Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Heart Meltdown at the Taj Mahal

   It's official - I have been in India long enough that my armpits smell like curry.  Really, this has happened!  Eat Indian food twice or three times a day for ten days and your body sweat becomes fragrant like tumeric and cumin..  I was sniffing my shirts to determine the need to launder them, and they smelled aromatic and spicy, instead of sweaty,  right in the armpits.  At first I figured I had spilled food on my shirts - how else could they smell like that? - Then I realzed the odor was truly coming from the armpits.  Just imagine how aromatic Indian ladies' amniotic fliud and breastmilk are...

  I miss my children.  I dreampt last night that I had left Sophia home all alone and gone to a big Chikoko gala event.  Suddenly I realized that it was 11pm already and quite dark outside.  I hadn't meant to be out so long! How would Sophia be handling that all by herself?  So I went out to the lot to get my car, and the lot was like an Indian taxi lot, cars so crammed in tight you couldn't even get one out if you wanted.  And I couldn't remember where I left my car anyway.  A feeling of urgency to get back to her came on, and I woke up.  Whew, I didn't really leave her alone;  I am in India, she is home with Adam safe and sound.

   I spent a day in Agra this week.  I was told that while I am in India, I must see the Taj Mahal.  Simply must; it is a two hour trip from Delhi.  Agra itself is known to be a bit of a pit, so I did it as a day trip.  There is a train that takes you to Agra in the morning, and brings you back again that evening.  They feed you breakfast on the way and dinner on the return.  Once at the Agra train station I hired  a taxi and driver for the entire day for fifteen bucks.  My driver took me to all the Agra sites - the Agra fort which houses the fantastic palaces of three Moghul emperors, the backside view of the Taj from across the river to see it cloaked in morning mist, and the Taj itself for afternoon and sunset.  He also took me to his "friends'" jewelry and carpet shops, (meaning he gets a commission for bringing me there) which was an annoying waste of time because I wasn't interested in buying. 

  Agra was as bad as I had heard.  It is filthy, ugly, poor.  There used to be factories here but they had to close them because the industrial pollution was turning the Taj Mahal brown.  So tourism is the only industry, and the locals are hungry for tourist money.  One is intensely hassled wherever one goes  As we drove from site to site I peered into the crowded neighborhoods.  Filthy children playing in the dirty streets and pooping on the roadside, garbage everywhere, starving dogs and cows eating the garbage, children fetching water from a central pump (no sewage or running water here) , monkeys copulating on the rooftops, men urinating , people washing their clothes on the stones by the water pump, and throngs of colorfully dressed people carrying all manner of things on their heads filling every space.  Wow.  We are definitely not in Kansas anymore. 

    The sites themselves were as amazing as the city was horrifying.  The Agra Fort brought to life the book I just finished reading about the area's history called City of Djinns.  The Moghul Empire was a brutally violent, but artistically and culturally brilliant Muslim dynasty that lasted in Northern India from the 1500s until the British took over rule in the mid 1800s.  Delhi and Agra were the seats of the Empire.  The Emperors perpetrated incredible acts of violence upon their enemies, and also on their male relatives, inlcluding their own sons and brothers, in order to keep hold of the reigns of power.  They rode around on elelphants, kept palace harems full of hundreds of women, and built palaces, mosques, and mausoleums that are some of the most beautiful buildings on this great earth.  These have remained remarkably intact despite India's turbulent history and the area's profound poverty.  When you build with solid white marble within a fort of fifty foot sandstone walls with spiked gates unbreachable even by elephants, you really are building to last...

  The Taj Mahal itself is the biggest monument to love ever built. It was built for Emperor Sha Jahan's beloved wife when she died in childbirth.  I passed through the gate of the Taj complex at three o'clock, looked out across the vast park/pavillion, and up to the Taj glistening white in the bright sun.  My breath was nearly taken away.  Yes, seeing the Taj is worth the hassle of a day in Agra.  It is the most beautiful man-made thing I have ever seen.  Pictures cannot show you what you see in person.  The giant building floats above the ground.  It does not appear to be anchored to this earth.  The pure white marble domes soar in the air.  It made me weep in awe.  I pulled my shades over my eyes, pulled out my hanky, and gazed to my heart's content.  For three full hours.  

