Humans of Peter Dias Rd.

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This is Prakash, or as I like to call him – Uncle-Ji. Let me tell you, this man has the most beautiful eyes I have ever seen. I wish I had a close-up of them but I didn’t want to creep him out any more than I already did. I happened upon his tiny little bookshop a week ago while roaming around with a friend and was immediately fascinated by the charming shack on the side of a back road in Reclamation by Mount Mary’s Church. Made entirely out of white-washed wood, standing all on it’s lonesome on the curb, it has bright blue hand-painted words above it that say: Happy Nest Brokerage. Which is slightly confusing because he runs a bookshop not a brokerage.

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As it turns out, Prakash-ji’ uses the outside of his shop to advertise his 28-year-old son’s small real estate business down the street.  The bookshop is as close to a private library as I can describe. Everything is available for purchase, but the main part of his business comes from the rentals.  That is, you can pay Rs. 150 a month (approx. $2.30, based on today’s exchange rate of 65.70) and read as many books as you want. Fantastic deal – I signed up in a hurry. This appropriately solved an ongoing dilemma of mine – how to reconcile my addiction to owning books with the staunch promise I made to myself to accumulate as few “things” as possible while living in India.

My first book is a collection of Marquez’s short stories.

Personally I am fascinated by the selection. Every level of high- and low-brow literature you can fathom, ranging from “Why Men Love Bitches” (I’m not kidding), “The Art of French Kissing”, and “50 Shades of Grey” to Michael Crichton, James Clavell, Malcolm Gladwell, “Eat, Pray, Love,” classic European literature, and every Nancy Drew and Enid Blyton book my 10-year-old self ever wanted to read. For such a small space, when I step inside, it wondrously seems to house every book I’ve ever wanted to read. It must be a trick of the eye.

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A week ago, I asked him if I could ‘interview” him for my “website” (please note my extensive use of quotations). He instantly got suspicious and drew away.

“No, I don’t think so,” he said.

I put on my best, most inviting smile. “Why?” I asked. “Shops like your’s don’t exist anymore and I’d love to write about it.” He wasn’t sure how to reply. So I told him to let the idea marinate. And I’d be back in a week or so.

So today was the day. I approached his shop around 4pm, just after he had come back from lunch. He smiled when he recognized me and asked, “How can I help you?”

“I was wondering if you had a chance to consider what I had asked you last week.”

He let out a small sigh. “Why you want to ask me questions?” he asked. “Are you with the media?”

I explained to him that I have a website where I like to write about people in Bombay and that his business really interested me.

“What sort of questions are you going to ask me? Maybe if you tell me, I can prepare and you can come back tomorrow.”

“I will only ask you really easy questions,” I explained. “Like what is your name, where are you from, how did you get started doing this. Like that…”

He looked at me again, disbelieving of the genuineness of my curiosity towards his bookshop.

“But what do you want to know? I am not a great person. I am just me. I have a small shop. What is so interesting about that?”

So I smiled, and pressed record on the audio recorder that I brought along.

He continued with his quiet rant (he is very soft-spoken and shy). “You know, when people hear this, they will say I am library-man but I can’t talk English. So this is not good.”

“But we’re in Bombay,” I said. “I wish I could speak to you in Hindi, but I am only learning. I should be the ashamed one, not you.”

He seemed to relax a little, but I could tell he was really apprehensive and shy.

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And then we started. And once we got going, we went on for about 30 minutes. He told me lots of things.

He and his family moved to Bandra from Gujurat over 40 years ago. He started the bookshop when he was 25 years old because it was a business that required very little start-up capital. He began with about 500 books and slowly accumulated more and more based on what his readers requested. Most of his readers tend to be women and lot of them request romance novels so he has a hefty shelf of romance novels. He says he likes his job because it is simple, stress-free, but he’s not shy to admit that he makes very little money. His friend jokes that when he goes home, his wife must slap him daily for running such a failure of a business. He has about 75 subscribers who pay Rs. 150 a month but his profession is dying slowly.

When I asked him if he reads alot himself, he is quick to say no – which made me laugh out loud.

