Margaret and Dick   

     

    
September '07: The India chronicles

                     
Ten days in
India:  not just another culture, it’s another universe.  The ultra-modern co-exists with the timeless, the very rich with the very poor, cars and trucks share roads with bicycles, rickshaws, camels, and elephants.


It was intense.  As we walked amidst throngs of people, kids would follow trying to sell us something or guide us somewhere.  As we rode in bicycle rickshaws or motorized tuk-tuks in dense traffic, we would close our eyes as the driver avoided near-collisions.  We would retreat to our hotel room and collapse on the bed and recite our litany, “Wow, that was intense!

Yet somehow it works.  With amazing ingenuity, people make do with limited resources.  Things that can be transported on a three-wheel bicycle include:  rolls of grass turf; bales of cotton; a pallet of books; rolled up carpets or mattresses; propane tanks or milk cans, or 240 gallon-cans of cooking oil.

Initially we cringed at the poverty – the shanty towns and the beggars.  After a week we noticed the poverty less (that’s scary) and the grandeur more.  The caste system, officially obsolete, is very much alive.  Brahmins (highest caste) are not all rich, just superior.  Not all lower-caste people are poor; they just can’t transition or marry into a higher caste.  Our
Varanasi guide pointed out that the people who tended the funeral pyres were low-caste; they get the dirty jobs.  After only a week in India, that almost made sense. 
On this quick trip we limited our scope to north
India:  Delhi, Agra, Jaipur, Varanasi, and Khajuraho.  Most travel within India was via an airplane pass on super-efficient Jet Airways.  We sampled the famed Indian railroad system on a one-day trip to Agra. 

Each place was unique.  The food was great, the people were most welcoming, the scenery gorgeous, the shopping unequaled.  We had no problems that could not be solved with a little patience and a little ingenuity.  As we often heard, in
India, anything is possible. 

In a reversal of usual roles, the stories that follow are written by Margaret, with Dick’s edits.




      Mr Tuk's wild ride
      Unauthorized settlement
      Holy cow!
      Hot stuff
      The Pink City
 


 Mr Tuk's wild ride
Anyone who visited Disneyland during the '60s has fond memories of Mr Toad's Wild Ride.  As it happens, the ride provided good preparation for India.

We arrived at the New Delhi airport at midnight and were greeted by the hotel's driver.  After he led us to a dark and rather remote parking area, he loaded us into the car and turned onto the road, dead center.  The sea of oncoming traffic parted as we zipped down the middle (yelps of panic) then worked our way to the left side.  All was well...but transportation adventures continue each day.

Once you get over your very rational fear that you're going to die, it's really okay.

An auto rickshaw (tuk-tuk) is a quintessentially Indian mode of transportation:  a three-wheeled vehicle with driver in front and two passengers on a bench in back, covered on top and back but largely open on the sides.  With neighboring vehicles sometimes less than an inch away and approaching from all directions, it's hard to keep your cool.  Lanes are almost meaningless, more of a suggestion.  Traffic signals are reasonably respected during the day, but in early-morning or late-night hours not at all, even as a "yield".

The scene is one of barely-controlled chaos.  The same road is shared by trucks, buses, bicycles, tuk-tuks, bicycle rickshaws, cars, horse-drawn carts, and your occasional elephant.  Cows lying in the road add additional interest.  Often we just have to close our eyes until the bus barreling down on us passes by, and details of how we cleared unscathed remain a mystery.  Signs on the back of buses read "horn please".  In other words, please let me know if I'm about to crush you.  Horns blare incessantly.

We spent two hours on the back of a bicycle rickshaw, touring lanes in Old Delhi that are too narrow even for the tuk-tuks.  As cyclists, we're humbled by the strength of those drivers.  The bicycle rickshaws provide tourists the opportunity to help the working poor directly.  In the early-morning hours you can see the drivers sleeping on their rickshaws, which double as homes for many.

