Okay, this update will feature photos taken on a regular camera and then put on to a CD, so they are not so clear. You will get the picture though (no pun intended). Also, did not have time to read through it as I am trying to get it posted before I leave for Chennai tonight. That way I will continue to only be one posting behind. The next will be about my month in Bangalore and my project.
8, 9, 11 March
We arrived in Delhi on the evening of 7 March and got to catch up a bit with Meg before heading to bed. It was so good to see her after all that time—and so nice to also be in a nice apartment with big beds.
On the 8th we went shopping. Delhi is known for being great for shopping. We tried to take advantage of it, but were not really in the mood unfortunately. We did get to catch up with some friends, Sonali and Derek, who are living in Delhi. Mitali and Lizzy both went back to Bangalore that day and I stayed on to finish my journey.
That evening, I got to do a first—my first Indian wedding. It was the sister of my friend, Sowmya’s (she is the one I stayed with in Bangalore when I first arrived) friend, Kamal. I love how everyone is invited to events in India…and you can bring friends. None of this RSVP and you MAY or MAY NOT be invited with a guest to a wedding (some of you out there know the endless discussions that have occurred about the beliefs on that issue. Hahaha). No sirree, once it was found out that I wanted to go to an Indian wedding, I was welcomed with open arms. In fact, Kamal made such a point to see how I was doing and to have his friends come over and show me around. Such hospitality.
Sonali came with me (and helped me tie my saree!!!!) Here are some photos from the night.
The next day I went to see Meg’s office—very nice and then had some meetings of my own. I had set up times to talk with people based in Delhi who work on CSR issues. In fact, one of the meetings has led into the project I am now working on (but that will be discussed in a later update). That evening Meg, her Swedish friend, Sara, and her colleague, Supna, went to this chic restaurant called Thai Wok for dinner. Very nice-- and overlooking the Qutab Minar at night (see my first posting of Delhi in October).
After a day visiting Agra (will talk about that a few paragraphs below) I was back in Delhi. Had some more meetings and then spent the day in Old Delhi. How wonderful!!! I would love to go back and wander through the age-old streets cramped with nook after nook of wares. Here you have wedding supplies, there you have sequines (and millions, upon millions!), here you have sarees, there you have meat (it is definitely enough to make you a vegetarian—I won’t go into the gory (and here is where that word is appropriately used) details). You really don’t know where to look first. One could probably spend years just walking and watching and investigating. After going to see the Red Fort—less impressive than one would think, I hired a cycle rikshaw wallah to take me around the crevices of Old Delhi.
Here is one of the Red Fort.
Saleem, a particularly clean and we kempt cycle rickshaw driver, then took me around. By the way, he was very nice and promised me to tell my friends in Delhi about him. You can find him outside the Red fort and ask for Saleem (tall, mustached—doesn’t help much, does it?). Though it would be difficult to determine just who Saleem was, he devised an intelligent scheme. I gave him one of my cards, so as to prove that he was indeed the Saleem who took me around. Hehehe. One other funny thing to report about my conversations with Saleem was when we first started. He told me that times have been so bad after September 11th. That American tourism was down and his business was suffering. I responded that I have noticed that there still are plenty of Europeans visiting India. He agreed, but said they were cheap. Hahaha. I really hope some of my Euro friends are reading this. Too funny!
Streets of Old Delhi
He took me on the main street, into a Sikh temple—the first one I had been in. You have to take off your shoes and wash you feet in water that is constantly running outside of the temple entrance. I pressume this water is also cleansing and holy b/c I saw a worshipper drink some after leaving the temple. Don’t mean to be insensitive, but YUCK! The people who run the temple are so kind and are very welcoming to visitors. I now wish I could go to the Golden Temple in Punjab, but don’t think I will have the chance this time.
We then went to the famous Spice Market. I really don’t know the details, but it is the largest spice market in India. It is amazing..the moment you walk in to the structure, used over the years for different purposes (during the Raj it was a residence for British) your nose starts to twitch, your throats starts to itch and your eyes squint longing for extra blinks. After only only a few more seconds sneezes come, and the coughs. At first, stupidly, I didn’t realize what was going on. But then, I came to my senses and realized-- Yes, oh Yes, we were in a SPICE market. Aha! Everyone was sneezing and coughing, even those who work there day in and day out. I could never do it! My photos of the place didn’t come out too well, but here is one
Saleem then took me to the top of the building where we could overlook Old Delhi. It was so great. Here are some photos from that.
