Nepal via Pokhara

After an overnight in Kathmandu, I must catch a 11:10 flight to Pokhara, some 200+ kilometers west  Most travelers take a bus, rent a car and driver, but not many fly and cough up the $106 for a 45 min. flight as opposed to 7-8 hours on the road.  Kathmandu domestic airport terminal has monkeys on the roof, no pavement in front and so clouds of dust rise up with each passing breeze. But once inside all is orderly and efficient, quite decrepit, surely a new terminal is in the works?  After going through security for a second time, there’s even a statue of the Buddha as one enters the departure lobby.   This addition is likely for the foreign tourists since Nepal is most definitely a Hindu country before it is Buddhist.

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Not sure why I am unable to generate enthusiasm for a trip to Lumbini, the place now considered to be Shakyamuni’s “home” base in the south, and will attribute this “pass” to the allure of mountains to the north. It would also help if I were a card-carrying Buddhist and had enough faith to believe that the founder of “my” religion originated at this alleged site.  No evidence anywhere for anything, but that’s all right.

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________

Reading by candlelight,
her sun-disk earring
glows gold
into the shadows–
Vermeer would know
how to make
this beauty last.

(Moondance restaurant, Pokhara)

 

Nepal via Kathmandu

Flying in to Kathmandu
out of the haze that Delhi breathes,
a perceptual relief 
to see space between housing blocks,
some forested hillsides,
and beyond them, above clouds,
the Himalayas that generate
weather patterns, watersheds,
economies and agriculture and even

nationstates (for now).

The city itself jumbles lives and commerce
within restricted spaces
never meant for the velocity
of such traffic and bodies in motion,
never imagined as a mecca
for travelers around the world.

It’s the motorcycles that shred one’s nerves,
honking their hurried way
through clusters of tourists
attentive to store fronts
but not the chance of collision.

Later on, it will be live rock bands
that turn the evening on its head,
away from the Kathmandu
I’ve idolized these many years.

As two Danish travelers commented 

“In 2001, Thamel district was quiet,
easy to navigate…,”
no close calls with passing vehicles
that graze one’s tender flanks,
No late night drunks
screaming their way to bed.

__________
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Last Delhi day

  • email in the morning; edit a short chapter; comment on a proposal for funding;
  • Tom and Tamia back from Antarctica
  • noticed around 9:40 that the room had darkened to the point that a light was needed–what’s going on?
  • thunderstorms, blustery wind, enough rain to mess up the streets & dislodge dust temporarily
  • one more time next door to the Post-Graduate Hostel’s canteen (greasy spoon) serving delicious dosa (a kind of crepe)
  • some issues with transportation to my hotel for the last night–tri-wheel drivers won’t take me; don’t even inquire if I want a ride; so it’s back to the feisty receptionist at the Guest House, asking for a cab
  • and then I’m in Hotel Venezia Inn, a 4-star, $50 per night room that soothes me with its ambiance even as the picture glass window conveys street sounds 3 floors below.
  • at least I’m not living on that street, as some people are
  • There’s enough time in the afternoon for shopping, haircut, strolling, gazing–asking for and receiving a few moments out of a person’s life: as tailor, green grocer, little boy, street person. Thank you.Image

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  • Signs extolling the benefits of yoga are posted on a high wire fence around a large ashram near the hotel. A man in a blanket sleeps on the pavement below a life-advice message that perhaps he didn’t read.

The Red Fort

It is a Sunday and, since I now know that Indians love excursions, I decide to try again to visit the Fort early in the morning. No taxi this time; a pleasant walk to the metro on quiet, car-less streets, then zoom to downtown (I imagine a former student, Leah, riding these trains during her fieldwork period) and the abrupt transition from modern convenience to streets of the Chandni Chawk market.

No sooner do I exit the metro than my path takes me past a Hindu temple where one of its caretakers is using a white pole to prod a man lying prone on the pavement just beside the main gate. Since he doesn’t move or respond, the caretaker comes out of the temple and checks the man to make sure he’s alive. Enlisting a passerby, they each grab one appendage–a leg and an arm–and lift the man off the pavement just enough to drag and then deposit him on the other side of the street. I see he is older, with grey hair and a stubbly beard. How he ended up in front of the temple in this state–drunk? sick? worse?– is a story I imagine while following my own compass to the Red Fort.

