    Kristin in the Annapurnas

    Kristin in the mountains

    At the Thorung La Pass

    At the Thorung La Pass

    In Thamel, the tourist-ghetto of Nepal, the Lonely Planet is king, and is traded as a commodity – at breakfast I had a man ask me if I had a Lonely Planet Nepal as if he was asking for a cigarette. I pulled my copy out of my bag, and handed it over, and proceeded to watch him for the next twenty minutes inhale the prescient reviews. After getting it back, my heart-rate returned to normal, a relatively benign case of LP withdrawal, much less severe than the anxiety-laced day when it was lost for 24 hours in our hotel.

    Blog posting, I admit has been lapse during this time period, but I will say that when you’re trekking at 15 000 feet there is not much in the way of internet. My attempts to jerry-rig a yak-phone resulted in a mostly angry yak. I did end up bringing a yak scarf back from the mountains, which kept me warm in the sub-zero temperatures of the Thorung-La Pass. Wearing it, I created an instant bond with locals, who saw me either as a carnivorous hunter who killed for warmth, or a tourist with a piece of yak-garbage over his face.

    Yak neck is treatable

    Yak neck is treatable

    Back in Kathmandu, Kristin and I have spent the last three days learning to paint Thanka, a type of Nepali painting which incorporates Buddhist deities such as the blue or white Tara, or the Wheel of Life, a segmented circle showing six regions of life. Depending on your karma, you’re either in the lower three segments, where you’re burning, freezing, or being tortured by animals, or the top three, where you’re having a grand time trying to gain enlightenment. The wheel is held by a demon that looks like a fanged ape, but all I could think of was spinning the entire thing to create a sound like a farm animal.

    Kristin, being an artist with genuine talent, has taken to the painting style, and was given a string of mighty compliments by the owner of the studio. “This is very, very good. In only six months you will be a master.” He then turned to mine, and said, “This, not so good.” After readjusting my devastated ego, it became obvious that my Mandala was too avant-garde for the traditional and rigid techniques of Thanka; An underground Impressionistic Thanka movement is in the works, hereby christened as Davidism, not to be confused with Dada, Darwinism, or finger-painting..

    Kristin hard at work

    Kristin hard at work

    My work of art

    My work of art

    I will say that after spending an entire day brushing hair-width strokes of varying shades of blue, I have a new appreciation for the paintings here. A well-done Thanka can take six months to produce, and after being constantly bombarded with Indian prints and Chinese imports, I’ve had to recalibrate my visual sense. From far away, the gold flecked paint and the brush strokes are barely visible, but much like the Himalayas themselves, the colors are best appreciated with an admiring and lingering eye.

    Staying in Kathmandu for more Thanka practice, then off to a vipassana (10-day meditation) either in Kathmandu or Kolkatta.

    The Bowels of Varanasi

    I haven’t been posting much lately because I’ve been busy doing some freelance work. I’m now in Varanasi with the lovely Goddess Shiva, aka Kristin Sullivan. Having successfully finished the Delhi-Taj walk, Kristin and I cycled around Rajisthan, and we are now moving North East through Varansi to Bhodgaya, the place where Buddha gained enlightenment.

    I am writing about the walk, and will post more soon, but in an effort to be current, I’m skipping ahead to the present.

    Varanasi was waiting for us as we pulled in, a maze of filthy streets and dust-strewn alleys. Kristin and I had booked an overnight sleeper train from Jhansi, a beautifully dull transportation hub, and as we emerged bleary-eyed from our overnight cocoon we were besieged by an army of auto-rickshaws. Once aboard, our driver was nice enough to drop us off from the train station a full kilometer from our hotel, forcing us to camel our way through the narrow pedestrian alleyways.

    Varanasi, being the holiest city in India, is a tourist enlightenment package haven. Our bartering power was severely compromised by the constant business of long-haired hippies and suitcase soul-searchers. The owner of the Hotel was a stiff negotiator, he turned back wave after wave of offers, even rejecting Kristin’s bearded volley, saying the price would actually jump from R 1500 to R 1700 ($34) if she continued to sport her fake beard.

    Once immersed in the old city, the famous Ghats (steps) of Varanasi proved their mettle early on, rolling out a brown carpet of shit which yanked my legs out from under me. The city is lined with steps which lead down to the Ganges, the holiest river in India. It is also dotted with fecular street-piles (animal and human) which I seemed to find with startling regularity. Luckily as I felt my greased Indian slippers come out from under me, I seized on my recent Sullivanyana yoga training and was able to save myself.

    Bathing in the Ghats

    Bathing in the Ghats

    Meer Ghat

    Meer Ghat

    We loped along the Ghats, dust storms swirling, our eyes denaturing, and our focus hardening on finding the Lotus Lounge, a supposed peaceful oasis of a restaurant above Mother Ganges. Kristin embraced her Indian culture by draping her shawl over her eyes, countering the blanket of dust Varanasi was rudely choking us with. Post dinner the adventure continued - we took the long way back by getting supremely lost in the dark alleys of the old city. The passages had a peaceful, but dark sensibility, as if we were peering into the bowels of a sleeping animal. We made our way carefully through the narrow streets. Animals took up the entire lane; scooters careened by making us press up against the ribs of the alleys.

