Sunday, April 27, 2008


i met a thai monk in the internet cafe in mcleod gange. the first clue was the color of his robes; the Lao and thai wear more yellow/orange colored robes, while tibetens wear red. and then i noticed the thai script on his internet chat. so we talked for a while about the differences between thai and tibeten buddhism (theravada and mahayana.) he could speak Lao. he is from the thai/Lao/cambodian border and could therefore speak all three languages. he is in india to study further and will return to thailand next month. i felt good being able to speak Lao again, almost like a gate opened up and communication could flow. so often the only thing you can talk about is the price of the rickshaw and how hot it is - with some notable exceptions, of course.

but the differences in buddhist practice between the two groups is something i need to learn more about. i am comfortable in my understanding of Lao culture and buddhism, so i don't usually push deeper. one thing that the thai monk pointed out: the tibetens are a lot less strict in their adherence to buddhist rules/laws - something i have observed. for example --

here are a couple pictures that i found on the hard drive of the computer while uploading some of my own. this little tibeten monk proves that our most amazing western influence can reach its sacred tentacles into even the most remote parts of the world. (although i think he is trying to prove that you can still be cool while donning the robes.) i'm wondering if he is on myspace with these photos... and i am actually being nice in posting only these 2; this monk had quite a few more that he'd left there on the hard drive which i did him the favor of deleting.

Saturday, April 26, 2008


we have been in dharamsals (mcleod gange) the past several days, and our time here has been fun. (jenni has done a good job of detailing our activities on her blog, so i won't say much about that.)

the indian government granted this mountainside community as a place of exile to his holiness the dalai lama when the he fled chinese-occupied tibet in 1959. many tibetens and tibeten monks reside here, and so this community has been in constant flux in the past month or so with the recent uprisings in tibet over human rights, the olympics, and the subsequent reprisals by the chinese government.

jenni and i went to a museum here that documented the atrocities perpetrated by the chinese government; (over 1 million killed, 4000 monestaries destroyed, continual cultural genocide.) friday was the 19th birthday of the panchen lama. he was identified by the dalai lama, and has been in chinese custody since he was 6 years old. the chinese identified another as the panchen lama, and whisked the other boy away, disallowing him the tuteledge required to assume his duties when he comes of age. the tibeten community has had daily candlelight processions here (see jenni's blog) and a hunger strike as well. the march began at the center of town, circled the streets twice and ended at the buddhist temple. there we listened as the monks led those assembled in chants and prayer.

i will miss this place, not only for its culture, but for its beauty. also, we met some great monks here, and we've been teaching them english while they've been cooking great tibeten noodles for us and providing us great company.

we leave tonight on a night bus for delhi.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

traveling thru (further notes on rickshaws and nausea)

warning: some of y'all make take issue with my depiction of another throw-up episode, so skip this one if you have to.

transportation is an interesting phenomenon in india. but by making that statement i hesitate on 2 points: firstly, i don't want to be too critical of india or overly ethnocentric. (although i guess my ethnocentrism is rather evident on this blog.) secondly, i have already told one rickshaw horror story; this could be getting old, and therefore, i may appear to be complaining about my travels, and that would only serve to discourage others from vacationing here, which is not my intent. so with those two qualifications, i continue.

this trip has been an assortment of modes of transport as jenni explained on her blog. i began this trip in delhi, took the public bus to agra, then a train back to delhi where i met jenni. then we traveled by night train to jaipur, a luxury bus to ajmer, local bus to pushkar, then public buses back to jaipur where we took 2 planes up to amritsar to the golden temple. currently, we are in mcleod ganj (up the mountain from dharamsala) the residence of his holiness the xiv dalai lama. and of course, i have taken taxis, auto rickshaws (tuk tuks,) and bicycle rickshaws from place to place within each individual town or city. and each one has been its own experience. (but i won't tell any public bus stories. they're not much different here than in Laos, and i aint got much more to say about them than: bumpy, hot, crowded, but a great way to see the countryside and meet new people.)

the funny thing is that when we boarded kingfish airlines for amritsar (this was a time-saving decision; we spent the better part of an afternoon in pushkar attempting to schedule out my remaining 9 days and jenni's 2 weeks,) i was feeling rather happy to fly to our next destination; after a 3 hour ride sitting in the front window of a public bus, a plane seemed like a good break from the frenetic bustle of the indian highway. and the little planes in asia are notable for their great service, hot towels, and tasty food.

