Ok, so the groom did not enter the hall on an elephant, and there were no tigers. That is just what I was fantasizing about before I attended my first Indian wedding. There was however a bride. I’m not sure she wanted to be there, but there she was.
I’ll begin at 4:00 in the morning. The wedding was to start at 6:00. We did not want to be late, and we certainly did not want to miss it. As Mary Ann put it clearly when I suggested a 5 a.m. start time “we have travelled thousands of miles, spent thousands of dollars, and avoided thousands of traffic accidents. If we are early so be it. Besides we might have trouble finding the place”. As usual, my wife was right.
We set out in the dark. The town where the groom lives was 35Km away from our hotel. But that was not where the wedding was going to be. It was being held in a village so small it had no road signs let alone did it show up on a map. So, off we were into terra incognito.
We drove down a narrow country road in the predawn subtropical morning. The road was lined with what a cowboy would call haystacks. But they were (I believe) stacks of rice stalks drying. Later in the day I confirmed this when I found that they tied them into neat bundles for use as roofing on their indigenous housing. It made for an interesting tunnel vision view of Southern India countryside.
Every few miles we would come across a lodge like building off the road all lit up with colored strings of lights. It was obvious that they were wedding halls. As we went thru little towns in the dark, the only places showing life were many, maybe dozens of such little wedding halls. Each one had big pictures of the bride and groom to announce the festivities. I turned to Mary Ann and said “well, if we do not find the wedding we came for, we certainly have our choice of weddings to crash!” You see, it is prime wedding season in the Hindu world right now, because the monsoons are over, and the rice harvest is in, and also for luck. Also, this year, 6 A.M. on a Monday morning according to the astrologers in India was the time for the best of luck for a wedding. If someone invited to a wedding at 6 A.M. on a Monday morning in L.A., well good luck on me showing up.
We got to the groom’s home town, Kattumaanaroil, (boy my spell checker almost went on strike with that one) and stopped at a couple of weddings set to take place, asking for instructions to our wedding. Finally one man told our driver how to get to the correct town. It was like I said, barely a town, more a village. When we got there we just sort of followed gaily clad people hoping they were going to the same wedding. Remember, it is like 5:30 in the morning, and here are dozens of men dressed nicely and of course women in those magnificent saris wandering down the street in the same general direction. It reminded me of my youth when I followed the Grateful Dead from town to town. I would get to a city and have no idea where the venue was, so I would just follow the people in tie-dyes.
I have to go back a week before I tell you the ending of our search. The day before the groom left, he asked me for a picture of the two of us. I thought I understood that they would use it to make a collage of the guests, cool.
So, following red, yellow, orange, green and blue saris we turned a corner, and I went into shock. There was a big billboard sized sign announcing our friend’s wedding and in the lower left corner, almost as big as the photo of the dear couple, were us! Huge! With the words “Special guests from the U.S.A.”
Now we were greeted like sahibs. People came running out of the hall to welcome us. Mary Ann and I got married at Dodger stadium, and we are both huge fans of Dodger HOFer Sandy Koufax. If I could have afforded it I would have paid him to attend our wedding. However, then the wedding would not have been about us. We did not want things to be like this, we were just people attending the wedding in our mind. In this village in rural-off-the-beaten-track India we were a special added attraction, we were Sandy Koufax.
We were probably the first white people in the village. The children looked at us like specimens from another planet, as did most of the adults.
After warm hugs, we were introduced to the groom’s family. All of them. One of his brothers is an EE who works in Singapore. All I could think of was how do you get out of HERE and go to Singapore or Dubai, and what must the culture shock be like in either case.
Everyone wanted their picture taken. Everyone brought us their children and held them up for the camera. All the 10ish boys jumped around in front of me trying to pose. I wanted to take photos of not only the cute little girls, but their big sisters. Most of them were somewhat camera shy. I photographed the band. The band consisted of two horns which I have never seen before, some bells and two drummers. Pictures were taken of the family, and us with the family. All total I took 450 pictures in an hour and a half. You need to follow this link.http://www.flickr.com/photos/the_other_side_of_the_coconut to see a portion of them
The ceremony was of course a traditional Hindu service. It included washing the parent’s feet, “christening” a “tree of life”, and a dozen other rituals I enjoyed, but did not grok. Neither did the groom I figured. He had perplexed look on his face from start to end. He was “blessed” first by the holy man running the show. Then the bride came out for her ordeal of blessings. She looked like she was in shock, denial, terrified, anything but the picture of the blushing blooming bride. None of my photos so far were destined for the cover of Bride Magazine.
