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India 2017 part 3: More Delhi & Other Stories

July 26, 2017

Before I take you to Agra, dear Reader, and introduce you to my elephants, there are other Indian adventures to share.

After having my spirit lifted at Central Baptist Church, we sallied forth into the mêlée in search of historical sites to see.  We walked to and admired the Red Fort.  It’s a big imposing structure, truth in advertising.

The next destination, Humayun’s Tomb, was too far to walk in 40°C, so Craig found us a bus “stop” ~more where people stop and wait for it rather than the other way around.  So as it passed by, we jumped on with a clot of others.  A polite young man moved his satchel so I might have the seat next to him.  He was on his phone.  And so was I!  He was trying to sneak me into his selfie.  So I looked him straight in the eye through the camera, even smiled knowingly, and he did not flinch.  I nearly laughed out loud.  I’d dearly love to know what the caption said.  Looking around the bus, I realized that Craig and I were quite obviously the only non-Indian passengers.  As Americans, we are so concerned about ‘manners’ and inclusivity and “don’t point” and being the giant-melting-pot-experiment that it’s fun to be recognized ~in an appreciative way~ for being different.  In Southeast Asia, where I am taller than any woman and Craig towers over nearly everyone, strangers run up to us and take pictures of the round-eyed, white giants completely without self-consciousness.  Sometimes mothers ask to stand their children next to him for the photo just because we are the most interesting thing they’ve seen today.  Or possibly all week.  The little kids are so tickled just by seeing us in their neighborhood.  It reminds me how profoundly fortunate I am to be able to travel, that people of all colors, shapes, and sizes are just people to me because I’ve seen our astonishing variety of outsides . . . and insides. . . and know that you can’t know much about the one just by looking at the other.

But we are still on the bus!  And it’s time to step off.  But, clearly, it isn’t going to stop.  I could feel the eyes of other passengers on my back as I timed my leap.  Movies played in my head of a brilliantly executed dive-and-roll.  I am not a stunt-person; I am a late-forty-something former quasi-athlete in an aquatic sport.  I should keep to my feet.  So, just as if it were an airport people mover (in 5th gear), with a deep breath I walked off that moving bus.  Someone on the street with a big surprised smile clapped for me.

Humayun’s Tomb is only part of larger grounds, with other tombs and a mosque in a lovely park setting.  It’s really a peaceful oasis in the middle of the city where people seem to come to sit on the grass in the shade, have a little picnic.  I recommend it.

Another recommended visit is the Jantar Mantar Observatory in Jaipur.  Go during the day.  This is not, as I supposed, a star-gazing, telescopey sort of a place.  The reason to visit first thing in the morning eventually became clear.  Without the patient explanation from the guide, I would take the space to be an amazing sculpture garden.  However, all those steep and curvy sculptures tell time, track the sun, and point to the planets.  There was some very heavy geometry going on here in the early 18th century.  I enjoyed trying to understand it all.  I’m afraid the guide, or least the rest of our group, wished I didn’t and would just go take pictures.

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You will forgive me blowing right past our visit to the Taj Mahal, but it’s so well known and documented that I don’t have much to add.  Except, while I was cooling my heels until it was time to meet up with the group to depart, a guard approached me as I was looking down from one terrace to another, watching monkeys playing in a fountain.  I ran through a quick checklist of everything I might be doing wrong: outdoors, no formal dress code; haven’t broached any barricades; not eating anything.  Nope, I’m good.  So, what does he want?  Oh, he’s just bored.  I think it was really my hat.

Transportation around towns was often by auto rickshaw (tuk-tuk if you’ve been to Thailand, so-called for the sound of their two-stroke engines), each seating no more, often slightly less, than two people.  One night, our guide had acquired several to convey us back to the hotel, each taking the route its driver thought best.  So, when ours choked and died on a dark but busy street (tuk -tuk, not the driver), we were alone.  He tried several times to get it going again.  No joy.  So, then he rummaged around somewhere and pulled out an unidentifiable gadget, inserted it confidently into some orifice of the machine, and tuk-tuk-tuk, we were on our way again.

The tour included several train rides, which I enjoyed immensely and prepared me to strike off on my own later.  Rides of more than a couple of hours include a meal which is fine for eating.  I had the vegetarian option, of course.  And tea service!  With a personal pot for each passenger.  Vermintino and I did share.

On the way to Orchha, we stopped at a community collective, Taragram, to see their paper making facilities.  I’ve smelled industrial paper mills before and was dubious.  But it was unexpectedly fascinating and beautiful.  They recycle old cloth to make excellent, “special occasion” papers for diplomas etc.  If I had had a way to get some of those big delicious sheets home without bending, folding, or spindling . . . <sigh> I must be satisfied with my little purple notebook with elephant on, for special art.

