Thursday, October 27, 2011

October 27



Day 10 - Oct 23 - Sunday Today was a very busy day - with a lot of sitting on the
bus. We had to have our bags packed and in the hall by 7 am and be on the bus by 8.
We then drove and drove and drove through Delhi and down the hwy south to Agra
- which is famous for the Taj Mahal. Once we got out of the city and into the
countryside,we passed between fields and gardens - women carrying stacks of sugar
cane on the heads. There were lots of cows lounging about - plus pigs, goats and
the usual calm relaxed Indian dogs. The area had a strong feeling of the countryside
in Mexico or the Philippines. We stopped for a bathroom break and then for lunch.
Then we were back on the bus trundling along at a steady pace - when we ran into a
humungous traffic jam. At first we thought there must be a bad traffic accident
ahead but eventually it turned out that all it was was that a lot of huge trucks
were trying to cross the busy two lane hwy and our driver chose to go into the
oncoming side of the median. We went along OK for a short while - then there was
almost perfect gridlock - for about an hour. I read my ebook and the time passed
quickly. It was a great opportunity to see the various modes of transportation up
close - whole families on one motor cycle, pickups jammed with woman in beautiful
saris, huge transport trucks, carts with water buffalo and the usual third world
thing of people sitting on top of buses. When the traffic jam finally cleared
(with the huge skill of our driver squeezing his way through) we found we were
in Agra and our first stop was to visit the tomb of Akbar, one of the greatest
Mogul kings. Then it was on to view the Taj Mahal (Crown Palace) in the sunset
from across the Yumana River. There were quite few other tourists standing behind
the barbed wire fence above the sand bars and wide river. Everyone was taking
pictures of this most iconic Indian structure. The story of the Taj Mahal is
quite touching. Shah Jahan, of the Mogul Emperors, fell in love with a beautiful
woman called Arjuman Banu but was not allowed to marry her for 5 years. During
that time they used to meet in the forest on the shores of river. When they were
allowed to marry, they had 14 children in 19 years. She went everywhere with him
– even into battle. Sadly she died in childbirth and her heartbroken husband built
a beautiful tomb in her memory – in the forest where they used to meet. He planned
to build a matching black marble tomb for himself on the side of the river where we
were but his son stopped him and put in the jail for 7 years. We waited until the
sun had turned into a red disc and then faded into the polluted air, then headed
back through the gardens and the vendors back to the bus. Then it was on the
Trident Hotel. I'm sure this is a very nice hotel but they didn't deliver our
bags before dinner so we couldn't have a shower and the food in the buffet was
way too cold. I was pretty annoyed and not the nice, charming person I want to be.
Hopefully I won't get sick like I did in Mexico when I ate cold cooked food in a
fancy buffet. We now have had showers and are ready for bed. Wifi access is quite
expensive and we are too tired to try to set it up tonight. So - Good night!