Then they joined up and both of them sat in the thrones of honor and they did yet more ceremonies. One of the ceremonies included the parents. The whole time the bride was next to her father she was showing signs of a serious daddy complex.
Somewhere near the tail end of the ceremony a man came around with a tray of orange colored rice. Everyone took a little. I had mine in my hand and looked at Mary Ann. She said “eat it”. So I did. Everyone around me started laughing at my expense. The purpose the rice, as ANYONE would know, was to throw it at the newlyweds. So the man came back, still humored by me and gave me some more rice.
The next ceremony was three circuits by the newlyweds around the tree of life, with a pause for some words from the holy man at each completed circuit. These words, as were the rest of the ceremony, were in ancient Sanskrit language. Nobody speaks it anymore. It is like going to a wedding in a church in L.A. and having it done in Latin.
Then it was time to give presents. Besides a nice cash present we gave the groom back in Sharjah, we found a really pretty marble photo frame for the bride. We had it wrapped and we gave it to a family member while we were being mobbed upon our entrance. It sort of disappeared.
The gifts from the other guests were ether some Rupees, or in most cases, gold. Everyone passed by the bride an put a gold chain on her, or a gold ring on the groom, or both. We realized that was just another thing we were clueless about. The bride started smiling a bit more as her chest became laden with that certain metal that causes fevers in us all.
We were out of Rupees because the ATM machine was not working that morning, and our present had been taken into some holding room. But then the groom’s brother showed up with it and told us to get in line to present it. An 8 x10 marble frame is heavy enough to make her think she was receiving a gold bar. I hope she is not disappointed.
The ceremony was now over. Right on time, 6 to 7:30. The band stopped playing and everyone made a dash for the dining hall. At first, Mary Ann was not so sure she wanted to eat anything here. But everyone was insistent we eat. They took us outside to wash our hands and sat us down at a community table where the only place setting was a banana leaf. They put generous helpings of wonderful dishes in front of us. We had to eat with our hands of course, and mind you, as we were reminded, not the left hand. The food was really tasty. I know I’ll never eat anything we had ever again, but not because I don’t want to.
I noticed during the ceremony that the bride’s father had a righteous moustache. I goaded him into a little moustache twisting competition. He won, his is a better moustache. We bonded on that one and I think he will remember me for it.
I made the decision that I was tired of being Sandy Koufax, and decided we should head for the showers before we started being asked for autographs. We said or goodbyes. No one thought we should be leaving, but we wanted to give the day back to the couple, so off we went.
I hope you enjoyed crashing this wedding as much as I enjoyed telling you about it. Tell a friend. Stay tuned for the Taj Mahal, I hear it is a real shack!
I’ll start this post at the Pyramids. In the words of Alexander the Great, Marc Anthony, Napoleon, General Montgomery and Jerry Garcia, “oh maaan”. Mary Ann, who has been here before, warned me that I would be overwhelmed and might cry. I was so overwhelmed I had to get into an ambulance, but more on that later.
Let us start with the midnight flight from Sharjah to Alexandria. I have learned to really like Air Arabia. This flight took us over the holy city of Mecca, over Mount Sinai and over the Red Sea, although it was too dark to see any of it. We got into Alexandria at 3 a.m. I had the fantasy that a flight to Egypt leaving at midnight would be nice and quiet. Wrong. The plane was full of crying babies, make that screaming and crying babies. One thing I have learned to not like about the culture here is that they do not shut their kids up when they scream. I have never been on a flight with so many kids. Taking a baby or even a toddler on a midnight flight is just cruel so I cannot blame the kids, but I was ready to crack a few parents heads. But like all flights do, it eventually ended. 3 a.m. in Egypt, and sure enough we were met by the tour company, In Arabic, the word for thank you is Shakran. They even spelled Nash correctly. We have grown used to seeing such a simple name mangled, (Mash, Gash, Rash, and Cash) that it is good sign when they get it right. Plus it meant we had our ride to Cairo, two hours away. It was just us in a Cushy Town Car, no crying kids. Things were looking up.
