It Was Just A Boring Highway Until…

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Incredible describes a few of our moments on an otherwise boring highway trip between Delhi and Agra.

The six lane road was opened just two years ago. It’s a massive expanse of concrete running across totally flat farm land as far as the eye can see, broken only by smokestacks of brick kilns spewing dark grey carcinogens into the pale blue sky. There was only light traffic on the highway, but that didn’t mean less potential for accidents. Traffic slowed and then stopped as we approached what looked like a major catastrophe. But one car coming from behind us was driving way too fast and the driver must not have seen the backup.  He swerved just in time to avoid sideswiping us and screeched to a stop an inch from the car ahead of us. Very close call. Our driver jumped out and had a heated finger shaking conversation with the miscreant, who just shrugged it off. The ambulances arrived to haul off the victims and we forged on.

The next event was a road block constructed by a group of disgruntled villagers.

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Do to our lack of understanding Hindi combined with our driver’s scant English we couldn’t quite get the whole story. But it involved the school and some sort of payoff and exams. Traffic backed up behind us as the entire village marched up to and across the highway, dragging branches to form a barrier. Then the police arrived and that was that.

We moved on to the next event which at first looked like a convention taking place in the middle of the highway. Nope, just a bus breakdown. An excuse for the passengers to get out and stretch their legs.

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Incredible India.

Two Faces of Agra

Four years ago David took did an awesomely romantic thing. He took me to watch the sunrise at the Taj Mahal. Only problem was that the January fog had thrown a wet blanket over most of that part of India and the view of one of the most famous tourist attractions in the world was considerably dampened. 100,000 people and I were mighty disappointed that day as there’s no lighting inside the Taj, which left us all pretty much in the dark.

Let’s hear it for dogged determination. Today David took me back to the Taj, this time in bright sunlight. That the other 100,000 tourists joined us wasn’t such a big deal. I’ve been in India long enough to push and shove with the best of them. The experience (not included the pushing and shoving) was magical on many levels. That you are actually at the Taj Mahal is an adrenaline rush of major proportions. Seeing that iconic edifice in all its gleaming glory just about takes your breath away. Reading that Shah Jahan built it as a mausoleum for his third wife Mumtaz Mahal after she died giving birth to their FOURTEENTH CHILD causes your jaw to drop in astonishment and (if you’ve ever had just one episiotomy) horror.

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The road in and out of Agra presented an entirely different slice of Indian life. Life on the street, while certainly colorful, is no bowl of mangoes.

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Desperately Seeking Ganesh

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In a last ditch attempt to bring back as many Ganesh related gifts as humanly possible for our Ganesh-infatuated grandson Elijah, we made one last stop at a bookstore in Delhi’s upscale Kahn Market. The choices were many, but we had already gone way past the point where anything heavier than a few ounces added to our luggage would cause British Air to tell us to hold a yard sale before we tried checking in. That meant rejecting the hefty Ramayana picture books. Also, even when scaled down to a children’s version there were still plenty of violent drawings depicting people and gods committing all sorts of heinous acts upon each other. Eli is a gentle soul and his parents and grandparents respect his aversion to scary things. So, it was on to the lighter weight Ramayana activity books featuring connect the dots, mazes and word searches.
We left the bookstore intending to walk to our next destination and asked several people to point us in the right direction. The first three told us it was too far to walk but the third, an urbane middle aged gent, said that while it was some distance, it was certainly walkable. When we asked about how far he replied, “About the distance from the Hudson River to the Gansevoort Hotel on Ninth Avenue.” Guess no one will ever confuse us with natives.

Connecting

The Internet – devil and angel. Devil when you’re thousands of miles from home, dying for news or an email from family or messages from Facebook friends. But you can’t connect and life becomes a game of watching the dreaded spinning ball or spiraling circle or glacially creeping blue line that goes no where. Angel when you throw a question into cyberspace and someone on the other side of the world responds and virtual friendships become real friendships.