but when the small plane got going, it never did stop that shaking you get during take off. and i've been on small planes before - smaller ones than this one even. jenni theorizes that the resulting incident was due in part because i'd already been sick the day before. well, i wasn't sitting in my seat very long before that old familiar feeling of nausea started kicking in. i thought i could beat it, and i even attempted some cbt; but the flight attendant passing out the little trays of food put one in front of me, and the nausea jumped into 3rd gear. jenni opened up her tray, spread out her napkin on her lap and started into her rice like it was nothing. the plane kept shaking side to side, back to front, and top to bottom, and i continued to feel like i was about to lose it. i also noticed a woman sitting one row in front of me holding her stomach too, and that afforded me some comfort; (her husband was eating his rice like it was nothing as well.) well, i had the sense to ask the woman to remove the tray of food, and i grabbed the little airsickness bag, and i proceeded to lose my lunch.

i actually laughed about it - i felt a sense of relief after the fact, and i thought that now i would be able to settle down and enjoy the ride. jenni kindly offered me a tissue, and i cleaned up a bit, joking about my tendency to throw up. then i noticed that the vomit smell was clearly not going away. i had sealed my little bag tightly, and so this confused me. so i looked down and noticed several dark circles on the airplane carpet, and another 4 or 5 on the airplane in-flight magazine that lay between my feet on the floor.
"jenni! my barf bag is leaking." i tried to get the attention of the flight attendant, but she was finished with her "service with a smile" and was sitting in the back, picking at something in her thumbnail. i felt a surge of nausea once more as the smell of my own sick continued to rise up at me from the floor. luckily, kingfish airlines stows all their in-flight materials in plastic ziplock bags, and so jenni hastily fetched me hers and i was able to deposit the sick bag inside just as the seam came apart and yellowish creme-of-mushroom-looking vomit came oozing out. the sight of it really sent me in a tail spin, and the plane wouldn't stop shaking. at this point, i was compelled to grab jenni's barf bag and go for a second hacking episode.

by this time, i felt real bad. my head was spinning, i was sweating, and the nausea was not dissipating. but jenni, stoic as ever, continued to hand me a fresh tissue as the occasion required. and i thought that was it; the woman to my front, (and the woman in front of her) were both throwing up, and so were some people behind us. the plane was a chorus of hacking, each singing in their own chosen key and hitting their own special notes, but demonstrating so much humanity that they all harmonized together in perfect synchronization. jenni supposes that indians don't fly so much, and that is to explain all the puking. i just think it was a shaky plane.

as we were approaching our landing and i was beginning to feel more relaxed, the man behind me decided to join in the hacking symphony with his own set of cacophonic notes. and he ended each stanza with a staccato "yack yack yack, spit!" and hearing his retching put me over the edge for the 3rd and final time. i won't go into details... i already have. but just know that as the plane touched down with a jolt, i sat in my seat with my seat belt securely fastened, tray table in its upright and locked position, clutching not one, but two (the second of which was used twice) barf bags enclosed in ziplocks. and yes, i must admit: i wished for a brief moment that i was home in seattle in my bed with the sheets over my head. as we left the plane, jenni counted several more barf bags waiting to be cleaned, and i struggled to absorb the irony of the situation. i walked slowly to the shuttle that would take us to the baggage claim area, and i observed a group of smiling men waiting with fresh ziplock bags full of magazines, safety cards, and airsickness bags, standing to the side, unaware of the landmines of barf bags awaiting them inside the plane.

but i pushed pass all that nonsense - i had another plane to catch (which was big, didn't shake, and i even ate my meal) and more rickshaws to hire. which leads me to part 2 of this indian transportation expose:

hiring a rickshaw is more of an art form than a skill. the price must be bargained between the driver and the drivee. they say 80 rupees, you say 30 rupees, to which they always look horrified and offended and respond with a resolute "no. this is not possible!" then they say 70 or 60, you say 40 or 50, and eventually you are off and on your way to see some 5 rupee museum or a temple built to shiva. jenni's got the skill down, and she's working on the art form. i have neither: after many years of travel to asia, i am tired, worn, and broken. so i just smile, and if the cost is less than a dollar US, i just say "hooray" and hop in for a ride. that is why i will never be rich and i will die with others having to pay for my burial (and my late credit card payment).