We spent one day with CASP/PLAN, a child sponsorship organization with whom we've worked in the past.  Traveling in what we've come to recognize as a "PLAN-mobile" (SUV with four-wheel drive, here a Toyota), we felt like we were in a cocoon, safe in air-conditioned splendor.  That is, until we turned onto the pitted dirt road that leads into Asia's largest slum.

But that's another story.


 Unauthorized settlement

Sangam Vihar is a community of about 100,000 people living in a pocket on the south side of New Delhi.  It was described by our CASP/PLAN host as Asia's largest slum or "unauthorized settlement", although a similar community in Mumbai also claims that title.  Thirty years ago, squatters began moving in from nearby states onto what had previously been farmland.  The city tried to shut down the settlement, but their efforts were thwarted by mass protests.  The area existed, until recently, without city services.  The city now maintains a narrow paved road that serves as the main street; other streets, as well as the access roads into the settlement, are pitted dirt lanes that were muddy at the time of our visit and are impassible during the monsoon season.  City water is provided for a few hours each day; electricity is sporadic.  Bicycle rickshaws, so common elsewhere in New Delhi, are able to navigate only the main street.

 

Our connection to Sangam Vihar began in 1991 when we began sponsoring a little girl, Ranjit, who lives there.  We lost touch with her in 2002, when she finished secondary school and graduated from the CASP/PLAN program.  Several months before our visit to India, we asked PLAN-USA if there was any possibility of finding Ranjit and her family.  After an audible groan, they promised to try, but explained that because of migration, lack of address, and the fact that PLAN programs now focus elsewhere, they were not hopeful.  The CASP/PLAN representative in New Delhi, however, took it as a personal challenge.  "How am I going to find her?  There are 100,000 people living in this block!"  After two months of asking around the 'hood, she succeeded.  Ranjit now works as an elementary-school teacher, and she and her family were looking forward to our visit.  We could hardly believe the news.

Riding into the 'hood in the PLAN-mobile provided a real awakening.  Garbage.  Open cesspools where rain had collected and formed small ponds.  Cows, pigs, monkeys, goats.  Kids everywhere.  How could hope exist here?

And yet.

We visited a "mid-day meal center", launched by PLAN several years ago but now autonomous, where three men and nine women work together to cook daily lunches for 10,000 local schoolchildren.  We visited a center for disabled children (left), operated by PLAN, that works to provide a viable future for the least fortunate of Sangam Vihar's children with rudimentary education and vocational training. 

And finally, we visited Ranjit and her family. 

We stepped carefully, avoiding cow pies, as we walked up to their attractive doorway.  Until last year, the family -- father, mother, and four children -- lived in a single-room home.  They now share four relatively spacious rooms.  We were welcomed into the master bedroom, which was able to accommodate us, Ranjit and family, and aunts/cousins/friends.  It was a major neighborhood event.  The only light came from a window, since the electricity was out.  "It's going to come back on at 2:30", said a brother, who works as an electrician and should know.  Newspapers were fetched so that father could fan Dick and a cousin could fan Margaret.  Each time our fanners paused, sweat would begin running down our faces.  The locals are much more accustomed to the sweltering heat.

It was like old home week.  They showed us family photos, eventually bringing out the parents'  wedding photos.  What a gorgeous couple, and what a great five-day wedding party they had!  They told us about losing sleep after the September 11 disaster, wondering how such evil could exist in the world. 

As it came time to leave and gifts were exchanged, they told us how much of their current prosperity was due to our help.  Well, not exactly.  PLAN sponsorship dollars go not to individual families but to building up community services.  Families are required to make monthly antes into the pool so they remain fully invested in their advancement.  Ranjit's family worked hard to get where they are today. 

Our departure was emotional, and we all wondered if we would see each other again. 

PS -- You too can sponsor a child and change lives.  Go to www.plan-usa.org to see how.


