Thursday, May 13, 2010


Many people come to India on spiritual quests. I've come along simply as company for my hardworking husband. Yet I sense a slight progress in my spiritual development, even though I certainly didn't come here seeking it.

Could it be because I'm reading the mega-best-seller, Eat, Pray, Love, by Elizabeth Gilbert? Possibly. It's certainly an appropriate book for this trip, as one third of the book details her search for spiritual enlightenment in India. She was at an ashram, I'm at Le Royal Meridien (with less opportunity for sacrifice and self-denial, obviously).

And yet... Look what appeared before my eyes when I opened the drawer in my room.

Yes, indeed. Temptation in the form of two books. And one, a Gideon Bible! In the past I've had a little bit of a problem with liberating these babies from hotel rooms.

Yet, this time? Not so much. Is it because I am becoming a more honest and virtuous person? Probably not.

Is it because the Bible was not translated into Hindi? Perhaps.

Is it because I have still four weeks of travel ahead of me, and already my suitcase is bulging? Yes, absolutely yes.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

The scent of sandalwood, the sound of bells

Next stop on the Mumbai city tour was the Jain Temple, situated in an old building on Ridge Road ascending Malabar Hill. We crossed the road, dodging traffic, and entered this sacred place.

When we came in, we slipped off our shoes on the porch and put them on shelves to the right. Many simply step out of their sandals and leave them lying right there on the floor.

Worshippers and pilgrims come from all over, and go about anointing the colorful statues with sandalwood paste, ringing the bells, and circumnavigating the premises in a clockwise fashion. The atmosphere is reverent and serene, yet sings with energy.

Every sense is a delight. Monks crush sandalwood into a paste on a small balcony that looks out over the sea. The scent is divine. Visitors carry little pots of this paste around the temple in small trays also filled with flowers, and using the middle finger of the right hand, dab the paste on designated spots on various icons. As they move from room to room, worshippers reach up and give hanging bells a sharp pull. The chimes and gongs reverberate continually through the ornate marble rooms.

And every surface is painted or carved or engraved or inlaid. Polychromatic marble inlay on the floors, brilliant colorful paintings on the walls and ceilings. Even the blackboard schedule of events is exquisitely written.

Here's our guide, Freni, showing us the view of the sea from the upper balcony.

She pointed out that one thing that is special about the place is how many young worshippers are there, just stopping in. Because there is no organized worship service, people are there "just because they want to be"... Families, small children, older folks, white-robed monks and sisters -- the place is buzzing.

In this photo, you can see small low red tables placed about the floor. Visitors pour out a tiny cupful of rice on the surface, and trace symbols into the rice grains, as a kind of prayerful meditation. It's really lovely.

Years ago, when I was about 10 years old, I spent hours poring over The World Book encyclopaedia, choosing my religion. I figured that since my parents weren't churchgoers at the time, I was pretty much free to choose my own faith based on my personal beliefs. Oddly, I remember that at that time the religion that stood out was Jainism. The vegetarian diet would be a trial to my mother, certainly, but the rest of the principles made perfect sense to a pacifistic kid who was into enlightenment, and right knowledge, right faith, and right conduct.

Strangely, when I presented my findings to my mother, she was unconvinced.

"I don't think you'll find many Jains around here. It might be kind of lonely for you."

A few weeks later, we were off to the Unitarian Fellowship. Oddly enough, lessons from Sunday school concentrated much more on eastern religions than on Unitarianism's Judeo-Christian heritage, so by high school I found myself profoundly ignorant of expressions like "pearls before swine" and "the prodigal son" but satisfyingly up-to-speed on Native American smudge sticks and Hinduism's karmic fulfillment.

You have to take what you can get when your mom's still driving you places.


Monday, May 10, 2010

Wait, Gandhi? Again?

I was telling you yesterday that it's such a huge, huge world. But other days it doesn't seem so big after all. That's how I felt during the first stop of our city tour in Mumbai, where we visited Mani Bhavan, the house associated with Gandhi.

Here, he learned to card and spin, he developed much of his philosophy of social activism, non-violence, and self-sacrifice, and he initiated many effective and insightful political moves that changed India forever. The place is now a museum, research institute, library, and memorial to Gandhi's life and work.

Interestingly, we'd already encountered various exhibitions on Gandhi's life and work during our time in South Africa, as he spent 21 years in exile there, working to overcome racism directed at Indians and "coloureds". Yet, as usual, after encountering this giant on two different continents, my knowledge and understanding of his work is still miniscule.

Guides and teachers must wonder what on earth is going on inside their students' heads as we listeners "listen" but don't absorb nearly enough information. [Homework, six weeks from now: read a biography of Gandhi.] For now, I'll also give you a little hint -- Mahatma Gandhi and Indira Gandhi were not related... just so you don't fall into the error of my ways. How could I have gotten to my advanced age and not learned that?

This also serves to remind how egocentric and unintentionally parochial we all are. I remember whilst living in England, an American friend was aghast that English school children had no idea who Paul Revere was. But why should they? An American folk hero, yes, but hardly world renowned. And yet American schoolkids bumble along with hardly an inkling about India, or its past and present leaders. Though it's halfway round the world, India is destined to become so much more important in the global economy and in all of our lives as a result.