so it was entertaining to spend the day with ajaybir and his friends after arriving in amritsar because they did all the bargaining for us. one bargaining session got particularly heated. (jenni was loving it cause she has vowed to never be cheated by another taxi driver again.) but the haggling started when we attempted to hire an air conditioned car to the pakastani border to watch the border closing ceremony. they wanted 700, but ajaybir refused to pay above 650 rupees. we even did the whole walking away thing before they agreed to the 650 and we were on our way. funny thing - the a/c barely worked so we had to roll our windows down anyway.

we left amritsar on tuesday, and this required negotiating for a rickshaw ride to the bus station. so jenni took charge of this; (and this is why i would say that she has the skill and not yet the art form of negotiating. you see, jenni is inclined to pay more for a rickshaw, which is pedal operated, than an auto rickshaw, which is gas operated. but that is not how the economy of it works in india. rickshaw drivers are usually paid between 10 - 20 rupees, or about 25 to 50 cents. but when jenni sits behind the driver and sees the sweat beading up on his temples, or the tendons twitching on the back of his calves, she says like it's a mantra, "i feel so bad! i feel so bad!" at one point jenni swore off rickshaws altogether, but i've continued to push for the rickshaw drivers cause, "they need the work." so jenni's coin purse opens like the windows of heaven whenever she's behind the bicycle seat of a rickshaw driver and her rupees flow forth like water from a spigot.)

the driver we hired on this occasion asked for 20 rupees, and we agreed to it, although i knew without even discussing it that we'd pay more. he was a small old man with dark skin and craggy lines emerging from his beard to climb the sides of his face. he wore a faded white turban, yellowing homespun and a dulled silver kara on his right wrist. he pedaled off with surprising energy, but only a few minutes passed before the weight of me, jenni, and our two bags started to slow him down. i watched as much younger rickshaw drivers passed to our right and left. this only seemed to prod him on, and he stood up on the pedals to increase his leverage. jenni began her mantra of "i feel so bad," as the traffic swelled around us and the sweat began to form on the back of our driver's neck.

it wasn't long before we were stopped altogether - and our driver's frustration at the situation came through. a car came to close to the right, and he yelled at him, wagging a finger. then, when the traffic finally began to move again, another rickshaw came up along side and swiped our rickshaw, catching our spokes in the spokes of its wheel. our driver became incensed, and jenni and i tensed up, not fully knowing where this was headed. he pulled and tugged, reprimanding the younger driver, and eventually, jenni and i had to dismount so that he could free the wheels from each other. we got back in our seat, sensing the mounting hostilities, and our driver started off again -- but unfortunately, the younger driver started off simultaneously, resulting in a second collision. our driver then raised his fist in a quick nimble moment, and proceeded to yell at the other driver with percussion-like firing - and if i spoke punjabi, i am sure i still wouldn't be able to print the words he yelled - so i will quote him like this: "bleep! bleep! bleepity bleep!" his arm and its clutched fist paused in midair and then quivered a bit, before finally crashing down into the younger driver's neck. the other rickshaw driver steadied himself from the blow, and seemed as if he was going to retaliate until his passenger intervened with some presumably calming words. but in the end, the younger driver pedaled off first, leaving our old man in his frayed turban to pull up the rear. i was pretty astonished, and i was even more surprised at how quickly our old guy regained his composure. as we pulled into the bus station, he turned to us smiling faintly, and jenni gave him 30 rupees. the punch took some of the charity out of her, and he didn't get the usual 40. we left the rickshaw rather quickly; the sun was hot and the shade of the bus stalls were inviting.

but i find that india has a slew of possibilities, and the spectrum of what i may see in a single day here can definitely challenge the familiar and the comfortable. i feel a popping sensation in my brain as i brush up against india, and i think that is what it's all about. three weeks is a really short trip, and i wish i could be here longer... but maybe next time. maybe next time.

the abcs of the obcs (caste part 2)

(this is part 2 of my previous post about the caste system in india)

for 2 rupees i can buy an english language paper here - (the hindustan times, and the india times) so i pick one up when occasion permits to read over the headlines and see the world from india's english language perspective. and i find myself gravitating towards the issue of the caste system and reservations (quotas) for those of lower castes. so onto a long exposition of the issue:

formerly, those of the "untouchable" classes, the dalits as they're called now, (gandhi named them "children of god" but that's considered patronizing now) could only work in the job of their specific caste. in order to counteract this, the government has created reservations or quotas for them in regard to government positions. this could be any sort of job - from street cleaner, to public bus services, to government administration. and this reservation or quota system is now extended to public institutions of higher learning as well. (this was decided in 2006, but only became official after the supreme court ruled it legal 2 weeks ago.) so the government has gone to great lengths to classify and delineate the many different castes, subcastes and subgroups for the purposes of awarding reservations in education and jobs. well, after many questions posed and answered, i think this is about as good as i will ever understand it, and here is how it looks for public education:

