Thursday, March 01, 2018

Nepal - we leave

On our very last day in Nepal we decided to walk along the lake to lounge at Krazy Gecko, which happens to be owned by A's cousin. We didn't introduce ourselves but instead ordered a slow progression of drinks and snacks while lounging in the sun. Well, I lounged in the sun while wrinkleless N opted to remain in the shade. 

N had a flight that afternoon back to Kathmandu and on to Korea so we returned to the hotel. The elevator wasn't working so she asked one of the front desk staff to help her get her luggage down from the 5th floor. By the time the man arrived, the elevator was working again. After saying goodbye to N, I despondently headed back up to my room. I decided to take the elevator. It started to go up and then suddenly stopped. There were no lights so I couldn't see the emergency button so I just knocked like a madwoman on the door. The elevator got power again briefly so when it went off another few seconds later I knew where the buzzer was and I pushed that like a madwoman. Finally the doors opened and I got off on whatever floor that was and walked the rest of the way. My best guess at the time was load-shedding -- the power in Nepal is selectively turned off at certain times of the day so some lights and outlets don't work -- but I think it's more likely that they turned off the elevator manually and had forgotten about me.   

Nothing exciting happened the rest of the day. I wandered around from coffee shop to coffee shop reading, writing, and drinking tea. I discovered the boardwalk along the lake that we had somehow missed in all of our adventures, I packed my luggage, and I watched some terrifying serial killer movie.

The next morning, I too flew back to Kathmandu. I was even less calm about the flight without N to die with me. I hung in the KTM airport for what felt like forever -- running into the newlyweds! -- and flew on home -- through China and NY. It was by no means fun and I'll never do it again... 

...until next time.


Nepal - sunrise, sunset

The next day I was legit sore but I think looser. We woke up at 4 in the morning to take a cab up to the town of Sarangkot to watch the sun rise over the town and mountains. As this is a pretty popular outing, N and I made sure to pay attention to what our driver looked like and note his license plates. We walked up about ten flights of stairs to a cement viewing platform that became increasingly crowded as the sun came up. There was even a barefoot white man dancing along to the dulcet tunes of a digiridoo. It was just one of those moments. I was torn between wishing that I was the only one there to experience the light diffusing over the snowcapped Annapurna range in silence and enjoying the fact that I was having this experience with the chatty riot of people from all over the world whom I had never met before and would likely never encounter again.

We walked back down the stairs, somehow coming out in a different spot, and saw our driver. N doubted my recollection of his face as his license plate was not the same. Turns out this car had different front and back license plates. The driver thought it was funny that we checked but I thought we came across as a smidge racist -- all these Nepali look alike!

Then we returned to the hotel for breakfast. N and I both ordered fruit salad and cereal (mine with yogurt and N's with hot milk because she's weird) and juice and tea and eggs and potatoes and pancakes. Turns out I have no idea how to eat a soft-boiled egg from an egg cup. WHY did no one teach me that skill?

Our vacation planner had recommended a nap and then catching the sunset at the Peace Pagoda, a Buddhist shrine on a hill above the city. I would have been down with such a fitting close to the day but we wanted to hike the hill and a sunset hike did not seem wise. So we skipped the nap and set right out for the shrine. We hired a woman to row us across the lake. She gave us an hour and a half before she would head back without us. After about forty minutes we were worried that our timetable would not match the boatwoman's so N wanted to ask a woman coming back down the mountain how much farther it was. She asked this woman (in Korean), "Do you speak Korean?" and this woman answered (in Korean), "No I'm Chinese." And then she said in English that it was five minutes to the top. It was linguistically confusing but we pressed on.

We did our three rounds of the stupa, ate a granola bar, and headed back down the hill. On the boat ride back, our oarswoman started singing. I think she was trying to drown out N's annoying tuneless humming but whatever her motivation, it added flare to the trip.

For further flare we ate lunch at a Korean restaurant. N has a rule not to eat Korean food while travelling but the owner was a friend of a friend so I sat awkwardly drinking free tea while they chatted away. The restaurant was called Nattssul which evidently means "day drinking" so I was all about it.

Then we napped. Suitably groggy, for dinner we wandered to a restaurant that had a stage and a traditional Nepali dance show. We didn't really last long. Tomorrow: we do nothing and  N leaves.

