Thursday, October 7, 2010

India Journal, December 2009

India Journal, December 2009, Entry 7

It has been awhile since I posted, and I apologize for my absence.

The good news was that I was immersed in a writing and project management contract for a large IT company. Sadly, I found that, as when I worked as a salaried employee for the same concern, my concentration and most of my creative energy was tapped by end of the business day. -- Whenever I sat down to review my notes and continue to flesh out my India diary stories – no juice.

Today, the bad news is that the contract is over, with few prospects for new work on the horizon. I’m not worried, though. In fact, I’ll enjoy a brief respite! So --Back to work I go before my memory dims and I forget the color and details of this amazing experience.


I am totally overwhelmed. The number of people, the poverty, the wealth, the noise, the monkeys and cows and camels in the street, the smoke of the cooking fires, the film of dust on every surface I touch. I try to remember what Siobhan has shared in her calls home, hearing her voice as a mantra, telling us over and over to remember, “All things in their context.” Yes, Siobhan. This is not the West. And I am not at all sure that my heart can contain all the joy and sadness and fear and exhilaration … and desperation that surround us.

It has cooled down with the sun-setting, but the temperature still hovers around 95 degrees. At the end of our taxi tour, Samy takes us to, I am sure, two of his “paid” stops: The Delhi Hut, where we are surrounded by literally hundreds of thousands of cottage industry handmade goods – and the intense young men who must make their livelihood by selling same to tourists like us; and a lovely garden restaurant where we have a delicious vegan meal and several ice-cold beers.( I might add that this is the best beer I have ever had -- the first and last alcoholic beverage we will have in India.) I succumb to buying a sari at the Delhi Hut. It is silk chiffon, a beautiful shade of sea-blue with delicate gold-thread embroidery. Maybe I will wear it to the wedding I’ll be going to in the early Summer. I think there is a tailor in Nashua who can help me with the blouse and skirt…

When we return to the cab after our dinner, Samy has evening prayers playing on his radio. He turns down the volume and asks if we would like to see “the most beautiful and reasonably priced silver goods in all of Nothern India”. He knows we are tired, and doesn’t press too hard when we day “no, not tonight”. He turns up the volume again and continues with his prayers, and we drive (or careen) along the winding streets of Old Delhi, back to our hotel, listening to the solemn and beautiful chanting of the Koran.

Samy is a gentle, good man. He is kind, funny, generous with his story-telling – and perhaps the least imposing Indian that we encounter on our amazing journey. When we arrive at our hotel, he opens the doors to his cab and, almost shyly, offers a hand-on-handshake to my husband. He respectfully bows to me, saying “Namaste, Mother”. While Tim settles our bill, I ask if he will wait a moment while I get something from our room. I run up the stairs to retrieve hair-barrettes and candies for his daughters.

I am not sure he knows what to make of my gift for his children.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

India Journal, December 2009. Entry 6

"The definition of insanity is thinking that you need something you don't have. The mere fact that you exist right now without that which you think you need is proof that you don't need it." Byron Katie, author and spiritual teacher

India, as I think about my short time here, seems to me to be a land and people who have internalized the essence of existence: 1,161,240,000* or so people rise each morning, bathe, have a cup of tea and make their way to work, or school, or the shop where they gather to smoke and socialize. Or to the streets to beg.


Our tour of Old Delhi continues. As we pass the India Gate, otherwise known as the All India War Memorial, I gasp. – Next to us, a family of five is circling the round-about, top-speed, on a motor-bike. Papa is driving with a toddler in his lap; behind him, a small girl and her mother wrap their arms around each other and his waist; and on Mama’s back, in a wrap-around sling, is baby. I think back a year, before Avery Pearl was born, to my son-in-law, checking and double-checking his government-approved infant seat so he could safely bring his precious daughter home from the hospital…

I make myself concentrate on what Sammy is telling us about the Gate. It was constructed in 1921 to commemorate the seventy thousand Indian soldiers who perished in World War I. As India was under British rule then, the Army of India consisted of both the Indian and the British Armies in India, and was the military protector of the British Raj. In 1971, “Amar Jawan Jyoti” was added under the original arch to honor the Indian Jawans who gave their lives during the Indo-Pak War of 1971…