    I found my way to a mosque off to the side of the Taj.  The courtyard in front of the mosque was completely empty except for a few muslim men washing their feet in a pond and coming in for afternoon prayers.  The tourist crowds were all in the main pavillion area.  I sat down against the wall of the mosque in the corner, covered my head with a shawl, gazed up at the Taj, and had a good, good cry.  The contrast of the bleak poverty with the stunning beauty, all happening side by side, finally caused my heart to crack open.  How can we stop the poverty?  How can we help all these children have a clean place to live, school to attend, a way out of their current conditions?  How can we clean up all the garbage?   I felt how much I love them all - every single person in India from the hasslers and touts, to the filthy children, to my sister and her sweet baby.  I want to help everyone!  

  After a while my tears turned into song, and I softly sang a tibetan mantra of peace and enlightenment to myself.  The sun began to set, and the Taj turned from bright yellow-white to soft pink.  I lingered until dark, and slowly made my way back through the pavillion.  At the gate I turned one more time to gaze.  The Taj was now dusky blue-grey in the darkening evening, mist from the river rising around it like bedcovers.  I pulled myself away, back into the taxi, and then to the fly and rat-infested train station to await my ride back to Delhi.

  I don't have answers to the poverty and suffering, neither do the Indian people.  But now my journey will take a spiritual turn, and perhaps some greater understanding will arise.  Tonight I go to Varnasi, City of Light.  This town has been the holiest site for Hindu pilgrimage in India continuously since 600 BC.  That is 2600 years of pilgrimage!  Hindus believe that to come to this city , do puja on the banks (called ghats) of the river Ganges, and then bathe in the river, will remove you from the suffering world and bring you to Paradise.  I have a hotel room booked right on the river above one of the main ghats for three days.  When Mark Twain visited Varnasi he wrote "Varnasi is older than history, older than tradition, older even than legend.  It looks twice as old as all of them put together."  

  Then I will travel on to Bodh Gaya, the place of awakening,  where the Buddha attained enlightenment.  You can sit under the Banyan tree that is the grandaughter of the one the Buddha sat under. It is said that just to sit there brings one close to enlightenment.  .Buddhist pilgrims come from all over Asia and the world to be there.  I am hoping some of that enlightened energy will rub off on me,  so I can bring it back to the family and community that I love, and the women and babies I serve.   This will be my last post from India - offered with love.  Namaste!

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

A Palace, a Bollywood shoot, and an Opium Tea Ceremony

   The morning after the wedding was a slow start at Hem Guest House. I was the first up, and did some yoga on the rooftop.  Our tired hosts (who had come home at 4am) managed to put together chai and toast, and I went off to sightsee for the day.  I spent the day in the fort above the city.  The palace in the fort was the home of the local Maharaj for centuries.  There is still a Maharaj today but he lives in a newer palace on the edge of town.  He and his family have lovingly preserved his ancestral palace and created a fascinating museum within in it .  The museum has art and royal artifacts from the 1500's on.  An audio tour that comes with the ticket explains everything, and tells  anecdotes and stories.  The Maharaj himself speaks on the tour, explaining things.  Here are some pics pulled off the web of the palace.

    What was not part of the regular palace tour was this - a Bollywood movie was being filmed at the palace that day.  There was a cavalry of medieval soldiers, some on horseback, some carrying giant spears and swords, bloodied and wearing full medieval Rajasthani armor,  being filmed marching into the palace complex.  There were medieval princes and princesses watching them from the palace steps.  There was Bollywood music blasting during each take. After the tour I sat in the cafe drinking a lassi and watching the actors.   It was a lively addition to the palace visit.
      I had a mellow evening at the guest house, and had dinner with some folks visitng India from Singapore.  It was interesting to learn about Singapore, which is an English-speaking country full of Chinese, Indian, and Malaysian immigrants.  The next morning my new friends Ering and Peng joined me on a jeep tour into the rural villages outside of Jodhpur.
  This activity known as "Village Safari" brings foreigners into traditional rural villages to see how the craftspeople make their wares using centuries-old technologies.  It is brilliant - it costs tourists just a few bucks, is a fascinating experience, and gives us a chance to buy the crafts from the families that make them. This provides them a living so they can continue to live in their traditional ways.  It was lovely to get out of town, into the trees and fields, and dirt roads.  The simple lifestyle of the villagers was just as I imagined.  Whitewashed mud huts with thatched roof, outdoor kitchen cooking over a fire, food grown and then stored in large clay pots in a cool storeroom.

