Friday, January 18, 2008

OK, No Problem

Before embarking on my first journey to India I was completely unprepared as to the ways of the country. Since I was invited on this trip, I was relying on the expertise of my traveling companions, who had been researching this trip for over a year. I decided to just concentrate on giving a good concert in Mumbai, and work on not getting lost before meeting up with my friends a few days later in Northern India. It was the day of departure, I was in the JFK airport walking toward the security checkpoint of the Air India terminal, armed with a small thin booklet on Indian Buddhist sites and a last-minute printout of the Wikipedia article on the Indian train system. I saw a mass of Indian people crowded in front of the checkpoint area. Two airport security people directed the traffic, checked tickets, and yelled instructions over the hum of the crowd. It looked like complete chaos. A long line cluster wound down along the duty free shops. How could there be so many people waiting to board my flight? I was two hours early.

A young Indian couple stood in line in front of me with their luggage. Two other couples came and talked to them, kind of standing in line also, then another couple. When I tried to make room for them in the line, they declined. It wasn't long before I realized for every person traveling on the plane, there were 3-7 people there to see them off, to keep them company while the traveler waited in line. The goodbye crowd continued talking to their traveling friends after they were well into the security line. When they got to be out of ear range, they would continue to communicate with body language. As travelers advanced in the security line, they would turn around periodically to wave back, or make animated body gestures at their friends. The last communication would come when they pass the security check point with belts and shoes in hand. There they would turn toward their friends, put their belts and shoes down, and give a final two-armed wave goodbye before picking up their belongings and heading toward the gate.

I had a feeling then that I was going to like getting to know Indian people, and I was right. When Indians meet you they seem to accept you as a fellow human being on the big journey of life. I found them always enthusiastic and patient in explaining to me the ways of their country. All the way from Mumbai to Bodh Gaya to Varanasi, Agra, Dehli, I was met with the same curiosity, the same patience, the same enthusiasm. There is a resilience in their nature that can be best summed up by their favorite saying, "OK. No problem." I heard this everywhere in India. Sometimes I would think, oh, but it IS going to be a problem. But they would inevitably figure out a way to get around it somehow. Maybe it's their long history, maybe it's the crowded environment, maybe it's their belief in reincarnation, but one got the sense one was part of a much larger picture and momentary set backs were just that, nothing more.

The fact that the cow is holy and free to roam adds a completely different dimension to life. After returning from India, I distinctly remember the first time stepping out of my New York apartment feeling rather disoriented by the realization that there will be no cow passing by our front door, or parked next to the motorcycle, or munching on my downstairs neighbor's windowsill plants. I remember standing in front of the apartment building reprogramming my commuting instincts, taking out the cow factor completely, and feeling a little sad about it. Why? Sure, it's inconvenient to have a cow get in the way of one's rushed commute to work. But accepting the cow's existence, and the probability of the cow mixing into one's daily commute, somehow implies the acceptance of divine intervention. Maybe it's this acceptance that makes Indian people say "OK, No problem" to some of the most tedious and daunting tasks.

Shopping in India is very different in that aside from restaurants and trains there is no set price to most goods and services. It took me about half the trip to get used to the custom of haggling. The differences in prices can be startling. A street vendor offered me a portable chess set with intricate wood inlay for 5 rupees. Later I saw the exact same item at the State Emporium being sold for 660 rupees. Taxi drivers and rickshaw drivers almost always try to negotiate a high price up front. Maybe because we are such obvious tourists, sometimes they would ask for more than twice the usual price. During negotiation these rickshaw drivers could be fierce, looking insulted by the fee we offer, talking about their family they need to feed, making us feel we're robbing them of their daily nan. However, once the price has been negotiated, they never try to ask for more at the end of the journey. In fact they often become quite friendly during the drive. We did have a couple encounters with private drivers, however, who at some point in the drive would ask for more money than was originally negotiated by the travel agent. It was a little off-putting because we were already in the car and felt a bit trapped. After experiencing this twice,I decided while negotiating a boat tour of the Varanasi ghats, that it was crucial to have both the negotiator and the boat man together when talking about the fee, so that we can eliminate any discrepancies from the beginning. I asked repeatedly to be assured that there would be no hidden fee, and complained to the man negotiating that since arriving in India I have had trouble understanding this particular custom of hidden fees. The man said, "Lady, all the fingers on the hand are not the same length."

