Boudhanath Prayer Flags - On Halloween Night...

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Living Near Boudhanath

After several days, we feel quite settled into life at Boudha! Our current home is Dragon Guest House, a 5 story tall building set back in the winding alleys to the north of the Great Stupa. It's a great vantage point, and the kids LOVE getting up on the roof early to see "if the mountains are out." Our hosts are Chimi-la and her daughter Sonam, who are originally from Mustang. They run a very relaxed, welcoming, and happy hotel with lovely gardens, tasty food, and simple clean rooms. We are definitely in the monastery part of town, with several golden roofed "gompas" visible from our balcony. This area is home to many gompas that house monks and nuns from several different schools of Tibetan Buddhism, and their chanting, drumming, and horn blowing can often be heard before sunrise...
The walk down to the Stupa is wonderful, down narrow alleys, and winding streets... past small momo-shops, handicraft workshops, veggie sellers, cute dogs, gardens, and countless prayer flags, we emerge in the circular courtyard surrounding the massive Boudhanath Stupa. A constant river of worshipers circle the stupa in a clockwise direction, spinning their prayer wheels, thumbing prayer beads, and chanting Om Mani Padme Hum. Butter Lamps burn everywhere, strings of prayer flags flutter in the breeze, and the especially devout perform ritual prostrations on a smooth boards just inside the courtyard of the stupa. At morning and evening, the air is thick with incense, and the sweet pungent smell of burning juniper needles. Our girls love to walk the "kora" around the stupa, along with the flow of humanity, usually in respectful silence. There are also massive prayer wheels to turn, always clockwise with your right hand, in nearby rooms and side chambers... some of these are 10-15 feet high!

After a few circuits around the stupa, you can head up onto a rooftop cafe for a nice (and overpriced) meal with amazing views of the stupa, the worshippers, the Kathmandu skyline, and the distant Himalayan peaks fading pink into the sunset... Our first night was quite idyllic with a fantastic sunset, tasty momos and thukpa soup, and then the full moon rising over the "hills" surrounding the Kathmandu Valley. Generally we frequent the momo-shops in the back alleys near our hotel, as they are packed with locals, and much more reasonably priced! This area is SO much quieter and peaceful than the across town traveler/backpacker area of Thamel. Most of the buildings are residential, and all the shops close down just after sunset.... There isn't a late night dance-party scene, nor are there swarms of hawkers selling Tiger Balm, Kukhri knives, and carved elephants. It is quiet, friendly, relaxed, with very few cars and pockets of green open space. We are so happy to be here!
We visited one of the schools that we'll teach at, and where the girls will likely enroll for 1-2 months. It's just a 5 minute walk away, and has 330 kids aged 4-13. More on "Manosarovar Primary School" later... We just picked up "uncle Marcin" from the airport, and will soon leave town to to trek around Annapurna for a few weeks. Then we return to a long-term rental at nearby Tharlam Monastery, and settle into 2 months of volunteer teaching, home-schooling, and day trips around the Kathmandu Valley.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Flying to Kathmandu!

From Sylvie’s Journal – “Look out the window! There’s the Himalaya,” said my Dad! “Wow,” said Eliza, “I thought those were clouds!” I just couldn’t believe I was seeing the real Himalaya at last. Over green fields and rice crops, closer and closer to the ground of Kathmnadu we flew. They sky is sooo clear and lovely today. I can see everything… houses come closer and closer into view. Wow, I thought, I’m over the Kathmandu Valley. Looking out the window I saw the airport getting closer, and ‘Zoom,’ on the runway we go! I said, “Wow! I love walking down the stairs and onto the runway, instead of leaving through a tube!” Lupin said, “Me too!” My Dad said he’d tell us all about Kathmandu as we drove to our hotel. “OMG,” I thought, “I am finally in Kathmandu!!!”