no microwave oven here!

     These are pictures of a Bishnoi house.  The Bishnoi are a Hindi sect that are known for being especially respectful of nature.  They will not cut down trees, only take dead branches.  The area in which they live is full of healthy, beautiful trees, and antelope and happy cows.  Three hundred years ago, the Maharaj sent his army into the Bishnoi village area to get wood to make his palace doors.  When the army arrived to cut down some trees, a woman ran out and hugged the tree to stop them.  India's original Julia Butterfly.  Except then they cut off her head.  So her three young daughters ran out to hug the trees.  Their heads were also cut off.  After 62 Bishnoi heads had been cut off , the Maharaj caught wind of the problem.  He ordered the army to stop cutting heads, came out and apologized profusely, and promised to protect Bishnoi trees forever.  The subsequent Maharajs have maintained this promise.
  Opium has been used in this area for centuries.  It is not smoked, but taken as tea.  The maharaj would give opium tea to the soldiers before marching them into battle.  That way, they would be braver,  having visions of Paradise, and if they were hurt, they already had pain relief on board.  The Bishnoi people drink opium tea as part of their rituals as well.  We were privleged to participate in an opium tea ceremony at the Bishnoi home we visited.  An ancient vogi prepared it by straining it through cotton filters, and praying and chanting over it.  I am a "when in Rome" sort of girl, so while my friends politely declined, I tried some.  He poured it into my right hand to drink. It tasted very bitter, but I sure felt relaxed and happy for the remainder of the safari...
   We got back to Jodhpur in time for a big meal and then catching my night train back to Delhi.  Now I am here regrouping and taking long shifts of baby-holding for my sister.  I have certainly forgotten how busy it is to have a one-month old baby.  This baby likes to be held all the time...isn't that a shocker!  Tomorrow I am off to Agra for the day to see the crown jewel of the Mughal Empire - the Taj Mahal.  Then on Thurday I will take a night train to Varnasi on the Ganges, the holiest city in India. It is Shiva's birthplace, and where Hindus make pigrimage to bathe in the holy river Ganges.  From there I make pilgrimage to Bodh Gaya, where the Buddha attained enlightenment. That will about just wrap up this India adventure.



Saturday, December 10, 2011

A Wedding in the Blue City

    I just had a mad-wonderful three days in Jodhpur, in the heart of Rajasthan beside the Great Thar Desert.  Jodhpur is called the Blue City because for hundreds of years, the homes have been washed in Indigo to keep them cool and bug-free.  The city sits at the foot of a hill on which a giant 17th century fort sits, looking over everything in majestic glory. 

  A nice feature of Jodphur is that the streets of the Old City are so narrow and winding, that cars cannot get through.  Thus, a pedestrian has only the cows, motorcycles, and bikes to contend with

    Or, for a real blast, one can ride in a tuk-tuk and be the queen of the road.  You see, on India streets, the biggest thing wins, and everyone else must get out of its way.  There is no waiting and allowing pedestrians to pass first.  It has taken me a while to learn how to walk through the congested bazaars and not feel nearly run down by motorcycles and tuk-tuks racing through.  But I am getting the swing of it.  And after a day of walking about, hopping in one of these and racing through the streets myself is a blast. 

    As I tuk-tuk through the streets, there are so many sights, sounds, and smells all around me, I feel like I am on some exotic Disneyland ride.  Mr Toad's Wild India Ride.  I cannot describe the sheer volume of it all - there is nothing in America to compare it to.  A friend said, as we laughed at the absurd bedlam of our shared tuk-tuk ride, "India sure is lively!"  People say that when you leave India and go anywhere else, it seems like you have cotton covering your eyes, ears, and nose. Your sense experiences are that much duller, anywhere else in the world! 

