Category Archives: India

INCREDIBLE INDIA!

Pizza arrives in 30 minutes, the ambulance doesn’t….

More mobile phones than  toilets….

Car loans are cheaper than  educational loans….

Foodgrain rots as people die of hunger….

Sex is everywhere except where it is supposed to be, in the bedroom. This last one requires an explanation, Upwardly mobile Indians (a small percentage of the population, to be sure) are so intent upon chasing the rupee/money dream that more and more married couples have no time in their busy schedule to procreate. The answer? Fertility clinics. To quote Prakash Kothari, “Couples don’t have either the desire or the time to have sex these days.” Sounds pretty dire, doesn’t it?

What I have just written was on the cover of the December 26, 2010 magazine, The Week, an excellent  news magazine that prints candid articles by outstanding Indian journalists about current problems in India…and they are many, from the garbage, plastic, environmental ones to the skyrocketing birth rate, to poverty, to the crumbling infrastructure. The country is growing fast and it is a bundle of contradictions. In this issue they celebrate their idiocyncracies and ironies. But they also take them seriously. One disturbing statement that, as yet, goes unanswered is that it is a country where rice sells for 40 rupees a kilo, but SIM cards come for free. It is a land where people make arduous pilgrimages to shrines of goddesses, but kill their daughters in the womb. It is a mindset that seeks out a fancy mobile in preference to a basic toilet.

I am seeing this in my everyday life here. The handsome young owner of our guest house laments the fact that he can’t find a wife, because there are ten eligible men for every woman…even when arranged marriages are the tradition. The gorgeous beaches are used, regularly, for defecation, but mostly by men, some of whom are pilgrims. They don’t even bother to cover it up. Plastic is burned all the time in the middle of town or in front of guest houses, the stench second only to what it’s doing to the lungs, the brain, and the environment.

But I try to be philosophical with the mantra…This is India, what do you expect? Still, thinking Indians resent that statement and are disturbed by the pervasiveness of their problems.

On the lighter side, I had an experience while walking to town. I’ve told you about the cows. Well, today there was quite a congregation of them and I walked into an altercation between two bulls, who were head-butting. What to do? The path was narrow and the bushes lining it prickly. I tried to sneak by, but they shifted just as I passed. You never saw me run so fast…even with my bum knee. I didn’t even stop for a photo!

I’ve been using a steri-pen to purify my water, so I won’t add to the plastic problem here. But a friend showed me the bottle he just bought. This was written on the side, supposedly as an ecological statement. You be the judge: Dispose of this container responsibly…crush.

I’ve also had some sweet experiences, like the time I walked by a fancy home on a back street in town. A cow was preceding me slowly. A beautifully clad lady was looking out her door. Just as the cow reached the door, she opened it, bowed, and the cow walked into her tiled parlor. She smiled at me and closed the door.

I may have mentioned this before, but more and more I am amazed at the openness and affection shown between men of all ages in this country. They put their arms around each other and walk hand-in-hand down the street. Seldom do I see Indian men and women eating together, except when there are children with them. The women go to town in pairs or groups, as do the men. Also, I was surprised to see both men and women doing their wash at the beautiful rectangular tank of azure water near the small temples away from the main street. It’s a lovely section of town and boasts many fancy homes meticulously landscaped. The washing place reminds me of the ghats of Varanasi. It’s a colorful panoply of activity. And the characters participating are a photographer’s dream!

As in my first ’round-the-world trip in 1987, the three predictable statements made in all of the Asian and African countries I visited remain the same. Those of you who travel will, I’m sure, recognize them: No problem; Trust me; and Don’t worry. It’s at this point that I start to worry!

Now I’m going to go back to the beach, wait for my dear friend from Sweden, Gullvi Eriksson, to arrive from Goa, and hope that those two bulls have settled their problems before I pass by.

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FASCINATING GOKARNA

Gokarna  is a village in the Uttara Kannada district of the Karnataka state, India. It’s an old established Hindu pilgrimage destination–a temple town that is referred to in a number of Hindu historical literature pieces–with an unmistakably traditional feel.

Here you get the taste of the real India. Set behind a broad, white-faced sand beach, with the forest-covered foothills of the Western Ghats as a backdrop, it’s one of the most picturesque little towns in India with a collage of colorful individuals from the black-clad pilgrims to the ladies of all status in silk saris (even those who are carrying sand on their head or washing dishes after the free meal at the temple), to the old bearded holy men and young shopkeepers and sewing machine operators working long hours in open-air shops…always ready to greet you with a smile. This is a photographers paradise! Everybody wants a picture, sometimes with you in it. It’s a living tapestry and the scene changes every moment.

