Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Dipping in the Ganges

As Amanda, Hannah and I make our way through the crowd, Jess and Delphine get bombarded by vendors and are terrible are being firm and ignoring them. Jess panics and Frenchie is hopeless. People are coming up to us and shaking our hands, showing us their children. Amanda is fantastic with all the attention, Hannah is just laughing, while Jess and Delphine look like they are about to cry, and both loving it and trying not to panic. Talk about overwhelmed, it's the definition of the word. We walk down the street and down to the ghat steps for the main bathing area. This big group of men want to take loads of pictures with us as a group, then each one individually- I am starting to get annoyed, especially since about 100 people are staring at us and Frenchie's nervous laugh can be heard on the other side of the freakin' Ganges.
I sit down on a wall by the water to get away, even though I know I am still being stared at.

Suddenly, two big Hindu women come up to me and want to take me down to the water. Uhhhhh ok? I willingly go, feeling the same excitement I did when I went surfing for the first time- the same exhiliration. I step down one step at a time, so my pants are wet around my ankles. Then they lead me down one more, and one more until I'm up to my ribs. On the count of three: ONE-TWO-THREE!!! I dunk!!!!
Nothing like the thrill of dipping in holy water and washing away all your sins. The smiles of my Hindu mommas faces is priceless. Amanda and Hannah join me and we dip again all together. I lead Jessica down the steps (she trips over half of them hehe!) and I hold on to her tight as she dunks, and comes up laughing laughing laughing. She is beaming.
The crowd we attracted is even bigger, I am about to start charging for photos!!!
Delphine, of course, is reluctant to go in, complaining about how dirty the water is
I just want to yell : EMBRACE IT!
She has to dip twice to get her hair wet.
Our Hindu mommas show us how to put your hair down and whip it back in the water- the proper way. Jess and I go in one more time, 3 times for good measure and to properly wash our hair.
I feel nearly close to tears. I am just BEAMING with energy- we all look glowing and fresh. My and Hannah's hands are shaking because we just feel so good and have such good energy pulsing through us. We each take some red powder and mark a little bindi on our foreheads. I've got the true makings of a hippie: my bangles, my mehandi hands and feet, my psychedelic pants, my yellow saffron scarf, my red bindi and cleansed by the Ganges of my sins. Ahh.

We walk back home, soaking wet but feeling just so incredibly high and elated. These obnoxious men are desperately trying to get pictures with us by grabbing our shoulders and snapping a photo. Total mood killer. We walk allll the way up home in our wet clothes, up the hill and into the mountains. At home we all shower, freshen up and spend the night talking on the porch under the heavy rain. The bugs are crawling all over us but I'm trying my best to embrace it. It is wonderful and serene, sitting out there talking, smoking, eating, listening to the rain and having deep conversation. Jess tells us about Hindu concepts in religion and tradition while looking at all the deities on my new scarf.
I bunk with Frenchie for the night, who I'm just starting to feel pity for. All she knows how to do is complain and be negative, rather than embrace experiences and culture.

Big Problem, and it's staring me in the face: my first cockroach! Yuck!
I go out on the porch and try to recruit the help of the hippies getting stoned out there, but to no avail. They just crack up at the idea of using a stick to kill it. Delphine is actually so adorable the way she deals with it cuz she has to talk herself through it as she smacks it with her shoe and screams. I sleep on the hard piece of wood they call a bed, with a sheet over my head, paranoid about bugs.

Offerings to the Ganges

Cheetal shows us to another cottage even further down this walled path which was just perfect. It has a nice little porch that hangs out over a ravine filled with mangoes and monkeys. In the near distance, those luscious mountains I still dream about are high above us, foresting ancient temples and ruins.
We relax and unwind on the porch, hanging our clothes out to dry, taking pictures of the beautiful scenery and enjoying the view. I love just picturing the Beatles hiding out here for months, on a high and inspired by the scenery. Our host Cheetal tells us about the time the elephants came crashing through the valley right below in a herd- how cool!
After settling in and filling out our guest and passport information, we set off for town. The walk down is pleasant, all downhill, with the Ganges below. Rickshaws putt-putt their way up and down as we pass little roadside vendors. Down in the village, we find the Cafe Madras, right near some shops. We order a GREAT big meal of fruit lassis, fresh Nutella pancakes and butter naan- my favorite!!! There is a constant flow of traffic, up and down the street. We do some shopping around, for mala beads, gifts, jewellery and souvenirs. Amanda, Hannah and I head down to the river and buy offerings at one of the ghats for only 10 rps.
It includes a banana leaf with marigolds, fresh petals, incense and burning clay. I say a little prayer for my friends, my family as I set the gift in the water and watch it quickly float down the Ganges.
We continue our shopping, looking at jewellery, anklets, CDs and clothing. We make our way slowly across the suspension bridge and see a gorgeous view of the mountains surrounding the river that flows out of them. Across on the other side, Hannah has a serene moment, where she just stops and needs to take it all in. The sights, the sounds, the people, the smells, the singing, the flow of the river. All the bright, colorful people are gathering, singing, praying, as the sun sets on the Ganges. Magical.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

The Road to Rishi

How do I describe everything? First of all, people are EVERYWHERE- comin' out of the woodwork! I make eye contact with many..awkward. Along one bridge, I see the worst suffering I've seen yet- a man lying down, completely emaciated so that you could see the bone is his legs sticking out, the flies swarming around him like a piece of meat. And people just walk past like he's a bump in the road.
Sadhus are walking around with their oranges robes and pails for money. I look into the eyes on one sadhu and feel my heart stop- his eyes are so fierce!!! I think he just penetrated my soul...
The Ganges snakes it's way along the route to Rishi, while loads of people walk on the side of the road in the slow traffic that inches up the hill. We get out and switch rickshaws. Auto #2
The road to Rishi is green- for once. There are village centers along the way but I mostly remember seeing jungle-like forests and dense vegetation. We spot a few monkeys along the way. A motorbike with two guys on it keeps up with us steadily, trying to get our attention and yell things at us. I am in a friendly mood so I wave to EVERYONE who happens to look/stare at me. Most respond with a smile and a wave, others not so much.
An hour later, we pull into Rishikesh, only to switch rickshaws at the bus station. Auto #3
We sit with a small family, so there's about 8 of us in a 5 person auto as we head north.
Halfway up the hill, our rickshaw dies...on to Auto #4. Best part is that it is so packed, Hannah has to stand with her ass out the window to make room. Boy, did we have a laugh and a couple of jokes about that.
Up a big hill lands us in Lakshmandu, a quiet village north of Rishi. The Ganges is far down below, with green forested hills shooting up all around us. We are dropped at the bottom of a random lane, which we climb up and up to a path leading to the "Bist Mountain View Guest Cottage". Amanda says we were meant to find this place, and something leads us there. We are followed by a sweet old street dog who doesnt leave our side. I forget what we name her!
Our "hotel manager" is this really chill Indian dude with an eyebrow piercing and a calm voice.
Rooms are only 200 rps a night!

Sunrise on the Ganges

Saturday, June 14th
But it is totally worth it. Pitch black is the night as we go out to the little landing overlooking the Ganges river, the mist rising up like spirits. Ever so slowly, the light begins to deepen as mystical chanting over on a bridge begins. We could see forms walking slowly across the bridges, the mist covering their figures. As the sunlight grew, we go down to dip our feet in the holy river. It is cold. The current is so strong! I walk down the steps a bit to my ankles and say a little prayer- not sure it for anyone, but just the world in general, saying how much I love it. We sprinkle water around us in an arc and say "Namaste!" to the river and the sun. Jess and I do some sun greeting yoga moves, then drink chai on the little landing as the mist rises up with the sun.
Back to bed for a little while...of course Frenchie doesnt offer to sleep on the floor and we cramp 4 in a bed. Around 10am, we pack up and leave for Haridwar just as it starts raining. We hire a rickshaw to take us into the city center, with massssses of pilgrims everywhere.
But nothing beats the presence of the sadhus, in their bright, sometimes faded, orange robes, dreadlock hair (sometimes in big buns, or beards!) and soul-piercing eyes.
We eat a nice big breakfast at Big Ben restaurant, where a "continental" breakfast included toast, tea and juice. How HUGE! Not.
As Hannah and I smoke a Gold Flake outside, a crowd gathers just to stop and stare at us. That's right. They take 10 minutes out of their day to just stare at us from about 10 feet away. I should have just stared right back like some crazy person just to make them uncomfortable. I even wave at one person, who looks so confused and awkward. Inside the restaurant is GREAT for people watching, cuz they cant see us! Sadhus, men as old as death look carved out of stone, and old women with big 60s glasses, no teeth and boobs hanging down to their waist hobble along the streets, shaking their canes or saris. One woman takes 15 minutes out of her day just to stand at the window and stare at me. HIIIIIIIIIIIIIIII!!!!!
In the street is even crazier!! I nearly get pickpocketed by all the children- and the beggars were insane, unmerciful. Shoppng was fun but Jess wants to go into every store so it gets a bit hectic. I start getting overwhelmed by the constant flow of human traffic, the staring, the nonstop begging. Amanda and Hannah were truly wonderful is taking care of me- they each stand on either side of me and take my hand. It feels nice that they are worried about me and see how overwhelmed and disoriented I am. Hannah tells me her secret to crowds like this that she picked up in Thailand- take BIG, long strides and walk fast. Some guy wards off a beggar that WONT leave me alone by yelling at him!!
We hop in a rickshaw quick as we can to take us to Rishikesh- only 200 rps. On the Ganges, thousands of people are bathing, men standing on the side of the road in Speedos and wet undershirts.

