Peace in the Monasterio de Santa Catalina

Arequipa, Peru’s second largest city, located well south of Cuzco and both closer to the coast and lower in altitude, made for a warm and welcome change of scene after being steeped in Incan lore and thin mountain air for so many days (not that I didn’t LOVE all the Incan amazingness and beautiful mountains!). The city is full of exquisite examples of pearly white colonial architecture and the vibe is considerably more down to earth than lovely, but ultimately touristy, Cuzco.

We had a few days here and I’ll write later at greater length about those days, but for now I want to share some snaps from, what was for me, the great highlight of our time in Arequipa.

The city is home to the Monasterio de Santa Catalina, a maze-like convent dating back to the 1500s.

Despite a dubious past – for much of the Monasterio’s history its nuns were women of wealthy backgrounds who continued to enjoy the good life, complete with servants and slaves, live music and parties in spite of their cloistered existence and alleged vows of poverty – the place still managed to produce one saint, Sor Ana de Los Angeles Monteagudo, and in the late 1800s, the entire place was reformed by a strict Dominican nun, Sister Josefa Cadena, who ran a tight ship and brought life in the Monasterio in line with typical convent standards. (More details can be found here.)

Screen through which nuns would speak to people from the outside world.

Today, only a handful of nuns remain at the Monasterio. They live in a small section of the 20,000 square meter complex which is closed off to the public. The rest of the Monasterio, however, is open to visitors and is well laid out to receive them, with ample and interesting information about the place’s history posted in most rooms in both Spanish and English and even a café that serves quite decent food located about halfway through the tour circuit.

From what we’d read in Lonely Planet, I knew the Monasterio would be worth visiting. I wasn’t prepared though for how totally charmed I would be by the place.

The cells, courtyards and walkways are a mesmerizing interplay between, dim rooms, cool shadow and rock and bright hot sun and illuminated, brilliantly painted walls and cheerful frescos. I suppose the resident saint and the changes put in place by the reforming sister have been effective enough to balance out the alleged wickedness of some of the earlier nuns – the atmosphere of the place is peaceful and hallowed.

We ended up spending half a day there, making our slow way from room to room, hall to hall, enjoying the peace, the stillness, the warm, summery air, the beautiful grounds and the cheerful colors of the place.

I think I must have been a nun or monk in a past life. I just loved spending time in this place. Somehow the thought of a life of spiritual devotion in a location so simple but so lovely seemed quite appealing. Especially when reading a message from the sisters currently serving there:

Since the origins of Arequipa there was a need of founding a contemplative Dominican Mothers’ convent… (Permission was given to begin) the construction of the convent in 1570.

Nowadays we are 30 sisters, of ages ranging between 18 and 90.

In the serenity that our hearts have been originating during long hours of silence, listening to God, in the perseverant praise that springs up of the grateful soul, we are able to acknowledge the presence of God in the small events of everyday life.

Our spirit takes us to offer prayers of intercession and reparation for all the humans to be saved.

Our day starts at 5 a.m., and we pray starting from (during) the praise of Jesus Eucharist, from (during) our studies, doing our manual work in order to win our daily bread. In every single moment we pray for the world and with the world. In the Church we are the presence, not the visibility.

After more than 400 years we are still here, because our contemplative vocation is LOVE. This is our great secret of being happy: to be in love, neither with an ideal nor a project, but with Jesus Christ. 

There are plenty of times I will disagree vehemently with the Catholic/Christian church, but when I read something like this, I can’t help but feel pretty inspired by these women’s devotion to attempt to live in selfless prayer.

And if you’d like an audio to go with the photos, click below to hear the convent bells ringing as we left the peaceful sanctuary for the city streets at closing time. I always think there’s something magical about the sound of church bells…

Church bells

A beam of light shoots through the blackened walls of an ancient kitchen

A collection of old medicines

In the Monestario garden

I love swallows! 😀

Advertisements

Rajasthani music plug

Way back when we were in Delhi, my friend Piya invited us to join her for a concert. The music was The Manganiyar Seduction – devotional artists from the Rajasthan desert singing and playing some of the most bewitching music I’ve ever heard. The performance was just magic. The clip below (from YouTube, not my own video) shows snippets from the show but doesn’t do justice to the power and passion of the full-length live performance (a word that also fails to convey – these guys weren’t “performing”, they were channeling something sublime).

If you want to hear more, the album is available on iTunes.

The reason I’m writing this post, though is because the record label, Amarrass, is now undertaking a project to “do field recordings of master folk musicians” directly in the desert villages of Rajasthan itself. Find out more about the project here, and feel free to donate if you’re interested. 🙂 I did, and I can’t wait to hear this new collection of music.

