May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your rivers flow without end, meandering through pastoral valleys tinkling with bells, past temples and castles and poets’ towers into a dark primeval forest where tigers belch and monkey’s howl, through miasmal and mysterious swamps and down into a desert of red rock, blue mesas, domes and pinnacles and grottos of endless stone, and down again into a deep vast ancient unknown chasm where bars of sunlight blaze on profiled cliffs, where deer walk across the white sand beaches where storms come and go as lightening clangs upon the high crags, where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you---beyond that next turning of the canyon walls. ---Edward Abbey (thanks Trudy Hall)

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Delhi Moving East to Kolkata

Hanuman the Monkey God
April 26—We were taking bets if the pickup that Amir arranged would be there.  No, it was not.  Luckily we had the address of our new digs, and paid a guy $14 to take us there.  While Les slept off the bus ride, I caught up on email with the Wi-Fi at The Pearl Hotel.  The day was spent at the tourist office getting our final vouchers, having lunch and arranging our last hotel stay.  I ended up the night on the bathroom floor with my intestines cramping and finally succumbing to taking the drugs I got for anti-diarrhea, which took 15 minutes—and I was better.  It worked so well, it was scary.

Goddess who rides on lions

April 27—Sanjay picked us up from the hotel, we stopped by the Tour Office to say bye, and were off to Agra!  Just driving is full of surprising images, and dust clouds fill our eyes and noses.  I saw two men drilling a well by hand—pressing hard on a stick perpendicular to the drill circling the hole.  All kinds of construction materials balance on bicycles: from I-beams, to large sheets of mattress filling, to pipe and more.  Bags the size of a typical truckloads balance and sag on the back of a small truck.  Oxen pull carts full of farm goods.  Sanjay says he little green and yellow 3-wheeled tuk-tuks can carry up to 24 passengers!  “Honk! I’m here and I’m going. Honk!”
Sue at the gate where Krishna was born

Dog goD

Bindis from Krishna's birthplace
Just before noon, we stopped at Mathura where Lord Krishna was born.  This place is a BIG deal.  At the Katra Masjid Mosque we were able to see a likeness of him in pink attire where people were praying and paying their respects.  At noon, a great bell sounded, people gathered in front of Krishna and yelled something (I imagine it was, “have a good nap, Krishna”), and they closed the curtain.  We wandered about to the Kesava Deo temple where was his actual birthplace (not as crowded as Jesus’s birthplace in Bethlehem), and a woman gave me a bindi with yellow ochre.  The priest asked me to touch the rock and then my forehead.  It was a beautiful tiny dark room.  We heard men singing and playing music, and tried not to burn our feet on the hot marble.  Before we left, people were going through a cave in an imitation mountain and waterfall that was made out of the same things theme parks or miniature golf scenes are made of.  We didn’t go through….

Les at Akbar's Gate

Les at Akbar's Mausoleum Gate

In the hottest part of the day (~110° F), we stopped at the mausoleum for Akbar, the greatest emperor of the Mughal dynasty in the town of Sikandra. 
All the colorful sarees!

It was a magnificent edifice with tons of geometric designs made of marble and other precious stone embedded in the sandstone.  Impressive!  We sat at various parts of the grassy garden in the shade like other couples, and watched butterflies, parrots, antelopes and large heron-like birds, and the people.  I had a first: someone there referred to me as "grandmother!"
Sanjay took us to a place for lassi and samosas.  Though it looked pretty dirty and swarming with flies, the food and drink was spectacular.  The best part is that they make their disposable dishes out of natural things; the bowl is made of pressed leaves and the cup is clay that gets smashed and remade into another cup.  The potters stay in business too.

Here it IS! WOW!

