Friday, February 29, 2008

Day 18. Back to Germany, a Police State

Today we traveled back to the Heimatland. Once again we stopped in Dubai, where we all bought cigarretes and booze because without the tax they are dirt cheap. A pack of cigarretes is less than one euro (or 1.50 dollars), whereas back in Germany they are 4 euros (or 6 dollars). This works out to a 300% tax in cigarretes that we could save ourselves. Chrissy also bought a water pipe for Phillip, with a pack of tobacco. Chrissy and Klaus were careful to buy only one carton of cigarretes each, because that is what is allowed for EU residents, but I bought two cartons foolishly thinking that as a tourist I had a larger allowance.

So we get to Germany, walk through the green lane, and a very nice young woman with the customs service stops us to look at our duty free bags. She looked, counted, and then informed us that my second carton of cigarretes and Chrissy's pack of tobacco for the water pipe were in excess of the allowance, and that we had to pay the 300% tax on these items, plus a fine for not declaring them in the red lane. A grand total of 90 euros (or about 135 dollars!). Chrissy said that we would leave them behind at customs, but no, we were informed, the fact that we had gone through the green lane had already earned us the fine and there was nothing else to do but cough up the money or go to jail. Ah, the joys of living in a Police State!

Day 17. Elephanta and the British Bombay

An hour boat ride across Mumbai bay brought us to the island of Elephanta, so named by the Portugese because they found a beatifully carved elephant in it. The elephant was removed by the Brits to a museum long ago, so today the name Elephanta is only justified by the hordes of vendors that offer every type of elephant ever carved to the unsuspecting tourist.

Elephanta is the site of a 6th century Hindu cave temple, which, although not as impressive as the Ajanta or Ellora temples fills in the transition between the monumental architecture of late 5th temples and the almost baroque nature of the 8th century Dasavatara temple of Ellora. The architecture and sculpture is monumental, but the motifs are purely Hindu.

Our guide gave us a brief explanation of the Hindu philosophy, which might be interesting at this point: Hindus recognize the existence of a main deity with no name and no physical representation, who is referred to as "Tat" (this is a concept rather than a name). Because humans need to relate to the different aspects of "Tat", they have embodied "Tat" into the 330 million gods and godesses of their mythology. Hence, each god is just a part of the whole "Tat", so in venerating one god hear and another godess here they are simply approaching that part of "Tat" that is important for them at that particular moment. This is why their mythology is so complicated, and why a certain god takes so many forms.

Having talked about the millions of gods, there are three who form the upper echelon of their pantheon: Brama, the creator (of the universe and of all good things); Vishnu, the protector (of good things); and Shiva, the destroyer (of evil, but also of the universe so Brama can do his thing).

Elephanta is a temple complex devoted to Shiva (and to "Tat"), and its colossal sculptures elaborate on the many roles that Shiva performs. The central piece of the temple is Shiva Lingam, a very simple cylinder of rock with a hemispherical top. In the guide books this structure (Lingam) is referred to as a phallic symbol, but according to our guide for Hindus it is a source of energy closer to "Tat" than any other of their divine representations.

The second focus of interest is an enormous bust with the three faces of Shiva. To the left is Shiva the destroyer of evil, with a stern masculine visage and holding a cobra in his hand. To the right is Shiva the creator (or Brama if I have not hopelessly confused the story), with a benign feminine visage and holding a lotus flower in her hand. Finally in the center is Shiva the protector (or Vishnu if I got it right), who looks over the people with a detached inscrutable face, but holding a pomegranate of abundance as a promise of abundance.

To make things even more confusing, enormous tableaux surround the grand hall of the temple, representing Shiva in further forms. In one he is dancing vigorously, waving furiously his eight arms to indicate the destruction of a former evil universe. In the next tableaux his dance has become more gentle, and with now only two arms he gently creates a new universe. In yet another tableaux he kills the evil remaining in the world by cutting its many heads and then collecting the blood in a vessel so it cannot sprout new heads (a story that reminds us of the killing of the hydra by the demi-god Hercules).

And to end this discourse I choose among the many others a tableaux in which Shiva appears in the guise of half woman (the right side) and half man (the left side) to show that the world arises from the union of its female and male counterparts.

