Saturday, January 30, 2010

A spiritual adventure?

I'm leaving later tonight to participate in a 10-day immersion course on the Vipassana technique of meditation. The course is held in the city of Bodhgaya, where the Buddha achieved enlightenment.

I'm not exactly doing this for fun; I don't see how there's any way you can have much fun with the stringent rules that students are expected to follow, and besides, the course isn't meant to be just a novelty act. The morning wake-up call is at 4am, with 10 hours of meditation interspersed throughout the day. No talking, physical contact, eye contact, reading, writing, electronic devices, or distractions of any kind. I think the course will involve some real mental fortitude, and I'm anxious to see if I can get through it without succumbing to psychological monsters.

I can't promise that I'll return a changed woman, but there will certainly be reflections to come when I return on February 13th. If you're interested in what I'll be doing, you can watch some videos here.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Eats, and a friend.

The explorations did not end when Matt and I arrived back to Delhi on our trip, but this time, they were all of food.

On Matt’s last day in town, we went to Delhi’s Khan Market, one of my favorite places in the city. First, I introduced Matt to the unbelievable mutton kakori rolls at Aap Ki Kathir, a hole-in-the wall kebab shop that I’d been dying to revisit for months. The mutton has a smooth, soft texture, particular to the kakori style of preparation, and the taste of cinnamon and cloves and other spices is incredibly bold.

Before leaving Khan Market, we picked up an assortment of off-the-wall fruits, and tried them later that night.

Gooseberries: taste and texture like a tart cherry tomato

Cherimoya: exceedingly sweet, juicy, soft white flesh, inside a cushy inedible shell

Dragonfruit: surprisingly bland, sort of like a tasteless kiwi, but gorgeous exterior

And finally, for the piece de resistance, Matt and I devoured an entire leg of tandoor-roasted lamb that night at one of Delhi’s well-known restaurants, Punjabi by Nature. The dish came out still sizzling, bone still in and meat shredded around it. It was perfectly marinated and honestly the most tender, flavorful lamb I’ve ever had. We paired it with oversized portions of garlic naan, dabbled it with mint chutney, and washed it down with rarely found Hoegaarden. That was a meal I’ll remember for a long time.

And then I reluctantly sent him off at the airport for his next destination of Hong Kong.

Good travels, good food, and a good friend. There are many things to be happy about.

Friday, January 22, 2010

Trip Part 3: Varanasi and Agra

Train travel in India is widespread and convenient. There are no less than 8 classes for passengers to choose from, ranging from crowded, grubby unreserved class (we'll get to that later) to spacious air-conditioned bunks complete with meals and bedding. The dozens of times I've taken the train have always been on "sleeper" class, which isn't uncomfortable but is pretty barebones. The three-tiered bunks are narrow and uncushioned, and fold down for sitting. Nights can get cold because the windows don't seal. Sleeping on the bottom bunk ensures waking up layered with a film of sand and dust that blows in during the night. Fellow travelers are usually lower-middle class families.

Considering the fact that the train ride from Jalgaon junction to Varanasi would be a draining 24 hours, Matt and I decided to "splurge" a little and move up a couple train classes to 2AC, which stands for "two-tier air-conditioned". By paying $30 rather than the usual $7, we got cushy bunks with enough room both to sit up and to stretch our feet, non-drafty windows, bedding and towels, a personal reading light, and a reasonably clean toilet (by Indian standards, that is). Moreover, each bed was curtained off for privacy, which meant we hardly even saw our fellow passengers.

Our decision to take 2AC on this leg of the trip was fortuitous. Early into the night, Matt came down with serious food poisoning, not surprising given our adventurous approach to both eating and traveling. I felt guilty for lapping up the comforts of 2AC while Matt had the worst night of his life, but he agreed that there was no better time for him to be sick. Thankfully, after subsisting on white rice and yogurt for a few meals, he promptly recovered.

We took it easy in Varanasi. It was my second time here, and I was happy to just wind down and soak up the atmosphere of the city.

We visited the burning ghat by the Ganges (read about it in above link) one afternoon. Every ten minutes a group of men marched in shouldering a decorated stretcher upon which a wrapped body lay, chanting the mantra "Ram nam satya hai! (The name of Ram is truth!)". The god Rama is associated with dharma, the concept of duty which is of central importance to Hindus. Later on, an Indian man who thrust himself upon us as guide (and grew upset when we denied him money for his "services") told us about how lower castes are cremated lower down on the bank, and brahmins are cremated high up on a separate terrace. Sometimes I feel like religion is more about death than about life.