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Unlike the past several days, Sunday morning has a hazy but warm yellow sun. It brings forth soft reds in the carnations, golds in the chrysanthemums, and in the displays of flower stalls catering to destined for temple offerings. A woman in a lime green, rather gauzy sari steps into the light as she’s buying a strand of carnations. I catch a quick photo with no one paying any attention, then keep heading to the Fort.

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This place was the first site visited some 37 years ago on my inaugural India tour in the winter of 1977. It had then and still retains a unique combination of historical structures, compelling tales of the original builders and rulers, and officially-sanctioned neglect despite it being named a World Heritage Site. These palaces were built by non-Indians, non-Hindus, and yet they retain an iconic value for India due to their superb architecture and craftsmanship that originated in places like Persia and Baghdad but which were localized here. The same is true for many other of India’s Mughal monuments, including the Taj Mahal, built to honor and serve as a mausoleum for the beloved wife of the same Shah Jahan who constructed the Red Fort.

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The story of this family has a supreme irony: a son deposes the father then locks him away till he dies but ultimately enshrines his body in an honorable way. Shah Jahan and Mumtaz’ third son was called Aurangzeb. After Mumtaz died in her forties, her body was buried temporarily for the 20 years it took until the Taj Mahal was built. When Shah Jahan fell ill in the last decade of his life, Aurangzeb’s two elder brothers were governors in distant precincts. Each raised an army and rushed back to Delhi to claim the throne. Aurangzeb was ready and defeated each of them, seizing the kingdom for himself.

His father had recovered by this time, but Aurangzeb pronounced him too feeble to rule and imprisoned him in the Red Fort. For the last eight years of his life, one of Shah Jahan’s daughters cared for him. Upon his death, Aurangzeb prohibited any grand funeral but allowed his father to be buried alongside his mother in the Taj Mahal…where they remain side by side today (in the basement and not, as most tourists think, on the upper level where two marble caskets sit behind a latticed screen of the finest marble).

The difference between my first and second visits were like night and day. For one thing, the first visit in 1977 allowed people to actually walk within the palaces and get a sense of the space and dimensions of the architecture. One could see the fine inlay work on the many flowers, vines, and celestial birds that were believed to reside in the gardens of paradise. A canal that conveyed flowing water from the nearby Yamuna river ran through all the main buildings in the complex, something I could examine closely and imagine how soothing it must have been. The water first refreshed Shah Jahan in his quarters, then the hot and nubile women of his harem, then at the southern end, his wife’s palace (now a historical museum).

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Even with the barriers up and security guards posted, viewing from a distance was still impressive on this recent visit. I got a much better sense of how small the palaces actually were, and how, despite all its opulence, constricted was the world of those who lived here. Sadly, the buildings seem much more decayed and in need of a major renovation–which may or may not be within the reach of India’s bureau of public monuments. The front of the Red Fort is impressive and well-maintained, but looking at the back side away from the TV cameras on Republic Day, there is considerable deterioration.

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I stroll around, letting people pose with me (for no charge!), and enjoy the acrobatics of a young dancer whose two friends snap photos. I offer a word of praise to the toilet concession that, for a 20-cent fee, maintains a spotlessly clean and fragrant WC on the grounds. Nearby, a dead tree provides a perch for 12 freewheeling hawks whose trilling cry provides the soundtrack for my visit to the Fort.
Afterwards, I succumbed to the allure of Chandni Chawk one more time, searching for a finding quickly a Nehru-type vest that fit me perfectly and cost only $5, with no haggling. I even wore it to my lecture the next day at University of Delhi.

And so, with a few more images, I bid adieu to this most frenetic, educational, claustrophobic, market. I even heard a new insult directed at me by one member of a group of teenage boys: “Hey Mitt Romney!” Now that hurts.