Casual conversation in a formal garden

The Taj Between Us
The Gate

Les, Mohammed and Sanja
Gate detai
April 28—We saw what we had been waiting for—the Taj Mahal!  An arranged guide (Mohammed) got in the car and quickly told us all about what we could take and not take, what to pay and what to expect.  In each of these tourist sites I was mightily frisked; I think women must carry phones and cameras around their breasts, as that is where they check the most.  The line for foreign women was very, very short compared to the Indian women line. 
Soon Mohammed had us taking a multitude of pictures as we entered the site and later told us all about the story that made this truly remarkable mausoleum.  Clearly, the artisans who carved the marble and inlayed the stones knew their stuff.  I don’t know how they could work on such a large scale and have it all perfectly symmetrical.  We enjoyed going into the mosque where there were little markings in the floor for each person to kneel in a line, and going into the center of the Taj Mahal, clad with our shoe covers, where the replica of the crypts were.  Apparently the reason they don’t let people tour the crypts downstairs anymore is because too many people were suffocating.  They don’t let people climb the towers either because it’s a place where love-sick people would commit suicide by jumping if they cannot marry the one they love (it's a very loving monument).  Looking out over the river was nice too.  There was a garden and an army camp on the other side.  He said that if there was any trouble, the soldiers could shoot from there.
We had the whole day to kill after the tour.  We hung out in a restaurant for a while, and then discovered that Les’s phone wasn’t there.  We couldn’t take it in to the Taj, so it should have been in his bags.  We decided that it fell off the chair in the hotel, so Sanjay took us back to the Hotel Agra Mahal to look for it.  It was not there, and the person who cleaned said he didn’t find it.  Sanjay tried calling it and no one answered.  Then we tried a few more times and he said whoever has it turned it off.  Yes someone else has his phone!  Grrrr. We should have made a fuss then, but I think Sanjay didn’t want to make waves with his friends at the hotel.

Taj Mahal FRAMED

Agra Fort
Miniature of the Taj Mahal

 We went to Agra Fort to look around.  Folks were crowding certain places, looking at the Taj Mahal from a distance and trying to find shade.  It was an ok stop.
Sanjay's Info
As was typical of most of the guides, he stopped well before the drop off at the train station and asked if we liked his work and if he did a good job.  This was our 2nd cue to give him a tip.  Les handed him $20, and he gave a common response, “Is this good? “ (Is that all?)
Upper Class Gents

Active, cute kids

Girls on the night train
We spent the next several hours in the “upper class gents” lounge where there were also women and children.  Les charmed a little boy and girl who constantly played rough together and had a gorgeous mother.  We found a desk to ask questions about how catching trains works here: where do we wait? How far in advance can we board? Is there any food for sale?  Water?  Men were squirming their way to the information window yelling things and waiving money.  The guy inside was moving slowly, smoothly and calmly dealing with one at a time.  Les joined the shoving and asked the most succinct questions I’ve ever heard him ask!  We made our way to the mosquito-infested platform, and found out that our train was late, and later.  It finally left an hour late. 
Man who kept our luggage and a lot of paper
Though it was oppressively hot, folks seemed to be jovial and active as they waited.  I wanted to be more like them.  The berth had 6 beds, so if the middle bed was folded out one could not sit upright in the bottom bunk.  The family that started with us left and others shifted in all night.  Trying to stay quiet for sleeping people must not be a high value.
April 29-30—We arrived in the holy city of Varanasi, and a man came up to me to show me a text message with my name on it.  Someone was there to pick us up!  (Yes, Amir!) He handed us off to another guy who had a car and who drove us to a very fancy hotel called the Surabhi International Hotel.
Yummy veggie food! The rounds are stuffed potatoes.

City scene of Varanasi from our roof

  Our room was enormous, with warm water and a real shower/bathtub, toilet paper, morning newspaper, super great food at the restaurant, and A/C.  Best of all, the electricity would turn off about 20 times a day, but the hotel had a generator that would keep everything cool and lit.  A guide (Ashoka, sent from Amir) came to show us around, but we wanted to sleep off the train ride, so Les asked him to come back the next day at 1:00.  The next day we waited for him for about an hour, and when we called he said it wasn’t convenient for him to come now, but would be there the next day at 3:30.  We arranged a guide through the hotel for the morning to take us to the ghats (steps going down into the river) along the Ganges in a boat.
Sacred Ganges
Our boatman (rat under floorboards)

Busy and sacred ghat
...for every size shape and color
I forgot to ask about the umbrellas
Les and a thriving temple (red) behind him
Largest cremation ghat

