Final group shot in Sri Lanka
back row – Daniel, Joan, me, Aimee
middle row – Soraya, Yael, Angela, Cathy, Julie, Elizabeth, Karinsa, Ramya
crouching – Jill, Karen
front row – Diane, Tissa, Ally, Marty, Chitra
Hello from foggy Oakland. I’ve been back now for a little over a week and am slowly settling in. It’s good to be home with time to see my loved ones and some much needed time by myself. My trip was wonderful, and I feel so lucky to have gotten to participate in this program. Each place we went, people had taken great care to ensure that we had a positive and enriching experience representative of the great diversity that exists in India and Sri Lanka. Each leg of the trip, there was something new that would cause us to grin with joy or to breathe deeply in awe. My challenge is going to be in preserving those memories and adequately conveying even some fraction of what I got out of this journey to my friends and my students. I also feel very fortunate in getting to share this experience with my groupmates – a fantastic collection of intelligent, funny and caring people.
My only complaint about either of the programs was that I always wanted more. I think the organizers did an amazing job considering the impossible task they were set – to give us a comprehensive view of two countries in such a limited amount of time. I plan to return to both countries now that I’ve gotten a glimpse.
So now, my final installment – about the second half of my stay in Sri Lanka. After Kandalama we drove south to Kandy, a small city in the Central Province of Sri Lanka. At the very end of the 16th century, Kandy became the capital of the last kingdom in Sri Lanka, successfully fending off invasions by Europeans until it fell to the British in the early 1800s. Because it was the capital, Kandy became home to a very important Buddhist relic – the Buddha’s left canine tooth, taken from his funeral pyre – which remains to this day in the Temple of the Tooth. Many Buddhists pilgrimage to Kandy to visit this temple, and each year there is a big festival celebrating the sacred tooth. Usually the tooth is kept in an inner chamber, but during the festival it is paraded around. I didn’t take any pictures inside the temple, but here are a couple from wikipedia:
The relic chamber inside the Temple of the Tooth and a painting inside the temple of how the tooth got to Sri Lanka
We were in Kandy just before the festival, so we got to see people (and elephants) doing preparations, like stringing up lights and sewing costumes.
An elephant helping with preparations for the festival
A bodhi tree (Bo to Sri Lankans) in the Temple of the Tooth complex
Kandy was special for us also because Tissa, the executive director of the Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission, whom we had met in Austin and who met up with us again in Sri Lanka, has a strong connection to the city. He grew up in Kandy, attended university there at the University of Peradeniya, and has taught at the university for years, so he was eager to show us the city.
One of my favorite parts was our tour of the botanical gardens.
Mary, Aimee, me and Tissa in the orchid house; Avenue of Palm Trees
On Monday the 4th we had one of our fullest days, that left all of us happy. In the morning, we visited craftspeople in their homes. The people in this area of Kandy work from their homes to produce beautiful crafts that are sold in Sri Lanka and beyond. One of the craftsmen even produces work for Tiffany. We met metalworkers and woodworkers and were able to ask questions about their craft, meet their families, and buy some of their work to take home. In the home of a woodcarver, I was befriended by the artist’s teenage daughter, who took me and another groupmate back into their home to show us more about her father’s work. Before we left, she gave me a bracelet and Cathy a necklace “to remember her by,” and her little brother, not to be outdone, presented the two of us with a tiny wooden carving. Moments like these when we were able to have personal time with native Sri Lankans were so precious.
In the afternoon we traveled out of Kandy to the village of Medawala Raja to visit a temple and watch a dance and drumming performance by the villagers. The temple is tiny – about the size of my walk-in closet – and covered in murals from the 18th century depicting the past lives of the Buddha. There is also an after-the British-have-arrived temple immediately next door which is bigger and has large sculptures akin to images we had seen in other temples. Ramya (I’m not sure if I’ve mentioned her yet in my blog, but she is one of the best things about Sri Lanka. She’s the program officer at the Sri Lanka Fulbright Commission, was the one who did most of the planning for our tour, and, like Tissa, she traveled with us throughout our stay. She is also one of the best poets in Sri Lanka today.) translated for us, so a couple of us were able to have an extensive discussion with Ramya and a woman from the village about Buddhism.
And then, just when the day couldn’t get any better, we settled in for the performance in the central courtyard, for which the entire village turned out. We sat down first, on some mats up toward the front, and then at some invisible signal, everyone else sat down. The children poured into every available space, and when you turned around, you could see people all the way up the stairs behind us as well. The performance was fantastic and of a tremendous scale, with experienced dancers and small children, with dueling drummers and dazzling costumes, and the head monk presiding over it all to the left of the performance area.
