The collected emails of one person's travels through India
A series of dispatches sent during two trips:
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Most everything our friends who have been here before told us was all well meaning, all true (to their perception) and all meaningless. My reality is almost all experiential/reactive at this juncture: yes you read the travel guide, make a little bit of a plan, then it is time to let go and see what transpires. Possibly one major difference between my travels so far and those of other friends could be the difference between north (where most people spent most of their time) and south India (where we are spending all of our time - next stop for me though is Mumbai, where I'll be spending my birthday this year if all goes to plan... so hello blackened lungs and pandemonium). I haven't found it that difficult to ignore constant staring and solicitation, though I know the real test of that is to come with the big city.
Our first non airplane experience was actually Singapore. We had an eight hour layover so we decided to go into town and visit (where else..) the Little India neighborhood. Little India - kind of like small world, like nothing like India, but I digress. Before hitting Little India we have a bowl of soup of some type of vegetable matter, which is one of the tastiest soup concoctions i've ever slurped down. The neighborhood is one of the few (in the extremely limited view of Singapore that we had) older areas, lovely cholla style temple, everything relatively orderly, very nice to not be in an airplane or an airport for a few hours.
Late that night we arrived in Trivandrum, met up with Leah's mom and got in the taxi for the three hour ride to the ashram. After about a day I found myself getting restless at the ashram, crazy roaming mind wants to experience phenomenon, not contemplate.. There was also (despite the obviousness of the complete change of physical surroundings) just too much familiarity with ashram life here and when we would visit Leah's mom at the ashram back in the states. Of course it was good to see Leah's mom, but the days couldn't pass soon enough for me after awhile to get on the road and begin my solo trip up to Ajanta and Ellora caves. Probably just proving my un-godliness, it was at the ashram that I came down with my mild foot infection. I was given a pair of cheap rubber sandals to parade around the ashram site in, but my chubby soft feet were no match for the rubber straps so before you know it an open sore appears and after that follows an infection.
So, with slightly bulbous foot Leah and I catch the bus to Cochi, main transit hub for that part of Kerala (the ashram is the the backwaters, very much remote of course) and first destination. We take in kathakali dancing and carnatic music concerts (nadaswaram, slightly akin to a giant shenai, was particular amazing in jugalbandi (duet) with violin) and see the touristy things like the palace, synagogue, churches, etc from the 1500's. It was also here that the slightly bulbous foot became the swollen pink throbbing foot. After a day of antibiotics the swelling was down considerably, now it is almost back to normal. It is also here that Leah and I part company for the time being, her to spend time with the mom back at the ashram and I to inch northwards.
Not yet ready to spend an entire day on a train, I decided to go to Panaji, the capital of Goa. this will be a way to spend some time in Goa while avoiding the whole traveler goa scene as it were. I just arrived here so not much to say besides it's very relaxed (comparatively speaking) seeming, even more so than the Kerala city life. Had breakfast at a Gujarati place, where faces were glued to the tv watching the still unfolding Gujarat temple massacre (45-50 killed by Islamic fundamentalist ultras/militants), images of Indian army men with bazookas and automatic weapons climbing walls and ladders to storm the temple and flush out the remaining ultras. Of course it is a bit difficult to contrast this with what has been the experience of events unfolding before me, it seems to be another world, in a way I feel more removed than when I do when viewing such images back at home. It is easy at times like this to get back into my "the only great contribution of religion is in the realm of aesthetics" mindset, but of course such thought negates too much...
U.S. out of my Consciousness!
I had fully intended to send this out a few days ago, when I had a large amount of time to pass in Aurangabad before the train arrived, but right as I was about to begin an email from our subletter came in that our apartment had been broken into. Important things first, the cats were fine though spooked by the affair. It appears that the only thing missing is the credit cards, which set off a ludicrous scenario of my calling the companies in order to prove that i didn't orchestrate the break in from here. Selfishly I resent the intrusion of home upon my current circumstances, and if anything it has just helped to further contrast the differences between where i'm from and where i'm at. Add to that w.'s idiotic countenance beaming from newspapers and t.v. screens in his (here universally despised - everyone I have talked to about the issue from middle class holliday reveller in Panaji to apparently more politically oriented gent on the train leaving Mumbai) warcry against Iraq, and it is almost like home resents being left behind, and needs to reassert itself like a petulant bully child.
The first stop on my solo travel was Panaji, capital of Goa. Chosen for it's proximity to Old Goa and as a good place to cut the train ride to Mumbai in half, Panaji is a city with a Portugese look in many areas. Since the Portugeese weren't sent flying back to Portugal from here until the early 60's (not very long ago :-) this is no surprise. Panaji is largely a stop for Indian travelers and some europeans on their way to the famous beaches. Right off I spot a listing for a harbor boat cruise promising Goan folk music and dances, thinking it would be a good way to relax a bit I climb aboard. Well, if this boat ride was any indication, Goan folk music is loud bhangra pop music... still the ride was fun, watching boys go crazy when dancing on their own, then becoming very meek when the mc announces a mixed dance (until then dances had gone back and forth between being only for girls, then for boys, etc.) towards the end of the cruise.