Our next stop is a World Heritage Site, the Red Fort. Sammy pulls to the curbside near the main entrance. He will wait if we want to tour, but suggests that if we want to see other places of interest, we may want to postpone, as it usually takes a minimum of 3 hours to walk through the grounds and buildings. I can understand why. The Fort is an immense irregular octagon with two main gates, the Lahori and the Delhi. The walls and gates of the structure are the striking red sandstone that is such a favored building material in this Northern Indian state. We won’t have an opportunity to see for ourselves, but Sammy explains that the many halls and palaces inside are built largely of Indian marble. Next visit, I promise myself, along with the Taj Mahal. Sammy sends us off with the instructions to "watch for pick-pockets, and meet me back here in 30 minutes".


“Americans!” As we exit the car, we can literally hear the murmur pass through the group of peddlers waiting at the entranceway.

“Mrs. Mrs? You like to see my books to remember your visit to the Red Fort?”

“No, no thank you.” I duck away, and he pursues. “But these are good pictures, see?”

“Yes I do. But I have my own camera.”

“Then I take a picture of you and your husband in front of the Red Fort with your camera. My time only 10 rupee.”

I gesture no, and in turning, bump into a young, bearded boy. “Raj beard. Only 5 rupee.” I stare at him dumbly. On his display board are a variety of fake beards, all in the style of mid-eighteenth century Indian royalty. “Put on you. See?”

“No put on me. No thank you, sweetheart.” I fish in my back-pack for a granola bar. His face crumples when I hand it to him.

“Namaste, Mrs.”, he whispers as he walks away. I look after him for about 20 seconds and when I turn around, there stands a tall, smiling slender man who, it turns out, is the same one we initially encountered at the gate. He has traded his postcard books for a box of toy “putt-putts”. (A putt-putt is a 3-wheeled, diesel-driven, open taxi. A very popular and cheap way to travel around town in India.)

“For your grandson, Mrs. 20 rupee. Is a deal?”

“No, sir, no deal. No thank you.” I am getting exasperated. We have spent about 15 minutes and have only traveled 50 feet into the courtyard.  I content myself with snapping a few pictures of the Fort from this distance. Tim buys a photo book for 10 rupees to silence the man and we run, literally, back to the safety of Sammy and his cool, clean car.

I want to see India. I want to experience India. But -- I am tired, already, of this endless pursuit.

* As of the March 2009 official census.  Note that this is a population increase of almost 932 million people since the previous census of January 2008. (1,129,888,000)  I think, perhaps, there is a little love-making going on, too.

Friday, February 19, 2010

India Journal, December 2009. Entry 5

Old Delhi

Sammy’s car is small and clean. As with our airport driver, he takes great pride in it, and makes a good show of keeping the windows spotless.

“Today we see Old Delhi. Perhaps tomorrow we can see New Delhi or Agra?” Agra. I have to stifle my automatic “yes!”. This is a sore point with me. Siobhan has decreed that Agra is not a good place for us to visit. Too poor. Too sad. Too tourist-y. “You should have the authentic Indian experience, as I have had.” (Although SHE has seen the Taj) My argument that one must see the Taj Mahal if one is in Northern India falls on deaf ears, and I am too timid to undertake this side-trip on my own. “I’m afraid this is our only day in Delhi, Sammy. Tomorrow we will be traveling to Jaipur by train to see our daughter,” replies Tim.

“Well. We should then make haste.” He floors the accelerator and joins the honking chorus of lorries, bicycles and scooters that cram the streets of the older part of the city. “First, we see the marketplace.”