Eliza’s thoughts – “A couple of days ago we got to Nepal on Kingfisher Airlines. As we were flying, I could see the Himalaya sticking up just out of the clouds. That made me want to climb Mt. Everest right away! After we landed, we got in a taxi and started driving to our guest house. Kathmandu, the capital city of Nepal, is a lot like cities in India, but also different in some ways that I really like. Some of my favorite differences are that Kathmandu smells better, and there are so many beautiful temples. But it is similar to India because there is a lot of trash on the ground, and everyone pesters you to come into their shop.

When we finally got to our guest house, I already knew I loved Nepal and was going to have a great time! We quickly ran up to the roof to look at the mountains, but by then all we could see was clouds and the green hills of the Kathmandu Valley. I was disappointed, but my Dad explained that it’s usually cloudy this time of year. The cloudy weather will probably go away while we’re here, and we are going trekking right into the mountains anyway.

After we got settled into our room, we went on a walk to the nearest Stupa called Boudanath. It’s the biggest stupa in Kathmandu, and when I first saw it, I felt both excited and amazed! The Boudanath Stupa is exactly how I imagined when I thought of Nepal. After we walked around the stupa and spun the prayer wheels, we got to go inside. Going inside was awesome! We went up onto the big platform below the dome. When we came out, we saw tons of pigeons being fed corn. Tomorrow we might get to feed them too! That was by far the highlight of my first day in Nepal. I can’t wait to go Trekking!!!!

Birding in India

Have we mentioned how exciting it is to become reacquainted with the BIRDS of this fine continent? Well…wherever we go, there they are! In Bangalore, the streets are alive with the sounds of the Asian Koel, Rose-Ringed Parakeets, Crows and Purple-Rumped Sunbirds. These are the birds that local birders consider too common to really note. Kind of like Stellars Jays, or Acorn Woodpeckers in Yosemite. Every single bird is a thrill for us, and we walk down the streets as if we are on a perpetual treasure hunt. “Mom! There is an Asian Koel! I think I see a Kingfisher! What is that green bird!?” When we get off the streets and go to our neighborhood “tank” (reservoir) to take a walk, we get even more excited. Even though this is not the migration season, there are plenty of things to keep us easily amused birders happy.

See the full text, AND our BIRD LISTS by clicking on the page links in the left sidebar...

The Taj Mahal & Agra... The definition of extremes!

From Eliza’s journal – “A few days ago we visited the Taj Mahal in Agra. When I first saw the Taj from our hotel roof, I was so blown away! It was so big, so white, so beautiful, and so amazing…. And I wasn’t even seeing it up close yet! To visit it we rode a horse cart to the entrance gate. It was really sad, because the horse was super skinny, and we could tell that it was worked too hard.

There was a lot of security to go through to get in, and we entered through a huge walled in area like an old city wall. There were beautiful gardens, and then another beautiful archway, and suddenly we saw the magnificent Taj Mahal! My sisters and I said things like, “I can’t believe we’re seeing the real Taj!”, “Can we really go inside it?”, and “This all just seems like a dream!” Once we were done taking tons of pictures and admiring it, we walked up to go in. Every step we took we got closer, and the Taj looked bigger and better than before. Soon we were walking along side it, with its marble minarets towering above us. We had to take our shoes off to go in, and the stone was really hot on our feet. Once we got inside it was much cooler, and there is a huge domed ceiling which makes a great echo!

At the center is a grave which is the reason the Taj is here. A long time ago (400 years?) Shah Jahan was an emperor ruling over India. His favorite wife, Mumtaz, died while having her 14th child. He was devastated, so he built the Taj Mahal as a tomb for her. The only thing in the Taj that is not symmetrical is his grave. He was imprisoned by his own son in the nearby fort, and his sister, or daughter, had him buried by his favorite wife in the Taj after he died."

