Crispy Grubs, Gay Bars, and Shower Hammocks

Mexico City has changed more in the last ten years than it has in the previous fifty. Unless you’re happy to see a Starbucks on every corner, this is a mixed blessing.

It had been years since I’d last been in Mexico’s capitol. Flying in at night was something of a surreal experience. The massive city stretches even farther now into the distance. As the plane passed silently over the sleeping city, countless police car lights flashed red and blue down the amber lit streets. There are over 100,000 police in Mexico City, and from our vantage point in the sky, all of them appeared to have taken their cars out at once. Either crime was endemic, or the police were unaware their lightbars could be turned off.

I checked into the Mexico City W just across from Polanco’s Bentley dealership, and listened to the hotel’s acid jazz soundtrack as I snuck past the city’s rich and trendy youth who hung out at the hotel’s bar. The last time I’d been in Mexico City there hadn’t been a W hotel or Bentley dealership. There’s hadn’t even been sugar. The country had simply run out. Sugar needed hard currency, and like sugar, there wasn’t any.  For today’s wealthy classes, those days are long gone. Now if they want a Frappuccino with a dash of cinnamon, there’s a cafe on each corner with a hipster barista who’ll make one exactly to order.  Polanco is the epicenter of that new class. It is a posh neighbourhood of trendy restaurants, valet parking, and armed guards. My room at the W was red and white, and my bathroom had a hammock stretched across the shower. Placed right beneath the massive shower head I’m not entirely sure how the hammock was meant to work. Likely it required a snorkel and goggles.

The next morning I went for a long walk and marveled at the City’s changes. What struck me the most were the new bike lanes running down Paseo de la Reforma, Mexico City’s major boulevard. You have to understand, riding a bike in Mexico City is a bit like strapping on one of those lead lined dental lab coats while standing near an atomic bomb blast. Despite the protection, likely you aren’t going to be pro-creating. Best intentions, and all that. If you want to see a Mexico City ambulance up close, riding a bike is likely the quickest way to have one come find you. Based on how they drive, it might even be the vehicle that hits you. Incidentally, Reforma’s wide medians now serve as a vast open air sculpture gallery funded by the city. It’s well worth a stroll.

The Zona Rosa has forever been the heart of the city’s tourist trade and remains a great place to pick up tourist trinkets, Mexican silver, and now even a rent boy if you’re so inclined. Surprisingly for this staunchly Catholic country, there are now entire blocks of the Zona Rosa full of gay bars packed with men who spend far too much time on their hair.  Small steps to be sure, but tolerance moves ever so slowly forward.

One of my goals on this trip was to sample a selection of more traditional dishes, especially those that pre-dated the Spanish conquest of the Americas. After a bit of searching I found a nice little place that offered a special side menu of just such dishes. I ordered everything on it.

I started with a salad of nopales, the sliced pads of the prickly pear cactus. They have a somewhat sour green flavour that is a welcomed change from more traditional greens. Next I moved to huitlacoche, better known in the English speaking world as corn smut. It’s a fungus that infects young corn plants and turns them into something from the Walking Dead. Instead of orderly lines of bright yellow kernels, the cob ends up a bulbous purple-black fungal monstrosity. It’s quite horrific, actually. In the rest of North America we’d torch the field and try growing cabbage instead, but not in Mexico. This, after all, is the country whose people drown worms in their national drink. Here the fungus is fried with oil and garlic and simply amazing. It is one of the great culinary treats.

From there the menu dipped into the more exotic. The next item translated as deep fried larva. It was never really clear to me just what sort of larva these actually were, but they had little heads, lots of little legs, and came in unfortunately vast numbers. I tried one on its own, expecting something chewy and snail like. It wasn’t. They had been deep fried to a crisp and instead it tasted a bit like a piece of popcorn with too many legs. Not good, but not horrible either. This opinion would change the more I ate. Having survived my first encounter with the larva, and remembering that the really brave ate these things alive, I decided to jump in for a proper serving. I tucked a good handful into a tortilla, added a healthy serving of salsa, and took a bite. I nearly forgot what I was eating…well, no, that’s not true at all. I never forgot that I was eating larva. With each bite I became more aware of those little legs on my tongue. I did not clean my plate.

The last item on the menu was Escamole. They call them Mexican caviar. This should have been a warning. Of all the things Mexico is known for, caviar is not one of them. Escamole are eggs, just not from fish. They’re harvest from the Liometopum ants that swarm about the roots of the Agave tequilana plant. This is the very same plant that gives the world Tequila, and likely the over consumption of tequila is the only reason anyone would have thought to collect up those eggs and eat them with a spoon. All in all, however, they’re actually not that bad. A bit nutty, with a bit of a crunch. Passable, but I’ll still stick to the real stuff.

This oddly satisfying dinner finished late and was washed down with a large ice-water before I headed back to the hotel for the night.

Food poisoning is a miserable thing.  Bent over in a foetal position I felt as though I’d eaten a brick fireplace.  I’ve had food poisoning three times in my life.  Once in Yugoslavia, long ago during the cold war, the result of bad caviar. Once in Paris after eating an unpasteurized goat cheese that spread like butter and then tried to kill me while Euro Disney’s Minnie Mouse kept trying to take a picture with me. And now this time after eating ant eggs and fried larva.  Hunched over, I vowed to stick to restaurant bread sticks from then on. In defence of Mexico City’s finest cuisine, I suspect it was the water the came with the table, not the dead little critters from the country’s Aztec past.