The next day, we left for Colombo for our final few days. On the way, we stopped at the Pinnawala Elephant Orphanage. It was originally founded to care for orphaned elephants found in the jungle, but it has expanded over the years to include a captive breeding program as well. We got to feed the elephants contraband bananas and pet them. They are covered in surprisingly coarse hair that’s kind of prickly. Twice a day, they get led through town down to the river so they can have a bath, which was also fun to see, though it can be intense in the road with all the elephants coming through. Notice my friends huddled in the doorway across the street in the second picture below.
In Colombo, we had another academic program, with lectures about development, politics, women and gender and ayurvedic medicine. It was really nice to have a low-key, air-conditioned day with people who could answer some of the questions that had been surfacing about Sri Lanka. We also met Dr. Vinya Ariyaratne of the Sarvodaya Movement, an extensive program based on Buddhist and Gandhian principles that seeks to initiate and sustain self-governed development in Sri Lankan villages. They are active in about half the villages in Sri Lanka, including some that are in LTTE occupied territories. Dr. Ariyaratne is the grandson of the founder, and I was really impressed by their philosophy and the strategies they use in helping people bring about change.
That night, Wednesday the 6th, we had our farewell dinner at our hotel. This was the final time we would see most of our Sri Lankan friends, since we would be heading down the coast on our own the next afternoon.
The next day, we had one final artistic morning in Colombo. We visited the Cathedral of the Living Saviour, an Anglican church in Colombo, where we viewed a mural of the miracle of Jesus turning water into wine, as interpreted by the Sri Lankan artist Stanley Kirinde, who was there to show us the mural and answer questions about his artistic process. Then, we visited the galleries of the Sapumal Foundation, which focuses on Sri Lankan art from the 1920s to present.
And, just when we thought things couldn’t get any better, we left Colombo for our final night’s stay, at Blue Water, a beautiful hotel about an hour south of Colombo on the ocean. Like the gorgeous hotel in Kandalama, this hotel was also designed by Geoffrey Bawa, and it was built to maximize the view of the water. We had that night and the following full day to relax before leaving for the airport at 9:00 in the evening on the 8th. As you can see from the pictures, we were pampered to the last. We fit in a round of bingo on the veranda (it was so Dirty Dancing), and we even got to see a Sri Lankan wedding in the afternoon.
Jill, Callie and Mary in the ocean; me, Karinsa, Joan and Elizabeth hard at work at bingo; the bride arrives:
And, finally, a few last bike pictures:
And one final warning to keep in mind:
Thanks to those of you who’ve been reading the blog. It’s been fun writing about my journey as it was unfolding. I hope you’ve enjoyed it.
We have been in Sri Lanka now since Tuesday, and it has far exceeded any of our expectations. Because there was a conference in Colombo this week, our itinerary was changed around so that Colombo will be our very last stop. Instead, we headed into the interior of the country into the hills. We’ve been staying in Kandalama and doing day trips from there. As I type this, there are monkeys about 10 feet away making their way through the trees. Every single person we’ve met in Sri Lanka so far has been tremendously kind and open.
On our way to Kandalama, we stopped in Pannala at the Slimline Garment Factory for a tour of their facilities. They are the world’s largest supplier for Victoria’s Secret and other well-known brands. It was very interesting to see the factory. They are a very progressive company that takes very good care of their workers, which was good to see, including health and other educational programs.
We are staying at the Kandalama Hotel, an amazing hotel that is built right into the rock and which is designed to be harmonious with nature, as well as a luxury hotel at the same time. There are corridors in which one of the walls is the natural rock face of the hill and many that are completely open to a view of a large reservoir and hills in the distance. Bats fly through the hallways at night, monkeys roam the grounds, chameleons dot the ceilings, and at dawn and dusk we’re warned to take care because wild elephants are out at that time. Two of my groupmates had intimate encounters with monkeys on our very first morning here. One had left some clothes out on the balcony to dry and ended up in a tug-of-war with a monkey over her underwear. Another came out of the shower and went into the bedroom to find a monkey inside, a teabag in one hand and packets of sugar in the other. She froze, the monkey froze, then she yelled and the monkey ran.
On our first full day in Kandalama, we drove to Mihintale, the site of a 4th century monastery, which was so beautiful and peaceful. This is the place where Buddhism first came to Sri Lanka and is highly revered by Sri Lankans. Before the monastery was built, monks lived in a series of 68 “caves,” which are really just areas where enough space was cleared out between large boulders to provide shelter.
The refectory at Mihintale
Black Water Pond at Mihintale
Me at Mihintale
Aimee in front of the pond
Thursday, we went to the ancient city of Anuradhapura, which was positively amazing. There is a temple built around the oldest bodhi tree in Sri Lanka. It was started from a branch from the original bodhi tree under which, according to Buddhism, the Buddha meditated and achieved enlightenment. Nearby, there is a magnificent stupa, the Ruwanveli Saya Stupa, which is about 300 feet tall with a circumference of 950 feet. If you don’t know, a stupa is a mound-like structure that is built around Buddhist relics. We were there in the evening, and it was one of the loveliest and most peaceful places I’ve ever been.