1) the general or forward castes (gc) (those of the higher castes) receive no reservation or quota
2) the other castes (oc), which are comprised of scheduled tribes (st) and scheduled classes (sc), are broken down into a, b, c, d. (and i don't know exactly how these are decided) and according to two interviewees, their reservations are as follows:
a. 18%
b. 15%
c. 10-12%
d. 3%
3) the other backwards classes, (obc) , are given a 27% reservation for education. the obcs are estimated to be about 52% of india's population.

most of those that i have talked to are opposed to the reservations given to the st, sc and obc's. but then again, i have spent much of my time speaking with the educated (those with english capabilities) and they're decidedly of the upper classes. two students i met in delhi argued that the reservations shouldn't be based on class or caste but on one's economic status. they further argued that because of the reservation system, many of the dalits (lower classes) have more wealth and better education than those of the higher classes. but another student said that they're eliminating reservations for those of the "creamy layer" (those obc's with financial means,) and then more than once i heard that argument that college admission should be based solely on one's academic performance. deepak, the night porter in agra, said that he was concerned that people would assume that he got into school or got a certain job only because he was obc. (his family had money, but he was classified as obc because of his village's location next to nepal.) and of course his argument sounded very familiar to the worn-out doggy-eared arguments against affirmative action in the usa. but in india, this argument seems to have a few more teeth because the schools have extreme difficulty filling the quotas, so entrance exam scores and age requirements (india has age limits for higher education) are lowered and extended considerably so that enough obcs can be enrolled.

one of my big questions in asking about this is how do those of st, sc, and obc classification pay for their schooling. well, apparently no grant programs exist, nor do student loans, so if someone is subsisting on $1 per day (which is 30-40 percent of india) then education is not an option no matter what the government sets as the reservation percentage. but apparently, the indian government does subsidize expenses for public institutions. according to an obc student i met on the bus from ajmer to pushkar, his tuition at a govt school was 1,000 rupees a year (about $25) while his forward class friend paid more than twice that (2,500 rupees). he said a private school may range from 6000 to 7000 rupees a year. but for higher education, such as an mba program, the cost could range from about $5000 usd to up to $40,000 usd or more, depending on which track of mba one chose.

(when i was asking all of this, his forward-class friend seemed a little annoyed by my questioning and asked his friend in hindi, "what does he want to know for? is he going to enroll in a school here in india?" when the dalit student translated this to me, i could only reply, "beat up your friend for me when you get off the bus." he laughed and said he would. but it just proves that forward class people all the same...[that was a joke])

i am often discouraged by certain aspects of america and its social policies, and i know that the US has a long road ahead of it; but examining india and its caste system that is so ingrained in its culture and society has revealed a lot about my own country. our affirmative action policies (which have been largely overturned and tossed aside) seem so easily accepted, enacted and managed compared to the complex and confusing reservation system here. one issue with india is that caste discrimination is not even based on one's appearance or the color of one's skin, but on an ancient holy text that deemed one group of people lesser than another. this would seem to make it easier to eradicate - if people could just forget about this meaningless caste designation - unlike racial discrimination, which is based solely on the appearance of one's skin - but the caste system inexplicably holds on. so i guess that if one's caste designation is going to be considered a meaningful identifier of one's character in this life or the last, (like for surender, the dalit student jenni and i met in delhi, who is asked upon meeting someone for the first time, "what caste are you from?") then caste discrimination isn't ending anytime soon. but the indian government is attempting a reservation system for now, and they will reexamine it in 5 years. i don't think it will solve the problem to a large degree, but maybe it's somewhere to start.

but back to america's problems for a second: i read in india's paper today that the usa has one quarter of the world's population of imprisoned adults. (but i kinda wonder if it's because china [with 1.6 million incarcerated] kills all their prisoners.)