Next day was the day of the bandh, or general strike, (first of two i've experienced so far). In response to the Gujarat temple massacre, one of the heads of a hindu right wing party (saying something along the lines of secular attitudes being to blame for the attack as well) called for a bandh, which in Panaji was observed almost by all. People were intimated into keeping their shutters rolled down for the day, in fear of rock throwing shiv sena (hindu right wing religious thugs) goons forcing them to shut. It was so odd to see the thriving town turn into a ghost town, and it was almost safe to cross the street the traffic was decreased so. Hopping into an autorickshaw (i'm convinced nothing would keep them from their duties, when i've arrived in towns well before sunrise they were at the ready.) I head off to Old Goa, the site of the original Portugese colonial capital and home of many gigantic churches and some ruins. This being a place only for tourists and pilgrims, the bandh has no effect here. I spend some time going to the various cathedrals, after awhile stopping at the gate of the old muslim fort. The gate is all that remains of the structure, the christ people acting as conquerers before them had demolished the structure upon their victory. That night back in town a group of (Australian?) marathon runners, called hashers, come trotting through the city dressed largely in pink and yellow outfits. This alone would have been enough of a spectacle, but add the fact that the bandh had almost all business shut down and this procession of ghostfaces had what seemed to be every male in Panaji out gawking and laughing.
Ah, Mumbai.. site of my only major emotional meltdown of the trip so far. I arrived late, got off at the wrong station, took a taxi to the Victoria station area where cheap (by Mumbai standards) lodging is to be found. The taxi driver tried to pull a scam, hotels are booked... finally after walking blocks down homeless plastic tents and people sleeping in the extremely busy street, stepping over shit and rats I find a place with a room. Right then and there I wanted to leave the next morning, but after watching an hour or so of what I'll call bhajan tv I calm down and decide to stay.
The next morning was my birthday. To take a break from the humid heat and pollution I decided to go to Elephanta Island which is just a short boat ride from Mumbai. The contrast was of course amazing. Suddenly Iím on a calm jungle island, monkeys everywhere and some ancient temples carved out of the rock of the island called cave temples. (bats of course were everywhere as well.) It seemed 20 degrees cooler as well. Returning to the city I do some aimless wandering , at the end of the day I watch a wonderful (what looked to be a 70's performance) broadcast of a Hindustani vocal/sarangi performance, the stage decked out in lime green and orange giving the appearance that the musicians were performing atop a giant Indian candy.
Once you get away from the areas where cheap travelers are corralled into, there is much about Mumbai which makes it worth coming to. The last day in the city I take the buses all over, towards the end stopping off at Mani Bhavan, where Gandhi stayed while in Mumbai and the Quit India movement was born. The next day was Gandhi Day, so school kids were all over the place to see his spinning wheel, rope bed and little minature displays from various events of his life (these sort of miniatures seem to be a prominent feature of indian museums).
Getting to Victoria station with a bit less time then I had anticipated, it was back on the train and over to Aurangabad, the jumping off point to visit the Ajanta and Ellora cave temples and the original goal of my solo trip northwards. Aurangabad is a large town which would probably have next to no tourism were it not for the caves. The Bibi Ka Moqbara (aka Taj Mahal of the south, or the small/fake Taj, derided by some locals for not being made of all real marble, being of a smaller scale, etc.) is in town and since I'm not seeing the taj this time it was still a impressive site. The cave temples were just amazing, and pictures (if they come out) won't do it justice. First caves that I visit were Ajanta, the ancient Buddhist cave temples going back to 250 b.c. Amazing sculpture in nearly every cave, grandiose buddhas and intricate detail, and the most incredible paintings on the walls. There are 30 caves in all, and after being rushed through by the friendly and knowledgeable India tourism guide I spend more time going back through the various structures. Just to think about the amount of work that even went into the smallest of the caves is staggering. Next day off to the Ellora caves. These are also around 30 in all and not exclusively Buddhist as there are also Hindu and Jain caves, with a couple of centuries of co-existence between the Buddhist and Hindus (the later of the Buddhist caves tend to take on a Hindu like construction). These are "newer caves", going back only 1500 years I think. Also here is a giant hindu stone temple which was carved out of a single rock. It is massive, larger than the Parthenon in Greece. Every corner seems to have detail carved in. This is where I slipped and dropped my camera, it seems ok but time will tell if my memories won't have photos to aid them.
Thus almost ends my solo travels, fittingly with a two day train ride to meet up with Leah and her mom in central Kerala. There is nothing like an Indian train ride... the singsong voices of the various food and drink hawkers, businessmen playing cards and families discussing matters, disfigured beggars crawling through in regular intervals. True, towards the end of the ride I was starting to get a bit stir crazy, but the fact it took almost two days on a form of transit for me to get to that state must attest to something...
Dasara has been cancelled
After ending my two day train journey, it was a short bus ride to Kottayam, where Leah and her mother were waiting to meet me. After riding through the desert like starkness of Andra Pradesh, the lush verdant surroundings of this area were quite a contrast. I had been a day off in my projected time of arrival, so Leah and her mother had filed a police report on me. The police wisely told them that the trains are often times delayed (although in this instance the miscalculation was purely my own). It was funny to go to the police station not long after my arrival, and meeting amused policemen who called out "oh yes, steventobin" upon seeing me.
