Thursday, December 13, 2012

Turkey With a Married Couple!

When my friend Ashi called excitedly about a Friendly Planet deal to Turkey, I said I'm in! I had always wanted to go there. “Who else is going?” I asked.

“Oh, well definitely me and Krish. And you. And probably a couple of others. I’ll send an email out to everybody soon.”

“Awesome,” I said.

Later, I spoke to my friend Shilpa and she also thought it was an awesome idea so with this abundance of optimism and enthusiasm, I bought my ticket to Turkey. Soon after, everybody who had shown an interest backed out and I was left to travel Turkey with a married couple. Ashi kept repeatedly assuring me that it was okay that I tag along with them and even sleep in between them in the same bed (kidding). So I embarked on this journey and got my first taste of what married life would be like.

Here we go:

As we boarded the flight, I was already getting nervous about lifting my fairly heavy suitcase into the overhead. And then I realized Ashi’s husband, Krish was there – all six foot, four inches of him! I told Ashi that I’m glad he’s there so I wouldn’t have to worry about my bags and Ashi demurely replied that she lifts her own bags as a matter of principle. She then proceeded to lift her bag, which contained everything from a miniature straightener to a giant strainer, above her head, wobbled around with it for a minute or so, and then tossed it somewhere into the overhead. Screw feminism, I thought; that bitch can break her back but Krish is lifting my suitcase. Krish proceeded to lift my suitcase and slide it into the overhead bin as easily as an average person would insert a DVD into a DVD player.  I high-fived him and then asked him to describe to me in great detail what the inside of an overhead bin looked like because they were usually two feet above me and prevented me from looking (I mean reaaallly looking ) inside.

When we arrived in Istanbul, customs was a little more complicated than predicted. There was a ‘Passport Control’ line and a ‘Visa line’ and it wasn’t at all clear which one visitors would have to go to. Turns out whichever line you went to, you had to go to the other line. The sole purpose of standing in one line was to actually let you know that the other line is the right line to be standing in. We did this for an hour or so until we got a janitor to stamp our passports and enter Kusadasi.

The first day in Kusadasi, we just relaxed for the most part and took the local bus (which was a minivan) into town. While walking near the sea port, a local came up to us and offered to take a picture. Ashi, always skeptical of strangers, politely declined. Krish, however, is the exact opposite: he would give the shirt of his back if a person where to come up to him and be like “Yo dude, can I have the shirt off your back?”

In any case, as we were taking pictures, the man, who turned out to be a carpet exporter, offered to give us a ride to the Temple of Something-Something (I’m really bad with names), which was an hour’s drive away. He said we could borrow his friend’s car and carpool it all the way there. We said we would let him know later and headed off to lunch.

“Well, that was strange,” Ashi said. “He randomly offered us a drive? I don’t know how I feel about that.”

“I don’t know,” Krish replied, “Maybe we should do it.”

I walked around them like their ignored child.

“I don’t know,” Ashi said, “I’m skeptical. I didn’t like the way he touched my shoulder…I don’t like people touching me.”

At this point, I removed my arm from Ashi’s shoulder.

“He touched you too?” Krish replied surprised. “He pinched my butt!”

“He did not!”

“Just kidding. Okay fine, we don’t need to go.”

“Well, we can go if you want to.”

“No, we don’t need to. I’m okay with whatever.”

“I’m also okay with whatever…unless, we’re going with him. Then I’m not okay with whatever.”

At this point, I tried to drown myself hoping the water would kill me faster than this conversation was.

We ended up just chilling by the seaport until it was time to get back to the hotel for dinner. Dinner at this hotel was incredible. There were 15 different kinds of entrees, supplemented with a hundred different kinds of salads and then there was a separate room full of dessert. As Krish and I took our empty plates, we saw Ashi take off her clothes, run and dive headfirst into a five foot cake. Okay, so Ashi really likes her desserts.