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For this next vignette I regret not taking a video or even a photo, but I was stunned with delight to observe several dozen businessmen, there for a conference, circling together in the hotel swimming pool to make their own whirlpool/lazy river.  Just imagine.  Our guide commented that many Indians live in such arid places that a swimming pool is very much a novelty.  A good pool should dunk our inner child and draw it out to play.

This may have been my favorite day of the whole tour.  In the afternoon, Vandana Dubey and her husband came to our hotel.  Having separated ourselves, boys and girls, they provided (and wrapped us all into) traditional dress of the region.  She applied henna for the girls, which allowed plenty of time for the boys, in their simpler attire, to sit around the pool like maharajas drinking beer.  We were all very satisfied.  Then there was a spate of posing and photography (we’re still on her Facebook page!).  After that, we all went to Vandana’s house, met her family, observed her wonderful cooking demonstration, then thoroughly enjoyed everything we had watched her prepare.  She is building her business, so anyone passing near Orchha, please contact her to book a cultural experience like we had.

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Maharajas for a night

Sari not sorry

Vandana’s sister in the Dubey kitchen

Vandana cooks

India 2017 part 2: The People

June 13, 2017

The second most populous country in the world, polytheism in the extreme, an alphabet even more foreign than cyrillic, crushing poverty; how would this place weigh on me?  What would the people be like?  Would I be able to make any connection to the lives they live?

The Indians I have known abroad have been of a certain economic and/or educational status.  They could afford to live abroad, after all.  So, while we are friends, how much of that is because they meet me more than half way?  We speak English to begin with.  They have lived in the West.  They know both worlds.

There are good people and bad people and people just trying to get by everywhere, in every society, but India has staked a claim on a corner of my heart.  So many are so poor, but they share what little they have with those who are poorer still, the animals on the street.  There is definitely a need for a country-wide massive sterilization campaign, but as it is, street dogs ~also cats, and of course cows~ are given basic respect.  Traffic goes around them.  I watched what appeared to be a full water tanker trunk come to a complete stop because a dog was sitting in the middle of the road.  A waste of time, gas, effort?  Some might say so, especially because there are dogs everywhere, even where there are no cows.  But the only few I saw who had been hit were on the very busy highway.  There are laws of physics which must be obeyed.  One night, we saw a young man and his girl on a motorcycle do some tricky maneuvers to avoid mowing down a couple of rats playing recklessly in the dimly-lit street.  Some families have pets.  Occasionally there was a dog on a leash going for walkies with Master or Mistress.  Our friends in Mumbai have a gorgeous dog named Luca on whom they dote.  But even families whose home is too small or their budget too tight to take in one more soul, may have an arrangement with a particular street dog.  He guards their door; they give him food and a place to belong.  It is a natural custom to put a dish of water outside the home for any creature who may be thirsty, dog, cat, bird, squirrel.  People understand their climate can be brutal and are concerned for the beings with whom they share it, even when the birds make a mess of it.  My friend expressed her distress that she sees this slowly changing.  As western thought encroaches, people’s focus is narrowing.  They become more interested in looking out for themselves and their own enrichment, forgetting how they used to be, how they used to care.  I hope their deeper identity wins out.  The higher we place ourselves, the more disconnected from the rest of creation we become.

Connection.  Giving.  Meeting needs.  The Sikh faith was born in India, from a Reformation of sorts.  I knew very little about Sikhism before we went and having found several versions of their origins, I will stick to what we observed, who they are today.  The Sikh faith seems to grow good citizens, regular stand-up folk.

The articles of faith commanded by Guru Gobind Singh always to be worn are called the 5 Ks; Kesh is uncut hair, the perfection of God’s creation.  The Kangha is a wooden comb, practical and symbolic of a clean and tidy life.  The Kara is an iron bracelet, a reminder that what is done with the hands must be in keeping with the Guru’s teaching.  The Kachera is a simple undergarment, originally symbolizing a soldier’s willingness to be ever ready for battle or defense, but also symbolizing self-respect and mental control.  The Kirpan is a dagger, symbolizing the Sikh’s duty to come to the defense of those in peril, and is to be used only in defense.  It is the true Sikh’s duty to aid those who suffer unjustly.  Indians know when there is civil unrest, it will be Sikhs in the street guarding against looting and protecting their neighbors.