style you can't find in america

so jenni and i stayed in the heart of punjab at the sikh golden temple. (side note: we have many punjabis in seattle) the temple complex is extremely large - with the golden temple in the middle of a huge reservoir of water (which is holy to those who worship there.) when we arrived that evening, the temple goers were just finishing dinner - and thousands of people are fed daily, and then hundreds join forces to wash the dishes. (we actually could hear them washing the dishes as we walked up the lane leading into the complex; the worshipers eat on metal trays, so the washing is almost like new years in america, the clanging seems so loud and celebratory.) anyone can come and eat, and many many do. those who are traveling from far away always have accommodations, and the courtyard of the building immediately facing the entrance of the golden temple is filled with masses of worshipers sleeping on palates. i was struck with the communal feeling and how welcoming everyone was to us.

in the morning we met some youths at breakfast (they are sikh) that had come into town to check on some forms for college. this picture is of ajay, and he proved that being sikh can also be stylish. (ajay is not wearing the full turban. this is purely a style decision - many of the younger boys won't wear the turban til they're older, and some cut their hair and don't wear it at all.) ajay wears the turban "sometimes," but his friend tells him that he should wear it this way instead.

but as i looked around, i was impressed with how many of the men take care to "gear up" (match their turban with their clothes) when going out for the day. (kinda reminds me of some of the clients i work with, matching their cap and jersey with their shoes.) so things aren't so different in india after all i guess...

notice how the turban really matches the yellow lines in his plaid shirt. good job.

this one here really took some thought. i don't know if you can see it so well, but he has some light green in the shirt that matches the turban exactly. like they say on the streets of seattle, he is fitted.

i don't think those blues are the same color, but he made the style section of this blog anyway. (there were some others who really shoulda been here, but i can't be getting up in everybodys face with the camera - plus, most of these were taken on the sly.)

these two best friends really deserve some props for puliing this off - and they clearly know that all yellows are not the same. (i'm gonna be tradin in my beanie matching for somethin new.)

but this one here wins the prize cause i think it musta taken the most effort. it can't be easy to match that type of a color, and i can't imagine that he can wear that turban with too many other shirts; it's a one-shirt-turban. and what color is that anyway?

but ajay and his friends brought us back to the temple and explained the process of worshiping there. (i took notes if anyone is interested.) and then we went to the pakistan-india border for the dramatic border closing ceremony where the soilders face-off with staring and foot-pointing at each other. look at jenni's blog for that picture, if she posts it. my computer is way too slow to post anymore, and hers may be too slow too. lemme ask her real quick. yeah, hers is too slow too...

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

the 5 ks

made it to amritsar, to the golden temple. we stayed there two nights - (the temple houses anyone that wants a place to stay - and masses of sikhs, coming to worship, sleep there.) the foreigners are all housed seperately, and we had good accommodations - in fact, i slept there better than i slept at several of the hotels where i have stayed.

i've enjoyed learning more about some of the religions that make up india. and sikhism is fascinating. i won't go into the history and all that, like i did last time, but will at least mention a couple of things, like "the 5 ks," or the emblems of a "full-fledged" sikh:
kesh- don't cut their hair
kanga- the comb that's used to maintain their hair
kaccha- knee-length underwear for modesty
kara- bracelet worn on the right wrist
kirpan- dagger

so it's become easy to recognize a sikh. (some of the men don't wear the turban, and some cut their hair, but you can always recognize the kara on the right wrist.) i enjoyed the temple. we arrived in the evening, and the sun was down - so the temple was lit with lights around the complex and the gold covering it was so bright. but i will post more on this later, cause its late here, and i am tired.

Monday, April 21, 2008

a postscript (i hit a dog)

jenni and i are on our way up north to the golden temple (a sikh temple) and somewhere else after that. pushkar was tough with being ill and all.

but as a postscript to the blind-left-eye-rickshaw-driver experience, i need to say a couple words about how difficult it can be to navigate the streets of india. jenni and i were at the travel agent, and i'd forgotten my passport, so they loaned me a bicycle to go retrieve it from the hotel. so i headed off, and i wasn't even going very fast... but i could barely go 10 feet without almost hitting someone or something. it was like one of those racing video games - with random objects popping up outa nowhere to test your reflexes. and then i finally hit a dog - it jumped out of my way with a yap! yap! yap! and i instantly felt so much more appreciation for my blind-left-eye rickshaw driver. i couldn't help but hit a dog when i was going a quarter of the speed and with both eyes... well, i resorted to the only thing i knew: i just starting hollering a resolute "whooooooooh! whoooooooh!" to warn to all the pedestrians on the street, and eventually i made it back safe... and now we are on our way north. hoping for a little cooler weather and a little less bacteria in my food.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