I did not eat again for days. On the third evening, recovered slightly, I walked by a Starbucks and nearly went in for a safe bite to eat, but was distracted by a very attractive woman in a tight black dress who was handing out flyers. I took a flyer. It was for a Zona Rosa gay bar.  I think she was missing the point.

Yes. Mexico City is changing.


Sorry about the stench

Singapore is not so much a country, as it is a high-end shopping mall with Customs officials. The food is varied, the streets are spotless, and there are rules about everything. This explains the local joke that Singapore is a fine city.

One of those many rules pertains to a fruit. The signs are everywhere on the city’s metro. You cannot eat food, smoke cigarettes, transport flammable goods, or bring aboard the hedgehog shaped fruit called durian. A fruit, banned. The very same government that boldly proclaims on their visa entry forms, in large red type, that drug traffickers will be executed, also keeps their public transit system safe from a fruit. This seemed excessive to me. (They don’t like gum either, but that’s a separate issue.) I’d heard of durian, heard it had something of an unusual flavour, but knew that it was wildly popular across East Asia with over a million tonnes of the fruit being harvest every year. It was called the King of Fruit and yet Singapore felt it necessary to ban the thing from public transit. I had to try it.

Unlike much of South East Asia, Singapore keeps its fresh Durian well hidden. Across China town I found numerous stalls selling durian puffs, durian cookies, and durian cream filled crapes, but never the real thing. Never fresh durian in its hedgehog armor.  It wasn’t until after a day wandering the old British fort at Labrador Battery, that in the sort of high-end grocery store that sells fifteen dollar peaches, I spotted a store attendant keeping guard over one particular part of the fruit section.  I had found durian.

When un-opened a durian looks like a medieval weapon. It can grow to the size of an American football, and if you get through its formidable defenses has a yellowish, brain like flesh.  The flavor, they say, is unique and wonderful, even if the smell is a bit unusual. Unfortunately what I’d found wasn’t a whole durian, but rather a half durian, cleaned and prepped in plastic wrap.  I asked the attendant how I could buy the whole fruit, assuming that would be the most flavorful version. No doubt correctly pegging me as a durian virgin, she politely advised against it. It seems the fruit is armored well enough that for the untrained, getting at the interior meat is the quickest way to lose a finger. The half durian would have to do for now. Twenty dollars later I had my half durian, encased in plastic wrap, which was then place in a plastic bag which also contained two French pastries. I headed out into Singapore’s heat. The pastries never had a chance.

Whenever I stopped walking I began to notice a sweet, meaty rot.  The first time I figured it must be garbage somewhere nearby, which was unlikely as there’s never garbage nearby in Singapore. It’s against the rules. When I began walking again the smell dissipated and I thought nothing more of it.  However after stopping again at a traffic light, the exact same smell returned and after sniffing into the bag I realized it was coming from the durian itself. It was a terrible smell, a foul odor that combined all manner of putrid stenches into one. Surely this smell wasn’t right. My durian must have gone bad in the heat. I tied the top of the plastic bag into a tight knot.  The knot had had no effect.  The stench returned every time I stopped. Singapore’s air is hot, humid, and had activated the thing like a chemical weapon.

At my hotel I hurried to the elevator—past the sign banning durian within the hotel–and swore quietly as just before the elevator doors slid shut a well-dressed man squeezed in.  Poor fool.  The durian had taken on a life of its own. I’d brought that chemical weapon into an enclosed space and could do nothing now but hope he was suffering a rare condition that left him without the sense of smell. I pressed 58. He pressed a higher number. He was trapped with me and the durian, in that enclosed space, for 58 floors. As the elevator rose he stared resolutely forward as though it was entirely normal for an elevator to smell as though there were a dead animal rotting in the ductwork. But I could tell. I could tell by the way his brow furrowed that the durian was having an effect. I imagined I could see a bead of sweat on his brow. This would be an elevator ride he would not soon forget. I was grateful once we reached my floor and I hurried quickly out. I’m sure he was as well.

Once in my room I didn’t know what to do, the stench quickly filled the entire place.  This was madness. It wasn’t even a whole durian. I’d lost any desire to try the damn thing but couldn’t very well throw it in the garbage can. What would happen tomorrow when the cleaning lady came about? I had to contain the stench, seal it off from the rest of the world. I had to be able to sleep in that room. I thought of the safe. Surely that would work. I removed the two pastries that had been in the bag with the durian, double bagged the fruit, put it in the closet safe, closed both the safe and closet doors, and then opened the sliding door onto my 58th floor balcony. I’m not a fan of heights, but had to do something. The breeze was substantial and the room’s air was rapidly cleared. With the durian finally safety contained I got a drink and fired up Google to find out if my durian had gone off. Wikipedia said, “its odor is best described as pig-shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock.” No. My durian was apparently just fine. I took a bite of my French pastry and spat it out. It was ruined. Perhaps durian is the King of Fruit, but I’m guessing the selection was hereditary.