 Holy cow!
The holy city of Varanasi (Benares) may be the most remarkable destination on earth.  One of the oldest living cities in the world, it is the Mecca/Jerusalem/Rome of Hindu culture, the location that all Hindus hope to visit.  Bathing in the Ganges at Varanasi provides purity to the living; dying in Varanasi provides instant enlightenment.  Western tourists are far outnumbered by pilgrims from all over India, holy men, and the waiting-to-die.  Streets are barely wide enough for a person and a cow to cross paths.  Most of the action, night or day, is on the ghats, the steps leading down to the Ganges.

Eye-popping views abound.  Cows, goats, moneys, and dogs are everywhere.  Hindu shrines, small and large, fill every alley and household.  Holy men perform ceremonies with water, fire, flowers, and drums.

And there are the bathers.  Our hotel was on one of the central ghats, so our gawking began as soon as we stepped out the door.  It was shock enough to see someone step into the river, but then we noticed another bather brushing his teeth.  The immune systems of Varanasi residents must be strong indeed...or perhaps they are seeking early enlightenment.

The show starts early.  Holy men chant through the night.  With the amplifiers at low volume, the chanting functions as a comforting drone and promotes sleep.  At 4am, the amplifiers are turned up, and the drums and tambourines begin in earnest.  Dawn is coming, time to get down to the river!  We stumbled down at 6am to meet our guide Pappu and the boat he had reserved for us.  The ghats were already bustling with pilgrims.  In the predawn light, our boat made its way along the shore and we took in the sights.  Hundreds of bathers performed their own ceremonies or simply scrubbed down.  Towering paintings on the ghat walls honor various gods.  Barbers set up shop on the banks.  Candles float down the river, each carrying a silent wish.  Our jaws dropped when when the boat passed a burning ghat, where a dead body, wrapped in white muslin, was placed on a funeral pyre.  Pappu apologized that only one body was on display now; most cremations occur in the evening. 

Note to self:  don't order fish in Varanasi.  The residue from cremations goes into the Ganges.  Dead cows float down the river.  (Of course cows come here to die too!)  Holy men are the only people who are not cremated; they are wrapped, weighted with stones, and sunk into the middle of the river.  But the greatest danger is said to come from the heavy metals dumped by upstream factories. 

Our guide Pappu is somewhat of a local celebrity, with several honorable mentions on TripAdvisor.  We were not disappointed.  "I was a guide to Goldie Hawn when she was here," he said.  "And her daughter.  They heard me playing the tabla in the music shop, and they stopped in.  She was here for two weeks."  Following our early-morning boat outing, he walked us around the narrow alleys to the major temples.  Pappu also introduced us to a "true holy man", who spends considerable time helping children in nearby villages.  Or at least I hope that's true, because I gave him a considerable sum to analyze my horoscope and palm later in the day.  Another local celebrity, my holy man had previously worked with Goldie Hawn and showed pictures of himself dining with Goldie.  And her daughter.  "I brought Goldie to see him," Pappu hastened to add.  The holy man also helped Michael Jackson through some of his recent difficulties.  I'm not a fan of astrology, but I was stunned by some of the holy man's insights when he presented the results several hours later.  It was only the next day that I realized his acumen may have been helped a bit by Google.

Pappu brought us to the evening ceremony on the river, and we then pleaded exhaustion and headed for the hotel.  Pappu was disappointed.  "You have to see the burning ghat.  I show you lots of dead bodies!"  We passed.

The next morning Dick slept in, his sleep enabled by earplugs.  I left my camera behind to avoid inhibiting the bathers.  I met several young boys, potential guides, and each of them knows Goldie Hawn.  They seemed disappointed when I told them that everybody in Varanasi knows Goldie Hawn.  Finally I convinced everyone that I wasn't looking for souvenirs, guides, or a boat ride, and I sat down on the steps to disappear into the scene.  I entered the Hindu equivalent of zen.  Pure magic. 