When it seems that the narrow passage cannot hold one more vehicle, the road becomes more crowded. Our driver rolls down his window. I can only guess at what he shouts to move the press of pedestrians that now join the mix.  Without acknowledging him and as if on cue, they move away from his vehicle. Once again, we can see out the windows, and those outside can also see in the windows. In less than a minute, the tapping begins. “Mrs. Mrs.? No food.” A very young woman, perhaps fourteen or fifteen, shows me her baby, who has a badly burned arm. His nose is running and flies sit in the snot above his lip. I have to close my eyes and put my head on my chest, as I fear that I might faint. This is real. This is not an infomercial for “Save the Children” on late night TV. Sammy is angry. He stops the engine and steps out of the car. It is then that I realize how massive his frame is in relation to many of his countrymen. He yells and gestures and the woman steps away.

We are all quiet,and for a short while, we do not encounter any desperate people.

“I have two daughters,” he says, breaking our silence and smiling in the rear-view mirror. “One is a baby, and my older girl is in government school. I am very proud.” He pulls down the visor on the passenger side of the front seat. On it is a picture of two tiny, soulful children. They are playing with the camera. The photographer must be teasing, as their big dark eyes spark with mischief. “No wonder you are proud,” I say. “They are beautiful, Sammy.” We ride again for a time without speaking, taking in the sights of the market. Sweets and textiles. Toys and rugs. Fruits and flowers. Thousands of flowers for a thousand home altars, for a hundred family gods and goddesses. The most amazing part of the market, to my mind, is the section of metal-work shops. Sammy explains that one can find any after-market car part, for any car, made anywhere in the world - within this maze of storefronts. It goes on for several city-blocks distance, covering two floors of many buildings, and running down long alley-ways. “We figure it out,” he states matter-of-factly. “We find a part and figure out how to make it. Then we make it, and it works just fine.”


Our first “official” tourist stop is the Jama Masjid, the largest mosque in India. It is an imposing and beautiful building of red sandstone that boasts three gateways, four towers and two minarets that tower forty meters above the center courtyard. Sammy stops the car at one of the gates and suggests that we take 20 minutes to walk around. He points to the parking area where he will be waiting for us. I pull my scarf around my head, adjusting it so tas not to expose any skin on my neck or chest.  We ascend 150 red steps, past armed guards and small children begging for a few rupees, to reach Entranceway #4.  I hand one little boy a crumpled American dollar and a Jolly Rancher candy, all that I have in my pocket. He smiles shyly and runs down the steps.

There is a large sign posted in English that tells us there is no admission fee, but a donation is required if we wish to take any photographs. The charge is 200 rupees (about four dollars) for a still camera, and 500 rupees for a video camera. I decide to leave my camera in my pocket and take any photos I might want to capture from the street level. While Tim is paying his fee, I remove my shoes as requested, to walk, stocking-footed, into the open yard of the mosque. It is quiet. There are a few older men feeding pigeons, many others sitting or kneeling on prayer rugs in meditation. The silence is broken by a rapid burst of angry Hindi, and I turn to see an older man, face weathered to fine leather, running at me carrying a brightly colored cotton robe. I raise my hands in a protective gesture, pushing him away as he yells and points and tries to cover me with the garment. I don’t understand. My head and neck are concealed by a scarf; I wear long sleeves; my skirt falls less than an inch above my socks; my feet are covered by socks; my new walking shoes left, reluctantly, at the gate. “He is saying that you are not dressed well.” A man speaking English explains my pursuer’s anger. “Put on the robe. There is no charge.”

So, I put on the robe.

“What was that all about?” asks Tim.

“I am not a man.”

We walk, and Tim gets off a half-dozen pictures before we are told by another angry man to leave. “Mosque is closed. You go. Now.”

It has been about twenty minutes, so we leave.

No one else seems to know that the mosque is closed.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

A Valentine for Ernie

Sorry for the long absence, my friends. My trusty PC is now back home from the Computer Hospital after a week-long - but successful battle - with a rather nasty Trojan virus. On my first day back online, I hope you will humor me. - I’m going to take a bit of a break from my India Journal to send a Valentine to my Dad. (And for those “fans” who have been reading my journal, I thank you again and promise to resume those posts on Tuesday.)

