May 2007


Had Indian the other night in Amsterdam with Luke, Lauren, Lavinia, Kevin and John and it didn’t quite make it. I thought of Mumbai.

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KATMANDU, Nepal — Indian troops opened fire on hundreds of Bhutanese refugees who have been trying for two days to cross the small patch of Indian territory that separates Nepal from their homeland, officials said.

At least nine people were shot and wounded, said Narhari Adhikari, a police official on the Nepalese side of the border. An Indian official said troops fired about 30 rounds after the refugees hurled stones at border guards.

NEW DELHI, India (Reuters) — An elephant in eastern India has sparked complaints from motorists who accuse it of blocking traffic and refusing to allow vehicles to pass unless drivers give it food, a newspaper reported on Monday.

The Hindustan Times said the elephant was scouting for food on a highway in the eastern state of Orissa, forcing motorists to roll down their windows and get out of the car.

“The tusker then inserts its trunk inside the vehicle and sniffs for food,” local resident Prabodh Mohanty, who has come across the elephant twice, was quoted as saying.

“If you are carrying vegetables and banana inside your vehicle, then it will gulp them and allow you to go.”


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We got on the overnight train to Jaisalmer, end of the line, some 200 kilometers from Pakistan, an ancient trade stop: tall bright sandstone walls, a fort that’s also a city, functional yet fairytale. Ninety-nine bastions make up the fort’s outer rampart. People live and barter in every cranny of the dilapidated structure, just as they did 500 years ago. Camel “safaris” from a half-day to a week are available for money. At night floodlights along the scree hill that abuts the fort light up the walls with a beautiful yellow glare. Above, a pale moon; in the fort, a few lights in windows, shadows flitting.

life-in-jaisalmer.jpgview-from-jaisalmer.jpgcamels-lounging.jpgTo the southwest the desert of Thar turns from oceans of scrub to rolling, rippling sand dunes that gringos pay a lot of money to see at sunset. The tourist season is over now as the heat rises: it hit 40 degrees each of the four days we were there, with no cooling expected until winter. The tradesmen were both relieved and troubled by the onset of offseason.

residents-of-jain-temple.jpgbeetle.jpgJaisalmer was a pleasant place to rest. Many young Euro types and Aussies come here to sample bhang, a marijuana derivative that’s sold legally in a few places in India – among them, a shop right around the corner from Jaisalmer’s main gate. They put it in cookie and candy form and serve a special bhang lassi, normally an innocuous yogurt drink. Un-spiked lassi drinks are very tasty: but bhang, used in some religiousmarc-lookin-good.jpg ceremonies – hence its tenuous legality – is reputedly strong stuff. In any case we saw many bhanged-out teenage British girls on spring break, in over their heads, unable to move or speak, deep in a narcotic trance on our rooftop deck.

Narcotics aren’t necessary to find yourself in a trance in Jaisalmer. Chanting of some kind or other is a constant soundtrack. Music with traditional and/or religious tones blares from loudspeakers all over India, but especially, it seems, in Rajasthan. In Jaisalmer, as in many places in the state, the megaphone voice of prayer is a constant companion. With a bright moon shining over the floodlit bastions of the Fort and the ever-present scent of incense and flavored tobacco in the recipe it takes a focused mind to avoid abstraction. If you want to avoid it.

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We did the requisite camel safari, but only for sunset, a half-day trip alone with a couple camel handlers who quizzed us closely on America and its virtues. We answered all to the best of our knowledge. Mostly we concentrated on not getting bucked off the camel, which is like a tall, mean horse. Ours were plagued by an unidentified skin ailment that impelled them to repeatedly swing their back legs forward, an action that frequently caused a painful smacking collision against our feet. The camel’s other trick is to lurch sideways into a desert bush in an apparent attempt to scrape off the unwanted baggage. With some concentration we managed to stay in the saddle.

Sunset was worth it.

And with that the first leg of our India trip was complete. Four days in the desert was a great tonic for too much movement. But one hot and dusty day — much like the rest — we got back on the train.

 

We’ve eaten Indian for years but we quickly establish some favorites in Delhi: stuffed tomato, palak paneer, vegetable pakora, vegetable korma. Biryani, fried rice, goes with anything. Garlic naan is a staple. Kheer, rice pudding, for dessert. Lemon sodas morning, noon, twice in the afternoon, and night. Everywhere in India the budget set menu is called a thali and in the first four weeks we don’t have a bad one.