I woke up in the middle of the night certain I could smell the durian again. Within minutes I had the safe open and the durian went out onto the balcony where it remained the rest of my stay, and may very well still be there today.

In Indonesia durian is admired as an aphrodisiac. “The durians fall and the sarongs come up,” they say. Perhaps it’s due to fainting.

Gunfire, Figs, and Missing Road signs

I’d never been to the West Bank until today. And I certainly hadn’t planned my first experience to be at night, lost, and with the massive security barrier rising up beside me. The road was unlit and curved through empty fields littered with half built structures. There were no road signs or any other indication I was even still in Israel proper. I began to worry. The dark made it very easy to believe this was the West bank of CNN, a place of rock throwing youths, suicide bombers, and brutal street battles between Palestinians and the Israeli army. And now here I was, lost and alone in an Avis rental car. I looked down at the Google map I’d printed off earlier. It showed all sorts of roads, none of which seemed to exist. Stupid, stupid Google maps. How bloody hard could it be to find a world famous hotel that was just two blocks off the main highway running through Jerusalem? Well apparently beyond my skills. I looked in my rear-view mirror. Jerusalem was well behind me now. I was getting deeper and deeper into a region even many Israelis refuse to drive. I swore in frustration. Three hours earlier I’d been presenting a Power Point deck and making jokes about choosing the wrong font. Now I was somewhere lost in the West Bank with only a Cliff Bar and Diet Coke. This was how stupid people died.

Five hours earlier in Tel Aviv my plan had seemed very simple. I would rent a car from the local Avis office, drive to Jerusalem Thursday afternoon where I would check into the American Colony hotel, and then spend Friday exploring the old city. Saturday, in daylight, I would head into the West Bank stopping at Qumran to see where the Dead Sea scrolls were found, float in the Dead Sea at Ein Gedi, and finally climb the Roman siege ramp at Masada. Aside from getting locked out of the car while the alarm blared, the plan had started off well and I had quickly left Tel Aviv behind.

The landscape around Tel Aviv is flat and unremarkable, but as you approach Jerusalem it changes dramatically and becomes the sort of place you expect to see Harrison Ford getting chased by angry Nazis.  The air becomes dry and hot. The hills are rugged and steep, some forested with conifers, and others barren save for a few dusty olive trees. Looking up, it’s hard not to imagine the armies of the Romans and Egyptians marching through and swearing about the heat.  The Israeli’s say in Tel Aviv they play, and in Jerusalem they pray. I could feel the change already. It was nearly evening and cars of orthodox Jews had begun to pull over with dusks approach to pray. And then without warning I was in the outskirts of Jerusalem. A few kilometers further and I’d be at the internationally recognized eastern border of Israel. The drive from Tel Aviv is not far at all. I understand now why Israel is so determined to keep the West Bank as a buffer.   They say a mechanized army needs space to maneuver.  Retreat much more than a few kilometers from the hills around Jerusalem and your soldiers are drinking mojitos on the beach.

Tomorrow I would explore the city. Today my only goal was to find the American Colony hotel, and with darkness approaching I wanted to do it quickly.

Jerusalem is a city that time forgot.  It’s also a city that forgot to use street signs.  Perhaps this is a defensive strategy. Given its proximity to a simmering war-zone, it really should put up some sort of indication that unless you know exactly where you are, likely where you are is not where you want to be. By the time I realized what was happening, Highway One had dropped from its full three lanes down to just one. The sun had set, I was the only car passing through a barren construction zone, and the massive concrete security barrier had risen beside me.

The barrier is almost fifty feet high in places. It snakes up and down the hills, holding back the flood of Palestinian apartments that push up against the concrete.  It really is intimidating, especially at night with razor wire glinting in the wall’s security lights. Behind the wall are the dark silhouettes of buildings in the Palestinian ghetto. I could not help but think the barrier dehumanized those on the other side. You don’t build a wall unless there’s something dangerous on the other side, right? I suppose if I’d been living in Israel earlier in the decade, when suicide bombers were slipping into Israel proper on a weekly basis, I’d have a rather different view of the wall.  It did stop the violence within Israel, of that there’s no question.  But it also turned the West Bank into a giant prison. Looking up at the wall, there was no doubt in my mind that is exactly what it was. A prison wall. Only here the prison held towns, and families, even children.  There has got to be a better way.  A local Israeli man said he didn’t think the violent acts committed by the Jewish Stern Gang before independence were radically different than what the Palestinians try to do today.  Many would disagree.  When I asked if he’d ever been to the West Bank, he said no.  Almost no one I asked had.

I pulled the car over, got out, and simply stood there for a time watching the wall. In all the windows, of all the buildings behind it, I never once saw a sign of life. I’m not sure what I expected to happen, but nothing did. The night was quiet. I got back into my car, turned around and headed back in the direction I though Jerusalem to be. I ignored the map, drove on instinct, and eventually found my way.

