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The Taj Mahal

When I was 16, I went on a three-week camping trip out west – a sprint from Philadelphia to Colorado, then a slow descent from the Rockies south into Arizona and New Mexico.  I saw the Grand Canyon from the north rim on that trip and I vividly remember driving through the pine (?) forest to a lodge perched on the edge of the canyon.  On the backside of the lodge stretched a long balcony filled with visitors gazing at what  lay before them.  All those people looking – yet the stillness and silence that screamed – “unbelievable beauty”.

I haven’t seen anything yet that has moved me quite as much as the Grand Canyon, but the Taj Mahal certainly holds its own.  It’s a marvelous structure, breathtaking and stunning from every angle and throughout the changing light.   All that needs to be said, really, rests behind me here:

This is a sunset view with me sitting on the bench made famous by the same shot of a lonely Princess Diana during the break-up of her marriage.  Actually, the bench has been moved slightly  – she sat on the other side of the pool from what I can tell when I compare photos.

Sunrise was far more stunning.  I love the reflection in the water here:

As the sun rose, the sky became more blue and the building shined brighter – pink at first, then white.  I closed my eyes every few minutes  – or turned away to warm my cold body in the heat of the sun and when I looked again, it was always more spectacular than the view from a few minutes before.

I don’t know if the love story of the Taj Mahal is documented history or simply lore, but it goes like this:  Shah Jahan built the tomb for his beloved third wife, Mumtaz, after she died giving birth to their 14th child.  The two were inseparable and she always accompanied him on his trips out of Agra, including to the battlefront. On her deathbed, she asked her husband to build something that would celebrate their enduring love.

We all need a good love story and if you believe this one, the Taj is Shah Jahan screaming for Mumtaz.  Is it cynical to think that he built the Taj for himself?   A grandiose display of wealth and power and love of self?  Did he really love Mumtaz so singularly?

Those of you who read me closely may remember that I read Love in the Time of Cholera over Christmas.   One of the main characters waits his entire life for the chance to be with the woman he loves – and when he finally gets her, they are both old.  Near the end of the book, there’s this passage that stands as my Taj Mahal – the beauty of celebrating love in life, not death.  Florentino has longed for Fermina for 50 years and when they are finally together, to kiss and to touch, he smells her stale and aging body – and still, still! – he wants her.

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My mother and step-father outside of the tomb.

Security was thorough at the entrance:

I liked these ladies – resting in the fading light:

Earlier in the week, playing in the park…  The kids love having my mother around to bathe them in oodles of individual attention.

A typical encounter in Delhi – This is what George’s class had to trudge through on a field trip when they walked from the school bus to the entrance of the Delhi Crafts Museum:

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Angle of Repose

Do you know the term in the title of this blog?  It’s an engineering description that means the greatest vertical angle at which something loose, like sand or dirt or rock can be piled before it slides down on itself.  That’s my interpretation at least – but I think it captures the spirit, if not the letter of the definition.  I only know this because it  happens to be the title of one of my favorite books by Wallace Stegner.

I was dozing on a bus ride back from Rajasthan today and I could hear my mother pointing at something through the window, saying “look  – an angle of repose”.  I don’t know what she saw, but in my dreamy, sleepy state, I thought – that’s India!  Everything here perches just on the edge of falling back down on itself:  the temporary and permanent settlements that line the streets;  the plastic water containers and other junk piled high on the roofs;  the tangled mess of electrical wires that somehow deliver electricity;  the chaos of vendors and beggars and customers in markets; the impenetrable yet working bureaucracy;  the way people unofficially fill the void where systems fail or simply don’t exist at all, like trash collection.  There’s even a Hindi word that means “temporary solution” to what in India appears to me to be permanent problems.  Yet somehow, it all seems to work despite the precarious nature of everything here.

All of this really exhausts me sometimes, like right now – I’m in one of those moods where I could curse in every sentence, but won’t, because it would only reinforce my mother’s argument that I’m too damned stressed.   Confirmed by my stepfather who asked me the other day, “Why are we always rushing?” I love them both dearly and they are my first house guests here in India and they get special kudos for their enthusiasm.  So, to answer John’s question:  We’re always rushing because there are too many people in India.  Too many means that it takes too long to get anywhere and too long to get anything done,  which always makes me late and so, I’m always rushing… perhaps to keep atop my own angle of repose.