Temple on top a colorful ghat

Chanting prayers on the gha
May 1—Amit Singh Kushwaha (guide) sent a driver to get us, and through the streets we went toward the holy Ganges River.  He got scalding hot coffee for each of us, and we stood with the men talking politics, reading the paper and socializing before work.  We walked through the crowds approaching the river to bathe, stopped at a platform where a priest blessed us and gave us each a bindi (for a price), and we jumped into a simple boat with a floor where a rat was hiding.  (The boatman sent that rat swimming at one point.)  Our dock was the ghat where a king sacrificed 10 horses.  It’s the most holy ghat where we saw newlyweds—she in her dazzling red saree and he in a brilliant turban—coming here still attached by a white scarf after their wedding.  People were soaping up vigorously, dunking themselves, pouring water over themselves, praying, playing, swimming, and conversing.  We rowed down the river and saw more ghat that were less crowded and made by kings who wanted a second home here by the river.  Some of them were transformed to guesthouses; some of them looked abandoned.  We came to the laundry area where sheets and clothes were laid out along the steps to dry.  Men were whipping the laundry against large, flat stones, then rinsing again.  Then we came to the small cremation ghat.  There was one big fire burning, a large pile of logs on the shore with a man draped over it top-face up, and men from the family were pouring sandalwood shavings and clarified butter over the body.  The man looked very well taken care of, and would soon become ashes (except for the pelvis and sternum) to be put into the Ganges with the rest of the millions of people before him.  Apparently, certain folks who die like pregnant women, cannot be burned and are instead thrown in the Ganges with a big rock to sink them, where the fish, crocodiles and turtles can return them to the cycle of nature.  Women are not invited to the burning where the eldest son or the father lights the pyre, for fear that she would be overcome with emotion and hurl her body on the fire.
We turned around and rowed downstream looking at all the colorful buildings and steps.  There were temples—one busy one with corporate advertising painted on it.  We ended at the larger cremation ghat, where there were heaps of ashes and trash piles of sheets and décor that came off the body before cremation.  The buildings themselves looked charred and black.  We really enjoyed our time with Amit; there didn’t seem to be any hidden agendas, and he was very informative!

Temple rules
University Temple
We got a call from the desk at 1:00 saying our guide was here. Ashoka said that he couldn’t make it later to show us the evening festivities, and that he would like to take us on a temple tour.  We went with him to the University temple where he showed us where people were giving milk, flowers, money and coconut to the priest in a little walled in area around a pouring fountain that had a hanging copper pot with a small hole in the bottom where water was streaming down onto this pouring fountain.  People would touch the water and then their foreheads and receive blessings from the priest.  There were different areas where people could read about, view the likeness of, and touch little brass feet at the door of each god or goddess: Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Ganesh, and others. 
Toothbrushes.  Chew on the stick and brush.

Fish Vender cuts fish
When we came back to get our shoes, I didn’t have 3 rupees (I saw on a sign that each pair of shoes costs 1 rupee to guard.)  —only 1 or 20.  I gave the guy the 20.  I had to ask for the change.  He gave me 10.  I pointed to the sign and indicated I needed more change.  “As you wish,” said another man.  I asked for 5 Rs.  He shook his head no.  Now I don’t care about the money.  It’s a dime.  But instead of asking me for it, taking it from me feels discourteous.  I resent that; and that’s the part of the cultural exchange I don’t think I understand.  I can only assume at this point that they see me as someone who can afford it, and they need it, and that it’s only logical that they should have it.  Why does it feel like I’m disrespected?  It’s that way when people aren’t clear when booking tours, when taking a taxi, when entering a retail business. “Culture Shock.”

Hand weaving my the Muslims

Punch cards tell the loom the design
Next we went to see the silk saree weaving process.  We met another man who showed us a place where boys were hammering punches out of some cards that would tell a loom how to make a design in the fabric.  It reminded me of the computer cards from my youth.  Next, we walked down narrow, dark hallways where they died the fabric with vegetable dyes in hot water, and then to a cramped area with looms.  The dirt floor had holes where the legs could hang down and work the pedals.  The men tossed the bobbin back and forth as they pushed the pedal that would change the computer card at the top of the loom.  Weaving this way is the job of the Muslims. As we entered the “call to prayer” ensued, so we didn’t get to see much weaving; they left to go to the mosque.  Next, the man took us to the showroom.  We sat and looked at the fabric on shelves, and he talked to us about how the business was certified Fair Trade.  I really enjoyed seeing the process, and I thought about our weaving teachers at Emma, and how much they would have enjoyed seeing the cards and the whole process.
May 2—When I think about it, almost EVERYthing I see in the street is different than home: all the animals—mangy dogs yelping in the night, the folks sitting deep in their squalid stalls selling food, snacks, drinks, etc., the colorful and rigged together or live transportation cramped with as much as folks can carry or push and pull, dirt and dust rising into eyes and through my scarf into nostrils, the mixed smells of jasmine, cow dung, incense and sizzling spices, the sounds of call to prayer or the endless loud shocking beeping of vehicles, the bland dress of men in button up collared shirts and jewel-like bling-y wrappings on the women, people who approach me with “Hello, Madame…,” and I feel so rude to ignore them, but sorry if I actually engage…the desperation…, the head wiggle that I love so much and don’t quite understand, the movies with coy flirtatious girls and pursuing boys and fantastic unison dancing using eyes and faces in stylized ways, the ways the sexes intensely self-segregate, bathing and making fires anywhere in public, physical crowding and cutting in line, the food that has given me brand new tastes and a huge appreciation of how varied a vegetarian diet can be, the temples and what it is like to pay respect to something sacred along with the endless stories and gods that Hindus know and use as references, how basic things can be, and still work—how little one actually needs—how some don’t have 20 cents a day on which to live, the impermanence of some trash (Yeah, India) and how permanent is the trash more akin to mine at home, babies with heavy eye-liner to keep away “the evil eye,” and the pace of things that still makes my head reel trying to make sense of the chaos and etiquette.  Whew, India.
Men in lines at the train station
Monkeys at the train station
We went to the train station about an hour early.  Les stood in line to ask questions regarding our ticket and learned about how older Indian women feel they have a right to cut right at the beginning of a long line.  It’s another cultural tradition.  Les gave the firm elbow tradition in return.  Finally he gave up and we went around the tracks past the baby monkey and family of cows where people helped us figure out exactly which car and seat we had.  (It wasn't on the sheet we got from Amir.)  We are thankful for the cars that are air-conditioned.  Our 4-person berth was full of 6 people.  A woman who said that they were a family of three asked if one of us could stay in the bunk across the hall instead.  We obliged but sat in the berth.  Who were the other two?  We never really found out, and we ended up staying the night with the family of three anyway.  We ordered dinner, that came at 9:30: soup, curry, rice, and chapattis.  The water in a bag looked strange, so we left it.  It has been quite enough food for me when we split a meal.

