Heaven in Hampi

Hampi, Karnataka

After a day in Mumbai, we headed back down south. In Mumbai we were too tired to sight-see so we ate gelato instead and escaped into the cool darkness of the cineplex to see ‘The Artist’, which was really good. It was my first time in a movie theater in over 8 months.

That evening we caught a night bus to Karnataka, and when we awoke we were back in South India, the crowded streets lined with verdant palms, the rice paddies in the distance. I breathed in the garbled ranting of the auto drivers, the bejeweled women carting sugarcane and bananas on their heads, and the tiny dhotied men crowded around the idli stands. Oh how I had missed it. In that moment I knew that no matter how many sojourns I make to the Himalayas, or the Ganges, even if I learn to speak fluent Hindi, South India will always be my first love.

As the center of the Vijayanagara Empire from 1336 to 1565, Hampi used to be a massive center of trade, which eventually fell at the hands of Deccan Muslin rulers. But Hampi has been settled since 1 CE.

The small village of Hampi is surrounded by hills of massive stones, like abandoned games of giant marbles.  We had to cross a river in a ferry boat to get to our guesthouse. Surrounding the strip of small guesthouses and relaxed restaurants are miles of verdant farmland, flooded rice paddy fields shaded by coconut palms, with crystal creeks snaking through them. We spent a day exploring the beautiful temple ruins that were virtually deserted, unless you count a few lizards and a pack of mountain monkeys. Meandering along the riverbank, I sipped tender coconut water and watched a group of boys playing king of the mountain on a giant rock, pulling each other’s limbs into the water.

the Tungabhadra River

We watched free movies on floor cushioned cafes filled with Israelis, Australians, Peruvians, and Germans. Even though it was hot and the power went out all the time, everyone in Hampi is very chilled out. The only measure of time is how high the rice has grown. I could get used to this pace.

An Accidental Crossing

With a wistful sigh, we left Hampi three days later. To get to the village from our hostel we had to take a small ferry boat for Rs. 15, usually packed with other tourists. The boats stopped running at 6 pm, but we had seen the boats going until at least 7 pm to serve all the tourists who arrived late. But when we arrived around 6:30 pm, it was just me, Arielle, and some French guy. We were offered a ride in the “special” boat at Rs. 100 each.

Disgusted, we decided we would try to find a shallow place to cross the river. This sounds sketchier than it really was, as most of the river has almost no current and is only about 4-8 feet deep. But night was quickly falling, so we had to act fast. We walked to the thinnest part of river we could find, although there was no telling how deep the water was.

I started pulling off my shoes, while Arielle took one look at the black water and said, “umm…I’m not sure about this…”  meaning, “Nope, I don’t think so.” She decided to keep going downriver a ways to find a shallower spot. I think she really just didn’t want to get wet. I hitched up my backpack straps and clutched my satchel in my arms like a baby. My satchel contained my most precious possessions: my hiking shoes, journal, ipod, a full water bottle, my camera, and by some ridiculous twist of fate, a small watermelon that I was planning to eat on the train.

I gingerly started into the water, and began slowly stepping sideways through the sandy bottom until the water was up to my waist. At one point my foot hit a large flat rock, and I slipped. I got my balance only a few centimeters from disaster. And then suddenly the deepest part was past and I was wading out of the silent current. I saw the reflection of the first star of the evening, twinkling like a promise.

I called to Arielle who was fumbling further downriver. I could see her flashlight bobbing closer. “Arielle? Come back! I made it! I can help you!” I waded back across without my bags and helped her slowly cross. When we both got across it was almost pitch dark, which was just as well, because no one could see us crouched on the ghat steps as we changed our clothes.

Our misadventure had us laughing the whole auto ride to the train station. Sometimes its worth saving Rs. 100.

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From Hampi we took the train to Bangalore, another to Chennai, and then a 3-hour bus ride back home to Pondy sweet Pondy. We had been gone for almost a month, and it was so nice to see the sea again.

Arielle left three weeks later to finish her last term at UO.  It was so wonderful to have a cooking, exercising, journaling, traveling, ice-cream eating companion. And she’s also fluent in good ol’ American sarcasm. Indians don’t really do sarcasm. I miss her!

On the Ganga

Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh

The city of Varanasi is billed as the oldest still-functioning city in the world. Sitting on the sacred Ganges River, the city is made up of narrow cobbled streets that seem to twist everywhere except to the place you are trying to go. Shops line the tiny streets selling incense, jewelry, Benarasi silk saris, samosas, shoes, and endless numbers of technicolor Ali Baba pants, scarves, and kurtas to tempt tourists. There is excrement and trash everywhere, so hiking shoes are a must. We spent three days wandering up and down the ghats, taking photos and just being.

Said to flow from the hair of Shiva, Hindus believe that a bathe in the Ganges will ensure that their souls will obtain moksha, liberation. The river is now badly polluted, although scientists have been puzzled on the river’s seeming ability to self-purify from bacteria such as cholera and dysentery. Families carry their deceased on ornately decorated stretchers to the water. The bodies are taken to the burning ghat, dipped into the holy water, cremated on pyres of fragrant sandalwood and then the ashes are scattered in the water.

