Mike visited:

» Thailand
» Myanmar (Burma)
» Laos
» Cambodia
» Vietnam
» India
» Nepal
» Egypt
» Jordan
» Uganda
» Tanzania
» Malawi
» Mozambique
» Swaziland
» South Africa

View a map of his route.

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Indian Assimilation: Week One

The midnight streets of Kolkata played outside my grimy taxi window like a tragic film from the 50's: crumpled figures lay motionless under tattered blankets on the broken sidewalk; dilapidated, antique automobiles careened past us with horns blaring incessantly; pile upon pile of rubble and rubbish overflowed on the sidewalks and spilled out into the street.

trash collectors
Good Lord, I thought as the taxi shuttled me from the airport to the city center, it really is as dirty and chaotic as they say it is.

But as I walked the streets around my hotel early the following morning, Kolkata's grimy veneer began to fade. A crew of men drove the streets in a huge decrepit truck and collected the garbage; the homeless people rose and soaped themselves on the sidewalk, rinsing with water drawn from a pump; the sun broke through the polluted haze in the sky.

Initial shock, dizzying observation, and the slow revelation of method beneath the mayhem – that's been my first week in India.

A Fascinating Mix of Diverse, Friendly, Portly People
my friend Amjad
Even the shortest walk down the streets of Kolkata is an adventure in people-watching; the parade of humanity rolling by is intoxicating in its color and diversity: noble beauties in blazing, vibrantly-colored saris; men in flowing, traditional Indian dress; Sikhs with mighty beards and expertly-coiled turbans; Muslims in simple white frocks and skull caps; children in Western school uniforms; homeless people in clothes so dirty that no traces of color remain.

The famous Indian hospitality that I've heard so much about is true. People have gone out of their way to chat with me, buy me tea, and invite me to dinner.

One contrast between Kolkata and every other place I've visited in Asia is the number of plump people on the streets. While the majority of individuals are still rail-thin, there are quite a few folks who are thick around the middle (just like home!). Perhaps my middle's getting thick too: as I was walking though the Kolkata Book Fair I was handed a flyer for a weight loss clinic.

Phenomenal Food (Naturally)
Of course the food here has been terrific – and extremely inexpensive. Every day I dine on beautiful naan and chapatti (breads), fantastic dhal (lentil) dishes, chicken tikka, the works. Most meals cost around a dollar. Even the chai (tea), sweet to the point of absurdity, is starting to grow on me.

hand-pulled rickshaw
A Trying Couple of Days
In spite of the good meals and good people, I suffered from a healthy dose of culture shock during my stay in Kolkata. The noise, traffic, pollution, and poverty can really bring you down. Car and motorcycle horns blare non-stop. The sidewalks are either badly damaged or crowded with vendors' stalls, forcing you to walk in the streets. Poverty is extreme, with makeshift homeless villages set up on along certain avenues. And nothing is easy. Even a simple trip to buy a train ticket is a draining ordeal.

I sank into mild depression and agoraphobia after a few especially trying days. I was lethargic, exhausted early in the evening, and would sleep for 10 hours at a stretch; I could barely raise my voice above a whisper when talking on the street or ordering at a restaurant; my eyes stung all day as if I'd recently been weeping.

"Indian cities can get you down," my friend Brady cautioned me via email. "Try to minimize your time in urban areas." I think he's onto something; tomorrow I leave for Bodhgaya, a more remote town where the Buddha attained enlightenment 2,500 years ago.

tabla player
Still, the Magic has Kicked In
Just as my aforementioned depression was at its zenith, I joined Judith, a new Irish friend who's studying the tabla (traditional Indian drum), to meet some of her musician friends. I was immediately welcomed by Tuklu, her teacher, and made to feel at home among his students and friends.

Coincidentally, a big celebration in honor of Saraswati, Goddess of learning, was taking place the next day. I took part in the preparations and the celebration, which consisted of a religious ceremony, a huge feast, and an evening of live music. It was an intriguing, well-timed introduction into Indian customs, music, and hospitality, and it was a lot of fun.

