How about some travel writing: Jaipur, India

Some travel writing by me. Re-posted from

Tours, textiles, and tender flesh

Feb 10, 2019

We left Agra by air conditioned bus in the morning, reaching Jaipur roughly 5 hours later. We checked in to the easy-to-remember Jaipur Inn, a family-run hotel with a rooftop patio that feels safe and homey. Our first order of business was to stock the mini fridge (such luxury!) in the room. With some brief instructions, we forged a path to the liquor store – or, more accurately, alcohol stall – and bought a number of large Kingfisher Premiums. Kingfisher is an Indian beer that tastes vaguely like a Keith’s and is available pretty much everywhere. It’s inferior to the summer-fresh Bira Blonde that Allison and I sampled in Delhi, but cheap and convenient. Our sojourn has he added benefit of giving us our first look at camels! Definitely had made it to Rajasthan. Once we made our triumphant return, a few of our tourmates followed in our trailblazing footsteps to obtain their own beers.

Until our cabs arrived to shuttle us to our evening activity, we relaxed on the hotel rooftop and cheered on the half-dozen brave tourists who were taking a Bollywood dance class. (Later encouraging me to download the song Aankh Marey for my eclectic running playlist.)

We had a special experience touring the Amer Fort (or Amber Fort, or Amber Palace) at night, with a knowledgeable local professor as guide. The first structures were built on the site in the 11th century, but the majority of the palace was constructed and improved during the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Fort is nicely lit at night (excepting a few tackily chosen colour-cycling LED fixtures), and so empty that it felt like we had the entire site to ourselves. You pay a premium for the night tickets (though I’m not sure how much exactly, as the visit was included in our tour cost), but it’s worth it to avoid the crowds. (After visiting the Taj Mahal at peak time, it was a relief to see this site at a quieter moment.)

The palace is separated into four sections, each built of yellow and pink sandstone.

The highlight is the third courtyard, which was the private chamber of the maharajas. Here, the Sukh Niwas (Hall of Pleasure) sits opposite the stunning and opulent Sheesh Mahal (Mirror Palace), with a lush garden between. It’s hard to convey the intricate gaudiness of the Sheesh Mahal, but the reflections off mirrors and coloured glass set into every inch of wall and ceiling in the Sheesh Mahal create a twinkly starlight that’s amazing to see. It’s fairly hard to convey the intricate gaudiness of the building (which legend says was built so the queen could always see starlight, but may have just been a hall of private audience), but perhaps the photos will help.






After the Fort we drove to a passable buffet restaurant, and the most memorable aspect was the arrival of the bride and groom at the wedding next door.

There were two more weddings on the same street as our hotel, which made it hard to get to sleep at first, what with the marching band and fireworks outside our door, but eventually the celebrations just became the din of white noise.

Feb 11, 2019

Allison and I were in the lobby at 5:40 a.m. to hop aboard the van for our sunrise balloon ride. Because the ballooning company has 5 or 6 take off and landing positions within the vicinity of Jaipur, we weren’t exactly sure where the van full of French tourists and us were headed, and we drove 45 minutes into rural India before pulling up to a field where two colourful balloons were being inflated. It was only 8 degrees C at that hour, and Allison and I had put on basically all of our clothes to stave off the morning chill. Luckily, once we were in the basket, the heat from the flames our balloonist, Arturo, released to get and keep us aloft made us toasty enough. It was a calm and pretty flight (or should I say float?), and the locals emerged from their houses to wave and call to us as we invaded the airspace above their fields and homes. I couldn’t help but think that western farmers would not be as excited by our aerial surveillance.

Kids chased after the balloon as we started our landing after about an hour in the air, and by the time we had smoothly touched down, all of the immediate locals had gathered around to watch the balloon deflate and us disembark.

Back at the hotel, we reconnected with our group for an activity described by G Adventures as an “Orientation Walk,” but as it featured 18 of us briskly trailing our guide down busy market streets in single file, disorientation was actually the result. We stopped for mediocre but free chai masala tea at a sweets shop, where Allison and I decided to break from the group for a while to visit some markets and shops Allison had researched. One of the ladies on the tour, Nelly, an IT consultant from Paris, chose to hang with us for the afternoon as well. We quickly discovered that despite Allison’s experience and my enthusiasm, Nelly could out-haggle us both. It was fun and instructive to watch her get her chosen pants for less than a quarter of the original quoted price.