We stayed in the city overnight, then took a winding mountain road bus trip up to the town of Kumily which is the gateway to the Periyar Wildlife Reserve. It's almost cool enough to wear a sweater here. The reserve is called a tiger sanctuary, though sightings of tigers are quite rare. The only way to tour the park on the day we arrive is by boat, as all the guides for hiking and elephant rides were in town preparing for a parade commemorating world wildlife day. The boat ride was pleasant, and we did see some wild red haired elephants. For me it was good to see the pachyderms free of beast of burden duties. It was on the walk back to town that we saw a giant squirrel, a black monkey (as opposed to the grey coated ones which were quite prevalent) and other amazing critters. Arrived back in town in time for the world wildlife day parade, which as far as indian festivals go was quite sedate. Bored girls waiving flags leading off the proceedings, though some rambunctious boys dressed as animals and plastic monsters and hijiras livened up the festivities.
Here is where we parted way with Leah's mother, who went back to the ashram. For us, it was back on the bus (this one blaring tamil pop music the whole way.. some of it was perfect driving music) and over to the city of Madurai, site of the giant Sri Meenakshi temple. Our hotel was a short walk from this temple, which incorporates many smaller temples and a large water tank within its walls. Here we witness a lovely performance of vocal carnatic music, the sweet voices of the singers echoing throughout the 400+ year old space on a soundsystem that would put metallica to shame. After the vocal music was a bharata natyam dance performance. While in Madurai I experienced the second bandh (caled a general strike in tamil nadu because it seems "bandhs" have been outlawed) over the cauvery water crisis (more on this later.) Unlike in Panaji, many places stay open and previous day preparations (buying water and snacks) turn out to have been for naught.
Taking the only respite from busrides since my return to the south, we take an overnight train journey intending to get to Mysore. However, when we reach our transfer station, we are told we will have to take a bus the rest of the way as the train tracks were torn out by farmers a few days ago (protesting the release of river water to the neighboring state) and had yet to be repaired. Even though late rainfall was alleviating the crisis a bit, the monsoon this year and last was insufficient so the states of Karnatika and Tamil Nadu are suffering through a bit of a drought. Because of this, the states are engaged in a water war, with Karnatika being in the position of power as the Cauvery river has a dam over here. The government is trying to get more water released to Tamil Nadu but the farmers in Karnatika seem largely opposed to such a move, attacking trains and jumping into the river to make their displeasure known. In turn, the central minister of Karnatika is refusing to release the entire amount of water to Tamil Nadu that the government has requested in order to head off farmer unrest.
We decided to go to Mysore for the famous Dasara festival. We weren't traveling during a major festival season so we thought this might be the only chance we had to take in such an event. However, displeasure over the water situation lead to just about every event planned being cancelled. Wherever we went the refrain became numbing.. cancelled, cancelled, cancelled (ironically, in tamil nadu, which remember was the state being denied water, activities were picking up for the Navarati festival. I could be wrong, but I believe that both Dasara and Navarati are festivals for the goddess Durga). Mysore is a pleasant small city in it's own right, home to an outrageous palace, still completely intact as it dates back only to the early 1900's. It is in the courtyard of the palace the the scaled back Dasara procession is held, a collection of odd and wonderful brass bands, decorated elephants and military pomp. Outside the palace, a somewhat pathetic (although it was redeemed somewhat by the wrestling float and some festive marching bands) "People's Dasara" procession takes place, this is marred by a bit of a hindutva (religious chauvinism as opposed to celebration) presence, and not many of the people that viewed the palace procession bother to witness this one.
From Mysore it is a short ride to Sravanabelagola, major Jain pilgrimage site and second most relaxing place i've been while here. The landscape is just incredible, large boulders everywhere.. the pilgrimage sites are on two hills here, vindhyagiri hill is where the giant monolith (either the largest in the world or the largest in india depending on the source) of the Jain teacher Bahubali stands, chandragiri hill contains an enclosure of thirteen or so small Jain temples. Most of these structures date back to the 900's, and as mentioned the atmosphere was very relaxed and powerful. Cool music of nadaswaram/saxophone/percussion at the Bahubal monolith as well.
As can be just about counted on with a computer here, I just lost a large chunk of what was written (I try to remember to save to draft as I go along) so my hopes to bring all of you up to date as to where we are at will not be realized tonight, it is time to get out and breathe air again.
More songs about trains and stupas
If the computer stays friendly and doesn't crash on me, at long last I hope to be up to date on the excursion notes. Both times I tried to send out the details on this latter part of the trip the computer crashed or froze - perhaps dharma networking didn't want to send out this tale of mild drunken wedding debauchery..
