Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Pakistan's Orwellian Brazilia

Today I visited Pakistan's capital Islamabad. It is a centrally-planned city built in the 60's to be the new capital. Strange place. It is on a grid, and doesn't have neighborhoods so much as it has "sectors." Streets don't have names but rather letters and numbers. Street f-7, etc.

I had all my stuff with me, and I didn't feel like carrying it around so I stopped in a nice hotel to use their luggage room. They said they would hold onto it, but they wanted 200 rupees per hour. I started cracking up and told them that my room the night before only cost 180 rupees. They asked how much I was willing to pay, and when I said 50 rupees, they started cracking up. They agreed to take it for free, and as thanks I told them I would give them a nice write-up in my blog (Crown Plaza Hotel in Islamabad is the BEST!!). All they wanted was a pack of pakistani cigarettes as backsheesh, so I picked them up a pack of Marlboro as thanks.

The sky was a gun-metal grey with intermittent drizzles of rain that put a damper on my day. I walked around Islamabad for a while, and visited the huge Faisal Mosque. The mosque was built by the Saudi king, and it holds 10,000 worshippers. The minarets look like missiles, and there is a popular legend that the CIA demanded an inspection.

Speaking of spooks, I heard Dick Cheney was in Islamabad a day before me. Dick was growling at Musharaf that Pakistan wasn't doing enough in the GWOT. Looks like I am really going to have to work on my bed-sheet diplomacy to smooth this one over. How do I explain to the Pakistanis that Cheney's daughter doesn't swing my way?

Speaking of, one thing I still haven't gotten used to after all my time in the ME and India-Pak is the constant affection that men here show to each other. Men love to walk down the street holding hands. It's even a little funnier when the guys are soldiers (Don't ask, don't tell) I still remember the uneasy look on Pres Bush's face when Saudi King Abdullah wanted to hold his hand while walking around Crawford. I can only imagine the backroom prepping his staff had to do for that one.

The Atif riots

So I slept most of Sunday, owing to my late night. Meanwhile, the kites were out in full force. Basant had been banned because people were getting killed by the sharp kite wire- it was slitting their throats as the drove past. In total 13 people died during Basant for this and other related kite deaths. Strange. I awoke to go with my campers Sa'ad and Jason to a concert for Basant. At the concert, Atif Aslam was playing. He is my favorite Pakistani rocker, he is cool.

The concert was a logistical nightmare. Way too many people came. There were families and kids sitting in the front rows. Meanwhile the young guys packed in close. Security was trying to keep everyone seated but the guys wanted to get up to dance. Security and the crowds were tussling as the security was waving canes and batons. It was getting ugly. The singers were trying to keep the crowd calm. People would sit down, only to get back up. There were a few scuffles between the security and the crowd, and it was getting a little ugly. Meanwhile a comedian troop came out. Apparently midgets are funny in every culture. There was even a Pakistani version of Kramer. The concert was getting more out of control. My camper Sa'ad was gettng pissed at the guys who kept bumping into us when they got up, and started screaming at them. I had to restrain him, and try to chill him out. As things got worse, his father took a cane from one of the security guards and tried to create a little order. Eventuually we moved, but things kept getting worse. Eventually a real melee broke out, and I saw chairs being thrown. The army showed its teeth and things calmed back down, but not before there was a fight on stage between the show organizers.

Finally, after all the chaos, Atif came on. He played not more than two songs, when Sa'ad's family thought we should go because they were worried about the situation. So we waited and waded through all the chaos, only to leave 2 songs into the act we came to see. Too bad, but one of the more bizare concert experiences. After we went to Sa'ad's cousins for a huge lavish bbq.

That night I stayed with my camper Jason Dias (Yes, he is Pakistani- a Christian). The next morning I caught a bus to Rawalpindi. The bus process was weird. Daewoo runs a private bus service. The seats are all reserved, but 15 minutes before the bus if the seats haven't been claimed, you can buy a ticket. They give you a number and you wait. My number got called and I got my ticket. I am now in Rawalpindi, on my way to Islamabad which is 10 km away.

Basant and bed-sheet diplomacy

On Saturday, we were supposed to meet my camper Neeta for a walk in the morning. Neeta was a PS, and she was at my table. She overslept, so instead, we went to another café for a latte and a blackcurrant minicheesecake. Much of my stay, as you can see, revolves around food. With a little serendipity, there was the orientation session for potential Seeds campers, so I attended the session for campers and parents. I gave my insight and helped calm the parents’ worries about the camp. I also got to see more of my kiddies, and possible upcoming bunk if I return.

After I went with a bunch of older Seeds back to the Lahore museum, which was nice but out of order. They had some fascinating artefacts, but there was little order to how things were displayed. There was a lot on the Pakistan national movement, which was interesting too.

Following the museum, we went for lunch. A few hours before, Aneeq casually mentioned he didn't have a driver's liscence. I asked him who gave him the car, he replied that his father did and taught him to drive a few years prior. Acha, acha (I understand). Of course, we proceeded to get pulled over for "running a red light." The light was yellow, but the cop didn't care. He pulled Aneeq over the side of the road. After a little wrangling, Aneeq paid off a backsheesh bribe of 200 rupees ($3.33). This was the first time he had to. It wasn't even an issue that he didn't have a liscence. All the cop cared about was a little something for his troubles. Aneeq was annoyed that he had to pay 200rs, as the going rate is 50 rs. He had to pay more because it was Basant and there was a foreigner in the car. Meanwhile, a ticket itself would have been 600 rupees, 300 for the yellow and 300 for the driving without a permit. I love the developing world. This is why I always keep at least $20 on me, anything that costs more than that, I want to contact the American embassy.

After the incident, the seeds treated me to lunch at a yummy bourgeois restaurant (I have been treated a lot, I have paid for few meals of the many I have eaten). Later, I drove with Aneeq to pick up his friends for the Basant festival. First we stopped at his university, which had a striking resemblance to Brandeis, save the giant domed mosque in the middle of the campus. The school is co-ed, but strictly separated.

Basant is a spring festival that is huge here. People fly kites, shoot fireworks and celebrate royally. We caravanned into the old city, to the roof of someone’s house. The night was lit up with lights and kites. I have never seen so many kites. Kites flying overhead- soaring and diving. Kites fighting. Kites running across the night sky.

Meanwhile, music was pulsating and people were dancing on rooftop after rooftop. It was fantastic. Giant fireworks lit up the sky and raced across the purple horizon, and the crack-cracking of guns filled the air, as people fired to the skies in celebratory joy- thankfully nowhere near me. It was a sight to be seen, and something to never forget.

Meanwhile, there was a bit of a speakeasy on the floor below the roof. We sat in a sealed off room, on the floor and had Rasputin- pineapple vodka made in Karachi (for the record Aneeq didn’t have any, and even though he is no longer a Seed and is 18 and in college, I would have felt funny drinking with a camper). Not something I expected to find here, but if I had a steak in Bangalore, then why not?