This sacred site has been a Shaivite center for more than two millenia and had remained relatively “undiscovered” until Western tourists descended on the beautiful beaches close by. Pilgrims use the sea for ritual bathing and the tourists use it for swimming. Still, pilgrims pouring through the town easily outnumber the foreigners who flock here every winter.

Lee just did a trek over the hills to four of the beaches, photographing the coves and rocky shore. These are much more pristine than the beach we use, but also far away from everything…like the center of town and its temples, alleys and byways. I will add photos of the splendid rectangular water tank, surrounded by several temples, that is used by both men and women for bathing and washing.

Gokarna means Cow’s Ear, and, believe me, there so many cows roaming the streets and beaches that I actually pat them as they go by. At this point it just seems so natural. At midday, when the sun is blistering, I sit under the palm trees, sheltered from its rays, but bathed  in the constant breeze from the sea. At about 5, when the sun is lower, we all rush to the surf, dive into the waves, and swim way out until we reach the gently rolling calm…where we can swim undisturbed.

The mythology of Gokarna is fascinating and voluminous. I suggest you google to see the influence it has had in the Hindu tradition. The main deity is Lord Mahabhaleshwara, a form of the Hindu god Shiva. It is believed that Lord Shiva emerged from the ear of a cow (Prithvi, the Mother Earth). It is also located at the ear-shaped confluence of two rivers Gangavali and Aghanashini.

The two main streets have shops and traditional tile-roofed brick houses, and Kannada is the most widely spoken language. It seems that up and down the coast are myriad languages…and I thought everybody spoke Hindi. What did I know?

Gokarna is also an important centre of Sanskrit learning and houses Bhandikeri Math and Toggu Math. It is a place where Sanksrit knowledge is passed down from generations in Brahmin families. Many Hindus also perform the last rites here.

During the many festivals, some of which are similar to the ones we experienced in Udupi, the town of Gokarna is visited by up to 20,000 pilgrims. They also have huge decorated chariots pulled by hundred of men, as we saw in Udupi. This year 350,000 people visited Gokarna on Mahasivarathri alone.

Tomorrow I hope to write about some of the contradictions and paradoxes of this incredible country, a place where some things never change.

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TSO PEMA, THE GOLDEN STATUE, AND THE HOLY CAVES….

(Continuing my trip with Cary through parts of northern India)

After four days in Suja and Bir, Cary and I headed for Rewalsar, or Tso Pema, a holy pilgrimage destination for Tibetan Buddhists, Hindus and Sikhs. Good friends loaned us an apartment on one of the hills overlooking the sacred lake, very near the exquisite, almost-finished golden statue of Guru Rinpoche, known also as Padmasambhava, the yogi who introduced Buddhism to Tibet. Four years ago we had watched laborers, men and women, constructing the immense statue of the revered Rinpoche sitting on a lotus leaf. Now it had been painted gold and brown, and the outside of the buildings underneath showed snow lions holding up the enormous structure. Inside the main hall were outstanding statues of the Buddha and different Tibetan deities. Every inch of the walls were covered with colorful and exquisitely detailed murals of religious figures.

This little town is charming and rather quaint, with the main road leading to a walkway where Buddhists can do kora around the lake shore. Monkeys chatter and swing in the trees, a bank of fluttering prayer flags spans one end, and swarms of open-mouthed, ugly fish gather (which are considered sacred) at the edge for pellets that tourists throw their way. Dogs–all of whom seem to be related–lie around, oblivious to the danger of incessant traffic. One huge black bull, almost a mascot in town, stands chewing garbage and cardboard, or begging for leftovers at the various restaurants. He can be seen scratching his head against a post, unless some kind soul does it for him (yes, I did). A benign creature for sure, he is the animal of choice when a farmer has a cow in heat. Gossip has it that he has an envious life!

Cary has a close connection with Lena Feral, an American Lama and practitioner of Oriental medicine, who lives on the hill above the statue. They met when she served as interpreter for Lama Wangdor’s teachings on Buddhism in the U.S. He resides in the holy caves, and we climbed the steep hill to meet with him and several of the nuns who live there. Cary had done a retreat in one of the caves three years ago.

Meeting with the Lama is always a joy. Like the Dalai Lama, he has a fine sense of humor and a bouncy personality, despite the hardships he suffered escaping the Chinese troops years ago, carrying his elderly teacher on his back. We had the pleasure of two meals with him (the homemade yoghurt is unrivaled in my experience), and of meeting with many nuns who need sponsoring. Cary handed over gifts and letters to those who are already sponsored.

We also continued our search for the sweetest papaya this side of heaven…something we seldom get to eat at home. It became a daily ritual all the way to Delhi.