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Old Delhi Sights

     Yesterday I spent the entire day sightseeing in Old Delhi - an amazing and brain boggling experience!  Old Delhi is a vast maze of  bazaars and markets built in narrow passageways on the first floors of crumbling old buildings.   These buildings are a mish-mosh of architectural wonders from 600 years of Indian history.  The passages are filled with people, bike-rickshaws, sights, and smells.  Truly a bizarre bazzar!

Old Delhi also has majestic Moghul mosques, forts, and palaces.  Top that off with numerous Hindu and Jain temples filled with giant glittering alters to a vast array of dieties scattered everywhere, and you get an inkling of an idea.

   I took the Metro in the morning from my sister's house.  It was easy; the Metro is clean and convenient.  One brilliant feature is that every train has a "ladies car" where only ladies can be.  Since most of the metro riders are male, sittting with all women was lovely.  We could all look around and smile at each other without any wierd vibes.  

  I took a bike-rickshaw from the station to Jama Masjid.  Fun, swift, bone-rattling and white-knuckled way to go as the rickshaws just weave in and out of everything, passing pedestrians and cars with an inch or two on each side. 

 Jama Masjid, a mosque built in 1656, took my breath away.  The soaring, swooping architecture lifts my spirits right along with it.   I spent an hour here praying and taking in the beautiful, ancient energy of the place.  I paid 100 rupees to climb to the top of one of the minarets and take in the dizzying view.  The temples built at Burning Man each year borrow heavily from Islamic temple architecture.  In fact, I do believe that this year's Temple of Transition was  based on this very one!.  While the Burning Man temple lasts for one week, this mosque is going on 500 years.  Incredible. 

   I was told to find Karim's for lunch, in a tiny passage down a narrow bazaar.  After losing myself completely, kind people pointed me the way.  Karim's family has been cooking there since the 1700s, so the story goes.  It was a remarkably clean little enclave with white marble floors in the midst of filth and mayhem.  I ate the most delicious chicken lunch of my life.  Recharged, I hit the bazaar-wandering in earnest.

  I found the wedding bling market

the gem market, and the sari market where I was made to try on a sari that kept dropping in price...   
I found my way into a crumbling marble Shiva temple, and a beauitufl Jain temple which has a charity bird hospital attached.  

  I went to the Red Fort, a sprawling comlex from the Mughal Empire.  It was very busy with Indian families and groups touring.  Actually, I saw very few non-Indians all day.  Delhi is not a toursist destination for Westerners.  A funny thing happened at the Red Fort though.  All these people, especially small groups of nattily dressed young men, wanted to be photographed - with ME!   I was a rare, exotic creature to them.  I was happy to oblige since all day I had been snapping shots of people in the bazaar.  It seemed like a fair exchange.  

  Another wild ride on a bike-rickshaw through the spice market to the Metro,  and I came back to Amy and her precious baby just as the sun was setting.  What a day!  

  Today Amy and I are going to lunch with her friend who works in an NGO that aids traditional midwives in rural areas. Hmmm...that just happens to be right up my alley...    Then tonight I am taking an overnight train to Jodphur in Rajasthan.  I will stay there for a couple days and then return.  Blessings!

Monday, December 5, 2011

A Day in the Bazaar

     Amy and I spent all morning in baby-love land.  Okay, Ananya is the third cutest baby EVER, after Clarabel and Sophia.  I know I am saying this with a midwife's objective eye.  I helped Amy take a bath with her baby for the first time, instead of bathing her in a little pastic tub thingie.  Mother and baby loved it.

   Finally she had nursed enough for the meantime and we decided to go out to a craft bizarre to do a little browsing and shopping.  As soon as we were in a taxi, pulling out of Amy's quiet back streets onto the main road way, it was like, oh yeah, we are in India! My eyes were again working at warp speed to take in all the amazing sights flashing by us.  People pulling ridiculas loads on bikes, like ten mattresses piled on top of each other, little markets and stalls, crazily careening auto-rickshaws, food being cooked on the street, horns blaring.  The women are all so colorful and beautiful in their saris and salwars.

