20 September 2005

Chapter 6: Findira Declares Emergency

Dearest All-

Indira Ghandi is possibly India's most revered leader (besides the
real Ghandi of course, to whom she is no relation), possibly for the
right reasons, most likely for the wrong. She was a strong leader in
a fractious country during a turbulent period of time: inflation was
choking India, there was an energy crisis and there were riots
constantly. So Indira did what any Indian mother would do: she put
her foot down and sent everyone to their rooms. OK, so she actually
suspended civil liberties and sent all the opposition to jail, but
let's not split hairs. It was called "The Emergency" and lasted for
almost six years. Strangely enough, where this type of activity would
cause a lynch mob to arise in most countries, she became more popular
than ever. Well, at least until Indira was murdered by her own body
guards who had decided that the national 'time out' had gone on long

Fingermouse was the star of a British children's' show that was
popular in the 80's. As with most things British, it's a bit
difficult to see the immediate appeal, but with repeated exposure one
comes around. Fingermouse was a paper mouse that rode around on the
finger of his buddy, The Music Man. That's right. You can explore
the wonder of Fingermouse here:
http://www.cjetech.co.uk/watched_it/fingermouse.html. One day when
Guy, Amber, Josh and myself were sitting around waiting for things, we
began to make fingermice for our selves. Then we made Finger Pandas
(Fanda) and Finger Wombat (Fombat), and finally, Finger Indira. And
Findira was born.

If you were a psychologist, and possibly that's who I should really be
telling this story to, you might say that Findira begin to express the
desires of the wearer that might not be acceptable to everyone. For
example, Findira might want to scream "Don't touch me you scabby gross
old man!", but Amber would not want to scream that. Findira might
want to scream "GET OUT OF MY GD WAY!!" but I would not want to scream
that. See? Findira spoke our unspeakable desires.

Josh and I had left Guy and Amber to go south, and we were going to go
up to Bombay and try to score parts in a movie or commercial because:
why not? When we arrived in Chennai to take the train, we found that
ALL Bombay bound trains had been cancelled due to the 3.5 feet of rain
they had received. That's right: FEET of rain had fallen, and all in
24 hours. As Bombay was going to be in no shape to serve as the
backdrop to our movie careers, we headed up to Delhi. In Delhi it was
not raining, it was HOT. Findira screamed for air conditioning. The
next day our friends Jeb and Rachel had arrived and we had a great day
shopping for ethnic clothes (which I once promised myself I would
never buy- but it was too hot for t-shirts) and going out for massive
meals (eating with Jeb and Rachel is a pleasure: they are never afraid
to go ahead and order double the amount of food we might need, just in
case. Awesome.).

With Jeb and Rach, we headed out into the desert of Rajasthan.
Rajasthan is like the Arabian nights- castles, forts, palaces all rise
out of scrub land. The strangest place we visited was the rat temple,
where hundreds of rats run all over the place. It's considered lucky
if one runs over your foot. Findira called for rat poision. At first
it was fascinating, but the longer you spent with rats everywhere, the
creepier it got, as they were literally EVERYWHERE- coming out of
pipes, running around in the gutter, climbing on the walls, sleeping
all over the place. Jaisalmer was the best place in Rajasthan. It is
a small town, the last stop in the desert as you travel towards
southern Pakistan (and since the border is closed it is literally the
last stop). Out of the desert a huge honey-coloured fort rises,
dominating the flat landscape. The stone changes color as the sun
rises and sets, and when a sand storm blows in it is usually the only
thing visible, making me want to get one of those Yasar Arafat things
for my head and start a camel herd.

But Rajasthan was trying, for in addition to the heat, which was
amazing and unrelenting, the Rajathanis are used to free wheelin', big
spendin' tourists who come to India on an eight day trip and travel
around in their AC taxi throwing money out the window in a rain of
Euro notes. It makes budget travel a bit hard when people start
quoting you auto rickshaw fares in dollars, and charging sometimes
MORE than a similar fare would be in say, London. It spoils the
experience a little bit to be treated like a walking ATM machine.
Just come up, punch me in the stomach and I'll give you a wad of cash.
Findira screamed for a plague upon their houses, maybe smallpox. Or

Josh and I said our goodbyes to Jeb and Rachel and headed up north.
First stop was Amritsar, where we spent three days using the toilet
every five minutes. Thanks food poisoning! Findira called for the
heads of who ever didn't wash their hands.... Then we went to see the
Golden Temple, a temple made of gold. Inventive naming, no? The best
thing we did in Amritsar, besides not die of food poisoning I mean,
was go to see the Border Closing Ceremony on Indian Independence Day.
Amritsar, India and Lahore, Pakistan are maybe 25 kilometers apart, and
before partition they were important centers of commerce in the Punjab
area. Now the border runs between the two. The border closes for
commerce and transit at 4 pm, but the border officially closes at
sundown. Since Pakistan and India have been rivals since they were
formed, they decided to blow off a little bit of steam by turning the
border closing into a huge show. And show business this is: fanfare,
an MC, screaming crowds, little girls singing, banners and bunting,
marching soldiers and lots of audience participation. They need to
fire the costume designer though: the Indians look like they have a
Chinese fan glued to the side of their hat, and they are wearing some
sort of strange pantaloon and white boots with spats. Why not just
wear bathrobes and throw cats at the Pakistanis? It's the same
message people. But the closing ceremony itself is fantastic. After
the MC warmed the crowd up a bit with some chanting about how great
"Hindustan" is, the soldiers from each side started marching around
the gate area, puffing up their chests. Then, one by one, the
soldiers would run up to the gate and YELL through the bars at the
Pakistani soldiers on the other side. Keep throwing those cats boys-
if crazy wins wars, you're gonna be a superpower soon. Then, as the
sun was setting, the flags are lowered simultaneously, the captains of
each border guard force exchange the briefest of hand shakes and the
gate is swung shut and padlocked. It was awesome.

