Thursday, December 28, 2006

Why We'll "Do" India Again.

We depart today back to Bangkok, and on to Ko Samui, Thailand. We didn't get to see everything in India we wanted, largely because we've fallen behind and didn't make certain reservations ahead in southern India's most popular season.

Oh well. We'll be back. Before we came, a friend told us that India stands for "I'll Never Do India Again." But I think India gets a bad rap, travelwise, and we certainly will come back. Here are some reasons why:

1. We didn't get to cruise the backwaters of Kerala, and we didn't get to Pondicherry. I'd also like to see more of Rajasthan, including Udaipur.

2. Travel in India, even cheaply, isn't that hard. We frankly found China much more difficult, particularly train travel there. Probably the most intolerable thing is getting harassed by "touts" trying to sell you everything from a massage to a rickshaw ride. It helps to remind yourself before leaving the sanctity of the hotel that you spent more just to get here than most Indians will make in an entire year.

3. India has a colorful, exotic culture.

4. The food is amazing. We've eaten almost exclusively vegetarian and found the food to be the most inventive anywhere.

5. The availability of freely roaming livestock. This sounds strange, but I personally like sharing the sidewalk (where it exists) and roadway with roaming water buffalo, cows, camels, pigs and goats. Maybe there's a farm somewhere in our future.

6. The people of India are warm and welcoming. They are proud, even in their poverty, which I find inspiring.

7. Travel in India is extraordinarily inexpensive. Next time I'm "on the lam," I'm going to fly to Goa and rent a beach shack for like $5 a day.

8. We made friends in Varanasi, Gaya and Bodhgaya (especially "Bob's Kids") to come back and visit.

9. India is the most spiritually harmonious country we've visited. With little exception (relating mostly to border disputes), Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and Jainists seem to coexist here peacefully.

10. Heather never got to stay in an ashram.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Christmas Dinner with Stephen and Agnes.

We were lucky enough to meet two fellow travelers, Stephen and Agnes, during our sojourn in Goa. They joined us for sunset cocktails, followed by Christmas dinner. They entertained us with stories from their travels through China, Mongolia, Russia and Tibet. We had a terrific time.

You Might Be In India If . . .

1. You're standing on a train platform, waiting for your train, and a cow walks past.

2. You see a woman carrying a giant basket on her head filled with hand-shaped, sundried cow dung.

3. You're crusing along a river and your boat bumps into a floating corpse.

4. You find yourself riding in a bicycle rickshaw with every member of an extended family: brothers, sisters, aunts, nephews, nieces, etc.

5. You're climbing a steep hill to a temple and an elderly, barefoot woman in a bright sari passes you.

6. You're lying on the beach and a cow wanders up and lays down next to you.

7. You're stuck in a traffic jam behind a herd of water buffalo.

8. You're crusing along a river and you see a family cremating a beloved along the river's edge.

9. You find yourself meditating in the back of a silk factory with a man wearing a turban.

10. You realize you're in the most spiritual country in the world.

Saturday, December 23, 2006

Goa, India.

We're in the village of Agonda, in Goa. This is a popular destination at Christmas for Indians, as well as Europeans and Israelis. We're told that Goa has the largest Christian population in India--which likely explains its Yuletide popularity. But it also has an absolutely PERFECT climate in late December. Aside from the problem of a bad sunburn (which I attribute to a bogus bottle of 30 SPF Banana Boat I bought when we arrived), we are both just about healthy for the first time since arriving in India.

To anyone reading this, we send our best wishes for a peaceful and happy holiday.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Back To Bom!

We flew to Bombay, now called Mumbai. I’ve read it’s probably India’s most modern city, and I believe it. We visited the High Court (left), and sat in on some lawyers arguing an evidentiary issue. The building itself is grand and our book says that, during construction, a rascally artisan, who apparently held India's justice system in low esteem, carved a one-eyed monkey holding the scales of justice on one of its pillars.

A boat ferried us to Elephanta Island, where there are caves containing rock-cut Hindu temples believed to date as far back as 450 AD (one carving pictured). Later, we treated ourselves to dinner at the very famous Taj Mahal Palace & Tower. This is indisputably one of the greatest hotels in the world and one day we will splurge and get a room.

Tonight we are taking an overnight train to Goa, where we’ll spend Christmas. As you can imagine, Heather is particularly excited about the possibility of all-night rave parties (Not!). I’m just looking forward to chilling out on the beach.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Nice Camel!