The Temple in Anuradhapura
Stupa in Anuradhaura
On friday morning, I rented a very poorly maintained bicycle to go around the lake here at the hotel, which gave me some much needed alone time and time outdoors. It’s so very beautiful here, with cattle grazing, beautiful birds and friendly villagers.
That afternoon, we went to the Dambulla caves, which are home to an impressive amount of Buddhist paintings and statuary. I’m waiting for other people to share their pictures with me since I didn’t really get any good ones in the darkness of the caves.
And today, we went to Sigiriya, the ruins of an ancient palace and gardens from the 5th century. There is a deliciously gruesome story behind it. Kasyapa I, the son of King Dhatusena from a non-royal consort, killed his father and took over power of the kingdom, while his half-brother went into exile in India. Kasyapa built his palace on Sigiriya rock, 600 feet over the plains surrounding it. After 18 years, his brother returned, and Kasyapa committed suicide on the battlefield.
The view from Sigiriya
Me and Jill on the Lion Staircase at Sigirya
Today is our last day in India with a farewell dinner tonight, and all of us are a little sad to be leaving but also excited to be heading for Sri Lanka tomorrow morning. This week, we’ve been in southern India, which differs from the north in language, food and culture. We spent 3 days in Bangalore and now 2 days in Thiruvananthapuram.
Our stay in Bangalore was kind of surreal because it was so short to begin with, and then our activities were disrupted by the terrorist attacks. The afternoon and night of the bomb blasts, everything was closed, but things pretty much returned to normal the following day. We heard later that another bomb was diffused the day after the original bombings, but there were no more injuries where we were. Sadly, though, more and larger bombs were set off in Ahmedabad, a city in Gujarat further north, the day after those in Bangalore, and at current count 46 people have died. Not only were bombs set off in heavily populated areas, some of them were set off in hospitals about a half hour after the original attacks, causing even more damage. I can hardly believe the cruelty of timing more attacks at places where the injured would be taken.
One of the Fulbright staff traveling with us made a very humbling comment. When asked if he had any family in Ahmedabad, he responded very sincerely, “All humans are my family.” Overwhelmingly, the people in India we have encountered are loving and tolerant people who are proud of their country’s religious diversity and who genuinely care about people regardless of religion. It makes me sad to see extremists causing pain and fear here. There have been some threats that more bombs will be set off in Kerala, and it said in the newspaper that security has been tightened throughout the region, but in our sheltered world of the resort that all seems distant. We do have to arrive at the airport a full hour and a half earlier tomorrow than scheduled due to security measures.
On our first afternoon in Bangalore, we had the pleasure of watching a performance of Yakshagana dance, the traditional dance of Karnataka. The dancers wear ornate costumes with bright colors and bells and tremendous headpieces and tell stories from classical texts. When I get back I’ll post some video so you can also get a sense of what the music is like.
The definite highlight of our stay in Bangalore was a home visit. In pairs, we had dinner with a family in the Bangalore area. I went on my visit with Yael Irom, another teacher in my group also from the Bay Area. Our hosts were a sweet Bengali woman named Sukla (pronounced Shookla) Data and her husband. Suklaji is a teacher at a primary school in Bangalore, and her husband is an engineer with Goodrich. They also invited over some guests, Suklaji’s boss, his wife, and their daughter. Yael and I had the best time. The Datas were so kind and intelligent. We talked about schools and food and the media, and we were completely at ease the entire time. And the food as amazing! Suklaji worked really hard to provide us with an impressive spread of Bengali food. Then, since I mentioned in my bio that’s in the Fulbright brochure about our group that I enjoy singing, and since our host is himself a musician, after dinner he pulled out his massive keyboard and harmonica and we sang some songs. I sang a couple of songs – a little Joni Mitchell is always a crowd-pleaser, and they busted out some Hindi songs, and we were all clapping and singing and laughing. Yael and I literally smiled for hours and could not stop grinning when we got into our car to take us back to the hotel. It was an excellent way to finish off our stay in Bangalore, especially given the darker events during our stay.
We are now in Thiruvananthapuram. The British, understandably having a hard time with the pronunciation, shortened it to Trivandrum, a name which Indians still use only to be kind to foreigners. I can already say it like a pro. Thiruvananthapuram is the capital of the state of Kerala (pronounced with the accent on the first syllable, CARE-a-la), which is in the very southernmost part of India along the Arabian Sea. Kerala is well-known for its beautiful beaches, and there are many resorts along the coast. As you fly in, there is forest as far as you can see, and as you get closer you realize that it is all palm trees. We are lucky enough to be staying at the Taj Green Cove Resort in Kovalam, just outside of Thiruvananthapuram, and it is amazing.