Nepal - We take our chocolate cake on vacation

When all of us Yale ladies were out at a dinner, we exchanged terrifying flying stories. Featured heavily was Yeti airlines, one of the Nepali national airlines, which has a 1 out of 7 in international travel ratings (don't tell Mom) although the UN Food Programme uses it. So I faced our morning flight with a little trepidation.

The hotel gave us wrapped cheese sandwiches which we x-rayed along with our chocolate cake and luggage. When we checked in, the man at the counter made sure to repeat our flight number several times which tipped me off to a situation I had been warned about: sometimes Yeti Airlines puts you on an earlier flight so that they fill up the planes. Not sure if they just cancel the last few planes...

Although the flight to Pokhara is only about 20 minutes, a flight attendant passed through the cabin with cotton balls for your ears and hard candies and instant coffee for your tummy. And if you're going to die in a fiery plane crash it may as well be with this view.

The one side effect of leaving on an earlier flight is that you arrive early and your taxi is not there to meet you. Not content to wait in the beautiful sunlight, N asked a policeman to call our hotel and get the taxi to come. They were a little surprised to say the least. (At one point while I was standing in the warm sun eating my radioactive sandwich, someone stepped over casting a shadow on me. Without thinking, I plaintively whined "you're in my suuuun"....and they moved out of it!)

We had tentative plans but when we relayed them to the woman at the front desk of our hotel she told us how cute and misguided we were. So suddenly N had plans to go paragliding that same afternoon. We spent the morning wandering around Pokhara as N got more and more nervous about jumping off a mountain. (She made me promise to tell her parents if she died which made me freak out a little bit about the thought of that conversation.) I hugged her for luck and set of on my own adventure -- getting a massage. 

I think my experience might have been more uncomfortable actually. I went to Seeing Hands, a massage clinic staffed entirely by blind masseuses. I had a deep moment of ableist worry but reflected on the ability of anyone to make a living wage in Nepal and decided it wasn't too exploitative. (Different opinions welcome, reader). My masseuse was a man and kept asking if he should massage my butt as that is, as it happens, a part of the back. I said that I was cool and he could concentrate on my shoulders. My shoulders are a bit screwy as a result of a car accident when I was 23 and a few years of swimming and rowing recently -- and this massage huuuuurt. I actually started to cry. Gah. 

I recovered by wandering around the city (even the non-touristy bits) and treating myself to beer while waiting (worrying) for N's triumphant return. 

She had a slightly traumatic experience as well when she and her paraglide buddy blew backwards (instead of jumping off the cliff on the first go) and then landed on the wrong side of the river. I think we both came out of the day ok, and enjoyed being in a town where we could cross the street without danger and breathe without ingesting a year's worth of pollutants.

 Last point: this is the elevator door in our hotel. What say you, Japanese maple or pot?

Monday, February 26, 2018

Nepal - The Reception!

The great benefit that our hotel had was a comprehensive and delicious $5 breakfast. Home-baked bread all crusty on the outside and chewy on the inside with a mango spread and topped with a sharp cheese was my personal triumph but they also offered eggs, muesli, fruit, and thick tangy Nepali yogurt. (I wanted to show you the menu at Ting's but it doesn't really work.) So the morning of A's reception, N and I padded down to the dining room, snuggled into our respective piles of cushions and had a leisurely breakfast  before heading out for a high-stress day of shopping.

Our first stop was the tea store. Evidently tea yields several harvests a year and each 'flush' has distinctive taste characteristics. To illustrate this, the chai wallah brewed us a few cups which we gladly sipped daintily (because it was in glass cups that could burn your face off.) Thus caffeinated we fell into an empty fair trade shop and bought everything under the sun. I very much like the idea that my purchases are going to benefit specifically low-income, low-opportunity communities and am willing to pay more for the experience but this store was surprisingly inexpensive. I'm convinced that every item in there was cheaper than it would be on the streets. I think that in the absence of set prices, foreigners are often fleeced a bit. Note: The store was called Folk Nepal which almost caused an international incident when, at the wedding reception, people misunderstood N's Korean accent as she described our shopping luck.

