You Really Had To Be There

There is always music and color when Indian religion is in the air.

I’ve struggled to make order out of everything we’ve seen, smelled, and experienced, but I’m afraid that’s well beyond my capability.  Two weeks is a short time and India is a big, complex piece of geography, history and humanity.  The best I can do is to share some of the impressions we take with us.  They are presented here in absolute random order.  That is to say I’m writing them down as I think of them which may, or may not, have anything to do with how or when they occured.

I’m writting this as we’re on the way from Paris to Houston, a 10 hour daylight flight after a 9 hour night time flight which departed Delhi at 1:20 am.  So I ask for some tolerence if I lapse into a stream of consciousness style or my typing is a little loose.  Although strictly speaking, it doesn’t fit here, I should tell you that the Delhi airport at midnight was absolute, unmitigated chaos, but it worked, which is more or less in line with much of what we saw here throughout our stay.

IMPRESSIONS

1.  Shy, heartfelt NAMASTE greetings from everyone.

2.  Women in brightly colored Saris carrying bundles of sticks (and pretty much everything else) on their heads.

3.  Circles of squatting men playing cards and drinking tea while the women worked.

4.  Mounds of fresh fruits and vegetables piled on roadside carts and in city markets.

5.  A woman and small child trying to coax  fire out of a piece of cow dung in the cold pre-dawn.

6.  Beggar women tugging at my sleeve while a baby sleeps in her arms.

7.  Sikh truck drivers laying on road side charpoys (traditional Indian cots) having tea and a rest.

8.  A bus built for 30 crammed with 90 including 5 on the roof.

9.  A child of 8 or 9, face covered in a thick layer of white dust, pecking at my car window.

10. An unending flow of tuk tuks spewing noxious fumes.

11. The dignity and dispair of women doing the work required for daily living.

12.  A boy of 12 selling  knock offs of best seller novels in the midst of a crowded intersection.

13.  The enormity of the “new towns” outside Delhi.

14.  Small girls in colorful saris hand pumping water into metal pots at a village well.

15.  An aged truck piled high with moldy straw swaying down a curving mountain road.

16.  An old man in a ragged head covering flailing the camel he was riding to get him to stop nibbling at roadside folage and move on.

17.  A barefooted young man sitting akimbo painting exquisite miniatures on a dirty concrete floor.

18.  Massive traffic jams composed of every conceivable conveyance untangling themselves.

19.  Old rotting buildings still showing their past elegance.

20.  A huge open garbage landfill with thousands of crows and kites swooping and diving for their pickings.

21.  A Hindu family prostrating themselves before a phallic symbol of Shiva.

22. The thin coverlet of foul smog laying over Delhi in the morning.

23.  My first glimpse of the grandeur of the Taj Mahal.

24.  Seeing the majesty of a bengal tiger in the wild.

25.  S. hudled over a table in the Udaivilas negotiating with a gem merchant.

26.  The contrast of extraordinary opulence of hotels adjacent to tin and tarp covered shanties.

27.  The emotions of our sweet driver when we left him at the airport (it may have been the tip)

28.  Watching a covey of pigs root around the front door of the toney shop where S. was buying yards of expensive shawls.

