Hello from the Strait of Malacca! We’re passing by Thailand, sailing past some of those famous Thai islands (Thaislands?). A number of people threatened to jump off the ship and swim ashore. Soon we’ll have Sumatra on one side and Malaysia on the other on our way to Singapore, where we will dock for refueling. We won’t be able to leave the ship. Well, legally anyway.
It’s been a while since India was in our consciousness, but the memories are still pretty fresh. The highlight of the Varanasi trip was boarding the boat that morning on the Holy River Ganges (our guide always referred to the river as such). Just as amazing as seeing the bodies, dead or alive, in the water, was seeing the vendors that came up to you on boats and tagged along to you remora-style. One of the peddlers was selling DVDs of Varanasi and actually had a working television set playing the DVD aboard the little boat.
We left the boat and toured Varanasi on foot, getting close and personal to the funeral pyres, dodging cows along the narrow alleyways, and visiting the Golden Temple, the holiest temple in Hinduism, with a steeple (?) made of solid gold and monkeys jumping all over the place. What was most interesting to me was the mosque next door, with its 30 foot fences and hundreds of military police guards. The mosque was put in the place of an important Hindu temple that was destroyed during the last of many Muslim invasions in India, and now there are many people who want to tear down the mosque and turn it back to a Hindu temple.
The security was simply a microcosm of the immense tension between the Muslims and Hindus in that part of the world. As I alluded to earlier, this is the greatest threat to world peace, more so that the Israeli-Palestinian or the US conflicts as there are two nuclear powers (India and Pakistan) with a history of three wars between themselves in the last fifty years, compounded by possible line of command issues as to who has actual control of that launch button. Few people know how close we were to nuclear war when tensions escalated in 1999 or so (and the more we study it, the more I’m impressed at how thoughtfully and firmly the Clinton administration dealt with the issue). And as the bombings in Delhi (where we were) proved to us last week, the tensions are very, very serious. There are billions of lives at stake here.
Anyway, we get back to the comfort of our hotel, where much to the chagrin of several of us, and to the pleasure of others, they serve us Americanized food. That drove me nuts. Part of the tour involved a tour to a carpet factory, and since I had already done my shopping the previous day, I ditched the group with two girls and we went in search of adventures through the streets of Varanasi.
We are careful not to get hit by the hundreds of honking motorcycles and bicycles and trucks and cars, and eventually make our way in the rain to a village on the very polluted shore of a tributary of the Ganges on the north side of the city. We see some kids playing and we’re curious enough to go down to visit with them, and by the time we get down there, we’re surrounded. The kids are fascinated by these laughing white people dressed in funny clothes, and next thing you know, we’re teaching these very enthusiastic kids how to count to ten in English and I’m doing flips, which means the adults come out as well. I should have taken some video of it, but I did remember to finally pull out the camera before we were out of sight. They were still waving at us when I did so.
One more thing I did in Varanasi – I learned how an ancient loom works while people were gift shopping. Pretty amazing piece of primitive technology. So if you don’t get a gift from India, you can blame it on my morbid fascination for spools of thread. Oh, if I were a cat… them looms are cat-toy heaven… all them hanging spools and stuff…
[Coughing a hairball]
Soon we were out of Varanasi and back in Delhi, which, thanks to those crazy British imperialists, looks a little more western as we know it, though it is the smoggiest city I’ve ever visited. We arrived around 4pm, and the sky was brown on a perfectly cloudless day, and the smog was so thick that we were getting sunset light several hours before sunset – perhaps the ugliest sunset of the voyage.
We went to the largest Hindu temple in Delhi, quite a piece of work. The chanting filled the marble rooms, and in the Krishna section, a very nice old man invited me to sit as he prayed, and regardless of any sort of metaphysical or spiritual significance you attach to prayer or meditation, which I don’t, you can’t deny that it is some pretty soothing and relaxing stuff. Good times.
We also went to a Sikh temple and had to cover our heads to get in. Interesting religion. Relative to the other religions we’ve looked at, I still don’t know much about it, but they seem to steal the pageantry of Islam and the philosophy of Hinduism and seem to be a fairly organized group in India. I took some of their literature to read up a little more on them.
We woke up at 4am after a late night of hanging out and enjoying the World Series (go ‘stros!… sniff…) took off to the crazy Delhi train station and headed for a two-hour trip to Agra.
There really is one reason to visit Agra: the Taj Mahal. We visited two beautiful forts in and around Agra, one of which had the worst and most aggressive peddlers I think we will ever see, and the other which housed the prison of the king that built the Taj, with the view of the Taj down the river, spending all day as we prepared for sunset at our main attraction.