As an aside here, the rep from the tour company who met us at the airport was named Mohammed. It is the most common name in the Moslem world, so it was easy to remember. At the hotel, we were approached by a cab driver who would take us anywhere we wanted…his name, I swear was Obama. The guy who led the tour the next day was named Osama, “Just call me Sam” he said. But I digress.
We are staying at a hotel called Barcelo Pyramids in Giza. We stayed at a Barcelo before, in Mexico, and they deserve the four stars. We crashed, got up at noon, and went to the roof top pool to have an Egyptian beer.
I got my first view of the Pyramids from there, across a smoggy, unpleasant stretch of Giza. This is not a beautiful city.
That night we went to the Pyramids Sound and Light show. (This is done in the same outdoor theatre where in 1978 The Grateful Dead did a two night stand for Dead Heads who invaded Cairo in tie-dies. I missed it and have always regretted it.) The show borders on cheesy, the sphinx talks, laser beams blast across the Pyramids and anyone with any historical knowledge is not going to learn much. But seeing the Pyramids and sphinx for the first time, all lit up like Las Vegas is mighty impressive. You get an idea of the size of them, even in the dark. Supposedly the footprint of the Great Pyramid of Cheops could contain most of the Vatican, with Rhode Island thrown in just for kicks.
Our first “tour day” was today. We started at the Egyptian Museum.
This is of course where they keep the King Tut stuff. His was the only tomb found in the Valley of the Kings that had not been cleared out by grave robbers. Consequently there is a whole wing just to house his treasures. Amazing because he was a minor pharaoh who died young after ruling less time than Nixon. It leaves you wondering what must have been in the tombs of Pharaohs who ruled as long as FDR. In size, this museum (built in1901 or so) is not as big as any of the Smithsonian museums in DC. But it is so crammed full of everything from mummified crocodiles to King Tut’s death mask that it boggles the mind.
There are important items, statues and such, from all over Egypt that the guides make sure you see. There are guides speaking most of the major languages to tourists from Japan, China, all over Europe and even America. The worldwide drop in tourism due to a combination of the economy and manufactured fear has not hit Cairo. The joint is jumping. Everywhere you go is jam packed with groups of geese being led by mother hens chattering away like ducks. (How is THAT for mixing metaphors!)
The guides race from the old Kingdom to the middle Kingdom to the third, stopping long enough to quack about a statue or a burial crypt. They move fast to not hold up the other groups behind them, and to keep the tourists from breaking off in search of Tut. They cover the important stuff, but crammed in this corner and that cubbyhole, down some dark hallway, and behind the sign to the men’s room is more STUFF. Thousands of things, large and small. The collection is all over the place. Items that would be the proud possession of the LA County Museum, are just gathering dust with nary a word describing what it is and therefore ignored by the masses. I got the feeling I could walk out with something like a cat statue, and no one would ever miss it. Word is that in 2012, they are opening a new museum behind the pyramids to better display these things, and, believe it or not, empty out the BASEMENT of this museum of STUFF gathering cobwebs since 1901.
Well, Mary Ann and I did break away from our group and headed for the Tut wing. There is enough gold in this collection to pay off some national debts. Impressive, awe inspiring, breathtaking are all insufficient to describe the feeling you get as you wander the length of this wing of the museum. Then, finally you get to the special room where the iconic Tut Death mask is displayed. No photos are allowed anywhere in this entire museum, (unless you are Japanese I guess) and I must say that no pro photo I have ever seen of the Tut mask comes close to the beauty of this treasure. Astounding.
The museum has an excellent gift shop. The only thing I bought was a King Tut baseball. Too bizarre to pass up!
We found our group and headed off for lunch. We found ourselves sitting in a restaurant called the Cleopatra, in Giza, in the shadow of the pyramids, and listening to “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” sung by the Chimp Monks. Way too weird.