Karen’s Take on the Taj

Our destination for this train journey was Agra and the Taj Mahal of course. After two nights on the train, comfortable though it was, we were thrilled to disembark and join the stream of tourists here at this world wonder. I thought I was ready for the sight, but my knees became weak and I probably made some audible reaction too as the world’s most romantic tomb materialized before us. The whiteness… The cleanliness… The gardens… The reflection in the pool in front… The story of the heartbroken Emperor Jahan after his favorite wife died bearing his 14th child.

It all became so real as the white stone of the monument came into view and the detail of the flower designs revealed colorful inlaid semiprecious stones and the minarets that we read about were indeed leaning outward so as to leave the main building unharmed should they collapse…and the tombs! Oh the connection was palpable. So long dead, but the energy of the love the Shah had for this woman, Mumtaz Mahal, could be felt as the perfection of the temple of love sank in to my bones in the approach to the tomb. We shared our knowledge of the story from the 1600’s with the kids as we walked and the story unfolded to them too. Mumtaz, the beloved wife of Shah Jahan, died in 1629 during childbirth. Her husband being deeply distressed commissioned the building of the greatest tomb ever built. He had it positioned so that he could sit and look across at her each day of his life. In the end of his own life, as an afterthought, his body was entombed beside her and the sight of her perfectly centered sarcophagus with his off centered one was moving beyond words.

So there I was; the historic lump in my throat, eyes glistening up toward a tipsy minaret…when my spirit was completely redirected by the excitement of the flight of an Egyptian Vulture circling the minaret and the dome! Snap! Snap! More fervently than for any marbled icon my camera hungrily gobbled up the sight to be sure of the species. Not even registering the irony of the sort of bird it was…I was consumed with my usual excitement of watching a new bird! The beauty of the shrine enhanced by the graceful spiraling dance of the massive bird I truly now was in love with the place where nature and culture and love, life and the finality of death met for me today.

After savoring the Taj for a few hours, from many different angles, we began our departure... But as we approached the official "photo taking" area, we were surrounded by photographers and families, all wanting to take our pictures. To amuse our admirers, we did a few obligatory dorky photos of "pinching the top of the Taj." Then a small parade of families lined up and snap, snap, snap, we are now a part of countless albums. "Hello sir, hello good sir please one photos family with wife?" We had to push pretty hard to finally make our escape!

And what about those "extremes?" Well, as many of you know, the Taj is THE sight to see in India... It's exquisitely beautiful, with lawns and gardens manicured to perfection. The tickets are quite expensive, by Indian standards, and the grounds are gorgeous, quiet, organized, and squeaky clean. It's among the most awe-inspiring man-made sights in the world.

And then you step outside, leaving the happy Indian families & smiling tour groups with their matching caps behind. Past the multiple security check posts and metal detectors. Past the thick stone walls to the dusty alleys that surround the Taj compound on 3 sides. Then you enter the exact opposite of the exquisite polished Taj Mahal experience... a chaotic, filthy, festering city. We've traveled in some pretty rough areas, and quite a bit in India, but certain parts of Agra are among the most squalid and medieval we've seen... Flowing open sewers, dead dogs in the street, crumbling rotting infrastructure, the most intense grid-locked traffic bottlenecks imaginable. (Don't get me wrong, we LOVE India, and hope to return again and again...) It took almost 2 sweaty hours to travel the several kms. to the "Baby Taj," through a warren of tiny alleyways that converge on a bridge across the Yamuna... Inhaling black belching diesel and two-stroke exhaust, clouds of dust and unmentionable airborne filth settling on your skin, past mountains of rotting garbage that squeeze some two lane roads into a barely passable trail. Egads, this was seething overwhelming India at its finest! (You know Agra was bad when, 2 days later, on our first drive through congested polluted Kathmandu, Eliza says, "Wow, it's so clean and 'non-stinky' here!") And then, we pulled into Agra's "Baby Taj," and POOF! Calm... quiet... pristine... An astounding oasis of peace and contemplative bliss just one wall away from the carnage. Clean gorgeous lawns that the kids were invited to frolic on, without fearing a single turd! Extreme beauty & peace crammed right up against extreme poverty & despair. That's one of the most mind-blowing aspects of travel in India.

