"India: Week Four" was a frantic but ultimately successful effort to visit the country's far north and south before catching a flight to Egypt (although we weren't able to squeeze in a trip to Indian's northeast, the Bollywood version of which looks awesome in this clip
, our favorite song from our time in India).
Our first stop was Amritsar, up near the border with Pakistan, to visit the Golden Temple--the holiest site in the Sikh religion. Amritsar itself was nothing special, but the temple was an absolute highlight of our time in India. The complex is stunning--a stark white ring of colonial-style buildings and opposing clock towers surrounding a white marble walkway and crystal-clear pool, with the small, ornate temple and its hundred and fifty kilos of gold glimmering resplendently in the middle; and the whole area is flooded by melodic, trance-like songs of four priests reading from the original, handwritten Sikh holy text. But what made it really special were the throngs of gracious pilgrims--all barefoot and dressed in vibrant clothes and turbans. We were the only westerners in sight, but everyone greeted us with smiles, and several people complimented our strained attempts at local attire. As we
walked around the enclosure, pilgrims came over to explain its various features and to ask us if we would like to sit along the pool and talk. Jub sitting with two dozen Sikh teenagers and attempting to answer their questions abut the U.S. economic crisis by explaining mortgage-backed securities despite their loose command of English (and his looser command of what he was talking about) is an indelible image of our time in India. The same is true of our time inside the actual temple later that night--which came after we inched forward in line for over an hour (but without a single shove or cutter!) with thousands of Sikhs who periodically broke into low, muttered singing in unison with the amplified priests. Once inside, devout serenity filled the air. We watched the singing priests, were shown around by a pilgrim from London, and soaked in the holiness of the temple; on the way out, we both admitted to having been teary-eyed inside--so much for Jub being a robot.
On our second night, we visited a Hindu temple with bizarre architecture that seemed to defy interpretation--that is, until we learned that it is frequented by Hindu woman hoping to
Indian guard at the closing ceremony
become pregnant, and that the extremely narrow, flesh-toned tunnel we'd had to crouch down and walk through in shin-deep water while priests applied bindis to our foreheads was designed to mimic a birth canal. We then drove twenty minutes to the Pakistan/Indian border to watch the nightly flag lowering ceremony slash pep rally. It was a major spectacle. Picture thousands of Indians racing to fill the stands, kids tearing up and down along the border fence waving Indian flags, an MC blasting Hindi pop over the loudspeakers with woman pouring from the stands to dance in the street, the crowd breaking into chants of "Hindustan! Hindustan!," and honor-guard solders who we'd seen limbering up by kicking overhead tree branches performing synchronized high-step marches to within inches of the border where they tried to out-sneer their Pakistani counterparts. Meanwhile, across the fence, the male and female spectators sat segregated on different sides of the street, and there was definitely no dancing, but we will say this: the drastically smaller Pakistani crowd was able to drown out the Indian side seemingly at will with announcer stoked chants of "Jeeah Jeeah Pakistan! Jeeah Jeeah Pakistan!"
We then flew two thousand miles south
to Bangalore--India's outsourcing heartland. Driving in from the airport, we passed the city's Parsi Tower of Silence--where the families of recently deceased members of the Parsi religion bring their loved ones to be consumed by vultures in lieu of burial or cremation, since Parsis hold earth, fire and air to be sacred elements that must not be defiled by the dead. There really isn't much to see in Bangalore, so our single day in town proved plenty to accomplish our mission of scoping out India's new monied youth. Heading out, we walked past a six-story IBM office tower, and up a boutique-lined street mobbed by thirty-something Indians in western dress--including groups of young, Levi's-clad and smartly accessorized women out on the town, which we hadn't seen before in India. From there, we checked out our first Indian mall, where we noticed literally an entire shelf full of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Setting up a Call Center" while browsing a bookstore. A movie was next, and we chose the innocuously named "No Place Like Home,"--which turned out to be Vince Vaughn's holiday flop "Four Christmases," renamed for India and released in April (April!)--where we spent two hours cringing as the
movie's Christmas jokes fell flat with the audience. After another great Indian meal, we checked out Bangalore's night-life, starting at a rooftop bar with great views where the crowd knew all the words to the 80's music on the sound system, and ending at a Portland-esque dive bar called NASA, where we sat in the "Family Section" (where, unfortunately, there were zero families out tagging one on, but where the groups of binge-drinking male techies couldn't enter unless they were with woman) drinking cheap beer and admiring the neon lights, absurd portraits of Michael Jackson with Coco, and the wait staff's cheesy knock-off flight suits.