    Monkeys leapt onto corrugated roofs from above, creating a barrage of guerilla warfare sounds. We nervously tried to follow their route with our ears, counting the seconds before seeing them as if gauging an incoming thunderstorm. “Monkey problem, no picture!” A boy ran up reprimanding us. I complied immediately - I had already had my fair share of monkey incidents, having pissed off a protective alpha-male in Pushkar. Never point a telephoto lens at a monkey – they will seek to usurp your phallic focus with a menacing glare and a bearing of razor-sharp teeth that will strip your banana peel in seconds.

    This way to enlightenment

    This way to enlightenment

    The back alleys

    The back alleys

    After procuring some delicious chocolate balls from two separate German bakeries - presumably the Indian market for German baking has not yet been saturated - we stumbled upon the Manikinarka Ghat, the main burning Ghat in Varanasi. Hindus cremate their dead, and scattering ashes in the Ganges is auspicious in a fire and brimstone sort of way. Logs of sandal-wood were stacked high, the claustrophobic piles indicative of the pyres to come. Fires burned in several areas, some small, some big, some old, some new. The cremations run 24/7 in Varanasi, a repeated epilogue of finality.

    Several men dragged a flower adorned corpse into the Ganges for one last holy bath, and then brought it out to lay on the steps. A priestly guide explained the process. The corpse will dry, and then be cremated at one of the fire pits. A surviving relative (usually the son) will complete the ceremony by dipping a clay pot in the Ganges and throwing water on the burning corpse five times. On the fifth throw, he must crack the pot on the fire, signifying a final break with the dead.

    Kristin was looking wide-eyed at several K9s by the river. “Are those dogs eating the remains?” “Yes”, the guide explained. “You see, even in death we are useful to life.” It seemed incredible that these last earthly remains ended up as food for animals, but there was also something beautifully humbling it all. Once you were laid to rest, there was no more self, no more ego, you were part of a chain, and your worth was no longer measured in substance, but in sustenance for others.

    The seriousness of the holy city crept into my psyche. The casino-like temples and silly Hindu God manifestations that we had seen in past weeks seemed to take on a more serious, somber tone. Krishna, Radha, the Gopis, they were all Saturday morning cartoons compared to this, a more profound and moving experience. The part of Hinduism that seemed most alive was the part that ended in death.

    Onwards to Bhodgaya, and then some relief from the hot weather at Darjeeling

    Walk Day 1: Delhi to Faridabad

    The first 5 km of a large-scale walk will tell you a lot about the future state of your body and mind. Within a short time frame, you can finally evaluate the legitimacy of your plans, similar to the first five minutes of an entrance exam. In my case, the starting point I picked for my walk was the India Gate in central Delhi - the Gate was built as a war memorial to commemorate the fallen soldiers of the British Indian army in World War I. I figured it was a good connecting point as any to seven days of plodding.

    I drove to the Gate with Sharma, my driver, confidante, and protector. He introduced himself with a gravel growl and looked at me cautiously. His teeth, like the streets of Delhi, were in woeful need of repair. He was a bear of an Indian, but he was my link to the Hindi world that was operating at a frequency well beyond my understanding.

    At the gate

    At the gate

    The watchful gaze of Sharma

    The watchful gaze of the Sharma

    Introductions and formalities aside, Sharma and I strategized about where to meet. We picked a spot on the map, 10 km southeast of the gate – on the map it was only a couple of inches to march. With one deliberate and hesitant look back, I was off, 10:19 am, a glorious Saturday morning, the Indian sun rising brilliantly over my left-hand shoulder. And at 10:29 my pack got heavy.

    I had initially wanted to carry all my supplies with me - sleeping bag, clothes, etc. - but quickly rationalized that this was both unnecessary (I could stow my big bag with Sharma), and stupid (gargantuan efforts are only worth it if you can finish). I also realized I had somehow veered onto the wrong road, and was heading due south, rather than south-east. Asking instructions was fruitless, as there are less Indians in the north who can speak English. My mono-verbiage was volleyed back with blank stares, and looks of incredulity. There is no lack of shyness when a foreigner strides past a local and I quickly found myself in several stare-down competitions. As I tango-danced past a local, our torsos swiveling and eyes locking, I held my eyes steady until our collective fields of vision elapsed, only to have a new dance partner seconds later.

    I stopped at a veg restaurant for food, by this time feeling achy, tired, and generally unwell. I tried eating a dosa, but could barely stomach it, visions of biryani stirring in my head, I strode to the counter, and unfurled my Delhi road map. The man at the counter had a pen mark about an inch long under his eye. I pointed to where we were, and made a gesture to the road that would take me all the way to Agra. “Where Mathura Road?” I asked.