Friday, September 24, 2010

By Sleeper Train Across India...

On the "Karnataka Express" from Bangalore to Agra - Chugging North somewhere in Maharastra state, past corn fields, some wide-open plains, a few hills and rocky outcrops, and lots of overflowing rivers and lakes. Each bridge we’ve crossed only spans a small portion of the full width of the waters…. Flooded fields everywhere... levees and sandbags protecting the train trestles... India has had Lots of rains this monsoon! In fact we’ve been hearing news of major flooding up in Delhi along the Yamuna River. It will be nice to see plenty of water in these usually crusty muddy rivers, but it could also mean delays for roads and trains, as well as higher incidence of Dengue Fever and other mosquito-borne illnesses.

We all had really restful sleeps last night, here in 3AC class… Six beds per compartment, a fan and cool AC air, but all the windows are sealed. Therefore you miss out on the wonderful breeze & the exotic smells of the Indian countryside as you roll by… But you also miss out on the dust, diesel smoke, mosquitoes, and occasional fester-stench, so sealed windows do have some advantages! You can always go to the open doors between cars, and soak in the outside air… It's a 2 night trip, about 42 hours total, and overall it’s been a leisurely interesting ride… gazing out the window at bullock carts, unusual crops, egrets and other birds, small mosques and temples, wide open scrubland, muddy roads and overflowing lakes. Brilliantly-clad women walk down roads with water jugs and other lumpy parcels on their heads… Monkeys line the walls in several towns we’ve passed… Kids and old men in dhotis lead strings of water buffalo down the path… Crowds of scooters and motorcycles wait with their riders at railroad crossing gates… The sun sets & rises we chug north; that impossibly deep orange Jupiter-like orb that seems native to India. We’ve also seen several “pooper fields,” with 10 to 20 dudes with their pants down, having a nice sunrise crap near the tracks… It’s been a comfortable & amusing ride!

Here is an entry from Eliza's Daily Journal -- “I have really been looking forward to our train ride across India! I slept in a middle bunk, and when I went to sleep I was very cozy and comfortable. There is a tiny table next to the window where we eat snacks & fruit, and do our school work. There is a quiet man sharing our compartment, but he mostly stays up in his top bunk talking on his cell phone. Today we are keeping my bunk folded down, because my sisters and I like to hang out up there.

One thing we love to do is stare out the window, because there are LOTS of animals to see! I think the most common thing is tons of cows… Many people in India have cows because in the Hindu religion cows are sacred. They can also do useful work like plowing, pulling carts, and giving milk. Other animals I’ve spotted are water buffalo, goats, sheep, dogs, horses, donkeys, monkeys, and all kinds of birds. My sister Sylvie said the even saw a wild peacock!

During the train ride, food vendors walk up and down the aisles selling drinks, chocolate, chai, coffee, sweets, and hot meals. It’s really funny how they advertise their snacks. My favorite is the chai man who calls out in a loud squeaky voice, “chai chai garam chai!” Once he stopped at our compartment, peeked in our curtain, and asked “CHAI?” Lupin yelled “NO!” He gave her a funny look and moved on… Our family’s favorite train food so far is called “cutlet,” which is a yummy fried potato veggie snack served with ketchup! We’ve had it twice already, and I hope the cutlet man will come by again! I really love train rides, especially in India!”

Our Dear Friends in Bangalore...