contrasts and paradoxes

we pulled into pushkar around 1 pm yesterday, settled into a very nice hotel (hotel everest,) and spent the evening exploring the town. 8 pm found us sitting on the steps leading down to the bathing ghats, where hindu pilgrims come to ritually immerse themselves in the holy waters of lake pushkar. the story is told that brahma dropped a lotus flower on the earth, and pushkar floated to the surface. a full moon was rising from the east, highlighting a string of candles lit along the bottom step of the river, while music celebrating the deity hanuman trickled down from the hindu temple to where we sat. the night had cooled considerably, and i said to jenni, "india is so awesome; there is nothing here that is remotely like america."

this morning we went back to the bathing ghats to watch the townsfolk and pilgrims wash in the lake. jenni walked around the lake while i sat in the hot shade, dealing with an upset stomach, a cow that kept poking me with its nose, and a string of pesky priests yelling instructions to the worshipers coming to the waters. jenni came back my way, and she began telling me about her walk around the lake, but i held up a finger to request a pause, and then rushed over to a rubbish bin to puke up last night's dinner; it looking surprisingly the same as when i ate it. as i leaned over the mouth of the rubbish bin, the 100 or so flies deep down inside of the bin came shooting up at me as the vomit hit their nesting ground, and i felt inclined to hack again. but hacking can feel rather nice at a time like that, and i was forced to recognize the truth in what many have said before: that india is a country full of contrasts and paradoxes.

while i am really enjoying pushkar, (although today i am still feeling somewhat sluggish - jenni too - we've been eating at the same places,) i really felt comfortable in ajmer. we strolled through the vegetable market next to our hotel, and took pictures, spent some time down by the lake before breakfast, and eventually went back to dargah sharif to meet with the khadim, syed fakhar mohammhed, who we'd met the night before after my less-than-desirable excursion into dargah with the other khadim. he took us both into dargah, and officiated for us in bringing the offerings into the holy place (which i discovered contains the tomb of a revered sufi, khwaja muin-ud din chishti; the pilgrims come to pay homage to him and pray that he might intercede on their behalf.)

the muslims come from all over, and some come with much pomp and celebration; we happened upon one pilgrimage that carried an SUV-sized prayer cloth and many baskets of flowers. we purchased a much smaller prayer cloth and one basket of flowers and then made our way inside. i decided at one point that i wanted to smell the flowers (we bought red ones interspersed with jasmine, and their scent was very compelling,) but i was chastised by syed fakhar; "the flowers are not to touch your nose," and so he took the tainted ones from the basket and threw them to the side. the hall was extremely crowded with worshipers, but we followed a guide inside while syed fakhar entered the tomb from another way so he would be prepared to meet us. i thought about crowd stampedes at football games in brazil and realized that this could easily happen here. with so many people pressed against each other, i could hardly move, and i had to lift my arms up so i could squeeze through the crowd. jenni, deftly balancing the basket of flowers and the prayer cloth on her head, continued to smile, while i utilized the ever-useful techniques of cognitive therapy to chase away my feelings of panic and claustrophobia.
we finally reached syed fakhar, who was positioned behind an enormous silver encasing that encircled the tomb of the sufi saint. he greeted and instructed us in the ritual, where we threw flowers onto the tomb, and received a blessing under the prayer cloth before it too was draped over the saint. the ritual was exciting and engaging, and syed fakhar, acting as our officiator, seemed genuinely happy with the occasion to assist us, and he even offerred us incense and rings as gifts after reemerging into the courtyard of dargah. for a time thereafter, we listened to the urdu devotional singing; a man led the chorus of singers ranging from maybe 11 years-old to elderly, and some had individual parts that folded into the collective singing with amazing harmony.
we capped the evening by eating with his family by the huge cauldrons (maybe 15-20 feet in diameter; it took 3 men to stir the dahl inside!) that are used to cook food for the poor - zegad, (one of the five pillars of islam.)