We did some damage at the three legit textile shops we sought out. Three scarves, two bedding sets, two robes, a tablecloth and some other odds and ends all found their way back to the hotel in our packs.

In the evening we went to the Raj Mandir Cinema – a 1100 seat movie theatre that opened in the 1970s and persists as a symbol of Jaipur. We were in the first balcony, second row, centre seats (which if my preferences at the Centennial Concert Hall matter at all, are the best seats in the whole place). The feature film on offer was the brand-new Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi. Brief synopsis: around 1857, the bad-ass, feminist queen Lakshmi Bai is a leader in the rebellion against British rule. Based loosely on real events. The film was in Hindi, without English subtitles, but due to the hunger for soap opera-style storytelling in Bollywood, and the simple premise (British bad; Lakshmi good), we followed reasonably well. We also benefitted from the cartoonishly evil British characters occasionally speaking in English, like the line “tonigh we will eat tender flesh” when they’ve stolen a calf from some of villagers (don’t worry, Lakshmi saves the baby cow and then dances with the villagers, then later basically cuts every British person in India in half.) It was cool to see that the film was shot at the Amer Fort we had just visited.

There were a lot of impassioned speeches in the middle third of the long film, which were lost on us, and made things a bit boring, but overall Kangana Ranaut in the lead role was fierce and lovely. Also, while we found the Matrix-style, physics-bending combat scenes comical, the audience members seemed to love seeing the bad guys get hacked up in creative ways. Though we started to feel off balance when people around us actually cheered at the death of every English-speaking character, it did give us the experience of being “othered” for once. I asked one of the male Brits what he thought of the film afterwards, and he fairly observed that since the British really were the colonizing bad guys, it’s hard to act offended about how they’re portrayed.

Then back to the hotel to ready for our journey to Tordi Sagar.


Review: Vox by Christina Dalcher

Vox by Christina Dalcher was an airport purchase and an easy read.

On the day the government decrees that women are no longer allowed to speak more than 100 words daily, Dr. Jean McClellan is in denial—this can’t happen here. Not in America. Not to her. This is just the beginning. Soon women can no longer hold jobs. Girls are no longer taught to read or write. Females no longer have a voice. Before, the average person spoke sixteen thousand words a day, but now women only have one hundred to make themselves heard. But this is not the end. For herself, her daughter, and every woman silenced, Jean will reclaim her voice.

My thoughts (as always, spoilers may abound):
This book is Atwood-lite. The most interesting aspect of the story for me was around Stephen (the main character’s teenage son) and his education and re-education. When he gets on board with the new regime, his arguments for being “Pure” – though to the reader wrong and wholly without compassion – sound rational while letting him feel important and superior. Of course this would be appealing to a teenage boy. It’s uncomfortable and frustrating to read him mimicking the doctrine he’s been fed, but it’s also very believable. His journey to broaden his mind and consider that he had been wrong also feels honest, if rushed.

Otherwise, I found the potential message of “treat everyone with kindness and respect” was mostly lost beneath a message of “don’t forget to vote” and “beware the people who use religion to make policy” and “pay attention to the eroding of your rights” and, uncomfortably, “most men are either hateful or weak.” I’ll give the author the benefit of the doubt on that last one and say it was not the author’s but the protagonist’s opinion. Jean’s position is understandable in her restricted life, but narrow and simplified like Stephen’s views. And though we do get examples of varying types of “good” men by book’s end, I’m not sure Jean grows to notice the variety.

Anyway, pretty good novel, rushed ending, distinct characters, emotionally charged, worth a read.

What’s next?

By this time last year, I was almost done culling all the committees from my calendar.