The next day, we went to see the city of Ephesus. One aspect of traveling that I love is to see various types of architecture. Houses are usually built out of what’s in abundant supply at that location: in America, houses are made of wood because we have a lot of it; in some parts of Turkey, we saw houses made of stone because they had an abundance of stone. In Ephesus, they had a surplus of marble, so everything from the buildings to the roads (it was insane) were built out of marble. It was an incredible site and I think we ended up taking a thousand pictures in those few hours.
Ephesus in all its glory
 Later that evening, Ashi and I decided to go to a Turkish bath. It was only until we were in the locker room that we found out we had to get butt naked. The woman attendant asked us to remove our clothes and waited in front of us with a towel. Surprisingly, Ashi, the ever-conservative girl, shrugged her shoulders and started peeling her clothes off. Meanwhile, I kept asking for a bathroom. I wasn’t going to strip while that woman was staring at me in that creepy way. When I tried to run out to find a bathroom for the fifth time, the woman dragged me back and said she’ll step out so I can take my clothes off. The Turkish bath was inside a marble room with a marble platform in the middle where you lied down and the women poured millions of soap bubbles on you and massaged you. It hurt like a bitch.

Ashi and I walked out a few hours later bruised and battered. After a few minutes of silence, Ashi said: “Well…our friendship just went to a whole another level. I can’t say I’ve gotten naked and taken a bath with any of my other girlfriends.”

The next day, we went into a warehouse that sold various silk, woolen and cotton carpets. I must have looked like a real sucker because two salesmen cornered me and I quickly agreed to buy a carpet. I actually really like the carpet – it’s a beautiful blue carpet with intricate designs woven into it. We stayed there for about two hours and when it was time to leave, when there was literally five minutes left, Ashi asked Krish if she should buy a carpet. Scenting indecision, a swarm of salesmen surrounded them like sharks.

“Should I buy a carpet, Krish?”

“Sure, if you want Ashi.”

“I’m okay if you don’t want to buy.”

“No, I didn’t say I didn’t want to buy. Buy if you want. I’m okay with whatever.”

“I’m also okay with whatever.”

By this time, I had returned to the bus to make sure it didn’t leave without the two of them. As they trailed in a few minutes later, I heard Ashi say “Alright, next time we start the process of agonizing indecision a little earlier.”

At the carpet warehouse
We then took a bus to Çanakkale. Çanakkale was a seaport that was full of young, vibrant people and we loved the atmosphere of that city. That evening, we went to a bar and ordered our first round of Raki. None of us knew it tasted like licorice, a flavor we all hated with a passion. Ashi and I each ordered a small and Krish ordered an extra-large. After a sip, we all gagged and concentrated on eating the cheese and grapes placed in front of us. The waiters looked at us with sympathetic expressions; as if they had seen innumerable idiotic tourists do this to themselves time and again. Ashi and I barely managed to dent our drinks, but Krish had some sort of internal battle between his id and ego and determined his pride would be tainted if he were to not finish the drink. We saw him chug the glass of Raki while we got blue and nauseous from just watching him do that. Then we went to a dessert place and devoured a waffle with Nutella and chocolate sauce on it.

The next day we went to Troy. That place was a pile of rubble and, other than reading about the history surrounding it, it’s really not worth visiting in my opinion. However, what added to our trip were the random cats and dogs that walked through the streets as if owned by the general public. I bent down to pet a kitten and he closed his eyes in absolute bliss, like there wasn’t anywhere in the world he’d rather be than right there. It was both funny and adorable. the kitten's expression
Finally, we reached Istanbul and we stayed there for three days. I cannot tell you how much we loved Istanbul. That city is the perfect combination of beauty and fun; the ideal woman who seduces you the minute you encounter her.

In the evening, we took the local tram to Istiklal street and walked around, enjoying the bright lights streaming from the stores and the lively music blasting from the clubs. The clubs in Istiklal street set up speakers in front of their entrance so as you pass by the club, you can hear the upbeat music playing inside. It was great because it was like having a soundtrack added to your life as you walked the cobblestone streets.

The next day, we had the freedom to plan our own trips and we were psyched. We woke up super early in the morning (at 9 am) and started walking towards the old town where the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque reside. Halfway through, I realized I had left my iPhone back in the hotel room and we needed that so we could learn about each monument as we visited it. We ran all the way back to the hotel and then took a tram back to Old Town. It was now 11 am. Damn it.