What you wish for

Some times things get lost during travel. I’m not talking big stuff. I mean material, insignificant-in-the-grand-scheme-of-things stuff. The loss of the thing itself is usually not that big of a deal at all. The whole mental and emotional process around that loss however can turn into something much larger.

Prelude

Of course it is naïve to think that a trip of the nature and scale we have undertaken will all be smooth sailing and happy moments. Spending all day every day with a single individual, differences are bound to come up. Roman and I knew this going into our big adventure. Days on the road and in the environment that is my restless mind vary. Lots of days are great, but some days I may tend to focus on and worry about the differences that come up.

Like today. Roman is two years younger than I am. It’s not such a big difference, really, but one of my reoccurring worries is that I am analog while he is digital. Except of course, being “analog”, I don’t even really know what that means. 🙂

He is Mr. Tech. I am… not anti-tech, but being tech-savy or tech-focused is not really how I’m wired, no pun intended. When we met, I didn’t own a cell phone or even have internet in my apartment.

Now, six years later, I’ve been able to download entertainment of my choosing for long plane rides, update my facebook status from a moving train in India, find my way around a new city with an electronic map in the palm of my hand, all thanks to him and the amazing technology he’s introduced into my life.

I am grateful, constantly grateful. But there are days where doubts creep in. In the travel of my imagination, in the (probably highly romanticized) travel of my pre-tech past, things were more immediate and adventurous and vibrant, less organized and informed and intellectual. When I get sucked into the dangerous choreography of expectations, I get worried that I’m not traveling the way one is supposed to, that somehow (and in part because of all that technology) I am missing out on some element or experience of what I hoped/expected traveling the world would be like.

These doubts were sneaking around my mind today when we went to go explore Cholon, Saigon’s crowded, chaotic China town. We’d arrived at the warren-like Bihn Tay market and spent a bit of time poking around the narrow paths between the overflowing stalls and avoiding one of the day’s many rain showers.

Somehow we were both a bit on edge when we left. We had an idea of the pagodas in the neighborhood that we wanted to visit after the market.

Here is a good place to point out another difference between us (one which at least doesn’t make me sound so old! 😉 ). I tend to be less patient (eager and enthusiastic is how I like to paint it on my good days); Roman tends to have the patience of a saint.

We left the market and I had a vague feeling of what direction the pagodas were in. Roman kept stopping to check both the electric Lonely Planet and Google Maps app on his iPhone. He commented on how much he loved traveling with all that information in the palm of his hand.

Logically I could see the advantage and had to agree; inside though my heart was rebelling and all I could think was, I don’t want my eyes glued on a miniscule screen when this wonderful world is all around me. I want to be wandering around and getting lost and making unexpected discoveries until I’m full up! The last thing I want right now is to be fiddling around with an iPhone!

The difficulty here is the following. I DO see how many times the phone and technology has come in extremely useful! It’s great that we have a whole library in the phone and don’t have to tote around heavy paper books. It’s wonderful that if we get lost or suddenly get a craving for sushi, we can hop online, locate ourselves on the map, and find our way back to the hotel or to the closest Japanese restaurant with the highest rating on Trip Advisor.

I could list twenty more examples of why the technology is great. If this were a battle, it would be clear that my stubborn, old-school, analog-style heart and spirit are on the losing side (a fact that makes me feel childish, which I suppose should help with any issues I have about being older than Roman but actually mostly just makes me feel worse).

All this to come to the following point. As we were trying to make our way to visit the pagodas in Cholon, I was wondering what exploring a city might be like without an iPhone.

