Relaxing in Tikli Bottom, Gurgaon (Haryana, INDIA)
We flew from SFO-Frankfurt ( 11 hours) without incident, spent 4 cranky hours at the Red Carpet Club, and then another 9 hours flying FRA-Delhi. Arriving at about 1:30AM, we whisked through Customs and were met by Kemal, our driver from Tikli Bottom. We drove on an extraordinarily congested highway, cars squeezing through the truck traffic, making up lanes whenever necessary. The immense truck traffic was headed in both directions, on a beat-up road laid over a path that was hundreds of years old. Delhi, after all, has been a city for a thousand years, part of a road that variously goes through the Khyber Pass, toward the Hindu Kush, and to the Arabian and Bengal Seas. Motorized vehicles are just the latest innovation on this ancient route.
The side of the road was equally clogged with trucks–stopped for the night, stopped for repairs, stopped while the driver got petrol, or food, or some human conversation. Yes, at 2AM we saw dozens of little roadside stands, lights twinkling, benches half-filled with resting figures. In between we so not-so-well- light places, and I recalled how prostitution and long-distance truck routes combine to make AIDS the heterosexual epidemic it is outside the U.S. & Western Europe. Men gone from home for weeks at a time, frequently married to women for whom sex is painful (from clitoridectomy or other ritual procedures) or unwanted for a hundred other reasons. Prostitutes for whom the willingness to have oral sex or unprotected intercourse means the difference between eating or not. Welcome to India.
We turned off the highway onto a rutted dirt road, and a half hour later arrived at Tikli Bottom ( http://www.tiklibottom.com/ ). My friend Dr. June Reinisch absolutely demanded we stay there as a way of relaxing for a few days before engaging the tumult of India, and I am very much in her debt. T.B. is a farm/ranch/guesthouse run by British expats who have spent the last 15 years in India. The place is gorgeous, relaxed, elegant without being at all stuffy. They grow their own food, and the cuisine is exquisite–again, without being too precious. Surrounded by mementos of Anne and Martin’s families, we felt as if we were in a film about pre-war London, or a summer during the Raj.
We spent most of the first day there sleeping, reading, eating, and sleeping again. We slept under mosquito netting, and shared the night with the sounds of buffalo, pigs, nightingales, and a rooster whose time sense was apparently as off as ours.
November 26, Day 2, Gurgaon: Village Life
On our second day at T.B. we were ready to look around. Martin walked us to the school he’s been building for the village adjacent to T.B. He’s set up a non-profit foundation to collect donations over the years, and the school’s set to open in a few weeks. It was incredibly simple—and will make a world of difference to the children who will be able to go there. The idea that some kids can’t go to school because it’s just too far, or they have to carry water for their family, or that school is a waste of time for girls, is as real here in India as, as, well, right now I’m living in this hyper-reality that is India, so I’m lost for a simile. The school thing is really real.
From the school we walked down a dirt lane for a quarter-mile, and found ourselves in an actual village. Some houses were made of brick, others of mud. The various “streets” were host to trash, waste water, animal dung, sleeping dogs, the occasional cow or buffalo, and this or that kid. We saw men and women doing various tasks, or doing nothing. No one seemed to be in much of a hurry. Walking on toward the village center, we saw an enormous tree shading several dozen buffalo of all sizes, relaxing. Apparently, people leave them here during the day, while the people either hang out or transact some simple business like bartering or gossiping.
Suddenly we heard car horns and people shouting. A procession of 2 dozen people, dressed in their finery, was headed directed at us. It was a bridegroom-to-be being sent off to his wedding feast. He wore a white suit with a garland of crisp vermillion 10-rupee notes. There was lots of excited chatter. We didn’t know if it was polite to stare, or exactly the wrong thing to do, but the villagers seemed either bemused or oblivious to us, so we hung around and took a few photos. The colors of the saris were exquisite. How come orange and green don’t quite match in America?
Continuing our walk, we saw, outside or beside every house, piles of dung cakes: patties the size of dinner plates, about 3 inches thick. Dried in the sun, these serve as both fuel and building material. Along the way we watched villagers making them and stacking them. Everywhere.
After looking round the village a bit more, we headed back to T.B. After another fantastic lunch, we sat around the veranda (now I know what that actually feels like) reading. I finished Stephen Alter’s Amritsar to Lahore: A Journey Across the India-Pakistan Border ( http://www.amazon.com/Amritsar-Lahore-Journey-Across-India-Pakistan/dp/0812235657 ), which I highly recommend. Alter, a journalist/sociologist born in India and raised in the U.S., decided in 1999 to cross the India-Pakistan border in both directions, the hard way: west by train, east by bus. He weaves stories of the trip with family memories with socio-political commentary in an enjoyable, insightful way. Among other things, he explains why Partition was a tragedy for India and a triumph for Pakistan. History & politics delivered along with wonderful stories—a great combination.
