Where are we now?

View Where are we now? in a larger map Jo, Annie, Miles and I are living in Northport, Alabama and working at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. We've been glad to be in one place for a bit after what appeared to be semi-permanently traveling (in actuality for a period of 2.5 years).We started this blog to catalogue some of the adventures when Jo and I were sequentially conducting our dissertation research in India and Brazil. While we've fallen off the blogging bandwagon somewhat during recent trips to Brazil, we're trying to pick it up again now that we're back in India!

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Jaipur: Amber fort

It was with great pleasure that the four intrepid travelers got off the train (after 25 hours!) and into the larger and hotter wilds of greater Jaipur.

Some might remember that Jo and I spent the first summer after we got married here in Jaipur, and some might also remember that for various reasons this was not the honeymoon of our married lives (go back 4 years, yes 4, in the blog for a recap of highlights and lowlights). As a result, coming back to Jaipur was an interesting nostalgic experience.

We took (or tried to, more in a later post on how a religious holiday foiled our plans but provided for new experiences) Dave and Gail to see some of our favorite sites, including Amber (pronounced Amer) fort.

Going to tourist sites in India is always an experience, not just for seeing the historic site, but also for the circus of touts that descend upon those predictable tourists.

Here's Dave, Gail, a cobra and a boa are being mesmerized by those snake charmers (at least Dave and Gail weren't coerced into wearing turbans like the tourists who came after us) ((what is missed in this photo is the argument that ensued as the snake charmers were not happy with how much money we gave them after the picture and kept following the car, unfortunately not blowing their flutes....)

To say it is warm in Jaipur, even in March, would be an understatement.
While at the fort we were like ninjas, darting back and forth between the shady points, where with the wind blowing we were basically in heaven...

Here's, Dave and Gail enjoy a cool break in the painted shade

The fort is a fairly short hike up. While we did the hike up the hot stone steps, many opted for a scenic ride atop a painted elephant. These elephants after their working day at the fort were walked into town to the Elephant festival which we attended later that day (more later on that)

Painted Elephant

While traipsing through the fort, we came across an impressive structure, seen through the stone screen lattice. Now, when I was in Ajanta/Ellora with SaraH several weeks ago, we stumbled across a similar structure high up in a tree. "Oh they're totally bees", SaraH said..."No way, they're not bees" says I...

They're bees....millions of them.

Close up of bees

After our trip to Amber fort we went to visit the nearby Anokhi museum. Anokhi, along with Fab India, is one of the principal Indian clothing companies frequented by Westerners, and also one of the forces behind the resurgence of block printing (basically a process where a carved wooden block is used to print a repetitive design on fabric).
Anokhi Museum

The museum is absolutely amazing on numerous levels, and if I'm ever in Jaipur again, I would totally love to spend a day or two in the museum taking a little class on how to make the blocks and create the block prints. The museum is also housed in the most amazing restored Haveli (old mansion-more on these in the next post)

Housed in a beautiful restored Haveli (notice me hiding in the shade)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Train Travails

For someone with even just a cursory knowledge of India's geography, it's likely obvious that the country is immense. In visiting India, whether for the first, third, or umpteenth time, most people like to explore different and disparate places. The reasons are fairly obvious: with such varied geography and culture, one gets to see a different “India” in each region. As those of you who have been following the blog know, we decided to take a trip to Varanasi. From here, we headed West to Rajasthan to see a bit of desert life and scenery. We (namely Jo and I the trip planners) wanted to expose our traveling wards to the culture of train travel. Let's just say we've had easier train trips, but this way they got a pretty real taste of train travel.

Jo and Gail bored to tears 2 hours past the train departure at 1 am

Dave reading a student's dissertation while waiting at 2 am....

Getting to Jaipur from Varanasi should be about 17 hours. Just a nice simple overnight ride. Why did ours take 25? Well, the Jhats, a disadvantaged group have been protesting the government, and shut down many of the rail lines. As a result we all got to spend some very quality time together in the train!

Personally, when the trains run on time, I love traveling by train. If you're an obsessive doctoral candidate, you can get work done.