“When I was young, I read alot – murder mystery, detective books. No romance, I don’t read romance,” he suddenly added, as if I suspected him of secretly reading “The Lord of Pleasure.” “But now, I am older, I only read the newspaper and small, small things, like 2-3 lines in reader’s digest.”

“Do you get bored sitting here everyday then?”

“Sometimes.  But then, I listen to music.” Indeed, when I first walked in, he had his headphones on. “This is good, like retirement life.” His eyes twinkled, as if he had found the secret to living the good life in Bombay.

“Will you retire soon then?” I asked.

“I will take it day by day. When I ready, I will close this place, but right now, I am comfortable. This is good.”

After we finished talking, he asked if he could listen to the recording. So I plugged his headphones into my audio recorder and took a seat on a stool, and sat back as he wrinkled his face through 20 minutes of talk time – flashes of laughter, embarrassment, curiosity, reflection, but always with a smile and the sparkling, wizened eyes.

Watching him listening to the interview was probably the best part of my entire day.  Just look at him below, listening intently.

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What happens when it rains

It pains me to say this, but it’s been almost 2.5 months since my last post. I could list a string of excuses, but instead, here’s what I’ve been up to as its been pouring non-stop in Bombay.

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1). Leech Therapy (?). A few of my friends and I learned of the significantly therapeutic qualities of monsoon trekking, leeches, and running through the woods screaming at the top of our lungs. An unexpectedly adventuresome, mishapful day of bonding. Location: Matheran, a popular hill station and hiking destination outside of Bombay.

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2). My first Bombay sandwich happened. An unassuming combination of two slices of white bread, loaded with thinly sliced cucumbers, potatoes, onions, beets, and tomato, toasted, then drowned in grated cheese and coriander chutney. Who knew veggies could be so sinful?  It is NOM, I promise you. A quick google search tells me that Smorgasburg in Williamsburg serves it up. Cautionarily recommended by me (I’m sure its but a shadow of the real thing), go check it out.

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3). 15 forms, 6 fingerprints, 20 signatures, and 5 post-dated checks later, I rented an apartment in Bandra. This, above anything else, makes me very happy. You’re all welcome to my housewarming party. :)

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4). Unthinkably large crowds and commutes happened, as always.

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5). Ramadan/Iftar food touring with the best of the best happened. It involved good company, lots of rain, meat, fried everything, and a craving for harissa that I just can’t seem to shake.

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More words, less pictures next time. I promise.

 

The Old Women and the Sea

Today, I was a bit of an ambitious tourist. After almost two weeks of being cooped up in Bandra, it was time to stretch my legs and add a little variety to my day. I was up before the sun rose, riding the western line as far south as I could go. The Mumbai train authority did well when they chose the woman to record the station announcements – she has a really pleasant voice that repeats “next station” and then the upcoming station in 3 different languages – Hindi, Marathi, and English.  Her soothing voice combined with the city rolling past my window – Mahim and Mahalaxmi, slums and tent settlements, trash heaps and piles of cement – puts me in a sort of trance, especially at 6 in the morning. There’s a little shiver that goes up my spine, something about feeling the thrill of being back in this crazy place.

By 6:30, I had arrived at my destination – an ominous looking lane filled with trucks, garbage, leering men, and worst of all – the unforgiving stench of fish. I had absolutely no idea where I was going, but my nose could do no wrong. Follow the smell.

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Sassoon docks – one of the largest fish markets in the city.  At dawn each morning, the boats come in a kaleidoscope of colors and faces, reaching land after up to 2 weeks at sea in some cases. An army of women wait anxiously on land, ready to collect, sort, and sell the fish at wholesale prices to fish vendors across the city. This is where Mumbai comes to get its pescatarian fix and its nasty! “Nasty” in the sense that it looks like all the ingredients for a perfect disaster.  I am still unsure how I didn’t get buried under a rogue pile of fish or get pushed off the side of the dock into the water by an impatient little old lady.  Also “nasty” like these are some of the baddest women around, they do not play around.  But also “nasty” like “Ew gross, fish and dead things and bones everywhere. I wish I had brought closed toe shoes.” All sorts of nasty.