As were were having drinks, everyone began crowding in, and the night became ubersurreal. I became the center of attention, as an Afghan introduced himself to me (my friends were translating). He said he hated Bush, and I replied I didn’t especially like Bush either. He said he wanted to have umm…intimate relations with Bush’s wife, to which I replied that I wouldn’t mind intimate relations with his daughters. More and more people had crowded around. A guy from Waziristan (tribal areas) introduced himself saying his brother is a terrorist, and he was trained as a terrorist. But after some amiable discussion over intimate relations with the Bush clan, and some Paul-waxing- humanistic over the nature of mankind, governments-vs-people, and the warm hospitality I was receiving in Pakistan, they all declared I was their brother. "Bush is a son-of-a-bitch, but you are our brother. Bush is a son-of-a-bitch, but the American people are our brothers. You are our blood brother, and your brother is our brother (Harry, you are in!)." Ah, the life of a true ambassador for America. Turning a new page in American foreign policy vis-a-vis the Muslim world- all of the animosity and angst smoothed over by a threesome with the Bush twins. Hugs, laughing and cheering followed, along with more dancing on the roof.

Eventually we left, after more oaths of eternal fidelity to me, for an amazing 2am meal of a spicy chicken stew, seekh kebabs (ground meat grilled on skewers) and mutton tikka, with sesame studded naan. After all the commotion, I was glad to get a little silence as we devoured the food.

We went to one more Basant roof top party, with the same lack of girls (a hallal sausage party), as all the parties are. The night ended in the wee hours of the morning. My descriptions here don’t even begin to get into the surreality of all of it.. But, I am doing fine, very well fed and very happily enjoying one of the more different travel destinations I have been to.

People are always curious about the image of Pakistan in America, to which I explain that the image we get is of the little madrassahs in the village areas proclaiming "death to America." We don’t see the Basant festivals, the cosmo life of Lahore or any other images that stray away from the pre-conceived notions of what life in Pakistan should look like. With that said, I was reading this morning about a gruesome honor killing in Pakistan, which I am sure will make the news. The situation here, as everywhere, is very complex and the outlets and avenues of media just aren’t capable of displaying this.

A nice Jewish boy at the Mosque

I scarcely know where to begin. I am having one of the more surreal odysseys through Pakistan. It picks up Friday morning over a wonderful breakfast of French toast, eggs and meat patties. I was staying with my camper Sa’ad; his family was wonderful in their hospitality. We were meet by Aneeq, another Seed who was a PS- an older Seed. Sa’ad had a half-day of school, and since I was there, his parents let him take the day off to show me around. His driver was there to take us around the city.

First we went to the Lahore museum, the beautiful national museum, but it was closed due to the Muslim Sabbath. Instead, we went to the Badshahi mosque, a giant mosque in the middle of the city built by the Mughals. It was a beautiful structure, resembling the mosque in Old Delhi. They had a museum there with hairs of the Prophet Mohammed, as well as other artefacts. After touring the mosque, we went to the Lahore Fort, which was also like the fort in Old Delhi, although less preserved.

After touring the fort, we went to Friday prayers at the Wazir Khan mosque. The mosque was covered in colourful flower mosaics; it was unlike any mosque I have ever seen. The place was filled for the Friday prayers. I was going to sit on the side, where I would be unobtrusive but people kind of filled in around, so I was there in the middle of the rows. I was in a bit of a bind as the prayer service started. If I sat there, and did nothing, I would have been out of place as a thousand people were carrying out the motions of prayer, which would really attract attention to me. Faced with what struck me as better idea, I mimicked the style of prayer, while silently murmuring the shema. Meanwhile, as they prostrated, I prostrated and said kiddush. Theoretically, we were both proclaiming the oneness of God, just in different faiths and languages. This was probably a first for the mosque that a nice Jewish boy was uttering the shema in the middle of the Friday prayers; I just chalked it up as an early shabbos service, with no synagogue around for many miles. Still very, very surreal.

After we left the mosque, we wandered around the bazaar, and got some food. "Do you want some brain in your nahar?" was the question asked of me. I said that since I didn’t know what nahar was, I would try it. It ended up being a yummy meat stew, eaten with a naan. Apparently it is famous in Karachi. It was pretty good.

We were later met by some more of my campers for coffee and cake Alaska- a giant fudge dripping cake with ice cream in the middle. Similar to Bombayites, Lahorites love to eat and it is their pastime. There is a real café culture here. Lahore is extremely cosmopolitan, really more so than any city I encountered in India, save Bombay and maybe parts of Delhi. The people are well dressed, in either modern clothes or more traditional wares. I have seen surprisingly few of the head-to-toe black veils. Women are wearing far more colors than I expected (they are also far hotter than I dreamed).

I stayed with Aneeq and his family that night. His father was very warm and welcoming, we hit it off right away. I fell asleep real soon, after a very exhausting day.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

The Indo-Pak conflict in my own historical context

The Indo-Pak conflict first burst forth on my conscious, as I was graduating from high school. The day after my last day of classes ever, I woke up with a raging hangover to find pictures of mushroom clouds on the front page of the Washington Post. India's ruling party, the Hindu nationalist BJP had set off nuclear tests in the Rajasthan desert. A few days later, I woke up with a similar raging hangover to find a similar story, as Pakistan retaliated with its own nuclear tests. I was sure I was graduating into nuclear holocaust, but thankfully things settled down a bit as both sides backed off from the brink.

I came more into contact with the history of the subcontinent in reading Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children. It is a phenomenal book about the partition of India, and the wars that took place, but done with a style of magical realism. Highly recommended.

Iconoclastan

When I first visited Los Angeles, I made a pilgrimage to my N.W.A. mecca of South Central LA. I stopped in Compton and Watts. When I first arrived in Watts, I timidly wandered from block to block. But as I went further in the neighborhood, I realized I had nothing to worry about, so I cracked a 40 of OE and enjoyed my stroll through the hood. Fear stems from the unknown, but as soon as it becomes a tangible place, the fear dissipates. Pakistan is quickly becoming the same.

We all have preconceived notions of what Pakistan is. Images on CNN of medieval madrassas and jihadis. I will readily admit I had apprehensions visiting the place. I'm glad I pushed on, because it is fine here. Lahore is uber-cosmopolitan. I am staying with one of my camper Saad, who has been taking me around and feeding me lots of yummy meat. I am overfull with cow, as I have missed it so (the trade-offs we make, cow for beer). The people are super-well dressed, either in the newest fashion or nice traditional clothing. The streets don't suffer from the pollution of India, nor are there nearly as many touts, beggars and hustlers. It doesn't feel as congested and overwhelmingly crowded. Pakistani girls are hot- very stylish combo of traditional and modern. There are McDonalds, Pizza Huts, Dunkin Donuts (I'm getting the world's greatest coffee tomorrow!) and even a Pizzeria Uno. In short, nothing like what I expected.

Meanwhile, I have arrived just in time for the biggest festival- Basmant. Some kind of kite festival, which sounds straight out of the Kite Runner. Also a rock concert of one of my favorite Pakistani rockers, Atif Aslam. Speaking of rockstar status, I haven't been here a day, and already I am on Pakistani Music Television, offering greeting from America.

So, with all that said, I will still be careful, but everyone take a deep breath (myself included).

New Jpost article

New article on Mumbai up on the Jpost, in the Jewish world section, under features.

So it ends: Chapter III India

My Indian odyssey comes to a close today, and it ends in just as strange a fashion as expected. My Aussie friends and I hopped a rickshaw to the India-Pak border to watch the flag lowering ceremony. There were huge lines at the gates to get into the bleachers. People were selling popcorn. As the gates opened, people began running to get good seats, but it was no needed. Once we were let into the "stadium," there was a VIP section for foreigners to watch the ceremony. Amazing how after being ripped off as a tourist for the whole of India, that at its border we get treated the best.