Sequence of events

External Internal
We are walking away from the market in the direction, I feel confident, of the pagodas I am frustrated. I am wondering what exploring a city might be like without an iPhone.
For the third or fourth time, Roman stops on the sidewalk to double-check the map. I am frustrated. I am wondering what exploring a city might be like without an iPhone.
Roman asks me to check the name of the pagoda we want to go to on my iPhone. I am frustrated as I take the iPhone out of my bag and check my e-notes.
Peripheral vision notices a moped driving up to us on the sidewalk. This city is full of mopeds driving extremely close to us all the time, even on sidewalks. Moped is noted but I feel confident it won’t drive into us. Attention returns to frustrated note checking.
iPhone is suddenly taken from my hands. Mental process: Is this something a) weird, b) funny, c) coincidental and/or magical, d) non-threatening, e) threatening f) etc./other? Assessment: E – what ever is happening, this is not ok.
I yell “Hey!” and look up at the two young guys on the moped, one with my phone in his hand. Yup, these guys are robbing me.
They start to pull away. “Hey!!!!” I yell, this time louder and angrier. I wonder if there’s any chance I can get my phone back? If they see how upset I am maybe they will change their mind? Maybe I can somehow magically appeal to their humanity?
Their retreat is slower than expected. I start to run after them “HEEEEEEYYY!!!” $%@, can’t let them leave with my phone, phone being stolen = bad!
They start to speed up. I stop chasing them. I can probably grab the guy on the back. But what if they have a knife? What if they try to take my camera too? What if I get him, and he tries to hurt me? It’s not worth it. It’s just a phone.
Without a word, Roman hands me his things and takes off running after them down the street. Manly, heroic, sexy Roman. In shock and awe that he would do something like this for me. My hero.
Roman disappears, the crowd of Vietnamese people stare at me, I drop half my stuff. Huh? What just happened? How am I supposed to feel? These people are staring at me.
I spend a minute gathering dropped things, standing around, getting stared at. Ok, Roman my hero still hasn’t come back, could he have possibly caught up with the guys? What is going on???
I walk to the end of the street. A man who has seen what happened points down the road where Roman has apparently run. I see nothing but a crowd of Vietnamese people. Crap. What’s the right thing to do? Should I be upset? I have no idea where Roman is. What if he caught up with the guys? God I hope he’s ok.
I stand stupidly on the street corner for minutes that pass by way too slowly. What if he chased them down some dark, dank alleyway? What if they are fighting him? What if he is hurt? I have no way of finding him if he needs me! If he’s in trouble there is nothing I can do to help him! Oh my God I hope he’s ok! Ok, you are probably freaking out and he’s probably fine. Yeah, but what if he’s not????
After an eternity, another guy hanging out on the street waves at me and points down the road to where I got robbed. Roman is there, walking up the street. Oh thank God, oh thank God, oh thank God. Oh thank God.
I run to Roman and nearly start crying right there on the street. I want to grab Roman and hug him but we are in Asia and that is not kosher. I feel like a baby and a fool. I feel angry and relieved, like a big, awkward tourist, confused, shaken, numb and perfectly fine all at the same time.

Epilogue

Most of the rest of the day is spent hashing, rehashing, analyzing, reacting, working on getting over.

First the good stuff. These things I am able to realize almost right away and do not lose sight of.

It’s just an iPhone. Of all the expensive stuff we are carrying with us, if something had to get stolen, this is probably the “best” thing to lose. Better that than my camera and photos. Better that than my laptop with my photos, music, movies. Better than my wallet which would mean the hassle of canceling credit cards – and how to get new ones on the road? Better my phone than Roman’s (he is, after all, Mr. Tech). Really, this is quite manageable.

Of all the less-pleasant things that can happen during travel, this is also quite innocuous. No violence, no one hurt, nothing that can’t be replaced… Again, it’s just an iPhone.

The less fun stuff is all the “what ifs” and “what might this mean”, which of course I realize do not and cannot make the situation any better but you can’t help but go there anyway.

I was wearing that silly, flowy, boho top I got in Cambodia – does it make me look like a dumb tourist and an easy target? (The last thing I want to be is a dumb tourist!) In that split second my reptile brain made the call that safe is better than sorry but I bet I could have grabbed that guy’s shirt or knocked him off the bike and maybe if I had I would still have my phone. Am I a wimp? Am I a girly girl? Am I a timid dumb tourist? (The very last thing I want to be is a girly dumb tourist!) I want to be more adventurous and I worry that Roman is too logical and technical for me but when push comes to shove, I am the wimp that stayed put and he is the hero that ran after the guys – what does THAT say about me?

I am grateful I am not so gormless that I couldn’t figure out what was happening at the time, that I was able to react somehow and react with anger. At earlier points in my life, I probably would have been so wrapped up with not wanting to offend people that my first instinct would have been to convince myself that what ever was happening, they (the thiefs) were in the right and I was in the wrong and better not make a fuss. Still, while this is progress, it is not good enough and I am angry and (as usual) impatient with myself.

And so on and so forth; all of this going on inside of me as we stop for a drink to calm down, Roman tries to track down my phone with all his marvelous technology, we both slowly start to come out of the adrenaline of what just happened and start talking it over, we decide to continue with our pagoda tour as planned.

I light a big coil of incense at the first pagoda we visit, scribbling a quick prayer of forgiveness to the thiefs and of release for my phone on the pink paper before the whole get up is hoisted up to the ceiling by an efficient member of the temple staff. I hope it will do something for someone, if not for me, for the young men who have decided, for what ever reason or circumstance, to make a living stealing people’s phones off the street.

With each passing hour, my outlook gets better. Roman assures me I am not a dumb tourist or a wimpy girly girl. I can sort of agree. I decide that despite the incident, I still really like this city.