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One of India’s Great Champions for Human Rights (no, not Gandhi)

The B. R. Ambedkhar Memorial Museum

image• Family was of the Mahar caste, low untouchables
• long line of military service to the British colonial govt.
• young BA sent to Elphinstone high school in Bombay
• good example of colonial benevolence for those who serve
• despite his schooling in India and later in the UK, BA became anti-British!
• He is listed as a jurist, anthropologist, economist, and historian
• Perhaps the first Indian to qualify for a law degree from the UK (London School of Economics, 1927)
• motto was: “educate–agitate–organize!”
• first public demonstration to end the stigma of untouchability was in 1927; why can’t untouchables drink from a public water tank? Chawdar Tank incident
• not only was he anti-caste, he was anti-Hindu priest for their role in perpetuating the caste system (and remaining on top as Brahmins)
• became key figure in drafting of constitution of India in 1947
• received an honorary LLD from Columbia in 1952
• 1955 established Buddhist Society of India
• publicly took Buddhist precepts in 14 Oct., 1956
• encouraged mass conversions of untouchables (dalit) to Buddhism
• highlighted satyagraha (as did Gandhi) but emphasized “agitation” in addition to peaceful resistance

So I’d like to know what Buddhist writings he was reading in 1955 and 56 that convinced him there could be a political dimension useful to his cause. Have to research this. This man is one of the truly significant Indians of the 20th century.

Taking the Plunge in Delhi: the Chandni Chawk Bazaar

The first item of business on my first full day in Delhi is to visit the Red Fort. Several lifetimes ago, when I was 23 and living in Sapporo, Japan (in Hokkaido) teaching English, I joined a tour of teachers on a two week jaunt around India. As superficial as that encounter might have been, it jolted me significantly in ways that Japan had not. The Red Fort was one of the first places we stopped to see, and I was blown away by its palaces, harems, and tales of royal intrigue and excess. I even wrote a poem about it.

The Fort would be my second World Heritage site (after Borobodur) on this trip. It serves as the location for India’s Republic Day, coming up soon on Jan. 27. The Prime Minister ascends to the main Lucknow Gate and with the flag flying overhead, he delivers an address to the nation, similar to the State of the Union speech in the U.S.

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But the Fort is closed and the steel barriers are pulled up tight. A single piece of paper taped to the metal gate announces the Fort is closed due to a delegation of “VVIP” dignitaries touring the facilities.

So that means I turn on my heels, face the busy street I avoided earlier with a harrowing taxi ride from hotel, and figure out a way to cross. People stride into the middle of traffic fearlessly, then use their hands to indicate to drivers how they plan to move, whether they will step directly in front of a moving car, pedicab, or rickshaw. I even see women in saris do this, and find it hard to believe the street is not littered with the maimed and dead.

I step away from the main intersection of Red Fort and Chandni Chawk bazaar (“Selling-Place” (chawk) and “moonlight”) and weave my way through two lanes of traffic only, step on a raised median strip, then do the same thing w/ a skip and a bounce to reach the other side. “Survival of the fittest,” I think in self-congratulation, then look to my side and see an old woman with white hair and wire-rimmed glasses, using a cane, who has just come across the intersection. Clearly, a different cultural logic is at work here…but I won’t put my body on the line to investigate!

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The marketplace is a warren of narrow lanes, alleys, and an occasional courtyard that feed people to and from the main thoroughfare…which passes in front of a Sikh gudwara (long story there), a Jain temple, the Town Hall with a statue of Gandhi in front, a Baptist church and school, and about a thousand little businesses jammed into storefronts that are probably 3 x 3 meters. No windows, perhaps a back room or tiny upstairs, and every inch clogged with merchandise. I first walk through a section that has cell-phone accessories, then one with electrical parts, then pharmaceutical supplies, then household electronics (don’t forget the size of these shops; no chain stores here) and emerge to a street full of rickshaws, scooter-cabs, cars, wagons, cows pulling carts, bicycles, motorcycles, and between them pedestrians everywhere. The flow of vehicles and people is non-stop.

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And yet there are stationary people too: street vendors selling food, spices, tea, used clothing, sweets, toys, and so on. Below them are beggars squatting on the filthy and frequently broken pavement, their hands outstretched, imploring. It’s still mid-morning, so there are also clusters of what appear to be orphaned or abandoned children (all boys) who appear to be living on the streets. In one doorway, an older boy (of perhaps 10) is still stretched out and either asleep or sick, while younger kids (from 6 to 8) talk among themselves and huddle around him to keep warm. Their clothes are predictably dirty and their faces and hands unwashed, with some holding little chunks of scavenged food.