Leaving Sravanbelagola we take a short bus trip to Hassan. Hassan, like Aurangabad, would have few euro travelers were it not for its' proximity to two landmarks, in this instance the ancient temples of Belur and Halebid (Halebid was the capital of the Hoysala empire). The structures here are older though not as extensive as their more famous counterparts in Hampi. Built in the 1100's and never completely finished despite a century or so of work (conquests tend to disrupt such endeavors) these temples are incredible monuments of the "every square inch must have an image" craft, especially the outside walls. The structures are carved entirely out of soapstone. It was I believe at the Jain temple compound in Halebid that the caretaker struck at the different ridges on the inner pillars to demonstrate to us the different tones of each ridge, and my mind conjures up images of south Indian jaltarang music, (jaltarang being pitched clay bowls) and I wonder if this is where the music had its genesis. Walking to the bus stand in Belur we are taken by an incredibly loud screeching sound, we look up to see a tree completely covered in bats and egrets perfectly illuminated by the setting sun.
It is at the Hassan bus station the next day that punk rock experience first came in handy, throwing myself into the pit that was frenzied boys vying for a seat on the bus. Seats secured, we settle in for an uphill climb to the hill town of Madikeri, capital of the Coorg region (home to the indigenous Kodava people) and location of the world's loudest insect (louder than the passing vehicles). Also home to Abbi Falls, something of a nameplace redundancy as the word abbi translates as falls. Still, a lovely lush place to wish you had a swimsuit at.
Walking down the main road the next day we decide to investigate the source of some wonderful music, and find ourselves invited guests at a wedding. As a boy I got to drink (watered down as much as I could) brandy and dance (where punk rock came in handy again :-) in fact I didn't have an option much of the time, if I sat down someone would put a glass of brandy in my hand and whisk me off to the dance floor. It seems Leah had the more intelligent conversations of the evening, though we both had a drunken meaning of life conversation with the super friendly host of the affair. The food was among the best i've had at a large gathering, spicy eggplant and riceballs. Leah had one of every animal that walks the surface of the earth (the Kodavas are not vegetarians by and large).
Scraping ourselves up the next morning, it is off to a complete change of atmosphere, the tibetan settlement of Sera. Home of the largest monastery in exile as well as a sizeable nunnery and everyday folks, it is the largest tibetan settlement in India. At night the town is filled with monks engaged in stylized vibrant debate, wandering between settlements the sound of distant horns and clashing cymbals are matched with the buzzing of night insects. Located here is a massive temple, filled with giant buddahs and Tibetan imagery.
People are friendly and conversations are easily struck up here, conversely our paleness holds no interest to the Tibetans in and of itself. Here no interactions are initiated as an invitation for potential commerce as is commonplace everywhere else. After a couple of nights at the most relaxed location of our journey it is time to begin our return to Kerala, via a day of winding rollercoaster downhill stop/start buses and (thankfully) one train ride to the north Kerala city of Kozhikode. We had been in the (as things go here) higher elevations for awhile, so the muggy hot takes awhile to readjust to (I am still in that process). In Kozhikode there is an academy for the ancient martial art (they say the mother of all martial arts) of Kalarippayattu. After a extremely oily (though true to the claim, rejuvenating) ayurvedic massage, we are invited to watch a practice session of the high kicking/shields clashing/belt swords flailing artform, alternating between extreme grace and borderline brawl. That night we go to the beach and light off some fireworks (much to the delight of some local fishermen) as a sort of farewell to India gesture as such an activity would definitely be frowned upon at our next and final destination, the ashram where Leah's mom lives. One last train ride (this one an overnight rainy excursion, the floors of the vehicle were a wet & muddy mess) down south, and we're back at Amritapuri. Don't worry, this time I'm leaving my shoes on, no time for further incidents from my left foot.
Yes, we are back in tidy little San Francisco. Returned yesterday before noon, went through zombie like motions until 7, then passed out. i've been up more or less since 4:30, Leah seems to have defeated jetlag as she is still sleeping.
The ashram turned out to be a good place to terminate the travels. Unlike when I arrived, when everyone and everything was rush busy hurry in preparation for the gurus birthday celebrations, the atmosphere was pretty relaxed upon return. It could also be that since I was anxious to get traveling at first that such a contained atmosphere just didnít jibe well. The orderliness probably served as a good transition back to this land. Had a good time making a racket on our cheap instruments and singing bhajans with one of the patients at the clinic, taking a relaxing short backwaters canoe ride, walking along the arabian sea and talking with some of the folks.
On our last day took one last train ride to Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala and the site of our departure. The airport is very small, somewhat akin to taking an international flight out of a greyhound bus terminal. Not enough time between flights to investigate the cities we caught connecting flights in so I can't tell you anything about Seoul besides the airport is just like any other international airport, ie a shopping mall. In Seoul, bay area experimental musician William Winant was on the same plane we were on, which brought about an increased sense of recognition of the familiar and an acceptance that the travels had come to an end.
from the second trip:
Yes, of course not
Greetings from a fast broadband connection in Mamallapuram, India. Iím only on the internet tonight because the dance festival we were attending got rained out, so I don't have any sort of notes with me - so off the top of my head..
At this point I am very glad to be removed from my everyday happenings. Tomatoís declining health and death were weighing quite heavy on me, and at this moment Iím not looking forward to returning to the apartment without her presence.
