Namaste

The small boy with the painted-on mustache and the well worn knock off Polo cap performed his acrobatic trick of fitting himself through a series of metal rings while his little sister, who couldn’t have been more than 6, did handstands and cartwheels between the cars idling at the traffic light. It was an impressive act even by street urchin standards so I rolled down the window and handed out a 10 rupee note. The boy snatched it from my hand as the light turned and our car pulled away. “Namaste!” he called after me.
The first time someone in India said ‘namaste’ to me I wondered if I shouldn’t be lying on a thin rubber mat struggling to climb out of a mediation-induced nap at the end of a yoga class. This is when the teacher puts her palms together, bows and mummers ‘namaste’ in a reverential tone. The class dutifully replies with a chorus of ‘namaste’. I always thought this was an affectation perpetrated by Americans wishing to get in touch with their inner India, as if 45 minutes of downward dog and planks weren’t enough. I also thought it signified the end of yet another excruciating session of trying to persuade my body to assume positions I had no right to expect of it.
The standard greeting here from children is “Hullo! Hullo!” followed by “Pen! Pen!” I used to think these kids were really into writing until I figured out that they sell the pens, unloading them at a tidy profit. According to some, it was Lyndon Johnson who initiated the “Gimme the pen!” plague when he arrived for a state visit carrying a boatload of pens – one for every child in India and Pakistan. The bolder children demand “Rupee! Rupee!” And I’ve taken to replying with a an incredulous look, saying, “You want to give me a rupee?” That tends to flummox them long enough for me to make a break for it.

20130317-112612.jpg“Only two more weeks,” David said over dinner last night. “Are you ready to go home?” It’s complicated. This has been an extraordinary time for me and for us as a couple. So far it has exceeded my most fervent hopes and my wildest expectations. The ability to travel at a slow pace, at times making it up as we go along, being well supported in terms of good drivers, staying in nice hotels and home stays, meeting and making friends along the way, have been pleasures for which we are most grateful.
So far, with the exception of David walking into glass doors and straying too close to the ocean floor, we have remained healthy. We seem to be able to sense when the other is ready to call it a day and even though we are together 24/7 there’s a mutual respect for personal space even in the smallest hotel room.
In spite of my fears David seems to have embraced retirement with the grace of Nureyev and the good humor of a man who has clearly made the right choice. I seem to have found it easier to write without the lurking presence of my destructive inner critic. After an initial period of frustration I’ve come to really enjoy writing this blog and hearing such positive encouragement from many of you. I’m coming home with 30 rolls of 120 black and white film I shot with my Holga plastic camera as well as enough digital captures to keep me busy editing for a long time. I am pretty sure that I met my goal of 12 images of which I can be truly proud.
David, meanwhile, has discovered his inner writer, and has come to appreciate all those modifiers that lawyers typically eschew. He was always droll, but now he’s downright funny. From the comments you’ve left (which I am still trying to figure out how to make public), I can see that you share my view that his talents extend far beyond writing an awesome brief.
So, what do I miss? Family and friends, of course. I long to hear Elijah’s laugh in person instead of on FaceTime and to see how much he’s grown. I miss all our kids very much.
I don’t miss snow and ice, grey skies, slippery roads and winter clothes. I don’t miss fleece and socks and hats and mittens. I do miss sushi, olive oil and being able to drink water out of the tap. I miss Provincetown. I miss Miss Pearl.
But once we leave India I know I will miss the excitement, the people, and the place. I’ll miss the crazy, dusty kaleidoscope of colors, the assault of noise and even (most of) the smells. I’ll miss wearing light cotton clothes and sandals in the middle of winter. I’ll certainly miss knowing there’s the possibility of a great photo around every corner.

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I will miss having David within speaking distance whenever I have something to tell him. I’ll miss looking up and seeing him right there pecking away at the computer or finally getting the time to actually sit down and read a book. I’ll miss the silent signals we’ve learned to use when words don’t work or aren’t appropriate to say aloud.
I’ve gotten used to living out of a suitcase. I don’t miss my closet or its contents at all. I really like hotel bathrooms and have learned to embrace the bucket and scoop method of showering (more on that later).
As we waited at the airport in Hyderabad for the plane to Jaipur, Sweet Caroline played in the background sandwiched in between Muzak arrangements of Hotel California (cue my sons rolling their eyes) and Norwegian Wood (the sitar making itself known even in the airport version). Hearing those tunes induced a wave of homesickness. Then to top it off after not having turned on a television for almost four months I switched on the one in our hotel room in Delhi to find sandwiched between two Bollywood movies this one: (10 rupees if you can name it).

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I love that I live in America, our fabulous president, and that I can come and go without having to worry about a green card or quota. Speaking of going, we’re already planning our next trip here. We hear Gujarat is spectacular in January and February and there’s a game preserve where everyone gets to see a tiger.

David’s Observations on Enlightenment

Did you hear the one about the nose on the guy in a rush who was staying in a hotel with a glass lobby door that was very very clean and clear?

And then there is the one about the nose on the guy who, 10 days earlier, had dived head-first into a breaking wave in the surf while forgetting for the moment that the water on the far side of a breaking wave can get very shallow.