We continued on to Himachal Pradesh. Our first stop was Dalhousie, a
vacant, crumbling hill station originally built for the British
governors of Punjab. I don't know what it is, but I love that
crumbling British empire feel. Dalhousie was a fantastic surprise:
first, it was empty, something that very very few places in India are.
Second, it was cool, mist crept through the trees and the Himalayas
burst into view from time to time when the clouds broke. We spent
four days eating and enjoying the novel feeling of not sweating. At
night, we used BLANKETS. It was amazing. After Dalhousie we moved
onto to Israel. No wait, I mean Daramshala/McLeod Ganj, where the
Dali Lama lead the exile Tibetans community to in the 50s. But
unwittingly he also seems to be leading the Israelis into the
mountains to commune. We met two Israelis we really liked: Dan and
Tamar. We spent the next week in the sthetl, eating lots of hummus
and felafel and walking around in the mountains, marvelling that so
many Israelis could come to one place (there were literally thousands
of them, and one village where we stayed had almost all of its signage
in Hebrew). Why here?

It was interesting to see Tibetans here in India verses on the Tibetan
Plateau. No offence to the plateau, but I would prefer to stay in
Daramshala- it's green, cool and moist, compared with frozen, dry and
brown. The Dali Lama does seem to be doing a good job helping the
Tibetan community redefine itself and its religion. The interesting
thing to me was to see all of the westerners in town, dressed in
kaftans and loose shirts, talking about the joyous love and energy the
Dali Lama brings to the town, doing yoga and meditating on happiness.
I like the DL, but the joyous happiness might be generated by the
Tibetans being overjoyed to take the money of crazy westerners looking
for happiness. It's an odd place, but I'd like to go back some day.
Possibly in a caftan so I can sit in a circle and experience loving
happiness while I play tunes on a pan pipe and douse myself with
patchouli oil. Findira however, was judgmental and thought they
might find happiness if they went home and spent some of that money on
helping others less fortunate, who might not be able to afford to
travel overseas to sit in a circle.

I also got to take some cooking courses from the unstoppable Rita, who
showed us the path to bigger belt sizes through delicious curries and
chapati. But for all the loving holiness and the making curry
everyday, something was amiss. There was something wrong. We had
been experiencing frequent FTB (fly-to-Bangkok) moments, when
something that used to delight now annoyed. India is great, but even
frequent injections of Findia (Fake India) were no longer solving the
problem. That's when Findira called Emergency and made us buy tickets
to Thailand. Good job, Findira.

With tickets in hand, we travelled to Calcutta via Agra. Let me tell
you about the Taj Mahal: its a big building that looks just like it
does in pictures. The best thing I saw there was an oxen-powered LAWN
MOWER! It was the coolest. I want one of those bad. OK, so the Taj
was really quite impressive, and it is an amazing feat of symmetry,
with every single thing being mirrored on each side of the central
crypt. They call it the biggest monument ever built to love, but if
some one wanted to build me a monument to love it should be a water
park. Or the Ben and Jerry's factory. It was built by a king for his
wife, who he must have liked a bit. His tomb was supposed to be
identical to hers except on the other side of the river and built in
black marble, but after he died his son decided to wedge his dad in
with his mom and forget the black taj idea, so the king's body lays to
the left of his wife's, the only unsymmetrical thing in the complex.

Calcutta was not the black hell hole I was expecting. It was pretty
much like other Indian cities, except it has more parks. And a huge
statue of Queen Victoria looking strikingly like Jaba the Hut. And
the Indian Museum! It was like walking back in time in there- the
museum itself hasn't really been updated since the fifties, so it is
full of awesome displays like "PLANTS IN THE SERVICE OF MAN!" and
"Fossils: Stone Books". The rest of the city is quite pretty, with
the colonial buildings and the huge parks, but the suburban slums are
expectedly grim.

The night before we left for Thailand, we found Guy randomly walking
down the road! It was an amazing coincidence- and so we ran to the
Indian airlines office and got him a ticket for the next morning.
Whoohooo third world airline rules! No advance purchase required.
The next morning, the jet thrust us down the runway and into the clear
air over the Bay of Bengal. It didn't stop to pick up more
passengers, no one rode in the aisle or in the luggage compartments,
and we didn't even have to fight with the pilot about the price- we
were truly on our way out of India. There, over Burma, we toasted the
next phase of our trip: Operation Dumbass. Findira smiled, turned and
screamed at the good for nothing, lazy flight attendants to bring
another beverage.



PS. I swear, I'm not insane.