We then hopped in a cab and headed off to Boudanath, Asia's largest stupa and center of TIbetan Buddhist worship in Nepal. (Also had low-stress shopping.) I had been to Boudanath in 2015 and was curious to see how it had been rebuilt after the earthquake. Almost immediately upon existing the cab we were set upon by a close-talking guide and I am CONVINCED that it was the same man as last time. (Read about that here.) This time we politely ignored him, if you can politely ignore someone, and were not approached by ANY other guides. Hmmm. This time around, we were able to go into the shrines attached to the stupa itself and climb up to the second tier to do our three laps around it.

We tried to follow the tourist map but it didn't seem like the numbers on the map matched up to the numbers on the descriptions so I can't honestly tell you which monasteries we explored. We ate lunch at a chain pizza place between a table of white monks and a table of brown monks with a little baby monk! Unfortunately I couldn't hear what the white monks were talking about; I was so curious what someone who has vowed to have limited possessions and live a life of mediation and chores talks about. Do they gossip about the other monks? Do they discuss politics? Do they plan events?  Had they just met or were they old friends? N did say that one was Canadian and one was European so they evidently discussed a bit of their personal histories but she did not eavesdrop beyond that.

We shopped a little bit after lunch but the mood was spoiled when someone addressed N in Chinese. You would think a fellow Asian would know better. We stopped into Ghyoilisang Peace Park because I thought it might be peaceful - it wasn't - and then headed back towards the hotel so N could continue her quest to find cashmere scarves. She spent a ridiculous amount of money.

At this point I voted for napping and being late for the reception but N wanted to go on time and leave early. She won. We made a beeline to the happy couple and immediately had our photos taken with them even though we hadn't taken our coats off or had opportunity to fix our newly moisturized faces. So N and I sat for a bit and took advantage of the roaming waiters before opting for a photo redo. We did a quick lap of hellos and goodbyes and then left before the dancing started. On the way back to the hotel we bought a chocolate cake which we didn't actually eat.

Stay tuned: we take our chocolate cake across the country!

Saturday, February 03, 2018


After several conflicting electronic communications regarding the timing of the wedding, the Yale crew descended on Ryan's family's hotel room at about 8AM to have our saris wrapped by the aunties (none of whom were wearing saris because they're too smart for that.)

A has taken a page out of my sister's book

Our saris, a gift from A, were of a light, thin, silky fabric that was much harder to pleat and wrap than the traditional stiffer fabric (and didn't look quite as regal). Cinched tightly into our petticoats and with a startling lack of sparklewear (I don't travel with the amount of gold expected for a Nepali wedding) we left the hotel with the groom's family to process around the garden. We were accompanied by a band of drums and horns, one of which sounded like an elephant trumpeting (and periodically scaring the bejeezus out of me). The men were also decked out in suits and topi (the traditional Nepali hat) and carried in trays of bread, coconut, and oranges.

As we entered the seating area we were given a garland of marigolds, a prayer scarf, a tika on our foreheads, a red envelope containing money and had flower petals thrown at us. N said it made her feel like a movie star.  Evidently we were supposed to dance in to show that the groom's family was exciting and fun-loving but I'm not sure we made the best showing -- perhaps because we had little idea of what was going on and us girls are actually from the bride's side.

We weren't alone in our ignorance. Our cultural guides explained that each ethnic group has their own wedding customs and traditions and that since they were Sherpa and Newar respectively -- and the bride was Gurung -- they were less than enlightening. They did say, however, that this was the smallest and best organized ceremony they had ever seen. 

We were told to sit men and women separately but this might have been a mistranslation of groom's side/bride's side. It didn't matter much because after about fifteen minutes of chanting an auntie was dispatched to send us to breakfast. I was a little surprised at the break. Since we were told the ceremony would last from 9 until 1, I had brought snacks. So after a lackluster breakfast we returned to the ceremony. For a while we stood near the wedding platform and took close-up pictures of the bride and groom. Even one of the chanting monks took a picture. Then we were dragged off by the aunties to dance for a bit -- until we were yelled at by the monks for disturbing the ceremony.

Post-chanting the men in the groom's family were each given white turbans to wrap around their head and the women were given wool shawls as they blessed A. Then everyone and their mother were given prayer shawls -- first the family and then the bride and groom. After about an hour of blessings, the groom's brothers were dispatched to negotiate the successful return of the groom's shoes from the bride's girl cousins. Despite having a professional litigator and negotiator on their side, the American men were no match for the savvy ladies who came away with $850!