Again, words cannot do justice to a a place imbued with spiritual and artistic richness. All I can say is that you must visit Elephanta if you ever come to India.

On the way back we had a fabulous look of the city, and that is my excuse to tell you a few words about the city of Bombay in the time of the British Raj. The Brits outdid themselves transforming a good but insalubrious bay into one of the grand cities of the Georgian age.Victoria railway station, the Prince of Wales museum (eventually the Prince of Wales was crowned King George), the university and its Big Ben tower, the grand avenues and parks, the race track, and the many administrative buildings gave the Bombay of the late 1800's the feeling of being a grand city second only to London.

Too bad that they couldn't keep dogs and Indians out of their great city! ("No dogs and Indians allowed" was in fact a common sign posted at the entrance of parks and buildings). And then King George decided to come visit India, so from 1911 to 1924, the Brits pulled out all stops and built The Gate of India, a triumphal arch to solemnly receive King George and his entourage. You can well imagine how all this ranked Ghandi and the other freedom fighters, so it was with some sort of poetic justice that the last British troops to leave India when independence was won in 1947 did so through The Gate (Out of) India. You can see the gate behind and to the right of Aurora, and the superluxurios Raj Hotel behind Peter.

The day was nicely rounded up by us breaking up into wandering groups to do some shopping and sightseeing (I ended getting lost and had to ask my way back to the hotel), followed by a delicious vegetarian meal at a busy, truly Indian restaurant (by that I mean a restaurant in which all the patrons but us were Indian). We had Tali, which is a tray where 10 or 12 small pots are set, and where the waiters keep serving all sorts of delicious dishes until you through the white towel to indicate that the food has defeated you. It was a great celebration of our last day in Incredible India!

Day 16 (Feb 26) - Mumbai - What a crazy place!

After a short flight we arrived to the famous city of Mumbai, AKA Bombay. What a place! For starters, it took us more than an hour to make the trip from the airport to where we were staying, and that was without much traffic. At 15 million inhabitants, Mumbai is one of the great metropolis of the world, and it extends for mile after mile.

We dropped our bags at The Oberoi hotel, a very fancy place by the shore but in the business district (which means that the opportunities for exploring quaint Mumbai were severely limited), and promptly jumped in a mini-bus to do a bit of sightseeing. A lot of cool sights, but let me just make reference at a few things that seemed unique to this crazy city:

To begin with, Mumbai is a city of contrasts, where the fabulously reach live across the street from slums formed by thousands of hovels built with oil-impregnated cardboard. The city hums with activity, and the slums are not necessarily inhabited by destitute people; rather, they are simply inexpensive dormitories whose sole function is to provide a bed and a little personal storage space. Many smartly dressed people come from the slums in the morning, to work throughout the city, and they don't go back until it is time to lay down to sleep.

This spartan way of living has opened the way for a couple of unique business. For example, someone has to provide laundry service. The answer to this need are inmense laundry facilities, where an army of young men work from sunrise to sunset washing, drying, ironing, and folding. The clothes are picked at your "residence", and are then separated by color and type, because a portion of the laundry is devoted only to whites, or to sheets, or to green sarees. Then the wash goes to drying (notice all pieces of the same color were washed and are drying together), ironing and folding, and then miraculously all pieces find their way back to the original bundle and are delivered to you, generally by the afternoon of the same day!

Another unique business is the delivery of lunch. It may be that your wife cooked you a healthy vegetarian lunch, or it may be that you suscribe to lunch from given lady that cooks to supplement her household income. In either case your lunch is collected around 11 am by the lunch man, whose bicycle is surrounded by dozens of small sacks where the stackable pots with your lunch are lovingly cradeled. He then zips through the Mumbai traffic, and in some way that defies the laws of physics manages to deliver the lunch to your desk, warm, and always on time.

Our travels took us to the "Hanging Gardens" of Mumbai, a misnomer given to a cute but not particularly significant park, most notable for the absence of any trees. It turns out that this park used to be a large open reservoir at the top of Malabar Hill (the fancy district of Mumbai), where pumped water was stored to be delivered by gravity. Unfortunately the adjacent property had been occupied since time inmemorial by a Parsi "cemetery", so the British authorities decided to cover it with concrete and a thick layer of soil for public health purposes (and that is why there are no trees there). You might think that they were being a little paranoid, but you should know that Parsis are the ultimate environmentalists, so in order not to contaminate soil and water they dispose of their defuncts by cutting them in pieces and then letting the vultures finish the job (and because vultures sometime drop a piece or two the reservoir had to be covered). Yes, the practice continues to date, with the outmost respect and in total seclusion, but you can see Gustav was eyeing suspiciosly a group of vultures circling over our heads.