I had thought contributing to those groups would make me happy, or at least make me feel like a good person, but it didn’t. Instead, I felt drained and uninspired. I felt removed from the charities I was supporting and smothered by the childish infighting among people who were supposedly present to give back to the community. I learned – not quickly, but eventually – that volunteers aren’t always compassionate, board members aren’t always competent, and adults aren’t always as mature as the average 7th grader. I learned to dread my committee meetings with a stomach-turning, lung-strangling anxiety. I learned that doing something “good” can feel shockingly bad.

So I stopped. I gracefully left everything (after completing significant milestones and transitioning my role to replacements; I’m not a monster). When I was free, it took a little while to enjoy the space to breathe, the space to think about the difference between having a full life and having a fulfilling life.

With Jenn’s help, I tried to figure out what I want(ed) and what I am(was) passionate about. My success was limited. The only target I could settle on with certainty was running. I wanted to run a marathon. Had wanted to for years. Had put it off knowing if I was making excuses for why I shouldn’t do it, then I shouldn’t do it. But I wasn’t making excuses any longer. In fact, I had cleared my schedule, and I needed something to feel good about.

I could write pages and pages on my marathon training – already have, in fact – but for the purposes of this post, all you need to know is from November 2016 when I decided to run, to February 2017 when I started my for realz training, to May when I (re-)injured my knee and had to change my marathon plans, to June when I started over, to September 23 when I completed my first full marathon ever in effing Grand Forks, North Dakota of all places… I did feel good. I felt purposeful and strong and accomplished. Even during the abject shittiness of my injury, I was driven to meet my goal.

And then, about three days after it was over, I felt lost. Aimless.

And stupid.

Obviously, while I spent my year running in temperatures that ranged from -25 to +30 degrees (that’s -13 to +86 degrees for you nonsensical Americans. Seriously. Fahrenheit is bonkers), while I spent hours curating my running playlist and vetting audio books, while I got lost on lonely, marshy trails at the cabin and took too many left turns in the maze of identical houses in the new development down Henderson Highway, I should have also been asking myself the question, “what’s next?”

But I didn’t do that.

I didn’t ask myself “what’s next?” until about three days after the marathon was over, when I was already in “next.” And I didn’t have an answer.

The next creative renaissance

I watched the film “Genius” yesterday, which follows the relationship between famed editor (as much as an editor can be noticed) Maxwell Perkins and literary great Thomas Wolfe. I enjoyed the movie, more for Colin Firth’s overall performance and the sheer energy of Jude Law’s manic frenzy than for the story itself. The Hemingway and Fitzgerald cameos added a sprinkle of intrigue, though the script suffers a bit from introducing a gun and then never using it. That’s not a metaphor, by the way.

I was thinking about the art, music, architecture and literature being created in the generation of this movie. How big players like Hemingway and Picasso would gather in salons in Paris and drink and create and live an artist’s destructive, thrilling life. When will the next creative renaissance take place? Has it happened, and I missed it? Or is it happening now, in the craft beer markets of Portland or the or the El Sistema classrooms of Venezuela or the guerilla performances of Russian punk rock protesters?

Maxwell Perkins had the gift of recognizing the genius of writers who would resonate through a century, and the power of helping them succeed, but how many among us have the clarity and foresight to do the same with our contemporaries?

How’s that for a Monday morning musing.

Let the boring girls get lucky for once

buffy-homecomingI read an article recently on the topic of luck. More specifically, how we tend to under-represent the influence of luck on our own successes, tending to attribute them wholly to our own hard work and perseverance and downplaying the factors over which we have no control.

Then, when watching a dancing movie, High Strung, I was caught up in this topic again.

You see, dancing movies (and other similar feel-good sports or competition movies) often follow the tale of an underdog, overlooked because of socioeconomic factors or other constraining demographics, who gets the chance to have all of his/her dreams come true (and, of course, find love). How lucky the leads are.

But today I wasn’t focusing on the bitchy prima ballerina (why can’t the best dancer be nice for once… or at least vaguely polite), or the POC best friend (who could be amazing if she just tried a little harder and dropped her attitude/stopped partying), or even the innocent, girl-next-door beauty overwhelmed by the “big city” and the higher expectations of her demanding (but secretly supportive) teachers. No. Today I was thinking about the other dozen girls in that ballet class. The ones who’ve been at the ballet school for years, who are always on time for class, who are never kicked out of class, who don’t sleep with their choreographers or party on the eve of significant auditions, who choose healthy, supportive relationships, and who work hard every day for their dreams and thus have never needed a redemptive montage. You know. The unlucky girls.