This happened twice this trip. The first time was when I did a Google search for people doing alternative photography in India.* Only thing that came up was something called GoaCap – Goa Center For Alternative Photography. I applied for a short residency and was accepted for two weeks in February.

I pretty much didn’t know what to expect, so I packed up a lot of materials and supplies just in case (the biggest different between digital and alternative photography is the vast quantity and variety of things you need to actually make a photograph from film to chemicals to paper to cameras that don’t know from media cards). Much of what I took (film and photo paper) is negatively affected by trips through security scanners. Every plane ride necessitated first requesting and then arguing with gate agents and screeners about why my x-ray sensitive materials needed to be hand checked. Fifty percent of the time I won, the other 50 percent my film and photo paper lost.

I had two very productive weeks at Goa Cap thanks in very large part to Edson Diaz (shown here in a photo I took of him and his Leica):
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who was incredibly gracious with his time and expertise, teaching me processes such as albumen and salt printing – things I had never attempted before. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albumen_print. I had brought a pinhole camera with me and we also made one out of a metal pot. which actually took some pretty interesting photos after a lot of fine tuning by Edson:
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"20140216-2307<br Here are some examples of the prints I made at Goa Cap:
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These are a couple of prints I made using albumen and salt processing methods.

The 2nd connection I made thanks to the Internet was to a fellow I met on a photography forum called (oddly enough) The Ugly Hedgehog. All I knew about Indrajeet Singh was that he lived in Goa and took amazing photographs of birds. I sent him a message asking for advice about where to buy film in India and one thing led to another which led to a gracious invitation to dine at a marvelous Indian restaurant during our stay here. Mickey (Indrajeet’s nickname) and his lovely wife Zwe were charming, gracious hosts and who regaled us with stories of their adventures taking groups of photographers on wildlife safaris in parks and preserves all across India. We left that evening with two new friends as well as a long list of places to visit on our next trip here.
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*Alternative photography” in its simplest sense (and depending how strict your definition) is pretty much anything that’s not digital, although a digital picture that is processed (printed) in a way that doesn’t involve a ink jet printer (a cyanotype, for example) is considered Kosher – by some. It’s confusing. I know. I’ve been interested in alternative processing every since I took a course with Lana Caplan at MassArt. Lana Z Caplan. I’ve now taken this course 3 times and plan to take it again next fall. Last year I spent several weeks studying with Syko Song in Taipei (see the blogs for December 2013).

Our Guy Ganesh

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Meet Ganesh the lovable Hindu god who, among other things, removes obstacles and ensures success.

When our son Max returned from India with a small statue of Ganesh for his son, Elijah became so enchanted with the deity that he began to take on the persona. He actually began calling his mother Pavrati, which is the name of Ganesh’s maternal unit. He is also taking full advantage of Genesh’s ability to remove obstacles and give success. The ante was upped when Eli decided to make his own Ganesh costume, which we, his proud grandparents, think is totally brilliant:

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Max asked if we could bring home another small statue or a tee shirt or book about Ganesh for Eli’s arsenal. We got a little carried away (the birthright of grandparents) and found an adorable Ganesh tote:

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We haven’t found a tee shirt yet, but scored big time in the marvelous market in Mapusa (pronounced Mopsa) where we found a musical Ganesh nightlight that sings jaunty tunes to wake you up:


And helps you meditate your way to sleep.


I hope Eli likes it as much as we hope he might. Otherwise I’m claiming it for my bedside table.

Some images from the Mapusa market, which is where we went to ship home all the stuff the airlines will surely charge us for overweight.

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Friendly and eye catching locals:

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Some remnants of the Portuguese influence here:

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And a photo of another laid back Goan:

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Hindi, by Jessie Eisenberg

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Please note that I am eating authentic biryani in Hyderabad, the home of this most delectable rice concoction. Also please note that, according to local custom, I am eating it with my hand. My right hand to be specific, so as not to offend – or more accurately to repulse – any Indians who still use their left hands for other functions (in lieu of toilet paper, for example). Not visible in this picture is David, happily using a fork to convey this tasty meal into his mouth in a far more practical and expedient manner.