The swimming pool at our hotel with view of the Arabian Sea
Kerala is distinctive in India for its social development. The people of Kerala boast the highest standard of living in India as well as the highest literacy rates, at 91%. Kerala is also the only communist state in India, and you see the communist hammer and sickle painted on walls along the sides of roads, repeating one after the next for long stretches. This morning I saw a water truck with three symbols painted on it side by side – the Christian cross, the Om sign, and the communist symbol. Fascinating.
Streetside in T-town
This morning, we had some lectures at the Center for Development Studies, a research and education facility, and all three provided us with a lot of information, but I was ost interested in the presentation by J. Devika, who spoke about the many similarities between Kerala and Sri Lanka. She also spoke on how Kerala has changed in many ways over the past half century in terms of gender roles. Traditionally, Kerala was a matrilineal society with the woman as the head of the family, but no longer.
Kerala is also the setting of The God of Small Things, which is interesting for me. Tonight we’ll be attending a kathakali performance, the dance form that Rahel watches in the novel, which I’m looking forward to very much.
This afternoon, most of our group went on a canoe ride, but a few of us made arrangements to spend the afternoon with the hotel chef and had a little cooking course with Vineesh and Anbalagan. We learned how to make a few Kerala dishes – a fish curry, coconut rice and appamkadai, a bread similar to a dosa. Especially with the monsoon bringing heavy rain every couple of hours or so, it’s nice to stay in, sweat a little in a hairnet, eat some amazing food and to work a bit on my blog. Now, I’m going to go have a swim in the pool overlooking the Arabian Sea and generally be grateful for being here.
me, Daniel, Julie and the chefs
Bangalore police motorcycle
Scaffolding, old school
At the Science and Technology museum
Another lovely reading moment, in the back corner of a museum in Bangalore
Just a quick note to say that the Map! page has been updated. Check it out to see where I’ve been. (This post written by Ashley, the husband)
We arrived back at our hotel from a morning visit to a teacher training center, ate a bountiful lunch, then discovered as we gathered for an afternoon outing that there had been 7 explosions in Bengaluru, the city we are currently visiting. We are all fine and perfectly safe. All 7 blasts occurred within 30 minutes around 1:30 pm our time and were fairly small. The news reports that the blasts were intended to cause panic and not to inflict much actual damage, but 1 person has been confirmed dead and several others are injured. Early speculation is that the blasts are in response to the recent increase in power of the BJP, a Hindu nationalist political party in the region of Karnataka of which Bengaluru is the capital. (As I post this I checked the news, and there were actually 9 blasts and there are 2 people dead, 4 injured.)
I’m not afraid, but I know a couple of the others in my group are worried. I think it’s mostly that people, me included, are shocked that something like this would happen in a place where we are. In the U.S. we have such limited exposure to violence like this. I actually feel like we’re probably the safest right now than we have been because security is being intensified throughout the city. I also have full confidence in our coordinators from Fulbright that they will not keep us in an unsafe situation.
So don’t worry about me. I’m safe. I’m happy. And even this is an opportunity for me to learn something new and for me to be more grateful for the life I have in the United States.
We were in Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay, for most of the past week, and as a group, we had the best experience so far on our journey.
Mumbai is on the west coast of India on the Arabian Sea, and is India’s largest city at a population of about 16 million people. It was once a series of 7 islands, but land has been “reclaimed” from the sea to connect it. It is known as the business capital of India, and it is very much a modern metropolis. It’s a more progressive city than other places we have visited – we saw such unfamiliar sights as women’s shoulders and couples being affectionate in public.
Evening along the Arabian Sea
On our first afternoon, we visited Mani Bhavan, Gandhi’s residence whenever he was in Mumbai, which has now been converted into a Gandhi museum and library. I’m really into Gandhi (who isn’t?), and it was inspiring to walk halls that he walked. They’ve preserved his bedroom the way that it was when he lived there, and there are photos and artifacts throughout the building. We also got to meet Gandhi’s granddaughter, who is now herself an elderly woman, and she shared with us some stories of what he was like. I’m still amazed that anyone like Gandhiji could actually exist, with such integrity and ability to inspire others. The more time I spend in India and witness the immense diversity of its people, the more I wonder at what he was able to accomplish.
Part of the oddly compelling doll exhibit depicting major events in Gandhiji’s life. (An aside – “ji” can be added to the end of someone’s name to indicate respect.)
On Sunday morning, we went on a city tour and saw the beautiful Gothic buildings of the University of Mumbai and the fantastically ornate Mumbai Railway Station. We also visited a Jain Temple, in which people cover the lower parts of their faces with scarves to keep themselves from tainting their interactions with the idols. Swastikas are also very prevalent in the temple decorations, which is unusual to the western eye and the associations we have with that symbol.