Hm. It's true. To some extent I was asking him to change his culture to cater to my sense of justice and well being. I live in New York City, the most diverse existence one can chose in the US. But to some extent, I still live by the one-size-fits-all mentality that tries to squeeze everyone into the same cookie cutter mode. I cannot help it, because everything to some extent is mass produced here, medication, food, entertainment, information, education. Everyone's worth is measured by how much money he or she makes. Everyone's intelligence is measured by what is called an I.Q. test. Everyone should be on the same diet, dictated by the latest scientific findings, never mind that they keep contradicting one another. But it doesn't seem to be this way in India. In the 20 days that I was in the country I did not see one super market, only farmer's markets. The result of this particular form of diversity was most welcome by all of us. In the 20 days that I spent in India, every meal was made with the freshest ingredients, and my digestive system couldn't have been happier. It was a little difficult to get used to at first because the produce had so much more flavor. It took a while before I realized that it wasn't any particular spice that was enhancing the taste of the raw cucumber. It was the flavor of the cucumber itself that came through so strongly, with fragrance and subtleties in the taste. The same was true for tomatoes, yogurt, grains, oranges, etc.

Religious diversity was also evident from the way people dressed and the various different types of worship rituals we saw. Places of worship ranged from majestic temples to painted trees,

to what looked like post boxes on the side of the road.
This particular orange deity had even the locals guessing.
Shop keepers often had small alters in their shop where they take time throughout the day to say their prayers and make offerings. The time to pray seems to begin from daybreak and go until nightfall. Taxis and rickshaws had images of their deities or gurus of choice either hanging from the rear view mirror, or pasted on their windows. Judging by the garlands of flowers for offerings being sold on this street, my guess is some people make more than one offering a day.

Whether one practiced various forms of the Hindu, Islam, Buddhist, Jain, Zoroastrian, or other religions, there seemed to be one unspoken agreement amongst all Indians, and that is the basic human need for spiritual practice. Wherever I went in India, people seemed to recognize and respect the need of others to practice their religion, whatever that religion may be. People also seem rather knowledgeable, if not, at least curious about their neighbor's religions, often because their temples are right next to each other. Pictured below are candle prayers at the huge Buddhist stupa at Sarnath. In the picture one can see the tip of the Jain temple right next door.

Above, Muslim school girls, Buddhist monks, tourists from all over the world visit the place where Buddha gave his first sermon. Vinny and I had a chance to visit the Sarnath Jain temple, located right next to this landmark Buddhist stupa. The Jain priest at this temple gave us a very brief idea of the Jain religion. From our brief conversation it was evident that he knew also quite a bit about Buddhism, and showed no disdain nor any particular aversion to other religions.
Honoring the human need for spiritual practice and worship and accepting religious diversity, this was to me one of the most impressive traits of the Indian people. It may be the key to why they can live in harmony and how they can meet each new task with the phrase, OK, No problem.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Fatehpur Sikri

After my concert in Mumbai a lady at the reception told me that if I went to Agra to see the Taj I should also visit the palace at nearby Fatehpur Sikri, which was also quite beautiful but not as well known. The idea of a ghost town with an abandoned palace intrigued me, though I had great difficulty remembering the name. When I met up with my companions I told them I wanted to add Fate. .. Fateh. . . . something, to our itinerary. We went through a lot of city names that started with F before figuring out which one it was. Then we decided to add F.S. to our Taj Mahal day.

After spending the morning at Taj Mahal, we hired a car and headed for Fatehpur Sikri. We had limited time, maybe a couple of hours at the palace, so on the way I read to my companions the descriptions of the palace sites and historical intrigues from the Lonely Planet Guide to India. This way we could go and have a look around on our own without having to hire a guide, and maybe save some time. The driver dropped us off at the parking lot, and immediately we were approached by a guide for hire. We tried without much success to tell him we were not looking for a guide. He just kept following us, trying to talk Vinny into hiring him for the afternoon. We tried to walk faster so that he would stay behind, but he kept coming along. There were no signs to tell us which way to go to the palace, and we didn't want to give the guide any indication that we needed a guide, so we just followed some people who ended up going into a hotel type place. I asked the guy sweeping the floor there where the palace was, and he pointed to a hill across the road. "Behind the trees," he said. There was no path leading up the hill so I was kind of confused. Then he said we could either take the road to the right or or to the left to get to the place behind the trees. When we got to the road we looked both ways, no signs, no sign of entrances either way.