Where are their moments in the spotlight? Where are their kisses on stage? Where are their contracts and scholarships and standing ovations?

Look, I know their stories are boring. But a part of me craves their successes instead. In the Buffy vs. Cordelia Homecoming episode, where there was a tie for homecoming queen, and **spoilers** neither Buffy nor Cordelia were the winners… that was somehow satisfying. Thinking, “those other girls must’ve run excellent campaigns; good for them.” It’s so believable. And hopeful.

Sometimes the hard-working actors in the background should win, whether or not we’re cheering for them. Let’s let the boring girls get lucky for once.

Writing on a theme

I tend to begin blindly. That is, I write and let the start of the story flow from the first passing whim. From there,  if I like what I’ve begun, I continue with a story more thoughtfully constructed–with characters and plot moving toward planned moments and, eventually, a conclusion.

If there is a theme in the writing that springs from this process, it is discovered rather than expressed. In some cases, this discovery is unwelcome. I find that I’m promoting a viewpoint in which I don’t believe, and I have to rethink the message. But that is all the work of editing. Rarely, if ever, have I begun writing with a theme (or a moral, or a message) in mind and let the story come out of that exploration. The reason, in all its patheticness, is probably that I’ve never had an issue, a position, a commitment to an idea unpopular, controversial or important enough to be the sole fuel of my writing. Until recently.

In the last few months, I’ve been thinking deeply about compassion. The power of it. The perceived weakness of it.

When I was growing up, I was frequently called “sensitive” and it had a meaning that carried the heavy deficiencies of fragility and naivety. My mother told me recently that her greatest fear for me – once my personality began to develop – was that I would be debilitated by my “sensitivity,” that I would be unable to function for my feeling for others, and that I would choose partners who were broken and bad for me, because I could see the good in them through the damage. What’s a parent to do when a child that should be happy for herself, hurts for others?

When I saw ugliness and injustice being imposed on those around me, I was not supposed to be appalled by it. My happiness was a condition of my calm, clean life. Others had less of everything – food, love, stability, comfort – so I had better be happy! (Like any loving beings, my parents wanted to give me all the good, and fix or shield me from all the bad. They wanted me to be blissful, and who could dare fault them for that?)

But I felt as much of the unfairness of my privilege as is possible, and I understood the inconsistency and horror of being told to feel blessed by the luck of my draw. Why must I always be joyful by comparison? Why shouldn’t I be devastated by the inequality of my lot, just because I had the more enviable share? Why should I be branded with the back-handed “sensitive,” when that emotional sensibility is a symptom of desirable traits like sincerity, empathy, and kindness?

There was a large part of me that went unacknowledged. A toughness, or rather, a resilience. People who cry (or should I say, women, particularly young women, who cry) don’t get the benefit of being believed strong. My family feared I would be crippled by my emotions, but emotions are not a weakness. Not necessarily. Emotions can provide drive and purpose, especially when born out of compassion. Compassion. There it is. The most powerful force in the world.

There is so much I want to say about compassion. How it is the most underrated and essential personality trait. How it differs starkly from “synonyms” like mercy and charity. How it could be the only thing besides religious bribery and familial guilt that makes someone into a good person…

And so, for the first time, I have a theme worth expressing in my writing.

Something new

I was away in Australia for a few weeks, readers. That was neato. I made some detailed notes, and I’m planning on trying my hand at travel writing in a more robust way now that I’ve gone somewhere of interest. 

In other news, I’m posting this while on the bus. Ain’t technology grand? Someone just walked on smelling deeply of skunk, which I find strange for February in a metropolitan area. Anyway…

I’m going to try something new tonight. I’m going to listen to an audiobook. I’ve been read to before by live humans, but this is something different. Why now, you ask? Well, I’m flagging in my running again and listening to mysteries is apparently a real boost. (I just haven’t been able to get into season 2 of “Zombies Run.”)

Wish me luck!