The American Colony Hotel is one of the most evocative hotels in the world.  It isn’t in the relative calm of West Jerusalem were most tourists stay, but rather east of the UN Demarcation line that kept the Jews and Arabs apart until the last hours of the Six Day war in 1967.  T.E. Lawrence spent his days here in the courtyard after World War I, no doubt planning to study up on how to ride motorcycles, but instead lulled into a stupor by the courtyard fountain.  Today it is the haunt of spies, journalists, and diplomats. Secret negotiations were held here before the signing of Bill Clinton’s Oslo peace accords which put an end to the first intifada in the early 90s.  There is no better accommodation in all of city to experience what Jerusalem is today.

For an unknown reason I was upgraded to the penthouse.  I did not complain. The rack rate for the room was nearly a thousand dollars a night and it was easily worth every penny, especially given that I didn’t pay most of them. I dropped my bags in the spacious room, stepped out onto the terrace, and smiled. A plate a fresh figs and dates awaited That evening I sat out on the terrace until late, listening to the sound of the waterfall in the garden below. Muezzin sang in the distance to call the faithful to prayer, the lights of the ancient city crawling up into the hills, and the sounds of gunshots echoed in the distance.  It’s an incredible place.  If I ever become so famous I need to disappear for a time, this is where I will go.  Perhaps in the morning the image I’ve built will crumble down.  I’ll see grime and chipped paint, the disparity between the Jewish and Muslim populations in the city, and realize that my penthouse terrace is part of a world that doesn’t really exist.  But for right now, I must go.  A meteor shower has begun, and it’s difficult to type while laying on the patio watching meteors streak above one of the world’s oldest cities.

War and other things

Talk of war is everywhere here in Israel.  Front page articles proclaim the military is battling against Bibi and his desire to blow stuff up, Iranian stuff mostly.  Not to be left out, the lifestyles section of Haaretz got into the act yesterday publishing the important piece, Eat, pray, eat some more; How to stomach the impending war.  “With all the talk of warfare, we mustn’t ignore one of the most vital issues we may soon face: What to eat in bomb shelters?”  Important stuff, that. Perhaps this ever present threat of war explains why the beaches here are still full and no one seems much worried about getting skin cancer.   Israelis still honk impatiently in anticipation of the green, cafes are full, and there’s canned tuna on store shelves. Daily life continues without interruption.

Having spent yesterday in the Negev, today I was going north to the Golan and Galilee. The Golan and Galilee aren’t at all the same as the Negev and might as well be in an entirely different country.  These are the breadbasket of Israel and are rich with green fields, forested hills, and a gas station attendant who sat me down with a thick black cup of coffee while we waited for my car’s tank to fill.  I really don’t like coffee, but he was an incredibly friendly man and I couldn’t refuse his offer. Sipping the coffee slowly, and contorting my tongue to avoid the flavor, I couldn’t believe how much gas the car’s tank held.  I should have rented a hybrid.

Before setting out I thought back to just how quiet the Negev desert had been. I’ve never heard such utter silence before.  This wasn’t just the silence that says, listen, I can hear crickets.  It’s as the sort of silence that make you wonder what killed all the crickets. It’s the sort of silence you’d hear after asking if Tom Cruise is gay during Scientology cocktail party.  You see where I’m going with this. The desert is quiet. Early in the morning, when the air was still, without birds, insects, or kids asking for breakfast, I had stood there and listened to the sun rise over the Negev’s Martian landscape.  Pretty amazing actually. I hoped today went as well.

After a cold breakfast, Sabbath you see, I started Saturday morning at Hamat Gader, the ancient Roman spa complex built by members of the Roman 10th Legion and considered one of the finest Baths in the ancient world.  Perhaps there are two Hamat Gaders, and I found the other one.  Modern Hamat Gader abuts Jordon and is only accessible by driving along the heavily fortified border, strung with barbed wire, multilayered fences, and minefields.  Across a steep ravine I could see the Jordanian watch towers looking across at what until the 1960s was part of Syria.  I paid the ridiculously high entrance fee comforted by the knowledge that I was about to see the second biggest Roman bath complex in the world after all. I ignored the signs for the Middle East’s largest alligator farm and got my camera ready.  I should have come for the alligators.  What little of the bath complex has been excavated is furlong and off-limits behind a rusted chain-link fence.  No one comes to see the baths, it seems.  They come to see alligators. Nearby, heavily armed paratroopers patrolled within the modern spa complex, on the watch for any Islamic terrorists who had jumped the nearby border fence and come for a mud and sulfur treatment. I didn’t stay long.

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After the disappointment of Hamat Gadar I headed north along the Golan Height’s DMZ, keeping beside the border as much as possible as I searched for the Valley of Tears.  Caught by surprise during Yom Kippur, it was there that some two hundred Israeli tanks held off five times that number of Syrian tanks which were sweeping westward across the Golan Heights.  Israel tank crews, celebrating Yom Kippur at home, had rushed to their marshaling areas as the front lines began to collapse.  There was no time for a coordinated response; as each tank had enough men, regardless if the crews even knew one another, they were sent east into the fight.  The fight was brutal. Today a few Syrian tanks remain abandoned in the valley, rusting quietly, gaping holes where Israeli shells found their mark.  It’s a rather somber place and certainly offers a more compelling narrative than Canada’s Laura Secord and her cow.