Drying papads--crispy flat chiplike things
Then we went to the Jami Masjid, the largest mosque in India. For any who plan to go, be cognizant of the time of day. I went two times and was denied because of the call to prayer. The third time was a charm though and I got in. However, it was the end of the day and the light wasn’t too good. That was particularly frustrating because I had to pay 100 rupees to bring my camera in. Though this is not an absorbatant fee in US dollars, it is the most I have paid anywhere to bring my camera into a site. Oh well. I can’t even imagine what the place looks like with the likes of 25,000 worshippers packed in and bowing to Allah. There was a lot of activity inside, but nothing religious while I was there. More like families and friends spending time together and kids running around like maniacs chasing the ever-present flocks of pigeons.
That night I went with Meg to her friend’s going away party. The friend is a Swedish woman who was in India working for H&M, but moving back home because she was going to have a baby. It was amazing to see the apartment of expats who were living in India on expat salaries. Quite something! I could handle that, I think. It was funny b/c the party was mostly Scandinavians and French speakers. I felt like I was back at home in Brussels. Hehehe.
My last day in Delhi I took care of some errands and then met Sonali (wedding pictures) and Sandhya (check out the Goa Fulbright conference) for lunch. We met at the USEFI office (United States Educational Foundation of India—who administers the Fulbright). They redid the reception and it is now quite lovely. Also found out that the woman who was responsible for taking care of things for us was no longer with USEFI--??? Oh well.
After lunch I went to the Modern Art Museum. It was not great, but I am still glad I went. I am not that familiar with modern Indian artists, so it was good to get a first taste. I know I like Jamini Roy and some others. Of course, I decided to buy some posters, and OF COURSE, they did not have any that I wanted. How is that possible? Have you ever noticed that? When you go to an art exhibit they always seem to have picked out the absolute worst pieces to make into the official posters for the exhibit (actually here, there was an exhibit on spirituality in modern art and the didn’t even have a poster for sale—they did have one, but wouldn’t sell it to me???). Who decides which paintings become the posters that are put on sale to museum goers? Who?? By the way, I talked to some artists about this, and they agreed with me.
So, Delhi, which most people seem to hate (even Delhi-ites), I decided wasn’t half bad. I think mostly I liked it b/c it is a big city and therefore has a lot of things to do. I definitely could have spent more time visiting restaurants, lounges, sites, stores, museums and visiting with Meg. But it does have many, many annoying aspects to it. Those are the things that make me appreciate Bangalore (like not fighting with the auto driver and paying 100 rupees for every ride—just to name one).
Well, here is something you have all been waiting for…the TAJ MAHAL. I mean you just cannot visit India and not see the “tear on the face of eternity,” as the poet Tagore wrote. Now, most people will tell you that the Taj is one of the few places that is hyped to enormous proportions, but yet still manages to not disappoint. I, on the other hand, wouldn’t really talk about it in that way. There is no doubt that it is incredibly phenomenal. It is sparkling, and shining, white and wonderful, gorgeous and gigantic, but to me, it almost seemed fake. It is one of those images that you have just seen too many times. Lizzy told me the term for this, when something gets imitated so that the original seems fake. It is called simulacrum. Sort of like when you say something you encounter seems so much like a movie, but the movie came from reality. I doesn’t mean I didn’t enjoy it, but it didn’t move me the way it seems to have moved others (however, I think I may not be easily moved. That is what I am finding). There are lots of tales to tell about the Taj, but I think I will let you look those up yourselves and will just let the pictures speak for themselves.
Just a few things—I am almost 100% sure I saw a Western couple about 2.2 seconds after they got enaged. They couldn’t stop hugging and the huggest smiles on their faces. Unlike, France, where couples are liplocked, and Italy where all, men and women alike, are walking arm in arm, India you just don’t see couples embracing and smooching in the streets. It was a bit shocking b/c I was not used to it. By the way, why would you get engaged there? Even though it is the most infamous monument to love, it is so impersonal and actually not very romantic at all. I can think of about 10 places I have been to in India that are more romantic and that is before I even have visited Kerala! Just my opinion.
Funny thing going on at the Taj-- besides the professional photographers who take pictures of you and then print the pictures for you to buy after you leave, there are also these makeshift photographers who take your camera for you and start a photo shoot. It is white hilarious. They direct you to move to this spot or that. To look this way and that. First, into the reflecting pool, and then into the flowers. Lift your head, move your arm, come closer, smile bigger. Hahaha. Well, I was alone, so I didn’t mind. And now, like it or not, I have about 30 pictures of me with the Taj. Hahahaha
Here is a smattering:
Before going to the Taj I also went to Fatehpur Sikri, which is an old Mughal capital that is about an hour from the Taj. It was really beautiful, but the pictures don’t seem to convey that. There is a huge mosque there too with a tomb of Sheikh Salim Chisti, a Sufi saint who predicted the birth of a son to the Emperor Akbar (previously mentioned in Rajasthan update).
