December 2006
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Tuesday, December 12 (from an e-mail to a friend about a trip I took from November 13 to 17)

So I had a truly life-changing experience recently. One day I was sitting around at work and I got a text message from a local travel magazine asking if I wanted to go to the Andamans, this island chain in Indian ocean very close to Thailand. So I went.

Imagine clear, clear water that changes from aquamarine to jade to turquoise to emerald -- every shade from blue to green. The sand is white, white, white and oh-so-soft. And there is rainforest all the way down to the beach, lovely, lush dark green coconuts, palms and other trees.

I was staying at this astonishingly hip and tasteful eco-resort. I know it sounds horribly condescending (sorry diehard patriots) but I couldn't believe this place exists here. One of the owners was an investment banker and then he decided to quit his job and travel by land back to India. He wrote a travel book about that in the Andamans and befriended the owner of this backpackers' place on a beach that Time magazine called the best in Asia and convinced him to pool money and make it more posh. And now there are all these cane and thatched cottages and everyone walks around barefoot and they recycle their water and the tips to the employees, mostly local, are going towards buying them land. So it is a feel-good kind of place.

Seriously, the first day me and the photographer appeared to be set for some differences of opinion, shall we say, but by day three all had changed. We were like, "I cannot relate to you AT ALL, but I love you, I love everyone." I heard no raised voices my entire time there. It was so zen. And by day five the photographer (who was frowning at me earlier for enjoying the place too much and going on about how important work focus was) was wondering if we shouldn't stay some extra days at our own expense. And also telling me to write a novel about the characters there.

Oh, the characters! Esp. the Indians from the mainland. I didn't know there were Indians like that. In Delhi there seem to be basically two kinds of people: the mainstream ones, who are doctors, engineers or consultants and the arty ones, who are mostly writers, photographers and filmmakers. You don't have a lot of outdoorsy, hands-on middle-class occupations, which I suppose is not surprising.

One girl at the resort had joined Greenpeace as a volunteer. Then she became a cook traveling aboard the Rainbow Warrior. Now she spends half the year on ship and the other half cooking at the resort. There's a South Indian film actress (looks like brown Uma Thurman) who went diving, fell in love with it, dropped her film career and is now a divemaster. There's a young Muslim girl, who looks like a cross between Maharani Gayatri Devi and Aishwarya Rai, who is a zoologist who leads the nature walks and whose dream is to lead a horse-mounted expedition across these mountains along the west coast of India.

One day I ate only pancakes. That was a very good day. It was also my diving lesson day.

Diving is like everything amazing and a little bit fantastical that you can think of, all at once. It's like being in a marvelous dream but instead of that sad feeling towards the end when you start to wake you realize, joyfully, it is all real. It is calming and relaxing like yoga because of the deep breathing and soundlessness and all you hear are the exhalation bubbles. It is like flying because you are weightless. It is like being in love because you feel so, so happy and so, so lucky. And it is like being a child because you are wonderstruck by everything but also holding hands with someone else to be safe. And it is like going to outer space or another planet, but much quicker and you don't have to leave the earth, which I wouldn't really like to do. Every thing was so beautiful and different there. There were these large pale green things that looked (and felt) slimy and seemed to be caterpillars. They are called sea cucumbers. There was loads of coral covered with what on dry earth would be moss or lichen in lots of different hues and patterns. There were other things that looked like lettuces. I saw a little spotted fish with some sort of thorns sticking out that can apparently sting badly. Lots of fish all different colors, including tiny blue and black ones that tried to nibble my arm.

Mostly we didn't touch things, but we touched a few things. We touched the underside of a purple-fringed anemone that was so wet, so soft, well, I can only really compare it to one thing, but even then it was like at least a hundred times softer and wetter than that. I passed my hand through the polyps of another coral and couldn't feel them at all, but when we touched the base they retracted but then "bloomed" again when all the vibrations stopped.

At night the stars were beautiful and when the whole group of us went swimming in the tepid Indian ocean off the island where we camped there were stars in the water too -- phosphorescence. I just felt like dropping everything and moving there. I was sooooo sad to leave, it broke my heart. Now I am saving up for a dive certification course next year at the same place.

Only bad thing is that between diving, flying and a cold I have gone rather deaf. Periodically I also have a ringing in my years. Since it is now a week (though being deaf, particularly in Delhi, is no bad thing, traffic hardly bothers me now and I keep asking people to repeat themselves and when they get irritated, I tell them I am deaf and see them look very contrite to my great satisfaction) I better go to ENT specialist.

Visiting Old Delhi (Monday, December 11)

I accompanied a friend to Old Delhi on Thursday and then again on Saturday. She was doing interviews with crafts workers, particularly families skilled in zari, gold thread embroidery, like that shown above. It was so different to be in Old Delhi in the company of two other women, instead of by oneself, as I usually would be for work. It felt as if all the attention one gets for being visibly an outsider was diffused and deflected and so I felt free to do things that I sometimes feel uncomfortable doing because they seem to call forth so much attention. Like taking endless numbers of pictures.

Strangely, I always walk when I am in Old Delhi, but my friend and her assistant were veterans and the area we had to go to, Chitli Qabr or Chitli's Tomb, was relatively far. The rickshwaw ride we took -- the two of them in front and me at the back held in by a railing -- was unlike any other. It was more like a physical exertion of some sort, between trying to keep your posterior from riding down the slanting seat, the semi squat you are forced to adopt in order to do so, and all the jolting, then anything I would remotely call sitting. Then, as M.'s assistant pointed out, the reason no one has horns on their rickshaws is that the main way of telling people they are in the way is by running smack into the back of them. Several times it seemed we were very likely to be hurled from our conveyance. But there was so much traffic that we moved slowly enough to buy things to eat and drink from the rickshaw.

Each time I am in Old Delhi it seems to me that more than any other area, it is a hub of humming, thriving commerce, in the most dilapidated setting, with some of the most intricate electrical cable wiring overhead, threatening to put an end to trade once and for all. One man will be selling bundles of neatly tied squares of scrap fabric, another will have bundles of paper. In front of one building, a man was selling what were certainly used and very grimy white towels. Who buys all this and for what?

Being there for a specific purpose also helped to make the visit more coherent and meaningful, but it was nice that it was a structure imposed by someone else and not for an article. So while the other two looked for addresses, sometimes with little luck -- in one case a motor parts shop was ensconced where a fabric workshop had once been, in another the searched-for party had departed this world three decades earlier -- I was free to take in the scenery.

There's so much to see there, it's like one of those images with hidden images, where if you look more closely you see the second picture. So a clothes shop festooned with brightly colored chunnis, on further inspection, was located in the remnants of what must have been a very fine house once, with a green arch sculpted in Mughal floral motifs. Another house, hidden on the row where all the bathroom fittings shops are and where I have been a hundred times, revealed a lovely guilt painted underside to its balcony from the opposite side of the street, as well as sculpted baby blue cherubs on either side of the windows.

Another street was entirely for the women, who shopped ferociously at the vendors offering bags, fabric, mehndi, shoes and bangles. I saw one group of black burkha-clad women tussling over an orange crochet purse adorned with sequins. "This doesn't go with you, it goes with me," exclaimed one to the other. But they were all dressed head-to-toe in black, so what did she mean? Perhaps it was a personality thing.