Harrassed, humbled, and humored
Trip Start May 12, 2010
15Trip End May 19, 2010
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Members of our tour group were spread around the room. They seemed to be a pretty good group. It looked like they were trying to be conscious of the wardrobe expectations. Shorts and sleeveless attire is not acceptable. It is best to wear loose fitting clothes that cover the shoulders and the knees. From talking with some of those from our group it seems that most everyone on the tour has done quite a bit of traveling. I guess that India does take a little bit of experience.
We boarded the bus for our adventure in Delhi. My nose pressed to the window of the bus as we headed out into the city. India is impossible to explain. There is excitement and energy in the mist of the hardship and poverty. There is a lot of construction going on for the Common Wealth Games and farmers from the outlying areas have come in to make extra money after their crops are harvested. They are living in makeshift tents along the road. The families are working in the heat and the dirt but the women still look beautiful in their colorful sari’s carrying terracotta bowls on their heads. I have to be honest the trash along the road is startling but as an outsider I can only speculate at why it is that way. I’ve heard many of the people on the bus ask why don’t they just clean it up. With socioeconomic conditions that we are unfamiliar with, we can’t totally understand the conditions. First there is the stifling heat, the incredible population, and residual psychology from the caste system. When the caste system was the way of life anyone that handled trash was in the untouchable caste, the lowest of the low. How much does that have an effect?
Then you have to ask yourself, how much of an effect do we have. The United States — which generates three million tons of e-waste annually, the largest amount in the world — sends an estimated 50,000 tons of e-waste to India, about one-tenth of all the waste the country either receives or produces itself. What then happens to everything that isn’t recycled? Those are facts that make me a little less judgmental.
I am fascinated by the amount of detail and artistry that is put into everything. There are brightly colored walls and hand lettered signs. All of the buses and dump trucks are colorfully painted with details of beads, metal and tassels.
Our first stop was Raj Ghat (Hindi: राज घाट) a memorial to Mahatma Gandhi. As we walked up to the gate Amit told us with pride about the respect that they have for Gandhi. I shared with him that Gandhi is also revered in the United States. We had a short conversation about what the world might be like if we had Gandhi today. I felt inspired by the life of Gandhi and the peaceful rebellion he inspired. We headed up to the top of the wall that surrounds the memorial and viewed the black marble platform. The tourist, from India dressed in colorful saris, flowed in and viewed the memorial. We descended from the wall and removed our shoes before walking across the lawn to the memorial. The color of the orange marigolds reflected off of the black marble. The memorial marks the spot of Gandhi's cremation on 31 January 1948. It is left open to the sky while an burns perpetually at one end. It is located on the banks of the river Yamuna. The memorial has the epitaph Hē Ram, (literally 'O' Ram', but also translated to 'O God'), believed to be the last words uttered by Gandhi. Raj Ghat loosely translates to King's Bank (where King alludes to the importance of the place and Bank as in -on the bank of river Yamuna), though the river is no longer visible because the population growth has depleted and redirected the river.
After visiting the Mahatma Gandhi memorial we headed back to the bus. I occurred to me how pitifully soft we are. I was so grateful to be back in the air conditioning. Though our entire group was in the air-conditioning our driver and assistant on the bus were sealed in the front of the bus with only the hot breeze from outside to cool them. We are only hours in to our trip to India and I am already humbled.
We were greeted immediately as we got off of the bus by hawkers of all ages trying to sell us anything and everything. Most of them were fluent in English and the majority of them were turned away with a simple “no thank you” but there were some that continued to follow and try to sell you trinkets. Eventually I found that if I said “Your time would be better spent with someone else” that they would move on to someone else.
The first structure in our path was a vacant canopy. It seemed odd but we were to find out that originally, a Statue of King George V had stood under canopy and was removed to Coronation Park with other statues, following India's independence.
I guess I was a little prepared for this. This happened to us in China and in Egypt. There is a fine line though. In Egypt there might be someone that approaches you to volunteer to take a picture of you with your own camera or volunteer to pose for a picture that will want a tip afterwards. You have to use your six senses to try to figure out if it is a legitimate experience or not. If it is a grown man that is all by himself, most of the time he is looking to get a tip. Families usually are genuinely interested in an interaction.
After my brush with stardom we were running at the back of the pack to get to the bus. We didn’t want to be “that couple” that the group was always waiting on, so we picked up the pace. So did the salesmen. They hovered around us with their rubber band helicopters and their postcards offering them at bargain basement prices for Costco Club quantities. The chanting of “5 for 100 rupees” “10 for 100 rupees” followed us onto the bus.
We drove through New Delhi viewing the Parliament house, the Presidents Palace and the Red Fort all the while being educated by Amit, our guide. The assistant on the bus kept us hydrated with water, lemonade, cokes and beer while our driver navigated the crazy Indian traffic. This is definitely one place in the world that I would not want to drive. We have seen some of the worst traffic in the world in Istanbul, Athens, and even Cairo but none of it compares to what we are seeing here.