After ten minutes, a boat operator offered a ride.  "Not expensive!"  I saw that his only other passengers were three pilgrims.  In two shakes I was in his boat, floating up the river.  Zen again.  Or perhaps a bit of enlightenment.


 Hot stuff
The name Khajuraho may not ring a bell, but you've probably seen photos of the resplendent temples and their erotic carvings.  The temples were built a thousand years ago, abandoned and forgotten some 700 years ago, and rediscovered by an embarrassed British army officer during the Victorian era.  Some well-traveled friends had likened them with the better-known temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia.  We can definitely attest that Khajuraho is worth the detour.

Khajuraho is really only a village.  The hordes of tourists have not yet arrived, but the hotels are ready when they do.  We indulged ourselves by staying at the Taj Hotel Chandela.  Where but Khajuraho could we experience such luxury for $70?  We particularly enjoyed walking past the hotel's line of cabs to hail a bicycle rickshaw to transport us into the village.

In the hotel lobby, a framed poster offered this whimsical description of the temples:

“The sites fall into three categories:  (a) the temples, (b) the sculptures, (c) the tourists.  Of these, the most interesting to view are the tourists.  With regard to the sculptures, there is an economy of effort.  There are only two models:  one a man, the other a woman.  The man is depicted as thin, fat, hairy, bald, clean-shaven, or with a beard, depending on the role he plays.  The woman is depicted as either fat or thin, but never old – it is understood that she was the girlfriend of the then ruler.  Most people consider she is nude, but this is incorrect; she is dressed in the finest Indian muslin, which, as everyone knows, is perfectly transparent.

 “Three activities are portrayed in the carvings:  war, worship, and physical culture.  All three follow a set pattern.  Large numbers of men, really the same man, go to war.  After about fifty yards of mayhem, they switch over to physical culture, with the aid of a female model.  They are careful not to overdo it; within a few yards they turn to worship.  The technique of war is curiously modern, with much emphasis on the tank (the elephant).  The physical culture is obviously of Yogic origin, including the Shri Shashan (standing on head).  The beauty of Khajuraho is the beauty of proportion.  The vital statistics are an exotic 37-25-37.

 “Our tame poet was asked to produce a few lines about Khajuraho.  
            This is what he has produced:
            (He has since been sacked.)”

 


We hired a guide, the excellent D.S. Rajput, to show us the highlights.  He began with a short lecture their history and religious context.  He then moved on to point out the graceful and voluptuous forms of the female forms, and finally we were shown the loving couples”.  He was well practiced at pointing out full erotic detail without making any indiscreet comments:

“Without yoga, it is not possible!”

“Notice the shy woman at the side who is covering her eyes.  But please also notice that she’s peeking.”

“This loving couple has two helpers.  But the helpers are no help at all – they are only concerned with themselves!”


These comments were delivered with a broad smile and with eyes twinkling.  The smile and twinkle were matched later by two charming young men on a motorcycle, who paced our bicycle rickshaw in an effort to lure us to their “uncle's” shop:


“You look so happy after visiting the temple!”


To maintain the G” rating of our website, we won't be showing the loving couples here.  Our more intrepid friends can request to see our photos.  Or, better, visit Khajuraho yourselves.  Quickly, before the hordes of tourists arrive.


 The Pink City
Jaipur.  The Pink City.  Palaces, forts, painted elephants.  Home of the Maharajahs.

But enough of all that.  Let's talk about shopping.

The Rough Guide to India calls Jaipur the best shopping on the subcontinent, and who are we to argue?  I have fond memories of combing the streets of Jaipur for the perfect star ruby on a warm Thanksgiving Day in 1985.  I was looking forward to more of same.

The evening of our arrival, we walked across the street from our guest house to an ATM.  A charming man struck up a conversation, asked where we were from, and then explained he was a tuk-tuk driver.  "You have taxis in your country.  You don't have tuk-tuks.  It's more interesting for you to ride in tuk-tuk while you are in India."  Point well taken.  We had already booked a taxi for visiting Amber Palace the next morning (a tuk-tuk wouldn't make it up that mountain anyway), so we made a date with our new friend Rafik for 2pm the next day for our shopping expedition in central Jaipur. 

