Saturday, December 01, 2012

India Two Weeks Behind Us

We are finally feeling somewhat back to normal after a pretty brutal 10-day bout of extreme jet lag.  This was shared by everyone in our group, not just us.  We wrote encouraging (or discouraging) emails to each other comparing symptoms - inability to stay awake, inability to stay asleep, general feeling of stupor or stupidness, inability to focus, desire to just stare into space, desire to sleep all day, desire to sort idly through our photos and try to make sense of it all, weird and disturbing dreams when we were able to sleep, desire to go to movies all day and night, or to go shopping (some more).  We ran the gamut of misery until one day, about 10 days into it, suddenly the fog lifted and we began to feel like normal humans again.  At least that is true for me, and a couple of others I've talked to!

Today I've spent time uploading ALL of my India photos to my Picasa web albums, and making them available to the general public.  There are way too many, but I've eliminated about 500 of them so far and I'm tired of that, so I'm tossing the rest of them out there! For those in our group, I have had the intention to email you all the ones in which you appear, but that hasn't happened.  You should be able to download any that you want to have from this Picasa site.

Now, believe it or not, I'm working on our next travel plan.  It will be in January 2014, and will definitely include Vietnam, but perhaps also Cambodia, Laos, or Thailand.  I am certain that we will be able to find a group of about 15 compatible friends to fill this group, with so much advance planning time!  So think about it.....

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Mumbai Postscript

Well, as expected, all of Mumbai is shut down today to mourn the death of Bal Thackery. All businesses closed, no public transport running, a crowd of 2 million people lining the streets where his funeral cort├Ęge is passing towards cremation. So we have spent the day at our hotel, and arguably it has been great for all of us to lie by the pool, swim, doze, have cool drinks, and chat about our trip. Just thought I'd show you some photos of this gorgeous hotel. Go ahead, drool. I don't mind.

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Location:Trident Rd,Mumbai,India

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Dazzled in Mumbai

This is our last stop on the journey. Tonight, if all goes well, we fly home on the big red-eye. We are bone-tired, and so over-saturated with the relentless sensory stimulation that is India. Most of us were wishing we could just go home after Kochi. The idea of another major city at this point was simply too much to contemplate.

Then we got here and were once again completely dazzled! First we came to our world-class elegant hotel, the Trident, situated on Island 8 of the 8 islands strung like a shining necklace along the Arabian Sea. The area where we are is kind of industrial/commercial, near a couple of consulates and a lot of new skyscrapers. But the luxury and cool beauty of this hotel is quite stunning, and soooooo comfortable and deluxe. We even did the unthinkable here and ate green salads with both lunch and dinner, with no ill effects. We were longing for green and crunchy after 3 weeks of abstaining and this place is so clean!

Yesterday afternoon we were taken on a short city tour. This is the setting for Slumdog Millionaire, and from the moment we arrived we could see the thousands of shanty houses piled up against the airport runway, and the alleys running back into the slums along many of the streets we drove on. Blue tarps are everywhere in these shanties, obviously to keep out the rain, and so the shanty areas look Ike ragged quilts with bright blue squares. But we had not expected the vibrant energy of this place, or how elegant the city center would be, or how well it all seems to meld together. The sea is everywhere. Entered the main city along a very long bridge across the sea between two islands. From there the skyline of the city looks like New York, with a long stretch of sparkling skyscrapers reflecting in the water.

We went to look at the Dobhi Ghat, a historic commercial laundry area still in use where people pound laundry in a labyrinth of stone tubs, then hang the stuff up to dry on clotheslines overhead. It was such a surprise to see this remnant of old times right in the heart of downtown.

From there we went to see the beautiful Victoria Station, built to honor Queen Victoria, a melding of European and Indian architecture that was super ornate and huge.

We visited the Royal Taj Hotel, the premier place where foreigners stay (and one of the 3 locations bombed in the 2008 Mumbai bomb attacks),

as well as a lovely park across the street on the sea front, teeming with thousands of people on a Saturday afternoon, and the location of a huge architectural arch called the Gateway to India. It seemed somehow appropriate that we would end our trip near that Gateway, although we are leaving rather than arriving.