Dirt and Deities

When we arrive in Haridwar for the Monsoon Festival, our friend helps us find a rickshaw driver to take us to the right bungalow. Haridwar is like a ghost town.
Sleeping bodies lay sprawled everywhere- in parking lots, on the side of the road, in ditches. In the rickshaw, we get our first glimpse of the mighty GANGES. Breathtaking, even in the darkness, you could still see the strong current and the mist rising off it. No wonder it's considered a deity and worshipped.
Our rickshaw goesall the way through the streets of a neighborhood, only to find the road blocked to our hotel. Fucking figures there's no sign. So we head allllll the way back and are told we have to walk 1km to the hotel. Thank the Ganges our driver walks us over- this place is freaky! It is creepy outside at 2am. Our hotel is tucked away in a dead part of the city; we have a little bungalow right on the river with only 2 single beds (for 5 people...)
Hannah and I take care of paying for the room, waiting desperately for water and hot chai. When we return to the room, figures Delphine has showered first, even though Amanda is sick as a dog. She's hopeless. Tensions are high, especially between Amanda, Jess and Frenchie.
Hannah and I try our best to stay positive, offering to take the floor, with me sleeping RIGHT next to the door where I can already see bugs crawling in. Ah! But I deal. Reminds me of that scene in Indiana Jones, The Lost Arc where he's literally crawling with buggggs. Eeek!
Hannah and I share a single sleeping bag but nearly roasted inside, bc we had to be covered from the insects.
Two hours later, at the ass crack of dawn 4:30am, we wake up to see the sunrise on the Ganges. So tired. Concrete floors are never too comfortable.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

Monsoon Festival in Haridwar

It's raining and so muggy outside. I'm excited to head up north where it's coooooler. Our adventure begins when our driver gets in a fender-bender whilst stuck in the murderous Delhi traffic on the way to the bus station. Uh-oh. Out of this tiny little car come these big turbaned Sikh men- like 8 of them! The driver has an orange turban, a bushy white beard and towers over our wimpy litle driver. Then they argue. And argue. (Indian style) Our driver is refusing to pay for the damage, so he gets us involved; he wants us to pay up! The Sikh men then start poking their heads in, asking us for some money to cover the charges. We look at them and say "Oh hellll no." So our driver is still standing there, not understanding any English and refusing to pay. He looks at us pathetically for money, but we've already payed him for the ride. He just doesn't want to take it out of his 850 rupees fare. So Amanda asks one of the men how much and he says either 100 or 400 rps. So in a bold, balsy move, Amanda grabs the 500 note and hands it to the guy. Man, the look of shock and disbelief on our driver's face is priceless.
The guy turns around and it's over. Easy. What a prick our driver! It's his own fault he lost all that money, if he had just payed in the first place. It's then another (awkward) 45 minutes before we make it through traffic to the bus station. We find a man yelling "Hardwar Hardwar Hardwar" and find some seats in the back of the local bus. "Doin' it like the locals do," we say. NO idea what we are getting ourselves into....
After some confusion with the price (160? 106?116?) we are off! Crammed on a bus, in Delhi traffic, listening to our Ipods to songs by the Beatles. Laughing, dancing, singing. In front of us pop up these two kids- POP! Cute now, definitely not later. The little boy has quite an attitude for a 2-year-old. They think it's fun to stare at us for hours. Three hours later, we stop at a rest stop for food. Amanda is still recovering from Delhi belly all day but seems to be doing better. Hannah and I are smoking by the bus when some guys run up to us saying, "Ice cream! Ice cream!" We just shake our heads no, no, no thank you. Then some more run over and imitate someone fainting. Shit.
We run over to the ice cream stand where there's a crowd of people hovering. Amanda is passed out in a chair. I push my way through the crowd to see her blank white face, pupils dilated and what looks like shock or a fit or something. A big woman is rubbing and shaking her to wake her up. God, I've never been so scared to see someone's face like that, like they're dead. I'll never forget that face. Amanda finally comes around, asking where the hellll she was. We give her water and juice. I am impressed by how many people come to her aid. Someone bought us a fans and ice cream, another trustworthy man is holding her backpack when we look for it. And our big Hindu momma is taking care of Amanda. We all walk her back to the bus and fill her up with electrolytes and juice. She hasn't eaten any food all day because of her illness. This is when the bus ride begins its desperate tone, when we know that Amanda needs a proper bed and needs to get off the bus. We get stuck in over 2½ hours of traffic, in sweltering heat. Amanda keeps sticking her head out the window, even though the air is clogged with fumes. The little shits run out, jump on our laps, steal our water bottles, ask for gum and pull Amanda's hair. Cute at first until we realize the little boy is the devil in disguise. Of course, the parents hardly do anything to stop them. My favorite is when the little nasty monster bites off a piece of the chair in front of him and spits it at me. Fun.
All I really remember from the trip is Amanda's head sticking out the window, like she's gonna be sick; endless traffic jams where the bus would turn off and people would get out to smoke. One time I did get out and the bus started moving without me! Nearly shit a brick, started running and hopped back on on the moving bus. The little monster came over to sit on our laps and play with our things. His favorite game though was pulling Amanda's already-messy hair. Of course, his parents did nothing to stop him. By the end we were all muttering swears words.
When we were only 30 km outside Haridwar, I figured we were less than 45 min away- wrong.
I woke up from my nap, confused why we hadn't arrived yet when it was already frickin midnight.
That's when I started to panic and it stopped being funny. We hadnt even booked a hotel room. A local guy on the bus was very helpful in helping us find a place and call Bandhu for assistance. Another guy in back used his cell phone to call places for us that we found in the Lonely Planet guide (thank god for that). I was so thankful for such generous people ! After several calls, we finally found a place for 1800 rupees. We were lucky to even find a place since it was the weekend of MONSOON FESTIVAL in Haridwar. Holy cow.

Delhi Belly

It's a hot hot day and the electricity and fans are already out by the time we get there at 10AM- I work with the little ones today and we mostly just color. They all come up at once and I try to write down words and have them repeat them, but after a while it isn't worth it. To be honest, the day doesn't have the same energy we had the day before- the kids are going crazy and just want to color, not learn proper English. Also, parents are dropping off their little kids so I feel like I'm running a daycare center rather than an English school. There is a two-year-old running around, stealing the coloring pages from the girls; I finally have to send her home. We break for lunch to compose ourselves again but most of the kids just stay to jump rope and color. There are now a few little boys running around and wrestling, which just adds to the pandemonium.
At one point, Hannah says, "I think we may have actually lost control..." I am exhausted, annoyed and frustrated. The big girls only want to color and sit in front of the fan. I keep suggesting that we send the kids home but they keep playing around. Finally, an hour later, after just horsing around, they finally all leave. Priya shows Hannah and Amanda around the colony. When Bandhu picks us up, I hint that I might not be there tomorrow...
We go up to the Sector 15 market and have a dance party in the CD store, where we buy all these fantastic CDs. I take a nap when we get home and feel nauseous right before dinner. I end up vomiting all over the driveway and later again in the night. It seems that Delhi belly is unavoidable. Whatever I ate, my body doesn't agree with. Bandhu takes me to the market to drink a BIG glass of grapefruit juice from a fruit stand. Reena brins me some watermelon and yogurt to help my tummy. The street kids come later on- we regain control and do number exercises, like drawing 3 squares and 4 circles. I work with this adorable little boy, with the biggest brown eyes. After a few tries of writing a number and then drawing that amount of circles and triangles, he FINALLY catches on! Yayy I'm so proud of him!
Thursday night is Bandhu's last night of freedom before we go away for the weekend. After the kids leave, Vidit comes down for a while to play with water and color with pencils. Little monster!
Once the girls come back, Hannah is ill from whatever I had the day before. We head up to the roof to lay out in the sun and smoke more Indian cigarettes. When we run out, I hop on the back of "Bad-hu's" motorbike and we scoot our way over to the shop for illegal alcohol. That's mostly all I remember from my last night at Bandhu's, great conversation with the girls up on the rooftop.
Last day at the leprosy colony :( After my day off, I'm ready to come back and make the most of the day. It's pouring out today which means the room is hot as hell, and humid! I feel a bit lost today, unsure what to teach the big girls. I give the younger ones to Jessica and take Karmini, Laxmi and the other bright one. We work on active and passive voice from Karmini's grammar book and laugh trying to make sentences work. I make Lakshmi read every sentence to improve her reading skills. God, I wish I could tutor her privately because I can tell she really wants to improve and has so much potential. We find a way to communicate with each other based on big smiles and even bigger laughs...
We end the day with a big round of duck-duck-goose. Looking back, it is a great way to do something with all the students, both big and small, and to laugh with them. They love to choose me! And always laugh when they see me running running after the little kids.
I say my goodbyes at the school, attemping to hug some of them but they don't reall understand the gesture haha. Lalita especially is very sweet: "Ve vill miss you Didi," she keeps saying. Whenever I picture sending computers to the school, I picture Lalita or Lakshmi using them. My favorite image of Lakshmi is her running around the circle, her curly hair down and bouncing around and her sari blowing behind her, and just the biggest smile on her face.
The girls give me a little metal bracelet for a gift. I wave goodbye at the families standing outside as Bandhu's car pulls away.
Back at home, we scamper around to find last minute stuff before our taxi arrives for RISHIKESH!!! My sanctuary...
We're going away for the weekend and are all just so excited. There's five of us: me, Hannah, Amanda, Jessica and Delphine. Bandhu looks so sad as we pull away- that we're leaving him for the weekend!

