September 25, 2006

The return of skinny pants

I should be finishing posts about India, or writing about my friend Alli's marriage this weekend to a wonderful guy named Chris -- but I've been neglecting an important topic now for more than a month.

It's skinny pants, and their sad return to fashion.

In a look most recently reminiscent of the 1980s -- a decade of fashion that really ought not be reincarnated -- women have been marching down runways, popping off magazine pages and dancing on my TV screen this fall in pants that hug the hips, the butt and, yes, the ankles.

Who decided this look should come back? In what anorexic corner of fashion did someone get the bright idea to give young American women one more thing to feel self-conscious about?

I wanted to write about this before I left San Francisco, after I passed a window display one evening for the skinny pant. The word "skinny" itself is bad enough when associated with fashion. But retailers such as Nordstrom are making its use even worse, by adding statements including "the ultra-lean silhouette is red hot for fall" to advertising. (Let us not even get started about the concept of cigarette leg jeans.)

Ultra-lean? So "lean" -- containing little or no fat, according to Merriam-Webster -- isn't good enough any more? What would I have to do to be ultra-lean? And does this mean my ultra-curvy silhouette is totally out?

That's hardly news, of course. In my lifetime, my shorter, stockier body type has never been very fashionable. Neither are my freakishly large calf muscles, born of muscular genes a tendency to walk on my toes. Even straight-leg pants look too tight on me.

But even women who comfortably wear a size 6 -- and walked on both heel and toe from a wee age -- look silly in skinny pants. And many with any curves at all look even worse. I was just reminded of this as I watched the usually fashionable Nelly Furtado dance about on Live with Regis and Kelly. Today, Furtado wore blue skinny pants -- and her hips have never looked fatter.

Is there anyone that skinny pants do flatter?

Someone, please, put us out of this misery, and let skinny pants die a final, unresurrectable death. I'll put up with halter tops, stilettos and mini skirts, but the skinny pant takes it too far.

For spring, maybe fashion moguls could do something nice and bring back, say, the boatneck top, or penny loafers, minus platform heels.

September 19, 2006

An interlude

Please, please check out this darling picture from the monsoons.

Conclusion: Mouse riding on a frog, cute. Mouse riding on a train, not cute. More to come.

Where I left off: Agra

IN the midst of my rants about poverty and India, I promised to tell the happy side of our visit to Agra -- seeing the Taj Mahal -- so here goes.

We left Delhi on the Bhopal Shatabdi, said to be the fastest of India's express trains -- India Shining, as Vivek put it. We left on time, at 6:15 a.m., and traveled at speeds of up 151 kilometers per hour, or about 93 miles per hour, reaching Agra a few minutes ahead of our scheduled 8:15 a.m. arrival. We saw the poverty I wrote about earlier along the way, but the Shatabdi was a reminder that at least part of India is moving toward modernity.

On the platform at the station, I let Vivek do the talking to hire a car and guide for us for the day. (Very few people spoke English in the north, though our guides, of course, always did.) The tiny AC'd vehicle we found gave us a place to stash our bag during the day and our guide accompanied us to both the Taj and Agra Fort. Total cost: $40.

Getting into the Taj was more of a process than I had anticipated. Photos of the building tend to make it appear smack in the middle of the dessert, with nothing around it. But a red brick wall actually surrounds not only the Taj but also its gardens and surrounding buildings, with metal detectors and security guards at every gate. And despite the fact that we already had checked all offending electronics (cell phones, iPod, etc.) outside the complex, getting in took two tries each for Vivek and me. First, my admittedly large purse was flagged as too big. Then, the guard vetting Vivek discovered his Illinois ID card, which is more recent than his Indian driver's license, and forced him to exit the line and buy a "foreigner" ticket (750 rupees, or $15--the price I had to pay) instead of his Indian ticket (which cost only 20 rupees, or about 50 cents).

Inside, our guide rambled off facts immediately about how, why and when the Taj Mahal was built. I'll spare you the details, except to say that Emperor Shah Jahan commissioned the structure as a monument to his wife, who died after giving birth to her 14th child. This rather colossal display of affection has given rise, I'm sure, to many jokes over the years, including this T-shirt I saw at a Shoppers' Stop in Bombay.

I'm really not sure if I retained much of our guide's lessons. As soon as I saw one of the minarets peaking up above the main gate, I just wanted to soak it all in. Despite the soaring temperatures, I nearly got goosebumbs.

The building actually was smaller than I had expected, but much more beautiful. It's flanked on either side by two red buildings -- one a mosque, one a guesthouse built to match the mosque and preserve the Taj Mahal's symmetry -- that give the building a nice contrast. The architecture of those two buildings was almost as pretty as the Taj, so that every time I came around a corner and saw one of those buildings, I got overwhelmed all over again.