A little girl waves and smiles at me from her mother’s arms. I smile and wave back. We hide out from a massive downpour in another pagoda. It’s gaudy with fake crystal chandeliers, piped in music, statues and decorations in deep primary colours. The incense is so thick it starts to give me a headache after a while. I mostly love the place. We go out for pizza dinner. Vietnamese beer is tasty and it helps. I talk to my mother over a bad phone connection. The sound of her voice warms me despite the occasional static and delays. I am comforted.

At some point I remember the things I was thinking and feeling right before the phone was removed from my hand. I have to wonder. Maybe I was only getting what I asked for?

I don’t know how I’ll feel when I wake up tomorrow. I know for sure there will be moments I wish I still had my iPhone (already when we got back to the hotel, I was wishing I could go hide myself in the great eBook I’d been reading). But maybe there will be other moments, real-life moments when I might otherwise have been stuck with my face in my phone, that I’ll be happy to experience. I can only hope so anyhow. 🙂

And if not, hey, it’s just an iPhone. I can always buy another one.

Heartbreak and hope in Battambang

Apologies in advance – this is not a very neat or resolved post!

Cambodia was at times challenging for me. Laos was such a gentle welcome back to travel and life on the road in Asia after my trip home; the peaceful energy and kind people we encountered put me so at ease.

The atmosphere of Cambodia was intense by comparison. Roman and I both found it took more energy to process the experiences we had there and I definitely needed a while to find my emotional footing with the country. Once I did though, I found myself feeling more open and moved than I have yet on the trip (being really, truly present and emotionally connected has been one of the big challenges of this big trip), and for this, I’m grateful.

Battambang was the place my heart started to open to Cambodia. It had started to crack back in Kratie, opening to the dozens of smiles, waves and other greetings I received on my village walk, to the laughter and energy of the kids I met along the road. I’m not sure what let me be more present and open in Battambang, but the day we spent doing the bike tour my heart just felt so light, so present, so open.

It was easy to relax with Sum and Dollar – energetic, enthusiastic and genuine, they were easy to talk to and good company. Maybe the beauty of the places we visited just helped to take down my intellectual defences. Maybe the work I’ve been doing on myself, with Roman and on my own, to be kinder to myself, to worry less, to savor the “now” more is starting to pay off. Whatever the grace that allowed it, the day touring around Battambang was just magic and delight.

The biggest highlight for me was meeting a young girl at Wat Ek Phnom, a quiet, beautiful, ancient temple that Sum and Dollar took us to. They stayed at the entrance while Roman and I went to go explore.

Naid (not sure how her name is really spelled) started shadowing us, and eventually enticed me into the ruins where she enthusiastically pointed out fat geckos crouching suspiciously in cracks. She must have been about ten or so, skinny as a rail and full of life. She flitted around the massive stones of the falling-apart temple, chirping in musical, broken English like a sparrow, pointing out Gods and histories carved into the ancient rocks.

Roman and I have had a many discussion about the children we’ve encountered on our travels. The stance we’ve adopted is to never give begging kids money – we don’t want to support, encourage or condone the situations where adults (parents or otherwise) will choose to put kids on the street to sell cheap souvenirs or simply beg (something we saw frequently especially at Angkor). Holding to this position has meant keeping closed in many instances – looking away or dismissing the little hands and faces that have implored us to buy a bracelet or simply hand over a dollar.

(Tough sometimes yes but not always when you see the kids going from “crying” to laughing and horsing around the second they know they’re not going to get any money from you. Tougher is seeing the kids who aren’t begging, like the scrappy, barefooted children I saw digging through garbage for scraps outside the night market in Battambang.)

We weren’t sure if our lovely tour was coming free of charge, but I couldn’t help myself. I just fell in love with this precocious, precious little girl. When we were ready to leave, she did ask for money. We brought her back to the front with us to explain the situation to Dollar and ask his opinion. He agreed with us completely about not giving money to kids at the tourist spots and on the streets. He questioned Naid and for him it was clear that her story was true.

With Dollar’s translation, we were able to ask her questions about her life. The oldest of three siblings, her parents couldn’t afford to look after her and had sent her to stay with a relative and attend school in Battambang. She studied during the day but came to the temple every afternoon to show guests around and try to earn a bit of money for school and food (it’s a given that students have to bribe teachers on a regular basis in order to attend school in Cambodia). At the end we gave her double the very modest sum she had asked for and we left to our next destination.

She’s stayed with me though. That day I wanted to cry every time I thought of her, brave, bright and beautiful little soul. What will become of her? Who will look out for her if even her parents don’t have the resources to do so? I said prayer after prayer for her: “Please let her path through this life be safe. Please don’t let any of those awful things one reads about happen to her – rape, violence, prostitution. Please let her be protected. Please let her fulfill her dream of becoming a teacher.”