We were dropped off in front of the Birla Temple or The Laxminarayan Temple (Hindi: श्री लक्ष्मीनारायण मन्दिर), also known as the Birla Mandir is a Hindu temple dedicated to Laxminarayan. The temple is built in honour of Laxmi Hindu goddess of wealth
Again as we started to file off of the bus the salesmen were waiting for us. I swear some of them looked familiar. Were they following us from the India Gate? As we navigated through the trinkets and chants of “100 rupees” we entered through the security gate where our bags were inspected. The crowd was shoulder to shoulder and easy to get lost in, that much easier if you are only 2 and a half feet tall. Suddenly I felt a tug on my skirt and looked down to see that I had picked up a passenger. The young Indian girl clinging to my skirt stood unknowingly grasped firmly to the material. After a few moments she looked up horrified to see not her mother but a huge white giant peering innocently down at her. The look on her face was priceless as she immediately let go of my skirt, turned and ran up the steps to the smiling face of her mother. It brought laughs from Indians and Americans alike. I guess I am fitting in okay, at least from the knees down.
Especially in temples it is so important to me to show respect. Knowing so little about the religion sometimes sets me up for failure. Amit said that if we wanted we could go up and get a smudge from one of the priests. Since it was his suggestion I stood behind other Hindus and took just a bit of the red powder and dabbed a spot on my head. I hope that this showed my respect and interest in this very complex religion.
As Amit explained about the Dasa-Mahavidya "the one Truth is sensed in ten different facets; the Divine Mother is adored and approached as ten cosmic personalities," I was entranced. A woman with a well rounded personality. Now this was a goddess I could like.
In their strong associations with death, violence, ritual pollution, and despised marginal social roles, they call into question such normative social "goods" as worldly comfort, security, respect, and honor. The worship of these goddesses suggests that the devotee experiences a refreshing and liberating spirituality in all that is forbidden by established social orders.
It seemed to me that the stories of the Mahavidya incouraged someone to stretch their consciousness beyond the conventional, to break away from approved social norms, roles, and expectations. Just by choosing to come to India Cory and I were doing that. I can’t tell you how many times when someone asked where we were going for vacation and we answered India we got the response “ Why would you want to go there?”
Living one's life according to the rules dictates how, where, and exactly in what manner every bodily function may be exercised, and which people one may, or may not, interact with socially. It can create a sense of imprisonment from which one might long to escape. A new and refreshing perspective on the cage of respectability and predictability might be gained by learning about the Mahavidya. Indeed without a mystical adventure like this one any spiritual quest would be incomplete.
He went on to explain about Kali "Devourer of Time" one of the Dasa-Mahavidya Sometimes known as the Goddess of War. I suddenly was drawn back to my job and the many Kali River Rapid Rafts at Animal Kingdom that I have painted in the last 4 years. Boy have those tubes been a devourer of time for me. I almost giggled.
While retrieving our shoes we were enticed into the gift shop. In the gift I was tempted into buying a wooden Ganesh Statue. He is the Elephant god and I was assured that he would bring money and luck. I was thinking he would look great on our shelf with other traveling knickknacks like the scarab from Egypt, the Worry Beads from Greece and the other goodies we have brought back to theme our “East Indian Trading company” Great room.
Through the throngs of trinket selling men we scrambled back on to the bus back to our air-conditioned comfort, and the quiet of some very tired tourists. On our itinerary it said we would be driven back to our hotel where we would be given a little free time to head out on our own for lunch. I wasn’t disappointed when Amit said that we would be going to a local carpet shop where they would give us tea and a little bit of lunch. Finding someplace for lunch in a short amount of time would have proved to be exhausting after full day of sightseeing, heat and jetlag.
These little trips to local “factories” we have encountered on many of these group tours where the economy of the country is developing. I believe that our guide might get a slight commission on anything sold though I have never seen the guide try to push any of the merchandise. I figure it isn’t that much different from Disney putting a merchandise shop at the exit of every attraction. It is just good merchandising, plus so many tourist LOVE to shop.
They sat us down in chairs along the walls and served us tea and some little sandwiches. They went into how the carpets are hand knotted and the materials, dyes and designs used. They talked about where the carpets are made and how they feel to the touch. It is quite a show to see them start to unroll carpet after carpet with a flourish. Dazzling colors and designs are revealed. Having priced carpets in Egypt, Thailand and Turkey I must say that these are the best prices we have seen, still out of our budget but really good prices for the quality of carpet. There were a couple of people on the tour that did buy one of these beautiful works of art for their home. I on the other hand will have my little wooden Ganesh… I guess he has already brought me money or at least saved me some.