Hawley decided, why not go straight? Cielo and I agreed. We were still trying to lose the guide, so we crossed the street quickly and walked straight into this abandoned field with the intent to hike up the hill to where the trees were. Vinny, who was wearing all white, said he would go around and find a path and meet us at the palace. I turned back and saw the guide with a look of confusion on his face as he watched us take our "shortcut." He did not follow us anymore after that. There were some goat herders nearby, but they did not pay much attention to us. No more than 10 steps into the field, Hawley got snagged by a huge dried thorn bush. Cielo and I were both pricked by the thorns as we tried to dislodge its tight grip on H's pants. Already, it was looking like a strange adventure. But we were short on time, so we forged ahead.

After climbing up the steep dry hill I saw the horns of a cow float across the top of some bushes, then some hats of school children, and their teacher. . . indeed, there was a paved road up there. We got to the road and decided to cross it and go beyond where there was an official looking building. There we found a cliff looking down at a few houses. There were no signs on the building, and it seemed closed. Hm. . . maybe not here? We turned to the right and kept walking, but it was looking more and more desolate with brick ruins here and there. Nothing palatial, mostly overgrown with weeds. Could this be it? No one was around to give us directions. Hawley and Cielo got a little ahead of me as I stopped and looked around for someone to ask directions. Just then a yellow dog came up behind me and stopped to say hello. Half in jest I asked her if she knew the way to the palace. She listened to my question, then made a gesture with her body that clearly said we should be headed in the opposite direction. Having received such a clear answer, I suddenly found myself doubting that one could actually ask a dog for directions. Just then two men passed by and when I asked them, they confirmed what my new canine guide had just told me.

I gathered my companions and we followed the dog back to the road and took it all the way up to the front gate of the Palace. She went inside through the garden into the main courtyard and made a small circle and settled down right in the middle of the square, her job finished. At last, we were at the fascinating red palace of Akbar the Great, a very unusual emperor who ruled with surprising religious tolerance, and who had great appreciation for the arts. One of the first buildings we saw was the Diwan-i-Khas.

Inside there was a big column in the middle with lots of carvings. Above it was a circular space, almost like a podium. This space is connected by four narrow walkways to the four corners of the building, each with a smaller podium supported by a column. If I understood the guidebook correctly, this is where Akbar used to have debates on religion with learned scholars and clergy of various different religions. He stood in the middle, while the others stood in the four corners, sometimes representing four different religions. I wish these discussions could happen again, different religious leaders gathering together, with respect and curiosity for one another's religion. But instead of debating about religion, they gather to find a way for everyone to co-exist, to outlaw violence in the name of religion, to find solutions for peace on this crowded planet.

Everything was built with huge slabs of red rock. There was an interesting building with many layers, each layer getting a little narrower, and supported with elaborately carved columns. Supposedly each column had different carvings on it. The guidebook mentioned something about placing the Akbar's harem on it, layer by layer. But it was a bit unclear what the purpose of that would be, other than to amuse the architect.

There was a pond with a square platform in the middle, with four narrow bridges leading from the outside to the platform. First chance I got, I went and stood in the middle of the platform. It just seemed like the thing to do for whatever reason. It looked to me like a place to stand in order to receive inspiration. Besides, I was text-messaging Vinny who had gotten separated from us, and this also looked like it might be the place with the best phone reception. I didn't read about this structure in the guidebook, but it was the one that fascinated me the most. When I got home, I read about it online. It seems that Akbar had a musician in his court by the name of Tansen who is supposedly the most famous musician in Indian history. He had the ability to conjure rain and fire with his singing. According to legend Tansen died in one of the fires that he had called forth with his song. The platform in the middle of the pond was where Tansen performed for Akbar and his court.
Hm. . . with his pyro tendencies, it's no wonder his stage is surrounded by water.