Inside the Jain temple
University of Mumbai
Detail from the Railway Station
We also stopped to look down at the dhobi ghats, where dhobi (washer people, traditionally men) do the washing for many of the city’s residents. There are no laundromats in India, so unless a family has a washer and dryer in their home, it’s handwash or use a dhobi. In many places, people do their washing in the river, but because there’s no river in Mumbai, only the sea, they built a series of stone (maybe concrete?) troughs to do it. They let the clothes soak overnight, then the next day they scrub them by beating them against the troughs, then they rinse them, dry and iron everything, sort things back into individual households, and deliver them back to the clients within 24 hours. All of this for about 3 rupees per pair of trousers or 5 rupees for a shirt, which is about 10 to 12 cents each, The pictures below give you an idea of how immense this undertaking is. Men rent a cubicle from the city and have to pay also for the water. Many of the dhobi are from villages an will go home and visit their families only once or twice a year, usually at a time when they are needed for help with crops. The ghats extended as far you could see.
On Sunday afternoon, many of us took a ferry over to the island of Elephanta, where there are cave temples with sculptures ranging from 2nd century B.C. to 12th century A.D. It was a funfilled afternoon talking with locals on the boat, exploring the caves, alternately cooing about cute monkeys and avoiding being attacked by them, and generally having a great time. I couldn’t quite get my mind around the fact that I was actually on a boat in the Arabian Sea.
Me and my young friends from the ferry
The largest cave at Elephanta
We had two very interesting school visits – one to Muktangan, an elementary school that serves a low income community of mostly former textile workers (most of the textile factories they depended on have now closed) and another to The Cathedral and John Cannon School, a high school that serves a more affluent community and follows the British system of education with the intention of sending most of its students abroad for university.
Muktangan’s goal is to create a model of community-based inclusive, child-centered, low cost, quality education. The people at Muktangan have done amazing work with training women from the community to become teachers. We had a fun and interesting morning meeting with teachers and stepping into classrooms. The pictures below are from when a group of us sang songs and danced with a class of students. We kept trying to teach them new songs, but they already knew all of them because the teachers use so much music in the classroom. I believe the picture below is from their version of “The Hokey Pokey” – the Boogie Boogie. Oh my heavens, they were cute. They are in need of a lot of help to continue to expand their program. Two things they requested were old teacher’s editions of textbooks or educational software, so if any of you want to make contributions, please let me know or contact the school directly.
The faculty of the Cathedral School were extremely generous with their time, and we were able to sit down and talk at length with teachers about exactly what they’re teaching and how. Between the English teachers and the librarian, I now have a long list of poets and authors to explore. While it’s interesting and heartwarming to spend time in elementary schools, it was nice to spend some time at a school that was more in tune with what I actually teach.
While in Mumbai, we also had a visit to Kaivalyadhama, an institute for Scientific and Philosophic Research , Training and Therapy in Yoga, where we learned about the benefits of yoga, got some advice on asanas that would be beneficial to our students, and then practiced some. We all left the session much more relaxed.
In all, Mumbai was fantastic, thanks in no small part to the very thoughtful work of the Mumbai Fulbright branch. We were all a little sad to go, but excited to be heading south.
I’ll sign off with a couple of my latest bicycle pics.
Gandhi on a bike, the best quality I could get with the glare on the display case
on a wall across from the Taj Mahal hotel
I suppose I should start with a description of our train travel from Varanasi to Kolkata. The most amazing part of it were the porters. From our chartered bus we walked at least 10 minutes to arrive at the train platform – through a crowded station, up some stairs, then down some more. Of course, pampered Americans that we are, we couldn’t be expected or even allowed to carry our own luggage that far, so our program coordinators arranged for porters to carry our large bags for us – on their heads!! We are a group of 16 people, with varying amounts of really large luggage. I’m on the lighter end of the spectrum, and I know that my big bag weighs 50 pounds, and these tiny men in flip-flops were carrying 2 or 3 of our bags on their heads at a time.
We were a ridiculous spectacle getting situated on the train, and I exchanged smiling shakings of the head with the Indian man sitting in the aisle across from us. Eventually, we settled in for the night. The train was just like other trains I’ve taken in Russia and Thailand, with an open corridor, and foldable berths for sleeping. As always, the most interesting part of the journey is navigating a squat toilet in a moving train, and it feels much too much like a red-eye flight. I’m not young and spry enough anymore to sleep well enough on board a train or plane for it to be quite worth it.
Our bags in Kolkata
When we arrived in Kolkata, we checked into the Oberoi Grand Hotel, the nicest one yet in a series of very nice hotels on this trip. Kolkata itself was quite welcoming. The people were very nice, and the city has a Western feel that made us feel much more comfortable there than some of the other places we have visited. Cars drive in actual lanes, and in places there are even cobblestones.