The border ceremony was akin to a halftime show. People ran up to the border with flags, and they were cheering and dancing. The whole thing was straight out of looney tunes, with comical music and border guards in pants too short, socks too long, funny mustaches and hats that looked like fans sticking straight up. There were probably close to 4,000 people on hand for the ceremony. People came from all over India to see it. The crowd started dancing in the street leading up to the border. Of course, I jumped out of the VIP section and came bouncing over to the dancing, waving my hat. This brought on a thunder of cheers from the crowd, and high-fives from the dancing Indians. My friends followed my lead, and we were rockstars. Finally, it came time to lower the flags. Regiments high-stepped to the border in synchonized marching, on both sides of the border. With pomp and circumstance, the flags were lowered to cheering crowds on both sides. I managed to sneak my way all the way up to the border and snap some shots. We need to start doing this with Canada and Mexico! Line up huge gunboats in the Great Lakes. Park our tanks alongside the Rio Grande. I have never seen anything like the ceremony, and don't expect to see anything like it again.

We took our rickshaw back, and had a "romantic" candle-lit dinner, as the power kept going out. Also had a few beers, which will be in short supply for a while. Finished the evening taking
pics of the Golden Temple lit up at night. I woke up this morning and had a free pilgrim's breakfast on the floor at the Golden Temple complex, with my Sikh compatriots. The Golden Temple is the first place I have ever been where you have to check your shoes, but not your weapons. Amritsar is one of the most well-armed places I have ever been. I don't mean guns, but rather swords, spears and daggers.

India was far too surreal. I saw it from top-to-bottom, and back up. All at a frenetic pace. I need to return to many places, as I spent not nearly enough time in a few spots. There are so many more that I still need to visit. I could have spent my entire six months in India, and still have no better idea of how the country really works. With that said, the crown jewel of my trip comes to an end.

The next chapter, Pakistan, is being conducted in honor and in the memory of Daniel Pearl, who will always remind me that "I am Jewish."

"Kol ha-olam kulo gesher tzar m'od
V'ha-ikar V'ha-ikar
Lo l'fachayd, lo l'fachayd klal"

The world is a very narrow bridge and the most important part is not to be afraid.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

...and you shall find

After a long, cold night train, I arrived to Amritsar. I'm in Punjab, which is considered the "Texas of India." Apparently Punjabis want everything bigger. There is a fantastic Punjabi rap scene, and a hysterical rap group called "the Out-0f-Control Punjabis." Amritsar is the beating heart of the Sikh religion, and home to the stunning Golden Temple. I arrived this morning, and set off with two Aussies who were in my sleeper berth. We walked to the temple area, and had a yummy stuffed parantha for breakfast (dough, potatoes and onions cooked in a clay oven).

We arrived to the temple complex, where we me an Australian Sikh of Indian origin. Satpal Singh (lion) was born in Australia, but his family is here in Punjab. He was visiting with his 11 year-old son. It was a little strange at first that a bearded, traditionally dressed Sikh was speaking with an Aussie accent, but he was so helpful and wonderful. He first helped us find a place to stay at the Temple complex. They offer very cheap accommodation, and a room for three was 50 rupees (a little more than a dollar), which he paid for. He laughed and said it was nothing, just his duty as a Sikh.

Satpal then took us into the golden masterpiece of a shrine. We removed our shoes and covered our heads, as we walked across the cool marble to the Golden Temple. The temple sits in the middle of a lake, like a golden lotus flower on the water. It is said to be gilded with 750 kg of gold. It is an ornate building, with gem-inlaid marble flower like the Taj. The roof is a gilded beauty, like something out of a Toledo craftsman's dreams. There are four priests inside the temple who keep up a continuous chant in Punjabi from the Sikh holy book, the Guru Granth Sahib. Pilgrims prostrate and listen to the chanting.

Satpal took us up to the roof and answered all our questions about Sikhism. Sikhs have five basic rules:

1) No body hair can be cut (hence the beards), but men's' hair must be covered
2) No drugs, alcohol or tobacco
3) No adultery
4) No meat unless it is a matter of survival, and no hallal meat, as they consider it to cause too much suffering the animal.

Sikhs are baptized, but on a date of their acceptance of the creeds. When you get baptized, you must wear 5 things:

1) a dagger (karpan) as a symbol of freedom. Sikhs even have special permission to take these daggers on Indian airplanes.
2) Special boxer-style underwear
3) a comb
4) long hair
5) a steel bracelet

Sikhs believe received their faith from ten living gurus, and the tenth poured his soul into their holy book. The believe in reincarnation, and that your soul is a piece of God's divine light. You may take many lifeforms throughout your reincarnations, but you can break the cycle by attaining enlightenment. They believe that five "fires" plague mankind:

1) anger
2) ego
3) lust
4) greed
5) attachment

These all aren't necessarily considered bad things, as Satpal explained that you need lust to have a family, which is the pinnacle of Sikh life; you need anger to defend the innocent from evil. But these are fires that must be controlled, one way is through a mantra. The mantra is reverberation of spiritual power that comes through sound.

When India was receiving its freedom from the British, leaders of the Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs all met with the British. The Muslims called for their own state, but the Sikhs were convinced to throw their lot in with the Hindus, rather than form a seperate state. The other version is that their request for an independendent state was denied. During Partition, Punjab was split down its heart, leaving Lahore in Pakistan. Refugees went streaming across both sides, and massacres took place on all sides. Before Partition, Lahore had 500,000 Hindus and 100,000 Sikhs; barely 1000 combined remained after Partition.

I will write more about this later, about the Khalistan unrest and the Jallianwalla Bagh massacre (1919) later, but I have to go catch a border closing filled with pomp and ceremony.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Hanging out with the boys

I have been enjoying the local Delhi life. First, I had dinner with a friend Sanjeev from Delhi, who I met in Goa. We went to a wonderful, but rather pricey (and by pricey I mean I paid $10) meal. He is very much a gourmand, and knew a really, really good place. Then last night, I met up with a friend named Ashok, who I also met in Goa. Robert Jones is his call center name, although I have since spun that off to Lord Robert Jones XIV, the last of a long line of British viceroys. Speaking of colonials, I saw a ticket taker on the train who was straight up a colonial baby. He looked like a slightly darker English chap, who spoke only Hindi.

So I stayed with Ashok, and he took me to a wedding for some of his friends. It was a fun affair, lots of dancing and eating. After the wedding, we went cruising down the main drag, with the music blaring. I felt like I was back in high school. Tonight I head on to Amritsar.

Monday, February 19, 2007

The Kingdom of the Princess of Fear

The Queen of the Muse whispered a warning in my ear, she said beware of the Princess of Fear. While I have written extensively on the Muse’s Kingdom, I have yet to address the Kingdom of the Princess of Fear. She too holds court. Born of the same mother as the Queen of the Muse, but a father that bore the mark of Cain, the Princess of Fear traded her soul for black power.

Her kingdom is found across the black rivers of poison. It is a dark land, without light or hope. In her fields, slaves toil picking bitter fruits and poison harvests. In her gardens wander the lost souls of intoxicated addicts, who lazily doze under weeping-willow trees. Her land is the paradise reached by the zealots and suicide bombers.