A highlight of the afternoon was a visit to the house where Gandhi used to stay when he was in Bombay. In fact, he spent several years in this house, editing three newspapers that took the lead in the quest for Indian independence. The house is now a museum, and is throughly impregnated with the soul of the great man. I of course knew of Ghandi the pacifist, but in this museum I got to feel the spirit of Ghandi the fighter. He may had been a gentle, peace loving man, but make no mistakes. He was a corageous fighter for the cause of Indian independence, and from his simple room he wrote powerful calls for the end of the British Raj, maintained an enormous correspondence with freedom fighters throughout the world, guided the efforts of the Indian congress, and overall united all of India under a common banner (he also traveled extensively through India and the world, leading inspiring demonstrations of peaceful civil disobedience, getting arrested, and step by step gaining the respect of the world for Indian home rule). Klaus contributed to the new library in Waterford the autobiography of Ghandi, which I have started to read. Too early to tell, but what has impressed me the most is his unwavering devotion to the truth. The statement that "to the best of my knowledge I have never been able to say anything but the truth" impressed me profoundly, because I have always been careful to keep the truth content in my own statements at well below 50%.

We also visited an active Jain temple, and that is where we learned of the strict vegetarian customs of the priests and community members. Priests are so concerned about not damaging any living being that they sweep the ground where they are going to step to move aside the small insects, and filter their water through fabric before they drink it. We were told that some of them also use a thin fabric mask to avoid breathing flying insects.

That night we decided to take a break from vegetarianism, and ended the evening at Ruby Tuesday, a modern restaurant that offered "Simple American Food" and Happy Hour, where we pigged out on baby back ribs generously irrigated with cocktails and wine. It is quite clear that none of us was cut to be a Jain.

Day 15. Ellora – The wonders continue

Ellora is another set of "caves" that extend the history started at Ajanta from 500 AD to 1000 AD. This is a crucial period in the transition from Buddhism to the renaissance of Hinduism, and the later renaissance of Jainism. So, the caves form three distinct groupings. The older Buddhist caves are not as well preserved as those in Ajanta, and thus not as impressive, but they reach larger scale. For example, in Cave 12 a three-story monastery was carved out of the stone, and the large temple on the top floor cannot but excite your imagination in thinking on the power that must have gathered when several dozen monks met to meditate among volutes of incense and the humming of drums and trumpets.
(The "caves" of Elephanta, described on Day 17, would fit here in the historical sequence. They retain the large scale of late Buddhist architecture and sculpture, but are already a part of the Hinduism renaissance).

The jewel of Ellora is the 8th century Dasavatara cave (Cave 15), where an enormous Hindu temple was carved out of the stone. The temple is an excuse for artists to weave a symphony around the rich Hindu mythology, with its 330 million of gods and goddesses. I am pretty sure no one has ever counted them, but it sounds like a good number, and indeed meandering through the halls of the Dasavatara temple one can easily get lost in the many stories that the murals develop. The peculiar thing is that these stories change as you look at them from different angles and perspectives, sculpture and architecture blending with each other in a magical way.

The last group of caves were carved by Jain monks in the 9th and 10th centuries, and to my untrained eye they seemed to be a regression to a more austere Buddhist style. The difference lies in that Jainism does not venerate the many gods and godesses of Hinduism, nor the central figure of the elightened Buddah. Rather, Jainism venerates the lives of several teachers or prophets, who reached different levels of enlightment. These teachers have given an example of life based on the respect to all beings, so the Jains are extreme vegetarians who fear even crushing the worms in the soil (so they don't eat tubers like potatoes, onions, or carrots) or the small insects that fly in the air or swim in the water).

Overall, I am in awe. It is not everyday that one gets to see a thousand years of history through the eyes of devout and gifted artists!