Kolkata is the largest city in West Bengal on the eastern side of India next to Bangladesh. People speak Bengali and there is distinctive Bengali food that emphasizes seafood. This is true of both West Bengal and Bangladesh, but Bangladesh became a separate country when India was partitioned in 1947 to create the Muslim countries of Pakistan and Bangladesh.
In Kolkata, we had quite a bit of free time, which allowed us to explore the city on our own and gave us flexibility that we hadn’t had up to that point. One night, Elizabeth and I went to a concert with sarod and tabla, which was really nice. The sarod is a stringed instrument that is a lot like a smaller sitar, to my uninformed eyes.
Another night, the USEFI office had arranged for some Bengali folk artists who do paintings on scrolls to bring in some of their work for us. Not only do their paintings themselves tell beautiful stories, but the painters also sing the paintings. The highlight of our stay in Kolkata was definitely a school visit that we made to a village outside of the city. I’m posting a couple of pictures below of the school, including the school bus driver, a rickshaw driver who carries a carriage that fits 6 to 8 little children inside. At the school, we were treated like celebrities, with children clamoring to shake our hands or ask for our autographs. We also went on a walk around the village and could see the rice paddies and tiny homes of the villagers.
A village school bus
Inside a village school
I’ll start off with this picture of me being a flexible world traveler – eating a cheese and butter sandwich on white bread and potato chips for dinner, part of a packed dinner that we were given for our overnight train ride from Varanasi to Kolkata. This picture goes out to Keahara with a big smile.
We are now in Kolkata, aka Calcutta, which has, like many Indian places, reverted to a more native sounding spelling and pronunciation than the British rendition of the word. I’ve been quite sick and haven’t been writing in my journal or, obviously, posting on my blog as frequently as I’d intended. I have had one of the most vicious and lingering colds ever. A cold! When thinking about getting sick while traveling in India, I never thought a cough would be my lingering ailment. Anyhow, I’m feeling much better now, if not perfect, and am looking forward to getting back on track with documenting my experience, because it’s truly one experience right after another.
Since I last posted, we went south to Agra for a day, back to Delhi, then east to Varanasi for several days, and yesterday we arrived in Kolkata. I’ll ignore Kolkata for now and back track a bit.
When I spoke about coming here for 5 weeks, I didn’t really understand what that would really mean. We’ve been away from home for 2 weeks now and in India for a week and a half, and it’s a real challenge. As Indians keep telling us, an essential part of the philosophy and way of life here is that all things exist at once- there are no real paradoxes or binary contrasts like we so love in the West. This can be quite frustrating when you’re trying to get an answer to what you think is a direct question, and it can be shocking when you see many levels of beauty and filth at the same time on the street. It’s easy sometimes to get overwhelmed by the difficult parts of being here, but there is also so much to be thankful for.
One of the other teachers from another group has the daily practice of finding something beautiful to write home about, and I’ve been trying to do that. I’ll start off by sharing some of these things for me so far.
Upon arriving in India, the smile of an immigration officer. He was being ever so stern, stamping this, stamping that, looking at my visa, and I was being ever so decorous as a new arrival to the country, but then he looked up at me and I saw the corner of his mouth twitch just a little. He stamped some more papers, and then he looked back up at me, paused, and smiled so wide, so I grinned back. Just as quickly, he gave me my passport and turned to look sternly at the next person.
The smile through the rearview mirror of an auto rickshaw driver in Delhi – It is the night before leaving for Agra, and Yael and I are taking a rickshaw across town to go shopping. We are soaked in sweat and starving and the fast-moving air in the rickshaw is so welcome. Our driver leans on his horn for several minutes straight, as drivers do here, merging in and out of the chaotic un-laned street traffic. He honks on more time and grins at me in the mirror, his face grimy and his front teeth missing. In our long ride across town, he shouts to us about India – cricket and politics – and about his family – his wife works for the police and his children are in college – and about what he loves about America, namely Bill Clinton. We are blazing through the streets. He is shouting, “Bill Clinton is a very very sexy man” again and again. He is telling us, “I will meet Monica Lewinsky one day – in heaven.” He is smiling so broadly at me in the mirror.
This next one, on our way to Agra, I got a picture of – a man reading on a pile of sacks in the back of a sky blue truck. You know me. I doubt I need to explain the beauty of this one.
