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Archive for April, 2011

Keep the Good Signs Coming

As evidenced by the extra tab on top, I love the signs in India. On my recent travels I’ve picked up a few more and they are all posted on the ‘Amazing Signage’ page.

But I’m posting my two favorites here:

Who wants to go swimming at a beach with crocodiles?

Are we feeling better now that we know someone Dutch is supervising?

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I have to confess that I’ve never really known a lot about Sikhs. I hadn’t really taken the time to understand what made a Sikh different from other Indians. I knew that their men wore turbans to keep up the hair they never cut; I knew they had wanted an independent state; I knew that separatists took over the Golden Temple and were killed in a violent military campaign in the 1980s. In response, two Sikh bodyguards had killed Indira Ghandi for revenge and then subsequently thousands upon thousands of Sikhs were murdered in Delhi and across India.

But with all this I didn’t know anything about the religion. So before we went to the Golden Temple, the most holy Sikh shrine, and the site of that terrible siege, I decided to read up. Sikhism is actually a combination of Hinduism and Islam that began in the 15th century as a rejection of caste and idolatry. Sikhs believe in reincarnation and karma, like Hindus, but they worship only one god, like Muslims. I liked the concept already.

Golden Temple at night

But by going to the Golden Temple I really felt like I got a sense of what Sikhism was about, and I have to say it impressed me.

Obviously the most inspiring and attention-grabbing element of going to the Golden Temple is the structure itself – inside a large rectangular wall-like building sits a lake, and in the lake is a temple made of marble and gold (750kg of gold in total). We went both at night and during sunrise and at both times the temple itself shone like the sun. Especially at sunrise, when the rising sun hit it directly, you almost couldn’t even look straight at it. It was incredible. As you go closer you notice the detail – the marble base and interiors were inlaid with stones set in beautiful and intricate patterns. A door leading into the temple is made entirely of silver. Painted frescos cover every inch inside. The mastery of skill that it must have taken to build the structure is staggering.

But once beyond the physical structure, I noticed that there were many elements that were different in visiting a Sikh temple than other temples or mosques across India. First, we were completely welcome everywhere. We paid nothing to get in, we were not barred from any place and we could go and do as we pleased. Most historical and religious sites have fees to enter and require that foreigners not pass through certain areas. The Sikhs didn’t seem to mind if we went in as far as we wanted – we could even watch as men prayed from their holy book. It was an incredibly spiritual place, alive with singing over loudspeakers and hundreds of worshipers praying day in and day out; and we were invited to take it all in.

Cooking food for everyone at the Golden Temple

Secondly, this kindness and acceptance of strangers extended to their own people – every Sikh temple is encouraged to serve food to the poor, and the communal kitchen at the Golden Temple is a sight unto itself. Huge vats full of dal and chai are stirred over large fires. Large buckets full of utensils sit next to steel boxes loaded with plates or bowls. And inside a large hall dozens of people sat eating meals at any given time of day. Even we were encouraged heartily to eat or drink chai if we desired. There was a donation box but no one asked us for money or indicated we were required to give a contribution. It was not something you see everyday.

I still wouldn’t claim to know much about Sikhism – but having seen the beauty of their holiest site and the acceptance of others within its walls I’m certainly glad I came to know a bit more.

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There are days when I feel like I understand India. And then there are days where I sit agape, wondering how on earth I came to live in this country.

The sign near the border

Yesterday was one of the latter days. We had arrived in Amritsar in Punjab and decided to make our way to the Wagah Border to watch the evening border closing between India and Pakistan. We’d heard it was a spectacle not to be missed and so we left our hotel early to get good seats.  I knew the scenery was changing when I saw a sign letting me know that Lahore was only 23 kilometers away (apparently, before partition Lahore was part of Punjab with a thriving Hindu and Sikh community. After partition the non-Muslims fled the West and the Muslims fled East).

We approached the border and were swarmed by a sea of hawkers – this was not a solemn or serious occasion. We could buy DVDs, Indian flags or popcorn. We made our way through an immense crowd, in and out of security checkpoints and on to the ‘VIP’ entrance. Apparently being a foreigner makes us VIP. The Indians want anyone not from their country to have an excellent view when they put Pakistan to shame.

The inda crowd

We walked into a stadium that was already full an hour before the ceremony began. We took our seats as a bus was crossing from the India side to the Pakistan side – the Indians in the crowd cheered and waved.   The Indian guards in their fantastical fan-shaped hats stood stoically, trying to keep the crowd under control.

I looked to the left and saw Pakistan – they also had a stadium but it was mostly empty.  I kept wanting more of a glimpse; I wanted to somehow understand India’s neighbor from across the gate.

Running with the flags

As we waited we got a preview of how silly the whole ceremony would be.  They started a relay race with large Indian flags. Children ran giddily, gripping the flags. For some children the flags proved too heavy – and when even an edge of the flag touched the ground the guards would sternly chastise them and take the flag away, handing it off to the next participant. As music blared I started to notice that the Pakistan side was coming together. They too were playing music and someone was waving a flag around. As time went on both sides of the music grew louder and louder, as though diplomatic superiority could be ascertained by the decibel of sound blaring.