Or maybe a bit of relaxing, watching the scenery and daily life fly by...

or when you're held us for several hours you can just play banjo between the train cars with the doors open, letting the wind blow and living out some hobo fantasy....

Lesson learned....train travel can be a great way to see the country if you have some time...and lots of patience.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A Night of Friends and Fabulous Music

One of the highlights of coming to Varanasi for me was visiting Jo's long-time friends Ramu Pandit and Rabindra Goswami. For those of you who don't know, Ramu and Goswami are internationally renowned Indian classical musicians (Ramu on tabla (small Indian drums) and Goswami on sitar. Jo first got to know these two during the 9 months she spent in Varanasi on the U. Madison program in 2004. While you might have heard of R and G before, you might not know they have played an interesting role in Jo's and my courtship. Jo's and my “first date”, so to speak, was when they played a special birthday concert for her in Northampton, MA. She invited me down from Keene, NH to see the concert, and I spent the evening doing dishes, nervously trying to remain useful and inconspicuous. The rest, as they say, is history... (She says she thought I was the one before this evening, but she really knew it when she saw me doing dishes.)

Seeing Ramu and Goswami play together is always a special treat (I've been so lucky several times since that first birthday concert). Watching the musical interaction between these two friends who have been playing together for more than thirty years is just magical. Indian classical music is improvisational, so when the musicians know one another's playing styles well, they're able to improvise together. Goswami-ji leads the improvisational compositions, while Ramu-ji accompanies him on the tabla. Needless to say, when one of Jo's mentors and friends, who also happened to be in Varanasi with his parents, decided to help organize a concert at the Goswami family's home to welcome us on our first trip to Varanasi, we were all ecstatic.

The night was just amazing, and started with a really fun cycle-rickshaw caravan of 4 cycles (us, Jo's folks, Andy, and his folks) heading from the hotel to the Goswami's through the narrow lanes.

Rickshaw ride

After we arrived we were treated like royalty, with garlands, and lovely snacks while sitting in their living room, which has a small raised stage specifically for these types of small gatherings.

Garlands for the guest of honor

Listening to the music and enjoying the ambiance was unforgettable for all.

Following the concert, we all headed to an unnamed restaurant for a fabulous meal where they get around the lack of alcohol license by serving a “special Indian tea”. Here are the dads enjoying their special tea at the end of the day (my favorite part of all this subterfuge was how the waiter kept coming by and asking if they'd like any more “special Indian tea” with a wink).

Special tea anyone?

The next night we returned to the Goswami's for a wonderful home cooked meal, and another night of music, albeit one slightly different.

This one involved yours truly playing some old-time banjo...

Goswami feeling the beat on "cluck old hen" Kya bat ! (What a thing!).

...and one of Goswami-ji's students playing Nepalese flute. Another magical evening.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Varanasi: Down on the river

As I indicated in the previous post, for many tourists, Benares is synonymous with sunrise river trips. After ours, I can definitely say it is an unforgettable way to get a different perspective on all that goes on down by the riverside.

When walking along the ghats at any time of day one is accosted by innumerable boat-folk (spacing on what name I'm sure can be applied to them). "You need boat, sir? Sunrise boat, no problem". We settled with a nice chap whose English was above the normal cut.

From the boat one could see many beautiful things, such as candles floating among rose petals...

which left Dave Weaver smiling serenely...

to strange things, such as a boat with a tv in it playing/selling bollywood movies...

To profound and slightly disturbing things, such as the burning ghats with wood stacked towards the sky, that yes, were burning at 6 am...

which left Jo and I with somewhat long faces...

Perhaps the most interesting thing I saw was this temple that was emulating the leaning tower of Pisa...

An unforgettable morning made complete, in my mind, by my rendition on the harmonica of "Down to the River to Pray"...maybe a video of that later on if you're lucky...

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Varanasi: the best of times/the worst of times

Varanasi-also known as Benares (Banaras). A town I've been hearing about from Jo since we first started dating. Hearing Jo tell it, it sounded like simultaneous heaven and hell. While for many, that couplet may describe India in general, Jo kept indicating that it was unique. She has spent extensive periods of time here, first coming in 2001 for a few weeks, and then 9 months in 2004-5, and again for some time while leading a study abroad program in 2006. This is her home-town Indian city, and it's really amazing, the three days we spent there provided such a window into understanding her, her life, and her relationship with India that I'm still flabbergasted. After just three days there, I'd have to agree, Benares is a place unlike any other in India, and while for some it is a complete hell, for me it was hands down my favorite place in India.