Soon enough it was time to load up Kemal’s car (OK, he did the loading, I did the dignified-though-friendly tourist/employer thing) and head for Delhi. We took the same rutted road we’d arrived on, eventually turned onto a highway, and very, very quickly exchanged the pure air and lowing of cattle for diesel fumes and honking horns. We were about to enter a different India.
November 27, Delhi: City Life-Extraordinary Adventures Awaited Us
There are 15 million people in Delhi, and as we drove through the capital to our guest house, it seemed as if every single one was driving ahead, behind, or to the side of us that afternoon. We were surrounded by green-and-yellow three-wheeled Autorickshaws, darting in and out of traffic like earthbound hummingbirds with a macabre sense of humor. Beat-up, filthy trucks crazily tilting to one side or another jockeyed for position, their loads defying both gravity and common sense.
And cows. Enormous scrawny cows with enormous horns grazed beside the road, lazed in the median, and periodically wandered in twos or threes across the road. These were no guernseys or jerseys, either—I’m not even sure what to call them, but they clearly owned the road—a road at least 4 lanes in each direction (depending on who was driving), carrying traffic going as much as 45 or 50 mph.
When we stopped at red lights, the parade of local society came into sharper focus. Unfamiliar colors, shapes, and smells were everywhere. Ancient technology—ladders made of branches—mixed with mobile phones. Women in veils with henna’d feet walked next to women in jeans and high heels. People lived, suckled, and defecated in the streets just inches from 2007 Toyotas. The crush of bodies matched the crush of vehicles. The choreography was mad. And loud. Really, really loud—constant car horns, constant human voices, constant, everything constant. New York, the city that never sleeps? Hah. It’s a sleepy hick town with expensive shoes.
We found our way to our new home, the Ahuja Residency ( http://www.ahujaresidency.com ). Our guardian angel June Reinisch had encouraged us to stay here, a charming three-story building in a gated residential area. It was perfect—civilized without being a huge fancy Le Meridien, near lots of interesting sites but not exactly in the middle of everything. The young, good-looking security guard saluted us with an impish smile, the people in the office fell all over themselves to welcome us, and we immediately felt at home.
Extraordinary adventures awaited us.
November 28, Delhi: My Work In Delhi
On Monday I lectured to the staff of an international NGO on challenges in sexual and reproductive health, a great experience.
Monday and Tuesday were my days to meet with the executives and staffs of various NGOs promoting sexual and reproductive health. The work they’re doing in both urban and rural settings is inspirational and instructive. They deal with challenges both similar to and beyond the ones I and other American professionals deal with.
These Indian programs are often tied to work in women’s rights; reducing domestic violence; HIV prevention; and promoting the rights of sex workers. One program was producing radio dramas for rural listeners, which were designed to promote discussion in “listening clubs.” Several were helping people who had recently moved from village to big city, with the accompanying psycho-social dislocation. This goes on both within India, and via immigration from Nepal into India.
I lectured about assumptions that sexual health care professionals make, assumptions that client populations make, and how one reinforces the other—making social change more difficult. I talked about the need to reinvent the wedding night ,which is a source of horrible tension for both men and women in arranged marriages. And I talked about the psychodynamics of ignorance—the emotional states that must be addressed in order to overcome people’s natural resistance to education and therefore to change. I also discussed the necessity to change India’s cultural narratives around sexual feelings and behavior, to provide a framework that people could relate to if they were interested in change.
The professionals with whom I spoke seemed genuinely grateful. They appreciated that I had studied Indian culture enough to generate ideas relevant to their work, and that I could frame my sociological perspective in ways that they could apply it to their unique situation.
My pleasure, folks.
And yet…I couldn’t escape the melancholy feeling that I was often failing in the U.S. where they were often succeeding in India (they would object to both if I said this to them!). It was hard to stay cheerful when I observed first-hand how the U.S. government makes its family planing foreign aid conditional on following its archaic ideology that denies the way normal human beings actually feel and behave (an abhorrent policy about which I have written several times in Sexual Intelligence ( http://www.sexualintelligence.org/newsletters/issue87.html ).
And I was frankly embarrassed that Indian sex education and HIV prevention programs could successfully challenge religious and political hierarchies in ways our American programs can’t. Of course that has a lot to do with the difference between Hinduism and Christianity—Hinduism is a religion of diversity whereas Christianity is one of dogma—but still, whereas American progressives are dealing with decades of conservative anti-sex or anti-woman prejudice, Indian programs are dealing with centuries or even millennia of it—and they’re making strides no smaller (and sometimes bigger) than ours.
My Indian colleagues were very curious about my work, which they asked about in great detail. Many had read my website, newsletter, articles, or blog. My latest book was news, though. When I told them the title, America’s War On Sex, ( http://www.waronsex.com ) they typically smiled and nodded. “Oh yes,” said one. “We have battles here, but you have a war over there. I hope your book is good ammunition.”
November 28, Delhi: Religions Everywhere
Today was a day for sightseeing—and there was plenty to see. Delhi is a crazy-quilt of monuments from different eras, which of course no one visits in chronological order. This being India, most of the monuments had some religious significance.
