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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Please turn off all cellphones at this time – Indian style

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During our stay in Hyderabad, a friend in the city urged us to go to a concert that she promised would be outstanding. The performers were an all-star duo of Shivkumar Sharma and Zakir Hussain.

Shivkumar Sharma is an Indian musician who brought an old Indian 90 to 100-stringed instrument called the santoor back from obscurity. He is considered to be a national treasure worthy of the Indian title “Pandit” (from which is derived our word “pundit”). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qvVtX-JiF28

Zakir Hussain is another giant in the Indian classical music world. He plays the tabla, which looks something like a pair of bongo drums. Sharma and his santoor were wonderful, but Hussain stole the show for me. What he is able to do with his hands on the drumheads was beyond amazing.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wOUM8K0-Wkc

Almost as amazing for us were the practices and audience etiquette at the concert. The first thing that struck us was the use of an emcee whose primary function was to get the audience’s enthusiasm up a notch: “Let’s put your hands together and give Pandit Shivkumar Sharma and Zakir Hussain a rousing welcome!”

Then the concert began and the audience participation really ramped up. Cell phones came out by the score and were held high to take photos and videos of the performance, with camera flashes going off repeatedly. Also, people continued to walk in and out throughout the performance, often walking across the front of the hall between the stage and the first row of seats, literally 10 feet from the two musicians.

The ultimate in audience participation was a man who climbed up a set of steps onto the stage to take in-your-face photos of the two performers. Because Sharma and Hussain were playing while seated yoga-style on the floor, the overly enthusiastic fan loomed over them. He left the stage only when Hussain invited him to leave.

The question I was left asking is how did the man ever make it up the steps onto the stage? There was a bouncer standing next to the steps, and his job was to stop audience members from going up onto the stage. The guy was big and all in black, including a black spandex polo shirt stretched tight across his rippling Schwarzenegger-like chest. He stood silently, back to the wall, legs slightly spread and arms crossed in front of him to expose biceps as large as a tree trunk. Later, our hosts told us that bouncers are routinely hired at concerts to keep fans and critics off the stage. But when our fan walked up the steps to shove a camera into the face of one of India’s national treasures, the guy in black didn’t move a muscle. Go figure.

Groovy Goa and David’s Wham-O Moment

Apparently there was just a piece in The New York Times travel section about Goa as a beach vacation paradise. It is definitely that. The fine, white sand beaches are gorgeous. The water was of a “this ain’t the North Atlantic” temperature. The choices of restaurants serving great food is endless. The feeling is laid back and mellow compared with other parts of India. Would I come back here? In a heartbeat. But not just because of those selling points. Sam warned that after a few days we’d find the crowds of boisterous Israelis on R and R from the army exhausting. The large-framed, white bellied (sun burned) Australian and Russian tourists would be less than picturesque, The Indian tourists (mostly young men turned loose and out of control) would become quickly annoying. The 24/7 “let’s party!” culture would turn us off. None of those things happened. In fact, those were the very things that, at least for me, I liked the best about Goa. They presented a non-stop buffet of picture taking opportunities. People immersed in their few days of fun in the sun become both disinhibited and totally oblivious to anyone taking their picture. I had a ball.

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From David: there’s one picture that Lora was not able to get. It was a shot of a gorgeous, young French blond standing at the water’s edge using a hoola-hoop — topless. Wham-O!!, for those of you who remember the brand name. And her thong was too small to cover the label “Made in France”.

No More Monkeys Jumping On the Car !!!

There must be something about Jain temples and monkeys. This Mama & Baby landed on the hood of our car as I was driving up Mt. Abu to see the Jain temples at Dilwara. The same thing happened four years ago when Lora and I were driving to the Jain temple in Ranakpur. The only difference is that Lora wasn’t warned by our driver: “NO WINDOW!” and the lead monkey tried to climb into the car.

Monkey-improved

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.

The Gujarat Ten (Plus One Terrific Guy): Dusty, Determined and Dazzled

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Nine other women and I came to India loosely united by the friendship or knowledge of an exceptional woman, Mary Ann Marino. Two of us were Mary Ann’s longtime, dear friends, three of us only got to know her in the last years of her shining life, and one met her at dinner party at which Mary Ann shared her extraordinary story. The other four heard we were going to India to celebrate the life of a truly remarkable person and asked to come along. You can read more about Mary Ann in the February post of last year.

