Posts Tagged 'India'

Wet to dry

I returned to Kabul with very mixed feelings. I didn’t mind leaving the intense heat and humidity of Delhi behind but I dreaded what I was returning to, wondering, along with everyone else, what the consequences might be of this latest assassination. If I left Kabul a week ago feeling rather discouraged, I am returning even more discouraged. What is so much more appealing than a peaceful life to sacrifice so much for, I wonder?

The difference between the Safi flight from Dubai and the one from Delhi to Kabul is the total absence of muscled bold or crew cut guys with sunglasses. Very few foreigners were on the flight and probably none of the usual mercenaries and security guys. The Delhi flight is full of Afghans who went to India for health or for education. In fact I knew several of them who had been to their twice a year face-to-face sessions that are required to complete their two-year MPH course in Jodpur.

The flight was full and late. Maybe I was a little too early with my praise for Safi’s punctuality; but then again Delhi airport is very crowded and putting flights in a holding pattern until there is slot for landing is apparently quite common.

In Kabul I found that the heat is about the same as in Delhi but the humidity is replaced by wind that squeezes every drop of water out of the air. Everything looked parched, the trees, the roads and even the people.

At home a bowl full of fruit, fresh milk and yogurt, an Afghan salad, a quiche and a fruit salad were waiting for me, making the homecoming to an empty house a little easier.

Swamiland

According to the brochure, which could be obtained in about 10 languages, including Dutch, the Swaminarayan Akshardham is ‘a unique complex of Indian culture […]. It beautifully showcases Indian art, wisdom, heritage and values as a tribute to Bhagwan Swaminarayan (1781-1830) a torchbearer of Indian culture.’

From what I learned about Baghwan Swaminarayan he started a movement when, as a young boy he walked out of his parents’ house. Dressed in only a loincloth he traversed India by foot from north to south and west to east, all that (including the Himalayas and the monsoon belt) without an umbrella, shoes or a warm sweater.

A friendly guide told me his philosophy would appeal to Christians, Moslems, Buddhists and Hindus alike. I also think Disney enthusiasts will like it a lot, probably more so than the others.

Part of the values is not bringing anything inside the complex. It is the one place in the world, I believe, where there are thousands of people without cellphones or cameras. Everything, including belts (huh?) had to be left in a cloak room. It was actually kind of nice though it also was a pain in the neck to carry my wallet and passport in my hand (purses not allowed either). Transparent water bottles were OK outside the buildings but not inside. A man with a sharpie numbers them so you can pick it up later again. Very clever.

I invited my driver to come along since I wouldn’t be able to call him to pick me up. We joined hundreds of pushy Indians. Before I realized it we got sucked up in a Disney-esque experience that led us from exhibit to exhibit with doors closing behind us and staying locked in front of us until the story was told. There was no escape.

The Baghwan’s life story was played out through multi-media. It’s a great story, especially on an iMax screen that showcased India’s magnificent landscapes as the young child-yogi walks from state to state. There were also dioramas populated with life size manikins that were electronically alive, and therefore looked very real, even their eyelids opened and closed. The manikins were acting out scenes of the young yogi during significant moments of his life.

I recognized some religious themes that are universal – the long walks/waits in the wilderness, the wisdom beyond years, predatory animals lying down peacefully at his feet and the boundless love for even the scariest people who then become meek as lambs.

At the end of hall 2 we were led through two large rooms that demonstrated, in case people had not gotten that message, the wickedness of the world: a family lassoing a pile of suitcases and each trying to pull the pile towards their room, presumably to show the terrible things greed and a pre-occupation with material possessions does to otherwise harmonious families.

There was a glimpse of a fighting couple in their bedroom, various men engaged in combat with a variety of weapons and one whole wall with animals wondering aloud why humans ate them: A mother duck quacking ‘why do humans eat my babies? I don’t eat theirs!” A cow reminding the humans that its milk comes free, how ungrateful to eat the animal, fish, buffaloes, chicken, all with their questions. But most people rushed through this last reminder of our depravity anxious to get on the next ride, a boat ride no less.

This one was the most Disney-esque of them all. We lined up, as one does at theme parks, and were directed into a large boat that took us on a sort of underground river where everything that India had contributed to the world was displayed in elaborate scenes peopled by more life-sized mannikins who practiced arts, science, religion, university, nuclear physics, built planes, rockets, all this thousands of years before we in the West ‘discovered’ these things.

Just before docking and our final exit we rode underneath a bridge full of life-sized and very real looking kids, waving Indian flags. A warm male voice told us that the children of the world should pick flowers and make peace with one another. I had fully expected to hear ‘It’s a small small world,’ but instead we were told that ‘Yes, we can.’ Incredible India indeed!