I saw the Red Fort, an enormous complex built in the 1650s as the administrative center of the Muslim ruler. I saw Jama Masjid, Delhi’s largest mosque, elegant in the simplicity of its marble floor, enormous courtyard (capacity 25,000), and innovative double-dome structure.
I visited a huge Sikh Temple during an afternoon service. I saw the kitchen that served thousands of meals daily, and the volunteers who cooked, baked, and washed dishes. The food looked awful, the kitchen was dirty and smelled bad. But there was a sense of purpose, of pride, of fierce devotion to this 500-year-old community. These are the men who wear turbans and steel bracelets. Their don’t-mess-with-me attitude soon earned them the reputation of a warrior class.
I also visited a bird hospital run by Jains, whose obsession with not killing so much as a fly strikes most non-Jains as fanatical. These are people who wear surgical masks all day to avoid inhaling (thus killing) tiny insects; they also refuse to eat root vegetables, fearing that harvesting them will kill worms. Well, as Gandhi said, “if you want to know what I believe, look at how I live.”
The cacophony of religions living side by side (Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Jain, Buddhist, and a handful of Christians) helps, I think, to keep everything in perspective here: hey, we’re all looking for truth and comfort, and everyone has their own route. As one of my grad school instructors used to say, paths are many, truth is one. Or as one Sikh guru here says, different teachers tell the same story in different words.
The busy street leading into Old Delhi from the Red Fort (named Chowdni Chowk) was so crowded that we could barely walk. Dark, unwell children clutched at my sleeve. Sellers of saris and digital cameras repeatedly pulled my elbow toward their shop, promising prices that would bankrupt them.
John Kenneth Galbraith, U.S. ambassador to India, once described it is a functioning anarchy. It sure is. Especially when India’s many gods are vying for room on Chowdny Chowk, street of dreams.
Kawardha/Raipur: Really Rural
I’ve left Delhi and am now staying in the rural state of Chhattisgarh in eastern India. We’re staying at the Kawardha Palace ( www.palacekawardha.com ), an estate owned by a local Maharaja & Maharani. They’re nice–about 40, with a beautiful 3-year-old son. They seem like absolutely normal people–except they have houses all over eastern India, he’s a state legislator, her parents were both members of Parliament, and they’re hereditary royalty.
Chhattisgarh is the Rice Bowl of India, and is 80% rural. And around here, rural means VERY rural. About 1/3 of the adults are still not literate. Much of the agriculture is done by hand, or with rudimentary implements. At least in this part of the state, ox-carts are as common as tractors, and people typically plant, plow, and harvest barefoot. We saw rice, millet, and sugar cane being grown in large swaths, as well as vegetables in smaller patches. Adults and children chewed on the cane–a dentist’s paradise (or nightmare).
We went to a few villages today. People stared at us–in many cases, the first white people they’d ever seen. Our guide interpreted between us and the villagers, but there few words spoken on either side. Smiles and bows were mostly the shared language. I photographed many children–their parents were typically pleased that I was interested, and it was also a way to get pictures of them. These being Hindu rather than Muslim people, photos are generally not considered dangerous.
We went inside a few houses. Parents and children sleep in the same room, of course. Parents sleep together, apparently fully clothed. I asked if they undressed for sex (many people around the world don’t–including millions of Americans, by the way), and was told it depends on the couple. Contraception? Hardly. Children are a gift from the gods, and for most families are an extra pair of hands to haul water, tend the goats, find firewood, and care for the even younger children.
We went to an enormous weekly market. The crowds, the dust, and the noise (animals, babies, buying & selling) were overwhelming. We saw many women having thin colored glass bangles put on their forearms. It’s quite a project. The bracelets are just barely bigger than the women’s wrists, and so their hands are first lubricated, then squeezed, and somehow the bracelets finally slip on (not without pain, I could see). Many women wear a dozen, others more. They keep them on for a year or so, then change to a different set.
While at the market, unrelated men and women see each other more casually than in many other daily environments. The gender segregation isn’t nearly as strict as in Islam, and somehow seems less punitive. Perhaps because it’s a matter of custom rather than law. The more I learn about Hinduism, the more laid back it seems. These people do a lot of things each day to either appease or appeal to the gods, but they don’t walk around knowing they’re sinners, or trying to avoid hell. Amidst the dust and dung, there’s a heavenly quality to that.
Raipur: Tired, Very Tired
No, my dear friends, I haven’t forgotten about you, nor am I so blissed out that writing seems pointless. But I’ve been in places where the internet is just a rumor. I wrote the following three days ago. I’ll catch you up tomorrow.
Today ends the first half of my 3-week trip. I’ve been having a great time–an extraordinary adventure that no amount of reading or videos could equal.
And I’m tired.
I’m tired of being dirty virtually all the time. Hot water here isn’t measured by the gallon or the cubic foot, but by the second.
I’m tired of wondering if the next thing I put in my mouth will ruin my trip–or the rest of my life.