My favorite line this week:  Now Theo, go to your Bollywood dance class and RELAX. (Mom, are you reading my blogs?)

Relaxing is not possible in this class, but I am having fun.  I’ve decided that Bollywood dance is great for the aging brain, if not the aging body.  The moves are quick and there are lots of steps to remember – and I’m feeling wonderfully silly trying to look sexy.

Surprisingly, I haven’t been late to class once…

But I rush getting there!

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It’s obvious that my parents think I’ve grown a bit edgy after six months in Delhi, but it’s difficult for visitors to understand that one really does have to be assertive to avoid being pummeled in the local fight for survival.  There are days when I feel as though I’ve lived through a fifteen-round boxing match.  You need to have heightened awareness of the intricacies of being ripped-off, know how to protect yourself, and keep good humored through it all if you are to survive years of living here.   For example – you can’t hop in a taxi and assume the driver will set the meter.  You have to tell him to do it – because if you don’t, he won’t and you will find yourself arguing over cost upon arrival.  Or this:  you call the plumber to fix one problem in the house – and when you come home he’s created a second problem by disassembling the water heater (NOT the reason for the call) because it was “leaking”.  When you say, NO, it wasn’t leaking, he reassembles the water heater and then, guess what?  It doesn’t work!  Or the imposter government gas leak checker:  You let him into the house and upon inspection, the stove has a huge hole gouged into the plastic gas piping.  I could bore you with endless encounters like this that line my days and turn me into a raving pre-menopausal bitch on the bad ones, and a fateful participant in an economy that seems to get the best of me on the good days.

Yet still, I love my life here.  Genuinely love it… even for the irritating yet funny things like this laughably classic entrance into the Sarajkund crafts fair.   Notice that the women, of which there are far more attending the fair than men, are forced to wait in the hot sun because there are only TWO security checks for them to pass through. Look closely at the FOUR empty entrances to the left.  They are reserved for the men:

Here’s another taste of the traffic.  I forget where I was heading when I shot this – but it was an insignificant morning errand last week made significant by a splitting headache from all the damn beeping.  At the time, I remember thinking how nuts this was in comparison to the relative peace I had last summer running errands in California, Arizona, Washington state, and NYC:

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Ok – Time to brag about my kids.  They have yet to disappoint me when it comes to dragging them around a developing country in conditions less than five star (although they’re accustomed to THAT as well…).  We have just ended a trip to Rajasthan and through it all, they were brilliant.  They weathered in good spirits the 5.5 hour bus ride from Delhi to Jaipur (not as depressing as it could have been and not as comfy as it could have been);  patiently toured forts and palaces, bravely clung to rickety rickshaws in traffic many of you can’t even begin to fathom;  bargained good naturedly with pesky vendors; peed without wincing in filthy bathrooms and ate the local fare (unrecognizable meat and vegge in sauce) without whining.  George even tried to protect me when after five minutes of continuous hassle from a guy trying to sell me a wooden elephant – he turned to the man and in a loud and firm 7-year-old voice said – “Did you hear her?  She doesn’t want to buy it!”

We dipped into Rajasthan with a trip to Jaipur, an ancient city that sits on the edge of the desert. It’s one big dusty bizarre of winding streets, vendors, camels and crumbling mughal and Rajput architecture. We had fun and it was a good foray outside of Delhi.  I’m hoping to go further into Rajasthan – actually, all the way to its western border with Pakistan to a place called Jalsamer later this spring to celebrate a friend’s 40th birthday.  It’s a living fort in the Tar desert.  I’m dreaming of white tents and camels and a carpet of stars and shifting sand dunes perched at their angle of repose…

And in photos – here’s what we’ve been up to – First, a tour of Tughlaquabad, an ancient fort on the south-side of the city.  I’m standing with my mother and step-father:

Beautiful, isn’t it?
The Amber Palace in Jaipur.  It’s a testament to Indian artistry.  One hall was tiled in Belgian glass and mirror from floor to ceiling – can you imagine the effect of reflecting candle light and Persian carpets?
We can’t stay away from elephants…
Mom couldn’t resist this place:
There’s never a shortage of people who hang around and watch us!  I love the guy in the background toking on his cigarette – thoroughly amused by us:
Goth and Vandal.  I can’t fathom the day they stop worshipping their mama – but I know it’s coming.
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Varanasi

My last entry ended with me saying that I was excited to share Varanasi with you.  It was a foolish thing to write  – tantamount to saying “I’m excited to tell you about the funeral”.  I had heard that it is the sort of experience best left to someone who has lived in India for a few years and understands more of the culture than a newbie like me, but thinking myself hardy, I discounted the warnings.

