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Before I left for India, I was warned of the danger I would be in. “Don’t go out at night.” “You’re going to get pick pocketed.” “Don’t trust people.” These phrases huddled around me as the trip came closer and closer. It seemed almost as if I was stepping into a viper pit and there would be an Indian with a flute controlling the reptiles waiting to take me for every last penny I had. I think people often apply these horrible notions to things and places we don’t understand. What’s new and different is dangerous. That is the way we have been brought up. Not to trust people. Even every Halloween we grow weary of friendly neighbors sticking razor blades in our children’s candy. If this suspicion already colors neighbors a few times a year it is easy to see how it could change our expectations of a country that we know little to nothing about.
The perception of India that people warned me of was a sinister one. The reality of my trip to India could not have been farther from what I was told to expect. People were warm, welcoming, eager to help and even more so to share their own stories with us. Above all of this though I saw something in India that often goes forgotten in America. Basic human tenderness. Male friends with arms draped over each other’s shoulders as they walked through the street. Women walking by holding hands so delicately you’d think they were trying to carry a flower between them without losing a petal. Children playing with each other affectionately in the street and proud mothers watching smiling all the while. In India this tenderness goes by all the time. People displaying their adoration for one another in ways that would be scoffed at in America. And yet, across the world it seems as if they could not imagine walking down the street not intertwined in some way. It was strange going to India expecting harshness and being met with this gentleness shared between loving members of society.
Today is one of the last full days in India. I can feel it closing in. Most of the day was spent on our bus heading to Jaipur and I could not help but look out the window almost the entire four hour journey. I have those “graduation glasses” like when you are about to finish your senior year of high school. Those last couple of days where everything makes you almost sentimental. I cannot help but think about everything that has happened here in India. The people, beauty and pleasantries of everyday.
The beauty of India is truly great. As we drove through the Indian countryside I watched as fields of yellow mustard sprouts that grow over the height of a man rose and fell with each passing of a barrier marking one man’s land from another. These gave way to small towns where people worked busily and cattle roamed the street before returning to the yellow flowers that dot the countryside. Peacocks have made a large appearance in the past few days. Sitting gently on posts or walking quietly through fields before they fade into the fog as the bus rolls on by. Smoke stacks of brick factories rising up from the earth like minarets calling the faithful to labor. Mountains appearing with little warning and disappearing just as quickly. Rivers flow and white suds wash along the black rocks from women washing their laundry loads. Roadsides spotted with char from small fires people have built to keep warm. Trees that reach up to the sky and branch out like beautiful fractals spreading everything out in equal proportions. But for all the natural beauty of India, I find the people to possess the true beauty of it all.
Their beauty is in their compassion, labor and love. The calloused feet of a child warming his appendages gingerly above a fire on a foggy North India morning. Careful not to burn himself by drifting in to close. The sweat that runs like little streams down a man’s face from his headband as he toils away pulling in fish from a mighty net he has cast out. The colorful pattern formed by a group of women wearing head wraps as they walk away gossiping with each other. Creating a moving body of water, yellow, blue and orange all staying separate but cohesive like oil in water. The eyes of a man after they have long since fogged over from working away at a blowtorch with no mask day in and day out. Still trying to scrape a living selling magnets to tourists.
I cannot help but think what Hemingway would think of these people. THese people who keep fighting despite almost every odd and adversity. The labor put in and the little gained. I had just finished reading The Old Man and the Sea last night when we started our treck through the countryside. Surely if he can idolize a Cuban fisherman in such a manner we can hold the workers of India up in a similar fashion. From the farmers who sleep in the fields to the busboys that sleep on the roof. The woman who struggle through the city against a culture that holds them below that of their worth. The mothers raising children in slums and those appeasing the appetites of men to earn a living for their family. Against all reason they keep on living and hoping. I cannot fathom a life of such adversity. Yet for these people it is not a notion worth imagining but a reality placed on them through the luck of who gave birth to who.
This spirit becomes most apparent in the interaction. Everyone is willing to be approached even during their routine. No one is off limits to a conversation. In every city there has been an outstanding example of the spirit of the people of India. In Bangalore it was the kids who played so eagerly on the rooftops of the market while their parents sold their wares. Wanting to show us their dances and affections before we walked away. In Mysore it was the man in the market who saw I had a camera and asked without words to take his picture. I obliged and showed him. He returned the favor in the most thankful and honoring way he could. He took my arm in his hands, raised it to his mouth and kissed my forearm before placing his hand on his heart and walking away. In Hassan it was the child who spotted me a he loaded into his rickshaw after school. He leapt out and without warning began to pretend box with me. It would have been so rude not to join in. We exchanged blows while the crowd of his carpool watched on laughing. At the end of our bout he grinned ear to ear shook my hand and hopped in the rickshaw. In Delhi it was the boy no older than me at Jama Masjid. He spoke little English so we had to help each other find meaning in foreign tonges. After some time and a few pictures he shook my hand. THen drew my hand close into his heart and his on mine. He looked me in the eye and said “Friend.” I nodded in agreement.
