Archive for March, 2008

India Diaries #2

Days 1, 2, 3 – Delhi
A crew of men sweeps debris off of an elevated road in downtown Delhi. The dust and bits of metal blow directly onto a small apartment building where a chain of women in brightly colored saris vigorously sweep it hierarchically down until, after many transfers, it falls to the street, where a woman with a little baby slung on her back sifts through the dust and dirt for anything of value. This is Delhi.

On an alley running between military barracks and senior officer’s houses, families of monkeys scamper through the trees. Young women lean over the balcony of a brothel and wave at me. “New York! California! Hollywood!” they yell. My driver, Davijon, says that they are very clean because they are in the military district. A young monkey runs to the end of a branch and takes a daring leap across the width of the road, barely catching the end of a branch on the opposite side. The women clap, and Davijon looks at them with a longing that that first softens and then hardens his face – he looks away and gets in the car to wait for me. This is Delhi.

Humayun’s Tomb is surrounded by piles of burning trash. An inversion layer hangs over the region like a glass ceiling, trapping all the dust, exhaust, and rancid smells of the city. Wandering around the tomb, I am as amazed by the architecture and craftsmanship as I am by the powerful stench of the human feces which dot the fields around the tomb. From the scalloped walls, built in the early sixteenth century, I see half a dozen men squatting in the fields. Embarrassed, I look away and suddenly notice the eroded but still beautiful floral motif carved into the walls. This is Delhi.

We are stuck in traffic at noon. The driver ahead of us gets out and walks to the shade of a tree. The heat is almost unbearable. My driver, and now friend, Davijon laughs when I say that “beep, beep” is how cars say “Delhi, Delhi.” Now when someone honks behind us he says “Delhi, Delhi!” and chuckles. When traffic starts to move, Davijon has to go and wake up the driver who is now fast asleep under the tree. This is Delhi.

A little girl sees me take a picture of a dog sleeping on a bale of compressed paper and demands, politely, to see it. I hold the camera down where she can get a good look and she immediately tries to take the it away from me. I glance around to see if she is part of a team of robbers, then discover that she just wants to use the controls to look at all of the pictures. The constant wariness needed to keep from being ripped off taints almost all first encounters. This is Delhi.

My stomach is rebelling and the cramps are shockingly sharp and painful. When the merchants and passersby see me wince, they often spontaneously offer to get me some lemon-water. Davijon is most concerned and insists on taking me back to the hotel, only reluctantly agreeing to help me finish my list of tasks after many minutes of my determined attempts to convince him that it is not as painful as it looks. Later he stops in the shade of a huge tree and pretends that there is something wrong with the car so that I can rest quietly for a few minutes. This is Delhi too.

Day 4 – Taj Mahal
We meet at five AM to catch the express train to Agra, city of the Taj Mahal. My hopes for cleaner air are slowly dashed as the train rolls relentlessly through mysterious towns and terrain barely glimpsed through the haze. We hire a driver at the Agra station and have him take us to Yosh Cafe where, according to the Lonely Planet guidebook, we can rent a locker for our baggage. It seems the guidebook needs to be updated to include the following annotation: “lockers are actually wooden cupboards and require renters to bring locks, place reeks of urine, wooden cupboards are not actually connected to the walls.” The streets around the Yosh evoke the Katmandu of the first Indiana Jones movie – utter squalid chaos.

You can’t appreciate the Taj Mahal in one visit. I know because I tried. The best I can say is that it has beautiful proportions from every angle. It’s relationship to the smaller mosques on each side, and the towers across the Ganges, create amazing symmetries and sight-lines. Even the scum floating in the reflecting ponds, does not detract from the experience.

Our train to Jaipur is not until late in the day, so we take a break from local cuisine and try the bland American fare at a five-star hotel. From a roof-top portico we can sit and watch the light slowly change on the Taj.

Day 5 – Jaipur
Our hotel, the Sunder Palace, is listed in Lonely Planet, which means that the clientele leans to the backpackers and hostel-goers, but it has a lovely cafe in the roof-top garden and wonderful breakfast for very little money. I get my pants-pocket repaired by an ancient Muslim man with a treadle sewing machine. I offer 100 rupees ($2.50), but he refuses and accepts only 10 (25 cents). While my pants are on the machine, his assistant gives me a makeshift sari to wear and makes me tea. The assistant asks me where I am from, and when I say California, USA, the man at the machine stops for a moment, cocks his head at me and then says “Arnold Schartznegger!” I laugh and say yes, that’s our governor, he smiles and returns to the pocket work.