Today is Sunday. We have this one last day here, and then we leave at 9:30 tonight to fly to New York and then on home by Monday evening. Last night we learned that a popular and controversial religious/political leader, Bal Thackeray, died yesterday here in Mumbai. We had seen crowds of people out in the streets at various places, and apparently they were keeping a vigil as he died. This event prevented our group from going out to a restaurant last night, and may have an impact on our tour plans for today. Apparently there is a worry about violence and outbursts if people are not respecting the mourning that is going on, so it's possible that today will be a quiet one spent near our hotel. Since we are so worn out, that is Ok with us, whatever happens.

One of the women traveling with us, Annie, sent us all such a beautiful piece of writing this morning which I think sums up what many of us have felt about this trip. The writer is Leo Babauta, and he is not writing about India, but he says it perfectly:
"I am struck by the beauty of this world, and the fragile human lives struggling to make their way within it.

And shaken.

The pain and stress and anger and sadness and loneliness and frustration and fear and cravings and irritations that we will experience today … they are made up. We can let them go as easily as they arise. They are unnecessary, if we realize that we’ve created them for no good reason.

Instead, see the beauty in every moment. In every person’s so human actions. In our own frailties and failures.

This world is a morning poem, and we have but to see it to be shaken by its beauty, over and over."

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Location:Trident Rd,Mumbai,India

Cochin (Kochi)

We spent two nights in Kochi after leaving the houseboats. This is a medium sized city just inland from the Arabian Sea, but connected by a net of waterways. Sometimes this area is called "The Venice of the East, because everything is built along canals and waterways, and much of the movement is by boat. Kochi was founded by Vasco da Gama in 1498. He came for the spices, but ended up staying for the rest of his life. It is a city heavily influenced by European style - Portuguese, Dutch and British occupies have left their heavy marks in the architecture and tone of the site. So much so, that I had a hard time remembering that I was still in India. It is a tourist town, full of shops and restaurants and bars. Many homes are painted in lurid bright colors, magenta, lime, lemon yellow Walking around the streets is safe and easy and pleasant, unlike many places we have been. It is hot and humid even though this is technically winter here. Our hotel there was an old colonial building, heavy dark woodwork, a pool, and funky plumbing (shower flooded the bathroom every time!).

In the way into town we stopped at a coir factory, very old style, like pre-industrial-revolution, where workers sit in the dust and spin coconut fiber into ropes and then into doormats and jute rugs

We visited the old Jewish quarter and synagogue that centuries ago had thousan of residents but not has only eight elderly remaining Jews, not enough for a minyan. We went to a museum, also in an old Dutch building and s stuff from the royal family of Kerala, including stunning wall frescoes of scenes from the Ramayana (sorry, no photos allowed).

We visited the harbor and saw the old Chinese fish net system, still in use, that has been there for centuries. We watched the fishing boats come after dark in from the sea and unload crates of silvery squid and kingfish and shrimp into a bustling fish auction. We shopped until we dropped, took long walks, ate great meals. Then on Saturday morning, we flew to Mumbai, our last stop. More about that soon!

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Location:Trident Rd,Mumbai,India

Floating Bliss

Our South India houseboat adventure has begun! We boarded Tuesday morning and are blissfully drifting around in the tropical backwaters of Kerala. A crew of 9 guys accompanies us ( we are 10 women on 3 houseboats). They are piloting the boats, cooking fantastic meals all made from local foods, and pampering us in a dozen little ways.

This morning we got off and and took a long walk (1 1/2 hours) through a watery little village, talking to people, going into their houses and a small school, looking at what they sell in their tiny grocery shops, and exploring. We saw a group of kindergarteners dressed in white Nehru outfits, waving little Indian flags and walking around the village celebrating Nehru's birthday.