Note: In the previous narratives I wanted to concentrate on Ajanta and Ellora, so I took the liberty of leaving out some of the other things we saw. Here is a sampler:

On Day 14 we woke up early in the morning to go to the Caves of Ajanta, about 100 km from Aurangabad. The road traversed one of the richest agricultural regions of India, and it was a delight to the soul to see field after field of wheat, onions, corn, and various vegetables, made possible by small irrigation projects (mostly groundwater). There is a general sense of well-being and happiness around us, although small camps of migrant farm workers are a reminder that this bounty has only come to be through hard work.

The geologists in the group were also enchanted by the fact that our travel took us through the Deccan Traps, a province of flood basalts that formed about 65 million years ago, when India separated from South Africa and Antarctica to start the long plate tectonics path that would eventually cause it to weld unto the Asian plate.

On day 15 we departed for the 30 km trip to Ellora, but before getting there we stopped at the Fort of Daulatabad, which from 1300 to 1600 AD was the impregnable bastion of the Deccan Sultanate, and a major thorn on the side of the invading Musilms of Northern India. It is a medieval fortress with impressive bastions, walls, moats, laberynths, and unscalable cliffs, where time and again attacking armies were frustrated. For us it was a hot and exhausting climb, but the views were breath-taking.

After visiting Ellora we came back home, and I invited everyone to the movies to see a newly released Indian film about the Muslim emperor Akbar (about 1500 AD) and his legendary wife Jodhaa Akbar. This film has caused tremendous controversy in the state of Rajhastan, because some argue that Jodhaa was married not to Akbar but to his son (the film makes the disclaimer, however, that Akbar's wife is given different names by different historians, and that in choosing Jodhaa they are but presenting one of the possible unfoldings of the story). We decided to make a night out of it, and would have gone in a limousine had there been one available. Instead I hired three Chug-Chug's to bring us to the movie theater. We were treated like visiting royalty by the people there, because tourist never take the time to do anything but sightseeing. Besides, the movie is in Hindi, so the chances of having some foreigners come to see it was close to nil. It was a fantastic epic, with elephant battles and fabulous views of palaces (some of which we had actually visited). Of course everything was full of color and grandeur, in the best Bollywood fashion, so it easily transported us to the middle ages in India. The acting was superb, and we all followed the story in Hindi without missing a beat.

The only problem was that the film was 4 hours long! So, with much regret we decided to bail out at intermission, before the story turned for the better into a chick flick with much dancing and kissing. Oh well, it is juust an excuse for us to try to get it in DVD and organize Sultan Night with some of you back at home. The night ended with a nice stroll to a local restaurant, a delicious dinner, and a drive through Aurangabad at night under the friendly direction of our impeccable Chug-Chug drivers. Fun!

Day 14 (Feb 24). Ajanta - We have seen wondrous things!

Days 14 and 15 have been, without doubt, the highlight of our trip in that they took us to two of the wonders of the ancient world: The cave temples of Ajanta and Ellora.

For DJ and the rest of the history buffs let me sketch an uninformed timeline of the development of religious thought in India. First, Hinduism and Jainism are really, really old, easily going back to 1000 BC. Around 550 BC Siddhartha Gautama is born within the Brahmin caste (i.e., a devout Hindu), achieves enlightenment as Buddah, and Buddhism blossoms in India (very popular but not quite overwhelming Hinduism) until about 500 AD. During this time Buddhism spread through Asia, but by 700 AD had lost "popularity" in India and now is the religion of less than 5% of the population. Around 300 BC Jainism is formally formulated (in my humble opinion with much influence from Buddhism) but remains a minor religion until it reaches its renaissance around 700 AD (now accounting for maybe 15% of the population). Around 500 AD Hinduism redefines itself in the course of some sort of Ecumenical Council, experiences its own renaissance, and since then regains its position as the dominant religion of India (50% of modern Indians). Finally, Islam comes into India sometime around 1400 AD, and remains the religion of nearly 30% of modern India. If you can keep all this straight you have a much better brain than me, but for the purposes of this tale the sequence is ancient Hinduism and Jainism > Buddhism > Hinduism renaissance > Jainism renaissance > Islam.