I’m tired of watching every step I take, avoiding cow dung, stones, and careening vehicles. I’m tired of the constant truck, bus, car, and motorcycle horns. Constant. As our guide says, “India’s roads are democratic”–shared by bicycles, motor vehicles, cows, and pedestrians of all ages, all at different speeds. So I haven’t ridden in a car more than 3 consecutive minutes without hearing our horn. You’d be surprised at how tiring that can be, especially after the novelty of the cows wears off.
I’m tired of feeling so prissy. When I hike, I tiptoe around the brush, not wanting to scratch up my legs and attract exotic bugs.
It isn’t enough that the water I drink is bottled; it has to come to me in a sealed container, as locals are now serving tap water (can you say “intestinal parasite”?) in those handy plastic bottles. We use sunscreen in the blazing sun, Pepto-Bismol before every meal, and hand sanitizer several times a day. We carry toilet paper everywhere. I don’t mind the hassle of these rituals so much; I just don’t like feeling so finicky, so rigid-Victorian-in-the-Raj unadaptable.
I’m tired of not wanting to look like an Ugly American, while knowing that I almost certainly do.
I’m tired of not getting enough sleep. Life starts early in the Indian morning, with crowing roosters, barking dogs, unmuffled engines, playing children, and the scurry of people who lack the luxuries of a private bathroom or the time to use one.
I’m certainly tired of how undependable the internet, the roads, and even the electricity are. Nothing is simple in India. Nothing.
I’m tired of seeing the massive devastation of India’s air, water, and forests. And I ruefully assume that I’d also disregard those things if that was the only way to feed my family.
I’m tired of not being able to ask sophisticated questions, because people here don’t speak much English, and if they do, I frequently can’t understand them anyway. I’m frustrated at the wealth of information and explanations that lay just beyond my grasp. India is a beautiful woman whom I just can’t get my arms around, simply because we don’t speak the same language.
I’m tired of not knowing what people here mean when they say “yes.” I practically never hear “no,” but I know that’s what often lies behind the smiles and friendly tone–because I rarely get exactly what I’ve been led to expect. I just can’t predict when.
So I’m tired. But give me no sympathy. Being tired and confused has never been so energizing or entertaining. As I start the second half of my trip by flying east from Chhattissgarh state to Orissa state, I’m (slightly!) more grateful than tired: I wouldn’t have missed this for anything.
December 4, Puri/Orissa: Ancient Erotic Sculpture
Yesterday we flew from Raipur to Bhubeneshwar, the capitals, respectively, of rural Chhattissgarh and coastal Orissa states.
The language sounds different, the alphabet looks different, and so do the people–they are practically coal-black, and even shorter than people in Delhi.
It took forever to get to our mediocre hotel here in Puri. We’re 10 minutes from the beach (we were told our room faced the sea), and although the property has plenty of coconut trees and tropical flowers, our room looks and feels like a Motel Six that’s been neglected. Don’t get me started on the restaurant.
Today we went to the world-famous 1,000-year-old Hindu temple at Konark. It was enormous, gorgeous, spectacular. Every inch of the stone exterior was carved with scenes from local and palace life from 10 centuries ago.
And so today’s visitor sees wonderfully-preserved scenes of battles, animals, musicians, families…and sex. Lots of sex, in just about every position. Same-gender sex, threesomes, group sex, oral sex–you get the picture.
Well, perhaps not. Here, sitting in a park, is this display of explicit erotic behavior bigger than the Lincoln Memorial. And people from across the country come to see it–many, of course, with their families.
And this isn’t the only temple like it. We saw a different, smaller version a few days ago in Chhattisgarh. You celebrate life, you celebrate sex–that’s the way it was here a thousand years ago.
It’s not like that here anymore, of course. Sexually, India is quite conservative on the usual measures, such as contraception, sex ed, and pornography (legally, you can’t even show pubic hair). Even modern women here dress modestly, and while TV and videos do feature a sly, sexy tease, you certainly won’t find the bare breasts of German TV or the coarse sexual lyrics of American music videos.
Where India does differ from the U.S. is in allowing–actually encouraging–public access to monuments like this across the country. At one site we even ran into a gaggle of soldiers on leave, praying in a still-active temple that depicted fellatio and other sexual delights carved on its outer walls. Ironically, many of them had probably never seen an actual, fully-nude woman in their own bed.
If you read the emails I sent from Rome this Spring, you may recall my mention of the Coliseum’s very public display of ancient Greek pottery. It depicted not only erotic activities, but some man-boy sexuality, which was common among that era’s upper class. So it isn’t just in the exotic East that kids can survive visual depictions of sexuality–kids in the West can, too.
Honorable mention goes to the Victorian-era Brits. Thanks for not destroying the temples depicting erotic themes onto which you stumbled 100 years ago, despite your disapproval of them. The Taliban, the Vatican, and Morality In Media should take note.
December 5, Puri: A Day At The Sea
Puri ( http://puri.nic.in/photo.htm ) is part of a triangle of Orissa’s holy (Hindu) cities, the others being Bhubeneshwar and Konark. We haven’t been to the first, and we loved the second, but Puri has been a big bust for us, mostly because our hotel is so ugly and we can’t get a shower or a decent meal without a big hassle.