We had many discussions about the vast differences between our way of life and that of the people we observed. I found it ever more difficult to accept, and was continually trying to rein in my judgment of the environmental pollution, the sub-standard living conditions, the garbage, and the dirt. I was gratified to see that Tso Pema now has a garbage truck attached to a tractor that drives through the streets each morning and picks up trash–or waits while people throw bucketfuls of debris in the truck. This is something both the government and the citizens must change to keep their rivers and water from being completely polluted.

We returned to the Suja TCV school for Christmas Eve just as the director was distributing 1,000 wool shawls to the students, given  by a Swiss benefactor. The children were overjoyed, for it was really cold. That evening we had a festive meal at Sonam and Tsering’s apartment above the Tibetan Medical Clinic in Bir. Sonam surprised me with a Christmas tree made from a leafy green plant, adorned with some small katas (white shawls), and a medallion on the top. There were several candles burning while I sang God Rest Ye, Merry Gentlemen and Silent Night. We did our own small exchange of gifts before leaving at midnight.

Before departing Suja, we spent time with an outstanding student, Shawo Choeden, sponsored by my grandson, Thomas Bixler. He wanted us to see his book collection, which took up his entire cupboard, and he gave us copies of the literary magazine he edits. At sixteen he’s a very serious student and the year before had asked Cary to bring him books on leadership, which she did. After only having studied English for three years, he is wading through tomes that are still daunting to me! On our first visit, we asked if he needed anything. He was hesitant to tell us, but we discovered that he could hardly read the blackboard and was having trouble seeing, even though he held his books close to his face. He was terrified that he would lose his sight. After getting his eyes examined and fitting a new pair of glasses (750 rupees, about $16.00), he stepped out of the office, grinned and said, “It’s a whole new world out there!”

Shawo arises at 3 A.M., prays and meditates for half-an-hour, then reads and studies until breakfast. We let him know that wherever he goes, or whatever he needs, he has a family the United States that cares very much for him.

During our final four days in McLeod Ganj, we met with an outstanding young man, Thrinley Gyatso, who taught himself English as well as attending the transitional school there, and is now doing translations and working for a Swiss N.G.O. He has already translated a book written by a close friend, who spent six months, incognito, in Tibet, observing the changes going on and the draconian Chinese restrictions perpetrated on the Tibetan community. It’s a candid journal. I’ll write more about it after its publication.

He also made us aware of the current practice of “selling” young children from Bihar, a very poor part of India, as servants to businesses and homes in northern India. This is done by arrangement with the parents, who receive 400 – 500 rupees a month (about 10$), to the detriment of the children, who receive little or no education during their formative years. We saw a lot of this in restaurants and stores, a most disturbing problem, but one being openly discussed by thinking people in Indian and Tibetan society. It is very controversial, with some people claiming that the children are often better fed and cared for than they would be in Bihar.

Back to the present: Our friends from Whidbey Island, Anne and Don Zontine, world travelers extraordinaire, whose philosophy and mode of travel is similar to mine, arrived on Sunday and are hunkered down in a cozy room (for 200 rupees) near us. We’re having a ball–swimming twice a day, poking around the beautiful back alleys of Gokarna where temples abound and sacred washing and bathing takes place in a huge rectangular “lake,” and eating at one of several superior restaurants in town and on the beach. An average meal costs about $3.00 or less. And, yes, the lassis are made from pure yoghurt and fresh fruit. That’s as good as it gets!

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IT’S OFF TO DHARAMSALA!

I trust that you all will continue to indulge me in my attempts to fill the spaces in my journey. Internet cafes are few and far between, and they are not working terribly well. Not to be cynical…just realistic. It ain’t like home, as they say.

The peaceful atmosphere of Gokarna returned for a couple of days after the black-clad young male pilgrims left, but they are back, today, in full force…hundreds of them arriving in identical cars, horns honking, arms waving from windows, and happily shouting as they rush to the ocean and stand in the water. But that’s not what it’s about. This is the first Hindu festival of the new year, Sankranti, and they are here to visit one of the holiest sites, the Mahabaleshwar temple. I also found out that the pilgrims give sweets to elders, neighbors, and friends, saying that we should all be kind (sweet) to each other. Then these people give blessings in return. How come nobody has approached me? Oops, a young man just handed me a package of sweets.

So, since the streets are jam-packed and nobody is moving, this seems like a perfect time to recreate the loving and giving spirit of the three weeks I spent in Dharamsala, Suja, Bir, and Rewalsar (Pso Pema).

Cary and I bid farewell to Martha on December 10, 2010, and boarded a less than optimum second class sleeper to Patankot, which is a three hour taxi ride from Dharamsala. On the 12th we arrived in hilly McLeod Ganj, upper Dharamsala, and viewed the snowy peaks of the Dhauladhar Hills rising in the distance. I felt as if I were coming home. This is the site of the Namgyal Temple and the Tibetan community in exile, as well as the home of the 14th Dalai Lama (when he’s not traveling). It has been four years since I experienced His Holiness’s lectures on Buddhism at this temple.