Ajanta is a site developed by excavating monastic complexes and temples into one of the thick basaltic lava flows of the Deccan Traps, at a place where the Waghora river forms a broad entrenched meander. The "caves" are about 100 m above the level of the river, and are reached through a path that hugs the face of the cliff. They were built in two stages, one between 100 BC and 100 AD (Buddhism), and the other between 450 and 550 AD (still Buddhism), after which they were quite suddenly abandoned. Vegetation eventually covered them, and they remained forgotten until they were rediscovered in 1819.

These caves, together with their sister complex in Ellora (described tomorrow) are not only a monument to the faith that has accompanied the Indian people since Buddah reached enlightment around 500 BC (and in that sense are one of the world’s most impressive sanctuaries), but are the most remarkable record of the history of sacred painting, sculpture, and architecture. Karrie and Jessica, you would absolutely love them!

We entered this history through one of the first stage Buddhist temples. You will have to forgive the very poor photograph, but I hope it will give you a feeling for the atmosphere of the place. Buddah, in the background, is accompanied by lively tableaux, which depict different incarnations and passages of his life. The sculptures are exquisite, and awe the visitor by their kaleidoscope of movement and emotions.

Accompanying the solemn architecture and sculptures are richly colored murals that in some amazing way have survived the ravages of two millennia of weathering and oblivion. I was thunderstruck. Karrie told me that in the art world there is a controversy as to whether an author should try to explain what was meant by a certain piece, or should let the art tell its own story as a powerful language of its own. The murals of Ajanta certainly tell their own story in the varied expressions of their characters, as well as in the complex arrangements of groups. To me, as a storyteller, they were colorful expressions of the way I like to weave stories, with one small event creating a completely new line of thought, in the way fog rises in volutes to create an ever changing landscape. I could have stayed there for hours seeing these stories unfold.

The culminating point is the last cave, where a veritable cathedral was carved out of the hard basaltic lava, to recreate the peace that Buddah achieved as he reached Nirvana. Alas, no paintings have survived in this cave, but in a tour de force the artists achieved the same storytelling effect through sculpture.

I am afraid that words do not make justice to Ajanta, but I hope the photographs give you a little taste of this masterpiece of antiquity.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Day 13. Pech gehabt!

As I had suspected, we have made powerful enemies. Today in the morning we were treated to a form of Indian voodoo, and found a cut off head in front of our door in the place normally reserved for The Hindustan Times. For a moment I thought it was Gustav’s head pickled in some mysterious Hindu brew! *

I didn’t want to alarm our company, so I kept my mouth shut, but I was not really surprised when we were ready at 9 am in the lobby and our guide and transport didn’t show up. It was indeed very strange that we were left “vestidos y alborotados” because so far our Indian hosts had been very professional. Gustav was fuming! Anyway, after much argument and angry phone calls to Delhi we found out what had happened: It appears that our guide was there at 8:45 am looking for a group of six Germans, had seen a likely group, and had politely asked if this was the group of Dr. Kobberger (OK, so maybe with the Indian accent it didn’t come out quite right, but our demons worked it out the Dr. Gruber had his own party ready to go, so he assumed that the guide had said “Gruber” instead of “Kobberger” and he and his family happily helped themselves to our guide, our bus, and our tour of the city! **

So, new plans were made, and our own tour was rescheduled for 1:00 pm. We were not happy pups, but “al mal viento buena cara”, so Klaus and Peter decided to go for a swim, Aurora decided to go to the salon to have her hair dyed, Chrissy was going to read her book, and Gustav and I went to explore the city. We, Gustav and I, had a good time: We went to a nice bookshop, had a cappuccino, and even treated ourselves to a luxurious interlude with a hooka!

But our black star was not done with us: Aurora was wearing a very nice light pink tee-shirt that she had bought in a trip to Vietnam. She looked great in it, but it was not the proper wear when you are having your hair dyed by a very nice but very inexperienced young woman. She got hair dye smudges all over the tee-shirt, and poor Aurora was close to tears. Pobrecita!

Sooo, realizing that we had angered the local deities I made sure to ask for forgiveness as we came in front of Buddah in the caves of Aurangabad (but more about this tomorrow). That seemed to do the trick, because we has a wonderful afternoon, with visits to the caves and the little Taj Mahal (dubbed by me “el Taj Mahalito).