I shared some of my thoughts with Roman and he pointed out that I was looking at things from a very Western point of view – who was I to make any assumptions or value judgements about her life (something akin to the parable about the man trying to help the butterfly by cutting it out of its cocoon).

On an intellectual level I am sure he is right. On an emotional level though all I know is that something in me recognized and loves this little girl who I will probably never meet ever again, and for me that’s real and precious and part of the experience I have been seeking on this trip. I can’t make any more sense of it than that, but I’m so glad that I met her, and I’ll keep carrying those hopes and wishes for her around in my heart.

Photos from Wat Ek Phnom and our time with Naid

DSC 0880
The wat before the ruins

DSC 0883
Afternoon sun on the outer wall

DSC 0890
Naid invites me to come explore

DSC 0905

DSC 0915
Temple carvings

DSC 0919
Lovely Naid

DSC 0926
Pointing out some Sanskrit carvings

DSC 0929
Buddhist flags at the doorway

DSC 0931
Moon rise

Three miles of bad road: Day trip to Wat Phu

(I’m leaving off the back filling for a bit – this is a post about what we did yesterday.)

At the risk of sounding nerdy, I really enjoy history. Roman and I are lucky that we are getting to visit some amazing historical sites during this trip, and I love learning about and being able to imagine what daily life was like when these locations were at their height or why some building or person is historically significant. The red forts, the Taj, Mehrangarh and Hampi in India, Bagan in Myanmar have all been just fascinating to learn about.

But sometimes I want to set the dates, facts and names aside. Some places it’s enough just to be there – to see, to be with, to simply experience. To tap into and commune with the energy and mystery of the land and the layers of history that run through it.

Wat Phu, the temple ruins set on a hill in southern Laos, is such a place for me. It’s been a sacred place for multiple religions across the centuries and remains a place of worship today even as it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There’s a decent amount of information about it on the web if you are interested to learn more, but mostly I’ll just write from my perspective.

What I can tell you is that it is good-sized temple ruins spread up a beautiful, wooded hill with a lovely view of the valley stretching below. The ruins are centuries and centuries old. In its earlier history it was a temple dedicated to the Hindu god Shiva; in the 10th century it was a sacred space for the Buddhist Khmer empire.

The journey

We decided to rent a motorbike in the city where we are staying, Pakse, and do a day trip to the Wat. It had not been on our radar, but the monk we met in Vientiane and his friends all raved about the place and said we had to go see it (even though they’ve not been – but they’re from the area and it seems to be a source of regional pride).

We took the new road (it’s less than a year old and not yet quite finished) from Pakse to Champasak, the town that is host to the UNESCO site. The journey took about an hour and a half in one direction; mostly easy-going and a beautiful drive. Even the bits where we got off course or the road quality deteriorated were good fun.

There’s not much along the way between the two towns but it was a gorgeous drive. Roman soon found he prefered driving to being a passenger, so I hopped on back and was at liberty to enjoy the scenery and flirt to my heart’s content; waving at any friendly villager who smiled our called out “Sabaidee” as we passed (which was most of them).

We stopped to photograph water buffalo cooling themselves in mud puddles. In no time we needed to cool off too; hopping on the bike and zooming across the gentle bends of the road was welcome relief from the pounding sun.

The landscape and weather began to change as we traveled on; towering mountains of earth and clouds reflected in the still waters of the rice paddies that flanked our path. We could see the rain moving in, a sheet of soft grey straddling the mountain. At one point we drove through a refreshing shower, cool drops hitting my cheeks and lips like unexpected but welcome kisses, but I’m glad that we made it to Champasak by the time the real rain started.

We managed to park under the awning of someone’s front porch just as the skies opened up. I felt bad parking and sitting just in front of their house, but Roman assured me this worry about invasion of space was Western thinking, and of course he was right – the residents weren’t bothered in the slightest. The rain came down hard and heavy for about a half hour. Villagers took shelter or continued on their bikes, utterly soaked and squinting through the down pour. Young kids threw off their shirts and took advantage of the chance to cool down, running and playing through the streets.

The destination

Finally the rain abated, and we headed through the village to the ruins. They are stretched across a large area, starting with an ancient stone-lined road pointing the way up the hill to the main Wat. It’s a steep climb up weathered stone stairs with much beauty along the way, and we took our time and savored each step.

Although the precipitation stopped, the dark clouds remained, and deep, sonorous peals of thunder punctuated and accompanied our journey up the sacred hill. The air was thick with the song of hundreds of bugs, a constant and ceaseless mantra.