When we arrived to Varanasi, it was just two days before the International Kite Festival that was to be take place in India. The skies were filled with colorful paper kites belonging to the children flying them from rooftops below.

Inspired by the sight, Matt and I found a kite-shop in the old city and purchased a green-and-purple kite and spool of string -- much to the hilarity of children who met us in the street, two foreign adults with a child’s plaything in hand.

We met total failure. The thing just wouldn’t get any lift, and we looked longingly across our hotel’s roof at the other kids who seemed to have no problem getting theirs to duck and dive across the sky. Who knew that kite-flying required such deft of hand?

We spent our last hours in Varanasi walking along the banks of the Ganges, and then said goodbye to the lovely town.

A surprise awaited us at the train station: the train I had booked to Agra had been cancelled for over two weeks. Wanting to leave Varanasi that same day, our only choice was to purchase “unreserved sitting” tickets for another train going that way. The ensuing 18-hour journey crammed next to five tobacco-spitting men on the same bench was the starkest contrast imaginable to the comforts of 2AC class, a few compartments down. There’s India for you.

We only spent an afternoon at Agra, just enough time for Matt to see the Taj Mahal. His evaluation of the iconic monument: not overwhelmed, but not underwhelmed either.

That same evening, we took a 4-hour bus, this time with actually comfortable seats, back to Delhi. Our trip ended here, and I was happy to be back in familiar territory.

Final post to be continued...

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Trip Part 2: Ajanta and Ellora

In order to reach the small town of Ajanta, we got off the train at Jalgaon junction, and hopped a bus (again with the cramming) that took us there. We spent the rest of the afternoon exploring the Buddhist caves for which the town is known.

The caves, a World Heritage Site, are 29 individual excavations cut from a rock face that wraps around a ravine. They date from around 200 BC to AD 650, around which time they were abandoned until rediscovered in the mid-19th century.

Each of the caves is lined with elaborately painted wall murals depicting scenes from the Buddha's life. It was easy to see why they are widely considered masterpieces of Buddhist art.

Because the caves were hidden to the world for so long, the frescoes are extremely well preserved, though somewhat dulled and crumbled.

Most of the caves also had sculptures of deities and animals, as well as stupas and oversized sculptures of the Buddha.

The Ajanta caves were established at the height of Buddhist influence around the area. They served as a place where monks could go for worship and congregation, and the sanctuary-like layouts reflected that.

After the site closed for the day, Matt and I found ourselves without a means of transport to our next stop, 3 hours away. We waited by the side of the road for the state bus, not quite knowing if or when it would arrive, until a jeep pulled up and asked us if we needed a ride. Considering the possibility that we might have to wait another hour for the bus, and that the jeep would be the faster mode of transport, we shrugged and packed ourselves in the back with a number of cave staffers.

Twenty minutes into the ride, our jeep started sputtering madly, emitting toxic fumes, and then promptly died. So much for that. The jeep driver hailed down a large private tour bus, and after exchanging some Hindi words, motioned for us to board.

The passengers in the tour bus turned out to be orthodox Muslims who all seemed intensely displeased that Matt and I had infiltrated their ranks. I promptly fell asleep, but Matt later told me that the attitude toward us in the bus seemed so hostile that he was kept on edge the entire way, afraid that we'd be kicked out or worse. We were happy to finally reach our hotel.

The next morning started early. The caves at Ellora, the sister site of Ajanta, were a spectacle to behold. After Buddhists abandoned the Ajanta caves, they set themselves up at Ellora. Hinduism took over when Buddhism began to wane, and even Jains had a voice later on. Spanning the years 600 to 1000 AD, Ellora's 34 caves depict all three religions.

Repeated depictions of Bhudda.

You can tell that this is Hindu from the cow figure.

There were a handful of caves that looked like the one below -- several stories high, with stairways and alcoves running up the sides, and a spacious interior with wall carvings and backrooms. These I found striking in how modern they looked, with the stick-straight columns.

The unmistakable highlight of the Ellora sight was the stunning Kailash Temple. It is impossible to describe the effect of seeing a three-story tall monolith carved top-to-bottom entirely out of the surrounding rock.

The temple took 200 years to complete, not at all surprising given its size, level of artistry, and the detailed sculptures that adorn almost every inch of space.

A terrace on the backside of the temple.

I was impressed enough from viewing the outside, but my jaw dropped when I explored the inside. It was spacious, with smooth walls and floors, columns, separate rooms and alcoves to house icons, plus sculptural depictions of gods and animals.

For the rest of the day, I couldn't get over the level of will, religious fervor, technical prowess, and sheer manpower so apparent in the construction of such a structure. When did people stop dedicating such time and artistic effort into constructions, and why? Our modern appreciation of buildings is increasingly on a macro scale. I'm nostalgic for the time when architecture was in the details.