The building of el Taj Mahalito is an important event in engineering history, so I have to tell you more about it: As you may remember, building the Taj Mahal broke the treasury of the empire, so when the grandson of Shah Jahan decided to build a mausoleum to his mother (he was a mama’s boy), he made a point of soliciting bids, and he made it quite clear that he would go for the low bid. The result was a perfectly serviceable mausoleum, as you can see in the picture, but it was low bid, so instead of marble of Makarana he got some local marble, and instead of the nice stone inlaid work he got some fine plaster work that, alas, has not stood as well the test of time. So, next time you bid for a contract, thank the builders of el Taj Mahalito for the low bid.

In the afternoon we went to look at the water mill, a cool park with several pools and relaxing garden paths. Several school groups were visiting, and for some strange reason one of these groups became fascinated with Aurora, very politely asked for her permission to photograph her, and then proceeded to take photos with her in groups of two or three. Peter got inspired by them and decided to buy her a Maharani chair (although more libidinous minds have now dubbed it the Kama Sutra chair based on one of the illustrations found in the famous love guide).

We wrapped up the day with a visit to modern India, beautifully exemplified by the neighborhood a couple of blocks from the hotel. There are tons of eateries, small cafes, cellular phone stores (Indians LOVE cellular phones), and even a supermarket. The latter was a lot of fun for us, because although we all like buying in the small corner stores, it is hard to look at the wares. Here we could look at our leisure, and as you can see we were all excited about buying exotic spices, teas, and sweet delicacies!

* As it turns out, the head was a beautifully carved melon, that our friendly room service had put by our doorstep to welcome us. Neither Chrissy and Gustav, nor Aurora and Peter, got this treat, so maybe Klaus and I got it as a statement that alternative couples are also welcome in India?

** Guest comment by Dr. G.L.H. Gruber:
Dear readers,

First of let me introduce myself: My name is Dr. G.L.H. Gruber and under normal circumstances I would have never got in contact with this blog or the cattle of individuals who call themselves “de-grouped” (as opposed to grouped U.S.-American tourist groups that occupy every place of potential interest and mess up all the prices). However, in the morning of the 23rd of Feb. 2008, my wife, a couple of friends and myself were having a cup of coffee in the lobby of the famous Ambassador Hotel in Aurangabad as the hotel boy suddenly called may name: “Dr. ….ber”. I lifted my arm, he approached our group and told us that we were invited to have a guided city tour and that the luxury bus was already waiting. Being used to miracles happening in India day by day, we entered the bus and enjoyed a fantastic and professionally guided tour through the city and its touristic highlights. Much later in the course of the trip (after our guide had to answer some repeated calls on his mobile) we discovered that miracles in India were strictly reserved to Indian people. However, we did not feel embarrassed at all and we were grateful for this free experience but would like to send our best wishes and regards to the degrouped group members.

Dr. G.H.L. Gruber and company

Friday, February 22, 2008

Day 12. Travel day to Aurangabad

You can see from the previous descriptions that I was not feeling warm and cozy about Udaipur, so to even the score I took an early morning walk through a random neighborhood (and a nice one it turned to be) to remind myself that all people around the world are the same when they are relaxed at home. I then went for brunch to a typical Indian restaurant, where I got an enormous amount of very tasty, but very spicy food for little money. I liberally irrigated the meal with a large bottle of Kingfisher beer, which has become our beverage of choice during this trip. This Indian beer comes in clear, green, or amber bottles (but it is the same beer regardless of the color of the bottle), and for fun we have baffled our waiters by fighting over who gets the green bottle or the amber one.

I returned to the hotel in time to join the group for the ride to the airport, to take the flight to Aurangabad, 800 km to the south. Indian airlines have the reputation for being hours late, so we were getting ready for a grueling day in a hot, stuffy, and decaying facility. Imagine our surprise when we found a brand new terminal (just inaugurated last week) with all possible comforts and security measures (fortunately the airport authority is not related in any way or form to the municipality of Udaipur). And then we found that we were flying not with the state airline, but with Kingfisher Airlines! Yes, the same folks that had brought us our multicolored beer were going to fly us!