Well, enough about me.

On the road from Bharatpur (where we saw all the “bharats” and other birds) to New Delhi, we passed through a town called Mathura. Our driver pulled up in front of a large temple and suggested that we might like to go inside. He said it was a temple to Krishna, who had been born in Mathura, and that the guru at the temple had just died last year at the age of 115. There was a sign on the fence in front of the temple saying that all were welcome and that donations were permitted only by vegans in recovery.
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We left our shoes at the gate and entered the temple. It was new, made of white marble. The interior was cavernous and unadorned. When we left and retrieved our shoes, the man handed us a paper with printing on both sides, with the request:

“Please read. Do not throw away.” Here are some excerpts from the guru’s messages:

“First, be a vegetarian. Don’t take flesh and egg…. Don’t kill any animal, any living creature or man. The pain which we feel, they also feel the same….
“Secondly, don’t take intoxicants that may inebriate you to such an extent that you fail to recognize your mother, sister or daughter….
“Thirdly, honesty and hard work are required every where. It grants you prosperity and pleasure. It will never make you impoverished. What more do you need? …
“Note:- Please don’t throw this paper bearing the message of this saint, read it your self thoroughly and deeply and make it available to be read by others.”

So we did not throw the paper away, and we now make it available to be read by you. Hare Krishna.

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We got an introduction to another religion a couple of days ago when we visited the “Lotus Temple”, which is the Bahai temple in New Delhi. We went to visit the temple as a tourist site, and it is a “must see” for every visitor. The exterior of the temple is something like the Sydney Opera House, with soaring free-standing concrete shells. The temple has 27 of them that form the petals of a giant lotus blossom that creates, in turn, a central hall capable of seating 2,500 people on a single level.

The beauty of the building and the precepts of the Bahai faith that we saw on various inscriptions made us come back the following day for a service. It consisted of individuals going up to a lectern and reading prayers from the Bahai holy writings and also from Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam, and the Old and New Testaments. The sound was other-worldly because of the echo of the readings within the huge hall. It was not an echo of the spoken words themselves. It was a reverberation of the pitch and tone of the speaker’s words that created the sensation of being inside an immense pipe organ.

The story of the construction of the temple is just as compelling as the structure itself. In contrast to the Sydney Opera House (whose shells are precast concrete forms supported by precast concrete beams), the temple’s shells were poured onsite. That may not sound like much. However, each shell had to be created with a single concrete pour, and the central petals extend more than 120 feet above their base. That translated into a 24/7 concrete pour that lasted 14 days for each “petal”. Once the concrete work was finished, the petals were clad with marble from the same quarry in Greece that is said to have provided the marble for the Parthenon.

And most of the work in the concrete pours and the rest of the construction was done by hand, including the excavation of the site. Men dug out the site with picks and shovels, and women carried the dirt and stones off the site in large baskets balanced on their heads. Each woman is said to have carried several tons of dirt and stone each day. Like the pyramids, but this was all done in the mid-1980s and (except for volunteers who came from around the world) these laborers were paid wages, albeit at rates that would shock and distress many of us.

One other thing struck me about the temple. In the temple’s information center there are about 12 – 15 large display panels, each containing a quotation from a different religion’s holy writings that illustrate Bahai’s principle of the unity of all religions. The quotation from Christianity is the prayer “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your might…” I couldn’t understand this prayer being attributed to Christianity because I’ve always known it as Judaism’s Shema Yisrael. So I “googled” (forgive me all you Google IP lawyers) the quoted language and found that it also appears in Mark (12:30), Matthew (22:37) and Luke(10.27). Talk about the unity of religions!

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Jain Temple Charity Bird Hospital

I think we surprised our one-day guide here in Delhi by asking to visit the Jain temple located in the old city. He had never been there, he admitted. The temple itself was buried inside an arcade sheltered block of stalls that gave no clue that anything special was inside.

I have a particular fondness for the Jain sect. This is based on the very little I know about them. Non-violent to a fault, they believe that it’s wrong to kill anything, and thus can sometimes be found wearing masks over their mouths to prevent the entry of a stray insect (not an unheard of occurrence in this country). Apparently it’s also not uncommon to find them naked – the reasons for this I am not certain because in this hotel room Google does not respond to my requests for enlightenment on this subject – or any other subject as a matter of fact. However I continue to to probe, so stay tuned.*

We had to circle the block to find an entrance to the temple and when we did it was necessary to leave everything, especially anything made with leather, with the guard at the door. We had, as is always the custom at religious sites in India, already removed our shoes, but this time we also had to leave our wallets behind. We were ushered one at a time in the company of our guide up the stairs into the temple. David and the guide went first. I sat on a stone bench enjoying the beautiful spring weather. I glanced over my shoulder and to my great joy I saw the sign for the Charity Bird Hospital which I had read about in the Lonely Planet and had put toward the top of my list of things I wanted to see in Delhi.