All the foot traffic went clockwise and in one direction only. This meant a lot of walking if you missed an entrance. There was never any turning back. I wondered whether this was part of the values that were posted everyone. Men employed by the social-spiritual NGO that runs the place, armed with whistles, would call you back if you dared to go against the rules.

And so we walked what felt like miles in the ever increasing humidity to the central building. It can seen from miles around. This is the actual holy place. The architecture is intense, modeled after some of the intricate Mughal carvings, much gold and marble, with more scenes of the Baghwan’s life.

Before the start of the sound and light fountain show, the last point on our very full program, we wolfed down a spicy dhosa bought in a building that looks like a temple or shrine but is actually a food court. The dhosa was spicy and the humidity kept climbing up so much that I was drenched when we arrived at the fountain show.

Having already seen the superior, though colorless, Burj fountains in Dubai I was spoiled. After watching a few minutes we slipped out and reclaimed our cell phones, my camera and purse before the other 1000 people would start pushing in back of me to get their stuff.

Back at the hotel I watched the news and felt instantly jerked back to Afghanistan wondering what the assassination of Karzai’s brother will mean for those staying behind. Tomorrow that will include me again.

Damp in Delhi

I arrived at the end of the morning in a very hot and humid in Delhi. Kerala seemed cool in comparison. I felt adventuresome and took the metro into town which turned out not all that adventuresome until I arrived at the railway station and was thrown into the chaos of downtown.

I remembered the warning in the guidebook about touts. A random tuktuk was going to charge me ten times the going rate for a local without luggage and five times the prepaid rate for a foreigner with luggage. I was able to wriggle loose.

The hotel is nice if you don’t mind not having a window. The manager explained that windows let in heat and noise and one is better off without them in this part of town and this time of the year. I suppose if you only need the room for sleeping the absence of daylight is OK.

I hired a taxi and driver for the day and finally visited the Craft Museum Axel and I didn’t get to visit the last time we were here. There were no tourists, not even Indians so I had the place to myself. But I soon found out why there was no one there – no person in his or her right mind would go to a museum that did not have AC during the middle of the day.

On the suggestion of one of the bride’s uncles who lives in Delhi I told the driver to take me to Akshardham across the Yamuna River. He had told me it was a spectacular new building put together using ancient crafts. That was true. But what he had not told me was that the entire complex was also a religious theme park. More about it in a next post.

And then the rains came…

After our yoga practice the teacher told us that we ought to be doing breathing exercises, yoga and meditation every morning for one and a half hour and that, if we did, we would be in very good shape for the rest of the day. Why wouldn’t I follow such excellent advice?

Unlike the guests of the hotel, we houseboat people had to check out of our rooms/boats by 9 AM since the boats were leaving. Unprepared I through everything in my tiny suitcase and, with some pleasure, evacuated the rather grungy houseboat. If the resort rooms were 5 stars, the houseboat I stayed on was not even a one star accommodation.

To kill the time before departure I went to the spa for a pedicure that was described in the brochure as something too good to be true. It was. The young beautician had a beautiful smile and looked very pretty but that was about it. Still, I have nice shiny red nails again to replace the nail job Tessa and I had done nearly 6 weeks ago in Beverly.

In pairs or groups the guests started to leave, some for Bangalore and other points North and East, some for the airport and some for Holland. A new wedding party came in – this time a Moslem wedding with women wrapped up in black from head to toe with huge hairdos that made their abayas look even more like tents.

The enormous outdoor wedding hall was dismantled by an army of loin-clothed and very dark-skinned men. The structure was the size of one of our drug warehouses, exactly the kind we were looking for.

As soon as the formal parts of the wedding, in the outdoor hall, had been completed the rains came in. Typical for a dweller of a non-monsoon country I thought, ‘wow, weren’t they lucky.’ But the locals told me that the intense heat and humidity of the last few days would have been reduced if it had rained and they would have been happy if the rains had come earlier.

Everything at the resort was prepared for rain, pull down plastic sides to the various wall-less spaces, large umbrellas in stands everywhere with notices that (only) ladies could ask to be accompanied by someone from the staff to hold the umbrella over her head.

And now I am in another grungy and overpriced hotel near the Cochin airport after having said goodbye to the Dutch family who are travelling back via Mumbai and London tomorrow. The Ayurvedic spa that was advertised for the hotel and one of the reasons I picked, it is closed for the day – darn. The one redeeming feature of the hotel was its cook – the Malabar fish curry was to die for.

My movements are limited, as if I were back in Kabul, but for another reason: sudden downpours. And so I sit in the hotel waiting for tomorrow while catching up on my email and work and watching bad TV.

A very long yes

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The mother of the groom refers to herself and all of us westerlings as the white monkeys. It was not a term she made up but that was used some time back before the bride’s family realized the relationship with this white young man was for real.