Today was an eagerly anticipated day at the sea–and it was simply great. The Bay of Bengal…if that name isn’t romantic enough for you, I don’t know what to say. As a boy collecting stamps, I learned the beautiful names of exotic countries, and have lost many of them as they changed to more indigenous ones (Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Malawi, Zimbabwe, etc.). India is still India, but it has changed the names of some of its legendary cities, such as Madras (now Chennai), Benares (Varnasi), and Bombay (Mumbai). But they’ve left the Bay of Bengal as I’ve always known it, and today its warm, clear waters swirled around my feet.
The sand is a golden-peach color, and as clean as the water. Miles of it. The sun, not yet at high noon, blazed unabashedly. Somehow it both gently bathed me and fiercely shot through me. To think that we consider people who worship the sun “primitive.” Walking by the Indian Ocean, almost naked, sun beating me into submission, it’s hard to imagine worshipping anything else.
The two hours of walking passed quickly. And with no computer, no phone, no car, and almost no ideas, with a quieting mind, I felt very much myself. This is not a self I can sustain, but I did visit this self here at the sea in India.
When we’d had enough walking, enough sun, and enough quiet mind, it was time to leave. We walked back to our driver and our guide. We didn’t want to see another temple or market, so our guide asked if we wished to see a working fishing village. We quickly agreed, and about 20 minutes later pulled off the seaside road. Between road and sea were hundreds of ebony-colored men, women, and children going about their day, mostly talking animatedly about, we soon learned, the day’s catch.
We found this out by seeing the day’s catch. It was being hauled off dozens of boats bobbing in the surf. The nets full of fish would be hauled over a thick branch about 12 feet long, put onto the shoulders of two men who then struggled to walk it ashore. Once on the sand they slid the treasure off the pole, and the cacophony began. Various people opened the net, examined the fish, and started haggling over quality and price. When both had been ascertained, some quick transactions were made, and the adults dispersed, leaving the children to ogle the fish and then us.
We alternated watching this scene with watching the boats. I know almost nothing about boats or sailing or fishing, but I can easily imagine that I was watching an age-old scene. Human muscle alternately battled and cooperated with the sea. The gently swelling waves inched the boats toward shore, and when they receded from the land they pulled the boats back with them. People braved the sea–today a friendly sea, tomorrow, who knows–and pulled food out of it. There’s another “primitive” idea–worshipping the sea.
The scene that started out so colorful and fascinating eventually became repetitive, so our restless Western minds prepared to leave. We walked back through the village itself–a string of mud huts on both sides of a dirt path parallel to the water. We peeked into a few huts, which were practically bare. We smiled and gestured at many people, who couldn’t imagine what white (and, apparently, rich) people were doing among them. We attracted the usual crowd of children incessantly yelling hello and demanding our names. You’d be surprised at how something that’s charming for the first 60 seconds could become so overwhelming and annoying, threatening to block out everything else in sight.
We finally got back to our car, drank incredibly delicious bottled water, and headed back to our room. We had finally had a spiritual experience in Puri–at our own temple of the sun.
December 6, Bhubaneshwar: The Perfect Flat Tire
Today we drove from Puri to Bhubaneshwar, our last stop before a week in Kerala. A bustling city of almost a million, this is the capital of Orissa. It’s the usual Indian urban mix of slums, shops, colleges, mansions, and chaos.
The drive was the usual honking horn-cow-countryside-colorful sari thing until we got to the edge of town, a noisy boulevard with dingy shops on both sides. At that point our driver Kuna pulled over and stopped. Our guide, after a few words with him, announced that we had “a leaking tire.”
I figured we’d be stuck here for somewhere between eternity and forever. And there was absolutely nothing I could do. We told ourselves we were having an authentic Indian experience, and had some food we’d brought along (bananas and bread from breakfast, cashews from Puri’s market, dried apricots from California).
Meanwhile, Kuna methodically took a jack from the jeep, jacked up the front end, unscrewed each lugnut, and hauled the wheel off the car. I figured we’d be here for an hour or two. No, said our guide, less than 30 minutes. “30 minutes real, or 30 minutes Indian time?” I asked. No, 30 minutes really, he said.
We had stopped in front of a dark, ugly shop that sold auto parts, including tires. By the time Kuna had the wheel off we’d attracted a crowd, not to mention the shop’s half-dozen hangers-on out front. Somehow or other, the tired got fixed or replaced while we ate (off to the side, leaning against a broken doorway 30 feet away). It really had been just a half-hour–a tremendous feat in this land of ineffable delays, incompetence, and fatalism.
Our snack over, the wheel mounted back on, the car jacked down, we gathered ourselves to reboard our again-trusty mount. Kuna walked toward the shop to pay someone, and on the way back stopped at a large bucket of suspicious-looking water to rinse his hands. I quickly reached into the car, pulled out the towel we’d been using for this and that, and raced over to the bucket. In front of a dozen men, I held out the towel and dried his hands. He looked confused, embarrassed, and pleased, all at once.