Reverence for one God, respect for oneself, regard for the disadvantaged ones, if you have Sikh neighbors, consider yourself fortunate.  Also, attached to every Sikh temple, gudwara, is a free kitchen or canteen, langar.  Staffed by volunteers, anyone is welcome to come and eat, without charge, as equals.  The food is vegetarian, except under special noted circumstances, and caste is not acknowledged so all people are welcome.  Those who can afford it make an offering to the temple, those who can not are not identified.

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Sikhs are a minority in a predominantly Hindu country.  There is a larger segment of India who are Muslim, having been ruled by the Muslim Mughals for three hundred years.

Loose percentages of the population:

  • Hindu      80
  • Muslim    13
  • Sikh            2
  • Christian   2
  • Buddhist   1
  • Jain           .5

As a Christian myself, the thought of 330 million Hindu gods and goddesses (as there are said to be, although there is no complete list) mooching around the place gave me the heebidy jeebidies.  But my God is there, too.  I was raised Baptist and despite certain disagreements I have with the organizations today, I am still a Baptist in my linguist’s spirit.  The eponymous practice of immersive baptism comes from the word Jesus used.  It’s the same word textile workers use for putting cloth into the dye, then bringing it out wholly transformed.  So, while any Bible-believing church could be home for me, it brought tears to my eyes when we just happened to stumble upon Central Baptist Church, New Delhi . . . on Good Friday.  We stood at the back of the sanctuary as the service was already under way.  The open doors may have been for ventilation, but a more welcoming sight I have not seen in some time.  The tune, if not the words, of the hymn was so familiar, there in the middle of a most unfamiliar place.  A woman caught my eye and motioned for me to come forward, to sit down, several times she offered with a kind smile.  But knowing the Hindi sermon would be lost on me, we slipped out when the hymns were finished.  Stepping back out onto the street, I was encouraged and felt another thread of connection in this vastly foreign land.  Yes, I could love these people.

India 2017 part 1: Mumbai

June 3, 2017

Many years ago now, I met Sahitya.  Her husband, in the Indian Navy, was building ships here in the local shipyard.  We all spent some good times together before their hitch was up and the Navy called them home.  From that point, See India has been on my FrogHops Travel list.

Only a few years ago, a sanctuary called Wildlife S.O.S. in Agra, India crossed my stream.  I began to follow them, support them, and become enthralled with the rescue and rehabilitation work they do.  So, when the travel stars aligned for us to visit Sahitya and Vasu (and their no-longer-at-all little boy Adi, also the gorgeous canine addition to the family, Luca), I couldn’t miss visiting WSOS as well.  They like volunteers, suggesting a week’s stay.  But what if that wouldn’t be enough?  It’s not a difficult nor expensive trip to Delhi, but still, while I’m already there. . .  I signed on for two weeks.

Then, as India has a reputation for being advanced travel, we decided just to book a tour of the northern highlights, have someone else making arrangements, setting timetables, and acquiring all the necessary bits of paper to see the sights.

A nice posh landing in Mumbai (which locals still often refer to as Bombay, out of habit), being toured and fed with friendly local knowledge, then stepping a bit more into the grit while being schlepped around by a guide, and finally moving out of the air conditioning entirely and on to hard ~but deeply satisfying~ labor would be the evolution of our itinerary.  Well, ours up to the days of 40°C, no air con.  At this point, the man would return home and get back to work.  Not that he wouldn’t have loved to be scrubbing elephants by my side, but someone has to pay for it all.  And he really enjoyed telling people, “I took my wife to India. . . and left her there.”

So, with our English blood still carrying a politically incorrect fascination with pith helmets, gin & tonic, and the Raj, we decided to splash out for our first visit to the Subcontinent by staying at the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel, Mumbai.  Posh landing, indeed.  Our room was in the historical part of the hotel, not the modern tower addition, so we were special, being allowed up the beautiful staircase.  And there was a lounge, just for us, not even for our guests, where there was tea, coffee, and nibbles freely available, and special occasions involving cocktails, high tea, and evening chocolate.  The lounge was decorated . . . straight out of The Bombay Company, the mid-range reproduction furniture store in the mall of my childhood.  It was a curious experience to be there, in Bombay in 2017, admiring the furniture which was styled by the Raj to outfit colonial homes, with obsequious staff standing by ready to serve.