Past the winged-furies that fly overhead, and the armed guards with scimitars and damascene blades that stand on her gates and guard her palace, the Princess is down a long, deserted hall. She sits upright on a black granite throne. Her long black hair flows down her back, with a golden tiara bejeweled with blood diamonds sitting delicately on her head. Around her neck sits a necklace of nails, that drapes delicately over her collar. Her black kohl-stained green eyes pour over black-inked manuscripts of plots and ploys that will further her aims; she wages her clandestine war with her weaponry of vices.

The Princess of Fear reaps intolerance and sows hatred. She has much sway, and she silences the best while filling the worst with passionate zeal. She imbues the thieves with quickness and the cons with cunning. She makes men weak with jealousy, and fills their hearts with envy. I saw a glimpse of her in the eyes of two men coming to fisticuffs over a 5 rupee pen.

The Princess of Fear gave twisted biblical verse to the slave masters of the Confederacy. She is the creator of castes, the architect of apartheid. The patron saint of the assassin, she led John Wilkes Booth through the dark theater, and roared with him “Sic semper tyranis.” She enlisted Gavarillo Princip and the Black Hand to plunge Europe into generations of chaos. The evil princess sent Nathuram Godse to silence Gandhi, then laughed as bloodshed-racked partition. She sat in the book depository and steadied Oswald’s aim. She gave James Earl Ray cover in the shrubs, then stoked the flaming ghettos after her handiwork was carried out. It was her dark yeshiva in which Yigal Amir was a student, and with him she crushed Oslo. The Princess of Fear and her dark kingdom are found in the hearts of all men.

But the Queen of the Muse watches out for those who will hear her warnings. Far away, in a distant land, the Queen of the Muse sits below marbles rounded domes. On the cool marble floor, she sits in peace. With henna decorating the palms of her hands, and wrapping up her arms. Beeswax reddens her lips, and black kohl lines her eye, as she stares out into the distance. A vermillion tikka adorns her forehead, while jewels and gems adorn her. Sparkling diamond earrings, a golden nosering and anklets of silver to announce her presence. She is wrapped in the softest purple silk. On the walls, the simple words of warning are inscribed in black calligraphy:

Guard your thoughts, they become your words

Guard your words, they become your actions

Guard your actions, they become your habits

Guard your habits, they become your character

Guard your character, it becomes your destiny

The Lord works in mysterious ways

With all the commotion in Pakistan, I stopped by the Beit Chabad in New Delhi, to do tefillin one last time before I went onto the Muslim world, where there is no Beit Chabad. The guys at the Beit Chabad were friends with Menachem, the guy I interviewed for my story on Goa, as well as the Avrami the guy from Laos. While I was there talking to them, the Press Spokesman for the Israeli Embassy to India came in. We chatted a bit, and we are supposed to chat later, as he says he has a story for me.

After I did tefillin, the guys asked my Hebrew name. I never liked my Hebrew name, but I told them anyway: Pinchas. They then informed me that Pinchas is Elijah. Apparently Elijah's name was Pinchas before he went to battle with the Midianites. My Hebrew name, which I never cared for, is actually the name of the most famous wandering Jew, Elijah the Prophet- the patron and protector of all us wandering Jews. Too much serendipity for me to handle.

Ummm...

Okay, I'm a little nervous about visiting Pakistan at the moment. There was a bombing today on the India-Pakistan friendship line between Delhi and Lahore, by way of Attari. Islamabad had a recent spate of suicide bombing attacks. Lahore has been quiet, and I would be staying with friends (Seeds campers), also family friends in Karachi. Maybe I will skip Islamabad, we shall see...

Sunday, February 18, 2007

New pics up

Jodphur (Blue), Jaipur (Pink) and Agra (Taj) all up. http://picasaweb.google.com/levantine18
Also Varanasi and the trip to Delhi just added, as well as a few from Delhi.

Meanwhile, Delhi seems to be a place of random encounters, as I have run into a Finnish girl who I hung out with and Pondicherry and two Japanese guys who I hung out with in Konyakumari.

Old Delhi

I took the Delhi's Metro to Old Delhi, and I entered a world far different from the Indian reality I know. Golden silence. 100 seconds of solitude. The silent subway was a welcome relief from Delhi's din. Pristine clean, without a scrap of litter. A marbled metro. I ice skated on the subway floor. Leaving that peaceful world, I re-entered the above ground racket. A reality as different as night is from day. Back to the touts, "friends" and rickshaw drivers. Just a few minutes of peace, that's all. I could be content riding the silence from end to end of the metro line. But alas, bye then as the voice chimed in. Bye then.

I arrived in a proverbial red square. Old Delhi's majestic Red Fort, built by the same Mughal
architects as the Taj Mahal. Red sandstone flowers adorned the red walls, and snake around the marble columns and archways. Precious gem flowers sit laid in marble. Marbled brilliance.

Amid the Mughal magnificence, and under a crooked tree, I sat. Quietly listening to Ravi Shankar. Sitting surrounded by the Mughal's crumbling remnants of their once mighty empire, I was reminded of my days in Spain, of Andalucia. I spent six weeks touring Spain and Portugal after my studies in Morocco. Spain was such a culture shock after leaving Morocco. Marbella's
brilliant beaches kicked modesty in her black teeth. Church bells replaced the muezzin's call. I wandered around al-Andalus, visiting Grenada, Cordoba and Sevilla, once the sites of Jewish and Muslim cooperation and splendor. Granada and the spectacular al-Hambra palace. I spent that day with an old Francoist Spaniard named Victor. We spent the day taking pictures of the palaces, gardens and vistas. Had a fantastic lunch at an expensive restaurant, on his euros. Interesting fellow, I remember he had a 25 year old Polish girlfriend who was beautiful. As always, my travels were on the same frenetic pace.

But I digress. After wandering around the Red Fort, I went to the Jama Masjid, a gigantic mosque. Had some yummy hallal kebabs at a restaurant called "Karim's." After I went to a memorial park for India's assassinated leaders. The park was the site of the cremation of Mohandis Gandhi, as well as Indira and Rajiv Gandhi. I left rocks on the sites of Indira and Rajiv, and left a white polished gem on Gandhi's memorial site. Very moving place. The quote I found most poetic was about Rajiv Gandhi, "He died as he lived, with a smile on his lips and compassion in his heart."

Saturday, February 17, 2007

2 months left...

With 2 months left, I thought I would leave this passage from Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad, as it is rather apt:

"And then, I repeat, I was going home- to the home distant enough for all its hearthstones to be like one hearthstone, by which the humblest of us has the right to sit. We wander in our thousands over the face of the earth, the illustrious and the obscure, earning beyond the seas our fame, our money, or only a crust of bread; but it seems to me that for each of us going home must be like going to render an account.

We return to face our superiors, our kindred, our friends- those whom we obey, and those who we love; but even they who have neither, the most free, lonely, irresponsible and bereft of ties,- even those for whom home holds no dear face, no familiar voice, even they have to meet the spirit that dwells within the land, under its sky, in its air, in its valleys, and on its rises, in its fields in its water and its trees- a mute friend, judge, and inspirer. Say what you like, to get its joy, to breathe its peace, to face its truth, one must return with a clear conscience.

All this may seem shear sentimentalism; and indeed very few of us have the will or capacity to look consciously under the surface of familiar emotions. There are the girls we love, the men we look up to, the tenderness, the friendship, the opportunities, the pleasures! But the fact remain that must touch your reward with clean hands, lest it turn to dead leaves, to thorns, in your grasp. I think it is lonely, without a fireside or an affection they may call their own, those who return not to a dwelling but to the land itself, to meet its disembodied, eternal and unchanging spirit- it is those who understand best its severity, its saving power, the grace of its secular right to our fidelity, to our obedience.

