Monday, March 30, 2009


Madam, your eyes are blue...Why?

The duststorm turned to rainstorm and left us (through thunder and lightning) in the shelter of a mechanics/autoparts shop, delighted with the heavy raindrops of the pre-monsoon that were all in such a rush to get out of the sky. It lightens and we try to convince the men in the shop they should come take a look at the huge rainbow that has appeared over the empty road, conveying rainbow through charades. They look at us with tired eyes and don't get up.

The narrow streets are now partly rivers and we wade our way through the brown water on our way to the Dargah Shareef (shrine for the Sufi saint Moinuddin Chishti). Everything looks better with its layer of dust washed off and everybody's full of water smiles, including us. In the dargah complex we are led around by a "priest-man of famous Sufi family - Fukhr". We buy a basket of pink roses and yellow marigolds and try to crowd our way into the shrine. We are Sufi pilgrims again and are all pushed up next to the others on all sides. We cross through the intricately carved and painted archway where a neon glowing Urdu word hangs like a tacky restaurant sign above a beautiful gold crescent moon. Inside the shrine a man on top of the tomb takes our basket, hands us each a handful of flowers and says "now throw the flowers". We join the others in throwing pink and yellow petals into the air and I imagine the massive flower economy all in order to throw flowers over a tomb for a guy who died almost 800 years ago. Pure awesomeness. (We've decided flowers are second after female clothing and accessories in the list of the main goods driving the domestic economy, with chai and mobile recharge coming up behind.) The Flowerman throws a green prayer cloth over our heads without warning, puts one hand on each of our heads and rattles off a minute prayer in what I assume was Urdu, tells us to watch out for our wallets and mobiles, and sends us on our way. We are pleased with our blessing and bump back and forth happily in the small room, where there is more human than space, until we are spit out into another courtyard. We are lucky travellers again and catch the last twenty minutes of a Qawwali performance: one man with a harmonium and around twelve singers. Dotting the periphery of the courtyard people in trances cling to the shrine's wall, wail and shake their head around. Whoa.

We are interviewed: Your country? America. Are you Christian or Muslim? Neither. To which religion you belong? Um. None. Your caste? No caste. Good night uncle.

We go home by cycle rickshaw, the most pleasant form of transport in the cool night air, and one that's come to seem amazingly normal. The streets are filled with electronic music and we ask our rickshaw driver what's going on - he starts dancing while biking, turns around and says party! We saw it start in the afternoon with a parade that had a disturbing number of Hindu gods and teenage boys in sequins for being a political parade: lessons in sectarian politics and Hindu nationalism. We decide there are too many gyrating young men for us to get anywhere near and besides, we've already discovered that Juno is playing on StarMovies.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Golden Temple, Sikh gurdwara, Amritsar, Punjab

We are pilgrims of pilgrims. We sleep in the temple like they do, but we are mostly there for them. We sleep in the foreign tourists dorm, on a plywood bed the length of the long room. It's full of us and it's the quietest sleepover I have ever been to. Outside our room hundreds of bodies sleep like sardines on the white marble, filling the courtyard. I carefully step over them, making my way to the bathroom. They are not poor, they just want to be there, and the thousand-and-some-odd rooms are already brimming with families. At 4:30 most of them are already gone, off to see the holy book come out of its palanquin-crib for the day. Good morning book.

In the 24-hour donation-run mess hall we are taken one hundred or so
at a time into hallways, a metal plate and water bowl thrust into our hands on the way. Water, chapathi, daal, and sweet milk rice are distributed rapidly from buckets. Eat, more, eat. And we are all off again, down the stairs, and each dish and spoon is passed down an assembly line of people reaching, at the end, rows of long sinks and hundreds of volunteer dishwashers. The cleaning creates a rhythmic clattering that almost eclipses the chanting that is broadcasted across the temple complex and into the town. The entire periphery of the mess hall is filled with people sitting cross-legged on the floor, hands busily peeling and chopping garlic, onions and
ginger. The temple itself is glittery gold and packed at all hours of the day with people making offerings, praying and chanting with the man on the microphone. Along the "pool of nectar" (holy water, complete with big orange goldfish) people snap photos, dunk themselves, and fill up plastic waterbottles to bring some of the holy nectar home. Our last rickshaw driver in Delhi told us to remember to bring a water bottle to steal some nectar. I thought he was crazy, but I guess you never know when you need some all-healing water.

