Monday, June 27, 2011

Traveling West-by-North

It’s summer and I'm taking another “last big trip” - this time in a 25-foot Winnebago Minnie (class C) I’ve owned and enjoyed for ten years.  I bought it in 2001 after returning from Korea, and immediately took off across the country and up to Alaska, caravanning with my brother, Dick.  I had traded in the previous RV (a 21-foot Coachmen) before going to Korea in the summer of 1999, as down payment on this Minnie.  Minnie is older, now, as am I; my brother has had heart problems and no longer goes on trips with me; and caring for the vehicle has become increasingly difficult and expensive.  So I’ve decided to take one last trip across country, and then sell the RV afterwards – perhaps some time next year.  (My previous "last big trip," last summer, was to Europe and parts east - a long, loopy trip by plane, train, bus and boat to Europe - to England, Germany, Switzerland, Italy, France, Ukraine and Russia.  I'll transcribe journals from that later this fall.)
 On the present long, zigzag, loop-tour to the west and north of the U.S., I’ve been visiting friends and relatives while wending my way from Charleston, SC to Yellowstone National Park, where grandson Blake and I took a National Wildlife Federation tour, with the main purpose of viewing animals in the wild.  From there I’ve driven back to the Midwest, and will spend two or three weeks in Michigan during July, on the wild, remote property of my sister and brother.  After that, I’ll head back down south; that part of the itinerary allows for a repeat visit to daughter Lis and her family, as well as a chance to see a couple of cousins on the way.  I complicated this trip by a week-long stay in Denver (National Jewish Health), where they did a thorough work-up for my chronic respiratory condition, recently worsened (especially since the trip to India).  I also wanted to fit in a week-end at the Iowa Summer Writing Festival (just past) trying to polish a book proposal.
I kept a trip journal pretty faithfully during the first part of this trip, but didn’t have time to write after Blake joined me in Denver.  When he left by plane two weeks later, I stayed alone in Denver, but was very busy with the testing (including a bronchoscopy that truly wiped me out) and had no chance to catch up on trip impressions.  So I’ll have to reconstruct a few weeks of the trip from memory, notes and photos.  Once at my sister’s place in Michigan, I intend to stay put for a while and should have time to write up other cross-country sights and visits.  In the meantime, I’ll begin loading trip journals into this blog.
During the summer of 1969, my sister and I took a three-week road trip from Michigan as far west as Rocky Mountain National Park, just the two of us with our three children (ages 8, 9 and 13) in her station wagon pulling a pop-up trailer.  It was a wonderful trip for all of us; we spent time in the Black Hills, at Mesa Verde, in Bryce Canyon, as well as at several other wonders, both natural and human.  We saw the Rocky Mountains; we rode a narrow-gage railroad; and we visited frontier museums.  I will try to find the photo album with commentary from that trip when I return home.  Since retirement in 1996, I've taken several RV road trips across country, usually caravanning with my brother.  Each trip has been unique and has revealed unique facets of the amazing beauty and diversity - geological, historical, and cultural - in this country of which I am so lucky to be a citizen.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

India Caprice, Part 9 - Final Act

The penultimate day in India, I chose to forgo the morning bathing in the Ganges, and slept instead; I was glad to have the extra sleep. I couldn’t imagine wanting to bathe in that dead river filled with ashes and bones.

Huge stupa, built during Buddhist period

After breakfast, though, I joined the group for the trip to Sarnath, a Buddhist holy site several miles from Varanasi.  Legend has it that the Buddha delivered his first sermon to his five disciples there shortly after he became enlightened.  Here, too, was a large Buddhist monastery, active from the 3rd century BC to the 11th century AD.  It contained a huge stupa, a circular building containing some relic of the Buddha.  It was built initially by Ashoka (3rd century BC) and amplified (doubled or tripled in diameter) in the 5th century AD - apparently the during height of Buddhist art, architecture and political influence in India. 

The monastery seems to have been abandoned after the Muslim invasions and only rediscovered by the British who, during their archaeological excavations, also found pieces of a column erected by Ashoka the great.  The Ashoka pillar had an inscription on it in only one small section, which seemed a little artificial to me.   The column’s capital of four lions is housed in a nearby museum and constitutes a major contemporary Indian symbol and icon.   In the same museum are numerous statues, mostly of the Buddha, excavated from nearby sites. 

Ashoka pillar, guarded by fences and grills

Gold leaf rubbed onto the bricks of the ancient ruins.
Seemed like a waste to me.