As many of you know, I have been cleaning and packing up the house our family has lived in for the last fifteen years. We plan to downsize. Sort of. I say that because, while we need less space for people, we will be requiring more housing for animals. It’s time that our fifteen alpacas come to live with us, and we’re looking for a small Gentleman’s Farm in seacoast NH or southern Maine. We’re a family of hoard…er, I mean collectors, so sorting into the “save/pack”, “toss” or “recycle/donate” piles can often evolve into a rather contentious family discussion. But I digress, and that’s a whole ‘nother topic that we’ll talk more about in coming weeks...

To continue.  Last week, as I was cleaning my office, I came across a copy of the eulogy I delivered at my father’s funeral. He’s been gone for five years now, but sometimes absence speaks louder than presence... And so, on Valentine’s Day, the day that honors all kinds of love – I send him this message of love – in thanks for giving us a comfortable life, rich with family gatherings and the company of good friends; for driving me to all of those games and play rehearsals and movies and dances; for his political passion – even if I disagreed, at least he cared; and especially, for his laugh and love of singing, those sounds I think I miss the most.

Big Daddy, wherever you are, Happy Valentine’s Day. Still missing you. XO K8

August 2005: (Excerpts from) A Tribute to Ernest Weston Stanton

This has been a year of both great joy and deep sorrow for our family.

On the eve of 2004, Priya Madeline joined the Stanton family, coming home with her new mother, Mary Anne, from distant Nepal. Beautiful, beautiful Priya. Her smile brought joy, hope and love into our hearts during the difficult Spring and Summer months. Thank you, Priya, for your light! And thank you, Mary Anne, for traveling halfway around the world to bring her into your life – and ours.

Early in the New Year, we will all stunned when our big, strong father took ill, requiring major surgery. While he was still in Recovery, Dr. Ejaiffee delivered the dreaded diagnosis to our family, the news for which no one is ever prepared: “Ernie has cancer in his liver, and at this point, I believe it is terminal.”

In the months that followed, as Dad faced his own mortality, he demonstrated a deep and remarkable courage. The way that he lived his life during these months, taught us yet one more lesson in dignity and courage. We knew he was a strong man. Brave. Principled. Loving and loyal… And yes, opionated. We certainly had many lively discussions, as he was a Republican AND Yankee’s fan, and of course, I am a Democrat and Red Sox fan…

His Catholic faith was unflagging; he never complained; he never blamed God for his illness, and in the weeks before his death, he received Holy Communion daily…He always had a bad joke to tell, and he told them often and well. His smile was quick and warm and enveloping. Ready to shine at a moment’s notice… He adored his beautiful wife of 52 years, Catherine, his four daughters and eight grandchildren. He treasured time spent in the company of his extended family and friends. We all have wonderful memories of New Year’s Eve toboggan parties with Aunt Ruth, Uncle Jack and the Stanton cousins. And then, there were Memorial Day and 4th of July picnics, celebrated with bounty-filled tables, in the good company of Uncle Ed, Aunt Esther and the Connors cousins…

He was so proud of all of his nieces and nephews. Dad was the last of the three Stanton brothers: Smokey, Jack and Ernie. When I called to tell Smokey’s daughter, Melinda, that Dad had passed, she sobbed: “Now all the Big Daddies are gone. They were the best fathers in the world.”…

Dad had a wonderful baritone singing voice. One of my first memories is of him singing “Who Threw the Overalls in Mrs. Murphy’s Chowder?” and “McNamara’s Band”. He was passionate about trying new things, and when he did try something new, he threw himself into it with the greatest enthusiasm…There were the bread-baking and soup-making months, and the daily swims, ceramics. The list could go on. And on. And on… Most of all, he loved Ma’s good home cooking! … It seemed unbearably cruel that this man who so enjoyed his wife’s cooking should have that pleasure denied in his last few months of life…

Dad persevered through months of tortuous chemotherapy, trying to find a way to heal, trying to find a way to spend a few more precious years with the love of his life, Kay. So that he could attend the wedding of his first grand-daughter, Julia… He did travel to Julia and Cesar’s wedding in June, and his presence made a sparkling June day on the rocky coast of Maine even more joyous…