After this showdown we were escorted back into the hotel. I, and at least one family member who had unwrapped her sari, thought the ceremony was over but with petticoats digging into our full bellies we went back outside to see the bride and groom be fed yogurt and take pictures with family. The final event was the kidnapping of the bride. A was carried into the hotel to start her new life as part of R's family.

I will note that it was now 3PM.

This was the first wedding that I didn't cry at! I don't know if it was because I didn't know the groom or because there was no exchange of vows or public profession of love. The bride and groom were more figureheads, literally unmoving and unspeaking as they were blessed for hours.

Post-wedding we split a bottle of wine at our hotel and went out for momos and, again, were asleep by 9.

Nepal - family visit

The thing about having henna-d hands is that it marks you as one of *those* tourists like elephant pants or greasy hair does. And not only was I henna-d but my hair had transformed into a weird sticky mess. It felt like none of my shampoo had washed out and it was just glopping together. (N touched it and said it wasn't as bad as she expected -- which I suppose means that it looked terrible.)

On New Years Day, we (and our bad hair) were invited with all of the out of town guests to A's mother's house for lunch. Luckily we were passed by the groom's family's bus as we walked to the house; otherwise we would have been lost in the pleasant suburbs. Lunch was daal and rice, spinach, turnip pickles, bitter melon, spicy potatoes, carrots, cucumbers and a variety of desserts that tasted surprisingly like incense. The only thing I didn't enjoy were the peas that I laboriously separated from my rice and the bitter melon which tasted intensely green. (For those of my family members reading, bitter melon is that spiky cucumber that TiAn would grow and Gram stole until she realized it was gross.)

After lunch, we met up with Dipak (D), his friend Raj, and his daughter Aarushi for second-lunch. D is the husband of our friend Ambika from grad school. We drove up past Swayambunath to a place overlooking the city where people come to enjoy the fresh air. I'm not sure it's high enough to be fresh air but it was a pleasant enough place to catch up and chase Aarushi around. Then we went back to D's house where his mother had prepared us a delicious meal of rice and daal, chicken, spinach, and spicy potato. My apologies to Mama D but I couldn't finish my rice. She served us more and more despite N using the most Nepali phrase we know: "pugyo!" "I'm full."

Then we distributed presents which was a little bit awkward because both N and I had forgotten that D lives with his extended family and we hadn't really brought easily shareable gifts. It seems like the most talked about gift was a lime green snake that went "chomp." Aarushi chattered on the whole time (after the first silent half hour) and the only words I recognized were "Mama's English friends", "snake chomp!" and "baby monkey sleep"

Then N and I returned tot he hotel to prepare ourselves for the wedding. Evidently my head is smaller than the average Korean's and doesn't absorb moisture as quickly.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Nepal - We circumambulate and dance!

The next day I treated myself to a non-meat-tasting breakfast and spent some time reading before transferring to another hotel and reading some more. I can't be blamed. The new hotel had these cushiony window seats in the warm sun and they provided a whole pot of complimentary tea. That evening I moseyed down into the city proper for dinner with the Yale girls! We ordered enough apple cakes for an army and caught up until late (9 pm).

On New Year's Eve, Nara (my Korean bestie who has braved four countries and five New Year's Eves with me) and I headed to Swayambunath, a Buddhist stupa on the west end of Kathmandu. Not only were we unable to negotiate a good price with the taxi driver but he also very nearly set us on fire; as we rounded a corner his incense burner fell off the dashboard and onto the floor. It was a toss-up between dying a in a conflagration or a traffic accident but he managed to retrieve it. Having narrowly escaped death we were unceremoniously dumped at the bottom of a long slight of stairs. I took quite a few photos on the way up the temple if only because I needed to catch my breathe; a trekker I am not.

Nara and I did our three circuits of the stupa and then retired to a rooftop tea shop to consult the guide book and learn what we saw. Such as: 
  • the tower has thirteen levels, a symbolic number in Buddhism
  • the eyes represent the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha 
  • the nose is not a nose but the symbol for "ek" the number one
  • the dome at the base represents the world
  • the monkeys that live there are holy! Evidently, Manjushri the bodhisattva of wisdom and learning let his hair grow long and his lice transformed into the monkeys. Not holy lice but holy monkeys  

holy monkeys!
A scientific interlude: the air quality in Kathmandu is so bad these days that even Nepalis are wearing facemasks. In fact, the 2018 Environmental Performance Index (which A worked on) names air quality as the top public health threat and Nepal is in the bottom five.