As Max has noted, paper napkins in India are wax coated, so they simply spread grease from one place to another. Thus, until you have access to hot water and soap, your biryani meal sticks to more than your ribs.

In Waltham, Massachusetts, where we live when we are not in India trying to escape the winter weather, I mean, in India seeking spiritual enlightenment, there are many people from India and for each one, it seems, an Indian restaurant. I would love to be able to enjoy a good dish of biryani close to home in any one of these Indian restaurants. But that’s not happening. Not because they don’t offer biryani. People say to us, “Oh, you live in Waltham. There are many Indian restaurants there. Why are they all so terrible?” I have no idea, but I can tell you, I’ve tried them all and gotten sick in each one.

Jessie Eisenberg (whom I will forever confuse with Mark Zuckerburg) is not only a talented actor, he is a funny writer. And a successful one as well, as witnessed by his piece in last week’s The New Yorker magazine (thankfully available on line here in India).

If I Was Fluent in Hindi, by Jessie Eisenburg

WAITER AT INDIAN RESTAURANT: Hello, sir, welcome to an authentic Indian restaurant. Do you have any questions about the menu?
ME: Yes. Why does your food always make me sick?
WAITER: Because we serve our American customers the kind with the weird spices that irritate their intestinal tracts.
ME: Oh.
WAITER: Yes, it’s official policy at all Indian restaurants.
ME: Well, what do you serve your Indian patrons?
WAITER: We give them a better kind of Indian food, which does not irritate their intestinal tracts.
ME: Can you give me the better kind?
WAITER: Yes, of course. Since you asked in my language, I feel more comfortable accommodating you.
ME: Thank you.
WAITER: Please don’t tell your American friends about the option to get Indian food that won’t make them sick.
ME: Of course I won’t tell them. It’ll be our little secret.

I’m starting those Hindi lessons tomorrow.

The StairMaster to Heaven or Living Proof that I Will Follow My Husband Anywhere

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Ever since I got to Petra (above) and David, laid low in Israel with a particularly nasty case of the eleventh plague, didn’t, I’ve had a bad case of traveler’s guilt. He was, after all, the one who had the passion to go there.  I was merely along for the ride – of course, until I saw it and felt a hundred times worse that I was there and he wasn’t. After hearing him wax rhapsodic about Palitana,

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I began to view his desire to go there as Petra – India style. Piece of cake, I figured. What’s 3,700+ stairs to someone who race-walked the Boston Marathon route? Our Gujarat group’s guides diplomatically singled out which of us they thought should (strongly) consider the palanquin option. I felt their placing me in the ‘good to climb’ group was all the incentive I needed to pass on the chair lift option. Anyway, there was no way I was going to pay four men to carry both me and a heavy bamboo seating arrangement up to the top of a mountain.

David gallantly rented walking poles, which I assumed could be also used for instruments of prodding lest I flag in my enthusiasm at any point in the ascent. And off we went.

Almost immediately I was encouraged by the sight of 1,000 pound four-legged pilgrims daintily making the journey along with us. If cows could do it how hard could it be? David seemed a little concerned when he realized there was a pair of wide-spread pointed horns about to pass alongside him.

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Apparently truly dedicated devotees make the round trip journey first thing in the morning before they go off to attend to the more secular aspect of their lives. We saw people of all ages flying past us in both directions. The younger members of our group along with those in Olympic fighting form (Patsy Chappell) took off at a quick clip. It didn’t take too long (1,000 steps +/-) for me to see that this wasn’t going to be any old walk in the park. I decided to pace myself to avoid crapping out with Nirvana in sight but not in hand.

There were folks carrying loads much more weighty than chocolate bars and bottles of water.