Even today we stopped briefly at a hotel in the middle of the Indian countryside to pump blood back into our legs. Cara and I wandered off down a road and we met a family of people who lived in a small thatch hut amongst their mustard plants. They eagerly drew us into their home while they labored away making bread. No one spoke the other’s language so we all sat in silence simply watching each other in an attentive and curious way. Exchanging bits of laughter at each awkward moment that passed by as we waited for each other to randomly learn the other’s language.
If all these do not seem to testify to the open and loving nature of the people of India there is still one more thing. When wandering through India, almost every person will look cold at first. Their face still and watching if they are not in discourse with someone else. And they will continue to look this way watching you until you make a move. All one has to do is smile and nod at them. As if to say “I see you and I understand.” The frozen face always cracks and a grin widens as they nod back or do the traditional head bob. This is the greeting I have found most often in India. A wide smile that surfaces when provoked by the slightest of gestures. This, to me, represents the people of India.
Hard, laborious, diligent and controlled as they watch out at you. But with little effort they become easy, open hearted, tender and willing to speak to anyone despite whatever language barrier may lay between you.
Yesterday we went to the Taj Mahal. Sadly, the internet was a little slow last night so I didn’t get a chance to post about it. To be honest I expected to be a little underwhelmed by the Taj Mahal. Cramped tourist sites are not exactly my favorite locations.
When you first enter the grounds the Taj Mahal is located on you can’t see it. At all. These past days as well ahve been exceedingly foggy so this did not help the visibility. you enter through a large red sandstone gate into a small courtyard and a path leads you through another sandstone gate to your right. But before you get there as you look out at the wall surrounding you, you can see a sliver of what is to come. A little peak before the big reveal. You see the very tip of the dome. It almost blended in completely with the fog and I would have walked right past it if it had not been pointed out to me.
There is a great deal of jostling and crowd maneuvering through the second set of gates. Such so you do not get a chance to look up and catch your breath before you are through them. And then you see it. A massive Structure. It looks almost as if someone took a white chocolate Hersey’s kiss and delicately placed it on a base of pure white. The bulbous dome draws you in instantly. It is a lot to take in and unfortunately you do not have much time to do so as you come through the gate. You are likely to get knocked over if you attempt to.
I walked up to the Taj and removed my boots to walk through barefoot. I hung my boots around my shoulders and made my way to the crowd lining up outside. You can only truly grasp how inordinately large it is standing below it. It towers over the skyline so much so you almost fall back trying to look up at it. There was a bit of breathnig room at first but it was quickly taken away.
The inside is just as beautiful and ornate as the exterior, so I’m told anyway. I did not get much of a chance to see it as you are prodded through like cattle as soon as you enter to when you leave. You are lead around a faux tomb for the late wife in the main chamber before being lead through a series of other little rooms along its sides. I stopped in one to pull out my little notebook so I could at least write what the main chamber was like lest I forget. No sooner had I stopped then a guard came up to me and reminded me that writing is not allowed. Which was a rule I had never heard before.
The scariest thing about India so far is the large number of heavily armed guards at every slightly highly traveled site in the North. EVery guard wields an AK-47 or some other automatic machine gun and directs you everywhere. It is a little unnerving. At the birthplace of the God Krishna there were actual turrets set up. And every single one was manned. They had at least seven of them there. All prepared in case their was a fallout with Pakistan or something of a sort.
Once through the Taj, I paused outside of it along the back wall to do some sketching. The beauty is always in the details, doubly so in India. The walls were covered in panels adorned with beautiful carvings of flowers and tile work of embroidered designs. The thing that struck me the most here was that while I stood sketching a guard ran his hand along the marbled exterior. He was an older guard who said he had worked there for some time and even still was moved by the beauty of the building. He ran his fingers so delicately along each line and traced over the joints where the marble met. One might almost forget that he was a full grown man with a large rifle strapped to his back. But even seeing it everyday did not wear out the power of it to him. I thought that was a rather nice sentiment.
Around each frame of the Taj is an inscription in beautiful calligraphy of Arabic texts of the Qur’an. I wondered what they meant when I was at the site and have just recently looked it up. “O Soul, thou art at rest. Return to the Lord at peace with Him, and He at peace with you.”
Now one thing I was never told about the Taj is that it actually has two rather large mosques on either side. Built of red sandstone. These mosques are breathtaking. They are beautiful in their design and intricate. Sadly they are completely overshadowed by the fact that they are literally right next door to one of the seven wonders of the world.
We woke up around 6:30 to pack our things in preparation to head to Bangalore to catch a plane to Delhi. While we waited Jessica and I played a bit of table tennis, neither of is were particularly gifted to the excitement in the morning was at a minimum as some of our grouped watched su continually miss shots. But we were soon packed and headed to the airport.
We made our way onto the plane to Delhi and truth be told I don’t remember much about the flight. I was pretty asleep most of the trip. I do know however we did it a bit of turbulance that even seemed tot ake the crew by surprise and that around us sat a group of Buddhist monks and people that worked for the Free Tibet organization. However, I realized this after I woke up and we were about to get off the plane. Too late.