Dad didn’t have a very easy childhood. He lost his own beloved mother when he was only ten years old, and I think he grieved for her every day of his life thereafter. Dad painted a beautiful picture of Grandma Mathilde. How kind she was and generous, how he loved to listen to her play the piano. She was a gifted artist, a great cook… Not long after his diagnosis, he told me he was looking forward to seeing his mother again. 71 years is a long time to miss one’s mother…

Over the years, Dad was blessed with many true, lifelong friendships. Dad had two big brothers, Jack and Smokey, whom he looked-up to. The three, separated in youth after their mother’s death, were close throughout their adult lives. - What a team, those Big Daddies! His buddy Tom and he enjoyed a friendship that weathered more than 70 years, and his brothers-in-law, Ed and Father Jim were both family and friends for over 50 years…

Dad was immensely proud of his time in the Navy, and had a passionate love of his country. He never failed to choke-up when he heard the playing of the national anthem. He greatly enjoyed the reunions of his Navy squadron that were held annually. Many times he spoke about a Navy colleague for whom he had great admiration – Art - a pilot whom Dad credited with saving his life, many times over…

I want to tell you, too, about the amazing courage my mother demonstrated over these last few months. Dad always said he was the luckiest guy on the world to have Kay, and when he took ill, she promised him that she would take care of him in the home they loved and made together. “In sickness and in health, ‘til death do us part” were words she took very seriously. She cared for him with devotion, energy, compassion and a loving generosity… What became more and more evident to all of us in those last few months was the fact that Kay Stanton was also made of some very tough stuff…

Our family, neighbors and friends prayed, comforted and fed our family during these last weeks. Their generosity was truly an example of the “loaves and fishes”. Whenever we thought about preparing a meal, the doorbell would ring. And there was yet another kind face and a delicious, reviving meal…

I will see my father everytime I see my sisters: Mary Anne’s thousands of freckles, Eileen’s “Ernie knees”, the strong set of Patty’s jaw. My nephew Zachary’s long fingers and toes will remind me, as will the quick flash of my daughter Siobhan’s smile, and the sparkle in my daughter Julia’s brown eyes. I will hear my father every time my son Jesse tells a story. And each morning when I look in the mirror I will see dad’s nose, sitting just between my mother’s cheekbones…

I know of the love of my God because of the love of my father. I know of His unconditional love. I know of His fury, along with His forgiveness. I have experienced His tenderness as I myself was walked and rocked, and as I watched my dad walk his baby daughters, grandsons and grand-daughters, rocking and crooning us to sleep to the tune of Rockabye Baby, McNamara’s Band and, of course, “Who Threw the Overalls”…

Ma and Dad gave us a wonderful childhood, and created a safe, warm and loving home in which to grow and learn about life…It will be hard to come home without experiencing Dad’s bear-hug greeting. Yet, I know in my heart there will be another time, another embrace when we meet at Heaven’s Gate, and he is there to welcome us into that warm and loving Home…

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

India Journal, December 2009. Entry 4

Friday afternoon

The alarm on my cell phone wakes us with a start at 2:00pm. The street noise is at high-pitch, and I wonder how we could have slept through all of the commotion emanating from three floors below.

We brush our teeth with bottled water and splash cold water on our faces, taking extra, fearful care not to ingest any of the non-filtered stuff. We are determined to make it through the next 10 days without having to take the precautionary antibiotics that our HMO has provided us. Siobhan has already prepared me for how to dress in northern India: even though it is warm, hot even, a woman must be modest and covered at all times. I choose a white blouse with a discreet neckline and three-quarter length sleeves. My navy culotte skirt only shows about an inch of skin above my socks. Sturdy walking shoes and a headscarf complete my not-so-fashionable-by-Western-standards touring outfit. As a man, Tim’s dress is less prescribed, but he chooses his clothes with an obvious desire not to stand out: a brown, loose fitting shirt and cargo pants.

We look at one another, take a deep breath and unlock the door. I think we are both a bit intimidated by the thought of once again facing the crowds, but as we have only this day in Delhi, it is time to set out to explore the old city.