Wednesday, 26 November 2008


Monday morning Jess and I brainstorm again on ideas for the children, like scavenger hunts and spelling exercises. At the school, I have a little less energy compared with other days. I start off the lesson with spelling, where I would say a sentence and they would write it down. I'm getting frustrated though because the girls would just copy off each other, and not receive the benefit of learning to write a word themselves. When the other half of my girls come in, they just copy the sentences which completely defeated the purpose of the exercises- but they don't understand that. School ends again with the Hokey-Pokey, which the big girls don't like! Jess and I have a little energy left on this hot hot day but are invited into the home of Lakshmi.
It is very humbling- Lakshmi's family has this tiny room with one I'm not really sure where her family of 5 all sleep- but Lakshmi's beautiful mother serves us delicious fresh mango. We make friendly conversation with her family- Priya translates.
When we return, the street kids are already there and are nasty little brats today. Jess and I have little patience for them so we just send them home. I found out all my money was taken out of my account with some check problem, which chased me allllll the over to India. The new volunteers arrive today - Hannah and Amanda are staying here while Delphine and Natalie will be staying at Karm Marg.
Hannah and Amanda are coming with me to the school today :) In the morning, we sort out things from all the loads of stuff that Amanda and I brought to India. Amanda is so incredibly giving- even though she's broke after paying to come here, she still spent over $200 on kids' supplies and set aside more money to buy things for the kids- for example, Wednesday night we looked for CD player to buy for the school. I want to be more like this, giving and generous for all other people, and think less about myself. I learn later that Amanda is only 20, soon to be 21, which blows my mind! All week, I've considered her and Hannah to be my elders, my big older sisters to learn from. I was truly shocked when these two amazing girls I figured were around twenty-three/ twenty-four were actually the same age as me! They are both incredible people, and were wonderful at the school. God, we just had the BEST day. Hannah took the little girls (and one 3-yr adorable boy named Anju) and everytime I look over at her, she is beaming and looks so happy with the little ones. They do some coloring but are learning at the same time, and play games like Ring Around the Rosy, and are always enchanted by Hannah's "aura" hehe. She is truly lovely. Amanda is fabulous as well, I couldn't have been more pleased of how great they are at the school. She takes half the big girls and I take the others. Someone gives her a roll-up plastic "blackboard" which is great. I first have the girls reading books with each other; I go around and I help them with the hard ones. But soon Priya, in a ten minute long sentence, explains that they can read the words but have no idea what they meant all together in a phrase. So I change my gameplan and we did something great- one person reads the page, then Priya translates into Hindi.
On a big piece of posterboard that Amanda brought, I write down vocabulary words, like "curious," "yard" and "celebrate", and then Priya would translate them to Hindi. It was great to feel like I was finally getting through to them. Our chosen book that we all read together was a classic: Curious George.
We stop for lunch where we are served a double lunch because both Lakshmi and Karmini's mothers bring us dosa and idli with spicy coconut sauce- a south Indian specialty. After lunch, we just play games like "What Time Is It, Mr. Wolf?" and a long game of Simon Says. It's cute because none of the little kids understand the rules and just copy everything we are doing. Karmini is our winner. We also get out the jump ropes, which start arguments among the children. Amanda and I just sit arond the fan, surrounded by girls talking and laughing in Hindi. We start singing all our favorite pop songs and we show each other our dances moves. They all love Amanda because she can dance anywhere, without even music. Love her! After we let out school, Lalita invites us into her home next door for some food. Her mother is very sweet and warm, although she doesn't speak a word of English. Lalita's English is decent- she can convey her thoughts to me. Her father, whose hands are scarred from leprosy, speaks a few words as well. They show us their family album of their first daughter's wedding; they are all beaming with pride. Their family is South Indian, so the wedding had a more tropical, exotic feel, with the bride wearing a colorful garland of flowers. There are also pictures of Karmini dressed up for her birthday- she is stunning. She has a fushia-colored sari, and jewels in her hairline and a pink bindi; with her dark skin, her white straight teeth contrast beautifully. They also have a little brother named Rajat, who looks identical to Lalita. The two of them are adorable with their bright smiles and dimples!
Bandhu comes to pick us up and we are all glowing with happiness about how well today went. When we get home, we head up to the roof for cigs and deep conversation about the individual purposes of our trip here and how it affects daily our lives back at home. We talk for over an hour up there- the state of the world, my frustration with the US government and just government in general, optimism, and money- whether it's in the right hands or not. I take a lot away from the conversation, esp from what Amanda says about not feeling guilty if you can't do everything, can't help everybody. When she tells me she was going to buy a CD player and I said I felt guilty I couldn't chip in, she reminds me that if you feel guilty about not being able to do it, what's the point? It defeats the purpose. Do what you can within your means. She told me a story of how she spent her last $20 on the Make-A-Wish foundation and couldn't eat for the next 3 days- why? Because that was still within her means. She does other inspiring things, like volunteers with HIV patients and has a "swearing jar": for everytime she swears, she puts in $ that goes to stop-child trafficking. It's all very inspirational to me, to see someone my own age, with no advantages over me, doing these amazing things- small acts of kindness that make a big difference.

The streetkids come round 4pm and we color outside together. The little boy who had snuck up on the roof the day before (and who invited the rest of the neighborhood boys to terrorize us, and bang down our gate) was there. But only to play. Soon, our patience is spent and we send all the kids home with cookies. We shut the big gate in their faces, as they smile, wave and scream "Bye Didi!!!" That Kavita girl is evil, but I want to get through to her....
So we just lounge around on the roof after, talking and reflecting. We head to the Sector 10 market with Reena and the housekeeper Mogli- I feel like she is giving me dirty looks all night! The marker is sheeeer chaos and too much to handle, but Amanda is perfectly calm the whole time. She loves it; the crowds, the traffic, the staring. I hate it! We brainstorm more ideas to do with the kids tomorrow. All night, it was vodka and Coke with Bandhu. Hana and I stay up until 1am talking- she's telling me about her adventures in Thailand, from the 1 hour trek up 2,000 steps to a temple, to having geckos fighting in her beach hut. I'm intrigued and want to find out more about Thailand....

Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Akshardham: India's Religious Disneyland

Jessica arrives today from the Catholic orphanage where she is working. We traveled before to Agra together, but now I have more of a chance to get to know her. She's been working in the rural areas of Faridabad, where she tells me some nightmare stories of the Father priest at the school and how he doesn't let her do certain stuff, like go to the market, and how he treats his servants like slaves. She's had a much different experience than me....
Me, Annie and Jess go to the lepresy colony all together and it was much better having 3 volunteers there. I made flashcards, the night before, that have verb tenses on them, past/present/future, with easy words, like "write" and "going". It's hard a lot of the time to get my girls to understand to READ the words aloud and to write their OWN sentences - they just copy everything I do. Bit frustrating.
It is a long day of teaching but we finish, as usual, with the HOKEY POKEY!! The little kids join in our circle and are laughing laughing laughing and probably making fun of me in Hindi :)
Afterwards, the three of us walk to the market so Jess can take a look at fabrics. The market is always filled with beeping cars, stray dogs, fruit vendors with flies buzzzzzing around the ripening fruit, and LOADS of people. Always. We look at all these fabrics and then drop them off at the tailor.
Back at home, we hang out, eat dinner and start drinking Indian beer. When Annie and I are up on the roof, a bat flies down SO low and almost hits us! We nearly scream our heads off...She tells me about the legit vampire bats in Thailand..eeek! Annie and Jess are really fun to talk with, about old stuff back at home. I'm liking Jess more and more and realize how quickly I judged her during our first day in Agra. Annie ends up going to bed early but it is nice to see a new, fun side to her and for her to come out of her shell a little more before she leaves us tomorrow. So Bandhu, Jess and I stay up for hours, the drinks flowing and the Indian cigarettes burning. We talk (again) about Global Crossroad blah blah blah so I try to change the subject to things like marriage and inevitably- divorce. Bandhu explains it's very uncommon and not socially accepted, at all, to be divorced here, so most people just stay miserable in their marriages. That night we all end of crashing on top of the king size bed!