The Sinking Temple

Other than the picturesque riverbank, the craziest part of Varanasi is the people. There are the legions of boatmen and vendors, the guys who grab your hand for a “no money” massage and then demand a hundred rupees, the kids playing cricket and Frisbee on any available flat surface, balls constantly flying into the water or past tourists’ heads. There are innumerable robed sadhus with shaved heads, their walking sticks knocking along to their own beat. Some stare past you into another world, others sit cross-legged on the steps and stare you down with their hand out: “Picture? Picture?”

One early morning we took a rowboat ride to watch the dawn over the water. Stumbling out of bed and down to the riverbank, we found “Terry,” an elderly and amiable boatman. We bought tiny plates filled with marigolds and homemade candles to set upon the water. The world turned midnight blue to sweet lavender as we slipped silently past the ghats, the sinking temple, and countless Hindus taking baths in the sacred water. When touring temple ruins, palaces and forts, I often wish I could see what life had been like when the structures burst with daily life. On the ghats, I exist in the past, present and future. And the everlasting waters flow by.

Thar She Blows!

Bikaner, Rajasthan

 Before we left Pondicherry, Arielle was dying to go on  camel ride. Or an elephant ride. Or both. so you can imagine our excitement when we discovered that the tiny town of Bikaner, only 6 hours away from Jaipur, had affordable camel safaris. We booked a one day/one night safari, where we would camp out in tents under the starry night sky.

We did our safari with the ‘Camel Man’ of Bikaner, Vijay. The Camel Man’s guesthouse was filled with people from France, Germany, Argentina and even one traveler from Portland.

With our bags loaded in the cart, wheld on tight to the straps as we mounted our camels. Our trek started off through the village, the children waving from their houses. The Rajasthani desert is not the stark beauty of Saudia Arabian dunes, but a scrubby gray landscape, with slight slopes and a few barren trees. Shepherds herd black and white goats through the scrub, and the superfluous aimless cow is still wandering, even in the desert.

I dubbed my camel Chewbacca because it kept making these disgusting guttural burping noises. See, camels are exotic and cool looking, but its only when you sit on one for 8 hours that you realize what bad manners they have. Burping, pooping and frothing at the mouth all over the place. They do this thing where they cough up what seems to be a stomach and just let it hang out of the side of their mouth for a minute before they suck it back down. But the worst part is the sound it makes, a gastric, bubbling noise that warns you its coming up again…

The flowers are cute though

Princess Arielle

The Mighty Taj

Agra, Uttar Pradesh

We got off the train in the early morning and sped right through the security gates, and then there it was, in the pink dawn, the marbled grace of the Taj Mahal. Shrouded in morning mist, fountains and perfect strips of verdant garden, it looks surreal, like a movie set. Seeing the Taj reminded me of the time I climbed the stairs out of the Rome subway to find the Colosseum smack dab in front of me. You cannot help but fall sublimely silent.

The palace was finished in 1653 out of mournful love for the Shah Jahan’s favorite wife Mumtaz, who died while bearing her fourteenth child. The mausoleum sits on a hill overlooking the valley and the boaters in the glistening Yamuna river below. Across the water you can see the abandoned construction site for another mausoleum, which was to be made out of black marble for the king’s resting place.

We also explored Agra Fort, which sits an easy 2 km from the Taj. It is massively splendid, with room upon courtyard of marble archways, mosaics, and fountains. And in that moment I was a Mughal princess, because I could not bear not to be. But my fantasies were interrupted when Arielle and I discussed how we are princesses, whose lives are prodded and pampered and protected…except we are allowed to leave the castle. With a venerable glance over our shoulder, us princesses and the boys whisked away to Delhi on the evening train.

Pink Purdah

The Pink City

Jaipur, Rajasthan

 After a couple relaxed days in Delhi, we headed to Rajasthan, the land of the kings. Our first stop was Jaipur, the ‘Pink City.’ All of the buildings in the old city are a coral, terracotta pink. We visited the tall Hawa Mahal, a palace for the royal women to watch the city life below while still keeping purdah.

Princess Amelie keeping purdah inside the Hawa Mahal

 Hawa Mahal

Amber Fort Palace

An ornate old palace turned local artisan museum. Also lots of pigeons.

We hiked up to the beautiful Amber Fort, where monkeys steal your snacks and the rooms of the fortressed palace twist and turn around marbled courtyards. The gardens and fountains have been wonderfully restored.

Jaipur is nice but the paths are well trodden. After a Rajasthani week of playing princess, Arielle and I were ready to head north for something a little more rugged…

Caves in the Punjab

Amristar, Punjab

On our way down south we stopped in Amritsar for two days, because I knew Arielle would appreciate the beautiful experience of the Golden Temple. Having been here this summer, it was nice to go to an Indian city that I could navigate on my own. We stayed at the pilgrimage niwas, ate at the Lunger communal kitchen, and spent some time chopping dozens of onions alongside other Sikh pilgrims. Besides, the creamy Punjabi lassi is worth a trip in itself.