29.  Boys, young and old, joyously flying kites from  roof tops.

30.  A man riding a bicycle  carrying 20 foot sections of 3 inch PCV.

31.  A family of 4 passing us on a motorcycle.

32.  A procession of hundreds of brightly clad women carrying pots on their heads filled with Ganges river water.

33.  A truck passing a bus, passing a tuk tuk all coming straight at us.

34.  Wild pigs feeding on the carrion of a spotted dear.

35.  Toilets labeled He and She.

36.  Seeing S. riding an elephant at the Amber Fort.

37.  A sign at the airport in Udaipur saying, “report lost luggages at desk”.

38.  The relief at arriving at Aman-I-Khas after 8 hours of driving hell.

39.  Two skinny cows stopping traffic in central Jaipur.

40.  Women squatting amidst mounds of cow dung making what our Austrian friend called “Indian Pizzas”.

41.  Having the power go out 12 times while getting a massage at the Hotel in Agra.

42.  Men bathing in the shallow pool at the Shikh temple to wash away their sins.

43.  S. with her bundle of Handi Wipes swabbing down everything in sight.

44. Seeing more vehicles with flat tires than I’ve seen in my lifetime.

45. The earnestness of our driver Sinul Dada.

46.  Young boys playing cricket on bare dirt lots strewn with rocks and shards of glass

47.  Illegal street vendors vanishing as a police patrol approached.

48.  The ugliness of the American embassy in Delhi.

49.  The grandeur of the government buildings built by the Brits at the start of the 20th century.

50.  A herd of goats meandering down a four lane highway.

51.  Vehicles hurtling down the wrong side of a divided highway.

52.  The contrast of everything.

53.  The Gandhi memorial in Delhi.

54.  Constant horns honking and lights flashing on the highways prodded on by signs of “Blow Horn Use Dippers” on all large vehicles.

55.  Seeing a camel pulling a cart stopped in front of a gas pump at a petrol station.

56.  A woman in a crimson sari working stooped over in a yellow mustard field.

57.  The genius of the early 18th century observatory at Jaipur.

58.  The omnipresence of Hindu gods and avatars.

59.  The extraordinary quality of service on the start up airline  Jet Air.

60.  Recovering the underwear that I left at the hotel in Jaipur.

61.  Dogs and pigs rooting in piles of garbage left out for that purpose.

62.  The joy and playfulness of uniformed school children on a Saturday outing.

63.  A naked two year old walking happily down the street of a village.

64.  Old crones selling garlands at the entrance to a Hindu temple for offerings to Shiva.

I’m certain more impressions will occur to me the instant I sign off on this, but that’s all right.  I’d like to keep them coming for a while.

 

You Really Have to Be There

I’ve struggled to make order out of everything we’ve seen, smelled, and experienced, but I’m afraid that’s well beyond my capability.  Two weeks is a short time and India is a big, complex piece of geography, history and humanity.  The best I can do is to share some of the impressions we take with us.  They are presented here in absolute random order.  That is to say I’m writing them down as I think of them which may, or may not, have anything to do with how or when they occurred.

I’m writing this as we’re on the way from Paris to Houston, a ten hour daylight flight after a nine hour night time flight which departed Delhi at 1:20 am.  So I ask for some tolerance if I lapse into a stream of consciousness style or my typing is a little loose.  Although strictly speaking, it doesn’t fit here, I should tell you that the Delhi airport at midnight was absolute, unmitigated chaos, but it worked, which is more or less in line with much of what we saw here throughout our stay.

IMPRESSIONS

1.  Shy, heartfelt NAMASTE greetings from everyone.

2.  Women in brightly colored Saris carrying bundles of sticks (and pretty much everything else) on their heads.

3.  Circles of squatting men playing cards and drinking tea while the women worked.

4.  Mounds of fresh fruits and vegetables piled on roadside roadside carts and in city markets.

5.  A woman and small child trying to coax fire out of a piece of cow dung in the cold pre-dawn.

6.  Beggar women tugging at my sleeve while a baby slept in her arms.

7.  Sikh truck drivers laying on road side charpoys (traditional Indian cots) having tea and a rest.

8.  A bus built for thirty crammed with ninety including five on the roof.

9.  A child of eight or nine, face covered in a thick layer of white dust, pecking at my car window.

10. An unending flow of tuk-tuks spewing noxious fumes.

11.  The dignity and despair of women doing the work required for daily living.

12.  A boy of twelve selling  knock off best seller novels in the midst of a crowded intersection.

13.  The enormity of the “new towns” outside Delhi.

14.  Small girls in colorful saris hand pumping water into metal pots at a village well.

15.  An aged truck piled high with moldy straw swaying down a curving mountain road.

16.  An old man in a ragged head covering flailing the camel he was riding to get him to stop nibbling at roadside foliage and move on.