On the flight at first it was pretty rough - lots of turbulence and I was just about at the vomiting point. Luckily that cleared up after an hour or so and I passed out on again off again for the duration. After a longer seeming than the previous trip (but of course it wasnít) time we deplane and catch the flight to Singapore from the Hong Kong shopping mall (excuse me airport). In Singapore get caught in the rain, have the obligatory yummy bowl of lahksa soup then more or less sleep the rest of the way to Trivandrum international.
As soon as we get off the airplane and walk down the plane steps to the bus that takes you to the terminal the smell of Trivandrum hits - the smell of burning everything mixed with mold held together by the unrelenting Kerala humidity and heat. Before leaving I asked Leah if she could tell her mom (henceforth referred to as Priya) not to whisk us off to the ashram that she's living at straight away like she did last time (adding a 2 hour taxi trip on top of all the air travel just completed) but to spend a night or two in Trivandrum, and luck be on my side she agreed. Out of the terminal no hassles and off to a boxy inn and pleasant slumber land.
Trivandrum is the capital of Kerala and one of two large cities in the state. First morning we went to a nearby ganesha temple that has a seemingly constant intake of devotees whom pay homage to the elephantine remover of obstacles by throwing and smashing coconuts near the entryway of the temple. Occasionally joined by the vibrant sounds of the temple musicians, my jetlagged self stood in the center of the happenings, trying to be as invisible as possible, which of course is impossible for a white guy in a Kenyan shirt in a coconut smashing ganesha temple. Later that night we had wanted to go to a magic show, but it turned out that one would need to book a day in advance in order for them to gather up the magicians I suppose, so we went to a Katikali performance instead. This was a fortunate turn of events in my opinion, as the show was maybe the best Iíve seen, the percussion accompaniment so furious at times that gamelan like overtones were being produced.
Some wanderings and death defying street crossings later, it's off to Priya's ashram. Sheís living at the ashram of the hugging guru, as those tapped in to new ageness might know her, her devotees call her Amma. She is a very generous and kind spirit. The ashram is huge, high rise flats rising up from the coconut trees. A combination of devotion and one of the slickest media/marketing campaigns around has brought much worldwide renown to the guru, with many westerners living here on a permanent basis.
I wish to state that while I have respect with the guru and admire that a large portion of this multimillion dollar enterprise goes to worthwhile charities like hospitals, schools and homes, after a few days the glassy eyed contingent starts to flip me out, and at times Iím tempted to just go across the river and spend all day with the villagers drinking totty.. The most peaceful activity at the ashram in my experience is to get up early and watch all the birds flying from tree to tree while listening to the energetic songs blaring from sound systems further downstream.
I was prepared to take off for some solo traveling to Mamallapuram when Priya suggested she was ready to go traveling with us. This is a wholesome development in the trip, I mean I haven't gone on a family vacation in many a year. A part of me still wants to do some solo traveling, perhaps this can be accommodated on the return portion of the trip (we are inching our way up to Varanasi, and will need to return to Trivandrum for the return flight) - or perhaps I will need to just let go of the idea of travel on my own this time around. I will say that so far things aren't flaring up all that often between us - a good road combination of folks).
Mamallapuram would be a very easy place to stay for a long while; it's easy to understand why it's a popular westerner "backpacker" destination. It's on the beach so the temperatures are only in the 70's-low 80's, stunning stone carved temples and cave temples from the 600-700's all over the place (most famous being the shore temple and the five rathas although there are rock carvings and cave temples in many other locations).
Itís always the first sighting of monkeys that makes me feel like Iíve arrived, and the monkey critters here are numerous, depending on where in town you happen to be. In front of one cave temple Leah and Priya sat down for oranges, which soon had to be surrendered to our pals in evolution.
Right now there's a month long dance festival with performances of various styles of Indian classical dance every night. So far there's been great bharat natcham and the rain shortened kathak dance, weather permitting next up is odissea. Like I said, it would be an easy place to throw down for a while.
However, the Joydev Mela Baul festival up north in west Bengal is a calling, so on Monday it's back on the bus for the two-hour trip to Chennai, then the long train ride to Kolkata and the various train/bus connections to the location of the festival. If we make it through that haul, everything else will be relatively easy transportation wise while we are here.
Crow eats rat, or the road to Joydev Mela
One more night in Mamallapuram, one last evening with three great dancers (the dancer rained out the night before is given another chance to perform) then it is off to Chennai in order to begin the long train journey northwards, a 30 hour + adventure to be precise.
We arrive at the Chennai main train station in the heat of the afternoon, and am almost overcome with the smell of shit. The aroma outside the station is inescapable, and I flash back to my arrival in Mumbai on the last trip. We have some time to kill so luckily Leah remembers the neighborhood where the main old temple is located and off we go in the uncrowded elevated train. It was very good for all of us that Leah remembered this neighborhood from when she stayed in Chennai last time, as the atmosphere is completely transformed. The neighborhood is amazingly relaxed for a big city, and the temple grounds are quite tranquil. I buy a jasmine garland for the return trip to the train station, to put up to my nose when assaulted by the aromas that await. However, it is nightfall when we return so the attack that I imaged was awaiting doesn't materialize. A few hours later we are on our train north to Kolkata and the longest haul on Indian rail of this trip begins.