Then I spent an hour watching Nara agonize over which carved mountain stone to purchase.

That afternoon we went to A's mehendi celebration where all the ladies ate lunch, got henna tattoos, and danced the afternoon away. I was genuinely surprised that I could sit still for the twenty minutes it takes to get henna'd. I also didn't touch anything for the hour it takes to dry!

My freak of nature fingernail has never looked better.

Then the dancing began in earnest. We were subjected to learning "a traditional Nepali dance" which turned out to be the equivalent of "my milkshake brings all the boys to the yard."

After this good-natured hazing, the Yale girls crammed into a taxi (with a driver who taught us to count to ten in Nepali) to get a New Year's Eve dinner. We talked career and personal goals while accompanied by sitar music and headed home once midnight struck in Korea. That's right, we made it until 9PM. Have to rest up for more family festivities!


Guys look! I'm writing about a trip within the month that I took it! Over New Years I went to Nepal for my friend Anobha's (A) wedding!

For my second trip to Kathmandu, I decided to deviate from the tourist norm and avoid the neighborhood of Thamel. I booked a hidden away hotel with airport pickup in the next-door city of Patan and ignored my gut feeling that they would forget my pickup without a reminder. I arrived at 10PM after about 24 hours of travel, whizzed through customs (so fresh faced that when a Chinese youth asked me how old I was and I said 25 because I misunderstood the question he didn't even blink), sped past the men offering luggage carts and beelined toward the taxi line -- to find that I was forgotten. Although one man laughingly accepted my suggestion to hold his sign right side up, even he wasn't there to pick me up.

So I went to the pre-paid taxi stand, and handed over $10 while a growing crowd of drivers discussed where my hotel was. They called the hotel (and my friend A) several times before putting me in a taxi. As we were pulling away another man got in the cab (which in international travel is a red flag) and he said "Did they tell you what's happening? We're taking you to my place for tonight." to which I responded, "I'm sorry, WHAT?"

There are many many ways this could have gone wrong but it didn't -- except for the fact that breakfast the next morning was super icky. I've never had scrambled eggs that simultaneously tasted like meat and like sugar at the same time. Blech,

After touching base with A, I headed out to Patan as planned. I arrived in Durbar Square and was immediately set upon by a tour guide. Knowing that even with my trusty Lonely Planet (why is it called that?) the experience would be richer with narration. I wanted to take copious notes for you reader because I knew my jetlagged brain wouldn't absorb much...but I forgot my pen!

Patan is one of three royal kingdoms of Nepal. It was the center of fine arts, while Kathmandu was the center of business, and Bhaktapur was agriculture.

Patan's Durbar (Royal) Square is unique because it t used to be separated by a river  with temples on one side and palaces on the other. 

This window is where the Queens would greet her people from the royal palace.

During the celebration of Dasian they sacrifice 108 buffaloes, goats, ducks, sheep, and chicken. Each animal represents a vice (anger, lust, apathy, stupidity, and fearfulness respectively). This door is festooned with entrails.

This bell can be heard for 3km. It was used to call people for the square but lately has been SnapChat Central.
The queen's bath! 

As they restore the temples post-earthquake they are storing the buttresses in the palace. These represent all the ways you can be tortured in Hell. (The other carvings showed the Kama Sutra)

After explaining all of the buildings and the bonus Golden Temple, my guide took me to the traditional thangka selling racket. (Thangka's are Tibetan Buddhist paintings depicting a mandala, the Buddha's life, or the saints.) While a lama and master painter demonstrates his prodigious skill and talent (no sarcasm) the salesman shows the four traditional paintings and how the gold leaf sparkles in the light. He or she shows you how the painting looks backlit and even how it is still magnificent when dark. The seller asks the lama to discount the painting just for you -- undercutting the poor starving artist -- and if you still refuse he asks your price. Then the seller shows you an amateur's work and how you *could* get it cheaper but it's crap.