after leaving dargah, syed fakhar negotiated a price for our rickshaw ride back to the hotel. a rickshaw sat unattended, so one of the homeless boys offered to "borrow" it to pedal us back up into town for 10 rupees, (about 25 cents USD). syed fakhar insisted that we only pay the 10 rupees, to which we agreed, and we were off. and this was no ordinary rickshaw ride. the boy, aged about 11 or 12, was blind in his left eye - it was milky white - and so he couldn't see but half of what was happening on the road. additionally, he had a temper: at one point, another homeless beggar boy got in the way, to which our driver responded by stopping the rickshaw and jumping down from his seat to chase the boy before returning to his driving duties. and he tore up the street, cursing those in his way, and using his hand to push those aside that didn't move quickly enough. jenni was horrified that he would run over one of the several legless men that roll up and down the bazaar while holding metal cups for their collections. and we'd taken this route several times before without mishap, but add a half blind boy with a hot head, and its a completely different experience.
we whipped through the alleyways while he hollared, "whoooooooooooh! whooooooooh!" to warn people of his approach. he almost hit a motorbike, a dog, several pedestrians, a couple cars, and finally a huge cow, all while yelling, "whoooooooooooh! whooooooooooh!" and of course, i was sitting on the blind-left-eye side so all the near misses had me yelping in fear. the non-stop excitement rivaled any roller-coaster ride i've ever been on. (this ride isn't tested for safety every morning before the park opens.)
i was so happy to make it alive at the hotel, i gave him triple the agreed upon amount, to which he smiled a wide grin, wagged his head several times, and shook my hand before pushing off to return the rickshaw. jenni and i pushed off as well, glad to be alive, and even more glad to be tucked away in a small town in india - a truly amazing country.

a cow scratching its head

jenni and syed fakhar

me in a skull cap (required to enter dargah) in a much quieter rickshaw

Friday, April 18, 2008

wandering through ajmer

ajmer is the perfect contrast to the bustling crowds of delhi or the occasional scheming of jaipur, and i have felt at home here. we found our way to dargah masjid yesterday, one of india's holiest islamic pilgrimage sites. the bazaar leading up to the gates was busy with locals and those on pilgrimage purchasing flowers and holy cloths as offerings. i purchased a skull cap (topi) that i wore inside, after leaving my shoes, turned inward, at the door. jenni waited outside the front gate with our bags, because we weren't allowed to bring them inside. sadly though, the khadim (priest) that led me into the holy place of the masjid was a bit course in his manners. he rushed me through, and, after arriving at the holy place, which was packed with people giving offerings and seeking blessings under prayer cloths, he subsequently yelled at the other worshipers to get out of our way. his tone was harsh, and the worshipers didn't respond kindly to it - and at one point he got into a shoving match with a woman, where he finally pushed her off to the side so that we could pass. however, i met another khadim outside dargah, and he explained that this priest i had encountered was "a very bad" one. so he offered to lead me and jenni back into dargah masjid later today. (jenni ultimately did not go inside after deciding we'd just wait and go back the next day.)
but the carnival atmosphere of the street leading up to dargah masjid was something to behold. and we "whites" were a bit of an attraction. worshipers flocked up to us to take our pictures or have their pictures taken by us. i think their fascination with us is equaled by our fascination with them: we are constantly trying to sneak a picture of a group of women in beautifully colored saris, or a craggy-faced man in a turban. i think being from america doesn't help stem anyone's curiosity about us either. we are constantly told, "america is the number 1 country!" or "everyone wants to go to america!"
well, we wandered through the town as the evening set in, and we happened upon a wedding party, a group of men celebrating their completion of their exams, and preparations for a festival honoring hanman, a hindu god. we climbed the 150 or so steps to his temple and worshiped there before climbing back down to the streets below. the night cooled quite a bit, so we walked some more before heading back to the hotel. however, we became lost and found ourselves winding through a meandering alley. but along the way, we met a kid (raja) on a bike who told us of our error and then led us the kilometer or so back to hotel bohla. i was very tired after a good day in india and accidentally fell asleep in my clothes.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

a quiz

so the first person to tell me whats going on in this picture will get a nice souvenir from india. please submit all answers in the comment section of this blog. friends and family of those in the picture are not eligible to play.

leaving delhi

i met up with jenni on tuesday morning, and we toured around delhi before leaving for jaipur. i was on a rickshaw to the train station when i saw her walking down the street; i called out to to get her attention - and then we went down to check on tickets. but its kinda weird, because even though our meeting wasn't random, when you are so far away from home, it still feels random to see somebody you recognize in such a different place. but we made haste with our day, and spent some time learning more about gandhi at his museum, before heading back to jama masjid so jenni could climb the tower.