When we book our tickets north we are told that sleeper class is booked up, that the only thing available is ac class. For those that haven't been to India before you may think that ac (air conditioned) would be the way to go, but besides the extra expense the ac is always cranked up to near chilling levels, and you don't get the fresh air of outside like you do on sleeper class. Bracing for a long haul of chilly conditions, I am at first somewhat glad when the ac doesn't seem to be working very well in our car for some reason. It makes it easier to sleep at first, but then you have to consider that what you have is a car with neither outdoor circulation nor artificial ac circulation. Luckily there are overhead fans on the car, preventing me from standing in front of the open door between cars too much to get some air.
Mangy after the lengthy journey (but somehow everyone else that took the trip looks fresh and ready for the day), we arrive at Kolkata train station. Another problem when we booked our tickets was that we were told there was no service available from Howrah (Kolkata) station to Santineketan, the main bus junction to Kenduli (the village where the Joydev Mela is held). Seeing that Durgapur is close, we book a ticket to there instead. Well, when we got to Howrah we noticed that there is a train called the Santineketan express. Sometimes having three heads when traveling is better than one, but in this instance all three brains must have been set to off mode. Instead of eating the cost of the ticket to Durgapur and getting the train to Shantinekeitan instead, we forge on and go to Durgapur. When we get off the train, an agent of Indian railways demands to see our ticket, probably convinced that we must have detrained at the wrong station. Perhaps we did, but this was the station we paid to go to.
We go to the bus stand trying to figure out if we would be able to catch a bus to the Joydev Mela if for some reason we decided to make this locale our place to stay. While of course we'll never know for sure because none of us speak Bengali, it doesn't seem very promising. Lucking into a place to stay where our room for the evening faces the main road that doesn't seem to ever quite down, we decide to go to Santineketan the next day. Our journey to see and hear the Bauls is turning into a bit of a pilgrimage into the unknown, planning things on the fly and not being certain that we are going to the right places for certain. Perhaps this is as it should be.
In the morning we get a ticket to Santineketan , but it is on a local train. On long distance trains there are sections where everyone has an assigned seat, but the local trains are just like the busses - this means everyone just piles on, and there is absolutely no room to move. A pushy but helpful gent suggests we take a luggage car, as they are not as crowded. He is right of course, but there are no seats - basically it is like hoping on an empty boxcar. Sharing the boxcar with some card playing Bauls and others that ask the inescapable "where from?" question, we take the relatively short ride to Santineketan boxcar hobo style and after awhile don't regret it.
Santineketan is the peaceful abode that it's name translates into. I can't believe that cars are greatly outnumbered by bicycles here, and the place is incredibly clean. This is the home of the Tagore University, with a large number of students from China and some Tibetans attending as well. West Bengal is Kali and Durga country to be sure, Kali's crazy eyed blood bearded countenance beams at you from just about everywhere.
Here we stay at a midrange place as the lodge that had been recommended to us was booked up for the mela, but after we figure out that it is only 2-3$ more to stay here than it would have been to move to a far shabbier place, and we have hot water here... well the decision to stay at slightly more upscale place while here wasn't that difficult of one to make.
Yes, hot water is important. Unlike the south, when it is always sweaty hot, here it gets cool to cold at night and in the evening. It is also dry up here. And fog in the morning and evenings. Overall, the weather isn't that different than San Francisco, only a bit warmer during the daytime.
We went to the bus stand to see about getting a ride to the Joydev Mela the next day. As soon as we arrive the non stop din of people shouting "Joydev, Joydev" or "mela, mela" convinces us that indeed it won't be hard at all to get a bus to the mela from here. The stream of buses going to the mela seems unending, and this is still the day before the mela officially begins.
Next morning we wake up a bit early, head over to the bus stand, and it's off to the village of Kenduli for the Joydev Mela. The trip to Kenduli proves uneventful, sure the bus is crowded with passengers both inside and on top of the coach (wonder if the fare taker tries to collect from these passengers) but that is just the way buses are.
We arrive at Kenduli, and the extent of the swarm of people (which I had imagined earlier) begins to become apparent as we approach the temple, which serves as the main landmark throughout the day. It is a reconstructed terra cotta temple from the 1600's, and the original walls that remain are incredible.
The mela is laid out in a semi circle, with the temple kind of serving as the center. It is also near here where the main stage is located. The Joydev Mela is an annual ceremony honoring the Bengali poet Joydev, and throughout the day Bengali folk musicians sing his songs over incredibly loud over modulated p.a. systems. All the performances happen inside special tents, and it would be impossible to count the number of tents. Even more numerous than the performance tents are stalls selling an incredible variety of useless plastic crap like squeeze toys and other goods. Anyone that thinks Americans have the useless plastic goods market covered would be in for a shock. To make matters worse, most of these devices seem engineered to last only one or two days, adding to the massive garbage piles almost instantly.
As the day progresses the number of attendees just continues to increase, the unceasing waves of humanity are just incredible. At times if you are not in a tent you have no option but to walk, stopping at any one location becomes a challenge.