We made our way to the hotel and settled in. Had some toast to put something in our stomachs before receiving a quick tour of Delhi. We wanted to seem non conspicuous. Luckily our van took care of that. It was a massive van with the word TOURIST scrawled out across the windshield in large bubble letters. We fit right in. We saw the India Gate, the Vice President’s house, the High Court and we stopped in at the biggest temple in India.
Built in 2000 and is still being finished up. It was almost like this strange Hindu Disney Worls. They even had an animatronic boat ride that took you through the marvels of India’s past. I think some minor fact checking is in order about just how far in the past the Indians developed Atomic Theory, Aerodynamics and Space travel. SOme of the claims seemed a little unreasonable. But it definitely bought up some debate about the public rhetoric of animatronic lazy river guides through history. They even served Coca-Cola products in the food court! The official light beverage of the Hindu deities. But for all of it’s strangeness, the temple was breathtaking. Massive murals, carvings mimicking life and it just seemed to go on and on. When you were inside and faced up it almost looked like you were staring into an optical illusion carved in stone. It was gorgeous.
But I have come all this way without bringing up the security of the place. Which was…intense to put it mildly. We were asked to wait for a security check where we were divided up between boys and girls. While in line we read over the things we were prohibited to take in. Every one thing we were caught with was a 100 rupee fine. There was the standard things: guns, knives, etc. But then it got strange, no pens, outside food or beverage, notepads, cameras, drawings, anything of mild usage really. We had to scarff down my Goldfish crackers in line and thrown away our pens. As we entered the checkpoint we stepped through a metal detector that went off on every person and we were all frisked. Quite generously at that. The security here was tighter than some prisons.
At the end of the day we ate in the Hotel restaurant and walked around Delhi for about an hour. And alright day I’d say.
Today we started off at 7 and packed up our things for Hassan. We were about to leave the hotel but before we could we were each gifted the set of three local papers we had been featured in. And one rickshaw driver informed us we even made it on the television news segment! But we can’t find it sadly.
Our bus driver’s name was Shiva. He said “My god is Shiva, I am my god.” Right off the bat we knew he was going to be a pretty cool guy. He took us two hours through the beautiful Indian countryside from Mysore until we reached Hassan. We stopped in at our hotel. The sweetly named Southern Star Candy by Peppermint. It’s pretty fancy pantsy actually. We do not belong in a place like this. Our bags were delivered to our hotel rooms, newly refurbished granite bathrooms, delicious in house restaurant and some of the best views of the city. After settling in we took off for two very old temples in the local area. Belur and Halebi. One fascinating thing about Halebi is that it features old images from the Kama Sutra on its walls. So we had our eyes out for that. Also there is supposedly a frog that got sealed up in the wall during construction. I have a feeling said frog is no longer with us.
While photographing at both of these locations our stardom in India made itself apparent again. After being swarmed by a couple groups of 20+ Indian school children and sitting in on a couple class pictures it begins to go to your head . Even more so after appearing in the news. At Halebi I walked around the temple grounds for a bit but made my way down to the edges of the enclosure. Where a wall divided the temple grounds from a river bank where men were fishing. I decided I would hop the wall and walk on down to take some pictures. The only problem was I had to do it barefoot. You have to remove your shoes when entering sacred places in India and I was too excited to go back and fetch them. So down I went to the beach.
I caught up with a fisherman who had just pulled a net out of the water before I began to head back tot he wall . I climbed up and walked along the wall for a while until I found ruins of an old temple that was in disrepair and in a very secluded part of the grounds. So I hung out there for a while before walking back to the main section. This space was easily about 20 acres or so. I think. I’m no land surveyor. But I spotted some of my group sitting on the lawn a few yards from what looked to be a school field trip. So I sat down and as I was looking around I made eye contact with one of the people doling out food for the school. He made the unmistakable gesture, raising his hand to his mouth holding an invisible article of food and raising his eyebrows. They want to feed me. So I went over and followed up with him. Which drew quite a bit of attention from the school kids. They gave me a metal plate and loaded me up with some delicious foods, took a goofy picture for them of who I presume to be the cook feeding me a biscuit by hand. The food was delicious. Sadly we were pressed for time so i had to take off before finishing. Not without dozens of handshakes though.
When we got back to the hotel we lounged about for a while and I decided to walk around the neighborhood and take some pictures. I met a very energetic young man who loved to high five and smash fists . Pretty cool kid. While walking around I stopped to talk to a guy on a motorcycle who turned out to be none other than the police constable for Hassan. We chatted for a while and he gave me my number in case anything dreadful were to happen. I started off back down the street and smelled a delicious sent of baked bananas. I’m a sucker for banana baked into things (as I am with most foods I have come to believe) so I had to sniff out the location. My nose lead me to a little bakery where they had fresh made banana bread. And boy let me tell you it is amazing. I’m saving it to eat on the road tomorrow morning but every hour it is becoming harder not to devour it. I also ran into a group of kids playing badminton in the street. So I figured I’d try my hand at it. I don’t know what possessed me to think this was a good idea as I have a tenuous grasp on hand-eye coordination without a elongated racket in my hand. I was laughed at but it was ok. I was just creamed in a game by a bunch of Indian middle and elementary schoolers.