We’re in Pushkar, in the vibrant, western region of India called Rajasthan. Pushkar hosts an annual camel fair, so they show a good camel. There is a lake, bordered by a series of ghats (steps to the water), where monkeys and Brahmin priests (authentic and otherwise) roam freely. The Brahmin is considered the highest caste in the Hindu religion. The priests sit with you and privately dispense puja (prayers) for you and your family. There was something about reincarnation, and I prayed to come back as anything other than an Ass, because I've been there and done that.

Afterwards, a rogue monkey galloped up and shoved Heather, so that she almost fell into the lake. Fortunately, she regained her balance, but I do think it traumatized her a little bit. It promises to be one of her most memorable moments.

The Taj Mahal.

I was going to attempt to compose some words to describe the exhilaration of seeing the Taj Mahal, but I realized I’m not that good a writer; I would be unable to do it justice. A writer who attempted to do it justice, Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore, described it as “a teardrop on the face of eternity.” It was built by Emperor Shah Jahan as a memorial for his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child in 1631.

Later, we also visited the Agra Fort, where I snapped a picture of Indian women in their colorful saris.

Happy Birthday Mom!!

Mom - Alex and I send you our best wishes for a wonderful birthday!! Hope you have fun on your hike with Jill and enjoy your special day!

Love you and miss you,
Wynn & Alex

Monday, December 11, 2006

A Little Perspective, Please.

So, during the night before our early morning train ride from Delhi to Agra, Heather became ill--food poisoning. I was already suffering from a chest cold (my health has really disappointed me during this trip!). But, we got up and caught our early morning express train, which put us into Agra at about 8:00 a.m. We checked into the Tourist Rest House, which was billed as a "Tourist Favorite" by our bible, the Lonely Planet India. The Rest House was far less restful than we had hoped, considering we were bedridden. It was crazy loud, horns blowing constantly, intermittent power outages (endemic throughout India) and a permanently open window that gave malaria-carrying mosquitoes (I've convinced myself that all mosquitoes are carrying either malaria or Dengue Fever, or both) unfettered access to bite at their leisure.

I've developed this intermittent, recurring fever (a malaria symptom, I'm told), so my sleep was of that hallucinatory variety you can only experience when sick, eating mushrooms or taking hits of high-powered blotter acid. In the morning, though, we both felt considerably better, good enough at least to visit the Taj Mahal, which was our purpose for visiting Agra in the first place. As we were eating breakfast and reading the Hindustan News, I was reflecting on what an awful night I had, when I came across an article describing an extreme cold snap in Delhi. The article profiled a young boy who described how he spent all night just trying to stay warm. They were homeless and his father was a laborer who could not afford to buy another, needed blanket.

Thinking about this young boy, unprotected and shivering in the cold night, while I, albeit sick, was safely in bed, amply warm under blankets with running water and the promise of a good meal, reminded me that one of the reasons we travel to a country like India is to rub shoulders with adversity, even if somewhat buffered, and try to develop some sense of perspective. -Alex

Comment by Heather: I'd been crooning with pleasure about the fact that I was so healthy our entire trip and not homesick at all. Well, of course, less than 24 hours later, I ate my words--or in this case, perhaps more appropriate to say vomited my words. My first case of food poisoning, which ironically was the only time I ate non-Indian food! I had vegetarian moussaka for lunch and Chinese food for dinner, but I suspect it may have been the bowl of nuts served before dinner that were actually contaminated. Anyway, I spent the night sick as a dog, and in the morning I was still throwing up out the window of our taxi. At that moment, I wished I was home, in my own bed, with my own bathroom, and our two peaceful, furry cats comforting me in their silent, abiding, loving way.

We finally made it to the train station and while sitting on the train, with my head hung low, stomach in knots, the train food server took pity on my pathetic soul, and offered me a gentle blessing on my head. I accepted the blessing and felt much better. So, only in India can you get food poisoning and then be blessed by a food server on a train -- this is one of the wonders of India.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

Getting Ready to See the Taj.

We’re in Delhi, leaving for Agra tomorrow, where we’ll visit the Taj Mahal. Here, we found some great examples of the same Mughal architecture we’ll see at the famous palace in Agra. On top, Humayun’s Tomb, was built in the mid-16th century. The Jama Masjid mosque (bottom) is so impressive that I’m thinking of converting to Islam.

Thursday, December 07, 2006

Meditating With Kalyan Singh.

