Friday, June 27, 2003

Wetsuit Sans Seadoo

My hair hasn't been fully dry since last Tuesday. And my calves haven't been pain-free since the day after that. That was the day we went snorkelling the first time, slapping our fins against the turquoise Malaysian water, attracting the intense sun to my fleshy, white, Canadian legs. Snorkelling wasn't enough though, so we took a 4-day course in SCUBA diving, (or The Underwater World, intones the PADI, or Professional Association of Diving Instructors, corporate video, hiding no sense of wonder,) and now we're certified Open Water Divers.

"The only frontier left for us: space," I inform him.

We've now had four dives, officallly logged, in the South China Sea off Tioman Island, considered one of the world's best spots to dive. I can't tell you how much coral and can't possibly list the varieties of tropical fish I've seen in the 28-degree Celsius waters, mostly because I can identify neither flora nor fauna of any sort. I can tell you that breathing with a regulator underwater has become second-nature, (after some sound, initial terror) but I still run emergency scenarios through my mind throughout the day:

MAKE THROAT SLASH MOTION TO BUDDY, SIGNALLING "OUT OF AIR." TAKE HIS ALTERNATE AIR SOURCE. PURGE, BREATHE, CALM.
FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, DO NOT PANIC.
(But relax, says the PADI textbook, diving should be fun.)

The introduction to The Underwater World is likely the culprit behind the dreams I'm having --ship capers involving villains, plunging off the bow, and Kate Winslet. My main concern, though, is what I look like all geared up. "How do I look in my wetsuit?" I ask. "You look hot," he replies smartly, without missing a beat. And he looks cool, zipper up the leg to the chin, hair tousled.

Meet people, go places, do things, we recite, zombie-like, from the text. We remain unconvinced PADI is not a cult.

When we're not snorkelling or diving, we're lounging or eating: fresh garlic butter prawns, grilled squid, bbq stingray (also spotted underwater, and delicious) red snapper with chili sauce. Breakfasts are standard, but the fresh orange or watermelon juice, put in a blender until frothy and served with big chunks of ice in a parfait cup, are the best I've tasted.

The island is green and lush and plump with flowers and fruit. Ocassionally, you'll hear the crackling of fronds and then a dull thud as a coconut falls from a palm and hits the sand. Strolling anywhere, you hear the Malays call out hello in a sing-song and smile. At sunset, you go for a swim or swing in a hammock with a book. At dusk or just after, you hit a restaurant on the beach and watch the shrieking fruit bats in the trees, or the little kids, tooling around on their bikes, clad in pajamas and ready for bed. Crumbs of banana cake popped into mouths, we make our way back to our cabin right on the beachfront, turn on the fan to circulate the humid air and crawl under the green mosquito net strung from the ceiling.

"Good night, scuba," I say.
"Good night, my little aqua-naut," he replies.

And we dream of the underwater world.
6:26:00 AM

Yes, the Beatles came here

Rishikesh was just the ticket for our final Indian destination before heading off on the second leg of our trip: it was easy.

After spending a night in Shimla, paying outrageous amounts for bad-value rooms, jostling among the throng of Indian tourists wanting photos with us, being sick in a town without water for a night, Rishikesh was perfect. We found a cheap room right away and it was cool and the proprietor was friendly and we had our own bathroom, with water. And Rishikesh is the place I found my yoga pants. Light as a feather, in my favorite clothes color (black), and hanging well, they tend to elicit "those are great pants" remarks from others and make me stop Cam in the middle of the street to tell him how much I love my new pants, and him, of course.
I even had a chance to do some yoga in them. About seven of us turned up for the early-morning classes two days in a row, here in the world's capital for the practice. We followed along with our young Indian teacher, stretching "slowly, slowly" as his eyes rolled up under his lids, showing only the whites. Clad in an orange t-shirt emblazoned with OM in Hindi, he urged us to join him as he chanted in a higher pitch than I was expecting. The girl next to me with the celtic knot tattoo didn't, but I did, trying to harmonize. A regular yogic Sylvia Tyson.

We've been extremely lazy here; we spend our days eating brunch, then dinner. And it seems you go out in search of incense one day and you burn all the time in between. Cam is in search of the perfect grilled cheese. I usually order one, he covets it and we return to the same restaurant so he can order it the next morning. We've abandoned all efforts to eat indigenous; it's full-on Italian for us here. I've had delicious pasta and we've both enjoyed pizza, although Cam is certain he spotted a boy through the window carrying a take-out bag suspicously-shaped like a pizza into the kitchen's back entrance. "They farmed it out," he said, incredulously. It wasn't unlikely: we eat two meals a day, so we're hungry for that second one pretty early, while the rest of the civilized world eats at 8. It appears the kitchen staff isn't on duty until at least 7 o'clock. Which is probably why they kept asking me if my pizza was good--I bet they pulled Joe the Sweeper Boy in off the street to make the pie; the real chef wasn't on for an hour or more.