I then walked him to the repaired tire, gently kicked it, and took his right hand in mine. “Good man,” I said loudly, smiling at the crowd, “good man.” He beamed.
He deserved it. I was nobody. I knew nothing of value. And it cost me nothing to admit it.
Day 11, Cochin/Kerala: A Wonderful, Very Old Port City
We traveled 12 hours yesterday (car, plane, layover, delayed plane, car) and went to sleep in the legendary city of Cochin, in southwestern India. Our hotel room in the historic Brunton Boatyard faced the harbor, and sea breezes caressed us as we slept.
Today was totally fantastic.
But today started off badly: we were awakened at 5AM by a very loud muezzin, enthusiastically (I’d rather say “aggressively,” but cultural sensitivity forbids it) calling the Muslim faithful to prayer (and the non-faithful to wake up and frown).
But, you ask, a muezzin in mostly Hindu India? How could this be?
Well, the state of Kerala is a model of religious toleration. Jews have lived here 2,000 years, Muslims over 1,000, and Christians 500. Cochin’s history includes the Dutch East India Company, Vasco da Gama (buried here in 1524), and medieval Jewish merchants. The Afghans and then Brits ruled here in the 19th century, new kids on the block.
Today we walked around the old town, observing the differences between the old Dutch and Portuguese architecture. We instantly recognized the 17th-century and 18th-century Dutch buildings from their New Amsterdam versions of the same era—which we had studied as part of New York City history as kids in Brooklyn. The guide didn’t expect tourists to get THAT excited about the old Dutch roofs!
We also went to the narrow, crooked streets of the wholesale spice markets along the waterfront. As they had done for a dozen centuries, we saw merchants supervising their half-naked laborers hauling and loading huge burlap sacks of spices, chilies, tobacco, cashews, and rice. Every fifty feet a new aroma overpowered us. I have an overpowering urge to cook this very minute, new dishes with new flavors and smells.
Having been all over town in 90-degree heat, I’m wet and tired myself. More tomorrow on this fabulous, cosmopolitan/ancient city.
Day 12, Cochin: Chanukah In Cochin
As we drove around Cochin, we saw many run-down, landmark 18th-century houses being converted into hotels. Tourism—i.e., globalization–is booming here in Kerala. We’ve seen more Western people in this small town than anywhere else in India.
On various street-poles, we saw professionally-printed signs announcing “Hanukkah Festival, lighting of candles” at something called the Koder House. Our guide pointed the way, and we stopped in.
It was a lovely three-story building that had once been the home of Samuel Koder, an influential 17th-century Jewish merchant. Each generation had passed the home down to their descendants.
We were welcomed and given a tour of the lovely, slightly worn place. The 200-year-old engraved Belgian windows mixed easily with the Chinese floor tile and European ceilings that world-traveler Koder had bought for the house. Only three years ago an Indian couple bought the place; with the Koder family’s blessing, they had turned it into a guesthouse, renovating the plumbing and electricity while keeping the antique feel of the place.
We chatted with an affable Israeli eating at a corner table. The San Francisco-born Chaim Wiseman invited us back for candle-lighting that night (it was the fourth of Chanukah’s 8 nights), and we gladly accepted.
That evening, we showed up at 7. A menorah was prepared in the center of the dining room. A dozen tourists were eating a special “Jewish menu” dinner based on Susan Koder’s family recipes (it tasted like spicy Indian food to me). At 7:45 Mr. Wiseman walked in, strode to the menorah, gathered us together, and about 20 people somehow materialized to recite candle-lighting blessings and sing traditional songs. It was heart-warming, a little kitsch, slightly rote, and deeply touching all at once.
That very night, Jews around the world were singing those same songs and lighting those same candles. And here in Cochin, India, on the fourth night of Chanukah, we again experienced the “around the world” part of “Jews around the world.” It’s the same feeling I get on Passover, when the world’s Jews sit down to eat, drink, and tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt.
I don’t believe in God, and I don’t believe in the divine miracle that Chanukah supposedly commemorates. But I observe the holiday every year, because that’s what Jews do, and I’m Jewish. I eat Jewish foods, speak a Jewish language, and know a Jewish history. Nothing wrong with that. You don’t need to believe in God to be nourished by that.
In India, millions of Sikhs, Hindus, and Muslims have died since 1947 because people didn’t know how to celebrate their culture without defending their God from those who didn’t believe in him/her/it/them. If God is so great, surely such protection is unnecessary.
All we need to do is what humans of every single belief have done for thousands of years–light candles in the middle of winter, when we all need a little more light and warmth.
December 9, Cochin: Hindu Music, Contrasting Styles
Our last night in Cochin we went to a performance of Kathakali, an ancient Keralan art form. The dancers wear elaborate makeup and costumes, and act out the folk tales you find everywhere–evil kings, brave warriors, beautiful maidens, jealous lovers. It’s set to simple but intense music–chanting and drumming.
We’d heard about this and knew it was something every visitor to Kerala does, so we were both excited and skeptical. Would it be just another silly thing for the tourists?