  My sister took us to a special bazaar that only the Indians know about.  It is not in the Lonely Planet guide. It is a government-regulated market, and it costs 20 rupees to enter (40 cents) so that keeps beggars and touts out.  All the stalls are run by the artisans themselves, with crafts and beautiful things from all the different parts of India.   Crowds of beautiful Indian families were there to shop. It was festive and colorful. Ananya happily slept in her Baby Bjorn as we walked around.
     My sister can look at things and say, these shirts are from Lucknow.  These things are from South India.  They make these in Kashmir.  She also has the ability to dicker and discuss in Hindi with the shopkeepers, which came in handy.  Everything was already very inexpensive but she bargained everythng down . Every time I was about to make a purchase, no doubt at the 'tourist' price, she walked up and spoke loudly in Hindi and suddenly 300 rupees were knocked off the price.   It was impressive, to say the least.  I am not much of a shopper, but it seems I will make an exception to that rule during my visit here.  And I will definitely do my big purchases with Amy-ma at my side. 

    Women do not breastfeed in public here so my sis is naviagating how to manage being out with her baby.  We found a quiet corner in the back of the food stalls where she nursed her discreetly and we ate corn roti and almond ice cream. My sister will probably become Delhi's first Lactivist.  She can be an example to the middle class professional women who do not breastfeed their babies.  Her friend told her that only the beggar women nurse their babies in public. 

      There are no big box stores in India.  None.  No walmart, no Target, no drugstore like Longs or grocery store like Safeway.  Everything is picked up at little markets and bizarres.  In a city of 9 million people, isn't that amazing?  That is one of the reasons that Delhi feels like a village - no strip malls!       What India does not have in 'things',  it makes up for it in charm and character.   I wonder how long they will keep the big box stores out....

that's all for now,


Sunday, December 4, 2011

Passsage to India

I decided to come to India the day my sister's baby was born.  The preparations were a whirlwind;  expedited tourist visas, vaccinations, gathering baby things for her.  I would be coming alone, leaving my dear hubby and children safely having their Chico Christmas season without me.  Then all my November mamas supported my travel efforts by ALL three giving birth ahead of schedule,  within a crazy four days.   At that point, I got to move my trip up by almost a week!  
  In the days leading up to my departure I would start crying at random moments, just thinking about how excited I was.  Truth is, I have ALWAYS wanted to come visit India, but it had never seemed like the 'right time'.  First, we had no money, then we had babies, then we had no money AND babies, then we were buying a house...then.. then...then. 

    I hadn't flown overseas in more than a decade, since before Bella was born.  I was a bit anxious, but mostly just excited.  When you are used to traveling with kids, going on a trip by yourself is just ridiculasly easy!  I am tuning in with my old backpacker-adventurer self, who globe trotted in her early twenties, now twenty years ago!

  My travels all went smoothly, except for the fact that I did not really 'sleep' on those two overnight flights like I thought I would.  More like drifted in and out of half-sleep and watched a lot of good movies courtesy of Virgin Atlantic.

  I had an all-day stopover in London, which turned into a magical, wonderful day.  My friends,  Sonya Sophia, the EFT teacher and practitioner Goddess extraorinaire, and her British hubby Simon, picked me up and gave me a personal tour of the beautiful city.  Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, Harrods, and all the rest.  God, I love cities filled with five and six-hundred year old buildings.  They really knew how to build them back then.  We ended up at a swanky place called the OXO tower on the Thames and had the best meal ever with fabulas London views.  A three-course lunch that included a delicious bottle of wine and the most amazing bitter chocolate mousse that has ever passed these lips.  Lack of sleep, who cares!!

 Late that evening I caught my flight to Delhi.  I already felt like I was in India just at the Heathrow gate.  There were only a handlful of non-Indians on the packed flight.  Food was Indian, and instructions were in English and Hindi.  I got all weepy for the last time really, am I REALLY going to India?  Oh my, I really AM going to India NOW.