I could have easily spent hours more at the Ellora caves, but we had to meet our taxi to Jalgaon junction, where we hopped our (luxurious 2AC class) train towards the next stop of Varanasi.

Aside: So far on the trip, I'd discovered how tremendously difficult it is to photograph architecture in a way that is dynamic and captures the scope of the structure. My photos may be lackluster now, but this is an area in which I'm trying to improve.

To be continued...

Monday, January 18, 2010

Trip Part 1: Udaipur and Palitana

Matt and I arrived back to Delhi this weekend from our 2-week excursion around India, which I consider a great success. We submitted ourselves to the unpredictable nature of Indian travel and saw scores of interesting things.

Our first destination was the city of Udaipur, situated on series of lakes and known for its romantic floating palaces.

The city itself is horrendously touristy, but rooftop views were striking. The central part of the town was lined front to end with souvenir shops. I swear the foreigners outnumbered the locals. Needless to say, we spent most of our time up on top.

We spent a lot of our first day in Udaipur eating. We went to a tiny two-table, family-run cafe on the west side of town, where the daughter of the house was the sole cook. She made us the most incredible banana curry and also a pumpkin curry, both of which were without a doubt the most innovative Indian dishes I've eaten.

Later, we headed to the sprawling City Palace, where we had classic English tea in one of its banquet halls. We were served a pot of tea with an array of sandwiches, scones, cakes, biscuits, and fantastic clotted cream.

At night, we saw a dance and music show at Bagore-ki Haveli, an old palace that is now a museum. This woman had small cymbals strapped to her body which she tapped in sync with the music with a ball and chain.

Having exhausted all the interesting things to do in Udaipur, we got back on the train and headed to the state of Gujarat for the city of Palitana. As southern Gujarat is less-frequented, the road infrastructure is sparse, and getting there was quite an ordeal. The nearest train station was at Ahmedebad. From there, we had to take a 5-hour bus to the town of Bhavnagar, and then transfer to another 2-hour bus to our destination.

The buses were the packed-like-sardines kind. Before it had even fully pulled into the shabby bus station, people raced towards them, shoving their belongings through the windows to nab the seats. Some of the young boys pulled themselves into the windows. Everyone else pushed and squeezed. I hid behind Matt, who threw elbows but still could not secure us seats. For a 30-capacity bus, there were at least 60 people crammed in there, not including luggage.

Unfortunately I haven't so many photos from this leg of the trip. Matt and I were the only foreigners around, and were conspicuous enough without whipping out our cameras. The locals drilled their eyes into us.

Palitana was a rather dull place, the only highlight of which was a very busy corner restaurant called Jagruti that sold fantastic Gujarati thalis and the best chai I've had in India, all for about a buck. We ate here for every meal in Palitana.

But the main reason we came here was for the hill of Shatrunjaya, on top of which perches a sprawling temple complex with almost a thousand crumbling Jain temples. Palitana/Shatrunjaya is the most important pilgrimage site in the world for Jains, and has been since the fifth century.

The hike up there was rather strenuous, and took us almost two hours with plenty of stops along the way. Once we reached the top, the sight was breathtaking.

Jain temples are like no other temple I've ever seen. Some of them are two or three stories high, with spires and conical towers and intricate structures wrapping around the outside.

We spent the next three hours wandering around the temple enclosures, climbing up on catwalks and exploring every inch we could.

The next day, it was back to Bhavnagar, back to Ahmedebad, and from there a train to our next destination of Ajanta.

To be continued...

Friday, January 01, 2010

An extended trip.

Matt arrived last week to India (!!!), and we are leaving tomorrow for a 13-day trip that will loop us through five major destinations. Namely, we're going to see the lake city of Udaipur, ancient Jain temples in Palitana, cave frescoes and sculptures in Ajanta and Ellora, the holy city of Varanasi, and the iconic Taj Mahal in Agra.

The itinerary looks something like this:

Jan 2 - overnight train to Udaipur
Jan 3 - day in Udaipur
Jan 4 - overnight train to Ahmedebad
Jan 5 - bus to Palitana
Jan 6 - day in Palitana
Jan 7 - overnight train to Jalgaon
Jan 8 - day in Ajanta
Jan 9 - day in Ellora
Jan 10 - train to Varanasi
Jan 11 - day in Varanasi
Jan 12 - day in Sarnath
Jan 13 - overnight train to Agra
Jan 14 - day in Agra, bus to Delhi

Posting will be spotty, and pictures will come in installments following the trip. In the meantime, happy new year!