17.  A barefooted young man sitting akimbo painting exquisite miniatures on a dirty concrete floor.

18.  Massive traffic jams composed of every conceivable conveyance untangling themselves.

19.  Old rotting buildings  still showing evidence of their past elegance.

20.  A huge open garbage landfill with thousands of crows and kites swooping and diving for their pickings.

21.  A Hindu family prostrating themselves before a phallic symbol of Shiva.

22. The thin coverlet of foul smog laying over Delhi in the morning.

23.  My first glimpse of the grandeur of the Taj Mahal.

24. The majesty of a bengal tiger in the wild.

25.  S. huddled over a table in the Udaivilas hotel lobby negotiating with a gem merchant.

26.  The contrast of extraordinary opulence of hotels adjacent to tin and tarp covered shanties.

27.  The emotions of our sweet driver when we left him at the airport (it may have been the tip)

28.  Watching a covey of pigs root around the front door of the upscale shop where S. was buying yards of expensive shawls.

29.  Boys, young and old, joyously flying kites from the roof tops.

30.  A man riding a bicycle carrying twenty foot sections of three inch PCV.

31.  A family of four passing us on a motorcycle.

32.  A procession of hundreds brightly clad women carrying pots on their heads filled with Ganges river water.

33.  A truck passing a bus, passing a tuk-tuk all coming straight at us.

34.  Wild pigs feeding on the carrion of a spotted dear.

35.  Toilets labeled He and She.

36.   S. riding an elephant at the Amber Fort.

37.  A sign at the airport in Udaipur saying, “report lost luggages at desk”.

38.  The relief at arriving at Aman-I-Khas after eight hours of driving hell.

39.  Two skinny cows stopping traffic in central Jaipur.

40.  Women squatting amidst mounds of cow dung making what our Austrian friend called “Indian Pizzas”.

41.  Having the electric power go out twelve times while getting a massage at the Hotel in Agra.

42.  Men bathing in the shallow pool at the Shikh temple to wash away their sins.

43.  S. with her bundle of Handi Wipes swabbing down everything in sight.

44. Seeing more vehicles with flat tires than I’ve seen in my lifetime.

45.  The earnestness of our driver Sinul Dada.

46.  Young boys playing cricket on bare dirt lots strewn with rocks.

47.  Illegal street vendors vanishing as a police patrol approached.

48.  The ugliness of the American embassy in Delhi.

49.  The grandeur of the government buildings built by the Brits at the start of the 20th century.

50.  A herd of goats meandering down a four lane highway.

51.  Vehicles hurtling down the wrong side of a divided highway.

52.  The contrast of everything.

53.  The Gandi memorial in Delhi.

54.  Constant horns honking and lights flashing on the highways prodded signs of “Blow Horn Use Dippers” on all large vehicles.

55.  A camel pulling a cart stopped in front of a gas pump at a petrol station.

56.  A woman in a crimson sari working stooped over in a yellow mustard field.

57.  The genius of the early 18th century observatory at Jaipur.

58.  The omni-presence of Hindu gods and avatars.

59.  The extraordinary quality of service on the start up airline  Jet Air.

60.  Recovering the underwear that I left at the hotel in Jaipur.

61.  Dogs and pigs rooting in piles of garbage left out for that purpose.

62.  The joy and playfulness of uniformed school children on a Saturday outing.

63.  A naked two year old walking happily down the street of a village.

64.  Old crones selling garlands at the entrance to a Hindu temple for offerings to Shiva.

I’m certain more impressions will occur to me the instant I sign off on this, but that’s all right.  I’d like to keep them coming for a while.

 

Land of Many Gods

Those of you how know me well know that I’m not exactly “traditional” on matters religious.  I guess that’s what you get when you send a boy to Baylor.  I tread here lightly for fear that any observation will offend, but please remember, these are only observations about something that I know little of and understand even less.

The religions of India are pervasive as well as invasive.  They hit you in the face by their omni-presence.  They are everywhere and anywhere.  From the Muslim call to prayer at 5:00 each morning to the amplified music announcing the day to the Hindu.  The Sikhs are obvious by their turbans and beards, and the Krishna are annoying with their music.  The Jains are not so obvious, but they influence the social and political structure even though they are a tiny minority.  The Christians control Goa and most of the good private schools….those Jesuits have always been clever fellows.  And the Zoroastians confuse and annoy everyone by their refusal to dispose of their dead.