We went from $130 to $90 but I don't really need a thangka. So my guide stepped up his game and brought me to a metalwork shop. You may have heard of singing bowls, but just in case they're small metal bowls that make a sound when a wooden stick is run around the rim. I don't find it soothing (It sounds like ringing ears) but it's supposed to replicate the Om, the first sound of the universe. As it turns out, I don't have a talent for singing bowls so we moved on to healing bowls. Much larger, and made of a combination of metals, they are hit with a mallet. Because our bodies are 70% water, the vibrations from the bowl can cure insomnia, migraine, back pains, etc. And I got a demo! I was made to sit on a stool with my eyes closed, and while I hoped this wasn't a ploy to steal my backpack, the vibrating bowl was rubbed against my knees (which hurt like foam rolling) and then my back. Then the bowl was put upside down on my head and chimed. It was not unpleasant but I didn't buy one.

Here is six hours of singing bowls courtesy of YouTube:

Then I was dropped off at the Patan Museum which was fantastic with clear and informative displays about all sorts of Hindu and Buddhist things that have been explained to me multiple times without me absorbing them. I ate at the courtyard restaurant there which as the young boy sitting at the table next to me said was "exotic." Not really. You could pick your own typhoid salad and eat upscale versions of veggie pakora in the warm sun. It was quite pleasant!

After walking in several circles around the neighborhood I caught a taxi back to Kathmandu to have dinner (exotic pizza) with A and her fiance. Also quite pleasant!

Sunday, November 26, 2017

India - Charminaar bazaar

Our last two days in India were spent buying souvenirs as well as a quick drive-by of the giant Buddha statue  (the world's tallest monolith of Buddha!), a terrifying night-time walk through Charminar Bazaar (built in 1591!), and a luxurious meal of Domino's pizza and mangos.

Until next time India!

India - We get our religion on

Sorry for the delay; my brand spanking new computer crapped out on me for a while.

On our trip, the family took two opportunities to visit important temples. The first was Grishneshwar, one of the twelve of the most auspicious (of 64) jyotirlings (a devotional object) where Shiva appeared as a pillar of light. Mary and I were not allowed in so we took a nap in the party bus.

The next visit was a little more intensive. T woke us up at 4:30AM so we would be ready to leave at 6AM; he is perhaps not aware that we were raised by a Navy dad and can mobilize in a half and hour or less (or maybe just I can.) We were driving up to Shridi to visit Sai Baba's temple. Sai Baba, a holy man to both Hindus and Muslims, taught the importance of realizing one's self and serving others in the 1800s. He appeared from no where and disappeared without a trace. I did not know this information, however, while pilgrimaging.

The temple visit was pitched to me as just that. We would stand in line for a while to see the icon of Sai Baba and then we would go to a lunch provided by the religious society. M had opted out for womanly reasons but it seemed harmless enough a day to go it alone. I was told to wear socks because we couldn't wear shoes at the site and I also grabbed the floppy khaki hat that immediately identifies me as an American.

We drove to our assigned entrance gate but evidently we couldn't park there so a random guy got on our bus to direct us to a more appropriate spot. Because T's mom and aunt qualify as senior citizens we were allowed to skip the line and go straight into the shrine: a golden altar with a large statue of the saint draped in colorful robes and a wreath of flowers. No pictures were allowed so Google reveals:

We were shunted into corrals that funneled past the statue while keeping us separate from it. Inside the enclosure, attendants accepted offerings, managed traffic, and scooped roses out of the shrine into buckets. Several people were leaning over the railings to (I think) deposit flowers and money and to touch the statue. The woman manning the exit handed me some roses from a bucket and motioned me towards the center of the scrum. I threw my rose over the railing, bowed, and retreated again but the woman motioned me back telling me to pray. This time I inclined my head in a more obvious fashion and for a longer time but evidently this was still not convincing because the attendant then asked G where I was from. The answer that I was from US seemed all the explanation she needed.

Outside was another enclosed area around the neem tree under which Sai Baba preached and a furnace where devotees could get ashes to mark their foreheads. When leaving this area we were each handed red packets which turned out to be tapioca balls. A man also gave D a neem leaf which the family split among themselves to eat. Forestry fun fact: the neem tree (Azadirachta indica), although considered a weed tree in several countries, has a variety of uses -- keeping insects away from clothing and food stores, a natural antibacterial and antifungal, and a source of honey, soap and glue.