    “Where do you want to get to sir?” the man replied, not bothering to address my original question. I sighed. This was the question that no one would understand. I picked a landmark close to Mathura Road. “Lotus Temple.” I pointed. The man replied, “I call auto for you.” No, no, I said, I’m walking. The man frowned, his pen mark changing shape. “No walk, too far. You take auto.”

    And here in a nutshell was the time/distance relationship that everyone was used to. It was pointless to try to convince this guy it wasn’t far. If 2 kilometers was far, then 200 kilometers was ludicrous. I picked up my weight-sack and left with the door swinging.

    I was supposed to meet Sharma in Okhla, which I soon realized was a slum ghetto. I looked through the corrugated shacks but didn’t see him anywhere, so I quickly dialed his number. He answered on the fifth ring. “Hello sir, where are you?” I told him I was in Oklha (finally) and asked here he was. “Under bridge,” he coughed into the phone. It sounded like he had been smoking or just woken up. “OK, where bridge?” I asked. My map had not come with a legend of bridges. “Here,” Sharma replied. I waited for a further explanation, but nothing came. “Where here?” I asked. “Here, bridge.” The conversation continued like this for another 30 seconds, until I asked a local “Bridge?” and again, a look of incredulity, and nothing. I looked down at my phone, Sharma had hung up.

    I called him back, then gave the phone to a surprised local, and made a ‘talk’ motion. The man held it to his ear cautiously, and had a brief conversation in Hindi, then hung up. He turned to me. “Your man is waiting at bridge.” It appeared I was stuck in a repetitive Indian time-loop. I gave up and decided to walk in what I thought was the right direction. Ten minutes later I finally saw what looked to be a bridge, and yes, Sharma waving like a long lost relative. Relieved, I unbuckled my anvil, and threw it into the trunk, then did some fancy rearranging. From now on, I would only carry what I absolutely needed. Passport, money, a change of shirt, food, water, basically enough to get by for a night in case I couldn’t find the Sharma.

    As I stumbled out of Delhi, the road quickly transformed from a polluted, urban road, to a polluted, rural road. I soon realized it was perfectly acceptable to pull your car over and dispose of your trash by whipping It out the window, letting the animals and weather have its way with it. In the cities, there are sewage canals that mole their ways under the sidewalks, periodically peaking out and unleashing a waft that will level you.

    The glorious path to Agra

    The glorious path to Agra

    I finally came to the beginnings of Faridabad, a footnote of a city of one million next to Delhi’s 14 million. I doubled over and coughed into the sides of the street. My insides felt as polluted as the sewers themselves. I began to question the overall premise of my walk, as well as my health. I pitched my empty bottles of water onto the sides of the road. With no garbage cans, my western sensibility to conserve was out the window.

    As I strode into Faridabad, sick, tired, and brimming with a fever, I looked back at the road I had come down. Somewhere behind me was the India Gate, pen-face, the Lotus Temple, and my sanity. I looked at the garbage lining the streets, and threw another empty bottle to the side of the road, watching it join the rest of the filth. This walk was going to be about acceptance of many different sorts. As the people I met gradually accepted my motives, I had to gradually accept the inevitabilities of the Indian way. My empty bottles were a trail behind me, joining the marks of many others. I watched the bottle come to rest next to a pile of animal shit. At least in some places, the marks weren’t man-made.

    Total distance covered Day One: 30 kim. Next installment: Day Two - Faridabad Infirmary

    Walking the long, long line

    So my plan of writing and posting every day, has been compromised by the fact that after I walk 20-30 miles, I tend to pass out and dream about standing still.

    In any case, as of today, I have walked approximately 100 miles, and have only 25 to go! Every day has been an adventure, and I am writing it all down, just need a day or two to recover from this trek, and there will be proper posts (I spent two days not walking, the first due to a nasty case of Delhi Belly, the second due to Holi Festival). Here’s a brief summary of each day so far:

    Day One: Delhi India Gate to Fardibad (30 km).
    Highlights: Lost in Delhi, Bridge to nowhere

    Starting from India Gate

    Day Two: - (0 km). Hotel infirmary
    Highlights: Delhi Belly, Ciprofloxacin

    Day Three: Faridabad to Powal (30 km)
    Highlights: Jaikur the Follower, Tea with Baipur

    Jaikur, Sharma and I

    Baipur

    Day Four: Powal to Haryana/Utter Pradesh border (35 km)
    Highlights: The Second Coming of Jaikur, The Wonderful World of Krishna

    Day Five: - (0 km)
    Highlights: Holi holi, The Village People and Boy-Love

    Holi holi

    Holi in the village

    Day Six: Haryana/Utter Pradesh border to Chhata (30 km)
    Highlights: Setbhandu’s journey

    Day Seven: Chhata to Mathura (35 km)
    Highlights: Children of the Indian corn, Holy temple pilfering