The early-morning enterprise in the lobby has passed, and it seems that the lone person running the operation is the manager behind reception. He is greeting and registering four new European guests, backpackers who must have read the same guide book that brought us to The Grande Godwin. As we want our host to arrange for a cab-tour of Old Delhi, we take a seat and wait, a bit impatiently on my part, while the precious minutes of daylight tick away. Fifteen minutes pass and finally bell-boys are summoned to escort the new quests to their rooms. Tim approaches with our request. The manager-reception-clerk-bell-captain and concierge must put his “Ring Bell for Service” sign on the reception counter before he crosses to the concierge desk to assist us.

“And how may I help you today, Whalens?” he asks. Tim explains that we only have a short stay in Delhi and we wish to see the city with a driver who speaks English and can point out some of the important historical sites.

“I know of such an excellent driver. Are you willing to pay?”

“Within reason,” replies Tim.

“Then for six hours you will pay driver 500 rupees (about $10./USD) and you will pay me 200 rupees.”

Siobhan had also prepared us to expect to negotiate prices for everything, as we would immediately be identified as rich Americans who had lots of money. “That seems like a lot of money for a booking fee”, I counter. The smile leaves his face and he returns an icy stare. For the rest of the “negotiation” he speaks only to my husband, the man.

I am marginalized, put in my place. I pout.

We pay him 500 rupees for the driver, and 200 for his efforts.


While we wait for our cab, Tim continues to seek his help in securing train reservations for our trip to Jaipur. We want to travel the next day, on the early train that leaves Delhi’s main station at 6:30am. The concierge checks his computer, rubs his chin and pulls out his cell phone. A rapid Hindi conversation ensues, and he hangs up shaking his head.

“I am sorry, Whalens. You can be only # 34 and  # 37 on the waitlist. Third class. No AC.”

“What does that mean?” I ask, forgetting my place. He glares at me and addresses Tim.

“It means you will pay me 300 rupees each for your waitlist ticket. There will also be a 200 rupee fixer’s fee for me. But you will waste your money. There will not be any seats for waitlist, especially high numbers. The train will be gone and so will your money.”

I am getting frustrated. “But why wouldn’t India Railway honor our tickets for another trip?”

“That is not the way it works here in India. You buy ticket for train. You take. It’s in contract.”

I am beginning to think that an extra hundred rupees would fix this problem, but we will not give in. “Maybe you stay here, in Delhi, for a few more days,” our friend says. “I make sure you see all sights and eat at fine restaurant establishments. I will take care of everything for you.”

“No. We must meet our daughter tomorrow,” states Tim. “Is there anything later in the day that would get us into Jaipur before nightfall?” Again, the concierge consults his computerized schedule, shakes his head and picks up his cell phone.  He nods, smiles and hangs up.  “OK. Here is what I can do for you. You take 10:00am train from other station and get into Jaipur at 3:00pm. AC chair car. Is nice for day trip. I can do for 500 rupees each and 300 fixer’s fee.”

I look at Tim. Frankly, this back-and-forth is giving me a headache and making me anxious and angry. I want to get into our taxi and see the sights, to leave this man to his “fixing”.

“All right.” He smiles broadly and makes a great show of pulling up the online reservation. “You all set, Whalens. I have car for you tomorrow morning at 9:00. Meet here in lobby.” And at that, he looks up to greet our driver.

“Samy. This is Whalens. They want to see Delhi history. You take. Six hours.”

“I would be honored,” replies Samy. Samy is a handsome, stockily-built Sikh. He wears the traditional red turban, and his beard is styled in the prescribed Sikh manner. He has a broad smile that reveals straight, white teeth and one gold eye-tooth. His eyes twinkle with some secret amusement; my own are glazed-over. He gives out a deep laugh as we all exit the lobby and walk to his car. “I see you have survived your dealings with Rajesh.” He laughs again.

And we are off to see Old Delhi.