Day 11 - Monday, October 24 We were up early, made some tea in our room and headed
off in the bus to see sunrise at the Taj Mahal – on the other side of the river from
last night. There were lots of vendors awaiting us at the spot where we changed into
smaller electric buses which would not cause as much pollution and damage the Taj
Mahal. There was quite a long line-up – especially in the women's line because all
purses had to be searched to make sure no-one had anything they could use to deface
the Taj. We went in through the big gate and came outside with the Taj Mahal looking
almost unreal ahead of us. It truly is a lovely building and quite a few people on
the trip said it was their main reason for coming. I had not really thought that
myself, but seeing the Taj Mahal and walking around it in the early morning with
people from many other countries was a very memorable experience. Because it is
so smoggy here – everything has a slightly unreal look to it – a little bit hazy.
The Taj never looked real to me. The only odd thing was that it was far from peaceful
and etherial in the tomb. It was filled with people and much warmer than outside,
full of talking and chatter and the guards kept blowing whistles to stop people
from taking photos inside. We returned to the hotel for breakfast and then went
to the Red Fort – a huge red sandstone building that for some reason reminded me
of the Tower of London. It is really large – the perimeter wall is 2 km long and
there is a moat all around it. The fort was first built by Akbar and is a series
of gardens and palaces all inter-connected. One of the palaces became a jail for
Shah Jahan when his son decided his father had gone to far building the Taj Mahal
and planning to build another matching tomb on the other side of the river. It was
packed with tourists including people from different parts of India and Europe. We
Americans and Canadians were enjoying looking at and taking pictures of the Indian
women in their gorgeous outfits. We were particularly taken by a group of Muslim
school girls and were quite surprised when we found they were taking photos of us
– perhaps because of our light coloured hair! Next we went to the home of a wealthy
businessman to see a cooking demonstration and eat lunch. The house had a main room
with a high ceiling and high windows with other rooms coming off it. We ended up
having the most interesting chat with the two teenage children. They were amazingly
frank and self-composed. Lunch was delicious. After that we went to another
beautiful tomb beside the river which is known as the Baby Taj. It is also a
beautiful white marble building – smaller than the Taj Mahal and perhaps the
inspiration for it. Like the Fort, it was extremely hot unless yu were in the shade.
Across the river we could see hundreds of water buffalo walking along the beach and
swimming in the river. The water buffalo are the source of milk in India – because
the cows are holy and don't produce much milk. We have been told that the ice cream
we sometimes have for dessert is made from water buffalo milk and that the
“tenderloin” is water buffalo meat. Interesting. On the way back we stopped at a
marble inlay workshop where descendents of the people who worked on the Taj Mahal
still work iwth marbel and semi-precious stones. We watched a demonstration of work
being done and then succymbed to the pressure to buy something. We bought a small
marble elephant with beautful floral designs. I had decided before we came that I
wanted to buy a small elephant carving for the mantelpiece so it was a good choice.
There was quite a bit of pressure to buy. I have got very good at resisting vendors
and not wanting to buy anything in the big souvinere stores – but it is hard to be
interested in looking at an expensive craft without becoming overwhelmed by a
salesman. I know this was a worhtwhile purchase but also know that no-one who ever
sees it will realize how lovely and preciousit is. Back at the Trident, Mike
and I went for a swim in the nice swimming pool and then we changed to go out for
dinner with Gopal and Joan, who is the other Canadian. We walked down the dark,
dusty, busy road – dropped off Roger at the MacDonalds that served mutton burgers
and had a fun and interesting dinner at popular Indian restaurant. Joan worked for
the Globe and Mail and is an interesting and humourous person. Now we are back at
the hotel – watching RT (Russian TV). They think that the occupations of Wall Street
may be the beginning of class warfare in the US!

Day 12 - Tuesday, October 25. Another day without internet access. Well, yesterday
and the day before there was wifi but it seemed pretty expensive and by the time I
had finished the blog I was too tired to be bothered to access it. Tonight we are in
a completely different area. We are wstaying at a “retreat” near Jaipur. It is far
away from cities in a wide flat valley where there used to be a lake. We started
the day by leaving Agra at 7:30 am. We visited a really spectacular palace complex
built by Akbar and known as the Fatahpur Sikri. The only problem is that we have
visited so many red sandstone and white marble complexes that they are beginning to
blur in my mind. We have become pretty used to the crowds and the falling down
buildings, the garbage and the bright fruit stalls, the big billboards advertising
politicians and the Diwali decorations and the endless heaps of garbage – so the
rest of Agra passed by in sort of a blur. We were soon in countryside watching the
newly ploughed fields, the green trees and the pampas grass go by. An interesting
site was two men from the mountains striding down the highway. I got a good picture.
The highway was long and straight and the land more or less flat – with farmland
everywhere. Eventually we turned off the highway onto a narrower street which
grew narrower and narrower until we came the end of dry lake. There we changed to
old jeeps and road across the dry fields to the retreat. It is a set of small cabins
arranged around a large lawn. There are lots of trees and a cricket pitch on the lawn.
All around are flat, ploughed fields. This was the place we took the camel ride to
a nearby small village. It was quite astonishing how tall the camels were and how
much they groaned and snarled while people were helped into the saddle and there
was a lot of swaying back and forth as the camels got up onto their very long legs.
We went in a camel cart on the way to the village – along the very rutted road.
When it was our turn to come back on a camel, they were one camel short so Mike and I
both rode the same camel. We were lead singlefile down the dusty road, with sun
setting and fields turning pink in glow. It was truly a magincal experience.
In the village were allowed to see a small farm house, talk to the many children who
were hanging around and watch a special musical ceremony involving a basil plant.
Back at the retreat we had a professional musical performance with a dancing girls,
musicians and a young man who did some fire breathing. It was very nicely done but a
bit of an anti-climax after the excitement of the camel ride. The food here at the
retreat was been removed of its heat and is pretty uninteresting. I guess some of the
/americans don't like hot food – but it makes you wonder why they came to India.
Tomorrow we need to ask for a bit more heat. It is very quiet here = maybe we will
hear the jackals tonight.