Annie, Jess and I split a cab to New Delhi for under 600 rupees. At one traffic light, a beggar comes to our window, his arm amputated with the bone still sticking out. God, I'm shivering just thinking about it. Poor guy- but seriously, going around sticking your arm in people's windows for money?! We drop Annie off at her 5-star Taj Mahal hotel...She needs a night of "rest" before flying back to Chicago. Jess and I are off to AKSHARDHAM!!! India's religious Disney World!!! The place is an absolute madddhouse - busier than Disney World during winter vacation, I promise you. You have to check your camera/purse/mobile. I will give it credit because even though it looks really crazy, it's still slightly more organized than the rest of India. On the loudspeaker is "Welcome to Akshardham...." Actually, the whole place reminds me of that scene in Shrek 1 with the castle town set up like an amusement park...You can see the tops of the gorgeous Hindu temple inside, completed in 2005! Once we were searched for any weapons..or cameras, we enter the "Cultural Complex" built for the Yogi Bhagwan Swamijiranayaklakaklavner...actually, I forget the name but for a boy, who at the age of 11, left home and traveled up to the Himalaya, where he became englightened and detached spiritually from this world. He then traveled up and down the entire coast of India over 7 years, guiding, speaking and healing others. "Swaminarayan Akshardham means the eternal abode of Bhagwan Swaminarayan (1781-1830) - a torchbearer of Indian culture and spirituality." The complex is on the river Yamuna outside of New Delhi. "It showcases India's glorious traditions and art, architecture, wisdom and spirituality." It's ironic however that despite whom the complex honors for his divinity and for the peace/love/prayers that the temple advertises - I FEEL NONE OF IT! I have never been pushed around so much, cut in line and STARED AT so much in my entire life! The whole place was very unholy. Honestly, they try to go big with it's construction to build a place big enough to hold thousands, but the problem is all the crowds and the difficulties that come with crowds.
Jess and I first walk through the Ten Gates, which are supposed to give you a sense of balance, harmony and purity - I just feel the old lady behind me pushing me along. Great.
I have to say though that the colors were amazing. It was definitely a place where women wear their Sunday best- their brightest, cleanest, sparkliest sari. The colors were breathtaking - esp when you're standing up and the temple and looking down and just see an array of rainbow colors. We bought our exhibition tickets for a mere 125 rupees and walked all through the long corridors decorated with intricate designs and archways. Down below is the world's largest step-well with a huge gold statue of the boy-child Bhagwan. All along the temple walls are these carvings of elephants and the lessons Bhagwan teaches us from these animals.
Getting up to the temple is a bit of an ordeal- we have to leave our shoes at the "Boot House" and step on these wet, slimy, sweaty mats where hundreds of dirty feet have already stepped today. Ew. The steps are white marble but still wicked hot from burning in the sun all day. The outside walls are carved out people and animals. The inside of the temple is massive, with carvings on every single last square inch of that place. There is a huge statue of Bhagwan in the lotus position, with worshipper gold statues. There are idols of Hinduism's favorite gods and big paintings with stories of the enlightened boy-child. Afterwards, we meet a nice British man living in Oregon who took us out of the 2-hr wait line into Theatre 2 for a film: it re-enacts the life of Bhagwan for understanding much better his lifeworks and his universal teachings.

After our movie, we go right into the next theatre (well not right into, we got pushed around a bit and cut and stared at) for a boat ride through India's deeply rich culture, religions and discoveries. Apparently India is the birthplace of democracy, the abacus AND the zero...hmmm...I think they're full of themselves... !
So by the end of the day, I am quite sick of the crowds, the pushing and SO sick of the staring...
Our driver is so relieved to see us after we get sucked into DisIndiaLand for over 5 hours.
He drives us to the Taj Mahal hotel, where we have a nice, relaxing swim with Annie- just what we need. Once we make it allll the way back to Faridabad, we were exhausted. What I love though is how Jess and I have spent the whole day together and always have something to talk about and relate to- I love people who I can chat with, nonstop conversation. We are both very similar in our fascination with India, yoga, Hinduism and the culture. I think us both growing up in sheltered communities like Nebraska and Massachusetts, and reading about India or learning yoga really shaped our similar intrigues with the civilization...
Anyway, we stay up late again with Bandhu talking, watching TV and all crash in the same room.

Hokey-Pokey in the lepresy colony

FRIDAY, June 6
Today we are going to the leprosy colony to teach the children English. We are the very first volunteers here. I'm definitely nervous on the way- I have no idea what to expect, but the whole idea of lepresy really freaks me out, even if Bandhu's convinced me I won't catch anything. The man who greets us has mangled hands and feet, but super-kind. He introduces his daughter Priya, who is wonderful and beyond her years (only 13!). She tells us firsthand that she wants to become a doctor. She goes to boarding school in Gurgaon and is her father's shining star, the apple of her eye. The colony has different stations that were donated by several people, including a Christian school donated by a couple in Georgia! There are bathroom stations, a binding/medical station and a workshop with hand looms. Since the people here have mangled limbs, they cannot work and depend on donations. The looms are great because it allows them to make textiles and sell for $. They become completely dependant on their children to take care of them and help with work. I think growing up in such a village really teaches the children humility, responsibility and certainly acceptance- of all people. The be honest, I was terrified to go to a LEPER colony- sounds straight out of a horror film! When we enter the school, I peer in looking for lepers, but there are none. Lepresy is now a cured disease but these people still have the marred and disfigured body parts...some are missing fingers, toes, noses and many are on crutches. But you also get an incredible sense of community around here. I think this is also why Priya acts so much older than 13- she has the responsibility of taking care of others and other children. She's clearly born to be a leader. I ask her how many siblings she has, but she calls all the children her brothers and sisters.
A couple of guys set up the room for us with fans and rugs. Slowly the kids trickle in, some with notebooks and pens, others not. Some are very dark-skinned; I learn later that they come from all over India, esp the state of Tamil Nadu, to live in this colony.
Annie and I split up the group into 2: big girls and little girls. Ohmigod they are so adorable the little ones, but I take on the big girls. Of course, I have NO idea what I'm doing, with no teaching tricks up my sleeve. We start with me asking: "What is your name?" How old are you?" They are so shy to respond and make fun of each other in Hindi, giggling all the time. We continue with writing sentences, like "What is your favorite color/movie/actor/animal?" - Priya is a big help in translating for me and helping me to understand what level of English these girls are at. There is one girl- Chantra- who is absolutely beautiful...She's only 15 years old but looks 20! She has a bone structure, kinda like Linda Weisz weird enough, and a beautiful smile. All the children have great smiles with contrast beautifully with their dark skin. We write sentences for over 2 hours and finish the day with two rounds of the HOKEY-POKEY! Man, did they laugh at this game!!! Especially the "shake it all around!" part.... I'm sure they like I'm half-crazy the way I dance around!
We shoo shoo the kids out the door who don't really understand that school is over! They are just so excited to be learning English. Priya shows me and Annie around her village- it's super poor, with trash, stray dogs and cows everywhere. But there's also a certain charm to it, neighbors are practically family and you can feel the sense of community. People on crutches walk around, old men with stick thin legs and a knob for a foot...Priya also shows us her school- the one donated by the Georgians. The windows are broken and the place is run down, but she is so so proud. The look on her face when she says, " my school," is unmistakable. She also keeps telling us how much she loves Jesus (her school in Gurgaon is Christian). The center of the village has a bunch of different little shrines, respecting all the religions of the families who emigrated there.We sat for two whole hours waiting for Bandhu to pick us up.
When we get home, I immediately take a nap and then go to teach the streetchildren. Jyoti and I do some subtraction problems. Afterwards, while Bandhu heads to the pub, Annie and I head to the market to buy some junk food and stop in at the tailor's for alterations. I have been sick, you know, all day- the opposite of what was happening before. Something is off- the water maybe? It seems like it's inevitable though that you are going to get sick. Reena cooks us supper and we play with ViDit! Little monster....