The sun was getting lower on the horizon and it set the red stone buildings ablaze. They must have done special rituals at this time of day back in the day of Akbar the Great, because the palace square looked magical, like a ghost town on Mars.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Adventures at Taj Mahal

The Taj Mahal was one of the last places I visited in India. Before taking this trip, it was the only image that I associated with India, probably because all the tourist ads use it. After being in India for a couple of weeks I realized that the Taj is quite extraordinary, even in the context of India.

We decided to start the day early by watching the sunrise at the Taj. When we got to the gate, we found out that entrance fee was 20 rs for Indians, and 750 rs for foreigners. We asked if we could step out to have breakfast after seeing the sunrise, then go back in and explore some more. We were told that we could perhaps step out for a chai, but definitely not long enough for breakfast. How the guards would be able to calculate the time difference between our having a chai and a full breakfast, I was not sure. Gut feeling said skipping breakfast would not be good, so we decided to be different from the everyday Taj Mahal tourist and try to see the Taj sunrise from outside Taj Mahal.

Taj Mahal and it's gardens is encased by a stone wall with huge gates. We walked along the Eastern wall on our quest for an unusual view of the Taj sunrise. There was no one on the road. All the tourists were inside the wall, catching the regular (but probably quite spectacular) Taj sunrise and probably being hungry. Along the way we saw a colony of monkeys having breakfast on the side of the road. They paid little attention to us walking by. At the end of the road was the Yamuna river where we were greeted by two guards with rifles. There was a small lawn behind Taj Mahal, fenced in by barbed wire.

It was cold and foggy this morning. There was a thick fog rolling just above the river at a slightly faster rate than the river itself. A boat man was on the river, slowly pushing his boat from shore with a pole. I attempted to use the video function on the camera to pan the river and the Taj, but the zoom was frozen by the cold, and I got only partial view.

It suddenly dawned on us that in order to see the Taj Mahl against the sunrise, we needed to be on the West side of the Taj Mahal. We saw a narrow path along the river that would lead us directly to where we want to go. However, the guards informed us we were not allowed to take this path. So instead of getting to our desired vantage point in two minutes via the direct path, we had to go back the way we came, walk by the monkeys who had since finished their breakfast and began their morning exercises, go all the way around the enclosed Taj grounds through various neighborhoods, accidentally walking into people's driveways, running into some parked camels, a few cows, a menacing dog, etc. Finally a man brushing his teeth outside his house saw how lost we were, and without our asking, pointed us in the right direction. After more twists and turns, and almost being run down by four galloping camels, we finally got on the road along the West wall of the Taj Mahal. A man came by and asked us if we wanted to see the best view of the sun rising on the Taj Mahal. Indeed, this is what we were looking for! But experience told us to show only mild interest. He said he would willing to show us the way for 400 rs. Ah, beyond our budget, we told him, but took note of the side path he pointed to as we continued walking North toward the river.

On the side of the road was a middle aged business man in a long fancy wool coat, feeding some buttered toast to an extremely emaciated stray dog. The ribs on this dog looked like they were about to come out of his skin, but he was looking extremely happy to be receiving such a feast. As we got closer, the man saw us, looked embarrassed, and walked away from the dog who was busy finishing his toast. I didn't understand why the man should feel embarrassed. I never quite figured out the relationship between Indian people and their dogs. It's clear dogs are not considered holy like cows. Nor do they seem to be considered dear pets or best friends of humans like they are here in the US. In my 20 days there, I only saw one child playing with a dog. The rest of the time, there seemed to be very little interaction between humans and dogs. But there were many dogs running around, so someone must feed them.

The wall around the Taj Mahal is impressive, built with red stone. I tried many times to photograph it using different angles to show its grandeur, but somehow in pictures it looked quite flat and ordinary. Finally I found a good angle that included a gate, but it did not show just how big those red stone slabs were. What I needed was for someone to walk through that gate, I thought, as I looked through the view finder of the camera. Just then, another dog showed up at the gate. I yelled out, Hold it! Wait! Stop right there! Let me take this picture! Much to my delight, the dog granted my request.