We arrived early for the makeup demonstration. One man lay on the stage while another pasted curved pieces of paper onto his face, perpendicular to his cheeks.
Then they and a third man took an entire hour to paint their faces bright green, red, white, and black. When they finished, they were unrecognizable.
A demonstration of hand, feet, and facial expressions followed. It was extraordinary, as we learned an entirely new vocabulary. The dancer could control a stunning array of facial features—eyebrows, cheeks, hairline, eyes—to express the entire range of human feelings. Amusingly, the narrator described “romance” as “the king of emotions.”
The show finally got underway, and it was worth the wait. Three dancers and three musicians took us through a passionate story involving, we think, royalty, envy, betrayal, and, presumably, the triumph of good over evil. The music’s rhythms were unfamiliar and compelling, as were the dancers’ movements. In all, we felt energized and warmed by experiencing this authentic Indian art form.
This morning we left Cochin for our next-to-last stop–the mountains three hours to the east. On our way out of town, our guide asked if we wanted to see a big Hindu festival, complete with elephants. “Yes!”
It took a half-hour drive through crowded local streets, but we eventually arrived at a neighborhood temple buzzing with excitement. We walked toward the entrance, laughing like kids at the elephants hanging around or walking toward us. We removed our shoes, keeping our socks on in the 90-degree heat. We entered the temple’s courtyard, and were immediately enveloped by several thousand people and the din of drums, cymbals, and horns.
Our guide pulled us deeper into the crowd, further and yet further. We could barely breath, but there was no turning back. Each step brought us closer to the music, which was getting louder and faster.
We finally stopped–the crowd simply would not let us go a single step further. To our left were five elephants, the large metal ornaments on their faces glinting in the blazing sun. Atop each enormous animal sat one man, and stood two others.
In front of us were about two dozen bare-chested musicians, only a few of whom I could barely glimpse above the bobbing heads of the crowd. In addition to the buzzing reed instruments, I occasionally glimpsed enormous curved circular horns, which reminded me of Roman legionnaires’.
The musicians played louder and louder, faster and faster. The sweaty crowd of men crushing us responded by pumping their fists and periodically yelling in unison.
We could hardly breathe or move, but we were part of a crowd in an ecstatic trance. The musicians finally reached their crescendo—the memorable blast of a single note, held interminably while the drummers pounded away with everything left of their physical energy—and then it was over. The only sound was of a thousand people exhaling, murmuring to each other, and the return to earthly concerns. Some followed the elephants out of the temple courtyard, some put money in the donation box, some headed for one of the alters to get a blessing. We headed for our shoes and some water.
For a minute, we’d all been in heaven together. No wonder there’s a Hindu festival somewhere every day of the year.
December 11, Peermade/Kerala: Up Into Tea County
Exhausted, dripping wet, and ecstatic from the Hindu festival (featuring, you’ll recall, elephants, roaring music, and sweaty, entranced crowds), we slithered into our car and began the long drive into the hills.
The Western Ghats, to be exact, a chain of north-south mountains running parallel to the coast about 70 miles inland. Seventy miles—that’s at least a three hour-drive in India. Don’t do it if you’re in a hurry.
It isn’t easy to average less than 25 miles per hour for that long. You need horrendous roads, very slow mountain traffic (ancient trucks loaded way too high, beflowered cars loaded with too many religious pilgrims), and the occasional gang of domestic animals sauntering across, or sitting down in, your path.
The road crept higher and higher, and we crept along with it. The road clung precariously to a mountainside that dared anyone to trust it. This is a scary time to be confronted by downhill drivers who believe in fate more than their brakes.
Almost four hours later we were 3,000 feet high, exhausted, and deposited at the Paradisa Plantation Retreat ( http://www.ParadisaRetreat.com ). It’s a gorgeous place with a dozen hand-crafted cabins in the woods, featuring home-grown organic food and luxurious service.
We’d come to see the plantations, and had already passed hundreds of them. We’d climbed up past thousands of rubber trees, each wearing a little cup around its waist that collected dripping sap. Then we saw pepper trees, each with hundreds of tendrils that ended in a dozen peppercorns. We saw trees growing cardamom, nutmeg, vanilla beans, and a dozen other spices that medieval Arabs and Renaissance Europeans had risked their lives to discover, trade for, and own.
But we were after the least exotic of them all—tea.
The Duke of Wellington helped secure this area for the British after he beat Napoleon, and the Brits planted tea like their empire depended on it. They made India—from Darjeeling and Assam to Kerala and Ceylon—tea country.
So the next day we woke up early and drove even further into the hills. We passed some three or 4 million tea bushes on the mountainside, and saw women in colorful saris picking the leaves, placing them into the burlap sacks they carried.
We finally entered the Connemara Tea Plantation. We toured the noisy, old-fashioned factory of pulleys and conveyer belts, and saw the non-descript green leaves crushed, dried, treated, and sorted into the stuff that starts half of humanity’s day.