Here are some photos of that.
On the evening of the 12th of March I took an overnight train to my next destination, Varanasi. When I got on the train in the “Sleeper” section a few people directed me to the “AC” section. You see, they saw I was a whitey (we really love using this word and try to as often as possible. I am so sad to think about when I leave India and won’t have the opportunity to make use of it anymore!). And whities go to the AC section of the train. I smiled at this and told them I was okay and was in this car. One of the men in the section where I was sitting asked me if I would do a favor for him. He was travelling with his niece, but her seat was in a different car. He couldn’t let her stay there alone (she was young) so she was going to stay in the area where we all were (and therefore would be taking up space too). Would I mind switching seats with her? Not at all I told him as long as he carried my bag to the next car (haha). We went to the other car, but the seat where she was supposed to be was in the first section by the toilet (yuck!) and where there were only men. I told him no. He would need to find me another seat. Over the next few minutes he searched for another available seat and somehow befriended this other man, who seemed to work for the trains, but in fact didn’t. Not sure how that man got involved, but, hey, this is India. They found me one place to sit. I befriended this tiny tot sitting across from me by making funny faces at him. He thought I was just about the most hysterical thing on the planet and screamed in delight (now I can here some of my friends making fun right now, saying it was probably more like in fear. Trust me, he loved me). But I didn’t get to sit there for more than about 15 minutes because then the real train man came. Okay, I forgot to add that the original man I was helping was still standing there. I made him wait until the conductor came by b/c I did not know how to explain this situation. The conductor is the one who really deals with these situations. Actually, if you spend any time on some crowded trains you see so much walking back and forth of the conductor you will go dizzy! You wonder what it is that he is doing. Well, apparently he is exerting his authority as the decider of fates, decider of seats for those without reservations. Mostly, just getting paid off and giving the best seats to those who pay the most. Anyway, he found me a different seat, so I had to leave the cutie pie little boy (it was okay though b/c something weird was going on with his parents. She looked about 16 and was crying and he was significantly older and seemingly trying to make up for something).
I then moved to a section with a bunch of other foreigners, including a French couple and 5 Israelis. Fun to have something in common with both—speaking French (not well, I admit) and being Jewish. Hehehe. Anyway, I wound up seeing them in Varanasi again quite a few times and that was nice.
Varanasi is an old place…a very old place. Mark Twain wrote, “Older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend, and looks twice as old as all of them put together.” It is a Hindu city famous as a pilgrimage site to worship on the banks of the great and cleansing Ganges. Worshippers go there and perform pujas, bath, take part in artis each night and cleanse to pray to the gods and cleanse the soul. Each and every morning thousands flock there (and that is not even during the high season) as well as tons of tourists to gawk at their rituals. Well, I was one of those tourists, and I woke up at about 5 am to go see the sunrise over the Ganga (how it is known here) and observe the believers during one of their holiest moments.
I was a bit nervous to go b/c everyone made me hyper about the touts and the crowds and the harranguing that takes place. Many warned me to stay for a short time, that people get annoyed there, sick there, it is dirty there… I was on my guard, but actually felt that it was not bad. Yes, there are little boys selling post cards and many boat rowers trying to hawk their services, but what else to expect. The gulleys, the small, windy, mediaval like streets are dirty and crowded with cows, but they are facinating. Each turn reveals another linked alley that has existed since Time and Memoriam (or if you prefer, the year gimmel). A temple turns up on eer corner and, of course, a sweet shop existing for the sole purpose of selling sweets to worshippers as offers in the adjacent temple.
Then there is the river. Where I was staying, a guesthouse where two other Fulbrighters live, had a rooftop with a view of the river. But it is down on the ground where you get the best feel of the river and its magic. Along the main road leading to the main Ghat (the steps leading into the river), there is stand after stand selling beads, coins, incense and flowers to use in ceremonies and leave in the river. There are small pictures and plaques running the gamut of the gods-- Lord Shiva, Lord, Vishnu, Laxshmi, and then, the one I was looking for, Ganga, sitting on a lotus on a crocodile—the goddess of the river, from which stems all of the water on the earth. She sprouted from the head of Shiva, who was acting as a sieve, stemming the too powerful flow of water that would have destroyed the earth if not for his protection.