Wednesday, January 20, 2010

India Journal, December 2009. Entry 3

Friday morning, continued

Having survived the ride from the airport so far, we navigate through the narrow streets and alleyways of the neighborhood where our hotel, The Grande Godwin, is located. Tim’s “Rough Guide” bills the place as “clean, centrally located, good food”. I have no idea of how central it is: sprawling Delhi, with its wild roundabouts, has so far defied any of my attempts to orient according to landmark.

The driver stops on the sidewalk in front of the Godwin. I admit to being fearful as I look out the cab window. The street, to my mind, resembles a war zone: it is littered with piles of broken concrete and bricks, mounds of garbage, pan* wrappers. There is yelling, arguing, and cat-calls and whistles. It is not quite 7:30am and the area is so dense with people that our driver has to physically insert himself to stop curbside traffic and get us and our luggage into the hotel lobby. Within that short trip from cab to front desk we are pointed at, then pressed against, and pleaded with, for money.

“I don’t know if I can do this,” I say to Tim as we climb the four steps to the entrance.

The lobby is cool and serene, an oasis from the chaos outside, with spotless marble floors beautiful plants and several very attentive bell boys. The gentleman at reception welcomes us and offers up a cup of steaming tea with lemon zest, fresh ginger and honey. Revival. Okay. Maybe after a hot shower, a bite to eat and a nap I can venture forth into the crush that is mid-day Delhi.

Our room is on the second floor, and we climb a beautifully arched staircase to reach it. The room is small and clean, as the guidebook promised, with a comfortable bed. The bell boy shows us the bathroom. “This is the cold tap, and this is the hot tap”, he says as he points to the sink. “And this is the cold tap and this is the cold tap”, he says, indicating the shower. It’s a nuance that escapes us upon first hearing, but becomes very obvious when we attempt that hot shower.

Awake and refreshed after our chilly ablutions, we head to the rooftop restaurant. The food is simple, but very good and abundant. We eat and talk about the day ahead, while watching several large, hawk-like birds circle above. Then, bellies full, we’re suddenly hit with a wave of exhaustion. We have been traveling for thirty one hours. We’ll summon the courage to tour Delhi later in the afternoon.

Back in our room, we sleep without stirring. I dream that it is already Saturday afternoon and Siobhan is meeting us at the Jaipur train station. She is riding an elephant and singing to us in Hindi.

* Pronounced pon, this is a popular after-meal digestive, usually consisting of sugar, mint, menthol or cinnamon which coats the main ingredient -- fennel seed.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

India Journal, December 2009. Entry 2

Friday morning, 5:05 AM

Our Gulf Air flight touches-down in Delhi a full twenty five minutes early. And, as Siobhan predicted, the entire plane population rises and starts to pull down their overhead baggage as soon as we are on the runway. Frantic stewards run up and down the aisles telling folks to take their seats, but no one pays much attention until the Captain halts the plane and gets on the speaker to remind us all of “safety measures”. Much grumbling ensues, but after three or four minutes the crowds is all re-seated and the Captain proceeds to taxi to our gate.

Tim and I are excited to get our first glimpse of exotic India. We are among the last to deplane, though, as we’re too exhausted to become part of the pushing crowd that is filing rapidly toward the exits. Once inside the exit ramp, we’re hit with a wave of choking smoke, the smell of a thousand charcoal fires. I panic. Is there a fire somewhere inside the terminal? No one else seems phased, so we proceed on to luggage claim, where the haze is even denser. I cover my mouth and nose with my scarf and scramble for my inhaler as I start to cough. Everyone is anxious to clear Customs quickly, and the lines are fluid and without discipline. Even though we start out mid-line in aisle one, we are soon back-of-line in aisle two. No matter. The hotel is sending a car for us and we know that the driver will wait.

The Grande Godwin has sent a quiet, tall and very polite young man to safely transport us to the hotel. He holds a sign on which our name has been carefully written in bold, block letters. After we identify ourselves, he wishes us “Namaste” and leads us down a long narrow hallway and out of the terminal. I hope that the closeness and smoke of the terminal will relent, and look forward to getting out into the fresh air. We find ourselves in a dark, muddy parking lot populated by cigarette-smoking cabbies. I take a long, deep breath as the cool air hits my face. My stomach lurches. The smoke is compounded by an almost overwhelming smell of urine and the cooking of breakfast by both lorry drivers and the squatters who live outside of this terminal.