One thing that I'd never noticed from photos of the Taj is how intricate its details are. Set into the white marble are flowers made of jade, jasper, malachite and onyx, according to our guide. The stones are shaped to fill the flower patterns and then set with a special paste. I know all of this because we went to a marble shop after our tour (one of those infamous "Part Twos") of a company that purports to work on maintenance and restoration at the Taj eight months of the year. There we met the smoothest salesman ever, who kept stressing that he didn't want us to buy anything -- just see how beautiful the work was. He did have beautiful, beautiful pieces for sale, though most were out of my reach. In the end, for the sake of souvenir, I bought a small marble tile for my mother and a tiny marble elephant for me, inlaid with four of the stones used at the Taj.

After three grueling hours in the sun at the Taj, probably another at the marble shop and about an hour at Agra Fort, Vivek and I were ready to call it quits for the day. We scarfed down dosas at Udupi Inn, then headed back to the station where we cleaned up for our train ride that night to Jaipur.

September 16, 2006

Hello from Seoul!

Today's blog post comes to you via Seoul's Incheon airport, where I am just about a half hour from boarding my flight to San Francisco en route home (hey Waynesboro folks -- that's a few days early, if anyone's counting. Tea, anyone? Lindy's? Twin Kiss?). I've got a nine-hour stopover there before boarding a flight to Baltimore Saturday evening. It's quite a lot of traveling, but the alone time -- back in the developed world, to boot -- isn't unwelcome.

I've been writing this week, but my thoughts are all a-jumble. And I want to keep my posts in somewhat chronological order, so I'll keep tinkering with them and post after I get home to Pennsylvania this week.

In the meantime, I've posted some new photos on my flickr page. You can check out the photos now and get the stories in the days to come.


September 11, 2006

Quick update

LOCATION: Bombay (Thane)
TIME:7:05 a.m. local, Tuesday

My many apologies for the long absence from the blog. Keeping up with posts just took a back seat to sightseeing, sleeping and, in Goa, relaxing on the beach.

I've put up two posts I a week ago in Jaipur, but as a quick update: We arrived back in Bombay Friday afternoon. Vivek started a week of work from his company's Bombay office yesterday, and I've been shuttling between here and downtown to see him and do some shopping. I've opted to spend a bit more time in Bombay this week before I head home, instead of venturing south to Kerala as originally planned.

We're off now for some sightseeing. Adios!

Shopping in India: the Madness

TIME: 7:50 p.m., Sept. 4

Before I begin tonight's update, I'd like to take just a moment to talk about shopping in India.

As I dreamed about this trip over the past several months, I practically drooled over photographs of Jaipur's markets. I imagined myself strolling past mounds of fruits and vegetables, sipping a cup of chai, slowly browsing through the goods: beautifully beaded and ornamented skirts, hand-dyed kurtas and wooden, sculpted elephants.

Not a chance that ever actually happens here. As soon as I step anywhere near a street vendor, he or she starts calling, “Madam! Madam! Just 500 rupees!” Today, one vendor even yelled at us through the gate at Jantar Mantar, the garden full of astrological instruments in old Jaipur. "Hats, madam!"

Really, though, the vendors that yell from a distance are becoming my favorites. I don't even have to look up or answer them. The worst ones are the ones who shamelessly get in my face and walk along with me as I try to get down the street. The farther we walk, the better the deal gets – and no matter how uninterested I am, no matter how many times I say, “No,” they stay with me.

Stores, too, are generally not enjoyable here. I'm a browser. I like to see what's available and make an informed decision, carefully balancing price against value. Never did I realize I did these things, however, until I found a salesman or saleswoman standing between me and the goods, steering me toward this pair of pants or that set of frames for my lenses. I went shopping today for a camera (after my much prized digicam fell victim to the heat and sunlight), and I literally had to ask the price of every Canon camera in the shop to figure out which one I wanted, since they were all behind the counter. As I would inquire, the salesman would pull each one down from the shelf and put it on a velvet mat on the counter – a highly unnecessary move.

At the same complex, I made the mistake of attempting to take a look around a textiles shop. As soon as I entered the clerk when into another room to retrieve someone I can only guess was the owner, who then stood watch, asking Vivek if I was “looking for anything in particular.”

To add icing to this bitter cake, nearly everyone here works on commission. So even the tourguides we've hired at spots like Amber Fort add a “Part Two” to whatever tour they're giving, during which they take us to a shop or shops where everything will be not only authentic but also half the price of anywhere else. It's all nonsense.