this is a view from the train station area. go down the street to the left of this group of buildings, and you'll find the hotel where i stayed, hotel vishal. this isn't necessarily a recommendation for the room, but for the eatery up top. (jenni is the one that sent me there, and it was good.)

so jaipur is interesting, but i need more space and time to explain why. but as we were told by aly, "anything is possible in india." and here, walking down a city street, is proof:

and here is proof that jenni and i actually did meet up, and we were hijacked by some rickshaw drivers and driven all over town till we got to this really good restaurant. food just isn't as good in america. i don't know why. and my pictures are getting smaller cause this computer is getting slower.

so i think i will let jenni explain the mishaps of jaipur; i will accept some responsibility for the whole mess, but ultimately responsibility lies with the scammers, and the rickshaw driver that chased me from the street and up to my hotel room. (i was knocking on the door with quick punctuated taps for jenni to open up and let me in before i was accosted further.) and so all we could do at the end of yesterday was just laugh about it, and buy tickets for another town down the road. and that we did.

and above is a scene from jaipur, the pink city. may it rest in peace, and may tourists and visitors be aware of the dangers that lie therein. but we are enjoying the scene here in our new town: ajmer. we may stay here a couple of days - the town is small, the streets are narrow, the hotel is cheap, the food is great, and people are friendly. in fact, the guy in the internet cafe where we're at presently just offered to burn me a cd of hindi pop music. aint nothing better than that.

Monday, April 14, 2008


when i boarded the plane from korea for india on last thursday, i picked up a copy of the hindustan times, an english language paper serving the delhi region, and i found an article about the indian supreme court ruling in favor of reservations for the obc's (other backwards classes) in institutes of higher learning. this is one of many attempts that india has made to resolve the many centuries of discrimination arising from the hindu-taught caste system.

since reading the article, i've been asking people about it whenever i get into a conversation, and i am not sure i understand it all yet. but based on what i've learned thus far, here is my mini-lesson on the complicated issue of the caste system in india (with more to follow later):

the caste system in india dates back to the writing of the vedas, the hindu holy text, at about 1500 bc, when the system was formalized. the four castes are the brahmin (priests and teachers), kshatriya (warriors), vaishya (merchants), and shudra (labourers); of course underneath all those are the untouchables, or the dalits "who hold menial jobs such as sweepers and latrine cleaners." so basically, one's social position is determined by birth, and this is justified by the holy writings - that teach that one's position is based on karma, or merit earned in a past life. and of course those of the higher castes wrote the holy texts. (and its even much more complicated that that - so look at linked article for details.)

the caste system is outlawed by the indian constitution, but it presently continues to determine one's social position, marriages, jobs, etc., although it is less pronounced in urban areas than in the rural parts of india. i spoke with surender, a dalit student yesterday who told me that the first question he is asked when he meets someone is "which caste are you from?" (but you shoulda heard him mock the questioners - pretty funny.) i guess it's similar to the fight against racial discrimination in america, india has come a long way in its attempts to stamp out the caste system. for example, a student from south india that i met at breakfast this morning (he is from the brahmin caste) told me that in the past, the brahmin were not even to look upon the untouchables - much less drink from the same water, or eat from the same bowl - or they'd risk defilement and have to perform complicated bathing rituals to clense themselves. so the indian government has attempted to inact reforms to ensure that the caste system is turned on its head, and so this is where the reservations (or quotas) come in.

but its so complicated, and everyone i ask has a different opinion. a few have thought that the reservations for the backward classes and other backward classes are a good idea, but others have strongly disagreed. so i will look into this more and post about it - with a few more explanatory notes about oc's, bc's and obc's... (i need to ask a few more questions, cause i am still confused.)

anyway... hope that wasn't too boring. i am heading out on the road tomorrow (i hope) so i will get back online when i can.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

jama masid

i spent a good part of the day at jama masid, india's largest mosque that was also built under the rule of shah jahan, the force behind the taj mahal. the tower to the left is open for visitors, so i ventured up as the sun was going down.

before going up the tower, i spent some time learning basics about islam, which i know nothing about. this is part of the ten laws (or atleast as i was told by one of the students at the mosque) where adherents must wash before prayer. but more on this later.

this kid kept asking for his picture to be taken. this is his best. another nice thing about digital: one can afford to waste pictures.

i almost got pushed off into the shaft for the staircase by a big indian man. they need to do a better job about regulating the number of people up there at once, cause i had no room to stand.

anyway, a good representation of the expansiveness of delhi.