The visit to the Taj Mahal was much more awe-inspiring than I expected. I’m usually skeptical about something that is so talked about, but it was absolutely amazing. The Taj was built in the 27th century by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan as a monument to and mausoleum for his wife Mumtaz. She was his third and favorite wife, who died after bearing her 14th child to him. It took 20,000 people 22 years to build it. It’s as tall as a 20-story building and made out of marble inlaid with semiprecious stones. In those days there were no cranes, so they had to build ramps for miles out so that the elephants could carry the stones to the top. Visualizing the work itself was fantastic. The size alone of the Taj is magnificent and difficult to believe, but once you get close there are so many tiny details, all inlaid into the marble. My beautiful moment for the day- I am standing inside the Taj Mahal’s central chamber, and our guide demonstrates the purity of the echo by singing out a prayer to Allah. As the words ring against marble walls, tears come to my eyes.
Varanasi is one of the world’s oldest continually lived in cities. It is over 3,000 years old, and it feels like it. It is full of narrow streets and old buildings, and there are people and animals everywhere. It is known as the religious capital of India, as it is on the holy river Ganges (Ganga, or Gangaji to Indians). A million pilgrims travel there each year to bathe in the holy water or choose Varanasi as there final resting place. Hindus believe Ganga is a goddess, a physical manifestation of the divine, but this is in sharp contrast to the intense pollution that taints the river around Varanasi. Along the river, there are stone steps leading down to the water known as ghats. These ghats are the site of ritual called aarti, where light is offered as a gift to the goddess. At night, you can go out on a boat to have a better view of the ceremony, and children walk from boat to boat selling small candles to offer to the river. On our first night in Varanasi, we went to the largest ghat to watch. We arrived at dusk when the ritual was just starting. Young men in orange were facing the river, monkeys were silhouetted on the rooftops above them, and there was the clamor of people and drums all around on. As it got dark, everything became more vibrant, with candles in leaf cups propped in baskets on the hips of Rinki and Sima, aged 10 and 11, then floating on Gangaji. Neither of these girls goes to school, they sell the flowers and candles all day to make money for their families.
To get own to the ghats, we took our first bicycle rickshaw ride through the narrow old streets by the river, which is very bumpy. On our way back, someone ran into a cow and we had a rickshaw pile-up with one of our group falling off into the street, which was dirty but not painful. I don’t fall off a bike quite so easily though!
I’ve had a lot of nice bike-related moments for you cyclists out there. There are bikes everywhere- sweet old big wheeled beauties carrying up to 4 people at a time and just about any object you can imagine. I’ve only seen one bike lane so far on a really busy street in Delhi, but otherwise bikes are part of the chaotic flow that includes the cows, goats, motorcycles, auto rickshaws, cars and tourist buses. Bikes are even on the highways, which makes for some lovely evening time landscapes with bikes. On our way out of town from Varanasi to the train station, I saw a boy, probably 10 years old or maybe less, riding an adult bicycle down a road that ran parallel to the highway. It was dusk and there was a field behind him green turning grey, and he was standing on the left pedal, leaning his body across the top tube, and trying to move the right pedal with his hands. It was just downhill enough that he was coasting, but it was so precarious and adorable.
Here are some pictures of some bikes so far:
A bike outside the Sankat Mochan Foundation building. That’s the Ganges in the background.
Outside the Krishnamoorti School in Varanasi
On Saturday (my parents’ 39th wedding anniversary – woohoo!), we went on our first school visit, to the Krishnamoorti Foundation School in Varanasi. There are 7 of these schools in the world, including one in California outside of Ojai, and it was beautiful. The guiding philosophy of the school is to help their students develop “a religious mind.” By this they mean having a sense of respect and caring for the world and man that is not dependent on any particular faith. The principal, a truly inspiring man, explained that in their philosophy a truly religious mind inquires very deeply. At this school they’re also trying to move away from grade level designations so that they can look at each student’s individual learning process. At the school , we got to sit in on the morning meeting, at which the students and teachers sang several songs together before starting the day, On the spot, they asked us to sing something for them, and we managed a “My Country Tis of Thee” and an “America, the Beautiful” that were quite nice. Please give me any suggestions for songs we could do if we’re asked again. We couldn’t think of anything else. We were all impressed by how positively the students spoke of their experience at the school and by how caring and thoughtful the teachers were. I want to check out the school in Ojai sometime and see what it’s like.
The same day, we visited the Sankat Mochan Foundation, which I had mentioned before as an environmental NGO, but found out, as is the case in India, that it is also a very spiritual project. The founder, Vir Bahdra Mishra, is also the priest (not sure what word to use) for the temple for Lord Hanuman, the monkey king, and his journey to protect the Ganges is both as a scientist and as a practicing Hindu who sees Ganga as a holy mother. Around Varanasi, a city of 2 or 3 million people, much (maybe all?) of the raw sewage drains directly into the river, resulting in highly polluted water that is not safe to do what people need to do in it – bathe, drink, pray. He has been working on this for 25 years and has seen very little progress.
While in Varanasi, we were also able to visit Sarnath, the place where the Buddha first delivered a sermon, considered to be the birthplace of Buddhism.