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“Are we there yet?” I thought, but didn’t ask after the first hour. Segments of every few hundred or so steps were broken by flat, shady ramps lined with benches. David must have been doing secret training for this ascent. Not only was he not winded, he was in ebullient spirits the entire way, in fact getting more energized the closer to the top we got. While I’d like to say it was contagious, I lagged behind, wishing I knew the Hindi for “Are we there yet?” so I could ask people on their way down. Finally the end was in sight.

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I trudged up the final run of stairs to find the others waiting for us. It was nice of them to say they’d only just arrived. Unfortunately we weren’t permitted to take any pictures of the temples. But trust me, it was quite magical. Hundreds of devotees chanting, making offerings, roses, marigolds, drums, and incense, brilliant colored saris and Jains in white robes. The view from the top was stunning in every direction.

Rested and fortified with chocolate we began the long march down. Halfway my calves began to cramp and my kneecaps began to quiver. My hips were grumbling. Any enlightenment I had attained by climbing up was soon replaced by the pain of descent. For days afterward my legs balked at the idea of any movement that involved even the most gentle downward slope. I’m happy to report that I wasn’t alone in my post-Palitana payback. Even Patsy admitted that her legs reminded her of the effort every time she had to walk downstairs.

Now that we’ve recovered I’m thinking that there’s always the Eiffel Tower. If you think to book ahead I understand a fine meal awaits there – and you can take pictures.

More Gujarat images

20140131-230520.jpg First of many geography lessons. Followed by a sign at the Somnath Temple http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Somnath
located on the shore of the Arabian Sea that read:
A far light stretching
Without obstruction
Up to the South Pole over
The end of the ocean.

We were treated to viewings of fabulous heirloom and antique textiles in private collections as well as artisan-made treasures waiting to become heirlooms:

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Artist’s hands at work:

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Village scenes and welcoming faces:

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Crazy architecture:

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20140131-231956.jpgSome people thought we were celebrities.
But in fact we were just some westerners in search of alternative modes of transportation:

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Or interested in local wildlife:

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Or simply color:

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Musings

“What country?” Is the question most asked of us by everyone from our waiter bringing us the steaming basket of butter nan, to the adolescent boys we pass on the street, and people we meet at the usual sightseeing places. We used to answer U.S., but now I just smile and say “Obama!” Everyone gets it. Everyone we’ve met loves him as much as we do.

Perhaps it’s that we’ve traveled off season, or to unusually remote places, but more often than not we are the only westerners in sight. The next question after “what country?” is “picture?” This does not mean they want us to take their picture. It means they want to have their picture taken with us. David is a good sport about it, I usually mention that I’m in the witness protection program.

I’m writing this post from home. It seems so weird that 36 hours ago I was standing at the edge of the Arabian Sea where a bunch of guys were doing astonishing things with a soccer ball.

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…and now I’m trying to sort through almost four months of mail.
We returned yesterday afternoon. Suitcases are mostly unpacked. The laundry is piled up ready to be dealt with. I’m trying to remember which gift is meant for which person. (Who did I promise this to?)

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The refrigerator is empty and we need to do some food shopping. I guess David was serious about retirement because he hasn’t talked about going to the office.
Instead of running around taking care of any of these things I am sitting here writing. That this blog has run its course makes me almost as sad as having the trip come to an end. After the initial frustration and negotiation with the learning curve, I have came to enjoy writing it very much. It was great to have David weigh in when he had something to say (having nothing to say never held me back). I am playing with the thought of continuing it on another subject and a soon as I find one that might remotely be of interest to anyone but me, I’ll throw it out there and wait for your feedback. I still have photos I want to post, so we won’t be be totally out of your lives. I am so grateful to you for reading the blog. Your comments and feedback created such an important connection to home for both of us.

For right now take good care and remember that’s there’s a whole, huge world out there, ready for your exploration and enjoyment.

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Lora

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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