It is a vast and frenzied but perfected operation where the sea and land transact, and after the initial shock, its a beautiful thing to witness.

You can expect the following things to happen to you:

- You will get stepped on, by lots and lots of fishy, fishy feet.

- You will get hit in the head. It happens when women walk by with tubs of giant fish on their head, tails hanging out the side. They rush past you and if you’re not careful, you’re gonna feel a wet, sharp smack against your ear. No need to wonder what it is. It’s a fish tail.

- You will get elbowed and pushed, almost shoved off the side of the dock, and yelled at to move out of the way. You are a disturbance to the method they have made out of this madness after years and years of practice. It is practically automatic.

- You will sweat profusely even though it’s barely 7am and you will probably smell like fish for the rest of the day.

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Once you’ve come to terms with all of these things, just breathe in (I know, it smells horrible), and take in the sights.  It’s the most intriguing transaction you’ll see – a measured and methodical exchange of fresh, slippery, silver fish, first sorted on the boats, then magically tossed through the air, from boat to boat to dock, flying when once they were swimming, landing neatly into the hands of a young man, who deftly passes it off to an impatient woman, who loads the haul into her plastic tub, which she places on her head, and walks off hurriedly and evenly, pushing past hundreds of other women doing the same exact thing, disappearing into a dizzying crowd of saris.

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But it only starts to get better from there.  If you’ve ever wondered about the art of bargaining, this is the place where it gets done, a hundred times over every minute, and done right every time.  A couple of sharp elbows, hard noses, a rough tone, a few short words, moments of feigned desperation, a plea, a second plea, a shaking of the head, seconds of stubborn silence, a scoff or a sigh, a blink, a wad of cash.  Respect.

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Eels, mackerel, manta ray, prawns, lobsters, crabs, pomfrey, fish I can’t even begin to name, fish the size of my torso, the length of my armspan. It just goes on and on and on and after a one, dizzying hour, when I tried to smell myself and see which of today’s catch I smelled like, I realized I couldn’t differentiate between myself and everyone else.  It was time to leave.

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I have big plans to come back. Next time with someone who speaks Hindi or Marathi and some solid research into tasty catch for frying and currying and I’m gonna do my Keralan heritage proud.

All fished out for today.

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Smoke & Monsoons

Without meaning to, I’ve been back in the United States for almost a month and a half. That’s a long time. My parents are confused. They’re unsure whether to berate me for not getting a “real” job that “doesn’t put my life in danger” because they’re elated that it gives me the flexibility to hang out at home for a month. It’s been almost 7 years since I’ve ever been home for more than a week. So they’re placated for the time being, until I get back to India, when they’ll start stressing about dengue fever, chicken guinea, and malaria.

IMG_0669I am…excited to head back to India, but that feeling drained out of my stomach like a leaking balloon when I casually checked Bombay weather on my phone the other day and the forecast was: 95 degrees, humid, smoke. That last part kills me. The weather in Mumbai is measured in terms of particles, toxins, and contaminants in the air. Hooray.

I’ve heard that god-awful analogy thrown around many times and I was never sure whether to believe it (although in dire social situations, I have pulled it out of my back pocket as a conversation starter): breathing the air in Mumbai is equivalent to smoking 2.5 packs of cigarettes a day. I think it was Suketu Mehta who first made that analogy vogue, but I wasn’t ready to believe it until I did some research.

NYTimes: India ranks dead last in “Air (effects on human health) Ranking” out of 132 countries

WHO: Urban settings as a social determinant of health, Fact 7

The UN Millennium Project: 21st Century Health Challenge of Slums and Cities

2.5 packs – thats 50 cigarettes! In one day.  That means if you are awake for at least 16 hours in the day, that’s over 3 cigarettes an hour.

The air in Mumbai never made me chronically ill. Within two days of landing though, I caught a whooping cough that reduced me to a hacking mess by sundown every night. I spend at least 1 hour every day in a rickshaw, probably the worst form of transportation in such a polluted metropolis.  The open ventilation concept means that, as my rick is stalled in traffic or buzzing along from Juhu to Bandra, my lungs are sucking in fumes directly from the exhaust pipes of passing vehicles.