The hills are covered with rich vegetation – great flowering trees, vines, thick, vibrant green grasses. With only few other visitors to the site, it felt like we were entering the deepest jungle. The great stone steps and temple walls are being claimed by the plant life; flagstones are crooked where roots flow under and through them, tumbling walls begin to disappear under a cover of ferns and moss. The buddha statues and other sites show evidence of modern day worship; bundles of incense are secured under a vine and statues that have witnessed the passage of centuries are garlanded in bright, plastic flowers.

The place feels bigger than us but willing to hold us too; a place of worship for all, from the smallest ant to the gods older than mankind. The sacred cycles of nature – from ceaseless destruction of the man-made buildings over the years to the ephemeral adornment of flowers and leaves, perfect for a moment, before they fade – encompass the stumbling gestures of man like a mother taking a beloved child into her lap.

Suffice to say, the whole day was magical, and we absolutely loved Wat Phu. I’m still taking it in, so that’s all I’ll write for now – but here are some photos before I end the post. 🙂

The pictures

A panoramic shot of the view from the steep, stone steps, shaded by magnificent leelawadee trees at Wat Phu. Click for a closer look.

DSC 0361

Some very happy, very muddy buffalo

DSC 0374

Sun and shadow, mountains and rice fields

DSC 0368

The rain approaches

DSC 0380

Heavy drops fall into muddy puddles, Champasak

DSC 0423

Approaching Wat Phu

DSC 0435

No entry – a girl plays where restoration work is being done to some of the structures in the site

DSC 0441

DSC 0457

Butterfly landing on a fallen frangipani bloom

DSC 0571

Headless statues, incense sticks

DSC 0474

Incense and flowers in a tree

DSC 0484

Overgrown walls, mountain views

DSC 0489

Steps and roots

DSC 0498

Jungle Buddha

DSC 0500

Temple detail

DSC 0511

Making miniature stupas out of banana leafs and flowers – an offering

Snapshots: Backwards from Bangkok

I’ve decided to do my Thailand notes in reverse order, which means I get to start with today. Tonight I fly to a new country, Laos, to meet Roman, but I’ve already had a few lovely hours up and about in Bangkok, taking a morning constitutional before breakfast. Jet lag got me up early and as soon as it was light enough, I walked from my hotel to Lumphini Park for some easy jogging. I found the place packed with people and activity, even before 7am. Here are some snapshots.
Walking to the park in the early morning, the streets between Chidlom and Lumphini were still peaceful, although not quite abandoned. I shared smiles with vendors opening up their street stalls for the day, construction workers heading to a job and even one barefooted, mustard-colored robed monk with his begging bowl. I enjoyed the smell of a big bamboo basket of jasmine rice being steamed on a concrete brazier filled with glowing coals and set on the sidewalk. I admired the pluck of a ballsy street tom-cat begging at a food cart, and getting rewarded with some scraps of meat. Even shortly after the sun had risen, the air was lush and moist. Some blocks were filled with the smell of flowers drifting from small courtyards – if I’d closed my eyes I could have imagined I’d been transported to the inside of a tropical green house instead of walking along a big city street lined with sky scrapers.
By the time I reached the park it was already filled with thousands of people. Many of them were there for a spot of exercise before the day got too hot.
Older women with perfect, shiny red talons, faces full of make up and bouffant hair sprayed to within an inch of its life gracefully moved through Tai Chi sequences.
Wiry Thai men without an ounce of body fat sweat as they jogged along the broad pathways.
Grown children took their elderly parents out for some fresh air, slowly pushing a wheel chair or patiently keeping pace with the shuffle of swollen, aged feet.
Various big groups of people followed the aerobics moves of a perky instructor talking into a microphone.
There was an elegant martial arts practice or two, complete with long wooden staffs.
Bunches of women practiced traditional dances, their red and white paper fans glowing as they caught the occasional ray of sun that filtered through the trees and filling the air with a sound like one hundred clapping hands as they open and shut.
Yoga mats were spread on blankets spread on the grass, being pushed into the earth by folks grounding through their downward facing dog poses.
Some did work outs using the park’s simple machines while others used the benches, fences, piers or grass as their equipment for stretching and strength training.
Other people were there for less ambitious reasons. Old biddies sat at tables in the shade for an outdoor breakfast, pouring each other steaming cups of tea from metal thermoses and doling out plates of food as they gossiped together. Some people napped on park benches or watched all the passing activity. Elderly men perused newspapers. As I left the park, I could see some folks were also there for their morning shopping.
Outside the park, a temporary market had been set up. A few beggars with missing or withered limbs supplicated to shoppers in the space between the park gates and the tightly packed stalls. Clothes, food, accessories and a whole host of other things were on offer. Mystery meat, fruit and other foods abounded, some definitely looking more appetizing than others even when I had not a clue what they were. I caught whiffs of durian, spring onions, fried eggs. The huge chunks of massive grouper, stacks of rubber-banded blue and grey crabs and buckets of light peach shrimp were so fresh that there was no smell at all by those stands. A bit early in the day for me for all that food, but it was still wonderfully interesting to see.
The park itself was much more verdant and lush than the last time I was there, overflowing with orchids and other flowers, palms bearing berries, massive trees crowned in thick, deep green canopies. I was happy to see the amazing, huge monitor lizards again, sunning their long bodies (some of them are over 5 feet!) or swimming lazily through the park’s ponds. Sparrows and mynah birds flitted about and bathed in large puddles left behind by the heavy night rains that had trespassed into my dreaming.
Other bits and pieces I want to remember:
Fresh garlands of flowers on top of dried out blooms and weather-faded ribbons looped around sacred trees and small shrines.
The stubs of hundreds used incense sticks jammed into the knot of a tree.
The bloody chops of chicken I passed at a street stall on my way into the park that had been fried into golden brown bits of breakfast by the time I started to head back to the hotel.
The beautiful brown-shelled snails making their home on the wall of a construction site.
The sweet little black cats that live outside my hotel that were snoozing under the potted plants on the stairs as I left for the park.
How willingly and happily most of the people smiled back at me when I smiled first.