As we walked through a courtyard S and T, seemingly spontaneously, decided to donate blood so all of us ladies and children sat waiting for them for what seemed like hours. Evidently the men were told they had to eat before donating blood so they went in search of lunch and were quite delayed in their good deed. Once we were finally all back together, we made stops at three small shrines, the first of which I didn't have to enter because, according to T, "I didn't think you like being hit on the head with things" as each devotee was lightly thwacked with a broom-like object. But the third shrine also involved being whacked and no one objected to me participating.

This is just conjecture but next we went to a bank to make a donation to the group that maintains the complex. Then the clock struck noon -- not a gentle chiming but more like the town's fire alarm being tested -- and a great chanting rang out from one of the buildings. At one point in the chanting and yelling I was legitimately concerned about the potential for hearing loss. We stood there for quite some time watching a line form outside of another shrine before actually joining in. We were shoved past a statue marking where Sai Baba cooked food for his students and the poor and we too were fed a sweet (gross).

Then we made our way back to the party bus, despite none of us really remembering where it was parked. The bus dropped us off at what I thought was our hotel for lunch. Thinking I could escape to my room, leave the family to their lunch, and quietly eat a granola bar in peace I plaintively asked, "Can I skip this part? Can I just go?" in some despair and a few tears. But no. I was marched upstairs to a cafeteria where men in red-checked aprons and caps served us a bland meal of aloo gobi, daal and lentil curry and three types of grain: roti, rice, and papadan. There was also an option to have curd and gulab jamun but since they placed a strict emphasis on clearing your plate, I passed.

And then finally, after five hours of worship, we were done. And miracle of miracles, I was not sunburnt.

Monday, October 09, 2017

India - take a picture

When I lived in Bolivia, and later Nicaragua, I had this strange feeling that my blue eyes could bore holes into people. I had this idea that they were beacons of light that shone out of my face and were noticeable from across the room. But my glacial blue gaze was nothing compared to the intensity of the stares that M and I got in India.

There are signs posted in tourist attractions that chide people for teasing or taking pictures of people without asking permission. I thought this was aimed at American tourists who might want to take pictures of monks or the flocks of women in colorful dress... but no, it's because the flocks of women in colorful dress try to take pictures of the pasty white tourists in khaki. The signs don't specify that you must receive permission of course. So even after receiving a "no"to their queries M and I had many photos taken of us. So many that we considered charging 100 rupees per.

We brainstormed ways to avoid getting our pictures taken:

  1. say no
  2. stick your tongue out in every snap
  3. pull your hat down, cover your face, turn your back, or otherwise obscure the view
  4. charge money
  5. say, in Tamil or Hindu or Urdu or Telegu, "I'm so glad you want to take picture with little old albino me."
  6. have a bodyguard yell at people
  7. pretend you are deaf or mentally challenged
  8. take their phone/camera and run
  9. flash them boob
  10. speak only in Quechua or Romani or other obscure/potentially made-up language
  11. kick them in the balls
After a day at the caves, we stopped at Bibi-Ka-Maqbara a palace and mausoleum built in 1650 for Aurangzeb's dead wife a la the Taj Majal. For some reason there were hordes of teenaged boys trying to take our photos. We tried 1, 7, 10 and enlisted T in 6. At first he was resistant but he soon blossomed into a very good yeller. 

Perhaps because I'm a delicate flower and star of many unwanted photo, it was determined at one point that I was too dainty to use a squat toilet. At a roadside restaurant, I was stopped from approaching the outhouse by Auntie with the admonition that I "wouldn't like it," I almost knocked her down in my insistence that if she didn't let me use it I would pee myself...well not really, I'd just squat elsewhere. People would have definitely snapped photos of that. 


At 7AM, we stepped off the train in surprisingly good spirits to find our chariot awaiting:

party bus!
After a brief stop at the hotel and for breakfast (where we tried every variety of dosa except "noodle" we were whisked off to Ajanta Caves, 29 Buddhist temples carved out of rock between the 2nd centrury BCE and 650 CE. (Are you impressed by my use of the updated common era versus year of our Lord convention?) A UNESCO World Heritage site (my 33rd), the caves were used as ancient monasteries and worship halls and feature paintings that depict the lives of Buddha and tales from Ayasura's Jatakamala and sculptures of a variety of deities.