When we began conjuring up this adventure a couple of years ago, one of the main priorities was to re-visit our friends in Bangalore. We were here in 2007, as Paul did a Fulbright Teacher Exchange with Rama Balaji. The major benefit of living somewhere for half a year with our family, rather than just traveling around, is that we met so many interesting people, got to know a neighborhood and community, and developed wonderful deep friendships. Our kids knew their way around, had their favorite parks, restaurants, and papaya sellers, and knew which shop sold the tastiest dosa or idly. We sunk our roots into this place in a real and meaningful way… When we returned to Bangalore from weekend trips by train, the girls would say, “I can’t wait to get home,” meaning their home here in Malleswaram. Ever since we left 3 years ago, we’ve been dying to return…. To go out on early morning walks with Karen’s birding buddies, to visit with Paul’s students and Eliza & Sylvie’s classmates at the school, and to finally have the time to say YES to all of the dinner and lunch invitations!

So that is just what we did…. We planned to go to Bangalore, “on the way to Nepal,” and have 2 full weeks of visiting friends, eating, and socializing! No sites to see… No trips out of town to a temple or scenic spot…. Just a jam-packed schedule of spending as much time as possible with loved ones in town! And we sure packed it in! Paul had to carry a pocket calendar to keep track of everything, and we bought a mobile phone to keep in touch with everyone. We visited the school 4 or 5 times, and were literally swarmed in a welcoming adoring embrace. We had some great times with Rama and her wonderful family, sharing stories, shopping, and catching up on each other’s lives. We were invited to homes and restaurants by many of the teachers from KVMEG, and savored several leisurely visits with Vimala & Sindhu in their exquisite gardens… Our next door neighbors, “uncle” Murthy & Satya gave us dosa-making lessons, and took us to a local concert… Vasu & Venkatesh invited us out to their apartment for a luscious meal and a swim… Andal & her husband welcomed us into their home, and showed us the local primary school that they founded (…this is where our house “rent” gets donated). We had coffee with Sujata & Aloke, and Nagaraj treated us to his favorite lunch buffet! We were treated to meals and haircuts by our beautiful neighbors Kusum & Vaishu, and attended a lecture on ‘conciousness & sustainability’ by Deepti. And yes, we did get out birding several times, including a 5am outing near Bannerghatta with Uma, Deepa, and a crowd of devoted bird watchers! Our days were full! Many times we lamented, and heard our friend’s say, “What! Only two weeks in Bangalore!?!?” But we took advantage of every moment, and feel so satisfied to have re-connected and re-kindled these important friendships! It will be really hard to leave… again! We’ll just have to start saving up for the next return!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Physical Education

As we are homeschooling our kids for several months, we try to offer them a well-rounded education. Part of the package is daily P.E., which is quite easy to supply here in Bangalore. Whenever we walk anywhere, we get quite a workout! Crossing a street works wonders for our hand-eye coordination, sense of timing, and short-distance wind sprints. Navigating the sidewalks, complete with their missing stone blocks, piles of debris, unpredictable cows and dogs, and frequent “turd-alerts,” allows us to incorporate the balance beam, quick reaction-time drills, and standing long jump into daily life. No need for time consuming exercise routines or sports…

"Street-P.E." is a fact of life in India!

The Electronic Travlers...

In our earlier days of Asian travel, we were vigorous, almost obsessive, journalers… We would stay up late every night in crusty guest houses, writing page after page in our notebooks by candle-light or headlamp. It was necessary to constantly process the kaleidoscope of sensory overload that we were experiencing. Film was expensive and heavy to carry around for months and months, so we carefully rationed our photo-taking. Many times we missed out on capturing the film images, but our writing benefited because we had to paint the mental images in extensive detailed journal entries. Calling home on a bad connection from India, Nepal, Tibet or Pakistan was extremely difficult, as well as incredibly expensive. When I “phoned home” in 1997 to find out that Karen was pregnant with Eliza, it cost $7 per minute! …and I had to scream into the telephone, in the front lobby of the one fancy hotel in town that had an international phone capability. So we rarely communicated with the US, except through an ancient form of correspondence called ‘writing letters.’ Perhaps you’ve heard of it? I was quite proficient at cramming 10 or 15 paragraphs, written almost microscopically, on the back of a single postcard. We would buy 10-packs of those flimsy thin pre-stamped AeroGrams to share our travels with family & friends back home. In China you even had to buy your own little pot of paste to glue the tri-fold aerogram shut! How times have changed!!!