The bride’s family is a Jain family which means, among others, that the food is entirely vegetarian – fine with me as it is varied and delicious. It also means there is no champagne, beer or white wine at any point during the wedding. For me this is nothing new but I can see that for the contingent of friends of the groom that had come from a beer drinking country (including the groom himself) this is not easy. The weather is exceedingly hot and humid (it hasn’t rained for two days in a row) and a nice cold beer would have been perfect.

The groom’s male friends, from his student years in Leiden, came with wives and girlfriends, many from Holland, some business partners from Bangelore. They all wore the local pajama style dress and wore red turbans elaborately styled, some round and flat, others feathered like a peacock, by turban experts hired for the purpose.

All this was happening while the tall blond girls stepped out of the spa building in their sarees, expertly wrapped and pinned around them by the women who do massages during the day. Most walked awkwardly and much too slow for their liking in their unfamiliar attire.

Everyone, including the teenage cousins, looked the part that required accompanying the groom as he rode on a decorated elephant to the entrance of the hotel. In front of him the groom’s party danced on the frenzied tones of the band as if it was carnival in Rio. For us, the parents, aunt and uncle and grandma of the bride it was too hot for dancing – we fanned ourselves as we walked slowly in front of the dancing mass, wondering why it took an hour to cover the 200 meter distance.

There is much teasing in a Hindu wedding as we discovered. The slow progress of the groom, leaving the bride waiting, the stealing of his shoes to be sold back later for a fee, the bride’s effort to put a flower garland around her betrothed’s head while his friends keep raising him up on their shoulders to keep him out of reach.

Even later during the ceremony on the stage there was much irreverent laughing and joking and much tolerance of these westerners not knowing what to do when. Never was there the solemnity and the emotional moments that we know so well from our traditions. And indeed, the emotions and tears came the next day during part 2,the more western part of the wedding).

The bride was brought in carried on the shoulders of men clad in only a loincloth, seated in a palanquin that was curtained off with roses and jasmine petals – a very fragrant arrangement. She emerged in a red gauzy saree, bejeweled and embroidered. Around her neck and arms jewelry that was dazzling and heavy. I was told this was not custom jewelry. Even her face was bejeweled. She, usually standing tall and straight, appeared slightly bent under the weight of it all.

The ceremony was carried out by a priest who came with bags of paraphernalia needed to complete the countless steps in the process. There were various objects, spices and substances I could not identify, large shiny green leaves that were used to wrap around money as well as the couple’s hands, kerchiefs, straw rings and a fire around which the couple was to walk seven times over the course of the evening, bound together with a string, involving all sorts of other rituals.

The seven walks around the fire took forever, the groom grinning to his friends sticking up his finger to indicate how many more. The foreigners stayed and watched not knowing the drill – after all we didn’t want to miss anything , taking thousands of pictures – everything was so very photogenic, the indian ladies in the bejeweled and colorful sarees, the thousands of white and red and green lights on every inch of grass and draped over every tree branch. The lush greenery accentuated by large green floodlights while a laser show was going on above our head on the tent ceiling.

Many of the Indians, knowing the drill and how long the ceremony would last, got up at the very start and went to the dining hall to sit down and enjoy the exquisite buffet. Only the immediate family of the bride, her aunties and sisters, remained on the stage, sitting across the Dutch parents.

The Indian side of the family was actively involved in the ceremony, given a variety of tasks by the priest while the Dutch party sat at the groom’s side mostly watching in wonderment and confusion, Hans alternating in his role of father of the groom and photographer/videographer with both cameras on his knees. Although somewhat prepared by their son, there were a few awkward surprises such as not having bills of rupees on hand when money was supposed to be deposited in then this then that container the priest held out for them. They had nothing in their pockets. The Indian laughed good natured and moved on to the next step in the process while the Indian dad, well prepared of course, constantly put small bills in hands, leaves, and kerchiefs.

It was a bit of an ordeal for everyone on the stage because (a) they didn’t get to drink or eat anything like everyone else; (b) it was exceedingly hot and humid but the clothes the men wore were seemingly for colder climes – thick damast-like long coats with stiff collars closed high at the neck; c) a ceremonial fire was burning in front of them which required that d) at least on the stage, the high power fans that we in the audience benefitted from had to be turned off.

After the ceremony was finally over – as someone said, a very complicated process for simply saying yes, we joined the Indian families in the restaurant and had curries and ice cream. On the program was a reception but this was mostly a photo shoot with everyone and their mother and brother posing with the couple. Some of the Dutch saree-wearing contingent had gone back to their rooms and changed into more comfortable wear and take a swim to cool off.

I decided to call it a night and found my room on one of the houseboats where an enormous spider had settled in for the night as well. I called the boat staff and they entered my room with a spray can and chased the poor thing around the room – it was not a fair fight. I had intended to send it back to nature but the chemicals did their work. I slept like a baby.