Varanasi was a challenging place for many people. I didn’t do as much exploration on my own as others since I was sick, so I had a less intense experience, but I also seem to be reacting less strongly to some of the things we see than others. Instead, I felt inspired by several of our speakers, enchanted by the performance by expert sitar and tabla players, and intrigued by the city as a whole. For a well-written and detailed blog from one of my group mates, check out Callie’s site. In Delhi and especially in Varanasi, there is really intense poverty and a lack of infrastructure that means you see and smell a lot of things that we are sheltered from in the United States. I don’t know if it’s because I spent a year in Russia or because of our travel to Thailand, or because I’m just jaded, but I’m not so shocked to see garbage everywhere. People in my group saw funeral pyres and bloated bodies floating in the river from up close, though, and I’m sure that would have had a profound effect on me, but the filth everywhere isn’t so bad. There are also deformed adults and children who approach us to ask for money, and I’m surprised that I don’t feel more emotional about that. I’m thinking a lot about why that might be. My time here has me newly inspired to make some donations of both time and money to some organizations that can help with these problems, but I’m not compelled to help individuals as they cry and tug at my elbow. Maybe it’s because I live in a city and have already developed a thick skin? Maybe it’s because I’ve heard so much about how even the children who are begging are constantly being watched over by adults waiting just out of sight ready to take their share? Maybe it’s because the children will literally hit each other as a tourist bus pulls up so that they can cry real tears?
I’ve been doing my best to focus on the positive and have been successful, though it is draining to be here. We are all extremely grateful that we are staying in really nice hotels throughout our time here, which makes it easier to recuperate after a long day. The people in the hotels are tremendously kind to us. While we were in Varanasi, one day we returned from lunch to meet our attendant, who had proudly made us a Ganesh out of towels and rose petals:
I definitely feel like I’m getting a better understanding of India, good and bad, and I’m better able to go with the flow. Our speakers often do not address the specific topic that is on our program schedule, and at first that was frustrating, but now I’m generally okay with that and just listen to what the person has to say. Everything at once, and everything is part of the divine here, which as a westerner requires a great shift in mindset, and I’m getting closer to internalizing that.
I will write more soon about Kolkata, which at first look has a very western feel and promises to be an amazing 4 days.
We’ve now had 3 days in Delhi. So much happens every day here that we hardly have any time for ourselves or to sit down and process what we’ve seen and learned. Things should be a bit less relentless once we leave Delhi, as our program isn’t quite as packed in the other cities we visit.
Uploading pictures takes excruciatingly long, so I’ll try and post a few pictures of each place and then post all of them when I get home.
We arrived at 3:30 a.m. Saturday morning (getting here took about 31 hours), and we started our program with two lectures that same afternoon, followed by a reception at USEFI – United States Education Foundation in India, which administers the Fulbright program here. It was so hard to stay awake during the lectures. At the reception, I met many interesting people from the Delhi community, both Indians and people from the international community.
The weather hasn’t been too bad. It is quite hot, but the bigger issue is the humidity. So far, we’ve spent a lot of time indoors in air conditioning, so it hasn’t been too bad.
Sunday we went on a guided tour of the National Museum with Dr. Shobita Punja – a well-known historian and one of the most beautiful women I have ever met, both physically and in the way she teaches. She’s an effortless storyteller and doesn’t hesitate to provide perceptive and very personal commentary on the works and the museum. She told us stories about the Buddha and from the Ramayana, gave us all a new understanding of Hinduism, and pointed out pieces that I wouldn’t have noticed on my own. The National Museum has the largest collection in the world from the Indus Civilization, now known as the Harappan Civilization from about 3,000 B.C. There were 1,000 cities in this civilization, all carefully planned, with drainage systems, and all made with bricks of exactly the same size! Furthermore, there is no indication of a ruler, or at least no physical evidence that suggests that they deified a ruler in the way that other civilizations have. I guess most of you don’t want to hear about all the details. I can share some pictures and more info with you history teachers later if you want.
Another interesting feature of the museum is that they have some of the Buddha’s bones on display in the museum, taken by the British from a stuppa and added to a museum. These are, obviously, very holy to Buddhists, and there was a monk praying in the corner. As Shobita pointed out, there is something very wrong about it being on display in a museum, and us walking around with our shoes on and gawking at everything without and reverence.
When we go out, there is so much here that feels like Asia as I have already experienced it, in both Russia and Thailand – the feel of the roads and the markets, the cramped streets, the smells, even the formatting of signs on the shops, but there are obviously many differences as well. It is so very old here, with architecture from the Mughuls in the 16th and 17th centuries appearing unexpectedly as you round a corner. And the extravagant color of saris everywhere.
We leave tomorrow for an overnight trip to Agra and a visit to the Taj Mahal. I’ll do my best to write soon.