The people were all so nice, but there was a moment of unrest when one of the smiling security ladies asked Peter if he had a knife in his hand luggage. With innocent blue eyes Peter said “Ach ja, an kleines Messer”. So he was asked to produced the so called “little knife” and he pulls out this foot-long folding knife! In California this would have been enough to pull the whole group out of the flight, to be roughly inspected and interrogated, but here there were just smiling explanations to the silly tourist about why he couldn’t have his knife on board, and prompt service by the Kingfisher Airlines personnel to bring back the luggage so the offending instrument could be properly stowed.

Flying over India was a delightful experience. For one, it made clear that the green revolution initiated 30 years ago is well under way (but still lacking the key element of irrigation). For other, it gave us a good feeling for how vast and lightly developed is the country side. Truly, there are many untapped resources in this subcontinent.

Our hotel in Aurangabad has beautiful gardens and 30 years ago must have been the apex of luxury. Unfortunately maintenance has lagged behind, so the rooms are a bit shabby. Klaus is of the opinion that management needs a good shake up, and he was ready to provide it when we were informed that our arrangement included meals. Three times he told the waiter that this was not so, but the man remained inflexible and served us the fixed menu (delicious). But then they discovered that no, our arrangement did not include meals, at which point los hermanitos Kobberger played good cop (Gustav) and bad cop (Klaus) and flatly refused to pay for something that had been pressed on us. I fear we have not endeared ourselves with the management.

However, the waiters and cooks remained the image of Indian hospitality, and even invited Chrissy and I to learn how naan bread and many traditional Indian meals are prepared. They use a very large clay pot, about to feet tall and two feet in diameter, inside which a dire is made. The walls and interior of the pot get very hot, and naan is prepared by sticking a flour tortilla against the inside wall, and then letting the heat of the clay pot oven do the cooking. Other traditional dishes, like tandoori chicken and shik kebab are prepared by skewering the meat and resting the skewers in the inside of the pot. Great fun!

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Day 11. Udaipur, the city of lakes

First a favor to ask: Yinru and Corina, could you please send me an e-mail at so I can respond to your post? Gracias! Faby, do you know how to answer a post directly from the comments section of Blogger? OK, and now to today's story:

Udaipur was once the seat of a powerful kingdom, whose maharajas undertook the construction of major dams, reservoirs and palaces, and to this day the lakes remain the most attractive portion of the city. We took an early boat ride through one of them, and enjoyed the views of very attractive water palaces (private) and the impressive royal palace.

The maharaja stepped down as head of the city government shortly after the independence of India, in 1949, but remains a very rich and influential public figure (in fact, several maharajas are now members of the Indian parliament). Unfortunately, as I said yesterday, the municipality of Udaipur seems to be lethargic and has done little for the general well being of the city and its inhabitants (with the exception I will describe below). I have a theory for why this is so: Udaipur has more than its fair share of international non-profit charitable organizations, either because of the reputation of being “the Venice of India”, or because the maharaja has actively invited them to come. The end result, I think, is that the municipal authorities have adopted an attitude of living of international charity, rather than get their butts out of their municipal cushions as has been done elsewhere in India.

The one bright gem in the city is the old royal gardens, which are now open to the public for the sum of 5 rupees (a very modest sum, although still significant to many families. The gardens are beautifully tended, and city residents seem to enjoy strolling through them. We met a dad with his two sons, and the kids were having a good time climbing on the marble elephants and just running around. The garden was also being used as a set for the film “The Cheetah Girls”, but unfortunately we were there at lunch time so we didn’t get to see Bollywood in action (I am going to have to buy the film once it comes out).

Another interesting visit was to a Hindu temple, where the guide took the time to explain to us the synbology of all the figures carced in the walls. Difficult to explain in just a few lines, but basically it goes from the demons in the lower portion, through the people (as in the photograph) doing everything people do, to the gods on top. I chose this photograph for its slightly x-rated content, but also because when one looks carefully at the whole string of figures carved around the temple it does indeed give you a panormaic view of Indian society in the VIII century.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Day 10. Not much to report

Not much to report. Today was a day of land travel, from Jaipur to Udaipur. It took us about 7 hours for 300 kilometers, so you can figure how slowly we went. Dry, flat country, occasionally interrupted by green agricultural fields. For you geo types, we have started across the Indian craton, so you see gneisses and schists in the road cuts.