My visit to the temple was truncated at it was past noon at this point and the temple was closing. At the top of a narrow stone staircase was a wall with low, almost child-sized decorative white metal doors. The guide knocked and the door swung open. Ducking into the small and intimate space was akin to walking into a jewel box owned by someone with good taste and a lovely large budget. The walls and ceiling were gold (leaf or paint I couldn’t say for certain) inlaid with peacock blue and green enamel. There were small nooks sheltering flower garlanded Ganeshes (not sure that’s the correct plural of Ganesh) sitting behind food offerings and a thin curtain of smoky incense. It was rather a whirlwind visit, but the overall effect was one of tranquility and subdued splendor.

The Charity Bird Hospital adjacent to the temple is under the auspices of the Jains and is something only a true bird lover would relish visiting. But for a bird lover it is an truly inspirational experience – not that this facility is populated by exotic species lolling around being hand fed while their broken wings mend. While there are a few green parakeets and budgies, ninety present of the avian population are cage after cage filled with pigeons rescued from the streets and gutters. These are truly sad sacks who arrive near death. Some are rehabilitated, but I am guessing most will live out their remaining (and numbered) days in clean cages being well fed and lovingly cared for. As much as David grouses about having to share domestic space as well as my attention with Pearl, I could see he was touched by the whole scene. He outdrew me when it came to leaving a donation.

Jain Temple in Old Delhi

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*All about Jain religion

Exciting, Delicious News From Taipei

If you find yourself in Taipei craving a cookie just like grandma used to make there’s finally a place to go. Here’s our granddaughter Julia at the counter of the city’s newest and instantly popular new venue. Our son Jonathan named his new business after my mom (his grandmother and Julia’s great grandmother), Millie Apter, who happened to be the world’s finest cookie maker. I am certain Millie is smiling down from heaven, sending them blessings. We are very proud.
BTW: those prices are in Taiwan currency.

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Here’s Julia taking after her great grandma:

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Tiger Tiger Burning Bright

We told Max that we were calling from the tiger preserve. He wanted to know how they get the tigers in the little glass bottles. We told him that there were very few tigers left to preserve because most of them had been poached. He said, “I guess that’s how they get them in the little glass bottles.”

We had high hopes of spotting one of the remaining 15 tigers left in Rhanthambhore National Park, located about 3 hours east of Jaipur in the Indian state of Rajasthan. Every day jeeploads of expectant tourists are bounced up and down over sandy paths and rock strewn roads that are river beds when the monsoons come. Many spines are realigned and many fillings shaken lose from teeth.

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Many tourists did, in fact, see tigers. We could hear them comparing sightings over the buffet table at the fancy hotel where we stayed.

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We did, in fact, spot some wildlife:

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And remained hopeful through the very last minutes of our third and final outing while we waited for an hour at the spot on the trail were just minutes before a tiger had crossed the road right in front of the jeep traveling in front of us. The final blow came when our trusty driver Laxman arrived and told us that the day before he had gone to the temple just outside the park and there was a tiger sleeping off his last meal in full view of dozens of spectators. He (Laxman, not the tiger) didn’t even have to pay to get into the park or sign up for a rather expensive jeep safari.

This was about as close as we got to seeing a tiger:

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Unlimited Capactiy

“There’s always room for one more” has a whole different meaning in India. There doesn’t seem to be a limit to the number of bodies that can squeeze into a bus or taxi. Granted you may have to ride up on the roof of the bus or cling to the back of the taxi, but if you can find a grip or foothold you are good to go.

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Public transport isn’t the only thing that’s overloaded:20130312-182123.jpg

Here’s what a school bus looks like in the outskirts of Delhi:

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Two Indias, Two Kilometers and A Thousand Worlds Apart

If you want to begin to get a sense of the vast gulf between the classes in India, our stay in Ranthambore is a good place to start. Our hotel was an opulent maharaja’s palace, and the village, 2 km. away, was just an ordinary place. No real poverty visible to us on the street. Just an ordinary village, but the contrast was still striking for us. I shot the first video as we traveled by jeep through the village. It gives a tiny sense of the total craziness that is India, and why we love it so. I can’t figure out how to edit video on this iPad, so the beginning isn’t nearly as interesting as the end. I urge you to stick with it at least until the cows, the pigs and the camels have their star turns.

Outside The Palace

The second video was taken inside the hotel grounds. The hotel (quite a few leagues beyond where we typically stay) was being used as a stage set for a popular Indian television series. To be able to go from one world to the other by virtue of who we are and where we come from is never far from my mind.

Inside the Palace

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Jaipur to Ranthambore

We have a good driver to take us on the long circuit from Jaipur to Ranthambore and its tiger preserve, then to Bharathpur and its the bird sanctuary, and then on to Delhi for five days before we head north to Amritsar and the hill stations. The road goes from sort of a paved four lane highway, to an unpaved road, and back again. Our careful driver knows I am looking for photo ops and slows down or pulls over when something interesting appears. Here are a few of the things you’ll most likely never see on the Mass Pike:

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Perhaps my favorite of all was the camel caravan of Indian gypsies carrying their homes and all their belongings with them (dogs ride free):
Here’s the link:
camel caravan

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