May 3—I got to watch how a 3-year old Sikh boy (Justraj) gets his hair braided and wrapped.  His father so lovingly tied the square fabric in the back and wrapped the two back corners around the bun above Justraj’s forehead and ended with a kiss. 
Sikh Family

Victoria, the shape of her building

Sue at Victoria Monument
We got to the Astoria Hotel, and it looked pretty run down.  The room was big, had an air conditioner under the window, but the pillowcases and bathroom floor had hair all over it.  I didn’t mind the little cockroaches that folks can’t help in a tropical place, but it didn’t look like it had been cleaned.  After a nap and going downstairs for a meal, we asked if we could change rooms to the new part.  Yes, for twice the price.  Later I asked if I could borrow a mop, squeegee and soap to clean the bathroom.  They sent someone up and I felt much better about it.  Soon it was clear that Les felt ill.  We arrived at the restaurant downstairs at 8:05, he couldn’t wait while dinner was being made so I stayed for the vegetable korma to appear.  The waiter brought me the check at 10:15.  I asked him where the vegetable korma had gone. “We don’t have korma.”  “Why didn’t you tell me?”  “I forgot.”  (I was the only one in the 8-table restaurant.) “What can I have for dinner at this point?”  “Nan?”  “Do you have anything with vegetables?” “Mixed vegetables.”  5 minutes later I had my little delicious platter of veggies, and 3 minutes after that the kitchen went dark and was closed.  I slept with a beautiful lightning and thunderstorm outside.

Les finds pupils wherever he goes!
May 4—Les still feeling ill, so I caught up on this journal.  Later we went out to explore, ate a lemon pancake and lassis, found a million people playing cricket in the park, and wandered down to Queen Victoria’s monument. It was a grand, white place with bulbous towers and huge gardens that people were enjoying in small groups.  We passed the reflection pond with dozens of hawks roosting in a grand tree, a sidewalk with 3 geese who kept watch and who Les entertained, then wandered toward some music.  It was a rally or celebration of sorts giving rise to the issues of killing children; which reminds me of a story our driver told us…. He said that his wife was in labor for 3 days delivering his second son.  A woman who just delivered a daughter asked the doctor to throw the baby out; and before he did this, the driver’s wife said, “Please don’t; we will take her.”  So the driver considers this daughter a gift from God.  Wow.  It is a different world here….
"Contains No Fruit"  ? (bottom)

Back to the walk, we found ourselves in an area where people were gathering.  It was growing dark; the nearly full moon rising.  Bats were out to get those nasty mosquitos. (GO BATS!)  Suddenly, the old set of pipes in a barely-filled fountain spurted water, light and music!  It was very sophisticated!  Water sprouted and spun and hurled into the night sky! Wee. A man behind us sang along with the three songs and then it was over.  We kept walking south, passing another lit fountain with lovers—some with chaperones me thinks—all around it on the dark benches.  We crossed, looking for an Indian fast food joint called Haldiram Bhujiwala, but we kept coming up in the wrong place.  We weren’t sure what “dangerous” looked like either.  Were those guys drunk?  What did the man who approached Les and said, “Father,” want?  What about those huge holes in the dark sidewalk?  Is there cow poo in there too?  Every time Les takes out the video camera, 2-5 men gather round to see through the viewfinder with him; it’s actually very funny—like an instant magnet.  We finally found the place, with a small girl sleeping and begging (holding a metal plate) outside each door. (I gave her my clay cup filled with leftover sauces.)  A doorman let us in, we looked through the menu and thought we would try something we’ve never heard of from southern India, paid at the kiosk and went to the appropriate counter to pick it up.  That was quite efficient.

bugs on the bathroom floor. Oops
 May 5—Because I left the bathroom light on, millions of bugs came in, touched the hot bulbs and died.  The floor and spider webs were flooded with these bugs.  Live and learn.