We went into a bar and tried a drink called a "toddy" made of fermented coconut. We explored a family home. We saw a duck herder, out on the river, with a flock of 250 ducks all loose, and him in a thin canoe shepherding them back and forth amidst the boat traffic.

When we came back the crew made us a traditional Sadya lunch, 16 courses served on freshly cut banana leaves. It was magnificent, and a local specialty often served at celebrations.

Now we are drifting, napping, dreaming, relaxing. It is a gift to have this time, after the grueling past couple of weeks. But I wouldn't have missed a minute of it so far!

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Location:Trident Rd,Mumbai,India

The North & the South of India

This trip has been a continuous sequence of mind-blowing scenes, interspersed with equally mind-boggling information. Now that we are in Southern India, the huge contrasts of this country are so apparent. Here, in Kerala, it is tropical, clean, and prosperous. That is just a nutshell of what seems different.
First, poverty is nearly invisible in this Communist area. Homelessness is illegal here, as is begging. Everyone is housed, has good medical care, and adequate food. This is not the case in the parts of India we've seen so far. We were told that 260 million Indians live below the poverty level which is defined as being able to eat one meal every three days. So in many parts of the country, people are starving. We saw people living in the streets or in tents or shanties in the North. Many simply lived on the roadside, or in the median between two lanes of traffic, or slept on their vegetable cart or in their rickshaw or closet-sized shop, or in a doorway. Wherever they could eke out a few feet of space for themselves and their families, that became home. We saw sleeping bodies by the hundreds wrapped in thin shawls and sleeping, cooking, and waiting everywhere we went. Here in the south, you see nothing like that. There are free medical clinics everywhere, and a huge vaccine program going on in every village. There has been no malaria here in at least 20 years!

Here the air is clean and fresh. In some of the northern cities we choked on blankets of smog, smoke, and pesticides being sprayed for mosquito control. Piles of garbage and litter were everywhere and both animals and humans rummaged through it looking for food. It was quite difficult to find a trash can while out in the city. Beggars and salesmen implored us when we walked through the streets. Here, by contrast, it is quite clean. They even have recycling in a few places!

Transportation is a hugely different matter as well. Here in the south, people follow traffic rules, stop at red lights, merge in a rational way, and drive sanely, even staying in the correct traffic lanes. Motorcyclists are required to wear helmets. There are sidewalks, something we haven't seen for 2weeks. Not so much where we have been up until now, where every foray out is a nail-biter for both vehicles and pedestrians. Here I saw no rickshaws, just cars and scooters. Where we are now, on a houseboat in the backwaters of Kerala, there are no vehicles at all, only boats and ferries and canoes. It is quiet and utterly peaceful drifting along.

Another huge difference is about animals. Here, people eat beef and even occasionally pork. There are no cattle or pigs milling around in the traffic, or searching for food amidst all the street rubble. Dogs are pets here and well cared for. They belong to families and seem happy and trusting, unlike the mangy, half-wild dogs of the north who roam everywhere, sleep on the street garbage, and are never spayed or neutered - hence tons of puppies. In Northern India we were told that about 90% of the population is vegetarian. Here in the south, about 95% eat meat. They have fresh fish every day for lunch, and so do we these last two days - delicious!

One huge difference is in the level of education. Most people in South India are well-educated. Most young people go to college. There are schools everywhere. Partly this is due to the influence of Christian missionaries who came here hundreds of years ago. There is also great religious tolerance. Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists, Christians, and Jews live side-by-side here and there are many prosperous churches. In the North, at least 90% of the population is Hindu. The day we arrived in Kochin was Diwali all over India, celebrated hugely and loudly with fireworks, lights, and festivals. Here in this area it is not celebrated at all - and that was a shock and disappointment. It has to do with a centuries ago defeat of the Dravidian people (the locals) and because of it they don't acknowledge this holiday.