In practice, it was a lot of climbing stairs in the hot sun. Because the caves are still considered active worship sites, we were asked to remove our shoes outside each one. As I was wearing sandals with no socks, at one point S offered me his socks. At first I thought that was supremely weird and sort of gross but I accepted them anyway and let me tell you -- lifesaving move. As the day progressed the outside of the caves got hotter and hotter and due to the increasing crowds (which were never terrible actually) we had to remove our shoes farther and farther from the entrance. Pro tip: wear socks with easily removable sandals.

I'm afraid that besides saying that the caves were terrifically impressive and the paintings and sculptures beautiful, I can't comment on their historical, artistic, or religious implications. My nephew-in-law echoed my feelings when he said at one particular cave, "I think we've seen this one before."

At one point, my sister - who never travels without snacks - broke out her collection of Kind Bars. Everyone got some - including one of the guards and a particularly aggressive monkey. As we sat there enjoying dark chocolate and sea salt or maple and glazed pecan or caramel almond bars, we spotted a white woman with pretty impressive dreadlocks. K chitti turned to me in amazement to ask how her hair got like that. I likened it to the hair of a sadhu - Hindu hermits who regularly sport dreads.

After hiking 24 flights of stairs to see 32 caves all I wanted was a blissfully cold sugar-filled Coca Cola. You may not be aware but in the USA Coca Cola is made with high fructose corn syrup which is gross. The real sugar cola of other nations is the real thing. Anyhoo Mina, like all good Indian mothers, was trying to get me try every single variety of Indian food and drink - even resorting to stealing food off other peoples' plates for me to try. Each time she would suggest a different type of juice, I would more emphatically insist on my preference. It went sort of like this:

M: They have pineapple juice here! You must try.
Me: I'll have a Coca-Cola please
M: sweet lime! delicious!
Me: Coca Cola please
M: juicy mangos! the best in the country!
Me: Coke
M: How about tamarind? You like that, right?
M: And Mary, what juice would you like?
Mary: I'll have a Coke too.
Insufferable Americans.

The very next day we set out for Ellora Caves. Ellora Caves, my 34th UNESCO World Heritage site, sort of picks up where Ajanta leaves off. Built in 600 CE, the 100 caves represent the Buddhist, Hindu and Jain religions. Only 34 caves are open to the public and we decided to work our way from the outside in - 1 through 16.

By Cave 10 or so, in an effort to keep the kidlets engaged, I asked them to help me learn to count in Hindi. (My brother-in-law's family actually speak Tamil, but live in an area where Telugu and Urdu are spoken and learn Hindi in school.) Anyhoo at one point, my niece-in-law and I were walking up a set of stairs counting them as we went when behind us a guide joined in: ek - do- teen- chaar. As such, we bonded with the guide who let us into the inner sanctum of the cave.

In the Buddhist tradition you walk around the Buddha, or stupa, or temple itself three times clockwise. The kids and I (despite not being Buddhist) did so. I do think the guard may have actually negotiated a big tip from S. So thanks S, it was totally worth it, (I also think this situation might have occurred more than we realized. The perils of herding Americans through India.)

Cave 16, which is actually at the center of the complex, and also known as the Kailahsa temple, is considered one of the most remarkable cave temples in all of India because of its size and architecture. Most remarkably, it is carved entirely out of one rock. The interpretive signs explain that it was carved from the outside in and that the "sculpture carved here are not there by accident." Double duh. The Kailasha temple, dedicated to Shiva, is a freestanding multi-story complex larger than the Parthenon (per WIkipedia). I think most tourists just go to this one cave out of the 34.
This is conveniently where my phone died and my brother-in-law has yet to send me the photos I took on his phone.

After climbing 31 flights of stairs, and seeing half the caves, we decided to call it a day. This decision was not met with approval however; T's mother thought that since we were so far away from the US and may never get back to Aurangabad that we should finish seeing all the caves. M and I, without lunch, and already having walked all day were unwilling to continue. Our argument that we would no longer enjoy seeing caves was met with resistance but eventually accepted with the promise that we would one day return to see caves 17-34. I have a ten-year visa. It's doable.