Standing alone on a ridge above the valley, I pressed play on a small speaker box and listened to the recordings of the Israeli tanks crews shouting to one another over their combat radios.  At one point only a handful of Israeli tanks were still operational. The rest were burning along the ridge.  A local named Moshe told me the story of his uncle who’d fought in that battle.  Standing exposed in his tank hatch, he’d yelled down to his driver to fire, but the driver yelled back that the couldn’t see anything to fire at, his portal was blocked.  Fire now, his uncle had yelled again.  The portal wasn’t blocked.  A Syrian tank was so close it filled the entire view.  Regardless of how you feel about Israel, the Palestinians, or the wider Arab word, it’s a somber place worthy of respect. I stood there quietly for some time before moving on.

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The remains of a Syrian tank. Doubtful it’s crew survived the strike.

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An Israel tank left as a reminder of war past in the Golan Heights.

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Israeli trenches looking out over what was once part of Syria.

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Graffiti and war.

Further north I stopped at Nimrod’s fortress which once commanded the ancient road to Damascus.  It’s massive, hot, and looks like someone picked it up and shook it to see what would happen.   Earthquakes are not subtle things.

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Before heading south back to Tel Aviv I stopped for a few hours at Banias, an ancient temple to Pan, tucked away by the side of a cliff, and overlooking a cold mountain spring.  It is everything the Negev wasn’t.  Noisy, wet, and lush.  A path follows the quickly running spring for some distance, finally ending at a rather beautiful waterfall that drops into a dark and moody pool. The air is cool and full of scent.  Along the path I stopped next to the remains of a Roman mill and ate wild figs picked from a nearby tree.  There are worse ways to spend a day.

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Camel Dung and water Bottles

In Tel Aviv the Israel’s have managed something quite remarkable for such a young city.  They’ve made it look old.  It strikes me every time I’m here.  The city itself is alive and full of energy; I can hear the beach parties going on as I type this and they’ll continue into the early morning.  Walking home from dinner at ten-thirty a few nights ago young kids hovered around ice-cream trucks, multi-generational families cooked on portable grills, and a young Hasidic man danced with traditional foot stomps and claps to techno house music coming out of portable CD-player.  A little surreal actually.  But with all that life, there’s an ever present level of decay that reminds me of southern Italy.  No one cares about the exterior, unless it’s wearing a bikini.  Must be the heat.

I have two free days this trip and want to finish exploring the bits of Israel I haven’t gotten to before.  Today that meant heading south into the Negev, a desert region that covers more than half the country’s territory, and the name of which apparently means dry.  In Antiquity, the Negev was known as the final leg of the journey of incense, brought overland by camel caravans from Arabia and then shipped out to the Mediterranean world from the port at Gaza.  What fascinates me is that the route is still visible in the form of ruined way stations and Caravanserai built by the Nabataeans, the folks who gave us Petra.  If you’re so inclined you can even walk the old route, starting at the Jordanian border, nearly dying in the blistering heat as you cross the desert, and finally getting shot at as you finish up by climbing the Gaza security fence.  I rented a car.

I left the hotel at five A.M. with hopes of avoiding the worst of the heat.  I stopped first at Shivta, one of the four major Nabataean towns that housed, cared for, and taxed the hell out of the incense caravans.  When I arrived at seven it was utterly empty, possibly due to its spot wedged between the Egyptian border and an Israel Defense Force live fire range.  It may also have been because it didn’t open until eight.  Either way the site’s staff wasn’t there yet so I missed the sign that said it was closed and wandered the streets that were lit by the golden morning light.  They say the Nabataean’s were masters of collecting and storing water.  They had to be.  It’s hard to imagine building a town in a more desolate location, at least until you visit their other sites deeper in the Negev.

Over the course of the day I stopped at Avdat, En Saharonim, and the curiously named Mamshit.  The pattern with each site was the same; functional, brutally inhospitable, and devoid of any life but that which I brought with me.  It’s a shame really; as with just a bit of imagination you can easily smell the stench of a courtyard full of snorting camels, flee infested drivers, and local prostitutes helping spread disease up and down the route for an obol or two.  But the Negev isn’t only about broken down ruins and Israeli nuclear weapons program. It’s also about the environment.

It started with En Avdat, a stunning oasis set amidst the most barren terrain imaginable.  There water flows from three separate springs and has carved out a deep canyon with horizontal lines of jet black flint breaking up the canyon’s otherwise white walls.  Within the canyon, the year-round flow supports waterfowl, turtles, and a small population of Nubian Ibex.  You’re meant to see them springing across the cliff face with utter disregard for gravity.  Instead I found them sitting under a 350 year old terebinth tree, the sort of plant from which you get turpentine.  I think the heat had gotten to them too.

Following En Avdat was Makhtesh Ramon, a massive 40 kilometer long, 10 kilometer wide hole in the ground, nearly half a kilometer deep.  The thing is immense, and although they call it a crater, it was actually formed by a rather complex series of processes that really amount to an ocean that got lifted up and dumped out.  There’s 200 million years of geology there and everywhere you look there’s something unique, from black mountains, to red rocks, and yellow hills.  And if you listened closely enough on that day you could even hear a Canadian cursing that the caravanserai which Frommer’s said was just 2000 meters off the main road, was really more like ten kilometers down a rocky path that threatened to rip apart the rental car’s suspension.  Next time I rent a 4×4. I do not like Frommer’s. Not one bit.