I even try to run to stay fit, but it is absolutely depressing to chug along Juhu Beach at 8am looking out over the horizon and not being able to tell where the water meets the sky.  The thick layer of smog that descends over the city in the early mornings makes me rethink the value of outdoor fitness and question what my body is absorbing in its effort to stay healthy.

Breathing is analogous to a mild sense of claustrophobia because it feels impossible to take in a lungful of air.  If there is one thing I never thought I would miss and that I appreciate every single waking day since I’ve been back home, its stepping outside my front door into the sunlight, looking out over the lawn, and taking in a seemingly endless gulp of clean, sparkling air.

Things in Mumbai get better during the monsoon. After the first rain, the air is the cleanest out of the entire year.  I’ve experienced a monsoon or two in Kerala, but this makes me queasy:

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I started off this post intending to write about why I’m ready and excited to head back to India, but it seems the honest truth clawed its way out. For the sake of balance, let me take a moment to list out things that I do miss about the subcontinent:

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I had grand plans to come back to India magically fluent in Hindi. Needless to say, I am VERY far from this humble goal, but I am very excited to at least get in a rickshaw and give the wallah some directions. My hindi absolutely shines when it comes to navigation. Turn left, turn right, go straight. Why is this taking so long? Can you make a u-turn?

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Chaat @ Elco’s

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Elco’s is a great establishment in Bandra that serves up the more hygienic version of street food, for those who want a taste but don’t want to be incapacitated for the next week. Me and the basket chaat are very good friends.  It has taken me through many a 11pm hunger pang.  Trust me when I say it is the most heavenly coming-together of spices, textures, and flavors. It’s crunchy but slathered in yogurt sauce. It’s sweet, spicy, sour all at once. Everything is piled into a crispy edible bowl (known as the basket) and it is glorious.

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Ok my list of things I miss ends there – not so profound, I know. India and I have such a tumultuous relationship.  We are bound by some horrible, holy matrimony and I’m gonna figure out a way to make this work. I’m determined to find more things to appreciate about the belly of the behemoth, so more on that humble task to come.

Back to enjoying the last few days in paradise, aka Massachusetts (I never thought I would say that).

Parallel Universes

I left New York in the midst of a tremendous ice storm. The wind was a ruthless temperature that night and I could barely glimpse the city one last time through the window of my taxi cab as we steadily made our way through ice and slush, coming down in heavy sheets from the sky. I was sad to be leaving friends and family, but New York would always be there. I was not sad to be leaving the concrete jungle. I left with peace of mind and wholly adamant on proving that New York was not the end-all, be-all of my life. There was another epic city to discover halfway across the world, and I was sure there was a chance that Bombay too could earn that glorious title of “best city in the world.”

24 hours and 1-layover later, India hit me full in the face – a warm, sticky curtain of steam and stench and dust particles forever suspended in the heat.  It’s been four months. I’ve been running on adrenaline this whole time, fueled by a crazy new job, new city, new friends, new language, and definitely high on the pollution. I’ve moved more in the past couple of months than I have in the past three years and for someone who is a self-professed and self-loving homebody, I have taken better to living out of a suitcase than I thought I would. Bombay, Jodhpur, Madhya Pradesh, Kerala, US, Bombay again – done, done, and done. Where to next?

As happy as I am to discover that I can live against my own grain, I have to be honest. The first couple of months were a large double shot coffee – long and strong.  Last week was my crash. I was standing in the grounds of the Marwar King’s horse stables (more recently converted into a restaurant/hotel/sanctuary) outside Jodhpur.  For the first time in my life, I felt an uncontrollable urge to drop to my knees and caress the grass. Grass! Green! These are not things that are in abundance in Indian cities, let alone Jodhpur (a desert). I can’t remember the last time I felt a cool bed of grass beneath me. I can’t remember the last time I saw flowers growing out of the earth.  All signs pointed to the fact that I had possibly died in my sleep and gone to heaven. All evidence of India – gone! There were no cows to mind. No one to elbow me as I walked past. No vehicle to rush me with its obnoxious, multi-note, custom horn as I strolled at my own pace through acres and acres of green grass. Before I even knew what I was saying, the words came spilling out of my mouth: “I miss my first world life.” Badly.  I have no shame in admitting this.