Time to hit the books and learn something, y'all!

Meanwhile, I'm going to hit the chaise longue out by the pool for a bit. It was already 86F as of 8am (the paper said it "feels like 99F"), and the weather services predict temperatures of 104F by this afternoon. Wonder what that will feel like? Melty, I bet.

I'm off to the markets and bazaar in the late afternoon when it cools off, and shall let you know what bargains I come up with. Perhaps a peacock feather fan would be advisable. I turned one down on the street on Sunday. Now I'm regretting that move, fo' sho'.

India -- so much to see and learn!

When I travel, two things are revealed to me again and again.

The first thing is, there's so much I don't know. It boggles my mind. I (sometimes) think I have a reasonably good handle on technology, world politics, current events, and so on. But all I had to do was show up on a blazingly hot and humid morning in Mumbai for a city tour to realize that I've only made the very feeblest of starts at understanding the geography, religions, history, and politics of southern Asia. In fact, it was immediately clear to me that I'd slept through the entire Social Studies unit on India in 7th grade. And, it being the American educational system, that was both the first and the last 6-week unit on India in twelve years of schooling. (No need for you to point out that things have changed in the four decades since. I got that part.)

The second thing that always knocks me for a loop is just how blinking huge the world is. What an astonishingly populous and endlessly varied place! And honestly, if you think you're overwhelmed by the number of people in O'Hare, or by flying through London Heathrow, then you might as well go on and land in Mumbai. It will put you over the top.

At half-past midnight on Sunday morning, we stepped out of the warm airport terminal into the even more hot and humid night. Masses and masses of people were standing lined up along the railings separating new arrivals (us) from greeters and drivers (them). Hundreds of placards everywhere, for hotels, for groups, for individuals. We made the circuit twice, each of us, before finding our name on a card and thus our taxi. Good thing Mr D could still remember his own moniker at that point. We were pretty tired after 22 hours of traveling; I wasn't any help at all. Then again, it isn't my name, really. If it had said "expateek" I'd have found it in a heartbeat.

After stopping at an ATM for cash (a quest in its own right), we arrived at the hotel in one piece. Sweaty, tired, and already alarmed by the driving in India. Fortunately we only had to cope with about 15 minutes of roadway at that point. Any more would have been seriously harrowing for the nerves.

Oh, you think I exaggerate, but the roads are everything you've heard about, and more. What you and I would consider a normal taxi is the largest thing on the road, excepting lorries. Everything else is smaller, and probably slower. Motorbikes, tuk-tuks, animal-drawn carts. You name it, it's on the road and probably in your way.

Honking and swerving are de rigeur. Yet after a second day in a driven car, it begins to make sense, and one has the feeling of being flotsam carried along in a river of motorcars, as the stream of traffic burbles and madly hurtles along, lanes sliding this way and that, cars slipping past inches away yet not touching.

Of course it was Sunday.

So there was actually "no" traffic, according to Freni, our guide.


Friday, May 7, 2010

I'm off!

We're at O'Hare, in the American Airlines Admiral's Lounge, having a scotch neat to calm the nerves and watching the planes come and go. All the last minute things got done -- I paid the bills, I played my last tennis for a while, I packed, and I furiously uploaded software to enable blogging and picture taking from afar.

First stop, London Heathrow, and then on to Mumbai. If you want to see what I'm going to do in my first few days in India, check out Mumbai Magic for some gorgeous photographs and great tours.

I'll keep you posted. xxx

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

On the road again...

I'm off to the far reaches of the planet on Friday.

To London Heathrow first. That's not so far.

Then on to Mumbai, Delhi, and Agra and then back through Heathrow after eleven days. I'm really hoping that dratted Icelandic volcano behaves itself.

What a pathetic show off. Puleeze.

Some volcanoes just don't know when to cool it.


For me, it's onward, after, to Shanghai and Beijing, and I'll finally end up in Bali, for a fortnight's R&R.

It should be lots of fun. Even if Mr D snores and I don't have a hope of a good night's rest for weeks and weeks and weeks. Worth it, really.

Right now, with a day and a half to go before departure, I'm trying to sort out my electronics, I'm finishing prophylactic immunizations and meds, I'm paying my bills, and I'm saying my prayers. Also writing belated thank you notes and telling those I love how much I love them.

Because you can never say "I love you" often enough.

Unfortunately, my prophylactic house-cleaning regime doesn't enter into the mix, so I've made a set-in-stone agreement with my friend Kim -- if anything happens to me, she's coming over to burn my house down. Believe me, it'll be easier on everyone.

Of course, it won't come to "that" -- with "that" being a shoddy Chinese aeroplane diving into a desolate mountainous hillside, or my fevered body shuddering and expiring of malaria in a rural Indian hospital, or Ebola or Avian flu, or a fried chicken foot stuck in my throat or a scorpion stuck in my foot or...

What's your worst travel nightmare?

It won't be that. I promise.

Blogging continues... I swear!

Yet I'm planning to do some experimental eating, so....

Unusual street food, originally uploaded by slack13.

Silk Worm Larvae on a skewer, originally uploaded by diggydog.

who in the heck knows??