Sunday, 23 November 2008

At the orphanage, DIDI is my new name

I love my little apartment Bandhu has rented out for me. I ring the doorbell and someone opens the big gate for me. I have one of those big keys, the medieval kind, which opens to one small room, with a bathroom and a "kitchen." There's no shower, so I use a bucket to dump water from the faucet over my head; there's also no toilet, only a hole in the ground, but it's actually OK :) I like my little room to myself.
Thursday, June 5th
I have a new name: Didi. In Hindi it means "big sister," and it's what every little girl calls an older girl, even if it's not her sister. So, I am not Julia anymore, I am "Didi! Didi! Didi! Come herrrrrre chaya chaya chaya Didi!"
Me and Nicole head to the girls' orphanage today. We sit on the carpet as all the girls wander in and crowd around us, so excited for a new person. I tell them my name and they all want to touch me! For real! Nicole is already so comfortable with them...She chats with them while they just sit around and adore her. We all talk and gossip for a while...Well, they gossip in Hindi and I just smile like an idiot. Soon we go upstairs to a barren room, with other rooms nearby. The children were coming out the freakin' woodwork! Everywhere I turn around, a new child showed up. But they have BIG white smiles and love to laugh laugh laugh.
Chavla (Lisa) is the big sister ("Didi") of the house. I believe she's about twenty or twenty-one, and grew up in the orphanage but studies outside of it now. She comes up to me and asks me politely to teach her French. "French?" I ask her! She looks at me with such determination on her face. I have never seen anyone so excited and eager to LEARN. We go through her exercise book; I pronounce the words for her, she repeats them and writes the sounds in Hindi into her notebook. Sometimes I'll get her to repeat a word three or four times, and she still doesn't get it quite right but I encourage her anyways, like "Good! You got it! Great job!" ...And she smiles at me, does that little Indian head nod to the side and says "Ok, one more?" She is positively radiant and I love her hunger for knowledge. This is the kind of girl who deserves a scholarship to a university; I wish I could provide more opportunities for her.
When Lisa has to leave to go teach the young girls downstairs, the others grab my hand and we all make paper airplanes outside and eat crackers. There is one little girl (who I thought was a little boy for the longest time! Then I realize that's it's a girl, I mean duh it's a girl orphanage, but they shave everyone's hair for lice) who is so so cute and makes me laugh. We run around the rooftop together, flying our paper airplanes and laughing laughing. Everyone is so so excited I'm there that it keeps me upbeat the whole day. We run to every corner of the rooftop where they show me the houses and temples nearby. There is a beautiful tree that hangs a bit over the big rooftop that is dripping with bright red fruit. Yum!
Later Lisa comes back and we do more French lessons together. She has big round glasses that kind of make her look like an old lady! We kind of give up on the French and just talk and talk and talk on the floor with the other 13 and 14 year old girls. I ask them their favorite Bollywood actors and actresses, their favorite Bollywood movies, what they want to be when they grow up, their fav. American actresses....The little girls all crowd around my lap and we all read a vocabulary picture book.

I tell them I like dancing and we all run over to another room to blast the music! At first I thought they would all be dancinggg and show me some moves and show off, but no! They were all too shy!! Some of the little ones dance with me and the other slowly ease into it- the big girls refuse. I am surprised how shy they are here, in front of each other and in front of me. Soon I was just making up my own moves and we are all laughing, laughing, laughing.
It's lunchtime now and about 8 of them grab my hand and pull me down to the first floor. It is amazing how well I get by with them off just hand gestures. Only a few of them speak English, but somehow we all manage to communicate by facial expressions, body language and hand gestures. It's amazing how well humans can communicate without sharing a common language.
For lunch we all sit on mats and they slide out big buckets of rice, lentils and yogurt. Adi is the boy who lives across the street but comes here regularly to hang out with the girls. He has a flashy white smile and is quite the ladies' man, despite being only like ten years old. He's wearing an American Eagle polo and has quite the attitude with the ladies. He slides the bucket around the room and slops the food on to every plate.

I can tell all eyes are on me as we eat our meal. Every time I look up, I make eye contact with someone. I have trouble maintaining my appetite and not focus on what I'm eating. Plus, I haven't gone to the toilet since I got here! That's like 5 days, ouch. And am now feeling so constipated from the rice and chapatti and naan for like a week straight. After lunch we sit downstairs on the carpet and watch terribly bad, dramatic (but amazing at the same time) Indian soap opera and gossip some more. Soon after a rickshaw comes to pick up me and Nicole and take us to the Sector 10 market for MEHANDI! We both get beautiful henna designs on both sides of our left hand. We walk up and down through the outdoor market, alllllll eyes are on us. We wait in a bakery, away from the stares, for an hour waiting for the mehandi to dry and waiting for Annie. We both talk about being summer nannies and Nicole gives me some great advice on how to deal with Sam at age 12. She tells me about the magic of Costa Rica and how she plans on volunteering in Africa next summer, either Ghana or Kenya.

When we returned by motor rickshaw back to Bandhu's, the streetchildren are already here with their notebooks out. I work with the most adorable little boy; we sing our ABC's together and write our letters; I teach another little one how to write the alphabet. This is the only schooling they'll receive.
At night, me and Annie head to the market with Reena (Bandhu's sister-in-law) and Vidit (her 2-yr-old son) to pick out some fabric for my suit. I go to two fabrics shops in the market and look at alllll different colors and patterns, and choose one that has a white top with flowers and blue bottom. Actually, now that I think about it, I really hate it :( I got so overwhelmed by the storeclerk who was pulling out so many for me to choose from- I freak out and just choose one. Next stop, we buy some Frooooti juice for Vidit, my little monster. He is not even 2 and a half, and is SO smart. He understand English and does things like turn off the TV and lights for his mother when she asks him. He runs and teeters all the way to the market, like a little spinning top. He loves : dirt, motorcycles and tractors. Whenever one passes by, he points and jumps up and down. He always comes right up to my face and says very quietly "Apka naam kia hai?!" (What is your name?) and "Where's Emmy?" - Emmy is a volunteer who just left who's he's obsesssed with !
On the way home from the market, we stop at the tailor and he takes my measurements for my suit- Indian style. He takes his little tap and measures my waist, my leg, my hip, my bosom, my shoulders. His little shop is in an alleyway guarded by stray dogs, this tiny little hole in the wall. But apparently he's popular in the marketplace because there are always women in there.
We stop at Reena's friend's house where we sit around and crack open litches and eat the white fruit inside. So good :) We eat freshly sliced mango and peaches....and play, always, with Vidit. At night, me and Bandhu make vodka and Limca drinks and stay up talking (about GC, again.)

The Rooftops of Faridabad

At the market, I haggled for scarves, slippers, bangles and a silver elephant ring for myself :)
We had a delicious meal at the market, and each drew maps of our respective countries on our hands, talked about marriage, virginity, weddings- CP wants me to marry him to he can come to the States - HA! Next was the Lotus Temple- shaped like a....lotus! Four huge processions of pilgrims made their way barefoot up the steps to pray inside. It's very hot though...
I took a nap on the way to Faridabad, fifteen minutes and before I knew it- we've arrived at the house of Bandhu. Dr. Bandhu...He doesn't really greet me at all, but speaks directly to CP. I don't realize that this is his house, not the actual orphanage where I thought I was being dropped off. He shows me how to make chai (I spill it everywhere :) and suddenly all these bright faces show up!
"These are your students," he tells me. I've been here 5 minutes and I am already thrown into it!
"What will I teach them?" I ask...
"Everything!, says Bandhu. Math, English, writing...."
I don't realize that these are the street children who come every afternoon for schooling they can't afford. They all have these big, wide brown eyes and are all holding these dilapidated notebooks but are so eager and excited to learn...
We practice some English phrases. My best student is Jyoti- she is very bright, good at spelling, reading, writing and math. She always wobbles her head to say "yes," and she has a big smile.
There is one little boy who is so positively adorable. Three other volunteers walk in: Nicole, Nadine and Annie, who immediately get settled in with a kid to work on something.
I work with Jyoti on reading and writing flashcards. We give them cookies, they grab their shoes and leave. Soon after I head to the sector 15 market in Bandhu's dilapidated car which we squeeze into. We stop at a house in a neighborhood so Dr. Bandhu can fix a hearing aid (he's an ear doctor). Next is the market where we brave getting stared down by lots of curious Indian men. We pop into a bakery so Nadine can buy some gulab jawal - like Entenmann's doughnuts!
Faridabad has a couple main markets but for the most part, it is a very poor city. In the distance are big smoke chimneys spewing out nasty-looking fumes. Me and Nadine head up to the roofdeck as the sun is setting; we watch some boys playing cricket in the park, as dirty streetchildren play on the playground. Beyond that is the slum- dilapidated tents covered in rags and cloths. I no longer see the bright colors of India but gray and dull slum colors. There is movement in the slum as others throw more rags on top and dig holes in the mud. Stray dogs are everywhere, and rule the streets at night.
Bandhu went out and bought us Kingfish beer- we head up the roof and pull out 2 cots to sit on. It was Nicole and Nadine's last night so we celebrate with drinks and smooth Indian cigarettes. The breeze was nice and cool up on the roof, but soon it started to rain and lightning. We head under the little shack and let the rain hit our toes. Nadine, Bandhu and I stayed up until midnight talking mostly about Bandhu's woes about how little he is paid for all the work he does. And how websites like Global Crossroad take the money from the volunteers and keep it for themselves. Bandhu or the orphanages don't see a dime. If you go on websites of Jaipur or Kala Marg orphanage, they are either free of cost or charge very little. Such a scam!