We got to the river, where we saw the Taj against the sunrise. There is something very quieting about watching the glow of the sun rise behind a huge white marble mausoleum. A man stood by the river, praying and making offerings to the river. In the river there was a wreath of marigolds, someone else's prayers and hopes perhaps. After taking some photos, we decided to go back and explore the 400 rs view. The man who offered to guide us was no longer around, but we took the path he pointed to, which led us to a garden. Here I was chided by my companions for my third missed Pentax moment of the trip, a camera shy peacock strolling through the rose gardens next to the Taj Mahal. But I'm sure the image of it in your mind right now is far better than anything I would have taken.

Some steps along the West wall of the rose garden led us to a nursery, with rows of hedges and flowers. The guard there came by and told us these flowers and hedges were grown for the beautifully manicured garden grounds around the Taj Mahal. So in the end we got quite a few special views of the Taj sunrise.

After breakfast, we went inside the gate.

By now it was very crowded. There were three or four rows of photographers and videographers, amateurs as well as professionals judging from the wide array of imaging equipment, all crowded just in front of the long pond in front of the Taj Mahal. On their faces were frozen expressions of eagerness and of wonder as they fixed their gazes and their lenses upon the superstar of monuments, speaking in hushed tones. It was odd, almost as if they were afraid to disturb their subject. Within a few moments, the professionals started to pack up their equipment, and the crowd started to dissipate. The fountains in the pond had been turned on, no more reflection.

Oy, I thought to myself, the fourth missed Pentax moment.

One of the reasons the splendor of Taj Mahal is so much more impressive in person is because it is huge, much bigger than pictures can show. In order to take a photo of the entire structure, you have to be standing very far away. If you're standing close enough to be seeing the details, you can only take one small section of it in the photo and no one can tell where you are. When I see a picture of people standing at the Taj, I can't help but measure the size of the body compared to the size of the monument built to commemorate its passing.

According to the story, Shah Jahan's beautiful wife Mumtaz Mahal died giving birth to their child, and this was his way of remembering her. They are both buried inside this mausoleum. On the entrance of the tomb there is huge thuluth script quoting passages from the Qur'an. It has not faded in hundreds of years because it is depicted with stone inlay. The flowers carved onto the marble panels look quite familiar to me, like tulips, daffodils, and inside the tomb more tulips and iris. But the stalk and leaves of the plants don't really match the flowers I know, so I'm not sure what these flowers are and why they accompany Mumtaz. Most sources about these carvings just say, plant motif.

Inside the tomb it was crowded with tourists and very dark, so I could not see too much of the details or colors of the carvings. In the center is Mumtaz. I wondered how she would feel if she knew that everyday people from all over the world would be visiting her grave? Next to her is Shah Jahan who died many years later. Scholars talk about Shah Jahan's obsession with symmetry in the building of Taj Mahal. I wondered if he would be upset by the fact that his grave throws this symmetry off? At the end of his life Shah Jahan was imprisoned by his son in the Agra Fort where it is said he had a view of the Taj.

On a sunny day the reflection from the white marble outside can be blinding. Much thought has been given into how to preserve the white. The city is trying to reduce air pollution by limiting factories around the Taj, and by having special fuel efficient auto rickshaws. Visitors to the mausoleum are asked to either remove their shoes, or put on white paper shoe coverings. An hour at the Taj can give you an impressive tan with all the reflective surfaces. Of course, wearing a bikini to a mausoleum is probably out of the question. It is very soothing and peaceful to sit on the white marble floor and watch the 10 or 12 hawk like birds play flying games around the big dome and it's towers. I can't imagine that they were there to feed on anything living on the white slippery marble domes. They would all fly up at once and go round and round the big dome, then rest again. Maybe the contour of the domes create amusement park like air currents.

Our visit to the Taj ended with my fifth and last missed Pentax moment of the trip, a monkey chase on the white marble grounds of the mausoleum. This looked more like a life or death chase than fun and games. Both monkeys were very red with their fur all standing on end, teeth flaring. I never knew monkeys could run so fast. They covered the length of the white marble grounds and disappeared into the garden before I could pull out the camera.