A knowing friend pressed us to include, during our visit to the holy city of Varanasi, an audience with Kalyan Singh. Kalyan wears a turban and sits bare-footed and cross-legged at the core of the OM Silk Emporium, off Vishwanath Gali. “Don’t let appearance deceive you,” our friend instructed, “this is a wise and very knowledgeable man. Get to know him; he will inform you in the right ways and with respect for the great religious traditions of India.”

We made our way past the touts, water buffalo and bicycle rickshaws to Kalyan’s inner sanctum. He greeted us effusively. Kalyan exudes a certain aura that is difficult to describe. He does seem wise and, even if you are, as I am, a skeptic of all things spiritual, you get the feeling when he looks into your eyes that he penetrates your inner cynic, forgives and blesses you just the same.

Anyway, we meditated with him for several minutes, after which he served us chai garam and we bought several silk scarves. -Alex

Thanks, Anil!!

Anil, pictured with his family above, works day and night with Michael Bourne on behalf of the impoverished families in the villages of Bodhgaya, India. Together, the dynamic-duo of Anil and Michael (affectionately known as “Coconut #1” and “Coconut #2,” for their hard heads and soft hearts), made our volunteer efforts in this region possible. Anil planned and coordinated each day of our week down to the minute, including numerous meetings with the students, directors, teachers, medical providers and key personnel that help make it possible for nearly two hundred children to receive education and basic necessities. He also acted as a knowledgeable tour guide, sheparding us through several important sights in the Bihar region including temples, ancient caves, and museums that trace the life and path of the Buddha. He gave us the unique opportunity to visit some of the students in their homes in the local villages to see their way of life and appreciate some of the extreme poverty in the area. Without Anil, we would never have been able to interact so closely with the students and their community. To Anil we want to express a very special THANK YOU!

Sunday, December 03, 2006

Meeting “Bob’s Kids” at the Jai Hind School, Bodhgaya, India.

We wanted to do some meaningful volunteer work during our sabbatical. Derek Whitefield, a brilliant lawyer with whom I have worked throughout my career, introduced us to Michael Bourne. For the past few years, Michael has been working with Academy Award-winning film producer Robert Chartoff to provide education and health benefits to a group of children living in the rural villages surrounding Bodhgaya. This is in the Bihar region of India, which has some of the worst poverty, lowest literacy and unchecked population growth in the country.

These kids, numbering approximately 200, have come to be called “Bob’s Kids” in the community. They revere both Michael Bourne and Bob Chartoff with almost religious ferver (“Bob is a God,” one child told me). Most of them attend the Jai Hind School, which is a private school that runs, as we understand, without any government support. The school is costly by India standards, and the students would be unable to attend without Mr. Bob’s and Michael Bourne’s financial (and logistical) support.

In honor of Mr. Bob and Michael, we planted a small grove of mango, mahogany and bodhi trees to symbolize the growth of the children of Bihar.

So far, our volunteering has been exceptionally satisfying (we wish we could stay two months!). In addition to spending time with the kids, we have had the opportunity to visit with them and their parents in their homes in the villages. This has been an educational—almost surreal—experience, stepping back 200-300 years, to a time before running water, electricity and indoor plumbing (i.e., toilets). For me, travel is at its best when it forces me to confront, physically as well as intellectually, the fact that life can be lived—and is lived—in a manner completely different from how I live.

We want to thank Mr. Bob, Michael, Derek and Anil Chaurasia, for making this volunteer opportunity possible. Anil has provided invaluable assistance this past week making arrangements, translating and shuttling us throughout the Bihar region.

Kiran Centre, Varanasi, India.

We were invited to visit the Kiran Centre for Integrated Education, Training & Rehabilitation of the Differently Abled People ( about one hour outside Varanasi. This oasis-like campus is run by kindhearted Sangeeta JK, a nurse who came to India from Switzerland in the 1970s and has worked with Mother Theresa. As the name suggests, Kiran caters to children who suffer from a variety of “different” abilities, including Polio, Cerebral Palsy and Down’s Syndrome. We arrived in time for the school’s morning puja, or prayer session. Heather lasted about 4 minutes before she broke down crying; she had been touched to tears by the offers of their chairs by some of the differently-abled students who required crutches to stand and walk.

Not only does the school teach basic subjects, but also offers vocational-type training (baking, sewing, agriculture, building), an on-site orthotics factory and physical therapy. The school is doing great things and we found it inspiring.