I miss clean air, parks with cherry blossoms, hot water showers, salads (or any raw vegetable for that matter), comfortable public transportation, bagels and cream cheese, cow-free streets. The list goes on and on and to keep myself sane, I am preventing myself from going any further (iced coffee, deli sandwiches, NPR, $500 fine for honking on the streets – I’ll stop now).

I couldn’t have known that my fate was to end up in Bombay, the absolute OPPOSITE of everything I had imagined for my new, non-NY life. Bombay – a titan, growling city, with people packed shoulder-to-shoulder, sweating and heaving, where old women would rather use their sharpened elbows than their tongues to get their message across (“get out of the way!”). At least, you can walk and text with general success in New York. Here, you are bound to trip over a cow, get speared by an ox, or step on a sleeping/dead dog.

Indeed, Bombay has its fair share of lovers too, who, OMG, <3 the city more than anywhere else.  So yeah, I guess I found another one. Another “best city in the WHOLE wide world.” To be fair, I hated on Bombay for the first two months. Until I got deported to the sticks for work. And now I dream of that smoggy metropolis like I dream of my next $12 Hale & Hearty salad.

Longing for a city is almost sweeter than blindly loving it. I don’t think you can love anything dearly until you have adequately longed for it. And this in turn makes me question whether I ever really loved New York to begin with. I miss the city and miss Brooklyn dearly and can now absolutely, sincerely say that I love New York.

But India and Bombay make up my foreseeable future, so now the journey begins – to make room for more of this India that I love and hate, to make room for more moments to long for and miss people and places, to make room for another, possible best.  Because, maybe it is possible that “best cities” do not have to compete, at least not with the eye of the beholder. Your mind and heart do not have to be finite spaces. Maybe “best cities” can exist like parallel universes, side by side, glowing and fully deserving of their shared label, one just as much as the other. Illogical maybe, but totally possible.

What India Is

I’m back in Jodhpur for work and resurrecting my neglected blog.  This blue city has got me thinking all over again.

I have consumed more ghee in the past 3 days than I have consumed during the entire course of my life. As olive oil is the base for cooking in the US, ghee is the foundation for everything here in Rajasthan.  Ghee has made an appearance on my rotis, in my dal, in my vegetables, on my eggs, on my rice, in my kathi rolls, in my desserts.  I will not be the least bit surprised if someone dropped a dollop of ghee into my next glass of chai.

Whereas Bombay is that typically, bustling, cold, inward-looking city, Jodhpur is relaxed, ambling, curious, and always asking questions. I attract attention since I occupy that middle space between tourist and native.  I look Indian but I talk and dress like a tourist. Though to give credit where it is duly deserved, on more than one occasion, locals have pinned me exactly correctly on the map of India – “Aap Kerala se hai?” Not Madras, not Karnataka, not Andra.  Right on the money, Kerala.  I respect that.

I’m in Jodhpur to carry out research for my job.  My fieldwork will take me into the desert communities surrounding the city.   They are tiny villages of approximately a thousand people who live over a 2-hour drive from the nearest big town. The women practice purdah (concealing themselves from men), girls average age 13-15 when they drop out of school to focus on housework or get married, and child marriage is a common practice.  I am not sure about the practice of female infanticide in the villages where I work, but Rajasthan as a state is notorious for its gender imbalance – 926 females for every 1000 males as of 2011.

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Two months ago, I landed in Bombay unsure of what to expect, but sure of what I knew as India.  But Bombay, being the strange beast that it is, almost immediately wrestled those notions out of my mind. Now I’m back in Jodhpur for the next foreseeable month and this city has been a stark, unapologetic reminder that Bombay was just bullying me. I can’t drink the cool-aid all day long.  The moment I step outside the confines of that smoggy urban (especially ex-pat) bubble, I still find the India that I remember from my childhood.

It was Gandhi that said “The true India is to be found not in its few cities, but in its seven hundred thousand villages.” According to the 2001 census, 72% of this country is still rural. The cities have become laboratories of western ideas and experiments conducted at the crossroads of two world paradigms. But the villages have remained steady, characterized by closely held traditions, values, and beliefs.