Dancing to Jai Ho

As the time grew nearer we were treated to a round of India’s favorite song – ‘Jai Ho’, which Americans know as the song at the end of Slumdog Millionaire – and a spontaneous dance party.  While the guards were blowing their whistles at anyone standing they seemed completely okay with the dozens upon dozens of women who had come down to the center to dance as vigorously and excitedly as they possibly could, as though their dancing could drown out the sound of Pakistan’s music.

Marching guards

But then it was time to begin. The eccentrically festooned guards marched into a line, legs kicking and hands saluting. They then began a call – it just sounded like someone seeing how long they could make a sound without taking another breath – that was immediately replicated on the Pakistan side. Indians cheered; Pakistanis cheered. I really couldn’t make out that it was anything more than a contest of lung capacity.

I looked over to the Pakistan side, which by now was mostly full. The men and women were separated on either side of their stadium. But I was struck with how similar the Pakistani women looked to the Indian women. Where I expected to see a sea of black, instead I saw mostly colorful saris and kurtas. Most of their heads were covered, unlike on the India side, but I wouldn’t have been able to easily differentiate the crowd. It was strange to see a place that we read about so often in a negative context or hear of as a place of danger. At that moment they seemed just like the Indians that they used to be so close to.

Flags lowering, with Pakistan in the background

The absurdity continued with long high-stepping and fast paced marching.  It was like something you’d see in an over-acted Gilbert and Sullivan spectacular. Their movements were so highly choreographed and theatrical I wondered how they did it every day with a straight face.

The gates between the two countries were opened so each side could furiously untie their flag rope, as though doing it faster than the other was another sign of dominance.  As the flags came down both sides tried to drown out the other with their cheers.  And then, with a flourish, the gate was slammed shut as hard as they could do it.

As we walked out I saw a sign proclaiming: “Welcome to India, the World’s Largest Democracy.” There would always be another opportunity to try and make the Pakistanis feel inferior. I’m not sure which side ‘won’ (or whether anyone could actually win at a display of complete silliness), but I certainly enjoyed the effort.

(I didn’t get a great video of it, but here’s a link to a good one if anyone wants to witness the craziness:)

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When you’re out of breath, it doesn’t take a lot to take your breath away. But coming over the hill on the hike to Triund and seeing the snow-capped mountains of the Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas would certainly have had that effect on anyone.

A view from above of Dharamsala

I had arrived in Dharamsala the day before and stepping off the airplane was like entering another universe after time in Mumbai. Instead of the oppressive, dusty heat I was hit in the face with cool, crisp air and a view of mountains all around me. Everything was clean, the trees and flowers had changed from tropical to mountainous, and the people were no longer mostly Indian.

Dharamsala is most well known for being the home of the Dalai Lama and over 35,000 Tibetan refugees (number according to the Dalai Lama’s website), who moved here following the 1960 takeover of Tibet. The Tibetan government operates here in exile. Everything here feels far more Tibetan than Indian – Tibetan faces, Tibetan temples, Tibetan food, Tibetan prayer flags every way you turn. Monks in bright crimson robes walk past the backpackers and tourists without so much as a thought. When the Dalai Lama and his followers left the real Tibet they certainly created a convincing version here in India.

But beyond the cultural experience the most notable part of a visit to Dharamsala is the Himalayas – towering above the city, the Dhauladhar range of the Himalayas is a good layman’s viewpoint. Dharamsala boasts the ‘easiest’ hike to a Himalyan snow-line and we wanted to experience the world’s greatest mountain range.

A view of the mountains on the climb up

We set off in the morning with a rag-tag crew: myself and my two friends; a friend from Mumbai who also happened to be here this weekend with her friend; a guy I’d met at the airport; and a group of three we’d encountered at dinner.  Everyone wanted to hike and we figured we’d all take it in together. We began hiking and I was keen to not stay at the back of the pack – I am obviously not the best or most experienced hiker and I was worried from the get-go about rocky terrain and high elevation.

Hiking up!

But we moved slowly, taking in the scenery and stopping to gaze out at the beautiful view as we climbed higher and higher. At a few points along the way there were chai stalls where we could stop and have a break. We walked up and up – we started to feel we were getting close when we encountered a a snow covered area. My legs were starting to feel a bit like jelly but I wanted to continue on.

A few of us with our first snow sighting!

As the elevation grew and the slope became steeper I started to hope that the top was close. I wasn’t sure how much longer I could balance myself on varying rocks along the way and climb up. But just as I started to wonder how much further I’d have to go, I came over the top and saw the snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas.

The sign letting us know wed arrived

We were at Triund, 2,827 meters above sea level. And the view in front of us was like something out of a postcard. I think I audibly gasped. One minute we had been climbing and then suddenly, there it was. Every step had been worth the journey.