In the afternoon, we went to a place that did brocade work, and I bought a scarf and a couple of table runners – one hand-made and moderately expensive and the other machine-made and cheaper.  In the evening, we had the farewell dinner for the trip.  I was not sorry that the trip was nearly over.  The following morning (day 14), we had a yoga lesson before breakfast (by a yoga master) and, after breakfast, a lecture on Hinduism by our guide (Ghopal), which was very informative.
We left for the airport about one o’clock but had to wait for quite a while because our flight was delayed.  Apparently, in-country flights are frequently delayed.  In Delhi, we went to a hotel in Gurgaon (another Radisson, I believe), which seemed to be the nicest hotel we stayed in during the entire trip except for the hotel in Ranthambore.  I wish we had stayed there the first two or three nights in Delhi instead of at the Crowne Palace.
I did get a couple hours of sleep there before we had to be up and out again at midnight to catch a 3:30 AM flight to London.  Four of us were on that flight, which was long and dark, and during which I managed to sleep for several hours on the plane.  Then the four of us all went our separate ways at Heathrow.  The transfer between planes this time was not nearly as grim as it had been on the way over.  Now I am left to try to make some sense – a story, a parable, a fantasy – of my experiences in India.  Perhaps it will be about cows.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

India Caprice, Part 8

The next morning (day 11), we caught a train to Jhansi.  A couple of goats browsed the railroad tracks as we waited for the train. From Jansi, we took a bus to the town of Khajuraho, center of the Chanadela Dynasty; basically, the whole day was spent in transit. 

On day 12, we took the bus to the Chandelas temples and had a leisurely time viewing extraordinary carvings in high relief--erotic and otherwise--that line the temple walls both inside and out. The eastern temple complex was huge, consisting of several temples, including one to the sun and a couple to Shiva and one, I believe, to Parvati.  There were other deities whose names I don’t recall.  The weather was quite fine, the air was good, a perfect day for photos.  The western temple complex was smaller and dedicated to the Jain religion. The founder of the Jains is generally depicted stark naked, and Jain holy men apparently still wander the streets wearing no clothing, although those I saw on this trip were all wearing at least a modicum of clothing, but masks sometimes covered their faces.
One of the temples at Chandelas

Wall carvings in a Chandelas temple
That afternoon, we flew to Varanasi (Benares).  Somehow, this holy city seemed dirtier and more crowded than any of the others we had seen thus far, although traffic was admittedly worse in Delhi.  

Streets of Varanasi

We took a rickshaw ride from the hotel down to the water of the “sacred Mother Ganga” (Ganges River) where we descended steep steps down the “ghats” (docks) to the water and boarded a clap-trap wooden boat manned by a boat-master and two young rowers.  Our local guide directed the operation and we sat and watched and took photos.We went up the river to where the bodies were burning (the cremation ghats) and watched that operation for 15 – 20 minutes.  For a Hindu, it is highly desirable to be cremated at Varanasi; one can achieve instant Moksha – release from the cycle of death and rebirth – by being burned there.  People bring their dead from miles around and pay big bucks for the sandalwood logs used in a traditional cremation.  The process can only be performed by the “doms” – untouchables charged with the task of burning the dead.  (The head “dom” is a very wealthy man.)  When the flesh is burnt, what is left of the bones, particularly the skull, is smashed with bamboo rods, then the fire is doused (by the mourners) with Ganges water and any ribs or pelvis remaining are dumped into the river.  One would expect the river to be thoroughly contaminated by all that biological material, but apparently the water is very alkaline and nothing grows in it.  Does the river flow through limestone upstream?  Or is the potassium and sodium hydroxide left from the ashes responsible for the alkalinity?

Burning ghats - view of the fires from a boat

Watching the burning was an awesome and sobering sight.  Many fires (the guide said 12) were blazing at any given time.  Enshrouded bodies lay on the steps awaiting their turn for a fire.  Except for the crackling of the fire and occasional weeping, everything was silent.  The crowds on the steps of the ghats were silent, watchers in the boats were silent, the Ganges itself flowed silently.  When we turned from the burning ghats and rowed back downstream, we each received a small candle in a leaf boat.  The candles were lit and we were to pray or wish over our candles and then drop them in the Ganges.  I believe I prayed for world peace and for the well-being of my children.  Amazingly, none of the candles fizzled out. 
The boat was then rowed toward the “Praying Ghat” where the evening ritual of putting the River to sleep was about to begin.  This operation had a carnival atmosphere about it.  Several priests were lined up at tables beneath many umbrellas lit with multicolored line-lights - rather like Christmas tree lights.  Each priest had cones of tiered lights, like those I saw at the wedding the first night in Delhi.  These he held and waved around with his arms, more or less in synchrony with those of his fellow priests.  Drums droned the “lub-dub” heartbeat rhythm that seems to be favored in Indian ritual drumming.  I find it disturbing--even vaguely threatening when I hear it--as if someone or something is trying to entrain my heartbeat, as in an Edgar Allen Poe short story.  I had the same reaction that first night in Delhi when there was a wedding procession outside our hotel. 