Amidst all of this wonder are Israel’s remaining Bedouin, the vast majority having fled, or been forcibly removed, during the war in ’48.  Now they cluster around Be’er Sheva where their mad-max like villages cling to the otherwise barren hillsides.  They are neglected, jobless, and unless I’m underestimating the value of second-hand corrugated steel building materials, dirt poor.

Tomorrow I go north.

The Rule that Governs India

It seems at times that some Indians have a remarkably low tolerance for reality if it impedes their desires. We all do it at times, but they simply do it better.  There is no better place to witness this rule than on Indian roads, where every year over 160,000 thousand people will die in traffic accidents. 160,000. That number staggers.

A few of the bigger roads have sturdy medians running down the center to keep the two sides of traffic apart. Logically this should reduce traffic accidents, eliminating head on collisions all together. It doesn’t. It causes them. Here’s why. An Indian driver that comes out of a lane and wants to cut across traffic and go the other way cannot. Instead he should do what happens in the rest of the world. He should join the traffic flow on his side, drive some distance down-road until a break in the median—which likely is there only because other local drivers have removed that part themselves—and then turn around and get into the flow going the other way. Reasonable safe and done. But that would all be terribly inconvenient and is contrary to what the Indian driver really wants to do, which is go the other way immediately, so he does, right into oncoming traffic, honking wildly because in his world, everyone else is now going the wrong way. While driving we’ve nearly hit motorcycles, buses, and auto-rickshaws all coming the wrong way because it was more convenient for drives to ignore reality. If you understand this basic rule, you understand India, or at least why you just got hit head-on by a bus. I pity the Indian urban planner who tries out one-way streets.

Honking is a problem here. Horns are used at every approach, every turn, every instance where one Indian driver is about to put their vehicle into the spot where another already is. The horn absolves the driver of guilt. I honked, why were you still in my spot? Remove the horn, and the drivers would need to be more cautious, a similar theory to remove the protective gear from football, and fewer players would get hurt. The problem is once again Indian drivers don’t allow reality to impede desire. Remove the horn and they will simply do what they do today in queues. When presented with a queue for service, an Indian will simply walk past the queue to the service desk and start explaining the service they need. When confronted about the queue they’ve just jumped, they will ask What queue? Nothing you say will convince them that a queue exists, and in fact at no point will their gaze fall onto the actual queue. It’s the see no evil theory of life. Reality will not impede desire. The rule has been applied.

I read in this morning’s Deccan Times that politicians are considering raising the fine for jumping a red light from the equivalent of 50 cents, to 5 dollars. I don’t think it will have any affect for a number of reasons beyond the application of the rule mentioned above. First, there are no police to enforce it. And second, jumping a red light requires that there are in fact working red lights to jump. The few traffic lights that do exist here seem to be strung together like a cheap set of Chinese Christmas lights. Somewhere there’s a burnt bulb, but until you find it the whole system is down.

This week I had my third driver. It’s unclear to me why they keep changing, but I’ve noticed a progressive decline in both their English and height. This one also has a second thumb, fully formed, but smaller, like a brother, or perhaps twin. It’s on his right hand. I’m finding it hard not to stare as he drives.

Although my trip to Hampi went well, booking the ticket ran into India’s legendary bureaucracy. This is a rough transcript of the conversation I had with India Railways Online site for tourists booking their train tickets.

Where do you live?

I live in Canada.

Good, you live in Canada. You’ve come to the right place. This is the site for foreign tourists booking trains while in India. What’s your phone number?

555-5555-5555

That’s not a valid phone number.

It is in Canada.

I need your Indian phone number.

I don’t have one. I live in Canada.

Yes, but what’s your Indian Phone number?

I think you’re missing something here, I live in Canada.

Fine, let’s ignore your phone number for a moment. Your postal code is wrong.

It’s Canadian.

It’s wrong.

No it’s not. It’s my Canadian Postal code.

It’s not a proper Indian one.

But I live in Canada. I’ve told you that.  You said this was the site for foreigners.

Yes, you’re right, but you still need a proper Indian postal code.  What Indian city do you live in?

After some time I managed to work through all the various issues and entered my credit card information, only to have the system respond…

    You can’t use that. It’s not an Indian credit card.

I ended up having one of my co-workers book the train for me.

When I last came to Hyderabad there was a sign on the roadside that said Work In Progress. It was still there on my way in from the airport last week, stuck in the ground next to a perennially half-finished highway overpass. All around sprawled makeshift tents built from various scraps found along the road. Inside live families surviving on less than a dollar a day. One man carved stone bowls while cars drove pass only a foot away from what served as his front door. Looking at the squalor it was difficult to spot the progress to which the sign referred, but then you weren’t meant to look too closely. Like the queue, if you chose not to look at what was actually there, then the sign was real. Driving to the airport this evening the Work In progress sign had been removed. They say recognizing the problem is the first step in recovery. Perhaps removing the sign is that very indication of progress after all. That or someone stole it to use as a roof.

Well enough of my preaching. I’ve got 24 hours of flying to do.