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If only my bag had arrived with us.  They had 8 hours in Heathrow to make the connection: fail.  Now, after multiple misconnections last spring under the inept ministrations of British Airways, I am quite cross with them.  Apparently, the knuckle-dragging baggage handlers had managed to lose the giant sticky tag that always requires such effort to remove in the end.  Upon landing in Mumbai, Craig received the cryptic text message “We have your bag” and a string of numbers.  It looked like a ransom note, without any details.  At the last minute while checking in, I had borrowed his spare ID tag for my backpack.  Never again will I let that little detail slide.  We showed that text to a Customer Service agent, who made sense of the numbers, called LHR, connected that lost bag to me, and told them to send it onward.  If it didn’t catch the flight leaving presently, it would make the next one and be here in 24 hours.  3 days later. . . pack arrived by bell-hop to our room.  With hardly an apology, British Airways finally fulfilled their commitment to carry me and one bag through a two-leg itinerary.  It doesn’t bear consideration what a complicated itinerary or onward journey even 2 days later would have meant.

It was hot.  I had one outfit, hiking boots, and my sense of humor was rumpled.  Dear local friend to the rescue!  She loaned me flip flops, a skirt, and a blouse.  And took me shopping.  I had intended to acquire for myself a kurta or two anyway.  These are the long tunics with high side slits that nearly all Indian girls wear with leggings… all the time… when it’s 38°C (100°F).  It was becoming distressingly clear that unless I wanted to look like a hussy, my cool and breezy short-ish skirt was going to sink to the bottom of my pack and stay there.  The two pairs of loose rayon trousers with close ankles, sort of but not exactly harem pants, were put into continuous rotation.  Loose ankles drag the ground, a poor choice for third world travel.  And frankly, having fried my calves in that very skirt last spring in the Bahamas, the trousers weren’t all that impractical.  Especially for the elephant work, but that comes much later.

Sahitya put so much thought into our visit, presenting us with a schedule ~never starting too early in the morning, gold star for that~ including local sites of historical, architectural, and artistic interest and a carefully curated selection of restaurants to sample a variety of Indian cuisines.  To our mutual friends, I say whole-heartedly, “Go visit them.”  She’s got it down.  We even found together some new spots she’d been wanting to try.  We used the Yelp-like app Zomato with great success.

Excellent breakfast as recommended @ColabaSocial

The Gujarati thali lunch we had at Chetana is my favorite.  Even after a month of all Indian food, curry and chapati at nearly every meal, I would have stuffed myself here again and I would do it today.  The tables are set with trays at each place, lined with smaller bowls.  Servers appear each with their own dish to dispense into the little bowls and onto the empty spaces.  If anything is running low, someone will turn up to refill it for you, even if you couldn’t eat another bite but aren’t paying attention.  It’s all vegetarian!  You may notice Vermintino ~my little gray traveling Ikea Gösigmus~ sampling all my food.  He is an adventurous eater and a bit of a glutton.

Vegetarian Gujarati Thali @Chetana

In the neighborhood, since we can’t just eat all day, we visited the former Prince of Wales Museum.  I understand the desire to throw out the colonials, be done with occupation, and reclaim rightful culture, but Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya, really?  Even they just call it CSMVS.  Finding it to be very much worth a full day, we broke in the middle for lunch, then let Sahitya have her afternoon while we went back for more.

University of Mumbai

Former Prince of Wales Museum

Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya

Perhaps my second favorite meal was at a fun place called Swati Snacks.  “Street food” with table service, we waited for half an hour to get in.  Seemed like a good sign and was definitely worth it.  Clean and bright, we enjoyed a number of different dishes.  Puri are the little puffs, sometimes covered in gravy, sometimes stuffed and  finished with broth inside to be eaten immediately (pani means water). “But it’s all very light,” Vasu repeated with each additional round.  I’m not sure about light, but it was all so delicious that we were happy to humor him. 

Dahi Batata Puri & Pani Puri (front)

I should mention lassi, the ubiquitous yogurt drink.  It is wonderful and delicious, especially during mango season.  But it is also my belief ~and don’t you tell me otherwise; the mind can do miracles if the body will let it~ that the local good bacteria which ferment the yogurt fight against the local bad bacteria that cause Delhi Belly.  Don’t go be stupid having ice in anything, but a continual infusion of lassi, curd/yogurt, and chaach (skimmed buttermilk) is excellent prophylaxis.  So is Pepto Bismol, that coating action the ads tout is actually protective.  Our friend, the son of a diplomat, refers to the tablets as Foreign Service After Dinner Mints.  Taking them before is even better.  While we’re on the subject, for a triple threat against said Traveler’s Malady because “aint’t nobody got time for that,” I also recommend PB8, probiotic capsules.  They’ve carried me through Morocco, one particular island in the Caribbean which shall remain nameless, Vietnam, Rwanda, and now India.