Praying ghats. Light, ritual and flim-flam

The prayer ritual seemed rather silly – the boring and repetitive drums, the priests doing some sort of choreographed hand movements with the lights.  I believe there were eight of them, lined up under eight umbrellas, all doing more or less the same rituals.  There was also another group of priests on the other side of the Prayer Ghat with somewhat different umbrellas.  I couldn’t see what they were doing very well, but I assume it was a similar ritual.  The local guide suggested that the two groups of priests were “competing with each other.”
On the way back to the bus (which had to park a long way from the ghats), we again took rickshaws.  As I was getting into a rickshaw, I stepped into a pile of very moist cow dung and slipped, but managed to stay upright by taking hold of the edge of the rickshaw, by my companion (Connie) grabbing my elbow, and by my own good basic balancing instincts.  But as I slipped, an image flashed through my mind’s eye:  I was down on my knees and arms, smeared from hand to toe with cow poop.  This image, however fantastical, will remain one of my most intense memories of India.


Thursday, June 9, 2011

India Caprice, Part 7

I’m now on the train north from Miami, FL to Charleston, SC.  As the train passes through the Florida countryside, I appreciate how green - and relatively clean - my country is.  I am glad to be back, if not quite home yet.  We’re stopped at Ft Lauderdale and I just settled myself in the Club Car with a cup of coffee and a bottle of orange juice.  And now I want to integrate my many contradictory impressions and experiences of India.  I also want to continue the sequential narrative of the trip.

Very deep step well, steps carved into the stone walls
Continuing the trip narrative, we spent most of the ninth day in India on a bus going overland from the camp to Agra.  On the way, we stopped at a couple of very interesting places; one was an extremely deep step well, built during the 8th century, with hundreds of steps criss-crossing its four sides.  The rajah's palace was carved into the upper part of one of the sides.  Apparently, the well was available for use by all of the local villagers.  Behind locked screens were remnants of the Hindu carvings and statuary that had graced the site, otherwise largely destroyed by the invading Muslims.  Indeed, it seems that the Muslim invaders, beginning in the 12th century with Afghani invaders, and on through the 18th century, with the Mughuls, tended to destroy the Hindu art and architecture in their path, considering it idolatrous.  Thus, Hindu India lost much of its artistic heritage.  A few exceptions remain, such as Chandelas (which we saw later) survived because the structures were out of the main invasion pathways or else much farther south, where the Muslim invaders didn't penetrate.

Palace arches surrounding the step well

The other interesting place we visited was the fort owned by the family of our guide, Ghophal Singh.  He and his brother are renovating it in the hopes of turning it into a tourist hotel and restaurant.  We had afternoon tea there.  He and his family own the territory around the fort and the village of Saipur. They lease most of the land out to tenant farmers.

Palace/fort owned by our guide's family

Fields around the palace/fort. Women workers in the distance

On day ten, we awoke early to view the Taj Mahal (pronounced “Mahel”) in the morning.  It is certainly an impressive structure, white marble veneer over stone, flanked by two red sandstone structures:  one a working mosque, the other a mirror-image copy constructed simply to provide symmetry.  We went through the “copy” building first, then across a large patio (overlooking the Jamuna River, shrouded in fog) to the main mausoleum.  My basic impression was that a lot of resources were squandered on a tomb.  Shah Jahan was apparently deeply in love with Mumtaz Mahal, by whom he had all his children – 14 altogether, of whom only 6 survived.  She died giving birth to the last one, no doubt completely worn out.  Inside is a replica (cenotaph) of her jewel-encrusted coffin next to a larger one for the Shah, placed there after his death by his eldest daughter.  He had been held under house arrest by his son, Aurangzeb, who confined him to the Agra Fort as mentally incompetent (which he probably was).