We arrived to Udaipur about 4 pm, and for the first time I got the impression that we had arrived at a neglected city. We passed the school of engineering and medicine, and they looked abandoned, as if they had been last used while India was still under British rule. The city looks gray, as if someone had carefully painted it with a layer of grime. So I was ready to rejoice with the rest of the party when we drove into the Hilton complex of gardens (I am normally not one for excess luxury, but this time I would force myself to accept and even enjoy it). Alas, it was not to be. There had been an error in the booking, and it turned out that we had no reservations :(

OK, so we packed ourselves in our travel vehicle, got going, and then Chrissy found out that she had forgotten a bag at the Hilton. Rather that submit ourselves at the indignity of being escorted out of the hotel one more time, we boys alighted in the English Wine Junction shoppe, and proceeded to make a shop keeper very happy by acquiring a large amount of bottles of wine and spirits. Aurora was horrified when she saw our purchases, and reminded us that we were flying to Mumbai in a couple of days, and what were we going to do with so many bottles. This put Klaus in a reflective mood, but at the end he concluded that we could safely leave the bottles here in Udaipur, as Mumbai probably had enough empty bottles of wine and whisky.

So we finally arrive to our new hotel. Quaint. It had been (and the key words are had been) the country club when the Brits were in India, but it has fallen into disrepair ever since. The beautiful surrounding grounds are now dusty and brown for lack of irrigation, the plumbing is 70 years old, and once again I get the feeling that we are seeing the last remnants of a bygone age.

All along I have been noticing the many similarities between India and Mexico. Their fantastic ancient history, their mountainous and dry landscapes, and their vast natural and human resources. But now I notice a significant difference. In Mexico nobody was there to bring the country into the modern age. Mexicans built the country themselves. In contrast, India is rising from the ashes of the British Raj, and although this is barely perceivable in other cities, it is strongly evident in Udaipur.

Day 9. A visit to the Holy Lands

A short distance from Jaipur we reached two of the most holy places in India: Ajmer and Pushkar. Ajmer is where the Darga Sharif is located, a sanctuary where one of India’s most revered Muslim saints, Kwajha Chisti, is buried. All around the tomb is a small city-within-the-city, where Muslims from all south Asia come to venerate. We couldn’t take cameras in, so I don’t have pictures to share with you (a real pity because Chrissy and Klaus had to buy handkerchiefs to cover their heads and they looked real doof), but I will tell you that it was a very spiritual place where one could not help but feel the intensity of the devotion of the pilgrims. Within the complex was the tomb itself, full to overflowing with pilgrims bringing flowers and scarves to the saint, the praying courts, the baths, and hundreds of small shops to attend to every need of the visitors (flowers, incense, horoscopes, medicinal herbs). Toward the exit we stopped by two enormous cauldrons (easily the size of a room), where donations are collected for rice for the pilgrims. Donations are accepted in the form of cash or rice, and as we were leaving wood was being brought in to start cooking (I imagine someone goes in to collect the cash before sacks of rice and barrels of water are poured in to start coking what will eventually become the evening meal).

From there we went to nearby Pushkar, one of the nine holy places of the Hindu religion. Legend has it that Brahma was looking for a place to rest and meditate, and that as he looked he dropped a lotus flower whose petals landed in Pushkar and opened so many springs. The city now centers around a beautiful artificial lake, where pilgrims come from all over India to pray to Brahma (the other holy places are devoted to Vishnu and Krishna, whereas Pushkar is the only one devoted to Brahma), and to ritually bathe in the waters of the lake. Chrissy and I got inducted into the lake, and offered our prayer for the well being of our families and friends, so you are all covered for at least a few years to come.

The only problem with holy places is that they encourage cleansing yourself from vices and excess. For example, there is not a drop of alcohol to be found within a radius of several kilometers, which threw us all (but particularly los hermanitos Kobberger) into anguish and confusion. We had to resort to our reserves, which our now diminished by a bottle of Bordeaux wine, a bottle of Reisling, and a bottle of good Scottish whisky (but we still have a couple of aces up our collective sleeve). Joining in the spirit of moderation, we all had a vegetarian dinner (no choice there, really, because there is no meat consumed anywhere within Pushkar), but Peter went out of his way to be a frugal ascete and ordered nothing but a spring roll. As you can see, it was the Guiness Book of Records spring roll, and we had to roll him to his bed under the disapproving eye of the local guru.