For those who know nothing about Benares, it is the holiest of Indian cities, located on the Ganges in Uttar Pradesh. It is so holy that if one dies there they are believed to go directly to liberation, and as a result many people come here specifically to die (more on that later). Life in Benares revolves around the river. The old city itself, which is believed to have existed for approximately 3000 years in some form or another, is strung out over several kilometers of the river bank.

Getting to Benares' old city was for some of our companions the entrance to hell. The traffic from the airport was character-building if nothing else...

However, once we got to Benares' old city we had to abandon the taxi and carry our bags through the labyrinth of gulleys (small alleys) that comprise the old city (this was actually one of my favorite parts of the city...the absolutely endless jumble of narrow gulleys).

Dave Weaver looking out over the Ganges with Benares in the background

Benares is a tourism mecca. Tourism in a broad sense. The overwhelming majority of tourists are domestic religious tourists. There are thousands of small temples in Benares. Next to our hotel was one in which a local friend recommended we do an early morning pooja (prayer) for the health of our new baby...

View of temple from our room


Sending a little prayer out to the Ganga

However, there are a fair number of foreign tourists as well. Particularly the annoying stoned hippie tourists on spiritual quests, whom you sometimes spy sitting at feet of Sadhus (Hindu holy men) along the banks of the river.

Aside from its wandering gurus, another thing Benares is famous for is its river sunrises. They are simply magical, and given that most hotels face the river, one often wakes up with the morning light(more on taking advantage of the river sunrise with a river cruise in a later post).

Yet another things that Benares is famous for is the burning ghats. Ghats are essentially steps down to a water body, such as a river or lake. In Benares, the entire border of the city with the river is lined with Ghats. There are 80 something in total. There are ghats specifically for washing.

And ghats specifically for cremation.

Scale for weighing wood used in cremation
(200 kg are needed per body; costs for cremation vary widely depending on quality of wood used)

A common site along the ghats is people having their heads shaved; these are usually members of funeral parties.

A common site in Benares, bodies being carried towards the river shrouded in white cotton funeral shroud and assorted religious adornments

And the burning which goes on at all hours in an effort to slake the demand (approximately 800 bodies/day).

However, not all are burned at the ghats: holy men, pregnant women, people with leprosy/smallpox, people who die from snakebite, people who commit suicide, and children under 5 are not cremated at the ghats but are placed directly in the holy river, usually weighted down by a stone. They are not burned because they are either too young to have accrued much bad karma, which cremation helps eliminate, or they are believed to have suffered enough in life to burn off their bad karma without the necessity of cremation.

So what is there to do in Benares? Well, witness and participate in the incredible spectacle of everyday life. For us, this included long (hot) walks along the ghats. At this time of year (pre-monsoon) the river is low and the ghats are continuous, providing a river-walk of sorts. As the rains come in a few months, the continuity of the ghats is broken and one would be required to traverse the gulleys in order to make it to the neighboring ghat.

Other fun events included getting a haircut/shave/head massage at one of the local riverside barber chairs

Dave Weaver blissed out while getting a head massage

A sadhu appreciating Dave's shave and contemplating the deeper repercussions of getting one himself...

Buying postcards from a young girl

Watching the building of the boats using amazing joinery

And of course...shopping!

Everyone doing some bangle shopping

Gail and her new Ganesh statue

Watching the evening Aarthi, a religious ceremony when the Mother Ganga is put to sleep

And eating a slice of phenomenal apple pie (yes, apple pie) while watching the moon rise...

So as you can tell from this longest of long blog posts, Benares was incredibly captivating. True, the street traffic was bewildering at times, the burning of bodies pretty profound, the alleyways a jumble of ordered insanity, but this is everyday life in India simultaneously glorious and miserable, disgusting and enticing. And now I understand what it is that captivated Jo's interest all those years ago, and keeps on bringing her back...