We stopped on Temple Rd., at the bottom of our street, and started the long, steep hike to the Kongpo House, settling into the same room we had had at the end of our 2007 trip. Immediately, we went to our favorite coffee house, The Ten Yang Café, had a superb cappuccino, poached eggs, Spanish omelet, and real homemade wheat toast (our first and only in India). The café had been redecorated to make space for more tables, so the eggs were cooked at a new sister café two doors up, and served to us at the Ten Yang. It was a riot! We finally decided to go directly to the source and use the new café. The eggs were definitely warmer.

The town looked pretty much the same and we walked around greeting several merchants who still remembered me as a tough bargainer—especially Bilal Ahmed Gunna, who sells high quality Kashmiri carpets, wall hangings, jewelry, and shawls. The shop has a perfect name, Paradise Arts.

Thus started a whirlwind three weeks, reconnecting with old friends, meeting new ones, and visiting sponsored students in two TCV (Tibetan Children’s Village) schools. This first stay in McLeod Ganj was short, however, because we had to be in Suja to see our students before they left on winter break. We had time, however, to look up an old friend, Terry Rollins, whom I’d met on the Kangchenjunga trek in 1996. He had been teaching English at Tibetan Charity for three months with several other western volunteers. We all ate and reminisced together at a favorite restaurant, The Chonor House, not to be missed for tasteful décor and good food.

The ride to Suja, a neat little farming village near Bir, and where the TCV school is located, was through lush forests and over winding roads. This school is where the students are placed who have just escaped from Tibet by crossing over Himalayas to the Nepalese border (an arduous and harrowing journey). The facility is large and laid out artistically, consisting of small houses (family style), basic dormitories with bunk beds, a kitchen, a family room, and a large patio rimmed with flowers and shrubs. The children do the chores and help with the chopping and cleaning of vegetables. Every “home” has a housemother or adult in charge. This year new solar panels and water filters have been installed on the roofs. This kind of living arrangement encourages a feeling of family, and is so important to the children, many of whom have lost their parents or may never see them, again. The older children seem protective of the younger ones, and help them with their studies, which for many start early in the morning. These children are so motivated to succeed, knowing the sacrifice their parents have made for their education, that they voluntarily get up before dawn, go outside in the cold, and can be heard reciting their lessons…loudly. I know, since they wake me up!

There are about 1500 students at Suja, ranging in age from about 5 to 18 years of age. The classes are run according to proficiency in a subject, rather than age. There used to be over 2000 youngsters, but the number has dropped due to the tighter restrictions instituted by the Chinese, in league with the border personnel in Nepal. Some of the children arrive speaking Chinese, which is the only language allowed, now, in the schools in Tibet. Other children have no schooling, since their families, especially the nomads, cannot afford the fees. Can you imagine arriving in a new country and having to learn to speak, read, and write not only your own language and the one you presently speak, but also English? These children are amazing!

Parents send their children to the TCV schools, started by the Dalai Lama’s sister, Tsering Dolma (who passed away in 1964), because they want them to know their own culture and religion, which is being systematically destroyed by the Chinese. It’s a heart-breaking situation, but it also has produced a group of dedicated, educated young people determined to work for a better world and the eventual freedom of their people.

Cary tracks more than 20 students for whom she has gotten sponsors in the U. S. Every year she visits these children, some of whom have graduated and are now in college. I am amazed at their progress in English (a requirement from kindergarten on), their dedication, and their goals. I am also impressed with the teachers, many of whom came up through the system as refugees, themselves, and are willing to work for small salaries to give back to others what they, themselves, have gotten.

The motto of the school—Others Before Self—sets the tone of personal responsibility and the Buddhist tenants of love and compassion.

The Tibetans and their families, with whom we spent time, are very upbeat, happy people. They have endured great hardships and are grateful for the haven provided by the Indian government. Nobody we visited had central heating, including the room where we stayed. We enjoyed reading our digital thermometer every morning, finding that the typical outside temperature ranged from 49 to 54 degrees (I know, it’s nothing like New Jersey right now). This was true morning and evening, but midday was warm. The secret was to wear layers. Hey, traveling makes you hardy! No more complaints when the furnace goes on the fritz for a day!

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THE CHARM OF DARJEELING IS MORE THAN THE TEA….

…even ‘though it’s mind-boggling to choose among the dozens of varieties grown on the hills outside town. It reminds me of the vast tea plantations I visited in the Cameron Highlands in Indonesia in 1996. Rows and rows of beautifully pruned dark green bushes (always make me think of boxwood), their tender leaves being hand-picked by an army of sari-clad women. These jobs are at a premium and coveted–paying well and providing benefits.