We are told that there are 1650 regional dialects and languages in India. Here they speak one called Malayayam, which has a 56 letter alphabet of looping curliques. Our guide, Bapu, speaks 16 languages and has a degree in Indian history, and a vast comprehension of his country. He is liberal in his viewpoints, even to the extreme that he married a young widow from another city and has kept her secret even from their daughter and all their relatives and friends. But his parents knew and consented to this arranged marriage after the charts matched up beautifully and Bapu said that her widow status was not a problem to him. He also adopted a teenage girl who was living in dire straits after both parents died of cancer within 6 months, and he has paid for her education in a Catholic boarding school for the last 6 years. I think he is unusual in this.
Topographically the South has 3 climates: hot, hotter, and hottest. We are in the season they call "hot" which is a blessing! We are wilting in the humidity. In Kerala, 25% of the state is mountainous and forested; 25% is water; and the remaining 50% is for agriculture (rice, coconuts, bananas, spices, teak and rosewood) and residences. It is green and luscious, palm trees and tropical flowers all over. You could imagine you were in Hawaii if you just looked at the landscape. In the Northern areas we visited, it was rare to see greenery, and in the cities, every blade of grass or leaf seemed to be eaten up by some hungry creature.

Clothing is another giant contrast. Women wear saris but the younger ones are more inclined towards the shalwar kameez ( long shirt with tight pants under it). Colors are more subdued - off-white with an embroidered border is the traditional favorite here in the Kochi area. Men wear a dhoti, which is a strip of cloth wrapped like a sarong around their waist which can be flipped up to make a shorter skirt when it is hot(ter).
These are my first very superficial observations after 24 hours in this new world. And yet it is still unmistakeably India. Our guide, Babu, has talked to us for hours about arranged marriages (he says 99.5% still are arranged), and the rate of divorce is less than 1%. Widows are still considered to be as good as dead here. They must shave their heads, give up their jewelry, wear white, live outside the family compound, depend on others for sustenance, and they mostly can never marry again, or participate in festivals, etc., even if they are still young when widowed.
Dowry demands, although now illegal, still continue. Babu has one daughter whom he is arranging a match for (comparing astrological charts, negotiating dowry, etc). His future son-in-law's family wants gold (something like 70 pieces, each 8 grams); a new car; 50 new outfits for the bride; household effects such as washing machine, tv, dining room set, refrigerator, etc., plus this guy is supposed to pay for a wedding party for 1500 guests that lasts for 4 days. There is probably more that I've forgotten. He is working hard to meet all of the demands, but at the same time we sense that he is tormented by how crazy this situation is, and yet powerless to do anything different. He cannot jeopardize his daughter's future. She is already 22 which is considered old and less desirable. The family clock is ticking. And yet there is also the dreadful possibility that the new family will take all the dowry and in a few months send the girl back to her parents empty-handed. Apparently it happens.

Likewise, the caste system, which is also illegal, still is very much alive and well in India in hundreds of ways. One big one is that it takes bribery (think BIG rupees) to get jobs, interviews, documents, and so many other things here. Corruption is an immense problem, and it keeps the little people in their places.
Anyway, I don't mean to write a book, and this post is way too long. And I don't mean to imply that the South is superior to the North. They are like two different worlds, and there is so much to love about both of them. We have been without Internet for a couple of days, and so much has been brewing as we watch this adventure unfold. We have seen so much, learned so much, and still have a few more days of travel ahead! What a fabulous trip!
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Location:Trident Rd,Mumbai,India

Monday, November 12, 2012

Moving On South

Today we are on the move. Yesterday we flew from Varanasi to Delhi. Today, after a remarkably short night at an airport hotel, we fly to Cochin in South India. Today is Diwali, a huge national holiday fireworks, etc . expected. SOOO happy to be here!! But last night we also bid a sad goodbye to Krish, our beloved guide. We will have a new person for this final week.

Location:Najafgarh Kapashera Rd,New Delhi,India

Sunday, November 11, 2012

The Ganges

For the last 2 days I haven't been able to write anything. It could have been because we have been very busy and it has been hard to squeak in some writing time. It could have been because I've taken literally hundreds of photos this week and it is challenging picking out just a few to write about. But the real reason is because what we have seen has left me dumbstruck!

