July 29 - August 4
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Sunday, July 31

I have a dream

I tire of traveling. My subconscious made that very clear in the dream I had on the overnight train to Kochi.

Somehow, in the course of taking trains and buses and moving ceaselessly forward, I found myself in a place called Shila, which turned out to be in Iraq. I was quite surprised to find myself there, as it was not really on my itinerary, but that town just happened to be within six hours of where I was previously. As I explained to another traveler, "Six hours is the longest I can go without going to the toilet."

From what I gathered of the town's character, it was more or less Falluja on the seaside. But in the dream I didn't seem particularly disconcerted, as if a war-torn city overrun with militants should be a logical addition to my itinerary so far in India.

I was near the major youth hostels, but this fortunate point was also worrying since the general idea was that all travelers should stay away from all other travelers while at the same time remaining as close as possible to restaurants and points of touristic interest -- sort of like an analytical problem on the GRE.

The first hostel was windowless and underground -- apparently a selling point for Iraqi hostels. An elderly American lady staying there recommended that I not speak English and carry a map in some other language. I asked her which map she was using and she said, "The North Indian one." She couldn't read it but she had an extra copy, which she gave me, and I found that it was in Hindi.

But that hostel was too full of Americans or something, so I went to one next door and it was crammed full of South Asian drag queens (with a few Eastern Europeans and Russians thrown in) and this felt very cheery and familiar, so I decided to stay there.

Later, I was wandering around and I accidentally came in the way of crossfire between random militants. Then the dream ended, before I was able to see the town or anything.

I pay a fine

I realized near Ernakulam, the stop for Kochi, that my train (the Allepey Express) actually went all the way to Allepey. So I thought I would get off there instead of taking the bus down from Kochi. It was only an additional 40 minutes and I thought I could buy the ticket on the train or in the event of the conductor's laziness in coming around, save the grand sum of perhaps Rs. 30, which is what the bus would have cost.

But I found to my surprise that in India dishonesty, at least on such an unambitious and clearly uninspired scale, does not pay. A pock-marked lady pounced on me with glee at the exit gate when she saw that my ticket was only up to Ernakulam. I said grandly that I was happy to pay the difference but the lady was already totting up the figures with remarkable rapidity, reaching the grand total of Rs. 448. My entire ticket from Chennai, some 14 hours away, had cost Rs. 757! In spite of arguing that I should only pay the ticket price and not the fine, since I was not a "ticketless passenger," I ended up pay Rs. 280 -- the second class price and the fine.

After a day in Allepey fending off overeager rickshaw drivers and 22 hours on a houseboat, where as we sailed around in the Kerala backaters so that I could look at the natives in their habitat, I couldn't help feeling rather on display myself -- sitting idly on a cane armchair and trying to look dreamily occupied by the beautiful scenery while actually feeling quite guilty at the labor being expended by the crew in moving the non-motorized boat forward. I was just trying to be ecologically-minded. I tried to compensate later with what I hoped were generous tips.

Tuesday, August 2

Yesterday was raining cats and dogs so I couldn't indulge in some five-star escapism to the pool of the Taj Malabar hotel on Willingdon Island. Instead I spent the day concocting fictitious postcard accounts of the lovely time I am having ("The backwaters were wonderful! You must take a houseboat if you're ever there!) for the benefit of friends and family in Delhi. Somehow I can't bear the thought of coming back from another trip and confessing that, well, it wasn't quite as much fun as I expected.

I did send more truthful versions to some intimates ("The backwaters were a drag after two hours. Don't ever take a houseboat.").

After buying the postcards, gathering up all the requisite addresses through e-mail and by phone, making up stories and going to the post-office (twice) to get pretty stamps, I found an entire day had gone by. Being a tourist is hard work.

I did go to see a kathakali performance last night -- a dance performance that requires elaborate make-up. There was a script, which was odd at it is a wordless form of theater. Unfortunately, there was no electricity for most of the performance. They did bring out candles but I suddenly had a vision of a dancer knocking over a candle and setting the place on fire (the walls were made of straw) so I had a panic attack and had to leave.

Wednesday, August 3

Sometimes if you look at a word for long enough, it becomes a jumble of lines and squiggles, devoid of meaning. Sometimes, particularly amid noise and chaos, you sort of feel a sudden inner disconnect, and that being inside you that usually keeps up an incessant interior monologue is jolted into asking dazedly, "Where am I? What am I doing here? Who's this person I'm with? I supposed that's what they call an out-of-body experience. Well, I'm suddenly besieged by a combination of both of those feelings, in that I've forgotten why I'm traveling. Or why I ever thought I liked to travel. [I'm quite sure there's a book with the title "Why We Travel," but since I don't have it with me that's no help.] At the moment, all the benefits of travel that I can make out are that it makes you like the place you were in before a lot more.

Suddenly I'm desperate to be back in dirty, congested Delhi, smoggy gray skies and all, where some obliging person might bring me tea in bed and I could watch some cable television.

I think I had vaguely thought these travels might be a good starting point for learning something about India but again I say: cable television.

I asked a nice couple from Japan -- the girl is originally from India and moved there at age 7 -- that I met here in Kochi why they liked to travel. And she said, "Because to meet other people of different thinking. Then it makes you think different." And she looked momentarily transported.

I tried to see it through her eyes but I think I'm not in the right frame of mind for all that. Instead I am busy trying to seek refuge in American-expat-run cafes where I eat chocolate cake for breakfast and read the newspaper all day -- which I suppose would be the ideal way to spend your time if you were a cross between a 5-year-old child and an 80-year-old man.

Yesterday I hid out in a five-star hotel where some British sailors from an oil tanker that is docked on Willingdon Island invited me to a party today to celebrate the 100th anniversary of their service. They had just come from refueling warships in the Gulf. I thanked them politely but privately I thought that, although it's nice when people desire your company, a party with 55 drunken sailors who had been at sea for four weeks would be one where I would be entirely too welcome.

As I left to get a pedicure (not a service I recommend if you are going to walk in torrential rains and mud puddles for a few kilometers afterward) the sailor most keen for me to attend tried to plant a farewell kiss on my cheek to the aghast horror of two South Indian gentleman sitting sedately at a table nearby.

Friday, August 5

The New Woodlands Hotel is a vale of paradise. Every time I step out of the door, someone tries to offer me a tea or coffee, wash my clothes or feed me. Every day they give me a new roll of toilet paper. And this morning a newspaper -- a newspaper of my very own! -- was slipped under the door. It is just like a real hotel. I am also a very popular hotel guest as, in my gratefulness for all these services, I have been bestowing 10-rupee notes on everyone who works for the hotel -- and even occasionally on some who do not -- with gay abandon.

And I have cable TV. I watched it till 2 a.m. and caught a glimpse of my best friend from when I was 11 who is now a glamorous television broadcaster.

In another positive development, as of August 29 I will join the ranks of the gainfully employed after an eight month hiatus from the working world. My euphoria is a bit tempered by the fact that I can't think of what I might have done to deserve this stroke of good luck and I better begin to do some good works post-haste. Which is what I say every time fortune smiles upon me, and now I fear I have such a backlog of good works that I may be smited down at any moment for noncompliance. But more on that anon, when I shall tot up my karmic account balance, which has been weighing increasingly upon my mind since I came to India.