When you get down to its waters you see a hotbed of activity-- but you really must get there in the morning. As I mentioned, you can see worshippers employing priests to perform rituals, covering their eyes, breaking coconuts, lighting candles and incense. You can see bathers, cleansing themselves of sins (if not of dirt, though there were plenty attempting to do that—but the water is quite filthy. I almost gagged when I saw a man brushing his teeth with it. Why bother?). The dhobis, clothes cleaners--standing thigh high in the water, rythmically lifting their arms over their heads and back down again in front of them in a circular motion, beating the clothes time and again, to rid them of dirt. If you raise your eyes a bit toward the land you will see all of the already-washed clothes lying flat on the ground soaking in the rays of the sun. It was quite humorous to see tens of large light blue squares, the bed linens from a hotel, dotting the side of the riverbank. (Hmm, how clean are these clothes?—washed in the Ganges and then left lying on the ground to dry?? You tell me.)
You will also see the smoke, coming up from the burning ghats, where people are cremated and then have their skulls cracks if the fire didn’t already do it) to release their souls. From far away you can see the stacks and stacks and stacks of firewood, piled high into the sky.
The thing about Varanasi is that it is an old place, and it is a spiritual place. A friend here in Bangalore asked me if I felt that the city was from a totally different era. It was an interesting question for me. I know, as I mentioned that it is old, but I feel like all of India feels like a mix of eras all occurring in the same time and place. I am not sure that I felt Varanasi was more special in that way. Of course it felt like an old city, especially because of the gullies, which gave it a very distinctive old city feel, but I didn’t feel like I was entering a different world in terms of time. Then there is the spirituality aspect. Well, I am not very spiritual, but I have to admit that the place had a certain mystical quality. One afternoon, I was strolling along the ghats and sat down to listen to a man playing the flute. He was an old man with white hair and thick, coke bottle glasses. His music was magical and so calming. When he finished I thanked him and he said he comes everyday. Shanti, shanti. Shanti means peace. Very true—it was so peaceful. That is something that is remarkable about the place. To have the chaos, and to have the peace.
I also attended an arti at night. It happens every day. Five, identical looking young priests picked up and moved around different objects in circular motion for an hour while an older priest sang and chanted. Then everyone went down to the river to place flowers and candles and make wishes. Before I left for India, my doctor told me, “Don’t even put your one pinky toe into the Ganges.” Well, I didn’t listen to her (sorry mom!), but I did put the tips of my fingers in it purposely. How could I not? I am at the holiest spot of the holiest river—I couldn’t resist. I survived so I guess it was okay.
This is just about the funniest thing I have seen in India
After only 2 days in Varanasi I moved on to my last destination of the trip…
Calcutta has a certain image—one of poverty and disease, lepers and suffering. Mother Teresa and City of Joy are to thank for this image. But I have to say, as the guidebooks also indicate, I think it is a bit blown out of proportion. Though there are many reasons why Calcutta does have so many suffering souls and there are people who are poor and ill there, I really wonder if it is less than in the slums of Bombay. I do think I saw more people actively living on the streets than in other cities. Maybe in other cities it is more confined to certain areas and I haven’t been in those aread as much. But I also think I noticed some of these people because they were just really living. Obviously, they were poor but it wasn’t like they were so destitute. It was more like their home was just a certain part of the sidewalk. There were family units making lunch and dinner alongside their neighbors who were part of their community. It was an unusual feeling to describe. I am not trying to say that it wouldn’t be better for them to have a house. I am not saying that at all. It is just that they didn’t portray the image that you have of someone living on the street. The kids were running around playing and the adults were smiling a lot and even at me, not even trying to get some money from me—just being friendly.
Anyway, I found the city quite pleasant. I stayed in dorm type room so that I could meet people and wound up befriending a Swiss girl. I think met a friend of a friend of hers who is originally from Darjeeling, but lives in France now. I also met a bunch of people in one of the two restaurants that seem obligatory for backpackers to frequent. I even gathered a mish mosh group of 6 together to go see the sound and light show at the Victorial Memorial one night (pretty funny. In fact, one of the guys was this guy who I met for about 5 minutes in Bangalore one night about a month before. He is travelling in Asia for a long time and just happened to be in one of the above-mentioned restaurants when I was. Hehe.)