Past due

Many of the things I had expected from our time in Delhi – productive blog posting for one – didn’t turn up in the end. 🙂 We spent just over two weeks there. I’d had visions of all sorts of activities, but ended up being laid up by a potent and lingering chest cold, circumstance and inertia. The primary purpose of our time there was to support my friend Ritu and that I think we managed to do that well, so it’s all good.

Beyond that, our third (my fourth) stay in Delhi comprised mostly eating tons of excellent, home-cooked food, lots of relaxation (sometimes enforced – as an invalid in a household with five women, I got mothered a lot and got to try out Indian home remedies like pure ginger juice tempered with honey – hotcha!), a bit of retail therapy and time with Ritu and her family.

One big highlight for me was the puja that was held at the house the day before we left. Ritu arranged for the family priest from the local temple to come by to perform a private ritual of blessing for the house and its inhabitants (us included. :-)). He was a very sweet, little old man who has apparently been doing pujas for the family for decades.

The ceremony was simple but lovely. The priest prepares a space on the floor with all the implements of the ceremony – fire, oil, incense. Food, flowers and money that are symbolically sacrificed to the deities invoked. The priest is singing mantras during the whole thing; at certain points we were to join in and it felt SO great when suddenly I recognized the Gayatri mantra from my yoga practice and could sing along. It has been months since I last chanted anything and boy did it make me hungry for some yoga practice. 🙂 (Hopefully not too much longer till I get onto a mat!)

At other times during his chanting, he would give us rice or mithai (sweets) in our right hand which we would then need to offer up to the gods invoked, or we would have to throw a mixture of (if I remember correctly), grain and spices into a fire. During the second half of the puja, he wound red string around each of our wrists – a blessing to carry on from the ceremony. After it was all said and done, the house was full of sacred smoke – we had to set the fans to high and open all the doors and windows and it still took ages to clear. The priest was pleased though – now the house was thoroughly blessed. 😉

There’s more to write about Delhi and other things, but the new day is calling and we have lots we want to see. 🙂

Just to get completely caught up before I go, we’ve left India’s capital now and I am writing this from the private rooftop terrace of our hotel in Mumbai. It’s an overcast, quiet Sunday morning and my only company is a mob of crows who are performing their morning ablutions in a nearby pan of water or are otherwise just sitting about curiously glaring at me. 🙂 We only have a weekend in Mumbai. So far I am really loving it – and will try to write more about it later. 🙂

Photos from the puja
DSC_0085.JPG
Implements for the ritual – fruit, oil, flowers, the grain substance we burned
DSC_0102.JPG
Fruit, money, rice; water to bless it with
DSC_0099.JPG
String tying
DSC_0093.jpg
DSC_0112.jpg
Handing out mithai (from our favorite, Bengali Sweets! 🙂 )
DSC_0127.JPG
Marigolds
DSC_0139.JPG
Adding oil to the fire
DSC_0149 - Version 2.jpg
After the ceremony; hands and feet

Snap shots from our travels in Uttarakhand

We went to Ramnagar because of the easy access to the Corbet National Park,  a large, beautiful wildlife preserve just a 15 minute drive from town. It’s home to well over 100 tigers plus deer, monkeys, bears and tons of different bird species. We stayed at two different hotels: first the waaay overpriced Hotel Corbett Kingdom (after the bus ride I wasn’t willing to be picky 😉 ) and then the much-more-fun Motel Corbett.