Now we rarely, if ever, handle a post card, and we haven’t seen aerograms in years… We email, blog, and skype from even the most remote parts of Asia. Cyber caf├ęs are everywhere! We snap thousands of digital photos, and instead of staying up late writing in journals, we edit, delete, rotate, organize and backup images…. Then we upload them to blogs and Facebook pages. I’m typing on a compact netbook right now that is half the size of our old laptop. Years ago I couldn’t imagine burdening myself with hauling a computer around India, but now it seems almost indispensable.

And to support all this electronic paraphernalia, we have an entire stuff bag full of cords and gizmos. We’ve dubbed it the ‘E-bag,’ and it contains multiple adapters and USB cords for 2 cameras, a laptop, iPod, and mini hard-drive. We have a small charger for the headlamps and camera, with spare AA and AAA batteries (both rechargeable and not). A flash drive, CF card reader, and locally purchased surge-protector power-strip complete the pile of electronic crap we are carrying! But when I pack it all up, it’s still about the same size of my old lead-lined travel film bag, stuffed with 30 rolls of Fuji Velvia.

We truly love documenting our travels, collecting memories, and sharing the stories with everyone, so I guess we’ll continue to haul all this ‘stuff’ around the world. But sometimes my favorite thing to do is to leave everything ‘valuable’ behind in the house or hotel… to wander the streets alone all day with a few rupees in my pocket, unburdened by the camera or mobile phone or the burden of documenting everything for later consumption. Then it feels more like the ‘old days,’ wallowing in rich experience, in the sensory whirlpool, better able to flow freely with the current of life in these amazing places.

…uh oh! Low battery alert! Time to re-charge the laptop!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Ganesha Chauturthi

The Ganesha Puja festival is in full swing right now all over Banglore... Families doing puja, and descending on the various ponds, lakes and tanks to immerse their Ganesha statues in the waters... returning the gods back to the earth.... More info later, but here are some photos:

Enjoying the Overdosa

We have been FEASTING here in Bangalore! Idlis, Vada, Chowchow Bath, Bisebele Bath, Curd Rice, and Dosas galore. Ahhhh, the dosas! Rava dosa, Ragi dosa, Masala dosa, plain dosa, set dosa, Paper dosa... We are doing our best to try every type as frequently as possible. And then a bit of take-out to bring home some nights? It's called "parcel" here, as they wrap everything up in a neat little parcel to take home. Brindjal (eggplant), Aloo Gobi, Dahl Makhani, Veg. Kadai, etc. etc.

As my Lord-of-the-Rings-crazy daughters pointed out today, "Dad, we sure eat like hobbits! 1st breakfast, 2nd breakfast.... sometimes even 3rd breakfast!" Yes, but should we actually consider 3rd breakfast to be Elevensies or mid-morning tea? "Hmmm.... good question! And how many dinners do we get to have?" At least we are walking long distances around Malleswaram to all of these "hotels" (restaurants) to work off the ghee!

Living in Malleswaram is quite a treat, as any local dosa fiend will tell you. This old "suburb" of downtown Bangalore is blessed with many long-standing delicious eateries, each with legions of die-hard fans! Veena Stores for amazing fluffy idli, and chowchow bath (that's a combo of kesari bath and khara bath, if you're wondering!). Central Tiffin Room (CTR), Hotel Janatha, Adiga's, Shanthi Sagar, New Krishna Bhavan are some of our other favorites. We can really the whole family with an over-abundance of hot & delicious freshly prepared treats, for about $3-7 total.... including chai, coffee, and/or sweet fresh lime juices all around!