Day 13 – Wednesday October 26
We woke in the cool of the morning on Diwali Day. The farmers were already out with
their tractor working in the fields beyond the small grassy area of the retreat.
They were soon gone. Breakfast was the usual mix of West and East served in tureens
on hot firey things on the buffet. I am aslways in search of fibre – especially in
the morning when at home I eat a lot of bran buds. Things made out of white flour
seem to turn to white glue in my stomach and do not help with the transit part of
digestions. I have found muesili most places but not here. Here there were only
chocolate flakes and cornflakes, white toast, white apple pancakes and the usual
omelet type eggs. I made do with a lot of papaya and nuts and apple pancake.
Sarah from Wisconsin had had a bad night. There had been rats in her room eating
their cookies and she had stayed awake all night worried about them. We may have had
something in our room because when we went to bed there were 2 bananas on a small
plate but when we got up there was only one. Did one of us get up and eat it in the
night? Hmmm At breakfast we were sitting with Dale and Esther and 2 others who have
or used to have boats and know Nanaimo. Of course there had to be swapping of green
mountain stories. One of the main challenges (and fun) of going on a Road Scholar
trip is the other people. By and large I would say that everyone here is pretty game.
Everyone took the camel ride and no-one gets too upset about anything. But there is a
bit of a split I think between the left-thinkers and conservatives. As Canadians we
are definitely on the left. Last evening Joan asked us if we were searching for
religion. We said no – been there done that – but we are interested in different
belief systems and trying to understand them a little better. Here almost everyone is
Hindu and they have millions of gods – all very confusing. But basically Rhama is the
god of creations. Bishnu is the god of preservation and Shiva is the god of
destruction. They all have distinctive vehicles to travel on, their own weapon,
wives and avatars. It seems obvious that the kids pokemon games are based in this
religion. I think I always thought this – but now the similarity seems astonishing.
The interesting thing is that kids memorize their characters attributes and seem to
know just as much about the pokemon world as the Hindus know about their complex
religious beliefs. After breakfast it was back in jeeps to the bus and off to a
step well and old Hindu temple. On they way back we stopped at a busy market and
walked through it for about a kilometer. We saw all sorts of stands selling stuff
for Diwali (Hindu New Year) – fruits, flowers, candies, cakes and bright decorations.
People everywhere are travelling to vist their families. The worship Lakmeash who will
bring them good fortune. We had a few children trying to be from us on the walk but
all they asked for was chocolate. I always find it very difficult to ignore beggars
and vendors – even in Canada - but you really can't do anything. If you even make
eye contact with a vendor, they take it as interest and expect you to buy. If you
give anything to one beggar you will be swarmed by others and you can't help them
all. My solution is to promise myself to give money to UNICEF which I believe will
distribute it fairly. Yes, UNICEF will get some money from us this year. We have
been trying to learn more about Eastern thought and Eastern religions recently –
mainly Buddhism so far. My first insight was that religions base most of their
beliefs and activities on one core interpretation – what happens after we die.
Christians and Muslims believe that when we die we will be judged by God who will
then punish or reward us for all eternity. That was the way I was raised and it is a
very powerful idea which scares you into being good. But when you think about it, it
doesn't make any sense. Why would God have set up the world as a giant test upon
which everything else important is determined. Buddhists and Hindus believe that
after death we are reincarnated into another body. What it is depends on how well we
behaved in our previous life. It is possible to become a more and more holy person -
but it is also possible to do some bad things, gain really bad karma and come back as
an animal or an insect. I think the different reincarnations are not necessarily of
the same soul but that there are no souls – only a giant soup of life which keeps
going and going. A Buddhists highest aim is to remove so much karma that they do not
have to be reborn and can escape into the peaceful nothingness of Nirvana. I actually
like a sort of cosmological approach to Buddhism where we are made up of the dust of
distant stars and galaxies and our bodies will eventually be broken down into atoms
again and our atoms will turn up in different configurations in the future. This
idea does not deal with the issue of life versus inanimate matter – so I need to
think about that a bit. However, back to the difference between religions – another
important difference is how they deal with poverty, misfortune and ill health. In
Christianity, suffering is just part of the big test of life. We need to do
charitable works and share our fortune with the poor if we are going to get into
heaven. In Buddhism, it is just a passing problem that will be corrected in a future
life. You should help the poor because they were likely your mother in an earlier
incarnation. I think we should help the poor because one day we could be poor and
we would like soemone to help us. But there are so many poor people that you can't
help them all. Then I fall into my mystical and pragmatic belief in democracy – no
matter how badly it is practiced, democracy allows everyone to have a bit of a say
in what happens and hopefuly this will result in some relief to their misery. But
even democracy can't help with the bigger problem of death. We had a nice lunch
– at least the cauliflower had a bit of spice. Mike is reading his book about India
and hopefully it is making sense to him. My main new important insight today is
that I think the people are actually happy – living a simple village life promoted
by Gandhi. They have their family and their livelihood. The fact that there is so
much mess everywhere probably does not worry them at all. 'after lunch I mucked
around with the photos we have taken and then it was time for a cricket game. Gopal
gave a very clear description and we had a lot of fun playing a short game. I am
happy to say that I hit the ball twice and did a lot of running. Cricket is the big
sport in India and I think it is quite of bit of fun – especially when played by a
group of Road Scholars. After the cricket match we went on a walk through the dust
fields and up the hill to the monkey god temple. It was pretty neat walking along
the dust road behind our red-turbaned guide and getting almost to the little blue
temple on the hillside. Being Diwali, it was particularly auspicious. The there
was a talk on Rajistan, dinner and fireworks to finish off Diwali day. Happy Diwali.