Hampi, the Greatest City no one ever visits

Hampi, the ancient city that once dominated Southern India, is a UNESCO world heritage site on par with Petra, but younger, nearly unknown, and where it’s easier to buy weed. Even the backpackers, the ones who missed the invention of deodorant and still know all the words to Kumbaya, rarely venture there.

Deep in the interior of Indian subcontinent, and far from the all night parties of Goa’s beach crowd, there are two main ways to get to Hampi. There’s a day long bus trip from Goa, or an overnight train from Hyderabad, an eleven hour slog through the planes of Andhra Pradesh, one of India’s largest states. Having long looked for an excuse to travel across India by train, and known of Hampi’s reputation as one of the world’s great archeological sites, I booked passage from Hyderabad.

That the Indian rail system works at all is remarkable. The statistics are staggering. Indian railways carry 25 million passengers a day, between 7,000 stations, using 9,000 engines, and employee over one and a half million people. And unlike their Chinese neighbors who are pumping in tens of billions of dollars to keep up with growing demand, India has done all of this with the same trains, tracks, and toilets they did forty years ago.

Boarding an overnight train at Hyderabad’s Deccan station dispelled any romantic notion about train travel in India. It was 11 pm on a Friday night and the station looked as though it had just been hit with a Sarin gas attack. Splayed out bodies covered the floor. Flies buzzed about the sleeping, dogs sniffed beneath exposed limbs looking for scraps, and there was an unmistakable stench of sewage wafting through the hall. Outside in the warm air I could still hear the chaos of horns and breaks as auto-rickshaws darted between beat up old cars ladened with luggage. India never sleeps. There’s isn’t room; when one shift returns home to sleep, another wakes to fill the streets.

I stepped over the prostate bodies and out onto the platform. After checking a notice board for my train, I made my way over to Platform 3 where a train of battered brown carriages idled. This was train 17004, the Kolhapur-Hyderabad BiWeekly Express. Between the masses of bodies already shoved into the ancient carriages, I caught glimpses of a few metal railed benches. I looked down at my paper ticket which gave my carriage and birth number. It didn’t look like the people inside were keeping track of that sort of thing. Was that were I was meant to sleep? Eleven hours seemed like it was going to be an awfully long time, certainly longer than it normally did.

I walked along the length of the train, looking for the right carriage. They were all full. Even the entrance staircases were now occupied by families preparing for the long trip. I was growing more concerned that I was going to be sleeping stuck halfway out a train, and if my wife back in Canada didn’t kill me, a telegraph post surely would. Finally, near the front, I found the correct carriage, 2AC, 2-tier sleeper, air conditioned. It was better than the others I had passed, but not by much. With some relief, my name was on the passenger list pasted to the side. I found lower birth 37 where I stuffed myself in amongst the others getting ready for the long night ahead.

I’d like to say the birth was Spartan but clean. It was certainly Spartan. 2nd class coaches carry about 50 passengers, half as many as the standard sleepers I’d been walking past. Births are broken into 2-tier open bays of six with two births against one side, and four vertically against the other. Dingy yellow windows, caked with decades’ old grime, obscure the night. Metal bars beneath the bottom bunks are used to chain down luggage against theft while the bag’s owner sleeps. The only modern convenience was a single wall plug for cell phone charging.

As I settle down onto my little bunk a train worker came through and dropped off freshly laundered blankets and small stiff pillows. Compared to the poor sods in the rest of the train who were going to spend the next eleven hours in various twisted states, this was luxury. I am sure now Yoga with its pretzel like contortions is merely practice for Indian train travel. With a lurch we were moving.

Throughout the night, twenty times in all, train 17004 pulled into dimly lit country stations for only a few minutes, just long enough for a quick exchange of passengers, one weary group shoving off, and another weary group shoving on. We passed through forgettable places like Malkhaid Road, Raichur, and Nawandgi, places so far off the beaten track that even Lonely Planet didn’t make an attempt at description.

The train greeted morning at Guntakal Junction where the routine changed. After a long night passengers were hungry. As the train idled at the station, local hawkers pushed through the crowded isles shouting out omelette, omelette, omelette, or dosa, dosa, chi-tea, chi-tea. Each one had his own goods carried in-hand, and the pace was rapid. The business man across from me called out “babu”, stopping the idli seller
who handed over a package of spongy white rice idli wrapped in old newsprint. Yellow chutney came in a small baggy. As long as you didn’t mind eat something with the mirror image of a recent newspaper headline transferred onto its underside, there was ample selection to go around.

As we pulled out of Guntakal half an hour later, word in the local papers was that a huge bomb has just been defused in a sleeper car in the northern state of Assam. Its five kilos of explosives would have killed hundreds.

The landscape around Hampi is semi-arid. The monsoons had begun, plunging the 40 degree days of India’s hottest months (April/May) into the relative cool 30s of the summer. But this year in the interior only the monsoon winds had come, and very little rain had followed. We crossed dry riverbeds and sunbaked fields. And everywhere there were people, slowly leading cattle in search of scrub, hoeing their small fields with hand tools unchanged for a thousand years, or just standing by the rails watching the trains go by. Each year Indian trains kills over 15,000 people, mostly caught trying to cross tracks at the wrong time. Looking through the grimy window, I wished the ones I was seeing would stand a little further back.