Monday, December 31, 2007

Modes of Transportation

Transportation is complex in India. Part of it is due to the large population of 1.12 billion, and part of it is the mix between machine-powered, man-powered, and animal-powered vehicles that share the roads. Traffic signals are rare. I traveled mostly in the north, and during my 2 weeks there I did not see anything go over 40 mph. Just as well, because it would be incredibly dangerous without traffic lights, and the mad mix of machines and animals create way too many variables. People honk their horns constantly in India, so it's extremely noisy to be out in the traffic. Here's a sample of Varanasi traffic.

In Mumbai I traveled on foot, or by taxi. The taxis have a meter that moves very slowly in point decimals. One is supposed to multiply the number on the meter by 13 to know the fare in rupees. I did not know this, so the first few days I would ask the taxi driver how much before getting on the taxi. Most of the time it seemed reasonable, but one taxi driver did ask me for 200 rs for a 70 rs ride one time. He was an older man with no front teeth. Even though I knew he was asking way too much, I gave him the money because we were already at our destination. Afterwards I felt quite bad for about 20 minutes. It was my third day in India and thus far everyone had been extremely kind and genuine, and this was the first time someone was dishonest. But then I thought about his front teeth, and considered it a contribution to getting him some new teeth. After that incident, I would use the calculator option on my cell phone and multiply the meter by 13. This made some of the drivers shake their heads in disbelief, but I didn't know what else to do. I heard there was a subway system in Mumbai but I never got a chance to try it.

After Mumbai I traveled many times on the train. The first thing I noticed about Indian trains was that they seemed three times as long the trains here in the States. When someone wants to go from one platform to the next, sometimes they cross the tracks instead of taking the overpass. This was the first time that I noticed how limber many Indians were. I saw a woman in her 60s cross the tracks in her sari. When she got to the other platform she put one foot up on the platform and hoisted herself up with one hand while holding her sari with the other, not something I would ever attempt without a 20 minute warm up session.

There are at least 8 different kinds of ticket one can purchase for the rail train. They involved different variations on reserved, unreserved, AC, no AC, Sleeper, 2 Tier, 3 Tier etc. I saw how the non-reserved seating worked when I was on the platform, people just climbed on and tried to fit wherever they could. I decided early on to go with reserved seating only. For long distances we usually got the 3 Tier AC, but once due to lack of availability we did rode in the Sleeper no AC. The AC cars are sealed, with doors on both sides of the car. The non-AC cars are not sealed, and there are no doors between the cars. This can be quite cold and windy at night in Northern India. Unlike the 3 Tier cars, Sleeper cars don't come with blankets. The non-AC cars have huge fans all along the ceiling. I have never experienced the extreme heat in India, but these fans told me enough.

They don't announce the stations on trains, so one has to have a good psychic sense, which many Indians seem to have, or ask a neighboring passenger, or the conductor. The train can run quite late sometimes due to track work. Our first overnight train was from Igatpuri to Gaya. It was supposed to be a 23 hour ride, but it turned out to be more like 29 or 30 hours. The people that shared the compartment with me were very nice. They taught me a singing game that is popular in India. One sings two phrases of a song, then the next person has to sing a song that starts with the last syllable. I listened to them for a while singing in Hindi, found out the rules, then suggested that I play also, but singing English songs. They found this suggestion amusing. My first turn was very lucky. Ha was the syllable so I sang Happy Birthday. Everyone was delighted and sang along with me. After I finished, they continued singing the second verse. What second verse?? May God Bless You . . . to the same music. I had never heard that second verse before. We continued many more rounds, with me singing mostly Christmas carols that I could recall so they could sing along. The fun part about the game, I decided, was having everyone sing along. But it was quite difficult at times because even though I remember tunes pretty quickly, I have never been good at remembering lyrics. When I got stuck sometimes, Hawley would bail me out, belting out some camps songs from the neighboring compartment. And when this didn't work, the others would say, tick tick one. . . . tick tick two. . . . and if you haven't been inspired by tick tick three, you lose your turn. Here I am pretending to sing along in Hindi.

Once in a while, a guy would come through the car yelling Chai Chai, carrying a big metal Chai dispensor and tea bags and small paper cups. The Chai on the train was quite good. Another man would come and take orders for breakfast or lunch or dinner. The breakfast omelet made to order with hot pepper inside was so delicious that I ordered another. The dinner of curry vegetables was pre-made, kind of like airplane food, not as good.