As you may have surmised, I’m skipping back to December 6, right after our trek in Sikkim, hoping to catch up while resting my injured knee. Bear with me as I relate the highlights of the last month of 2010.

Our driver from Gangtok, J. P., met us the last day of the trek and squired us for two days over the winding, pot-holed country roads to visit our last two monasteries, Sangacholing, considered the oldest in Sikkim, which lay amidst thick forested hills opposite the Pemayantse Monastery. All the monasteries we visited on the final days of our trek were like this…way up in the mountains, not open to cars, and reached by banks of stone steps. We were in good shape, however, having climbed many much steeper hills in the previous three weeks.

It took hours on roads not to be believed to get to the outskirts of Darjeeling. At times the switchbacks were so severe that J. P. had to stop and go into reverse, then turn sharply in order to stay on the road. But the scenery was well worth the ride: deep valleys, bamboo forests, and ever-climbing terraces. Finally, Darjeeling appeared on several hills…a bustling, noisy, rather beat-up-looking old hill station from British colonial times. You could see relics of the old mansions and government buildings squeezed between the dilapidated wooden buildings that dotted the hills. Streets wound around and the bazaar was extensive and colorful. Alleyways connected the upper and lower levels, but I found the shrill honking of motorcycles and cars (where do they find these horns?) jarring after about thirty minutes,  and begged for mercy. There is still an appalling amount of trash and garbage everywhere, but a truck comes around in the early morning hours and shovels it away, leaving room for the next day’s offering. Stray dogs abound, rummaging through the smelly debris.

To visit Darjeeling you need stamina! Streets go down, down, down and up, up, up. And the climbing didn’t stop when we checked into The Dekeling Hotel, a comfortable haven run by a delightful Tibetan family. It’s  nestled into a hill and we were given a sixth floor attic room, reached by climbing innumerable stairs, turning corners, walking through reading and breakfast rooms, and, finally, the laundry. I felt very proud that I found my way back without dropping bread crumbs! Note: this was the first night in three weeks that we’d slept in sheets. It was heavenly.

There is a charming old train from British days that runs from Siliguri to Darjeeling, called the “toy train.” Very popular with tourists. We saw two stations and enjoyed following the small tracks as they wound back and forth from one side of the road to the other. It was funny to see women sitting on the tracks with their goods laid out for sale in front of them. Obviously, they knew the train schedule well.

The day before we left, we arose at 3:30 A.M. and met J. P. to head for Tiger Hill to view the sunrise. This is a tradition and is well worth waiting for hours in the bitter cold. We arrived about two hours early in order to find a parking space. Hundreds of cars soon lined the hill road, and droves of people stood and shivered together to catch the first rays of light. Excitement and expectancy filled the air.

At 6:20 they were rewarded as pale pink streaks crept over the Kangchenjunga range. Where we were standing was an entirely different view and took longer. But what a sight! Way over to the left I could see the white cone of Mt. Everest next to Makalu and Lhotse. This was the first time I’d seen Everest look like what it is…the highest point on earth. It was an emotional moment for me. When I saw it from Kala Pattar in 1987, it was in the distance and did not look so powerful. Close by were the Three Sister, also white with snow. I had last seen them in Nepal in 1999 on the Annapurna trek.

The next day we visited the Himalayan Mountain Institute and The Climbing School, where Tenzing Norgay’s ashes are entombed, and where equipment and clothing used in the historic 1953 Everest expedition with Sir Edmund Hillary and other major climbs were on display. Close by was the Padmajo Naidu Himalayan Zoological Park, where we ogled the tigers, Himalayan wolves, and red panda bears.

So it was off to Siliguri, visiting a tea plantation factory en route, which probably hadn’t changed since British rule. A camera crew was making a documentar and photographing the women as they sat cross-legged on the floor sorting leaves.

I have to say that it was a great experience to take a first class sleeper to Delhi, complete with three meals, tea, and free bottled water. We giggled as we luxuriated in these small excesses. Little did I know just how great they were until I experienced 2nd and 3rd class!

I’m still in Gokarna, happy to have had my mosquito netting installed, and loving to listen to the roar of the Arabian Sea every night. I finally went swimming, lay down in the sun, and didn’t even flinch when a cow walked two feet from my head. He takes his morning and evening constitutional in front of our guest house. It’s the only beef I’ve seen in southern India.

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KRISHNA IS HAVING A WILD TIME IN UDUPI AND IT’S A CELEBRATION TO BEHOLD!

I’m about to begin a whole new phase of my Indian adventure in Gokarna, which is about three hours by totally chock-a-block, standing-room-only train from Udupi, and two hours south of Goa. Lee and I found a pleasant bungalow near the beach for $10 (a bargain for two), so I can take my aching knee to the Arabian Sea for cooling therapy twice a day…and swimming,too. But, first, let me tell you a bit about the excitement of the two days before we left Udupi.