Yes! few of us understand, but we all feel it through, and I say all without exception, because those who do not feel do not count. Each blade of grass has its spot on earth whence it draws its life, its strength and so is man rooted to the land from which he draws his faith together with his life."
-Marlowe

Delhicious

In one of my previous posts, I said my train ride to Delhi was uneventful. That's not true entirely. It was a beautiful ride, spent sipping chai and staring out at endless fields of golden brilliance. Golden yellow flowers for miles and miles. Meanwhile kids played true sandlot cricket. I passed huge drying dung heaps, stacked taller than me. Speaking of bullshit, India is the first place I have been to were I need to dodge both the bullshit in the air, and also on the ground.

Ah, but I digress. I spent the day wandering around Delhi. I found myself sitting in Jawaharlal Nehru's yard, in front of his words carved on stone, and next to a solemn display of three candles for him, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi (the latter two being assassinated). I had just left the Indira Gandhi Museum, which was a somber tribute to the life of India's iron lady. The Tigress of India. There were old pictures of Indira (Nehru) as a girl, young lady and woman. Seeing the pics of her next to her father were poignant, as were the pictures of her with Gandhi. They had her sari that she was wearing the day she was assassinated behind glass. A little background.

Sometimes autocratic, other times downright dictatorial, but much beloved throughout India, Indira Gandhi was assassinated by two of her Sikh bodyguards, following her actions of storming the holiest Sikh Temple in Amritsar. There had been a standoff, as Sikh separatists were holed up in the temple. They were fighting for an independent Sikh state called "Khalistan." She put down the uprising with heavy-handed tactics, and her Sikh bodyguards assassinated her in retaliation.

In the museum, it said of her that she lived her life as she met her death, without fear and courage abiding. She wrote in a note that was found after her death:
"If I die a violent death as some fear and a few are plotting, I know the violence will be in the thought and the actions of the assassins, not in my dying- for no hate is deep enough to overshadow my love for my people and my country. No force is strong enough to divert me from my purpose and my endeavors to take the country forward."

There was also a crystal walkway where she took her last steps, and a clear pane of crystal where she lay dying. It was a wonderful museum, showcasing Indira's life in pictures, items, newspapers and her own words. There were pictures of Indira with the Kennedys. I thought of Kennedy, of Rabin and his memorials in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

I also thought about Israel's own iron lady, Golda Meir, and the moving play I saw on her life, "Golda's Balcony." I thought about the women presidents and prime ministers that followed. Women like Margaret Thatcher and Benzhair Bhutto of Pakistan. Also about the current crop of female leaders like Michelle Batchelet of Chile, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia and Angela Merkel of Germany. Also Segolene Royal who is running for President of France, and I have a crush on her. Couldn't forget Megawati Sukarnaputri, the former president of Indonesia, the world's largest Muslim country, and largest Muslim democracy. And of course, I thought about Hilary.

How can America not be ready for a female President when both India and Pakistan managed to have the "fairer sex" hold office? With that said, I don't especially favor Hilary in the next election. Not because I don't think she can win, because I think she can. Not because I don't like, admire and respect her, because I do. Simply, I don't support Hilary's candidacy because I want to move forward from the stagnant political debate that currently exists. The Right hates the Clintons as much as the Left hates Bush. I don't see how she can get us beyond the current political malaise. If she is elected, we continue the same bitter political discourse that has plagued our country. The mutual recriminations on both sides of the political divide continue. I support Barack Obama because he gives me hope for a different political discourse, free of the current poisoned divide. Yet should Hilary win the candidacy, she would have my full support and backing.

Ah, but I digress. Back to the Nerhu museum. Another fascinating place for another fascinating statesman. It traced his life and the life of the independence movement. It had pictures, newspapers and quotations of Nehru's life. I found his quote on Gandhi's death to be very moving:

"Friends and Comrades, the light has gone out of our lives and there is darkness everywhere. I do not know what to tell you and how to say it. Our beloved leader, Bapu as we call him, the Father of the Nation, is no more. Perhaps I am wrong to say that. Nevertheless, we will not see him again as we have seen him for these many years. We will not run to him for advice and seek solace from him, and that is a terrible blow, not to me only but to millions and millions of this country."

There was also a surreal theater with a moving, talking blinking replica of Nehru reading India's declaration complete with replicas of some of India's founding fathers. I first arrived to the theater and there was no one there. I asked when the show would start, and the guide replied when there was a crowd. I pointed to the statues and asked if they constituted enough of a crowd.

After the Nehru museum, I visited the Safdar Jang tomb, a beautiful Moghul building. On my way back, I got my Sikh rickshaw driver to swing by the interesting Sikh temple, and then on back. All-and-all, a nice day in Delhi.

Friday, February 16, 2007

No corned beef in Delhi

Varanasi was fascinating. There was a festival going on in honor of Shiva's wedding to Paravathi. All night, scores of young men were running along the banks of the Ganges. They were chanting and screaming all night. I didn't end up staying in the temple, as a lovely Danish girl named Sasha let me stay with her. After a stroll down the Ganges again in the morning, past all the ghatts, I caught a cycle-rickshaw to the train station. It cost 30 rupees for a twenty minute ride. I was running late, so I told the driver that I would give him 40 rupees if he got me there in 15 minutes. He peddled hard and earned his reward. My train ride was pleasantly uneventful, and I have now arrived to Delhi for a few days.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

New Jpost article on Goa

New article up on Goa, www.jpost.com in the Jewish World section, under features. Or you can read the piece, pre-editing at my other blog: http://talesofawanderingjew.blogspot.com

Mother Ganges and the City of Life

"As I went down in the river to pray
Studying about that good old way
And who shall wear the starry crown
Good Lord, show me the way."
-Alison Krause, "Down to the river" (Oh Brother, Where art thou?)

I left Agra on a night train and arrived to Varanasi around midday. After I purchased my ticket out, which is sadly a necessity as soon as I arrive because the trains are often full (as was the one I wanted, so I am on a mid afternoon train to Delhi), I was practically broke but was able to get a cycle rickshaw near to where I wanted for 21 rupees (50cents). I say near, cause the guy had no idea where I wanted, so dropped me near the closest place possibly resembled the name I mentioned. Of course, when I was dropped off, the guy wanted 40 rupees, and I practically went balistic because I mentioned four times during the ride that all I had was 21 rupees. After realizing that the place I was at wasn't the place I wanted, I trudged my way along the Ganges River a good 2km till I found the place, Vishnu's guest house.

Earlier in my blog, I mentioned that I stayed at the Salvation army's guesthouse in Chennai, and my father posted asking if next I was staying with the Hare Krishnas. Close. The place was full but offered to put me up in their temple for 50 rupees, and of course I accepted. So tonight I am staying in a Hindu temple.

Back to Varanasi. It is the quintessential Indian city. Choking, crowded, noisy, polluted, with stray dogs, goats and cows. India at its finest. Ah, but Varanasi is a little different as it is probably the holiest city in India. It is a strange combination of life, death and spirituality. It is a place of vast pilgrimage, as the Ganges River is believed to be where humanity came from, and it also cleanses the sins for those who bathe in it. It is also a place people come to die as Hindus believe if they die here they receive moshka- liberation from reincarnation.