From Bangalore, we caught a train to Mysore, hanging out the open doors as we rolled through lush farmlands, tracking a river where groups of naked kids splashed around and waved to the train. We arrived Sunday night, just as the Maharajah lit up his palace with 10,000 small lights in a weekly spectacle that drew in loads of families for picnic dinners on the lawn. The next day, we explored the city's incense and flower market, where we watched woman hand-rolling sticks of incense at a rate of one every five seconds, and
Storm clouds looming
The Golden Temple, Amritsar
a group of flower sellers creating a massive floral elephant garland before stuffing ourselves with Masala Dosas (a south Indian speciality that's basically a flat bread/pancake hybrid rolled around a glop of curry that you dip in coconut sauce while eating - yum). In the morning, we drove to Namdorling Monastary, a huge Tibetan Buddhist enclave located on land leased to Tibetan exiles who fled to southern India in the late '50s. We arrived during a thousands-strong prayer session and were welcomed into the beautiful monastery along with a handful of other visitors, which led to a somewhat surreal scene of two Americans and several Muslim woman in burkas sitting on the floor of a Buddhist monastery in rural southern India watching Tibetan exiles perform their daily prayers. On our way out, we passed monks throwing packets of crackers to voracious fish in a small pond. Anna stopped to chat with one of them, who ended their conversation abruptly after she asked whether he planned on eventually eating the fish--as we walked on, it became obvious why, as we passed no fewer than five large, wooden signs sunk into concrete along banks of the lake that contained progressively more severe
quotes from the Dali Lama explaining why his followers are morally prohibited from fishing or eating fish.
Mumbai was our last stop in India, and the heat, crowds, and poverty of India's largest city was what we'd expected from Delhi a few weeks earlier But there was also a ton to see and do, and in two days we toured: (1) the impressive, if slightly worse-for-the-wear colonial buildings dotting the city's downtown; (2) a shrine-heavy enclave along the ocean that featured a pool and obelisk that Hindu's hold to be the center of the world; (3) a sprawling open air market that we enjoyed for several blocks until antique shops gave way to used car parts, power tools, and hungry looking goats; (4) a huge open air laundry ghat where most of the city's dirty clothes reportedly end up, where our attempt to spot the shirts we'd left with our hotel was cut short after a few minutes when we were surrounded by three and four year olds asking for spare change; (5) Chowpatty beach, where we sat in the sand drinking Chai and eating corn on the cob at sunset with hundreds of Indian families as vendors with
Doing our best to blend in
The Golden Temple, Amritsar
small, tricked-out plastic trucks gave small kids rides along the beach for $0.25; (6) St. Michael's Church, the oldest Christian church in India, where walls had hundreds of marble plaques dedicated to solders and employees of the British East India Company who died from malaria during the 1700's; (7) a street-side Ferris-wheel powered solely by teenage attendants who jumped off a post in the middle, clinging to the outside of a car as they fell fifteen feet to the ground where they let go, and jumped sideways--narrowly avoiding being crushed to death before scampering back up the rigging to do it again (easily the scariest thing we saw in India); and (8) Elephanta Island, where we spent an afternoon with Anna's former classmate (and current expat) Matt and his wife Karen, taking in the massive chiseled religious carvings before our boat cruised back past the India Gate and the still-shuttered and bullet-scarred Taj Hotel. On our last night, Jub had his favorite meal in India, Channa Masala, at the Cream Center, which simultaneously dished up Anna's most disappointing meal of the trip after she went against her best judgment and ordered "The World's Best Nachos." As an aside, we thought
for a while a Bollywood star might be at the restaurant because there were about 50 kids out on the sidewalk craning their necks to look in--but then we noticed they were all watching a cricket match playing on the TV at the bar.
In the morning we caught a ride to the airport at 4:30 a.m., driving past hundreds of taxis whose apparently homeless owners were dead asleep--either outside on the trunk of the taxi, or inside, with their legs sticking through the back windows. Our flight was to Egypt, but connecting through the Gulf country of Bahrain. We weren't sure who else would be on the plane--oil executives? fellow travelers?--but, as it turned out, 95% of the passengers were wide eyed, nervous, luggage-less, 18 to 22 year old Indian men headed to the Gulf to work on construction projects or in the oil fields. After arriving in Cairo, we headed to a money changer. The Indian man behind us saw that we'd exchanged Rupees, told us he was from Mumbai, and asked where we'd visited in India. Jub rattled off our itinerary and he said, "Wow, that's a lot for one month." Jub agreed, but said that
The Indian Crowds
Dancing before the ceremony
we wish we had seen more because we absolutely loved India. At that, the man looked back and forth between both of us, cocked his head, and asked, "Are you serious?" Yes, yes we were--and we can't wait to go back someday.
Stay tuned for stories from our time in the Middle East.
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