Despite the late start to the day, we actually ended up doing a lot. We visited the Basilica Cistern, Topkapi Palace, a random mosque near Sultahnamhet, and Spice Market, which was shutting down as we entered it. Over there, Ashi spotted a jar of water that contained tiny leeches, used for medicinal purposes. We realized there were several jars all around us and were impressed with the variety of things one could find at the Spice Market.
Beautiful Istanbul

On the way back, I spotted an incredibly beautiful glass teapot-vase thingy that I had to buy. From the time I had spotted it to paying for it, a whole of five minutes had passed. At that point, Ashi saw a few beautiful decorative plates and asked Krish if she should buy one. The following conversation ensued:

 “Should I buy a decorative plate, Krish?”

“Sure, if you want Ashi.”

“I’m okay if you don’t want to buy.”

“No, I didn’t say I didn’t want to buy. Buy if you want. I’m okay with whatever.”

“I’m also okay with whatever.”

This went on for a half hour and, admittedly, she ended up getting a gorgeous decorative plate that will look great in her apartment.

We spent most of our evenings and nights in Istanbul strolling through the gorgeous city. Each landmark and monument was beautifully lit. It was a magical experience to walk through the ever-changing colors of the fountain with illuminated minarets in the distance, and vibrant lamps and souvenirs displayed in the stores around us.

The next day, we saw the Hagia Sofia and the Blue Mosque. In the late afternoon, we went on a local cruise across the Bosphorus. And when I say ‘local’, I mean local! We were the only people who spoke English on the cruise. We went on the upper deck and were served some Turkish Appletea along with an English brochure that told us which palaces and buildings to keep an eye out for. The sea captain must have been a part-time DJ because he started blasting some amazing Turkish music. However, as the sun set, the weather started getting cold enough to require some serious cuddling to keep warm. I left Ashi and Krish to do just that while I went downstairs and ordered some more Appletea. And then I think I fell asleep on some random person’s lap.

In our last evening, Krish was going through some random, delayed jet lag and decided to nap in the hotel room while Ashi and I strolled through the streets to find a place for dessert. Turns out, without a six foot-four Krish hovering near us, we got a lot more attention from the men around us. We found a quaint café and sat outside. A handsome waiter came to take our order, smiling at us like he knew all our secrets. Later, another handsome waiter came out and we all just chatted for a bit. When they had given us our food and left, I leaned over to Ashi and giggled, “Holy crap they’re cute!”

Ashi looked up from her plate and said “Hmm? What? The kittens, right? Omg, they’re adorable…I’ve really started liking cats in this trip.”

Married people, I sighed.

All in all, it was a great trip, considering that 2/3rd of us were married. I’m grateful that both Ashi and Krish tolerated me through the trip. And, through it all, we enjoyed how confused people got when they saw the three of us together.

“Are you his sister?”

“No, I’m his wife.”

“Oh, then you’re his sister?”

“No, she’s my friend’s wife.”

“Who’s your wife?”

“This one.”

“So then who is this?”

“We don’t know. Just kidding. She is my wife’s college friend.”

“But, really, we are more sisters than friends.”

“Unfortunately, that’s true.”

“So, you’re not related to these two in any way?”

“Correct, I’m the college friend.”

“So wait….are all three of you siblings?”

In front of the Wishing Wall

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Life of Pi

Well, here I am, sleepy but sleepless. So I’m sitting on my bed, wearing my winter coat on top of my pajamas because my blanket doesn’t keep my upper body warm and allow me to type on my laptop at the same time. They really should invent arm sleeves in comforters in order to address this epidemic (Yes, it’s an epidemic).

I watched the movie Life of Pi the other day and I scoured the interwebs for a review that does justice to the movie. I ended up disappointed; most of the reviews just gave a summary of the movie and the remaining handful gave a rating of ‘Great visual effects; but not too impressive.’

I disagreed: I found the movie poignant and the messages embedded within it powerful. Yes, there were times when the movie felt a little preachy, but you soon got over that and got lost in the story, itself. And as you found yourself stranded with a boy and a tiger in a boat with nothing but endless sea around you, you started to question your own morals, and your own strengths and weaknesses.

I had read the book earlier this year and it didn’t have the same impact – possibly because I have the attention span of a moth. I began reading the book with great enthusiasm for the first hundred pages, and then I started to fall asleep repeatedly after that. Finally, when I found out it was a fiction novel (the prologue misleads you into thinking it’s one of those based-on-a-true-story novels), I was pissed. I threw the book out the window hoping it hit someone on the head. When I saw the movie trailer, I was torn between paying money to watch a bad story and seeing pretty blue whales in 3d.