I spent the afternoon wandering the ghatts, past naked mystics wearing only white ash paint. Past bodies being burned in huge funeral pyres. Past dreadlocked mystics and hippies. Past pilgrims bathing in the waters. I even dipped my toes in the Ganges, but didn't go any further as it is one of the most polluted rivers in the world. It is so polluted, it is classified as "septic." It has 1.5 million parts fecal bacteria per 100 ml of water, compared to safe levels of 500 parts per 100 ml of water.

Meanwhile, I watched the river turn red with the setting sun, and reminisced of Lhasa, the other holy city I have visited as of late. In Lhasa, people also come to die, but they receive a sky burial, ie are picked apart by the vultures. I still have one more holy city, Amritsar, which is sacred to the Sikhs. In due time.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

The Taj and St. Valentine

Happy Valentine's Day to all my babies' mamas. Minseon and I visited the Taj Mahal today, rather appropos for Valentine's day. She surprised me this morning with some chocolates, it was such a surprise, that I didn't even notice the package sitting on the bed, I just assumed it was her stuff. I took her for breakfast at a place that serves Korean food. She had kimchee and om rice (omelette on top of rice), while I had shakshouka. Israeli breakfast next to Korean breakfast. The cafe also was able to send a kid to get a rose for her. After, we went to the Taj Mahal.

There are many descriptions of the Taj. The favorite I have read so far is by an Indian poet, who said, "A teardrop of the face of eternity." It is just massive, marbled and beautiful. There are pools in front of it, which the Taj is reflected. Really very beautiful, and one of those places that exceeds expectations, even though the expectations are so high.

Minseon and I part ways tonight, she goes back to Calcutta and then back to Thailand to catch a flight back to Korea. I am going to Varanasi, which is supposed to be amazing.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

Leading the parade

The weather did finally clear up, and Minseon and I went to the Agra Fort. It was the seat of the Moghul Empire for many years. A beautiful red sandstone fortress, which Akbar used to hang out in. After, we watched the sunset over the Taj Mahal, while monkeys jumped around the roof next door. Be it that it is India, we waited for the lights to come on, only to find out that there isn't enough power in Agra to light India's most famous monument. After dinner, we wondered what we were going to do, when we spotted a gaggle of lights and noise. We went to investigate, and found a wedding parade through the streets. Of course, we joined and were dancing with the bride and groom. We ended up leading the parade for 2 blocks! I traded my hat for a blue cap of one of the trumpet players and lead the way (I did get it back, can't lose my lucky sacred longhorn hat). Tomorrow off to the Taj, hoping the weather holds up.

Early monsoon season

Jaipur was sadly over-rated by the guide book. There wasn't much to it, and was frankly more annoying than anything. I have come up with a new slogan for India, "I honk, therefore I am." It took me two trips to the golden arches to clear up my Indian migraine. Minseon and I took a bus to Agra, first we were on an 8pm bus, but that was to arrive around 2am, and we would have still needed a place to stay. I thought it would be better if we got a sleeper bus, which was not a lot more expensive and less than a room. Good idea in theory, but the sleeper bus was awful. The ride was so bumpy, and our sleeper bed was a cold sarcophagus. I got maybe an hour of sleep, it sucked. Probably the last sleeper bus I take in India. On the otherhand, Minseon is a bit of a narcoleptic when it comes to bus travel, and she slept soundly the whole time, with even a little snoring.

We arrived to a freezing cold, rainy Agra at 5:30am. The horde of rickshaw drivers were clamoring for 100 rupees, but I just kept bargaining down based on the number of drivers there. A veritable auction, bless competition. We arrived to our guest house, and I promptly passed out on the couch, as we were waiting for a room to free up. We caught our first glimpse of the Taj Mahal, which is absolutely stunning. I was warned that it exceeds expectations, and I agree. It is a massive sight. Unfortunately, the weather was not in our favor, and the skies opened up in torrential downpours. No fun, just sitting around reading and having chai.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

City of Blue in the Land of Death

Rajasthan, the Land of Kings, was formerly known as Merawer- the Land of Death. After a night of rain, Minseon and I trudged through rivers of mud to get up to the Mehrengarh Fort, a giant "citadel of the sun" overlooking a city drenched in blue.

"The work of giants and angels" according to Rudyard Kipling (Do you like Kipling? I don't know I have never been kipled- unknown source). When the Raj decided to build the fort, he displaced an old hermit living on the mountain. The hermit cursed the fort and said it would never have enough water. Before they built the fort, the local priests were consulted, and decided that a human life must be sacrificed to appease the Gods. A brave man stepped forward, and he was entombed alive in the fort. At the entrance of the fort is a plaque to this man whose life was sacrificed, stating simply "An eternal symbol of a sacrifice."

The fort was amazing. There were vermilion hand prints on the wall from the wives of the Raj who built it, as a sign before they went off for sati, the ritual of burning with the husband's funeral pyre. There were amazing gates with spikes to stop the war elephants, amazing lattice work windows and gorgeous swords of black and gold. Meanwhile, the people are fascinating in Rajasthan. They wear the brightest colors for clothes and turbans of any Indians. On the barren landscape of the Thar desert, the colors really stand out. We wandered through the fort, and ended on the bastions, sitting next to old cannons- overlooking a sprawling blue beauty. Aldous Huxley wrote, "From the bastions of the fort, one hears as the Gods must hear from Olympus." So true. After, we walked a km to the Jaswant Thada, a white-marble memorial to the Maharajas. Beautiful white domes on a hillside. So nice.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Serendipity part 2

So I surprised Minseon very much. The funny thing is that we ran into each other again exactly one month to the day we first met. As I like to say "irony is God's sense of humor."

Ghost Riders in the Sky

As Sting so eloquently put it, "I dream of rain. I dream of God in the desert sands." The slightest drops of a drizzle are always welcome in India. Sitting in silence on a hurtling bus, enjoying another Indian daydream. Fruit and vegetable sellers park their wares under a banyan tree, shielding their tender produce from sun and rain. Green grapes, red pomegranates and chikoo fruits that look like potatoes, next to ripe tomatoes and heads of cauliflower.

We were stopped at a railroad crossing by a soon-to-be-oncoming train, so I hopped out of the bus to watch it go past and get a little respite from the travel. I gave a rendition of Johnny Cash's opening refrain for Folsom Prison Blues to a bewildered group of Indians. After the train passed, and we crossed the tracks, I saw ripples in still water- with no pebble tossed. Just a typical day in a typical Indian daydream. Meanwhile pink stallions galloped across the desert horizon, as the sun became a pearl in the grey metal sky. All the while, the pink-turbaned man pushed his herd of longhorns forward. Trying to catch the devil's herd, across the endless sky, thanks Johnny.

I arrived to Jodhpur, just barely. Some people were getting off the bus at what seemed to be the last stop. I got up as did a Swiss Italian guy, as some guy said it was the last. It was just some lying tout/rickshaw driver, and we quickly hopped back on when we saw the bus half full. We shared a rickshaw to near the trainstation, where he had a reservation. The place seemed expensive, but he convinced me to go in to check the prices. It was, but they had a dorm. Then the guy said, that I would be joined in the dorm by a cute South Korean. I jumped, and had him show me the register. Sure, enough it was Minseon. I forgot to write earlier that we bumped into each other once more in Konyakamuri. Paulo Coehlo wrote in "The Alchemist" that if something happens once, it was only meant for once. But if it happens twice, it will keep happening. Off to go surprise Minseon at the hostel....