We went to the India Museum that was right at the end of our street, and walked into every cranny they had. We saw tons of stone statues, mostly of gods and animals to form doorways, stupas, temple panels and gargoyles.
Under an Ancient Doorway: India Museum
Dog Kisses
One of my favorites was a bed-sized footprint of Buddha.  One area had panels that depicted all kinds of scenes, from a group using an elephant to pull a man’s tooth, to scenes with gods dancing on bodies they’ve killed.  Another room featured taxidermy animals and reconstructed skeletons.  I liked looking to see which ones had fused sacrums.  I loved the cervical spine of the giraffe, and the hole where the dolphins spew air and water.  The extremely tall legs and short body of the elephant seemed weird.  In jars were freak babies: a goat with 8 legs, a two-headed sheep and a few normal looking human fetuses.  Another room showed an endless amount of mineral specimens and another a collection of ancient mollusk fossils.  They had a room that featured paintings that was pretty filthy--too bad.  An Egyptian room had a real mummy, explanations of how they built the pyramids, and I loved the lists of each of the god (water, air, earth, sun and a number of others).
Les's Deity Gene: God of Entertainment

I imagined that the Hindus could correlate some of their deity to the Egyptians.  Another curious display was a series of cases with indigenous people from all over India.  There were life-sized models of what the people looked like doing some typical thing like fishing or grinding grain, wearing appropriate costume, and a description of their habitat and culture as of the census of 1961.  Some African-looking people made homes in trees were polygamist, and were watchful that no one took advantage of the women.

Mother Teresa's Tomb

After a quick lunch, we hired a tuk-tuk to take us to Mother Teresa’s mission.  We agreed on 100Rs, but (as in typical style) the man begged us for more as we left, yelling that he was a poor man.  As we went through the streets we saw chickens being killed and plucked, meat hanging in their stalls, men getting a shave, and dirty, poor people sitting against the buildings.  Mother Teresa’s tomb was very peaceful, with “I DO NOTHING HE DOES IT ALL” written in orange flower petals on top.  We went upstairs to see her simple bedroom. (How did she get up those stairs when she was so old?)  Downstairs was a collection of her words, photos, background, notes, peace prizes, sandals and dinner bowl, and other assorted things.  I admire her tenacity and faith.  Wow!  How she suffered and maintained the vision of Jesus’s love throughout her life!  I had no idea just how many fingers of outreach she had started and developed.  With all that in place, still there are plenty of poor in the city.  I wonder what it was like back when people were dying in the street everywhere.
Bindis from the ghats

We hired a rickshaw (a man with no shoes running through the streets with us in a light cart) to bring us back to the hotel for $2.  I went between feeling as I was causing this man physical pain, and giving him a job for 20 minutes that could feed his family for a couple of days.  Les already thought he’d give him more before he asked for more than his fare.  After Les gave him more rupees, he said that he needed boxes for his feet and to please give him more.  We had to walk away from him pleading for more.

Jasmine in my hair
We went to dinner at the Blue Sky Café and had “Vegetable Tarka” (Tarka is the name of our dog).  It was delicious!  We met Jannell, an American world traveler and blogger, and did the tourist chat with her.  It was so nice to talk with like tourists.  I also met some women at Mother Teresa’s place who were learning about and volunteering to help women get out of the prostitution cycle and the sex slavery trap.  I told them about Emma Willard’s “Slave No More” club and our efforts in Vietnam to connect with girls rescued from the sex slave world.
Les is a dandy
May 6—We woke at 3AM and took a car to the airport.  Now that the streets were relatively empty of cars, we could see how many people actually slept in the streets.  I was surprised to find MANY more than I expected.  Every raised platform, be it an entrance to a building, vegetable market stalls or parked flatbed truck had people (and dogs) sleeping there.  There were also lots of people who had opened cot springs and were sleeping on the sidewalk on these “beds.”  I saw only one with a mosquito net folded over him.  I also saw folks working with jackhammers and sledge hammers breaking up a cement road barefoot and in sarongs.

A garden in every cranny.  Imagine that in the US! Now THAT'S Progress!

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