Waterland

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I woke up early and walked around the center of Fort Cochin. The humidity hit me as if a very heavy wet blanket was thrown over me. It hovered very close to 100% turning damp air into rain now and then.

I walked over moss covered pavers, along moss covered walls and under trees that may well be a few hundred years old with trunks and branches that have seen a lot of history. First the Portuguese were here and then the Dutch who firmly planted Christianity on this heathen soil. Churches, crosses, jesuses and monks are common figures in the landscape.

In spite of the heavy humid air and the puddles on the makeshift fields, soccer games were going on everywhere at this early hour. A walkway along the ocean was used by people doing their early morning constitutionals, their exercises, people shifting through the mass of water hyacinths for plastic bottles and other recyclables and fishermen repairing or arranging their nets.

I passed by the Dutch cemetery which was locked up behind a rusty gate – perpetually it seems. Large moss grown tombs were visible but I would have liked to see the inscriptions – who died here in the 1600s, so far from home? Who were these brave souls who left damp and cold Holland behind to convert people in this far away place?

At breakfast I met the extended Dutch party, immediate family of the groom and old friends. All the women, including the groom’s oma had had their hands henna-ed, intricate patterns applied with great skill during the previous days in Mumbai where the family of the bride lives.

Everyone had been taken shopping for sarees and wedding outfits. I fear that I will probably look a little frumpy, coming from the backwater of Afghanistan amidst these very sophisticated Mumbaian.
My friend had arranged for all of us to spend one night on a houseboat in what is called the backwaters. I can’t explain the look of the boats, not one is the same, so the slideshow will have to do. We encountered hundreds of them as we explored the waterland between the coast and the hinterland. They reminded me of elephants – big creatures lumbering along the waterways.

We had two boats to accommodate us all, the youngsters on one and the older one on the other, except that oma and I got to be with the younger group – maybe to keep an eye on things. We knew they had, with permission from parents, bought some adult beverages.

For lunch we lashed the two boats together and tied up at one of the small man-made islands where paddy is grown – the lush green color a wonderful sight after the khaki color of Kabul (khaki means dusty in Persian). The boat ride through these island-dotted waterways reminded me of the lilac islands on the Westeinder lake near in Aalsmeer.

The cooks had been working on our lunch since we had left the dock – vegetable curries with coconut, dhal, rice, fried fish, chutney, beans and more.

Delhi finale

We spent our last day in Delhi doing what we cannot do when we are back in Kabul – walking in parks and having an outdoor lunch in an artsy restaurant that served wine and beer in addition to interesting Italian and Indian fare.

We went to the Garden of the Five Senses which our guidebook recommended as one of the top 10 garden parks in the city. What the guide book didn’t tell us and what explained the sign at the entrance (Please observe decency) became clear quickly after we entered the whimsical gardens – it was a place for teenagers in love, probably escaping from overcrowding at home and little privacy. The gardens were full of small love nests; hidden behind bushes, under trees with low hanging branches, behind and under rocks formations, around the turn of each of the small pathways there were teenage couples in full embrace. This particular usage of the park probably explained why we saw very few people either younger or older than teenagers.

Trying in vain to stumble on teenage couples (they were everywhere) we did make it to the park’s highest point that offered superb views of southwest New Delhi, including the majestic Qutub Minar. In addition to interesting flora the park also had lots of very nice sculptures made by Indian and non Indian artists. The design of the park was odd, appearing like an unresolved disagreement between the designers around how much structure to put in, whether to follow the ancient Persian design of squares and right angles, bisected by water ways (the water was turned off spoiling the effect somewhat) or the British more natural approach to gardens and parks. The combination didn’t quite work for us but it clearly worked great for the teenagers.

After lunch we strolled around the old Haus Khaz section of town, famous for its ancient water tank, madrassa and tombs but also for its curio shops and fancy designers. We poked around one jumble shop where Axel found some old and ripped Indian movie posters while I enjoyed looking at a treasure trove of old embroidered pieces from all over India and Central Asia, including Ghazni. The pieces were stashed away in plastic bags that I found in dusty corners of the overflowing shop.

The shopkeeper treated her treasures rather nonchalantly, explaining the rips in the posters and the poorly preserved textiles. She was happy to explain to us the various panels of painted temple wall hangings, the story of Sita and Ram, and many other Hindu tales depicted on various items in her fascinating store.

We strolled through the Hauz Khas park, watched the spotted deer and peacocks and stumbled on one ancient building after another. Wherever you go in Delhi there are remnants of its past rulers – Mughals especially but also those pre-dating the arrival of Babur . These buildings are in various states of disrepair and rehabilitation. They dot parks and squares and gardens with Indian life going on around them as if they are unremarkable parts of the landscape. The awe that these buildings inspired in me also made me think about the blood, sweat and tears that must have gone into their construction – all to the greater glory of the winning Y-chromosome.


November 2017
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