Day 14 – Thursday, October 27 Today was another day of the Diwali Festival. It is
10:30 in the evening and the fireworks are going off everywhere – including
practically in the garden next to the hotel. Some very loud bangs! We've slept
through a Mexican Fiesta with guns going off and a Mexican Wedding with very loud
music – will we sleep through this? We started the day in our little cottage in
the retreat in Kalakho and were soon on the bus heading to Jaipur. On the way Gopal
gave us a lecture on the cast system in India. He is of the Rajpoor or ruling class
and actually owns a small fort which he has turned into a 12 room hotel. We passed
through a lot of farmland and got here in time for a nice buffet lunch. Jaipur is in
the hills and has a beautiful walled old city where everything is painted to look
like red standstone. The hotel is a Trident and is located across the road from a
lake with a lovely palace in the middle of it. Then it was back into the bus and
off to see a Bollywood movie called “Ra. One.” It was lots of fun and , being Diwali,
the theatre was packed. We were about 4 rows from the front – but it was fine – not
so noisy as a Canadian movie from the front row. The audience cheered and shouted
whenever anything exciting happened – which pretty much all the time. Afterwards we
went to a small shop to see how they made lassi and some kind of fried street food.
Then there was time for a walk along the beach walk in front the hotel before we set
off for dinner with a private family. The family is multi-generational – 21 people
living together in a really lovely 250 year old home in the middle of the city.
Because it is Diwali, the old town is jammed with people walking along and buying
street food. No buses are permitted downtown, so we had to walk about a kilometer
through the busy traffic to get to the house. It was a little scarey - 21 senior
citizens wending our way through the busy traffic – but we all made it safely both
there and back. We were entertained in a large sitting room beside the courtyard.
Two small children (6 and 7 years old) greeted us and talked a bit about themselves.
Our main host was their mother who is teacher – but currently at university. I was
seated beside her at dinner and had a chance to ask her about India's view about the
British. She said that Indians held no grudges and also that my mother's school
(Lawrence School in Lovedale) was one of the 10 top schools in India today! I had
been beginning to wonder how Indians felt about the British since it never seems to
be mentioned so this was good to hear.
The Trident has internet connections – so we are gong to upload this blog tonight.
(When we loaded it we saw that it was one long line so we have tried to fix it...)

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