There is a temple to Hanuman in the eastern hills above the city. The path up is too steep for cars and rickshaws so very few tourists make the fifteen minute walk. On the way to the top, a gang of boys comes at me laughing and offering me their left hands to shake – evidently an insult in this land – I laugh and scamper up the hillside to avoid them. At the top I meet the monk. His name is Ram Niwas and we proceed to spend the next hour enjoying the view, ringing various bells, and talking about Rama, Sita, Ganesh, and Hanuman. Though the temple is dedicated to Hanuman, he is not actually in the central vaulted room. Ram Niwas asks me if I would like to see Hanuman. Of course, I say, and he leads me down some steps that lead through his house to a little locked (to keep out monkeys) room. Inside is a four foot tall statue of Hanuman that is covered head-to-toe in bright orange paint.
“Freshly painted?” I ask
“Oh, yes. A bath for Hanuman every Tuesday and Saturday. Rama on Sunday, and Ganesh on Wednesday.”
“And for you?”
“Every time it rains,” he says with a laugh.

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Day 0
It is late at night. It is early in the morning. We are crossing Northern Canada and the slow undulations of a weak Aurora Borealis tease the horizon. I am watching a Bollywood movie to mentally prepare myself for what is to come. If rickshaw drivers and fruit merchants do not spontaneously burst into song when I get there, I will be sorely disappointed.

In business-class, they bring you a drink prior to takeoff. This seems so decadent and civilized at the same time that I take a tiny glass of champagne and wait for Clark Gable to arrive.

Champagne is still largely a mystery to me – like a book with beautiful pictures, but written in a language and alphabet that is almost like english and yet obviously not. I flip through and look at the pictures, with the distinct sense that I am missing something.

Lufthansa has a multi-lingual but primarily German staff. Miene deutsche ist kaput, nonetheless, I gleefully mangle it for the amusement of our steward.
Eine apfel kucken, bitte, I ask.
Mitt kaffe oder eine eiffel tower platzen fleischer druken eben?
I’m sorry, I thought I was asking for apple cake.
Yes, would you like coffee with that?
Neine, danke. But did you just say something about the eiffel tower?

The movie goes like this: wealthy son of a dead industrialist gets dumped by fiance and gets on a train to Delhi only to discover that the seat he has taken belongs to a beautiful, and eccentrically chatty woman on her way home. During a stop, he wanders off and as the train sounds it’s whistle she chases after him. She knocks over an old woman selling tomatoes, and the train leaves during the ensuing argument, with her luggage, and purse on board. Much singing and dancing and confusion ensue. Then they get married.

Here’s the really interesting part – at one point, she runs away to Shimla and lives in the “Working Women’s Hostel”. Shimla? That’s the place I’m going on my train adventure in a few days time. Is it just coincidence, or something more? According to the movie there is a lot of singing and dancing in Shimla, and I’m looking forward to it.

Day 0.5
It is morning, it is evening. The progress map show us descending from 38000 feet as we slide down from the stratosphere into Munich. I am halfway to halfway around the world from where I started – directly North of Africa, Malta, Italy, Milan. These are the countries of spy novels.

We are passing through a layer of ice-crystals. Huge concentric rings of spectral colors surround the shadow of our plane. Granite-hard grains of pure water at temperatures far below freezing chew at the elastomeric membranes that protect the leading edges of the wings. I have slept three hours of the last twenty four.

Day 0.75
Munich Airport is gleaming and cold. The ambient air temperature outside is four degrees centigrade. In my accelerated time frame, just eleven hours into my journey, this is the next night. If all goes well, I will sleep from Munich to India and wake up in an Indian morning after seven hours of flight. I feel sleepy and the wired at the same time. I recognize the sleep-deprived cadences of my writing as I write. I feel the grains of time chewing at my leading edges.

My previous time at the TED conference has left me with my boundaries poorly defined. I keep expecting to have the easy instant connection that comes from powerful shared experiences, but my attempts at conversation are stalled at the mundane and purely observational. It was a lovely sunset. I did enjoy the chicken. I never expected it to be this cold here. Yes, it will be much warmer in Delhi.

There is a person smoking in the bathroom. Instead of paper toilet-seat covers, there is an anti-bacterial spray that, according to the illustrations, you apply to a square of tissue and then wipe the seat. The electric carts which whisk the elderly between terminals do not beep continuously while moving. The seats in this airport are not designed to prevent you from sleeping on them. I have left California.

Day 0.8
It is three AM in India and I am awake, my nose is running, and the man across the aisle is snoring. I decide to try and finish the introduction to my book, but get stuck on figuring out what it means to be competent. I want to include something about Philip Zimbardo’s idea of “heroic imagination” which he sees as the precursor to heroic action (the opposite of passive inaction) – it seems to me that competence is the basis of confidence, which must the be foundation of heroism, or at least a component – but it reads awkwardly and I end up just saving it as notes for later. Despite the setback, I make some progress and get a couple of good paragraphs written.

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