I just want to shop! Can't they just let me be? It's especially frustrating in places like Jaipur, one of the country's textiles capitals, where I would have loved just to walk through the market and admire the goods, ask about how they are made and, yes, make a few purchases. After a long day of sightseeing and camera trouble, however, I just didn't have the energy to do battle. I'll visit a select handful of shops in Bombay when we return there, or bargain my way down Colaba Causeway with a native Mumbai-ite who can make sure I'm not getting ripped off.

That small rant, I do believe, has become this evening's dispatch. We'll be off soon to find dinner and then catch our 11:10 p.m. train for Delhi, where we'll fly out in the morning for Goa.

Poverty in India

TIME: About 9 a.m. local, Sept. 4

I've just awoken in the rather dusty guest house we're staying in at Jaipur. My throat is scratchy, both from my sleep and from the train ride last night. Note to self: lozenges on next trip that includes train travel.

Our train last night was late, by two hours – and that, coupled with the fact that my digital camera appears broken, have put me in a decently foul mood. There's really no place here to have my camera fixed, though I plan to try anyway.

Ah, tea with ginger and biscuits. My mood is improving.

Sunday was a day of absolute beauty and horrible ugliness. The Taj Mahal was stunning, and I wish I'd taken some time to write about it before last night's fitful train ride from Agra to here. In a way that is sort of fitting, photos just don't do it justice – though I do feel like I got a few good snaps. It's just an incredibly vibrant building. The detailing is phenomenal, and it really pops out as you get closer to the structure. It really was just overwhelmingly beautiful. Anyway – maybe more about it later.

The poverty on the way to Agra, however, also was overwhelming, and all the kids selling junk around the tourist attractions are starting to get to me. In San Francisco, I saw poverty in adults living on the street at night. Right or wrong, I've always felt that there is enough help in America for an adult who really wants to get themselves off the streets, and that handing out money just isn't the answer. I've also spent enough time with the homeless to know that there are generally plenty of soup kitchens and other organizations to ensure that they get a good meal.

Many of the kids here, however, are incredibly malnourished. Even the ones that have a roof over their heads at night – and it should be noted that the word “roof” is being used pretty loosely here – are filthy. Slums line the train tracks on the outskirts of both Delhi and Agra, with the people who live there just staring at the train as it goes by. The scene was so jarring that I couldn't bring myself to photograph it, though shots of it might be good for the rest of the world – and I've now got a newfound respect for the journalists who take assignments on poverty in the developing world.

The worst moment for me, though – well, series of moments – was a kid named Sanjay who tried to sell me bangles on the way to and from and Taj Mahal. In hindsight, I wish to heaven I'd just bought him a meal. He spoke English quite well, and he was not a bad salesman, for all of his eight or so years. But at the time, with five or six kids behind Sanjay who also wanted money, all I could think was that I couldn't give him any – and our guide and Vivek said the same. Poverty is an endemic problem here, and I know in my sanest of minds that giving money to these kids isn't going to help solve it. But it's hard keep remembering that.

I also wish I'd have taken time to sit and talk to him a bit. It's hard to break the constant refrain of, “No, thank you,” and “Ji nahin” that I've been uttering to the vendors who've targeted me since I landed here. But hearing what Sanjay had to say, while probably not very uplifting, might have helped me, I think.

All in all, the experience with poverty in India has made me realize how rich Americans really are. We take for granted our standards of cleanliness, basic “necessities” such as a bed with linens and curtains for our windows. We expect plumbing that not only works but works well, electricity that doesn't cut out and, for heaven's sake, clean water. I've come to learn here that these are luxuries, and I won't soon take them for granted again.

September 2, 2006

Taj Mahal in 12 hours!

Well, something like that, anyway. It's quite late here, and I'm going to sleep to rest up for our train ride to Agra, where we'll probably wait in a very long, hot line to see the Taj. But ah well.

Posting probably will be iffy in the next few days, with the number of train rides and flights and stops. Check in Wednesday or so for more news, once we've reached Goa.

September 1, 2006

Part II, Chapter 2

My manage apologies, all. Friday was busier than expected and I encountered technical difficulties on arriving in Delhi. Here's the latest, however. Look for photos sometime later on today, maybe.

THURSDAY (continued)

Thursday already had been a busy day – seeing Haji Ali while Vivek did his visa interview, visiting his old apartment colony, walking along Marine Drive and shopping for clothes.

To finish the day, I had asked to see Ganesh in Laulbaug, a neighborhood in Bombay that traditionally has the biggest idol for the festival. This sounded to me like a pretty easy thing to do. We'd seen dozens of lean-to Ganesh temples along the streets, and I was usually able to catch a glimpse of the statues within from the street.