So over the course of 72 hours, I went from an all-time traveling low to one of the highs. I think that, in many ways, India is like that. It's going to test me to the breaking point, and yield some of the greatest rewards.

Posted on February 08, 2003 08:45 AM


Comments (post your own below)

You're not doing too badly if you've survived a week. You'd need several more to see just parts of the sub-continent and maybe a lifetime to see the rest. You must travel southwards through Orissa and to the central region, then down through Hyderabad, Chennai, Madurai, Kanyakumari, Trivandrum, Thekkady etc. before heading to Mangalore, Goa & Mumbai. Try the coastal railways. I think you can get an Indrail pass very cheap.

Posted by: gautam on February 9, 2003 07:10 AM

Yeah...what he said....*looks around*

Glad you're doing well again! Keep on taking pictures!

Posted by: Stephanie on February 9, 2003 05:23 PM

your website is awesome!!..I will be arriving in Delhi for my first trip to India on Feb 22..assume my arrival experience will be much like yours..can't wait! Without the can we appreciate the highs right??
Happy travels!

Posted by: peggy on February 10, 2003 01:59 PM


It's nice to watch your comments about our music community and about our puja of Maa Swaraswati...........
I wish you all success for your whole tour and kind of knowledge you are gathering and sharing with people all over the world......
May GOD almighty give you the best of things what you desire.......!!!

Keep it up your nice job dear.....

Posted by: Tuklu on February 11, 2003 08:19 AM

sounds like you are taking things in good stride and humour.
I wish you well in your journeys.
Your pictures are great...keep them coming.

Do you know perchance how much time one needs to invest to learn the tabla? Perhaps you could ask your friend Judith for me?


Posted by: forestdruid on February 12, 2003 12:38 PM

Lovely website. Where will your journey take you after India?

Posted by: AbidO on February 12, 2003 01:25 PM

AbidO: after India I'm going to Nepal, Tibet, Egypt, Uganda, and Tanzania. At least that's the plan for right now.

forestdruid: the Tabla lessons are very inexpensive. Less than $10 per lesson, I think. It seems to be more about passing on the traditon and less abou making money. For info on Tuklu's services, consult:

Posted by: mike on February 13, 2003 04:15 AM

You're on the front page of as a spotlight site. Nice.

Posted by: Chuck on February 14, 2003 04:46 PM

Hey, really neat narrative. I hope you're not gonna waste the opportunity and not turn your travelogue and the pix you took into a book :)
For once a writer who's not judgemental. Just sees it like it is. Very cool!
For the burning eyes, that's a common reaction to the air pollution. Wash your eyes out with bottled water. Avoid touching them with your hands, unless freshly washed with soap. And buy re-vitalising eyedrops -- Dey's EyeTone are a great choice. If you ever come by Hyderabad, email me.

Posted by: Govind on February 15, 2003 01:37 PM

You're welcome in Chennai!

Posted by: YardBoy on February 16, 2003 08:18 AM

I can appreciate your manic highs and deep lows....I had similar experiences during my time there,as well. To this day, those feelings still haunt me, and keep me humble.

As Americans, we are so used to normal feelings of medium ups and medium downs (if that makes sense). Taking ourselves out of the comfort zone forces us to look at simply who we gets us back to basics and helps us find love, compassion and understanding for the human existence.

Savor and appreciate those highs. Getting in touch with your "human-ness" will really help you to appreciate those lows, and I promise, that knowledge will change you and forever make you a better person.

Good luck in your travels. I look forward to hearing your adventures.

Posted by: nik on February 16, 2003 04:21 PM

It was exactly 4 years ago that I was in India.I visited the North West
area for 3 weeks. I visited Delhi, Agra, Jaipur,Jodphur,Udaipur and lots of places in between. I made friends
there and we still talk.They visited me here in the US and plan to do so again this summer.
India is the most terrible and the most wonderful place I have ever been.I plan to return.Be careful; I gained 13 pounds in 3 weeks!

Posted by: Janet on February 19, 2003 01:30 AM

I am very jealous... It was exactly 2 years ago for me!!!!