A thought registers: what if I were to drop a 100 rupee note in their midst? what difference would it make in this day of their lives? Food first? Maybe it would buy something fun to play with, or an item needed for survival (like a pair of shoes, although I don’t see any of these boys wearing any) on a cold and dreary January day. But I continue on, and do not meddle in a scenario I did nothing to create and cannot possibly change long-term. Is this how Hindus or Tibetan Buddhists consider karma to work?

I decide to keep my eyes open for a Nehru-style vest, and even try a couple stores for sizes and colors. I then see a shop selling “ammunition and firearms” with dusty front windows and yet there are employees inside, and so I decide to enter to ask a question.

The proprietor is a man in his late 60s or early 70s, with white hair growing out of his ears, who was watching a cricket match until I came in. I ask him about gun control laws in India, and whether private citizens can own weapons. He explains the licensing procedure, and how anyone with a clean record can own a gun but that purchasing a firearm must be sponsored by an elected official, politician, or senior government employee. There are bribes to be administered and money to be made, and so the criminals have the easiest time of it! No semi-automatic rifles or pistols are available to the general public either. My last question is about the Newton school shootings of Dec. 2013, and how much play this received in the Indian media. “Not that much,” was his reply. “We are busy with other things.”

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I fail in trying to find a vest, but encounter many stores selling wedding apparel for women. These are all run by men, who pull out sari after sari for the entourage of women from the bride’s family to consider for purchase. I never see anyone trying on this fabric, for that’s all it is…ready to be tailored to the measurements of the bride. Storefront mannequins often have rather generic Western faces and impossibly buxom figures, body shapes similar to what one might see when Hindu female deities are depicted!

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Amidst all these stores, vendors, pedestrians, and moving vehicles, I come across the entrance to a second-floor music store and head up the steps without hesitation. They have drums of all sizes suspended from the ceiling, along with vinas (see photo), guitars, brass instruments, and, hooray, a nice selection of bamboo flutes. I try several (using a babywipe to cleanse the wind hole) and find a double F model that seems to like me and plays easily. A couple photos and I’m done for the day.

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All I have to do now is find the metro entrance, and cruise back to the Heritage Inn area in style and comfort. There are no signs anywhere for a major public conveyance, and I have to ask many people to get a sense of the alley I have to follow to reach the portal in a wall that leads to the clearing where the station is found. For a whopping $0.20 (10 rupees) I get a 15 minute ride back to the North Delhi neighborhood adjacent to the university. The afternoon is oppressive with cold, smog, and traffic noise, and I drag myself back to the inn. But I notice en route (and not more than a couple minutes from Heritage Inn) a museum dedicated to one of India’s most famous advocates for social change, Ambedkhar. I vow to return.

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Transitioning: Dharamsala to Delhi (Buckle-up, please)

Once I’m properly fed, packed, and primed to go, I take my leave of the Kashmir Cottage staff. I give Tsering at the front office a hefty tip to be distributed to everyone who has helped make my stay so comfortable. l did not get a chance to talk with Ani-la, the resident Buddhist nun, because she was off to the LTWA to hear Geshe Lhakdor’s teaching…she has her priorities straight! Tsering gives me her usual sweet smile and I wish her well as she charts the next steps in her life. She already has a nurse’s certificate but is uncertain where she wants to live and work.

At first light, I could see high wispy clouds and blue sky, both good signs. Stepping outside at 6:50 a.m., I could feel lower humidity than the previous two days. Around 10:15, TC appears en route to a meeting and pronounces that I should be able to leave…providing the plane makes it from Delhi.

My driver is the bearded gent who lives down the road from KC, and I’m pleased he’s the one taking me to the airport. He’s driven a taxi for 21 years he says, 13 of them in the little Indian-made Maruti (now teamed up with Suzuki). He wants a new vehicle in a couple years but only for local travel prior to retirement. I lose courage to ask his age, but I’ll bet that despite his venerable white beard akin to a yogi’s, he is younger than me.

En route, the scenes out the window are alternately stunning, depressing, and entertaining. The mountains appear behind a thin veil of haze, so I’m jazzed that the flight will indeed proceed. I appreciate seeing the whole high range again and am looking forward to Nepal and the “real” Himalayas. At one bend in the road, a whole pack of pink-faced monkeys are sunning themselves, eating garbage, picking fleas, squabbling, and fornicating. At the next bend, I see down the hillside to the river where row after row of makeshift structures held together with rope, plastic tarps, pieces of wood and etc. give a new meaning to “slum.”