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

India: First Impressions

Stream of consciousness upon entering India:
rubble rubble rubble
dark men, only men
a woman in a bright orange sari wtih a stack of sticks on her head
a little dirty girl working on the side of the road
more girls, 8 or so, digging in the middle of the highway
an autorickshaw traveling directly across a toll road and nearly, by an inch, hitting a car from the side
HONKING!!! Like it's going out of fashion!!
everyone honks at everything, so it becomes completely ineffective
my first cow on the way to Faridabad- horns and a big hump, eating trash
sitting on our haunches is the national pose of all Indian men
motorists not heeding cars at all, no lines on the road

It's the best when everyone is trying to merge and it's a near-accident every second with lots of beeping! But surprisingly, there are no accidents....
A baby, fast asleep, squished in between Amma and Bubba on a motorbike, her little bangle-covered wrist hanging out
Slums with vendors selling fresh fruit, pomegranates from Afghanistan, cashews!
A boy sitting in the dirt on the side of the road, his leg stretched out with his entire foot flat on the ground doing it's own weird thing...not normal...

The drive to Agra was fantastic. We got stuck in traffic in nearly every village; at one traffic jam, the monkey boy with a drawn-on moustache swingin' a rope on his cap, and his brother playing a tin lid like drums
Camels, dinkeys, monkeys, cows, the chakka- transvestite (lady boy in Hindi)
snake charmers entertaining us at the toll
"take photo!" with the foreigners, Vicky the vendor
Traffic jam at the train crossing and everybody pushing through a tiny bridge at once

Taj Mahal- letdown? I mean, it's beautiful and magnificient, but once you've seen it, what else is there to do but admire? Agra Red Fort- gorgeous
Poor villages with men sitting on their haunches and women in bright orange/yellow/pink saris with pierced noses
How many people there are!!! How bad living conditions are but how it's accepted
Women carrying pots on their heads
Agra was so poor

DRIVING= chaos!!! no rules to obey, use your hand to indicate you are there
Donkeys carrying laods of bricks, camels pulling big wagons of cotton
Pet monkeys
Where the vendors are as annoyng and pertubing as the flies...
Saw Agra Fort! So beautiful, with the Taj Mahal in the background
5 long hours back

Order of vehicles on the road:
Lorries- on the back, drawn on is HORN PLEASE/BLOW HORN, use dipper at night, Tata: OK!
"India is great", spe
ed 40 km/h

Auto rickshaws
Cycle rickshaws
Donkeys/Camels/Ox/Pony-pulled carts
And finally...pedestrians

I woke up today at 6:30am with Ryan for the 5-hour drive to JAIPUR- The "Pink City." Roads were much better than the way to Agra, with somewhat of a "highway" with lorry upon lorry. Not so much to see along the way except for the occasional camel pulling a wagon overflowing with cotten. Crossed the border into Rajasthan to see higher ground and foothills. We passed through a couple villages with sidestreet fruit/veg stalls and dark women in bright bright saris. C.P. was with us again today, with just me and Ryan. I wore my linen white pants, my new top and my Nepali shawl from Susan- it sort of worked. I was hassled less than Ryan! And he's Indian! And no one wanted to take a picture with me anymore cuz I was dressed like them...:)
We saw Amber Fort first, C.P didn't join us because he was too tired! Me and Ryan walked alllll the way up steep cobblestone roads to the main, faded gate. The fort is like a maze once you get inside past the main plaza. We got lost in long hallways, stairs going up and down. There are old columns with beautiful, intricate designs around the doorway. When you look out the windows is all hills in the background; amazing view. A pink wall goes straight up the mountain, like the Great Wall of China. After Amber Fort, CP, Ryan and I get delicious food downtown. Bursting with flavor and so so yummy.
Next we pass the Jal Mahal, or Water Palace, a palace built in the middle of a lake with gold towers on top. Going through the town is so depressing because it is SO poor and there is trash everywhere. The worst is when you see the stray dogs, cows and pigs eating it. More fruit+veg stalls on the side of the road. I love being covered in a shawl- I just feel safer. Next was the City Palace, all in pink! Where again CP doesn't join us.... Inside, the intricately designed city gate opens into a main square with a palace in the middle. A group of Indian schoolgirls are practicing painting designs of Hindu gods. Overhead are big glass chandeliers, big silver pots at the doorway. We have a look inside a museum with preserved clothing from the rulers in the 17th and 18th centuries - absolutely stunning. The long dresses had hundreds of ruffles and were sequined with real gold. The men working at the museum have bright red turbans and white suits. This is the old India of turbans and palaces that I know and love.

I got my palm rad, where I was told I would be successful, self-starting and get married only once (most likely) between the ages of 25-28, have a boy then a girl. I am open-minded, and optimistic and like the real, not the artificial life, but I am easily taken advantage of (!). is good !

After City Palace, CP takes me a textile workhouse where I choose between hundreds of fabrics, patterns and block prints. I was in heaven. I buy a couple shirts, scarves and a tablecloth for the G family. Next was the silver shops- I buy two beautiful hand-crafted silver bracelets, but apparently even though I bargain for them, I pay way too much according to Rajan.
After an hour of shopping, we drive through the worst poverty I've seen sad.
We drop Ryan off at this orphanage project in Jaipur and hit the road for Delhi. We see a long line of camels along the way and a great big ELEPHANT!!
I stretch out in the backseat on CP's lap so I can sleep for two hours. When I wake up, CP and I manage a conversation (in his very broken English) about the type of not-so-nice people he encounters in this program, and how I don't want to be associated anymore with America. He teaches me some Indian dance moves and we danced the rest of the way home :)
Back at the hostel, the rest of the girls were finishing 3 bottles of wine (!) and all had red-stained teeth haha. They even managed to get Rajan drunk ahha :) He just sat there with the biggest smile on his face
We stood in front of the TV learning Bollywood dance moves and took loads of pictures with our new T-shirts. Rajan reads my palm again! Says similar thing..... Delhi tomorrow!

Wednesday, June 4th 2008: Dilli Haat Market
CP picks me up from the hostel at 10am- I stayed up late the night before talking with Ray- she's on a trip around the world, from India to Dubai to Tel Aviv, Paris, Amsterdam - how cool!
CP and I had a fun day, we laughed about words like "Butter naan", which he has so much difficulty saying. He's been teaching me Hindi saying like Sookriya, ferme lengue and nihil jihal.
We first go to Minal to see an ancient temple built long ago, around 1300 AD. The stones look so ancient
Next stop, Dilli Haat!! Great market...we listen to constant Hindi music as we batter through the Delhi market.