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The way I see it, apart from a few shallow and aesthetic changes, India will remain largely unchanged outside the cities for the foreseeable future.  Pundits and economists will say that India is losing steam and that we will only finish second in the race to “develop.” But this country just keeps on doing its thing. While China is getting pretty good at big-box retailers, 5-lane highways, and efficient public transportation, India is honing its core competencies – chaiwallahs; winding, pothole-infested roads shared with goats and camels and cows; and the Indian railway system.  Despite whisperings of Wal-Mart and Macy’s, this place is still a patchwork of family-owned shops, arranged neatly along the roads, selling everything from insurance policies to palm-readings to Tupperware or nails. Even the most mundane tasks brings you face to face with a curious cast of characters who eke out a living pouring chai every day or making keys under an umbrella on the sidewalk.

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I overhear conversations that go “Well, what was she doing taking a bus that late at night with a boy anyway?”

Or stories such as that of my guesthouse keeper whose husband did not let her touch money for the first 5 years of their marriage.  For a woman in India, she is dangerously talkative and endearingly honest.  She smiled extra wide when I told her that I was in Jodhpur for work and that I came from Bombay, and in perfectly wonderful English she said to me, “Oh I am so happy that you are working and traveling.  I like so much to travel and work, but it is not possible for me. I am only housewife.”

Never a Blue-er City

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There is something about the Blue City that beckons to be experienced solo.  It is inviting and tempting to the introvert inside everyone who has ever wanted to step away from chatter and bustle, and disappear into a past where time moves so slow that it ceases to be measured at all.

You can stroll through the winding streets of the old city in Jodhpur for hours and hours and feel that you are moving farther and farther away from the familiar.  It is a peaceful but almost eerie place, laced with snaking, narrow, deserted lanes and alleys and bright blue, block-like houses stacked on both sides for three stories up.  Once in a while, you might hear the disembodied echo of a child running through the streets, but might not see him for another couple of minutes until he suddenly flies out of an alley wearing a bright red sweater and carrying a backpack twice his weight.  If you are careful enough to turn your gaze upwards, sometimes you can glimpse women sitting at their windowsills, quietly watching the passersby down below.  Men in white cotton dhotis and elaborately tied turbans sit on ledges playing cards and having a smoke.

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As you descend further into the market, the scenery slowly starts coming alive. The lanes are dotted with small shops all of 20 square feet – tailor shops, cobblers, printers.

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Once you reach the open air market though, you can say goodbye to peace and calm and say hello to that familiar, mouthful-of-smog, maximum India that you know too well.  The clock tower area is a full-force barrage of hawkers, vegetable vendors, dogs, cows, and tuk-tuks (the local word for rickshaws).

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In the photo above, the four women are selling screwdrivers, scissors, and knives.  There are vendors that push around carts full of garlic – only garlic – and others that sell just rusk (slices of twice-baked, dried bread), mountains and mountains of rusk.  And amazingly, most everyone, no matter how poor or of what background, knows not only English, but Spanish, French, and Italian.

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As an Indian, I very rarely describe India as “colorful” (because that’s cheesy) or “the friendliest place I have ever been” (because frankly this is not always the case).  But Jodhpur, is a different story.  I am absolutely enamored of the traditional Rajasthani dress (more pictures in my next post) and do find that the women here have particularly colorful, glittery taste.  Everyone is decked out in the brightest hues and draped in earrings, nose rings, headpieces, 4-toe-rings, bangles all the way up the shoulders, and thick silver necklaces.

As for the people, I have been stopped on multiple occasions to be asked if I am Indian (since I usually walk around with my American friend speaking English).  When I answer, “Yes, I am from Kerala,” – their faces light up.  “Ohhhh, Kerala is very nice, very educated, nice people.  We like Kerala.  Do you know how much is the price of one kilo of vanilla?”  I wish I could have helped this guy out.  He currently pays 4000 rupees a kilo and makes a slim margin.  In all seriousness though, anyone who loves Kerala and is as nice and welcoming to a fellow Indian as to foreigner, is a gold star character in my book.

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