Monday, March 23, 2009


In Delhi we ended up staying with a friend of a friend, Takahiro, who to me was actually a few more steps removed, but who graciously opened his South Delhi door for us and is now a friend. We spent our third day in Old Delhi where we paraded around the Jama Masjid in floral patterned velcro burqas that were forced on us even though we were perfectly covered up, marveled like good tourists at the super impressive Mughal architecture, and shared a meal with an old adorable granny who insisted that we try all her dishes. We meandered all afternoon through the winding alleyways that fulfilled all their promise of being chaotic bazaars. At the end of it all we squeezed (literally) our way through the worst and most amazing traffic I've ever seen - a tangle of bicycles, cycle-rickshaws and human-pulled wood carts overloaded with canvas sacks of things like dried red chillies or enormous cardboard boxes and a million honking motorcycles - and into an incredibly modern metro system.. It's amazing that India is moving right along with the modern age but losing nothing to history...there are just enough people to have it all going on.

That night Tak took us to a part of town called Nizamuddin, where there is a Sufi shrine to Saint Nizamuddin. The shrine is at the end of a long miniature stone alley bursting with person-sized shops displaying bright green religious accessories and brown baskets of bright pink roses for offering. We offered some roses and sat on the floor in the shrine, chatted with some aunties who within 5 minutes had invited us to stay with them in Bangalore, got blessed by a man with what seemed like a beautiful, large cloth duster, and were given some consecrated sugar-coated crunchies. After a while two men sat down and began singing and chanting and playing the harmonium. It was qawwali, a form of Sufi devotional music. We had thought we weren't going to get to see it because it was Wednesday, and it is performed there every Thursday. Hooray! After the shrine we went to eat delicious kebabs and biriyani at a daytime tire shop turned barbecue restaurant at night. Kebabs and tires, yes!

Sunday, March 22, 2009

saree homestay

tea stall
Originally uploaded by helen beeson
The streets of Old City Hyderabad are packed with women in full burqas shopping up a storm. Sarees with elaborate designs of sequins and fake gems (that look tacky and like they are mass produced by machine but are actually hand-sewn by men on the second story of the market) line the streets of Hyderabad along with gold and fake diamond bangles and sparkly high heels. We decided to take part in the madness and asked a few people where we could get used sarees. We were lead through a long winding series of alleyways into an entirely different marketplace and shuffled into a shop. An oldish man promptly had us sit down on the floor cushions and began to unfold and throw saree after saree (which are 6 meters of fabric) across the small room (and our laps), all the while dribbling betel-nut juice out of his mouth full of red-brown teeth. After a long overwhelming time, we made it out of the store with two sarees, one bright pink with green embroidery (mine) and one blue with christmas tinsel flowers (lauren's). Then we had to get the necessary accessories: petticoats and cholis (blouses). Petticoats! Petticoats were easy to come by but it took us a little while to find the readymade choli store. The man at the store laughed hysterically at lauren's color choice (yellow), almost refusing and saying adamantly that it didn't match and looked terrible. Not knowing our sizes we were shuffled up the small staircase into a lovely little home, complete with a blind grandmother smothering herself with coconut oil and five or six other women sitting around, sewing and chatting. We tried on the cholis, the women made some minor adjustments and then we made it clear to the two sisters that we had no idea how to put on our sarees. They scolded us for not having perfectly matching petticoats (with hardly any english) and wrapped our sarees, spinning us around and tucking and pinning all over the place. We tucked our other clothes in our bags and walked out to the room full of aunties who smiled and laughed at seeing white girls in sarees. In the morning we put them on ourselves and proudly walked out of our room only to encounter the cleaning lady whose hands flew to her face in horror and amusement. "Is okay?" we asked, nonono she shook her head laughing. She refolded and repinned us both, and afterwards our sarees looked almost indiscernably different to us. It turned out we did not fit in more in sarees, much much less actually, and it felt a lot like walking around in Oakland in a prom dress. I had also been harboring the illusion that being draped in 6 meters of fabric would be comfortable, and now I'm even more impressed that women wear sarees everywhere - they sleep on trains in them, they clean in them, they do construction in them, they carry ten trees on their heads in them, etc, etc. It was an amazing way to interact with regular women who otherwise wouldn't approach us on the street: our sarees were adjusted throughout the day be various women who volunteered to help, holding pins in their mouth and worrying about strangers seeing anything. It was like adopting short-term mothers all over the city! Wonderful.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Dawn Party