We also went to a ‘cave temple’ which was actually more like a carnival amusement park. Every inch of wall and ceiling was covered in intricate mosaics of mirror, round glass beads, and murals painted on thick glass pane. Dark twisted passageways, cement rabbit holes, an 8 foot tall head of Kali (goddess of power and destruction)… The Cave Temple was definitely the most unique Indian temple I’ve been to, and very beautiful to boot.

When Two Families Become One

Bhaddu, Jammu and Kashmir

On Feb 6th, Arielle and I set off with Brett to the Chennai airport. We said a tearful goodbye to Brett and then sat in the lounge for 6 hours to begin our journey.

Our first stop was Jammu City in the far north. Venus’ cousin was getting married, and the chance to be a part of an Indian wedding was too good to miss! The day we arrived we drove out to Venus’ family ancestral home in the village of Bhaddu. After meeting Venus’ parents we were introduced to dozens of aunts, uncles, and cousins, and fed tea and rice mixed with ghee.

More than anything else, Indian marriages are a family affair. In the US, the ceremony is about 30 minutes, everyone sits and watches politely, drives somewhere to dance and/or get hammered, and then goes home. In India, the ceremonies go on for three days, sometimes with both families together, but usually at the two separate houses. The priest set up the ceremonial area in a corner of the house and the ceremonies would go on as I everyone else went about their business. The ceremonies are a complex never ending series of chants, blessings, rituals with the bride and groom individually, the bride’s parents, and on the last day the bride and groom together. Toddlers, dogs, uncles, and girls mixing bowls of henna wander in and out of rooms. Aunties switch effortlessly between feeding everyone and relaxing together, giggling hysterically with reminiscences of their own weddings.  The men are in charge of cooking a giant feast, in which the whole neighborhood is invited. They use massive metal vessels in the back of the house, letting the fragrant dahls simmer for at least 24 hours before they are served with plain rice and mountains of yellow sweet rice full of raisins and coconut.

Amidst all the chaos, Arielle and I could usually be found huddled around the fire pit, journaling and drinking endless cups of pink Kashmiri tea. I did a bit of drawing, only to have some of the young ones gather over my shoulder, wanting to “help” so I gave them their own page in my journal which they filled with scrawls of dolphins and roses.

The last night of the ceremonies was held in a massive tent, with both families. This part is what people think of when they think of Indian weddings: the dancing, the glitz, the food. The groom arrives on a white horse, and the two families greet each other, father greets father, mother greets, mother, and so on through all the most important aunts and uncles. In this moment I profoundly realize that Indian marriages are not a holy union of just two people but of entire families. The bride and groom sat on thrones while everyone took photos behind them. The guests’ frenzied excitement reminded me of little kids spotting Mickey and Minnie Mouse at Disneyland.

 Bride and Groom

The next morning everyone rose at dawn, huddling under blankets with pink tea to watch the last rituals, the ceremony that would join the bride and the groom together.  The women in red shawls sang traditional songs, their voices piercing warmth through the morning cold.

The two circle a small wood fire seven times, and the priest reads them promises of loyalty, protection, prosperity, and service. The groom places red powder on the hair part of the bride, which she must now wear the rest of her life. The family gave bowls and cups as housewarming gifts.

And then, after days of feasting and ceremonies, it is time to say goodbye. The bride got into the car and bid a sobbing goodbye to her parents, her cousins, her sisters. All of her family was crying too. She is now no longer part of their family, and although they can visit her, she will belong to a different household, never to return to her own. It wasn’t long before I started getting choked up too. Yet what I liked about his is that amidst the celebrations, it gives an emotional outlet to the families to mourn the loss of their daughter. In the west, weddings are supposed to be happy, happy all the time, but family members naturally feel a mix of sadness, excitement, and concern over a newly wedded couple.

We left for Jammu City later that day. Having been royally welcomed during my stay, I felt such gratitude, and privileged to have shared a slice of this family’s life.

Brett Says Goodbye

March 9, 2012

It’s been awhile, dear readers! I could apologize for being away for so long, but… it’s my party and I’ll blog when I want to, blog when I want to…

After my parents left mid-January, my sister stayed to work with me at the organic garden of Matrikunj. Together we designed six display panels for the Matrikunj visitor center, explaining the natural farming practices for planting, fertilizing, harvesting and food preservation. I wrote the text and drew some diagrams; Brett did some wonderful collage designs. We used handmade paper from the ashram paper factory for all of the panels in shades of green, red orange and violet. Finally, we had them sealed in plastic to protect them from the humidity, mold, insects, etc. Baburam was very pleased. It was a perfect project for us to work on together, and I think it gave her visit a structure that complimented our sojourns to the beach and our nightly chapatti making.

Arielle and I just got back from a month-long tour filled with camels, palaces, palms, train rides, boating on the Ganges, and when we couldn’t eat another bite of vegetable curry, lots and lots of eggs on toast. Read on for the details!