A shop at the top of the hill was happy to sell us more chai and some noodles. The two men who ran it lived on Triund 10 months out of the year in nothing but a small hut. I wondered how they managed. A few dogs ran around, happily enjoying their surroundings. How could they not? It was as though we had escaped the rest of the world and all there was was the sight of the Himalayas.

The Himalayas and a happy dog

Eating our very well-deserved noodles

We could have gone further up to the snow-line, but clouds started coming in quickly and we decided that our view was quite spectacular enough. I had to admit I was relieved- as much as I’d wished they would, I wasn’t sure my legs would carry me up much further.

We came back down and had a hot bowl of Tibetan noodle soup. I felt victorious – we’d achieved what we’d set out to do. And beyond that it gave me a greater context to the Tibetan culture and their home away from home. I may not be able to comprehend the depth of their plight, but I do know one thing now: if you had to find a new home for a spiritual movement, this would certainly be an inspiring place.

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The Simple Things

It’s always the simple things in life that you take for granted. And luckily (or unluckily) for me, I get a constant reminder of that in my day-to-day life here.

A few days ago I found myself in need of labels. Nothing fancy, just a few names and addresses printed out on sticky labels to then put onto some envelopes.

In my previous life this would be a simple task – either I would print them out at my office or I could pop over to Kinkos and have it done in five minutes. This, clearly, was not in the cards for me with these labels.

I started by asking Daniel. That should have solved it – he has an assistant and everything! But, lo and behold, Daniel’s Indian assistant has actually been outsourced to Chennai and therefore couldn’t print anything personal for him. The world is indeed a strange place.

So I began calling printing companies. My conversations went mostly like this:

Me: Hello, I’m calling because I want to print out some labels. Can you do that?
Them: Hold on

(wait for ten minutes and then a new person arrives)

Them: Hello? Why you calling?
Me: I want to print labels.
Them: What?
Me: Labels
Them: What is label?
Me: A sticky thing with an address printed on it.
Them: Called a what?
Me: A label.
Them:What is a label?
Me: Like I said, it’s a sticky piece of paper with an address printed on it.
Them: Who are you?
Me: My name is Ali
Them: Where you calling from?
Me: Bandra
Them: Why you are calling?
Me: Again, I’m calling about labels. LABELS
Them: Hold on

You then wait another ten minutes, have the same conversation again with a different person (who is equally confused by the concept of labels) until finally someone says:

Them: We don’t do
Me: Is there anyone you know of who can?
Them: Yes, call this number

Of course, the cycle then continues because the next person I called did the same thing, and the subsequent ten places all were equally as non-committal on the subject of labels. Finally I was put in touch with a man named Mr. Desai who said I should just come to his office.

I went with a friend of mine who was in town and we walked around a parking lot and pile of trash with goats surrounding it until we found Mr. Desai’s office.

A still-in-use printer

It was like we were transported back in time. The roof of the office consisted of sheets of metal with patches of light streaming through the various holes and cracks. The room was dark and dingy with floors so coated in dust our shoes made small footprints when we walked. Mr. Desai sat at a desk with piles of dusty old ledgers, like an Indian Ebeneezer Scrooge staring into his calculator. And in the corner stood a printer that looked closer to Johann Gutenberg’s era than Kinkos. It was absurd.

 

“You have emailed to me your file?” Mr Desai said slowly, unsure of his English.
“Yes,” I replied, indicating that I’d sent it to the email address he’d given me on the phone. But, of course, there was no computer in sight, so I wasn’t quite sure how this was all going to be accomplished.
“Excellent. It will only be a minute. You sure you want it sticky?” he said, as though I might be confused by the concept of what I needed.
“Yes, it needs to be sticky,” I responded simply.
“Acha, Okay,” he said, and then went back to his ledgers.

We sat and waited. I was so grateful I had someone with me because as the minutes ticked on it seemed like we might be there for hours.

Forty-five minutes after arriving, a man walked in the store, triumphantly holding papers above his head. They weren’t quite labels, but they were addresses printed on paper that would stick, and that was all I needed.

They were labels, India-style.

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Sometimes words are not enough.

That’s how I feel about the last 24 hours – after all the excitement, all the buildup and all the anticipation India won the Cricket World Cup right here at home in Mumbai. The city exploded. Fans flooded into the streets. Cheers could be heard until the morning. Bollywood’s biggest star, Shahrukh Khan came out in his car and Bandra was suddenly an excitable mob scene.

The next day, we happened to walk into the Taj Hotel for tea and lo and behold – the entire cricket team was leaving. It was pure chaos – fans shrieked and shouted and pushed and shoved just for a chance to touch their team and their god, Sachin Tendulkar, holding the cricket world cup. And we got it all on video. Incredible.

What a case of the right place at the right time. The right city for the world’s biggest event of the moment. The right hotel to actually see the players. And only photos and videos to even begin to explain it. Go India!:

Shahruk Khan waving the flag

Waving flags on Carter road

People standing on a public bus

The ecstatic crowd at the Taj as the players left

Sachin Tendulkar with the actual World Cup

Daniel and I with our very own India shirts

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