India (especially Varanassi) is one of my favorite places in the world.... I hope you are staying in Varanassi for Shivaratri... it is march 1st I think. It is pure insanity.... I am sure you are seeing the influx of people right now for the event.... Sadhus galore...

forestdruid: I play tabla and if you have questions, let me know...basicly, it is like any other instrument... you learn the basics, then practice the basics forever....

in varanassi there are a couple of teachers... very inexpensive... $1 a lesson (I had a lesson every other day for 1.5 months)

Om Namaha Shivaya!!!!

Posted by: Cory on February 19, 2003 01:30 AM

I did a trip similar to yours several years back. Your post sounds exactly like mine. Now, I miss India more than any other country. The chaos is addicting and everything after seems a bit slow and boring. Soak it all up if you can.
Go north to Vasheest for killer mountain villages. Darjeeling is worth the trip as well.

Posted by: MG on February 19, 2003 01:31 AM

Hi Mike,The website is wonderful. Tuklu is a tough teacher-has me practising tabla night and day!! To the man who enquired - Tabla study is more of a committment than I first realised - it takes years to become proficient in this instrument. You have to take on the context for this music, how it relates closely to the turn of life itself in order to really understand how it works. The committment I've made is personal, musical & professional and everyday I sit to practise I have to make the committment all over again. I think this is one of the most beautiful instruments I've ever come across - very subtle and extremely powerful in good hands!
I was lucky enough to meet Pandit Swapan Chauduri, Tabla maestro, and to hear him perform here. This was an amazing intro to India.
Regards, Judith.

Posted by: Judith on February 22, 2003 09:48 AM

Hello... wonderful comments and imagery... if your travels bring you past Singapore... drop a line.

Posted by: Raj Sethi on February 22, 2003 10:33 AM

Ah...brings back the good ol' memories. I was in Kolkata this past December. I've been there many times, as my whole family is from there. Haha. The part where you described the taxi ride especially hit home for me. Haha. Living in America my entire life, I guess I had grown accustomed to the little dotted lines on the roads that separated us from oncoming traffic. Kolkata traffic is like none other. Hahah. Nice job in capturing the essence of Kolkata, not just the chaos but its character. Check out the Victoria Memorial if you can. And Dhakinaswar Temple and Belur (Belur, in particular was breathtaking for me). Email anytime. This sounds amazing.

Posted by: Debby on February 24, 2003 09:29 PM

Hey Cousin,

I see your journey is going well. I am jealous of your trip, and hope to do something similiar some day. Just letting you know I am keeping up with your postings and can't wait for more. It's 12:42a.m. Feb. 25th and -9 degrees here in Racine. Be safe and enjoy the rest of your travels...I'll write again soon.

Posted by: Matt Crist on February 25, 2003 12:44 AM

I was born in Calcutta, and, you have experienced the essence of the city, 'A seemingly Dirty Old Lady, with warmth in her Heart of Gold.'
Now I live in Whitefield, near Bangalore; and, there is a Bengali Sweet and Snack Shop on the main road; where the owner, who is from Calcutta, is a welcoming friend to all customers. The Bengali families, I.T. employees, and students in the area gravitate to this shop in the evenings; where they sit on plastic garden chairs set 'al fresco', and chat and 'time pass' the evening. Calcutta People carry a special warmth and brotherhood. Just say you were there and experience the warmth.
I am surprised you did not get an upset stomach!

Posted by: m. david on February 26, 2003 04:14 PM

The Calcutta Museum, is a relic in itself. Worth a visit. Don't miss the Art School situated behind the building, on the same site. The work of the young artists is worth seeing & buying.
The Asiatic Society is another place worth a visit.
I hope you have the time to see all these places. The weather should be good for a few more days. Then the heat and humidity sets in!!!!!!!!

Posted by: missymouth on February 26, 2003 04:25 PM

I realy jealous of u . I love my country my INDIA as much I love my mother. 72 hours is not enought to understand the feeling. Please try to travel along the banks of GANGA. Ask some to explain the Bhaghavath Geeta, try to find out the meaning of sanskirt slogas please ask people what benefit they are getting while reciting...
Please visit Kalashetra in chennai, Valluvar kottam gowri

Posted by: gowri on February 26, 2003 05:16 PM

I recommend a thali at a railwaystation. You'll love it.