Five of us had traveled in India previous to this trip and thought we knew what to expect. Three were seasoned travelers in other parts of the third world, one had been to Africa and mainland China, and the bravest (and, as it turned out, the pluckiest) of all was jumping off a virtual travel cliff, without the benefit of any travel experience beyond Europe’s most civilized countries.

We traveled in two vans that dodged water buffaloes, cows, camels, the occasional elephant, and frequent pot holes the size of jacuzzis. The roads, sometimes paved and often not, were always dusty. We were dusty. Conveniences that until now we took totally for granted, like hot water and the Internet, were unreliable or non-existent. ‘Bathrooms’ between hotel stops were, for the most part, typical third-world squat toilets. You don’t come to India for gourmet cuisine – although we did have a few delicious meals – and we ate with care and crossed fingers that all would be well the next day. For a group that mostly didn’t know each other before we began our trip I must say the chemistry was excellent. We all seemed to enjoy each others’ company. There was never any whining or complaining, everyone was a very good sport and most important everyone was on time – to a fault. Our excellent teamwork made for a really terrific trip. Our rewards were many, including the new friends we made thanks to this most excellent adventure.

In addition to two calm, cool, collected and occasionally daring drivers, we had the fortunate company of two very personable guides, each with his own area of expertise. As our schedule was jam-packed we benefitted from their gentle shepherding off and on the vans, in and out of villages, temples and other stops along the way. As we bumped and swerved over the primarily tabletop flat land, Vikram (our principal guide) supplied us with facts and background information while Chandrajee (his sidekick) charmed us with tidbits of local customs, including his upcoming wedding to which, he says, we will all be invited. I don’t think there was one of us who could wrap her head around the fact, in keeping with the tradition of parent-arranged matches, he wasn’t going to see his bride until they were married.

I picked Gujarat a bit by accident. When we were in Hyderabad last year we met a woman at a dinner party who suggested with great enthusiasm that we spend the final month of our four month trip touring the famous weaving and handicraft villages of this western state that bumps out into the Indian Ocean directly south of Pakistan. I like looking at textiles and David lit up at the plan when he discovered that Palitana, a complex of Jain temple that he was determined to visit, was included on our itinerary. Then we checked the weather. We couldn’t get to Gujarat until March, when average temperatures were a scorching 110-115 degrees F. It seemed we had missed the ideal season to go there last year. So, instead, we headed north to the Himalayas.

However, I kept the extremely comprehensive and detailed itinerary our friend had provided last year. When Santha proposed the reunion of Mary Ann’s friends on the anniversary of her death I wondered if a tour of weaving centers might appeal to the group coming from the States. It did and, as our tour ended at Palitana, David signed on to join us for the final few days.

We assembled in Gujarat’s capital city, Ahmedabad. Some of our group had spent the previous week traveling to other places in India, and some had just stepped off the plane onto Indian soil for the very first time. Ahmedabad is not the ideal gateway city for an India virgin visitor. There’s not a lot of charm here. Traffic chaos reigns and the result is deadly gridlock at every intersection. There doesn’t seem to be a real center of the city – just endlessly truck, car, tuk-tuk and cow-clogged streets clouded in a jarring cacophony of honking horns. It took such a long time to get anywhere it was almost time to leave as soon as we arrived.

We all looked forward to visiting the famous Calico Museum of Textiles which, for many of us, was going to be a highlight of the trip. It turns out that tickets must be booked well in advance for the two daily tours that each accommodate only 20 people. Our tour operator who had made all the arrangements hadn’t done this, so we were basically out of luck. Every string that could be pulled was pulled, but to no avail. Starting out with this major disappointment made me anxious about what lay ahead as I was the one who had talked everyone else into joining me on this great adventure.

One salve for our disappointment was that our arrival coincided with an annual kite festival that is celebrated all over India.

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It was a joyous celebration where almost everyone from the smallest child to the oldest grandfather held onto the control end of a soaring kite, pulling the string to make the kite dive and soar. Many kites had glass or razors impregnated into the string and a facile operator could cut the string of any kite that his crossed paths with.

We spent a few peaceful hours at the Gandhi Ashram which housed an extensive collection of memorabilia and photographs documenting this remarkable man’s life. Quotes along with portraits of notable pacifists and people who challenged the system in non-violent ways were posted on the walls. The panel dedicated to Henry David Thoreau demonstrated how very far Ahmedabad is from Concord when I tried to explain to one or our guides that I often walk for exercise around the pond where Thoreau lived while he wrote his famous book. “What is your destination?” he asked. “Just around the pond,” I told him. This didn’t compute. It was clear that walking around a pond for exercise was an indulgence right up there with car seats and designer dogs. I felt, not for the first or last time, like the wildly pampered westerner that I am.