There are religious festivals, weddings, burials, cremations, circumcisions, ceremonies, preachings, ashram rantings, and bomboozling of all stripes going on every day in every town and village.  There is noise, dancing, prancing, swooning, drinking, singing, preaching, and a general hullaballo most of the time related to one religion or another.  There are temples, shrines, mosques, cemeteries, mausoleums, sanctuaries, ashrams, and secret enclaves in which a small part of this takes place.  The larger theatre of activity is all around you….everywhere.

Eight hundred million Hindus and two hundred million Muslims cast a long, but not the only religious shadow in India. The Parsis are known as clever businessmen and accumulate wealth the way  Esmelda collects shoes.  The Sikhs are clever politically and control the long haul trucking industry.  As I’ve already said, Catholics have a disproportionate influence on education.  The Buddhists add a lot of color and have given the Dalai Lama and his stranger-than- fiction adherents to the world.

We went to the old town market this morning for a walkabout to soak in some local flavor.  There were separate but connecting markets (read this as a bunch of adjacent small shops) for every conceivable need of daily life.  One of the largest was the market for religious accoutrements.  Shops selling small bits of this and that needed for various religious undertakings.  And then, occasionally, we would stumble across a small shrine with pigs rooting about outside and an avatar of one of the gods inside.

I’ve spent some time researching the major religions, and I’ve talked to everyone that I’m comfortable talking to about the subject and concluded that the only enlightenment about the religions of India (and perhaps everywhere else) is the enlightenment that comes from knowing that I will never understand.  What I do understand is that all of these religions seems to be trying to lay out the rules of the road.  How to get by in a life which is complicated by the necessity to live every day or not.

The earliest evidence I’ve found of organized religion is from about 5500 BCE, and these early precursor religions have no identifiable founders.  There’s was no prophet like Allah or Moses to give them a kick start.  They seemed to start small and pick up momentum as time went on; often being abated by the ebb and flow of who was conquering who when.  The religions of India are monotheistic, polytheistic, pantheistic, and atheistic.  That about covers the whole deal.

A little known fact for your edification…Buddha was a Hindu and didn’t like their rules so he created some of his own.  Who does this sound like.  Jesus was a Jew, right, and then what.  I can’t really decide whether I’m attracted to the religions with one god, lots of gods or no god…..and the great thing, in India at least, is that it doesn’t really matter.  They think that everyone’s got their own point of view and that’s all right.  One result of studying religion in India is that it will make you believe whatever your believe more or less, but you will not be the same.

But there is some really strange coolaid in the water here.  The Jains for example; you all know them of course.  They’re the ones who not only won’t eat meat, they won’t eat any root veggies because it might cause them to kill a worm or two in the process of digging them out.  They believe all life is sacred and equal,.  OK, I get that, but don’t make me wear a mask so I won’t inhale a gnat.

Another of my favorites are the Zoroasthans who are right up their with “unusual” beliefs.  They’ve recently funded an effort to bring back from the verge of extinction the White Backed Vulture.  Why?  Because if they’re lucky, or if their good deeds outweigh their bad deeds in life, they will soar into lightness on the wings of this vulture….who is now almost extinct because of some chemical we use to feed cows.

At the bottom line I’m a “different strokes for different folks” kind of guy, and; hence, I fit in really well here.  One of the pieces I read on Hindu said, “we are open to new revelations”.  Think about it.  A seven thousand year old religion saying that they are open to a new idea.  It boggles…….

Enough on things religious…..well, one last thing.  Today in the waiting lounge for our flight to Delhi a gringo of some sort walked in and sat near me.  I gave him a hard once over to try to figure him out.  He had on several layers of orange hued robes, no hair to speak of except a little curly queue at the base of his skull.  He sported a big orange dot between and a little above his eyes.  He carried a well thumbed book and a small leather sack which must have been procured at the same place as the one around his neck.  He was thirtyish, but fading faster than normal, and had a far away look as he surveyed the room.  His thumb nails were about two inches long and curled slightly inward.  His feet were dirty but supported by some multi-strapped sandles.  I couldn’t help but thing two thoughts: 1.  My, wouldn’t his momma be proud of him, and 2. What do I really know?