From there they took us to a papyrus museum. The word museum is a stretch. They did show us how papyrus is made.
But the main purpose of this “museum” is to sell you paintings on papyrus. Some were gorgeous, some, well most, were truly expensive. Our group bought a bunch of them, which is good for the tour guide who gets a cut. He could have taken us to any of a dozen such “museums”, so they take care of him. Me? Well I found a drawing that was on the Grateful Dead poster back in ’78, so I had the artist write, in hieroglyphics, Grateful Dead Cairo 1978. Another useless souvenir.
Now it was bucket list scratch off time. We headed for the Great Pyramid of Cheops, the first and largest of the three. Actually there are nine here, six for queens.
Mary Ann and I either travel by ourselves, or we hire a private guide, usually option 2 so we do not need to deal with Taxis or –gasp- public transportation. This time we booked the entire trip through Air Arabia and we are in a group with a dozen Americans who all work in the UAE. They are good pleasant people. But, you know me well enough to know that I am not one to accept arbitrary limits on my fun. When the guide said, “OK, we are here for20 minutes” I growled “bullshit”. I have been waiting all my life to stand here, and no bozo with a stop watch is going to tell me when it is time to leave.
I was simply not prepared to take in the scope of this edifice, this monument, this tomb, this pile of 10 ton rocks. I could not set my eyeballs on wide angle enough to take it all in at once. My head was spinning back and forth and my neck was bent out of shape from looking up up up. Of course my cheap camera (Have I mentioned I hate my camera?) could not capture any of the grandeur. One could walk a half mile back and take a shot, but are you kidding me? I walked right up to the first layer of stones, taller than I am, petted one and said “You ROCK.”
Then, for some reason beyond all reason, my nose started shooting out blood like I had a severed artery. Nothing like this has ever happened to me. Here I am bleeding on the last of the seven wonders of the ancient world like a stuck pig. A world heritage site now is stained with my type B+. (if you ever visit Cheops tomb, my contribution is on the second stone in from the NE corner).
Mary Ann was wondering what the hell she could do for me. I almost suggested she should put a tourniquet around my neck, but I was afraid she might take me up on it. Then an Egyptian man came running up. I thought maybe he was upset about me defacing his source of income. But he pulled out a pocket sized pack of Kleenex, which I immediately stuffed up my nostrils and turned them bright crimson. He led me away from the royal tomb, which was a good thing on its own, but then he walked me to an ambulance. The paramedic did what he could do. He then told me he wanted to take me to the hospital. I understood him but politely declined. He was not sure I understood him so he waved his finger in a circular motion over his head and went “Whoowhoowhoo.” Maybe laughing was all I needed because the hemorrhaging stopped. I had a larger problem than blood loss to deal with, I was late for the bus.
Our time at the pyramids was not over. Osama took us out into the desert where there was a herd of camels and their owners. Osama told us to beware of most of the guys, but that he knew one who would give us “good price”. I’m sure he got a cut here too, big deal.
Even though 20 minutes earlier my nose was a gusher, I knew Mary Ann really wanted to ride a camel, so I joined her.
We were led by a 12 year old named Adam, who is a hustler in training, but great kid. He had a well developed sense of humor, spoke English to us, shamelessly flirted with Mary Ann, and spoke Hindu to some people from India in our caravan. As long as the pyramids do not fall down, he will make a comfortable living.
From here we went to the Sphinx. As someone might say after they meet a movie star, I thought he was bigger. But he (she some say) was beautiful, even without a nose. Some say the French soldiers shot his/her nose off, some say it was an Egyptian Queen, jealous of how good looking she/he was. This is a very impressive antiquity. Built to protect the tombs, it has stood guard for thousands of years. I think this will remain my favorite memory of Egypt.
Our day was not over. We took a dinner cruise on the Nile with whirling dervishes (one of them a dwarf) and a belly dancer. The belly dancer dragged me onto the dance floor and I did my best to imitate her moves.
And now, my favorite foto of the trip.