Good fortune sent us a new friend, Bharat Devnani,who is an Indian who has lived in Australia and California, and is well aware of both worlds. He is also a Hindu,  conversant with the complicated theology of the religion. He made it come alive for me and actually was able to get me into the most venerable temple in this part of India. The pilgrims seemed to be pleased that a westerner took such interest in their ceremony and were most welcoming. The statue of the baby Krishna, which resides there, is over 5,000 years old, and is revered by thousands of devoted pilgrims, who swarm into town several times a year. This particular celebration will last six days, two of which we experienced.

Many of you may have seen the ancient chariots that abound in towns throughout southern India. I shall put some photos on this blog when I return, to show you their immense size (several stories high) and the colorful decorations with which they’ve been adorned. And the ones in Udupi are not the biggest. During these celebrations they are pulled by hundreds of men grasping thick ropes in an attempt to move the massive wheels. The other night, before the men attempted this feat. a female elephant, Subhadra, did it by herself, resting her huge head against the body of the chariot and grunting wih exertion as she strained every muscle and moved the structure. Then she went to the other side and pushed it back. I have it on video. Something else I shall post when I return. This amazing elephant, decked out in fancy headpiece and sparkling cloth, is a show person in her own right. Before the ceremony began, she stood in a wide circle and cajoled people to come over, put one rupee into her trunk, after which she gave the rupee to her trainer and gently tapped the lucky person on the head. Yes, I did it.

There is an oblong palate that is prepared for Krishna, ringed with lights and kept lit by a generator that is pushed  behind as it circles the entire square and moves in front of eight other temples, each one administered by a priest. Krishna has been placed in a cradle on the palate and the crowds follow, with several bands playing, costumed children dancing, and candles being lit at intervals on the ground. The drummers in the band are phenomenal…muscular young men with costumes, jewelry, and the fastest drum beat I’ve ever seen. It’s like a trap drum on steroids. Sweat pours off their bodies as the drumming becomes faster and louder. One of its members plays a clarinet-type horn in a squealing, insistent alleatory fashion that would surely please Benny Goodman or Artie Shaw. A litle further on someone shoots sparklers and small rockets, and then a long piece of white cloth is set on fire and burns furiously to cinders. This is symbolic of eradicating evil spirits from the earth. All the time that this is going on, Subhadra is marching backwards, with open mouth and upraised trunk, waving white pom poms and bowing to Krishna. She seems to have an affinity for the deity, or at least for the warm attention and cheers of the crowd. When a complete circle has been made, Krishna is returned to the temple, the pilgrims continue their wait to get into the inner sanctum, and Subhadra returns to her “residence.” Just for fun we walked over to watch her get fed and this was a blast! First, since she can get excited when fed, they chain her left rear and left front leg to the pavement with a thick chain. Boy, do they pull it tight. I was amazed that she just stands there and helps them…but I guess she knows what’s coming next. When this is done, handfuls of what looks like wheat is thrown into her mouth. I suppose she chews it, but I couldn’t tell. Then, several large branches are placed in front of her and she deftly removes all of the leaves and eats the stems. The trunk is an amazing appendage with functions too many to innumerate here (this is why we have google?), but she is able to twist those branches and manipulate them and be ready in no time for a second helping. Since I read that elephants eat about 500 lbs of food a day, I didn’t stay around any longer.  Besides, I had to get up for an early train. Happily, I was told that Subhadra would be unchained after eating, so she could spend a restful night before the next performance.

In our final discussion with Bharat he clarified several things about the Hindu deities that I had studied when first in India in 1987, but gotten rather scrambled up. I don’t want to get into heavy theology here, but it is fascinating how similar all religions are when they talk about the soul, values, fear, the material world, the spiritual world, and the struggle to find meaning in life. Krishna, who was the center of these ceremonies, is considered the supreme male…a symbol of the head of the house taking care of the family. We are all family, and within us is both male and female. He has his home only in the spiritual world. Brahma is considered the creator-architect; Vishnu the maintainer; and Shiva the destroyer. These three take care of the material world.

You can imagine how much I’ve been contemplating religion and spirituality during my weeks in India…first with the Tibetan Buddhists and now with Hindus and Moslems. How much better we all would be if we allowed everyone to find joy and fulfillment by followingt his or her own path, without judgment, realizing how similar we are after all.

Two old cows just walked into the internet cafe, mooed, nuzzled my leg, and walked out. No food here, Bossy. Go to the dosa restaurant. Or go find the rest of your clan. They may be in the town square, obstructing traffic. I’m outa here….