   I envsioned a bustling megapolis crazed scene at the airport.  Actually there is not a whole lot going on at the Indira Ghandi International Terminal.  Just a few flights a day, I think.  The vibe was way more like when I landed in the Soviet Union in the late eighties. They have built it, but not many have yet come.  Very chill, enormous buildings,  mostly empty.  I gathered my bags and headed outside. There, I saw a huge crowd of people packed around the exit, waiting for people.  It looked a bit...intimidating..  And there was Amy's driver waving at me, holding a sign that said 'Dena,  welcome'.  YES!  

   A few minutes later we were on my first Delhi road.  Oh SH*T!!!!!!    There are no lanes, there are bike-rickshaws, auto-rickshaws which are motorcycles with  tin-can bodies that can hold riders in it, trucks, cars, buses, people walking, more cars, and even a family riding on an elephant.  Yes, I saw an elephant walking along the freeway.  Everyone is swerving around the slower movers, and EVERYONE is constantly blowing their horns.   Everyone is driving on the 'wrong' side of the street, which is disorienting.  The steering wheels are on the 'wrong ' sides of the vehicles!  On the sides of these crazy roads, cows are sittings, packs of women in colorful saris are carrying big trays of things balanced on their heads, children are playing, little stands are selling things, lots of people are just standing around, and the horns are blaring...and on and on.   Did I mention the horns?

  Delhi is more like a sprawling collection of jumbly ancient villages connected by insane roadways than a cosmopolitan city, at least from what I have seen so far. Delhi has been a city since 2000 BC and there are bits of the architectural remains of each time period here and there and everywhere.  We took a walk in a park with beautiful Moghul tombs from the 1500s.  There are lots of trees, and lots of birds with strange screaming bird songs.  Parrots.  The sky is the smoggy color of LA skies circa 1975.  My sister's neighborhood Defense Colony is a quiet little back street zone. It feels peaceful and very old.  The cook comes in and prepares homemade Indian food in her kitchen every day.  yum!

  now I am holding a sleeping baby so Amy can get a bit of sleep.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Destination Delhi Doula

Dear Readers,

   Three and a half weeks ago, a miraculas birth took place in New Delhi, India.  My sister Amy Kazmin is a foreign correspondant  and has lived in Southeast Asia for over a decade working for the Financial Times of London.  She is an amazing writer, and passionate about covering events with empathy and compassion for all peoples involved.  She has had incredible adventures and an illlustrious career in her 44 years of life.  As fufilled as she has been by this exciting life - there had been one thing she longed for - a child.
  This summer, Amy informed us she was expecting, already 5 months along.  She had waited to tell us because she could hardly believe it herself.  She feared that at her age things could go wrong.  A few months later, on November 10, she called me from Delhi to Chico complaining of gas pain in the middle of the night.  I spoke with her for an hour, feeling a bit suspicious that it was something more than gas.  When she called me back an hour later, she had thrown up and  was shaking a bit, and moaning that she must have eaten something 'off',  I asked her to please call her doula NOW!   While on the phone with the doula, her water broke.  The doula arrived, realized Amy was in advanced labor, and helped her pack her bags.  A wild ride to the hospital ensued, and the baby's head was crowning when she arrived  Thus my 44 year old first-time-mom sister had a quick, and nearly painless birth.

Here is the lovely Ananya Rachel, a genuine beauty as only a half-Jewish half-Indian baby can be:

  And now I am here with her.  I have just traveled to the exact opposite side of the planet so I can show my dear Sistah how to burp her baby, swaddle her tight, and wear her in the sling  I wore my babies in.  I can hold my dear new niece while Amy showers and takes care of herself.  I can reassure her that Yes, it is normal for the baby to nurse a million hours a day.  Ananya is a darling little sweetpea and Amy is doing a great job.   This is the best postpartum doula gig of my life!  (I will get to travel around and see a bit of India while I am here too). 

  To follow my India adventures over the next couple weeks, stay tuned!

With Love,