That’s India for you.

Oh Boy, the Oberoi

I’ve stayed in them all at one time or another. Virtually all of the great hotels of the world.  I’m excluding here for this discussion the destination resort hotels where one goes en famille to squabble with fat families from New Jersey for deck chairs by the pool or get sand in unmentionable places while baking in the sun.

I mean the hotels where people go when visiting a city for business or pleasure.  The St. Regis in New York, the Alvear Palace in Buenos Aires, the Okura in Tokyo, the Four Seasons pretty much anywhere, the Dorchester and Stafford in London, the Oriental in Bangkok, and so on….you get the idea.  And on this trip we’ve stayed at the three great hotel groups of India.  The Taj Group, Aman, and Oberoi. The least of these would be better than all but the very best anywhere in the world, but the best of these is a thing apart.  The Oberoi Udaivillas comes close to leaving me at a loss for words.  The picture above is the entrance, and it only gets better. Like the Oberoi Rajvillas in Jaipur it’s set on about thirty acres on the edge of a very urban area, but in this case it’s also on the shores of Lake Pinchar.  Every detail is somehow just right.
We’ve now stayed in three Oberoi hotels; Agra, Jaipur and now Udaipur and they all measure up to a very high standard of design, construction, and functionality, but oddly all of them are in a very lower economic class area of the city.  I suspect it has to do with their ability to acquire enough land to execute their vision.  I spent some time today taking photos of some of the architectural and design detail of this hotel, but I won’t burden you with any of it.  What I’ve been searching for is their competitive differentation, and I think I’ve got it……eureka, it’s service.  And service means people.
1. They hire only university graduates
2. They must be proficient in english, and most have one other language as well.
3. They all young and attractive
4. They are all very well trained (six month probationary internship required)
5. They are offered a career path
6. They are well managed
That’s a pretty good start, but all the major chains focus on most of these elements as well.  There’s still something else in the calculus.  I think it has to do with their Indian-ness.  Their desire to please, their willingness to do anything it takes to satisfy a request, their lack of willingness to say, “I’m sorry, I can’t…”, their inherient politeness, their equipoise, and perhaps even their social structure creates a context within which absolutely superlative service is possible.
Let me give you a few examples:
1.  S. had a slight case of the Delhi belly.  I called the front desk for a remedy of some sort which was provided immediately.  I got a call from the gerneral manager asking if we needed a doctor, and when I declined, she offered up her own Chinese herbal remedies.  Needless to say I didn’t accept.  The next day their was a card in our room signed by most, if not all of the staff, hoping for her speedy recovery.  Not exactly what you’ld get at HoJo’s.
2.  Virtually every person in the hotel knew and used our name from the moment we arrived.
3.  I left my camera battery charger in Jaipur at the hotel and mentioned it to the young man who had accompanied us to our room.  He said, “no problem sir, I will take care of it.  I couldn’t figure out what he could do.  He called minutes later saying that he had arranged for a camera expert to come to the hotel in an hour and see what I needed and provide it, and he did.  Later a young lady in the lobby said my battery from Jaipur would be here by courier the next day.
4.  It’s not uncommon to be greeted at the entrance to a hotel or shop with a friendly “namaste”, a slight bow of the head with hands together in a prayer like position under the chin.  But at the Oberoi it dosn’t stop there.  The walk from our tented villa at the Oberoi in Jaipur was about 150 meters along a stone walkway with eucalyptus and other trees forming a canopy along the way.  Quite beautiful, but unfortunately these same trees became a pigeon roost in the late afternoon and evening with the predictable result of massive amounts of pigeon poop on the stones of the walkway.  It fell to some unlucky folks at the bottom of the hotel staff pecking order to each morning water down and scrape away the pigeon s**t.  As I walked by wondering what it would be like to spend my working time scrubbing away at pigeon dung, each of these young laborers would stand up as I approached and greet me with a gentle, “namaste, good morning sir.”  And they seemed to really mean it.
I don’t understand it all, but I really like it.  To be treated like an honored guest is something we don’t get to experience in the US much anymore.
On top of all of this, today’s flight from Jaipur to Udaipur was the best commercial flight I’ve taken in…..well, I can’t remember when.  Except for the fact that we had to leave the hotel at 5:15 am, everything was a pleasure.  The estimated forty-five minute drive to the airport took only thirty.  There was no traffic to speak of and the city looked almost pristine in the predawn.  I had a momentary start when we arrived at the entrance to the airport to see hundreds of people with dilapidated luggage and taped  boxes and sacks getting on and off buses that had clearly seen better days.  I asked our travel representative what the deal was, and he explained that these were Hajis returning from their pilgramage to Mecca, and due to tight security, he would not be able to see us into the airport and through the ticketing process, but he said, “no problem, I’ll arrange for someone inside to care for you”.  And he did.  A smoother and faster check in than AA.  We boarded a new 737-300 on time and were greeted, by name, by a pleasant and efficient on-board crew.  In the thirty-five minute air time, we were served coffee and a far better than average continental breakfast.  We landed five minutes early, were the first off the plane and our luggage beat us to the carousel.  Our handlers on this end had us loaded and in the car seven minutes after we deboarded.
Go figure.