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GREETINGS FROM UDUPI IN THE STATE OF KARNATAKA–

I’m halfway between Fort Cochin, Kerala, and Gokarno, near Goa, India at the famous pilgrimage town of Udupi. A lot has transpired since I left my daughter, Cary, in Delhi, on December 30 and boarded a plane for Cochin in the hot, humid Kerala region. Guidebooks tell you how relaxing and charming and peaceful it is. Don’t believe a word, unless you’re on a backwater canal and lake cruise. Interesting, always, but brain-numbing with horns honking in high-pitched decibels, and garbage strewn everywhere. It’s as dirty and chaotic as Delhi, with cars, tuk-tuks (auto rickshaws), huge local buses, and trucks all spewing forth black clouds of exhaust. Hey, folks…this is India. I’m not judging, just observing. And I might add that there are many Indians with whom I speak who are very upset about the growth problems of their country, and are trying to find solutions, for the sake of their people and the environment.

I found a quiet homestay, the Kovil, run by a delightful couple, in Ft. Cochin, 1 1/2 hours by cab from Cochin. It was nestled away from the riotous New Years celebration, and next to a Moslem minaret that woke us up in style at 5:30 every morning. I stood outside as the new year was greeted with fireworks and dancing in the streets. This was all done by men, while the women stood on the sidelines. Someone started a bonfire near the temple, and someone else threw an old bicycle into it, tires and all. Imagine the smell. But no one cared. They were having too much fun! The celebration continued the next night at fever pitch, with a million people invading the small town. To walk anywhere or try to cross a street was life-threatening…and, at times, rather humorous. We just laughed, shrugged, and pushed on. I consider that my biggest accomplishment in this Indian journey is staying alive. Sidewalks are all but unknown in most small towns, and pavement near the shops is upended and crooked. Even small children have to wend their way through the maze of vehicles as they return from school. With it all, however, the people seem calm and are most friendly and welcoming. More about my five days in Ft. Cochin later, when I can upload photos.

My friend from Whidbey Island, Lee Compton, arrived New Year’s Eve after an eighteen-hour ride in an open-air bus from Tiruvannamalai. He collapsed for two days with the malady most prevalent among Westerners, cured only by the miracle drug, Cipro, which is readily available in India for 1 rupee a pill.

Two days ago on the night we left, we had dinner in a small dosa shop with a Dutch couple, Bas Brackhiuze and Susanne Gabrieel–he a massage therapist, photography teacher, and avid Scottish fiddler, and she a nurse, who is preparing to open a bed and breakfast in The Netherlands. They’ve been traveling in India for several weeks and tempted us with tales of an ashram they had visited. But that meant going south into more heat. No thanks. I elected to go north, so we reserved on a train leaving at midnight from north station, with third class tickets for an AC sleeper to Mangalore.

Just before boarding we ran into Christian Fischer and Renata Rossbach, a delightful young German couple from Cologne.  He is a film and TV producer, having studied at NYU, and she is a psychotherapist. We had spent several hours together during their stay at the Kovil and I had gone with them on an interesting country boat cruise  through narrow canals and village backwater areas, ending with  a houseboat ride on Lake Venbanad.

Our bunks were in the third tier near the ceiling, and our luggage had to be placed at the end, giving us only enough room to curl up like snails, until 6:30 A.M., when our compartment mates left the train. It seemed smart to transfer to the bottom bunks and get some sleep before we arrived, but since my luggage was blocking the ladder I decided to swing my legs over the side and slide down. Not smart! My right leg got caught in one of the holding straps on the opposite side and flipped me upside down. I heard a terrible ripping sound in my knee. Fortunately, Lee caught me before my head hit the floor. Now what? I could see the end of my trip, of my trekking, of my ability to walk at all. My knee swelled and ached…but at least I could walk!

We found Christian and Renata and together we took a cab to Udupi, since it’s a big Hindu pilgrimage site that sounded interesting and restful to all of us. Yesterday, I visited the local hospital’s emergency room and was examined by an orthopedic doctor, who said that I was really lucky not to have detached the medial collateral ligament. I had only stretched it.  He put on a flexible cast and told me to rest for a couple of days. Total cost: 200 rupees, about $5.00. Is my guardian angel working overtime, or wot? I’m overjoyed!

When I returned to the Vyavahar Lodge opposite the Sri Krishna Temple, where we’re staying (on a quiet pedestrian square), Lee informed me that he had just seen an ear doctor and would need to go to the hospital and have the remains of a silicone earplug removed from his ear.  He had pushed it down too far ten days ago and it was resting on his ear drum.  I told him this was the kind of thing I expected of a five-year-old and asked him when he was going to grow up! The cost of the surgery,  pre-op tests, blood work, medications, anesthesiologist, surgeon, scads of pretty nurses, and operating room came to under $100. This took most of the afternoon, but all’s well that ends well. We decided we are quite a pair. I had to buy the equipment at the hospital pharmacy to replace what they used on Lee, such as the IV drip, syringes, and anesthesia. It’s a whole new system to me and there seemed to be way too many people doing the various jobs, but this is India and very labor intensive. That hasn’t changed since I visited a hospital in Udaipur in 1987, but the hospitals sure have. I was duly impressed by the courteous and thorough service.