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In our way out of town we stopped at the Rani Ki Vav stepwell, a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Rani-ki-Vav is situated about 2 km to the northwest of Patan district of Gujarat. It is the most magnificent stepwell in Gujarat, built during 11-12th centuries. The structure was constructed around a stepped corridor that was compartmented at regular intervals with pillared multi-storyed pavilions. Each of the four pavilions, which demarcate the stages along the descent, have multiple storys – two, four, six and seven respectively. Sculptures of deities and other images adorn the walls flanking the staircase. Nearly four hundred niches on the walls display images.

The sight, and the light were especially wonderful.

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While Gujarat is one of India’s poorer states, it is by far the richest in terms of exquisite handcrafted things, made following traditions that have been passed down for generations. Villages are remote, far from each other and often located at the end of narrow tracts that look more like alleys than streets. Most of the places we visited appeared dramatically poor, especially as viewed by western eyes. Water is carried from communal wells in metal containers balanced on the heads of women who somehow manage to walk gracefully and quickly from well to home.

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While there are some children obviously well cared far (clean, wearing school uniforms and shoes), others are barefoot, tassel haired, street-wise kids who don’t appear to go to school. Instead they sit alongside a family member hawking bangles, earrings, beads and the like.

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One result of this tour is that I will never again look at a piece of fabric or article of clothing without thinking about whose hands have worked to turn it from a silk worm thread or tuft of sheep’s wool or seedy cotton puff into what I am now holding. Humbling and mind-boggling are words that come to mind as I watched women sewing tiny, precise stitches into purses and shawls. Unbelievable is the only word that can describe the seven stage process in which workers apply intricate stamps of hand carved teak to lengths of silk and cotton to create panels of complicated tie dye and dazzling batik.

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An entire family of weavers can work on a sari of gold, blue and red silk, all colored with natural dyes, made in a traditional design. The sari will spend the better part of six months on a loom, growing just inches a day, before being shipped off to a wealthy woman to wear to her daughter’s wedding, and then to pack away as a family heirloom for her daughter to wear for her child’s wedding. And then it will be passed along to the next generation.

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In many of these village we were told that the knowledge and skills used to create these masterpieces are in danger of disappearing. “People don’t value the work of artists,” was something we heard over and over. Young women who in the past would spend years hand embroidering a wedding trousseau that would became part of their dowry were now limited by the elders to a much shorter time so they could, instead, do work that would bring in more money for the family. Some people had begun using synthetic dyes instead of the natural ones that were traditional. Some weavers and silk screeners now use mechanized looms and presses instead of the hand looms and hand presses. It was jarring to hear at a cotton weaving factory the harsh clack of mechanical looms in one in room after just leaving a room, at the same facility, where the looms were operated by hand (actually by foot) and make a sound like flannel wrapped castanets.

What struck each of us at every stop were the incredibly low prices attached to these treasures. We were seeing first hand what happens to the price of a stunning hand woven silk scarf when it leaves the village and ends up at Neiman Marcus. It wasn’t budget, I am guessing, that reined in our desire to buy everything, but the serious charges for overweight on our flights that would have made anything we bought four times more expensive than what we would have paid.

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Chitrakoot

David: Chitrakoot is a small Hindu pilgrimage town where the god Rama lived for a number of years in self-imposed semi-exile. Lonely Planet says all the trains stop there at stupid o’clock in the morning. When I asked our Hyderabad travel person if wi-fi would be available at our hotel, she said that if we really wanted to go there, we would get hot water at our hotel only if we wanted to buy it by the bucket.

We arrived in town a little after 9 pm and checked into the government Tourist Bungalow, which Lonely Planet says is the best place in town. But the Tourist Bungalow had never heard of us. It turns out that Lonely Planet and our agent were referring to the Tourist Bungalow run by Utter Pradesh state. By mistake, the agent had booked us into a place around the corner, the Tourist Bungalow run by Madhya Pradesh state. Only in India.

We were fortunate. The Madhya Pradesh operation was fine, and the super deluxe room ($28 per night for a double, breakfast included) came with all the hot water we could use.