Hotel Corbett Kingdom

  • The hotel dining room was just bizarrely tacky, with very poor lighting, wonderfully hideous fake plants everywhere, a good sized, elaborate buffet set up but completely devoid of food, and a waiter who had no qualms telling us all the items on the menu that we couldn’t order (Me: I’d like palak paneer please. Waiter: No ma’am. Me: Okay, um, in that case, I’ll take alloo gobi. Waiter: No ma’am – and so on. 😉 )
  • The hotel was partially under construction and we woke in the morning to the sound of drills and hammers coming from the rooms down the hall. It was the weirdest sensation – the smell of wet paint in the air is the first thing since I’ve been in India that has strongly and viscerally reminded me of the west. Specifically, for some reason it made me think immediately of Manhattan?? Funny and very random! 🙂

Motel Corbett

  • Much cheaper than the first hotel, this place was lovely – set in a grove of mango trees, half the rooms were actually tents! There was a simple but great restaurant with some tables set out under the trees. As far as we could figure, there was an outdoor Tandoori oven – our first afternoon there we went out and there was a thick, fragrant layer of smoke hanging over the outdoor tables coming from a small building next to the kitchen. The food at this place was great!
  • Lovely was waking up in the tent in the pitch dark to go on safari the first morning. Just five minutes after my alarm had roused us, we heard the call to prayer start from first one, then two and three different mosques in the city. A sound both beautiful and somehow eerie, but I loved the thought of people so devoted to their beliefs that they would start their day at that dark hour giving time and attention to God. I have practiced yoga Sadhana that early in the day a few times in my life and it is incredible, to start the day with so much peace, intention and inspiration.
  • There were some lovely, sweet dogs living at the hotel including a couple of older puppies. One female dog, a mutt, spent some time following us around. She was different shades of brown and had the most beautiful, melt-your-heart golden eyes.

DSC_0346.JPG

Tents among the trees at Motel Corbett

DSC_0136.JPG

Yummy veg pakoras – just one of many delightful things eaten there

Corbett National Park

  • The subsequent safari was also great. The feeling of cold air on our faces as we drove in the open jeep into the park, the smell of green everywhere, the transition from grey morning to bright day – all that I just loved. It was incredible as well to see such clean streams and paths after all the gulleys and streets congested with trash everywhere else in India.
  • We didn’t see any tigers, but we did have some evidence of the big cats. Plenty of tracks along the water and at one point across a valley we could hear a peacock calling out in warning; our guide said that it was likely he had spotted a tiger. We did see three different types of deer, two species of monkeys (cool to see them in trees rather than ambling along rooftops in the cities), many different types of birds and tons of termite hills – apparently a favorite place for bears in the park to snack.
  • Along the jeep path there was evidence of many small fires – cold ashes and blackened rocks. The guide told me this is where the park rangers would stop and make their tea during their rounds.

Travel in Uttarakhand

  • The first bus driver was a young Sikh in jeans and an ancient wife beater. He was a stoic driver, calm and quite, intermittently chewing on tobacco and constantly skipping between tracks of incredibly loud Punjabi music blasting from the jerry-rigged speakers at the front of the bus (directly in front of us 😉 ).
  • We passed through numerous villages on the bus ride from Haridwar to Kashipur. Dirty, dusty and not always attractive were these places and the roads that connected them but the women were amazing, like exotic flowers in vibrantly colored saris and salwar kameez. The contrast was lovely to see.
  • At one point during the bus ride I looked down at the side of the road and saw the carcases of an adult and two young cows (perhaps buffalo?). They had been skinned completely so there was just flesh and bone. Strange, like cuts of meat at the grocery store only these were the entire animals. There were crows sitting on them, picking at the flesh. I’ve seen dead horses, dogs and pigs since being in India but they were just ‚standard’ road kill and I know that cows are sacred here… so I wonder what the story was with these cows.
  • From the train: Thousands upon thousands of dung patties laid out and stacked against each other to dry in the sun. They are used for fuel. Striking on some of them to see the hand print in the middle were they were last pressed into shape; some sort of anonymous signature.
  • From the train: First ever glimpses of water buffalo actually in water – it was a pond covered in green and they were in it up to their broad, black shoulders; you couldn’t see anything below because of the algae. Beautiful.
  • On the train: A man with a handgun and extra bullets in a holster on his belt (!!). His was the top bunk in the sleeper compartment across from us. He lay up there people watching for a while and I tried not to feel nervous about it. After a while he tired of lying in the small space; he climbed down and in body language asked if he could sit on my bench with me by the window. I smiled a welcome of course – you don’t say no to a man with a gun! 😉