We discover that the more well known Bauls do not come out to perform until sundown. We discover this from a camera crew of the national news who pull us aside for an interview to get our opinion about the mela, since we are seemingly the only non-Bengalis in attendance. The day performances are mainly other forms of Bengali folk music, usually of one of three types. There are ensembles that are more or less traditional, storytellers with a drummer on either side of them oft times dancing excitedly, and groups that "enhance" their sound with Casio or other such keyboards.
More time passes and more and more people arrive. Eventually the combination of dust and beedee smoke saturates everything. We find a restaurant with an actual toilet (Indian style) upstairs, so travel in circles and return to this location as needed, us being delicate westerners unwilling to do our business at the otherwise beautiful pond on the outskirts of the mela (near the county fair part of the event - Ferris wheel, circular train and two headed fetuses in jars freak show).
We head back to the main stage, and enjoy several excellent performances, mainly Baul but one group performs in a more standard Hindustani light classical style. They are great, but many people leave while they play. The main stage tent is quite large, maybe room for a thousand people or more. We never get under the tent, but manage to get quite close, joining the even larger number of people surrounding the tent. The performances are uniformly excellent, but sadly the ektar never gets miced, leaving one of the distinguishing features of baul music inaudible throughout.
This is a lunar celebration, so Iím sure the performances would have gone on well into the morning. However, we are unwilling to join those who are sleeping on the ground, so we make our way back to the buses back to the bougie comfort of our inn in Santineketan.
Mercifully, the ride back is only 45 minutes as opposed to the 2-hour ride getting here. I suppose that is the difference between traveling during the day and later at night, when the traffic has been reduced to vehicles coming to/from the mela. Back in Santineketan, and it seems like the quietest spot on the globe in contrast to the mela, as well as the cleanest.
This is our last day at peaceful abode; I thank Tagore for establishing his university here, which made the town possible. Tomorrow it is off to Varanasi.
Varanasi (for the most part)
As a rule trains have been running late on this trip. Somehow last time they were pretty much on time, guess they are making up for it this time around. We arrived at Varanasi junction station 2 or more hours late, but someone is still waiting for us from our hotel to whisk us off. Even budget places have taken to meeting people at the station, to save them the experience of dealing with the onslaught of auto rickshaw drivers who are paid to take you to a particular place of lodging, no use telling them to take you somewhere else.
Varanasi can seem ancient, but in fact the city has been sacked so many times by different conquerors that there is little there that is more than 200-300 years old. Still, the ghats are an incredible site. India is already so much more life/death human/other animals intertwined than San Francisco is, and nowhere Iíve been do these interactions play out more vividly than in Varanasi. The constant parade of corpses being brought down to the Ganges for cremation through the crowded narrow chauks; monkeys, bullocks, goats, dogs all vying for space alongside people on the ghats. Also inescapable from this scene are the droves of European & Japanese travelers, as much a part of Varanasi now as the ancient rituals pilgrims travel from all across India to perform. One negative aspect of this is that the cuisine tries to appeal to the travelersí tastes, with every place attempting many items but mastering few. It can be a challenge to find a good Indian veg place in the chouks.
We decided to take a side trip to nearby Sarnath, which is where Buddha delivered his first teachings. Most ruins of a once giant monastery, two giant stupas remain, one from (I believe) the 1100's and one (mostly ruin) erected by Ashoka in sometime b.c. the later structure is believed to be the spot where the teaching was delivered, and there is an undeniable power about the location for me. We join a group of mostly Buddhist pilgrims in circumambulating the stupa for a while, then go off - eventually winding up at the nearby Thai temple (Buddhists from around the world have built temples here, representatives of the styles of temples found in their country).
Back in Varanasi that evening and it is time for our own ritual. We brought two strands of Tomato's fur from one of the last times we combed her, with the intention of placing them into the Ganges. I decided that it would be best to do this at night, when the ghats are surprisingly empty and touts and others wonít surround us. We put the fur into a candleboat and pushed it into the river, despite my best efforts I broke down sobbing. Farewell friend...
The next day, which was supposed to be our last full day in town, we took a riverboat out in an attempt to get to the southernmost ghats. our boatman must have been a novice, or perhaps he was getting back at us for negotiating a cheap price (based on what people had been offering us rides for earlier) but he rows in anything but a straight line, while other boats going either direction seem to have no difficulty whatsoever in accomplishing this task. At one point we see a smooth object that we can't identify. Not that we asked the boatman to investigate this, but in his stop/start zigzagged way he comes closer to the object until it is unmistakable what it is - the bloated floating corpse of a drowned pilgrim.
Once back on shore, we walk the rest of the way to the southern ghats. We soon find out that shortly after the main burning ghat, the ghats are more or less empty and not that interesting. We made our way back to the chauk and then the main road, looking for a place to eat. Away from the chauk, Varanasi could pretty much be any mid size Indian city with constant traffic coming from all directions. At last we discover a place, but for the first time in the trip I just feel old, broken, and worn out. I begin to feel zero energy and just want to rest, although I don't share this with Leah and Priya. Turns out for the best that I didn't request a return to the room, after allowing myself to slump into a virtual no-thought zone for awhile I later feel absorbed by the fantastical aarti (fire offering) ritual to the river with all its sound and ceremony (even with the at times endless stream of children trying to sell you postcards, flowerboats, etc.) every evening in Varanasi had small performances of Hindustani music, but the one this evening is a nice but almost excessive presentation, with vocal, Bansuri and Sarod performances followed by kathak dance. Would have been a perfect send off to Varanasi, but of course things can never go that smoothly.