Taj Mahal in the distance

That afternoon, we visited the Agra Fort, a huge structure built largely of red sandstone.  Apparently, much of it is still in use by the Indian army and thus not open to tourists.  But the palace part of it, constructed of both sandstone and marble, was open to tourists.  We saw the place (palace) where Shah Jahan was held in house-arrest,  the general living quarters, and the harem areas and gardens.  Later, we went to an establishment that did marble-inlay work, and I bought four items:  a small, square “table top” (about 1 ½ foot wide), two plates, and a soap dish.

The Red Fort

Baboons greet us at the door of the Red Fort
In the evening, we had dinner at a restaurant (South Indian food), then went to a musical production, “Taj with Love,” a bollywood-like production of the story of Shah Jahan and Mumtaz Mahal, complete with cinematic backdrops, steam and smoke and mirrors and dancing girls and dancing lights and a strutting Mughal emperor and a pathetic Mughal princess/queen.  It was fun, although I had to wear the mask, again; I could hardly breathe for the incense smoke and woody smell.  Apparently they make Indian incense using cow dung, which may be part of the reason it bothers my lungs so much.


Wednesday, June 1, 2011

India Caprice, Part 6

12/04/09 (continued)
The following day (day 6), we took the bus to Ranthambore National Park.  This was probably the highlight of the whole trip.  Our hotel was a palace-like structure owned by Ghopal’s uncle.  The food was excellent, the rooms were spacious and comfortable, and there were two courtyards:  an outer courtyard surrounded by the dining hall, shops and administrative offices and a tranquil inner courtyard surrounded by guest rooms.  I spent part of the first afternoon in the inner courtyard where I finally had some time to write in the journal while others were exploring the Ranthambore Fort.

Ranthambore National Park, tiger hiding
 We awoke early the next morning and drove to the game park.  It had been a hunting park for the Maharajahs of Jaipur and was converted to a national park in 1973 by Indira Gandhi, largely in an effort to preserve the endangered Indian tiger.  We were truly lucky!  In addition to spotting deer, and the “blue bull” deer, and wild boars, and monkeys, and peacocks, and numerous other birds, we saw a marvelous female tiger!  At first, she was coy and skittish, but after we went slowly around in the general direction the guide thought she had taken, she wandered out of the brush and sauntered across the road behind us, as nonchalant as you please.  It was a marvelous sight, a stunning experience!

Tiger in full view, nonchalant

I began to feel ill after returning from the park.  I lay down and slept until lunch, then decided not to go out on the afternoon safari, preferring to sleep  for another couple hours.  By then, my sinuses were congested and my throat was scratchy, so I began wearing the mask in order not to contaminate others.  As it turned out, the afternoon safari group didn’t see another tiger, so I was glad I stayed back, although I didn’t do any more journal writing - just slept.
We had an outside “barbecue” that evening.  I didn't feel much like eating.  However, I decided to try some soup.  They ladled a delicious tomato soup from a large pot into my bowl. It tasted better than any tomato soup I’d ever had.  I slurped two bowls of it, letting it run slowly down the sides of my dry throat.  It tasted like a combination of Campbell’s tomato soup and Bloody Mary mix.  I’ll have to try that when I get home.
From Jaipur, in the eighth day of the trip, we took the bus through agricultural countryside to a “camp” (individual rustic buildings surrounding a central garden).  The farm land reminded me of that around Xian in China, with its loess-brown, sandy loam.  It’s supposed to be very fertile.  I wonder what high plain it blows off from - the Thar Desert, perhaps.  Along the way were a few lone palm trees; camel carts carrying construction materials and wares plied the roadway in their nonchalant, sauntering clomp-clomp.  At the camp, in the late afternoon, I had another chance to do some journal writing.  I didn't go on a camel ride (had done that in Egypt and gotten saddle-sore) and took advantage of the free time.

Indian traditional dance

That evening before dinner, we had a “cooking lesson” – basically an eggplant dish and some “noon” (fried bread puffed up with air).  The guys seemed to do a good job of frying the bread (better than the women)!  Afterwards, we watched a couple of women dance to a drum and harmonium.  One of them, a young, very pretty woman in a blue sari, danced with several pots balanced on her head.  Then she performed some other activities with her feet while balancing the pots, including stepping on the edges of metal cups and on a spiked board (that one really upset me), as well as on some broken glass which, I think, was thick enough for her not to cut herself.  I didn’t see any blood on the stage, so I assume she didn’t do any serious damage to her feet, but the idea of such apparently sadistic activity being part of a dance routine disturbed me.