This is surely the most culturally rich country I've ever visited, and also the most spiritually advanced. It is the cradle of some of the great religions of the world, and for the last couple of days we have been immersed in Hindu culture, since we've been at the Mecca of Hinduism, Varanasi on the Ganges River.

Before that we were in Khajuraho looking at the best preserved Hindu temples in India, all of which are covered in stunning erotic stone carvings. Muslim invaders over the centuries systematically destroyed most Hindu art, smashing up representations of human faces and bodies, but somehow these survived. We had a local guide at this place, and for a whole morning he spoke to us with great intimacy and erudition about the Hindu belief system and how sexuality was considered to be a gift and a holy expression of the soul. I recorded much of what he said because it was so profound and meaningful to us. He was a gift!

After that we took a short 35 minute flight to Varanasi, checked into our new hotel here. Each time we go to a new hotel there is a lovely ritual. A woman in a sari always greets us at the door by putting a dab of red color on our foreheads. Often there is also a lei of marigolds for each of us, and then someone comes with a tray of cold drinks for us while we wait for our room keys. The hospitality and friendliness at each place we've been is superb.

The big story of Varanasi is the Ganges. Pilgrims come here by the millions to bathe in the sacred waters, and about 300+ people per day are cremated on its banks' where the ashes are then dumped into the water. This has been happening for thousands of years.

On our first evening here we went down to the river in rickshaws, a wild and somewhat hair-raising trip through the thronging melee, squeezing between cars and trucks and tuk-tuks and bicycles, scooters, cows, dogs, and teeming pilgrims, past shops with their wares laid out on blankets along the sidewalks. Finally there is the river, huge and wide, banked all along by steps and terraces crowded with cremations in progress, fires blazing, smoky air, priests blowing on conch shells. People are engaged in shaving their heads as an act of mourning. There is a huge cast of holy men, fake holy men, beggars, trinket sellers, lepers, gypsies with begging babies. And yet despite this utter chaos, there is a great feeling of spiritual intensity here. We viewed it all from a wooden boat with two oarsmen and a young priest and our fabulous guide, Krish. We were assisted to make offerings of a lighted cup of oil and flowers in memory of our deceased loved ones, and these we floated in the water where they joined hundreds of other tiny drifting flames sparkling in the surface of the dark river.

We returned again yesterday morning, this time for the ritual bathing at sunrise. Again we went out in the boat. Again we made an offering on the water. We watched as people came down to the river and in a state of ecstasy dipped themselves into the water, poured it over their heads and faces, drank deeply of it, and prayed. We were told that many Hindus consider this to be the high point of their lives. They save for years to come here, and for many it is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Again we were silenced by the sacredness of the experience we were sharing, the sense of awe to be watching this beauty and joy all around us.

Later we returned to the hotel, after stopping along the way at a sacred Buddhist site with a lovely temple, museum, and grandchild of the Bodhi tree under which Buddha received enlightenment. We picked up a few fallen leaves to bring home as keepsakes. We also drove through streets where everyone is preparing for Diwali, a huge annual Festival of Lights celebrated this year on November 13. Custom is for lots of shopping beforehand. Yesterday people were supposed to buy at least one new kitchen utensil. Marigolds were also being sold in mass profusion, and buildings being decorated with long garlands of these golden flowers as well as strings of tiny colored lights. There will be fireworks, candles, and huge celebrations tomorrow, when people invite the goddess Laxmi onto their homes to bless them with prosperity.

Last night was our farewell dinner at the hotel. Today we fly to Delhi, and tomorrow most of us to Cochin in South India, but 5people are going home, so this was our last evening as a group of 15. For a surprise, Krish brought saris for all the women to wear to dinner, and a lovely young woman to dress us! That was fun!

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Location:The Mall Rd,Varanasi,India