One more practical note:  ATMs can run dry and stay that way for days.  They courteously put a note on the door “No Money” to spare you trying.  We were staying in a lively area with an active weekend night life, so empty ATMs on Saturday and Sunday weren’t all that surprising.  When the armored vans hadn’t made their drops by Monday afternoon,  we went straight to the mothership, HSBC.  While Craig was inside the bank playing those lottery numbers which usually win but had been letting us down recently, I waited outside.  Vermintino has a Napoleon complex, likes to be the big mouse, and sits on anyone he can.

Meanwhile, Sahitya was inside by the security station.  The guard was becoming most agitated that someone was taking pictures of . . . the bank’s lion statue?  She was attempting to have someone, anyone, step out and ask me to stop.  But she couldn’t leave her post.  No one else cared.  Vermintino is terribly pleased with himself for having sat upon the Hong Kong & Singapore Banking Corporation’s guard lion.

Every Party Needs a Pooper

March 31, 2017

I loathe April Fools’ Day.  There, I said it.  Why do we mark a day to embarrass our loved ones and/or complete strangers?  You can google for yourself how worldwide and historical the practice is.  But the wiki doesn’t delve into the Why.  Perhaps it began, like Boxing Day, as a day to turn the tables, let the Staff have a bit o’ fun to make up for the other 364.  But those days are long past and April Fools’ Day has become quite ecumenical, with anyone eligible to be targeted.  It’s mean.  The jokes are seldom funny except in that bullying “Haha, so glad that’s not me” kind of way, which isn’t funny at all.  Maybe my sense of humor is broken, but I find the Fates and the world cruel enough that to mislead or embarrass someone intentionally with the sole purpose of being able to shout, essentially, “Got you!” is pointless and sadistic.

It is with the greatest relief that April 1st will find me hermitically sealed upon the grounds of La Fortezza della Solitudine.  But were I not, I might put greater thought into countering the culture for the day.  Of course, I am counter culture here every day in 99 ways more than I know.  But perhaps I would bake cookies and leave them anonymously on my neighbors’ porch, with an April Foods’ Day note.  Or carry apples and oranges to hand to strangers.  Or perform guerrilla car washing.  Maybe weed a public garden.  Or just do something nice for instead of nasty to a friend.  The point is, I’d very much like to see this glorification of pulling one over on the unsuspecting, frankly an easy target, be forgotten.  Life always has a left-hook to the jaw in its back pocket, why add any suffering at all to the world, particularly when the Fool just might be catching that blind-side left hook later in the day already?

April in Paris

The 1st of Green in Paris

Who Changed the Locks?

January 29, 2017

So many fires burning.

If I consider them all, my heart will fall to ashes:  how to protect the wild lands inherited from our forefathers, how to stand up for immigrants just like our forefathers looking for a better life, how to convince energy companies that burning stuff was never more than a stop-gap until we could harness the unlimited power all around us, how to guard the basic health of all citizens for the good of society regardless of their ability to pay, how to guarantee a woman’s right to choose how the seed a man left behind is going to affect the rest of her life, how to save animals from needless suffering, how to educate children to prepare them for the changing world before them, how to engage the rest of the world for humanity’s sake . . . the list goes on and every day something else is set afire.

Usually, I am the apologist for the welfare of animals.  They are speechless, powerless.  Someone must stand up for them.  But today, I am thinking about humans.  I won’t get into the details of The Ban, only that it scrawls an ugly graffito across the plaque at Lady Liberty’s feet.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,

I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

If that door is closed to people of a particular religion, where does that leave our precious Freedom of Religion?  Some say we are a Christian nation.  This policy flies in the face of the very notion.  If we believe Jesus really is the way, the truth, and the life, then we should want all mankind to find this saving grace.  How will Muslims find Christ but in the midst of Christians?  Why would they be interested except that they see love and light in us that is better than anything they have ever known?  That they should find in us something they want for themselves?  Jesus told his followers to be salt and light in the world, not salt in a wound.  Before He left, He gave us a great commission: Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature. (Mark 16:15)  He also said, Feed my sheep. (John 21:17)  If we are Christians, this is our highest calling.  The apostle Paul didn’t place comfort or even his life above the Gospel.  Nor did any of the others who were beaten, cast out, and murdered for their faith.  We have no right to use it to defend our borders, keep ourselves safe, or send anyone back into harm’s way.  There is nothing of Christ in that.  We must trust God and rest in this assurance,

You, dear children, are from God and have overcome them, because the One who is in you is greater than the one who is in the world.                (1 John 4:4)