We spent the rest of our time here watching a new species of monkeys on the tree-canopied path leading to the mad part of Rishikesh; crossing back and forth over the Ganges on suspension bridges; watching the Sadhus in their colorful robes line each side of the walk, one with a prosthetic detached and placed beside him (an image I silently titled A Man and his Leg.)

The last night here I took some photos on the river Ganges. Hordes come here to bathe, with the men and boys wading in fully, stripped to shorts and splashing. The older gents dip up and down repeatedly. The women are on the periphery and scoop water gently onto themselves; only the occasional one will immerse herself fully clothed. Crowds gather on the ghat steps and sing songs; they buy small offerings of marigolds, incense and tea lights placed in little round pie plates and float them onto the river. Little flickering lights in the dusk.
5:28:00 AM

Thursday, June 12, 2003

On the Precipice

Whoever thought I'd come all the way to an exotic place like India and dine on four exquisitely boiled potatoes? (Add salt to taste.)

It may have been one of my most enjoyable meals yet. (Add a lot of salt.) They were even better than the package of biscuits the night before. I'd been feeling nauseous, unsure whether the cause was the altitude, at 3500 metres, or the antibiotics. I had been taking the pills in efforts to rid myself of that most common of ailments of the delicate Western bowel. The pills weren't working. Unless, of course, they were designed to make one feel utterly gastric and hopeless. So the boiled potatoes were just what the doctor ordered, if not for the delicate Western bowel, then for the delicate, nauseous Western stomach. The Lariam, however, while ordered by the doctor himself, did not fit the bill. The strong malaria preventative was disrupting my sleep. I usually have bad dreams, but they don't generally wake me up at night. I was now having dreams stemming from the invasive tactics of our last hotelier. For a girl who likes privacy of turf, I'd found he had simply been around too much, coming into the room unannounced, siring children who liked to lock our doors from the outside, etc. But what woke me one night was not nagging dreams, but the sound of the rodents. We never did see them, so were unsure whether to refer to them as rats or mice, ( I favored mice) but all the guests heard them. At a distance, listening to them rustling about in the attic overhead was tolerable, but it was when I could hear them scrambling in the dark of my own room that I reached the nadir of the trip, here in the Himalayan summits. My whimpering gave way to some terrified yelling. Cam woke up and turned on the lights, didn't see rats, soothed me and stopped my crying . I was sleep-starved, nauseous, hungry, grubby, smacked out on Lariam, and diorrhea-prone. Things could only look up.

Believe it or not, while my interior wasn't at its peak, the surrounds were spectacular. It's been our favorite place in India. The village is surrounded by mountains, adjacent to a mean river, a lot of trees and farmland. I can hear my sister now, as she'll look at my photos some day and ask, "Why did you go all the way to India to take pictures of what looks like British Columbia?" Answer: BC doesn't have yaks, complete quiet, horses carrying ammo for the Indo-Tibetan border patrol, friendly villagers in regional dress of grey woolen hats with jaunty green felt flaps. And you can't vacation there on five dollars a day.

It's a good thing we enjoyed it so much because it was a bitch to get there. We bussed it down from McLeod Ganj, taking an overnight stop in Shimla after ten hours, then getting up in the morning and doing another ten-hour run. We've somehow relegated ourselves to the public buses, rather than the chartered tourist coaches, and as such, cover relatively small distances in disturbingly large chunks of time. It's the worst of both worlds: covering about 30 kilometres every hour and driving like madmen. How, you ask? Steep climbs and many, many stops. The scheduled stops are designed to take on more passengers and generate more money. The unscheduled stops, of which we've had four in the last four trips, are of the bus has broken down or gotten a flat and we'll all stand around for an hour-and-a-half while it's repaired variety, and can only be designed to generate great frustration. The delays have run the gamut: kid decides to deposit his partially-digested lunch on the seat; goats are in need of herding; roads need ad-hoc paving without need for organized supervision; rockslides.

Once we reached our remote location, I wondered what my mother would be most horrified to learn: that the bus rides took place at ridiculous speeds on rutty, one-lane roads cut into the sides of mountains, thousands of feet up, where all corners are blind and involved backing up on narrow precipes to find common ground to let another bus or one of many gravel trucks by after near head-on collisions; or that we were forced to deliberately stick an electrical device into a bucket of water in the usual way of getting hot water, or that I had to receive medical care in the third world, er, a developing nation.

Health care is not a private affair in this country; matters seemingly confidential are not the domain of just patient and doctor. Cam and I arrived at the clinic just before it opened for the day, so we were sent into a room to wait for the doctor. The open door was ostensibly an invitation to my fellow patients to slowly walk by and gawk. And then when the doctor showed, and he and I discussed my symptoms, the entire room crowded just inside the door, and rushed his desk after he wrote out my prescription. ("They may not be USDA-approved, but they work just fine in India.") It was filled by laughing women who recognized the treatment for that common Western bowel ailment, and who laughed and waved away payment when they saw me clutching a 100-Rupee note: payment was one-quarter of one Rupee--less than one cent Canadian.

And who said I needed health insurance?
7:48:00 AM

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