Mad Dogs In A Meathouse

S. held back as long as she could.  She had been patient with seeing old palaces with guides that told us far more than we wanted to know.  She had even been a good trooper on the long and harrowing car trips.  But now, by god, she wanted some good ol’ fashioned shop til you drop time.  She even did research…..asked other ladies in the bar of the hotel, looked at he published adverts that the hotel handed out, she even asked advice from the guide.  She warned me that she wasn’t going to put up with any dithering or complaining from me, and I agreed that the day was going to be hers.  I was just along for the ride.

She had targeted and placed a local textile and dress designer, Inokhi, highest on our list.  And that’s were we headed.  I was docile because I didn’t have much choice, and I figured I’d get the worst of it out of the way first.  The place looked a little seedy, but so did all of Jaipur, and it had a slight case of concrete rot, but they had installed a small outdoor coffee and pastry shop on a covered patio adjoining the shop.  The interior of the shop was much nicer than the facade and much larger, and even a quick glance suggested that they had some high quality goods.  I knew I was in for a rough morning.  I immediately targeted on the W.C. in the rear of the shop for reasons I’ve previously recounted, but just before I was able to enter the facility I ran into a beehive of New Zealand ladies scurrying about in the common area between the W.C. and the changing rooms.  The queen bee said, “oh no, you can’t go in there, there are a bunch of naked ladies”.  I said, “it won’t bother me if it won’t bother them, and in any case if I don’t get in pretty quick, there’ll be another kind of problem”.  She got the message and quickly herded the ANZAC ladies out of my immediate range of view.  I did my business and got out quick.  I do know my place.
I took a quick turn around the shop and noticed that S. was starting to hyperventilate over the “bed coverings”, so I decided to explore the coffee patio.  I had two cups of great french press coffee, a sticky bun and read the Indian Times cover to cover….and that’s heavy going.  I peeked in the shop once and noticed that the pace of activity had picked up, and the crowd had been increased by a large Indian lady, probably a Non- Resident Indian (NRI), ordering the staff around, two ladies obviously from west coast, probably LA, and a very strange hippe, gringo type male who was picking out skimpy tie dyed blouses for his very young playmate.  S. already had a pile of goods around her, and I knew this was no place or time for me to hang around.
 Deep into my second french press I glanced into the window of the shop which I could see from where I was seated and saw S. directing a young Indian clerk to employ a grabber of some sort to get more goods off the top shelf.  There was a stir of activity all about approaching the frenetic.  I gave it another twenty minutes and got up my courage to go into the shop and demand that S. bring this episode to an end.  When I opened the door I was horrified to find a huge gaggle of women, all of the New Zealanders, the Indian NRI and the Californian pair all trying to check out at the same time.  There were huge piles of brightly colored good laying about.  I’ll give S. credit, she was in the thick of it. She was shoulder to shoulder with the NRI and slightly ahead of the west coasters.  The ANZACS never had a chance.  There was chatting and general conviviality in the air.  Much as you would expect to see after a pack of mads dogs had been left alone in a meat house for a couple of hours.
And this was only the first shop.