We found him waiting on the road at the appointed time, just outside the hotel property.  We suspect that he and his little tuk-tuk would be chased away from the hotel, which has an active working arrangement with the more expensive taxis.  In any case, the hotel owner had no advice to offer about how much to pay for a long-term tuk-tuk rental.  "Sometimes they will work for free, since they will be taking you to shops and earning commissions," he said with a slight roll of the eyes.  Our morning taxi had cost 550 Rs ($14) for a five-hour outing.  We decided to offer Rafik 60 Rs per hour ($1.50/hr).  "I am not interested in the money," he said with a genuine smile.  "If you don't like my service, you don't pay.  If you like me, you can pay me what you want."  We dug in our heels and continued the negotiation, wanting a firm price before climbing in.  He laughed and tentatively agreed to our price, although he reminded us that we were not required to pay anything.  We climbed into his sparkling and well-decorated vehicle and showed him our list.  Post office, watch store (my cheap watch having died in this humid climate), textiles, tea, miscellaneous handicrafts. 

We headed to the post office and soon realized we were in good hands.  I purchased stamps, licked and stuck them on the postcards, and was dismayed to find they weren't sticking.  No glue!  Rafik took cards and stamps and led us out of the post office.  Under a large shade tree was a nondescript table with a mysterious grotty bowl -- of glue.  Rafik carefully glued stamps to cards, squashed the pile long enough for the glue to set, then said, "Now we go back to window."  He asked the clerk to cancel the stamps while we watched.  (A common scam is for postal or hotel employees to peel stamps off envelopes and resell them.)  Rafik twinkled and smiled, and we scooted down the alleys in the tuk-tuk to a textile factory.  No tourist could locate this place on their own.

A salesman snapped to attention when we pulled into the alley.  "He is my uncle," he said, gesturing to Rafik.  "I think everybody in India is related," I said.  He explained that uncle was an honorific given to any older person, which explains the "Hello, auntie" comments I had received in Varanasi.  We watched the demonstration of hand-block printing fabrics (pretty amazing) and patchwork sewing (pretty gorgeous).  We took a deep breath, removed our shoes, and followed our new nephew Suresh into the showroom.  Rafik had disappeared.  After we settled into the sofa and Suresh ordered tea, several assistants began unfurling the textiles.  I was surprised when Dick leaned over and said, "We're going to have them ship to us."  Let the shopping begin!

Two hours, three patchwork wall-hangings, two tablecloths, two bedspreads, six custom-made men's shirts, and two paintings later, we disturbed Rafik from his place in front of the television watching the India-Australia cricket match.  He next showed us a remarkable tea shop, a perfectly okay handicrafts store, and a watch store.  We were starting to understand that his comment about not needing to pay him was sincere -- he was having a good day in any case. 

Finally he took us to Jaipur's best non-veg restaurant and waited outside while we feasted, then it was time to head back to the hotel.  We paid him 400 Rs ($10) for six hours of his time, and he was gracious as always.  I happily wrote a recommendation in his book so he could show it to future anglophones, then read him what I had written.  We promised to mail the pictures we had taken of us together with his cute tuk-tuk.  We promised to promote his services to any friends who might be headed to Jaipur.  Our afternoon with him will remain one of our most pleasant memories of India.

"Tomorrow to airport at what time?" he asked.  We told him, with great regret, that we had already booked a taxi.

We regretted it even more the next morning:  the taxi arrived late, we got a flat tire while driving to the airport at breakneck speed with horn blaring, and ended up waving down a car to drive us the last mile.



PS -- Later that day in Delhi, when it was time to go to the international airport for our return home, we took no chances.  We hailed a rickety tuk-tuk for the 45-minute trip.  The driver was incredulous (“International airport?!?”).  We got there just fine.



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