Stay tuned for day 2 where we visit a Citadel buil to defend against Crusaders. I will take you to the church where Jesus, Joseph and Mary hid from Herod. 100 yards away from this church is a synagogue where baby Moses was found in the rushes of the Nile by the daughter of a Pharaoh. Amazing as all that sounds, we also visited a Coptic church carved out of the mountain that was the quarry for the rocks that built the pyramids. AND I will take you to a place called garbage city.
Thanks for reading, tell a friend and please make a comment.
I cannot believe I am in Beirut.
There is a National Geographic adventure show titled Don’t Tell My Mother. That is how I feel. The name just brings up memories of not so far in the past wars and such. However, at the end of 2010, Beirut is a prosperous and peaceful city. I do not know where the money comes from. This is not an OPEC country. But there is a lot of money on the streets of Beirut. The little research I did indicates the the diaspora from the 1975 to 1990 war has created an influx of money back into Lebanon at a $1,400 per year per capita rate. But that is not why you read this blog, is it. Back to stories and pictures.
Our first excursion after we checked in was to the American University of Beirut. Seems how my wonderful wife works at the American University of Sharjah we decided to see the campus and the library.
First, the Campus. The AUB was established by some American protestant missionaries in 1866. At the time, there were many protestant missionaries in Beirut, trying to covert Muslims. The area already had many Christians, but they were all Maronite Catholics. I could go into just what the Maronites were ,but Wikipedia does it best. A movement came out of New England to bring “true” Christianity to the Middle East, at least in their minds. The effort was a total failure. According to all the records sent back to New England, there was ONE conversion. The University decided to go secular and it has succeeded ever since. The founder of the University found an amazingly beautiful piece of land. It overlooks the Mediterranean Sea. It is wonderfully landscaped. It reminded both of us of UC Santa Barbara. Many of the buildings are 100 years old and very beautiful. Some of the faculty housing looked like expensive sea view homes in California.
The library was not half the AUS library. But the library at AUS is almost brand new, and probably much better funded.
The students at this campus were more familiar to me than the students at AUS in both dress and manner. Guys were bird dogging the girls like good college students should. They all wore western style dress. The girls were not showing anywhere near as much flesh as one would see at UCSB, but I do not think I saw a single abaya.
We walked across campus and found ourselves on the corniche. It was fittingly on Paris Boulevard. The Med was bright blue. The weather was absolutely perfect. Weather like this in early December is very unusual in Lebanon. They are having such a bad drought that the Muslim clerics did a rain dance yesterday. Really, there was a picture on the front page of the Local English language newspaper. In fact the drought and unseasonably warm weather have resulted in, for the first time in Lebanon’s history, a total lack of snow on the mountains. Lebanon comes from the Semitic word Leban, which means white. The early people called it this because after coming out of the desert, it was quite the sight to see mountains capped year round with snow. Not anymore. The locals are blaming global warming. You can agree with them or blame Obama if you must, but it is a fact. For the first time in this country’s long long history, no snow.
However, the people of Beirut (or as it is called locally Beithruth) continue living a cafe society life.
Byblos, Older Than Dirt
Speaking of long long histories, today, our second day in Lebanon we visited one of the longest continually inhabited cities one earth. How long you ask? At least I hope you asked because I mean to tell you. Here is a list with approximated epochs of inhabitation of the city of Byblos. If you do not like history, just look at the pictures,
First, Byblos is maybe 30 miles north of Beirut, and on the Med in a beautiful location. But enough of the real estate blabber, back to the history. Archeologists have found proof of life here going back to 5000 B.C. That is the Neolithic age. It was occupied during the Chalcholithic age (Google it, I had to) age between 3800 and 3000 B.C. It was occupied during the early Bronze Age from 3000 to 2300 B.C. Then started the rule of the Semitic Amorites (Google that too) from 2300 to 2200 B.C. Then the age of conquest began. The Hyksos Dynasty, (is Google your friend yet?) came from Asia and took over Byblos. Then the Egyptians took over in 1500 B.C. They held on to Byblos for about 300 years until a group I cannot identify, called “the Sea people”, a gang of seafaring baddies who roamed the med, took over and held it until Assyrian-Babylonian rule from 1000 to 550 B.C. When the Babylonian empire imploded, the Persians moved in and ruled until 333 B.C. Then Alexander The Great and the Greek empire took over. They held on until the Romans moved in and under Pax Romana ruled Byblos until 330 A. D.