As great as they were, I won’t spend any time describing these forts, because the Taj Mahal is absolutely, positively the most beautiful man-made object I’ve ever seen. (WARNING: CHEESY, FLOWERY, OVER-THE-TOP YET ABSTRACT AND VAGUE LANGUAGE ABOUT TO FOLLOW. I would hate reading myself right now. I’m not kidding. Really, shouldn’t you be working right now? Is that your boss behind you? Should I insert some text about spreadsheets and budgets here? Alright, here it goes…)
Someone should invent a headphone device that plays angelic music every time people set their eyes on the Taj Mahal. I can’t imagine someone building something more beautiful. My first sight of the Taj, from down the river at Fort Agra, was stunning. It is perfect – you can’t stop looking at it. All our pictures from Fort Agra involve views of the Taj, even though the Fort is something to behold itself. When we eventually arrived in the Taj Mahal premises, it was clear that the building had lived up and surpassed all of the hype over the years. In typical Islamic architecture, it is perfectly symmetrical with inlaid black Persian text and artwork on the marble. The flowers and grass and trees and gardens around it are perfectly upkept. There must have been ten thousand tourists there that day, but it never seemed crowded as the marble structure is enormous. People should be required to visit the Taj. The tomb took 22 years to build, and the king was going to build a mirror image of the Taj in black marble across the river but the plan wasn’t completed after he was imprisoned by his own son. Can you imagine what that would have looked like? I know I can’t.
Ok, no more coffee after noon. I promise.
By the way, getting in was an adventure since the place is under heavy security, and I had Kerberos’s Rinspirator™ with me that I promised Tom I would take pictures with around the world. The Rinspirator™ looks like a gun, so try explaining to Indian security what that little device is for. I succeeded – the Taj has been Rinspirated™.
We were there for almost four hours, so after walking around, most of us just picked a spot and watched the sun set on the Taj. Since you’re all sunseted out, I’ll spare the pictures, but I’ll add that I did what must have been the first back flip in Taj Mahal history. Unless you’re talking about the Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, which I hear is just as nice. I’m sure they do back flips over there.
We made our way back to Delhi, but not before we were delayed in the Agra train station at night. The two train stations were quite something, a home for many of India’s most impoverished and disabled beggars. We have been suggested not to give for various reasons, the main one being that if we give, we would do more good by giving to a charitable organization such as the Mother Teresa Foundation. But it doesn’t mean it doesn’t affect you. So you do what you can, and as we had well over an hour delay in the station, we would play with the kids, and no matter where you are in the world, a little juggling or a magic trick goes a long way. At one point, I started to chase the kids in a handstand, which elicited the same response as the when I chased the Pemon Indians in Venezuela, but if you saw the ground of the train station, you would agree with me when I say it was the most disgusting thing I’ve ever done. Well-worth it, but disgusting; though nothing a little bottle of Purell, a liter of bottled water, some grossed-out looks, and another bottle of Purell couldn’t take care of.
Back in Delhi, we cleaned up, went to a sheesha (sp?) bar with the students (When in Delhi…), and hung around until the start of the World Series before getting on a flight back to Chennai in the morning. Chennai would subsequently be hit by a .5 meters ( that’s about 18 inches of rain for those of you who don’t habla espanol) and a cyclone the days after we left.
People simply couldn’t stop talking about Indian experience on the ship. Some people were very affected emotionally by it, and some people preferred to stay on the ship our last day in port. I’ve been thinking a lot about my experience, and I guess I prepared a little too much for it, because as amazing and incredible and surreal as it was, I knew that I would see bodies in Ganges. I knew I would see terrible things in the train stations. I knew I would see people defecating in the streets. And I knew I would see the crazy traffic and the billions of people on the streets. Which means I might have made a protective buffer for India, and after immediately having the unknown of Myanmar as a point of reference, I think my experience in India was more intellectual than emotional. Life-changing? Certainly, I think. Not an immediate change, as I was told to expect and as many people on the ship experienced. Probably something a little more gradual, cummulative, as I still think about the experience, particularly Varanasi, the religious tension, my limited understanding of the caste system (which would be another four pages), and the future of the country, every day since. I hope to come back for at least a month next time. Because I will come back.
The digiweb is slow, so I’ll upload some pictures next, but in the meantime, check out Chris’s Mauritius pictures at http://www.shutterfly.com/progal/album.jsp?pg=2. (Hi Nicolle!) Starting with the pictures of me jumping over – gasp – another sunset, go a couple pages and you can get a sense of our excursion.
That's our wild tour of India in a nutshell. Next up: Myanmar.