Chitrakoot turned out to be a great place, in part because it is definitely off the Western tourist itinerary. We didn’t see a single Western person in all of our time there. Everyone in town was either a local, a Hindu making a pilgrimage, or an Indian tourist. There was a downside, however, when we asked our driver where we could eat. “There are no restaurants here for you. You must eat at hotel.” The same hotel where the Corn Flakes at breakfast tasted like they were part of Kellogg’s first production run.

There was a big poster map in the Bungalow lobby that showed the location of 6 sites in the general area. We told our driver to pick 3 of them. One was a temple to Rama outside the town. The main feature of the temple is an imposing 20-foot tall statue of the monkey god Hanuman, a devotee of Rama and a very buff guy. The statue depicts Hanuman ripping open his chest and heart to expose an image of Rama in his heart. I can’t imagine a more compelling rendition of “I Give My Heart to Thee.”

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Sam Brody launches India’s latest satellite

It all started so innocuously.  Sam landed in Delhi and caught up with Jonathan, Max and me (David) in Lucknow, the capital city of Uttar Pradesh.  It’s a very nice city. That’s not intended to be damning with faint praise.  It really is a very nice city. Much calmer and more orderly, and cleaner, than most other cities we have visited. Maybe that’s another way of saying it doesn’t have the same vibrancy and intensity that makes us keep coming back to India.

Anyway, the four of us were walking along the river from one area of interest to another.  The walk was long and I was wearing lousy shoes that made my feet and legs ache, so we headed over to a grassy knoll to rest for a while.  It was all very innocuous.

But then we discovered a sandlot cricket game underway on the backside of the knoll, and a couple of the kids strolled over to join us as we watched the game.  I don’t remember whether it was one of us, or one of the kids, who invited Sam to try his luck at bat.  He laughed at the suggestion and I thought I glimpsed a bit of the “deer in the headlights” look.  But the crowd liked the idea and Sam had to surrender to his fans’ demands.  The rest is history, recorded in the attached link. The reaction of the bowler (cricket language that means the pitcher) at the end of the video says it all.

Delhi in January: Play Misty For Me

Lotus temple Delhi20140106-182504.jpg20140106-182343.jpgI made a lot of noise about not flying into Delhi at night because of the ‘adventure’ we had landing here last January. Having your landing aborted at the very last minute due to the impenetrable fog leaves an indelible impression. When it happens in a jumbo jet the impact (forgive the choice of words) is even greater. I figured a daytime landing would present a fighting chance of an uncomplicated arrival. The fog rolls in here sometime in December and lingers until the end of January. Sometimes it burns off by midday, but at least for the time I am here, things stay pretty murky. Colors are muted, buildings and monuments are viewed through the equivalent of cataract shrouded eyes. The morning are cold and damp. This is the first time I’ve been in India and needed both long underwear, a wool turtleneck and a down jacket. The area Where i am staying is called Hauz Khaz Village in south Delhi. It’s a pretty amazing place – a (mostly) carless warren of narrow streets and winding alleys constructed in typically helter skelter Indian fashion around the ruins of a13th century medieval city. I picked it because it’s a relatively safe place for a woman traveling solo and I feel perfectly comfortable going about (as long as I remember to dodge motorcycles, bicycles and the occasional taxi zooming down lane. There’s the man selling peanuts from the back of his bicycle and the laborers hauling bricks and bags of gravel on their backs. It’s a cross between Soho and the medina in Fez. Upscale shops selling beautiful clothes (the kind that leave you looking like someone who went to India and bought clothes that looked fine in India but not so much back home), are jumbled between and on top of a United Nations of restaurant choices that line muddy, semi-paved crooked streets and narrow alleys. The sound of the call to worship amplified by loud speakers perched on top of buildings mingles with the sound of boys playing cricket and the cry of the peanut vendor as he pushes his bicycle over the rutted streets. The smell of pakoras frying in giant black kettles is a tempting siren pulling me toward the dangerous mistake of eating street food and thus disregarding my first rule of avoiding Delhi belly.

I’ve revisited a few favorite places – top on the list is the Lotus Temple, which looks even most mystical in the ever present fog.

In a few days I fly to Varanasi to meet up with David and the boys for four days. The last time Sam was here with David it was 110F which they dealt with by hoping the next plane north to Darjeeling in the Himalayas. The weather forecast, to their relief, is much different for this trip – cool and clear and, as in Delhi, fog until the sun burns through.

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When the sun’s out here the place is quite charming