Little did I know that the Hindi conversation in the car that followed my request – relayed by Vivek to his parents – was our driver warning us that the big Ganesh temple would be very crowded. I should have taken a hint, too, when Uncle opted to stay in the car with the driver while we ventured out.

It wasn't until we were asked to cross several barricades and circle and an apartment building in order to queue up for Ganesh that I knew we were in trouble. Signs of confusion abounded inside the outer realms of the “temple” – really more like a fair at a tent, with tons of bunting everywhere. It looked as if several lines were moving toward the big idol, which rested on a stage.

After our trek around the building, we joined a queue that showed few signs of moving. There were hundreds of people inside the temple. Some were with us in our line. Others were standing on temporary stairs and a temporary ramp leading to the stage, waiting to go in. Still others were exiting the stage, walking along the same stairs and ramp in the opposite direction.

As we neared the front, I started to relax. Bad idea, since that's when the shoving began. The longer the wait, the more the people behind us pushed forward. I turned around once to see a woman pulling a child from somewhere behind her and pushing her right behind me. We talked about leaving, but I'd caught sight of a Ganesh arm through the stage doors and he was huge. I'd come this far, and even though I wouldn't probably have withstood all the pushing to see a good rock concert, I decided to wait it out.

Besides, Aunty was showing immense patience. So I decided to try.

For all our waiting, we only got 15 or 20 seconds in full view of Ganesh. I tried to snap two photos (even that's not quite PC) and Vivek snapped another. But all came out blurry. I can confirm, however, that this idol was huge – probably 15 or 18 feet, and of course wide as well, with his classic paunch.

We returned home all very sleepy. I showered immediately, then had a snack of vegetable-filled croissant. I also did some laundry and looked at sites I'd like to see in Delhi, then finally grew quite sleepy, around 11 p.m.


Today was fairly routine. I slept late, after yesterday's excitement, then headed with Vivek back to Mulund, the self-appointed Prince of Suburbs, to do some shopping for our trip. We actually accomplished few of our goals – I couldn't change my traveler's cheques at the travel office, which didn't have any cash, and Vivek couldn't find any swimming trunks anywhere. But I may several excellent clothing purchases, including a swimming suit, $10 (!), several t-shirts for our trip, a sleeveless wraparound kurta with gold edging and a nice top to add to my business casual attire. I've bought a good many clothes here, which I hadn't planned to do – but at the prices I've found, I can't pass them up. Go FabIndia!

As I write this, we're on the plane to Delhi, where we'll land in about an hour. (In true form, Vivek's sleeping in the seat beside me. The boy can nod off anywhere. It's amazing.) I should be able to post this when we get there, to Vivek's friend Shaleen's house. We'll spent Saturday and Saturday night in Delhi and leave early Sunday morning by train for Agra to see the Taj Mahal. We'll then head to Jaipur by train Sunday evening and spend Monday there, taking an overnight train back to Delhi to catch our flight to Goa – the beach! – Tuesday morning. We'll have two nights there before returning to Bombay Thursday evening.


I've been making mostly chronological posts the past few days (there's so much to see!) and haven't spent much time talking about what it feels like to be here. To start with, it's hot. I've found that less oppressive, however, as my jet lag's worn off. It took me a full four days to be rid of the dizziness of traveling through 12 time zones, but I'm happy to report I'm quite myself again.

As most of my guidebooks warned, I've been getting more than a few stares from the locals, mostly men. But I've found that a quick smile usually cuts off the stare. The more friendly men smile back; the others either continue to stare or just look away. At at the aarti Wednesday evening, a girl in front of me just kept staring up at me. She must have been only five or six years old, but it was still fairly strange. The smile approach did not work with her.

In other cultural points, I'm happy to report that I've found a lot of middle class similarities in recent days between American and India. Yesterday at her favorite Bombay shop, Aunty found a table cloth, with much relief, that will suit her “hard-to-fit” dining table. (Sound familiar, Mom and Grandma?) And after that quite busy, Uncle fell asleep on the couch while he watched TV with Aunty and Mani. Cell phone plans apparently suck the world over – it's going to cost me three rupees a minute to make calls from Delhi-Agra-Jaipur-Goa, even though I'll still be within India. And technology spam is universal. I've received a text almost everyday this week on my prepaid cell phone telling me that, in honor of Ganesh Chaturthi, I could win a free Honda. (Well golly gee!)

We've just been told that our flight is 20th in line to land in Delhi, so it looks like we'll be spending a bit more time in the air than expected (ah, Indian planning). I think I'll sign off and join Vivek for some shut-eye. Keep in touch, everyone!


I've just woken up from my first night of sleep in an airconditioned room since I arrived in India -- quite nice. The household dog, Brownie, nudged me awake at 8 a.m. Not a bad way to wake up. Now off for some poha and sightseeing.