What exactly is Varanasi?  It’s a sacred, Hindu city of four million people that sits on the banks of the Ganges River.   Many Hindus believe that if you die in Varanasi, you break the cycle of reincarnation and go straight to heaven.  If you don’t make it to the city for death, the next best thing is to be cremated on the shores of the Ganga.  Platforms, or ghats line the river and many are centuries old.  People gather here to pray, immerse themselves in the holy and cleansing waters of the Ganga, and to burn funeral pyres for deceased family members.  It is these cremation rites that I think we non-Indians are most fascinated by in this city.  First, the body is dipped in the river, then wrapped in cloth and placed on a pyre.  The wood is smeared with ghee, or clarified cow/buffalo butter, and then lit.  It takes about three hours for the body to burn.  If the skull does not “pop” during this process, a bamboo pole is used to puncture it so that the soul can leave the body.

Not everyone can be cremated at death, including pregnant women, babies, snakebite victims, and lepers.  It’s a complicated ritual, steeped in tradition and rules – most of which I am still unfamiliar.  The closest male family member of the deceased, who lights the pyre and nurses the fire, has to perform his duties to perfection.  If he doesn’t the soul will linger in a sort of no-man’s land and not complete its karmic journey.

Thursday night, we stood overlooking one ghat and watched about six pyres at various stages of burning or preparation.  The heat, the smell, the cows, the dogs, the chanting, the ash – it was all a bit overwhelming.  Death and the rituals that accompany it is a private affair in the west.  What struck me here was the public nature of the funeral and what I interpreted as the lack of solemnity – but I think this is what separates Hinduism from other religions.  Death is not a solemn affair. Rather, it is simply a practical means to the next life, whether it be here on earth or in Heaven or Hell.  And Heaven and Hell are not necessarily places, but states of the soul.

Friday, we saw the sun rise over the Ganga – beautiful if you discount the flotsam and the hordes of tourists traversing the shores in hired boats.  We later walked the ghats and explored areas along the river.  One stop included a temple that sat high on a ghat honoring Lord Shiva, one of the central gods of Hinduism.   Hindus believe that the Ganga flows from Shiva’s hair.  There were many chambers inside the temple with various deities and assorted rituals and puja’s or prayers underway.  Only today did I learn that a rock in the inner chamber of the temple was the shiva linga.  The shiva linga is a phallus and is the most common and worshipped symbol of Shiva.  It is placed in a shallow bowl shaped like a tear, which represents the female sex organ, or yoni.  There was all sorts of stuff going on – the pouring of coconut milk and the smearing of bananas and other food items on the rock, chants and prayers –  all of which I don’t understand and can’t explain to you.   You are learning with me and maybe by the end of this journey the place, the people and the mysteries may feel more within reach.  As for Hinduism – it’s quite a complicated and diverse religion and I’m not sure that I will ever fully understand it.  I did learn that one is Hindu by birth only and cannot convert.

We also went to Sarnath, the birthplace of Buddhism and the site where Buddha gave his first sermon.  Some of the ruins here are 2000 years old.

One last interesting thought to share:  Numerous times did young men sidle up to me and whisper, “hash-hish, opium… best quality”.   Apparently, there are government stores in Varanasi that sell bhang, or marijuana-laced yogurt drinks for mourners of the dead.  It appears this marijuana and more fell off the truck and a thriving underground market exits.  I hear there’s lots of bhang in Delhi too, with heightened consumption on Holi, a riotous Hindu holiday which is coming up March 1.   I’d be first in line to try the bhang if I weren’t so worried about getting Delhi Belly from the yogurt part!