We even spoke with the factory’s manager. His main problem is competition from China, who’s exporting much cheaper tea into India. The government can’t protect Indian tea-makers with import tariffs because India wants to keep exporting products into China, and doesn’t want China to tax the Indian goods. For better or worse, there’s your globalization.
When I was very young, every kid’s first world geography lesson featured Holland’s wooden shoes, Switzerland’s cheese–and India’s tea.
Yesterday, a half-century later, I saw where that boyhood tea actually comes from.
Day 15, Allepey/Kerala: Cruising The Backwaters
We regretted leaving the beautiful mountains (partly because we knew about the bumpy, torturous drive that awaited us), but we awoke slightly after dawn and enjoyed breakfast surrounded by enormous trees, overlooking a deep valley. The sound of nature’s quiet was sensuously lovely and melodic.
We drove downhill over semi-paved roads, trying desperately to hold on to the peaceful feeling we’d absorbed in the mountains. By the time we stopped in Kumily for a bathroom and internet cafe break, the tranquility was, alas, already a fond memory.
We finally turned off the road and headed toward one of Kerala’s many lagoons, and by 12:30 were boarding a houseboat for a 24-hour cruise on the backwaters. It’s a well-known tourist activity so we had slight trepidations, but within minutes all our hesitation disappeared.
The wooden boat had a crew of three, including a cook. As we’d requested, the bedroom was air-conditioned. There were comfortable chairs and a carved dining table on deck. Most of the boat’s length sported a beautiful canopy of woven coconut fiber and palm leaves, which also framed the enormous, un-paned windows. The boat’s front was open for the driver and for anyone wanting to lounge in the sun.
We spent the day cruising across Vembanad Lake, toward some of the narrow canals that crisscross Kerala. Many of the canals were dug almost two hundred years ago—the same time as the canals servicing the Thames, and our own Erie Canal.
The boat went fast enough to generate a luxurious breeze, and slow enough to see around us. After a few hours of lazing past cormorants, herons, and kingfishers, we turned into a much smaller side canal.
Only about 25 feet wide, it took us past waterfront huts, out of which tumbled village life. We gently glided past women washing pots, clothes, babies, and themselves. We waved to men chopping wood and fixing things.
Traffic on the actual canal was interesting, too. We saw kids in uniform returning home from school; various canoes piled high with everything from produce to bricks; and water taxis taking workers home from plantation work.
We weren’t working. Although we have less than 24 hours to go, we’re still on vacation.
Frankfurt Airport: On My Way Home
By the time you read this, I’ll be home.
We had a few little adventures the last day, driving slowly north from our houseboat haven toward the Cochin airport. We went to a coconut-fiber weaving factory, caught another elephant festival, and splashed a bit in the clear, warm Arabian Sea. And continued creeping North.
Our 9pm flight to Bangalore was only 45 minutes late (that’s “on-time” in Hindi, Urdu, Malayalom, and other major languages we encountered in India). We then had four-and-a-half hours to kill before boarding our 3:20am (that’s right) flight to the West. We were once again dirty, tired, and sarcastic about a nation in which people can’t line up without creating a time-consuming mob scene. And we had 27 hours of flying ahead of us.
So, as Sarah Silverman wonders at the end of each show, what did we learn from all this?
* Just like you shouldn’t go to the supermarket when you’re hungry, it’s dangerous to plan an exotic vacation when you haven’t taken one in a while. I’d forgotten how hard—physically and emotionally—three weeks away from a U.S. life can be. I really do hate getting up early every single day, which is inevitable in developing countries. I get cranky when I haven’t showered in several days. I missed the satisfaction of accomplishing things—I know, something I need to meditate on, but I did miss it periodically.
* I missed my friends even more than I thought I would. I’m dying to know what you’ve all been up to!
* Writing the travel blog was mostly a delight, and occasionally an irritating obligation. But I never, ever regretted doing it. What a pleasure to just write about what I saw and felt, without having to successfully make a point or articulate a vision.
* I’m stunned and gratified that so many people wrote me while I was gone. Not only was it fun to feel connected while in an alien land, it made me feel I was writing for readers, which I really enjoyed.
* India has almost four times as many people as the U.S.. Ditto China. In fact, one out of every three people on the earth is either Indian or Chinese. We Americans are already paying a steep price for not understanding either one, and for thinking we’re better than both. Every incoming U.S. president, senator, and high school principal should be required to spend a week in one or the other—and not at the Intercontinental Hotel, either.
* The oceans that have protected the U.S. for two centuries have also isolated us. Unlike almost every other nation, Americans don’t rub shoulders every week with people who think really, really differently from us. Neither the American government nor American people have acquired the habit of thinking about how other countries might perceive what we do—much less take those “foreigners'” thoughts seriously.
* Even in India, people use the expression “Indian time,” which is much different than American time. The most frustrating words in India are “soon,” “not far,” and “later.”
* Many people have written to ask who the “we” has been all these weeks. It’s my wife Randi, the world’s greatest travelling companion.
* I understand India way, way less now than I did before spending three weeks there. Mission accomplished, I guess.
Thanks for sharing it with me.