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Drinks at the Burj

We don't all leave for Dubai until 2pm in the afternoon and make a long pit stop at the Emirates Palace- gorgeous! Huge! Again, like nothing I've ever seen before. Everything, right now to the last tile, is ornate, luxurious and drenched in splendor. And it's absolutely enormous. It just keeps going...We look at the Pablo Picasso exhibit for about an hour, which was incredible to see the real thing. The paintings are unreal and almost emotional, like you can see the workings of his mind (sounds like Alan Smith, eh?), his pain and his low opinion of women. I also liked the evolution of his paintings, from his first self-portrait to the reconfigured, distorted human body. Very odd, but amazing. We hadn't left for Dubai until 5pm and drove all the way to the Global Village, which was...CLOSED! So we drive and drive and drive, Bill getting more and more stressed and in a bad mood with the traffic, the detours, the construction - they hate Dubai. He's not very nice in the way he speaks to Diane... I won't go into how uncomfortable I felt (for the very first time this week) but I didn't want to be in that car and felt like this disaster was my fault...
We end up at Mina'Al Salaam, where I check my bags and we eat Chinese Dim Sum. Craig is not himself and this is actually the first time I've seen him stressed- ever. Diane is very pleasant to talk to but things are still strained. Craig and I peace out 20 minutes later to just get out of there. I say my goodbyes and a sincere thank you. Now for more partying! And literally, right on the beach with the Burj Al-Arab rising above us. This place is so scene, with gorgeous Europeans and Australians everywhere, Persian carpets under big tents with people smoking shisha. Craig and I grab some drinks and meet up with Danna and her friends on the beach. I start talking to some cute French guys who are party-planners here. They teach me French swearwords. We leave the beach party and walk alllll the way to 360°, a bar but out in the ocean. So cool. As we approach it along the jeti, we hear the pumping House music. It's amazing up on the roof, with the Burj and Jumeirah in front, all lit up. We order more drinks, I talk with Sam and my friend Harris (from UPenn) and then go dance really silly with a girl Kaitlyn, her fiance and Sam.
I peace out with Danna, Craig and Alisha around 2am, but not without picking up this delicious cheesy bread from a Lebanese place. So freakin good. Alisha is hilarious and so drunk. Danna and I get along gret and I tell her I'll come visit her in Barcelona next spring. Craig and I sleep on the floor at her place and I keep dreaming that I'll miss my taxi....
6:30am: I have TWO minutes to get ready because my taxi is already here. Craig is half-asleep, throws my stuff in the back and says a sleepy and hasty goodbye. I am so sick and out of it. I barely have time to register I'm leaving when I get in the car. Sharjah is lot more Arab, with few Westerners. My flight is all Indian men...and I believe I'm the only white person on the plane! Waleed got me a nice seat........

Dune Bashing

Craig and Mel wake me up by drawing a little Hitler moustache on my face hahaha. Shayne's parents' cook us a delicious barbecue, fresh with corn, cole slaw, beans, steak, salad and sausage. I laugh at Craig and how much he really loves meat, I forgot how hilarious he is and how much he makes me giggle. Love when he does his Hindi accent and when he yells "For Fuck's Sake!". By the way, on the ride to Dubai there are signs everywhere for "bin Laden constuction" - yup, that's the one. Bin Laden's Saudi family is big in construction, and he's their crazy son. I can't even accurately describe the incredible amount of construction literally everywhere you look on the way to Dubai and in the actual city. It is literally unbelievable- there is no skyline without a crane in it.
After lunch, we crack up watching "Fun With Dick and Jane" before heading out to go...
DUNE BASHING! Great fun....
The drive out there, we get a sneak peek at the future look of Dubai, with a Marvel theme park, Jurassic park dinosaurs (the real ones), Global Village and a future Six-Flags. There is construction along the entire way, with the Burj Dubai on our left, shooting out of the sky.
Then, we are in the desert. Big red dunes rise up, sprinkled with scarce bushes. We see a pack of camels being herded by a shepherd in a long, white tunic and white turban. In the distance are "mountains". Finally, Big Red looms in the distance- its the highest dune in the UAE. As we drive up, the heat reaching over 100° F, a decorated camel guards the front, with a saddle on its hump. As we wait for our hired driver, we visit the camels and donkeys- so dirty! But I think camels are so cute with their long eyelashes. An Arab midget with a red-checkered turban and a fake rifle waddles up to us to take a picture. He shakes my hand- so tiny! He's all sweet and friendly. I feel like I'm with an Arab Mini-Me. When Craig takes a picture with him, he kisses him on the cheek! After, he tries to charge us 10 dirhams - bullshit!! We see a little baby monkey on a leash- ah! Our driver pulls up...The adventure begins.
Our driver is dark-skinned, with a big smile and liquid brown eyes. He takes the air out of his tires while Mel and I grab hands, terrified. It was actually not bad at all but we had heard stories of other being scared shitless. Mom would think it was more than a bumpy Jeep ride...
We drive up the dune and....oh, how do I describe it? Like being on a rollercoaster that's not attached to a rail. We ride along ridges, with the back of the car sliding down as he shifts it forward. We roar into pits and roll back up with the car bouncing up and down, with no shocks. Bouncing up and down, bangin' our heads! My stomach lurches a few times as we roar up a dune and then come crashing down. The car almost flips over a few times- so scary! Craig is up front laughing he head off while I am whooping in the back. The front is even better....We get out of the car at the very top of Big Red and see miles in the distance. Mel's feet and mine are burning in the red-hot sand; meanwhile, our driver walks barefoot. Mel and I fake jumping pictures a top the dune and balance along a steep ridge, leading right into a pit. The ride back is even bumpier, we go flying through the air and nearly break off the bumper. Talk about car sickness... We pass a camel farm and a Porsche SUV stuck in the sand. Right on a ridge and up shit creek!
The ride home is tough, both me and Craig have come down with Shayne's virus and have killer sore throats, esp after being in the desert. I nap some more, in the car, at Shayne's house, on the ride back to A.D. - I can't stop sleeping! We go right to Joe's for drinks. Jeff and I take some more tequila shots and Mel and I jump like crazy on the trampoline. Later, I totally crash, feeling so ill. We watch Ricky Gervais for hours...Mel and I have to say goodbye after a very fun week together. She's great. Loves grilled cheese like none other....
We head out around 1am and I say goodbye to Shayne. Love him- so down to earth and such a sweetheart despite his punk-rock attitude.
I pass out and sleep until 12pm- much needed rest. Pack all the next morning cuz Craig and I and his parents are going to Dubai for the day, or so we thought...

Tequila Sunrise

We all get dressed up and Bill and Diane take me out to this amazing revolving restaurant that literally has a 360° view of Abu Dhabi. Bill and Diane point out the evolution of the city- the first low-rise apartment buildings, then a clump a big higher, then higher and higher! So you can actually see the city at different stages. They also show me where the Corniche, or shoreline, was built out and the parks where there used to be ocean.
We order a bottle of Chilean Cabernet and a bunch of gourmet appetizers, from raw salmon with cream cheese, scallops and prawns, bruschetta. For dinner, I order the sea bass with potato gnocchi and dried cherries. Exceptionally delicious. After dinner, Craig and I head out to Shayne's and meet up with Joe and Jeff. Jeff is quite the character- he reminds me of that guy from "Road Trip" or American Pie who's always tits and naked girls. He's totally obnoxious but kind of in a fun, lovable way. At least for a bit, then he's just kind of annoying. We move out to PJ's for a wild night, one of the crazier I've had since my Italy days. I feel fabulous- I'm wearing Lill's little black dress, big earrings and red heels and just strutttt. PJ's is just great- the music is boooming, its packed and atmosphere is great. Mel and I head back down alone where she shows me how to work the scene, whispering who anyone who's important is, what to watch out for, how to get a free drink and who's a betch. I love her instantly- she's such a gossip queen. We head to the bar where we get free drinks from her bartender friend- an old dirty man hassles me to dance, putting his slimy hands on me. I run upstairs, losing Mel- but strike up a conversation with my man Nate. Nate is basically gorgeous, with beautiful skin, a nice white smile and dance moves to blow me out of the water. I find Mel and we take silly pictures with Big Mo and Shayne. Craig, Jeff and Joe head to another bar so I get to hang out with Nate. We hit it off, dance wildly in the corner to techno and are totally flirting. I am a goofball-dancer for some reason, but he loves it and doesn't stop laughing. Shane, Mel and I have a ball dancing to the Grease remix and do a bit of fun! Mel and I make our way up to the DJ booth and flirt/take pictres with the DJ- he even lets me work the booth for a while, mixing songs :)
When Mel's sister Natalie arrives, she really brings the party. I have so much fun dancing with her, until we try to drop it low but my legs are so weak/sore that she yells out "You kneed me in the p***!" I feel so bad...but we just laugh. Mel and I go on an adventure taking pictures, one with this wasted old man and then pretend to take one of ourselves to get this blonde hairpiece in the backgroumd. We get yelled at by the bouncer. Its funny when we get yelled at for "inappropriate dancing" when there's a blonde chic with mad long hair and her stomach hanging out dancing explicitly!! Joe and them come back and we all decide that we're not going to Emirates Palace club without a table. I'm with Joe now, good decision I've decided in my state. Blonde chic still tango dancing and whipping people in the face with her hair....
Joe and I head with Craig, Shayne and Jeff to Rock Bottom for some Phillippine phun. Shayne literally hits rock bottom and leaves. Joe and I dance a bit but I make him protect my many sketchballs around here. It was fun walking into the bathrooms and seeing prostitutes. For real. After the place closes around 4am, the place is swarming with hookers trying to pick up at the end of the night...blah! Joe and I head back to Craig's place, him teaching me Scottish swearing :) We walk out to the beach and look up at the stars. Pretty soon we see Craig stumble by, drunkenly, with 4 glasses and ice. He says hi and walks on by. Joe and I stay there until...wait, it's getting light out! Before we know it, light is appearing in the sky. We walk down the ocean wall, me skipping and doing cartwheels and Joe picking me up and twirling me around. Jeff and Craig are wayy down with a girl Vanessa, drinking tequila sunrises with...the sunrise. The name suddenly makes sense to me. It's 6am. An enormous, flaming orange ball rises from behind the skyline and casts a glowing light over all our drunked faces. Jeff and I take a tequila shot each to greet the sun. Rowers pass us on the water and we salut them. We stumble home, carrying bags of empty bottles..Jeff is a riot.
Now for the world's worst hangover. I've had a headache all day- literally. I take a quick shower and get into bed at 7am. Craig wakes me up at 9am- 2 hours of restless sleep. My body hates me.
Shayne picks us up at 10am, Jeff is still wasted haha. We drive to Dubai and I sleep the whole way. Upon arrival at Shayne's parents' house in a wealthy Dubai suburb, I am so out of it. I can barely stay awake, nevermind hold a conversation. I take a refreshing, hour-long, much-needed nap to be coherent.