I could post an entire article about the bathrooms on the trains and the balancing and aiming skills required for success in these bathrooms. But since I have checked the Terms of Agreement box on this blog, I will not say more than this: if you are planning to go to India or to China even, you should practice squatting for 3 minutes at a time everyday the week before.

Auto rickshaw was the most common way we traveled locally. Always one had to haggle. Always they seem really put out that you are asking for the price that the station manager, or the bank teller, or anyone who is in the know tells you should be the price for this particular distance. At first we were really taken aback, gosh, every single auto rickshaw driver is trying to scam us because they always ask for a much higher fee. But once the fee is negotiated, it's done, and usually they become friendly and tell you a little about the drive through the city. Sometimes the drivers can be most informative, as was the case with our driver in Agra who told us about the different Mughal dynasties involved in the building of the Taj and the Red Fort.

Haggling is part of the custom in India, and the customer is expected to do their part. One way to get the right price we found out, is to involve more than one rickshaw driver, and then whoever is willing to give the fair price first will get the fare. We found the drivers in Nasik to be the toughest negotiators, but that was before we had developed this technique. How many people are allowed in an auto rickshaw is a puzzle to me. One driver refused to take more than three with our luggage. Actually three relatively slim adults can fit in the back, and one not so comfortably in the front with the driver. But I have also seen variations of riding the rickshaw and riding jeeps and trucks that involve riding on the exterior.

For our two hour tour on the Ganges river we hired a row boat and an English speaking guide. It was the best pace for seeing all the ghats, especially with the guide telling us a little history about each one. After about an hour, Hawley asked if the man rowing was tired, and that's where we first heard the saying, "Full power, 24 hour, no toilet, no shower, " meaning he was not in need of any breaks. There were a lot of colorful boats on the Ganges. There was also one man in a boat visiting tourist boats selling all kinds of souvenirs. He said his was the moving grocery store.

Even though cows are holy, I did see oxen pulled carts. For me, this picture gives new meaning to the phrase "strong as an ox".

Other means of transport I saw include buses, pony carts, bikes, motor bikes, scooters, man-powered rickshaws, camels, cars, and trucks. Indian trucks are very colorfully decorated in the front and often have messages written in the back like "Yes Please Honk."

Sunday, December 30, 2007

Animals in India

It's true what they say, cows are holy in India. They run free, feeding anywhere from the fields to the narrow winding streets of crowded Varanasi. No matter how many times I see them, they always seem strangely out of context, so I took many many cow pictures. They come in different colors and shape, some with humps, some with horns, some fuzzy and cute, while others can be quite fierce looking. Above is the most beautiful buffalo I saw in India. One night in Pahar Ganj of Delhi, in the midst of wall to wall traffic, I saw a cow use it's head and neck to nudge three people into the crowd so that it could pass between the crowd and the honking traffic. The people seemed a bit stunned, but made no protest, and everyone continued on their way, including the cow.

There are lots of goats in India. They also tend to roam free most of the time. But you won't find them wandering around on a busy street like cows. Unlike cows who do not seem to have any natural predators in India, mutton is often on the Indian menu. Goats, cows, pigs, and dogs mingle around places where garbage is gathered. It is not easy to find a garbage can in India. One of our hosts told us to throw all our trash out the window. Just outside the window there was a field filled with garbage from all the neighbors, and the livestock fed on it. The big white pig in the slide show picture just had a fight with the dog over a scrap of garbage. The pig won.

Dogs have it rough in India. People throw rocks at them and threaten to kick them as they run around amidst all the traffic. They are not on leashes, but they tend to exist in their own dog plane, interacting mostly with other dogs. I saw a pack of dogs chase a nomadic dog out of their territory, a common occurrence. Dogs are always searching for scraps of food, and seem to travel quite far out of their area, especially the mother dogs and the ones who don't belong to any pack. Many of the dogs are emaciated, with skin disease. They have a difficult time finding a place to rest without being chased away. Many of the older dogs limp around, most likely hit by traffic at one time or another.
When they sleep, they often have a very weary look.