At the moment we’re scrambling to find another hotel, since a huge celebration is being prepared for tomorrow in the square. Last night we saw dozens of young boys with shorn hair, bare chests, and colorful dhotis parading into the temple. The giant ancient chariots are being decorated and  grandstands erected. Everywhere a spirit of excitement pervades.

I apologize for the sporadic and incomplete posts on this blog, but cyber cafes are few and far between, and I am hobbling a bit at the moment, confident, however, that I’ll be up to speed soon.

A belated Happy New Year to all of you. Enjoy your snow. It’s hot as blazes here.

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MY ADVENTURES WITH THE TIBETAN COMMUNITY ARE OVER AND I’M OFF TO SOUTH INDIA

I’m now in Dharamsala just a day away from the grueling overnight bus trip to Delhi and then a flight to Cochin in Kerala, South India. Am working on getting my blog updated on the events of the past three weeks. Stay tuned!

To read about my travels in Sikkim, scroll down to my post from Dec. 6th, or go to https://megnoblepeterson.wordpress.com/2010/12/06/sikkim-is-everything/

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AM I CRAZY, OR WOT?

SEEMS TO ME THAT THIS….

IS A LOT EASIER THAN THIS….

…BUT THERE’S NO ACCOUNTING FOR TASTES.

As most of you know, I’m off, tomorrow, for 3½ months in India, starting with a three-week trek in Sikkim with my two daughters, Cary and Martha. Sikkim is way up north and will be my taste of winter for this year. Am I blessed or am I blessed? This time I shall be looking at Mt. Kangchenjunga, the third highest mountain in the world, from the Indian side instead of from Nepal, where I trekked for a month to its base camp in 1996. It was a wondrous sight and I’m sure will be just as wondrous from Sikkim.

Martha will leave on Dec. 10th and Cary and I will spend the rest of the month in Dharamsala, visiting our Tibetan friends, the TCV (Tibetan Children’s Village) schools in Dharamsala and Bir, and the lovely mountain village of Tso Pema.

In January I’ll be on my own, but have enough alternatives to choke one of the many elephants  (and tigers) I hope to see in the wild animal parks that abound in central and southern Indian. I plan to meet up in Tiruvannamalai with Lee Compton, from Whidbey Island, with whom I spent some time in Myanmar in 2007, and three weeks later on the beaches of Gokarna near Goa with Gullvi Eriksson, with whom I trekked in Norway and Sweden in 2005. Some of the places I have my eye on are Khajuraho enroute to Bandhavgarh National Park; Mangalore; Mysore; Hyderabad; Bangalore: Kerala; Periyar Wildlife Sanctuary in the Cardoman Hills; and the Ellora and Ajanta caves. India is one big country and the guidebook, alone, takes up a good hunk of my daypack. I’ll probably be traveling by train, but who knows? Things have changed since I spent time in India twenty years ago and wrote about it in Madam. Those were the days when just making a call home was an all-day adventure. It’s a whole new world out there! So keep an eye on my blog posts. I’ll try to be brief, but hope to hit the high spots.

I’m overjoyed that Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel laureate, has finally been freed by the military dictatorship in Myanmar, after spending fourteen of the last twenty years under house arrest. I urge you to check the web and follow the events as they unfold. I had planned to visit for a month in February, but changed plans at the last minute. It was just too difficult, logistically.  But I shall return soon.  Suu Kyi, whose father was assassinated in 1947, was duly elected in 1990, and immediately imprisoned by the military junta. She heads the National League for Democracy (NLD), and is still wildly popular and a symbol of hope for the Burmese people. I think the military has greatly underestimated her support among the people and somehow thinks that because an election was held, which has been condemned by most countries as a sham, she would be sidelined. As she says, there is much to be done and she intends to continue the fight for democracy in Myanmar. This is a struggle worth watching and supporting.

My blog would not be complete without mentioning at least one outstanding play. This month it is The Pitman Painters on Broadway, brought to us from England and written by Lee Hall, who also wrote Billy Elliot the Musical. Don’t miss it. We also had a concert of Mahler’s 1st Symphony at the Plainfield Symphony. This is the year of Mahler and we started it with a bang (and the crash of cymbals!).

In conclusion, let me share with you the waning days of autumn as seen through my bedroom window. This gorgeous maple tree is so intense in the early morning sun that its reflection imbues my room with a rosy glow, filling my heart with warmth and happiness as only nature’s perfection can.

And down the street, not to be undone, we have a blaze of yellow that dominates the entire hill.

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