The Great Mosque and the World's Largest Carpet

My first time in a mosque! I have to cover my hair with a headscarf and wear an abaya so basically I'm in all black with only my round face showing and black sunglasses. The mosque is absolutely stunnning. It was first envisioned by Sheikh Zayed, the George Washington of this place, to have a Taj-Mahal- like mosque with an international feel to it. And it works! The mosque is made of material from all over the world. On the outside is a huge courtyard surrounded on four sides of arched corridors with high columns. The columns, floor and domes are made from marble imported from Greece and Italy, and inside the columns are handcut flowers and stems. Amy would appreciate this place. Its unfathomable the effort that went into this place for there are hundreds upon hundreds of columns with golden-palms at the top. The mosque is still largely in construction but nonetheless is a jewel.
Our tourguide's name is Fatima and she shows me how to wear my abaya and to tie my headscarf to cover my entire head of hair. At the far end of the mosque is the ablutions area with Chinese-imported hunks of green jade marble. She explains that they wash themselves throroughly before praying. There are walls of beautiful Turkish tile and Malaysian glass. Upon entering the dome, we take our shoes off and enter the entrance hall with a huge chandelier above, 9-ton glass doors from Italy and Greece. On the walls, the flower wines are in relief-style, or pressed out from the wall. Such intricate detail. The inside is even more breathtaking....
I am standing on the world's largest carpet, made by 1,200 Iranian women in over 2 years. It was so huge that to be carried over to Dubai, it had to be cut into 2 and transported in 2 airplanes. Iranian weavers were brought over to roll it out, cut around the columns and re-sew it back together. Amazing. There is not a blank wall to be seen; there is intricate detail everywhere. The doem above is covered in Arabic calligraphy with verses of the Koran. Straight ahead is what looks like a giant flaming candle, curved into the wall and made out of gold-covered glass tile. thsi is where the holy imam stands, facing Mecca and reciting the prayer. On the wall surrounding him is the Arabian writings of the 99 names of Allah. To be all these names, you are said to be perfect.
Above our heads is the world's largest chandelier, weighing over 11 tons (!) Kind of scary to look up and see this massive structure above your head. The mosque can hold up to 50,000 people - 20,000 alone on the carpet, and those outside in the court. Outside is a smaller structure where Sheikh Zayed is buried...Fatima tells us that there are three imams rotating everyday for- forever! Reciting verses from the Koran and praying for his soul. I say to Fatima- "Forever?" and she replies he deserves more than that. Whoa.
Craig and I get stranded outside for about half an hour with no taxi. We finally jump in with a South African couple touring Dubai and heading to the Marina Mall. The woman has the cutest little voice and reminds me of a babushka! Her husband has an Uncle-Bill like personality and travels the world. They tell me and Craig about South Africa, the bush and how we must come.
The rest of the day is spent driving to get a McArabia (so good) and lounging in the pool alllll day. Diane joins us later for tequila sunrise cocktails and more fabulous conversation. I find I am more at ease in conversation with her without Craig around. We talk about politics, worldviews and living in different places. We stay in the pool until 7pm, my fingers all pruney from the water.

Sunset in Abu Dhabi

The days seem to be blending into one. I am writing this account on Wednesday night in the small hour of 2:30am, on my balcony mind you. So Tuesday I woke up at one in the afternoon after a much-needed rest. Me, Craig and Diane all ate lunch (right after breakfast!) outside on the patio. Bernadette, the housekeeper, makes the best lunch - rice, salad and beef! Me and Craig are really starting to get along quite well- yay! The sun was brutally hot but it was so nice to be right in the pool all day. Good ol' Shayne (love him) came over for a bit - conversation is always jolly with them. Hours spent lounging around in the pool, talking about...what? We went inside after a bit to look at some guide books then showered and over to Shayne's for a quick movie- Lord of War ! Muhaha. I was wearing only my white skirt and a tank and felt practically naked downtown with all the men (Indian and Arab) staring at me...
So we go to the Meridien hotel for some grape-flavored shisha. So nice. And social. With the pool right before, the shisha goes down sooo smoothly and gives you a nice little buzz :) After shisha, we head over to ChiChi's for some 5 dirham marguaritas!!! We were all so excited; they were nice and least the first one was. I noticed like 4 men sitting by themselves at the restaurant- weird. Also, guess what? You can smoke in restaurants here! That won't last long... S+C were explaining to me the huge cultural differences that exist around here, like how men hold hands as a sign of friendship or give each other hanoosh! as a joke. Won't go into explaining what that is...You'll have to find out yourself. In in the US, it would considered totally homosexual...Hmmm... Joe joins us later and the drinks kept pouring. We headed right into another cab and over to their favorite pub P.J. O'Reilly's Irish pub for karaoke. Mel was already there her very Italian, Cara-Marzilli-like sister Natalie. Karaoke is always fun, especially when the singers suck! Joe bought me drinks all night, he's so sweet :)
Anyway, I don't remember exact details from PJ's but I do know it was fun and a great atmosphere. I went home to Craig's with Joe afterwards where we talked out by the ocean wall. Bed by 4am, oops! I could tell how late it was because I could hear the call to prayer ringing out throughout the city.
Great day. Start the day right, at 11am with a bizarre film "Brick" and Bern's tuna sandwiches and brownies. Mel and Shane came over with Mel's dalmation Coco - how cute! We played out by the pool all afternoon, while Craig tried to kill birds with the hose. Haha hilarious. Splashing and swimming and talking - perfect. We stop quickly at Mel's place downtown before renting JETSKIS!
For real cheap, we rent 2 jet skis for 1 hour. How fun. It was great to have Mel there, another female. We were both shy about taking off our towels, in just our bathing suits, being the only girls around, surrounded by peering men. I adore Mel - she's great and very fun. Man, how I love jet-skiing. Especially holding on tight to Craig ! He went so fast and we hit so many waves- jumping and riding and racing racing racing Mel and Shayne on the other one. We looked great. The water was so so blue! Jet-skiing in the Arabian Sea- does it get any better than that? We kept yelling YEE-HAW! and WOO-HOO! into the air. Craig let me drive near the Corniche in calmer water- I felt so bad-ass!!! I kept speeding up, then turning and racing Mel. Great fun. Also a fantastic way to see the entire skyline of Abu Dhabi. We went up real close to the Emirates Palace- all of sudden, a patrol boat comes speeding over with a massive gun pointed at us! Not allowed to be in that territory- we almost got shot!!!
On the way back, we hit the HUGEST waves and went flying; so so fun. A bunch of big boats were out at sea, so we followed them and went riding off their waves. My bum was so sore from all the bumps. Salty and thirsty after an hour, we head back into the pool. Me, Diane and Craig lounge in the pool for over 2 hours, conversation just flowing like a fountain. Diane is so funny- she tells the longest stories and goes off on such random tangents!! But it keeps conversation good... The sunset was absolutely beautiful. Craig and I went out to sit on the wall, with our legs swinging right over the rocks as the big, fat orange sun sank lower and lower. All the jet-skiiers were heading home after a long day. With the palm trees, the pool and the sinking, flaming sun, it was just picture-perfect.
We had a nice sit-down dinner with Bill, Diane and Bern and I got to talk a little with Bill, but he didn't say much and eye contact?? But I was looking at the pictures in his office- he's met so many powerful political leaders, like Prince Charles and Camilla, and the Sheikh cool! Then we talked for an hour on Skype with their daughter Michelle. She seems really cool, I'd like to meet her. After dinner, Shayne and Mel picked us up for a movie at joe's. He lives so far away, but in a very lovely villa. We watched Borat (first time for me). Oh my god. I literally laughed my ass off... Its the very meaning of inappropriate but freakin' hilarious. Joe and I didn't really sit together but snuggled a bit at the end of our soiree. Craig and I spent like an hour looking at pictures on Facebook and checking email. He accidentally walked in on me in my bra and got so awkward...haha!