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In Agra we visit the Taj Mahal, our third potential Wonder of the World (after the Sydney Opera House — yeah, right — and Angkor Wat). We watch the morning sun shine off the white mausoleum and its marble spires, dancing on the black Koran script adorning the high, smooth walls. The closer you get to the Taj the less white it becomes, the less uniform, until all the disparate shapes and shades of color – blue, grey, pink, yellow, green – leap out. Closer still and the semiprecious inlay of varicolored flowers emerges. Malachite, jasper, amber, turquoise. Geometry and gold and silver filigree cover the remaining uncovered spaces. Carven flowers and fleurs-de-lis leap out. Spouts for water runoff cover the structure like spines, though the mausoleum itself, reportedly, leaks. Inside, the echo of voices and chanting reverberates off the cupola in a yellow half-light: whispers loud as shouts channeled through the delicate marble jali screens. We wander in the gardens, the charbaghs, and sit on benches in the shade of small trees. Later we cross the river and gaze at the Taj from the far side, the only tourists at that early afternoon hour to enjoy the tranquility of the orchard in the Mehtab Bagh. We visit other sites, the Baby Taj, Itimad-ud-Daulah, the Agra Fort, and the crumbling Chini-ka-Rauza, where we speak at length with the caretaker, a small man in white who sits on the doorstep in the quiet shade, waiting for the few daily visitors. He shows us the remnants of his charge, the tomb of a poet and high official in the court of Shah Jahan, who built the Taj: cracked, crumbled, blue tile fading, frescoes dim: a far cry from its more famous neighbor. But surrounding it, a beautiful green garden free of wasps and flies, garlanded with yellow flowers, and a small beach of white sand on the banks of the Yamuna River. A herd of water buffalo lounges in the shadow of the Chini-ka-Rauza, part of the peaceful indolence that fills the air.

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Later, wandering around “downtown” Agra I lose my watch. Got that watch in the Laramie Wal-Mart for ten bucks. It served me well for more than six months.

I put quotes around the word “downtown” because no part of Agra resembles any place to which I have ever before applied that definition. Nor does most of India for that matter. A place called Shanti Lodge in downtown Agra — really just a fortunately wide intersection of labyrinthine alleys — has terrific rooftop views of the Taj and we spend a late afternoon watching the warm orange light play on the white face of the mausoleum. Mostly though we watch the monkeys play in a neighbor’s rooftop water tank. Some just come for a mouthful but one miscreant decides he needs a bath, followed by an extended soak. This provides much amusement for our rooftop full of tourists. The proprietor of Shanti notes the monkeys with a laugh. “Are they trouble monkeys?” Lisa asks. “Trouble monkeys, oh yes. O yes.” Monkeys are in force here and they sometimes chew through power lines – one of many sources of India’s famed regular blackouts – and they are famous thieves. They have been known to cause havoc by swarming railway platforms en masse, as we see later during our four-hour delay in leaving Agra.

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The plundered walls of the Chini-ka-Rauza; the Itimad-ud-Daulah, or Baby Taj; looking out from the Baby Taj

The monkeys so far have let us be. They crowd the far side of the train platform but don’t seem to be the reason for the long delay in the arrival of the westbound train. When we finally get on the train, we cram ourselves into two stuffy upper bunks for a short six-hour jaunt to Jaipur, a very large city of some two millions, out in the desert of Rajasthan.

In Jaipur we see the Amer Fort, the Hawa Mahal, the Jantar Mantar Observatory, the City Palace, a few streets of the vast bazaars. Occasionally we ask people to explain what we are seeing but mostly we just wander, winging it. Jaipur has a wonderful energy. The monkeys here have a pinched, emaciated look. It is dry, there is no water anywhere, no fountains, nothing but the desert lapping the city limits, swallowing the surrounding farmsteads. We move around at night to avoid the daytime heat. I buy a new watch for about $2.

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Hawa Mahal; elephant and rider at Amer Fort

hessephoto.jpgPerhaps after the longing for experience, man’s greatest longing is for forgetfulness.

The greatest threat to our world and its peace comes from those who want war, who prepare for it, and who, by holding out vague promises of a future peace or by instilling fear of foreign aggression, try to make us accomplices to their plans.

Paradise does not make itself known as paradise until we are driven out of it.

The more sharply and unswervingly we pursue a thesis, the more irresistibly it will call for its antithesis.

— Herman Hesse

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