At the airport, I’m the only obvious foreigner on the flight. Somehow this comforts me. 

We have a slight delay when HHDL’s plane arrives from out of the clouds, now rapidly obscuring the mountains. Security people hustle out to the tarmac and whisk him away with only a tiny glimpse of a maroon monk’s robe visible to all the eyes straining for a view from the departure lobby. I chat with an Indian fellow who originated in Calcutta then went to school in London before ending up in Stockholm as a cultural geographer in a planning department. He wants me to sit beside him on the flight, but I excuse myself due to the exit row when actually I just want to chill and prepare myself for arrival.

We land in whiteout conditions, visibility less than 5000 feet for sure. How the pilots of the twin-propeller plane can manage the instruments so skillfully is a wonder. My checked bag appears just when it should and then I’m out into the atmosphere of Terminal 3. A long line of govt. controlled, pre-paid yellow and black taxis (of every shape and kind of vehicle) come and go, but none will take me to the address of my hotel. I’m asking and cajoling and even get into one cab but must exit when the young driver complains he can’t speak English and doesn’t know the address.

Finally, after 20 minutes, a fellow picks me up and plunges into the city traffic at 4:30 on a Thursday. Most of the time we zip in and around other cars, trucks, rickshaws, tuktuks, and wagons, but sometimes we come perilously close to colliding. Sometimes I just close my eyes and hold on. Heading down a three-lane road, I see in the outer lane a rickshaw man pedaling against traffic with a full load of gravel in his back. This is astonishing because cars seem to sense something is up ahead and slow down, honking all the while to create a steady wall of noise. One can only guess if drivers are annoyed at seeing this struggling man on his bike. In Delhi (and India generally), humans too are beasts of burden.

And when their bodies give out, one can follow the large, overhead highway sign not far from the Australian and American embassies: “Electric Crematorium.”

After an hour on the road, three phone calls, two pullovers to ask directions, I end up at the Heritage Inn, not far from University of Delhi. I give my driver 200 rps. tip (in addition to the 350 I’ve already paid) but he says, “one more (bill).” Uh, okay…I’m not going to argue about an extra $1.40 when my life has been preserved and delivered to its destination by this driver. Om shanti to you, brother.

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I’m able to do a 20 min. walk before darkness descends and see quickly that I am in an upper-class neighborhood. It is composed of huge walled compounds with family names on impressive looking gates, manned by guards and flanked by security cameras. The houses are truly mansions, some going up to four stories, with chandeliers visible from the dusty street. (Don’t ask me why the millions of poor people in Delhi have not risen up en masse to tear these people limb from limb.)

I meet the owner of Heritage Inn upon return, Mr. Ashok Gupta, originally from Pakistan, who is gracious and pleased to answer questions about the many portraits on the walls of my room and in the dining area. I recognize one couple–the early 20th century guru, Sri Aurobindo and the woman from France that was his key patron (known as “the mother.”) It turns out the Gupta family was an early supporter of Aurobindo, contributing funds (money earned from a patent on mineral oil) to his ashram in the south at Pondicherry. Mr. Gupta talked of many lengthy stays on the ashram, listening to teachings, meeting extraordinary people from both India and Europe, and being part of the “inner circle.” His dining room has statues or portraits representing Hinduism (Ganesha), Buddhism (Shakyamuni in meditation, earth-witnessing mudra), and Christianity (Mary and baby Jesus in Greek mosaic).

All this spiritual heritage will come to good use the next day. I learn from the hotel manager that Mr. Gupta’s elder brother has brought a court case challenging their inheritance. Despite Mr. Gupta having a deed from his mother that bequeaths him the property, the elder brother thinks that Mr. Gupta’s only child, a daughter now studying hospitality management in Montreaux, Switzerland, won’t need the property the same way he does. Thus, in an argument that is sexist, disrespectful, selfish, and ultimately unsupported by the law, the case has gone to the Delhi High Court. On the morning of my departure for the Univ. of Delhi guest house, that’s where Mr. Gupta and his wife are bound. (He told me the previous evening when we came to a portrait of them together and smiling as a younger couple, “We were married by our families. There was no love. After 17 years of marriage, our daughter arrived.”)

 After 9 hours of traveling, I have arrived in Delhi.