On a very busy two lane street in Varanasi, I saw a dog curled up asleep on the narrow traffic divider which was about 14 inches wide and raised about a foot off the ground. The dog's backside and head hung over the divider just a little. The traffic was ferocious, cars, auto rickshaws, rickshaws, cow pulled carts, trucks, bikes, all zipping by, horns blasting. It seemed like a crazy idea to sleep in the middle of all this, but looking around, there was absolutely no other space for it to take a nap on that street. Sidewalks when they exist in India also carry plenty of traffic.

Didn't see too many cats in India. Maybe because dogs roam free?

Monkeys can be seen in many of the tourist areas where there are trees. Vendors at some of these areas sell flowers and packs of little white candy to tourist as offerings to the temple gods. On the way from the vendor to the temple, there are sometimes monkey bandits. At Rajgir I saw one monkey grab the right hand of a tourist. Just when he looked to the monkey on his right, another monkey snatched the candy out of his left hand. Then both monkeys ran off together, leaving the tourist holding his garland of flowers. It seems they knew exactly what they were looking for, and they got it. I had a vision of the two monkeys in the woods afterwards, splitting the candy loot.

We also saw ponies, camels, and donkeys, animals used in transportation. We were walking on a narrow street one early morning outside of the Taj Mahal when I heard behind us the sound of bells and galloping hooves. At first I thought it was probably one of those little pony pulled carts. But there was something pressing about the galloping sounds, a sudden crescendo that made me turn my head just in time to push my friends to the side of the road to make way for four galloping camels. Two kids, each riding one camel and holding the reins to another, were yelling something in Hindi all the way down the road. Something in their voices indicated the camels were not entirely under their control. Despite the fact that I had just saved them from the unnecessarily-exotic experience of being trampled by camels, my traveling companions expressed great discontent because I did not pull the camera out in time to get a picture the runaway caravan.

Other animals in this slide show include some curious deer at Deer Park in Sarnath, Kites at Baby Taj, and birds from Varanasi and Ajanta. More can be seen in the transportation blog that is to come.

Children of India

The children of India that we encountered were very happy, friendly, and curious. One got the feeling that the children in India were everyone's children. We were in the same train compartment with a young couple and their 8 month old son. The other ladies in our compartment took turns holding the baby, patting him, talking and singing to him, walking with him to another car, trying to make him fall asleep. This made me think at first that they were all from the same family, but they had just met on this train trip. Another child of 10 was learning classic Indian singing in school. When her mother found out I was a musician, she had the girl sing a few songs for me. The other riders on in our train car became quiet and we all listened intently. She sang quite well. Indian music requires a very flexible voice because of the fast melismas. All the Indian children I heard sing had this flexibility in their voice, including this boy on yet another train journey. He sang to himself all morning as he looked out the train window.
At the Ajanta Caves I had found some monk cells that fascinated me. There were no statues or carvings inside, but a simple stone bed carved into the rock. The opening to the cell was very narrow as was the cell itself. I went into one of them, sat quietly, and tried to imagine what it was like to sleep and meditate there daily. Just then, a large group of Indian children came and began photographing the outside of the cell. I could see them taking turns, posing next to the narrow opening and speaking in an animated tone. Everyone had their flash on because it was dark inside the caves. There were a few other empty cells along this wall, but somehow they wanted to photograph this particular cell. Out of courtesy I thought I would go out and let them inside to see this particular cell which I had chosen randomly. Once I was outside, they became even more animated, and started posing next to me, one at a time. It was not the meditation cell they were photographing, but the Asian tourist. I persuaded them to take one big group photo, rather than so many individual photos which seemed a waste with film photography. They seemed happy with this suggestion. They wanted to know if I spoke Hindi. Alas, I did not. They seemed to regret not able to communicate more because they did not speak much English either, but they thanked me for the photos before continuing with their sight seeing.
I didn't see too many digital cameras on my trip this time other than the one I was using, which belonged to Cielo. She graciously let me use her camera for the trip because she does not enjoy taking photos. It also has a video function and a large LCD screen. Some of the children that I photographed were fascinated with seeing themselves on the LCD screen. The quiet child in the blue shawl gave me a huge smile when she saw herself in this picture. I wish I had taken a picture of that smile. Probably by my next trip to India, everyone there will have a digital camera.
The tiny child in front of the stupa was wearing eye liner. I think it's an Indian custom for very young children, as I had seen another young child on the bus with it. But I do not know the reason for this custom.