The tip of the subcontinent: Kanyakumari, Tamil Nadu

It is two hours before dawn in Kanyakumari and I wake up to what sounds like a teenage party, with yelling and blasting music. I get up to reprimand but come to the sleepy realization that everyone in the entire hotel is awake, the pre-party is in full swing, I am wrong - it is not the middle of the night, it is morning - and it's time to put on our sunday best and go to the party. The grey morning is delightfully cool (babies are in ski masks - we figure that's how they retrain their internal thermometers from an early age - and people are shivering) and hundreds (maybe over a thousand) people await the auspicious event - sunrise over the turbulent convergence of the three seas. School kids in uniform on a field trip line up against the wall, teenagers eye each other, and everybody stands around drinking chai from the bicycle chai-wallas and snapping photos with their cell phones. Vendors selling plastic shell junk and the Indian equivalent of dollar stores line the streets. It feels like a blend of the Santa Cruz County Fair and Venice Beach, but then morning pujas are performed at small shrines and brightly colored sarees and dupattas blow in the wind and the whole crowd is cheering and clapping when the sun finally peaks over the cumulous clouds in the distance. Cheering for the sunrise! I love this country!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Allapuzha, Kerala

Originally uploaded by helen beeson
Having seen advertisements for an overpriced "village stay in an authentic keralan village" we decide, incorrectly, that maybe there will be an entrepreneurial family in the same village that will let us sleep in their living room with them for much less. We take a ferry ride up the maze of palm-lined waterways, spying on life in the villages that dot the levies dividing the sunken electric-green rice paddies. The afternoon ferry is full of school-children (the only kind of children you see in Kerala, impressively) and one young boy is writing page after page in a journal. The waterways are lined with red flags bearing either the hammer and sickle or Che Guevara. Once in Chennemkary, we discover we are wrong and get treated like idiots by a man who clearly takes most of the profit from the homestay, but we decide two hours in the village will be enough anyway. We walk the foot-wide paths through the rice-paddies and find a place to go swimming in the canal/river. We are learning about modesty - no full kaftans and we feel indecent with our bare shoulders sticking out of our full-length sarongs. The water is murky brown and delightfully cool. We dry and wait for the ferry back to Allapuzha. The homestay advertises itself as being an hour and half ferry ride from any roads but a group of teenage boys having a party on the dock tell us to take a boat five minutes the other direction and hop on the bus that goes on the freeway. They are listening to music on their cell phones and Lauren asks facetiously "Britney Spears?" They are insulted and say "No. Smack that". Any inappropriate interest in us is channeled, as usual, into polite inquiries: "your good name? which country?"

Back in Alleppey we get fresh pineapple carrot juice from a street vendor and our previous homestay owner hollers at us, says i told you so and gives us both a ride home through the city on his motorcycle. We have a beer with him and he performs his voice imitations of famous Malayali actors, saying he does them with some of his friends at all their religious ceremonies (?). He is about 35 but asks us not to tell his brother that he had a beer, because he will tell their parents, and that will be "big problem". We are thoroughly impressed with Kerala's kindness, honesty and wholesomeness.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Munnar, Kerala

skin hooks
Originally uploaded by helen beeson
Six hours from the coast into the Western Ghats (mtns) we hopped off the bus into a parade and discovered what serious religious devotion can look like here. Two men were swinging through the air about ten feet up, their bodies suspended in the air with lines attached to metal hooks stuck through the skin on their backs and legs and attached at the other end to a giant pulley five feet above them, the whole contraption pulled by a small decorated tractor and surrounded by people yelling and chanting along with the swinging man. Following them up were women with hooks attached to lines in their backs, dancing wildly as if puppeted by the man holding the ends of the lines. A group of men drummed, costumed children danced, women carried decorated umbrellas, a few women danced with six foot long metal poles stuck through their cheeks, and long rows of women in beautiful sarees struggled to pull huge wooden floats by giant ropes.

The next day was normal - as if all the days before it forever had passed uneventful, like nobody had been out of their mind on faith the day before. We rented a moto and followed fancy Bombayite couples and their drivers to the sites, snaking higher up the mountain through lush tea estates that cover all but the very vertical of land, a stark contrast to the otherwise dry hills. In town we fell in love with an assortment of charming mini-dhoti-sporting older men over ginger chai, soda water, one hand sewn sack (the standard box for mailing), and peas masala. We threw around our few words in Malayalam as much as possible, exclaiming "beautiful!" or "beautiful place!" as often as possible and savouring the smiles it received.