We picked up our forward journey tickets; the longest travel leg on this trip, in the morning and then it was off to the train station. We arrive at the station, board our train, and see that our seats are occupied. Some back and forth discussion follows, but we discover that the tickets that were sold to us were for the next day. Itís incredible that no one among the three of us checked the dates on the tickets before leaving the bookstore ďtravel agentĒ. Luckily we are able to book another train for that evening, a few rupees poorer but hopefully back on guard about such dealings involving 3rd parties.
We decide to break the long journey up and spend the night in Itarsi, a town not far from Bhopal. When in Itarsi, stay in the rail station retiring rooms, eat at the train station, and leave. The rooms are amazingly quiet for being in a train station and in much better shape than the few I saw in town when I checked.
Eight in the morning and the train that will take us further south is supposed to arrive. True to form it is late, but not by all that much. The main delay is in leaving the station, where we wait while some wheels on a car are being replaced. On this train a very gregarious ex-army nurse (and occasionally her tank driver husband) befriend us with tales of her life and salty dog style jokes, perhaps they wanted to see if they could make Priya the devotee blush.
At long last we get off the train in some town (the name of which Iíve completely forgotten) and begin the road to Hampi. Two commuter trains and a rickshaw ride later, here we are in Hampi.
Another traveller locale to be sure, but the magnificent boulder covered landscape and incredible ruins have already left quite an impression, and we haven't had time to investigate them yet. So goodbye for now, it's time to go walking.
Hampi - Return
In Hampi it's great to be back among the stones and boulders. Here there are temples and other structures (almost all ruins, some in very good shape some about to topple over) are almost anywhere you look. Most are from the 1300-1400's and the large scope of the settlement that was here is obvious and impressive. Some of the smaller structures nearest to the functional temple have been reoccupied, one for the town school. Hampi seems to rise from the gigantic boulder covered landscape naturally, as if no other outcome for this area would have been possible. The climate also reminds me of New Mexico, but with palm trees..
The price to pay for investigating the area is rather small when you think about it Ė school kids from everywhere (buses show license plates from many different states) surround you in groups and shake your hand and demand to know your name (or good name) and where you are from. At one point Priya almost loses it over the name inquiry barrage, but true to form quickly regains her composure. With a little effort, it is possible to hang back for a while and escape the schoolchildren for a bit. Also one can go to less popular monuments (like the Jain temples, actually the oldest structures in the area) and be almost alone. It would have been nice to have more time than we did here in order to investigate at a more leisurely pace, but 5 weeks isn't much when traveling such a large country by train, and time is running out so off to Bangalore (in order to make our connection to Kerala) we go.
My initial image of Bangalore was unrealistically favorable. True, the train station (where we stayed for the night) was pretty grubby, but nowhere near as bad as the front of the Chennai station. The first thing we did after getting situated was a pilgrimage of sorts for Leah and Priya, we headed for Lalbagh Park. Priya would read to Leah when she was a young tyke a book titled "The sheep of Lalbagh Park", so of course since we were in the city of the park we had to make a visit. Indian parks tend to define garish, with "cute" little statues in various stages of decay littering the landscape (along with the actual litter, of course). there is a touch of this at Lalbagh with a snow white and the seven dwarves display, but otherwise the park is quite lovely - clean and an excellent spot for birding as well as viewing hyperactive fish in the lake. In the evening we head off for a Veena recital. the location of the performance turns out to be difficult for us to find. At one point we are ushered into a modern Krishna temple carved from a boulder that was more Star Trek in ambience than anything else, but it wasn't the site of the performance. With help we discover the venue is actually a restaurant. The Veena player and other musicians (Ghatam & Mdridgam) were excellent, the Veena player being an all India radio staff artist. Occasional extra accents of percussion were added by the row of cooks making bread right behind the staging area.
The next day before taking our train to Kerala we wandered around Bangalore, and it showed itself to be similar to large south Indian cities in most regards, with the exception of there being more places to drink. Leah found what was listed as a photo exhibit online, when we arrived it turned out to be the studio/probably home of an eccentric older gent who had photos in boxes that he dug out to show us. The man was quite charming, and many of the photos were quite nice - still it's odd that this was listed as a photo exhibit.
one last 12-hour train ride, and we are back in Kerala. The ashram with its sense of order will in some ways serve as a bridge to readjusting to the place I will be back at in three short days.
With the amount of land we traveled, it would have been really nice to have more time, but I was lucky to get 5 weeks off my job as it is. Iíve been here twice now yet there is still so much I haven't seen yet.
For some reason, the largest impression Iím taking away from this trip (at this way too early vantage point) is that it's time for some changes. On that vague note Iíll bid farewell.