Posted by: JanW on February 27, 2003 06:30 AM

wow, these are amazing photographs! In my whole life i couldnt take pictures like these! Very interesting. When you went to india did you see any cows? sometimes traffic can be stopped for hours if a cow wants to lie down in the road. keep up the good work and best wishes!

Posted by: Allie on February 28, 2003 10:04 PM

Awesome website!

you really SHOULD NOT miss Lebanon,
you need to drop by before or after you go to Egypt.

I have many friends that will be happy to offer you food and shelter and guidance during your stay, and i will probably be there during the summer [july/august 2003]

you have my email!


Posted by: lou on March 2, 2003 03:08 PM

Very cool website..great work

Hope you visit South India too.
India is so diverse in its culture that you need to visit every part of India to come to know what India is!

And I too havent travelled every part of it.


Posted by: Robin on March 3, 2003 11:23 PM

Hey Mike, don't miss the state of Kerala if you are still in India.

Congratulations for your website being selected by Yahoo. You are going to be under an avalanche of comments now. Going to put you on my favorites.

Thanks for the info about Thailand, Myamar and Cambodia. Planning to be there in December if we haven't been all nuked.

Posted by: Carol Green on March 4, 2003 11:58 AM

Mike, with the state of affairs that continue to plague this world, it joys me to see all of the "faceless" friends you are making all over the world from your travels and your site. Reading their comments make me even more envious!!!

Keep up the phenominal work! I don't know how you do it!!

Posted by: Scott Ahrens on March 4, 2003 10:36 PM

Hi Mike,
Your website is very cool. Your narrative and pics bring the ectasy of travel to one's armchair (Laptop).And these interactive comments bring us all to-gether. This is a wonderful experience.

Posted by: rsmanyan on March 5, 2003 06:33 AM

Love the site and the pictures! I'm hankering to go back soon. Our last trip was the first in 10 years since we came to the US in 1977. The next time, there will be more pictures since we purchased a very good digital camera.

Posted by: DJSUBg on March 5, 2003 01:51 PM

Welcome to India! I spent a year there in 1999-2000 (mainly in Pune, but also visited Kolkata, Delhi, other places) and chronicled my experience there (see link).

Being a woman, I must say I avoided travelling alone whenever possible (life is difficult enough without going out of one's way to make it even more difficult).

I've found there is nothing quite like being able to chat with another reasonably smart foreigner about what it is to be a foreigner in India -- something Indians, despite all their efforts, have trouble fathoming.

Enjoy your trip, and if ever you drop by in Pune (MH), you need to go and say hi to some people for me! (I'll tell you where to eat too ;-))

Posted by: Stephanie on March 9, 2003 02:59 AM

And dont forget to visit Kerala - it is truly god's own country

Posted by: Rahul on March 30, 2003 01:38 PM

best wishes for 2566 birthday of SHAKYA MUNI TATHAGAT GAUTAM BUDDHA.
and send me ur email in my email id.

Posted by: G.S. Shakya on May 25, 2003 08:00 AM

hi there, ur site is sooo cool, i just wish u had someone in india to take you around a bit... especially to see the colours in varanasi, the indian templen in rajasthan and the magical architectural wonders of the country.. however i have already shortlisted atleast 5 places i wanna explore next year.... you couldnt have catalogued experiences better...
if you are in New Delhi, India drop a line..

Posted by: sarika on December 6, 2003 02:52 PM

As many people have, I find your site wonderful. Insightful and thorough, not to mention well written. We could have used some advice for our own travel website at

Best of luck.

Posted by: John on June 23, 2004 04:13 PM

The most outstanding landmark of Kolkatta is nothing but the Howrah Bridge.

The recent movie by Maniratnam - Yuva, showed the true spirit of Kolkattans.

I really miss good ol Rashogullas..

Posted by: Natasha on August 20, 2004 10:49 AM

Comments closed.


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