Now that we are in the A.D. period of history we see the Byzantines move in and bring Christianity. It was a Byzantine/Christian city until the Arabs invaded in 637 A.D. This coincides with the birth of the Muslim faith. It took a while for the boys in Europe to get it together and send in the first Crusade in 1098 A.D. The crusaders ruled Byblos, although they called it “Giblet”, until 1289 when the Mamluks invaded. Then the Ottoman Empire laid claims to Byblos and held it until 1918.
After that, all hell broke loose.
That is what I mean by Older Than Dirt. Archeologists first started working here in about 1950 when someone was going to build a couple of houses to take advantage of the view. When they started digging, they found all these ruins. The deeper they dug, the older the artifacts. Like I said before, the stuff they found goes back +/- 7000 years. No one has done any archeology here since the civil war started in 1975. I have more photos, but I can tell you are bored, so I will move on. If you want to learn more about this amazing city, use Google, read a book, or travel.
We also visited a tourist attraction called Jeita Grottos. They were very amazing. They are a main source of Beirut’s water supply. They resemble the Carlsbad Caverns with stalagmites hanging from the top of the caves sometimes for a hundred feet or more. They were discovered by an American missionary who probably got tired of trying to convert Muslims and decided to go spelunking. They prohibit photography inside the caverns, and make you check your camera in lockers. Ironically the lockers all have ads on them for Kodak film. Go figure. I suppose the reason for this to be able to sell you a CD with photos, so I bought one, and the photos follow. OOOPS, the CD I paid good money for does not allow one to copy photos off of it. SO, Google to the rescue, here are a couple shots.
These gottos seem like the perfect spot for a fantasy film with wizards and dragons. Hey, anyone in Hollywood reading this?
We also visited Our Lady of Lebanon, a large statue of the Virgin Mary on top of a mountain overlooking Beirut. I did not know this until now, the Virgin Mary is honored in the Koran, Consequently the Muslim faithful visit this as much as the Christians. Besides that the views of Beirut are fantastic.
Our last supper in Beirut was special. I wont tell you what we aye, because this is not Facebook. But it was a totally Lebanese restaurant. There was a table of attractive young Lebanese women next to us. (I must say, I found the Lebanese women very attractive over all). When I ordered Hookah, the Hookah guy (what they call the Hookah waiter who serves you and keeps you lit) asked what flavor I wanted.m I shrugged. How was I to know? One of the girls spoke up and told me I wanted lemon flavored mint. OK. It was excellent. When the regular waiter came by, I just pointed at what the girls were eating, and we had that. They laughed at and with us. The Lebanese impressed me with how friendly they are.
On the Way Home. I made it Ma!
I am sitting in the Beirut Airport coffee shop, having a café Americano with Baileys and watching planes arrive and depart. They go everywhere from here. Air France flies jumbos into Beirut. Maybe the real Paris is too cold in the winter. The airport is modern, clean and easy to get through. I truly expected massive security checks with pat downs, but it was easier then getting out of Chicago to fly to Milwaukee. The only above the norm security was that the immigration man reads EVERY stamp in your passport ( I have 85, took him a while) to be sure you have never been to Israel.
In short, I must say that I of course had preconceptions about Beirut that were rooted in television news reality. That is not to say that things here are amusement park in nature. The military presence including tanks and soldiers with automatic weapons is ubiquitous. For instance there was a small story in the local English newspaper about an incident in Tyre (the southern border) between Hezbollah and Isreal. Israel was not called Israel in the story. They were quite simply referred to as “the enemy”. Obviously I will not say that it will always be a good tourist destination. But for us, now, it was fabulous. We did not have enough time to see all we wanted to see, so after checking off a few more places on the coconut, Lebanon deserves a second visit.
Thanks for reading, or at least looking at the pictures. tell a friend, make a comment.
Next post? From Cairo!