Within the hour we’d arrived at Hospet where I disembarked, having barely slept, but thoroughly enjoying the experience. Hospet is a moderate sized market town where broken down vehicles litter the roadside, children play naked in the streets, and women pound their washing in the thick brown sludge that passes for a stream.   Christ could have walked on water here. Nearly anyone can. Hospet has all the charm of Cholera.  But it also has mango brought in from the local fields. I had breakfast at a stall selling a wonderful array of ripe mango which was laid out on a mat between a man selling second-hand tires, and a pile of smoldering refuse.

From Hospet I needed to catch a ride 14 kilometers north to Hampi, the smaller, dustier village built amidst the five hundred year old ruins of what was then called Kannada, the wealthy Vijayanagara Empire’s former capital.

Like Petra in Jordon, Hampi was a once fabulously rich city. By the 16th century Hampi was reputedly the second most populous city on Earth trailing only Beijing at the time.  A hundred years later Muslim armies swept down from the north leaving a pillaged carcass to rot in the brutal Indian sun.  The city was never occupied again.  What’s left is a landscape of ancient walls snaking about the landscape, ruined temples scattered amongst spectacular rock formations, and an odd little mammal that looks like a hybrid between a chipmunk and an iguana.  It’s called a Palm Squirrel, and according to Hindu legend was instrumental in constructed a bridge for Lord Rama.  Relying on tree squirrels to build bridges might explain an awful lot about India’s train infrastructure.

The ruins of Hampi are divided into two vast areas, and each took a full day to explore.

The first is called Hampi Bazaar. It’s an area of rustic storefronts—focus on the word rustic—youth hostels, and a moped rental shop that also sell warm Orange Fanta from chipped bottles. The main street runs parallel to the Tungabhadra River. The towering Virupasksha Temple dominates one end, and the ancient Bazaar, used now mostly as the local cricket green for village kids, the other.  During the sultry afternoon hours, when movement became oppressive, I lounged along the riverbank and watched villagers pan for silver.  A local MBA student told me the villagers’ ancestors panned for silver, and now they do as well.  It doesn’t matter that the silver is gone. It’s all they know to do.  Nearby people swam beneath a large skull and crossbones which warned against swimming.  I do not believe Hindi has a phrase for “public safety.”

In the temples just past the Bazaar, when I looked closely at the ancient Hindu rock carvings I started to notice the characters doing things they shouldn’t be, at least not in public, and not without a significant supply of penicillin on hand.  Men, women, and various animals were busy doing the sorts of things that end a politician’s career.  Hampi is famous for these pornographic carvings which adorn many of the temple columns. I realized rather quickly that we haven’t invented anything new in this area for a very long time.

The second area is the Royal Enclosure a few kilometers over boulder strewn hills. It is the site of the royal places, baths, and proof that despite a highly educated middle class that does a great number of things well, signage isn’t one of them.  At one point I stood by the side of a road, staring at a rare overview map which had a You Are Here circle in the middle of a giant field in which I was obviously not standing.

Unfortunately I’d started a cold two days earlier, and by the second day my body temperature was rising dangerously. Under the blistering sun I withered.  It was all I could do to trudge one foot in front another as I made my way down dusty paths.  After a time temples and palaces began to blur into one another, but make no mistake, the site is spectacular. World class. From the massive Elephant stables to the underground Temple of Shiva the Destroyer where bats hang from the subterranean ceilings, it’s a shame so few people will ever make the effort to see Hampi, but it’s better for those who do. There’s something rather evocative about standing alone in a vast windswept field of ruins.  Evocative, until you realize you’re parched, near death, and the boy whose shimmering visage is coming over the horizon, the boy whose is going to bring you water, is a young boy who just wants to sell you a postcard.  I bought four.  He tracked me down a little while later and gave me a fifth for free.  I suspect he felt badly.  When he’d started the negotiations at the ridiculously high price of 20 rupees each, I had confused him and said yes.

If I had one complaint, it is the sparsity of facilities at Hampi. There are two lackluster one-room museums, a few local vendors scattered about selling drinks, and a large water tank from which you can fill your own bottle. Otherwise you’re pretty much left to your own devices to wander across the vast site while looking for a bathroom.

By the evening of the second day, even though I’d spent two days hiking through Hampi, I still felt I hadn’t given it the time it deserved. There were still temples I hadn’t visited, and areas I hadn’t set down and contemplated long enough. The Indians I met were friendly to a fault, and I had only begun to scratch the surface of the local history. These were the thoughts I was mulling back at the train station in Hostpet, at least until the monkeys attacked. They were langurs, crafty little creatures that climbed up into the rafters of the station and had a go at stealing passengers’ food while they looked the other way.  I could see the langurs little faces peeking out from between corrugate ceiling paneling as they sought out new victims.  Kids thought it’s great, hooting at the monkeys.  Parents threw boxes at the monkeys and then fell into arguments with other passengers when the boxes bounce off recently vacated perches and landed on people trying to sleep on the floor below.

Visit Hampi. Take plenty of water, sunscreen, and time. But visit.