Land of the Rajas

After a wonderful time in Bombay, I left for Rajastahn. I enjoyed the most wonderful hospitality from the Mistry family (my SOP camper Hasit). They fed me, they did my wash, they showed me the city, they helped me arrange my trip on, and they even drove me 45 minutes to the suburb train station to catch my train. Mr. Mistry even walked me to the train station, and asked if he should wait with me. Well above and beyond. Like I have written before, families are the same the world over. Mothers want to feed you and take care of you. Fathers want to protect you, and live vicariously through you. I also got to catch up with an old friend from Brandeis named Jocelyn. We shared a class together my senior year on global civil society. We bantered back and forth, as she was the leading pinko and somehow I embodied the right wing (shows how liberal the class was, if I was right wing). She is now an ex-pat in Bombay, working for the American Jewish World Service.

I took a night train to Ahmedabad, chatting a little with my fellow travelers and eating more food offered to me. I arrived at 5am, then took another train for Udaipur in Rajastahn. The train I took was a local one, so it took twice as long, but well worth it. I spent my day staring out the window and reading Gandhi. I have gladly traded my television for a train window, my flatscreen for a bus window. Meanwhile, I watched the Indian landscape change like seasons. On the train I talked with la gente, including a large family that wanted me to take their pictures. There was one guy who was with his child bride. He was 18, she was 14. I was in shock. Beautiful Indian child bride. 14! I arrived to Udaipur, and found a place to stay. I was exhausted, so I just sat on the roof with a beer and stared at the beautiful lights reflecting off the manmade lake.

The next day I went to the stunning city palace. There were monkeys on the roof, next to the palace, of the local public school. Monkeys hopping from rooftop to ledge at the Mahrane Mewar Public school. Big monkeys, little monkeys and baby monkeys sitting in the sun. There were kids screaming in the distance, and monkeys running around. Little baby monkeys clinging to their mothers, or scampering across the roof. Jumping, tumbling monkeys, just lounging in the sun. People were going on with their daily lives, monkeys were going on with their daily lives. I just imagine the kids were busy studying for their exams, which are taking place now. Then the monkeys escaped from the zoo, and interrupted the exams. All in Udaipur, on Mulberry street.

Meanwhile, in the palace, M.Pratap was addressing his legions of soldiers from a horse made to look like an elephant. His warriors are all clad in white chain mail, as are their horses. Jeweled white armor on them and their horses. Gold-lined helmets with gold jewel tips. In a valley under a mountain, shaded by palm trees. Five-pointed shields guarding their backs, while others have quivers of arrows.

In a far away place, the Maharaj Prithra of Bikaner writes a letter to M. Pratap admonishing him not to bow down to Mughal domination. The while silk-robed Maharaj sites perched on a white silk bed. His white silk is lined in gold, as is his bed. On a table sits a gold silk with a gold sword. A gold curved handle on a black curved blade with a gold tip. On the floor sits a silver hookah with long green pipes. A mesenger stands in white on white marble. The maharaj has a worried look in his eye. He has a countenance of unease, with a orange turban wrapped in gold on his head and a gold earing down his ear.

Marbled out, with Ravi Shankar in my ears. Special. Lassies. Lotus lassies marbled around me. Arches of marble with latice windows. Sitars singing in my ears as leaves slowly fall around me. Green turbans pass alongside orange and blue saris. Ravi just plays away in my ears, with faster pounding.

Meanwhile, at the window, wind rushes through the marble latice like a hit. Filling your lunfs with arid, honeyed air. All while staring out at white marble, colored flags, arches and monkeys. Sun gently blessing my neck past a leafy tree. A far different world of rubied mirrors, lined in gold. All of this in Udaipur, on Mulberry street.

Later I took a boat around the lake and to an island. I met a French and an Argentine girl, who I hung out with for the evening. We missed out boat back, and were barred from a private, but empty boat, only to get a private boat back in time to watch the sunset and Octopussy.

Yes, Octopussy. It was filmed here in Udaipur and every restaurant show the classic Bond flick at 7pm every night. Off to Jaipur and maybe Jalismar, fort of blue and gold. Bus to catch, adieux.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Paule Rakower

A comment came to me on my "Tales" blog:

"Now, the reason it was brought to me, is that my name is Paule Rakower (female)
I read your profile and I'm a capricorn too, only born almost a generation before you. I was born in Belgium to a family with Polish roots and live in Israel since my childhood."

I'm not the only Paul Rockower in the world! If there are any more of you out there, please drop me a line!

Jainism

So from the "more you learn, the less you know" files, I have Spruha Mehta here with me to help explain Jainism. She is a Jain, and for all of you who don't know what that is, it is a religion you are about to learn about. There are 10-12 million Jains in the world, in India and in 85 other countries around the world. The majority of Jains living in India live in Gujarat.

Jainism was founded around the same time as Buddhism, by Vardhaman Mahavira. The Mahavira is the last in the line of 24 teachers, called "tirthankaras." The main principles of Jainism is nonviolence and salvation of the soul. Jains are so stringent in their belief in nonviolence that they refuse to pick flowers. This also manifests itself in the Jain diet, which eschews all meat products and is strictly vegetarian. Moreover, Jains don't eat anything that comes from under the ground, such as potatoes, onions and garlic (all root veggies). No intoxicants, no alcohol, etc.

Some Jains fast very often. More mainstream Jains still fast regularly, such as for periods during the monsoon season in July through September. There is a nine day holy week called "Paryushan," where Jains fast for the full period (optional). When Jains fast, they completely fast, save water (and I complain about Yom Kippur!).

Spruha says that people have become liberal in their beliefs, and following Jain principles to a lesser degree, but she feels that it is important for Jains to stick to the purer life. I met Spruha at Seeds of Peace. She had to relax her dietary restrictions a little during her time at SOP, or she would have starved. I hope all of you find this as informative as I have, because I sure didn't know anything about Jainism until Spruha explained it to me.

My life is my message

"I have nothing new to teach the world. Truth and Non-violence are as old as the hills." M.K. Gandhi

I visited Mani Bhavan today, the home of Gandhi when he lived in Bombay. After much searching, I found the house, only to be greeted by a sign that read "closed today for pest control." After much pleading, I convinced the folks at the museum to let me in. I told them how far I had come to see the place, and that I didn't mind pesticide. I wandered through halls of old pictures of Gandhi. Pictures of the young man in South Africa. In his uniform for medic unit that he was part of during the Boer War that helped convince him of necessity of non-violence. Pictures of an old man, sitting cross-legged in white robes. Letters to Roosevelt, and to Hitler. On the top floor, there was his simple room. I knew the room well, as I had black-and-white poster of Gandhi in this room in my apartment in Houston. Although I could quote Gandhi for pages and pages, I will leave this blog with his words stated just days before his death:

If I am to die by the bullet of a mad man, I must do so smiling. There must be no anger within me. God must be in my heart and on my lips..

Monday, February 05, 2007

There was a time

I was wandering around old Bombay today. It is a beautiful city. It is as London was. Bombay is London, before the Blitz, before the bombing. It is truly striking to see the colonial architecture in all its faded grandeur.

Serendipity

Sometimes serendipity gives you a gentle shove. Sometimes serendipity gives you a slap so hard, you are left speechless, reeling with your mouth wide open. That happened to me this morning. I was with Faruazan, the director of Seeds India, who was giving me a tour of the Jewish part of town. I saw the Sir David Sassoon library, and was in the synagogue, interviewing the shamesh (caretaker).