AND this:  We couldn’t watch the Super Bowl here without having to go to the Amerian Club at 4:30 in the morning, but we did follow the last quarter of the game on ESPN’s website.  The kids thought us nuts every time Jim and I yelled in excitement for the Saints.  So, for my New Orleans readers – I hope you know that we soo miss our lazy, crazy days in NOLA and the myriad of celebrations that always seemed to lie just around the corner.  We miss too, the joy of returning to the city whenever we left on trips.  I used to say that coming home was like beginning a vacation.  And PJ’s iced coffee, the food, the food, the food, drinks at the Columns, and our friends.  Most of you are still there post-Katrina – working, living and still married!  (or still not married….)  I’m not sure  Jim and I could have stayed so focused.  Have a great Mardi Gras celebration this next week.  I wish I were there to add to my collection of coconuts…

Here’s the latest roundup of photos:

Funeral pyres glowing in the distance:

Sunrise on the Ganga:

Early morning bathers:

Solitary prayer:

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More bathers:

and us:

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Bollywood, Burns and Beef

I write to you tonight exhausted and thoroughly humbled by the Bollywood dance class that I just joined.  First, let me say that it’s quite a workout.  Second, I thought I had rhythm, but apparently I don’t.  And third, my middle-aged hips, shoulders, hands and feet can’t all go in different directions to a quarter beat the way the instructor wants them to! I have never felt more like a flapping fish than I did tonight.  If you want a listen to the song that we’re working on, download “Chiggi Wiggi” from the Bollywood movie “Blue”.  It has a great beat and I could have fun freelancing to it, but my homework is to get the hips to hop and the body to roll in the manner prescribed by Vikram, dance guru extraordinaire.

The good news is this:  I didn’t have to twist too many arms to convince a few friends to join me – sometimes it just takes one person to say “hey, jump out of a plane with me” and unexpected volunteers line up.  And our efforts are all very timely.  If you watched or read about the Grammy Awards this week, you may have noticed that an Indian composer won Best Motion Picture Song for “Jai Ho” from Slumdog Millionaire.  The best and most succinct translation of the title that I’ve come across is “hallelujah” – which is exactly what I will proclaim when, and if, I manage to not look so foolish going Bollywood!

A quick update on my Burns Night Supper speech to the laddies:  It went far better than my Bollywood dance class.  For those of you unfamiliar with the event, it’s an occasion to celebrate all that is Scottish, in particular, the poet Robert Burns of Auld Lang Syne fame.  You eat Scottish food, drink Scotch, read Burns, and roast the lassies and the laddies.  A gentleman does the former and a gentlelady does the latter. I was the lucky lass who accepted an invitation to celebrate the men:

I was nervous at first, relaxed in the middle, and didn’t want to give up the mike by the end!  I tried to be funny, suggestively saucy and sincere and it all seemed to work.  And Jim didn’t look embarrassed  – the greatest sign of success.  Afterwards, we danced Scottish line dances.  Thankfully, all body parts go in the same direction in this genre:

Jim laughed at me when I told him the other day that I JUST noticed, after posting so many pictures of myself on this blog that I had a large nose and a mouth that never seems to shut!

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I scored BEEF this week, thanks to my how-to-survive-Delhi diva, and new friend, Sanny.  She called me on Sunday to let me know that her muslim butcher was at the house hawking Holy Cow.  I’m not totally convinced that it’s NOT beefalo (water buffalo) – but it’s close and I’m in tenderloin heaven!  I’ve never had such a large or fresh piece of meat lay on my kitchen counter.  My vegetarian friends may not want to look:

I cut it into filets, a nice flank, and soup bits.  I’m dreaming of Beef Stroganoff, my favorite comfort food – BBQ’d flank sliced on top of a nice salad – a simple filet, perfection on my plate…

Abstinence has its advantages – as long as it’s short term!

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And a quick note on Haiti:  My lovely daughter and her equally lovely friend (Sanny’s daughter) have huge hearts and the spirit it takes to put those hearts to practical use:  They have spent two weekends selling home-made baked goods on the street corner to raise money for the victims in Haiti.  I think the kids have raised about 25 dollars so far – not bad when you consider that the items are priced to be affordable to the far lower purchasing power of the average local salary.

I’m off to Varanasi with a girlfriend on Thursday.  We’re escaping for 36 hours.  If you no nothing of this place – just wait – I can’t wait to share it…