In addition to the Victoria Memorial (which I visited during the daytime as well), I also went to the Indian Museum—quite a great place for old Indian sculpture and carvings. I would definitely recommend it to anyone going, a modern art museum, the cathedral and on a very long afternoon tour with a Bengali named Surjo. Thanks Surjo! He took me all around the city and I got to see the Writer’s Building as well as other structures built during the days of the Raj (all over Calcutta). He mentioned that there was a synagogue in Calcutta so we went to go see it. The man watching it told me that I could only go in if I got permission from one man (I guess he is the head of the meagre, 600 person Jewish community in Calcutta). He owns a bakery and we would have had to go all the way to another part of Calcutta for approval. I asked if we could call him. After putting me on the phone, and me telling him I was Jewish, he promptly gave me access to the synagogues (actually, there are 2). Gotta love being a MOTT. They were really quite lovely and it felt wonderful to visit these old places of worship. Later we went to his bakery so I could thank him, but he had left for the day. Too bad. By the way, the bakery had yummy fudge and chocolate tarts. Leffs-the chocolate was like the center part of a chocolate meltaway. I was eating it thinking it was so familiar and then—it came to me! I got a little nostalgic for home.
Ashoka, former ruler of India, Lions (on all govt. stuff)
One of the main reasons you will see many backpackers in Calcutta is because of Mother Teresa. People from all countries (and at my hostel almost entirely Japan) come to volunteer for days or weeks at one of her 4 places, each of which serves a different community. When I found out that you could go for even only a half of a day (I was only in Calcutta for not even 3 days), I decided to go. I went with my Swiss friend, Susan to the pain place where you get breakfast and then find out where you are assigned to go. We went with this group of Japanese guys to the one by the Kali temple (more about that in a minute).
There are two sections—one where the men are and one where the women are. Everyone’s hair is cute short for health reasons and the women are so skinny that it does not make you feel very happy to see emaciated, crew cut haired women lying in rows of cots. You can imagine the image. Well, we fed them and bathed some and talked to them (though I most certainly don’t know Bengali and they most certainly don’t know English) and rubbed their arms and legs with oil to help ease any pains. One woman was so grateful that she took my head in her hands and then brought my forehead to her mouth so she could kiss it. It was such a wonderful moment. I felt so blessed to be healthy and happy and to be able to give even a few minutes of joy or at least ease to this old woman. I can’t even imagine the horrible stories that these women would have to tell. Maybe it is good I don’t know their language.
Though I was glad to be able to help, I don’t really like the set up of the place. There is no system to determine how severe different people’s situations were. That is, there might be some who just needed to be there for a few days and others who were on the verge of death. It seemed like it would be relatively easy for some to get “stuck” there, lying in the beds and eventually atrophying their muscles to that it becomes difficult to move. Now, granted, I really don’t know how it works so I could be totally wrong. However, there was this German woman there who had been for weeks and she said that she was the only one who made them get up and walk around.
My other commentary on the whole volunteering at Mother Teresa’s thing is that I find it a bit annoying. Why do all these people from all over the world come only here to volunteer. Aren’t there poor, suffering people in Bombay? In Johannesburg? In Mexico City? Or even in these people’s own country? I know that the set up with MT’s is very easy and I certainly don’t begrudge anyone for trying to help out another person, but I almost found it a bit self-indulgent (just as it was for me) and a bit restricted to a certain time and a certain place. Okay, enough of my two cents.
After leaving MT’s place I went to the Kali temple right nearby. Kali is the goddess of death and she is a fearsome one at that! If you have ever seen a goddess with stringy, wild black hair coming out from all over her head, with a necklace of skulls, a toungue protruding from her maniacal face and dripping with blood then you have seen Kali. She is the main god worshipped in Calcutta and the frenetic chaos of the Kali temple proves it. They still practice animal sacrifice—poor goats—here. Didn’t see it, but did see the goats. We also saw a small marriage take place and a ceremony to bless a baby amidst the frenzied atmosphere. By the way, they also love Durga here. She is a very powerful goddess who I decided I like a lot.
I had to leave very early for the airport to catch my flight. It was difficult to get up so early, but I got a wonderful site rewarding me for my pain. Before the human rickshaws (I forgot to mention that this is one of the last places, if not the last, that has human rickshaws), were out, before anyone was really up, I saw a long, long row of this round, flat-bottomed baskets filled with little chicks. There was just one after the other after the other. It was still dark, but the light was just coming out, leaving a blue/purple sky. In this light I could see the thousands of chicks, waiting to be sold. It was incredible.
By the way, on the way into Calcutta on the train you will see lush greenery--I was surprised. At one of the stops before we arrived I also saw this...dung patties drying in the sun.
And then, I made my way back to Bangalore…and slept.