I succumbed and ending up watching the movie. At this point, if you haven’t seen the movie, you should stop reading because I’m going to over-analyze every aspect of the story. You should also stop reading this if you have a short attention span or if you are my mom. Excellent, now that I have no readers left, let us begin.

I loved Pi’s dad. He and I shared similar sentiments. As my favorite scene in the movie unfolded, when the family stood in front of the Ganges and set afloat diyas along with hundreds of other people, I felt a twinge of homesickness. I remembered my childhood when I had visited my great grandma in Allahabad and how the entire family had gone boating where the Ganga and Jamuna met in tumultuous conflict. Times were simpler back then and those childhood memories are replete with the kind of nostalgia an Instagram filter can only dream of.  And just as I was lulled into the old-world charm of comforting rituals and religion, Pi’s father snapped me out of it by saying “Don’t be fooled by the pretty lights.” It reminded me of how my own dad would declare “Religion is the opiate of the masses”, even as we walked through a crowded temple.

 Intermittently through the movie, the audience was reminded that they were going to find God. You can imagine my dry amusement at that line; I remember thinking: bring it on. Of course, none of the religious experiences that Pi went through made sense to me. Take for instance, when Pi went into that church and asked why God would choose to send his son into our imperfect world, and the answer given was: “Because He loves you.” That answer made me want to throw my seat at the theatre screen.

As the movie progressed, Pi experienced fantastical events that left you wondering if they were real or if he had found some shrooms in the survival kit and was now flying high. At the end of the movie, Pi offers a different explanation of the events that occurred – instead of boy and tiger, there were humans on the boat that ended up killing one another. The story is much darker, but the pessimists and realists of this world will hungrily grab onto the tassels of this sordid tale. On both accounts: be it the boy with the tiger or the boy with the humans, neither story can be proven. And either way, the end result of both stories is the same: a boy survives being stranded out at sea for 200 plus days.

And that’s when Pi poses us a question: if we had to choose, which story would we choose? Most of us would choose the story with the tiger because it is so magical. So it is with God, replies Pi – people choose to believe in God because it is the better story to tell.

I had to admit the analogy was pretty cool. And though it didn’t alter my own beliefs (fortunately, science can prove and disprove many things), it made me wonder if I were to be pushed to the limits that Pi was, would I have started believing in God?

Stephen Kelley, a film reviewer, puts it succinctly:

In time, as our hero’s life dwindles, his body and mind ravaged by starvation, the validity of his extraordinary account comes into question. The doubt jars – even if it has been whirring uncomfortably in the back of your mind. Why? Because this wouldn’t be a lie you watched; this would be a lie you lived.

Finally, let me end with the most poignant part of the movie for me: when Pi and Richard Parker, the tiger, finally reached shore. At this point, Pi and Richard Parker had been through hell and back together. Pi had saved Richard Parker and Richard Parker had also saved Pi. If this was a true Hindi movie, Pi and Richard Parker would have gotten married and an extravagant Bollywood dance number would ensue.

However, this was real life. And here’s where I truly appreciated the director’s commitment to staying true to the predatory nature of the tiger. Pi watches as Richard Parker strolls away, and he waits for the tiger to look back, just once, before he leaves for good. The tiger never does, and disappears forever. Pi is shattered – he can’t conceive how after being through so much together, the tiger could leave him with such indifference.

I was a mess at this point in the movie. As someone who doesn’t believe in God, I struggle often with the indifference of nature. Every major life event, be it good or bad, leaves this universe mostly unaffected: the sun still continues to rise in the east, unaware of our antics; and the oceans still churn out waves, oblivious to our pleasures and pain. With no God and the world so apathetic to your own life, who do you turn to for peace? I understood Pi’s pain: Richard Parker’s departure was quiet and unassuming, but he took with him Pi’s own peace and purpose.

But human beings, if anything, can adapt. If circumstances change, so does our purpose in life. We must adapt and we must continue, no matter what. For those who believe in God, may they find peace through Him. For those who don’t, may they find peace in themselves. And if you are ever left wondering whether your story has a happy ending or a sad one, just remember Pi’s last words in the movie:

That’s up to you to decide; it’s your story.