I was just concluding my interview, when he mentioned that there was a special program that night. Just then, who walks in, but....the Pope. No, just kidding, but close. The Chief Rabbi of Israel! I was floored. He was with the Consul General of Bombay. I gained enough composure to introduce myself, and explain that I was interviewing for a story. He told me to come to the ceremony tonight, and that he would try to give me some time. I also spoke with the CG, who knew my old bosses at the Consulate. I'm still in total shock. I will let Jules Verne speak for me when he wrote "fortune favors the bold."

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Bombay saphire

I have been thoroughly enjoying dear Mumbai. It is one of the great port cities of the East, a shining star of the Orient. The seven islands of Bom Bahia, the great bay, as the Portuguese called it, was ceded to the English as a dowry. Bombay as the English called it was rented to the British East India Company for a whopping 10 pounds a year, a real estate transaction that ranks up with the 12 trinket purchase of Manhattan. Bombay of the East India company exploded during the 19th century, especially after the American Civil War, which shut down the cotton supply to British Empire. Bombay stepped in to fill the void, and grew by leaps and bounds. It is a fascinating city of old British architecture. It almost feels disingenuous to call the city Mumbai, as the dream of Bombay as a bustling metropolis was built on the back of colonialism, while Mumbai was merely a tiny, sleepy fishing village.

I have been gaining a "Bombay belly" amid the wonderful hospitality of one of my SOP campers Hasit and his family. I arrived early Saturday morning, and was met by Hasit. I spent most of the day sleeping as I was exhausted from the bus and the Goan sun. Saturday evening was spent with Hasit and his Mom at the mall, where I picked up some fantastic Punjabi rap and had Mickey D's. A McVeggie sandwich, which was surprisingly good.

Sunday I toured around the city. First, we had lunch at a local place. One of those places you will never find in a guide book, but bustling with locals. Packed, I should say. I ate my unending fill of South Indian cuisine. Hasit laughed that I knew how to eat rice with my hands better than he did. After, we visited the Prince of Wales museum, a stunning Indo-Saracen structure with white domes and towers built by the British. It had a nice exhibit on the history of Bombay, and some nice exhibits on Indian history and beautiful miniature paintings of the Indian style. After, we visited the Gateway to India, a giant monumental structure that greeted the British ships in the harbor.

There was a Seeds of Peace meeting called in my honor, and 12 kids came. Half were my campers, half were from previous years. It was great seeing the kids, they grew so much in six months too. One girl, Manasa, traveled over an hour and a half to see me, and she has exams coming up. Bless her, what a sweetheart. I spoke about my travels to the kids, and what I had learned. I gave them my impressions of India. Then we did a workshop about the stages of nonviolent resistance and where it comes into play.

After the meeting, I went with Hasit and his family to the India Sports Club. It was a huge country club where the well-heeled Indians gather to play and eat. It amazes me the different worlds I have been privy to. After a wonderful dinner, we walked along the Chowpatty beach area, with the night light up by "The Queen's Necklace," a string of lights around the waterfront that resembles a pearl necklace.

Now, I am watching the Super Bowl, which I had to wake up at 5:30am to watch.

New Story in the Jpost

My latest "Tales" piece is in the Jpost, in the Jewish World section (www.jpost.com). It is a little different than the way I wrote it, you can see that version on my other blog: http://talesofawanderingjew.blogspot.com

Friday, February 02, 2007

New pics up

Mysore, Bangalore and Goa now up:
http://picasaweb.google.com/levantine18

On the way to Bombay (I love saying that), I had the worst luck for seat assignments on the bus. It was a sleeper bus from Goa to Mumbai. Should have been fine, as my seat reclined to a bed. Too bad, I had the last seat in the back, that was not actually connected to the ground, but rather to the other seats. Everytime the bus hit a pothole, my bed jack-knifed. I ended up sleeping cramped on two open seats nearby that barely reclined. Ah, the joys of travel.

Old Goa

I left Goa this morning on an overcrowded bus. There were 25 people in the aisle, on a bus half the size of a school bus. The air on the bus was permeated with curried sweat, but a gentle breeze came in through the open windows and cooled down the ride a tad. Another slightly less crowded bus ride followed, and eventually I arrived to Panjim, the capital of Goa. I took yet another bus to the city of Old Goa- about 9km away from Panjim.

Old Goa was formerly the capital of Goa, and in its heyday was said to rival Lisbon in splendor. Now, there is little left, save some pretty cathedrals. I wandered around for a while, then got bored and hungry so I headed back on my fourth bus of the day to Panjim. In Panjim, I found a wonderful portuguese restaurant, where I had Carne Assada, potatoes, pao (portuguese bread) and a catembe (red wine and coke with lime). While India has given me a deep appreciation for veg food, it has also given me an even greater appreciation for beef. Now just wandering through fading Portuguese colonial architecture.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

Same old song

"Yes, I am a pirate. 2oo years too late. The cannons don't thunder, there's nothing to plunder. I'm an over-forty victim of fate. Arriving too late, arriving too late."
-Jimmy Buffet, "Mother, mother ocean"

All around the world the same song. So eloquently put in a Digital Underground memory. Drinking Caucasians like Lebowski, with my feet up on bamboo. Watching the tide roll in under my feet. Couldn't find any raves, just waves. There will have to be a next time for Goa.

The good life

So I never found the raves last night. Rather, I ended up on a cafe on the beach, watching the waves come in and break on the steps. I met a few Indians, and finally got to talk to Indian girls. They are hard to meet. I didn't get very far. I spent all night talking to an Indian guy named Ashok, who does collection work for call centers for Bloomies and Macy's. He has spent the last 4 years speaking with 400 Americans a day, who are late in their payments. Oy, not a job I would envy. I also met a Brazilian and Portuguese couple, who were sweet. I got to reminisce about Rio and Lisbon at the same time. I had a nice time, and after getting super lost, crossing a huge open field to avoid the stray dogs roaming the streets. I slept peacefully under the stars and moon on the roof, save the bedbugs biting me. I have been bit by more bedbugs this trip than I can count. Not fun to wake up in the middle of the night itching. The price you pay for cheap accomodations.

I woke up this morning at 9:15, rather late for me but much needed. I took a moto ride to another beach called Vagator to meet my friend Sanjeev from the previous day. I met him for breakfast, and had yummy shakshouka. After, we went beach hopping. We spent a while on Vagator, which is a beautiful beach. I had a good time hawking the hawkers. They thought I was nuts. While we were sitting on the beach, Sanjeev got a call telling him he was being made a very generous offer from Fidelity to run their call-center. To celebrate, we had some feni a locally made liquor. It comes from cashews. I mixed it with a tasty drink called Limca, a lime soda made by coke here.

After a while on the beach, we went to an old fort that overlooks the ocean that the Portuguese built. Much like their once-great Empire, nothing was left of it, save the walls. We went to another beach a little farther away, called Baga. It was a nice beach, and I had a fish vindaloo and garlic naan for lunch. Just lounged on the beach and read "Lord Jim." I figured I couldn't find any cheaper accomodation than the roof, so I decided to return to Ajuna and take back my residence. Tonight, maybe I will have more luck finding a rave. Should be some, as it is a full moon tonight, and that is always cause for revelry.