We reach the driver’s car. It is spotless. He introduces himself, pronouncing his westernized name quite deliberately. Jay. He is proud of his English, which is very good, and he tells us almost immediately, and with great pride, that he is from Nepal. When I relate that our niece is from Nepal, he becomes quiet, and remains so for the rest of our trip. Somehow I think I have offended him.

If we slow down at all, beggars run to the car, women carrying babies, children, banging on the windows. Our driver therefore tries to avoid any slowing down. Our breakneck trip to our hotel in the center of Old Delhi is breath-taking. I cannot remember seeing a traffic signal. Horns toot-toot and people shout. Motorbikes, bicycles, pedestrians, rickshaws, cows pulling cartloads of bananas, a camel. The city is teaming, and it is not yet dawn. Vendors sweep the cement slabs in front of their stalls. A few feet away a pile of building rubble and garbage stands man-high. They seem oblivious. From the rooftops of buildings, people rise and shake out their bedding. Sheets and coverlets hang from windows and balconies like crazy flags. On the street level, from under protective tarps, families wake and start their small charcoal braziers for tea, and if they are lucky, a boiled egg.

I thought I was ready for India. In my heart, I know now that I am not.

Saturday, January 9, 2010

India Journal, December 2009. Entry 1

East Passage

It wasn’t until I returned home that I read V.S. Naipaul’s “An Area of Darkness” on the recommendation of my friend Chris. As we traveled, I had shared impressions of our trip via FaceBook: wonder, awe, fear, delight -- and an overwhelming sense of grief. She thought the book might help put my short experience into perspective.

I found it most interesting that he, too, approached the sub-continent from the East, through Egypt. Our own journey commenced in Boston and continued on to Paris and  Bahrain International Airport for a five hour layover.  His travels took him on a more leisurely route, via steamship. But, like Naipaul, I felt a certain “falling away” of all things Western on this trip East.

Bahrain International Airport is a study in modern contradiction. I stand out here, the only blonde woman in the departure lounge. I am being observed, and I try to observe my surroundings discreetly. It’s a challenge. I am already fascinated with differences. Women in full burka or embroidered jiljabs, revealing only shy but beautifully made-up eyes; wealthy businessmen in traditional white amirati thobe and ghutra, sporting Italian loafers and showy Rolexes; perfectly-groomed saleswomen in western dress, Santa hats and head-scarves; the Bahrain Polar-Express Bear Band.

I guard the cover of my US passport but know that my appearance has already marked me as an American. Our Gulf Air flight from Paris to Bahrain takes us directly over Bagdad @ forty thousand feet. How absurd to be this close to, yet above all the “action” on the ground. I say a prayer for peace; I say a prayer that Obama will move with more speed to bring our young men and women home.

The row of chairs in the waiting area face each other, and across the aisle sits a young Muslim woman with four precocious youngsters, all appearing to be under the age of nine. She seems to be traveling, too, with a parental couple, perhaps her own parents or her in-laws. She wears a full burka; her shoes are designer, quality; she speaks almost non-stop on her cell phone while her children play tag, argue, drink juice and get crackers all over the carpet. A stooped man with a hand broom must come by several times to keep the area clean. She is oblivious.

I need to find a restroom before we board, and unlike other international terminals I have been in, there seems to be no signage for the washroom facilities. I ask one of the pert Mrs. Santa saleswomen and she directs me down the hall and around the back of one of the many Duty-Free shops. I follow an elderly Muslim man and very pretty, meek young woman, whom I assume must be his daughter or niece. (I pray she is not his wife!) I also assume he is escorting her to the ladies restroom, and follow them down the corridor - and into the men’s room. She will not be un-escorted – anywhere - in her travels. She briefly catches my eye, and then looks way, embarrassed.

My heart breaks a little for the first time on this journey.

They are calling for boarding when I return to the departure lounge.

Another eight hours and we will be in Delhi.